Creating a crackle as he stampeded over the autumnal mosaic of dry leaves and turning into the walk to his castle, the king adjusted his crown, momentarily stunned by October's whip, and pushed open the giant doors.
The red carpeted staircase, threshold to his throne, stood before him. Once again adjusting his crown with one hand, he briefly lost his grip of the jewel-filled satchel he carried with the other, oblivious to its spill as he mounted the first step.
Closing the kingdom doors, his mother caught glimpse of the scattered treasure and advised, “Greg. Be careful.”
Still oblivious, he continued to mount the stairs.
“Gregory,” she intoned. “Be careful. You're dropping your candy on the floor.”
Turning on the landing, he pulled at his Halloween costume. “Oh, mother, I'll get it later.”
“No,” she corrected, as her curls bobbed up and down like springs, “you'll pick it up now!”
Returning to the ground level in a huff, he re-gathered the candy corn, chocolate bars, and licorice, before retracing his steps.
“It'll always be-me and me,” he hummed as he passed the empty room and rounded the hall to his own.
And what a “kingdom” it was. Awaiting the drop of checkered flag, the racing car bed appeared posed to rev its engine and catapult over the starting line in the middle of the room. The mahogany desk, like a camel, carried a computer, books, and video games on its breaking back. And the pyramid of toys and games reached the window ledge.
Depositing his bag of Halloween candy on the dresser and his costume on the floor, Greg approached the window, contemplating the still-barren grounds amidst the rising moon, which seemed to circle the house behind rapidly moving, amorphous smoke collections of cloud. Suddenly pierced by the autumnal chill, he thought of the empty room around the corner from his until the aural signal of “Dinner!” lasseled him back to reality.
Studying his plate, he speared a slippery potato on it with his fork.
“And I was thinking,” he shared as the words were muffled by his mouthful, “you know, I have a lot of toys and stuff.”
“I somehow know that, dear,” his mother returned, as she applied a dainty tap to the salt shaker she held above her chicken.
“Well, I was just thinking…if I get any more, I'm kinda running out of space.”
His father, perched at the table's head and running his hand over his late-day stubble and through his crew cut, eyed him with curiosity.
“Well,” he continued with a particularly laborious chew, “there's that empty room upstairs next to mine and…”
“And what,” his father pressed.
“And, well, nobody's using it, so…”
His mother locked her gaze with his father's and smiled before chiding, “Well, we'll see. There may be another use for that room.”
Jerking his head and spilling a few drops of milk in the process, he exclaimed, “Like what!?”
* * *
Poking their heads through the incubating cocoon of dirt, the crocuses planted in late-summer tanned themselves with spring's first rays, punctuating the lawn now awash with the season's light-green waves. The once skeletal limbs of the still-infantile shrubs had taken form with flesh-providing buds. A single robin, as if intent on delivering the year's first song, gently glided over the yard and alighted on the grass with a flutter, injecting its beak into the soft soil.
Like a lopsided seesaw, Greg crossed the porch, dangling a heavy knapsack from his left shoulder.
“Remember to wipe your feet,” instructed his father from a few feet behind him.
“And remember to be on your absolute-best behavior as you go upstairs.”
“I know, daddy. I promise.”
Making the familiar right turn at the top of them, Greg tiptoed to the once-barren room, whose echo of emptiness had been replaced with the colorful, balloon-patterned paper adorning its walls; the ceiling-suspended, cartoon character mobile; the lace; and the new “throne”-the bassinet.
“Get ready to meet your new brother,” Greg's mother advised in the gentlest of tones.
Hardly able to contain his excitement, he slowly approached the bassinet, propping his chin on his hand as he peered over the side and catching glimpse of the pink-cheeked bundle cradled by it.
“Greg, this is Stuart, your new brother.”
The baby released a trickle of drool from his rosebud mouth. Reflexively releasing the knapsack, which shattered the tender silence like an airplane-dropped bomb, Greg instinctively formed a fist with the hand on which his chin rested.
* * *
The outline of the branches, now long enough to shade Stuart from the summer sun, appeared on his pudgy, strawberry-resembling cheeks as his mother praised his first steps.
Greg, towering above him, watched with impatience.
“Mom, you know the play set Stu has.”
Nodding, she adjusted his suspenders before chiding him into a few additional steps.
“Well, I want one,” Greg continued.
“Why, Greg, you're six years older than him. Why would you want something like that? Besides, you had something like that when you were a baby.”
Thinking it over, he said, “I don't know.” And then added, “Can we go to the movies tonight?”
“No, I don't think so, Greg. Your brother's too young for that.”
“So, he doesn't have to come.”
“We're a family now. And he's your brother. He does have to come-and he will, when he's old enough.”
“Well, I want to go anyway!”
“I'm afraid we can't just yet, Greg.”
“And that play set. I want one!”
* * *
Impatience oozed from the classroom walls. The late-June trees wore their dense green summer frocks. The heat and humidity had seeped into the school like molasses, and to the students, the time had passed just as slowly.
Papers, like moist towels, had to be peeled from the wooden desks.
He knew it was judgment time and that that judgment could be nothing but negative; after all, he had long ago accepted that fact-that this was just what he was and he could not do anything to change it.
Peeling himself from his desk and adjusting the glasses framing his thin, freckle-dotted face, he approached his teacher, a plump woman crowned by a steel wool bird's nest and clad in a dress as flowery as the just-passed spring.
“Uhm, let me see,” she said, rummaging through a few reports. “Well, Stu,” she said at length, “here's you grade for the year.”
Blinking, he peered down at the “D”-for “dumb,” he thought.
“I'm a little surprised,” she continued. “Your brother had excelled in math when he had been in my class a few years ago. But, at least you passed.”
Handing him the report, she assured, “But I know you'll try harder next year.”
Snatching the paper, he turned to walk back to his desk, muttering, “What for?”
“Have a good summer.”
“Yeah, you too, Ms. Minicus.”
* * *
Holding the now-creased report in one hand and juggling his books with the other, he slumped through the front door of his house, his head slightly bowed on his lanky body, as Greg descended the staircase.
“Well, look what stray dog just came through the door,” Greg advised.
“Yeah,” Stu responded, “why don't you just get off my case for once.”
“And what have we here?” he pressed, pointing to the paper.
Putting it behind his back, he continued walking toward the staircase.
“Will you just get out of my way already!”
“Why, the only one in your way is yourself,” Greg returned.
“Just drop it, will you!”
“Can you imagine: You blame everyone else for getting in your way, except the one who really is-yourself?”
Extending his hook-like hand, Greg snatched the report.
“Well, look what we have here. Your report card from Ms. Minicus's math class. And a ‘D.' I never brought home a grade like this. As I remember, mine was always an ‘A'-or higher. Then again, I was Ms. Minicus's favorite. I was everyone's favorite!” he proclaimed, as he ran his hand through his silky, coffee colored hair.
Clawing at the air and appearing as if his face had suddenly been dipped in light red paint, Stu spat, “Gimme that back, you scumbag!”
Encircling him, Greg held the paper closer to his eyes. “Wow! A ‘D'-a whole ‘D.' I didn't think you could score that high, Stu-Stupid Stu. Then again, they don't call you ‘Stupid Stu' for nothing, do they?”
Throwing his books in the air like confetti, Stu lunged at his brother, tears raining to the ground with the books. “Why do you hate me so much? What did I ever do to you?”
Fusing into a dual-body snowball, they rolled into the living room, hitting, kicking, choking, and knocking two crystal vases from the credenza, which shattered the sound into silence as they locked vision.
The front door clicked open and their mother, clutching three bags, filled the space, her mirrored expression causing them to unentangle.
“He started it,” Greg claimed.
“No, he started it,” Stu corrected. “Why can't he leave me alone! What did I ever do to him?”
As he straddled the stairs, their mother projected her furious beam onto Greg.
“Ok, Greg, I've had enough. Will you leave your poor brother alone for once! You're nothing but a big bully. Now march upstairs and get into your room. I don't want to hear another thing from you for the rest of the day.”
“But, I'm 16. To be talked to like that from your own mother.”
“Then act like 16 and not a spoiled brat!”
* * *
“Watch it! Watch it!” Greg yelled.
“Keep an eye on it. Keep it in the air,” a voice instructed.
“It's coming down.”
“Watch the ball!”
A tangle of swimsuit-clad bodies dashed to the side of Greg's backyard pool, forming an Iwu Gima configuration of outstretched arms in order to prevent the multi-colored beach ball from eclipsing its boundaries, but sending a tidal wave of chlorine-laced water on to the grass in the process.
“Here it comes again!” another voice yelled.
“Make sure you keep it in the air!” yet another urged.
The sun, tipping its hat in adieu earlier than had become accustomed, hinted at the late-August day.
“Well, we all made it,” Greg pronounced. Circled by his friends and resting the ball on the water, he wore a quarter-moon, ear-to-ear smile. “We graduated and'll never have to step foot in that God-forsaken high school again.”
“I don't know what you're complaining about,” piped up a girl. “You graduated with honors.”
“Yeah,” agreed another. “And you were the captain of the football team.”
Appearing clipped and chiseled, he rose above the water level, revealing his meticulously muscled abdomen and mannequin-modeled physique, which, as he frequently attested, “was actually the other way around.”
“And not to mention being the most popular guy in school,” he added, as he scanned the faces surrounding him.
One reflexively pulled in the corners of his hitherto wide smile.
“I am, after all, your favorite friend, aren't I?” he asked as the girl directly across from him mimicked the smile retraction. “By the way, Greg,” she wondered. “How are your parents? I haven't seen them.”
Furrowing his brow, he returned, “My parents? They said something about visiting a friend upstate. But who cares? I don't need them. I have you guys!”
The smiles grew slimmer and thinner.
“And stu?” another asked. “I surely thought he would pop in and say hello. Where is he?”
Scanning the yard, Greg focused on the ever-lengthening shadows, painted, like geometric patterns, on the lawn: the trees, the shorter bushes, the barbecue, the pool itself, and, at the far side of the yard, what could only have been the silhouette of a person.
“Oh, that jerk,” he replied at length. “You know what they call him-‘Stupid Stu.' I don't know where he is. Maybe he's dead.”
Releasing the plug on its blow-up nozzle after its day-long workout, the beach ball suddenly emitted a sputter of air, causing it to deflate into a minuscule, wrinkled prune and blast off, careening over the pool's side. Greg's friends followed.
* * *
Cancer knocked on Greg's door. His father answered. And Greg himself moved back with his mother, taking up residence in his old room.
* * *
Bitten by the late-October chill and huddled in a jacket too thin for the temperature, Greg contemplated the long shadows, which appeared like the skeletal remains of summer-and his youth-on the lawn in his backyard. Although he was still externally distinguished, his features reflected some type of internal misalignment.
Three figures, camouflaged by Spiderman, Dracula, and King Arthur costumes, left a trail of cracked gold, red, and orange leaves as they turned into the walk of Mrs. Simmons' house across the street and knocked on the door, yelling, “Trick-or-treat!” At least Mrs. Simmons had lived there when he had been a boy.
Feeling, before seeing, his mother, he looked up as she took her place next to him on the tree stump.
“I had a feeling you'd be out here,” she said, the waning sun glinting her mostly-silver hair.
Looking away, he only muttered, “Yeah,” as he rested his chin on his hand.
Watching the kids carrying their candy-filled pumpkins across the street, she ultimately said, “Have you heard from any of your friends lately?”
Instinctively glancing at the lighter shade of grass where the swimming pool had once stood, he shook his head. “Nope.”
“And I don't suppose you've heard from your brother in a while.”
Reflexively clenching a fist with the hand on which his chin rested, he looked toward the ground in silence.
“Well, I guess he's busy with his family upstate,” she said, grinding her teeth. Then added, “Do you really blame him? It's not easy to hug a porcupine.”
Exhaling, he released breath of wind tunnel strength. “I…”
Furrowing her brow and studying his face, she asked, “Yes, you…”
He covered his eyes with his hands. “Just where did I go wrong? I did everything right.”
“What do you consider ‘right?'”
He swallowed what seemed to be a growing lump and replied, “I got good grades. I graduated with honors. I was in top-notch physical shape. I had friends. I was very popular.”
She pursed her lips and adjusted her hearing aid. “You did all the right things based on how our society's set up, but all the wrong things based on how a family's set up.”
Shaking his head, he looked at his mother. “I don't understand,” he said in a low, cracked voice.
She focused on the silhouette of the rising moon, which initially appeared like a shadow. “A bad seed, once planted, will grow throughout your life,” she explained, “dictating it until it's choked who you really are.”
“What bad seed did I plant?” he exclaimed.
“The one that grew jealousy.”
“Jealousy? Of what?”
“Your brother. The second you met him, something took over you.”
“But he was just a baby-a tiny, newborn baby.”
“I know,” she agreed, “but one who threatened you nonetheless.”
“Threatened me?” he blurted. “How? He was just a helpless baby. What could he've done?”
“It's not what he could've done. It's what he did-take your number one place from you.”
Eyeing the ever-lengthening shadows, he focused on the geometric pattern in front of him, which resembled a broken crown.
“Jealousy raged in you and you had no control of it,” she continued. “And your brother was the target of it, because you subconsciously felt that he had created it. Growing year after year, your jealousy blinded you until you couldn't see him for what he really was-just an innocent person who wanted-like you and everyone else-a chance at life. Instead, he became a victim-just because he happened to be born after you.”
Visibly trembling to the point of heaving, Greg buried his face in the depths of his hands.
“He was forced, without choice,” she continued, “to become a shadow-a shadow of you and a shadow of what he was created to be-of what his true potential could have made him, as you continually-sometimes without even giving him a chance to take a breath-destroyed him emotionally, shattering his confidence and self-esteem-all fueled by your jealousy.”
She paused, re-gathering her thoughts. “Your father and I tried so many strategies to stop you and try to help you-some subtle and some not so subtle. But you were ruled by this emotion and, short of a psychiatrist, we couldn't shake you from it.”
As words intermittently escaped between his sobs, he said, “But what about all my good things?”
“They were good things,” she agreed. “The problem is that your grades and touchdown scores and the like are achievements and not what you really are. They're what you do. And you used them to make up for what you thought was your lost, number one position with your father and me by becoming a super human being so that you could attract all your friends and become the most wanted, the most popular, the best of the best. But it became an obsession. You went from being popular to being a leader to being a ruler, to the point of even telling everyone what they should've thought about you. It was only a reflection in the first place and you were looking to replace your loss with a mirror-image you could see in others.”
Tucking his head between his legs, he choked on his tears.
“The problem, Greg, is that people have to like and respect you naturally-for you and of their own free will-and not because you tell them to. Whenever you force-feed these things, they only end up gagging them back up until you create the opposite effect of what you're trying to do.”
The full moon, becoming pronounced in the purple dusk, floodlit Greg's face.
“The original seed, as they say, needed to be nipped in the bud before it became too big to uproot. The whole concept of trying to regain what you believed was your lost, number one position through your friends was wrong in the first place. When it comes to love, you never lose that position, no matter how many brothers and sisters you have. You share it.”
Sobbing uncontrollably, he turned toward his mother and blurted, “Oh, mom, I love you,” and clutched her with his arms so tightly that she could feel his hurt and vulnerability course through her body like electric current.
And, for the first time in his 42 years, she truly held her little boy.