The Trouble with Paper Planes
(c) Amanda Dick
Outside my world, the rain fell from concrete-coloured skies. Inside, I stood in the bathroom, staring at a face I didn’t recognise. My own.
The girl in the mirror stared back at me, silently taunting me. She looked like something out of a horror movie. Pallid skin, blue-tinged lips, hollow eyes. An ugly purple and blue bruise crawled up her cheekbone and spread like a disease up one side of her forehead. Her hair was gone, shaved clean off, with a ragged scar cutting a raised, red path across her scalp.
She held the secrets of my past somewhere inside her head, I know she did – if only I could crack the code and get her to talk. Panic whirled inside of me, setting fire to my insides.
The bright, white light above the bathroom mirror illuminated the fear in her eyes. My eyes. I was a floating head, disconnected from the rest of the world.
I wanted to scream, but I’d done that yesterday and it hadn’t made any difference. The longer I stared at her, the more separated from her I felt. I talked to her as if she was someone else. I pleaded with her silently, but it didn’t do any good. She held all the knowledge I craved inside her head, but she wasn’t saying anything.
It didn’t help that each day, she looked a little different. Her wounds were healing. Every time I looked at her in the mirror, something had changed. She was a watercolour, melting in the rain. Every day that passed left another drop of water behind, obliterating a feature. The bruising was less obvious. The scar wasn’t quite so red. The one constant seemed to be the eyes. They showed the fear inside, and that wasn’t diminishing.
Somewhere in the distance, there was crying. Someone rushed past my room, calling out instructions in a calm, measured voice. A meal would arrive soon, brought in on a spotless, white tray. Everything is orderly and pristine here, even the food.
I have no idea how long I’ve been here. The days and nights seem to have blended into each other until time was immaterial. I was here. Whoever ‘I’ was.
People came and went. I have learnt to be grateful for the simple things. A clean bed with crisp, white sheets. A kind word. A view over the car park from the window of my room. Three meals a day.
I had everything I needed to be physically sustained, yet the one thing I craved was denied me.
Instead, I was a question mark. A Jane Doe. A puzzle without all the pieces. A mystery no one had solved.
And the worst part was, I felt it.
I could feel the missing pieces, buzzing around just outside of my grasp. I reached for them, grabbing nothing but empty air. I floated on a sea of whats and whys, hows and whos. The questions were like post-it notes, pinned to a large, black board that separated my past from my present. The frustration was beginning to settle in my bones like a virus, gnawing away at me. I felt like an interloper, an intruder. I had a nagging feeling, clawing away at me from deep inside, that I was meant to be somewhere else.
But where? What’s my name? How old am I? Where do I live? How did I get that scar on my scalp?
The void was impenetrable. Insurmountable. Absolute.
The harder I tried to remember, the more it hurt. The pain was more than physical, it reached down deep into my soul, hollowing me out. I felt like a shadow, half a person, here but not here. My reality was like a nightmare.
They told me to relax, but how could I?
I had to try, had to reach, had to pick away at the scab that had formed over my memory. How else would I get any answers? How could I not try to break down that wall in my mind that separated the self of before from the self of right now?
I stared harder at the face in the mirror, willing some ray of light to shine out of the darkness. Give me something, anything. A name. A place. A memory, even a small one.
But there was nothing.
Why can’t I remember where I was born, yet I can remember how to use a knife and fork? How can I not remember my name, yet I can remember how to read? Why don’t I remember how old I am, yet I can remember I don’t like cucumber?
I studied my hands, front and back (short nails, long fingers). I was of average height, if comparisons were anything to go by. My eyes were hazel, but more brown than green. I had no tattoos, no other scars except for the fresh railroad track across my scalp. No moles, no birthmarks - no distinguishing marks at all, anywhere. I could roll my tongue to make an ‘o’ shape.
The list of things I knew about myself was pitifully short, limited only to what I could see.
I could feel myself tipping over the edge again. My head throbbed as I drew in a slow breath, exhaling through my teeth. I would try again tomorrow, just like I had tried yesterday and today. The answers to all my questions had to be out there, somewhere.
I turned off the light above the mirror and climbed back into bed, exhausted. I pulled the sheet up taut under my breasts and folded my arms across it, trying to barricade myself in. I needed to keep it together, somehow.
Rain battered against the window outside. Beyond the glass, the day was grey and cold, but inside it was neither one thing nor the other. I wasn’t cold, I wasn’t hot. I was lost.
Why wasn’t anyone looking for me?
Some days, the world just seemed brighter, as if the celestial colour had been turned up on some divine menu setting. Shades were deeper, saturation set to maximum, shadows almost gone. Today was one such day.
The sun hovered just above the horizon, turning everything it touched to gold. It was almost magical, the way it set fire to the sky. Seagulls circled slowly overhead, calling to each other with cries that sounded vaguely human as they rebounded off the surrounding hills and down over the water. The offshore wind drew the waves towards the beach evenly, each one perfectly formed, pristine, idyllic. On a morning like this, it was almost as if everything was right with the world.
Out back, beyond the breakers, my board and I dipped and rose on the surface of the warm water as one. The tranquillity washed over me, around me, through me. Giving in to temptation, I closed my eyes and offered up my fears and doubts to the universe, just like Dad had taught me years before.
At this time of day, those of us out on the water shared a mutual respect for the serenity. There was the odd holler or shout as someone wiped out or bailed, but mostly we were quiet, careful not to upset the balance. A school of surfers, waiting patiently for the ideal conditions.
The water undulated beneath me, as if an imaginary hand were pushing it towards me in a giant bathtub. I thought I could feel the planet breathing.
Up, down. In, out.
I could almost taste the possibility in the air, hiding amid the feathery breeze, alive with salt and sand.
Reluctantly, I tore myself back to the present, opening my eyes. Glancing out over the line-up, I watched Vinnie, a few metres from me, with Marlow and Joel further out. We’d been coming out here since we were kids. Sometimes, it felt as if some of us still were.
The youngest out of all of us by just over a year, Marlow grinned and jerked his head behind him. I watched the swell gently rise and fall. My heart began to race as I lay down on my board and began slowly digging through the water, paddling towards the beach. I could feel the wave bearing down on me from behind and adrenaline fired through my system, setting fire to every nerve-ending in my body. This was what it was all about. The buzz, the rush, the thrill of going one-on-one with the power of nature.
Here we go.
An hour later, Vinnie and I reluctantly loaded our boards into the back of my Ford Courier.
“So, you’re all good for tomorrow night, right?” he asked.
I climbed into the driver’s seat, pulling the door shut. “Why? What’s happening tomorrow night?”
For a moment, Vinnie was speechless, and I tried desperately to keep the smile off my face, gunning the engine.
“Bastard,” he mumbled under his breath, climbing in and slamming the door shut.
“Yo! Later, brothers Danes!”
I threw a quick wave as Marlow pulled a handbrake turn, he and Joel disappearing in a cloud of dust, back into town.
“So?” Vinnie prodded.
His birthday party had been planned for weeks. Jas had taken care of every little detail – invitations, food, venue – even theme. Bloody theme party, costumes and all. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been to a costume party. Seemed a little juvenile for a thirtieth, but it wasn’t my place to say. Jas was a force to be reckoned with, especially when she was eight and a half months pregnant. Planning this thing had kept her busy, and at this time of year, busy was good. I knew that, better than anybody.
I tried to weasel my way out of the costume deal, but she wasn’t having it. No costume, no entry. I didn’t think Vinnie could’ve given a shit either way, but they were sticking together on this, just like they did on everything. Individually, they were difficult. Together, they were unstoppable. So I’d thrown something together to get them both off my back. At least they couldn’t say I hadn’t tried.
We climbed up the gravel road, away from the beach and back to the real world.
“Chillax big brother, I’ll be there,” I said, putting him out of his misery.
“Will you really? Because you said that last year, remember?”
Long memories. That’s what the Danes family were blessed – or cursed – with, depending on which way you chose to look at it. I ignored the jibe and kept my eyes on the road.
“It’s your thirtieth, dude, of course I’ll be there. Promise.”
“Yeah well, you better be. I’m serious – I’m counting on you, bro. Last year’s stunt was a one-off. I’m not asking, I’m telling. Her blood pressure’s borderline as it is, she doesn’t need any added stress and neither do I. Besides that, she’s spent weeks pulling this thing together. For God’s sake, don’t do your patented disappearing act again, okay? I want you where I can see you this time.”
I threw him a filthy look as we rounded a sharp bend. Still babysitting me, after all these years. Just because he’d been practically parenting me since he was a kid himself, didn’t make it acceptable, no matter what time of year it was.
“Dude, come on. You’re shredding the vibe. What’s the point of a sunrise surf if you’re just gonna pick a fight straight after?”
“I’m not trying to pick a fight.”
“Really? Sounds like you are. And while we’re at it, I’m not ten years old anymore. You don’t need to keep an eye on me. The real baby will be here in a few weeks, just hold off till then.”
I switched on the radio in an attempt to fill the heavy silence. I was trying here – really trying. He should see that and cut me some slack. I just wanted to get through the next few days without any dramas. I didn’t think that was too much to ask. I glanced over at him, hoping he’d taken the hint, but it was obvious he was desperate to have it out with me. He had that look on his face. Christ, he was getting more and more like Dad every day. Maybe it was in the job description.
“Okay, I gotta say this,” he said finally, proving me right.
Damn it. I sucked it up, pulled it down deep inside and let him go for it. It was the only way.
“I’m trying not to sound like a prick here. I know this is tough, we’re all feeling it. Shit, if I could change my own birthday, I would, but I can’t and we need to move on. It’s been five years, and I don’t know what your gut tells you, but mine tells me she’s gone.”
My palms were getting sweaty. I didn’t want to do this, not now. Not ever, actually.
“I’m saying this because you’re my brother and I love you.” He was looking at me, but I refused to take my eyes off the road. I heard the words even before he said them out loud. “You can’t spend the rest of your life in limbo, dude. You need to let her go.”
My heart wanted to leap out of my chest, I could feel it straining beneath my ribcage. Like a kid, I wanted to make him take it back, all of it. What the hell did he know? He had Jas and a baby on the way. All I had was an empty house and an extra toothbrush in the bathroom.
This was bullshit. I was being ambushed, I could feel it. Was it something he and Jas had cooked up together? A little heart-to-heart, right before the party?
“Just think about it, okay? I know it hurts –“
I took the next bend a little too fast, taking marginal satisfaction from the fact that he had to grab for the dashboard to keep his balance.
“Right,” he mumbled. “Well, apparently we’re not talking about this. Just remember that it’s my birthday too, not just Em’s. Just because she’s not here to celebrate it with us, doesn’t mean we stop celebrating altogether. Life goes on.”
Yeah, life goes on. People come, people go. Get over it.
This wasn’t the first time I’d heard this speech. He was like a broken record lately. I wanted to snap out one of my usual retorts – any one of them would do.
She’s not dead, she’s just missing.
Until there’s a body, there’s still a chance.
Five years is a drop in the ocean – legally, she’s still alive.
I was starting to sound like a broken record even to myself. I’d begun to wonder who I was trying to convince. I couldn’t muster up the energy for another argument about this, not right now.
We followed the main road back into Raglan in silence. When I pulled into Vinnie’s driveway a short time later, he dug his phone and his keys out of the glove-box.
“So what’s on the agenda today?” he asked.
He’d been doing that for the past week. I felt like he had me on suicide watch. It was completely uncalled for and it was making me claustrophobic. And short-tempered.
“You’re doing it again.”
He looked over at me blankly.
“I’m twenty-eight. I don’t need babysitting.”
“For Christ’s sake,” he snapped, throwing open the door. “I’m not allowed to give a shit now?”
He had this innate sense of how to make me feel like crap. And once again, it worked. It wasn’t his fault – I knew that. I knew how much he wanted to fix this, to take away the ache in my soul, but there were some things that were outside his capabilities. He wasn’t Batman, even though he used to act like it when we were kids. This grief, this pain, this almost unbearable yearning was mine, and it was one of the few things I couldn’t really share with him.
“I’ve got two jobs in town this morning,” I said, by way of an apology. “One this afternoon, on the peninsula. Should be done by three, then I’m heading over to Henry’s.”
“See – that wasn’t so hard was it?” He flashed me a lop-sided smile as he climbed out of the truck, slamming the door after him.
That was one of the things I loved about him. He didn’t hold a grudge. Truthfully, he was one of the most laid-back human beings I’d ever met. If we didn’t look so much alike, I’d wonder if one of us was adopted. Unfortunately, we both looked a lot like Dad, so there was no mistaking our lineage. Olive skin with light blue eyes that seemed out of kilter with our skin tone. Short, light brown hair. Both of us over six feet tall. He was two years older, but sometimes it felt like the other way around. He was relaxed, loved to play the fool, was fiercely protective – just like Dad. I was more like Mum. Serious, sensible, far too deep for my own good, especially lately.
I leant on the back of the seat and watched through the back window as he grabbed his surfboard off the deck of the truck and came back alongside the passenger window.
“Flick me a text when you leave Henry’s. Jas has some baby shower shit going on and I need to make myself scarce. If it’s not the baby shower, it’s the damn party lately. It’s doing my freakin’ head in, hearing about it all day, every day. I just wanted something quiet, y’know? Beer, food, music.”
I could sympathise. He was a man of simple tastes, always had been. Right now, though, I’d have given anything to be organising a birthday party like this for Em. Being around the two of them was sometimes bittersweet. They were about to become a proper family, and I was as jealous as hell.
“Meet you at the pub?” Vinnie asked.
He tapped the truck’s roof and started down the driveway, surfboard under his arm. Then he paused, turned around and came back.
“Sorry if I came on a bit strong before,” he said, leaning in the driver’s window.
He didn’t hold grudges, and he was always quick with an apology if he’d overstepped the mark. Another difference between us. I was jealous of him for a lot of reasons.
“I miss her too, y’know. We all do.”
I knew a lot of things. I knew that I didn’t have the monopoly on heartache. I knew that this time of year was tough. I knew that sometime over the next two days, I was probably gonna go into the spare bedroom wardrobe, get out the box full of photos I’d hidden in there and cry like a baby.
"This did have an otherworldly feel to it so if you go into The Trouble With Paper Planes with an open mind and an open heart you'll be rewarded with a beautifully written, deeply moving and unforgettable story that will seize your heart. We can't stop thinking about this one and find ourselves constantly reliving the significant moments that will stay with us for a long time to come." - Totally Booked Blog - 16 July 2015
"It has been at least twelve hours since I finished The Trouble with Paper Planes and the feelings conjured up by the book are still lingering. I thought I would let my feelings settle overnight and then maybe I would be able to write a review that covers the all consuming emotions brought about by this unique story. I’ve found it to be extremely difficult to put into coherent sentences, a book that takes you on a journey so profound that the characters and story line infiltrate your every thought." - Beaute' de Livres (Beauty of Books) - 29 November 2015