By Craig Francis Coates
I leave my daughter's urn buckled in the back of my old Buick station wagon when I get to Annie’s apartment. I have to knock a couple times before anyone answers, and when I do it's not her. It's the boyfriend, whose name I can't remember, but who makes a point of saying mine.
“Hello, Shainey Colchek.” He looks me over head to toe with the subtly of an amateur porn actor. “It's a pleasure.”
“This week, yeah.” He tilts his head and yells her name. “You can come in, if you want.”
I don't go in this place. He knows that but acts like he doesn't, just like he pretends he doesn't know where Annie's money comes from. He does well by playing dumb. No reason to stop now.
Annie appears from the back, carrying boots in one hand and a coat in the other. She slips all this on without breaking stride, even the boots, because Annie is the kind of person who's learned how to leave in a hurry. It's Christmas day, but all I've got at home are my cats. If Annie or her boyfriend are bothered I chose today, they do a good job not letting on.
“When’ll you be home, babe?”
“Never,” says Annie. She smirks, gives him a kiss. “Never ever.”
He looks to me, feigning surprise. I shrug, and I smile. Maybe she's right.
One thing I learned, when Sara got sick: I hate every person I know.
When Sara got sick, we put up one of those donation sites. I was still married then. We put up a donation site because another thing I learned was that insurance is shit, and just getting her meds and keeping up with dialysis was bleeding us dry. Not in a slow, drop-by-drop kind of way, but in the throat-slit, hung-by-the-ankles kind. We needed money fast.
The site was my husband's idea, but I took to it quick. I did everything you're supposed to do—got online, got on social media, sent emails to everyone I could think of. I put up pictures of Sara, from when she was healthy and could still play outside, and a couple from the hospital when her arm was full of bruises and her eyes had got sunk back deep in her face. And I wrote the best words of my life telling all about her, the kind of kid she was and how sweet, how brave, how funny and smart. I know every parent thinks these things, but with Sara it was true. She was the real deal, the best daughter we could ever have asked for. I knew these things in the deepest corners of my heart, and I guess I thought if I told other people they'd know them too, and that would mean they'd have to act.
And then the money came in.
Five dollars. Ten dollars. God bless you and your family. Twenty dollars. Twenty-five. Praying for you! Be strong! All these people, my friends and my family, chipping in less than what they spent each week at McDonald’s. I tried not to let myself think that way. I tried to be grateful. After a couple weeks, I posted an update to thank everybody who'd given and then kept begging for more. That's how it felt. Like I was standing on a street corner in the rain, holding up my cardboard sign for change. I should have been more grateful. But my daughter was dying. Her kidneys were failing, and not one of those people, those people I loved, gave more than a fifty to help her. That's what I really learned, when the money came in. How much my daughter's life was worth to all them.
After a month, there's not a one of them I wouldn't have killed if I thought it would help. But I couldn't say that, couldn't do anything about anything. All I could do was keep begging. I just kept asking for more, while my heart grew cold and dark.
The White River and its fingers move through Indiana like an outstretched hand. In Indianapolis, where I live, there are parks and pretty places you can go to enjoy it. By looking, anyway—the river itself is full of poison and sewage. But outside Indianapolis, further southwest toward where Annie lives, there are streams from the river not much polluted by people. If you're going to let go of your daughter's ashes, those are good spots to do it, places a person can go for a little privacy.
Sara was just eight years old when she died. Annie's kidney got her that far along. It doesn't sound right, but the truth is kids do better when they get kidneys from adults, and I guess that's how I know my daughter never really had a chance. If what we did didn’t work, nothing could have. What I wouldn’t tell a soul is the relief this contains. Regardless of everything else, I know my daughter got the best odds I could give her. There was nothing else a mother could do.
Annie rides next to me as we drive toward the river. She leans forward in the passenger seat and looks up toward the sky.
“Pretty out. All that bright blue. It don't feel like December.”
“No, it doesn't,” I say. The sun is shining. It's fifty degrees out, but the air feels strange and clammy like we're awash in something we can't see. The heat’s on, but with the sun through the windshield and me in my coat and scarf, it's a bit much.
“Did you bring it?” she asks.
Annie nods. Even though she doesn't smile, I can feel the change in her mood. Something like relief.
“We'll be done after this,” she says, matter-of-fact. “I promise you.”
The car just keeps getting hotter.
It felt like it took a thousand years, but when I got Annie's email we'd raised close to our ten-thousand-dollar goal for Sara. Again I had my husband to thank; it was his idea that got us on the news. He built a lemonade stand for Sara and we put it out along the road in front of the house, with a sign as big as we could make it that read “BUY A GLASS AND SAVE MY LIFE.” We live on a cul-de-sac. I don't guess we had more than two cars stop, both of them neighbors, both who bought a glass for twenty-five cents and said god bless and the lord helps those who help themselves. I was polite as I could be, but it was probably for the best that the knife we cut the lemons with wasn’t still in my hand.
We took pictures of the neighbors, and pictures of the lemonade stand, and when it was done my husband looked up online how to write a press release and sent it to the local TV. They gave us ten minutes, and that got us in a paper, and that got picked up by a bigger one, and the money started coming. Still in fives and tens and twenties, but faster, then, much faster. And then I got the note from Annie.
This might sound crazy, she wrote, but I saw you on the news and I want to help. I don't have much money, but I saw she needs a kidney, and I have two of those. I'll test for a match, if you want to try.
I never thought it would work. I had no idea what the odds might be—if me and my husband weren't a match, what hope was there in a stranger? Maybe that's why I didn't ask my husband what he thought. I wrote back right away.
God bless you, I said. Yes. Let's try.
We reach the spot where I want to put Sara. About a half-mile south is the old farmhouse where her grandparents used to live, and this spot's something known just in my family, I believe. It's got a long rocky bank, and the water stays shallow and slow until twenty feet out, so if your little girl wants to splash around looking for minnows she can. You have to pull your car half into a ditch, since there's no better place to park, but that's all right. There's not much traffic out this way.
Annie lights up a cigarette as soon as we’re out of the Buick, and I walk around back to pop the tailgate door. Sara's urn is at a slight tilt, but it hasn't tipped over, and even if it had, the top is screwed on. I push it back upright before I unbuckle her. It's harder to breathe but I'm not crying yet and I don't think I'm going to. All my grief has sunk to my chest, and that’s not a place that it leaves. Maybe if I could cry, I'd feel a bit better. Maybe I don't want to.
This time of year, all the brush has died back, and you can see through the trees to the river. Annie follows me in, the wind blowing up from the banks so I don't smell her smoke. You'd think the air might feel more damp this near the river, but it doesn’t. It feels cold and crisp and dry as a bone.
The river today is low. It's been dry this December, this season, this year. River-smoothed stones lie with their faces exposed, and it’s an unsteady walk to get close to the water.
“You want me to say anything?” asks Annie. She's got one hand on her back, pushed up under her coat. She might have a knot on her spine, or she might be feeling her scar. “There's a piece of me in there.”
She's right. It's strange knowing there’s something, some piece of Annie, in this urn. It's not a pretty one to look at. The pretty ones, rounded and smooth and made like a vase, were all too expensive. This one's all sharp angles and steel, like a coffee can made with hard edges.
“I don’t,” I say, unscrewing the lid. “And I don't want to say anything either.”
I was giving Sara a bath when Annie called to say she was a match. Sara was old enough to bathe herself, but her meds made her tired, and all I could think about was how it took just an inch of water for a child to drown. The whole time I was on the phone I kept one hand on Sara's shoulder, like if I let her go, she might slip away. When I hung up I realized how hard I'd been holding on by how her skin turned red in the shape of my hand.
Annie wanted to meet at Clyde's, a small bar on the near east side. To celebrate, she said, and to talk. My husband got Sara out of the tub and dried, and I got my keys and my coat and drove out to meet her. I don't remember anything about that drive now, except it was hard to find parking. I ended up leaving the Buick in a McDonald’s parking lot and walking half a block, so nervous I might throw up. I passed a line of kids standing outside the Emerson, waiting for a concert, and I remember thinking, Maybe Sara will come here one day.
Annie was already a couple drinks in when I found her in a cramped booth, two shots of whiskey on the table in front of her. She pushed one toward me as I sat down.
“Cheers,” she said, raising her glass, and I raised mine in return.
“I just found out today,” said Annie. “They'll call you next. They had to make sure I hadn't changed my mind.”
I felt a little dazed, but the heat of the whiskey sharpened me up.
“This is for real? This is really happening?”
She gave me a huge smile and nodded.
“Believe it,” she said. “I've tried this before, for other kids. This is the first time I got a match.”
I should have seen the red flag. But you overlook an awful lot when you're that close to getting what you want.
“So, what happens next? What do we need to do? Is there anything-”
She laughed and waved away the questions.
“There's nothing to do, Shainey. Just say yes when the doctors call. The hard part is over.”
I nodded and stared at my empty glass. Everybody prays for miracles, but nobody tells you what to do when one shows up.
“Hey, so tell me,” said Annie. “Did you get funded?”
“Online? You get all your money for her medicine?”
The fundraiser seemed like a thousand years ago. But yes, I told her, we got the money.
“Okay then,” she said. “You're not going to need it now.”
“No, maybe not,” I said, trying to follow. Was I supposed to give it back? The fives and tens and twenties, was I supposed to return it all?
“That money's for Sara,” said Annie. “So now I’m thinking, this is how it works. If you want the kidney, I want ten thousand dollars. Paid in installments, so the bank don’t take notice.”
What could I say? I wish I could tell you I stopped. That I told my husband, or that I told the police there was this woman trying to sell me an organ. But I saw it all, laid out between us. And there really wasn’t a choice.
The water is cold as ice, and soaks into my jeans as I kneel by the river. But it seems wrong somehow to stay standing up, to tilt the urn like I'm dumping out garbage. I kneel by the edge and the water laps at my knees. I tip the urn gently as I can, and the ashes pour out, as fine as powdered sugar. A long gray trail drifts down the river.
“It's a hard day,” says Annie, from somewhere behind me. “But you'll feel better tonight, when all's said and done. And I'll be out of your hair.”
I don't answer. I'm watching my daughter, as she drifts on the waters.
I hear the strike of a lighter. Annie with another cigarette. Her exhale is heavy.
“You did bring it with you?” she asks me again. “The last three grand? I didn't see nothing in the car.”
“I brought everything,” I say. By now the water has cleared. It's clear as far downstream as I can see.
I rinse out the urn the best that I can, then pull myself up on my feet. Even without Sara in it, the steel is still heavy, and it doesn’t warm in my hands.
“Hard day,” Annie repeats.
I stumble a bit on a stone, and she leans in to help. Leans in close. I swing the urn hard at Annie's face, and feel the steel edge hit bone.
“I don't have your fucking money,” I say, and I hit her again. She falls over backwards, onto the rocks, and I drag her into the shallows. It just takes a few inches. Inches and time, and I've got plenty of that, now that my daughter is gone.
When it's done I rinse the blood off the urn, though I know I'm not going to keep it. I walk back up the bank, then out through the woods, out to where the Buick is parked. It looks strange from this angle, half in a ditch, and when I see the car coming, I know it will stop. I don't hurry. I don't try to run. I just stand by the Buick and I wait.
It's a family inside, a husband and wife, two kids in the back with a dog. On their way to Christmas somewhere, or maybe to church. The wife rolls down her window and gives me a look, concerned to see how I shiver.
“Need a ride somewhere safe?”
“Need a hand with the car?”
“No, ma'am.” I'm holding the urn, and I know that she sees it, but she's not a rude enough person to ask. “Nice of you to offer.”
“Well.” She looks like she wants to say more, but doesn't know what. What can you do for someone that won't ask? “Are you sure we can’t help?”
“Yes ma’am.” I smile, as nice as I'm able. “I seem to help myself just fine.”
Craig Francis Coates lives and writes in Indiana.