The Toy Thief

D.W. Gillespie

THE TOY THIEF

To Grant and Lily, Daddy’s little monsters.

As long as you two are around, I’ll never run out of things to write about.

Chapter One

You’re probably wondering what it was like being a girl named Jack. Both my parents named me, but not in the usual way. Dad told me, years after the fact, that Mom wanted to call me Jacqueline. A sweet name. A girl’s name. He agreed, but I always got the sense that my name was something of a loss for him, like his team got kicked out of the NCAA tournament in the first round. It didn’t really matter in the long term. He ended up getting his way when I ripped my way out of her. Babies do that sometimes. You don’t know me very well, but believe me when I say I didn’t kill her on purpose. I was just a… difficult pregnancy, which naturally led to a difficult adolescence and difficult adulthood.

Jack.

Difficult.

Was it the name or the lack of a mom that made me who I am? That’s the question of course, the big one, the one I’ve been trying to answer ever since I was old enough to ask the question. It was just before summer, the long summer with me and Andy, when all that awful shit went down in that dark hole in the ground. Everything changed that summer, and once the dust finally settled, I think that was when the question actually occurred to me.

Why am I me?

People always ask me about my brother too, the usual stuff like what was he like, did you suspect anything, did he ever hurt you? I won’t deny that it pisses me off, but I don’t really blame them. I can’t. Not because it’s just human nature doing its thing, the words behind their eyes clawing, twisting out, like something kept in a cage for too long. No, I can’t blame them.

Of course he hurt me. I hurt him too.

Brothers and sisters are just like that, the best and the worst of relationships, the entire world rolled into one. I can still remember the way we’d go at each other, the ways that only we could hurt each other, simply because we knew how to hurt each other. Insert knife here and twist it like so. Oh, he could hurt, and I could hurt even worse, and we could both make promises with hands on a Bible that we would die hating each other. So why did I go after him after he came up missing? And why did he risk everything for me? To have a sibling, especially a close one, is to have a greatest enemy and a truest friend, but it’s always been like that, hasn’t it?

When people ask about Andy, I get ruffled around the edges, but I’ve learned to smooth out and shake my head in good nature. Of course Andy hurt me, but there was more than just that. There was the time Billy Callahan ripped my skirt off. I was only eight at the time, just old enough to have a sense of sex as a vague, far-off thing that grownups did in the dark with their clothes off. I was flirty with Billy in that way all eight-year-old tomboys were flirty. I called him names, kicked dirt on his shoes, told him to eat shit when he pushed me down.

I liked him. He was eleven. I think he liked me too.

Then one day at the creek behind his house, he told me he wanted to see my panties, and I froze up, all of the silly flirting evaporating like a puddle in the middle of summer. I didn’t know about sex, not really, but I got the sense that Billy did, and when I told him I didn’t want him to see my panties, he grabbed a handful of my hair and started twisting it. I knew, just knew, that he was about to pull a clump of it out by the roots, skin and all. He didn’t though. He just pulled me close and reached down for my skirt and ripped it clean off. I pulled away, stumbling down into the mud and grass, ass straight up in the air. He got a good enough look that day. One of his friends was laughing at the dirt stains on my underwear, sing-songing, “Jack shit her pa-ants.”

I didn’t even know Andy was there. He might have been hiding, watching it all unfold, waiting for the right moment. Or maybe he just walked up at the perfect time. I never knew for sure. He had a half-rotten stick as thick as a Coke can, and when he swung it into the side of Billy’s head, it exploded in a shower of bark and termites. Billy’s friend stopped laughing just long enough for Andy to raise it back up and catch him under the chin in another cascade of wormy wood.

Both looked up, saw Andy, and they knew. Without words between them, the boys crawled away and Andy stomped off toward the little clearing near the creek bed, his favorite hiding spot. He never even glanced back to see if I was okay, but I didn’t expect him to. Andy never was much of a talker.

* * *

A while back we had a little baby shower for a girl at work, a sweet gal as round as she is tall, a plump face like a bullfrog. They dragged her husband in for the whole thing, him feigning a smile as they opened the presents one after another, a pile that grew like mushrooms after a week of rainstorms. I had never done the whole shower thing before that. Never had a reason to. I can still remember strolling into the baby toy store, printing off the registry, and just marveling at all of it. I was pushing 30 then, babyless, likely for good unless something drastic popped up. Whenever I met someone, I always felt like I was breaking bad news to them.

“Yes, thirty.”

“That’s right, not a single baby.”

“Who knows why? Could be that I’m completely unfuckable. Maybe my pussy just don’t know how to grow one.”

People don’t like a woman that jokes like that. Believe me, I’ve learned the hard way. So I’d smile, the fingers on my right hand itching, and somewhere, in some far-off place, God would start laughing.

Anyway, the whole baby industrial complex was new to me, and the sight of the place put my jaw on the floor, for more than one reason. One, because I had no clue that such a place even existed, that there was this hidden economy, an entire ecosystem that could keep this place, this shrine to the newly born, afloat.

And two…

I’ve seen that many toys before, and the memory nearly put me on the floor. Toys, stacks of them, new and old, stretching as far as the eye could see in that subterranean place, that nightmare. And somewhere, hidden in the back, I could see him, the Toy Thief, tall and gaunt, crawling on the ceiling toward me like a pale spider. I couldn’t do it, so I stumbled out of the baby store, back into the sunlight, to lean against the concrete wall and let the moment pass.

One breath in. One breath out.

Soon, the world returned. That dark place was gone. I saw the smoke rising from it. I set the fires myself. It was just a bad dream. Eventually, when I found the nerve, I ventured back into the aisles, staring with wide eyes at the rows of factory-produced rattles, dolls, and battery-powered things that spit out an endless prattle of nursery rhymes. Would these toys ever mean anything? Would Frog Face’s child bond with them the way I did with my toy?

My only toy?

I tossed a few rubber duckies into the cart and followed them with a pack of diapers. After paying, I drove home and drank shitty vodka until I was woozy enough to sleep. It took a lot of vodka.

* * *

My memory is shit nowadays, but I’ve tried to think about Andy when we were at our youngest, delving deeper into my subconscious, trying to unearth the earliest memory I can. I do this from time to time in the hopes of uncovering something good, only to come up time and again with something horribly frustrating.

The mouse, for instance.

I don’t know for sure if it’s my earliest memory, but I’ve convinced myself that it must be. I mean, it shines brighter than its siblings, and it’s not very hard to see why. Andy had started a little bonfire down by the creek – his hidey-hole we used to call it. The little flat spot was ringed with trees and shrubs and was surprisingly well hidden, even though it was maybe a hundred feet from the nearest house. Pissing distance as Dad used to say. The only thing was, no one could get in there without some serious effort. For a kid, that meant crawling through about fifty feet of drainage pipe or going hands and knees under a thorny wall of brush. Once inside, there was a good ten-yard square of patchy grass, smooth gravel, and slick creek bed. It was a wonderful place to smoke a stray cigarette or peruse a dirty magazine – a Playboy if you were lucky, an Easy Rider if you weren’t.

I can remember seeing the smoke from the back porch, which wasn’t really a porch in the literal sense, just red bricks in a stack with a metal pipe jammed in for a handrail. Dad was quite the homemaker. I had borrowed one of Dad’s lighters, using it to melt crayons onto the porch, watching the colors swirl and blend like beautiful little starbursts. I think my original plan was to mix the colors together and make one big supercrayon, a brick of color that would leave kaleidoscopic comet tails across a blank piece of paper. Once the thick globs started to drip onto the bricks, the plan went out the window. I just couldn’t stop myself. I held the lighter until my thumb nearly blistered because I wanted to watch the crayons all disappear, like that feeling you get as a kid when the bathtub drain makes a tornado. It’s so small, but maybe, just maybe, it could su ...

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