“No! You can’t go with me!”
There was no discussion. I had issued my verdict and slammed the front door to the house behind me, hurrying out to the car before Nathan could hound me again. He was always hounding me, but, as my best friend, Brian, said, that was a little brother’s job.
Brian was an older brother, too, with two sisters. I’m three years older than Nathan. Brian and I both agreed that as 17-year-old high school seniors, we should not be bothered by younger siblings. After all, had my big brothers even given me the time of day while we were growing up? I’m not sure they even knew I existed, except to punch or tease me once in a while.
Nathan dropped from the edges of my mind as I gunned the car out of the driveway and headed for Brian’s house. When I pulled up front I saw someone on the porch I didn’t recognize. I honked the horn, and the tall kid turned to open the door to yell something inside. In a minute Brian appeared, and the two hurried to the car.
“Hey, Alex,” said Brian as he slammed into the front seat. The back door slammed too, right behind him.
“This is Jason. He just moved in next door.”
I had to turn in the front seat to get a good look at Jason in the back.
“Hi, Jason. What’s up?”
Jason was at least four inches taller than Brian, and very skinny. His hair was red, cut short, and combed neatly back away from his slender face, which was covered with a multitude of freckles.
“Hi, Alex. So where we going?”
“We’ve got a history project we’re working on,” said Brian. “We need some things from the library, but it won’t take long. Then we’ll stop by the mall and see who’s there.”
“Great,” said Jason. His smile was huge, stretching almost across his whole narrow face. “But I have to be home by six-thirty for dinner.”
Brian and I both nodded, knowing that our parents expected us home for dinner as well.
Over the next few weeks Jason became a third member of our friendship, going everywhere with us, and doing the things we did. We all had so much in common that we got along great. Then came the day we had planned to go to the school’s swimming pool, and Jason called me just a little while before it was time to leave.
“Alex, do you mind if I drive tonight?”
Since my family happened to have an extra car with my brother away on a mission, I had driven everywhere we went. My friends chipped in for gas now and then, but I was always behind the wheel.
“I guess,” I said into the phone. “How come?”
“Oh, I just want to drive tonight, if that’s okay.”
“Sure, I don’t care. Pick me up after you get Brian at seven.”
I had to gulp down my dinner to be ready in time. I hoped that the warning about swimming on a full stomach was just a legend. With my dishes safely in the dishwasher, I grabbed my swimming stuff and headed for the door. Suddenly, an excited voice called out from behind me.
“Can I go with you, Alex?”
I didn’t even turn around.
I heard my dad call something out to me as I shut the front door, but I knew it would be a comment about being nice to Nathan, so I jumped down the front steps and ran to the old Buick idling in front of the drive.
It wasn’t until I was sitting down in the back seat that I noticed Brian was also in back, and another person, a very short person, was up front with Jason.
“Hey, Alex,” Jason said with a turn of his head toward me. Then, nodding to the short kid next to him up front he said, “This is my brother, Daniel. I wanted to drive tonight so I could bring him.”
Daniel was all smiles as he turned in the seat enough for me to get a better look at his round and happy face. His thick head of blond hair stuck out , but it was something else that caught my attention. I was surprised because Jason had often mentioned his younger brother, but never the fact that he had Down’s syndrome.
“Where are we taking him?” I asked.
“He’s going swimming with us,” said Jason. He had pulled the car out onto the street and headed toward the pool.
I took a quick glance at Brian, who just raised his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders.
“Got stuck baby-sitting, huh?” I looked at Jason as he drove, but my attention went quickly back to Daniel, who was still turned, still smiling brightly at me.
“No. I just wanted to bring him along. Daniel really likes to swim. He won a gold medal in the 50-meter race at last year’s Special Olympics.”
I didn’t think Daniel’s smile could get any bigger, but suddenly it did. Then he turned back to the front and reached across the space between him and his older brother and placed a pudgy hand on Jason’s shoulder. It remained there all the way to the swimming pool.
Daniel really was a good swimmer. Brian and I headed straight for the high dive once we were in our suits, but Jason and his brother remained in the shallow end, where they practiced a few laps with several different strokes. Almost every length of the pool Jason would fall behind just before reaching the end, Daniel surging ahead to touch the wall first. Then his blond head would pop up, the smile as big as ever. I couldn’t help but watch him between each dive I took.
Before long most of the friends who had met us at the pool had abandoned the deep end and were cheering Daniel on as he challenged each newcomer to a race. With each victory Daniel would slap the wall, jump up smiling, and shout out in glee. Then he would give solid high-fives to anyone near. I’m still not sure just how I got there, but suddenly I found myself back against the wall of the pool, waiting to push off in my own race with Daniel.
Since I was on a couple of athletic teams at school, I was used to the cheers of the crowd, but this time it was different. No one was cheering for me.
“Come on, Danny Boy!”
The voices echoed through the building as Jason gave us the starting signal. I didn’t want to disappoint the crowd, but my competitive spirit was suddenly in gear and I pushed off with a great burst. I’m not the greatest swimmer in the world, but then I’m not too bad, so I moved strongly through the water, determined to win the race. After a stroke with my right arm I lifted my head to see how far Daniel was behind. I was amazed to see him right beside me.
I took a huge breath, put my face in the water, and surged forward, but under the water I could see the motion next to me. Daniel swam with strong, steady strokes that pushed his short, round body swiftly through the water.
No way, I thought to myself and gave everything I had to the power in my legs and arms. Still, no matter what I did, Daniel moved steadily on. He touched the wall almost a full body length in front of me. When I came up out of the water, there was Daniel, his face dripping wet, smiling as big as ever.
“Good race, Alex,” he said and suddenly his arms were around me, hugging me tight. The cheers from our friends broke us up as Daniel moved through the water to give the high hand to everyone. But first among them was Jason, Daniel’s big brother.
“Great job, Daniel!” Another high-five and then another hug, this one between brothers.
I swept my wet hair back from my forehead, not sure if the water that had suddenly appeared in the corner of my eyes was from the pool.
A few nights later, I again had to wolf down my dinner to get out in time to meet the guys. Without saying much I cleaned up my plate, put it in the dishwasher, and headed for the door.
“Where to tonight?” Dad asked.
“Bowling,” I said. “Brian’s dad got us some coupons for the new alley by the mall.”
I turned again toward the door; then, stopping in my tracks, I turned and took a couple of steps back to the table.
“So, Nathan,” I hesitated for an instant, glanced at Mom and Dad, then back to my younger brother. “You want to go with me?”