Katie’s Songs

[fiction]

Katie turned up her music and pressed her headphones against her ears. It didn’t help; she still heard her brother yelling in the hallway, pacing, slamming his fists into the bannister. He stomped up the hall, slammed twice, stomped back, slammed three times. Repeat, repeat. Until he stopped panicking. Until he exhausted himself.

Her mother murmured down the hall and her brother roared in response. Ben never hurt anyone else. He was a yeller and a smasher, and sometimes hurt himself, punching his fist into his forehead over and over. But he had never hurt her or their mom. Still, Katie felt sick every time.

Her mom spoke again, this time closer to the door, loud enough that Katie could hear actual words now. Her mom apologized to Ben, explained in soft words. He groaned but slowed down. Katie pictured how tight his neck and arm muscles were. Pictured him shaking his head and fluttering his fingers in front of his mouth.

All of a sudden a sharp rebuke: “Do not go into Katie’s room, Ben!”

That would set him off all over again, so Katie bolted to the door and opened it, pretending to be surprised to see him.

“Hey! I need your help with something. Are you busy?” She grabbed her laptop off her bed and handed it to him.

 

Katie pictured how tight his neck and arm muscles were. Pictured him shaking his head and fluttering his fingers in front of his mouth.

“What? Okay.” He was confused but distracted. Good. Her mom stuck her head in and Katie motioned her away. She held out her hand to her brother.

“Can I touch your arm?”

He nodded, his shoulders lowering and his fists unclenching. She pressed her hand firmly into the top of his forearm. “Come over and look at my running mix? I’m stuck and you always pick the best songs.”

Ben walked straight to her desk and sat down. He opened her laptop and examined her incomplete playlist for Saturday’s race.

“Katie, this has no flow. This is terrible.” His blunt assessment was classic Ben, but she heard a hint of eagerness underneath his words. The hour-long meltdown was over. This was a job, a puzzle to solve, and her brother lived for this stuff.

“I’ll fix it for you.” He picked up the laptop and started walking out.

“Wait!”

He froze.

“You’re supposed to ask me. We need to be on the same page, remember?”

“Ah, right. Sorry, Katie.” Ben peeked at her face, observing, evaluating, and she knew he was trying to figure out if she was mad. “You wanted me to fix this, right? It’s okay that I take it and fix it?”

“Yes, big brother. I want you to fix it. Make the songs really good. I need ten miles of inspiration.” She opened her arms wide and he grimaced and laughed at the same time. “Oh, come on. Please?”

“Katie, gross, no.” But he kept laughing.

“I’m totally going in for a hug!” She made snuggly arms in his direction, and he yelped and took off out the door and down the hall. Six foot three inches of skinny, anxious brother fleeing her embrace.

And now the night was okay. Her mom stood in the hall, watching Katie with a tired expression.

“You’re so good with him.”

“He’s mad about camp, huh?” Katie asked, ignoring the resentment in her mom’s voice.

“Yes. Dr. Kelly says he needs it, though.” Her mom sank onto her bed and put her head on Katie’s shoulder.

“I’ll talk to him later,” Katie said.

“Thank you. You’re the best.”

Katie patted her mom’s back awkwardly. She wished she would do something mom-ish instead of needing to be soothed.

“You finished your homework?” That felt a little better.

“Yeah, Ava and I did it after school.”

“Great. I’ll leave you be, then.”

“Okay,” Katie said.

She pulled her headphones back on as her mom left. Ben was right. The music was uninspiring. Each song sounded the same.

“KATIE!”

She jumped up from her bed, her heart racing all over again. She tore off her headphones and glared at her brother, who stood in the doorway, waving his arms.

“What is your problem, Ben?? You gave me a heart attack!”

“Well you’re alive, so I seriously doubt I gave you a heart attack. Also, I called you ten times. I need to ask you some questions about your race.”

She took a deep breath. “Okay. Questions. Try to talk quietly. You’re freaking me out tonight.”

“I’m sorry.” He sat down next to her, his eyes wide. “Are you really freaking out? Was it my yelling? When I was mad at Mom?” His anxiety bubbled out in fluttering, clutching fingers.

“It’s okay. Don’t stress.” Katie could not soothe one more person tonight.

 

“I’m not laughing at you.” She hugged him back—hard, the only way he could handle an embrace. “I’m laughing because today was the worst and you’re the only person who can ever make me feel better.”

Ben took a deep breath and put her laptop on the floor.

“What are you doing?” she asked, reaching for it, when all of a sudden, his arms engulfed her. “AHHHH! BEN!”

“You’re freaking out, so I’m hugging you to make you feel better!” He squeezed so hard she could barely breathe, and she grabbed his arms to loosen his hold.

She looked up at his earnest, solemn face and burst out laughing. He frowned. She laughed harder and couldn’t stop, even as he grew annoyed.

“You shouldn’t laugh at a person who is choosing your happiness over their own comfort,” he informed her haughtily, dropping his arms.

“I’m not laughing at you.” She hugged him back—hard, the only way he could handle an embrace. “I’m laughing because today was the worst and you’re the only person who can ever make me feel better.”

“Oh,” he said, then smiled and picked up her laptop. “See, I’m good for something!”

“Ben, you’re good for almost everything.” Katie gave him one last squeeze and let go. “So what did you want to ask me?”

“I’m going through songs mile by mile. Two or three songs per mile based on your pace. And I want to know which miles you expect to be harder than others, so I know when to use longer ones.”

Oh, Ben. He was quite literally the only person on this planet who consistently cared about what was best for her. Her heart thumped.

She gave him her race plan and he worked quietly next to her. Searching and typing, finding the songs he knew would be just right. His unyielding focus was his superpower in tasks like this, so Katie knew better than to interrupt. She curled up behind him on her bed, listening to her underwhelming music, and zoned out as she watched him work.

She felt cozy and safe for the first time all day. And when she drifted to sleep, it was an easy, mellow repose, with dreams of her and Ben as little kids.

 

Hannah Grieco is a writer and education and disability advocate in Arlington, VA. Her work can be read in Washington Post’s “On Parenting,” Huffington Post, Motherly, Arlington MagazineHobart Pulp, and Scout Media’s 2019 anthology A Flash of Words.