My friend Stephen died when I was five. I scarcely have real memories of him left. He was overweight and had curly brown hair. We used to play Power Rangers together, and he was gentle and feminine in his make-believe. There were paper cranes at the funeral—I remember unfolding one in my lap while adults took turns making ugly, unrelenting noises over the coffin. The origami paper was vivid and shiny on the outside but dull on the side that folded inward. The paper softened in my sweaty palms, and I felt an impulse to dissolve it in my fist.
My mom cried all day when she found out about his death, somehow managing to avoid me in our small one-story house. She was on and off the phone, murmuring quiet horrors to friends whose responses only made her cry more. I was afraid to find out what had upset her and therefore kept to myself, marching toys up and down the pink stairs of my dollhouse. By evening, she must have known she couldn’t avoid me any longer. We sat knee to knee on the rug. I remember her hand in my hair.
When she said his name, I thought she meant Steven with a V, a boy in my kindergarten class who I had a big, oozing crush on. I collapsed into tears, stunned by the knowledge that someone my age—someone I was “in love” with—could be gone. My family was not religious, and I understood that gone meant gone. I don’t know exactly what Mom said next, but whatever it was, it made me realize my misunderstanding. I stopped crying for a moment as I processed this new loss. And then I felt something awful: relief.
Stephen had croup, an infection of the upper airway that obstructs breathing and causes fever and a hoarse, barking cough. It’s not uncommon—I even had it several times as a child—and it’s usually not serious enough to require hospital care. Of course, there are always exceptions. His parents called the hospital and a doctor told them to run a hot shower to break up the mucus in his lungs and ease his breathing. He died there, gasping under running water, before the ambulance had time to arrive.
I chose not to think about Stephen for a long time after he died, which might be why I have so few memories of him. I couldn’t admit to the awful sense of relief I’d felt in that moment. My mourning did not fold itself into any recognizable shapes; I made no ridiculous grief sounds and I convinced myself that, despite my mother’s gentle pressing, I didn’t need to talk about it.
A crane from his funeral still hangs above our dining room window. It’s made of metallic purple paper, which catches the morning sun, scattering tiny bright points across the floor. Sometimes, in the summers, I would lay there on my back and watch the freckles of light play over my warm skin.
I called Mom today to make sure I had the details of his death straight. She’s had to re-explain it to me several times and I still get it wrong. There’s only so much you can piece together—the rest is all associative invention. I’ve always remembered him as having drowned in the bathtub, but he died standing up in the shower.
After we hung up, I cut a loose sheet of paper into a square and pulled up instructions on how to fold a paper crane. I folded two symmetrical triangles inward, one for the tail and one for the head, then bent the latter at a slight angle to create the beak. I gently pulled the wings down on either side. I turned the crane on its back and pressed my lips to the belly, where the folds had created a small pocket, and filled its fragile body with oxygen and with life.
A Philadelphia native, Kira K. Homsher is currently an MFA candidate at Virginia Tech. The winner of Phoebe Journal’s 2020 nonfiction contest, she was a finalist in CRAFT’s 2020 & 2019 flash fiction contests and has been nominated for the Shirley Jackson Awards and Best Small Fictions. Her writing also appears or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, DIAGRAM, Passages North, X-R-A-Y Lit, and others. She is working on her first short story collection. You can find her at kirahomsher.com and tweeting @bogcritter.