By Gary Moore
The Toy Box was blue and white and sat patiently in the corner of Leonard's bedroom. Starting at the floor, it came up to the waist of ten-year old Leonard. It was half as wide as Leonard was tall and was as deep as his arm, bigger than a sailor's steamer trunk. The sides were bright ocean blue, fresh with a new coat of paint. The front was white, also with the faint smell of fresh paint. The white top had hinges on the back so that Leonard could lift it up and put anything inside. Toys, though, was the intention. A place for everything and everything in its place, Leonard's mother would say. This box was a place for toys because on the front, painted in the same ocean blue set against the white paint, were the words "TOY BOX." Between the words was a sailboat done by hand and with great detail.
It was quite a toy box.
Leonard wondered what to put in it. This toy box would only hold his best toys, the ones he wanted to take special care of. Anything he wanted to protect, anything he wanted to save, anything he wanted to keep from being destroyed, would go in this box.
He didn't have many toys. He had wooden cars lined up on his shelf waiting for someone to drop the flag so they could race. On the shelf below was a squadron of army men complete with tank and airborne units. His books and comics were on the dresser. On his bed sat his stuffed bear.
His mother called him for school, time for him to leave.
The walk to school started quietly and slowly turned worse as it went on. The closer he got to school, the more kids came around. The more kids that came around and joined the daily school pilgrimage, the more risk that Leonard's taunting would begin. Leonard would shuffle quickly, kicking up dirt with his worn out shoes. His over-extended ears holding up over-sized glasses. Dust settling into his shaggy, unkempt hair or falling onto his shirt, which was likely to be the same one he wore the day before.
In class he would do his work and take his lessons and try desperately to disappear and not do anything to draw attention to himself. The ridicule from his peers would soon follow with jokes about the clothes or the glasses or the gap in his teeth. Other kids had nice clothes or looked better but Leonard didn't care so why should they?
"Leonard, you ain't stupid so why do you look stupid?" they would ask.
"Leonard, get away, you'll scare off other kids."
"Leonard, quit hanging around us."
"Leonard, you freak."
Leonard loved the walk home. Gradually, the kids would peel off to their houses and take with them the hurt. Leonard would finish the walk as it began in the morning, alone.
That changed in a week, though. Leonard's sister, Margaret, three years his senior, would join him for his walk. Margaret had to sit out the first week of the new school year on doctor's orders. She had weak lungs, the doctor said. She can't be running around like other thirteen year old children do. She needs bed rest. She needs quiet. But she was like Leonard's shield. Every boy in school wanted to talk to Margaret. She was every bit as pretty as Leonard was awkward and ugly. As the other kids joined their walk to school, Margaret's book sack was always taken care of by another boy. Margaret always had someone to talk to. He friends waited for her at the door of the school. Leonard loved it. Sometimes he pretended they were waiting for him, too.
On the playground at recess or after school, Margaret was like a guardian angel for Leonard. Nobody picked on him because then Margaret would come down on them. She would march up to a boy and grab his collar. Gritting through her teeth she'd say: Stay away from my brother, you hear? And they would, because everyone liked Margaret and if she didn't like you, then nobody did. Such was the power of Leonard's beautiful older sister.
On days when Margaret's lungs got weak Leonard would run home to see her and tell her about school and bring her the work from her teachers. She'd ask how his day was (fine) and who he talked to (not much of anyone talks to me). For Leonard, she was the only reason to come home.
One Friday, the trip home from school was especially brutal. Leonard arrived back in his room crying. Two older kids had roughed him up, bent his glasses when they’d knocked them off his face. His ears were swollen and red from being pulled from his head. His hair, nice and neat part long gone, hung in his face, caught in his tears.
It was then he decided to put his Toy Box to use. One squad of Army Men went into the box, ten of them. They would go. They would go into the box and wait for orders. Leonard opened the box and put them inside. The box was laughably huge for this small task, able to hold thousands upon thousands of plastic men. But, these ten were the first. Leonard closed to top and traced the sail boat with his fingers. Sailboats can go anywhere.
Mom called him for supper. Dad was home and he wanted to eat.
Dad worked at the bottling plant. Every morning he took the bus. He left before Leonard was up and got home after Leonard's walk from school. Every day, Dad would say, I'm up before any of you even think about getting up. I work hard for this family. I get treated worse at home than I do at my job. That's when things would get bad. A bad day at the plant meant a bad day for Leonard. A bottling plant where men drank beers straight off the line meant a bad night for families. If luck was watching, Dad would pass out listening to the ball game on the radio. If Leonard were really quiet in bed, he would hear his father snore in the kitchen as if giving off an all clear signal. No beating tonight, the signal said.
Sometimes, luck took the night off. That’s when Leonard got the switch, or the belt, or the stick. Once it was for schoolwork, once it was for disrespecting Mom, once it was for having bent his glasses.
Margaret never got it. Leonard was happy enough to take the brunt of it for her. Take it to save her breath. Mom usually stayed in bed.
The following Friday before school, Leonard went to retrieve his rogue squadron of Army Men and found them missing. The Toy Box was empty, as cavernous as it had began. Leonard was sure the men had been in there. He lined them up standing in formation before closing the lid, sealing them in darkness. He lifted the box looking for a false bottom or a knothole or something. There was nothing. The bottom was as strong as oak. He left for school with his Army Men missing in action. Dad must have taken them as punishment for something. Maybe Margaret was playing a joke.
On the walk home from school Margaret told him she wouldn't joke about his toys and take them just for fun. She didn't think dad would take them, either. Mom might have thought he had too many toys and took some. When he asked Mom, she said she didn't know where they went.
Margaret was missing more and more school which meant Leonard faced winter with more lonely walks. He found a new route to take where he saw fewer kids. At recess the kids would make fun of the hole he had worn in the toe of his shoe or the way his glasses sat crooked on his face. The glasses didn't even help him see very well anymore.
Margaret was in bed more now, too. Her breathing strained sometimes. She still did her work and took care of her chores around the house. She even took care of many of Mom's chores, like cleaning up from supper or sweeping the porch. Leonard could tell she was getting worse, though. With what, he didn't know.
For Christmas, Santa brought Leonard two large trucks to push around the floor and ram into things. Without thinking, the trucks went into his Toy Box, which hadn't hosted any toys since the Army Men had gone missing. New trucks for the new box, Leonard said.
And so he was nearly devastated when he went to play with his trucks the next day and found them, too, gone. The box was as empty as the day it was made. Leonard slammed the lid shut and pulled the box away from the wall looking for the trucks. Nothing behind the box. Obviously nothing was underneath the box. They were gone. Someone was up to tricks and playing him as a fool. Leonard's tears splashed down on the white top.
His father couldn't have taken the trucks. He wasn't even home at Christmas. He slapped mom and took off into the night, drunk. No time for truck stealing. His mom was crying in the den. Margaret listened to the radio and fell asleep, not before kissing Leonard good night though.
One night during the following month, an experiment was put forth. The subject would be Leonard's fearless teddy bear. At night, with his mother in bed, Margaret in her room and dad stationed by the radio drinking beers and listening to the ball game. Leonard gave his fearless teddy bear a hug and put him in the box just as he had the Army Men and the shiny new trucks. He shut the lid, then went into the hallway and waited. He sat against the wall, listening to his father snore over the ball game announcer. Faintly, he could hear Margaret's wheezing in her sleep, with each breath, her lungs weaker than the last. Through the crack of his mom's room, he could see her asleep. Leonard sat on the floor, staring at his bedroom door.
This would prove nothing was wrong. When he crept back into his room and took his bear back out of the box, it would at least ensure that someone in the house was taking his toys. There was a thud in the kitchen, followed quickly by a larger, deeper thud. His father, passed out, had fallen to the floor.
Leonard pushed open his bedroom door and flipped the light switch. The Toy Box, looking shiny and bright as the day it was painted, sat waiting in the corner. Leonard's teddy, no doubt, was waiting inside. Leonard didn't know why he was creeping up on the box. He was fooling himself, thinking the bear would be gone. Margaret wheezing in bed, Mom in her bed, Dad on the kitchen floor, and all the time Leonard was watching the door. Nobody was in or out. Nothing changed.
Leonard lifted the lid and looked inside. His teddy bear was gone. There was only darkness inside the Toy Box. Leonard turned out the light and went to bed, completely frightened of whatever was taking his toys. From his bed, he could see the sailboat on the Toy Box, just barely lit up by a streetlight faintly shining through his window. Sailboats can go anywhere, Leonard.
Margaret was hardly coming to school anymore at all. With each day she missed, the gumption increased in Leonard's classmates. Every day was met with pushing, headlocks, visits to the Principal, spitting, kicking, biting. Leonard didn't fight back. Leonard wanted to hide. He wanted to get sick like Margaret, lie in bed all day and discover where his toys were going. In between taking work to and from his ailing sister, getting taunted and bullied at school, getting taunted and beaten by his father, Leonard managed to lose half the toys he had.
The slot racers disappeared into the box. The entire crew of Army Men, followed by their equipment, tank, and plane on separate occasions, all disappeared into the Toy Box. Two of Leonard's books were gone. He made the mistake of trying his History assignment in there, hoping that whatever was taking his toys would, for some reason, finish his homework and leave it for him. No such luck for Leonard, and his homework was tardy.
Leonard's last light went out when Margaret's young lungs gave up. In her bed while Leonard was off at school, Margaret slipped away from the living. Leonard was pulled out of Math class and sent home, making the long walk by himself. The Principal didn't say it, but Leonard knew what was wrong. He had taken his last walk home with Margaret. She was dead. From now on, every walk would be alone. His classmates would probably leave off for a week, then slowly forget and the ridicule would resume.
It was the slowest walk home Leonard had ever taken.
At the house, his mom was in the rocking chair weeping. Two doctors were in Margaret's room. Leonard peeked in to look at her. She looked like she was still asleep. Leonard wanted to wake her up and get her the school assignments from her teachers. He wanted to cry to her about the kids at school. He wanted to cry to her about dad. Instead, he watched as they carried her out of the house.
Leonard stopped going to school. He would leave and come home, but spend the day camped under a bridge reading comics or skipping stones along the creek. There was no more use of going to school. Leonard's glasses were cracked in addition to being crooked. He could barely tune into the teachers over the constant stream of taunts and violence.
When the school called home and his parents found out, his father gave him the worst beating he had ever gotten. The belt to the back, the screaming to the ears, the terror, and a beer bottle to the head. Leonard's dad sent him to his room to think about school and how good he had it. Leonard's dad said he would be in to finish with him after the game. The last thing he said was not to come out at all that night.
Leonard passed his mother's room on the way to his. He could see her sleeping inside. He tiptoed in and kissed her cheek. He shuffled off to his room, passing Margaret's room, left the same as the day she was carried out of it. Her pillow still was shaped to her head.
Inside his room, covered in darkness, sitting on the bed and looking at the sailboat on the Toy Box, Leonard missed Margaret's wheezing. He missed his toys. He missed not understanding why anything was.
Leonard lifted the lid and looked inside the Toy Box. The trickle of light from the streetlight ended at the floor. Inside the Toy Box was pitch black. An entire universe could be in there. Anything could be in there.
Leonard quietly set one foot inside the box. He felt floor. Scared, he put the other foot in. It would be cramped, but he could fit. Did that even matter? He sat, and then curled up in lay on the bottom of the box. As he lowered the lid, the streetlight outside his window went out.Gary Moore is a writer from Virginia. He owes library fines for late books to every county library system in Northen Virginia.