by Sofia Miller
Teddy bears are supposed to protect you from the Shadows; every seven year old knows that. Therefore, when choosing a teddy bear, one must look for certain traits. A teddy bear should be fierce enough to drive the Shadows away when you are sound asleep and have the mischievous twinkle in their eye meaning they always have a few good jokes up their sleeve. Mr. Tom was all that for Alex Berger.
The Shadows came for Alex the night he got Mr. Tom. They crept along the walls and manifested into black tendrils crawling ever closer to his bed. Alex was sure he heard a monster hiss outside his window and wondered if he should close it, but instead lay paralyzed under his bedcovers. With a burst of bravery, he threw off his blankets and flailed in the darkness before he flung open the bedroom door. His steps sounded like they were from elephants’ feet, much too loud; the darkness would engulf him soon, but he made it to his parents’ bedroom. Dad’s snoring filled the whole room.
“Mommy?” Alex flopped onto the bed without waiting for an answer.
“Hmpf! Dat’s my fafe!” Alex jumped onto the floor.
“Oh, sorry, Mommy!”
“Don’t worry-” She spoke whale for a moment, her mouth gaping wide enough to eat one whole. “-about it. What’s wrong?”
Alex sat on the bed again. “I…I just…Can I sleep in your bed tonight, Mommy?”
She studied him, and Alex’s heart pounded. What if she said no? “Not yet,” she said. Alex prepared to sulk off to his bedroom and guilt-trip her, but Mommy continued. “Because we’re going to make a trip.” She nodded to herself.
“Where? It’s so late!”
She shrugged. “I know a place. Now go get changed into sweatpants or something.”
“Ok…” said Alex, and he sprinted all the way back to his bedroom, gasping for breath as he turned on the lights. Changed and ready, Alex darted back across the hallway. “Mommy? Can I come in?”
“Just a second, okay?”
It turned out being minutes, with Alex looking over his shoulder every few seconds. The door opened at last. “Ok, let’s go,” said Mommy, keys dangling from her fingers.
The car ride lasted for hours, but Mommy kept insisting it was only 30 minutes. To Alex, they were one and the same. They arrived. Alex blinked at the light radiating from the building they parked in front of. It was a toy store. The building was petite and covered in strawberry red paint, with the window displays trimmed in white Christmas lights. A sign nearly as wide as the building itself had the store’s name painted in curly gold lettering, but who knew what it said? Alex sure didn’t.
A merry bell jingled as they walked through the door. It may have been a small store, but there were toys jammed into every shelf and crevice available. Alex walked with his jaw dropped, being led only by the pressure of Mommy’s hand. When she stopped, he kept walking and bumped into a shelf. “Ouch,” he said, rubbing his head.
“This is what we came here for,” Mommy said, pointing to what lay on the shelf Alex ran into. It was lined with teddy bears of all different sizes and styles, each one unique. “Now, you want to pick one that looks tough, but also like they could be a good friend.”
“Why tough?” he asked.
“Well,” she said, “a teddy bear is supposed to protect you from the Shadows.” Alex raised his eyebrows. She continued. “See, Shadows turn into your scariest nightmares. With each fear someone gets, another Shadow is made, and they get stronger from each new fear.”
Alex shivered, and his normally sea green eyes seemed sapped of their color to become a bleak gray. “But how do you fight them off?” Alex asked, his voice cracking slightly.
“Now that is a question to ask an expert,” Mommy said gesturing for him to pick a teddy bear. Alex decided on a medium-sized bear with classic brown fur and eyes. Perched on his head, however, was a black velvet hat with a green ribbon tied around it. “His name is Mr. Tom,” Alex said. He nodded to himself, just like Mommy always did. “Mr. Tom, how do you fight Shadows?”
“Why, by laughing at them, of course,” said Mr. Tom.
Alex looked at Mr. Tom with wonder. “You can laugh at Shadows?”
Mr. Tom chuckled. “Of course, Alex. Why not?”
The car ride back was five minutes long, but of course Mommy insisted it was 30. She just didn’t understand how time worked like Alex did.
That night, after tucking Alex into bed, Mrs. Berger lingered outside her son’s door. She heard him whispering to the teddy bear. “Mr. Tom, how do I laugh at something if it scares me?”
“Use your imagination, Alex. Turn the Shadows into the funniest thing you can imagine, and then it will be the easiest thing in the world to laugh,” said Mr. Tom, though his voice sounded farther away than usual.
Mrs. Berger waited. A laugh clear as glass rang out, lasting for a good minute or two. As Mrs. Berger walked away, she heard an out of breath voice say, “Thanks, Mr. Tom. Good night!”
Alex had no more trouble with Shadows. He became inseparable from Mr. Tom, who knew so many things and had so many great jokes. Alex was going to have a baby brother soon. Everything was perfect.
Until one day, when the sirens came for Mommy and took her away in a big red and white car. Alex clasped his hands over his ears as they screeched and wailed. Daddy drove Alex and Mr. Tom to the hospital and gripped the steering wheel so hard his knuckles turned white, while tears spilled from his eyes. This wasn’t right. Today was supposed to be happy.
Mommy was dressed in a white gown when they saw her. Daddy’s tears came out in torrents as he hugged her in the stark white bed she laid on so peacefully.
“Mommy?” he whispered, terrified for the first time in his life. “Mommy?” Daddy hugged Alex, his neck and cheeks wet and salty from tears. “Alex, Mommy-she’s leaving us, but not because she wants to. Something went wrong; you have to say goodbye now.”
“Mommy, I don’t want you to leave!” Blood rose to his cheeks as Alex realized he was crying; he was supposed to be a brave warrior who fought the Shadows.
Mommy’s eyes fluttered open. “I’m…sorry…but you have a baby brother now…to take care of. His name…is Liam…I love you both…so much.” Her voice was so weak, so raspy; this couldn’t be real. A machine next to Mommy had a zigzag line go flat, and Daddy whispered, “She’s gone.”
And they hugged and cried over Mommy’s body, Alex wondering why nobody ever prepared him for this much pain.
Mr. Tom didn’t talk to Alex any more after that, but Alex still took him with him wherever he went, just in case. The kids at school made fun of him, an eight year old and still carrying around his teddy bear everywhere. The Shadows attacked him left and right every time Daddy came home late home from work. What if he left him like Mommy did? It was too much. The magic in his life was gone.
The Shadows were too much to bear one night. Alex sprinted with Mr. Tom from his room, across the hallway, and into Daddy’s room. There were no snores. Alex opened the door. Daddy sat cross-legged on the floor with a photo album in his hand, while baby Liam slept in his crib in the corner.
He jerked his head toward Alex. The dim light fell on dark circles around Daddy’s eyes. “What’s up, pumpkin?”
“I can’t sleep; can I stay in your room tonight?” Please say yes. Please say yes.
“Sure…I was just looking at some old pictures…”
“Can I see?” Alex, said, grabbing the photo album. “Who’s that?” There was a boy and a girl smiling at each other with the most hopeful faces in the world.
Daddy smiled. “That’s your mom and I. When we were 17.”
“What? But you look so…different….”
“Did the Shadows keep you awake, Alex?” Daddy’s brows were furrowed.
Alex sighed. “Yeah…but how do you know about the Shadows?”
“I was always a bit jealous of your mom and Mr. Tom helping you with the Shadows. And besides…even I can be scared.”
Alex looked at Daddy’s toned muscles, always protective and strong; how could Daddy be scared? “Daddy, nobody ever taught me how to fight Shadows this scary.”
Daddy hugged him. “I know. It’s just-” He sighed. “With big Shadows, you need all the help you can get. It’ll take time, but we can fight them together.”
Teddy bears are supposed to protect you from the Shadows. But sometimes you need more than a teddy bear.