Along a leafy street in a section of a small town, silent, identical houses line the road and fill up the small space. The lawns of all these homes are clearly separated by the carefully manicured lawns that enclose each house within its own world. This story takes place in one of those houses: the Fletcher house.
Upstairs on the left of the house is a teenage boy’s room. It is tidy and clean, with all the schoolwork filed inside binders, and soccer gear sorted into the closet. A navy blue rug carpets the floor, and a big, neatly made, wooden bed stands against the wall. Next to it is a tall brown cabinet, lined with rows and rows of books. Attached to the cabinet, extending into the adjacent wall, is a mahogany desk piled with stacks of textbooks and binders. In the middle of it all, a fourteen year old boy sits on the rug, holding a fat book. He is engrossed in the story and reads with wide eyes behind gray rimless glasses.
On the opposite side of the house on the main floor is a young girl’s playroom. It is cluttered with faded toys of every kind throughout the room. The floor is lined with puzzle mats, worn and partially peeling. In the corner near a window is a plain, white, upholstered bed, with plain, white sheets. Other than the bed, the lack of furniture is made up for with the overdose of toys that coat the mat. The yellow walls that had once filled the room with color, were now chipping and dusty, providing little light in the already dim room. In the center of the room, a young girl lies on her stomach, eyes wide open to a storybook that lies open on the floor.
“Carter! Come downstairs!” Mrs. Fletcher called from the kitchen.
Carter, the teenage boy, groaned and shut his book. He sighed and stood up, adjusting his glasses. As he made his way downstairs, Mrs. Fletcher opened the door to the playroom to get her toddler, Marlee. Marlee bounded to her mother, leaving her book open on the floor.
“Mommy! Mommy!” Marlee giggled as her mother picked her up and whisked her away. Mrs. Fletcher entered the kitchen with Marlee to find Carter already sitting there, picking at a piece of lint on his trousers.
“Carty!” Marlee exclaimed, surprised to see her brother downstairs, since he mostly stayed in his room.
Carter glanced up at Marlee’s eager face briefly, then looked back down to the lint.
“Okay kids, now I need you to listen up,” Mrs. Fletcher began, setting Marlee down in her high chair. “That means you, Carter.”
With an annoyed sigh, Carter lifted his head up and propped it up on his elbow.
“I have a couple errands to run today and they might take a couple hours to finish, so Carter, you’ll be watching Marlee--”
“What?! No! Mom! I--” Carter immediately jumped out of his seat to protest but was cut off with a wave of his mother’s hand.
“Carter, no arguments. With your dad gone on his business trip, I could really use some help with Marlee. Can you do this?” Her tone made it clear it wasn’t a question and Carter glared at the ground and mumbled a reluctant: “Okay.”
“Yay! Carty’s gonna play with me!” Marlee clapped her hands together and shrieked excitedly, throwing her arms around her older brother, who pulled away, immediately annoyed.
“Okay kids, I have to leave now, but I’ll be back by 5, okay?” Mrs. Fletcher grabbed her bag from the kitchen counter. “Bye, Marlee! Bye, Carter!”
As she left the house, Carter turned to his sister and said, “I’m going to be upstairs. You can do whatever you want down here.”
“Nooo! I wanna go to the playground! Pleaseee!!” Marlee wrapped her tiny arms around her brother and looked up at him.
Carter sighed. He didn’t want to bring her to the playground. He didn’t even want to do anything with his sister at all. Ever since she had arrived in the house, he’d stayed away. He didn’t want to get involved in all this baby stuff, and had kept that viewpoint ever since. He was determined not to let it break, but it was like his mother’s announcement today had put the first layer on a lasagna of anger and distress. But despite his dislike for the situation, when Marlee hugged him again and pleaded, a small part of his heart tugged at his stony mind, warming and melting it just a little, so the heart could take over for once.
“Okay,” Carter heard himself say. “Let’s go.”
“Yippee!” Marlee ran to get her coat and flip-flops on, two skills she had recently mastered. She held open the front door and Carter followed, now regretting his decision since it had increased his lasagna. As they walked down the street, the cloudy sky put a damper on Carter’s already sour mood.
“Carty, Carty! Look at me!” Marlee yelled happily, then proceeded to do a sloppy but enthusiastic cartwheel on some person’s driveway.
“Marlee! That’s not our driveway! Get off now!” Carter scolded. He watched his sister’s face cloud as she slowly walked back, losing a little spring in her step. It made him feel odd, scolding Marlee like that. He barely spent time with her; he wasn’t sure he had the right to. Marlee joined Carter and walked alongside him, subdued, but only for a while.
“Did you know that yesterday, I saw this doggy when I was with Mommy at the store, and then I said hello to the doggy, and I got to pet the doggy! She was really soft and her name was Princess. I want a doggy now, so I can cuddle with her and she can play with me…” Marlee rambled on for a couple more minutes, but Carter had stopped listening.
“...and then-- Carty? Why aren’t you listening?” Marlee tilted her head and looked at her brother, confused. Carter didn’t hear her or look down. His eyes were focused on the bleak sky and the sagging branches of a nearby tree. Above him, the sky was silent as gray clouds stiffly barred the sun. Marlee shuffled uncertainly on the hard pavement lining the street of houses.
“Carty!” Marlee said again.
Carter’s head jerked down and he saw his sister pouting with her tiny arms crossed. “Carty! You weren’t listening!” Marlee complained. “I was saying that in pre-school the other day, Mrs. Springs taught us about--”
But Carter had stopped listening again. The sizzling hot lasagna had kept building up inside of him, and he couldn’t take it anymore. “STOP TALKING!” he yelled at Marlee, throwing his arms up and running them through his hair in frustration.
“Huh?” Marlee tilted her head, confused.
Carter tried to take a deep breath. He couldn’t shout at his baby sister. But his pent-up feelings got in the way and he continued to scream at her. “DO YOU EVER STOP TALKING, MARLEE?! DO YOU EVER JUST STOP BEING SO ANNOYING?! I CAN’T STAND HAVING TO LISTEN TO YOUR SENSELESS RAMBLINGS EVERY SECOND OF THE DAY. YOU LIVE IN YOUR OWN LITTLE WORLD AND I JUST CAN’T-- CAN’T… UNDERSTAND IT!” Carter’s lasagna was bubbling over now, and he couldn’t keep up. Just when he was about to let more steam out, he looked at Marlee properly for the first time since his outburst. She was silent, but tears flowed unsteadily from her big, grass-green eyes. Her chubby cheeks were streaked with tears and as she saw him looking, she reached a stubby hand up to wipe them away, failing.
“Sowwy Carty,” she cried. “I just wanted to be your friend! You’re my big brother but I never play with you! I don’t know what games you like to play, or if you like Sofia the First. That’s why I was so happy to play with you.”
At her pure words, something in Carter’s carefully constructed border around himself snapped off, bringing the whole thing down. His heart hung heavy as the moon, as he realized she was right, and he let his heart have control again. His brain was scared of Marlee. He didn’t know how to act around her. He had distanced himself so much from his sister she didn’t even know him.
“I’m sorry, Marlee.” Carter hugged Marlee, then pulled away. Somewhat awkwardly, and uncertainly, he reached out his hand and touched her cheek, wiping away a tear.
Marlee beamed with delight, and her smile said all there was to be said between them. “Let’s go to the playground now!”
Carter smiled and picked up his sister. He broke into a run with her shrieking in delight as they approached the playground. Marlee ran to the swingset and Carter ran behind her. Carter pushed her and she began to swing back and forth joyfully, laughing the whole time. Carter couldn’t help giggling as well.
During one particularly high push, Carter watched his sister swing high, seemingly touching the sky. The shapes in the clouds shifted and changed as they began to move. The sun peeked shyly through the clouds, as Carter’s lasagna started to dissipate. The playground shimmered as the sun’s rays gently touched it.
“Yippee!” Marlee cried as she swung high. Seeing this, Carter smiled slowly and launched himself in the swing next to her and flew high alongside her. Marlee was thrilled to see this and they both giggled as they swung themself up above the sky, which was now a striking blue, lit up by the sun’s gaze along with the vibrant colors of the playground.
Carter and Marlee soar up high and see a new side of town. Encircling the playground are cul de sacs of houses, with kids playing ball and parents chit chatting, babies entranced by rattles and teenagers out with their friends. The lawns blend together in a whirlwind of color. Carter and Marlee swing back and forth, their legs flailing and flying all over the place as they take in the swirling neighborhood before them.