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Andy wakes with the energy of the sunbeams sneaking through gaps in the maples outside his window. His seven-year-old body craves sleep, but yesterday, his older brother Emmet repurposed the bedroom curtains into falcon wings.
He pads down the stairs like an elf, careful not to wake his parents who’ll make him wash up before working on his fort. Emmet barrels past with little regard for sleeping parents. One problem with being the younger brother: Emmet has two more years’ practice beating Andy to the kitchen.
By the time Andy pulls a bowl from the cupboard, Emmet has left the empty box of Life on the floor. Emmet bolts out the door before Andy settles for Cheerios, only to discover Emmet helped himself to the last of the milk. As he crunches through a bowl of powdered oats, Andy weighs the tradeoffs between sneaking out on sleeping parents and sneaking away from Emmet.
The first warm morning since October greets Andy as he walks outside to find his father’s tools scattered within the boundary line of Emmet’s fort. While Emmet bangs away, Andy checks the contents of his armory, imaginary weapons collected from fallen trees in the woods out back.
“Shambo for the mailbox?” Emmet shouts.
Walking the dog to the end of the road requires a division of labor since the boys’ parents count it as a chore.
“Okay,” Andy says.
“Rock, paper, scissors, SHOOT!”
“Rock-rock,” Emmet says, pushing Andy’s fist away in a tie.
“Rock, paper, scissors, SHOOT!”
“Scissors cut paper.”
Andy looks up at his older brother, expecting an admission of cheating after Emmet so obviously hesitated before throwing scissors. All Emmet offers is a smile of satisfaction. Reminded he’s the little brother once again this morning, Andy stomps to the porch to fetch Benny. Before departing for the mailbox, he grabs his war club—a chunk of dead hardwood shaped like a question mark.
Benny trots alongside his pack leader, gravel crunching underfoot. Andy leads them across the creek bordering the road into the cover of brush to scope out imaginary enemy formations while Benny gets busy. At the bottom of the hill, Andy launches an ambush against the invaders, his war club swinging wildly. Victorious, Andy and Benny climb the final leg of the road to the mailbox. Andy turns back for home with a handful of letters and a poop bag in his hands.
The golden glow of the morning bathes Andy in freedom from parental interference and fraternal torment. Lost in the smell of rebirth as warblers sing their return and snowmelt rushes past the last fragments of ice clinging to the creek, he fails to notice Emmet tracking him in the brush.
The lateral attack surprises Andy who thought he vanquished the enemy on the battlefield.
Emmet stands in Andy’s path, holding the skinny trunk of a sapling in front of his body. He raises the makeshift spear above his head, hands spread wide, and lets out a scream that sounds to Andy like a cry for help. One problem with being the older brother: a two-year advantage grows shorter over time.
Poop and mail hit the ground as Andy engages Emmet in a playful skirmish. Emmet swings for the bleachers, high enough that Andy ducks the spear with ease. He rises just in time to parry Emmet’s lunge. When Emmet attacks a third time, spinning in a circle for momentum, he stumbles to a knee before completing the three-sixty.
Andy counters, pretending to hammer the spear his older brother wields above his head in defense and a hint of shame. Whack-whack-whack. Andy defeats the last of the enemy, lowers his club and helps Emmet rise to his feet.
Emmet never asked to be the older brother. The burden of unsolicited responsibility shades Emmet from the golden moments Andy finds so easily. So instead of accepting Andy’s offer of surrender, Emmet cross-checks him toward the edge of the road.
Before tumbling into the creek, Andy unloads a desperate swing of his war club. The satisfying thud confirms a direct hit, but the prickly arms of buckthorn lining the creek bed distract Andy from seeing the blood spit from Emmet’s mouth and his body crumple to the warm ground.
Andy scrambles up the creek bank, scraped raw, dripping in snowmelt and tired of getting pushed around today. He discovers Emmet’s face pressed into the jagged gravel road and taps a shoe with his foot. His brother’s neck remains at an uncomfortable angle. Andy slides his toes under a shoulder and gives a couple tugs, but Emmet plays dead like the raccoon they found in the yard last fall.
Andy sits alongside Emmet and rests an arm across the back of his brother’s shoulders. His legs hang over the edge of the road. Benny sits at attention, panting while watching guard over his two brothers. One of the best things about being seven: Andy’s toes almost touch the creek.
Andy gets lost again. The golden glow turns white, and he no longer hears the birdsong or the trickle, no longer draws energy from the warmth beaming through the maples or the smell of spring’s rebirth. He just sits holding his older brother, waiting for Mom and Dad to free him from Emmet and his golden moments one last time.