The Friends We Keep

As difficult as it was with her increasing size, Amanda refused to stop bringing Jeremy his lunch every day at twelve fifteen. It wasn’t so much done out of enjoyment, the time could’ve been better used travelling to neighboring hospitals, but she needed to make sure Jeremy was keeping his word. He would never tell her the truth. He knew how she felt about his work friends. And the reality was, he never spoke to them during business hours. They simply sat behind him and supported him while he helped the rare customer find a stuffed animal or explained to the local teenagers why Murray’s didn’t carry video games.

Amanda didn’t dislike his friends. She just didn’t understand them. She couldn’t comprehend how and why Jeremy, a man of nearly thirty, the soon to be father of her child, the manager of one of the few remaining local businesses in Amoret, chose to share all of his thoughts, fears and ideas with a group of old toys instead of her. To her, they were nothing more than a stuffed elephant, an old G.I. Joe, a tied sisterhood of dolls, a classic Space-Ranger, a jack-in-the-box, and a near life-size lion. They were toys, collector’s items at best. But, to Jeremy, they were his friends. They were his life. Since his parent’s accident, they were everything he had. And even though it required him to lie to his fiancé, which broke his kind heart every time she asked, he could never turn his back on them.

Murray’s Toys opened in nineteen fifty-three. Murray was twenty-two and was determined to give the children of Amoret a place where they could dream and explore, a place where anything was possible. For many years, it was exactly that. He had slow summers, selling mostly water guns and hula-hoops, the occasional bike, a healthy stock of backyard tents, and a few model airplanes, but his real money was made in December. Every parent in town spent their bonus check filling their trunks with action figures, new dolls, costumes, stuffed animals, train sets, and all sorts of magnificently designed toys that would last generations. Murray was in heaven. By the time he turned thirty and was welcoming his second son, Joshua, he was able to hire a manger to mind the store. He didn’t think life could be better. That was, until 1975, when Sears announced Atari. Murray felt the future slap him across the face. For the first time in over twenty years, he watched his townsfolk drive right passed Murray’s Toys in search of their children’s dream Christmas gift elsewhere.

Jeremy was sixteen when he moved in and started helping at the shop. Murray was sixty-nine and in no need of help. He only gave Jeremy the job, because he had known Jeremy’s father. He could barely pay the lad, but Jeremy didn’t mind. He didn’t live a very expensive lifestyle. Most of his pay came in the form of an apartment, which had previously been Murray’s stock room, and had not seen use in a number of years. Murray’s sons had long since moved away. They didn’t even ask how the shop was doing when they called on the holidays. They had always been of the belief Murray should’ve started carrying video games and computerized toys. Murray’s refusal to do so led to a family divide that nearly drove his wonderful wife, Annette, to her wits end. Jeremy understood it, though. He wasn’t a fan of screens. He preferred to come up with his own stories, create his own backgrounds, and live out his own amazing, wondrous scenarios.

He had loved Murray’s from the time his father first brought him there. Along with the stir of excitement every child gets from entering a toy store, on that day, Jeremy met both Gerald and the Longstrap Sisters. He was five years old. His father was in front, taking with Murray, who, at that point, was still holding onto hope that the video game fascination was but a fad. Jeremy’s eyes scanned the seemingly endless shelves of stuffed animals, dolls, soldiers, spacemen, and everything in between. He was beside himself with wonder.

“You shouldn’t open your eyes that wide. You look like a fish.” The five high-pitched voices spoke in perfect unison. Jeremy stopped, confused and curious. Who said that? He swung his head around, searching for other customers, but he, his father, and Murray were without a doubt the only humans there. “Don’t mind them. They get so moody when boys don’t notice them.”

“We do not.” The male voice laughed and told Jeremy he was welcome to open his eyes as wide as he likes, “You don’t look at all like a fish.” Jeremy was still at a loss. He wanted to run to his father and tell him the toys were talking to him, but, even at five, he was aware how that would sound. “What’s your name, friend? I’m Gerald. I’m down here. Lower. Lower. It’s nice to meet you.” And there he was, on the bottom shelf, a bright purple elephant with dark spots on his back and his trunk pointed towards the sky. Jeremy bent down and shook his trunk as though it were a hand, just as his father had taught him to do when meeting a new friend. “Those, up there, are the Longstrap Sisters. They can be harsh at first, but they’re alright down deep.” Jeremy turned and saw the five, miniature dolls, each with a different color dress and hair, tied together by a soft ribbon. “I’m Jeremy. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Over the years, Gerald introduced Jeremy to Lieutenant Joe Magnolia, Captain Thrust Thompson, leader of the Alliance Forces, Crazy Jack, and Paul, the only one of Jeremy’s friends who never spoke. At first, Paul scared Jeremy to the core. He stood so tall; he was so large; his eyes bore through Jeremy like Jeremy knew his teeth would do if given the chance. Gerald assured him that Paul was a softy and would never harm anyone. Jeremy wasn’t so sure. It wasn’t until he spent his first night alone in the toy store that he felt truly connected to Paul.

His parents were to be buried the next afternoon and everyone expected Jeremy to say something. He didn’t know what to say, and as he lay in the small storage space that Murray had furnished earlier that day, he felt truly scared and alone. So, he went downstairs to talk to his friends. Gerald and the sisters were asleep, and Jack was crazy. Joe wasn’t any comfort, telling Jeremy he needed to face his fears, raise his chest and do what he had to do. Thrust tried his best, but his advice, “life is just a life until you make it something more,” was a bit more abstract than Jeremy was in need of.

He wandered through the aisles until he came to the back of the shop, where Paul stood, alone, tall and proud, atop a platform surrounded by miniature versions of himself. Jeremy felt Paul’s strong, dark eyes peering deep into him, and he fell to his knees in front of the kingly figure. “I don’t know what to do, Paul. They are all looking to me for something, but it’s just not fair. I’m the one that lost everything. I’m the one that’s alone. I should be the one looking for something.” Jeremy laid his heart out for Paul to see. He opened himself up like he had never done before. He cried. He told stories about his father and remembered his mother. He laughed at a few moments, which woke Jack up, leading a joke about a bear and a rabbit that Jeremy found hysterical. The whole time, Paul just stood there, tall and proud. He took in everything Jeremy couldn’t handle, until, after hours of sharing, Jeremy fell asleep right at his paw, feeling safe, ready, and protected.

Jeremy had tried to explain all of this to Amanda after she told him she was pregnant. They had been dating for three years, and Jeremy had known for a while he was going to need to tell her at some point. She flipped out. She scheduled him for an MRI, a therapist, a drug counselor, she talked to Murray, she talked to her parents, she used all of her contacts in the medical professional, which as a defibrillator saleswoman, she had quite a few, but all of them said, physically and mentally, Jeremy seemed fine. She didn’t understand. How could he be fine if he talked to toys all night, every night? She tried to convince him to move out of the storage space above the toyshop, which by then had become quite an apartment. But, soon after Jeremy’s confession, Murray had a heart attack and couldn’t do the little work he had been doing. He handed the reigns over to Jeremy, who couldn’t leave. He couldn’t let Murray down, not after everything Murray had done for him. And, he couldn’t leave his friends. As much as he loved Amanda, he couldn’t leave his family.

Amanda made him promise to stop talking to the toys, to talk to her instead. She tried to trust him, but soon found herself checking in on him three to four times per day. Had the shop been busier, Jeremy may not have noticed, but most days, she was his only visitor, and when she stopped in four times, it was easy to figure out why. Jeremy promised her he had stopped. He did his best to look her in the eye as he said it, but they both knew he was lying. So, she surrendered to one visit per day, lunch.

Jeremy tried a few times to introduce her to his friends. He always started with Paul. He needed her to understand Paul. She couldn’t handle it. Paul was just a toy to her, a large stuffed animal.

She was in the middle of an egg salad and peanut butter sandwich when Joshua returned to Amoret and to his father’s toyshop. Jeremy, who was eating his usual peanut butter and jelly, hadn’t seen him for years and had never really been a big fan. The feeling was mutual. Joshua resented Jeremy and viewed him as an obstacle in getting his father to recognize that the shop would go under without a shift in product.

Had Amanda known Joshua was about to walk in, she, of course, wouldn’t have screamed what she had. There was no need for Joshua to know that Jeremy talked to the toys, that he viewed Paul as his closest friend, and that he had moved his bed into the shop itself, right next to Paul. Even if Joshua had not come back to town to take over the business and fire Jeremy, she knew Joshua would’ve found a way to abuse that information.

Amanda felt horrible. Jeremy was forced to move in with her. He withdrew into himself completely. He was lost without his friends. He tried to talk to Amanda, as she had always wanted, but even she could feel he wasn’t fully there.

The loss of his parents surged upon him once again. He wandered Amoret, lost in thought and rage. He wanted to hate Joshua, but he understood. He visited Murray in the hospital. The doctors told him it wouldn’t be long and that he wouldn’t suffer. Jeremy misunderstood and thought they were speaking about him. He thanked Murray, who lay asleep, and told him how much everything he had ever done for him meant, how much he appreciated it, how he viewed Murray as a father. He didn’t know if Murray could hear him. But, Annette had, and as Jeremy was leaving, she stopped him and hugged him. She told him that Murray had always loved him and so had she, that he was always a part of that shop. She meant it to help, but it broke Jeremy’s heart.

He returned home. Amanda was out on a sales visit. His mind was lost. He opened cabinet doors and closets in search of nothing. He found one of Amanda’s old defibrillators at the bottom of the hallway closet. It was ancient. It had a hand crank and the panels were thick and heavy. His curiosity couldn’t resist. He lay down on the floor and set the metal panels on his chest. He took a deep breath and thought of his parents. Then he gave the unit a few good cranks.

When he woke up in the hospital with two large burn marks on his chest, Amanda was sitting at his bedside. She grabbed his hands and stared into his eyes. A tear fell from one of hers. Jeremy wanted so badly for her to understand. He tried to speak but the two just sat and stared into each other. The baby kicked and Amanda brought his hand to her swollen belly. Jeremy felt his baby moving inside her. All he could think was how scared he was; how he had no idea what to do; how he felt too much and just couldn’t handle it; and how the last time he had been that scared, that overwhelmed, the only thing that made it alright was Paul.

He missed his friends. He missed his shop. He missed his life. And, when the silence became too much for him to handle, he finally told her so. He opened up to her just as he had, on his knees, thirteen years before, on the floor of Murray’s Toys, in front of that beast he had been so afraid of. He allowed her to take on everything that he couldn’t handle. He showed her his heart.

Amanda had never been happier. She held him and stroked his hair until he slowly drifted off to sleep, feeling safe, ready, and protected. And, in that moment, for the first time since Jeremy’s unsettling confession about who and what his friends were, she understood. She made sure he was fully asleep, and she left the hospital to find his friends and bring them home.

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