Paper Cranes

It was the first vacation that Mom wasn’t with us.

I knew Dad didn’t care. He hadn’t shown any remorse throughout the whole trip. He’d done a lot of humming. He hummed whenever he got his way. He had hummed when Russ and I finally gave in to that ridiculous junkyard art exhibit two days before. He saw a sign advertising “The Biggest Peace Sign IN THE WORLD,” and was convinced it was exactly the thing that Russ and I wanted to see.

“It’ll be fun,” he assured us. I had even become a little excited; the closer we got, the signs became more convincing of the thrill that was waiting for us. Russ didn’t agree. Like he did with everything else, he was silent and had his usual look of dazed indifference. When we got there, we realized that this amazing tourist trap was nothing but a broken down building in the middle of a corn field, in which the car part peace sign sat. Russ pulled out a cigarette and started smoking. That was Russ protesting. It was so disappointing I almost asked for a cigarette, too, but I settled for tugging impatiently at my ponytail. Dad was humming the whole time. He liked it because he got his way.

I wanted to think that Russ cared, but I wasn’t sure. He was slouched in the front passenger seat with a foot on the dashboard, listening to his iPod. It was his turn to sit up front. I was glad it wasn’t mine. Today was too hot for me to have to deal with Dad on the same level.

The car was about fifteen degrees warmer than outside, the kind of heat that nearly kills you. After lunch, Russ and I had waited impatiently for the shelter of the air conditioner inside, hands ready on the door handles while Dad struggled to find his keys. Once we got in, though, we wished to be back outside. The metal seatbelts burned my hands, and I had to peel away the origami paper shrink-wrap from the leather seat beside me. It had taken ten minutes for the car to cool.

The pop song playing on the radio was a Top Forty hit. Its melody had that infectious hook, the kind that was guaranteed to suck you right into it. Everyone loved it. The lyrics described a tale of love, loss, and a desire to remain strong, to bounce back. It was bullshit. I took the lid off a pen and used it to make a perfect crease in the paper crane I was folding. Lunch had been a disaster. Dad and Russ threw insults at each other the whole time, and Dad got upset with me for folding cranes after I was done choking down the awful chicken fried steak I had ordered. That was another thing: the food sucked. Pasty potatoes, half-frozen hamburger patties, and flat soda were the only things to get us ‘til supper, which would probably be hours from now and not very creative because Dad’s cooking sucked. I had expected to starve on this trip and was truly surprised that I wasn’t dead yet.

Mom, on the other hand, was an excellent cook. Every Wednesday morning she would comb issue after issue of those home-cooking magazines and find the best recipes. Dad would always chide her for the obsession. I wished I was with her instead of being here.

But it’s alright. Everything is fine. Russ is fine, Dad is fine, Mom is fine, and me? I’m especially fine.

Waiting at home was the beginning of another school year. Russ was going away to college. I didn’t think he’d come back to visit on the holidays, and honestly, I couldn’t blame him. Beyond the cornfields that zipped past was the impending threat of biology, and I had to focus on the crane in front of me to keep from having a panic attack. People said that sophomore year was the worst. Back to projects, reading, math problems, and headaches. It would be just me and Dad. Actually, that was a lie. I didn’t have to be in the same place as Dad all the time. The only good thing about going home was Jared. Half a summer is too long to have been away from him. Dad didn’t know about Jared, and I wanted it to stay that way.

With another swipe of the pen, I finished the crane. I loved the look of them. They sat with an extreme sense of purpose, heads poised, alert, structured. There wasn’t any complication about them. The one in my hand was gold and glinted dully in the sunlight. I placed the newly folded bird behind me under the rear window with the others from the trip. They were going to the attic as soon as we got home, right in the corner where the rocking chair sat with the rest, where I kept my origami book safe from everyone, especially Dad.

“Finish another one, Aly, honey?” Dad said. He was watching me in the rear view mirror.

“Yes,” I said.

“You sure do have a way with paper. Like your mother. She loved that stuff.”

“Yes. She does,” I said. I pulled my legs to my chest and squeezed tightly. I couldn’t believe his nerve. Mom wasn’t dead, like he was making it sound. Don’t worry about it, I thought, everything’s fine. He’s just making conversation.

“Are you going to get rid of those, by the way?” He turned onto the interstate.

My feet dropped to the floor. “Why?”

“They’re pretty, hon, but they take up a lot of room, and you have
touchstone 2011 117
tons more at home.”

The things I would have loved to say right then. Shut up! I hate you! You screwed everything up! How dare you make fun of Mom! You kept us in hell for seven years, and I’ll never forgive you for hurting Mom, hurting us! You always have to have your way! You can take your stupid high-tech gizmos and fancy wristwatches and stick them right up that selfish little—

“Okay,” I said.

Everything is fine. Perfect. Conflict avoided. In fact, there hadn’t been one in the first place.

I wanted to talk to Jared. I reached for my cell phone, desperately wishing that there was some message from him, but there wasn’t. I flipped it shut and stuffed it into the front pocket of my backpack so I wouldn’t send another message.

My hands began to twitch.

I grabbed the bag and pulled out a piece of green origami paper. Folding paper cranes was a very structured task. Corners had to be matched up perfectly. I always started folding with the right side, then the left. The head and tail had to be at a right angle to each other, perfectly balanced. The wings had to be angled toward the sky, as if it could flap its wings and fly away at any moment. The twitching lessened with every fold.

I wished I knew what had happened. No one bothered to tell me what it all was supposed to mean. My stomach hurt just thinking about it. We had been at the courthouse. There had been a lot of yelling, crying. . . Both had asked me, not Russ, to tell the other what they really thought about them. Many naughty words, things I didn’t know the meaning of, the only time I was allowed to say them. That was my job for a long time. As the yelling increased, I learned to hide, to get away from the naughty words and terrible conversations. The attic had been my special hiding place. I’d sit there for the longest time, rocking and folding thousands upon thousands of paper cranes.

Dad didn’t do a thing about it. He said he loved Mom too much to let her go. He said things would work out. They never really did, though. I don’t know why. The movies always make love seem so lasting, so deep. I wanted Dad to be the Beast and Mom to be Belle. Dad just had to find out how to break the spell.

No one spoke. Russ was zoning out with his heavy metal music. I never could understand his obsession with the stuff. The volume was turned up all the way; it was almost if he wanted a bubble around his head. Nothing could puncture the bubble. Well, nothing except a girl, but thinking about Russ and a girl made my head hurt. Dad hummed along with yet another annoying pop song—off-key.

I folded down the head of the crane, and then examined it. The right wing was not matched up with the left; it pointed slightly backwards. It would not fold where it was supposed to when I tried to fix it, flattening the wing and re-creasing it. The bird looked mockingly back at me. What did I do wrong? I breathed heavily through my nose and began pulling at my ponytail.

“So, kids, I was thinking about doing some shopping in Omaha. Maybe for school clothes. Aly, we could look for a nice skirt for you or something. Whatever you’d like.” Dad looked at me through the rear view mirror again and winked.

I nodded.

“What do you think, Russ?” Dad glanced cheerfully across the front seat.

Russ didn’t answer.

“No new hoodies? Jeans? Cool threads?” Dad chuckled.

The silence was too much. I cleared my throat, still fiddling with the lopsided crane. Something was building in my chest.

Dad’s humming softened. “How long are you going to be at your mom’s once we get home?”

I answered after a moment of silence. “Two weeks. You know that already, Dad.”

The face in the rear view was no longer cheerful.

“Russ, did you call your mother?” Dad said. A commercial for a local car dealership fought to be heard over Russ’s heavy metal music.

Again, Russ didn’t answer.

Dad had stopped humming. “Russ,” he said, a little more loudly. “Have you called Mom?”

I looked back and forth between them. Russ still hadn’t moved. I wiped my forehead. It was getting warmer in the car.

“Russell Gordon.” Dad’s voice was getting louder. “Are you listening?”

“Dad, is the air-conditioner on?” I said.

Dad didn’t answer me. He was glaring at Russ, looking from him to the road in front of us.

My hands began to twitch again.

“Dad, can we please open a window?” I couldn’t breathe.

“Aly, hush! Russ, don’t play around.”

No answer.

Dad banged his fist on the horn. An odd whining from the front of the car continued long after the tone of the horn stopped. I jumped, clenching my fists. There was a faintest crunching noise and I looked down. The gimpy crane sat mangled on my palm.

“Goddammit, Russ, answer me when I’m talking to you!” The sound of his voice filled up the interior, pressing against the windows with no outlet.

Russ, finally, turned to look back at him. He reached up and tugged out his earbuds. There wasn’t his normal blank look, but a frown on his face. It didn’t feel right on his gentle features; it broke his face into shards of someone who was not my brother.

“Why do you care?” Russ didn’t look away.

I gasped, wishing that it would all stop. My hands were shaking so much that the mutilated crane fell to my lap. I was sick of the fighting. I did not want the yelling. I did not want the naughty words. I wanted Mom. I wanted to fly away.

“Stop!” My breath was coming quickly. Russ and Dad both turned around, identical looks of shock on their faces.

And then, the engine died.

It all seemed like a dream. Cars passing were streaks of color, Russ’s rock music seemed jumbled, and besides that, the silence pressed us from all four walls. Dad’s hair was standing on end. He swerved, dodging other cars. The cranes under the rear window swirled around me, landing all over the backseat. Russ sat up, grasping the armrest for support. Flashes of reflected sunlight blinded me. For a moment I was sitting outside, looking in. A passing semi had a license plate that read, “SMAKDWN.” I wondered if this is what it felt like at the bottom.

The car was slowing down, and Dad pulled over to the shoulder next to a steep hill that led down to another cornfield. For a moment, we didn’t move, the shock a parasite to our minds. Dad was the first to speak.

“You okay?”

Russ nodded.

“I’m fine,” I said. My hands were clenched on my knees. I looked down. In my lap lay the green and gold paper cranes.

“Well.” Dad looked out toward the freeway, then back to the dashboard. “I suppose we should call someone about this.”

He sighed and nodded to himself, and then got out. Russ didn’t follow. He stared straight ahead, earbuds forgotten around his neck. Slowly, he looked back at me, but didn’t say a word. I stared back, trying to understand what it was he was trying to tell me with those gentle, sad eyes. After a
moment, he turned back to staring at the open stretch of interstate in front of us.

In a trance, I picked up the cranes, shielding them with both my hands, and got out of the car. Cars going twenty miles over the speed limit zoomed past, knocking me off balance. Dad was on his cell phone, pacing the shoulder, nodding and gesturing to the mechanic who wasn’t there. A hot wind danced with the corn stalks below. My t-shirt was damp with sweat. The cranes still in my hands, I stumbled over to Dad.

He nodded again, said something that was drowned out by the rushing cars, then flipped his cell shut. He looked at me and smiled.

“They’ll be here in thirty minutes,” he said. He waved his arms excitedly, though I couldn’t understand why. “What an adventure to end vacation, huh? Hey, let’s get some food from the trunk. It’ll be fun.”

I didn’t follow him, but watched him walk around to the back of the car. Russ was still sitting in the front seat, but was smoking, the door cracked open.

Everything’s fine.

Thirty minutes was a long time, especially in the middle of nowhere.

I peered over the railing down into the ditch and watched the stalks sway. The cranes were still in my hands. As another gust of wind threatened to blow us over, I raised the arm in which the gold crane was clutched and opened it. The crane took flight, twirling in the air above me, and then it soared away into the sunlight until I could no longer see it.