106,566. The amount of people on the kidney transplant waitlist. 16,894. The average kidney recipients each year. 3,000. The probable number of recipients in the last few months of this year. Numbers are how I earn my living. Numbers are familiar. Numbers are how I make this all bearable.
My mother has been on the waitlist for the last two and a half years, which puts her at number 64,023. In that time, 33,891 people received a kidney and another 8,609 have died waiting. And then there’s the final number. The one that gives me no solace: 29. The age I’ll be when she’s supposed to die…this year. Maybe even this month.
I am sitting in the corner of her room as we wait for her doctor to come in. My leg is bouncing and my eyes are darting between her, the floor, and the door. 29. 29. I’ll probably lose my mother at 29. The clock above the door ticks louder than it should and a pre-Happy Gilmore Adam Sandler movie is playing on the fifteen-inch TV perched high in the corner above the sink. Mom is watching it closely with a calm smile on her face.
There’s a sudden noise and I jump to my feet: three quick knocks at the door and it swings open a second later. The doctor’s head pokes in with frazzled black hair and big round glasses covering his brown eyes. “Joanne Gibson?”
“Yes, that’s me,” Mom says.
He steps into the room and clicks the door shut. There’s a clipboard tucked under his arm he reveals and places on the desk. He sits on his stool, then spins towards Mom. “How are we doing today?”
She lets out a sardonic laugh. “You know. Same old.”
“Any changes in medical status? Blood pressure, urination, shortness of breath, nausea, fatigue?”
“I don’t think so. It’s hard to tell when you’re always tired and nauseous and everything else.”
Dr. Freeman nods and jots something down on his pad. “Yes, I know these can be difficult times.”
“Difficult times?” I shout. “How can you say ‘difficult times’? Is that all you have?”
“Settle down, Keegan. It’s alright,” Mom says. Deep regret sullies her face, hanging from her eyes and diminishing her once reliable smile. But I don’t care. We’re running out of time.
“We’ve had two doctors tell us they expect my Mom to die long before she’s up for a transplant. She’s gotten next to no help or treatments from any of you. They all say, ‘Just wait on the list’ like a sitting duck. But no, difficult times.”
“I’m sorry there’s not much else I can offer you, Mr. Gibson.”
I open my mouth wanting nothing other than to shout more. Instead I look between his hapless eyes and calm lips and the pen he’s clicking in his hand. I want to storm out but I stay for Mom. “So what do you have for us?”
He turns to Mom. “Well, Mrs. Gibson results came back with some unfortunate consistencies. Your kidney has followed the projected trajectory and has recently dropped below an eFGR of 30 to 28.”
“English,” I demand.
“You have about three months until total failure.”
Mom’s head drops as she nods. “Okay, thank you.”
I try to hold back tears. “I’m going to get some fresh air,” I croak.
I hurry down the elevator and past the front desk, bang open the doors and collapse on the bench outside. I finally release my breath and let the tears flow out and for a few moments I don’t feel they’ll ever stop. An older man sitting beside me sticks his snooping nose out from the obituary section of his paper. For a moment he stares, then says. “You on the list?”
I can hardly speak through my choking sobs. “I don’t want to talk right now.”
He flicks his wrists to straighten the paper before folding it shut. “My father was on that list for four years and never got one. It’s a sham, I tell ya. All it does is give you an ounce of hope for something that’ll never come. It keeps you on the edge of your seat, not accepting the reality until it’s too late. He was number 17 when he died.”
“My Mom is 64,023. Doctor told us she has about three months.”
“I’m sorry, son. That’s no time at all. You look young. Too young to lose a mother.”
I cry harder and cover my face with both hands.
The man slides down the bench towards me and brings his chapped lips to my ear. I hear every labored breath he takes. I feel its warmth circling through my eardrum. “What if I told you I can do it tomorrow.”
I pull away. “What?”
He nods and his eyes widen. “Yeah. I got a fresh kidney coming in first thing tomorrow. It’s all yours if you want it.”
“Isn’t that illegal?”
“That depends. Is your mother’s life worth the risk?”
I think about it, but for only for a moment. “How much would it be? We aren’t well off. I don’t have anything left.”
He places a wrinkled hand on my back. “That depends. Breathe deeply.”
And so I do. In, then out.
His mouth curls to a smile. “I think we can work something out.”
I don’t want to scare Mom, so I go alone. I don’t even tell her. I go exactly where the man told me and find myself at the corner of Wiley St as the clock approaches midnight. I take out my phone and text the mysterious number ‘I’m here’. As expected, a set of hands I recognize as his, wrinkled and wiry, tie a black blindfold over my eyes. He spins me around a few times then takes me down a few streets. I don’t pay much attention. I don’t care where the building is. I just want to get the kidney and leave. The whole way there he’s humming a tune. It sounds like the melody of a fifties rock song, but I can’t quite distinguish it.
“You still haven’t told me your name,” I say.
He stops humming. “That won’t be necessary, Mr. Gibson.”
“But I never told you my name.”
He says nothing and resumes humming. A door opens and closes and we turn six or seven more times before stopping short. Not an ounce of light makes it through the blindfold. I feel his hands fiddling with the blindfold behind my head, hear his dry breathing, and smell something like rotting meat hanging in the air. “It stinks in here.”
Then man continues humming. He finally unties the blindfold and pulls it from my face, but I still can’t see anything. As my eyes struggle to adjust to the darkness, the man’s humming fades. He clears his throat. I hear glass rattling around, jars being unscrewed. “What was it you said you needed?” His voice is raspy but melodic. “A kidney.”
I nod, but doubt he can see me. “Yes, that’s right.” I try to feel my way around. I’m beginning to make out faint shapes: sharp edges of tables, outlines of windows, something shapely hanging from the ceiling, like a model of a vulture.
“Don’t touch anything,” he giggles. Something rattles off a table and falls to the floor and makes a thick splat when it lands. “Oopsie daisy.”
Despite his commands, I keep stepping around, swinging my arms to look for some surface to hold onto. I grab something – I think it’s his arm, but he doesn’t react. I make contact around the wrist, and then walk my hands up towards the shoulder. The arm is quite hairy. It also feels cold. Rigid. I guide my hands along a little further and reach the shoulder area. Only, there is no shoulder. Nothing but bone protruding from frayed flesh. I let go and instinctively push the arm away. It’s attached to something, but not a body. It wheels off and knocks against something a few feet away. The man’s movements stop.
“I see you’ve met Sally,” he calls out. “I won’t lie, this one won’t be cheap.” The man’s voice echoes through the cavernous room. As his words reverberate off the walls I try to pinpoint where he is to no avail. I think of answering him, but I can’t bring myself to speak. My breath is quickening, shaking. The more I focus on controlling it, the louder it seems to get. “An arm,” it echoes once more. I twist back and forth, searching again for the source. Then I feel it: that warm breath rolling through my ear. The sound of his bone-dry lips parting to form his next three words. “And a leg.”
The lights flick on and I see the figure hanging before the window: it’s no vulture. It’s a man with his stomach opened and flesh stretched out to both sides, dripping with fresh blood. A bone saw revs beside me. I take off in a panicked dash. He walks slowly behind me, his bare feet sticking to the blood-soaked floorboards. I try to remember the amount of turns it took to get in here. Three? Seven? I turn down one hallway, then another to a dead-end of locked doors and a tall window. The saw spins close behind. I turn back and make my way down another hallway. This one leads to a staircase, but I don’t remember taking stairs. I fly down the stairs anyway since there’s nowhere else to turn. Below is a foyer only lit by the sliver of moonlight breaking through the corners of the door.
“Don’t you want to help your poor sweet mother?” He giggles again. The saw revs louder. “A small price for the woman who bore you.”
I sprint to the end of the room towards the doors. His feet pound on the stairs behind me. I jiggle the door handles. Both locked. I bash my shoulder into one. It hurts, but the door doesn’t budge. “An arm and a leg is all I need. One arm. One leg.” The revving is distinct now. Only a few feet away. His footsteps break the silence between the saw’s spinning. He’s walking so slowly now. He knows he has me.
I bash the door again. Then again. And once more. The lock finally breaks. The door swings open and I stumble out, only catching my footing right before I faceplant into the street at the end of the sidewalk. A car swerves into the left lane to avoid me and honks. I listen for the man. No revving. No footsteps. No crackling laughs. I run and never look back.
I go home feeling lucky to be alive, but dejected. All hope that I had for the man’s miracle kidney had been swept away in that warehouse of madness. That is until I reach my front door.
Sitting on the stoop is a package – a cardboard box hastily taped with the words “Mr. Gibson” scrawled across the top in thick black lettering. I try to pick the package up and bring it inside, but it’s too heavy to move. Something large swashes inside, throwing my balance. I release the box, then rip the tape off the and open each flap of the box carefully. Inside is a blue cooler, covered in dried blood. On top of the cooler lies a folded yellow piece of paper, also taped on. I tear the paper off, unsure whether I really want to read it. But I open it anyway, my hands shaking all the while. In the same scratchy lettering as was on the box, five words are crudely etched into the paper. “An arm and a leg.” I throw the paper down, spin around and scan the front lawn. Nothing. No sign of the man. I haven’t seen him since. But one day he’ll come back for his payment. One arm. And one leg.