He was unremarkable in every way.
He wasn’t particularly tall or particularly short. He wasn’t particularly fat or particularly thin. In high school, while everybody in his class said their name and a fun fact, he didn’t. He never got the chance. They had forgotten about him. If they had remembered him, though, they would have heard something worth mentioning.
He could never finish anything.
When he was little, his mother knew something was wrong with him. When it was time for him to learn how to tie his shoes, he would tie one up perfectly but leave the other one untouched. When it was time to learn the alphabet, he would always stop at “Q.” When it was time to eat dinner, though he loved his mother’s cooking, he’d always leave half of his plate uneaten.
His mother tried to remedy the situation but after taking him to doctors, therapists, psychiatrists, priests, and even one mystic, nobody could fix her little boy. So, she decided to do what any sane single mother would’ve done much earlier: learn to live with it.
As much as he wanted to hate his mom for making him miss his last two years of elementary school to meet with “experts,” he couldn’t. He loved his mom. Even though it was just the two of them at home, with nothing like family members or friends to comfort them, they still got by. His mother worked a job at the hardware store to support the two of them and had been doing so for as long as he remembered (probably accruing promotions or pay raises along the way but he was never present enough to know).
When he was a small child, since they couldn’t afford a sitter, his mom was left with no choice and had to leave him home alone.
“If anything goes wrong, anything at all, just take the phone and dial 9-1-1, okay?” She said that to him every morning before leaving for work. He didn’t know anybody’s phone number, not even their own, but he always knew what to dial if trouble arose. That phone of theirs was always close by, watching over him.
Later, when he was older, his mother would always ask, “How was school? Did you finish anything today?” He gave the same answer every time but appreciated the question nonetheless.
“That’s okay, honey. Let’s get you cleaned up for dinner, okay?” She would then fix two plates of her homemade chicken salad sandwiches, a favorite of his. The bread was always warm and flaky while the chicken salad was always smooth and cold to the touch. He always loved the feeling of the two conflicting parts meeting together in his mouth, like they were going to war.
After getting through about half of it, his mom would clear the table and they’d do homework together. He didn’t consider this to be cheating because, in his mind, it’s not like he didn’t know how to do the rest of the work, he just couldn’t bring himself to do it.
When the homework was all done, his mom would hand him a book, any book. Some days it would be something long-winded, tougher. Sometimes it was just something easy, maybe something for kids. While he sat there at the kitchen table with a book in his hand, his mom would have one too. But, the books wouldn’t change like his did. She always sat down and read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes from cover to cover. When he asked his mom why she always read that book, she said, “It has a happy ending. It’s hopeful. It’s real.” He tried to read it a couple times but, like always, had to take her word for it.
After the two were through with reading, his mother would put the books away, stare up at the clock that loomed over them in the kitchen, and look at the time.
“Oh wow, look how late it is.” She would say, even though, at this point in their routine, it would always be the same time, 8:42 PM.
His mother would then take out a number of jigsaw puzzles, most of them so worn-out that the pieces were missing sides. The two would then work on puzzles independently for an hour, in the hopes that one day, out of nowhere, something would click in his mind.
This routine continued through elementary school, middle school, and even high school. The mother and son duo were inseparable. It was a plain life to live but neither of them complained. It was their life and they were content.
Though, things changed.
“I need to tell you something,” she whispered after helping him blow out the 18 candles on his cake. “I went to the doctor’s today. They found a tumor. It looks bad.” She cut the cake and handed him the first slice, trying to act as normal as possible. “You’re going to have to learn how to do things on your own now, okay?”
Quickly and quietly, his world had changed.
He stared at his piece of cake as it slowly melted, not uttering a word. As the chocolate and vanilla blended together to form a brown pool on his plate, his mother sat there with a pile of printing paper and a Sharpie. She sat there staring at the pile for fifteen minutes before finally beginning her work. She began to fold, numbering each one as she went along.
He wanted to ask her what she was doing and if she needed any help but, without having to say anything, his mother handed him the marker.
“You wanna help?” she asked.
He nodded in agreement.
“All you have to do is number each one. Simple, right?” It did seem simple, he thought, simple enough for him to wonder if he was actually helping her.
“We need to make a thousand of these,” she said. “You know I never could make a paper crane, just too confusing. Paper airplanes should be just as good. If we can make 1,000 paper airplanes, everything will be okay.” As she finished her sentence, tears came to her eyes and dripped onto some of the papers. She wiped them away quickly, before he could notice.
For the rest of the night, the mother and son duo diligently made as many airplanes as they could. By the end of their night, they had finished 125.
From then on, the two would wake up early in the morning, have breakfast, and continue on their journey to 1,000 paper planes. While they were meticulously folding and numbering, the two wouldn’t say much to each other. The silence probably would’ve felt nerve-wracking, if they had noticed it at all. When it was time to make the airplanes, they no longer thought of anything else besides their goal.
As the days went on, the airplane count increased at a steady pace. 125 turned into 250, 250 into 335, 335 into 425, and 425 into 500. However, after their first week, something changed. He didn’t see it but, looking back, he wished he did.
In his mind, the two worked well together, moving through the paper airplanes at an astounding pace. But, in reality, his mother started to lose stamina. She was no longer able to sit at the table for very long without having to take an extended break. Instead of being able to do at least 100 planes a day, they’d be lucky to finish 50. He didn’t notice any of this. All he thought about was numbering the planes and finishing the job, for his mother. At the time, in a way, he felt happy.
After about two and a half weeks, they reached 970 airplanes and were in the final stretch. He could feel how close he was and, for the first time in his life, he felt like he could actually finish something. Once he finished, he thought, everything would be alright, just like his mother said.
He was so excited that, when it came to finish the last thirty planes, he decided to wake up two hours earlier than usual. He sprung out of bed, got ready in a hurry, and sat down in his usual spot at the table, waiting patiently for his mother to start the day’s work.
She never came.
The doctors told him the details of his mother’s death but he wasn’t all there to listen. He just nodded along to what was being said, trying to get through it as quickly as possible. The funeral went by in a similar fashion. People walked in that he didn’t recognize, said the things you’re supposed to say, and left before you saw them too often. In a time of supposed healing and remembrance, he experienced nothing of the sort. All he could do was sit in his kitchen, in that usual spot, and stare at the paper airplanes left unfinished. It happened again, he thought, it’s my fault.
After the formality of death was over, he was left with the house and the money she had managed to earn but, to him, there was nothing.
On the morning after the funeral, when he finally opened his eyes and wiped the crust off of them, he sat up. He looked around the room, at his empty desk with a broken lamp, at his closet with three of the same shirt, and at his television that hadn’t been turned on in a couple of months. He looked at all of this over and over again, moving his eyes from one side of the room to the other, searching for something, anything.
Walking through the living room and through the kitchen, he desperately continued his search, but didn’t find what he was looking for. This sterile feeling that overwhelmed him made him feel uneasy. He could no longer picture this place, this strange and impersonal place, as a home. There were no tchotchkes to play with, no pictures to look at, no memories to cherish. The only thing that remained in this house, void of emotion or connection, were the 970 paper airplanes sitting on the kitchen table. He couldn’t bear to look at them for very long.
After a tour of the house he no longer recognized, he went back to his room and stayed in bed. It didn’t matter to him if he was sleepy, smelly, tired, or hungry; he just wanted to stay in bed, so he did, thinking of nothing in particular and sipping water for as long as he could stand it. In his mind, he couldn’t be bothered anymore.
He finally reached his breaking point on the third day, when thinking of nothing in particular became impossible over the sound of his stomach. He went back to the kitchen in search for food, even though he knew there would be nothing there for him. Searching through everything, he kept opening and closing the doors to the pantry and the fridge, as if doing so would make any difference. He knew of a convenience store was around the corner so, for the first time in days, he left his house.
The outside world hadn’t really changed, he thought to himself. After a couple minutes of walking, which felt like eternities for the man who had recently acted more like a vegetable than a person, he reached his destination.
He walked around the store for a bit before something finally caught his eye, a chicken salad sandwich. As he handed the sales clerk the sandwich, the woman at the cash register looked up and asked,
“Cash or credit?”
He took out his wallet, fumbled it around until it fell on the counter, coins and poorly placed cards flew everywhere.
The woman started to give back the cards when she saw the name on his I.D. and looked up.
“Like mother, like son, I guess,” she chuckled.
He had never seen her before, he thought.
“Here,” she handed him back his credit card and the sandwich, “it’s on the house. They’re shuttin’ us down tonight anyway, for good this time. Say hi to your mom for me, though. She’ll know who I am.”
When he returned, he sat down at his kitchen table, moved the airplanes to the side, and started to eat. As he took his first bite, he immediately recognized what it was. He recognized the warm and flaky bread. He recognized the smooth chicken salad, cold to the touch, like it always was. He felt the war in his mouth for the first time in a long time, the battle of the flavors and textures duking it out for supremacy. He had been eating this for years and could never forget the taste. He knew exactly what that was. He continued to chew through his half of the sandwich, with half a smile on his face and tears in his eyes.
He stayed still in his chair, staring at the thirty remaining pieces of paper on the kitchen table. I should’ve finished faster, he thought, it would’ve all been alright, just like she said. For weeks, he could never shake this feeling that he had let her down. Can you get a tumor from stress, he asked himself. Maybe if I was a little more normal, he kept thinking. His eyes moved from the table, to the airplanes, to his empty living room, and back to the airplanes.
He reached for his sandwich plate and started to get up, as if he were just clearing the table, like any normal day. But, this time, he summoned all of his energy and threw his dish, breaking it into a million tiny pieces, his uneaten half sandwich flying everywhere. He wanted to scream, or shout, or yell, or shriek, or something, anything, but he couldn’t. He sat back down, starting straight down at the floor.
When he finally looked up, he saw the 970 airplanes his mother worked so hard on, that he worked so hard on. Then, he reached over to the pile of papers in the middle of the table and started folding. He had never actually folded a paper airplane himself but he had seen his mother do it enough times that he was able reproduce a mediocre one if he tried. He didn’t intend to make anymore but, after he made one airplane, he made another and another and another.
Before long, he had reached the final paper in the stack, number 1,000. He took a deep breath, grabbed the paper quickly, and folded it to the best of his abilities, before placing it along with the rest of the airplanes.
He stood up from his usual spot and stared at the 1,000 paper airplanes sprawled across the large kitchen table.
He felt good, at least a little. A calm rush draped over him, as if his mother had come back and started to read books with him again. He looked again at his paper airplanes. He could tell which ones he made and which ones his mother made, not just from the numbering, but from the quality of the planes. She was real good at making them, he thought.
As he looked around his home again, he felt how empty it all was, how drab it all felt. But, this time, he noticed the bookshelf his mom maintained. He saw the house phone on top of it all, caked in dust, with the nine and one keys faded. He saw all the books that, even though he could never finish, he still enjoyed. He saw Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes displayed prominently amongst them. He looked up at the clock in the kitchen. It was 8:43 PM.
He looked around again: at the phone, at the books, at the clock, at Sadako.
He said aloud, “I did it, mom, I finally did it.”
But no one was there to hear him.
Jeremy Lim is a writer who was born in Malaysia but moved to New York before he turned one. He has been published in Variant Literature and is currently working as a transcriber on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. He also writes for Cinevue, an Asian American film site. In his free time, Jeremy roots fruitlessly for the Mets and Canucks.