Heroism ran in my family. For example, my older brother Alan, who drove a school bus for special needs kids, was driving on the highway one December afternoon with 16-year-old Brian Kluber when a trickle of smoke slithered out of the dashboard.

“Holy shit!” Alan cried, forgetting not to curse in front of a student. “Brian, we have to pull over!”

Brian looked up from the back seat, expressionless and silent.

Alan was doing 70 in the middle lane on Route 128. He slapped on his turn signal, coasting into the breakdown lane. Heart pounding, he snapped off his seatbelt and lunged into the backseat.

Brian Kluber stared at him with mild interest.

“Come on, Brian! Grab your stuff!”

Alan unbuckled Brian’s seatbelt and pulled Brian outside. Together, they ran from the smoking bus. There was a foot of hard, crusty snow on the ground. Alan guided Brian away from the highway, toward a protective cluster of trees. He called 911.

In about four minutes, the school bus became a billowing inferno, spewing orange flames and black smoke into the sky. The gas tank erupted like lava, sweeping from the engine block to the back seats. By the time the fire department arrived, the bus was nothing more than a roasting shell on four wheels.

Alan and Brian sat in the back of a State Police cruiser, warming up, while Alan called Brian’s parents, assuring them that their son was okay. Brian stared out the window, asking why the bus was on fire.

The state trooper told Alan that his quick thinking had saved both of their lives.

That night, Alan’s story was on the evening news. I watched it at home with Alan and our sister, Philomena. A reporter detailed the near-tragedy while the caption “Bus Driver Rescues Special Needs Student from Blaze” ran along the bottom of the screen.

“You’re a hero!” Mena cried, squeezing Alan’s arm. Mena, the middle child, had always lived in awe of Alan.

“Notice how they specify it was a special needs kid,” Alan said. “What difference does it make if he has special needs?”

“What caused the fire is what I want to know,” I said.

“I think it was my GPS device,” Alan said. “I had just plugged it in and turned it on, then the smoke started.”

“So you caused the fire? You saved your kid from a fire you caused?”

“I didn’t cause the fire,” Alan said. “Shitty wiring caused the fire.”

“Sounds like there’s more to this story than meets the eye,” Mena said, grabbing her laptop.

I knew what she was doing. The story of Alan’s dramatic rescue would go straight online to the family blog, The Gruney Gazette.

“Uncle Harris will love this,” Mena said. She opened the blog and started typing.

Uncle Harris was the family scribe, the most frequent poster to The Gruney Gazette, and often the hero of his own rambling, adverb-laced articles.

“We’ll include a few details the news broadcast missed,” Mena said. “‘Alan Gruney, 26, who still lives with his parents, bravely pulled himself and a helpless autistic boy from the flames of a raging bus fire.’”

“Why do you need to say I still live at home?” Alan asked. “You still live at home. Both of you.”

“’Alan, who enjoys video games and strawberry Pop-Tarts,’” Mena continued, “’admitted that it was his own faulty GPS device that started the fire.’”

“I said I think it did.”

“’Foul play suspected.’”

“’Hero’s welcome underwhelming due to lack of girlfriend,’” I added.

“’Local man’s eHarmony profile heats up following highway rescue!’” Mena’s fingers flew across the keys. “This story is way better than when Uncle Harris pulled that dog out of the river last spring.”

When you think of Uncle Harris, picture a rotund, middle-aged man with a long beard who wears sandals over wool socks, even in winter.

“All we need is a headline,” Mena said.

“’Local Weirdo Saves Retard,’” I suggested.

Mena burst out laughing. “Your headlines are the best, Scott.”

Our asshole parents named me F. Scott Fitzgerald Gruney, fitting me with shoes I could never possibly hope to fill. In retaliation, I staunchly avoided all forms of writing, especially “articles” for the Gruney Gazette. I did, however, contribute an occasional uncredited headline. Dad Cooks Another GREAT Pepper Steak!” “Gruney Gazette Readership Soars to Double Digits.” “Area Family Desperate for Attention.”

“You can’t say ‘retard,’” said Alan. “It’s mean.”

“People like mean stuff,” said Mena.

“Brian Kluber is not retarded,” Alan said. “He may not look you in the eye when you talk to him, but for fun, he likes to draw the periodic table on the bus window using the fog from his own breath.”

“Too late,” Mena beamed. “’Local Weirdo Saves Retard’ just hit the presses.”

“And don’t say ‘saves,’” Alan said. “I didn’t bring him to Jesus. Say ‘rescues.’”

“Too late.”


Brian Kluber was not the first person saved by the siblings Gruney. When Alan was fourteen, Mena twelve, and me eleven, Alan and his friend Chuck stole a shopping cart, then tried to ride it down our street like a sled. Alan climbed into the cart and Chuck gave him a strong push. Chuck stood back to film the experiment with his video camera.

Mena and I watched, first with giddy excitement, then with mounting terror, as the cart gathered speed and careened out of control.

“Help!” Alan cried, curling into a ball. “I can’t stop!”

The cart hurtled downhill, bumping off parked cars, bouncing over frost heaves. At the bottom of the hill was a busy intersection.

Mena leaped onto her bicycle and flew down the hill. Pedaling furiously, she ran down the shopping cart, grabbed the handlebar, and squeezed the rear handbrake on her bike. Bike and cart stuttered to a stop about three feet from the intersection.


Uncle Harris replied to “Local Weirdo Saves Retard” within minutes, tacking on a response that was four times the length of the article.

“’When I was 13, I ran into my neighbor’s burning house and rescued his Pekingese…’” Uncle Harris’ post began.

“Uncle Harris is a one-upper,” Mena said. “So what if he saved a dog? Alan saved a human being.”

“Rescued,” I said.

“Alan brought a special needs kid to Jesus.”

After Alan’s bus rescue, all the old Gruney life-saving stories materialized on the blog. Grampa’s heroics in the Korean War. Mom’s many resuscitations as an emergency room nurse. Aunt Pearl once prevented Uncle Fred from choking on Kung Pow shrimp, using the Heimlich maneuver. Seems like everybody in the family had saved somebody’s life.

Except me.


About two months after the bus fire, I sat alone in my room, smoking weed and playing Game Boy. A February snowstorm raged outside.

My cell phone rang, and I saw it was my sister, so I didn’t answer it. It rang again, then a third time.

“Yes?” I said, trying to talk on the phone and play Tetris at once.

“I called three times, you asshole!”

“What’s up?”

“I’m stuck in the snow.”

At first, I thought she had been driving somewhere and had gone off the road. But Mena did not drive. In a prolonged fit of environmental righteousness, Mena, now 24 years old, had never gotten her driver’s license. She rode everywhere on a bicycle, even in winter, to reduce her carbon footprint.

“What happened?” I asked.

“My tires slipped and I went off the road.”


“Crescent Street. I’m like two minutes from the house. I need you to come get me.”

“I’m right in the middle of a game.”

“I’m buried up to my chest, Scott! At the bottom of a ditch!”

“All right,” I sighed. “I’ll be right there.”

This meant I had to change out of my pajamas. Getting dressed took five minutes. I went down to the basement to see if Alan wanted to come with me, but he was gone somewhere.

The plows had not been out yet. Thick snow choked the streets. Inching along Crescent Street, I found the snaking tracks of Mena’s bicycle and followed them until they abruptly veered off the road. I put on my flashers, left the engine running, and stepped out into the storm. I was still stoned and the falling snow looked so pretty.

“Mena!” I called.


Peering over the embankment beside the road, I saw her about 15 feet down in the ditch, wedged in snow up to her chest. Her upturned bicycle lay beside her.

“What the hell are you doing out here?” I asked.

“I was going to the library,” she replied.

“In the storm?”

“It didn’t seem so bad.”

“Hold on a minute, retard.”

Extracting my sister from four feet of powdery snow was not a simple endeavor. I tried to venture down the embankment, but could not reach her without sinking myself.

Snow continued to fall in droves. The wind picked up. Both of us began to shiver. I hiked back up to my car and looked through the trunk. Didn’t find anything useful.

“Hurry up, Scott, I can’t feel my legs!”

“This isn’t working. I’m going home.”


“I’m just kidding.”

All we needed was a little leverage. I had an idea. It was easier to reach the bicycle than Mena, so I hiked back down the embankment and grabbed the protruding wheel.

“Hole onto the other wheel and I’ll pull you,” I said.

The length of the bike spanned the distance between us. Mena reached out and clutched the bike’s rear wheel. I grabbed the handlebars and leaned backwards, staggering up the slope. Mena sort of lunged forward until she was able to dig her feet into hard-packed snow. Inch by inch, her body emerged from the powder.

Together, we climbed up the embankment to the street. The entire neighborhood looked like some giant eraser had come down and wiped it clean, thought the stoned guy.

Mena brushed off her clothes and kicked chunks of snow out of the wheels of her bike.

“I don’t have a bike rack,” I said. “We can just put the bike in the back seat.”

“I’m okay now,” Mena said. “It’s only a mile or so home.”


“Thanks, buddy!”

She climbed onto the bike and started to pedal away. I just stood there and stared at her.

She made it about 50 yards before losing control and plunging over the embankment again.


I should have learned my lesson about venturing out in a snowstorm, but a couple of hours later, back at home in my room, my phone rang again. This time, it was my brother.

“All-you-can-eat pancakes at Brigman’s, Scott,” Alan said. The mystery of his whereabouts had been solved.

“I’m not going anywhere,” I said. “I already had to go out once to rescue Mena.”

“Where is Mena?”

“Reading in the bathtub.”

“All. You can eat. Pancakes.”

He did have a point. After smoking weed all day, the thought of pancakes made me feel the way the British soldiers must have felt when rescue ships finally arrived at Dunkirk.

Once again, I headed out into the storm. Brigman’s Diner was across town, and the roads were still shitty. But there was a shortcut one could take if one ignored the law and drove the access road that ran beside the tracks of the commuter rail. Local weirdos called this the Amtrak Express. It shaved off two miles of main road traffic.

I barreled down the Amtrak Express. Snow was fell in swirling buckets. There was no sign of a train. The whole world seemed gloriously empty, as if everything in existence belonged to me.

Until I lost control on some slippery ground and my tires locked. I was almost at the end of the Express. I could see the road. I spun the steering wheel in futility, careening sideways, the back of the car spinning around and bumping over the tracks.

I tried driving forward, and then in reverse, but could not jump the track. I climbed out of the car and stood on the empty train tracks. Did the commuter train run on snowy Sundays? The air was crisp and silent. I could almost hear the snowfall.

Suddenly, I realized how much trouble I was in. Not only had I illegally driven the access road in the middle of a storm, but my car was now straddling the tracks. If a train came along, the worst-case scenario was a horrific derailment. Short of that, I would probably be arrested if anyone saw me and called the cops.

I leaned against the front of the car and pushed. The car swayed slightly, but didn’t move. I heaved all my weight into it. The car slid backwards a few inches ‘til the tire bumped the track. There was no way I could push the car over the track by myself.

I got back in, put the transmission in reverse, and floored it. The brakes squealed, the tires shot silver smoke into the air, but the car did not move.

A man with a walking stick or a ski pole or something emerged out of the falling snow. He was round and warmly dressed, and looked to be out for an afternoon stroll. On his feet, I noticed thick wool socks and Birkenstocks. I opened the door, nearly falling out of the car.

“Uncle Harris?”

The man stopped. He was wearing ski goggles, which he removed to squint at me.

“Scottie? What are you doing out here?”

In lieu of response, we heard the not-too-distant blast of the train whistle. We both looked down the tracks, into the snowy blur, then turned to each other.

“Get in and hit reverse!” he shouted.

I jumped back in the car. I hit reverse and punched the accelerator. Uncle Harris leaned against the hood. With a great, heaving groan, he threw his sizable gut into my grill. The car lurched, rocked, fell back down.

The train emerged from the snow, a silver shark bearing down on its prey.

My vision shrank to a white tunnel. Nausea churned in my guts.

“Again!” Uncle Harris cried.

I floored the accelerator.

Uncle Harris performed some kind of superhuman forward lurch that to this day I still think I must have half-imagined, and suddenly the car jumped the track and flew backwards. I careened across the Amtrak Express and sunk into the ditch.

The commuter train hurtled by, blasting its horn.

I shoved open the driver’s side door and jumped out, ready to find bloody chunks of Uncle Harris.

Uncle Harris stood beside the passing train, waving to the few visible commuters, who stared suspiciously back at us. He turned and gave me a big, bearded grin.

“That was close,” he said.

I grabbed his shoulder and leaned against him. My throat was bone dry. I tried to speak, but couldn’t.

“Where were you going, anyway?” he asked.

“I was going to meet Alan for pancakes,” I said. I invited my uncle to come along.

“I’ll take a raincheck,” he said. “I’m doing my exercise.”

“Actually, I think I’m just going to go home,” I said.

It took us half an hour to push my car out of the ditch, but instead of going home, I changed my mind again, and made a heroic run for those pancakes.