Marty and Rosemary loved their children more than life itself. They became parents early in life, and as such, life during parenthood had been a struggle. Rosemary gave birth to Camille at the age of 16, when she was a high school junior and Marty was entering college. Ultimately, they both dropped out of school to care for their daughter. Audrey was born soon after, and Cody was born shortly after her.
Marty and Rosemary were now in their mid-20s, with three children to feed and no way to feed them. The children were not yet at an age where they could not yet help provide for themselves; they were now at an age where they required a great deal of money to maintain. Camille was now ten years old, and had developed an early tendency to bow to peer pressure. Whatever her friends had, that’s what she had to have. Audrey was eight, and while she wasn’t yet as desperate as her sister to fit in, she was a somewhat frail child and required medicines and regular visits to the doctor to keep her asthma, allergies, and frequent illnesses under control. Cody was five, and just entering kindergarten, he was at that age where he was outgrowing clothes faster than his parents could obtain them. Being a boy, he mostly wore his sisters’ old clothes, and was teased mercilessly for it.
One cold night, after a disheartening budgeting session, Marty and Rosemary leaned back in their chairs. They’d looked at everything: bank statements, pay stubs, welfare. They’d gone over their expenses and cut everything they had left to cut. They still didn’t have enough money to live. Marty scrubbed a heavy, dirty hand over his face. Rosemary cried tears of frustration. “I don’t know else to do,” she said, wiping her eyes.
“There’s nothing else we can do.” Marty sighed. “I think we’ve finally come to the point where we can’t afford these kids anymore.”
They both knew it would come someday. After all those years of struggling, of being unable to find work, of borrowing from parents and relatives until they refused, of doing dangerous or illegal things for money, they had finally hit the breaking point. They were going to have to sell their children.
They’d joked about it when Camille was a couple of months old. Marty had fallen from a scaffold painting a house and was too hurt to work for months. All of the money they had went to paying for his medical treatments, and whatever was left was put toward living expenses. There was very little they could spend on the baby; they’d fashioned cloth diapers out of old clothes and spent weeks without electricity to be able to afford the other things she might need. On one of those dark nights, with the windows open and the noise from the street rushing inside, they’d laughed about selling Camille to the Chinese takeout downstairs. Rosemary had been appalled, but laughed when she imagined her infant daughter splayed on the table like a Peking duck.
“I love my kids,” Rosemary said, slouching over her many financial documents. “I wish there was a better way.”
“I’ve spent years trying to come up with one. The fact is, the kids are the biggest drain on our finances. Even if we gave one away, that’s still hundreds – maybe thousands – of dollars we could save. If we could sell one, we’d save that money and make a little extra. If we sold all three, we could be on our feet again. We wouldn’t have to do this soul-sucking budget stuff every week to make sure we can afford to barely feed everyone. We’d never have to worry about not having enough.”
Rosemary shook her head. “I can’t believe I’m even considering this.”
Marty leaned over and kissed her forehead. “I know, I hate this as much as you do. It’s the only answer, though. It’s the only way. Who knows, maybe they can do better than us. Maybe someone who’s well-off will take them and give them a better life, or at least give them a job. At least they won’t be here living the crummy life they have now.”
They talked no more of it that night. They climbed into bed, but didn’t sleep.
The next night, after the children were in bed, they convened again at the table to discuss the issue..
“I can’t sell off all of my children,” she told him. “I’ll give up two of them, but I can’t let go of all three.”
Marty nodded. “I agree. Let’s decide which one we’ll keep, and we’ll sell the rest.”
Rosemary sighed. “I didn’t sleep at all last night. I was trying to decide which one I’d want to keep the most.”
“What did you come up with?”
“Right now, I think Audrey’s the one we’ll have to keep. With as much medicine and attention as she requires, it’ll be impossible to convince someone to take her.”
“She’s also the one who costs the most to keep.”
“I thought about that, too. What about Camille and Cody?”
“That’s a tough choice, too. The way I see it, we’ll save money if we keep Camille. If we sell her, we give up the money we’ve already invested in her. Then we’ll have to spend that same money on Cody. What do you think?”
“I would choose to keep Cody over Camille. At least with Cody, we’ll have a chance to save for college. There’s no way we’ll be able to send Camille to college, even if we sell the other two while we continue to struggle.”
Marty sighed. “This isn’t as easy as I thought it would be.”
“Why should it be easy? We’re discussing the sickest thing in the world.”
“Cody’s young. He might not understand what’s happening to him, but he probably won’t remember us much. We may not even have to tell him why he’s leaving, just that he is.”
“He’d be so afraid if we sent him off on his own. He doesn’t even like going to school.”
“I’m sure any of them will be afraid. We’ll be afraid for them. We can’t let that affect our decision.”
“I guess Camille would have a harder time being told she’s a burden.”
“She might take it better, though. I’m sure she knows about the trouble we’ve been having. We may be able to convince her it’s the best thing for all of us.”
He yawned. “Maybe we should take another night to think about this.”
“No. I don’t want to spend another night lying awake, trying to decide which of my children I want to keep. I want to settle this tonight, so I can spend the rest of my life lying awake and wondering what happened to them.”
Marty sighed. “I can’t decide, so I’ll flip a coin.”
Rosemary laughed. “I can’t believe I’m going along with this. A coin flip to decide which of my children I sell. All right, flip the damn coin. Heads, we sell Cody. Tails, we sell Camille.”
Marty dug around in his pocket. “Is it ironic that we’re flipping a coin to determine who bails us out of poverty?”
Rosemary snorted out a laugh, then covered her mouth and composed herself. Marty pulled a quarter from his wallet, launched it into the air with his thumb, and closed his fingers over it when it landed in his palm. He placed it on the top of his other hand, drew back his fingers, and peeked.
“Tails,” he said.
Rosemary shut her eyes and nodded. “So it’s settled.”
Marty put the coin back in his pocket. “Yeah. It’s settled.”
Rosemary spent the night lying awake, thinking about what the sale of her daughters would bring them. They would save a fortune not having to buy Audrey’s medicine. They wouldn’t have to buy tampons and makeup and whatever girly things they want. Cody was a boy, so he would certainly be less maintenance than the girls. She sighed. She hoped the girls would understand.