Unknown Boy, Aged Four or Five
A Story by A.J. Brown
Marcia looked out the windshield at the throngs of people standing outside the toy store. They were wrapped in coats and hats, many of them wearing gloves, some wearing scarves. The sun was still an hour away from getting up, itself, yet people lined the sidewalk and stood in the parking lot six and seven deep. Few people talked, and those who did used soft, almost hushed tones, as if they had secrets they wanted no one to know.
She took a deep breath, the cold filling her lungs. There was no way she would find what she wanted with this many people here. She shook her head, flipped her hair back over her shoulders and let the breath out. Her hands were buried deep in her jacket pockets. Even with gloves on, she felt the cold in her fingers. Her bottom lip quivered. Occasionally, her teeth clattered together.
“I should have done this sooner,” she whispered to herself.
But she knew she couldn’t. It had to be on this day. It had to take place on Christmas Eve. She stood near her car, debating getting in and coming back later when the rush of last day shoppers had done their worst. Instead, she looked at her watch, one her sister, Donna, gave her. Minnie mouse made up the face, her arms the ticking hands of the watch. There was no digital display that told her the time. It was all lines and numbers and a simple glance at it wouldn’t do the trick. She had to really look at it. Minnie told her it was one minute until six. When the clock rolled over one more time, she walked toward the crowd.
At the toy store’s door stood two young women who might have been in high school, or possibly college. They wore red Christmas caps and the store’s light blue shirts with the logo on the front—two kids on a teeter totter—the name Teeter Totter’s Toys in black print above it. They looked at each other. One nodded and they grabbed the handles of the glass double doors. They pulled and the doors came open. People pushed forward, the quiet murmurs from earlier suddenly a rush of thumping feet and people yelling as they hurried toward the doors.
“We’re going to be like sardines in there,” Marcia whispered and stayed back.
After most of the patrons had gone inside, Marcia made her way to the doors, took another breath, bracing herself for the craziness she was about to face, and stepped inside. One of the two women—clearly a teenager who didn’t wish to be there—greeted her with a ‘Welcome to Teeter Totter’s Toys.’ Though she smiled, Marcia thought it was forced.
“Thank you,” she said and left the small entrance way and stepped fully into the store.
It was worse than she feared. People pushed by one another without an ‘excuse me,’ or a ‘pardon me’ or anything even close. Some folks with buggies had no problems bumping into others to get them out the way. She thought there might be a couple of fights as some customers gave dirty looks or snippy, sarcastic remarks.
Marcia eased her way by the other shoppers, detouring in and out of aisles where the crowds were the worst. A few times she had been bumped into by other shoppers and once, a buggy clipped her heel. She glanced back then to see a stuffy looking woman wearing too much makeup and smelling of too much perfume. The woman gave her a dirty look, then shoved by her, bumping into others as she went. She was, in Marcia’s mind, the equivalent to a semi on the interstate: I’m bigger than you, so get out of my way or I will run you over.
Though she walked and shuffled nonstop, it took twenty minutes to get to the back of the store where the stuffed toys were. Thankfully, there were only a handful of people in the section that boasted the toys that weren’t highly sought after and worthy of being fought over. She thought it a shame that so few people thought their children might like one of the plush bears, dogs, rabbits and kitty cats.
Marcia frowned. The pickings were thin. All the rabbits and doggies were gone. There were still a couple of kitty cats, but none that screamed ‘buy me.’ The small teddy bears were mostly the same, each one a solid color, either white, brown, tan or gray with a bowtie around their necks, glass eyes, pink stitched noses and mouths. She shook her head and stood straight; her hands went to her hips. She knelt down, then got on her knees. Near the back of the bottom shelf was a teddy bear much like the others, only pink and without a bowtie around its neck. She smiled. It was perfect for one of the two gifts she needed. Still, there was the other one, the one she knew would be harder to pick.
Marcia left the aisle and went to the next one over. No stuffed animals. The next one over from that one also held no stuffed animals. Neither did the next two. She backtracked and looked at the original aisle of misfit stuffed toys. She dropped to her knees again and searched through the various teddy bears near the front of the bottom shelf. She pushed them aside, shoving them all over to the side of the shelf that had been completely empty. Just as she began to give up, Marcia saw it, the animal that called to her, that said, ‘I’m the one.’ She reached for it, pulled it free.
It was a white lamb. Its eyes sparkled blue. Its lips and nose were the same pink stitched type as on the teddy bears. On the tips of each foot was a split hoof. Its tail was a curly-q and the fur was fluffy and soft. Marcia hugged it and knew it was the one.
She didn’t mind standing in line for almost an hour, occasionally listening to someone argue with one of the workers or another customer. She didn’t mind putting the purchase on her credit card, something she rarely did. She didn’t mind sitting in traffic for another hour, trying to get out of the mall area, even as other people honked their horns and cut in front of her. One woman with gray hair who could have been a grandmother flipped her off before cutting in front of her, almost hitting her car. She didn’t mind that she got home well after lunch, her hands hurting from her grip on the steering wheel, muscles bunched up in her neck from tension. She didn’t even mind that she would have to get up early again the next day to make the two-hour drive to Century Falls, South Carolina, a little do nothing town on the edge of the nowhere. She was happy—well, as happy as she could be on this day. She found the toys she hoped to find, which was better than not finding them. It was a small measure of joy she claimed for the season.
Morning came too soon for her after a night of very little sleep. She had stared at the ceiling fan that hadn’t been on since early October. To her the five blades appeared skeletal. Though that uneased her, she had a hard time looking away from it. When she finally pulled her gaze away, she reached over, shut the alarm off on the clock and swung her legs from the bed. The sigh that came from her was neither frustrated nor tired. It was sad.
Marcia stood, stretched and left the bedroom. Half an hour later, after brushing her teeth and her hair and putting on jeans, a sweater and her old sneakers, she grabbed her coat, keys, the two stuffed animals and left home. It was barely half past five when she hit the road.
She drove in silence. No Christmas music on the radio, no talking heads discussing politics, religion or sports. It was just her, her thoughts and the sound of the car as it sped along in the darkness, its headlights casting two bright cones of light that came together out in front of her. She passed few cars going in the opposite direction, the rest of the world still, somehow, asleep at that hour of morning.
The sun was up and trying to peek through the heavy clouds by the time she turned off the interstate and onto the secondary road that would lead her to her destination. She drove through the little town of Century Falls, the small houses all tucked in, some of the Christmas lights still on, having been lit throughout the night, maybe as a beacon for Santa Clause. She went across the overpass where a big, black man sat on a five gallon paint bucket and stared off into nowhere. She drove down a road with sleepy houses on either side. She made a left and drove a couple of blocks. She made a right and slowed to a crawl. Then she came to a complete stop.
The iron gates stood open, the blacktop of the road giving way to gravel and dirt at the entrance. That path went straight with other ones branching off like dead limbs on a dead tree, winding their way through the cemetery, its headstones like leaves along the road. The clouds hung thick in the sky, hiding the sun’s face away and promising snow at some point that day.
Marcia took several deep breaths. Tears prickled at the corners of her eyes.
Just turn around. Go home. You don’t have to do this.
“Yes, I do,” she said to her thoughts. “I must.”
Marcia let off the brake. The car rolled forward and crossed into the cemetery. She had dreaded this day all year long, dreaded it, not because it was a cemetery, but because of the memories it represented. She eased along the path, veering off to the right on one of its many side roads. She drove, not quite to the end but close enough she could see a walled off section that dated back to the early 1800’s. This is where she parked, along a grassy patch where no bodies lay beneath.
She stared out the windshield. It was dirty and there was a crack she never noticed before in the lower right corner. The wipers looked too worn to do much good against any type of precipitation, rain or snow.
“Come on,” she said and grabbed the lamb. It was colder out in the open cemetery on Christmas day than it had been in the parking lot of an old toy store the morning before. A soft breeze blew through the graveyard, sending sharp chills through her body. She zipped her coat up and her body gave a shiver. Marcia crossed the lawn, passing gravestone after gravestone, touching some as she went. Finally, she stopped near a chipped marker with the carving of a square wooden wagon on it. Just below the wagon was the word UNKNOWN BOY. Below the name were the words, AGED FOUR OR FIVE.
The first time she came here was eleven years previous. Donna had been six then and her hair had been pulled back into a ponytail that bobbed when she walked. Her green eyes dazzled, and she had been excited to go on one of Marcia’s Christmas traditions, this time to the little cemetery in Century Falls.
Donna had a fake flower in one hand and she gripped Marcia’s hand with her other one.
“Why are we here?” she asked in all her innocence. She was looking up at Marcia, her eyes wide and full of so much wonder.
“One of the things I do at Christmas is visit a cemetery—usually one I’ve never been to. I take a flower with me. Then I search the headstones for the grave of a person I think would like a visitor. I place the flower on the grave and tell the person, ‘Merry Christmas.’”
“Why do you do that?”
Marcia smiled. “Because everyone should receive love on Christmas day.” That wasn’t the total truth, but it was really all Donna needed to know. She didn’t need to know a friend of hers does something similar at the cemetery where her father was buried, telling the dead, ‘Someone loves you’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas.’
“Oh.” Donna stared at her flower for a minute. It was pink and white with bright green petals lined in a lighter green. Then she looked up with that wide-eyed innocent look of hers. “Can I pick the grave?”
“Sure,” Marcia responded. “Go. Find the lucky person.”
Donna hurried toward the rows and rows of graves. She searched, diligently, pondering each stone by tapping her chin with the index finger of her right hand. She asked questions about the names and ages of each person. Then she came across the stone with the wagon on it.
“What does that say, Marcia?”
“Unknown boy. Aged four or five.”
“He doesn’t have a name?”
“I guess not.”
“And he was four or five?”
“I guess so.”
“What does that mean?”
“I guess they didn’t know who the boy was, and they thought he was maybe four or five years old when he died.”
“That’s younger than me.”
Donna looked at the flower again, then placed it at the base of the headstone. “Merry Christmas, Unknown,” she whispered, and patted the top of the stone three times gently.
As they walked back to the car, Marcia holding tight to Donna’s little hand, she asked, “Why did you tap the headstone three times just now.”
Donna looked up, those green eyes full of that innocence. “Three taps means I love you.”
Marcia smiled, repeated her little sister, “Three taps means I love you.”
“Yes,” Donna responded, as if Marcia had asked a question. Then she asked one of her own. “Can we come back next year, but bring him a toy instead of a flower?”
Marcia nodded, her smile growing wider. “Of course.”
That’s what they did. On Christmas Eve the next year, they went to the toy store—the same one Marcia has gone to since.
“What type of toy would you like to get him?”
“A stuffed animal.”
“A stuffed animal it is, then.”
“But it can’t be just any stuffed animal. It has to be the right one.”
Like when searching the graves the year before, Donna took her time seeking out the right stuffed animal. When she found it, her eyes shimmered, and her smile was as bright as it had ever been. It had been a unicorn, one with a spiral horn jutting from its forehead. Its eyes were brown, and its mane wasn’t so much flowing as it was fluffy. They went to the cemetery, parked near the back on a patch of grass where no graves were. Donna placed the stuffed unicorn by the headstone, said, “Merry Christmas, Unknown,” then tapped the top of the marker three times. I. Love. You.
That was a long time ago, and so much had changed since the first year Donna went with her and now. Marcia stood in front of Unknown with the lamb in her hand and tears spilling down her cheeks. Her heart hurt, but she thought it would break later. She knelt, set the lamb in front of the headstone, said, “Merry Christmas, Unknown,” and then stood straight again. She tapped the top of the headstone gently three times. When she took a deep breath this time, she let it go with a rattle and a sob.
Marcia tucked her hands into her pockets, protecting them from the cold. She hunched her shoulders and walked away. When she reached her car, she looked back, saw the little ghost of a boy standing at his grave. He was pale and his hair was black. He wore a white button-down shirt and dirty black pants. His eyes held bruised bags beneath them. He was holding the lamb in his arms. When he looked up, he raised a hand in a wave.
Marcia’s breath caught in her throat. Her hand lifted and her fingers moved in a slight wave. She watched as the boy faded, leaving behind the stuffed animal where she had placed it.
Marcia got into her car and looked at the stuffed bear on the passenger’s seat. Fresh tears formed in her eyes. It was time to make the drive home, to a different cemetery, one with a grave still not a year old. She will go and sit next to it, ignoring the cold. She will set the pink teddy bear on the grave and she will say, “Merry Christmas, Donna.” Then she will pat the headstone gently three times.
And she will cry.
A.J. Brown is a southern-born writer who tells emotionally charged, character driven stories that often delve into the dark parts of the human psyche. Though he writes mostly darker stories, he does so without unnecessary gore, coarse language, or sex. More than 200 of his stories have been published in various online and print publications.