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Hard Shadows

It had been old and dirty for as long as Kate could remember. A ragamuffin intruder in her polished, planned, manicured world.

And she had done her best to get rid of it.

“Isn’t that a beautiful little bear?” she had asked George on this fifth birthday as he pulled the designer bauble from its fancy box. It’s fur glistened under the skylight in his bedroom.

“Guess so,” he said, tossing Teddy onto the growing pile of expensive gifts and clutching onto that infernal stuffed monkey again. “I like Mr. Pete better, though.”

Then, on his tenth birthday, the issue became critical.

“Look, George, you’re not a little boy anymore,” Kate said, standing in his doorway with her hands on her hips. “A growing young man can’t lug around a baby’s toy with him all the time.”

The words stung, and his eyes watered. Regret passed over Kate’s heart like a storm cloud, but she stood rigid. George needed to grow up, to behave properly.

“I guess you’re right,” he said and gently sat Mr. Pete on the foot of his bed.

That night, after piano lessons and the ball game and an afternoon show at the community theater, George washed up and told his parents goodnight. When Kate peaked in on him a couple hours later, she was dismayed to see him curled up with the ratty old toy.

She wanted to storm in, rip it from his arms, but she decided to wait. At least he had left it home that day.

Over the next few years, Kate saw the monkey less and less. One time, as George headed off to school in the eighth grade, she thought she spied a soiled paw flop out of his backpack as he hurried out the door, but it was a fleeting image.

High school disappeared like a whisper in the wind, and college vanished even faster. During those years, Kate never knew when George would be home, but she always knew when he had been there — it was the only time so much as a swatch of carpet pile fell out of place in their entire immaculate home.

When she noticed his door ajar on a Monday morning, or sniffed out a leftover pizza box , she would venture into George’s bedroom and straighten up. She never once encountered Mr. Pete, though.

By and by, Kate forgot all about the old monkey.

George graduated from college, got a job, moved a few hours away.Somehow, Kate thought he’d come home again, for more than a visit. That he needed his boyhood room.

A week after George got married, to a girl from his new city, Kate stood in his bedroom, realization heavy on her heart. Her little boy wasn’t coming home.

It was time to clean up, move on. It should have been easy for Kate — after all, she had spent a lifetime making everything just so. Cleaning out a bedroom would be cake.

And it all went as well as could be expected for the first couple of hours. Kate sorted books into one pile, toys into another. She started to have visions for the room — reading room, crafts, art studio. There were a lot of possibilities.

All that was left was to clean out the closet.

She had expected that to be tough, because it’s where a few of George’s old clothes still hung. She never dreamed that Mr. Pete would be staring down at her from the top shelf when she turned on the light.

He was as old and tattered and dirty and infantile as she imaged. He was perfect.

Kate curled her little boy’s sweetness into her arms and slid to the floor. She squeezed the lost years tight and wept like a child for the past. The uncertain future could wait a few minutes more.

Published inFlash Fiction

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