"Chloë. Chloë, wake up!” Grace poked her sister in the side, then gently shook her, barely able to contain her excitement.
Chloë slowly opened one eyelid, and in seconds the two seven-year-olds were scampering out of the bedroom and down the hallway, leaf-dappled pajamas billowing on their small forms. After making sure their parents were asleep, they went out the back door together, giggling. The girls ran barefoot through swaying grass, scrambled up craggy rocks, maneuvered through a network of gangly trees, and finally, breathless, arrived at their destination.
The treehouse stood tall and grand, silhouetted against the golden-orange sky, and the sisters ogled its brilliance for a while. A path of flat stones trailed up to the tree’s roots, and a flimsy rope ladder climbed up its length. Sitting amid a fountain of branches was the house, built of dark, ancient-looking planks of wood.
“Come on. Let’s go!” Grace shrieked with delight, and began to skip from stone to stone. She was crawling up the first few rungs before Chloë snapped out of her trance and followed her.
Before they entered the house, the girls stopped, their faces solemn. Grace went first. Placing a hand on her chest, she recited, “I, Grace Sadlon, sister of Chloë Sadlon, vow to never ever break the Sister Code. I will always be a loyal sister, and will never tell anyone the secrets of the treehouse.”
Chloë opened her mouth, but before she could utter a sound Grace’s foot slipped on the rung above her and her leg swung around wildly as she tried to regain her footing. The ladder began to rock back and forth. “Grace, watch out!” Chloë screamed, but it was too late, and they both came crashing to the ground.
* * *
Chloë tumbled head over heels in the grass; a stone nicked her ankle, but she didn’t care. Pushing herself up with her palms she scurried back to the treehouse. The ladder lay in a yellow heap on the ground, and next to it, sprawled on the grass, was Grace.
Chloë’s vision blurred; everything was out of focus. A huge lump formed in her throat, and she dashed over to her sister, screaming her name over and over again. She tried to speak clearly, although a thick syrup seemed to be weighing her tongue down. “Grace. Can you hear me? Grace! Listen to me!” Chloë grabbed Grace’s hand, clutching it tightly as though she could squeeze the life back into her. “Grace, you can hear me, right?” she urged. “Remember the Sister Code? You just said it, and then you…”
Chloë’s body felt numb; all she could feel was her heart thudding steadily in her chest. “Grace,” she whispered, then wrapped her arms around her sister’s lifeless body.
* * *
FIVE YEARS LATER
The bell pierced the air, reverberating throughout Harley Middle School’s campus. As if on cue, students began pouring out of the building like a puddle of spilt ink slowly spreading further and further on paper. Kids talked energetically to one another, some huddled in large groups, others in pairs. Only one girl walked alone.
Chloë Sadlon brushed her straight hair behind an ear, staring at the ground as she walked. After years of practice, she had learned how to zone out the world around her—the sounds of chattering and laughter, the sound of happiness.
Someone accidentally shoved her from behind, and she stumbled on the pavement. Indifferent, she boarded the bus and sat in her usual seat; second-to-last row, window seat to the left. And as usual, nobody sat with her.
* * *
Hey, hon. How was school?” Dad asked as Chloë dumped her bag on the kitchen table.
Chloë shrugged. “Good.” She unzipped her bag halfway, then remembered she had completed her homework the day before and hadn’t been assigned anything new. She murmured a “hi” to her mom before going quietly upstairs to her bedroom.
Chloë was about to plop down on her bed, but something moved in her peripheral vision. A piece of paper, barely five inches square, rustled against the heating vents. She edged closer, pulling out the scrap of paper and bringing it up close.
Two stick figures, one slightly taller than the other, stood together in the middle of a crudely drawn forest, holding hands. Above it, in scrawly second-grade print, was the word Sisters.
Chloë walked backwards, landing with a thump on her bed, her eyes never moving off the drawing. And then she said it.
Suddenly feeling a longing for fresh air, she went out the back door.
The wind blew through Chloë’s hair, the scent of nature filling her lungs. A strange sensation coursed through her, and although her mind told her to go to the hammock on the patio, her legs wanted to go somewhere else.
Solely following her instincts, Chloë climbed up a congregation of rocks, wandered through the dense woods, and then halted suddenly.
The same thrill that had formed whenever she had seen the treehouse was present again, only this time, bittersweet. Because Grace wasn’t at her side to appreciate it with her.
Chloë walked from stone to stone, then searched for footholds in the tree itself, as the ladder could no longer be used. Her legs had grown much longer over the years, and she found herself climbing swiftly up the aged trunk until she reached the top.
“I, Chloë Sadlon,” she muttered, then began again, louder this time; the way Grace would. “I, Chloë Sadlon, sister of Grace Sadlon, vow to never, ever break the Sister Code. I will always be a loyal…” her voice cracked slightly, but she ploughed on, “…a loyal sister, and will never tell anyone the secrets of the treehouse.”
Without further hesitation, Chloë stepped inside.
* * *
A musty, yet sweet aroma lingered in the air, and a feeling that could only be described as nostalgia seeped into Chloë’s heart. The place had been built for seven-year-olds, not a gangly twelve-yearold, so Chloë had to stoop so that her head wouldn’t hit the ceiling.
Two beanbags sat in the corner, still rumpled as though the sisters had been sitting there only a minute ago. Crayons and sheets of paper were scattered on a small, circular table, some of the sheets decked with glitter.
A gossamer-winged butterfly fluttered onto the sill of the window—which was really a hole in the wall—delicate as a feather. As Chloë got a better look, she noticed how the wings were speckled with gold and violet suspended in royal blue, edges tipped with black. A dash of magenta ran in a flourish through one wing, but not the other. Unusual, she thought to herself. She remembered prancing about in the backyard with Grace, trying to spot as many different butterflies as she could. But never had she found a butterfly as exquisite as this one.
“Ha, Grace. Beat ya this time.” The words flew out of Chloë’s mouth before she could control them, analyze them. When had she ever spoken so freely?
“Wow, that’s beautiful,” came a voice, and Chloë whirled around.
A tall, slender girl stood right behind her, dark curls tumbling down her shoulders like a waterfall. There was an impish gleam in her green eyes. It was strange how much her eyes resembled Chloë’s.
“Wh-who are you?” Chloë stammered. There was something familiar about the girl, something she couldn’t quite place—maybe it was the way she stood with her legs wide apart, how she smiled with one side of her mouth higher than the other.
When realization hit her, Chloë felt as though she had been hit in the chest with a block of granite. She gasped for air, putting a hand on the wall to steady herself.
A look of mischief flashed in the girl’s eyes, a look that Chloë realized she missed with all her heart. “Land ahoy, Princess Cassandra! Scrub the deck until it is so shiny I can see my beard in it! Our ship must look stunning so that the natives won’t think we’re a bunch of hooligans.”
All at once, a feeling, a sensation that Chloë hadn’t felt for years, bubbled up inside her. And, to her astonishment, a giggle escaped her lips. She allowed herself a few seconds to reminisce over the halcyon days she had spent with her sister in the treehouse, as they played their favorite game of pirates. Then she snatched a piece of paper off the table as a rag.
Princess Cassandra put a delicate hand to her forehead. “Oh, Captain Bigbeard, must I? I just loathe getting all filthy!”
Captain Bigbeard scratched his chin. “Do as I say, or I shall chop off all your luscious locks! Aargh!”
“Oh, dear,” the princess sighed, a sound rather like a sorrowful breeze. “I have no other choice but to obey you.”
So the princess held up her large, voluminous skirts and began to scrub laboriously at the deck. The captain kept himself busy by twirling his beard or shouting commands, such as, “Scrub harder, harder I say!” or “Put some muscle into it! Oh, well, I’m afraid you don’t have much muscle in those scrawny arms of yours.”
Happiness blossomed in Chloë’s chest like a flower, filling her from head to toe. She smothered her giggles while she held up an imaginary skirt or wilted from the heat, sniggered in between complaints of the sun ruining her perfect complexion.
The girl had tied up her hair around her chin to look like a wild beard and found a curved stick on the floor as a hook. The two girls moved around the treehouse, occasionally walking outside and shimmying up the branches (or the crow’s nest) to get a better view of the land that was in sight.
After the long voyage at sea Chloë was exhausted, and she collapsed on the beanbags.
“Come on, let’s do something else,” the girl pleaded, sticking her head outside the door of the treehouse. Then something changed in her expression. She looked back at Chloë, and her eyes seemed to be saying something.
Without warning, she jumped.
Chloë leapt to her feet, staring at the place where Grace had left the treehouse. But all that was left was the cool forest air, still and quiet. So it was all in my head, she thought to herself. But she didn’t feel the sorrow that she had anticipated. No, the flower remained in her heart, happiness stored in its unfurling petals.
“Thanks, Grace,” she whispered, a gentle wind carrying her words, and she could almost see a bright green eye winking back.