WHEN IT COUNTS

WHEN IT COUNTS

From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul IV

When It Counts

Other things may change us, but we start and end with family.

Anthony Brandt

My brother and I are only a year apart in age. When we were little, people would ask if we were twins. We lived in the mountains and only had each other for a long time, so we weren’t just brother and sister, we were best friends. I was the artist. I came up with ideas. He was the scientist. Whatever ideas I came up with, he found a way to make them work.

Then our parents divorced. He went to live with my father, I with my mother. Sometimes he visited us, sometimes I visited them. But it got weirder each time. He had friends I didn’t know because he was going to a different school, and it wasn’t really cool to hang out with his sister who was a snob and a brain. Then there were my friends, who thought he wasn’t cool because he wasn’t in sports or in the Honor Society. By the time I was thirteen, we’d stopped hanging out altogether. I think the only time we ever spoke was at Christmas, and it was all very formal and awkward, like he was a complete stranger instead of my little brother.

Finally, my high school graduation day came. I had been accepted to a major university three thousand miles away. I’d had big plans on attaching a U-Haul to the back of my beat-up Mustang and driving cross-country. The problem was there was no one to go with me. I was more than happy to go alone. I didn’t need anybody. But my parents conferred and decided that my brother would have to be my travel companion.

Needless to say, we were both furious with the idea. The last thing he wanted was to spend a week in a car with someone he barely knew and drive three thousand miles to a college he could care less about. The last thing I wanted was to spend a week in a car with someone I barely knew and drive three thousand miles with a babysitter when I was more than capable of taking care of myself. But it was settled. So two weeks later I packed the car and the U-Haul and drove across town to pick up my brother. He flopped into the passenger seat and stared out the window. Neither of us really spoke for the next six hundred miles unless absolutely necessary.

Then fate stepped in. We’d already had several minor arguments about music, speeding and stopping. The last one, though, had been a bit more heated. It was getting dark, and I wanted to stop for the night. He thought it was stupid to lose that much time. Eventually I agreed to drive for another two hours just to end the argument. But I was mad. There he was, not speaking, making me listen to his idiotic music, making me drive when I didn’t want to, and rolling his eyes every time I wanted to stop for a bathroom break. This was supposed to be my trip! I didn’t want him there in the first place!

I was so busy debating him in my head that I stopped concentrating on the road. Suddenly, a strip of shredded rubber from an eighteen-wheeler in the road flashed into my headlights.

“Look out!” my brother shouted.

I shrieked and swerved. The U-Haul and my car jackknifed, and we went flying into the shoulder. Thankfully, we were on a stretch of highway with only two lanes, pastureland on both sides of the road and not another car for miles.

When everything stopped moving, we sat there in stunned silence, only the sound of the car engine and my heartbeat in my ears. Then I started shaking and crying.

“Oh God! Are you okay? Are you hurt? Are you okay?” I demanded slightly hysterically. I didn’t even know if I was hurt. All I cared about was that I might have hurt my brother.

“No—I’m cool. I promise. No damage, see,” he held up his hands and smiled through his color-drained face.

“Oh God, I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry,” I repeated again and again.

He just held my hand and kept telling me everything was fine. I think he was a little unsure about whether I was going to have a nervous breakdown right there in the car. Then he did something he used to do when I would get upset. He made a joke.

“Come on! That was awesome! Are you kidding?? Let’s do it again!” he grinned.

Reluctantly, I smiled a little. But he was relentless.

“No seriously! If I’d known there would be near-death experiences on this trip, I would’ve been way more psyched to go!”

This provoked a slight giggle from me.

In the end, after several more comments and a few silly faces for my benefit, we were both outright laughing.

“All right,” he clapped his hands together decisively, “Let’s see if we’re spending the night here tonight.”

We got out, inspected the damage and spent the next two hours unhitching and re-hitching the trailer (which, unfortunately, also required some unpacking and repacking) and rocking the back tires of the Mustang out of a small ditch.

By the time we were back on the road, we couldn’t stop laughing and talking about the whole scenario. I even admitted to him why I hadn’t been concentrating, and he admitted he should have taken the shift since he was the one who wanted to drive at night. We crashed (the sleeping kind, not the dangerous vehicular kind) at the first motel we came to and promptly overslept.

Over the next six days we stopped at the Carlsbad Caverns and the Grand Canyon (which neither of us had seen). In the end, he did most of the driving, and I did most of the navigating. Already I was back to coming up with the ideas, and he was finding ways to make them work. When we arrived, he even helped me get settled.

The night before I had to drive him to the airport to fly home, we were sitting at Denny’s, making jokes and reminiscing. We’d talked a lot in those last few days. I’d found out so much about him I never knew: things about school, friends, girlfriends, even my father. Suddenly, I was crushed. I couldn’t tell him because it was just too “girly.” But I had my little brother back, my long-lost best friend . . . and he was leaving in a few hours.

Life is never as perfect as the movies. I never told him how much I loved him and missed him. But I hugged him for the first time in more than five years before he got on the plane.

I couldn’t wait for Christmas, even though it was months away. But I found a perfect present. It was a wall map of the world, complete with pins. We decided at the Grand Canyon that, when I graduate, we’re going to backpack together and mark all the places we go. Hey, I may have great ideas—but I need someone to help me get there.

And . . . maybe to drive at night, too.

Heather Woodruff

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