Palo Alto Weekly 19th Annual Short Story
by Caroline Hodge
Tires rolled across our gravel driveway, producing a loud crunching
sound as they crushed the loose stones, like a tree limb breaking
in two. A flash of headlights briefly illuminated my bedroom walls,
arousing me from a restless sleep. Tradition told me it was my
three cousins and Uncle Hank, coming to pick us up for the annual
trip to Tenaya Lake. Every year, on this certain balmy day, I heard
their tires roll over the driveway, and every year I had not gone
with them. But this year, the monotonous pattern was finally broken,
for I, Brian A. Barlen, was going on the trip.
I had no trouble getting out of bed that morning, despite the fact that it was
three hours before dawn. I tried to restrain myself from charging out from under
the covers, beating my chest and roaring out a blasting war cry to wake up the
rest of the house. But I inched out of bed silently, knowing that Mom hated to
be woken up unnecessarily early.
I glanced at Danny, and for that moment, I felt that the three years between
us had spanned into ten. In him I saw myself as I had been four years ago: thin
yet dense, practically a miniature version of my older brothers, with more spunk
compacted into his small-framed body than my parents knew what to do with. Even
as Danny slept, his stubborn expression remained, a trait ubiquitous in the Barlen
family, for he was not allowed on this excursion.
I felt a spark of empathy for him as I remembered how rejected I had felt on
this certain July day last year, and the previous year, and probably the year
before that as well. I too had felt that fiery urge to go on the trip. Just like
him, I had wanted to prove to everyone that I wasn't a wimp, and was just as
strong and manly as my older brothers.
Most of all I wanted to go backpacking; I wanted to hike up to the towering Yosemite
peaks, and then back down again into the vibrant valleys. I wanted to feel the
perspiration drip down my back in tiny tributaries and feel my shoulders ache
from the thick weight of my backpack as I navigated my way across the stepping
stones of a rushing river. I wanted to see a rattlesnake dance through the bushes,
and live to tell the tale. I wanted to cannonball into the icy mountain lake
my brothers bragged about and pierce the glass with my weight, breaking the glossy
crystal liquid into a thousand parts.
And I wanted to hear Dad soften his stern voice and gently explain to me how
to build a fire that would delicately rise until it singed the cooking pot hanging
from the wooden teepee we would use to cook our food. I wanted to have stories
to tell at the dinner table, and have my family listen open-mouthed while I animatedly
explained the time when a snake came within one inch of biting me before I heroically
beat it down with a tree branch. I wanted to be able to understand the inside
jokes my brothers made about the trip instead of having to foolishly laugh along.
But I couldn't. The unwritten rule was that you weren't permitted
to go until you were ten and could carry your own pack the eight
traveled, a requirement everyone except myself knew I couldn't fulfill
until this year.
That was just the way it was. I could just hear Dad's bossy voice
whizzing through the air, vibrating against the walls of the house
when I begged
him to please
make an exception for me and let me go even though I wasn't yet ten.
He would look me straight in the eye and declare, "No, son. Otherwise, we all end
up carrying more and waiting for you all the time. We have to keep up our pace,
Brian," punctuating each word with a little spritz of spit that would shoot
out at me like gentle reminders of my inferiority. Then Mom would give him an
admonishing look and he would hastily add, "You can go when you're ten,
alright?" I would bow my head and pretend to look discouraged,
although already I was devising another plan of protest.
After begging failed, I discovered another method, bribing. I used to think it
was a social injustice not to let me go, for at four feet four inches, I considered
myself to be practically the size of a ten-year-old and certainly as strong as
one. Not protesting indignantly about this injustice would be a crime, and certainly
a little bit of extra incentive to tip the boat in the right direction couldn't
do any harm.
Being the observant person I was, I knew what made Dad lenient
with the rules. I washed his truck spotless, shined his eyeglasses,
just the way he liked it: strong and black. But nothing seemed
to persuade him to bend that particular precept and he held steadfast
to his word.
As Mom would
say, "Brian, you're just a chip off the old block, stubbornness
Along with the sticky, stagnant July days came the unwanted acidic feelings towards
my dad and brothers that seemed to take root in me no matter how much I reassured
myself that that trip wasn't something to get excited about anyway. The hostility
spread its roots deeper and deeper in me until it affected my every thought.
Everything I looked at seemed to remind me of the trip I was not going on.
During the trip preparations, I'd eye my dad and brothers with
envy, sprawled out contentedly on the living room carpet, chatting
as they went
about their work, divvying up the rations, stuffing their backpacks
until they threatened
the seams, and finally mapping their route in dark, red ink. I
put on my fabricated, careless look while I dried the dishes in
Mom, trying to reassure
myself that the trip wasn't that great anyway. But even so,
I could feel the gap in my heart, and my inferiority toward my four older brothers
as potent as ever. Memories of the dreaded times I had spent with Mom and my
younger brother previous years while the others were on the trip came catapulting
into my mind. I knew Mom made an effort to make it an enjoyable week for us,
letting us have extra TV privileges and taking us out to dinner to have fries
and burgers, which were usually prohibited. But somehow, the burgers left a rank
aftertaste in my mouth and only reminded me of the fact that my brothers and
cousins were eating fresh-caught fish at this
moment, and watching TV only reminded me of Dad's famous line that
TV was the sign
of a weak person who didn't have enough to do. But while I dried
the dishes obediently, I fought to keep the tears from spilling
knowing that if
Dad saw me crying, he would think me a baby who hadn't learned
to be a man yet and my chances of ever going on the trip would
But this year, I didn't have to worry about keeping back the tears or masking
my feelings with fabricated expressions, for I had not been a spectator during
the preparations, but a participant. As I helped sort out the trail mix and couscous
and bagels into equally weighted piles on the family room carpet, I finally felt
that comradeship with my brothers and Dad I had always longed for. I hadn't felt
like the second to youngest brother, I had felt like a member of the team, capable
and eager, ready to combat whatever obstacles might come to us, whether it be
lack of food or a prowling hyena. In fact, I would gladly do anything in my power
to solve the problem, even if it meant giving up my Top Ramen portion for the
night, or keeping vigilant watch for any sign of the hazardous animal that could
jeopardize our safety.
That reminded me: I had packed the Ramen, hadn't I? Yes. Check. As I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, I could hear my older brothers in the next room over, their feet bounding across the carpet in excitement. No doubt they too were feeling that zinging, electric energy that I had coveted. I slipped on my hiking pants and pulled a T-shirt over my head, knowing that I would give it up with no regrets if it happened to be needed as a sling for a fellow comrade's broken arm. I hauled up my hiking pack from the corner of the room and struggled to hoist it onto my shoulders. As I clasped the chest strap across my lanky torso, I glanced one last time at my sleeping brother. For a moment, I considered waking him up and reminding him of my imminent departure , but as I shut the door, the reality finally hit me: I was going on the trip I had dreamed about for as long as I could remember. I was about to become a real person, a respected equal to my father and older brothers. What need did I have to torment Danny? None.