Today, it is our pleasure to present to you the first-place winner of our Winter Short Story Award for New Writers: “Operation” by Scott Gloden. This pithy story is told from the point-of-view of a sixteen-year-old girl whose sister suffers from chronic kidney disease. The narrator struggles with her own guilt over his sister’s illness, as she herself comes of age.
“Call it being a seven-year-old girl, call it fear, call it selfish, call it an inexplicable failure at both math and love, but I wanted my kidneys the same way I didn’t want to be sick like Nance.”
I was seven when my sister was taken to the hospital, screaming, her stomach swollen, like how the yard would get when we ran the sprinkler for too long and the grass turned into a water balloon. She was nine, and she needed a kidney transplant. After this need became understood, my father took me to the hospital cafeteria, and we sat across from each other in plastic chairs, a plate of tacos with broken yellow shells in front of us.
Just before we left to have our food, I could hear my parents talking out of eyeshot.
“It should be something she has to do, Marc,” my mother said.
“And it probably will be, Grace. But we’re giving her the option. You let her decide on church, I’m letting her decide on this.”
My mother was silent after this comment, though I could believe she rolled her eyes, or motioned something similar before returning to my sister’s room. I had never heard my parents say their real names aloud. Before then, these names were only used among friends and family, and always in that pleasant conjugation of: Markie, Gracie.
From my plate, my father took his fork and stabbed into a pinto bean that was buried in my rice. He slipped it between his teeth.
“How did it feel when I did that?”
“Did what?” I asked.
“When I took your food.”
Though this wasn’t a game, I liked this game. I liked answering questions at this age, which were conditioned on me and me alone.
“Honey, you know that Nance is sick, yes?”
I nodded, my face down at the edges of the orange lunch tray we shared.
“She’s very sick. She needs a kidney. Do you know which one that is?”
I stabbed into a pinto bean and held it up, which though my father didn’t smile, I like to think he must have on the inside, because what an absolute genius move for me to make.
“Exactly,” he said, and continued on, “Do you know how many kidneys you have?”
“One,” I said.
“Actually, you have two kidneys. And what’s neat about having two is that you really only need one. Humans need two lungs, two arms, one heart, and one kidney.”
My father pantomimed this list: deep breath, winged stretch, a beat on his chest, another bite of bean off my plate.
“Now, Nance has no kidneys, which is why she’s been so sick—but, as luck would have it, you are a one-in-a-million match to give your sister a kidney to make her better.”
I didn’t show interest.
“That’s pretty cool, huh? One-in-a-million, and you live in the same house.”
“How do I do it?” I asked.
And, like the ever visual-learner he is, my father took his knife and fork, and carved a slit into the border of Styrofoam plate. With his fork, he put the bean into his picnic incision, and that was that.