by Esmé DeVries
At the first house I lived in, the backyard expanded into a lush forest. We had a freezing, trapezoidal pool and often found critters from the woods swimming or, more often, drowning in the icy blue. Because of this, my father taught my brother, Oliver, how to decapitate a rattlesnake far too young in his life, sparking our eagerness to explore the great outdoors. Oliver and I quickly got into the thrilling habit of exploring the woods behind our house, feeling that our youthfulness protected us from harm. During summer and on weekends, the two of us, intrepid explorers, would hike into the trees, following the thin, winding creek down the hill, where it fed into a lake. He would walk in front of me, being older and braver, leading the way into the dangerous unknown, past brambles and hedges that threatened to bar our path. Sometimes, we would bring fishing poles down, though it was more common for us to be found frolicking in the black ooze produced by the lake. We used to run across the banks when the water level was low, sinking deep into the sludge and quickly fighting to unstick ourselves. He ran first and he ran faster, but his feet got stuck in the mud more often than mine.
Once, abandoning our rods and reels, we took to the mud again. Oliver, of course, tested the waters. About halfway across, his toes caught, and he fell face first into the soggy bed. I was too young to find this properly funny, especially when he stood up, coughing and sputtering, sporting only one shoe. He blew dirt out of his mouth and fell back to his hands and knees, digging for his other shoe, a pair of Reeboks he had had forever. I rushed to his aid and we both dug holes that refilled every other second, plunging our arms into the closing cavities, coating our skin up to our shoulders in mahogany slop. When the sky darkened and we waved the white flag, Oliver and I walked back to the bank, squelching and sticking, so that he could ceremoniously throw his remaining shoe into the lake. I remember taking off my own shoes as we headed back up to the house, whether out of solidarity or just so that I could run my dirt-caked socks through the cool creek water, it didn’t matter. It was all the same to us. Back at the house, Mom let us hear it. She wasn’t mad about the shoes, just about our late arrival home. Oliver didn’t speak to me much for the rest of the evening, though I couldn’t work out why. I reasoned that he was upset about the shoes or getting chewed out by Mom. Still, I wasn’t quite ready to forget our day.
"I would burrow under my blankets and read princess books under the dim light of a flashlight. In that regard, not much has changed."
Not long after this experience, Oliver began private school and by the time I had gained acceptance to the same institution, he had gathered a collection of like-minded friends. I had never had as many friends as him growing up. I still don’t, but back then it was more difficult for me to grasp that my older brother, who I looked up to, was able to branch out to people other than me. Once upon a time, I could slip into his room late at night to play with our stuffed animals. Then, he started having people spend the night or he himself would leave. I would burrow under my blankets and read princess books under the dim light of a flashlight. In that regard, not much has changed. He even got so bold as to bring his friends down to the lake, into our watery sanctuary. I, thinking they had just forgotten to invite me, would follow him down. We would circle the lake, clinging tight to trees and slipping on loose dirt, not daring to run through the mud as Oliver and I once had.
These friends stuck with Oliver all throughout his formative years and as a result, he and I spent less and less time together. When he entered sixth grade and I entered third, we were blocked to share a recess period at school. It was the first time this had happened, and my friends and I were eager to play with the big kids and share a space with people we looked up to. But even then, we avoided each other. Perhaps it was a mutual effort. Over the years I had fallen in with a good crowd of girls and we spent the days playing a rather inventive version of manhunt, darting through the trees and under the slides. Oliver played as many contact sports as he could come up with. Most often he was found playing basketball, but once, the two of us had taken to hovering around the chalky red four-square courts. I was perched on the adjacent hill, giggling foolish. Presumably to get rid of me, Oliver called to get my attention and as I turned, he catapulted a maroon football into my eye. I thought for sure he had blacked my eye, and fled the scene in a hurry, rushing back into the school and to the bathroom that was farthest from the playground. This was back when school bathrooms had doors, so I was able to hide my shame in a secluded environment. I don’t remember returning to recess, though I must’ve at some point. I imagine that I spitefully concluded that my eye was fine, maybe a little bloodshot, and gathered my courage to return to my anxiously awaiting friends. It was likely that by the time Oliver and I shared a car ride home, we had both completely forgotten the incident. But I still wonder if he meant to do it.
At the end of my third-grade year, my father announced that we would be moving to Florida. Oliver, from what I could tell, was very understanding about the whole thing. Our parents probably explained more of their reasoning to him than they did to me, providing him an opportunity to roll with the punches. I, however, had reached peak stubbornness in my ninth year of life and dug my heels in as much as was possible. Fortunately, I had no control over my own life and therefore could not do any lasting damage. We moved in June of that year and because of our different viewpoints, the stake that had been poking its way between Oliver and I plunged much further. My negative attitude coupled with his unfortunate seventh grade desire to fit in bore no healthy fruits. He made fun of me and I, deeply immersed in my sensitive stage of life, couldn’t brush it off until I too realized that bickering was the teenage trend.
In our new house, Oliver’s room was upstairs and mine down, in complete opposite corners of the house. We had only ever been separated by a few feet of hallway, but now, there seemed to be a million miles between us. Half the time, I don’t even know when he’s home. Even such a small change forced us further apart. There’s never been a need for me to go to Oliver’s room and I haven’t exactly wanted to. The only time he ever comes to mine is to borrow my stapler or tell me dinner’s ready. We just don’t see each other much anymore. He’ll be going off to college soon and is making the most of his senior year with his buddies and his girlfriend. I hardly ever leave my room. To me, we’re on opposite sides of the hedge of protection that childhood offered. Oliver had already crossed it and stood proudly on the other side, waving at me mockingly through the leaves. I wondered if I would ever cross. When we had once been so close, so similar, now he stood acres away.
Since moving to Florida and since Oliver began high school, the two of us have taken a pair of safety scissors to the hedge, clipping away at its leaves and branches slowly but surely. Occasionally, one of us will start watering the hedge, erasing our progress. It’s slow work and we may never get back to what we once were. It’s okay. I don’t expect us to.