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Like Origami in Water

Damien Walters Grintalis lives in Maryland with her husband, two cats, and two rescued pit bulls. She is a member of the HWA, an Assistant Editor of the Hugo Award-winning magazine, Electric Velocipede, http://www.electricvelocipede.com, and is represented by Mark McVeigh of The McVeigh Agency. You can visit her blog, dwgrintalis.blogspot.com, or follow her on Twitter @dwgrintalis.

Johnny is angry again. I hate this part, but I won't try to stop him. I would feel the same way, too.
"It's not fair," he yells, spit flying out of the corners of his mouth. "And it's not right. Why can't they figure out what this is? Why can't they fix it?"
Music blares from the speakers. The walls are paper-thin, but our neighbors are not home. Johnny shouts over the lyrics, demanding to be heard. He paces back and forth in our tiny apartment with its drafty windows, his walk an awkward, lurching stumble. He only has one toe left, the baby toe on his left foot. And in the space where his other toes used to be?
Nothing. Nothing at all.
"Eventually you won't even remember what I looked like," he says and sinks down on the floor, holding his hands around his head.
I shut off the music and sit down next to him, breathing in his scent, a soft, musky smell with something new hidden underneath, a smell like charred wood in a long dead fire. "That's not true."
"I'm only twenty-six years old. It's not fair." He holds out his arms. The inside of his elbows are marked with swirls of purple and yellow. "I'm not going back to the doctors anymore. What's the point? They don't have any answers. They'll just stick me in a corner room and stare at me like a circus freak."
I take a sheet of paper and fold it until a dragon appears, the paper slick beneath my fingers. I learned how to fold paper from my mother, as she learned from hers. She told me her mother learned from Akira Yoshizawa, the great master of paper folding, when our family still lived in Japan. Washi, the traditional paper, is the best to use, but I make do with the paper I find in craft stores, even though it tears easily if I'm not careful. My mother says the best origami holds something inside--love or anger or hurt. Something to make it real.
I set the dragon on the floor next to my feet. Johnny saves them all, even the ones that turn out wrong. He lines them up on the windowsills and calls them his gargoyles. They're not watching out, but watching in. Watching him.
"I'm glad my parents are dead," he says. "So they don't have to see this." He grabs my hand and gives it a tight squeeze. "Will you stay with me all the way to the end?"
"I'm not going anywhere. I promise."
He leans over and rests his head on my shoulder. Tears burn in my eyes, but I hold them in. Johnny hates to see me cry.
A week later, his feet are gone.
After his legs vanish from the knees down, I make a red army of paper swans and set them on top of the refrigerator. He's sitting at the table, ripping paper into tiny shreds, and from where I stand, I can't see the missing parts. I can almost pretend everything is fine.
I don't watch when he crawls back to the bedroom.
But the sound echoes back.
His knees disappear next.
"It hurts when they go," he whispers. "And even when the pieces are gone, I can still feel them."
Johnny's reading in bed when his fingers go. One minute he's holding the book; the next, it tumbles down onto the blanket, landing with a tiny thump. He gives a little grunt and his mouth twists down. I know what I'll see, but I look anyway. His fingers are pale and vapory, narrow ghosts fading fast. And then they're gone, leaving behind a little more of that old wood smell, and a little less of his.
"It was a stupid book anyway," he mutters.
I scoot over, not touching close, but close enough. He turns to me and presses his lips against mine, offering up what warmth he has left. He hasn't kissed me since he lost his feet.
In his kiss, I taste oranges and despair.
"Turn on the music," he says. "Please."
I do.
I turn it up until he nods. He shouts until the neighbors pound on the walls.
I turn the music down and make a bird, another dragon, and something that was supposed to be an elephant. A baby's wail creeps in through the plaster followed by the muted tones of an argument.
"Can you put that one on the nightstand?" he asks, his voice scratchy and dry, nodding toward the not-elephant. "That's my new favorite."
"But it doesn't look like anything."
He smiles, the first smile I've seen in weeks. "It does to me."
I put it next to the alarm clock.
The rest of his hands are gone. His wrists, too.
"Please don't forget about me," he whispers.
I wonder if there's another room somewhere, with someone like me, waiting. And another, like Johnny, going away.
I hold in my tears and pour my sorrow into a paper crane the color of a summer sky.
A week later, his arms vanish. He doesn't shout. He doesn't say a word. Instead, the silence hovers, a sharpened guillotine waiting to strike.
I make another elephant; this one turns out perfect. I unfold it, rip up the paper, and throw the pieces away before Johnny can see.
When there's nothing below his waist but air heavy with the scent of char, I sit in bed and he rests his head on my lap. I play with his hair and run my fingertips across his eyebrows. There's a knot inside my chest; with every passing moment, it twists a little more.
"I'm afraid," he whispers. "There won't be anything left to bury or burn. It'll be like I was never here. Say you'll remember me. Swear it."
"I won't ever forget you. I promise I won't."
"Can I have the elephant?"
I set it on his chest.
After Johnny falls asleep, I touch the empty space where the rest of his body should be. The knot inside coils tighter. I stay awake for hours turning paper into shapes while the not-elephant moves up and down as he breathes.
"Zou-san, zou-san," I sing, keeping my voice feather soft. The words are part of a song my mother sang to me when my fingers were still too chubby to make paper animals.
But I cannot remember the rest, no matter how hard I try.
When the end comes, it happens fast. I sit by his side, talking about nothing until a lump in my throat steals my voice away. I kiss his forehead, and he closes his eyes against the pain. The air shimmers like crushed pearls caught in moonlight.
"I love you, Johnny," I say, but he's already gone.
His voice whispers from the weightless spot beside me. "It doesn't hurt anymore."
Then that, too, disappears.
And all the paper animals, the stupid folded pieces of paper that mean nothing, nothing, watch from the windowsills.
With heavy steps, I go from room to room, stuffing them by the handful into a bag. Even through the bag, I feel the weight of their gaze, straining to break free.
But I know how to make them stop.
I carry the bag down to the bridge where Johnny and I shared our first kiss, the best kiss. The river underneath, brownish-green in the fading light, rushes by; the muddy stink crawls inside my mouth and lingers in the back of my throat.
As the sun sets, I throw the paper animals into the water one by one. They bob on the surface, turning end over end, bright specks of color in the fading light, until the water swallows them whole. The blue crane, with its secret heart of sorrow, is the last one to drop out of sight.
I drop the bag, and the not-elephant tumbles out onto the ground. The air rushes out of my lungs; everything turns to a blur. I cover my eyes to hold in the tears, but they won't stay inside. I can't make them stay.
The not-elephant still holds a trace of Johnny's smell, his real scent, not the stink of his illness. I cradle it to my chest, rocking back and forth while all the hurt he left behind spills out.
There isn't enough paper in the world to make it go away.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, October 25th, 2011
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