The Paper Swan
Author:Leylah Attar

I gagged on it as he forced me out towards the quay, my wrists still tied behind my back. The sweet, pungent smell was not as powerful, but it made me queasy. I almost choked on my vomit before he pulled the rag out of my mouth and slipped a sack over my head. I stopped screaming then. He could have let me choke to death, but he wanted me alive, at least until he was done with whatever it was he’d abducted me for. Rape? Captivity? Ransom? My mind ran wild with a kaleidoscope of gruesome clips from news reports and magazine articles. Sure, I had always felt a pang of compassion, but all I had to do was change the channel or flip the page and I could turn the ugliness off.

But there was no turning this off. I could have convinced myself that it was a vivid nightmare, except the raw tingles on my scalp, where he’d ripped my hair out, stung like hell. But pain was good. Pain told me I was alive. And as long as I was alive, there was still hope.

“Wait,” I said, when he forced me to my knees. “Whatever you want. Please . . . just. Don’t kill me.”

I was wrong. He didn’t want me alive. He wasn’t locking me up or demanding a ransom. He wasn’t ripping my clothes off or taking pleasure in making me suffer. He’d just wanted to bring me here, wherever here was. This is where he was going to kill me, and he wasn’t wasting any time over it.

“Please,” I begged. “Let me look at the sky one last time.”

I needed to buy some time, to see if there was any way out. And if this really was the end, I didn’t want to die in the dark, suffocating on the fumes of fear and desperation. I wanted my last breath to be free, filled with the ocean and surf and sea spray. I wanted to close my eyes and pretend it was Sunday afternoon, and I was a gap-toothed little girl, collecting seashells with MaMaLu.

There was a moment of stillness. I didn’t know my captor’s voice or his face; there was no picture in my head, just a dark presence that loomed like a giant cobra behind me, ready to strike. I held my breath.

He lifted the bag and I felt the night breeze on my face. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust, to find the moon. And there it was—a perfect, crescent shaped slice of silver, the same moon I used to watch when I fell asleep as a child, listening to MaMaLu’s stories.

“You were born on a day when the clouds were big and swollen with rain,” my nanny would say as she stroked my hair. “We were ready for a storm, but the sun filtered through the sky. Your mother held you by the window and noticed the gold flecks in your little gray eyes. Your eyes were the color of the heavens that day. That is why she named you Skye, amorcito.”

I hadn’t thought of my mother in years. I had no memories because she’d died when I was young. I didn’t know why I was thinking of her now. Perhaps it was because in a few minutes, I would be dead too.

My insides rattled at the thought. I wondered if I’d see my mother on the other side. I wondered if she’d greet me like the people on talk shows attested to—the ones who claimed to have been there and back. I wondered if there was another side.

I could see the twinkling lights of high-rise condos on the harbor, the traffic trailing its way like a red snake through the downtown core. We were docked in a deserted marina across from San Diego Bay. I thought of my father, who I’d conditioned not to worry, to just let me be and breathe and live. I was an only child, and he’d already lost my mother.

I wondered if he was having dinner out in the courtyard, perched on a bluff overlooking a quiet cove in La Jolla. He had mastered the art of drinking red wine without soaking his mustache. He used his bottom lip and tilted his head just so. I was going to miss his bushy, gray whiskers even though I protested every time he kissed me. Three times on my cheeks. Left, right, left. Always. It didn’t matter if I had just come down for breakfast or was leaving for a trip around the world. I had closets full of designer shoes and bags and baubles, but that’s what I would miss the most. Warren Sedgewick’s three kisses.

“My father will pay you whatever you want,” I said. “No questions asked.” Pleading. Bargaining. It comes easy when you’re about to lose your life.

My declaration earned no response, except for a firm nudge, forcing my head down.

My killer had come prepared. I was kneeling in the center of a large tarp that covered most of the deck. The corners were chained to chunks of concrete. I could picture my dead body being rolled up in it and dumped somewhere in the middle of the ocean.

My mind rebelled against the image, but my heart . . . my heart knew.

“Dear Lord, bless my soul. And watch over Dad. And MaMaLu and Esteban.” It was a prayer from the past, one I hadn’t uttered in years, but the words formed automatically, falling from my mouth like little beads of comfort.

In that moment, I realized that in the end, all the hurts and grudges and excuses are nothing more than floaty apparitions that scatter like pale ghosts in the face of all the people you loved, and all the people who loved you. Because in the end, my life boiled down to three kisses and three faces: my father, my nanny and her son—two of whom I hadn’t seen since we took the dry, dusty road out of Casa Paloma.

Who are the last people you think of before you die?

I squeezed my eyes shut, anticipating the click, the cold, lead-weighted inevitability of death.

Those are the ones you loved the most.

IT WAS DARK. PITCH DARK. The kind of darkness that’s surreal—deep and still and vast. I was suspended in its emptiness, a speck of awareness with no hands or feet or hair or lips. It was almost peaceful, except for the dull throbbing that kept flowing in and out of me. It rolled over me in waves, louder, stronger, until it was crashing and pounding inside of me.


I blinked and realized my eyes were already open, but there was nothing around me—nothing above me, nothing below—just the pain, hammering away in my head. I blinked again. Once. Twice. Three times. Nothing. Not a shape or a shadow or murky vagueness. Just absolute, engulfing darkness.

I bolted upright.

In my head.

In reality, nothing happened. It was as if my brain had been severed from the rest of me. I couldn’t feel my arms or legs, or my tongue or my toes. But I could hear. Sweet Jesus, I could hear, even if it was only the sound of my heart racing like it was about to burst right out of me. Each frantic beat amplified the pain in my head, as if all of my nerve endings ended there, in a thumping pool of blood.

You can hear.

You can breathe.

Maybe you’ve lost your sight, but you’re alive.