Of Paper and Cranes

a short story by Kay McKenzie

The story begins with a note. One finger, the nail bitten badly, presses down onto cool ivory. The hammer falls onto string: graceful, clear and unmistakable. The sound seems to possess her and she plays another note, fuelled by the silence in her mind. And another and another. Note after note, she plays. There is a little hesitation – her skill makes her nervous – but she needs everything to stop. Kimble closes her eyes. The sheet music lies forgotten like ill-suited drawings from another kind. A little lost in this world, she plays as though she shouldn’t be here. Not lost, then, but hiding. Retreating even.

Then there is silence. The boy listening from outside the door gathers his things and leaps away from the door. Kimble exits the practice room with her face bent to the ground, hands dug into the pockets of her blazer.

“Hey, Kimble,” he says, ultra-casual.

Kimble spares him a glance. “RJ.”

“So,” RJ begins, and he babbles on. Kimble listens just enough to ask questions when he loses momentum. In her head, the music turns around and around.

“What were you playing today?” RJ asks, gazing at her.

Kimble takes off her glasses to rub her eyes. “Yiruma. His music is so peaceful.” Her lips twitch in the smallest of smiles as she repositions her glasses.

RJ grins at her and they walk to the bus stop together.

Kimble wrings her hands and chews her nails almost to the quick. Her blond hair is bland and there are slight shadows beneath her clear grey eyes. When she wakes up in the morning, she doesn’t really greet the sun with the kind of enthusiasm she needs to get through the day. But she looks out the window. It’s a religion to her. As though the pages of the bible were transcribed on the glass where only she could see them.

At breakfast her family is quiet but for the small chimes of cutlery on porcelain.

Her sister picks at her food. The cannula weighs down her small face. Everywhere she goes, the persistent squeal of her oxygen tank’s wheels accompany her. It seems like the worst kind of loneliness.

Their father is absent, already left for work; their mother is clean and organised, lunches on the kitchen counter and dishes already drying on the rack by the sink.

Kimble is silent. She could have skipped breakfast—eating alone is miserable. She steps carefully, avoiding her family as she leaves for school. The front seat of the bus is her place, where she patiently peers through the window.

Kimble hasn’t been in her sister’s room in a year. She can’t help flinching as she passes by. The door has been left ajar. A soft light flows across the dull pink carpet in the hall. Kimble nudges the door open with the back of her hand and looks inside, feeling like an intruder.

Her sister lies in the bed swaddled in sheets and blankets. Her belongings have been shoved to the side of her desk, replaced by a large machine called a BiPAP. There are so many wires and tubes; they look like vines, reaching and squeezing. They seem more deadly than the thing inside her.

And all around her are paper cranes. They decorate the walls and hang in chains from the ceiling, commandeer the shelves of her bookcase and swarm the corners of her room.

Kimble notices the paper cuts on her sister’s hands. Hurrying out of the room and down the hall, she retrieves bandages and ointment. Her sister clears a space for her on the bed and lays her limp hands on Kimble’s lap. They have changed so much from hands that used to play the violin with a feverish passion.

Kimble tries not to feel helpless; every move she makes to clean her sister up is slow and deliberate. Absorbed in her thoughts, she feels angry and sad. It’s too hard to look at her let alone be with her anymore. It’s terrible how much she hates her sister. There’s nothing she can do for her. Nothing she can do for her parents. She is the only one left. Her sister took everything from her, even herself. But can she even blame her? It’s stupid to hope for anything more than what already is.

It takes twenty minutes to clean and bandage her sister’s wounds, during which neither girl says a thing. Her sister is happy just for the closeness.

When Kimble goes to leave, her sister says quietly, “There are six hundred and thirty-eight.”

Kimble looks at her sister in her big bed, surrounded by machines with blinking lights and paper cranes. She raises her eyebrows.

“Will you help me make a thousand?”

Kimble leaves without a word.

In the lounge room, the heater is on and the air is stifling and heavy. Kimble’s homework lies on the coffee table. She flips through channels on the television, dismissing each option too quickly.

Her mother bustles around, setting up the oxygen tank and arranging pillows and blankets for Kimble’s sister.

With one look, Kimble relinquishes the remote to her mother, who passes it to her sister. They settle on a rerun of ‘Friends’. Kimble sighs and picks up her homework.

The hallway is dark. Kimble shuts the lights off and the piano room is shrouded in darkness but for the faint light from the street light outside the window. Everyone is in their rooms preparing for bed or already asleep.

Halfway down the hall Kimble hears a scuffle. It’s coming from the study. As she approaches, she realises the door is open but the room remains unlit. Apprehensive, she stands just out of sight and peeks inside. There is her sister, in a short skirt and puffy ponytail, trying her best to open the window as quietly as possible. Kimble watches as she lifts up the oxygen tank in its carton(?) and places it on the ground outside the window, then crawls through after it.

Outside, a figure approaches and helps her into the waiting car. They drive away and Kimble considers telling her parents. No. This is not her problem.

RJ’s mother fixes a plate of cheese and biscuits and sets it in front of Kimble.

“Would you like a glass of milk?” she asks.

Kimble thinks that is an unpleasant combination. “No, thank you, Mrs Cummings.” She reaches forward and picks up a slice of cheese; the cheese crumbles in her hands and she licks the crumbs off her fingers. The biscuits lay forgotten.

RJ’s mother bustles around the counter and takes her frilly apron off before sitting on the stool next to Kimble. The look on her face is far too concerned.

“How is your sister, Kimble? Any good news?” RJ’s mother glances through the window at Kimble’s house across the road.

Kimble scowls at her hands. “Nothing has changed.”

“If she continues like this, they will probably move her to the hospital,” RJ’s mother remarks.

Who are “they”? Is it her parents or the doctors or someone else entirely? Something else. If this what God wanted, Kimble couldn’t understand why He’d allowed her sister to be born in the first place. But everyone dies. Our destiny is to die. It just happened to be much sooner and more painful for Kimble’s sister.

In her room, Kimble stares out the window. This is as close as she will ever come to praying. Outside RJ plays basketball. Kimble focuses on the rhythm of the ball smacking the ground. Her fingers twitch.

Then comes a new sound. Quiet fingers strumming a well-cared-for guitar. A husky voice hums.

It’s Kimble’s father.

Kimble balances on the moment, savouring this new sound like some form of epiphany. She clutches it tightly, holding it close, memorising it. She vows to keep it secret, this moment between her and her father, even though he will never know she was there.

Glass shatters, the sound of it slicing through the cloud in Kimble’s mind. Her fingers pause over the piano keys. She hears a cough. And then another, more vicious than before. In the bathroom she finds her sister on her hands and knees, blood sprayed across the white tiles beneath her. The jagged pieces of glass mix with dried flower petals and decorate the tiles; blood and perfume fill the air, the scent putrid.

Kimble is frozen.

Her sister draws the back of her hand across her mouth, smearing pink lipstick, teeth stained red with blood. Another round of harsh coughs tear through her. She wraps her arms around her middle, blood dribbles down her chin.

Kimble dashes down the hall and calls for her mother who dials triple-zero. The ambulance arrives swiftly. The paramedics are proficient and the sick girl is quickly loaded onto a gurney. Kimble’s mother keeps pace with the group while Kimble blindly follows. A concerto plays in her head, the same phrase of music over and over. She can’t get it out.

Somehow she finds herself beside her sister in the ambulance. Her mother has gone to collect her father from work and will meet them at the hospital. One hand tightly grasped and slick with sweat, the other drumming imaginary piano keys on her thigh. Paramedics rush to keep her alive and all Kimble wants to do is let go.

“She’s dead anyway!” Kimble screams at the walls. Her bloody fingers scramble with the paper, folding and transforming. Birds surround her. A sea of them. A swarm. Some with crushed wings and broken necks, others smeared with blood from the cuts on her fingers.

She continues furiously. She has lost count. It doesn’t matter. Her sister died the day she woke up in hospital. The day the doctors said she had cancer.

Notes erupt, flow forth in a siege of noise. Her fingers contort, dried blood cakes into the cracks. The ivory keys are no longer white. Her hands hurt but she can’t stop. This isn’t Yiruma. This is not peaceful. This is purgatory.

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