Adriana K. Weinert
Clara scuttled behind the upholstered chair as soon as Mom closed the door, preparing to get through another ghastly night. She never knew how the chair, neglected and uncared for, had ended up in her room, its embroidered seat unstitched at places and faded to a sickly beige-green. It kept company with the large wardrobe from a sort of lacquered red wood. Both furniture pieces didn't belong in a child's room, yet, there they were in Clara's mismatched one. But while the chair offered a sanctuary, the wardrobe wafted only menace as it glistened from the streetlight outside the window.
Clara took a peek at her own bed from behind the chair's backrest. They always expected her to cower beneath the covers, though Clara invariably scrambled out of bed as soon as her parents left her with their goodnights. It was in the night that Clara missed Gregory the fiercest.
Even before her mother's footsteps had died away, the wardrobe door creaked ajar, and one fuzzy paw wrapped around its glistening edge. The toys' recurring march began. They were all very old. One of the stuffed teddies had an ear that hung by a thread and wagged to and fro as the toy groped about in the dark, making its way to Clara's bed. A doll used the leg of another doll, now long gone, as a prop for her own missing leg. Some of the toys had belonged to Clara's brother or to since-grown-up cousins, for Clara had been refusing new toys ever since her fifth birthday--ever since Gregory left.
One by one, the shadows slinked from the wardrobe and surrounded the bed. Clara held her breath. The toys repeated the same ritual every night. When their siege was complete on all sides, they jumped atop the bed and stabbed, and punched, and kicked, and bit the blanket as if Clara still curled underneath. The worst were the tin soldiers because they had real weapons.
Clara knew better than to scream. The few times she had called for her parents, Mom or Dad came only to quickly tuck her back in bed, scolding her for not falling asleep. They had hardly even noticed the toys strewn on the floor--the toys that Clara was certain had not been there before. Her parents promised not to come again when she called. True to their word, they didn't. Instead, Mom brought her to a smiling lady who asked her many questions. The lady listened to her story as if she believed, and nodded a lot. And then, to her Mom, the lady called Clara an imajinif child. They all started nodding, and nothing changed apart from Clara never calling for help again.
The toys had by now figured out that Clara wasn't in the bed and were furious. They quieted and, still atop the bed, started sniffling. Clara crawled underneath the chair and held Gregory's present tight.
Her brother had always protected her. He was so much older--a whole two years older! And so much stronger. But after he left, Mom explained with hollow eyes that did not see Clara that though Clara would continue to grow, Gregory would always stay the same. That was why she was to remember only the happy him. Not the pale, thin him. But Clara didn't want to remember Gregory; she wanted to be with Gregory.
Gregory had understood her. One day, he gave Clara a present: a little luminous star that never went dark, even when the streetlights outside were switched off in the middle of the night. The star was magical, Gregory had said. It had no switch and no battery, yet it never stopped glowing. As long as she held the star, nothing bad could happen to her. Gregory had promised. Yet, star or no star, Clara didn't dare stay in her bed at night.
The toys had now spread across the room searching for her. They never came looking under the chair though, as long as Clara held on to the star.
Lookimia they had called it. That was why Gregory had to leave. But Clara knew better. He had maybe lost his own star one night or had been too tired to escape his bed. Gregory had always been too tired just before leaving for good. Clara was certain that the toys had gotten him. One of these nights, they would get her too. Maybe then, Mom and Dad would love her as much as they still loved Gregory.
A sudden realization seized her. That was the answer! She had to simply come out from underneath the chair and submit to the toys. Like this, she would never again have to endure another horrible night and would go to her brother.
Clara wondered if it would hurt. But then, she imagined playing with Gregory. If he no longer changed, they would now be the same age. She mustn't delay. She couldn't imagine a life where she was older than Gregory. Getting older than him was so very wrong. It would be just another reason for Mom to scold her. Clara had to be brave.
She opened her palm where the star lay, luminous without casting light, hard to notice yet important--more important than the ceiling light, or the stars, or even the moon and the sun. She backed out from underneath the chair and stood tall. She took a deep breath that didn't stop the tears from welling and carefully placed the star on the chair. Then she turned around, took a few steps away, and waited with closed eyes for the onslaught to begin.
Any time now.
She could hear their slow, scraping steps towards her.
She wound her arms tight around her body.
She waited some more.
Clara lost patience and opened her eyes. The room teemed with shadows, some larger, some smaller, some moved, some didn't, but none had come any closer to her. Was the star still protecting her?
Clara returned to the chair, but she couldn't find the small, luminous fleck that should have been there. Furious, she groped at random for the star. Finally, her fingers found its sharp edges and lifted it to the faint light from the window. The star had gone out.
A knot came undone in Clara's little body, and a great flood of tears deluged. She ran to the door and threw it open. The bulb in the corridor was still on, and light streamed into the room. Clara couldn't believe there was so much light just a flimsy door away. Wailing, she ran to the wardrobe and pulled its doors apart. The plastic eyes of piled up toys glinted nonchalantly at her. Clara grabbed at the pile and, with fingers wet with tears, started ripping the toys apart.
Mom and Dad ran into her room. Before they could use their stern voices, Clara threw a shaggy dog's head at them and yelled, "They wouldn't take me! Now, I'll never go to Gregory! Now, you'll never love me!"
For a moment, her mother's face tightened in anger as a plastic leg hit her in the stomach. But then, Mom knelt down next to Clara and pulled the little girl in a soft embrace for the first time in two years.