The Paper Swan
Author:Leylah Attar

Then I fell back on the bed and let out a deep breath. The uncertainty was killing me. I’d braced myself for another painful encounter, another round of humiliation and degradation before I earned my privileges. I’d held the possibility, all tight and tense, in my shoulders and neck. But Damian had done the unpredictable, and that was far worse than a patterned system of abuse, because now I was in a state of constant alert, fearing what would come and fearing when it didn’t.

How do we kill him, Esteban? I closed my eyes and remembered the two of us, plotting in my room. I’d been an earnest eight year old, four years younger than him, but an equal instigator in all our adventures.

He gave my question considerable thought before responding. I liked the way he twirled his hair when he was deep in thought. His hair was long and dark, and when he let it go, it left a little curl. MaMaLu was always after him to cut it and the times she succeeded, he came home with nowhere to hide his face.

“I don’t think we have to kill him,” he said. “Just teach him a good lesson.”

Gideon Benedict St. John (pronounced Sin Gin), formally nicknamed Gidiot by Esteban and me, was the bane of my existence. He was ten, but bigger than the two of us combined, and when he pinched me, he left big, blue bruises on my thighs.

“Esteban?” I fake-smiled in the mirror. “Would you make a tooth for me?”

He was stretched out on my bed, folding and unfolding a sheet of paper, trying to figure out how to turn it into a giraffe.

“You want a paper tooth to hide the gap between your teeth?” he asked.

I nodded and went back to examining it in the mirror.

“He’s just going to find another way to tease you, güerita.” Esteban called me güerita. Blondie. “And how are you going to make it stick?”

“Make it out of cardboard and I’ll tape it in the back.” I opened my mouth and pointed to the spot I’d picked out.

We both jumped when the door opened and MaMaLu walked in.

“Esteban! You’re supposed to be in school.”

“Going!” he yelped, when she smacked him.

MaMaLu hit Esteban a lot, but she hit him like she was swatting a fly, out of irritation and frustration. Esteban got swatted a lot because Esteban misbehaved a lot. He propped a half-finished giraffe up on the sill, scrambled out the window, and shimmied down the tree. MaMaLu slid the glass pane down and watched as he high-tailed it across the garden.

“How many times have I told you not to let him in? If Se?or Sedgewick finds out—”

“He won’t,” I said.

“That’s not the point, cielito lindo.” She picked up the brush and started combing my hair. “You and Esteban . . .” She shook her head. “The two of you are going to get me in trouble one day.”

“Can you do my hair like yours?” I asked.

MaMaLu had thick, dark hair, which she braided and folded into a bun. I wanted to crawl into the ‘U’ it made on her nape because it looked like a little hammock.

“That’s old lady hair,” she replied, but she sectioned off two side braids and combined them in the back, leaving the rest of my pale, blond hair loose.

“So beautiful,” she said. She removed a small, red flower from her hair and tucked it into mine.

“Gidiot says I’m a witch because witches have gaps between their teeth.”

“It’s Gideon,” she chided. “And when God made you, he left that space so your true love could slip his heart through it when he finds you.”

MaMaLu was full of stories; there was a tale behind everything.

“Then how did Esteban’s dad give you his heart? You don’t have a gap between your teeth.”

Esteban’s father had been a great fisherman. He died at sea when MaMaLu was pregnant, but she told us all about his adventures—about magic and monsters and mermaids in the sea.

“Well then, I probably never had his heart.” She smiled and poked me in the nose. “Run along now. Miss Edmonds is already here.”

“Is Gidiot there yet?”

MaMaLu refused to dignify that with a response.

I grabbed my school bag and went downstairs. Everyone was already gathered around the dining table. The only space left was next to Gidiot, because no one wanted to sit next to him.

“Good. We’re all here. Ready to begin?” asked Miss Edmonds.

Gidiot stomped on my foot under the table. I winced as I opened my textbook.

“Everything all right, Skye?” asked Miss Edmonds.

I nodded and gave her a small smile. I wasn’t a tattletale, but I knew I was in for another long afternoon.

Three times a week, Miss Edmonds came in from the city to Casa Paloma. My mother had inherited Casa Paloma as a wedding gift from her father. It was a lavish, Spanish-inspired estate on the outskirts of a fishing village called Paza del Mar. There was a small school in Paza del Mar where the locals sent their kids, but the expatriates preferred private tutoring for their children, and so we met in our house, which was the largest by far.

We were learning about soil erosion and landslides and earthquakes when Gidiot pulled my braid so hard, the little red flower MaMaLu had adorned it with fell to the floor. I blinked a few times, refusing to cry, and focused on the diagrams in my book. I wished Gidiot would fall down one of the fault lines, and into the molten core of the earth.

“Ow!” Gidiot howled, rubbing his leg.

“What’s the matter?” Miss Edmonds asked.

“I think something bit me.”

Miss Edmonds nodded and we continued. Bugs were common. No big deal.

“Ow!” Gideon jumped. “Swear there’s something under the table.”

Miss Edmonds took a quick look. “Anyone else feel something?”

We shook our heads.

My eyes darted to the big, antique hutch behind Miss Edmonds. On the bottom were two paneled doors with lattice inserts. The crisscross pattern was purely decorative, but as Esteban and I had discovered one afternoon, they made perfect peep holes if you were hiding in there.

I smiled, knowing Esteban had backtracked in from the garden. He hated school so he hid in the hutch on the days Miss Edmonds was there. That way, he had something to tell MaMaLu when she asked him what he was learning in class.

Esteban poked his fingers through the wood and mini-waved at me. He held out a straw, or maybe it was one of his paper creations. The next minute, Gidiot was hopping around the table on one foot, massaging his calf.

“Ow, ow, ow, ow!”

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