This story is by Courtney DuChene and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
My brother dug his knee into my back as he held me down in the dirt. “Let me up.”
He responded by grinding my face into our gravel driveway. From the yard, I could hear my mother rattling off instructions for my father in the house.
“Don’t forget to reapply sunscreen every 2 hours,” my mom said.
“Okay,” my Dad said.
“Or more often if they go swimming.”
“Bet, I know.”
My mom catches sight of us rolling on the ground. “Noah, Trevor,” she scolds as she pulls us apart. “What are you doing?”
“He tried to take the front seat,” Noah protests. “And I should get it because I’m older.”
“Trevor,” Mom said. “Is that true?”
I averted my eyes, bashfully. I had been trying to sneak into the front seat all summer, but my mom and brother were steadfast. I wasn’t old enough yet.
My dad watched my mom from a few steps back. “I don’t see why he can’t…”
“Joe, he’s only seven. He doesn’t weigh enough.”
“My parents used to let me…”
“We’re not discussing this,” my mom said. Noah tried to lunge out of her grasp back at me, nearly causing her to lose her balance. She shot my dad an exasperated look. Hair breaking loose from her ponytail, she said, “are you sure you can handle this?”
My father picked me up and helped me in the car. “I’ve got this,” he said.
My mom let Noah go and he jumped in the front seat. My father helped both of us buckle in, while me mother double checked to make sure the seatbelts were fastened properly. “Be safe,” she said, and to Noah she added, “Make sure to call me, at your hotel, if anything is wrong.”
“He won’t need to,” my Dad said as he slammed the driver’s side door. My mother waited at the end of the driveway and waved.
We hadn’t seen my Dad since his brother’s funeral six months ago. My parents had been divorced for nearly four years at that point and my he had been unraveling. The motorcycle should have been our first clue, then the one bedroom, furniture-less bachelor apartment he took us to on the weekends. What really clued us in though was that, after uncle Keith passed, he quit his job and dumped his savings into a trip to Europe where he learned to play the banjo and called it soul searching.
My mother was none too thrilled that his mid-life crisis left her the de facto single mother of a seven and a nine year old boy. While he was getting high in Berlin, she filed for sole custody. He never showed up for the court date.
When he came back to America, however, he was eager to see us. I visited him occasionally at the park when I was with my grandparents, but Noah always declined. He said he prefered to stay inside and play video games. My Dad called over and over again, asking her to make Noah see him. She finally relented in the form of a weekend beach trip while she was at her sister’s kid free wedding.
We were jazzed for a weekend at the shore. Dad rented a hotel room near Ocean City and, when we weren’t talking about the rides at the boardwalk, we were looking at images of marine life on the computer and dreaming about how far out we would have to swim to see a Queen angelfish.
“Do you think Dad will drive us there on his motorcycle?” I remember asking.
“Who cares if he does?” Noah said. “Motorcycles are stupid.”
I didn’t respond to him. While Noah was excited for the beach, there was a sourness about him anytime I brought up Dad. He would scrunch up his lips and pretended to hate things, like motorcycles and shark teeth, that I knew he loved if I mentioned Dad had them. When I told him he was just pretending to hate those things because he knew Dad liked them, he accused me of forgiving too easily and punched me in the ribs.
What Noah didn’t know was that our father seemed different than when he had left. He worked less and at nights, when I visited, he would pull me into his lap and play banjo songs in the park. He started letting me sit in the front seat of the car when it was just us after I told him about Noah picking on me.
He was also thinner, hair longer, more European in its cut and he had taken to wearing a shark tooth necklace that his brother had worn every day until he died.
Keith was my father’s younger brother and there was somewhat of a rivalry between them. My father had been a rockstar in high school. He played in a Ska band, was student council president, and captain of the swim team. Keith tried to take on all the same activities, but with limited success. He was always being compared to my father though, until college that is. College is where Keith really excelled. He graduated with a 4.00 and went straight on to get his MBA from Harvard’s business school. He got married while in grad school and pretty soon he matched my Dad in the kid count. My father, who was in the middle of a divorce, suddenly found himself being compared to Keith and he wasn’t too keen on it. At Christmas, the year before Keith died, they got into a huge argument over whether my grandparents should turn their childhood bedroom, where my Dad kept all his high school awards, into a home gym. They hadn’t spoken to each other in 11 months when Keith committed suicide. The note he left behind was to my Dad, asking if they could make up.
Once we stopped at the rest stop, I made another play for the front seat. I sunk down below the window this time, hoping that Noah wouldn’t see me. When he opened the door, he yanked me out of the seat and started beating on me again. Dad found us in the dirt when he came out at the rest stop.
“Hey,” he said as he pulled Noah off of me. “What’re you doing?”
“He sat in the front seat again even though he knows I’m the oldest.”
“It doesn’t matter if you’re the oldest, let him have the front.”
“But Mom said that I could have it.”
My father’s shoulder slumped. He knew he had to defer to our mother and reward my brother for his ill-behavior.
“Fine, but I want you to remember that, someday, your “little” brother’s gonna get bigger than you. How’re you going to beat him up then?”
“No he’s not. I’m older.”
“Older doesn’t mean taller, or smarter, or better, or any of that. It just means you were born first, so you’re a little more mature. You have to be willing to set things aside…”
“No I don’t,” Noah pulled himself away. “And I don’t have to listen to you.
My Dad sighed and the drive continued. Noah and I momentarily set aside our feud to play together at the beach. The whole time we were there, Dad let us get anything we wanted. Taffy from the candy store, extra ride tickets, cotton candy, we had it made.
“Do you think could get him to buy one of those hermit-crabs?” Noah asked. “We could put it in his bed tonight.
“I don’t think…”
But Noah was already begging my father for one. He smirked at his own devious plan when my father handed him the cage.
“He’ll have to ride in the back though,” my father said, “So that the cage won’t tip.”
Noah stared at me. I mimed crushing the crab. “I don’t want him to sit by Trevor.”
“Then I guess Trevor will have to sit in the front.”
I grinned at my Dad and began running for the front seat.
Noah dropped his cage and tackled me. “He’s not getting the front seat,” he said as he grinded my face in the asphalt.
“Hey, hey,” my Dad yelled as he weaved through the parked cards. “Get off of him, Noah, Noah.”
He tried to pull Noah off of me, but Noah dug his heels in. “Why should I listen to you? It’s not like you’re ever here.”
My father took a step back.
“You ran away after your stupid brother died and left Mom all alone. I didn’t even want to come with you on this stupid weekend. I hate you and my stupid brother.”
My Dad, looked at Noah, devastated and walked away. “Fine just fucking kill each other then, if you’ll never miss him.”
They held eye contact. Noah stopped beating me. The weight of my father’s word sinking in. He staggered off me, and hugged my father’s knees. When we left, I road in the front seat.