Kay waited in her car for her ten-year-old daughter, Lee, to burst from Rack Hills Elementary School with her usual hey-Mom-let's-play-a-game enthusiasm. The sky carried enough gray gloom to penetrate the continent. But Kay often called Lee, Sunshine. This weekend Kay and Lee had planned a celebration. Lee had carefully printed invitations: YOU ARE INVITED TO A BIRTHDAY PARTY -- MY KIDNEY TRANSPLANT WAS THREE YEARS AGO.
Kay's phone beeped, loud enough to jar her. She wasn't expecting a call or message. The text came from her sister: GOT NEWS STOPPING BY AFTER WORK.
Lee knocked on the window of the car and opened the passenger seat door. "Hey Mom, what's up?"
"Message from Aunt Shirley. She'll be at the house later."
"Yay! Did she say why?" Lee reached for the juice box her mom always had ready for her in the dashboard cup holder. "Strawberry and cherry, my favorite. You're the best, Mom. So why is Aunt Shirley coming? I thought she was busier than a rooster in a tri-level hen house."
"No explanation. It was a quick text. And where did you get that expression?"
Lee slurped loudly through her straw. "A new boy in class. He gets in trouble a lot."
"No surprise." Kay looked at Lee with intended disapproval, but she knew her daughter saw a smile in her eyes she couldn't hide. Almost by rote Kay followed the short, familiar path home.
Lee picked through the CD case in the glove compartment. Kay caught a side glimpse of her daughter's face, round from steroids. Her thoughts immediately moved into the hours Lee missed from school for clinic appointments that could not be made at more convenient times, a fear that the current good times wouldn't last. Kay held her breath. She couldn't consider the possibility that Lee's kidney would fail. Again.
She remembered her daughter's sunken eyes, transparent skin, the hours of peritoneal dialysis. A fear of accidently contaminating the process spilled over into Kay's dreams and lingered through the years, long after Lee started to thrive. Kay was afraid her heart would stop as she recalled the moment when Lee's doctor had announced, emotionless, that yes, Lee's condition was rare. However, her only chance now was a transplant. Kay had barely made it through those times with a seriously ill child.
Her husband had not accepted the emotional challenge. He had left the marriage, found his own apartment, and appeared now and then like a distant relative. Sometimes he brought gifts -- toys Lee had outgrown years ago or books obviously chosen at random from the markdown bin.
Kay worked as a substitute teacher now. It paid the bills. Barely. At least dear-old-Dad paid child support. On time. His guilt reflex still worked.
"Isn't it weird?" Lee said as they reached the house.
"Isn't what weird?"
"The reason why Aunt Shirley didn't get her invitation to the party. It was because of that mail-delivery lady who was on the news, the one who just dropped everything and took off. Then they found her wandering in a graveyard. You remember."
"Why are you bringing that up?"
"Because of something I heard about her in the office when I waited for my tutor to show up; she got stuck in construction traffic. A teacher and the secretary were talking about the mail-lady. When my tutor got there we only had ten minutes to go over how plants grow from a seed to a flower or vegetable. But at least I got what she was saying. Then she gave me the most beautiful apple I had ever seen. Almost as big as a grapefruit. I would have eaten it then, but didn't have time."
Kay winced at how matter-of-fact Lee was about missing recess to catch-up on school work.
"Anyway, the mail-lady is in the hospital where Aunt Shirley works. Nobody was supposed to know. Con-fi-something. But some news guy found out anyway." She paused and stared at her empty juice box, almost as if she wanted to refill the box. "Seems kind of sad to me. Wouldn't something awful have happened for somebody to just give up on a job, disappear, and then go wandering in a cemetery? Maybe she was looking for a grave. Of somebody she knew. Wish I could help her somehow."
"Don't know, sweetheart." Kay wondered if her sister had met her. Shirley worked as a psychiatric social worker. But Kay could never ask her, so there was no point thinking about it. Kay hadn't considered anything close to the level of caring Lee displayed.
"You're amazing, you know that, kid?"
"Uh huh. I'm even going to get my homework finished right away. So I have time to get ready for the party tomorrow."
As soon as Kay opened the door to their house Lee threw her school bag onto the couch and reached for the remote control.
"Homework, while watching TV?"
"Sure. Anything I do while listening to Sponge Bob and Patrick will sound smart."
"I wish you wouldn't make me laugh when I am trying to be a good mother. A half-hour of cartoons, and then homework. At the table. In quiet. Okay?"
"Oh-kay." Lee saluted her mother and Kay left the room before her authority crumbled any further.
* * *
Shirley turned off the light in her office. As she locked the door she tried to leave behind the dark secrets and troubles she witnessed daily. She sighed. The day had brought both victory and challenge. How could she have known that her interview with Esther Bale would have led in the direction it did? Even if she wanted to she would never forget Esther, the woman from Rack Hills who disappeared for two weeks and then showed up in a cemetery, the crazy-person story of the week.
Shirley was certain the invitation to Lee's party was included in the stack of mail dropped off in the open mailbox of a house that had been vacant for years, two blocks from Shirley's home. The load was discovered by a neighborhood watch crew and reported to the police. It would be delivered, maybe, eventually, long after the event. An invitation was not essential; Shirley knew about the party from the moment Lee considered it. In fact, she was paying for most of it. A lost invitation was secondary.
She thought about Esther, a difficult individual to reach. Today she had established trust. Esther's words echoed through Shirley's being.
"I had been arguing with Monroe's mama. We didn't do that often. Loud enough to scare him. He ran outside. Bad timing. Some nitwit. Shooting squirrels in the neighborhood. Monroe ran outside just as the man ..." She gasped. "The bullet sliced through my grandbaby's head. He didn't have a chance. And now. And now ..." Esther sobbed uncontrollably. "So, don't you see? His death was my fault! Every day that guilt got bigger and bigger ... crawled into my mail bag, became a monster. I had to get rid of it. Only it wouldn't go away."
Silently Shirley had handed her a box of tissues while her heart raced. Monroe. The child's name was Monroe. How many young children named Monroe had died in this area on that date? She had waited for Esther's body language to tell her it was safe to move closer, that Esther was not putting up impenetrable defenses.
She watched closely for that one moment when Esther's spirit would allow touch; Shirley placed one hand gently on her shoulder.
"I understand his organs were donated," Shirley whispered.
"So? That doesn't bring my grandbaby back."
"What if I tell you I know one of those kids?"
"Not sure that would make any difference."
"If you change your mind, I'm sure Lee would be willing to meet you. I could bring her here."
"Lee? Wait! The child's name is Lee?"
"My daughter, Monroe's mama, her name is Lee ..." Now Shirley approached the entrance ramp to the freeway, so oddly named since each merge was rarely free of effort. Each step in what she needed to do next wasn't going to be easy either. After all, it had only been by accident, in her work as counselor, that she had learned that Monroe Wheat had been Lee's donor. She had overheard the doctors in the physician's dining room of all places. She had been invited there to speak to one of the doctors about a client during the only time he had available, his lunchtime.
Two doctors were whispering. Shirley had superb hearing. Her ears zoned-in when she heard them speak about Lee's successful transplant, the saddened tones when they referred to Monroe, the bullet through his head. She gasped. Then she needed to interrupt the doctors and, trembling, introduce herself.
Now, she just happened to be one of Monroe's grandmother's therapists.
... And perhaps, one day, somehow, his grandmother could become one of Lee's many friends, a group growing, developing, far beyond the possibilities of serendipity.