The Paper Swan
Author:Leylah Attar

I had single-handedly solved his dilemma of what to do with me.

An hour ago, I’d wanted to drown myself, but I really, really didn’t want to go this way, ripped to pieces by a sea monster with conveyor-belt rows of sharp, pointy teeth.

“Damian!” I started waving my arms. “Damian!”

I didn’t know why I was calling for him. Maybe it’s just basic human instinct to turn to the only person around. Maybe a part of me sensed that somewhere, deep inside, he still held a shred of humanity.

I felt something brush against my feet, something cold and hard. I probably shouldn’t be moving or making so much noise, but I didn’t know how else to get his attention. I removed my waterlogged, bloody bandage and tossed it as far away from me as possible.

“Damian. Help!” I screamed.

I saw him get up and peer into the water. Then he went to the deckhouse and brought out binoculars. I waved frantically while he looked through the lens. The damn thing was circling me openly now, preparing for the kill.

Damian looked a little longer. Then he dropped the binoculars and sat back down. I could see him reach into his tackle box and pull out something.

Yes. A gun. A sniper rifle. A mother-fucking harpoon.

He retrieved something I couldn’t make out, put his feet up and popped something in his mouth.

I choked on a lungful of seawater.

He was eating peanuts while he watched, as if it was time for popcorn and a matinee.

I coughed and flailed around. How could I have even entertained the notion that he would jump to my aid? So he hadn’t killed me. And he’d stopped me from killing myself. But he wasn’t opposed to letting me go this way. The hot blond in shark movies always gets ripped to shreds.

I could feel the water churn around me as the shark got closer. A dark face broke through the surface and I screamed. It disappeared and came forward again. I braced myself, expecting the sharp slice of teeth, but what I got was a beak. I was nose to nose with a smiley-faced dolphin. My heart was still racing a mile a minute when it nudged me, as if to say, “Hey, lighten up.”

I let my breath out in a big splutter that must have startled it, because it drew away. It had a prominent back fin and its flippers were long and slender with pointed tips.

Not a shark, Skye. A dolphin.

And judging by the size of it, a curious baby.

It zoomed around me, showing off its pink underbelly, before turning sharply and swimming away. I made out another form—this one bigger, most likely the mother. The two dolphins exchanged high-pitched squeaks before the little one came back to me. It swam beside me for a while, mimicking my motions, floating when I floated, flipping when I flipped. Then it whistled three times—little dolphin chirps—before taking off.

I watched the mother and calf disappear. I could see the flash of binoculars from the boat. Damian was watching too. He knew the sea, he knew the difference between a shark’s fin and a dolphin’s, and he’d chosen to let me be.

I floated on my back, exhausted, elated, horrified, glorified. I thought I was going to die and yet I’d never felt more alive. I heard the engine rev up and I knew Damian was coming for me. He cut the engine a few feet away from me. I looked longingly at the outline of the land mass on the horizon, but I knew I’d been foolish to think I’d get there. Damian had known that too. He’d just hung back, waiting for me to wear myself out. And it had worked. I couldn’t go any further, float any longer.

I would have to plan things more carefully next time.

I climbed up the ladder at the back of the boat and flopped, belly down, on the deck.

Damian continued fishing.

WHEN I WOKE UP, I was still facedown on the deck. The stars were out and Damian had covered me with a blanket. It was late May or early June. I had lost track of the days, but I knew we were heading south, somewhere along the Pacific coast of Baja Mexico.

I was born in Mexico, birthed by a midwife at Casa Paloma. Mexico had been home for nine years, but I had never been back. I wondered how far we were from Paza del Mar, and if MaMaLu had retired there, and bought a white house with a red tile roof—the kind she’d always stopped to admire on our way to the market. I wondered if Esteban put in a wrought iron fence and helped her plant flowers in the yard. It would be small, of course, because MaMaLu never dared to dream big, and she was always afraid when Esteban did. Even then, he had been larger than life, and no one, and nothing was going to stand in his way. And if he knew someone had abducted me, he would find me and rescue me, and God help Damian.

Maybe he already knew. Maybe he’d heard the news. Maybe he believed I was dead, just like my father. Either way, Esteban would not rest until he had Damian. He was my hero, my champion, my lean, mean, Gidiot-punching machine. I could picture him in pirate garb and a fake eye-patch, commanding a ship from Paza del Mar, scouring the seas for me.

I smiled, because the brain can conjure up the most ridiculous, improbable scenarios that are so far off center, you have to wonder at the power of imagination. Even in his absence, Esteban was keeping the bad guys and bad thoughts at bay.

I heard the scrape of something on the deck.

Damian was unfolding a deck chair. He propped it up beside his, with a small table separating the two.

“Eat.” He motioned to the plate on the table, before digging into his own. One hand held a bag of ice over his jaw, where I’d hit him.

I got up warily, not knowing what to expect. Food? Punishment? Retaliation? But he said nothing as I took the seat next to him. Maybe he was just as tired and wrung out as me. I was suddenly aware of being pant-less, and wrapped the blanket tighter around myself.