By Grace Calvert
She faced them, two shadowy figures. Painfully familiar.
Which would she choose? The same as any other night. Which would she choose? Which would she choose? Would she choose?
She had repeated it so many times; it barely seemed like a word anymore. Merely a concept.
A shadow; forever lurking, forever present.
Go to her mother, and her father would fade away; go to her father, and her mother, in turn, would forever disappear.
A voice – her voice? continued to chant, continued to scream. Choose, choose, choose, choose, choose, choose—
What an ugly word.
She longed to cover her ears, to shut it out! But the shadow was persistent, and it hovered, uncaring and unwilling to give her peace. She felt her body grow heavier, colder…
She couldn’t tell if she was sinking, or if the floor was somehow rising to meet her, but at a certain point she could no longer move her legs, then her arms were useless, then her torso, all the way up her body until she was up to her neck in darkness.
Her parents, two immovable pillars in this hellish place, looked on; and she closed her eyes and gave in to despair.
She finally woke, ears ringing, to the muted sounds of another argument downstairs.
Grunting, she got up and shuffled over to the door.
Yet another set of choices stood before her now. To leave her room to go the bathroom, or not to go. To pee or not to pee, this was her question.
Her bladder won out, and she put on several pairs of socks in an attempt to muffle her footsteps before slowly making her way to the top of the stairs. Her parents hadn’t quite begun to shout, but their harsh whispers drifted up to her, though their words remained muffled.
The bathroom on the second floor – the only bathroom on the second floor – had been “out of order” for a few weeks now. Her parents had never gotten around to having that fixed.
A crash came from downstairs and she, for a minute, desperately wondered if she could just bring herself to pee in the sink, or climb out the window, or…
But that would be ridiculous, and she had never considered herself brave.
Fighting the urge to cry, she began her slow descent down the stairs. Their harsh whispered exchange, which rose occasionally to shouting, became clearer as she got closer to her goal.
She focussed on her footing to distract herself.
Step. Step… Step.
She quickly removed her foot from the old wood, and skipped to the next.
Her eyes grew hot with unshed tears of frustration.
“Be quiet! You’ll wake Nancy up!”
She didn’t want to hear this. Just two more steps to go…
There. She’d made it!
“Puh-lease, we’ve gone over this before. That girl could sleep through a goddamn earthquake.”
She tried to steady her breath and crept away. The staircase divided the house. To one side lay the dining room and kitchen, where her parents were, and to the other the living room and bathroom. She didn’t close the bathroom door, it’d make a loud “click” if she did, but the distance helped. She stuffed a couple cotton balls from the cabinet in her ears. They didn’t do much, and they were itchy, so she soon took them out.
She couldn’t flush the toilet, of course. She’d just set an alarm to do it in the morning.
Now… to get back.
“I hate you. I hate you.”
She suddenly felt… sick. Feverish. Hey, maybe she could get out of going to summer camp tomorrow…? Her throat tightened. Drama camp. Ick. Yeah, she’d pull the sick card, and stay home and watch YouTube videos all day. Her parents both had work, anyway. She’d be all alone. Sore throat, clammy skin, runny nose, she could do it all. She’d always been a rather good actress. It was only natural that this was the case; she’d had ample practice, after all.
There was no one there to see it, so this time she smiled solely to convince herself.
This is a good thing, she thought.
But she couldn’t go back upstairs. The argument had reached a lull, but it was by no means over, and the old stairs would certainly give her away.
On another note, it was getting a little hard to see, and she couldn’t seem to take deep breaths. She felt as if she’d just run a mile. She held her hand up in front of her, and through blurred vision counted eight fingers.
Fresh air. She needed fresh air.
She went through the doggy door. They’d had no use for it for a while, so a few spiders had made their homes there, but she’d never been afraid of them.
Her body just barely fit through. Her hips, which had just recently begun to get noticeably wider (at least in her eyes), along with her shoulders, required some maneuvering. Maximilian, despite his name, hadn’t been the biggest dog on the block.
Finally free, she stood up and inhaled the night air. Crisp, and fairly mild, for summer. She took a deep breath and rubbed her arm, the sunburn had only just healed. Her parents’ voices had faded. Her hands stopped shaking, and her vision cleared.
She looked around and wondered why she hadn’t done this before.
Her backyard wasn’t anything special. It stood out from the neighbors’ only because of its patches of deadness and overall aura of neglect. It was enclosed entirely by a tall wooden fence, which her father had put up when Maximilian had shown a proclivity to jumping into Mrs. Lector’s yard and peeing on her flowers. She threatened to sue for damages, which was ridiculous, but the fence went up, nonetheless.
From the corner of the yard, where an apple tree (the sole distinguishing vegetation the yard could claim) desperately clung to life, a soft glow peeking through the fence caught her eye.
She walked over, stray twigs and dead grass crackling under the pressure of her sock-clad feet. Fireflies danced at the fringes of her vision, blinking in and out of view.
Just as she was about to uncover the source of the light, a young boy’s voice reached her.
It cracked a bit midway through, but it was sweet, and high. Pleasant.
She crept closer and peered through the cracks. A pair of large blue eyes stared back at her, and they both quickly retreated.
Simultaneously, the two tentatively approached one another once again.
“Um, hi,” the girl said.
“…Hey,” the boy slowly replied.
His name was Tyler, and he had moved in the neighboring house with his family just over a week ago. Nancy hadn’t even noticed the moving trucks.
He had a full-blown camping tent, a high-power flashlight set up on his side of the fence, and several jars containing fireflies. He assured her that he would release them in a bit.
They talked about inconsequential stuff, like their favorite colors, how hard school was (Nancy soon learned that Tyler was two years younger than her, he’d be a sixth grader at her middle school in a few weeks when it started up again), what kind of music they liked, and so on.
A few hours later, they released the bugs (which was frankly less of a dramatic display than Nancy had anticipated – many of them actually had to be coaxed out of the jars), and Nancy went back inside to get a couple hours of sleep before sunrise.
The following night, her parents accompanied her in the darkest parts of her dreams, just as they had before.
Later, in the quiet of her backyard, the flashlight, the moon, and the fireflies illuminating them, Nancy learned about Tyler’s cat.
“She’s evil! Freakin’ evil! I swear, back in Portland, she’d purposefully scare us all so bad by disappearing in the middle of every storm! Dunno where she’d go, she just went. And she would poop on my bed!” Contrary to his words, he grinned from ear to ear.
“I used to have a pet, too. A dog though, not a cat. And certainly not evil. He was a sweetie…”
The third night came, the nightmares came, and later she asked about the tent. Why did he sleep outside? His wide blue eyes blinked, slowly. He stretched his lips in the wide cheshire smile that Nancy had grown to recognize. She could just barely make it out through the cracks of the fence that separated them. It was the kind of smile that made you want to smile along with him, but Nancy was looking at his eyes, and she saw something tighten there.
“Well… I’d tell you the long version, but we don’t have all night, so, haha!” he chuckled. “Well, I guess we do, but I’m no story teller, so here’s the short version, Nancy. My new bed isn’t as comfy as my old one.” He held up a finger. “Recordings of rainstorms don’t compare to the real things.” A second finger came up. “It poured all the time in Portland, you know? It’s too sunny here. All the people at Westing Middle are going to be either zombies or pricks, I bet.” Another finger. “Oh, except you, of course.” He quickly added that last bit. “Plus, I like camping, so.” He slowly dropped his hand, and there was silence for a while.
He took in a deep, audible breath of air, and exhaled it in a sigh. “When reality sucks as much as it does, it’s nice to just go outside and dream a little, you know?”
They sat silently for a while after that, until Nancy broke it. “Dreams aren’t all that great, either.” She got up and went inside.
During the course of the next day, Nancy resolved herself to tell Tyler about her parents. She felt… comfortable around him, comfortable enough to talk to him about something she hadn’t even allowed herself to think about. But when night came and she crawled through the doggy door, a blanket in hand (the weather app had foretold that it would be a bit chilly), she found their corner dark. No flashlight. No Tyler.
She waited an hour before going back inside, teeth chattering. Her blanket had been too thin to help her after all.
Nancy rolled over and peeked at her clock.
She peered out the window. A light.
Ha. Now he wanted to talk?
She threw off her sweaty covers and put on a fresh pair of socks. Several others, dirtied by soil, lay hidden at the back of her closet.
Even as she stalked over to their spot, she knew she was acting a bit ridiculous. After all, they hadn’t made any promises…
Nonetheless, she greeted Tyler with a frown.
He winced from his side of the divide. “Yeah, I know.”
She settled down, her back to the fence, and he mirrored her. It was silent, and she let the silence drag on, knowing full well its effect on the boy.
He quickly gave in, sighing heavily. “Ah, well, I just had a little talk with the… family. If you could call them that.” Nancy looked over at him, and catching her eye, he grinned, and shrugged a shoulder. “They didn’t appreciate my camping, and I told them that they could stick it. The only reason I’m not grounded is ‘cause my dad still feels guilty about dumping my mom for a stranger and moving the three of us here.”
Her strange anger dissipated much quicker than it came. She turned back around to face him, and, after a moment’s thought, stuck her hand through the fence in silent comfort.
He smiled softly, took it, and looked back at his tent. The calm soon slid off his face, and his lip curled in disgust.
“Well, let’s just say that if normal women were cherries, she’d be a maraschino one. You know, the sickly sweet fake ones they put on sundaes? Yeah. That’s my new Mom. Ha!”
Desperate to cheer him up, Nancy did the first thing that came to mind.
Throwing her hands up in mock excitement, she loudly proclaimed, “Hey, what a coincidence. My family’s broken, too!”
It took a moment for Nancy to register what she’d just said. Tyler’s wide eyes met her own.
There that was. Over and done with.
He took her hand again and squeezed it. She squeezed his.
A firefly drifted by, lazily blinking its lights.
Hesitantly, she caught his eyes. “You know, if just talked with your dad, and told him your honest feelings, I bet he’d let you at least visit your mom. You could ask to stay there for the rest of summer.”
Grimacing, he shrugged. “…I guess I could try.”
The next night, just as she was crouching to go through the doggy door, her parents greeted her.
“We need to talk.”
They were getting a divorce. Of course they were. Frankly, Nancy couldn’t remember exactly how they communicated this to her, but she remembered that word: divorce. She also remembered something about shared custody. She remembered these things, and she remembered the strange feeling of relief that came over her when she heard them. Of course, that was nearly eclipsed by an unavoidable feeling of blind panic and denial, but it was still noteworthy. They talked for a long time afterward.
Nancy tried to be bold, and honest, wanting to follow her own advice. Wanting to be like the fireflies in the garden, that boldly shone, their brilliance never fading, even when their lights blinked out. She tried, and it was hard, but… worth it. Nothing was “fixed” (and it never would be), but she and her parents spoke more than they had in years.
As she lay in bed much later, she thought to herself, thank God, it’s finally over and done with!
Suddenly remembering her friend, she sat up and looked for his familiar light. Nothing. Her eyes swept over the area, and came to rest on a small figure in the neighboring house’s second floor window. Faintly silhouetted by a bedside lamp, the pajama-clad young boy waved at her, and then the light was turned off and she could no longer see him.
Rolled back under the warm covers.
And dreamt of fireflies.