Inside a box of forgotten childhood relics, those brightly colored wooden and plastic toy trains, my brother left a sacred gift for us to find after his death. My five-year-old daughter discovered it after she said there was, in her words, a big orange cat sleeping by the Christmas tree. It was a bengal tiger.
A gust of frigid air swept in before my parents crossed the threshold. Bundled up in wool coats and matching green scarves, crocheted by my wife, they carried colorfully wrapped gift boxes. Presents to put under our sparsely ornamented tree.
“Grampy! Grammy!” my daughter, Aubrey, said with a squeal as she ran from the kitchen, arms out.
Sharon, my wife, followed in a light jog with a dish cloth balled in one hand. “Aubrey, wait ’til mommy wipes your hands before you—.”
I closed the door and Aubrey wrapped her chocolate covered hands around my mother’s leg. I swooped down, picked her up at arms length, and Sharon took her and began wiping her hands clean. The chocolate palm prints looked like chicken scratches on my mother’s jeans. I winced and said, “Sorry.”
My mother looked down, “A little soap and a scrub should get it out. You and your brother made plenty of worse messes.”
I’m sure she meant the time he was eight and I was five, and inspired by graffiti we saw on a convenience store wall, we created our own street art with a package of sharpies that spanned the rainbow. Three hours was plenty of time to depict aliens fighting dinosaurs on a bedroom wall.
We all said our hellos and I settled in the living room to contain Aubrey while Sharon finished baking cookies in the kitchen. Aubrey writhed free and knelt by the tree to gawk at the presents. One box, slate grey and about the size of a shoebox sat on the coffee table. Theo was written on the side.
It had belonged to my brother.
I leaned forward, unsure to touch it.
“It’s Theo’s,” my father said. “We rediscovered it a few weeks ago cleaning out the last of his things.”
Theo died in his apartment from lifelong complications due to Noonan syndrome. His heart grew too weak and quit. He could have taken a cocktail of drugs, but he didn’t like side effects, particularly those that “made him dumber.”
By the time he was fourteen, he was keenly aware of his abilities, knowing he’d never be a scientist or an engineer to discover extraterrestrials. And he was also intuitive to understand his wide set eyes, oblong face, and lanky gait made connection to others a cruel challenge. My father taught him wood working and carpentry, while my mother nurtured his curiosity of the world with National Geographics and any nature documentary she could find. During his high school graduation party, he joked with a smile as large as a billboard that he was going to build a tree house in a jungle.
I picked up the box. Whatever lay inside rustled and shifted. It was about as heavy as a shoe box with shoes would be. I set it back down. “What’s inside?”
“Remember we cleaned out our attic a while back, and gave you all of the wooden train stuff?” my father said, leaning back into the leather chair.
“Right, and it didn’t have any of the trains.”
“It seems Theo had the toy trains.”
Aubrey’s attention perked at the mention of toy.
My mother spoke, running her hands through her scarf, “He had his reasons to be sure, but we haven’t the faintest clue. You know how he got after college, keeping random trinkets.”
Theo persevered, made friends with a few good people, passed his classes and graduated with an associates degree in construction management. Somewhere in-between his formal studies, he delved into spirituality, religiosity, and forms of mysticism, building strife between he and my casual Episcopalian parents. I suspected a girl inspired him, and these interests were overtures to impress, but perhaps this was his delayed teenage rebellion.
Regardless, one thing that remained from those explorations were his collections of things. Pez dispensers, Dungeons and Dragon miniatures, matchbooks, screws, nails, bolts. I’d visit him, and we’d be drinking beer. He’d tell me about his latest construction gig, and at various points in the room his latest collection would be scattered about.
Aubrey tapped the box, and said, “Toys in here?”
“Open it up, Chris, she’ll be delighted,” my mother said.
Aubrey clapped her hands and smiled.
I grinned. It’s hard to deny your child a simple joy.
“Okay, Aubrey, let’s open up the box and see what’s inside,” I said, jiggling the box in front of her.
She giggled, wrapped her fingers around the edge of the lid and pulled it off. A hand dove in and fished out one of a dozen or so colored trains that fit perfectly in her palm.
“A choo choo train,” she said, inspecting a green rectangular block with red plastic wheels and magnetized connectors for hitches.
She pulled out another and held it up above her head. She did this for each one until a dozen cars snaked atop weeks old copies of People and Sports Illustrated.
“These will go better on train tracks,” I said, standing to head up to the office closet, where I had stashed them God only knows how long ago. “Be right back.”
Aubrey may not have had teeth yet when my parents brought over the collection. I never bothered to rummage through it for the missing trains and reminisce about all tracks Theo and I would lay out. We’d create cities with imaginary stops for army men, or weigh stations for super secret government projects. Our lives diverged despite what plans we each had. I aimed for track stardom, which got me to college, but I ruptured my right achilles tendon, became an architect, and committed to a family. Theo slowly gained more experience in construction, and owned his own company by the time he was thirty two. Success does not earn love, or the love he wanted, and remained single. He replaced that desire by traveling all over the world.
My father dropped off the box, and I remember him saying, with a tone of apprehension and acceptance, “I already spoke with your brother… you can have the trains.”
What he didn’t say: Since you’ll have a family.
I returned to the living room, and my parents were laughing.
“Daddy! There’s a big orange cat by the Christmas tree.”
Kneeling next to Aubrey, I set the box down and opened my eyes comically wide, “Oh, really.”
“Really,” she said. “There are jungle trees, too.”
I pulled out a small green box with a collection of wooden tracks and began snapping them together in front of her. “Do you see monkeys hanging around?”
“Small ones. They’re running in the tree.”
“Aubrey, you have quite the imagination,” my father said.
“It’s there,” she said in sing song voice, pointing.
“Aubrey,” I grabbed a train out of the shoebox, “check out the train—.”
Red worn brick steps ascended to a large, ornate metal door where the far wall had been. The door stood twice my height and slate grey stone rose skyward forming the outline of a gothic cathedral.
I turned to my mother, who leaned forward with a concerned look.
“Are you okay?”
I held the train in front of me. More gothic buildings in different colors lined a cobblestone street. A din of cars and foreign voices rolled by.
“Aubrey, can I see your train?” I said, holding out my hand.
“Please. You need to say ’please,’” she said.
“May I see it, please? I’ll trade you train cars.”
She snatched the toy out of my palm and replaced it with hers. The street scene vanished and a jungle sprouted in my living room, including a lounging bengal tiger. A reverb of shaking leaves swirled around me.
“What kind of monkeys are those?”
I dropped the train as if the voice had shot a jolt of lightning at my hand. My living room reappeared.
“Daddy, what’s that church people are walking into?”
“I don’t know, honey.” I crawled around Aubrey and held out a train to my father. “Here.”
“What about it?”
I held the train by the tips of my fingers. “Just take it.”
He raised his eyebrows at my mother and took the toy, closing it in his palm. His eyes sprung so wide, I thought they’d jump out of his head.
He saw it too.
He blinked rapidly and squeezed them shut.
“Andy?” My mother asked in a hushed tone.
Tears rolled down the wrinkle that creased his cheek. He covered his mouth.
He heard the voice, too.
“Oh, Theo,” he whispered, staring at the train, “how little we expected of you.”