Secrets to Speak, Kidneys to Keep
Mialise Carney

We ask each other the scariest things we can think of at night, like we’re trying to stave off the loneliness of sleep by sharing the terror of being awake.

She whispers, “What would you do if I died?”

That’s an easy one. The truth is not much. But that’s no fun and I already know this game depends on those romantic kinds of soap opera answers.

“I’d cry on your casket,” I say. “Until they spooned dirt on top of me and buried me alive with you.”

She curls up on her side, satisfied. Her folding knees brush against mine and come to rest in the rounded space of my stomach. The quarter moonlight trickles across the half-drawn curtains of our dormitory, leaving a dim blue shadow across her forehead. Her eyes close against the sheets, but she’s listening, waiting. It’s my turn.

“What would you do,” I say, “if right now the door caught fire?”

She hardly moves, her breath warm and rustling against my hair. I push it out of the way so it doesn’t tickle against my eyelashes.

I know she’s thinking that she’d probably scream, jump up, cower in the farthest corner of the room. Cover her nose with the sleeve of her shirt until she slowly succumbed to the smoke, coughing like she did that time she got walking pneumonia. Big hacking hollow spasms, the threat of phlegm crawling up her throat, a collapsing feeling, like her ribcage was caving in, like her body was giving up on itself. But she doesn’t say that, she knows the game too well.

Her eyes flicker under the thin, wet paper skin of her eyelids, searching.

“I’d fling the window open,” she says, “and take my chances with the ground.”

I imagine her jumping—landing feet first, her kneecaps shattering, rounded bone bursting up into the tender meat of her thighs. Her small body tumbling forward, silent and slow, the edges of her baby blue shirt shifting with the weight of the fall. I imagine her face pressing into the grass, deceivingly soft but hiding the terror of old stone and rock underneath.

But we don’t say the realities at night. Tonight, we pretend she lives.

I shift my hip, the wrinkled sheet sliding. I move my head closer and wait. It’s her turn.

“What if I needed an organ?” she says.

I imagine the big, oak instrument at Daddy’s church, the one with the long whistles climbing up the stone wall, little slits in the tin like slanted eyes watching me wherever I knelt.

“I’d steal one from the church,” I say. “And heave it up the stairs myself.”

Her eyes blink open, veiny skin peeling away, her eyelashes dry and crumpled from lying on her palm.

“No,” she says. She’s half a head lower than me, her eyes curling up into the folds of her browbone to find me in the dim light. I’m pressed into the shadow of the wall, out of the combing scope of the watchful moon outside, the soft quilt barely brushing my shoulders, too short to hold us both comfortably.

I’ve disturbed the game.

“What would you do if I needed a kidney? If I needed yours?” she says, her eyes wide and creeping.

I’d never thought about that before, what I would do if she needed my kidney.

“Would you be dying?” I say. I trace her hair like vines across the sheet with my fingernail. The sharp strands catch, pull at my dry, cracked skin.

“Obviously,” she says.

I don’t like the idea of giving up a part of me even if it is to her. But I want to get back to the game. “I guess I’d give it to you,” I say.

“You guess?”

I press the sole of my bare foot back against the cool white wall. “Kidneys don’t grow back,” I say. “What if I ended up needing it later?”

“Well, I guess you’d just have to get it from someone else,” she says. Her voice is crawling loudly past a whisper into speaking territory, past our game and into reality. I want to drag it back.

I say, “If you needed an organ, I would use all my money, all my parent’s money, all my granddaddy’s money, and I would buy you the best kidney in the whole world.”

She reaches out slowly, presses her cold fingers into the dip where my collar bones meet, the top of my ribcage, my throat. “But I don’t want just anyone’s kidney,” she whispers. “I want yours.”

I imagine her digging deep inside me, pressing her long, cold fingers into my back, into the muscly place underneath my ribcage. I imagine her digging, grasping until she found a kidney, a dark brown mass, a tumor, a growth. A thing I’m supposed to foster and then give up whether I want to or not. I imagine her peeling it out, a tendril snapping, breaking away from whatever it’s attached to. I can almost feel my organs shift inside me, a tender ache as they slide into a new place, as my body realigns, readjusts to a new way of being whole.

I imagine her sticking it into herself, pressing it against the soft peach fuzz of her stomach. I imagine it attaching, sucking and growing into her until it disappears, the whole time beating like a heart, like it was alive.


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