On July thirtieth, my little brother, Cooper, woke me up by jumping on my bed and screaming gleefully. “I’m five, I’m five!”
I groaned, trying to open my eyes despite the sunlight streaming through my window. I turned onto my back and smiled up at Cooper. “Happy birthday, buddy.”
“I want my birthday hug,” Cooper said, jumping one last time, tucking his legs under himself, and landing on the bed.
I sat up and pulled him close to me, kissing his soft brown hair. “It’s hard to believe that you’re already five.”
“No it’s not,” Cooper said, pulling out of my embrace and turning to face me. “It’s just that I was four and now I’m five.”
I laughed. “You’re right, Coop. It is pretty simple.”
I glanced at my alarm clock, which read two minutes past eight. I had gotten lucky that Cooper had waited so long to wake me up.
“I’m hungry,” Cooper said, standing up and jumping again. “One little monkey, jumping on a bed,” he sang, smiling.
“Coop, calm down,” I said, laughing. “We can go get breakfast, okay?”
“Catch me,” Cooper said as I stood up. I turned around and barely caught him as he jumped off the bed.
“You have to be careful, buddy,” I said, my heart pounding. I laughed, just glad I had managed to catch him. “I’ll race you downstairs.”
Cooper kicked his legs and I put him on the ground, giving him a few seconds head start before I chased after him.
Downstairs, Cooper continued running and dove onto the couch between his older brothers, Sam and Mason, who were watching cartoons.
“Hey, birthday boy,” Sam said, patting Cooper’s butt. “Time for your birthday spankings.”
“No!” Cooper squealed, breaking off into giggles as Sam tickled him.
“Just because it’s his birthday doesn’t mean he should get to be so annoying,” Mason said, plugging one ear and using his other hand to grab the remote and turn up the volume on the TV.
I stood by the kitchen table, watching them, and smiling, despite the noise level. Sometimes I couldn’t help but think that having them as little brothers made me the luckiest kid in the world.
“Britton, would you lend me a hand?” my mom asked from the kitchen.
I turned and made my way over to the stove, where my mom was flipping pancakes. “What’s up?”
“Can you take these to the table?” she said, gesturing to the plate full of pancakes, “Make sure your brothers all get at least one, and make sure they drink their milk, okay?”
“Okay, Mom,” I said, taking the plate. I set it on the table, then went to the cabinets and got out six plates. “Wait, John isn’t going to be here this morning, is he?”
“No,” Mom said, sighing. “He had a meeting at work that he couldn’t get out of. Something about an issue that needed a resolution by tomorrow.”
“Too bad,” I said, putting one of the plates back. My step-dad, John, was a project manager for a construction company, and sometimes that meant that he had to miss out on important things, like his youngest son’s birthday party, in order to provide for us.
Once I had the table set and had poured three glasses of milk, I called my brothers over to the table.
“I call first pick,” Mason said, running over.
Sam scrambled after him and grabbed his shirt, causing Mason to trip, which brought them both down to the ground.
“Ow,” Mason said, holding his knee. His face began scrunching up.
I hurried over to him before he could start crying. “Hey, Mase, it’s okay. You’re okay.”
“I’m sorry,” Sam said, getting up. He kissed the top of Mason’s head and went to his seat at the table.
“Now he’s getting first pick,” Mason said, tears welling up in his eyes.
“Hey, it’s no big deal,” I said, helping him up off the ground. “All the pancakes Mom makes are good, right?”
Mason nodded reluctantly. I pulled his chair away from the table for him, and he climbed onto it.
“Sam, that really wasn’t nice,” Mom said from the kitchen. “I’ve asked you not to roughhouse so many times.”
“I said I was sorry,” Sam said, pouring syrup over his pancake. “What do you want me to do, build a time machine?”
I laughed, then covered my mouth, knowing I shouldn’t encourage him.
“He learned that from you, Britton John,” Mom said, pointing her spatula at me. “I had four sweet boys until someone decided to become a teenager.”
“It’s not like I taught him on purpose,” I said, laughing. “And I didn’t decide to become a teenager. I don’t even think I’m that bad.”
Mom smiled and rolled her eyes, turning back to the kitchen. “So dishonest. So unhelpful.”
I rolled my eyes and pulled a pancake onto my own plate. My brothers chattered to each other between bites, and when Mom was finally able to sit down with us, she said, “Cooper, are you excited for your party?”
Cooper nodded, so exaggeratedly that he alternated between looking at the ceiling and touching his chin to his chest.
“It will be good to see your friends from preschool, won’t it?”
“I get to see Joey and Alexia and Rosie?” Cooper asked, his eyes big.
The rest of us laughed. “Of course,” I said. “Remember when Mom asked you who you wanted to invite, and you said you wanted to invite your class?”
Cooper shrugged. “I wanna play with Joey and Alexia and Rosie.”
“You’ll get to for four whole hours,” Mom said, dragging out the last three words. I tried not to laugh and failed.
When everyone was done eating, my brothers ran off and I helped Mom clean up the breakfast mess.
“I have to go pick up the cake in twenty minutes and I’m not even dressed,” she mumbled to herself, scrubbing at the table with a rag.
“I can take care of it, Mom. Really,” I said, rinsing the dish soap off of my hands and joining her at the table.
“Are you sure?” she asked. “I could at least take Sam and Mason with me.”
“It’s okay,” I promised. “I’ll take them outside or something.”
“All right,” Mom said, handing me the rag and smiling. “Thank you, Britton.”
“You’re welcome, Mom,” I said. She pinched my cheek, which she knew I hated, and then headed upstairs.
I labored over the kitchen mess until Mom left. Then I shoved all of the stuff I hadn’t hand washed into the dishwasher and headed upstairs to find my brothers. I heard voices coming from Sam and Mason’s room, so I knocked on the door.
“No girls allowed,” Mason yelled, and Sam said, “Yeah, stay out, Mom.”
“It’s me, goofballs,” I said, opening the door. “What do you say we go outside and ride bikes?”
“I hate bike rides,” Mason groaned, flopping onto the floor dramatically.
“I wanna go for a bike ride,” Cooper said, and Sam nodded.
“No,” Mason wailed. He stood up and grabbed Sam, trying to pull him to the ground. “Why do you always side with Cooper?”
“Get off,” Sam yelled, slapping at Mason until he let go.
“Hey,” I said, “Chill, okay?”
“But I don’t want to ride bikes,” Mason insisted.
“Okay,” I said, holding my hands up. “Sam and Cooper can ride in the cul-de-sac if they want. We can play basketball or something, all right?”
“Okay,” Mason agreed.
I didn’t want to go through the trouble of getting them dressed, which is why, when Mom came home, she got out of the car and shouted, “Samuel, why are you riding a bike in your boxers?”
“It’s fine, Mom,” I said, shooting the basketball and missing. Mason ran after it. “It just looks like he’s wearing shorts.”
“Very tight shorts with Superman logos on them,” Mom said, putting her hands on her hips. “We don’t need our neighbors thinking we’re animals.”
“It’s fine, Mom, seriously,” I insisted. “Look how happy he is.”
Mom looked over at Sam and Cooper, who rode in circles, laughing when they got close to each other, and sighed. “Take the cake in for me, will you?”
I did as she asked, glad she hadn’t noticed that Cooper wasn’t wearing shoes.
◊ ◊ ◊
When we got to the waterpark to set up the party room for Cooper’s party, it was already pretty busy. Mason and Cooper ran around the room while Sam and I helped Mom stuff the party bags for Cooper’s friends and hang up the “Happy Birthday” sign she had bought.
The first people to show up, Joey and his mom, showed up a few minutes before the party was scheduled to start.
“Oh, hi,” Mom said, smiling and ignoring Mason and Cooper wrestling three feet from her. “I’m so glad you could make it!”
I led Joey to the table while our moms chattered. “You can put the present here,” I told him.
“No,” Joey said, clutching the box to his chest.
“But it’s for Cooper, isn’t it? And Cooper’s presents go on the table.”
“I don’t want to give it to Cooper,” Joey said, sticking his lip out.
I sighed and left Joey pouting by the table. I’d leave that conversation for his mom.
As more kids showed up, I sat down at the table and wondered what I was going to do for the next few hours. Mom had put me in charge of taking pictures when it came time for cake and presents, but otherwise, I had nothing to do. I had hoped to possibly hang out with Sam, who I never got to hang out with one-on-one, but he had made friends with a sibling of one of Cooper’s friends and didn’t want anything to do with me.
“Let’s move this party outside,” Mom finally said, and I got up, planning to head to the pool with the basketball hoops and shoot some hoops by myself. I had played for about five minutes when Sam and his newfound friend came over and challenged me to a game.
“You really think you can beat me?” I asked, throwing the ball to Sam.
He jumped in the pool, and his friend followed suit. “We’ll see,” he said, passing the ball to his friend.
Even though there were two of them, once I got the ball, they couldn’t get it away from me unless I shot it. A few times, I just hugged the ball and laughed as they pried, hit, and scratched at my arms, trying to get it away from me.
“Admit that I’m the winner,” I said, laughing.
“Never!” Sam shouted.
When they got tired of playing with me, they ran off to do the water slides. I was about to follow them when two guys who looked about my age jumped into the pool.
“Hey,” I said, spinning the basketball on top of the water.
“Hey,” the one with light brown hair said. “Wanna play?”
“Sure,” I said. “You guys here with your family?”
“Basically,” the older one, who had darker hair said. “We’re here for our sister’s best friend’s birthday party.”
I smiled. “Is your sister Rosie or Alexia?”
“Rosie,” the lighter haired one said. “Your brother’s the birthday boy?”
“Sure is,” I said, passing him the ball.
“I’m Calvin, by the way.”
“I’m Arjay,” the other one said.
“Britton,” I told them, and we started playing basketball.
I spent the rest of the party hanging out with Arjay and Calvin, who were a lot of fun. When it came time for cake and presents, they kept distracting me from taking pictures by making jokes, but I still managed to get some good pictures for my mom.
“See that idiot?” Arjay asked, pointing to the boy who kept dropping bits of cake in everyone’s punch. “That’s our brother, José. Drives us all up the wall.”
“Seems like a troublemaker,” I admitted, and Calvin laughed. “Nah, that’s me and Arjay. José’s just dumb and annoying.”
“Who says you aren’t that way too?” Arjay asked, and Calvin punched him.
“Who are you, my little brothers?” I joked, and Arjay and Calvin laughed.
When everyone was gone, Cooper fell asleep on the bench at the table while Mom, Sam, Mason, and I cleaned up.
“Did you make any friends?” I asked Mason as he threw paper cups and plates into the trash bag that I was holding.
“Yeah,” Mason said. “His name was Arten, and he’s Rosie’s brother.”
“Hey,” I said, laughing. “I made friends with some of Rosie’s brothers, too.”
“They’re a very nice family,” Mom said, joining our conversation. “Whenever Cooper and Rosie have playdates, Sarah and I just talk and talk. Sometimes you just find people you relate to so much, you know?”
I nodded, not knowing if I related to Arjay and Calvin as much as Mom related to their mom. They were cool and all, but we weren’t the same.
“Arten was way smarter than me,” Mason said. “He was using all the big words like… Like, um… Well, I can’t think of any.”
“Very clever, Mase,” I teased, and Mom smacked me lightly on the back of the head.
◊ ◊ ◊
When we got home, Cooper was still exhausted, so I brought him up to his room and lay him in his bed. He snuggled under the blankets gratefully, so I left him and went downstairs, where Mom was throwing together a salad and heating up leftover lasagna for all of us.
“I guess Cooper can eat later,” she said to herself. She brought the salad over to the table just as we heard a rumbling. Sam and Cooper jumped off the couch, forgetting about their TV show, and ran to the garage door. This was always one time of day when they were happy at the same time.
“Daddy!” they yelled, flinging open the door.
John got out of the car and hurried over so they could fall into his arms. “Where’s Cooper?”
“Asleep,” Mason said.
“Must’ve had a fun party.”
Sam and Mason both started talking about the party at the same time, and John put them down. “Sound like you guys had fun, too, huh? What’s for dinner?”
“Salad and lasagna,” I said from my seat at the table.
John smiled at me. “Hey B, how’s it going?”
“Good,” I said, smiling back.
John left Sam and Mason to help me set the table while he went upstairs. By the time we were all ready, we heard talking upstairs, and John came down with Cooper, who seemed newly energized after being woken up by his dad. We all sat down to eat together.
“Are you boys excited for school to start?” John asked.
Sam, Mason, and I groaned but Cooper, who was going into kindergarten, said, “Yeah!”
“Daddy, school isn’t fun,” Sam said. “You went there. You should know.”
“Sammy, did I ever tell you that I loved school?” John asked, smiling into his lasagna. “It was always so fun, seeing my friends and learning new things.”
“And meeting Mom,” I said.
“And meeting your mother. How could I forget?”
“I just don’t think it’s fun,” Mason said.
Sam agreed, and I agreed internally. I didn’t hate school, but I definitely preferred summer and weekends. I didn’t know anyone who didn’t.
Once we were done eating, Mason and John set up the TV to play Wii. I thought about joining them, but Sam and Cooper asked me to read to them, so I did that instead. I loved when they cuddled up next to me a lot more than I liked any video games.
We read for about fifteen minutes before Cooper started playing with his toys, so Sam and I put down the book and joined him in playing trains. In the middle of our game, Mom came upstairs and leaned against the doorframe. “I think it’s about bedtime, boys.”
“Aw Mom,” Sam complained. “Can’t we stay up?”
“It’s already nine-fifteen, Sam. You’ve already stayed up.”
Sam groaned and Mom came over to kiss his springy hair. “I could read to you a little if you want. After you brush your teeth.”
“Okay,” Sam agreed grudgingly.
I took Cooper to his room, which was on the other side of my own. He reached for his bed as we passed it, suddenly having trouble keeping his eyes open.
“You have to brush your teeth, Coop.”
“No,” Cooper wailed. “I don’t want to.”
“Mommy and Daddy will be upset if you don’t,” I said, tickling him a little.
He laughed, pushing my hands away. “You brush with me.”
“All right,” I agreed. We got his toothbrush ready, then headed to the bathroom that I shared with Mason and Sam so I could get my toothbrush.
“Get out, Cooper,” Mason said, pointing to my bedroom door.
“He can brush his teeth in here,” I said, putting my toothbrush in my mouth.
“It’s not his bathroom,” Mason insisted. “There’s already three of us who have to share it.”
“It’s fine. Just chill out, okay?”
Mason kept complaining, but Cooper and I finished brushing our teeth quickly. John swooped in to take Cooper to bed, leaving me to read alone in my room. I looked around at my desk and my bookshelf and the shelf with my LEGOs and Nerf guns on them. My room was so empty, and I wished I had a sibling to share it with. I thought of my dad’s house, where I shared a room with my other half-brother, Jason, and smiled.
“Hey,” John said, poking his head in the door. “Don’t stay up too late reading, okay?”
“Okay,” I said, giving him a smile.
“I hope you had a good day.”
“I did, thanks.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Cooper woke me up with the sunrise the next morning, asking to play Knights. I obliged, only because I knew there was no use in trying to get him back in bed, but I made sure we took our foam swords to the basement so that the noise didn’t bother anyone else.
After about an hour of playing, I heard footsteps upstairs. “Cooper,” I whispered, pointing to the ceiling. He stopped and cocked his head. “An enemy?”
I nodded. “We’ll attack.”
We snuck up the stairs, Cooper trying to quiet his own giggling with his hand. At the top of the stairs, I counted down from five on my fingers, then pushed the door open. Cooper let out a battle cry, holding up his sword, and Sam screamed.
Cooper and I laughed so hard that I cried, and Sam stood, glaring at us with his arms crossed. “You guys nearly gave me a heart attack, and all you can do is laugh.”
“Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed,” I said, and Cooper giggled more.
“Sure, wake me up and then make fun of me. What a great way to start the day.”
“Hey, lighten up, bro,” I said, managing to stop laughing. I put my arm around Sam. “Love you.”
He shook my arm off. “Don’t try to make me feel bad for getting upset.”
“I’m not,” I promised.
Cooper, bored of the talking, dropped his sword and ran to the living room. Sam watched him. “He’s going to put on some dumb baby show.”
“He can choose the show for one morning, can’t he?”
Sam sighed. “At least with him over there and Mason still asleep, I’ll get the last of the good cereal.”
“That’s the spirit,” I said, putting my arm around him again and leading him towards the pantry.
◊ ◊ ◊
Not long after Sam and I had finished eating, Mom came down the stairs and we heard stomping upstairs. “Fee Fi Fo Fum,” John said, his voice deeper than normal. “You can’t hide from the tickle monster.”
“Mommy!” Mason screamed from upstairs. There were another few stomps, and then Mason’s high pitched laughter rang through the house.
A few minutes later, John came downstairs with Mason in his arms and put him down on the couch between Sam and Cooper.
“I have some oatmeal for you, Mr. Tickle Monster,” Mom said from the kitchen. John went and put his arms around her, and I pretended to throw up.
“Boys,” Mom said as she and John headed to the table to eat. “Can you turn off the TV for a second so we can talk?”
Sam grabbed the remote and pressed the mute button, but Cooper kept watching.
“Your dad and I have decided to take you school--”
“Cooper, over here, buddy,” John interrupted.
Cooper turned around.
Mom continued. “We’re going to go school supply shopping today.”
Sam and Mason groaned. “I don’t wanna go to the stupid store for stupid pencils,” Mason pouted.
“Hey,” John said sternly.
“I guess I’d rather have the stuff I want instead of the leftovers,” Sam mumbled, and Mom smiled. “Way to have a positive attitude.”
“You’re all going to behave at the store, right?” John asked. Sam looked doubtfully at Mason.
“Right?” “Right,” Sam, Mason, and Cooper said.
“Britton?” John asked, the corner of his mouth twitching.
“I guess,” I said, smiling.
When Mom and John were done eating breakfast, they helped my brothers get ready while I picked my hair, brushed my teeth, and got dressed.
(Continues to see Britton go to his dad's house and his relationship dynamics with his father, his father's girlfriend Amber, and thei