Stories > Toy Soldiers

Home appears out of the snow like a mirage in a white desert storm.

Your parents' house is a one-story tract home at the end of a steep cul-de-sac. It is red with gray trim, has a snow-covered lawn and a brittle-limbed maple whose branches make you think of dead fingers reaching out of a grave. Except for the color, the house looks like one out of every fourth home in the 1970s housing development.

You pull up in the driveway and sit in your car for a few minutes, looking at home. You haven't been home in nine months, not since the Gulf War, but now it seems more like nine years. Maybe this was never home. If it weren't for the address, you wouldn't be sure. Nothing seems certain anymore. Therapy was supposed to take care of that, but your recovery is still uncertain as well.

Christmas lights frame the roofline and windows. Red, white, and green. Blue, too. Through the living room window you can see the Christmas tree, smaller lights winking on and off behind the half-drawn curtains.

After a while you see a face. Your sister Tammy, peering out at your car. When you open the door to get out of the car the face disappears, and you know that they know you're coming. Will be there soon.

Home for Christmas.

Your mother, not Tammy, opens the door. Her smile is genuine, her arms warm as they wrap you in a heavy embrace. She smells the way she always has, like cooked food ... like all of the dinners you had growing up. "We're so glad to see you," Mom says. "How does it feel to be home?"

"Fine," you say. "It feels good."

Dad is there to greet you, too. His smile is forced, too big. He's had to suffer as much as you did, maybe more. After all, his son is one of the ones that broke down under fire. It might as well have been himself. His smile covers that up -- disappointment, embarrassment, shame, anger -- all of the things he's feared discovering in himself his entire life. You've exposed it, a raw nerve for the world to see.

Tammy is there also, and your little brother Jeffrey. Twelve and six. They all hug you, then lead you into the family room and the heavy smell of meat roasting, vegetables and apple pie.

On the surface, nothing has changed. Everything is the way it was when you left.

Except for Mr. Potato Head, sitting on the couch.

He takes up one whole cushion on the far end. He's watching TV. A football game. You don't know which one. It doesn't matter.

Dad gestures for you to sit down. Mr. Potato Head looks exactly the way he did thirteen years ago when you were Jeffrey's age. He still has a piece of his head missing, one eye loose and no ears. If he had ears he'd look a little like Dad. Bald on the top with a lopsided mustache.

"Long time no see," Mr. Potato Head says to you. "Have a seat."

"How was the trip out?" Dad asks.

"O.K.," you say, dropping down beside the plastic head as large as your body.

Over in the kitchen, Mom, Tammy and Jeffrey settle into a tentative routine, try to pretend like nothing's happened, as if everything is the same. This is for your benefit. A staged production, to make you feel comfortable.

They know their lines, have rehearsed them all, and you feel like a drop of oil in water, not quite able to mix. They're walking on eggshells, and their uncertainty makes you feel fragile.

The thought that they can see inside of you makes you uncomfortable.

"It's all right," Mr. Potato Head says.

"It's good to see you," Dad says.

"Why's that?" you ask Mr. Potato Head, an image of yourself as a glass man in your head, everything inside you visible -- organs, brain, blood vessels, just like in one of those anatomy books, except that people are able to see what you're thinking as well.

"Because you're home now, and that's all that counts," Dad tells you.

"You have nothing to hide," Mr. Potato Head tells you in answer to your question. "Stop trying to hide. These things happen and people will forgive you."

"No," you say. You remember how long it took Dad to get over his anger when you smashed Mr. Potato Head the same Christmas Day you got him. You were playing World War II, and Mr. Potato Head made a good hand grenade, his hat, ears, eyes and nose exploding from him like shrapnel when he hit.

"I understand," Dad says. "You need time."

Then Mom comes out of the kitchen.

"Dinner is ready," she says, and when you look next to you, Mr. Potato Head is gone.

Dinner is ham, mashed potatoes, bread, and cauliflower with hollan­daise sauce. Dad talks about the Broncos and the Rockies. Mom talks about the neighbors, people you haven't thought about in months and who mean nothing to you. Tammy talks about school -- about the Christmas play she was in and how she got to play Mary and hold a baby doll in her arms.

"Did you play golf?" Jeffrey asks halfway through the meal. "Jeffrey," Mom hisses.

You know what he's talking about. You've seen the T-shirt with George Bush on it, stomping all over Iraq with a golf club in his hands, as if it was a game. A game, yes that's what it must have seemed like.

"Yes," you say, "lots of eagles, birdies and bogeys," but you doubt he understands the military terms, the mixed metaphors. Dad laughs and claps you on the shoulder.

"Excuse me," you say, pushing your chair back from the table. "I think I'd like to go for a walk."

You go out into the backyard, out the fence gate that leads to the small park behind the houses next to yours.

One of the Transformers you got for Christmas one year is waiting there, a robot that can change into a tank or a jet fighter. It walks beside you as you make your way out to the sandbox in the middle of the park where the jungle gym, swings and slide are still standing.

"What are you doing here?" you ask.

"Mr. Potato Head sent me," the robot says in a metallic voice.

"Why?"

"Because you wouldn't listen to him."

"I don't even know what he said." You grab one of the bars on the jungle gym and squeeze it tight. The metal is hard and cold, the way Uncle Sam trained you to be inside. But you're flesh and blood. Not like the robot beside you.

You wanted to be a robot back then. A Transformer. You wanted to be able to change your shape at will so that you'd be indestructible.

And you were, up until a few months ago. You were made of steel. Nothing could hurt you. Uncle Sam had turned you into a fighting machine. He gave you a tank to wear around your body so you could kill and not be killed.

It was the killing you couldn't handle. Not like when you were a kid playing with Transformers.

"He said to forgive yourself." The robot is no longer a robot, but a futuristic fighter floating beside your head.

"No, he didn't. He said to stop trying to hide and let people forgive me."

"It's the same thing."

"No, it's not. People will never forgive me, not even if I forgive myself."

You think of Dad, with his false smile covering up what he's really feeling.

"It wasn't what you thought it would be," the fighter says. "It never is. I tried to tell you that when you were younger, but you wouldn't listen. After all of the battles you had me fight in, I couldn't change shape the way I could when I was new. Remember?"

The fighter is on the ground now, halfway between being a fighter and a tank.

"You broke," you say.

"So did you," the Transformer says, standing beside you in robot form again.

"I can't be fixed," you say. "Neither can you."

"It's all right," the robot tells you. "There are some shapes it's better not to be in."

You walk back to the house, and notice that the robot doesn't become a fighter, but stays a robot walking on two legs like you.

That evening you go to midnight mass. You haven't been to church in almost a year. There was a priest in the Gulf, but not a church. The smell of burning incense, women with too much perfume, and hot wax of the candles makes your head light. So does the noise of all the parishioners, crammed together in the pews.

There's a wooden Nativity scene down in front of the altar with a plastic baby in the manger.

Jesus.

G.I. Joe hangs on the cross behind the altar.

His limbs are twisted at an impossible angle to secure him on the cross and his fatigues are tattered, the way you left them. His haircut is still perfect, though. And unlike Jesus when he was crucified, G.I. Joe's face is calm and free of pain.

His face is the one you wanted to wear when you signed up to be all that you could be. From the Christmas you got him you lived inside his body and tried to make it your own.

Weight training in high school and ROTC. Karate. Hair short, face clean-shaven.

No blood leaks from the holes in G.I. Joe's palms where they have been pierced by nails. G.I. Joe does not bleed and neither did you. No bullets ever marred his perfect body. No doubts ever assailed his mind.

Your mind.

"I'm not human," G.I. Joe says over the babble of the worshipers near you. His voice is loud and clear, and you glance around to see if anyone else has heard. But they are oblivious, wrapped up in their conversations the way their presents lay wrapped at home.

"Neither was I," you say. Tammy looks up at you, her eyes questioning.

"What?" she says.

"I wasn't human," you say to G.I. Joe, and the admission feels like a confession, the voicing of a sin you've carried around for years. Tammy's face becomes uncertain, a little frightened to hear you talking to yourself, as if you really are crazy and need to be put into an asylum.

And maybe you are crazy.

"No crazier than you were before," Joe says.

It feels good to hear him say it. Better than the absolution given to you by the priest you talked to before coming home.

"Am I human now?" you ask, reaching for something certain, anything solid you can grab hold of and hang on to.

"Mom..." Tammy whispers.

"Shhh," Mom says, "he's praying."

"You're in pain, aren't you?" Joe says. "I don't feel a thing, even when I'm hanging up here. But you do."

"I wanted to kill," you say.

"But you didn't," Joe says.

"No," you say, wishing that you had. It would make life easier. That is at the heart of it, you realize - that you wish you had killed to spare yourself the embarrassment you feel now, to share in the homecoming nearly every other soldier received -- and you don't know how to wash that away.

Hot tears burn your cheeks, an absurd mixture of shame and guilt blurring the image of Joe and the congregation in front of you.

"Sometimes you have to kill," Joe says, parroting the drill instructors who molded him. "Otherwise you lose what you believe in."

You shake your head, remembering Stevie Walker's dull, startled eyes looking up into yours, refusing to close, to acknowledge death even after it had drained the life out of him.

"You know why I'm up here," Joe says. "I'm suffering for your sins so you won't have to. Everybody condemns war, but not the people who fight in them."

It should make you feel better. He's giving you a way to ease your conscience the way Christ did. But it doesn't. How many people have died in the name of Christ, you wonder, killed by the people who claimed to be saving them?

Like the Crusades. You too were a knight in shining armor, just like in the TV commercials. Polished steel, a white horse, and the same Islamic blood on your hands that the crusaders nine hundred years ago took home. Your fingers feel sticky where they grip the back of the pew in front of you and when you look down at your palms they are bright red.

Queasiness grips your stomach, the way it did in the field, and the walls of the church waver as you break out in a cold sweat.

"Mom . . ." Tammy whispers, staring in horror at your hands, at the frantic rubbing of one palm against the other as you try to scrape away the guilt oozing from them in crimson streaks.

The blood has stained the wood. You don't know if it's yours, from the rubbing, or that of your friend and the enemy soldiers who died. When you glance up you notice that Joe's palms are still flesh-tone clean, unlike your itching, wounded ones.

You hate him for that -- his plastic skin that doesn't feel pain or bleed. The kind of skin you thought you had, impervious to shrapnel or self-­mutilation. It's a lie, that skin, like everything that he represents -- that you believed in.

Gritting your teeth, you clench your hands into fists and dig your fingernails into the already-torn skin, as if ripping your flesh away will free you of the burden you have no desire to carry.

Joe doesn't say anything. He just hangs there quietly, pretending to be Jesus the way you pretended to be G.I. Joe.

He's just a toy, you think suddenly, like Mr. Potato Head and the Transformer, brought to life by you.

So were you, you realize. A toy, brought to life by others.

Palms burning, you close your eyes and fight back the tears you feel for Stevie, the dead Iraqis in their coffin tanks, and yourself.

Tonight is the first time you've cried since you were a kid, since becoming G.I. Joe and refusing to let yourself feel anything at all.

Proof finally, along with the blood, that you're not a toy anymore.

...................................

Copyright © 1993 Mark Budz. All rights reserved. First appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Vol. 84, No. 2, February, 1993