The Paper Swan
Author:Leylah Attar

I was free to go about the boat as I pleased, but I spent my time curled up on the settee across from the kitchen. Damian stayed up top, at the helm station, for the most part. Two people, forced into close proximity, day in and day out, can communicate volumes without uttering a single word. He reminded me of pain and darkness and a double-gauzed finger. I must have reminded him of botched-up vengeance and the monster within, because we both steered clear of each other, except for the times when we had to eat or sleep.

I didn’t ask him what my father had done. Whatever wrongdoing Damian was holding him accountable for had to be a lie or a misconception. Warren Sedgewick was the kindest, most generous soul in the world. He used his hotel connections to build dams and wells and water pumps for people in the most remote regions of the world, places that no one gave a damn about. He financed micro-loans and schools and food banks and medical aid. He rallied against injustices, treated his employees with respect and dignity, and he always, always made his daughter pancakes on Sunday.

When my father and I had first arrived in San Diego, they were Mickey Mouse pancakes with powdered sugar and loads of syrup. Then they turned into hearts and princess stuff. And even though I was all grown up, he refused to let me move out and held on to those traditions. Recently, he’d started making caricatures of my shoes and purses, big shapeless blobs of batter that he insisted I had to look at from different angles to appreciate. The condiments changed with my tastes—bananas with Nutella, fresh berries with brown sugar and cinnamon, shaved dark chocolate with orange zest. My father had the uncanny ability of tapping into my brain, pulling out all of the things I craved, and turning them into reality. I thought of lemon curd, swirled in mascarpone cheese, not because I wanted pancakes, but just so he could feel it—my topping of choice for the day—so he’d know I was alive.

Most of my bruises were healing, but my finger was still a red, raw reminder that a part of me was sealed in a plastic bag, iced over in the freezer. I peeled off my acrylic nails, biting and picking until I’d ripped into the nail bed—nine nail beds instead of ten—all cracked and ridged and covered with ugly, white flakiness. I thought it was an appropriate send-off for a fallen comrade. A nine-finger salute.

I missed the weight of my mother’s necklace on my skin. I missed my pinky nail. I missed my hair. I felt like all the bits that held me together were slowly coming unglued, falling off, piece by piece. I was disappearing, disintegrating like the rocks that get eaten by the sea.

I made my way up to the deck for the first time since Damian had dragged me there, the day he threw my locket into the water. We were on a mid-sized yacht, powerful enough for deep sea sailing, but inconspicuous enough to avoid attention. Damian had it on autopilot and was sitting on a deck chair, with a line in the water. Whatever he caught would be dinner tonight.

I could feel his eyes on me as I made my way to the railing. The water parted into two foamy trails as we cut through it. I wondered how deep it went and how hard I’d fight when my lungs started filling up with it. I thought of sinking to the bottom, in one glorious piece, instead of breaking apart tortuously, one tiny piece at a time.

Forgive me, Dad.

I stole a quick look at Damian. He had gone still—deathly still—like he knew exactly what was going through my head. I knew his body stance now. He’d been the same way, all his muscles pulled in, alert and tight and tense, right before he’d had his slice of vengeance. I’d felt it then, and I could feel it now.

The bastard. He wasn’t going to let me do it. He’d be on me before I could step a foot off the boat. He owned me. He owned my fate—my life, my death. He didn’t need to say a word; it was there in his eyes. He compelled me off the edge. And I obeyed. I couldn’t stop the sobs so I cried and I cried.

I cried the same way I’d cried when Gideon Benedict St. John had broken the clasp on my necklace and left chain marks on my neck.

Esteban had found me and was ready to go kick Gidiot’s ass.

“Don’t you dare.” I made him promise. “You know what happens if you get in trouble one more time.”

“I don’t care.” He swiped the hair off his forehead. He meant business when he did that.

“Please, Esteban. MaMaLu will send you away and I’ll never see you again.”

“MaMaLu’s just bluffing.”

Esteban called his mother MaMaLu. He’d always called her MaMaLu. She was his mama, but her name was Maria Luisa, so somewhere along the way, he’d started babbling MaMaLu, and it had stuck. Now everyone called her MaMaLu, except for Victor Madera, who worked for my father. He called her by her full name and MaMaLu didn’t seem to like it. Or him.

“MaMaLu said next time you misbehave, she’ll send you to your uncle.”

“Ha!” Esteban laughed. “She can’t even go a day without me.”

It was true. MaMaLu and Esteban were inseparable, a hard-loving, quick-fighting part of my life. I couldn’t imagine one without the other. They slept in a separate part of the estate, removed from the big house, a small wing that accommodated the help, but I could still hear them some nights—like the time Esteban was gone all day and didn’t get back until past midnight.

That was the first year the cinema had opened in the village. They showed The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and Esteban stayed for all four screenings. MaMaLu had a right fit.

“Estebandido!” She’d gone after him with a broom when he finally showed up.

Esteban knew he was in big trouble when she called him that. I heard his howl all the way up in my room. The next day he showed up for his chores, looking like Blondie, Clint Eastwood’s character from the movie, wearing MaMaLu’s shawl—all squinty-eyed and chewing on a whittled down tree stub.

The following year Esteban watched Enter The Dragon and thought he was Bruce Lee.

“What do you do, Skye?” he asked.

“I fight back and I fight hard.” I repeated the line he had coached me to use, over and over again, because that was a line from one of the movies he’d seen.

“Ready?” he said. “On five.”

5, 4, 3, 2, 1 . . .