The Paper Swan
Author:Leylah Attar

I attempted to free myself from his chokehold. I grabbed his arm using both my hands and followed through with the move he’d taught me, trapping his leg with mine and making a sharp 180-degree turn before pulling him across and away from my body.

We ended up on the grass, a pile of limbs and sharp elbows. I laughed. Esteban did not think I made a good martial arts apprentice.

“You need practice. And discipline. How do you expect to take on Gidiot if you can’t even handle me?”

And so we practiced. Every day, Esteban turned into Estebandido, although he never liked playing the bad guy.

“Just for practice,” he said. “Just for you, güerita. Do it like this. Whoee-ahhhhh! Ready? On five.”

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

“No, no, no.” He shook his head. “You have to make the sound.”

“Whooo-ah!”

“No, Skye. Like a cat. Whoee-ahhh!”

The couple of times I managed to land Esteban on his back, his eyes shone with adoration.

“You’re not so bad for a girl,” he said.

We were lying in the shade of a tree, looking up at the sky. The branches were covered with clusters of delicate flowers, like yellow lace dripping down from brown limbs.

“I’ll bring you cake tomorrow,” I said.

He nodded and blew the hair out of his face. “Kick his butt if he tries anything, okay?”

I clasped his fingers and smiled.

Esteban wasn’t invited to my birthday party, but Gidiot was. And all of the other kids who private-tutored with Miss Edmonds. There was a magician and a clown and an ice cream truck and pi?atas. Silver and pink balloons bobbed all around the garden. I blew out nine candles while my father went nuts with the camera.

“Wait. I didn’t get that. MaMaLu can you light the candles again? Skye, slowly this time,” he said.

Esteban was perched on a ladder, cleaning the windows. Every so often, I looked over and he’d grin. He could see the big slice of cake I had hidden under the table. It had three juicy strawberries on it. Strawberries were Esteban’s favorite, but he rarely got to eat them. The cake was our little secret and it made me feel like he was part of the festivities.

By the time we were done with the games and loot bags, the pink frosting was melting off Esteban’s cake, so I decided to sneak off and give it to him.

“Where are you going, Skye?”

Gidiot had tailed me.

We were standing by the side of the house. I had Esteban’s cake in one hand and a glass of lemonade in the other.

“Let me pass,” I said when he blocked my way.

“Are you going to eat all that?” he asked.

“What’s it to you?”

“Skye has a hole in her teeth and a hole in her tummy. She’s a witch with a piggy tummy and no mummy!” He yanked me back as I pushed past him and the cake went splat on the ground.

I threw the lemonade in his face. That made him good and angry. He grabbed me by the waist and lifted me off the ground, shaking me like a rag doll.

“Skye!” Esteban stood before us. Sweat was pouring off his face from being in the sun. “On five.”

We counted down together in our heads: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 . . .

I kicked Gidiot in the knee. He doubled over. It was enough for Esteban to catch him unawares.

“Whoeee-ahhhh!” Esteban’s fist connected with his face.

Gidiot let me go and staggered back. He put his hand to his mouth and spit out a tooth. Gideon Benedict St. John looked like a pink-gummed, gap-toothed old lady. Then he let out a scream that was heard clear across Casa Paloma.

“If you can’t take, don’t give,” said Esteban.

I’m pretty sure it was some lost-in-translation line from a martial arts movie. It didn’t matter. Esteban didn’t have time to elaborate. Victor Madera found us. He took one look at the situation and grabbed Esteban by the collar.

“You little punk!”

Esteban twisted and turned in Victor’s grasp as the man dragged him away. “Touch her again and I’ll see you in hell,” he said to Gideon.

He was going all out with the movie dialogues. If I wasn’t so terrified for him, I would have laughed.

The adults started to gather and everyone was fussing over Gidiot. They were trampling all over Esteban’s strawberries.

It wasn’t fair!

I chased after Victor and Esteban, but they were nowhere in sight. I gave up and trudged back up to my room.

Esteban had been there, probably before the party started. He’d left me a present on the bed. A perfect paper giraffe.

I picked it up and marveled at his dexterity. When Esteban was little, he didn’t have many toys, so MaMaLu taught him origami. He couldn’t afford to buy me fancy gifts, so he created whole worlds out of paper—magical, wondrous animals we’d only seen in books, or heard about in the stories that MaMaLu made up: dragons and lions and camels, and something that looked like a kangaroo, but had a horn sticking out of its nose. A kangaroceros?

“Skye?” My father knocked on my door. “Want to tell me what happened with Gideon?”

“Not really.” I picked up the gangly giraffe and propped its neck up.

“Is that from Esteban?”

I didn’t reply.

“Let me see.” He took it from me and examined the gold leafed calligraphy on the paper.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” I asked.

“It is. It’s also from a rare book that’s missing from my collection. I know you’re friends with him, but he just knocked Gideon’s tooth out, and now he’s taken a book from my library? That’s theft, Skye.”

“He didn’t take anything! I gave it to him.”

“Really?” My father put the giraffe back down. “Then you’ll know what color the cover is.” He looked at me expectantly.

“Dad . . .” I was on the verge of tears, torn between my father and my friend. “Esteban probably thought it was just a dusty old book that no one would miss. I know he would never take it. He just borrowed it because he likes making me things out of pretty paper.”

My father was quiet for a long time. “You’re so much like your mother.” He ran his thumb over the locket I was wearing. “She had me wrapped around her finger too.”

“Tell me the story of how you met.”

“Again?”