I met Amelia when she was five and three-quarters years old, almost six, but her grandmother could not manage to keep me a secret until her birthday. The first time I saw her, she sat in the nursery leaning over a dollhouse, and when she turned around her eyes widened and her smile spread so big it seemed like it might break into a thousand pieces and leave us both shattered. She hugged me tight. Her grandmother laughed and clapped her hands, thrilled with my success, while Amelia and I twirled around as the dizzy ceiling above us spun and the rug beneath us seemed to swim in a great ocean of swirling vine patterns. We nearly fell, but her grandmother caught Amelia’s elbow and said, “You’ll make yourself sick!” though it wasn’t really a scold at all.
I haven’t seen Amelia for many years, though I still imagine her sitting in front of the dollhouse, arranging each piece with gentle care, her hands small and soft, wearing a look of concentration befitting of someone much older, for her passion did not turn fiery until she was much older. When she was young, it came in the form of a chill passing over her face, in a moment quiet, until she would replace it with a smile.
It was not until days after I’d met her that I realized Amelia and I were not alone. The curtains in the nursery, normally pulled shut, were open and the sunlight that spilled into the room was startling. A shadow fell over us. Amelia’s expression changed to one I had not yet seen.
Shelby was tall for her age, her jet-black hair smooth and shiny. She wore a smile that spoke of hiding a great many things and that only let them out one at a time to prolong the suspense. She kept her hands tucked behind her back, just out of sight. She walked to the dollhouse where Amelia and I were playing, and just as I was to storm the house and wake the porcelain family inside, Amelia threw me down and huffed, “What is it, Shelby?”
Shelby crossed her legs and glanced down at me before responding. “Nanna got me a bear too.”
Amelia said nothing.
“Here, have a look.”
She revealed what she had been carrying behind her now, and it was then that I met Louie.
The dollhouse blocked my view of him that day so all I could see was a patch of black and white fur that stuck in my mind until I spent time with him later on. We occupied the same space in the girls’ lives, served the same purpose for each, and I couldn’t help wondering how he was doing compared to me. Whether or not he ever wondered the same about me, I’ll never know, because it’s been too long now and his memories of the nursery are fading. It’s as if the dark curtains are still pulled over that part of his mind, shutting out glimpses of the dust coating the dollhouse and the footprints on the wooden floors. Most of the toys in the nursery belonged to Shelby and since Louie was the last, perhaps that’s why he can’t remember what things were like before that. I remember though, enough for both of us, and I share what stories I can.
The spring when we first met is the clearest, when all I can see are the house’s endless corridors. It was always too large for a family of that size – two young girls, a grandmother, and parents who likely knew less of the house than I did. Amelia took me to its farthest corners when her mother came calling for her to put on her shoes, tie her dress, come to the car, or tear her away from me. She often cried into my fur and tugged at my paws as if I could reach out and grab her and never let go.
In the summer I would know her by the sound of her footsteps when she raced inside from the backyard. She would hurry through the kitchen, knock something over as she went, padding through the dining room and up the stairs, round the bend taking two steps at a time, race down the hallway and past the nursery to her bed where she tucked me in every morning and night. Her mother didn’t like for me to go outside. “You’ll get him dirty, Amelia,” she would say with an air of exhaustion. I loved being outside with her though, all the secrets held by a world without corners, and the distinct feeling that we were getting away with something. It was easy to follow her anywhere back then, because she always took me with her.
One summer holiday Amelia forgot me at the house. I sat in the dim glow of the nursery, propped against the dollhouse with my eyes on the door. I could only imagine the howls that would erupt in the car when she realized what had happened. For the first few hours I was certain she would come careening through the door, breathless and apologetic, but when the sun set and the curtains cast long, silky shadows upon the floor, I began to realize that this is where I would remain.
My only company seemed to be the house cat, a gray tabby with sparkling green eyes and an insufferable disposition. He passed by the door several times, each time giving me a glare. Eventually he grew bored and jumped to the edge of an armchair, where he curled up for a nap.
I normally spent every night huddled in the warm cocoon of Amelia’s bed. Her mother tucked us in, often tossing me an absent smile, and when Amelia awoke from a dream in the middle of the night she would hug me close and whisper something indecipherable until the mumblings falling from her lips went silent and became just quiet breaths, the rise and fall of her heart alive with dreams once more. Now as night fell, I sat by the dollhouse, acutely aware of the draft that rattled the hallway, the strange creaks I’d never thought twice about, the calls of the owls from somewhere far away.
A voice spoke. “Don’t be afraid.”
I stayed quiet, searching for a response. He had never spoken to me before. Never spoken at all.
“How long have you been here?” Stupid question, but my mind was still thick with nervousness.
“Since—” Louie paused. “Since they left.”
“Doesn’t Shelby take you?”
I could swear I heard him shrug.
“Does Amelia take you?” he asked.
I didn’t bother to answer, instead wallowing further in the unfairness of it all.
When Amelia returned the following month she swore to never leave me again, but I knew then, though perhaps she did not, that promises of forever cannot be kept.
There were signs of autumn appearing. The family wore socks in the house to keep their feet warm as the gusts from a closing door grew colder. The days were shorter, my time with Amelia less and less. We rushed inside earlier, pretending our hands and faces weren’t soiled from the garden. Amelia loved staying outside long enough to watch the fireflies appear in the evenings, a time just before darkness but right after daylight when the tiny dots glowed, then blinked away in a second, disappearing right out of the air. She would catch them and watch them light up in her palm, illuminating her face for just a moment, and I would see the shine of her eyes, a wondrous excitement and a bold smile that was gone as the light faded.
With autumn came the start of the school year. Amelia began third grade and for the first time, show-and-tell was no longer allowed. I had come to terms with being left at home for most of the time at the start of first grade, but this was too much.
I sat in the nursery moping. It was not until I had sat there for most of the morning that I noticed Louie in the corner, leaning on a pair of Shelby’s shoes. His head was bent toward the ground, but not enough to shadow his face, the black circles around his eyes standing out starkly against his white face. As I strained to make him out in the dark room, I noticed something unusual – his black button nose was missing.
From his angle I couldn’t tell if he was looking back at me. Then, he spoke, in the way only toys can. “What is it like?”
I stiffened. “What is what like?”
“Show-and-tell.” His right ear was pressed into the heel of Shelby’s patent-leather dance shoes, as if he was waiting to hear her footsteps echoing inside.
How he knew that I’d been thinking about it was a mystery, like many things about him. Though this conversation would constitute one of the longest I would ever have with him, all the silences were suddenly filled with wonderment, knowing that in his head he was working things out that I could never imagine, practicing a complacency that seemed unthinkable to me, and most of all, existing in peacefulness, never needing to voice any of these thoughts at all.
“It’s…” I tried to think of what Amelia did when she couldn’t find the right word, but my arms wouldn’t move like hers and my face couldn’t scrunch up into the excitement that funneled inside me like a tornado the way hers did, so I was forced to go on. “All the children pet you and crowd around you and try to hold you. Sometimes she lets them, sometimes not. The blinds are never pulled in the classroom so it is always bright, so much brighter than here. When it’s your turn, you stand at the front of the classroom and you are presented to the children who all stare at you in a way you’ve never been looked at before. It’s not until they are invited to come up and see you that there’s a rush of warmth and sliding chairs and screeching desks and then they are all right there, so very close, blocking out the light and the sound and it is only seconds but it feels like years before the teacher calls everyone back to their desks, and you can rest.”
For a few moments, Louie was silent. Later I would understand that he was trying to imagine himself there, to feel the memory as if it was his own, but back then, I waited nervously for his reaction.
“It sounds nice,” he said.
“Didn’t you ever do show-and-tell?”
He paused before he answered. “Shelby never took anything to show-and-tell. I don’t think she was interested.”
He said it matter-of-factly, though it still felt like I should feel sorry for him. It made me uneasy.
“What happened to your nose?” I blurted out before I could stop myself.
Another pause. “It fell off.”
And that was that.
At the time, the thought of the future seemed like a wild joke, hilariously far away and with challenges we could not imagine. It was like pretending to be someone else in some other place, with some other life so different than your own. For me, spending time with Amelia was my forever.
And yet, there was no way to make it hers.
I only had a vague idea of what growing up was like. I’d watched Shelby do it and from what I could tell, all it meant was that when someone grew up they no longer said goodbye. There were no more hugs before leaving for the bus in the morning, no more shouts of when they might return, less given and less asked. People simply began to disappear.
When Amelia was fourteen, she started stuffing me under the bed every morning before she went to school. She would sleep with me at night, but only as a secret, like the way she kept the nightlight on. I didn’t mind. Somehow it felt like we were closer than ever, like she didn’t want to share me with anyone because I was hers and hers alone.
One of her friends found me during a sleepover. The two of them put on makeup while her parents slept. Amelia’s eyes went dark when she saw me. I stared back at her, willing her to read my face, but of course to her it looked no different than it ever had.
“My parents keep all of Shelby’s baby stuff under my bed for storage,” she said carelessly, smudging lipstick on her mouth. Her friend laughed and dropped me. A few minutes later, they closed the front door quietly behind them, and I sat on the floor facing the mirror, looking into the blankness of my own stare.
As the years went on, Amelia stopped saying goodbye. She would sometimes leave in a flurry without a second glance at anyone, yet still slam the door to make her presence known. I was always confused as to whether she wanted to go unnoticed or be the center of attention. Somehow, it seemed she managed to be both.
Amelia had a talent for these impossible things in a way no one else did. Shelby never attempted them, either knowing it was foolish to try or having no interest in it at all. Amelia could turn a punishment into a praise, evading reprimand with a thief’s smile and disappearing before anyone noticed they had been slighted. She became more and more skilled this way until she reached the age where they had come to expect it from her, and then, it was no longer a game. The world began to tilt and change, becoming slowly unrecognizable, until I could be sure of nothing.
All the while, whenever I saw Louie, I wanted badly to ask him if the same thing was happening to him – if his world was changing faster than he had imagined, if he felt disoriented and lost with what was happening, what could not be named. Yet, every time I saw him, he seemed the same as ever – content, accepting whatever happened around us. I wondered if Shelby had not changed the same way Amelia had, or if Louie was simply better at handling it.
I tried to convince myself not to worry, that worrying was useless to everyone, most of all Amelia, but I couldn’t help hearing the whispers of her parents. They spoke of her in hushed tones, unwilling to admit anything aloud. When Shelby came home a few times a year she did not even mention Amelia’s name. Soon, it was as though Amelia never existed at all.
I was the only one who seemed to remember her. Her presence was erased from the house, her laughter echoing when I tried to bring it up in my mind. My frustration grew and after awhile a strange confusion came over me. It felt like a sickness, though I knew that to be ridiculous. I searched my memory for it, trying to find a shred of its origin, a name to call it, a word to understand it.
Louie said to me one day, “You should stop doing that.”
“What?” I said.
“Being so angry.”
He said it so plainly that for a moment, I wished as hard as I could, more than I even wished for Amelia to come back now, more than I wished we could go back to when she was young and I was new and stay there forever, more than any of it, that I could simply stop being myself.
But still I sat there, next to Louie, unable to make anything happen at all.
Things like us, like Louie and I, do not exist to be angry. It is as unnatural as a foot on your head or an eye on your ear. I suddenly felt as though I’d been severed from everyone else of my kind. The rest of them had seen people get angry but never known it, like watching someone eat and wondering what the food tastes like. I felt as though I could never go back to that.
“How do I make it stop?” I said.
“Eventually,” he said, in a tired, strange voice, “you find a way.”
I stopped paying attention to the passage of time. Whether it was years or months or only hours that were gone, it all started to wind down into a strange cycle. Being tossed from room to room, often in boxes or trash bags or pillowcases, imagining a whole world going on without me but caring for nothing except Amelia.
In the winter, the cold seeped in through every crack in the attic, sometimes passing through the walls like an effervescent smoke. Amelia was not back for this winter, nor had she been for many in the past. If it had been a decade ago, we would have sat together by the freezing windowpane, her fingers drawing our names in the glass, then warmed our feet by the fire. A trunk stuffed with toys that included me sat in the corner near the window, I suspected, since I could hear the panes rattle when the wind picked up. Louie was there too, though we did not speak until spring, when sunlight warmed the trunk and there was no wind at all.
“The tulips will bloom soon,” he said distantly. Louie always spoke as though continuing a conversation left off, which had me fumbling to find the right response.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“Mother stores her gardening tools in the attic during winter. When spring comes she waits until the last frost has melted, then retrieves them. I heard her come for them this morning.”
I allowed my silence to answer, instead of admitting that I felt silly for never noticing that before.
“How do you know it was Mother?” I asked.
“Her footsteps. They slide along the wood. She still wears those slippers Shelby gave her two years ago. They are getting worn.”
I tried to find Louie in the trunk. All I could tell was that he was somewhere to my right and a little above me, but his voice was slightly muffled. Perhaps there was another toy separating us. The talk about the tulips infuriated me a bit. Decades in a trunk and all he could speak of was the tulips.
“Do you think they remember us?” I asked. In the darkness it was easy to ask questions with answers that I feared. I half-expected him to ignore me anyway.
“Occasionally,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“We may cross their minds from time to time, in a moment that feels familiar and they can’t quite tell why. But it’s different for them.”
“Why is it different?” I couldn’t hold back my desperation for his answers.
“They grow up. They grow old. They forget things. Even the things they want to remember.”
“Not me,” I said fiercely. “I know she hasn’t forgotten me.”
Louie stayed silent for a long time. Then he said, “You’re probably right.”
It was amazing how he could make me feel guilty when I hadn’t even done anything to feel guilty about. Still, I said feebly, “I’m sure Shelby remembers you, too.”
He did not say anything at all.
The bravado of a moment passes quickly, like anger, or joy, or other feelings too intense to sustain. The only one that lasts, as I felt it in a dull ache from that day forward, is fear.
All at once it seemed like a silly notion that anyone should remember one thing more than another. There was so much of Amelia’s life for which I had not been present. I could not pretend to know her better than anyone, to claim some sort of superiority to anything else, to imagine that I invaded her dreamscape the way she invaded mine.
I was for her, and only for her, and she was for so many things other than me.
The day the trunk opened, I realized I still existed. Somewhere along the last few…days? Years? I had come to believe in a dream that I no longer did, and when or how it had happened, I couldn’t tell, but when it was dispelled I was as surprised as anyone. The dust created a light snow in the wake of shimmering sun, blinding and showering me in a haze. Two hands came toward me and lifted me from the trunk. I was out of practice at being held. It felt as though I was swung all around, thrown from ceiling to floor, dangling by my paw. It was not until I was righted that I found the presence of mind to desperately hope for something familiar.
And something familiar came, though not in the way I expected.
Her face was lined with years, though her beauty still shined through in all the sharp angles of her features, her hair still dark and straight as it framed her face, all of it the same but different. Shelby held me up and stared at me as if she had never seen me before.
She twisted her mouth in a way that was so reminiscent of Amelia I wanted to cry out. She lifted her hand to my face and touched my nose, tracing the fur down to my stomach, my paws, and my tattered blue T-shirt that had once been sewn on, but the hem was frayed. As she looked at me, I could see her eyes searching for something that she simply could not find. A clue, maybe, or an answer, but without knowing the question, I could be of no use. Even if I had known, what would come of it? I had just as many questions as she did. We both looked at each other, hoping one would provide the answer, but neither said a thing.
Footsteps approached the attic rapidly, bursting in at full speed and grabbing Shelby’s arm. A little girl stood there, staring open-mouthed at me. “A bear! Mom, can I have him? Is that for me?”
Shelby tucked me under her arm briskly. “Let’s go downstairs, Lila.”
As she carried me away, I watched the trunk disappear behind the door and wondered what Shelby had seen in her mind, in the memories she had perhaps taken years to lock away, and that I had unveiled in a mere moment.
I didn’t recognize him at first. He sat in the corner of what I’d learned was the little girl Lila’s room, smaller and tidier than Amelia’s had ever been. I’d been sitting there an embarrassingly long time before I realized it was him, and when I did, I couldn’t find the words. I met his eyes.
“Hello,” he said, quite normally.
“Hi,” I said. I wished I could sit myself up, frustrated with my face half-turned toward the floor, dwarfed by this unfamiliar room, faraway voices and Louie’s stare. Lila seemed not to have inherited Shelby’s endless toy collection, for Louie was the only stuffed animal around, besides me.
How had he ended up here? It occurred to me that I could simply ask him, but for some reason it seemed like an invasion of privacy, almost as if coming from a place of disbelief, and I did not want to offend him. I glanced at him now, light spilling in from the hallway and illuminating his black and white fur. He had always been slightly bigger than me, but he seemed somehow smaller in the darkness. As I watched him, something nagged at me. I searched his face for what it might be, but it took several moments for it to come to me, and when it did, it surprised me almost as much as seeing Shelby.
His nose had been sewn back on.
I looked harder to make sure. There was, indeed, a shiny black button where there had been nothing before. That must have been why I didn’t recognize him. I suddenly felt even more out of place.
Now, I searched his whole body, trying to determine anything else different about him. The fur on his head seemed shorter, if that was possible, patchy in places where it had once been smooth. The red ribbon he wore around his neck was sagging and frayed, but still tied in a bow. His fur had lost its starkness, the blacks dulled, the whites grayed.
“What are you looking for?”
His voice startled me. I did not answer at first.
“It’s just me,” he said, and I felt silly for thinking otherwise.
“I know it is,” I said.
“Lila tried to give me a haircut when she first got me,” he said, slightly sheepish.
“You can’t really tell,” I offered.
“Ah, well.” He seemed satisfied with that.
“Do you like it here?”
“Yes, very much,” he said. “Lila is very nice. Shelby is happy.”
“Does she play with you a lot?”
“Lila, or Shelby?”
“Every day,” he said.
All of these questions were just precursors to what I really wanted to know, what I wished for most in my heart, what I had thought of every moment of every day since many years ago, when it had become the only thing that mattered. That he had not mentioned it yet said enough, but I would believe nothing until he told me himself. I would believe anything he told me.
“Louie,” I said.
There was a slight pause before he answered. “Yes?”
I looked at him through the shadows, straight into his dark eyes that simply looked back at me. I could not wait any longer. “Have you…” I fumbled. “Do you know anything about Amelia?”
Louie, kindly so, did not hesitate. “No.”
“Oh.” I could not say anything more. In seconds it felt like I was still back in the trunk, like the lid had been slammed down once more and left me in blackness. Why I could not resign myself to it, I did not know. It made me angry, again, in a blossom of pain, the same way it had shocked my system those many years ago when everyone else had forgotten, everyone but me.
Louie spoke. “We’re in a nice place now. It’s not all bad.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” I snapped. “Shelby is right here with you. You have no one to miss.”
“Shelby outgrew me,” he said.
“It’s true,” Louie said. “I belong to Lila now.”
I looked at him, trying to determine if he was joking. Louie never joked. I doubted he even knew how, so it was unlikely, but it seemed the only explanation. He simply looked back at me with his dark eyes round against his white fur.
“How can you think that?”
Louie stayed quiet. I thought he might have gone off into one of his silences, so I ignored him after a minute, certain I’d won.
“I just know,” he finally said. “The same way you know you love Amelia. The same way you wait for her, knowing one of these days will bring her back to you, the crazy kind of knowing that you seem to have in abundance.” He looked at me. “I just know. The same way you do.”
Lila came running in carrying an armful of blankets, towels and pillows. She dropped them in front of us. “We’re building a fort and you two will be the guards,” she said confidently.
Neither Louie nor I said nothing, not after we had guarded the blanket fort bravely for the evening, nor after the lights went off and we sat together in the darkness, nor the next morning, when Lila patted us on the head before she went to school. It was not until halfway through the day when the sunlight was hottest in the room that he spoke, so softly that I could not hear him at first.
“You don’t have to worry.”
“What?” I said.
“Amelia has not outgrown you,” he said.
“How do you know?”
Louie stayed quiet for a moment. In his silence I could hear distant sounds – traffic passing by the window, a lawnmower’s buzz, footsteps downstairs. All of it faded away in comparison to what Louie did not say. His silences always spoke louder than the thoughts he voiced, but this time, all I wanted was to hear it out loud.
“I just know.”