With apologies to Tom Paxton, who wrote a wonderful song.
“Here.” The package thumped down in front of Alex. He looked up, automatically hunching down in case the bright blue box was a decoy for a coming fist. “Happy birthday,” his father muttered. “Happy fucking birthday, kid.” He turned and shambled away, his steel-toed boots thudding on the ancient boards and down the stairs to the kitchen.
Alex stared at the box, hearing the refrigerator open and the snap of the beer can opening. It had a green ribbon wrapped around it and tied in a neat little bow, and there was a tag on it. He flipped the tag over. “To Alex,” it said, “For his birthday.” It wasn’t his father’s handwriting. It wasn’t any handwriting he recognized at all. He picked up the box, carefully. Whatever it was, it was heavy.
He listened to the sound of the television coming on and slowly broke the ribbon. To Alex, for his birthday. He couldn’t remember getting anything for his birthday before except maybe kicked. The paper was shiny blue, and it shimmered as he tilted the box back and forth. He slipped his finger underneath the seam of it and carefully peeled back the tape. He didn’t want to ruin something so beautiful. He’d never had something so beautiful as that shining blue paper before. He almost didn’t care what was underneath it.
And then he saw the toy.
He reached into the box, reverentially lifting it out, and turned it over in his hands, trying to figure out what, exactly it was. His eyes fell on the two green buttons on the bottom, slightly oval, and he thought for a moment the toy was looking at him. The shining blue paper lay forgotten as he carefully pushed first one button, and then the other.
Nothing happened. Alex stared, certain somehow he’d missed something. He knew, without knowing how, that this toy didn’t just sit there. This was a toy that moved. He turned it upside-down and shook it gently. “Do something,” he whispered. “Do anything.”
Without knowing why he did it, he grasped the top of the toy in one hand and the bottom in the other, and twisted. The top spun easily in his hand, and he heard something inside click. Afraid he’d broken it, thinking of the whipping he was going to get, he set it down and backed away.
For a moment, it did nothing. It just stood there, looking like it was about to fall over. Alex held his breath. He wasn’t sure what he was waiting for, but he knew something was going to happen. He sat, and watched it, and held his breath, until he became aware of a strange noise. The toy was whirring, sofly, as if some kind of tiny motor had started a tiny propellor up inside it.
Alex exhaled, slowly, ready to stop breathing at any moment if something unexpected happened. And then he reached out and touched the little toy. It rocked gently as he did, and he pulled his hand back, afraid he would knock it over, but it unfolded a little leg and began to march. As it moved, it made tiny zip-zip noises, the sound of little strings twanging with each bend and twist. It was so stiff and funny, and as it marched it looked almost like a little soldier, and Alex found himself giggling at the little thing circling his room in a militant patrol, first left, then right.
“Hey, kid!” His father’s voice was coming down the hall, and Alex frantically looked for a way to hide the toy. He’d been so caught up in the thing that he’d forgotten to listen. His mind filled with images of the brightly painted creation crushed and broken under his father’s boots, the way the racecar he’d gotten from the church down the street had been, and he started to cry.
“What’s the big fucking deal, kid?” Alex shut his eyes tightly, waiting for the crunch, but all he heard was a little zzzip-pop noise, and then nothing. “I said, what’s the big fucking deal? What’s with all the noise in here?” His father’s hand closed on his shoulder, lifting him to his feet, grinding the bones together, and he whimpered with pain. “Are you crying?”
Alex shook his head, frantically, feeling the tears stinging the back of his eyes even as he willed them back. “N-no sir. Not. Crying.” And then there was the terrible long silence, and he had to open his eyes. He had to see. Where was the toy?
His father was scowling at him, his cheeks flushed, his breath stale and rancid with the smell of cheap beer. “‘Cause if you want to cry, you little shit, I can give you a reason to cry.” He grinned, and the grin was worse than the scowl. Alex cringed. “Fact is, I got another birthday present for you right here. Happy fucking birthday. This one’s from your mom.”
It was under the rickety wooden chair beside his dresser. Out of the corner of his eye, Alex saw the red-and-blue shape of it flash into sudden motion as his father drew back a fist. He heard it moving — zip-zip-zip-zip — coming up behind his father, and then the punch was moving and he closed his eyes and braced himself for the blow.
There was a sound. It sounded something like pop and something like bang and something like the awkward cackle of the last person to get a joke in a crowded restaurant, after everyone else has moved on. It went on and on, and Alex kept his eyes closed, knowing somehow that if he opened them that whatever was happening it would happen to him too. His father’s grip relaxed, then let go completely; he collapsed on knees that hadn’t been holding him up anyway and felt them hit the reassuring solidity of the ancient boards. The noise went on forever, filling his head, and he thought he might scream if it didn’t stop.
And then it stopped, and the silence of the old house rushed in to fill the space it had left behind, and then Alex heard the soft, reassuring whirr of the toy. He pried one eye open, and then the other. It was just standing there, whirring gently. Alone. His father was nowhere to be seen. “What…?” He couldn’t find his voice. The little toy just chugged a bit.
He reached out to pick it up, wrapping his fingers around it. It was warm, the chunky surfaces surprisingly soft, and fit neatly into his hand. It had seemed much bigger a moment ago. “What are you?” Alex whispered, and the little toy shuddered under his breath with a pop. “No,” he said a moment later. “I don’t want to know.”
Cradling the toy against his chest, he went down to the living room. He poured out the half-drunk can of beer and turned off the television in the middle of the halftime show, and then he emptied the ashtray into the kitchen trashcan and dug a TV dinner out of the freezer. The toy stood on the kitchen table while he punched in seven minutes on the microwave, keeping its balance on the uneven surface with ease, and whirred.
“I can’t stay here alone,” Alex told it. “I don’t have a job. There’s rent and food and stuff.” The little toy marched, zip-zip-zip, across the table, and bent to pick up a card lying next to the telephone. It brought the card back to him — how had he missed the little arms before — and stopped with a pop.
Alex stared at the card until the microwave beeped that his dinner was hot. He thought about the toy race car his father had crushed, and the turkey and noodle dinner the Sunday before last Christmas. He thought about pleasant faces filled with bland goodwill, and he went over to the microwave and found a fork and stirred the limp green beans until the ice was gone from the middle, and then he peeled the plastic wrap all the way off and carried it back over to the table.
“No,” he said at last. “I have a better idea.” He picked up the toy and carried it back to his room, feeling his heart beating fast against it. Now he was whirring, filled with excitement and anticipation and more than a little bit of fear.
His father was still gone. There was a coldness to the air where he’d been standing, so Alex carefully stepped around it. He put the toy down on his dresser and searched through his underwear drawer until he found a bent and scuffed business card. He carried the card and the toy back to the kitchen and picked up the phone, dialing carefully.
“Hello, Inspector? This is Alex Jermain. You came to talk to me when my mother disappeared two years ago? I need your help.”
He hung up the phone after a bit, and went into his room. He didn’t have a suitcase, but he had a backpack. He put some clothes in it, and the two dollars he’d won from Larry Morgan, and then after a moment he folded up the bright blue paper and put it in the backpack too. He zipped it up, and went out to the porch, and sat down holding the toy in his hands.
“Ready for this?” He felt it whirring against his skin, felt it warm and soft, like a part of him he hadn’t known was missing. Zip, the toy answered, saluting. Pop.