“I’m just calling it like I see it: this is creepy.”
“Noted,” my mother whispers, teeth gritted into a smile as the caterer approaches.
I slink away. This is my window, and I probably won’t get another until this party ends.
Outside the event room, I study the portrait. It’s huge and grainy, mounted to foam on an easel. “In Loving Memory” is scrawled in glitter underneath Eden’s name.
The dates sear my eyes. Too close together.
“Hi, is this the right place?”
I jump at the hand on my shoulder. It’s another reporter. Three are already here: two local papers and a news anchor. There’s a rumor they’ll be selling their notes and footage to national outlets, and I believe it. People love a good tragedy.
“Yeah,” I tell her. “Through those doors.”
She thanks me and breezes inside.
Funny: she didn’t even glance at Eden’s picture.
That’s the worst part about being here, in fact. There are pictures of Eden everywhere, propped on easels and scattered on tables. I haven’t noticed anyone else being gutted from the mere sight of them. They’re all so happy to remember. Even the tears I’ve witnessed are singular and smiling.
It’s still a tragedy, but an old one.
I, meanwhile, have a filet knife butterflying my stomach open. Navel to chest. My grief apparently lives inside some abdominal organ that never empties completely.
I look at the photo again. It’s Eden’s senior portrait from high school, before the piercings and her neck tattoo. It’s no coincidence Aunt Rochelle chose this one to enlarge: moving to California to become an actress was bad enough, in her mind. Giving up on acting, piercing your dimples, and getting a sugar skull etched into your skin in cotton candy ink was downright unthinkable.
But that was my cousin. Brave, bold, and full of surprises. Capable of anything. Especially the unthinkable.
Another sob worms out. I shouldn’t be crying. It’s been a year.
“Excuse me,” another voice asks, this one a man’s, “is this—”
“Yes,” I snap over my shoulder, without even turning around. I sense his footsteps behind me, shuffling and hesitating, before veering into the room.
The party was Aunt Rochelle’s idea. She thought it would be cathartic to meet the recipients of Eden’s organs, after reading schmaltzy stories online about mothers looking into their sons’ eyes once again. Children hugged strangers and listened to their fathers’ heartbeats.
“Don’t you think it’ll be nice?” Mom asked over the phone, when I told her I didn’t want to fly back to Kona for this shitshow. So far, only one organ recipient had responded yes, but my family was positive they’d come in droves. After all, who wouldn’t want to thank the family whose enormous, earth-shattering loss had given them a second chance at life? Who wouldn’t want a free trip to Hawaii?
“No. I think it’ll be weird as shit.”
Even the distance of the ocean couldn’t smother her sigh. “Colby. You’re coming home. End of discussion.”
“You can’t make me fly back,” I laughed.
“Hmm.” My mother clicked her tongue. “Maybe you can’t make us pay your rent next month.”
God. The lowest blow.
“Mom, seriously, I just....” My excuses shriveled up on my tongue. I just can’t. I still miss her too much.
I still get nightmares about her body. The thud when she hit the ground.
I still kind of hate her.
“It would mean the world to your aunt,” Mom said. “Just come home for one weekend, go to one party, and that’s it.”
“That’s it,” I echoed sarcastically.
Well, that was it: Dad paid a pretty penny to drag me out of California for a couple days, sending me the plane ticket without so much as a greeting. It was decided.
The flight was hell. Full of honeymooners already dawning leis and floral shirts, some turbulence that almost shook my breakfast loose, and a seatmate who thought I couldn’t see the porn he was watching on his phone.
All of Kona was electric with the news. Eden’s donor recipients were going to be treated like island royalty, from the looks of it: coffee plantations sent heaps of free samples to our house, where Aunt Rochelle now lived—in my room, no less—and I’d never seen more muffin baskets in my life.
“Wow.” I looked at the nine photo frames lined up on the kitchen table and tossed my luggage underneath it. Each held the same photo of Eden, laughing open-mouthed in front of the ocean. I knew this picture. It was her first day in California: she’d texted it to all of us back on the island.
“I thought the recipients might like a photo,” Aunt Rochelle explained. She brushed the Easter grass off her pants from the basket she was assembling and hugged me. “Good to see you, sweetie.”
“You, too. Are Mom and Dad here?”
“Your Mom is running an adoption event,” she answered, thinking, “and your Dad is....” Slowly, she smiled. “Oh. I’m not supposed to tell you.”
I smiled, too. Dad always bought my favorite ice cream from Kona Creamery whenever I visited, and I always pretended to be surprised when he gave it to me. A small tradition, but one worth keeping.
“So,” I said, taking the seat across from her and shoving a basket out of my vision, “all nine really said yes?”
Her face fell. Ever since Eden died, she wore a tentative smile at best—and broke into sudden, full sobs at worst—which slipped whenever people asked something too direct. And I, as I was often told, spoke far too directly for most tastes.
“Two,” she said, the smile bouncing back, fake. “But the other seven didn’t say no—they just…didn’t respond. So we’ll see.”
“Wait, you bought plane tickets for all nine?” The insanity of this party was now at its tipping point.
Hell, forget the party: Aunt Rochelle was losing her actual mind. And Mom too, probably, since I was sure she’d footed the bill.
“Yes,” she said, voice quiet, but defensive. “I also booked some suites at the resort. They gave me a discount.”
This sounded about right: everyone on the island had been giving my aunt deep discounts and freebies the last year. Not that she didn’t deserve them, and frankly, she needed them. She’d been so depressed that she stopped going to work, stopped paying her mortgage. Stopped everything.
For a few minutes, I felt guilty for thinking this party would be creepy and weird and tense. It still was all those things, at least for me—but for my aunt, maybe it would provide some kind of closure.
And, judging by the mountain of gifts on the table in front of us, it had given her a decent project to throw herself into.
“How’s Luka doing, anyway?” I asked, just to change the subject. “I see his brother around Santa Barbara, sometimes.”
“I wouldn’t know. His mother arranged the discount for me, when she heard about the party. No one sees him much, these days.”
“Kai said he’s turned into a workaholic. Who knew.”
“Oh, I’m not one bit surprised he’s thrown himself into that resort. All that energy when he was little had to lead somewhere.” Rochelle pulled a frame closer and fixed the latches on the back. “I hope everything goes well.”
I knew, from the way her smile faded, she was talking about the party again. “I’m sure it will,” I said noncommittally, rolling a can of coffee to myself and running my finger over the Grown in Kona imprint.
Of course, Rochelle was oblivious to the fact I wanted to talk about literally anything else. “I hope everyone got the letters. The donor program said they’d forward them to anyone who was open to correspondence, but couldn’t even tell me how many that was.”
By now, even the thought of my favorite ice cream made me want to puke. Social graces weren’t my specialty, but next to Rochelle, I looked like a freaking empath. She’d keep this conversation going no matter how curt my responses were. Including the “hmm” I let out as she added, “I do know which recipients are coming. Of the two that responded, I mean.”
When I didn’t ask the follow-up I knew she was trying to beam into my brain, she took a breath. Her smile flowed back. “One is a boy about your age—kidney—and the other is a woman. She got her eyes.”
It was instant, the panic that churned in my stomach like a tsunami.
Kidneys? Sure, cool, whatever. You didn’t think about kidneys.
You didn’t see them.
But her eyes.
Staring into that murky green again, for the first time in ten months. A stranger’s eyelids blinking around each one.
A piece of her living on, blood pumping, tissue thriving, even though Eden herself was just an explosion of ashes in the ocean, by now.
“I’ll be right back.” I booked it to the backyard. The table shook as I left; I could still hear the freebie baskets rattling against each other when I slid the porch door shut behind me. A forest of wicker and swag and Easter grass.
The panic attacks were new. I hated them, for more reasons than the chest pain and complete loss of logic as my brain launched its own little horror film. It was inconvenient, striking just when I needed to hold it together the most; it was inconsistent, improving by leaps and bounds one week, before reaching a new all-time low the next.
More than anything, it made me feel weak. Which made me feel nothing like myself.
I paced our backyard in a circle and practiced the breathing tips I’d read about online. Then I picked through the panic, ignoring the rapid thoughts that didn’t make sense, until I found the one that did: I’d have to look Eden in the eyes all over again.
You can do this.
It would be an entirely new face. A new person. Without Eden’s fiery smile or easy wink, maybe her eyes wouldn’t even look like hers.
It’s just one day. You’ll survive.
I’d survived worse.
She was somebody’s daughter.
I actually threw up in my mouth.
This wasn’t exactly news. I know organs don’t appear by magic, and I knew it long before that letter showed up. Donors aren’t nameless. Even if you never learn their names.
Someone died, and I lived.
But to get actual proof that that “someone” was more than a Jane Doe in a filing cabinet? That was a first.
Her mother wanted to meet me.
“Free trip to Hawaii,” Walt offered at dinner, the day the letter arrived. I set it on the table in front of us, where we both read and re-read it without picking it up.
“I don’t care about that.”
My inhale was drawn-out and sounded, even to my own ears, too sarcastic. Of course Walt would focus on the free trip. It was how he put a positive spin on just about everything: pointing out whatever personal gain could be harvested.
“I want to go, Daddy!” London chirped. She’d turned herself into the Joker, but with spaghetti sauce.
“You have school.” I ripped off a paper towel and passed it to her. It didn’t help; she just swiped the sauce back and forth on her skin.
She pouted. Walt slid her chocolate milk closer. “Drown your sorrows, kid. We’ll have a blast while your dad’s gone—I’ll take you to the teahouse again.”
London sat up and grinned. I glared at him.
“What?” he asked innocently. “Walt and London Tea Parties are our thing.”
“I didn’t say I was going.” My eyes landed on the letter again. “I have zero interest in meeting the family.”
“Sure. That’s why you’ve had that letter sitting there all afternoon.”
My hands fumbled with the tongs for the garlic bread, until I gave up and grabbed it with my hands, mostly so I could get on his germaphobic nerves. “I feel obligated, but I don’t want to go. That’s why I’ve had it sitting there.”
“We both know you’ll feel guilty forever if you don’t. So go. It’ll be like a vacation.”
“A vacation? Meeting the woman whose kid—”
Both of us froze and glanced at London. She was blowing bubbles in her milk, blissfully ignorant.
“I think,” Walt went on, “it’ll be good for them. And you, just to go someplace with fresh faces. You need to socialize.”
“I socialize plenty.”
“As much as I love dragging you to parties and bars, we both know none of my friends can give you what you need.”
“Oh. You meant dating.” I couldn’t disagree with him, there: my socialization was fine when it came to friends. I had Walt, and some tertiary buddies through him. Girlfriends, however, were a different story. A nonexistent one.
It wasn’t like I’d closed myself off to dating. I’d simply resigned myself to a few more years of loneliness, until I was older. Meaning, until girls my age were older.
No one wanted to be a stepmom at twenty-three. And the ones that did usually fell short, treating London like a doll they could dress up, parade on Facebook, then cast aside whenever they wanted “just us as a couple” time.
Walt and his friends harassed me for being too picky, but they didn’t understand. None of them had kids. “I’m not just finding someone for myself,” I told them, again and again. “I’m finding someone for London, too. Dating material is easy. Mom material...not so much. Not at our age, anyway.”
“Who says it has to be a mom?” one of them would tease, every time the conversation came up. “London can always have two dads.”
At that point, I’d laugh their teasing off. Their lamentation of my heterosexuality was a running joke in their circle, and the jokes rarely changed. Including the one where Walt pretended to take enormous offense: “Um, excuse me? London basically does have two dads, thank you very much.”
And again, I didn’t disagree. Walt had been there for London—for me—from the beginning. I doubted I could have made it through the worst of the illness without him.
In fact, the day he moved in, I’d just started an email to London’s grandmother.
“You were right. She needs more than I can give her.”
He’d reached past me, saved the email as a draft, and told me to sleep on it. I’ll never stop being grateful for it. Most days, London’s the only reason I get out of bed.
The letter fluttered under the push of the fan overhead. I picked it up.
“Maybe I will go,” I said quietly. London and Walt high-fived.
So here I am, at the center of a party I’m still not sure I want to attend.
A woman in a red dress, flocked by reporters, gives me hug without asking. “This is so....” Her teary whisper ends in a sigh. I guess it’s a happy one, although I have no idea what word she’d use to finish her sentence. This whole thing is so...something. I don’t know what, but it’s the “so” part I agree with: whatever I’m feeling right now, there’s too much of it.
“I, uh...I want to thank you,” I tell her. A flash from one of the photographers—and at least fifty smaller flashes, from the guests’ cell phones—blinds us. “I have a daughter, myself. I can’t imagine what it was like for you to lose yours.” The sting in my throat shocks me. I clear it.
Rochelle’s smile trembles. She hugs me again. Flashes explode.
Thankfully, the attention wanders off me the second the other guest of honor arrives: a thirty-something woman from Virginia, who was blinded as a child. I watch from across the room as Rochelle looks into the woman’s eyes. Her daughter’s.
It breaks me.
The crowd is thick, but I barrel my way through like a tank.
Outside, I find an alcove in the brick exterior and sit, head on my knees, blood rolling through my ears. I blink the sting from my eyes. Like the first brush of food poisoning, my face gets unbelievably hot, then nauseatingly cold.
Get your shit together.
I lift my head so fast, it hits the brick behind me. “Ow, fuck.”
There’s a hand stretched out in front of my face. It grasps a tin of mints. Shakes it at me, like I’m a dog in need of a treat.
“They’re rescue candies,” the girl tells me. Doesn’t ask if I’m hurt, even as I rub the back of my head and wince. “For panic attacks. Want one?”
I’m about to tell her this isn’t a panic attack—not that I would know—but she’s already grabbed my hand. I watch dumbly while she shakes two into my palm.
“Suck on them, don’t bite,” she orders, when I crush the first one between my molars.
“Sorry. Um...thanks.” I shrink against the wall; she’s taken a seat beside me, leaving barely two inches between us.
“Fair warning, I don’t know if these actually work.” The tin glints as she turns it, reading the ingredients. “Like, maybe it’s just a placebo effect? Something to distract you, until you calm down.”
I do feel distracted, and therefore calmer, but I can’t tell if it’s the candy or her.
“So.” She stretches her legs out in front of her. They’re tanned and smooth, save for a nick on her thigh. “You got my cousin’s kidneys.”
“Uh....” I pull my arm against my body when it brushes hers. “Yeah.”
“Take care of ’em.”
I should be relieved when she walks her feet back towards herself, using them for leverage to push up from the ground. Instead, with the rescue candies cramping my mouth, I feel this weird urge to say something. Anything, just to make her stay.
“Hey, wait a sec.” She turns and watches me stumble to my feet. “Thank you.”
“No worries.” She shakes the mints one last time, before dropping them into a pocket in her dress.
I brush the mulch chips off my dress pants. Not the smartest place to sit in formal clothes. “No, I meant thank you for….”
She furrows her brow. “For…?”
“I don’t know.” I spread my hands, rattled. Shouldn’t she know what I mean? What else would I thank her for? “That’s why I’m here, to thank the donor’s family. And you’re family. Right?”
“I didn’t give you her kidneys.” She gives me a long look, top to bottom. I know that face: she’s judging me. “I mean, even my cousin didn’t give you her kidneys, really. It was coincidence. So you don’t have to thank anyone.”
It’s then that I recognize her. Something about her snark is familiar, the way her smile doesn’t quite fit with what she’s saying. She sounds nice, but her words are almost too brutal.
“I know you,” I say, which stops her in her tracks. Her hand drops from the door to the event hall.
“I know you,” I repeat. My foot catches on a shrub as I step over it. When I regain my balance, stumbling back on the sidewalk, she’s turned to face me.
I take a breath. “You’re the girl who gave me shit for wanting to replace my cat, if it died.”
She tilts her head and laughs. I watch her tongue wet her lips as she searches her memory and, finally, comes up with me.
“That’s right,” she says slowly. In a single step, she closes the gap between us. “I remember now.”