“GET OUT!” a girlish voice shouted in exasperation, unbelievably audible even from across the house, possibly even from across the town. Squealing boyish laughter followed it; fed on it.
“Get out, I said!! Get out of my room!!”
Jake laughed again, louder, nearly giggling with gleeful abandon. “I am out!” he howled back at her triumphantly. “I’m way out here in the hall!”
I didn’t need to get up to look; I could visualize the scene from where I sat cringing at the desk in my office. Jake standing grinning in the hall, gawking at his year-older sister through her open door, the tips of his sneakers defiantly resting just over the edge of her lintel.
“Go away!” Katie yelled, her piercing cry prompting the neighbor’s hounds into a frenzy of agonized howling. “I don’t like you!”
Jake only cackled harder, his small fists slapping like drumsticks against the hollow-sounding sheetrock.
“I mean it!! I don’t like you!”
“I don’ wike you eiver!” he hurled back indistinctly, still chuckling. From the muffled sound of it, probably poking his tongue out at her.
You’re not supposed to interfere, I reminded myself forcibly, massaging my temples in a futile attempt to flatten the thick, bulging veins that had popped out palpably from the sides of my skull. That’s what the parenting books said; let them fight it out amongst themselves. Easy for them to say, I grumbled internally. They didn’t have to suffer through the screeching.
“JAKE!” Katie shrieked suddenly, her voice rising to a pitch that pained my ears and carved a new crack in my glasses. “I – don’t – want – you – in – my – room!” she erupted, nearly breathless with childish fury and indignation. “Get – out!!” Apparently he’d crossed the line in teasing her; trampled the border between her space and his.
“What?!” he yelled back with mock innocence. “I’m not doing anything!” I heard rigorous, rhythmic tapping noises and pictured him performing a slap-happy dance-routine in the hall by her door.
Suddenly there was a loud thunk and a louder cry, a boyish yell of astonishment and pain.
“Uh-oh, Katie!! You’re gonna be in so much trouble! I’m telling!”
“Good!” she retorted scathingly, ostensibly unperturbed by the formidable threat. “I’ll tell what you did, too.”
“I don’t care! Oh no, I don’t! Oh, Mom! Mo-om!”
I wondered what the parenting counselors would think if I pretended I didn’t hear it. I wasn’t sure if I cared.
“Mom!” Jake yelled, bursting into my office with all of the sound and fury of a string of firecrackers going off unexpectedly in the middle of May. “Katie threw a shoe at me! Hit me right here on the head!” He pointed cheerfully at the nasty wound, a small pinkish tint barely visible beneath my fluorescent lights.
“Looks more like a sandal,” I contended calmly, bending closer to examine the visible results of the near-fatal blow. “You don’t seem hurt.”
“But I am!” he expounded happily. “You should punish her; yes, you should!”
“He started it!” Katie yelled, exploding in turn through my doorway as if her catapult was parked right outside. She glared hatefully at her little brother, the hotness of her anger causing the freshly watered leaves of my poor defenseless office plant to wilt in dismay.
“No, I didn’t, you did!”
“Yes, you did, you know you did!”
“I know you are, but what am I?!”
“I’m rubber and you’re glue…”
“GET OUT!!” I shouted suddenly, snatching up my plant and clutching it to my chest as if it were my one true friend. “Get out of my room!!”
They stopped. Turned to glance thoughtfully at one other and hushed. Retreated silently from my office, sadly into the unknown depths of the rest of the house, while I scolded myself over my own childish temper tantrum.
I can’t lie. I enjoyed the quiet in spite of myself.
An hour later I tiptoed gingerly into the empty kitchen, still feeling a little guilty over my impatient outburst and considering whether I ought to compensate with everyone’s favorite dinner and maybe ice cream to boot. Through the wide doorway down the hall I could see them: my two kids lying serenely next to each other on the living room floor, companionably assembling a five-hundred-piece jigsaw puzzle I’d gotten them for Christmas. Their argument as long forgotten as Mom’s unusual fit of anger, their renewed friendship ensured as long as the delicate balance between sibling love and sibling rivalry was carefully maintained. A balance that might be upset by the smallest act, the tiniest sound, the most frivolous word, the most meager interruption to their peaceful co-existence. Maybe they had something there, after all, those parenting books with their recommendations of non-interference.
I ducked unnoticed back into my office; returned to the smooth stillness of my walls and my work, reassured that my children were safe, my family once again loving and intact. A short time later my husband came in from the garage, the blissfully quiet haven in which he’d passed his leisurely afternoon, his work-boots clunking hard against the laminate flooring as if entirely unconcerned about who heard or observed them. “We got a while until dinner?” he boomed, thrusting aside the door of my office with a bang and energetically brushing the dust from his big black mustache onto my still-quivering houseplant. “I was thinking of patching that hole in the living room wall,” he continued, staring at me curiously as I leapt from my rocking, rolling chair, waving my hands incomprehensibly in a frantic effort to shush him.
“Late dinner tonight,” I whispered, silencing his half-uttered response with a kiss while I wondered how many minutes or hours the newfound peace might reign in our little kingdom if only we left our children alone. “But stay out of their room.”