Kaylie watched Brandon stumble into the playground, grabbing for the ladder as he struggled not to cry. He climbed up to the top. He lay down opposite the big slide, and stared up at the stars through the ceiling. All she knew was that she had gotten a text asking her to come to the park, so anything could be happening. Kaylie climbed up there to talk to him. She lay down next to him and silently took his hand. He let her.
They sat like that, watching the sky for a few minutes. She waited a bit before she said anything.
“What happened?” she asked.
Brandon sighed. “Scott and Dad are at it again,” he said.
“What are they arguing about?”
“The fuck does it matter?” Brandon got up on one arm and turned to face her. “It’s the same song every time. Scott does something, Dad gets mad, then they just scream at each other until they both run out of energy and they storm off into separate rooms. Pause for two minutes while they regain breath, and the whole thing happens again. The third time this week, too. I just couldn’t take it. My headphones couldn’t tune it out because my PC decided now was just the best damn time to restart. Thanks a lot, Microsoft. God, I can still hear the shouting and we’re three blocks away.”
This wasn’t the first time Brandon had had to get away from his brother’s and his dad’s constant fighting. Kaylie had heard it once or twice through phone calls. The only people for whom it must have been more unpleasant than Brandon were the two in the fight. Kaylie couldn’t relate to the whole not-getting-along with parents thing, since she didn’t have parents. But the man-in-the-middle thing made perfect sense to her. She knew the perfect thing to do right now was to just let him let it all out.
Brandon got up and leaned on the balcony. Kaylie followed. He didn’t look at her. She marveled at all the light.
“Who knew there’d be this many fireflies?” Kaylie said. “It’s beautiful.”
She waited for a response that never came. Brandon wasn’t even looking at the landscape around them. He just stared at his hands.
“It hurts, you know?” He said. “A lot of the time, they’re both right and wrong. But they’re so busy screaming at each other that they don’t even hear what they’re saying. When they’re not screaming, they don’t even talk. I get why Scott’s so easy to blow up. It’s not like it’s easy to have Anxiety. And I’m sure it would be easier if Dad acknowledged that. And if Dad set less rules around everything, Scott and I wouldn’t have to be so secretive. Dad is just a really tightly wound string, and if he doesn’t relax, he’s going to snap.
“But then sometimes Scott can be a pain too. All the math classes he skips, all the anger he spews everywhere, the way he acts like he’s the only one in the house and then refuses to take care of it, not to mention every time he’s slept in late and caused the rest of us to miss an important event, it gets old. They both get old. I wish they could just disappear off the planet sometimes. Or just be able to have one fucking civilized conversation without screaming at each other.
“The worst thing is that it’s out of my control. It could happen at any time they’re in private, no matter what I’m doing or where we are. In the car or at home. It could be about anything, even if it’s just that Scott decided to wear a tie over a T-shirt. I can’t mute it, I can’t make it stop. It’s like a storm; all you can do is wait it out.”
“That reminds me of something,” Kaylie said. “How do you know when they’ve cooled down enough to go home?”
“Remember that baby monitor we bought at the yard sale?” Brandon answered. “I stuck one in the living room behind a vase. The other one is in my pocket. The only room it can’t hear into is Scott’s. I’ve lately just been pulling this out and turning it on to hear what’s happening. Let’s see.”
Brandon pulled a baby monitor out of his pocket and pressed play. Both kids fell backward at the sound of the shouting.
“ALL I ASKED FOR WAS SOME HELP ON THE QUESTIONS!” Scott’s voice blared through the tiny speaker.
“FOR THE FIFTH TIME, YOU’RE 16. OLD ENOUGH TO BE ABLE TO FIGURE OUT SIMPLE PROOFS LIKE THIS ON YOUR OWN!” Brandon’s dad roared back. Brandon turned it off.
“You know,” he started again. “Sometimes I wish I didn’t love them so much. It would be so much easier on my heart if I just didn’t care about them when they went off like this. Especially when I give my two cents and Scott passive-aggressively tries to ask what I would do in this situation, as if my answer is right all the time, and then Dad screams ‘Don’t bring him into this. It’s not about him.’ And if I didn’t care, it would be so much easier to believe that.”
Kaylie was shocked at this. She had always known that his house was a little crazy, but she never knew it was that bad. Kaylie could never imagine not wanting to love her big brother, or Allie or Tim, their friends. She couldn’t even imagine feeling that way towards a teacher.
Kaylie looked right into Brandon’s eyes. He was still trying to push his tears back. She wished he wasn’t so scared of feelings. She knew that whatever she said probably wouldn’t fix everything. He’d go back home and in a couple of days, those two would blow up again. She felt almost as hopeless as he sounded. She looked out at the fireflies again. She knew it was stupid, but she decided to at least try to give Brandon some light in the dark. He would pay her back later.
“Look,” she said finally, “every family has fights. No relationship is 100% peaceful. No two people will ever be on the same page all the time. I’ve had some pretty nasty arguments with my bro. Your dad and Scott aren’t perfect. No offense, but with the amount of issues your family has, I’m surprised y’all ever get things done. I think you just have to remember that it will always blow over. Every fight ends. After every storm comes a rainbow.”
“That’s corny as shit,” Brandon laughed.
Kaylie jabbed him in the arm. “What did you expect? I’m not a psychologist. Though I think you should talk to both of them about getting one. Anywho, just remember that you’re never alone. No matter what shit hits the fan back at your house, at the end of the day, you’ve got a mostly cool family. And even when they’re fighting, I bet you that those two love each other. They’re just super passionate.”
Brandon looked away and crossed his arms. “You didn’t need to get all comforting,” he grumbled. “But I appreciate what you said. Thanks for being here and listening. I must have woken you up, which makes me a sucky person.”
“No, it’s no big deal.” Kaylie said. “I was reading anyways. Besides, I’m always here for you. You’d have done the same thing for me.”
Brandon nodded. “I would. Do you mind if we both wait here until the shouting match is done with? These can go for an hour at least.”
“Yeah, sure.” Kaylie answered. “I was just thinking of videos I wanted you to see.”
The two of them sat against the balcony. Kaylie pulled out her phone. Brandon looked around. Dozens of pulsing lights filled the dark around them.
“I just noticed the fireflies. You were right earlier. They’re beautiful.”