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Crystal Bay

There were bright colorful balloons floating against the walls, bobbing slightly against the light breeze of the ceiling fan. Streamers of orange, red and yellow hung from corner to corner, framing a giant poster that said Happy Birthday, Kayla. This was my eleventh birthday and it was the happiest day of my childhood. It also marked the ending of my childhood, which would come sooner than I expected.

            Even though I was in fifth grade, I never thought I was too old for a birthday party with games, balloons and bright decorations. It was a tradition in my family to have big beautiful birthday parties and I wasn’t about to let my pride end it all. I invited everyone in my class to attend the big event. Everyone that is, except for Melissa Sandstrom.

            Melissa Sandstrom is a great big weirdo. She wears pigtails and her shoes are always untied. She once wore a Barney the Dinosaur T-shirt to school. We all teased her to death about it. Fifth graders just don’t do that sort of thing, but Melissa does. She even wore pink plastic clip-on earrings to school once, thinking she could get away with saying they’re real. Breanne Colby tackled her at recess and yanked them off. We knew they were fake but we just wanted to show her that we were too smart to be fooled.

            I passed out invitations to my party a week before my birthday. I had to be sneaky about it, though. Our teacher, Mrs. Anderson has a thing that if we are handing out invitations we can’t do it during class, because someone who isn’t invited might get their feelings hurt. So right after school, when the last bell rang, I stood outside the classroom, handing invitations to everyone.

            One of the last people to come out was Melissa. She stopped suddenly and looked at me, as though expecting something. She didn’t possibly think that she was getting an invitation to my party, did she? I put the hand holding the invitations behind my back and stared right back at her. I lifted my eyebrows.

            “Yeah?” I said, waiting for her to move her butt.

            “Oh, nothing.” She peeped and hurried away. Her eyes were glued to the concrete as she rushed across the playground. I shook my head and handed an invitation to the next person in line.

            My birthday party was a blast. No one thought it was babyish that I had a piñata. My mom made the party extra special by making her famous lemon pudding cake. Some people think it sounds gross, but it is the best cake in the world. Mom had a way of pleasing everyone. To my surprise, as everyone passed around and admired my gifts, mom sat down next to me and asked why I hadn’t invited Melissa.

            “Melissa Sandstrom?” I said very slowly. I didn’t know any other Melissa.

            “Yes. Melissa Sandstrom. You invited everyone in your class but her. How come?” Mom’s eyes bore into me and I slumped my shoulders and avoided her gaze.

            “I dunno.” I murmured. That little snitch! I thought. She went and tattled to the teacher and the teacher called mom!

            Fortunately, I didn’t have to give mom a real answer because dad announced the beginning of another game. I forgot about Melissa for the remainder of the party, but in the corner of my mind, I was fuming. This was my party and I didn’t have to invite Melissa. She had no right to go tell on me just because I didn’t invite her to MY party.

            Melissa, parties, and school were quickly forgotten Sunday afternoon. Mom had been in an accident. She had been out running a few errands when she was struck by a large pick-up who didn’t stop as she pulled out of the parking lot at Lucky’s. And it was over just like that. Any happiness in my life had dried up. Dad asked if I wanted to see mom before they took her off the life support machines. I felt like they were killing her. Dad said she was already brain dead and there was nothing anyone could do. But just the same, I felt like they were ending her life by just “turning her off”. I couldn’t bring myself to see her. The idea freaked me out. Just the thought of walking through the door to my mom’s hospital room made my hands shake uncontrollably. I wanted to remember my mom as she had been earlier that day, smiling and smelling sweetly of perfume. 

            Dad said I didn’t have to go to school at all that week so I stayed in bed, unable to sleep at night but snoozing the day away. I hated sleeping. I always woke up with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. She’s gone! My brain screamed and my stomach reacted by tightening and preparing to pump up any food I had managed to swallow.

            The day I dreaded came on Thursday. It was mom’s funeral. I knew I had to go and I felt guilty about not wanting to. It felt like a dream, a very bad dream, riding in the back of grandma’s car, with dad and uncle Harold. It should have been dark and rainy outside but it wasn’t. The sun was shining in the clear sky and birds were singing in the trees. I felt like God was rubbing salt in the great big wound on my heart.

            At the church, dad and I were greeted by co-workers, friends, and relatives, some were crying, some apologized over and over. I couldn’t believe how many friends mom had that I had never even met. There were a lot of shoulder squeezes and forced hugs into the bosoms of women I barely knew. One woman hugged me and looked into my eyes.

            “Your mother was a wonderful person.” She said. “A very good friend. We worked together. She was so much help to my daughter and I. During our roughest times, she was there for us. When my husband passed away, she came over to my house in the morning to help me with simple tasks and to just talk. And she always had a piece of advice for my daughter when she was down. She was very kind-hearted. I want you to know that.”

            I nodded and blinked back tears. I knew if I started sobbing, people would flock around me like birds on bread. I wanted to be left alone. Then as the woman stood back, I saw a familiar figure behind her. In my sorrow it took a few seconds to process who she was. It was Melissa.

            With her hands behind her back and her head down, I saw that there were tears in her eyes. She took her arm and swept them away. I watched Melissa and her mom as they took a seat across the church. They had their arms around each other and were visibly upset. I had no idea that mom had known Melissa and her mother. Then it occurred to me how mom knew that Melissa had been excluded from my birthday party. Mom must have known that we were in the same class. And she must have assumed that I wouldn’t have been so unkind as to invite everyone but Melissa to my party. I thought back to my birthday and remembered the disappointment in her eyes when she asked why I hadn’t invited Melissa.

            I returned to school the following Monday. I spotted Melissa sitting at her desk, reading a book while everyone else chatted amongst themselves. I felt connected to her somehow and I wondered if she missed my mom too. I got up and went to her.

            She looked up slowly from her book and waited. I guess she expected me to say something mean or jab her with my pencil or something. She didn’t say a word and her eyes were blank. She must have been used to being picked on.

            “Hey.” I said.

            She stared at me in surprise then finally broke her stare and looked down at her hands. “Hey.” She said back. Then she added. “I’m—I’m sorry about your mom.”

            And then I hugged her and started crying. I knew I must have looked like a complete nut but I didn’t care. Everybody was staring at me and I felt Melissa’s body jump back a little. I’m sure I had freaked her out by just hugging her out of nowhere. Then I felt her thin arms wrap around me awkwardly.

            “I miss her so much!” I wept, no longer feeling like I was in the classroom with twenty-two other students. “I don’t—I don’t know what to do!” Tears ran off my face and onto Melissa’s pink t-shirt.

            After a moment, Melissa said. “Your mom said to me once, ‘take it one day at a time’. Maybe you should do that.”

            Melissa invited me over to her house that day to talk and I accepted, much to the astonishment of the rest of the class. We sat on her bed and talked about mom and all the things she had done for us. I was surprised to learn that mom had taken presents over to her house on her birthday and that she had done her hair for her when she felt ugly. Melissa was a really nice person. Mom always seemed to see the good in people before anyone else. I felt bad that I hadn’t taken her lead.

            Now whenever Melissa feels ugly, I do her hair for her. And when Christmas time came, I made her a friendship bracelet out of pink and purple yarn, her favorite colors. I like to think that I share mom’s big heart and that I can see the good in people too. Now I know why mom has so many friends. 

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