My parents were high school sweethearts. Shortly after the calamity hit, his parents encouraged my father to attend a distant university, in order to get him out of harm's way. My mother went chasing after him. After a lukewarm romance, they eventually got engaged just after graduation. They returned to their hometown, where they married in a moderately large ceremony which most of their old friends attended (travel to many parts of the world had been all but impossible in recent years, so most of them were still around).
Both of them wanted children, or thought they did, and I was born less than a year later. I don't have any memories from those first years, but from what I know, I had a normal enough childhood. But my father wasn't pulling in a lot of income, and despite his attempts to support my mother at home, the stress of juggling a career and childcare slowly got to her. One day, two years later, she couldn't take it anymore, and just skipped town. Lawyers handled the divorce paperwork. I don't remember her face at all. My father was willing to take custody of me, and my mother didn't oppose him.
I don't know how heartbroken my father was over my mother, but a few months later he started seeing Kate, who he'd met at a church fair, of all things. He was crazy for her. Kate and I always got along well, too, and I think that was important to him. Emboldened by a significant promotion at work, he eventually proposed to her. They got married at church, in a much smaller ceremony this time, which I remember attending - it's one of my earliest memories.
A lot of elder siblings are jealous when the younger ones are born, but when I first saw my baby brother I felt only curiosity. Everyone around me gave me the usual speech about being a good brother and protecting him, so I tried to do so. We were close enough in age that I enjoyed playing with him and keeping him out of trouble. As the years passed, I was happy when he started to talk and walk and could follow me around, so we could play together.
Eventually, however, I began to notice a certain difference in the way we were both treated. What at first was reasonable to me - that a baby required more attention and care, which I myself helped provide - lost its justification when we were both older kids. Kate never stopped being nice to me, but it was clear that her own child was her favorite, and my father - sometimes guiltily, it seemed to me, although that may be wishful thinking on my part - usually went along with it. So it happened that my brother would get the slightly better clothes, the slightly more frequent gifts, and more attention in general.
When other relatives and friends would visit, he would always be the focus of attention - Kate would subtly, probably unconsciously ensure that it was so. I loved my brother, and we still got along well, so at first I didn't mind much that he would always be surrounded by adults admiring him, gushing over him, telling him how smart and cute he was. It wasn't his fault. I'd wait, a little bored, for them to release him so we could go play.
After starting school, my brother thrived easily. He had been beloved by all throughout his early childhood, so he didn't know what it was like to be disliked, and didn't dislike anyone. Confident and charming, he made friends with everyone, and never had a shortage of playmates. I was in fourth grade at the time. As the months passed, I found that when I approached him while he was among his peers, he began to act dismissive, clearly wanting to get rid of me. Slowly, I realized that, being less popular and less confident, I was also considered less cool. I had fewer friends and more doubts, and was more guarded with others; I wasn't as easy to like. In the gradually forming, unforgiving society of the school yard, I was firmly in a lower caste. Tired of being ignored or jeered at by a bunch of children, I stopped trying to get along altogether.
After getting into middle school I made an effort to find my own place in that society. My brother was active and a natural leader, and soon took an interest in sports. He only had to ask our parents for it and they bought him excellent soccer equipment and extracurricular soccer lessons. He trained hard and with devotion; at the end of elementary school his class managed to win a small tournament, an achievement we celebrated as a family by going out for dinner at a nice restaurant. I was too proud to try to catch up to him on something he was already good at, so I turned to my studies instead. I naturally eased myself into the role of the smart sibling, and worked to get good grades that would make my parents just as proud.
I had mixed success, getting grades in the 80s during those middle school years (a bit worse at physical education, which I didn't enjoy). My father would clap me on the back and say, "not bad, champ. Keep working hard and I'm sure you can do even better next time." Kate would just give a small smile and nod in approval. I was good enough, but I never earned a dinner out.
So I was 13 or 14, unpopular and only moderately successful, when my brother's endlessly rising star and dismissive attitude began to chafe on me. I started to notice the small faults in his behavior, pointing them out or scolding him for them. I was harsh and biting in my treatment of him. At first he was hurt, but our relationship quickly deteriorated, and sometimes we would even come to blows. As you can imagine, this didn't go well for me. We would argue, I would hit him and he would cry, and our parents would scold me, make me apologize to him, and ground me. Noticing this pattern, my brother lost any respect he had left for me, and became more arrogant, goading me on purpose so I'd get angry and, inevitably, grounded.
"What is wrong with you, Shawn?" Kate would ask, shaking her head. "The two of you used to be such good brothers!"
I think it was roughly around that time that I developed an inferiority complex. Deep inside, I gradually became afraid of him. Zach was someone I had to live with - I had nowhere to run from him. But I also couldn't beat him; I'd tried, and I'd failed. Someone I disliked, and who disliked me, but was beloved by everyone else; He knew he could do whatever he wanted to me, and other people would always side with him and against me. I started to avoid him at all times. When we had to be together, I didn't say a word. At meal times, Zach and my parents would engage in lively conversation, and I would just sit there and eat. My parents grumbled about how quiet and antisocial I'd become.
It was a relief when I moved to high school and no longer had to see him at all outside dinner time. I was determined to reinvent myself. Fix my flaws, and carve a niche for myself, before Zach arrived to ruin everything. Turn my life around, make some real friends, and leave high school successful and triumphant.
At first everything went well. I made an effort to be more outgoing. I would chat people up and be desperately charming. I got along well with my most of my new classmates. I wasn't popular, I wasn't a top student or athlete, but I was invited to hang out and to most parties. I regained some of my confidence, although at times my latent insecurity would come out of nowhere and I'd blurt out something mean or nasty to someone I was feeling pressured by. It wasn't this clear to me at the time, of course - I just thought I was righteous and most of them were shitty people - but I was merely holding on to this simulacrum of confidence desperately, bringing others down so I could stay afloat. I lost some of my new friends.
My growth spurt came in the late 10th grade. In two months I became one of the tallest boys in class. My brother was still a 12 year old child, and a short one at that; my attitude towards him became more condescending than hateful, and I didn't let him get to me as easily throughout the following summer.
When I started 11th grade, most of the boys and all of the girls in my class looked like young men and women. I began to notice a lot more interest among them in sexual or romantic relationships. I wasn't particularly attracted to any girl, but I'd be damned if I was going to be the uncool kid who couldn't get with anyone. I quickly grew determined to find a girlfriend.
After several failed attempts, each of which hit my confidence hard, I finally noticed Ashley from 10th grade for the first time during the school's Christmas play. She was playing, not a lead role, but a chambermaid. She pulled off the part with the charm and wit of an older woman. She was so pretty, and tall - about my height, really. I decided I had to have her.
Thus began a fairly one-sided courtship. I contrived to be where she, to catch her eye and smile at her or even exchange a few words on occasion. She didn't encourage or discourage me. I thought I was being smooth, until one day, when I approached her group, one of the friends who were with her - a thin Asian girl - said, loud enough for me to hear, "hey, there's your stalker, Ash."
I staggered, my jaw dropping, as the whole group turned to regard me. I spun on one foot and changed direction, trying to pretend I was going somewhere else, hopefully into a conveniently placed hole.
But then I felt a light touch on my back. I spun around to find Ashley had come after me. "Look," she said, "just tell me your name."
"Your name," she repeated patiently, rolling her eyes. Her friends giggled. "Introduce yourself like a normal person."
"Oh... I'm Shawn."
"Nice to meet you, Shawn. I'm Ashley. Wanna join us?"
"Sure, I guess," I said, walking with her back to her group of friends. But the mood was awkward on both parts - I was an older boy they didn't know, and they'd just called me a stalker. After some time I told Ashley I'd see her around and let them be. The conversation immediately resumed when I left.
From then on I walked up to her directly and greeted her whenever we met. It took some time, but she gradually mellowed out and we became something like friends, or at least companions. She didn't talk much, but I talked for both of us, attempting to dazzle her with my knowledge of both culture and 11th grade gossip. When I judged we were close enough, I finally asked her out.
"Um..." She hesitated, regarding my expectant look. "Sure, why not? But I should be clear; I don't like you like that. Not yet, and maybe not ever, if it doesn't work out. Are you OK with that?"
"Yeah, no problem! We can grow closer together." I said carelessly.
The news that we were together caused a brief excitement above my peers, since Ashley was a notorious beauty. Only one of them, Dave, looked bothered. "Be careful," he advised. "I think that girl picks up and dumps people easily. She was going out with Tony from 2A and it didn't even last two weeks."
I noted the gossip, but shrugged it off, thinking those brief flings were different from what we had. Ashley and I planned our first date for the following weekend, but when I told Kate, she scowled.
"I've been telling you for weeks that this Saturday is Zach's big game," she said accusatorily. "You said you'd go!"
"Oh, come on. What difference does it even make if I'm there or not?"
"Shawn, you gave your word," father said severely. "I'm happy you have a girlfriend, and I hope you'll introduce her to us soon, but you can have a date at any time. This is Zach's only regional tournament. You're going, and that's final."
Fuming, I called Ashley to postpone the date. "I have a brother in 8th grade, his name is Zachary, who plays soccer," I explained to her, "and he has some sort of tournament tomorrow, so I have to go cheer for him or something."
"Oh! I like soccer! Can I just go with you?" Ashley asked.
I turned around to ask Kate, but she said we had no extra tickets. "Sorry," I apologized. "Let's have dinner instead." We agreed to meet at a sandwich place - not very romantic, but she didn't seem to mind.
The match was at a surprisingly packed small stadium. "It's the final of the middle school regional, of course it's packed," father said when I asked him about it. I watched as Zach's uniformed team went out into the field. My brother was easy to spot - he was the shortest, and his shoulder-length hair flowed behind him as he ran. I noticed he wore the armband that marked him as the team captain.
The whistle sounded and the match began. It was a massacre. Zach dribbled and feinted expertly, weaving a path through his opponents, but without forgetting to pass the ball when necessary, kicking it with pinpoint accuracy. Before half-time he had personally scored two goals. During the second half the other team had gotten wise and marked him much more heavily, but then the rest of his team shone, picking up the slack. I didn't know much about soccer, but even I could tell they were awesome. They managed to score another goal with an assist from Zach before the final whistle.
My brother was carried away on the shoulders of his teammates, his athletic body drenched in sweat, holding the tournament cup high, while the crowd cheered. My parents clapped their hands raw. I watched the departing procession with mixed feelings.
When we met him outside, Zach was still radiant, smiling from ear to ear. Father and Kate hugged him and congratulated him for his triumph. I took a step forward and, after some hesitation, messed up his hair. "Congratulations, bro," I told him.
My parents decided we should all go and celebrate together so, with a sigh, I texted Ashley to tell her about this second change of plans and asking her if she wanted to drop by. There was no answer.