The house was, to any other eye, an unimpressive, somewhat ugly little house midway down Firefly Way. The unkempt front garden was the neighborhood eyesore, if you asked the Flanders family who lived across the street. Greyish planks adorned the sides of the house, and a lopsided picket fence enclosed the somewhat overgrown backyard. A set of stairs on the side of the garage led up to a small apartment, which was often the source of the neighborhood’s noise complaints.
Wash, who owned the house at 42 Firefly Way with his wife Zoe, was actually quite proud of the garden. He had managed not to kill the wild rose bushes lining the front porch, and he thought the dandelions which grew in the lawn were simply too pretty to kill. Besides, Jayne had broken the lawn mower two summers ago and it wasn’t worth it to buy a new one when Jayne would probably just break it again.
Mal had convinced his sister Zoe and her husband to buy the house a long time ago, even though Zoe was mighty skeptical about the structural integrity of the building. Mal insisted that with a coat of paint and a little elbow grease they could get it ship-shape. Wash hadn’t been excited about the prospect of buying such an ordinary house until he saw how big the yard was, and immediately started making plans for his garden. In the end, Wash and Zoe (who was still unconvinced) signed the papers that made 42 Firefly Way their house, and Mal sweet-talked his way into living in the converted space above the garage. Wash and Mal spent many a long day hammering and painting in the face of Zoe’s skeptical looks.
Sometimes the pipes creaked in protest, and the heater would sort of go in and out during the winter, and maybe the septic system wasn’t such a good idea after all. Regardless, the small but sturdy house was home to Wash and Zoe, their kids Kaylee and Jayne, and Uncle Mal. A dysfunctional family in a dysfunctional house, but a family nonetheless.
The crickets chirping to each other in the yard went quiet as booted feet crunched up the garden path. They knew that heavy footfall, and knew it only meant trouble – best to hide before they were found.
Jayne pushed open the gate to the backyard, swearing under his breath as the gate creaked loudly. He crept around the side of the house, ducking under Kaylee’s window just in case, even though he could see the light was out. On the porch, Jayne stayed low as he riffled through his pockets for his house key. His pockets turned up lint, a crumpled fast food receipt, and a pocket knife, but no house key. Swearing again, Jayne tried the kitchen door. Locked. It was like they knew he was out past his curfew or something. He dithered on the spot for a few moments, wondering how much trouble he would be in if he broke a window and let himself inside.
Deciding that he liked his backside attached to his body, Jayne headed back around the back of the house to the stairs on the side of the garage that led up to his Uncle Mal’s apartment. He found a little rock and tossed it at the window by the door. After a short pause, a light went on and Mal’s face appeared in the window.
“What d’you want Jayne?” he hissed, his hair sticking up every which way. He scratched at his shirtless chest, clearly irritated.
“Open the kitchen door for me,” Jayne said, keeping his voice low. Kaylee slept deeply, but Zoe had a sixth sense about these things. Mal narrowed his eyes.
“Ain’t it after your curfew?”
“I forgot my key.”
“Well if you’re gonna stay out late, maybe you oughta keep track of your key, Jayne.”
“C’mon, Mal, just lemme in.”
“Mm, nope. This is the third time this week and I need my beauty sleep.”
“Night Jayne!” Mal ducked away from the window. Jayne blinked; maybe his uncle was really pulling his leg and was going down to open the kitchen door for him. But the light went off.
“Mal? Gorram - Mal! C’mon!!”
Grumbling, Jayne stomped back none too quietly to the back porch, not caring if he woke up the whole house at this point. He lay down on the little swinging bench Wash had insisted on getting a while back and everyone had made fun of him for. Jayne was now grateful for the scratchy padded cushion, even though he had to scrunch up tight to fit on the bench, feet dangling over the side. It took a while, and it was by no means comfortable, but eventually he fell asleep, glad that it wasn’t too cold at night yet.
“Psst – Jayne! Wake up!”
Jayne sat up abruptly and nearly fell off the swing as it jerked with the movement. He flailed, but managed to stay on, barely. He heard Kaylee’s giggle and turned toward her voice scowl at her. She waved at him from her bedroom window.
“You forget your key again?” she asked. Jayne made a face at her. His whole body ached from being scrunched up on the swing.
“Can you just let me in?”
“Uh uh, mom’s mad. We’re not supposed to let you in,” Kaylee shrugged. Jayne blinked, turning to look through the kitchen window. Zoe was moving around the kitchen getting breakfast, while Wash sat at the table with his newspaper. He spotted Jayne and waved cheerfully.
“What d’you mean you’re not supposed to let me in!”
Kaylee shrugged again. “Mom said. I brought you some toast though,” she said, pulling up the edge of the screen and tossing a slice of toast to Jayne. It fell just short of the bench – at least it landed butter side up. Jayne blinked at Kaylee in disbelief.
“Just open the door!”
“I weren’t the one who forgot my key and stayed out late. Again,” Kaylee said and ducked away from the window.
“Gorram – KAYLEE!” Jayne struggled up from the bench to go to Kaylee’s window, but she had secured the flap on the screen and was nowhere to be seen in her room. He looked back to his parents eating breakfast in the kitchen and caught Wash’s eye. Wash’s eyes flicked to Zoe then back to Jayne and gave a little shrug with his “What can I do?” face. Zoe resolutely ignored him.
Jayne picked up the slice of toast from the porch and sat back down on the bench. He could out stubborn his mom, probably. Maybe. Dusting some grit off the piece of bread, Jayne ate his breakfast and wished he had remembered his key.
Mal swung down from the hatch in the garage ceiling late in the morning. He had built the hatch when he first moved into the apartment over the garage, saying that he wasn’t going to knock at the front door every time he wanted to see his family. Zoe occasionally threatened to lock the garage door, but she hadn’t yet.
Normally, Mal would not be awake at this hour, but little Kaylee was banging away at the hot water heater.
“D’you really have to do that so early?” Mal asked, rubbing sleep from his eyes. Kaylee looked up, wrench in hand.
“It’s practically lunch,” she pointed out. “Plus, I gotta do laundry and the water ain’t been hot enough.”
Mal made some unintelligible noises and moved toward door to the main house. “Is your momma not letting Jayne in?”
“Nope. I gave ‘im some toast, but mom says don’t let him in,” Kaylee said, turning back to her water heater and banging on a pipe connection with her wrench.
“Got it,” Mal winced at the noise, making sure to close the garage door behind him. He knew Zoe, knew her stubbornness, so if she had decided to keep Jayne outside, Mal knew Jayne was going to stay out there for as long as she saw fit.
It was a cloudy weekend morning, threatening rain, so everyone was home. Mal walked into the living room where Wash was reading the paper.
“Ah, the creature emerges,” Wash said, looking up from his cartoons. “Jayne’s on the porch but – “
“Kaylee told me already. Is there any breakfast left?”
“It’s almost lunch –“
A sudden boom shook the house, rattling the windows. Wash and Mal exchanged a look.
“Kaylee’s working on the water heater,” Mal said. “Maybe she’s blown the garage off.”
Kaylee stuck her head into the hallway, looking slightly singed. “It’s okay! Everything’s shiny! It was just a little boom!” she insisted loudly. Wash gave her a little wave.
“Don’t blow off the garage, bao bei,” Wash said. Kaylee grinned and ducked back into the garage. Wash shook his head and rustled his newspaper a little. “Still cheaper than calling a handyman, even when our little mechanical genius nearly blows up the house. There might be some pancakes left if you ask nicely. But Zoe’s in a Mood so…”
“Don’t bait the bear, got it,” Mal waved a dismissive hand and strolled into the kitchen. “I heard there were pancakes?”
“Pancakes are only for folks who get up ‘fore the crack of noon,” Zoe said. She was standing in front of the open refrigerator, tossing take-out containers into the garbage bin.
“Wait – hey! That’s still good!” Mal protested, going to fish the carton out.
“There’s green fuzz growing on it.”
“I could eat around it – “
Zoe batted him away from the garbage and pointed to a covered plate by the stove. “You’re lucky Jayne didn’t get breakfast, else there wouldn’t be none for you.”
Mal beamed and grabbed the plate, not bothering to warm up the pancakes. He leaned against the counter as he stuffed his mouth, watching Zoe slowly empty out the fridge of take-out containers.
“So, how long are you gonna make Jayne stay out there?” Mal asked around a mouthful of pancake. Zoe glanced out the window up at the sky.
“You think it’s gonna rain today?”
“They say it’s supposed to.”
“Well, we’ll see then.”
Mal shook his head, stuffing his last pancake into his mouth with his fingers. “You run a tight ship, Zoe Washburn.”
“Mm, don’t you forget it.”
Kaylee trotted into the kitchen a few minutes later, looking slightly singed and sweaty. “Mom, Simon’s gonna come over to do homework and stuff, is that okay?” she asked. Zoe glanced at her youngest.
“Uh huh. You didn’t blow up the garage did you?”
“’course not! I’m gonna run the wash to test it out then I’m gonna take a shower,” Kaylee said, inspecting her nails for grime. “Didja leave the condoms in the bathroom?”
“Sure did, bao bei. Right where I left them last time,” Zoe said, tossing yet another carton into the bin. Kaylee leaned up and kissed her mother on the cheek.
“Thanks mom!” she trotted off to gather up the laundry.
“Condoms?” Mal asked when his niece was out of earshot, raising his eyebrows. Zoe closed the door of the fridge, which was nearly empty save for a few boxes of Chinese food from the night before. “I thought Simon was gay.”
“Oh, completely. That box of condoms been there for ages,” Zoe nodded. “But don’t go breakin’ Kaylee’s heart. It’s awful sweet how she is with Simon.”
Mal shook his head as he took his plate to the sink. “I won’t say a thing,” he said, looking out the window over the sink, which looked out to the neighbor’s yard. Their neighbor, Inara, was a woman a little younger than Mal, slender and shapely with curly dark hair. She lived alone in the house next door, though she always seemed to have a lot of visitors. She was currently tending to the lush flowers in her back garden, a sparkling shawl wrapped around her shoulders catching the weak sunlight in an enchanting way.
“Mal? Mal? You’re starin’ again,” Zoe said, nudging him away from the sink. Mal blinked and dragged his eyes away from Inara.
“What? No,” he protested, even as his eyes slid back to look out the window.
“Uh huh. You know, you could just invite her over for dinner or something,” Zoe said. She inspected the plates in the sink, then decided to leave them for Jayne to do later.
“Why would I do that?” Mal asked. He watched in disappointment as Inara went back into her house. It was starting to rain. Mal could hear Jayne swearing on the porch.
“You only been staring at her every time she comes outside since she moved in,” Zoe said. “She probably thinks you’re a crazy stalker. And she’d be right.”
“I ain’t crazy!”
Wash came into the kitchen. “Lamby toes, it’s raining. Don’t you think it’s time to let Jayne back in?”
Zoe glanced out the window. “Not yet.”
“Yes dear,” Wash said, kissing her briefly. He looked at his brother-in-law. “Why is Mal looking all spluttery and embarrassed?”
“He won’t invite Inara over for dinner.”
“Well that is because he’s a crazy stalker.”
Zoe smiled and kissed her husband. “I love you, baby.”
Wash blinked, but looked pleased nonetheless. “Well, me and my big sexy brain, you know. I heard Simon was coming over?”
“You know he’s – “ Mal started, leaping on the change of topic. Wash nodded.
“Gay, right. Though, maybe, who knows? He might go both ways and surprise us all. Don’t tell Kaylee.”
“Don’t tell Kaylee what?” Kaylee asked, bouncing into the kitchen. She had put on a pretty sundress and even tried to do her make up in an effort to impress Simon. Wash tucked a stray strand of hair behind Kaylee’s ear fondly.
“We’re giving Jayne away,” Wash said gravely. “He’s just too much of a trouble maker, and your mother and I have just had it…”
Kaylee giggled. “Well I always wanted to be an only child.”
Meanwhile, Simon was walking up to the front door, juggling an umbrella (which had managed to turn itself inside out of course) and his school books. Jayne jumped out of the bushes at Simon as he neared the porch. Simon let out a very unmanly squeak and dropped his books and umbrella into a puddle. He scowled at Jayne, who shushed him.
“Shh – shh,” Jayne said. He was already quite wet – the porch didn’t have a very substantial overhang – and he was hungry and sore. He was getting a bit desperate. This was a bad combination, bordering on a Bad Jayne Situation which usually led to people getting roughed up. The look he was giving Simon was surely dangerous. Simon really, really didn’t want to get beaten up today.
“You ruined my biology homework,” Simon said petulantly, bending to gather up his things. Maybe not the best way to avoid getting beaten up, but he would have to transcribe all his notes onto new paper now. He sighed at his muddied notes, perfectly organized until now.
“You have to let me inside,” Jayne said, his voice low. Simon straightened, holding out a dripping sheet of paper with his fingertips.
“…Don’t you live here?”
“Mom locked me out,” Jayne said by way of explanation. Simon shook his head vigorously.
“Oh no, no, I’m not letting you inside. If Zoe said – “
“She likes you, she won’t get mad at you.”
“Lan dan jiang!”
Simon made a face. “Fine. Alright! You don’t have to get crass.”
“I’m gonna hide in the bushes again, but don’t close the door all the way.”
“Your strategy is terrible,” Simon said, shaking out his homework a little. “Remind me to never let you plan a surprise party or something.”
“Just don’t close the door, buhn dahn.”
“Please keep calling me names, that makes me want to help you so much more.”
Jayne, already halfway into the bush, peeked out at Simon and made his best threatening face. “I can hurt you,” he said, eyes narrowing. Simon blanched, turning quickly to the door. He raised a hand to knock on the door, acutely aware of Jayne’s stare boring into the back of his head. Kaylee opened the door after a moment, smiling brightly.
“Hiya, Simon,” she chirped. “You look kinda wet, come in. I can throw your clothes in the dryer if you want.”
Simon stepped inside, a smile spreading over his own face. Kaylee’s perpetual optimism was always infectious. He leaned in and kissed her cheek.
“My homework’s all wet,” he said, showing her the wet books and papers. She frowned sympathetically.
“Well let’s get you outta those wet clothes – “ Kaylee began but was interrupted by a buzzing sound down the hall. “Oh! The laundry!”
Simon watched Kaylee scamper away, skirt swishing around her legs. He kicked off his shoes, lining them up neatly by the door, and moved to the kitchen, making sure that the front door was left slightly ajar for Jayne.
“Hi Mr. and Mrs. Washburne,” Simon said politely. He heard the front door close and the sound of footsteps on stairs. He raised his voice a little to cover the sound. “Can I lie out my homework so it dries? It got a little wet in the rain.”
“Go ahead, Simon,” Zoe said, smiling at him. “Are you staying the night?”
Simon’s cheeks went pink. “I – um – I don’t – er – “ he stammered. Wash laughed and clapped Simon on the shoulder.
“Don’t be afraid. Zoe just likes your pancakes better than the ones I make,” he nodded, a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “Where’d Kaylee run off to? To get the condoms?”
Simon choked, turning a deeper shade of red. He could still never get over how flippant Mr. and Mrs. Washburne were about sex. Even though he and Kaylee had totally never had sex before. They really only kissed, and Simon was too nervous to do that half the time. “L-laundry,” he managed to choke out.
“Well, don’t worry I’m sure Kaylee – “
“Oh NO!” Kaylee’s cry echoed down the hall. Zoe’s head whipped around to look down the hall, Momma Mode fully engaged.
“That’s Kaylee’s Distressed Voice,” Wash said, already walking towards the sound of her voice. Simon and Zoe followed close behind. They all crowded into the doorway of the laundry room, where Kaylee was standing with something cupped in her hands. She looked up at her dad with wide, nearly tearful eyes.
“Dad, I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry,” she babbled, tears spilling over onto her cheeks. “I didn’t know, if I’d’ve known I wouldn’t’a run the dryer so high –“
Wash put his arm around his youngest, kissing her temple soothingly. “Known what, bao bei?” She tilted her head back to look at her dad, her lower lip wobbling as she opened up her hands slowly.
In her palm sat a pile of twisted green and brown plastic. Leaning in closer, Wash realized the blob had several mismatched reptilian legs, two tails, and what appeared to be a horn sticking out of what might have been a head.
“Oh – my dinosaurs!” Wash said, carefully plucking the twisted plastic from Kaylee’s hand.
“I’m real sorry, daddy,” she sniffled. “They must’ve fallen in when I was doin’ the laundry and I guess the water’s real properly hot now and – I didn’t see ‘em! I’m sorry!”
“Aw, Kaylee,” Wash rubbed his non-dinosaured hand up and down Kaylee’s arm. “It’s just a super-dinosaur now. The ruler of all the dinosaurs. Even T-Rex.”
“You mean you ain’t mad?” she asked, swiping at her nose. Wash kissed her forehead.
“Not a bit. You’ll see - he’ll be in charge of the rest of the dinosaurs in no time,” he promised. Kaylee gave her dad a tentative smile. Her make-up was smeared under one eye, but Wash swiped at the smudge with his thumb as he returned her smile. “You’ll just have to get me a new set for Christmas.”
“See, Kaylee? No harm done,” Zoe said, nodding. “And now we know our clothes’ll be extra clean with all that hot water.” She paused and sniffed the air. “Do I smell something burning?”
Mal poked his head out of the garage. “Hey, I smell something burnin’. It ain’t the water heater, I checked.”
“Why would it be the water heater?” Kaylee hiccupped. Mal gave her a look.
“Well you were bangin’ on it an awful lot.”
“I know what I’m doin’!”
“Then what’s burnin’!” Mal asked. The smoke detector in the kitchen started blaring, followed by a loud swear. Zoe blinked.
“Jayne,” she said darkly and zoomed off.
“Should I call the fire department?” Mal asked, looking at Wash. Wash shrugged.
“Zoe’s probably got a handle on it. We’d know if she didn’t,” he said. Mal frowned and came out of the garage, sniffing the air more.
“Doesn’t smell like food to me,” he commented.
Simon looked alarmed. “Jayne wouldn’t set fire to the house, would he?”
Kaylee considered this for a moment. “Maybe if he was real mad.”
“I’m going to lend your mother some backup support,” Wash said, giving Kaylee a final quick kiss on the cheek. “Don’t you two get too frisky now.”
Kaylee giggled and smiled brightly at Simon. Mal gave Simon a vaguely threatening look before following Wash to the kitchen. Simon never really knew if Mal actually liked him, and it was times like this that were even more confusing. He was pretty sure Mal could castrate him if he touched Kaylee. She grabbed Simon’s hand. “C’mon, I got somethin’ special to show you.”
“But – fire?”
“Mom and dad’ll keep it under control.”
“Don’t worry, Simon,” she insisted, tugging on his hand again. Simon wasn’t sure to be worried more about the fire or the potential castration from Kaylee’s uncle.
“Simon, you might wanna come to the kitchen,” Zoe called. Simon looked at Kaylee, eyes wide.
“That’s not her trouble voice, don’t worry. C’mon,” Kaylee tugged Simon’s hand again, changing directions to drag him toward the kitchen. Wash was standing on a chair fanning the smoke detector, which was still beeping crazily. Jayne was sitting in another chair at the kitchen table, shoulders hunched and arms crossed over his chest, Zoe standing over him, her own arms crossed. There was a charred pile of ashes on the table in front of him.
“You got somethin’ to say for yourself, Jayne?” Zoe said, nudging her son’s shoulder. Jayne grumbled something unintelligible. “So everyone can understand you, now.”
Jayne huffed and mumbled somewhat more clearly, “Sorry I set your books on fire, Simon.”
“I didn’t mean for them to burn up, like!”
“That was my homework, buhn dahn! What were you even trying to do?” Simon grabbed at some of the ashes on the table, which crumbled under his fingers. His biology textbook was badly singed.
“I was tryin’ to dry out your papers since you let me in! I didn’t think they’d catch fire!”
Simon blinked. “You were trying to dry out my homework? With open flames?”
“Well, that was real sweet of you Jayne,” Kaylee said, leaning into Simon’s shoulder. Simon blinked down at Kaylee, the anger dying in his throat.
“What am I going to do on Monday? I still have to turn in my homework. They’re not going to believe that someone set it on fire,” Simon pointed out.
“We’ll write you a note. And Jayne’ll make it up to you,” Wash said, still fanning the smoke detector from his perch on the chair.
“See?” Kaylee beamed, patting Simon’s chest. “Everything’s shiny!”