Connor had seen the slight person approach from his perch on the couch. He didn’t care much for Sunday night football, but fall is always a rough season for Hank. He indulges him a little more than usual until they can make it through October. With his attention floating, he sees the shadow of the person hover outside the door. He frowns after several seconds when no ring or knock follows.
Muting the screen, Connor gestures at the window, “Someone’s here.”
Hank frowns, leaning forward to try to get a peek at who is hovering without drawing attention to themselves, “If it’s that Roscoe kid again, I swear to g—”
Connor shakes his head in amusement, “You know full well that his name is Russell. You also know he hasn’t been by in years since he’s in college now.”
Hank grumbles about neighborhood kids being hooligans for life, but he jerks open the door all the same, “What do you want.”
It comes out flat, rude, and definitely not as a question. His back stiffens slightly when he meets the timid gaze of a startled young girl, “I-I’m sorry. I’m looking for a Lieutenant Hank Anderson?” She lacks confidence and Connor peers at her curiously. Dark hair like coffee without cream to go with cocoa-colored eyes. He guesses her to be in her late teens at most.
“You’re looking at him. If this is for a fundraiser or some shit, you can beat it.” Connor shoots him a disapproving look.
“Hank.” His tone is soft but the hint of reproach is still there. He turns his attention back to the girl, “I’m sorry. This is a tough time of year. Do you need help with something? Are you in trouble?”
Hank resists the urge to smack a hand to his forehead. She’d addressed him by his rank. Guilt laps at the edges of his mind; some example he was setting. He grants her some leeway and unfolds his arms. Waving a hand tiredly at her, he grumbles, “Let’s hear it, then.”
The girl worries at her lip, eyes darting from Connor to Hank. Connor gives her a small smile and she breathes in slowly before exhaling, “When I was born, I had a heart condition. It wasn’t immediately fatal, but I would need a transplant before starting middle school.”
Whatever Hank and Connor had been expecting, it wasn’t this. Hank’s brain buzzes dumbly, unable to think of a response. Connor holds his tongue; he can read the extreme tension in her stance. He doesn’t want to interrupt or derail her if she needs help.
“The thing is, hearts don’t often become…available.” She says the word delicately with a slow, heavy blink. “It’s even less common for children. Not only that, it had to be a match or my body would reject it.” She speaks like a person who’s told the story so many times, it no longer feels real.
“I don’t remember it really well. I was ten.” She chances a glance at Hank, but she must not see whatever she’s hoping to find. She continues her story as if it physically pains her, “I remember being miserable. I had been in the hospital for weeks. We were supposed to go to the beach, but mom said I couldn’t because I was sick. I cried for days when the weather turned cold. I knew it meant summer was over. It meant I might never get to go.”
Connor’s curiosity about the girl gives way to sympathy. What she’s describing are things no child should have to experience much less remember.
She falls silent and several awkward seconds pass before Hank grumbles a confused, “Okay?”
She shakes her head and stares at Connor’s shoulder as she speaks, “It got cold. Too cold. Snow was coming early and no one was prepared. The city was having a hard time treating roads. The hospital was busy day and night with,” she pauses to clear her throat, but Connor wonders if she’s just buying time, “accidents.”
While Connor hears her emphasis on the word, he doesn’t understand its importance. He’s more concerned about Hank at that moment as the man goes abruptly stiff, his breath quickening.
Connor is on the verge of asking him what’s going on when the girl speaks again, “It was October. No one expected an ice storm.” Understanding falls into place like ice cubes in a glass.
“My parents hadn’t said the words, but I could tell they were losing hope. They were terrified. They slept by my bed every night. They never left my side. They told me later that doctors had told them I had a few weeks left at best.” Her rate of speech increases as if she needs the words to be out of her mouth as fast as possible—as if they’re burning her tongue.
Hank’s eyes grow wet and water wells at the rims when she says quietly, “And then there was a heart. A perfect heart. An exact match.”
She watches a tear track down Hank’s face before she sucks in a shuddering breath, “My parents wanted to know who—who to thank. The hospital said the patient’s family requested they seal the record.”
Connor can feel Hank’s grief mutate into rage faster than blinking, “Then how the fuck did you find me?”
She flinches at his tone and steps back a pace, “When a child becomes of age they can petition…petition for access to information related to their care. The organ donor would have been of age as well. It’s a loophole, I guess. They gave me your information a-and…” she stutters and stops talking as Hank’s anger takes up all the available space between them.
She takes another step back, “I just—I had hoped…” She digs around in her pocket, producing a phone. “I have a recording. I thought you might like to hear.” Hank stares at the mobile in her hand as if it’s a grenade with a pulled pin.
Her hand begins to shake the longer she holds it out between them and eventually she drops her arm, “I’m sorry. I should have called or written to you first. I wasn’t thinking. I was—I’m sorry.”
Hank says nothing as she turns to leave. Connor squeezes his arm, ready to offer him whatever kind of support he needs. Hank closes his eyes, scattering tears from the force of it.
“Wait,” he croaks out the sound and the girl halts as if she hit an invisible barrier. She tries to give him a small smile, but it can’t push the sadness from her eyes. She’s alive because Hank’s son is dead and she knows it.
At a gesture from Hank, she approaches the porch once more. He sits heavily on the front stoop and she joins him. Connor sits quietly on Hank’s other side, rubbing circles into his broad back.
She places the phone into Hank’s palm and the device looks absurdly small in his hand. His thumb swipes over the screen and a gentle pulse begins to throb all around them. He plays it a second time and then a third before asking, “Can you send it to me?”
The girl takes the phone from him with a nod and replaces the device with her own small hand. Hank stares as she gives his fingers a small squeeze, “My name is Alice.”
Hank returns the pressure, “His name was Cole.”