Winner of the October 2017 Writing Contest!
Susan Foster is the winner of the October 2017 writing contest!
We received many entries, from gruesome to lighthearted, but Susan's work managed to catch our attention with its tragic inner conflict. Well done, Susan!
The winning entry:
The Candy Wrapper Wallpaper Project
By the time she was fourteen, she had covered all the walls of her room with candy wrappers. The hallway between the bedrooms and the bathroom was a paper mosaic mural of colorful candy slogans.
By the time she was fifteen, she had hidden the lavender paint color of her bathroom walls with candy wrappers.
A little more than a year after that, there was no evidence of the original rust-colored paint in the living room. The kitchen walls were no longer yellow and the laundry room's blue paint was invisible. Not a speck of paint showed on any of those walls. Instead, they were resplendent with candy names, slogans, and colorful wrappers.
Sarah’s mom knew nothing about any of this.
As Sarah's 17th birthday approached, she panicked. There was only a little time left before she would leave home for college. Somehow, she had to figure out a way to finish the walls before she graduated. The only unfinished ones were in her mother’s bedroom and adjoining bathroom. But her mom seldom left her room, so those were difficult to tackle.
Sarah knew she had a problem. She was sure she had even read about it on the Internet. She knew her compulsion to cover the walls was not healthy, and she even sort of understood why she did it. But she refused to seek therapy until she covered up every last inch of paint on the walls. Because that paint had destroyed her life.
This candy wrapper obsession had become a huge project, with far-reaching effects. For years, she'd spent almost all of her allowance each month on candy and wallpaper paste. Her friends always wondered why she never bought CD’s or new clothes when they went to the mall. When they asked why she never invited them over, she would say it made her mother uncomfortable. Then her friends would blush, and no one would question her further. Sarah made sure no visitors or workmen of any sort ever came to the house. There was too much risk that someone might point out to her mom what she had done.
When Sarah was small, her mom could still see a little and managed well enough to take care of Sarah. She would take the handicapped person’s bus to the grocery store once a week and someone there would help her shop. Back then, she could cook and manage the house. But as Sarah got older and more self-sufficient, her mom’s vision deteriorated until she was blind. Rather than care for Sarah, she spent hours laying in bed, often sobbing.
At first, she would just eat all the candies she unwrapped. But as she became more skilled and faster at hanging the wrappers, there was a lot of unwrapped candy. Her mom wondered why her little girl was getting so pudgy. Not able to consume it all herself, Sarah sometimes used it to bake cookies for friends. Most often, she would just throw it away.
At first, Sarah had glued each wrapper to the wall one-by-one. Needing a faster way, she learned to glue the wrappers to sections of cheap wallpaper and apply those sections to the walls using wallpaper paste. The process went much faster and didn’t require so many trips up and down the ladder. Her allowance became insufficient for the supplies she needed. She used some of the grocery money, telling her mom that produce had gotten more expensive. This lie worked because her mom couldn’t see the grocery receipts.
Sometimes Sarah felt guilty that her mom didn’t know about the candy wrapper walls. She knew redecorating the house without her mom’s knowledge was wrong. Even worse, she wondered if including her mom as a partner in the candy wrapper project might have been good for her.
Sarah understood that covering the walls had been her coping mechanism. Maybe if her mom had put her energy into helping glue the wrappers, she wouldn’t have spent so much time crying in bed. Sarah suspected that without her wrapper project, she herself might have suffered a depression just as profound as the mood that enveloped her once cheerful and funny mommy.
Life had turned upside down when Sarah had just turned six. Her parent's goal had been to fix up their old house into their dream home. They had ripped up and replaced flooring, updated appliances, and even added new plumbing fixtures all by themselves. Then it was time to add fresh paint to the walls.
Her parent's plan was to start with her bedroom and paint it whatever color she chose. The possibilities were overwhelming; they didn't rush her as she contemplated the color wheel. However, by the time they'd painted every other room in the house, Sarah still couldn’t decide on her favorite color.
So Sarah chose white. Her dad expressed surprise, commenting that he thought all little girls had a favorite color. He seemed a little disappointed. No other walls in the house were white; she even remembered her father complaining once while doing the ceilings that white paint jobs were boring. She couldn’t pick, though, so she settled on white.
Even over a decade later, every detail of the fateful day was still vivid in Sarah’s memory. She wondered if her mother remembered it the same way. They never talked about it, not even once.
It had been a warm spring day. Sarah had been playing in her big closet with her dolls, eating the candy bar her father bought that afternoon when he went out to buy more turpentine. Her mom had been in the kitchen, singing as she prepared a snack.
Sarah complained about the heat and the smell of the paint. Her dad opened the window, despite the lack of a screen. He had finished painting her walls that morning, but after the paint dried he realized there were a few spots where the old paint color still showed through. He brought the ladder and paint back into her room to touch it up.
Suddenly, a bird had flown through the open window into the room. It startled her father, who had been standing on the top rung of the ladder, reaching out to cover the spot. He should have moved the ladder instead of reaching so far, but he had gotten a little lazy in his rush to finish up.
Sarah had watched through the door of her closet as her father fell. He landed on his side, but his left temple cracked hard against the sharp corner of Sarah’s dresser as he fell. Her father had let out a sharp cry, then a moan, then silence. There wasn’t much blood, but there was some. Her mother had felt her way to him, then cried. She had ordered Sarah to call 9-1-1 for an ambulance, but didn’t tell her what to say. Sarah remembered sobbing into the phone that maybe her daddy was dead. All the while, the bird had been circling the room, desperate to find the window so it could exit.
After the funeral, Sarah found the candy wrapper in her closet. She cried, realizing it was the last gift her father would ever give her. She slept with it under her pillow for a week. When it was time to wash her sheets, she took it from under her pillow and got out her glue. She pasted it to a place on the wall behind her bed, so it could never get lost.
Lying awake one morning months later, Sarah stared at the white walls of her room, hating them. She wondered if she had picked a darker color than white, would it had covered the walls well enough that her dad wouldn’t have missed that spot? If he hadn't gone back up the ladder that day, he wouldn’t be dead.
As Sarah had these thoughts, she noticed the candy wrapper. There were so many colors in it. If only she had asked to have her room painted one of those colors or even all of them. Would her father still be alive?
With that thought, she’d run to the kitchen, climbed up on the stool in the pantry, and grabbed the bag of candy bars from the top shelf.
Back in her room, she'd closed her door. She then unwrapped each candy bar and glued the papers up next to the first wrapper she had already adhered to her wall. Standing back to see how those colors looked, she felt like she had discovered a way to correct her mistake of choosing white. That is how the wallpaper candy project began.
After covering every speck of paint on the walls in her own room, she quit for a while. The color of the other walls had not been her decision, and none of them were the offensive white paint she had chosen. But, it seemed as though her candy wrapper work had been the only thing keeping her sadness at bay. The need for this coping mechanism grew too strong to resist. She rationalized that if her parents had done no painting, her father would still be alive. Then she resolved to cover every wall painted by her dad.
During her last year of high school, Sarah hadn’t been able to paste a single wrapper because only her mother’s walls remained uncovered. Being unable to complete her project, Sarah felt anxious all the time and as though she was unraveling. She knew somehow she had to get started on her mom’s room. But she couldn’t think of a way without her mother noticing. Even if her mom didn’t wonder why Sarah was spending so much time in her room, she would smell the wallpaper paste and ask questions.
Her mom would need to hire someone to help her while Sarah was away. Sarah was certain that person would comment on the unusual wallpaper. She couldn't let her mom find out her secret that way. Mom might be angry, but Sarah wanted a chance to explain the reason behind her actions.
With Sarah leaving soon, Mom had become even more depressed. Sarah wondered if sharing this secret with her might help both of them? It was possible her mom would understand and even agree it was the right thing to do. They could work together to finish the house.
The morning of her 17th birthday, just six weeks before graduation, she decided she had to tell her mom about the walls and why she had done it. Gathering up her supplies and her courage, Sarah drew a deep breath and entered her mom’s room.
She did not know how her mom would react, but it was time to tell her everything.