This piece of flash fiction was written for Writer’s Digest’s 2021 February Flash Fiction Challenge Day 19. I spent two hours on this story; this is the third draft. The prompt: “Write about an argument.”
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The voices inside the house rose again, first Dad’s, then Sean’s; Mom’s voice had fallen silent many minutes ago.
Paige frowned. She looked up from the page in her book she’d read to completion six times now. Her gaze fell across the deck, up past the driveway, and into the gray, cloudy sky.
Sean had been melancholy all week. He told Paige the other day he knew the talk was going to turn into a shouting match. When Paige asked why—asking why was a big habit of hers—Sean shook his head, telling her she wouldn’t understand. At sixteen, Sean was twice Paige’s age, and he often said this to her. Paige was beginning to wonder if it was because he didn’t understand either.
Sean had been right, though. He and Dad and Mom were only talking for five minutes before the arguing began, their voices steadily rising.
Suddenly, the front door opened, and the muffled shouting from inside burst out crisp and clear.
“I don’t want to join the Army!” Sean shouted. “I don’t want to join any branch of the military!”
“That’s not your choice,” Dad yelled back. “You will not scoff at family tradition. You will do your duty to this country and jo—”
Mom softly closed the door behind her. She stood ramrod straight on the house’s welcome mat, jaw clenched, brows furrowed, and eyes shining.
Paige looked away.
Her mom sniffled a few times before releasing a sharp sigh. Then footfalls on the deck’s hardwood surface came towards Paige. She looked back just as Mom sat in the brown wicker chair next to her, a small round wicker table with a glass top separating them. Mom didn’t relax into the chair; she sat up straight instead, cupped her hands together, and rested them in her lap.
The muffled shouting inside the house continued.
Paige reread page 341 of her book for a seventh time. She didn’t continue to 342.
Instead, she asked, “Why does Dad want Sean to join the military so bad?”
Mom took a deep swallow before answering. “Joining the military is a family tradition,” she said. “All the men on your Dad’s side of the family join. They see it as their duty and an honorable tradition.”
“But Sean doesn’t want to be in the military.”
Mom started to slouch, but she caught herself, straightening back up and tightening her lips. “No, he doesn’t.”
Paige looked back into the sky for a few moments, thoughtful. She nodded and looked back at her mom. “He probably shouldn’t join. You have to follow orders and rules in the military, right? Sean is terrible at doing both those things.”
A sharp, blurted laugh escaped Mom and mirth reached her eyes for a split second. She recomposed herself quickly. “No. He isn’t, is he?”
They fell into silence. The still shouting voices were moving around now, increasing and decreasing in volume like an ambulance with its horns blaring while driving back and forth. Both voices were no longer annoyed; they were angry.
“Will I need to join the military too?” Paige asked. She didn’t like the sound of the voices and really didn’t like the idea of getting into a similar argument with Dad.
“No, sweetie,” Mom said, shaking her head.
“Why not? If Dad is making Sean join, then it wouldn’t be fair to him if Dad doesn’t make me join.”
“Your dad has . . . different expectations of you, and they don’t involve joining the military. He’d probably forbid it if you tried.”
Paige frowned. “That doesn’t make any sense. And it’s not fair to Sean.”
Mom shook her head, softly. “No. It isn’t.”
Paige nodded. She was getting better at convincing her parents of her thoughts and ideas. It was starting to make life easier. Last week she’d convinced them to let her volunteer at the local library instead of church. The librarians were much more reasonable than the nuns and Father Michaels.
The shouting inside sounded more like growling and barking now. Paige studied her mom. Mom’s cheek and eye twitched each time Dad or Sean shouted something particularly rude or hurtful. Paige had never seen her mom like this, so stiff, so despondent, so . . . conflicted?
“Do you want Sean to join the military?” Paige asked.
Mom stared at the sky, her eyes flickering across the quilt of swirling clouds, a far off look in her eyes. The wind picked up, causing the tall pine trees surrounding their home to sway and fill the air with a quiet rustle.
Finally, Mom opened her mouth, but the door opened. Sean came barging out of the house with his car keys clutched in his hand. He stomped across the deck, down the steps, and onto the driveway, making for his car.
Dad came storming out after him but remained on the deck. “SEAN, YOU GET BACK HERE THIS INSTANT! THAT’S AN ORDER.”
“I’M NOT JOINING THE FUCKING MILITARY DAD AND YOU CAN’T FORCE ME!”
Dad became redder than Paige had ever seen him, even more than when President Biden won. “THEN DON’T COME BACK. I WON’T HAVE SOMEONE DISRESPECTFUL OF OUR MILITARY LIVING UNDER MY ROOF.”
Sean dove into his Honda, ignited the engine, and sped off down the street. Dad charged back into the house and slammed the door behind him.
Silence fell on the deck. Paige stared wide-eyed at her mom.
After ten heartbeats, Mom sat back, melting into the chair. She closed her eyes and let out a deep sigh. Then she smiled and whispered, “Thank God.”