Toombs heard the report on NPR. Children were being taken from their parents at the border and sent to detainment facilities. The parents were illegal immigrants but what were the children? Toombs wondered. He was perturbed, he decided, and told his coworker Judith so, just as soon as he got to work.
“I’m perturbed, Judith,” he said. She was putting her lunch in the fridge.
“Oh no,” she said, frowning at the tightly packed shelves. “Something stinks in here.”
“Something stinks out there!” said Toombs, pointing generally.
“What’s perturbed you?” said Judith, shutting the fridge.
“This business at the border,” Toombs said.
Judith, famously, had a terrible memory. She may have seen the news and maybe hadn’t. So they went to Judith’s desk and pulled up YouTube videos of children crying in cages. The children covered themselves in foil blankets and called for their parents.
“Disgraceful,” said Judith, shaking her head. “This president.”
“They don’t even have any toys,” Toombs said mournfully.
They both sighed.
So that’s where the idea with the toys came from. Piqued, Toombs called various local government offices until he found what he was looking for: Office of Refugee Resettlement: (202) 401-9215. The ORR receptionist said they couldn’t disclose the exact locations of the camps, but that any deliveries sent to the ORR main office in Washington, D.C. would be fairly and impartially doled out by the department, as they saw fit. Satisfied, Toombs began the collection.
It wasn’t long before Toombs and Judith had amassed a small fortune in donations from friends, family, local organizations, churches, and a robust online campaign. With the dedicated toy-fund credit card, they went to Toys R Us, ready to clean the place out. To their complete dismay, however, Toys R Us had gone bankrupt and closed forever. Geoffrey the Giraffe’s face, hanging above the shuttered doors, was sun-faded and indistinct. They sat in the empty parking lot for a moment before getting out and looking into the dusty store windows. Sure enough, it was empty.
“My happiest memories were inside a Toys R Us,” said Toombs.
“At least you have memories,” said Judith.
“Sorry Judith,” said Toombs.
“No worries,” said Judith. “I’m sure I loved this place too.”
“Why do all the good things have to end?” he asked.
Judith turned to him. “Which things?” she said.
Instead, they bought the toys on Amazon. Less exciting, and leaving no chance for photo-ops to post on the various social media they used to advertise their Toys4Detainees campaign; but the savings they got by buying online did make the most sense, fiscally and morally, Toombs said to their sixty thousand Twitter followers. With the savings they bought a few small gifts for the guards who were, as Toombs understood it, troops.
Along with the gift, they’d sent a handwritten note expressing their gratitude but also asking a request: for pictures of the children with the toys, so they could share the sight with all those who had contributed.
* * *
It didn’t seem too much to ask, and Judith had written beautifully, but even after several weeks they had received no pictures, not to any of their various emails or social media accounts, personal or business. Amazon noted packages delivered to “Location Unknown” which was strange because of course the location was known: Office of Refugee Resettlement, Department of Health and Human Services, 330 C ST, S.W., Washington D.C. 20201. But even after several calls to a very rude customer service agent and her supervisor (both of whom barely spoke English, Toombs noted), Amazon could confirm nothing more than that the package was delivered to Location Unknown. Similarly--and in complete contrast to her earlier helpfulness-- the ORR receptionist could neither confirm nor deny any packages received, shipped, or parceled out to Children Detainment Centers.
Well, Toombs was outraged. “By the People, For the People--no?” he said to the ORR receptionist, who finally did hang up on him. He stood in his living room fuming. Judith was watching television, a show about zombies in high school.
“Everyone’s a zombie now,” said Judith.
“Tell me about it!” said Toombs.
“No, on the show. I’m catching you up.”
“I thought you liked this show. Take a break, watch with me.”
Toombs sighed. “How could I watch a show at a time like this?” he said, and called again the ORR main office. His call went straight to voicemail. Of course, they’d closed for the night. Well, he’d try again tomorrow. He paced for a minute in the kitchen before going back to the living room.
“Everyone?” he asked Judith.
“Even the football star?”
“Especially him,” said Judith.
He sat down.
* * *
Over the next few days, Toombs became increasingly obsessed with the unaccounted-for shipment of toys.
“So they just left the warehouse and were dropped off--what? In the middle of nowhere?” Toombs asked again, shrieking.
“Mr. Toombs,” said the customer service agent. “You really need to stop calling us.”
When he wouldn’t, a cease-and-desist order was served to him at work. Toombs followed the serving officer through the rows of cubicles, waving the order in the air, chanting mockingly: “U-S-A! U-S-A!”
He followed him to the elevator and as the doors were closing, the officer said, “You’re an asshole,” to Toombs.
The doors closed and the little down arrow blinked red.
“That son of a bitch,” said Toombs. His felt a flutter of rage in his chest. He had things to yell and no one to yell them at. He walked slowly back to his desk thinking of running down the stairs to catch the officer in the lobby but was so angry he was cold and his legs creaked beneath him. He just wanted to scream, was all. Judith was waiting at his desk.
“Isn’t that enough?” she asked.
“I haven’t gotten an acceptable answer,” he said hotly.
“My god!” she threw up her hands. “About what?”
Toombs blinked. “The toys, Judith.”
“Exactly,” he nodded. But he did explain the ordeal to her and she groaned.
“The next time I forget, please don’t tell me. I’d rather not know about this.”
“It’s good to do nice things for people,” said Toombs.
Judith sighed. “Those poor kids. But what about their parents?”
"What about them?" he asked.
“Like, where are they?”
Toombs was flabbergasted. “That is beside the point,” he said, and then waited silently until Judith forgot she had asked.
Toombs went to social media. He tagged @HHS.gov and @Amazon in all of his posts. Amazon blocked him, but the Office of Refugee Resettlement felt the pressure of all his followers hounding them and they promised, publicly, to call him and rectify this situation. They didn’t. Instead, the next day Toombs found a stuffed bear, greasy and torn, at his desk. It looked as if it’d been run over by a car.
“They’re sending me a message,” he told Judith. His hands were shaking.
“I think the folks from Accounts Receivable did that,” she said. “They were laughing at your desk earlier.”
Toombs squeezed the bear gently. Bits of fuzz pulsed out of a hole in its underarm. He resolved to turn off the location tracking on all of his devices. He became a shadow. A few weeks later he rented a car, paying in cash, and drove to El Paso. He asked around for the whereabouts of the Children Detention Center but no one he encountered knew, or, he suspected, they knew but wouldn’t tell him. He left El Paso and started driving through the outskirts. The sun was oppressive. The air conditioning in his rental car blew wet, hot air. He bought a straw hat in a gas station gift shop. He slept in sandblasted hotels. One night he looked out into a parking lot. A mother and two children crossed out of the darkness and headed towards the front office. The lot was filled with broken glass and each of the children wore one shoe of a pair--one the left, one the right. He wanted to yell “Watch out!” about the glass but the window wouldn’t open so he pounded on it. The mother looked slowly up at him, pulled the children close to herself, and stepped backwards into the shadows at the edge of the parking lot. Toombs threw himself sorrowfully onto the bed and felt sorry for himself. Why was it so hard to be helpful?
Finally, at a little fruit stand in a vortex of dirt roads, he got the answer he was looking for. The mustachioed farmer grunted and pointed south, where the endless scrubland rose in a long, flat hill. Toombs tipped his cap and over the next several hours worked his way down one winding road and another towards the southern horizon. The sun set and the sky filled with stars. He rolled down the windows and warm, buggy air passed over him. Rising from the other side of the hill, he could see the glow of electric lights. When Toombs crested the hill he found himself on a narrow gravel road surrounded by warning signs in English and Spanish. The signs showed rifles, electricity, and dogs. Slowly, he came to a guard station and barbed wire fence. On either side of the guard station were tall towers dotted with bright spotlights. Huge gangs of moths hovered in the light. He pulled forward.
“Turn around son,” said the heavy guard, leaning out of his little shack. He wore sunglasses which reflected the soda lights and held a shotgun. A radio cackled from within the shack.
“I sent some toys?” said Toombs. “To the children?”
“Oh,” the guard drawled and slowly smiled. “You’re that guy. Thanks for the coffee mug.”
“Well, me and my friend Judith. My coworker Judith.”
“I suppose you want to see if the kids got the toys,” said the guard.
Toombs barked a laugh and clapped. “Yes! That’s all I’ve wanted!”
“Doesn’t seem too much to ask,” said the guard, shrugging.
“Right?” said Toombs.
“Well,” said the guard, looking around, though the dark was thick outside the glare of the bright lights. “I suppose it couldn’t hurt. No pictures though, okay?”
“Pardner,” said Toombs. “I owe it to the contributors to take at least one picture.”
“That’s honorable,” said the guard. So Toombs was allowed to pass through. The guard came as his escort. Another guard, who had been in one of the towers with a sniper rifle, replaced him.
They drove through the grounds of the Center. The guard pointed his shotgun out the window and occasionally made “Pew! Pew!” sounds.
“Thank you for your service, by the way,” Toombs said, sitting up.
“No problemo,” said the guard.
They parked in a dusty, makeshift lot. Towering lights surrounded them. Bugs fluttered in and out of the light and occasionally they fried in little puffs of smoke. Toombs followed the guard into a series of long white tents. They went inside one, chosen, it seemed, at random.
Toombs saw row after row of square cages, and inside each cage was a child, and with each child, a small toy. Toombs heart swelled. Most of the children were asleep, curled under their aluminum blankets, clutching their teddy bears, their unicorns, their Transformers, their G.I. Joes. The ones who weren’t asleep clutched at the fence and howled softly with cracked voices. The guard led Toombs down the rows. Toombs nodded approvingly at how each child had been paired with a toy that seemed a perfect fit. Pink toys with girls, blue with boys, etc. They had taken the task seriously, just as he’d been promised. Why had it been so hard for them to tell him so? He was mentally composing a series of Tweets about the incident when he came upon a caged child who didn’t have a toy.
“Hey now,” said Toombs. “What’s this?”
The child was small, with pudgy tear-stained cheeks and long, tangled hair. It had bunched the blanket around its waist and stared blankly off at--what? Toombs looked. Nothing.
“Where’s this child’s toy?” he asked, hands on hips.
The guard shrugged. “I mean, we did our best. But there’s a lot of these kids and more show up everyday.”
“Well I don’t approve of this. Every child should get a toy.”
“Ideally, yeah,” said the guard.
Toombs knelt down and looked into the child’s eyes. “Are you a boy, or a girl?” he asked.
The child said nothing. Didn’t even blink.
“What happened to it?” asked Toombs.
“Some kids just don’t talk,” said the guard.
Toombs nodded. “A mute. Tough life ahead of you kiddo,” he said. He felt through his pockets and searched through his wallet but the best he could come up with, the only thing he could really part with, was the credit card for the toy-fund, which had, of course, been closed. “Here you go,” he said, sliding the card through the chain-link cage. When the child wouldn’t take it he dropped it to the floor of the cage. The eyes blinked rapidly but otherwise the child didn’t move.
Toombs frowned. "Guess it doesn't want it," he said, standing.
“This time tomorrow,” the guard said with a knowing smile, “it won't be able to live without it.”
Toombs nodded and patted the guard on the shoulder. The picture he decided to take was of a small boy curled around a miniature soccer ball. He posted it on social media. The post was liked by @HHS.gov, @ICEgov, @BarackObama, @realDonaldTrump, and three million others. When he got back to work he showed it to Judith.
“What’s this all about?” she asked. “This is your vacation picture?”
Well, she had forgotten everything again. Of course, Toombs couldn’t tell her about it; he had promised.
“It’s nothing,” he said, putting his phone back in his pocket. “Don’t worry about it.”
About the Author: Dustin Heron is a social worker and story writer. His work has appeared most recently in Conclave, The Normal School, Fictive Dream, Occulum, Ghost Parachute, Porridge, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. His first book, Paradise Stories, was published by Small Desk Press. You can find more of his work at dustinheron.com.