The arguing started early that day. As we ate our dinner—baked chicken with rosemary seasoning, homemade mashed potatoes, and fried green beans—our forks hit the plates with a sense of urgency. It was the first time in weeks that Mom had cooked a meal from scratch. Or even partially from scratch. My sister and I were getting used to the week-old McDonald's. We had been so desperately hungry that I suppose we forgot to use our manners.
The silverware clanged noisily against the china, food falling out of our mouths from too much excitement, when my dad slammed a fist on the table. My sister and I jumped, exchanging looks at the same time my mom’s fork clattered to the ground. We'd forgotten to wait for my dad to sit down before eating.
“Are you all going to exclude me from dinner now?” he boomed. “I might as well just be eating at the office!”
“Like you do every other day?” Mom yelled, slamming her own fork on the table after snatching it off the carpet.
“I stay late to put a roof over your head! Food on the table!” He gestured an angry hand to the home cooked meal stuffed in our faces.
“The food I cooked?!”
I dragged the fork full of mashed potatoes to my mouth. It had been hovering mid-air in my hand when my dad slammed his fist to the table, but now seeing where this quarrel was going, I stuffed the buttery goodness into my mouth. Every fight began the same way—Dad being debarred, Mom complaining how it seems that way all the time, then Dad making a fuss about how much work he has on his plate, and so on and so on. It eventually led to yelling about Robbie, our brother who had been in and out of rehab since the age of twenty-three. He turned twenty-seven only a few short months before.
Robbie stayed at local bars and refused to attend church with my family and I. He was either passed out in some poor woman’s apartment, stuck in a fist fight with a man twice his age, or on the phone begging my mom to forgive him, despite the pain he insisted on causing on the rest of us. There was always something. That’s when the fights began. My mom was more worried for Robbie's spiritual health while my dad was worried about Robbie crashing in our basement unwelcomed. Mom had let him stay on several occasions when he was not in the right state of mind. The differing perspectives caused a clash of opinions, and instead of communicating calmly about the situation, they decided to scream at each other.
I peered over at my younger sister, Lysa, and watched as her eyes began to fill with tears. Pools of salty water dripped down from her left eye and onto her round cheek. I gritted my teeth. Our parent’s brawls at each other never quite bothered me the way it did for her. Lysa choked up if someone simply looked at her the wrong way. I couldn’t blame her—she was only six years old at the time. But seeing her trembling with fear, tears cascading down from both eyes, it made me boil with anger. I wanted to jerk back my chair, yell at two adults for going at it in front of a child and embrace my little sister. So, that’s what I did. And at the very same time I went to throw back my chair, everything went black.
“What the—” I whispered.
My parents had gone quiet, too. The sound of footsteps filled the room as one of them went over to the light switch. They flipped it angrily a few times, letting out a huff when nothing happened. “Power’s out,” Dad grumbled.
“What?” Mom’s voice had a frantic edge to it. “What do you mean the power’s out? Why is it out?”
“I don’t know, Sarah. I didn’t cause the power to disappear like some kind of—”
“Would you both stop it?!” I snapped. Silence washed over the pitch-black room and I heard a muffled sniff in Lysa’s direction. I took a deep breath. I wasn’t going to be like my parents. “Go check the living room and the upstairs. Maybe it’s just the kitchen lights that sputtered out.” I knew that probably wasn’t true, but it got everyone out of the room to cool off. I tiptoed over to Lysa’s chair and quietly whispered a boo in her ear, taking hold of her shoulders.
Lysa yelped, whipping around. I grinned, though she couldn’t see, and she slapped me hard on the arm. “Rosa! You scared me!” Lysa had a distinct lisp, one she had since she was born, and no one ever bothered to fix. Instead of Rosa, it came out “Rotha” and scared became “thared”. I always wondered if she got picked on by her fellow classmates, though she never brought it up. I cast a weary smile at her, pushing back a stray hair that had stuck to her sticky cheek.
“The power is out throughout the house. I’ve checked every room on the second floor.” I started at the sound of my mom’s uneasy voice.
“The whole downstairs is out, too,” my dad grumbled. When he strode back into the kitchen, his face was illuminated by the artificial glow of a flashlight, casting eerie shadows in the cracks and wrinkles of his face. It made his scowl more pronounced, causing him to appear much more intimidating. I swallowed.
A chill breeze blew in behind me, rustling my hair, and I turned to peer out the window that was left open for dinner. The sun had long ago set, giving the moon the full stage to shine. Cicadas hummed noisily and lightning bugs flitted around like fallen stars. An idea planted itself in my mind at the sight of the peaceful night. “We should go camping.” The words came out a whisper, as if my mind hardly registered the words. A beat of silence. Two beats. Three. Then—
“Yes, yes! Please can we go! We can watch the stars and roast marshmallows and tell stories, please, please, please!” Lysa leapt out of her chair, and into our mom’s unsuspecting arms, nearly knocking her over with elation. Her eyes were now dry, left with only a silent plead to go outside.
The tension still sat heavy in the air from the earlier fight and was slowly beginning to lift with Lysa’s ecstasy. “I think we have a tent in the closet,” Mom breathed. That was all it took for Lysa to begin bouncing off the walls and darting into the backyard.
Camping was not as easy as I once remembered when my family dragged out the tent. It was clear that it had not been used in a good ten years, back when Robbie still lived at home. He loved camping in the summer—catching lightning bugs, his eyes matching their sparkle when they roamed his hand, roasting gooey marshmallows and smushing them between two pieces of chocolate instead of graham crackers, and sleeping soundly in the tent he set up with his own two hands, letting the crickets outside swoon him to sleep. It was his favorite tradition, one he never stopped babbling about the moment school ended for summer break. I suppose that’s why I felt so surprised when the idea of camping sprouted in my mind. And even more so when my parents agreed to it.
Our tent building skills were dire compared to Robbie’s, the tent looking one nudge short of collapsing. But it was up, nonetheless. Lysa had fallen asleep long before the tent-building was completed and was sprawled out on a blanket, eyes fluttering as dreams filled her sleeping mind. My mom and I now stood around her, waiting as Dad went out in search of firewood. I bit the inside of my cheek as I watched Lysa’s chest rise and fall.
“It’s a peaceful night, isn’t it?” Mom whispered quietly. I turned my attention away from Lysa. “Summer nights always were my favorite.” I didn’t respond. Simply nodded, listening. “We weren’t always like this, you know. Your father and I have had our good days. It’s just a hard time with—”
“Robbie. I know, Mom. You don’t have to explain anything to me.” My heart felt numb, as it always did when this conversation began. I no longer had the patience to listen to my parents’ excuses why they acted out.
“Okay.” She fell silent.
Dad was back soon enough, flashlight lighting the way with a handful of wood clutched to his side. I took the opportunity to abandon any further pity conversations and scooped up Lysa, carrying her back to the tent. I laid her softly on a pink sleeping bag, one that I used over a decade ago. She curled up immediately, bringing her legs up to her stomach and nestling her head in the cushion. Lysa didn’t even bat an eye at the change of scenery and part of me wished she had.
“The one time you fall asleep early,” I whispered, feigning annoyance. I crossed my legs, tucking my hands in my lap. I stayed there for a beat before switching positions again. I groaned, knowing I couldn’t stay there forever just to avoid my parents.
But I did stay, for quite a while. I spent several minutes staring at Lysa, wishing I were her. Despite her tearing up at even the slightest angry tone, she still managed to be the happiest little girl I knew. She would cry, but the moment the fighting was over, her eyes would dry, and she would be off playing and twirling around as if nothing happened.
To her, the fights were never guaranteed. She lived in her own world where everyone was happy all the time, even when they were not. Me on the other hand, I knew that yelling was always promised at some point of the day. I could not enjoy the sweet moments because my mind was always preparing itself for the next beat-down. I longed to be a careless child again.
My mind then veered to the noises summer nights brought with it every year. The crickets and cicadas still performing their concert. The occasional whiz of a car on a late-night drive. The wind swirling through the trees, their leaves shuddering in the night. As my mind focused on every individual sound of the outside, I heard something else that made my ears prickle—silence. I lifted a finger, pulling back the opening of the tent, and peered outside.
My breath hitched as I spotted my parents, their backs turned towards me. They sat still on the flannel blanket Lysa had slept on before, fire sizzling in front of them, with their hands intertwined. They were not talking but merely gazing at each other, their eyes speaking for them. My heart thundered inside my chest as I realized it was time to join them around the fire.
Just as the arguments began the same way, they ended the same, as well. It would either be crying, apologizing, or hugging, but never a simple conversation. Never a simple look that showcased their true feelings like a book splayed out for the world to see. Nothing like what I witnessed around that fire.
I crept my way out of the tent, zipping it shut behind me, and took my spot beside them around the flaming wood. I wasn’t a child who could just ignore the world around them and hope everyone is happy at the end of the day. I couldn’t stay mad at my parents for being under the pressure of providing for two children and trying to handle one who was an alcoholic. They were not perfect, not even close. But neither was I. It was my turn to take care of them.
“I think we should call Robbie,” I said, softly. They both turned to stare at me. I met their eyes. “It’s time we find him the help he needs instead of taking it out on each other.”
They didn’t say anything at first, letting my words comb through their minds. Then they nodded. “I’ll get the phone,” my mom said.
“I’ll come with you.” My dad lifted up from his seated posture to follow my mom inside. He squeezed my shoulder as he walked by, comforting me.
There was a knot in my stomach I hadn’t realized had formed, and it softened at the subtle touch. The fire in front of me was getting smaller and smaller, until it finally gave up and fizzled out. Somehow, I felt the fire represented the end of something more than just warmth for the night.
I smiled, ever so slightly, reaching across to grab two pieces of wood. I struck them together and watched as a new fire sprung to life.