The Color of Their Hearts
Janie Brunson

Most people on the bus were sad. Isabel could tell by the color of their hearts: mostly varying shades of blue, some red with anger or frustration, a few brown with exhaustion and stress. One girl sitting up front had a sunny yellow heart. She turned around, looking for someone to smile at, but one look at the sea of blue and she quickly faced forward again. Isabel checked her reflection in the window, to see the color of her own heart, or, more accurately, the mark on her forehead that reflected her true heart. It was blue also, the dark, never-ending blue of the ocean, of loneliness.

“It’s easier for everyone if we let the world see our hearts,” she remembered a teacher telling a classroom full of children, long ago, “this way, we don’t need to constantly explain to every single person in words how we’re feeling. They already know, and there is little room for
misinterpretation. They know not to bother us if we’re feeling fragile, or they know when we are most in need of a kind word.”

It had all made perfect sense, back when she believed everything that adults said without question. Then her parents started fighting and divorced when she was thirteen. Her heart had been solid blue for three months. She got so sick of strangers sympathetically asking what was wrong that she wished she had no heart at all.
Though she did still have the occasional bright splash of amusement, interest, or excitement, her heart had been blue a lot recently, ever since she moved to this big city. It was nearer to her brother, and the nursing home where their mother lived, and that was important to Isabel. Her brother was an uncommunicative, impatient person, though, whose heart tended toward shades of red, and there was no one else that she was close to here. Of course, there was her niece, Shannon.

Isabel got off the bus, nodded to the driver, whose brown heart showed how exhausted he felt, and walked the few blocks from the bus stop to the elementary school.

The sun was out, burning off the winter chill, and she felt lighter as she walked. Perhaps the blue faded just a little.

She found Shannon in the crowd of schoolchildren and waved her over. The seven-year-old looked like a picture on a postcard, Isabel thought, with her clean school uniform, long dark braids, and heart rosy pink with excitement.

She hugged the little girl.

“Daddy working late again?” Shannon asked.

“Yes, he asked me to pick you up.”

Shannon nodded, the color of her heart wavering for a second before it returned to pink.

The hearts of children change color so quickly, and yet they usually revert to something positive. Isabel wondered what it was about life that took that away by the time most people reached adulthood.

“Why are you excited?” Isabel asked, taking Shannon’s hand as they began to walk.

“Because I have a sleepover this weekend!” Shannon grinned, “and you are probably going to take me to get ice cream now!”

Isabel laughed.

“How did you know?”

Shannon just giggled and asked, “Where’s your car?”

“It’s getting repaired,” Isabel explained, “I had to take the bus here.”

“Is that why you’re sad?”

Isabel paused, then glanced down at the mirrored face of her watch. She was sure her heart had been yellow when Shannon predicted ice cream in her future, but now it had settled back to blue. A light blue this time, much milder than it had been on the bus, but still blue.

“Yes,” Isabel lied, “I miss my car. But I will have it back soon.”

“Good,” said Shannon, “maybe next time you will not be sad.”

Isabel wasn’t going to make any promises to the child, so she changed the subject.

“What flavor ice cream do you want?”

The Yellow Hearts Ice Cream Parlor was four blocks from the elementary school. Shannon started eating her fudge brownie cone as soon as the man behind the counter handed it to her, getting chocolate all over her face within seconds.

“Anything for you, miss?” asked the man behind the counter, offering a tentative smile.

His heart was pink, a few shades lighter than Shannon’s own, and she wondered what he had to look forward to. Probably a date later; that shade of pink was associated with romance.

“Just water,” she said, “thanks.”

He shrugged.

She drew Shannon to a table and then grabbed a handful of napkins, hoping that the ice cream stains on the uniform wouldn’t prove too difficult to remove.

Shannon chattered about her friends and her teacher between bites of ice cream.

“I drew a picture today!” she told Isabel, “want to see?”

She started to reach for her backpack but Isabel handed her a napkin and told her to wipe off her hands first.

Shannon’s backpack was utter chaos. Crumpled papers, folders, and pencils started tumbling to the floor as she dug through it. She finally pulled out a sketchbook and opened it, but Isabel was too busy scooping everything up before someone tripped.

A mother at the next table was watching with amusement, and the attention annoyed Isabel. When she straightened up and set a stack of folders on the table, paper sticking out everywhere, the mother saw her irritation in the color of her heart and quickly turned away.

“We are going to organize your backpack next time,” Isabel said firmly.

Shannon looked impatient; her heart was darkening to a frustrated red.

“Don’t you want to see my picture?”

Isabel set the last few stray pencils on top of the folders and took the sketchbook.

“It’s me!” she said, surprised at the vividly detailed drawing. It was recognizably Isabel, with her long wavy hair, the gold earring she always wore, and a heart neatly colored in with blue marker.

She looked at the picture for a moment longer, then handed it back.

Before she could say how impressed she was, Shannon’s mother hurried through the door.

“I knew I’d find you here!” She smiled to be polite, but the muddy color of her heart showed that she was tired and stressed.

“Thanks for watching her,” she said briefly to Isabel.

They nearly forgot to cram everything back into Shannon’s backpack before her mother rushed off with her.

Alone at the table, Isabel looked around the ice cream shop. It felt empty now, though more than a dozen people were in here, eating and ordering ice cream, chatting to each other, or playing with their phones.

She sighed and stood up to leave.

Something rolled under her foot and she stumbled before finding her balance again. She bent down and picked up a marker. So, she hadn’t gotten everything back into the backpack after all.

Isabel turned the marker over in her hands. It was yellow.

She thought of the little girl’s picture, her own heart colored with blue in the drawing. She thought of Shannon’s words, “Maybe next time you will not be sad,” not actually believing, but it was nice to hope. A yellow marker.

She walked slowly out of the Ice Cream Parlor, thinking. Surely there was some law against it, she thought, but, no, she would have heard if there was. It just wasn’t something that people did. But hadn’t anyone else had this idea before? She thought back on twenty-eight years of her own life and realized that, in all that time, nothing like this had occurred to her, so it must not be as obvious as it now seemed. Would it even work?

She stepped into the nearest business, a shoe store, and asked for the restroom. She made sure it in completely empty, then stood before the mirror. Her heart was now an excited pink. She took a deep breath, and uncapped the marker.

Its tip tickled her skin as she studied her reflection, concentrating on perfectly filling in the heart. One speck of color outside the line and this wouldn’t work. Finally, she stepped back, put the cap back on the marker with a definitive click, and checked her handiwork. Her heart was a bright, joyful yellow. It was strange, and a little frightening, to know that the color wasn’t what she was feeling. There was no way to know what she was feeling. She couldn’t imagine how people would ever be able to communicate without being sure of each other’s emotions. How could you trust anyone? How could you trust yourself?

She started to feel guilty about what she is doing—it was incredibly dishonest—but her heart remained the same yellow. Isabel firmly told herself that it was just for a few minutes, just to see what it was like, and then she would wash it right off. She stepped out of the restroom.

Usually, forcing smiles was all but pointless, but Isabel tried smiling at the cashier as she left the store. The young woman grinned back and called, “I’m glad you’re having a great day!”

“Thanks!” Isabel answered.

Out on the street, Isabel looked around and wondered where to go. She felt as if she were visiting somewhere new and exciting, not standing in a strip mall she had seen hundreds of times before. She decided to go back to the ice cream parlor, at least for a moment. Perhaps she could compare the experience she had just had there with a blue heart to the one she would have with a yellow heart. She wasn’t sure why it would be any different—everyone would still be in their own inner world, going about their mundane tasks—but Isabel figured she might as well see, for the sake of the experiment.

It would be strange to simply wander back in without a clear reason, she realized as she stepped through the door, so she approached the counter to order something.

The man scooping ice cream recognized her. His heart was still pink.

“You have returned,” he said, “and in a better mood for ice cream, it looks like.”

“Yes, I think I’ll take a chocolate cone,” she told him.

His heart turned as yellow as her own as he plopped a big scoop of ice cream onto a crisp waffle cone. This was surprising and somewhat confusing to her, but in a pleasant way.

He handed her the cone.

“I’m glad I could make your day,” she said, with a smile.

He laughed, his heart showing that he was a little embarrassed.

“I love to see someone in the mood for ice cream, that’s all.”

The table she had shared with Shannon was still empty, so she sat there to eat her cone and look around.

The mother at the next table was watching her with a heart the color of hesitation. They made eye contact, and the woman relaxed visibly when she saw Isabel’s yellow heart and curious smile. She leaned slightly toward Isabel, across the space between the two tables.

“I’d like to apologize,” said the mother, “I could have helped you pick those things up earlier, instead of just watching.”

“Oh, I understand.” She genuinely appreciated the apology.

“Was that your daughter?” the woman asked. Isabel explained that Shannon was her niece, and the mother introduced her own son, who was doing about as bad a job of keeping ice cream off his clothes as Shannon had. Perhaps worse.

“I wish she was my daughter” Isabel found herself saying, “children are so amazing, always discovering new things about themselves and so full of wonder and excitement about life.”

The woman looked from her son, now playing on some handheld gaming device, to Isabel, her heart the shade of yellow that showed a deep, permanent joy.

“Yes, they are,” she agreed, “I’m Maria.”

The two of them continued to talk while Maria’s boy got lost in his game.

“You must want children of your own,” said Maria, and Isabel laughed.

“I need the right guy first.”

“You’re single?” Maria’s heart was an excited pink as she lowered her voice, “Someone will be glad to know that.”

Isabel followed her gaze to the counter, and the man behind it. He had been watching them, but, when he caught her eye, he quickly glanced away.

“Really?” Isabel was surprised, “Me?”

“Didn’t you see the color of his heart?” Maria laughed.

“Yes, but I didn’t realize …”

“Well, you’re happy about it. You should talk to him.”

Isabel realized that her heart was still the unchanging yellow of the marker. Maria would think this made her happy. Without the true color of her heart, she would have to think about it before being able to determine her actual feelings on the matter. He was handsome, she had to admit to herself, with a caramel-colored complexion, warm brown eyes, and a heart that always seemed to be some bright, positive color.

She got up. She needed a napkin anyway.

“Hi!” she returned his grin, with a flutter of excitement in her stomach. She searched for something casual to say, and came up with, “Been working here for a while?”

“Yeah,” he said, “since opening day. When you own a business, you kind of need to be around all the time.”

“I had no idea you were the owner!” she said, impressed.

“Yeah, I’d rather be out here with people than in some office,” he explained.

He asked where she worked, and she said that she was a librarian.

“I like being out there with people too,” she said. She hadn’t ever put it in those words before, but it was, she realized as she said it, the main thing she liked about her job.

“Did you know he owns this place?” she half-whispered to Maria when she got back to the table.

“No way! That’s awesome! Entrepreneurship is pretty attractive.”

Isabel agreed.

They continued talking, about their work, their goals, and how they came to be in this crowded city, until Maria’s son tugged on her sleeve impatiently.

Isabel checked her watch, then looked out the window, surprised to see the sun had almost set.

“I need to catch the bus!” she said, rising.

“You don’t want to be on the city bus too late,” Maria agreed.

Isabel glanced back as she pushed open the door. She wasn’t surprised to see that he was watching her from behind the counter.

Will I see you again soon?” he called.

“Definitely,“ she answered, “It’s a promise.”

Isabel didn’t notice the color of people’s hearts on the bus ride home. She was swept up in her own thoughts. She needed to tell Shannon what a great artist she was! She hoped her niece would show her more drawings. Perhaps she and Maria could arrange a play date for the two children. She wasn’t sure how Shannon felt about boys.

She was back in her small apartment, taking off her shoes and jacket, before she realized she had completely forgotten about the yellow marker. She left her shoes in the middle of the floor and rushed to the bathroom. How could she forget such a thing? Sure enough, her reflection in the mirror bore a yellow heart. She got a wet washcloth and began gently rubbing her skin to remove the ink. She was relieved that she had remembered; she didn’t know what would have happened if she’d forgotten to wash off the marker and someone had realized what she had done. But no one had, so it was harmless.

The washcloth was dripping yellow, but the color was still there on her forehead, so she rinsed the cloth and went back to scrubbing.

She wondered when she could make an excuse to go back to the ice cream shop. Perhaps, she thought, her excuse could simply be that she wanted an ice cream cone.

This yellow color was proving surprisingly stubborn.

She realized that she hadn’t gotten the man’s name. She really wished she had asked. Never mind, she would be sure to ask next time she saw him.

She rinsed the cloth again. Her skin was starting to hurt, rubbed raw and pink around the edges of her heart. But the heart itself was still yellow.

She studied herself in the mirror one more time, then slowly smiled. All the ink was gone. The warm, joyful yellow was the true color of her heart.


Janie Brunson is a law student with an undergraduate degree in English and Sociology. She writes speculative fiction in all the spare time she doesn’t have. Besides fantasy novels, her favorite things include dark chocolate and Broadway musicals. Her fiction has appeared in Bards and Sages Quarterly, the Colored Lens, 365 Tomorrows and others.