I raced with my brothers into the darkness. Our curfew had long since passed, but Cameron kept leading us further and further from home. He took long, powerful strides across the pavement while Matthew and I breathlessly trailed him, lagging far behind. Matthew, 11, was tripping on his own shoelaces and cursing under his breath. I was six, wearing a cardboard Burger King crown which I held tightly on my head as we ran. Cameron was 15 and running like he might never stop.
?C?mon guys,? Cameron barked over his shoulder. ?Pick up the pace!?
We took a shortcut through Eldon Park. The wind had started to rise, and the rusted hinges of the swing set voiced disapproval as we hurried by. Our feet kicked up wood chips as we passed under the play structure?the same play structure where Cameron had once held title as ?World Grounders Champion.?
At last we stopped in the old apple orchard to catch our breath. Moonlight filtered through the sway of bare branches above us, and shadows danced over our faces.
?I wanna go home,? I whined.
Cameron pulled me into a headlock and gave me a noogie. ?Easy, little man,? he said. ?we’ll be leaving soon enough.?
He released me, and I quickly straightened my crown in an effort to regain my dignity. I looked to Matthew for support, but he was busy cleaning his glasses with the hem of his t-shirt. He breathed a fog across the lenses and squinted at Cameron.
?We really should get home,? Matthew said. ?Aaron’s supposed to be in bed by now.?
Cameron sneered. ?Yes, mother.?
The wind gathered strength and blew the crown from my head. The little cardboard hat fluttered to the ground, where it came to rest amongst the rotting apples and shards of brown glass. I snatched it up, folded it a few times, and stuffed it into the pocket of my jeans for safekeeping.
Then I saw Cameron reach into his breast pocket and pull out a small packet of du Maurier Lights.
Matthew fumbled with his glasses before placing them back on his face. ?Jesus!? he exclaimed. ?Since when do you smoke??
Cameron shook a cigarette out of the package and placed it between his lips as if he had been doing it his whole life. ?I don’t know?last summer, I guess.? He smiled and revealed a wide row of teeth that shone in the moonlight. ?The first pack made me sick like you wouldn’t believe.?
I gaped at the contraband hanging from my brother’s mouth. ?Mommy and Daddy are gonna kill you!?
Cameron ignored me. He was busy searching his pockets for a light, so I continued, ?Cigarettes kill you, y?know!?
Cameron shrugged. ?Well, I’m not dead yet.?
?And they give you bad breath,? I concluded.
Cameron reached deep into the pocket of his jeans and found a lighter. He lit up, inhaled, and blew a fairly impressive smoke ring over our heads.
Matthew fanned the smoke away with his hand. ?Cam, enough. We gotta go.?
Cameron frowned, turned his back on us, and began climbing one of the half-dead apple trees. The branches protested his weight with loud, dry snaps. He called back over his shoulder, cigarette still between his teeth. ?Look, if you sissies are ready to go home, go right ahead. See if I care.?
He disappeared up into the tree. I could see the red tip of his cigarette, glowing brighter each time he inhaled.
Matthew called up after him in worry. ?That tree’s not gonna hold you!? he shouted.
Cameron ignored us.
?I wanna go home,? I complained again. ?I gotta pee.?
?In a minute, Aaron, okay?? Matthew said. ?Just hold on. Go behind one of the trees if you have to.?
I held tight.
?Cam,? Matthew called, ?c?mon. This is stupid. Let’s go home.?
The wind was growing stronger. The trees swayed violently, as if in a mounting rage.
?Cam, please!? Matthew cried.
There was a sudden loud crack. Cameron came crashing through the branches and hit the ground with a heavy, hollow thud.
Matthew raced to him. Our elder brother lay flat on his back, stunned and gasping for air.
I stood paralyzed. ?Is he . . . dead?? I ventured.
Matthew lifted Cameron to a sitting position and then glared at me. ?No, dummy. Just had the wind knocked out of him, I think.?
After a few moments, Cameron finally caught his breath. Then he laughed?a long, hard, wheezing laugh that I did not recognize. Then his laughter became tears and he pressed his face hard into Matthew’s shoulder.
I watched in shock. Until that night, I could not recall ever having seen Cameron cry. He leaned closer into Matthew, and his shoulders convulsed with great, hitching sobs.
Matthew patted Cameron on the back uneasily, uncertain what to do. Finally Cameron pulled himself away from Matthew’s shoulder, his red-rimmed eyes blinking away tears. He rubbed a long, wet strand of snot across his face.
?Me and Dawn are in trouble,? Cameron said. He looked over Matthew’s shoulder at me, and then lowered his voice, thinking only Matthew could hear. ?She’s pregnant, I mean.?
There was a long silence. The wind continued to blow around us in quick gusts. Finally, Matthew cleared his throat and whispered, ?Are you sure??
?Yes, goddammit. She’s been to a doctor and everything.?
?Oh,? Matthew said weakly. Having nothing else to offer, he wrapped his arm around Cameron’s shoulder and held him tight.
Cameron hung his head and began to weep once more. ?I’m scared, Matty. I’m?I’m?so scared.?
I moved closer and tapped Cameron on the shoulder. He wiped his face with his forearm and turned to me. I took the crown from my pocket, unfolded it, and held it out to him.
Cameron managed a smile. He took the crown and held onto it with both hands. ?Thanks, little man,? he choked out
We all sat together for a long while in the middle of the orchard, listening to the wind. We drew ourselves together for warmth. On either side of me, I could feel my brothers, their breathing loud in my ear.
Finally, Matthew rose to his feet, took Cameron by the hand, and helped him up.
?I was just thinking,? Matthew said. ?How about one game of grounders before we go home??
Cameron sniffled once or twice, composed himself, and then nodded in agreement.
They both looked at me, expecting an argument.
I was cold, tired, and miserable. I had wanted nothing more than to go home. But I nodded with a grin.
We sprinted to the park and had our game. Balanced atop the play structure with our eyes closed tight, we reached out to the emptiness before us and tried to find each other there.
In the end, Cameron and Matthew let me win.
Then off we ran, with the wind at our backs, pushing us forward, out of the playground and into the night. And despite the cold and wind, and as much as I had I wanted to go earlier, I could not help feeling that we were leaving all too soon.