I sat in the parking lot for several minutes letting the car idle. Occasionally, people, bundled up in coats, with their faces hidden in dark hoods and masks, scurried past in the cold dark night, but mostly it was still. The world felt empty. I glanced into the backseat from time to time to see if Gideon was still sleeping, but he hadn’t moved since we left the end of our driveway. His head was rolled awkwardly to one side and his mouth was hanging open like the mouth of a soda can. I checked the clock and decided to give him another five minutes.
He hadn’t left the house in nearly a month. He had cried when I announced that he was going to be the one to come to the store with me this evening. I didn’t want to make the situation worse by waking him up from a deep sleep and forcing him to climb out into the cold night, but eventually, I would have to.
Finally, I softly shook his leg and he came around blinking to either side in confusion.
“We are at the store,” I said quickly. “Remember. You are going to help me hunt for some things we need at the house.”
And he pressed his eyes closed tightly and moaned, recoiling into his seat.
“No. I understand. But, it’s okay. We won’t be inside for very long. We just need to walk around a bit. And I think you will like it. Everything is decorated for the holidays. We will walk through the toys and you can tell me everything you would like to get for Christmas. It’ll be fun, right?”
He nodded but didn’t seem entirely convinced. I walked around and lifted him out of the car and the two of us rushed hand in hand towards the building. Once inside, I helped him put on his mask and instructed him to keep his hands in his pockets.
We went straight to the toy section, and as we approached I slowed down so he would walk in front of me and I could watch him as he explored. I took mental notes about where he went first and what he looked at. From time to time he would turn to me and excitedly say something, pointing at things with his elbows, and I would smile behind my mask and pretend that I understood.
We walked slowly down the Lego aisle. And then looked at some action figures. I helped him look at several different Transformer toys. And I knelt down and listened to him tell me all about the backstory of the different characters, characters whose stories I knew far better than he did, but I listened, and then motioned for him to move on.
I had just finished putting away a Nerf gun he had asked to look at and I was making our way out into the rest of the store when I noticed him hesitating in front of one of the aisles. So, I stopped and waited for him to tell me what was going on.
He looked at me a few times before finding the courage to say something. “Do you think, maybe we could go down this aisle too? Just, you know, to see.”
I smiled. It was the aisle with the baby toys. “Oh, of course, buddy. Let’s see what they have down here.
“And with his hands obediently stuffed in his pockets, he stepped into it, and with my hands obediently stuffed in my own pockets, I followed.
His eyes scanned the plastic firetrucks and thick plastic boats. “These are for babies, right?” he asked. But there was a hidden question stuck in his throat, somewhere behind this one that I could just barely hear trying to find its way out.
“Sometimes,” I said, cautiously.
“Like,” he continued, “Probably for Joel or something?”
Well, Cousin Joel might like some of these toys, sure.”
“But,” he took a deep breath, “They are not really for me though, right?”
I paused a second, “Oh, I don’t know. They are pretty cool. Anyone could play with these.
“He tilted his head in a way that told me he was not so sure.
“But, all of the pictures show babies playing with them.”
“Yes, mostly they are for little kids.”
And then we came to the place where I knew we were headed all along. We stopped in front of the Paw Patrol figures. The figures that had been Gideon’s absolute favorite toy for most of his life. “So, these are for babies too then.”
I took a deep breath before I responded. “Not babies. Little kids. Yes.” and then I carefully added, “You know, you are still a little guy.”
He didn’t say anything. He just stood there, with his hands in his pockets looking up at the smiling plastic dogs in their vibrant hero costumes.
“Rubble was my favorite,” he said almost to himself as if this were a very long time ago. He lifted the little yellow bulldog down from the rack and held it in front of him. “Do you know why he was my favorite?” he said after a long moment.
I had never really considered this before and I knelt down next to him again so I could be sure to hear his explanation for why this little construction worker dog had been his favorite out of all the other characters.
“Rubble was the last dog to join the team,” he explained, without looking away from the package, “He was a puppy and the others found him and gave him a home. He was the youngest, but they made him a part of their team.” He held the package gently in his hand. “I liked that.” He put him back on the shelf and put his hands back into his pockets. “He was the youngest, like I am the youngest on our team. In our family, I mean. I’m kind of like Rubble.
“I suddenly couldn’t find anything to say. There seemed to be a sock stuffed in my throat and I choked slightly and simply nodded. “Okay…” I said quietly. “That makes sense.”
He looked down at his shoes and turned to walk away.
“Gideon!” I called after him. “Gideon, would you be okay with me buying you one of these little cars?” I picking up a small Paw Patrol Hot Wheels car with the yellow dog inside. “You know, just as a thank you for coming to the store with me today?
“There was a glimmer in his eye as he came back over to look. “Yes, please,” he said with deep appreciation. “Well, actually, if it’s okay, could I get Chase instead?” He motioned to the police dog that was hanging further up the rack.
“Oh, I guess so.”
“Because, Chase is the oldest, and he’s the leader. And maybe that makes more sense for me now. You know, now that I’m older too, I mean.”
I nodded. “Of course.” Then with a pang of regret, I put Rubble back onto the shelf and lifted down the older dog.
As we walked away, I put my arm around his shoulder, and he carefully held his little prize in front of him with both hands and rested his head against my side.