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A bird chirped, singing above the trees. The clouds were stretched out and pulled like cotton balls and the skies were more grey than blue, which disappointed everything below. It looked like the clouds were about to open up and drown Tobias’s backyard in pitiful downpour.
The air was damp and humid against Toby’s skin as he stepped out into his backyard and he’d realized it really wasn’t the perfect summer day unlike what his mom had told him hours before. The close-together oak trees swayed in the breeze, the sound of rustling leaves muted the slam of Toby shutting his backdoor and the loud screams of his parents arguing inside.
He automatically shoved a hand in his pocket, holding the neck of his guitar in the other. He stomped over the moist ground until the jungle swallowed him up in a collection of overgrown brush, branches, and moss thriving on every tree trunk.
A squirrel scrambled up a tree Toby was settling at. Toby made room to sit down in the grass and curved his legs into a pretzel shape, resting the body of his guitar on his thigh. Without hesitation, he started to pluck the strings in irregular order, liking the feeling of his fingers slipping against the nylon.
Toby was glad he had that escape; the hideout and the array of green to surround him. The feeling of guilt washed over him. He knew the arguing and disagreement between his parents wasn’t his fault, but he couldn’t help but feel like he had started the war. His mind felt like a fight against himself; raw punches and oozing blood and the realization of defeat.
He let his hand rest against the strings for a moment, trying to recite a tune that his best friend and next door neighbor since kindergarten, Astrid, had taught him a month before. He’d practiced it a million times with her until the strings made slices into the tips of his fingers and calluses formed on his fingerpads.
But the overwhelming thought in his head took control of his body and the notes of that song were nowhere to be found. Or maybe it was the fact that the thought of Astrid distracted him; her huge, curly hair and her chocolate eyes that he could stare into for hours.
Toby wiped the thought away. For god sakes, he shouldn’t have been worrying about Astrid--as much as he wanted to--he had to fend for himself in that crumbling household and the gigantic mess it had become. If he could paint a picture of his mind in that moment, the art would be splatters and globs of paint smeared onto a canvas in multiple shades of red and blue.
“Toby?! Are you out there?” A familiar voice called into the backyard. His mom, Clara, shouted to him from the backdoor. His mom’s yells snapped him back into reality. Somehow the day had turned into sundown; the sun hung low in the sky, tinting it a burnt orange, and the rain that once looked like it would attack any minute, had settled and gone away. Toby’s realization that that much time had gone by burned a pit in his stomach. Although it was most likely his hunger eating at his insides, whatever it was that made his organs grow a burning sensation, curved back to the idea that his thoughts were now taking over his mind; his body. The fact that he got so lost in his head, scared him.
Where did the sixteen year old, happy-go-lucky Toby go?
“I’m fine!” He hollered back into the thick, summer air.
“That’s not what I asked!” His mom argued.
“Well, it answered your question, didn’t it?” Toby could hear a loud sigh come from his mother, knowing her answer without each of them saying anything.
“Look, I’ve had enough yelling for one day! Come get dinner when you’re ready.” She stammered and shut the back door with a click.
Toby stood up and steadied himself on the uneven ground beneath him. He lifted his guitar from the ground and swung it over his shoulder, not noticing the wooden structure just barely missing the hard bark of the tree behind him. He fiddled with his blonde curls with his free hand, fixing a few misplaced curls. He stepped across the backyard with lazy strides, kicking logs and twigs here and there as he exited the jungle of his backyard.
“Toby! Tobsters!” A sudden voice whisper-yelled.
Toby turned to see Astrid hanging her arms over the picket fence that separated their houses. The fence was wrapped in vines and ferns; Astrid fighting off itching leaves and stabbing thorns. He dropped the guitar to his side again, holding it by the neck.
Toby loved everything about her; from her caramel brown skin and huge, brown eyes that when she looked at you, seemed to smile. To her head of big curls with dark brown-almost-black roots and chestnut tips and down to her smile that could make anything dull, sparkle, with the slightest flash of her teeth.
“Astrid, what the--” He said, being cut off.
“Shhh! My parents don’t know I’m out here.” She held a finger against her lips.
Toby lowered his voice and asked, “What are you doing here?”
“What do you mean, what am I doing here?” She started. “You can feel the tension of your house from a mile away.”
Toby placed his hand on the back of his neck, rubbing his skin and landing his hand on his shoulder. “Is it that obvious?”
Astrid nodded, then looked down at the guitar from over the fence. “You picking up the ol’ axe again?”
Toby looked at her, confused. Astrid giggled and looked down at her feet.
“The guitar, you idiot.” She joked. “You’re playing again?”
Toby shrugged. “Thought it would get my mind off of it…the arguing, I mean.”
Astrid nodded in affirmation. “I thought I scared you away with my awful teaching tactics.”
“Yeah, you were an awful teacher.” Toby said sarcastically and Astrid acted offended, opening her mouth and clutching her hand against her chest. For a second, Toby actually started to forget about what he’d eventually have to go home to.
The laughing slowed, for what Toby wanted to last forever, until Astrid dropped the bomb they were both hoping neither of them would bring up: “How are your parents?”
“Uh,” Toby started. Why was it so hard to answer such a simple question? “Well, they aren’t getting any better if that’s what your asking.”
“That sucks, Tobster. I can’t imagine going through that. I mean, I know that’s not what you want to hear; you want to hear someone tell you how to fix it, but that’s not something you’re capable of, Toby. They have to figure this out; as a couple and as parents.” Astrid said.
Toby nodded then blurted. “Do you think it’s my fault? All the arguing?”
“Of course not.” She replied. “You did nothing wrong. And I guess what you need to hear is that I’m always here for you.”
“Thanks.” He said, shuffling in his spot. “I should go in. I’ll see you tomorrow for--”
“The resurrection of our famous guitar lessons?” Astrid added, cutting him off again.
“That’s not what I was gonna say…” Toby corrected.
“I know, but you’ve been cordially invited. I’ll text you in the morning.”
“Astrid.” He called after her as she escaped from the fence back across the lawn to her house, curving her body through a slit in the living room window. She was gone.
Toby stood there, staring into his refrigerator, five minutes later. He pushed past the containers of random food items he didn’t think belonged in his fridge; veggie chili, potato salad, actual salad, and an array of salad dressings that all looked unbelievably unappealing.
Giving up on his idea of creating a makeshift meal from things in the fridge, he opted out on grabbing a frozen pizza from the freezer.
Watching the mix of sauce and scattered mozzarella cheese spin in circles in the microwave, Toby’s head started to hurt. If it wasn’t the spinning microwave that gave him a headache, it was the booming sound of his parents voices from upstairs, in which he could clearly hear everything they were saying.
Right then and there, he understood everything Astrid had told him. If it wasn’t his fault (which it wasn’t), then he couldn’t do anything to fix it. He knew the fighting would only get worse and the yelling would only grow louder.
The last thing Toby remembered from that night was sliding down against the wall of his kitchen, eating his pizza in silence as his parents shouted at each other above him. He let the salty tears he’d been holding back spring to his eyes and fall down his cheeks.
When will it all end?