We hope you'll enjoy this fiction piece submitted by Anita Howard. We'll publish fiction on Monday and Wednesday and true stories on Fridays.
by Anita Howard
I never wanted to hurt Jack. The scissors may as well have been gouging out my own insides. I’d always harbored a soft spot for him, though he wasn’t the finest I’d seen.
Then again, maybe that’s the reason I loved him. Maybe that’s why it ached all the more when the old woman made me rip his seams wide open.
Momma had bought me the teddy bear when I was five. She’d just finished her shift at the Harbor View Church’s garage sale. Having rescued me from the childcare section, she steered us through the card-table displays. Upon seeing Jack, I begged—so desperate in my pleas that Momma finally surrendered.
Jack’s fur hadn’t the charm of breakfast toast. A fuzzy orange hide swaddled his plump body. He looked like a pumpkin with hair. And his eyes weren’t glazed like chocolate drops. In fact, in the place of eyes were two pits surrounded by black stains, as if he were a jack-o-lantern with smoke lining the socket edges.
Momma paid three nickels for the toy, dusted off the satin bronze and black striped vest that seemed so out of place, then handed Jack to me, wondering aloud how I could ever want something so ugly.
But I did want him. I loved him with all the unbiased passion of a five-year-old. Each time I nuzzled the mustard-vanilla scent of his fur, I heard a rolling deep within his chest, as if a hundred glass hearts purred mutual affection.
Over the next four years, Jack became my dearest friend. When I caught my finger in Ned Templeton’s teeth, it was Jack that walloped the bully across his head. When my grandma-ma tripped over a flower pot and broke her hip, it was Jack that comforted me and Momma at the hospital. And when Daddy left town with his secretary, it was Jack that sat on my pillow, keeping my daddy’s reading spot warm, in case he ever decided to come home.
On my ninth birthday, my playmate Emily from next door moved away. I cried, but Momma assured me that we would still be stuck together. The true glue of friendship was in the memories left behind.
Emily’s house, a Cape Cod with butter-rum trim, took only a month to sell. The buyers were fellow members of Harbor View Church, a middle-aged couple by the name of Annesley. On a biting October afternoon, Momma and I helped them move in as the sky spit down iced rain, leaving welts the size of chigger bites on our skin.
Inside the house, the grown-ups piled feather quilts on a bed in the back room, lined the bay window with chiffon curtains, and spread rugs along the wooden floor. They hung pictures of black and white, all the more fascinating for their lack of color. And lastly, they placed a large fishbowl next to the bed filled with a kaleidoscope of gumdrops.
I munched on chocolate cookies and heard morsels of conversation between bites. Mr. Annesley’s mother, Nanna Annesley, had lost her memories. They wanted her room stocked with her favorite things, because she would be locked within for her own safety, having a tendency to wander.
That night at home, snuggled beneath my quilt with Jack, I wondered if maybe the reason Nanna Annesley liked to wander was to look for those sticky memories she had lost. I fell asleep, listening to the roll of Jack’s many hearts beneath my ear.
When Nanna Annesley arrived, we toted crochet threads and cooking magazines – items Mr. Annesley had mentioned were favorite pastimes in his mother’s earlier years. I wanted to bring Jack along, but Momma needed extra hands to carry the gifts, so the bear stayed behind.
Nanna Annesley sat unmoving in the rocker with the fishbowl of gumdrops nestled in her lap. Her crumpled face was like a doll’s: too vacant to be fully alive, but too thoughtful to be discounted as a mere fixture. I stayed with her while Momma and Mrs. Annesley made coffee in the kitchen.
When I tried to talk, Nanna responded by stuffing a handful of gumdrops in her mouth and smacking until a rainbow drizzled down her chin.
Deciding to read to her, I picked up a magazine. “It says here,” I managed in my most mature nine-year-old diction, “that the proper drink to serve with grilled salmon is a heavily-oaked chardonnay.” I wrinkled my nose, wondering what tree bark had to do with wine.
Nanna hunched in her rocker. A stump, a pillow, an empty, slobbery shell.
Undaunted, I read on, finding an exotic recipe for almond-deviled eggs. When I read where the yolk and almond mixture were to be stuffed into the hollowed out egg-whites, Nanna Annesley’s eyes came alive.
She rocked her chair so fiercely, the gumdrops fell from the bowl and rolled beneath the bed … some stopping to rest on the rugs. As I knelt down to pick up the candy, the old woman leaned close.
“Fuzzy marbles,” she said. Then she sat straight again, leaving me frozen in the wake of her sugary scented breath.
In the following weeks, I visited Nanna Annesley daily, though never thought to bring Jack along. We kept busy enough without him. Whether crocheting, sipping hot tea spiked with gumdrops, or watching the weather change through the bay window—the only two words Nanna ever said were, “Fuzzy marbles.” I finally realized that having lost her marbles, she could think of nothing but finding them again.
December brought holly and tinsel, and a world masked beneath a gloss of ice and retail promises. Seeking the perfect present for Nanna, I jumped directly in front of her son one day, causing him to drop a shovel heavy with snow.
“Does Nanna Annesley like toys?” I asked.
He grinned. “Grown-up toys are different, Lambie. Her playthings are the magazines, the candy, and the rainbow threads she crochets with.”
This didn’t satisfy me. I began to suspect that maybe this was the reason the old woman never seemed happy. “Has she ever had any real toys?”
“Ah.” From his wallet, Mr. Annesley fished a black and white picture. Sitting on a stack of wood, a little girl with bright eyes clutched a teddy bear, so similar to Jack it could have been his twin brother, though much newer and lacking the satiny-striped vest.
“Is that Nanna?” I asked.
Mr. Annesley grinned. “Seventy years ago. She named the bear Fuzzy. Came from a line of popular toys called Stuffies. Had deep pockets in their chests. Kid’s could hide things and stitch the bears closed, so as never to lose their heart’s dearest treasure.”
A strange, prickly feeling crept into my own chest. “What color was the bear … do you know?”
“Sure do. Nanna gave him to me as a boy. He was orange. I was rough with him, though. I gouged out the eyes, then burned the sockets with a magnifying glass.” He grinned again and pulled his toboggan lower over red-tipped ears. “Even tried to get to the treasure. But Nanna caught me. She stitched that bear back up, sewed on a vest, and hid him away in the attic.”
Mr. Annesley picked up his shovel and scratched the top of his covered head. “Funny thing. We lost that bear four years ago. Think he fell into a box meant for the church garage sale.”
As my neighbor returned to his work, I took the long way home, feet winding endless trails in the snow.
That night, I slept one last time with Jack. On Christmas Eve morning, I christened his orange fur with tears, memorized the song of his rolling hearts, and wrapped him in crinkly tissue paper.
Nanna’s reaction to the gift didn’t disappoint. Never had a crinkled face looked lovelier. Never had a toothless smile looked more seamless. Holding out a trembling hand, she offered her crochet scissors. Without a word, I unbuttoned the vest, and with an aching heart, snipped open Jack’s chest to reveal a box of marbles.
As I handed them to her, Nanna looked up and whispered, “Thank you.” And I basked in the gumdrop afterglow of her breath.
The night after Christmas, Nanna Annesley died. At her funeral, her son gave thanks that on Christmas Eve, his mother spoke in great length of her past, as if she’d never lost those memories to begin with. There was one story in particular he shared, of how his parents first met as children—arguing over a game of marbles.
I wiped my cheeks and hugged my special Christmas gift even tighter, tracing the new stitches along the bear’s middle. Then I looked at the casket and shook Jack, slightly reminiscent of the rolling I would never again hear within his chest.
But I knew it couldn’t be helped. My dearest treasure wouldn’t roll … wouldn’t even crackle. Because gumdrops had the tendency to stick together, just like friends.
Read the previous story: "Where the Lovelight Gleams" by Kristine Lowder.