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Peer Work

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By Laura Stahl, Susitna Valley High School, Talkeetna
Genre: Fiction Level: 7th-12th
Year: 2010 Category: UAA/ADN Creative Writing Contest

When my mother was happy, she wore jewelry. Big costume-y jewelry, because she loved compliments.

"You are looking for attention," I used to tell her quite often, usually in an accusing tone.
"Of course. Aren't you? What would life be if no one noticed you?"


This is where she would laugh and roll her eyes at my angst. "Baby, you need to learn how to live."

Then it was my turn to roll my eyes.

My mother wore jewelry a lot. One necklace, bangle, earring for every fond memory. I guess she lost all of them exactly a year ago.

Chloe was our sharpie-on-the-wall-drawer, our mess-maker, our off-key-singer; she was our star-baby. She had dancing grey eyes and a mouth that was a portal to her imagination.

She was going to paint her room, the day everything dissolved. Purple, of course. With a orange polka-dot ceiling. I tried to explain that purple and orange aren't exactly complementary. She shot me a look that was almost disdainful. "Purple and orange are lovely," Her tone was condescending beyond her six years. "Flowers are purple and orange."

"No they aren't, silly."

"Mine are." She pointed to her wall. An array of sharpies and highlighters laid below elaborate purple and orange flowers scrawled across the white canvas of drywall.

"Chloe! God, how many times has mom told you not to draw on the walls?" Seriously, don't kids grow out of this stage by the time they were like, 3?

She counted on her fingers. "Four times. Today."

I gave her a look.

"But, Bree."


"Paper's not big enough."

I laughed. "Guess I can't argue with that. 'Kay, miss artistic, let's paint this room."

The room was half-finished when Chloe decided that she couldn't live another minute without a McDonald's milkshake. It was just after 9 pm.

London, my newly-licensed 17-year-old brother, excitedly offered to take her. Obviously, he wanted to show off his new skills, even with a preschooler in the back.

I don't know what happened next; the information I know is a pieced together like a patchwork quilt with parts from the police, the paramedics, and London's distressed whimpers. Apparently while they were merging onto the highway, a drunk in an Ford truck approached uncontrollably. London tried to swerve out of the way. It was too close, the front of the massive truck hit the side of the car that Chloe was on. Her life ended instantly.

London says that he knew right away that for Chloe, that was the end. That the flashing lights of the ambulance were useless, that the doctors wouldn't be able to help. But we tried anyways to keep her with us.

It was hard those first few weeks, really hard. Everyone reacted differently. I would forget and expect to see Chloe; start crying when I didn't. London didn't forget, how could he? He was in a state of bewildered misery. My dad withdrew, distancing himself from anything that would remind him of Chloe. My mother took off all her jewelry. Chloe's door was shut.

We struggled through a year. We realized what we had lost, and we didn't take for granted what we still had. But it was hard on us as a family. London seemed to recover the quickest. This made me angry, even though I didn't blame him for what happened. He was upbeat and often gone, either out playing basketball with his friends or somewhere with his guitar. I'd look out my 2nd story window and see him nonchalantly walking down the suburban street where people drove slowly and children were carefully watched. He would come back a couple hours later, strumming a new tune and smelling of sea salt.

I followed him that day, a year from the accident. Actually, I'm pretty sure he knew I was there.
There is a cul-de-sac at the end of our neighborhood. It's where the high school freshmen go when they're cool enough to drink a beer, but not yet cool enough to do it at a party. A trail snakes through the trees beyond it, every step bringing a heady scent of the ocean. I catch up to London and walk beside him, awkward on the narrow path, but comfortable in the silence.

The trees part and the rugged Pacific Ocean is spread out, wrapped around the horizon like a blanket. The grey of the ocean and the grey of the overcast sky melded together.

"If I laid out in the middle of the ocean, with no land on either side, and the grey was completely surrounding me, what do think that would feel like?" London's eyes are fixated on the horizon while he speaks.

"Maybe that's how Chloe feels. In the middle of nothing. I don't know."

"Chloe is an angel."

I had thought about this before. "No, that's too unoriginal. Chloe created her own brand of heavenly being. She's wearing a purple dress right now. And she has orange polka-dot wings."

"You think?"

"Yea." I sit on a mangled log that was washed up from who-knows-where. I trace the ridges and knobs with my finger, thinking about how I was going to voice my question that had been on the roof of my mouth for the last few months.

" are you not sad anymore? How did your life get right back to where it was, to how you want it?"

He may not have heard me, for all the response I get. Finally, he closes his eyes, reopens them, and walks over to me, his Vans creating trenches in the mulch of sand, pebbles, and crushed shells.

"The only way my life could be better is if Chloe was here. That's not to say I wouldn't want other things, but I wouldn't ask for them. Losing someone you love makes material stuff pretty unimportant. I'm sure you've noticed that."

He is right, although I've really never thought about it. Only one year older than I, yet so much wiser.

"But the thing is," he continues, "Chloe would hate it if she saw us. Why would she want us to be sad?"

"She wouldn't."

"Nope. And that, Bree," He glances my way with a half-smile, "is why we need to go home right now."

"We do? What?"

"C'mon." He steps up on the log and follows its length down toward the little trail. I follow, confused but calm.

Two hours later finds me covered in purple, carefully painting around the bigger-than-paper flowers. London stands back to admire the lovely color. It is Chloe's color. This is her room, still. Like a shrine honoring six years, honoring a child who would have continued to be an extraordinary human being, had that been granted to her.

When the room was completely purple, with orange polka dots decorating the ceiling, Mom comes in, smelling the fumes from the kitchen. She stands in the middle, absorbing.

"Chloe," she breathes. I'm not sure if she means for us to hear her. London and I look across the room at each other, and I smile.

My mother is wearing jewelry again. On her wrist is a bracelet, made by Chloe. A small but significant step toward letting go of her grief.

About the Author: Winner, UAA/ADN Creative Writing Contest, 2010 - Fiction, Grades 7-12

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