Palo Alto Weekly 19th Annual Short Story Contest
Teen First Place

At Last

by Caroline Hodge

About Caroline Hodge

The tale of a 10-year-old boy who finally gets to go on a backpacking trip with his four older brothers, Caroline Hodge's first prize-winning story contains little autobiography. The 14-year-old Gunn High School student has a 17-year-old sister, no brothers. On top of that, Hodge said, she doesn't really know any 10-year-old boys.

But she still manages to get into the head of a younger sibling always left behind.

"I always imagine how it would be to be the very youngest sibling and have people above you," she said. Rather than describing some kind of action,

"At Last" zeroes in on the thoughts that go through the little boy's head as he "graduates" to the big boys' league.

The Palo Alto teen said she was surprised to hear she won her age group. "My story is kind of plot less," she said. "It's the five minutes from when he wakes up to when he leaves."

While she enjoys writing in school, Hodge -- who can envision becoming a journalist one day -- is a versatile talent. She's on her school's cross country team, swims, plays the piano, reads fiction and likes to bake. She also has a love for backpacking, which Hodge thinks might have sparked the idea for her story.

Armed with a Cinderella backpack, Hodge went on her first trip as a 4-year-old with her family in Death Valley. Two years ago, she went backpacking in the Trinity Alps, which she enjoyed very much.

"I wish I could go backpacking more," she said.

"I want to go again next summer."

-- Mari Sapina-Kerkhove

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 miles a day the group 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, even prepared his coffee 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 and all."

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 amiably 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 the kitchen with 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 watching too much 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 onto the dish towel, 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 rocket down to zero.

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.