In my earliest memory, I am not quite three years old and I am crawling out of my parents’ tent in the early morning. I made my way to a different campsite. As I happily played with another child’s toys, a small deer dappled with white spots walked into the clearing. We both stared blinking for a moment, unsure of what to make of each other. When I took an unsteady step towards it, it lightly stepped away. For every step I took, it took two steps further, seemingly unsure if I was worth running from. I followed it for a short way into the forest.
By the time I gave up on my futile chase, my parents were calling my name. But they were both calling from different directions. For some reason, I didn’t call back to them. I was worried that I would be in trouble if I turned up anywhere other than the campsite.
When I got back, my parents were both still searching for me, but there, standing in front of the extinguished fire, was my older brother Charlie, tears pouring down his face in apparent terror that I was lost. His expression shifted to delight as I ran up to him and hugged him. I can still recall his cracking voice calling out to my father that I was there.
I would think about that moment whenever I needed to remember that my brother loved me, and that was often. As the seasons passed, Charlie would come to lament having a brother. He was not my mother’s son and quickly learned that this was a disadvantaged position. Any chance she could, my mother heaped favor upon me, and he was seen as a little more than a potential source of bad habits. Where I was strictly supervised, he was granted freedoms I could not dream of, mostly because these liberties kept him out of my mother’s hair and kept his corrupting influences away from me.
We couldn’t have been more different by the time I was eight years old. I was fond of Legos, my ginger-haired cabbage patch kid, my sticker album, He-man toys, and watching Inspector Gadget. Charlie was by then twelve and already listened to Iron Maiden, read Mad Magazine, watched scary movies and, when no one was watching, smoked cigarettes.
I had made my first holy communion that year and could be found with rosary beads wrapped around my praying hands, wearing my stark white suit, white tie, and my new golden cross and chain as my mother and my aunts took thousands of pictures of me. My smiling grandmother clapped to the music saying “Bellissimo! Bellissimo!” Leaning against the garage was my shiny new red and blue bicycle, bearing an oversized bow. It was a good day, but I was slightly uneasy as I glanced down the block. Charlie was seated upon a fire hydrant, shaking his long sandy hair and already surrounded by the kids who would become his metal band. I could feel his jealous eyes upon me. I doubt he even received his first communion, much less had a family party.
Later when all my cash gifts vanished from my sock draw I knew he had taken the money. But too many rogue cousins had the run of the house that day for anyone to be sure. I was used to things going missing, however. Anything momentarily left outside or on the steps would vanish. Then I would be forced to endure a scolding about being careless with my things. It made my world seem like a place where objects ceased to be if you didn’t keep them in sight. Despite my suspicions and frequent inspections of his room, however, I could prove nothing.
I learned to be vigilant in my placement of belongings, and, in time, the vanishing ceased. The missing things faded into the obscurity that claims all the precious objects of youth.
When I was twelve years old, I joined Charlie and his friends in a game he called Manhunter (but which was really just an elaborate version of Hide and Seek). I was quickly relegated to the undesirable role of being, “it.”
I scouted through the streets of Arrochar, and, at last, spied him as he darted into a cluster of trees. As I drew closer to the place, I found that between the rows of houses, a rainwater pipe emerged from beneath the road, creating a small stream that flowed behind the backyards. I followed it for half a block to a secluded place under the trees and between the stream and the slatted backyard fences.
Spray-painted faces with bulging eyes and protruding tongues glared at me from the backs of the fences. Cigarette butts littered the ground. An assortment of beer cans rusted amongst the rotting leaves. I had discovered a lair of adolescent delinquency. Feeling as though feral children might leap out at me at any moment, I advanced slowly. But no one was there other than a soggy, moldering Cabbage Patch doll hanging by a noose from a tree. Its eyes, once so familiar, had been blacked out with marker. Its legs were shreds of fabric. My rusted bicycle with its tires deflated and its spokes bent lay half submerged in the leaves. My Jets hat hung high above, its green long faded. My baseball glove was half burnt. My yo-yo tangled in a branch. My Junkyard Dog wrestling figure, decapitated. It was all there, weatherworn and destroyed.
I jumped back when he stepped out from behind a tree. We stared at each other in silence. I wasn’t sure if I was about to scream or cry.
“I’m sorry.” His face was sincere and sullen.
“Why?” I asked dropping the wrestling figure to the ground.
“I hated you.”
“What did I ever do to you?”
“Nothing,” he shrugged, “You just existed, and it ruined everything.” He looked away. I knew what he was thinking. It was my mother who had come into his life a year after his own had died. I recalled all the photos of myself as a baby where Charlie was always smiling widely next to my mother and me. He had wanted to belong to her. He had wanted her to be his mom. But she never was.
“Do you still hate me?” I asked.
“Did any of this help?”
“A little.” He laughed then punched the Cabbage Patch Kid, sending it swaying like a pendulum. “You going to tell on me?”
“No.” In truth, I was strangely relieved. It seemed like for the first time since I had found him crying in that campground that we had understood each other.
I slapped my hand on his shoulder. “Charlie?”
“You’re it!” I yelled and then I ran through the trees with him in hot pursuit.