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Two Roads in the Woods

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“Greg! Greg, come on, I have to leave soon!”

Ribbit.

“Shh!” Greg clasped a hand over Jason Funderberker The Frog’s mouth. “Don’t let ‘em hear you!” he hissed, tucking himself and his frog further under the bush on the side of their house.

Some people might say that a nine-year-old was too old to be playing hide-and-seek with his pet frog. They would be dead wrong. However, in this case, it was not a game hide-and-seek that young Gregory was partaking in.

“Greg!”

His elbow was sticking out a little. Greg poked his tongue out as he tried to conceal himself better without making the bush rustle too much. Normally he would’ve picked a tree over a bush, but Wirt knew all of his best hiding places already. Up in the trees was the first place his big brother had looked, he’d seen his feet from under the leaves of the bush and they went straight for the line of trees at the edge of the yard. Greg was a natural tree climber and Wirt knew it. He wasn’t such a dumb little brother that he was going to make it that easy for him.

Of course, clearly he was a very smart little brother and Wirt was the very dumb older brother because he wasn’t even looking anymore. Just shouting his name and knocking things over and making a mess from the sound of it. The kitchen window was right above Greg’s bush, and open, so he could hear whenever Wirt moved from one side of the house to the other.

The front door flew open, then slammed shut. Greg clutched Jason Funderberker tighter so he wouldn’t hop right to Wirt. Jason Funderberker had a rather rude habit of taking his brother’s side at the worst possible moments. The front door opened again, but closed much more gently this time.

“Sweetheart, we’ve really got to go.” It was their mom. Greg frowned, uncurling a bit to try and hear better. She wasn’t yelling like a crazy person the way Wirt was.

Though he wasn’t yelling now. “Mom, I literally can’t find him anywhere.”

“Greg will come out when he’s ready,” she replied.

He frowned. That was the tone she’d used when he’d broken his dad’s trombone and hid all the evidence but she knew he’d done it anyway and was just waiting for him to confess. It was scary how moms knew everything. Well, not everything. If his mom knew everything, then she’d know not to let Wirt go.

“But I need to say goodbye.”

“I understand, Wirt, but we don’t have time. Your orientation starts at noon. We’re going to be late as it is.”

“Then it doesn’t matter if I’m already late. I can be a few minutes later.”

“Wirt, we’ve looked everywhere.” It was his dad now. “Like your mom said, he’ll come out when he’s ready. I’ll make sure he knows how much you wanted to say goodbye and you can talk to him later after you two finish unpacking all that nonsense.”

“What nonsense? These are all important college essentials that the lists told me I needed,” Wirt replied grumpily.

“You really need that broom, kiddo? You gonna be sweeping your dorm room every few weeks?”

“…Maybe.”

The car door slammed and Greg gasped, his hold on Jason Funderberker loosening. No, they wouldn’t actually leave. They were pretending. Wirt pretended all the time to get him to do what he wanted. It was a mean big brother trick. A parent trick, too. Like reverse-psychology or something.

“I’ll see you on Parent Weekend, right?” Wirt asked.

“You bet. Wouldn’t miss it for anything,” Dad answered.

Were they hugging? Greg was pretty sure they were hugging because there was a lot of quiet and then maybe a sniffle – Dad was such an emotional dork, just like Wirt – and then another car door opened and shut and the engine started. No. No, they were still messing with him. Wirt wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye. He wouldn’t. That’s why he’d gotten up early and crawled under this bush. If Wirt never found him, then he could never say goodbye and never leave. Okay, so the logic may have been a bit off, but Greg never claimed to be a logical kind of guy. He’d at least wait and hide until after the first day of school, then Wirt would have to wait a whole ‘nother year before leaving and maybe a ten-year-old Greg would be more ready than a nine-year-old Greg.

Their mom was saying something to his dad, but the engine didn’t turn off and then he heard his dad shout, “Drive safe!” and the car pulled out of the driveway, gravel crunching under the tires of the used car they got for Wirt as a graduation present and the first thing Wirt had done with it was take Greg to get milkshakes and see a movie at the drive-in theatre in the next town over because Greg had always wanted to see a real drive-in movie and now that car was driving away.

“Wait! Oof!” Greg tumbled out of the bush. He scratched his hands a bit, but that didn’t matter as he scrambled to his feet and darted around to the front of the house. “Wait for me!”

The car was already rolling down their street, his dad still standing on the sidewalk and waving. He turned around as Greg shouted and he grabbed him before he went careening into the street right after it. He fought to get his arm loose, but his dad had a strong grip. Greg tried to pry his fingers off while staring after the car crammed full of all Wirt’s stupid college stuff.

“Wirt!” he shouted – maybe the window was still open and they’d hear him and Wirt would make Mom turn around because he couldn’t just leave – but the car turned the corner and disappeared. “Wirt!

“Hey, calm down, buddy. Greg, it’s okay.” Dad had his arms around him, as if a hug would fix everything. Well, it usually did and it was usually Greg convincing everybody that this was true, but not today. Hugs couldn’t fix this. “I’m sorry, Greg, but they couldn’t wait any longer. They had to go.”

“He wasn’t supposed to just leave!” Greg complained. It was more whined really, but he’d been trying not to whine so much because only babies whined and he was nine years old and anything was possible if you set your mind to it. “He has to come back. I didn’t give him his goodbye present yet! Dad, he has to!”

“C’mon, buddy. Let’s go inside and eat some of the leftover cake from last night, huh? Didn’t you say that corner piece has your name on it?” Greg shook his head adamantly and buried his face in his dad’s shirt while he rubbed his back. “Come on. We’ll have some cake, watch some cartoons, and before you know it, Wirt will call and you can talk to him all you want. And we’ll see him in a few weeks. You can give him your present then.”

“Or you can, you know, give it to me now.”

Greg blinked, then spun right out of his dad’s arms to grin at his very stupid, very awesome brother. “I knew you wouldn’t leave!” he declared triumphantly, to which Wirt rolled his eyes.

“I did leave. Mom turned around when we saw you nearly swan dive into the street and she said it would be mean if we didn’t.” He pointed to the car parked on the other side of the street.

Their mom waved from the open driver’s window with a cheerful smile and Greg frowned. He was not impressed. They really did trick him. Turning around was just all part of their plot against him all along.

Wirt poked him in the ribs. “Hey, so where’s that goodbye present?”

“I don’t know if you deserve it now.” Greg crossed his arms, turning his nose up as far as it would go. “Only really amazing brothers get great goodbye presents.”

“I spent all morning destroying the house looking for you- which reminds me, where were you?”

Greg beamed and zipped his lips. “I’ll never tell! But you’re right. It was pretty funny how you went squawking all around the house like a funny chicken, and funny brothers are almost as good as amazing brothers. Wait right here! I’ll go get it!”

“Okay, but if you hide again, I really will leave,” Wirt called after him as he hurried into the house.

Barreling into his room with the renewed energy of sheer relief, Greg dove right for his bed, plucking a small, yellow-wrapped package out of his pillowcase. He’d done it himself, which had been really hard even though it was just a little rectangle, box-like thing. Mom sure made it look easy at Christmas when she hid in her room and wrapped all the presents last minute on Christmas Eve. He was fine with wrapping just the one, thank you. Bounding back down the hall, he nearly crashed right into his dad as he came in the front door.

“Where’s the fire?” he joked, but Greg simply raced outside.

Wirt was just where he’d left him, plus a frog. He was giving Jason Funderberker a pat on the head, pleasing both little brother and the amphibian. He looked up as Greg ran at him and still managed to be caught off balance when the present was thrust into his face.

“Here!” Greg preened. “Happy Going To College Day!”

“Oh. Wow, it’s an actual present.” Wirt genuinely sounded surprised. Greg didn’t know whether this offended him or not. With a super dorky grin, Wirt began to peel off the tape holding the crumpled wrapping paper together.

“Wait! Don’t open it now!” Greg stood on his tiptoes and waved his hands in Wirt’s face, accidently smacking him on the nose a few times.

Wirt raised an eyebrow. “Why not?”

“Because.”

“Really? Just because?”

“Yes really just because!” Greg retorted. “Wait until you get to school and are actually missing me. Then you can open it.”

Wirt hummed and glanced off to the side. “What if I never miss you?”

Greg flapped his arms around, striking different “look at me!” poses until he had his brother’s complete attention. “It’s impossible not to miss me! Look at this face o’ mine!” He poked his cheeks where his dimples would be if he’d had any.

Wirt snorted back a laugh and opened his mouth to reply when their mother called out for them to hurry up. Greg’s heart sank. Right. Wirt still had to leave. He’d hoped giving him his goodbye present and actually saying goodbye would make him feel better about this whole mess. It just made his tummy feel like crying, and he didn’t even think that was a possible feeling to have before today.

I’ll miss you.” Greg reached out and tugged on the hem of Wirt’s sweatshirt. He didn’t have the heart to tell him how silly it was to wear the school’s hoodie on his first day. Especially when it said, “UM” in big blocky letters.

“Hey.”

Wirt got that concerned look in his eyes that became so frequent after their trip over the garden wall. Greg liked it as much as he didn’t like it, which was a weird feeling to experience and he didn’t yet have the words for it. Maybe by the time he went to college he would.

He crouched down and gave his shoulder a squeeze. “You know I’m gonna miss you, too, but it’ll be okay. I promised that I’ll call three times a week, at least, remember? And if you need to talk to me, then you can call me whenever you want. I might be in class, but I’ll call back as soon as I can. And that’s a rock fact.”

Greg frowned. “Rock facts aren’t always one hundred percent, Wirt.”

“Well, my rock facts are.” He ruffled his hair, then pulled him in for a tight squeeze.

It was part of their thing. Wirt was supposed to hug him way too tight and then he’d kick and squirm and pretend to complain about annoying big brothers and their terrible hugs. Just this one time he squeezed back.

Though he did still kick him, just a little. “Don’t cheat and open my present before you get there.”

Wirt chuckled, a warm sound that rumbled from his chest right into Greg’s own. “I won’t. I promise.” He pulled back and flicked his forehead. “Make sure you and Jason Funderberker go on lots of adventures that you can tell me all about.”

“Who? Me?” The brothers blinked at each other, then looked up in the direction of the crackling, croaky voice. Jason Funderberker The Person stood a few feet away from them, walking his Pekinese, Miranda.

“Oh, no. Not you, Jason Funderberker,” Wirt explained, pointing to the frog beside them. “Jason Funderberker, our frog.”

“Ohh… sorry.”

They waited until he’d continued on his way, then Greg pulled Wirt into a more normal hug. Their mom had to threaten to drag Wirt all the way to school by his ear if he didn’t hurry up before he finally scrambled his way back to the car. He tripped on the sidewalk, but recovered with a hop and a skip and a half. Not the best landing, he’d seen, but pretty good. Greg gave it an 8.5 as far as clumsy brothers went.

Oh! He almost forgot.

“Bye, Wirt!” Greg hollered.

“See ya, Greg!” Wirt called back, waving with the hand that clutched his gift before ducking into the passenger seat.

Ribbit. Greg scooped up Jason Funderberker in his arms, then made his little frog hand wave while the car turned around and resumed its journey into the unknown…

Well, not exactly. It was just college. Greg could handle that, and Wirt probably could. Maybe. If they could handle the actual Unknown, then college would be a breeze.

Of course, it wasn’t until he walked passed Wirt’s room and noticed how empty it all was that he worried that it might not be so easy after all. “Ain’t that just the way?” he sighed.

-0-

After eating the cake his dad promised him when he’d been so distraught – “I offered it to calm you down, you’re fine now, no cake before breakfast, young man. What’s with that face? I said no. …fine. But don’t tell your mother.” – Greg found it to be a relatively normal day. He and Jason Funderberker went exploring, just like they usually did when Wirt wasn’t around.

He’d placed Jason in his bike basket that Wirt bought for Jason Funderberker’s first birthday with them and took him to the park. “Greg, we don’t even know how old he is, let alone what day he was born.” Wirt had tried to reason with him. Well, reason wasn’t a very good reason to keep Jason Funderberker from having a birthday party. He needed to know how appreciated he was. So he made Wirt show their appreciation with a bike basket to go along with Greg’s very first two-wheeler bike without training wheels. It was easier to remember Jason’s birthday if it was the same day as his own. Wirt grumbled that it was just an excuse for more presents, but it wasn’t like Greg could sit in the bike basket and let Jason Funderberker ride the bike around town. That’d be silly.

At the park, he and Jason met up with some of the kids he recognized from his old third grade class. They started up a rousing game of Two Old Cat, but they could only find one old cat wandering by the park that day. So Greg made up a new game called One Old Cat. It was a little bit like tag, and a little bit like Monopoly, and a little bit like Candy Land if Candy Land was more like Pick-up Sticks and The Hokey Pokey combined.

It was the best game ever. Greg was sad that he didn’t think to write down the rules because there was no way he was going to remember them all. Wirt usually remembered to do stuff like that for him. By the time everyone left the park to go get ice cream downtown, he’d already forgotten them all. That was okay though, because ice cream was way more important than silly ol’ rules.

He and Jason Funderberker split a cup of rocky road ice cream even though he liked cones better. He couldn’t get a cone with Jason because his tongue always made the ice cream part fall off the cone part and then Wirt had to give his ice cream to Greg even though Greg didn’t ask him to because that was apparently part of the Big Brother Rules. Greg couldn’t complain though. Wirt had excellent taste in ice cream. But since there was no Wirt this time and he only had enough pocket money for one ice cream, he played it safe with going the cup route.

After that he got in trouble with his dad for leaving the park without checking in at home first. Then he got sick because all he’d eaten all day was cake and ice cream. And half a melted Hershey bar that he found at the park, but only the part that was still mostly covered by the wrapper. Greg promised to never ever ever eat something off the ground again when he threw up purple and yellow frosting on his pants. From the cake, not the Hershey bar. Even Greg knew better than to eat a Hershey bar that was purple and yellow.

Even though he was confined to his bed both as punishment for leaving the park and because his tummy hurt, Greg still had a pretty good time playing Go Fish with Jason Funderberker. Wirt had tried to teach them both Poker once, but gave up when Greg decided to sing and act out the Queen of Hearts being in love with King of Diamonds and then it started a war between the Jacks and then it became a game of fifty-two pick-up.

When his punishment was over, Greg and Jason watched TV in the living room. They liked to watch the infomercials and debate what would make the most sense to buy Wirt for his birthday. It was funnier when Wirt was actually around to complain about it though. Most things were funnier when Wirt was around, actually.

Greg frowned as the thought occurred to him. Wirt hadn’t even been gone a day and he’d thought of him in almost everything he’d done. He got up to find a calendar. Their mom had already circled and marked “Parents’ Day” in October, so Greg counted the amount of days left until then.

“Beans! Jason, there’s still thirty-five whole days before we go visit Wirt! And that’s only for one day!” Greg exclaimed, attempting to convey this terrible occurrence to his frog. He looked to the sky – even though it was covered by the ceiling since he was in the house – and spread his arms out. “Is this what life has in store for us, Jason Funderberker? Thirty-five days of night and one of… not-night, a cycle of- umm… stuff that means I don’t get to see Wirt!”

“Leave the poetry to your brother, Greg.” His dad gave him a pat on the head as he passed him to get a glass of water. “You might have a future in acting though. I can really relate to your struggle.”

Greg let his arms fall to his sides and observed him. “Dad? Is Wirt gonna come back home when college is done?”

“In a way,” he hedged. “He’ll come home for breaks. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and summer, but when he’s done with college, he’ll probably want to be on his own. Just like you will when you’re done with school.”

Which couldn’t come soon enough in Greg’s opinion, but that wasn’t the big issue at the moment. “Why would he want to be on his own when he has us?”

His dad laughed. “I know it seems weird now, bud, but trust me. In a few years you won’t want anything to do with us either.”

“I’d never want that,” he gasped, eyes wide as saucers. “We’re family!”

With a warm smile and a pat on the shoulder, his dad went back into the living room to take control of the TV and claim the big, comfy chair. Greg didn’t want the big, comfy chair anyway. It was too big when it was just him and Jason Funderberker. And not nearly as comfy. Greg looked to the calendar again. Did Wirt really leave because he wanted to be by himself? He’d said it was because he wanted to learn more things, but what if he’d been lying to make Greg feel better?

“Pffft. That’s ridiculous,” he laughed. “Wirt went to more school because it’s school! It may be crazy, but that’s just the kind of person he is.” Greg placed his hands on his hips and imagined himself as President Abraham Lincoln giving an important speech, then realized exactly what he said. “Wait. That didn’t come out right.”

Jason croaked at him and blinked several times. Sometimes you just didn’t need words. Greg picked him up and carried him off for the next phase of their adventure.

It ended up being more bed rest because his stomach still hurt.

And all of that was exactly what he relayed to Wirt on the phone that evening when he finally called. Except for the part where he asked his dad about Wirt and college and why he wasn’t going to come back home ever again. That was merely a rock hypothesis. Completely unfounded.

Jason Funderberker was all warm and toasty on his bed in a pair of socks, watching Greg play with a spoon. A bowl of chicken noodle soup had gone cold in his lap as he babbled to his brother, breathlessness the only way Wirt could get a word in edgewise.

“You really shouldn’t ride your bike alone, Greg. What if something had happened to you?” Of course the first words would be worry, Greg grinned. Typical Worry Wirt.

“It was just to the park and then to get ice cream. The park isn’t even that far. I go there by myself a ton of times and nothing’s happened. And dad already punished me for going to get ice cream with the other kids and no adult supervision.” Greg’s stomach grumbled in the non-hungry way, so he rubbed small circles over it. “My tummy punished me, too.”

Wirt snorted over the phone. “Serves you right.”

“How was driving to school? And getting to school? And moving into school?”

“Okay, okay. It was all good. Really good, actually. Remember when we toured the campus a few months ago? Well, it was like that, except better.”

Excitement fluttered in his brother’s voice. Greg listened to it very carefully as he sipped his cold soup. Happy emotions didn’t get as big as the non-happy ones when it came to Wirt, something that still baffled him. It was just so… easy to be happy.

Well, except when he missed Wirt. Huh. Maybe Wirt was so unhappy because he’d been missing Greg for most of his life and still getting used to having him around. That sorta made sense.

“What’d you do when it was just you?” Greg asked, interrupting a description regarding the Neoclassical design of the campus that he hadn’t been paying any attention to.

Wirt didn’t get mad though, it just threw him for a loop. “What?”

“When it was just you, you know, before me, what did you do?” he repeated.

There was a long pause, so Greg used the time to pick individual noodles out of the broth one at a time with his spoon and stuck them to Jason Funderberker’s chin. “I… well, I guess I just read a lot. It was a lot quieter when it was just me, I remember that much.” When Wirt managed to laugh a little, Greg felt better about his question. “I don’t know, Greg. I just did stuff. Normal kid stuff. Kinda like what you do- except no. No, not really. I don’t think I’ve ever done what you do.”

“Yeah, but who did you play with?” Greg pressed.

“I played by myself.”

It was said with such ease, he could actually imagine his brother shrugging it off. He’ll probably want to be on his own. He shivered as his dad’s words came back and he pushed his soup bowl over to Jason Funderberker so he could finish it off. He’d already eaten the noodle beard he’d made for him.

“Greg? Are you still there?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“Did you like it?”

“Hm? Like what? Your present? Yeah!” He huffed out a laugh. “I can’t believe you made me a tape! I haven’t listened to it yet, but I will once I’ve unpacked everything. What’s on it?”

“Poetry and clarinet. No, I’m not gonna tell you! You’ll find out when you listen. But that’s not what I meant.”

“What did you mean?”

“Did you like being by yourself?”

“Oh. Uh. I guess? I didn’t really know any different. It was just me and mom for a while and mom worked a lot. Then there was your dad, and then you and then it was all different. From how it was. I don’t know, Greg. It didn’t bother me, no. But if you’re asking if I’d rather be an only child again, I think I’ve made my position on that pretty clear in the past.”

This time the laugh was forced. Beans, he’d gone and made his brother sad. He should’ve just let him ramble on about his architecture.

Wirt coughed and cleared his throat. “Why’re you asking?”

“No reason. I’m just glad I don’t have to be alone like you were. Even when you’re not around, I’ve still got Jason Funderberker! I’ll never be alone!”

“Yeah, well, Jason Funderberker better keep you in line or the two of you are going to wind up in prison.”

Greg scoffed. “Jason Funderberker doesn’t have the complexion for prison! Stripes would make him look washed out and green!”

“Greg. He is green. He’s a frog.”

“I know,” he giggled, grinning when he could feel Wirt’s amusement through the speaker. Like little dust particles squeezing through one end of the phone and popping out the other.

“What? Oh. Okay.” Wirt’s voice was directed away from the phone, then came back. “Gotta go now, Greg. Mom's getting ready to head to the hotel and she wants you to give the phone back to Jonathan so she can talk to him a bit and I’ve got stuff to do here.”

“What kind of stuff?” Greg pressed.

“College stuff. Might be doing some orientation things later tonight. I dunno. I guess I’ll play it by ear.”

“Oh. Have fun?” He still wasn’t really sure what all this orientation stuff was.

“Thanks, you too. Feel better and don’t throw up on any of my things.”

“Aye aye, captain. Thar she will not blow chunks on the captain’s booty. Ar!”

“The captain appreciates it. Good night, Greg.”

“’Night, Wirt.” He stayed on the phone until their mom started cooing at him, then he yelled for Dad to come take the phone. “Guess it’s just you and me again, huh?” He drew Jason Funderberker in for a hug, then tucked him into his blankets despite his frog tank sitting on top of his dresser. “Mom won’t be home ‘til tomorrow because she's taking the train in the morning, so you’re sleeping with me tonight.” Ribbit. “You keep your cold feets to yourself, then I’ll do the same,” he promised.

-0-

Greg didn’t dream about what happened that often. Wirt was the one with the bad dreams. Wirt remembered most of it, probably all of it since he had a pretty good memory, but a lot of things were fuzzy for Greg. Like he couldn’t remember if they’d been to a school teaching pumpkins to dance or an animal village full of friendly skeletons, but he did remember Beatrice and the frog boat. When he dreamed about what happened, he liked to dream of that day on the boat when he was a drum, Jason Funderberker The Frog sang, and Wirt played the bassoon for everybody.

That wasn’t what he dreamed of on Wirt’s first night away though. After he woke up, it took him a while to realize he wasn’t really a tree, and even longer to get the taste of leaves out of his mouth.