He stood at the top of the stairs and waited for me to notice him. He held a tiny arm in his, making his own appear massive by comparison. One end of the tiny arm was a gloved hand frozen in an eternal wave. The other end was torn and littered with fluff. He stood at the top of the stairs and he didn't say a word.
"Is it Mickey?" I asked. He nodded that it was.
"It's Zane's," he said. His younger brother was downstairs doing his homework and eating his fill of little fish crackers.
"He doesn't know," he added. "The dogs did it. I found it in the bedroom."
The dogs hadn't chewed anything they shouldn't in years, but the past few weeks had found them inside the house more often than not, and they had grown bored and weary. The various stuffed animals of the boys had become a means to burn energy and take out frustrations. At first it was a random rabbit here, a gruff old gorilla there -- the fringes of a stuffed animal collection grown to an awkward abundance, and while I knew the dogs were in the wrong, I was silently thankful for their natural thinning of the herd.
The boys took to placing their fiber-filled friends under beds, stuffed in closets and behind doors that only thumbs could open. Then, when days passed with toys left unmolested, the closets became careless, the doors a little less shut and through a house cold and empty, the dogs would hunt.
There is a hierarchy to all things, and the stuffed toys of a little boy are no different. There are levels of love and shades of real that we have all known and most have forgotten, but a handful of mouse held tight against the chest hears the last goodnight from day-worn lips, keeps time with the beat of a heart warm and sleeping, and greets the day with sweet embrace. That is the real of a favorite toy, and to a little boy with sleep in his eyes, it is a real that lasts for always.¹
The older boy and I walked down the stairs. I held his hand in mine, and he held the glove in his other. We found his brother mid-smile, with a ray of sunshine across his face and his hair a golden tussle. I held the moment as long as I could, willing the story to end on this page, but my oldest son is one of duty and honor, and where I would hide in the bask of a sun-kissed boy until the sky was shades of fading pinks, orange and purple, he did the thing he felt he must. There was an exchange from one brother to the other, and then the sun set suddenly beneath the weight of tears.
We have lost loved ones throughout the years, and learned from pets the concept of passing, and while a stuffed mouse may not belong in the same line as those that meant so much, the happiness he brought deserves to be acknowledged. He was the toy we would have kept forever.
My son stood crying, his face buried against my leg, each hand full of pieces that would never go back together, a plush puzzle with parts forever missing. Then there was a soft tapping upon his shoulder and when he turned he saw the face of a memory, and behind it that of his brother.
"He is your Mickey," whispered the youngest.
"You can hold him for awhile," replied the other. He handed his favorite toy to his only brother, and then my boys stood in the kitchen and they hugged one another, tiny arms around tiny arms and a mouse tight between them with a smile that never wavered, and it never would.
¹ Paraphrased from The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams: "One day while talking with the Skin Horse, the Rabbit learns that a toy becomes real if its owner really and truly loves it. The Skin Horse makes the Velveteen Rabbit aware that... once you are Real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always."