Buddy woke up.
Nothing was right, or as hoped, or as promised. He knew that instantly. The silky, humming, fluttering overhead lights of the Store had been replaced by unbroken yellow light. It was hot against his plush. It was dizzyingly bright. He covered his glass marble eyes with a paw.
Wait, that wasn’t right either. He was able to move his paw to his eyes?
So far, Buddy had spent all his life inside a box. He knew its every inch. It had been narrow and rigid, with white plastic cords cuffing his paws to the cardboard. He’d been able to waggle his paws and feet, and turn his head a little, but that’s it.
Now he was free.
It was a nice word, even fun to say: freeeee. All the teddies in the Store had wished to be free. All night, they’d whispered about being let out of their boxes. They deserved it! They were a very special kind of teddy. None of the other stuffed toys moved or talked. Even now, shielding his eyes from the sizzling gold light, Buddy felt good about being special.
Naturally, all the teddies at the Store had gone still and silent whenever a person entered their aisle. A grown-up shopper, a child, the people who mopped the floors at night—it didn’t matter. Seeing a teddy move or talk might scare a person. That might make a teddy less likely to be chosen. And being chosen was all the teddies wanted.
Buddy wished teddies knew how to cry so he could release his longing to be back at the Store. The Store had been a vast castle stocked with rainbows of toys. Posable dolls with brushable hair. Sneering warriors throttling swords. Metal cars that—don’t tell anyone!—were secretly robots.
Each day at the Store had been like fifty birthday parties at once. Children paraded down aisles. Buddy remembered his box had a circle cut through the front so children could pet his fur. Pick me, he used to pray. Pick me because I pick you.
Children had begged. Parents had peered. The orange teddy on Buddy’s right: into a cart. The golden teddy on Buddy’s left: into a cart. Buddy’s turn had been coming. To a teddy, this was the meaning of free: being selected off the shelf, taken home, and embraced by a child.
When a teddy got that child’s first loving hug, the teddy entered Forever Sleep.
Buddy yearned for it more than ever. Life was too rough for soft little teddies. What Buddy recalled of his birthplace was scary: a large, clattering room jostling with people handling more teddies than Buddy could believe. After that had come a dark, rollicking truck bed loaded with teddy boxes. That was even scarier.
Forever Sleep would make all scares float away. Teddy rumor had it that Forever Sleep felt like a child’s hug that never ended.
Nothing of the sort had happened yet. Buddy didn’t remember a shopping cart, a child, a hug, any of it. He realized he was nervous to move his paw off his eyes. Wherever he was, it sure wasn’t the Store. It sure wasn’t a child’s room. Something else had happened.
Buddy’s plush was getting hotter.
There were no children here.
He peeked down at his body. It was strange to see himself outside his dark box. But all his parts were where they should be. His pudgy teddy limbs. His round tummy. His blue teddy fur. A tag was sewed to the seam at his side. MY NAME IS BUDDY, it read. Seeing his name printed like that made Buddy feel stronger.
He was still gazing at his belly when he detected a swishing sensation along his back. It felt like children petting him through his box’s petting hole. Could it be that a child—his child, whom he’d somehow forgotten—was right behind him, playing a silly prank?
The swishing changed direction, messing the plush of his belly.
It was wind. Buddy had never felt wind before.
He was outdoors. That explained the hot yellow light. He’d seen the sun only once while being transferred from the shipping truck to the Store. It had been startling and beautiful—but now it frightened him. If only his box was near so he could scurry into its familiar darkness.
Yes, that was it! Maybe the box was near. If he waited inside it, surely someone would carry him back to the Store. Buddy had never liked the plastic cords strapping him inside his box, but now he missed them.
Being safe, he decided, was more important than being free.
The first step, though, was to look around. Buddy ordered his frightened, fluffy brain to do it. He let his blue paw slip off his glass eyes, stared through the sun, and saw the world.
Mountains reached up on all sides. Buddy had learned about mountains from people chatting at the Store. “Look at that mountain of boxes,” they said. “I have mountains of work to do,” they said. Mountains were big hills—but Buddy never imagined them this big. Already small, he felt even smaller.
The mountains were made of trash, an even bigger surprise. Trash was another thing Buddy knew about from the Store. At night, people swept and mopped the floors and tossed candy wrappers, Popsicle sticks, and more into a big, smelly barrel.
Buddy shuddered at the thought of so much trash in one place. He searched, hoping for a cheerier detail, but garbage coated every speck of land. He couldn’t see any trees or rooftops. Just trash, near to far, low to high.
Beyond the rolling hills of waste, farther than the farthest peaks of junk, steam rose from hot garbage, turning the rest of the world into a greasy smudge.
Buddy instantly named this far-off smear the Haze.
The trashlands were too much for one teddy to absorb at once. Buddy focused on a garbage mound directly in front of him. It included plenty of boxes, though none were his. A few of the boxes had barfed out empty drink cans. Buddy sniffed the air with his plastic nose. Some of the cans smelled sugary; it made him think of children. Other cans smelled bready; it made him think of grown-ups.
Other uninvited odors—slick, stinging, slimy gobs of them—attacked his nose. Fruity smells, meaty smells, salty smells, chemical smells. New sounds were everywhere too. Birds chirping, insects whirring, the whooshing of distant trees. It made Buddy queasy. But if he was going to find his box, he needed to get moving.
Inside his box, he’d wiggled a lot. All teddies did. But he’d never walked. Carefully, Buddy pushed himself to his feet. He swayed a little but didn’t fall. There, that wasn’t so bad, was it? He cranked his paws around. Why, it was invigorating! Buddy tried hugging himself. He gasped. Hugging himself felt wonderful! No wonder children wanted to hug teddies.
He took his first step slowly along the foot of the hill. Quickly he understood why teddies were better off being carried. His head was too big and made him teeter. His legs were too soft to kick aside a paper plate. His nubby tail wasn’t big enough to help with balance. His stuffing pinched where his legs swung, and he wondered if the seams might rip.
Don’t you fall apart, he ordered himself.
Buddy’s confidence grew, bit by bit. He decided to try speaking, not in the teddy whispers of the Store, but loudly. He concentrated on what he was going to say. Once, he’d seen a pretty orange butterfly flutter into the Store. Now it felt like the butterfly had been sewn inside his chest.
“Is … anyone there? I think … I’m lost.”
Buddy’s voice was mild, yet he shivered in guilt. Walking and talking right out in the open—it just didn’t seem right. Buddy doubled his determination to find his box. Once inside, there would be more no more misbehavior. He trained his eyes on his little blue legs so he wouldn’t trip over the trashland’s lumps, snarls, and mires.
The Store had been colorful but tidy. Trashland colors were abstract and spilled in every direction. Buddy’s clean feet passed across all sorts of revolting rubbish. Soiled, wadded napkins. Plastic bags inhaling and exhaling with the breeze. Fast-food wrappers wounded with ketchup. Cotton swabs yellowed with earwax. Baggies of dog poop. Apple cores, banana peels, bread crusts. And water bottles by the billions.
Buddy felt the closing jaws of fright. How badly he needed that Forever Sleep hug!
His blue feet, designed for a child’s bed or lap, began to soak a grubby brown. What would the Store think about grubby-brown teddy feet blotching their white shelves? Buddy’s future child might get sent to their room if Buddy got too dirty. For Buddy, that was the final straw. Teddies simply were not built for adventure. There was no use trying. He should stop.
The half circles of his teddy ears perked up at an interesting crinkling sound. Well, traveling a few more inches couldn’t hurt. He padded past a sun-blistered carton of laundry detergent.
Near the foot of a garbage hill was his box.
Buddy gasped and hurried as fast as his stubby legs could carry him. He jogged around a fly-covered pickle jar and clambered over the flab of an old bicycle tire. As he got closer, he realized one bad thing and one good.
Bad: It wasn’t his box after all.
Good: It looked exactly like his box, and scattered upward along the hill were three more boxes just like it.
Trapped inside each of the four boxes was a teddy.
Without fingers, Buddy’s paws were no good at ripping open factory-glued cardboard, and his legs were too fluffy to kick through the plastic window. He tried anyway. From inside, a teddy with yellow fur strained against her cuffs, her muzzle mashing flat against the window.
“Please hold on,” Buddy said. “I’m trying my best.”
The yellow teddy quit struggling. Her black nose popped back out of her face.
“Is something wrong?” Buddy asked.
“You’re not whispering. You’re walking. Those aren’t things I’m used to.”
“Me neither,” Buddy said. He poked his paw through the petting hole. “Can you wiggle your paw through this?”
The yellow teddy snapped to attention. Buddy learned at the Store teddies came in all shades of colors, but otherwise were the same. And yet … wasn’t this teddy different from him, just a bit? There was something bold about this yellow teddy. Maybe it was the slant of her forehead stitching. Maybe it was her eyes, embedded a little deeper in her face.
Text copyright © 2020 by Daniel Kraus