They get him on the way out of Trader Joe’s, with a bag of groceries in his hand thawing slowly in the summer sun. Some college kid with bad acne and a big smile makes eye contact and says, “You look like someone who wants to save a child.”
He doesn’t really. It’s been exactly three days since Amy handed him his own stupid bleeding heart, stomped on it, and walked away. But the college kid shows him some photos, before and after: a scrawny, undernourished child in the first one, and then a slightly less undernourished child in the second, always with a big smile. Amy told him he was selfish. He is not selfish, which he plans to demonstrate by sponsoring a poor child in a developing country. He fills out the information on the clipboard, presents his credit card with a flourish. When he gets home he texts Amy, I just signed up to sponsor a child. No response.
Two weeks later, a big envelope arrives in the mail. Her name is Lucia and she is seven years old. She lives in Ecuador. In the picture she looks small, and when he puts her height and weight into an online BMI calculator, it confirms that she is slightly underweight. Not horribly underweight, not exactly starving, but still. The organization sends a piece of stationary and he writes a short letter, with simple sentences.
He thinks of the little girl sometimes but not a lot. He mentions her to a few people at work, brings in the picture and passes it around. His co-workers agree that Lucia is a pretty little girl, and for some reason he feels proud of this, as if she really were, somehow, his child.
Lucia writes him a letter back. She writes in pencil in careful, cursive Spanish, with a typed translation below it. Hello! My name is Lucia. Thank you for being my sponsor. I have a baby brother. I like to go to school. I like to dance and play with dolls. My favorite food is rice and beans. Please come to visit me some day.
He looks up plane tickets to Ecuador. It’s not cheap. There are mountains there, volcanoes. He imagines himself arriving in her town—or village, whatever. The grateful looks of Lucia’s Mama and Papa. The picture he’ll frame of himself with the family, the one he will put next to the smaller snapshot of Lucia on his bookshelf, the one he keeps meaning to frame and keeps forgetting. He writes Amy an email, just to let her know what’s going on with him, and he mentions that he’s planning a trip to Ecuador to visit the little girl he sponsors.
He’s looking into tickets for that winter when another envelope arrives. He opens it, expecting a message from Lucia, but instead there is a letter that reads: It is with great sorrow that we write to inform you that your sponsored child, Lucia Ana Morales, passed away last week. Lucia was crossing the street when she was run over by an ox cart. We share in your and her family’s grief at this tragic event. It is a painful reminder of the realities of life for poor children in the developing world, and a reminder of the importance of our work. We hope you will find it in your heart to sponsor another child.
For a long time he sits with the paper in his hand, staring at the wall. Over the next few days, he feels dazed, in shock. It would be wrong to say that he is in mourning, but the world has a different color; he finds himself thinking, at inappropriate times, of Lucia’s smile.
He tells a friend at work about the ox cart. The friend snorts, thinking he’s joking. He glares until his friend’s face falls and his friend says, “Sorry, man. That’s awful.”
A week later he writes Amy an email and tells her about Lucia. She responds right away. OMG that is horrible. What’s an ox cart? I guess you’ve probably heard by now about me and Josh…
The non-profit continues to send him envelopes, and for weeks he tosses them in the trash unopened. Then one day he gives in and tears one open. Meet Nabin. Nabin is five years old and lives in Nepal. He loves soccer and his family. Your generous support…
In the photo, Nabin stands in front of a wall with peeling paint, squinting into the camera. He is not quite smiling. He has a mop of black hair and his arms are twigs poking out of his yellow t-shirt.
At work he tells everyone that he is supporting another child after the untimely demise of his first sponsored child, whom he will never forget, poor Lucia. He no longer communicates with Amy. Instead, he writes letters once a month to Nabin. Nabin’s mother replies, thanking him always for his sponsorship.
Flights to Nepal are even more expensive than to Ecuador. It will take him at least a year to save up. Nepal, he reads on the Internet, is a beautiful country. The capital Kathmandu sits at an elevation of over 4,000 feet, so high up, he tells his co-workers, that visitors, not acclimated to the change in air pressure, find it hard to breathe.
Kat Solomon’s short fiction has appeared in Juked and Monkeybicycle. She has an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis and currently lives in the Boston area. She is a founding editor of lavastep.com and tweets @katdsolo.