Marsha offered me another cardboard box. “Do you want a hand?”
“No.” Taking the box from her, I remained in the doorway before the shadowy cavern of my old bedroom. Stuffed animals as well as faces caught in photographs and posters pinned to chipped corkboard looked on, every one expectant of my long delayed entrance.
When my cousin touched my shoulder, I almost left my sneakers. “We need to be out by five, Reggie.”
I lowered my gaze, steeling myself against the reasons why. “I remember.”
Marsha slipped off, bent I guessed on gathering the last of clothes, the last of knickknacks, the last remains of my mother’s life before the movers arrived to empty the apartment for the pending demolition. Hefting my box, I braced myself for the task before me, flicked the switch, and padded into my past.
The ceiling light glowed beneath the butterfly shade I couldn’t not recall hanging overhead. On their yellow and black monarch wings, they’d flown over my crib, my first bed, then the twin I’d earned in middle school by sprouting to a gangly six feet before the voices of the boys in my class had even cracked. The honey-hued light failed to penetrate the dust on the bookshelves and the bed’s comforter, or freshen the stale air. Even the stuffy, cotton and wet-paint odor remained undisturbed.
I wanted to check myself in the dresser’s mirror to make sure I hadn’t fallen back in time, but I couldn’t bring myself to face the daughter who hadn’t been there at the end.
I tightened my grip on the box. “I’m here now.”
Drifting across the floral print carpet, I knelt at the mushroom clump of stuffed animals arranged against oversized pillows in what had been my reading corner, my escape, my sanctuary. Their names came to mind as I cupped each figure and nestled one after the other into the cardboard box.
Mr. Bowie, the teddy bear with the bow tie. Rocky the Rhino. A squishy bay I called Phillipa after great debate on her gender. Lady Toot, the elephant who trumpeted with a squeeze. Cream and Coffee, the albino and brown squirrels complete with acorns in their hands.
And then came the rag-doll cat my mother had always called Franklin.
I plopped down and drew him into my lap. Years of being gnawed at and tugged had thinned his dark pelt, leaving bare patches and frayed threads. The tips of his ears had rounded from sharper points. His whiskers had long fallen out but those stitched into his face made up the slack. Both button eyes gazed at me from where someone, my mother I suspected, had sewn them on either side of his red X of a nose.
I dropped him and Franklin fell face first, hiding the mouth I’d seen move. I wanted to leap for the door, to leap for the barred window, to leap anywhere other than where I sat, but my legs wouldn’t budge. My hands grabbed hold of my knees and my heart all but bashed into the butterflies. Something in the voice dragged me back into a childhood where hearing any of my stuffed toys talk had been all I’d ever wanted and I knew I couldn’t leave without being sure.
“Herro?” The carpet muffled Franklin’s next word.
Lifting him by the torso, I spun the cat about, his stitched face to me, his gnarled tail draping my leg. I met the button eyes once more and they met mine. They didn’t blink. His mouth didn’t move. I glanced at the doorway, thankful to find it vacant, and hunched closer, feeling foolish and giddy at the same time.
“Did you say something, Franklin?”
“I didn’t say ‘Something’. I said ‘Hello, Reggie’.”
I cringed at Franklin’s disapproving tone, one far too familiar for my liking especially when coming from a toy rather than my mother. The improbable source, however, had my own voice quaking. “How…how are you doing this?”
“Speaking?” If he had an eyebrow, I swear he would have cocked it. Nonetheless, Franklin’s steady timbre purred on. “It’s rather complicated actually, but I’d rather not waste what time I have explaining the various machinations since you never did have a head for physics or religion for that matter.”
The report cards my mother had pinned to the corkboard might have argued, if they, like my stuff cat, could spontaneously talk. On second thought, they might have agreed.
Franklin clucked what I could only imagine to be a non-existent tongue. “Always so distracted.”
I slumped around him. “It’s been a rough few days.”
“It’s been a rough lifetime.”
“And yet you’re only talking to me now?”
The buttons looked at me and I chuckled at the insanity of my statement. Smothering my mouth with a box-numbed hand, I muted my laughter’s plummet into tears I didn’t think I had left to shed. I sank into the dusty pillows, the cat pressed against my chest, and wept while Franklin’s fellows kept a silent watch.
The image of me, little, fetal, and weeping from some schoolyard taunt, some reprimand for a poor grade, some bruise to my heart, wormed through the grief, mocking me with the pains of yesteryears. I surfaced from another bought with regret and I stretched out on back, my head and shoulders surrounded by stuffed animals, the butterflies back in view.
“Are you through?”
I lifted the cat. “You’re still talking.”
Franklin sighed, an annoyingly exasperated sound for a toy.
“Sorry,” I lowered him carefully to my belly, “I thought I’d just lost my mind for a bit.”
“Not as far as I can tell.”
“Can you see?”
“No,” said Franklin, “but I can feel. It’s what I do.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You don’t have to, Reggie. What you need to do is listen while I can still talk.”
Rolling onto my side, I sat Franklin on his rump and propped myself on an elbow. “Alright, I’m listening.”
“Do you remember the question you asked your mother about me when you were little?”
A “No” hovered on my tongue, but faced with Franklin’s stare, I swallowed it down.
I’d been an inquisitive brat most of the time, always wanting to understand how or why to the point my mother had found a set of worn encyclopedias to send me delving into whenever my poking became too obnoxious. One answer, though, hadn’t been in those volumes or in the school’s library. The simplicity of the question and the deflections of my mother seemed to mask a deeper secret, one I couldn’t help but feel should stay obscured. In this room, I’d decided to stop asking and turned my back on whatever else had hidden behind my seemingly innocent request.
Adhering to the three decades I’d had to prefect the skill, I curled my legs to my chest and avoided the cat’s buttons. “I don’t remember.”
“Yes, you do. I can feel it inside of you, eating at you.”
I closed my eyes, unwilling to face the stitched mouth.
“Ask, Reggie, it’s why I’m here.”
Quiet filled the bedroom. When I opened my eyes, the cat sat where I had put him, waiting patiently beyond a sheen of tears. I brought Franklin close while words caught in my throat. After a gulp and sniff, I managed to force them out at a childish pitch.
“Why did she call you Franklin?”
He didn’t move but I could have sworn the cat slouched. “I’m named after your father. I was your father’s.”
“My father?” I bit my lip, unwilling to ask anymore although the questions from my childhood swarmed.
Franklin seemed to hear, or perhaps feel them anyway. “I’m here because your mother wanted you to know about the night he left.”
Franklin’s body squished in my grasp. “He was here?”
“Don’t you remember?”
I peered through the cat’s battered body and into a rush of memory.
Voices roared through the crack left in my bedroom’s door. Shouts had ended in a slam, then my mother’s hushed weeping. Franklin’s feathery head brushed against my chin when I hugged him as I had then, my tiny body rocking away into a fitful sleep.
The next morning, Mom had been all smiles. The graffiti-striped school bus waited at the corner like normal, and I convinced myself it had all been a dream, a nightmare.
“It wasn’t a dream, Reggie.”
I returned to Franklin. “Who was he?”
“Someone who’d lost his way.” Franklin sagged, as if burdened by his first owner’s wayward path. “He had talent, so much talent, but you know the story, artistic genius roped by drugs, by drinking. He needed space to explore, to grow while your mother—”
“Wanted him home with her. With his daughter.”
“He tried, Reggie, he nearly went mad trying, but he couldn’t bend that far. I think the strain finally finished him.”
“He died about three years after he left. Overdose of some kind.”
I rolled flat, hugged Franklin, and floated with the butterflies. Franklin didn’t speak and a part of me wondered if he would, if I wanted him to be able to answer the next question tumbling about in my head. I asked it to the ceiling instead, letting fate decide.
“What was his name?”
Franklin’s voice emerged in a sturdy whisper. “Are you sure you want to know?”
“He’s my father.”
Franklin’s body deflated against my ribs as he said, “Miles Reginald Franklin the Third.”
I sat up when Franklin didn’t reply. I squeezed his middle, shook him, and bounced him on my knees. None of the jostling brought the cat back to life or spilled further explanation from his stuffing.
A shadow filled the doorway and I clutched Franklin against me.
Marsha switched a perfectly packed box to her other hip. “Have you been playing around all this time?”
“I…” I forced my body to uncoil. “I’ve been reminiscing.”
“About this place?” She stuck her tongue out in disgust and swiveled away, the neat stacks of clothes peeking over the cardboard rim. “Don’t forget, five o’clock?”
I sank into Franklin’s button eyes again, wondering about his voice, of the name rattling against my skull, of the past I never thought I’d trace. I squashed my nose against his stitched X.
“Don’t worry,” I whispered, “I won’t forget.”