From the Woods to the Red Clay Hills
(…And everything in between)

Introduction

Sam and Stephen each had their own personalities and their own – very different – effects on my childhood, both good and bad. They were always such polar opposites of each other – the type of people that you couldn't imagine giving each other a second look if they weren't related – and they had such different tastes in everything, and they each wanted me to be something different, so, all in all, they both made me who I am.

They both cared and they still do, and they always will, and they've taught me everything I know today, from how to shoot fireworks to how to write and how to tie my shoes. Their lessons persist and define me, and they probably will for the rest of my life, so this entire story, however many chapters it may end up being, is about and dedicated to them. And, I suppose, my almost-brother, Sam's best friend and their partner-in-crime, Mason. Close enough to count as a brother.

I'm not exactly sure yet if everything in this will be entirely truthful. I may embellish it a bit to make it more interesting, but I don't think I'll have to. My brothers were really crazy. Unless I explicitly state otherwise, you can pretty much assume that everything I write actually happened and it's an account of the incident, in as much entirety as I can drag out of my memories. Some of these happenings are humorous, some mellow, and some tear-worthy. Pretty much every facet of emotion has been expressed at some point, growing up with my brothers. The chapters aren't necessarily in chronological order. My memory isn't that organized.

They're going to kill me for this.

Chapter One
Sam Taught Me to Dream

Sam watched cartoons like a madman. If it was animated and showed up on a TV screen, he'd watch it. This included Anime, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Fox Saturday Morning Cartoons, Monty Python (there were animated parts), Ren and Stimpy, even the Magic School Bus. Every Saturday morning, without fail, he'd be up at 7 AM, in front of the television with a bowl of cereal, watching the Tick and Spider-Man.

He used to teach me the joys of cartoon obsession, and he couldn't fathom why I hated the Tick (I claimed that it was stupid), or why I refused to watch Spider-Man (I was horribly arachnophobic). But I'd sit down with him and watch Pirates of Dark Water or Freakazoid at what are now ungodly hours of the day. And then, later on, Toonami would come on and we'd watch Voltron and Tenchi Muyo and I still think cartoons were better back then.

Those are some of my earliest memories; sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV, wearing pajamas and eating cereal straight from the box. Oh, I loved cereal. On school days, we'd all sit at the table and I'd make a little cubbyhole for myself with the little boxes, acting like I was queen of a castle. It always annoyed Sam because I'd inevitably steal the Lucky Charms and put them on the side of the table opposite of him, so he'd have to reach over the entire table to get seconds.

At which point Stephen usually cackled and made himself a bowl of the sugary heaven, taking as long as humanly possible, just to annoy him more.

Sam was the oldest, and I worshipped him like a god. I'd tag around him everywhere he went, and I used to cry if he got sick of it and made me stay at home while he went off with his friends. But most of the time, he put up with me and took me under his wing, and, looking back, I admire his patience. I certainly wouldn't have put up with me for as long as he did.

When Stephen would pick on me or dad would get mad at me or the thunder scared me, I'd run to Sam. And he was always so awkward, he didn't know much what to do, but he tried anyway, and usually all I needed was a little attention and someone to tell me they cared.

He was seven years older than me, and had all the traits of dad's family – the flash temper, the unpredictability, the ability to procrastinate like there's no tomorrow, the amazing storytelling gene, and the crazy amount of passion for all the craziest things. In short, he's just like me. Or, I suppose, I'm just like him.

And Sam had all of them. What he loved, he loved with everything he had and he'd put his all into loving it. What he hated, he hated with the very fiber of his being, and he made sure that the object of his hatred knew it. Sam was always unpredictable, impossible to pin down, and insufferable to the highest degree. But you couldn't help but love him for it, even if he was annoying as hell sometimes.

What Sam believed in, you couldn't talk him out of no matter what. I think he felt that if he didn't have anything else, at least he'd have the strength in his convictions and he'd never, for anything, let those convictions go. The things he really believed in, the things he really loved, the things he placed his faith in, he followed and fought for like a dog on the scent of a hound.

The only problem was, he had to really believe in them. If there was any shadow of a doubt in his mind, he wouldn't bother with fighting for it.

Sam also wrote. I didn't read much of his writing, as I was usually too young to really comprehend how intense it all was, but what I did read was excellent, and he, like our father, had that knack for storytelling. Every so often on New Year's Eve or Independence Day, we'd gather around the bonfire, me, Sam, Stephen, and Mason, and we'd play "Are You Afraid of the Dark," shamelessly stolen from the TV show of the same name. We'd sit there and tell ghost stories, and Stephen's were always blood-and-guts, mostly just strange, slasher-type stories, but Sam and Mason would get together and tell a story worthy of nightmares, every time.

There were ghosts and goblins and Sam could affect this voice, the ultimate scare-the-piss-out-of-you storytelling voice, and I didn't even have to hear what he was saying to get scared out of my wits. More than once, I was the one running back up to Mom, whimpering about the Headless Horseman (one of Sam's personal favorites, as I recall) and probably getting him into more trouble than I intended.

It was Sam that taught me to explore. There were these woods behind my house, a narrow strip of trees that was a haven for all things fantastical. Sam would take me into the woods and show me all the best paths, the shortcuts, the long ways, the ways that lead to the field behind our house, but especially, the path that lead to the area. There was never a name for it, but I revered it all the same.

The area was just a piece of land, but it looked like it was taken straight out of Lothlorien, and Sam agreed with me. The trees were thick, with a creamy colored bark and giant, waxy leaves that stained the ground green on sunny days. The ground was sparsely covered with leaves and barely any underbrush, and there was an old wooden fence to one side that marked the edge of it, with a big ditch running through it. It was Sam that first showed it to me, and thus it was Sam that first pulled me into the world of imagination.

It was so easy to believe that the area was magical. The light and the air in the place just screamed "otherworldly". But the strangest thing about it was, for the longest time, I couldn't find it unless Sam or Stephen or Mason was with me, which only made it seem even more ethereal.

I only went there a few times. The place was like a shrine to all things innocent, to be touched upon sparingly. At least, it was to me. Sam went there all the time, he'd make up stories there, like he was prince of an Elven kingdom and it was his country. He was a warrior, a king, a god in that place, and it was his very own.

Sam had such an overactive imagination. He loved fantasy and magic and stories of kings and knights and awesome wars. He read voraciously, and when he didn't have anything to read or write, he acted out stories. I'd see him out in the yard, fighting imaginary orcs with a stick and a dinner plate. I used to want to play with him, but Sam was not a scrupulous warrior, and he fought dirty and hard. He was like me when it came to fiction. It was real enough to fight and, more importantly, real enough to fight back.

And maybe it was just me, but I used to be able to almost see the enemies he fought. He always had such a good grasp on where they were in relation to him; he never walked through someone, a sword never miraculously got shorter as it passed close to him. Everything was as if real.

It was his imagination that spawned his love of cartoons, or perhaps vice versa. Maybe it was simply that imagination that made it possible for him to watch them for hours. It was the same way with video games.

He played them all the time, and he played every imaginable game. From MegaMan to Little Nemo to The Adventures of Doctor Livingston to Castlevania, he played everything. Sam was almost as much a video game fanatic as he was a cartoon fanatic. I used to always watch him play. Stephen and I would get into these huge arguments in there, too, and he'd kick us out, saying that it was his room and if we weren't going to shut up and let him play then we couldn't sit in his room.

He meant it, too. If I so much as thought about poking my head back in his room after those epic wars, he'd snap at me to leave. I think he sort of liked the attention though. He liked having the authority to kick us out if he wanted to.

What he didn't like was when I'd kick him out of my room. He didn't want to feel like he couldn't be a part of my life. It used to be, when Mom would be working night shift at the local hospital and I'd cry because I missed her, Sam would just come in and talk to me and stop my crying, even if it took a while. He didn't like it when I stopped letting him walk into my room, even though I didn't need his help anymore.

He didn't like it because it reminded him that I was growing up. And, over time, we stopped watching the Saturday morning cartoons, and we grew out of Toonami. But I never forgot what it was like to do all of that, and I never forgot the exhilaration of exploring the woods with Sam. He passed on his imagination to me when I started to grow into it, and I'd run through those woods, not seeing an old tire or bike, but an amazing white steed and a gorgeous ship, coming in to take me to a new world.

Sam taught me how to enjoy life, even when it looks pretty dull. He taught me the art of imagination, how to paint the pictures I wanted to see. He taught me how to take a crummy little strip of woods and turn it into paradise.

Sam taught me to dream.