Thomas was alone. A solitary plush toy seated in the centre of a sea of black bed sheets. His back propped up against a small pile of pillows, he stared straight ahead with emotionless, glass eyes. He looked sad and forlorn, just sitting there with his soft, flexible limbs spread-eagled across the bedspread. He was alone. Alone in this room, alone in this house, alone in this world. That is how I found him when I walked into my bedroom, leaving a long day of school and work at the door as I let my bags fall lazily from my slumped shoulders. I was just about to begin my usual evening routine of changing out of my clothes and preparing my mind for the day’s quota of homework, when I spared a glance at my bed. I met Thomas’s eyes, and he held them there. For a few moments, I merely stood, staring at the toy. It had been so long since I had last spared the stuffed animal a thought, let alone a glance, to the point where at that moment I was struck by my negligence. With a quiet chuckle, I walked over to the bed and took the small, plush lion up in my arms, cradling him a bit, just as I had back when…
* * *
“Have you made a decision?”
I shook my head. “I don’t want a bear, Mum!” I said, looking up to meet my mother’s kind gaze. Heaven forbid I settle for something as mundane and unoriginal as a stuffed bear. “Don’t they have anything else?”
My mother looked down the line of bins arranged against the back wall of the small store, each with a pile of empty animal skins within, ready to be stuffed. It an early Tuesday morning, when the mall in which the Build-A-Bear Workshop was located was not yet overcome by the thick rush of afternoon shoppers. I looked down the line, too, scanning the little plaques above the bins for an animal that would suit my interests. A cat? No, too feminine. It had to be something fierce, ready for adventure! How about a dog? Heavens, no. Dogs could be fun, but they were not ferocious.
“How about this one, lad?” My mother asked, gesturing toward a bin near the end.
I walked over slowly, on clumsy eight-year-old legs, my last growth spurt having left one leg slightly longer than the other. I looked into the bin and…
“This is perfect!” I exclaimed with glee, lifting an empty lion skin out. We wasted no time in returning to the front of the store and my mother handed the skin across the counter top to have it stuffed. As the “fluff machine” whirred to life, an attendee asked me, “What would you like to name your new best friend?”
I stopped for a moment of serious contemplation. “Thomas,” I replied at last. “His name is Thomas.”
Then Thomas, freshly stuffed, was handed over the counter and into my eagerly expectant arms. I cradled him a bit, a large smile stretching from ear to ear. Thomas returned the smile, with a soft twinkle in his brown glass eyes.
Two months later I held Thomas tightly in excitement. Back over the sea again, but this time I had a friend with me! We felt the turbulence as the plane left North America far behind us. It would be another five hours before we would touch down at the airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, but I did not mind. I had Thomas, and he would keep me company during the long trip. As the minutes dragged into hours I pulled out one of my many notebooks, and we began to write. I would write a few lines of a story, and then I would hand the notebook to Thomas, who was so kind as to proof read it for me. In this manner we past the time, happy in each other’s company.
* * *
With Thomas still in my arms, I sat down heavily upon my bed. The memories were returning, of all the good times… and the bad. I closed my eyes, allowing myself to be lost in the recollections of years long past.
* * *
Dirt. Nothing but sand and dirt. It was a sight that might have made the typical American housewife swoon, and it covered almost our entire world. We could not help but enjoy it, of course. The entirety of the Kalahari Desert was our back yard, with the expanse of flat land dotted with tall, dry trees and scorched brown grass making up our playground. Before returning to America for furlough, it had just been me, playing in the dry dust by myself. However, now I had Thomas, and our adventures had no limits! One day, we were masked vigilantes, and the sandy landscape became a massive expanse of cityscape, in need of saving from a plethora of perils (including but not limited to giant snake-men, killer robots, evil arch villains, and the odd angry little sister). The next day we were travelling sorcerers, vanquishing evil from the kingdom with our powerful magics! We fought massive worm monsters, wicked enchantresses, and monstrous dragons with sword and sorcery, but of course we were always back home in time for lunch.
* * *
I felt a tear fall from my face. My younger self had been blissfully ignorant to what had been happening around him. My family was swiftly losing financial support from the American churches that had once sustained our missions work in Africa. My father had been devastated as each transfer of funds from Flying Mission saw yet another church drop us from their communion. And then, suddenly, my parents learned that it would soon be impossible to continue living in Botswana, so we had to leave the country. I still remember the heartbroken look on my mother’s face as we boarded the plane in Johannesburg to return to the United States. She had been born in Africa, and lived most of her life surrounded by the dry landscape. This may be the last time that she would ever see the only home that she had ever truly cared about.
I contemplated returning Thomas to his place on the bed before could I remember much more. I knew what was coming next. But it was too late now. I allowed my mind to continue reeling back through the memories…
* * *
The tears stung my eyes as I hugged Thomas tight, hoping to draw comfort from him, to shield me from the barrage of abuse that I was facing.
I looked up at the cackling faces of the boys around me; all of them laughing gleefully and some pointing mockingly at me where I was, sprawled, upon the floor. Moments before, my shoe had snagged on something, causing me to trip.
“I cannot believe that you still carry around dolls, Skaggs!” The likely perpetrator, a hulking boy named Jon, guffawed. “You are, like, totally too old for that!”
In a way, he was right, and I acknowledged it internally. At eleven years of age, I was too old for stuffed animals and imaginary friends, however I would never be too old for Thomas. He was my constant companion and my best friend. Especially now, when every boy in my age group at church found it impossible to take me seriously. From the moment we had moved to this small town in the middle of nowhere, Kentucky, I had been singled out as “that weird kid from Africa.” At first I had reveled in the attention that my experiences had merited me, but things had swiftly turned sour as the other children had become acquainted with my strange accent and habits.
I jumped up from where I had fallen and ran out of the building. I did not care that it was still the middle of the Wednesday evening Youth Group session at the small town church, I could not bear to be in their company for a moment longer. I held my best friend close to my chest, making sure not to lose my grip as I ran back to our house, where I slammed the door to my bedroom and collapsed upon the bed. I cried, hugging Thomas close. Thomas didn’t tease me. He didn’t call me names, or point at me, or use me as a punch line for his jokes. Thomas just sat, looking into in my eyes forlornly, sharing in my pain as I hugged him.
The next two year would pass by in this manner. Though the other children “grew up,” maturing into sports players, video gamers, or socially-driven young adults, I remained apart from them, finding my solace in my constant companion. I poured the imagination that was not expended in play within our small lawn into my writing, spending hours with Thomas on my lap and a pencil in my hand, scrawling and sketching out my thoughts, with no one there to witness but Thomas. I did not need friends, I told myself. I had Thomas. Thomas was the only friend I needed. He was my special friend.
* * *
But now he was alone. I had grown up. In a frenzy of quickly-moving events, my entire life had changed practically overnight. My father was hired by a university in Cincinnati, where we bought a large house with an even smaller lawn. Not long afterward I took up music with the Celtic harp, and my Mum found for me to a new youth group, full of like-minded individuals who didn’t care where I came from, what I sounded like, or what kinds of things interested me. Days turned into months, which subsequently turned into years, and my life kicked off. Thomas, however, remained behind. I did not even realize it, at the time, but I played with Thomas less and less, until eventually he never moved from the top of my bed, except to be set aside while I slept. My life had become so fast-moving and frenzied, that I had left him in the dust. So the years had passed, and Thomas was left alone, becoming an aspect of my past and a testimony to what I had moved on from. I graduated high school with high marks and set my passions as a writer into motion, writing short stories for friends and taking on small projects like script writing and editing papers. But Thomas never moved. His fur colour became faded by time, and the twinkle in his glass eyes dulled over. I don’t know how long it has been, in total, all I know is that, as I hold him in my arms, I feel guilty. Guilty for leaving him behind, for forging ahead on my own without him. He has done so much for me, eased me through times which would have been too unbearable to have experienced alone. But I had left him behind as soon as things began to pick up for me. How could I be so selfish?
I stared into his brown eyes, and my racing thoughts stopped in their tracks. Those eyes were calm, and at peace. The forlorn expression upon that soft face was no longer there, replaced by a visage of acceptance. I understood, now. If Thomas had been a real, living conscience, I know just what he would say. “Don’t be sorry for me,” I heard the high, growling voice that I had given him as a child ring in my head. “I fulfilled my purpose. You do not owe me anything.”
It was strange to sit there holding this small, artificial, inanimate object in my hands, but feeling more emotion for it than I had felt in a long, long time. No, not ‘it’. Him. I may have grown up, and I may have become a mature young adult. However, though the time may have come for me to grow in mentality and stature, I will never forget the time I spent, and the pain that I was spared, thanks to my constant companion and best friend of my childhood. With a smile, which was returned to me if only in my imagination, I placed Thomas back upon the pile of pillows, reveling in the memories of the times come and gone, and refreshed in my own purpose. For I knew that, no matter what I did from here on out, I would have my truest friend, my constant companion, cheering me on.
“When I became a man, I put away childish things. Including the fear of childishness, and the desire to be very grown up.” ~C.S. Lewis