Inspired by a true story.

Christmas 1990. Jack McKenny stared ahead as a family walked past him out of the clothing store into the main eating area of the Bellevue Crossroads Shopping Center. Out the corner of his eye, he could see the parents turning as if to direct their children’s attention to him, only to redirect their gazes toward the newspaper stand once they saw an icy demeanor rather than the kind of friendly warmth emanating from the Santa Claus seated on an enormous red throne in the center of the mall. There, a long line of kids waited for their chance to ask him for something they were likely never going to get or mom and dad had already bought them.

The parents’ reaction didn’t bother Jack at all. Staring was the best he could do to maintain his cool beneath the ridiculous toy soldier outfit he wore, resembling something out of the Nutcracker ballet they put on in Seattle that time of year. His ex-girlfriend had dragged him to see it year ago while they were still dating after she got free tickets. He was just thankful his buddies—the few he still had—never found out.

He scanned the open space of the mall, trying to process all the senses and sights bombarding his mind like Charlie behind an 82 mm. The multicolored lights raced across the edges of each storefront, brightly lit trees sitting at the main mall entrance near the newspaper stand. The smell of candy canes, chocolates, and other sweets felt as strong as a saccharine moonshine. To his right on a bandstand platform, a group of musicians accompanied by a pianist quietly played popular seasonal songs, evoking that time Bob Hope had visited Jack’s base in ‘Nam during Christmas in ‘68. Jack had just been drafted at 19, an A-gunner like Jonesy.

He blinked rapidly to stop the memory as though turning off the VCR.

He gripped the faux rifle tightly in his hand. It was some replica of an English army weapon from the Napoleonic era, complete with a realistic-looking bayonet. He figured the absurdly tall bearskin on his head was equally fake.

All a fraud. Like everything he had believed in at one time.

His head moved slightly as he saw one of the mall operators studying him from afar, as if to confirm he was “doing his job.” As if he incapable of just standing there and provide some “ambiance” to the place. What more did they expect?

Hopefully not as much as his last employer.

As he gripped the rifle tighter, he tried to process how his life had come to this. One would have thought an honorable discharge, Bronze Star, and two Purple Hearts would mean something in the civilian world. Instead, his wartime record was at best a liability. It didn’t help that he had trouble adjusting to a world where gunfire wasn’t normal and nobody was actively trying to kill you, an environment his “professional skills” revolved around.

Meanwhile, an entire generation of yuppies had come about after ‘Nam, not having to fight for Uncle Sam in some random part of the world, and had made a fortune somewhere or another while Jack had struggled to keep a job. Whether it was an office job requiring a suit and tie or some manual labor demanding good hands, sooner or later he’d crack and find some way to get canned.

Another couple came out the clothing store and walked past him. This time they were young, in their early twenties. Jack’s stony face melted for an instant as he glanced at the man. He looked just like Jonesy had.

His ruminative expression vanished as his gritted his teeth. He fought to keep it together, but it was holding back a runaway bolder.

December ’69. Just another patrol. Jack had then been promoted to platoon sergeant, Jonesy acting as platoon leader. A whole day humping through hills joking about their plans for Saigon intermixed with yearning for snow and home. A lot of talk about going home.

Jack kept fighting the memory, but it kept playing in his head as though forced by the ghost of Christmas past.

The platoon came to a small village across a bridge spanning a narrow creek. Jonesy orders them to stay back, asks for volunteers to do some recon. Jack says he’s up for it, along with two others.

As they’re coming to join Jonesy, a young girl comes running out a hut toward him. She’s crying and running toward him like any distraught child would to their own parent. Jonesy looks for Charlie to ambush from the village, but nothing happens.

The girl reaches him, extending her arms to embrace him.

He brings her close to his chest, holding her tight in comfort.

A thunderous crash.

Jack instinctively brought his rifle out and aimed down the imaginary sights as searched for Charlie in the bushes. Voices conveyed surprise, intrigue.

He blinked.

Across from him, someone had dropped a Christmas tree ornament, its glass shards scattered on the floor in front of their table. But no one noticed. Everyone was watching Jack preparing to fire with entertained smiles and sounds of awed wonderment. As if his behavior was all part of the performance.

Recovering from the shock, he returned to his former stance, the rifle kept upright against his shoulder. He observed as the people whispered about him as though he couldn’t hear their talk about how “into” his role he was.

He wanted to lash out at them, tell them it wasn’t a face for their amusement, another false persona created for their enjoyment. What gave them so much pleasure was a face reflecting heartache that, chances were, none of them could ever understand. His own girlfriend would never accept that he struggled to hug her even after he had finally told her how he had found Jonesy—and the girl—in small pieces when Charlie had set off the explosive strapped to her chest.

A mall management staffer came over to Jack with a suspicious frown. “What’s going on?”


“What happened?”

“Someone dropped an ornament,” he said, pointing over at one of the tables where restaurant employees were cleaning it up.

The staffer seemed satisfied as they nodded and left. Jack had been hired with trepidation, his resume less than persuasive. Of course, he hadn’t been thrilled to take the job when he had been presented it by the temp agency. But it was either that or missing rent for his shithole apartment.

He felt the rush of chilly air as the main entrance doors swung up. A large group of people entered, searching for empty tables throughout the area. Eavesdropping on their talk, he learned that there had been some sort of power outage nearby. Thankfully for them, the Crossroads mall hadn’t been affected.

Seated, the people took off their many layers of winter clothing as they ordered food and listened to the musicians. As the songs lingered, more and more of them took notice of Jack’s trance-like face until dozens of eyes were fixed directly on him.

Rather than look away, he stared hard at the crowd. To them, he was just a freak at a circus show, some rare animal at a zoo. Something to marvel at but had no humanity of his own worth acknowledging.

His focus then went beyond them. He couldn’t stand to see them huddled with their families and children and loved ones, all enjoying each other’s companionship. Things he would likely never experience again. It just reminded him of how things were supposed to be, how they were meant to be. How many times had he and Jonesy talked about marrying some nice gals once they got back and raising kids on the same street block and getting old together? Those days Jack had once excitedly anticipated had long passed, leaving him in his forties with nothing to show for it but an old Army uniform gathering moths and faded photos of a life he had hated at the time but desperately yearned to return to, and the only time machines capable of doing so were nightmares and bottles of Jack Daniels.

Eventually, his intense presence had a profound effect on the shoppers. They grew fearful, unable to look at him even as they gossiped about him in the other’s ear.

He sensed the people’s growing apprehension of him and he liked how it made him feel. Far better than to be seen as a clownish buffoon nobody should take seriously. It seemed like the world could either look at him in ridicule or terror, nothing else.

If only they knew what he had done after seeing Jonesy blown to shit.

He dropped his gaze for a moment and saw a pair of women with two toddlers at one of the tables nearest to him. One of the women was short with white hair and broad-rimmed glasses, appearing to be in her seventies. The other was clearly younger, and the resemblance suggested it was the woman’s daughter with her sons.

Both women were obviously talking about him, but like everyone else, unable to look at him directly.

He then noticed one of the little boys studying him with big eyes and a fascinated expression. Unlike everyone else, the child seemed inspired by what he saw.

Jack looked away, resuming his icy glare into the nothingness. Occasionally, he glanced down to see if the boy was still watching him, and every time he found that same open-mouthed face and widened eyes. Like he was looking at a hero or something.

Jack’s jaw clenched as he raised his chin higher, hoping it would terrify the boy the same way it had frightened everyone else so that they dare not look at him.

The talk of “that toy soldier” continued.

After a while, he checked again, troubled to see the boy still enrapt. The toddler glanced over at mother and spoke, then hopped off his chair and began to approach Jack.

Anxious, Jack’s posture grew more rigid, his eyes narrowing. As if he might strike or attack at any instant. The kind of dread that had remained in his platoon after seeing what he did to the bastard who killed Jonesy.

More time went by. Eventually, he dared to look down.

The boy was now standing in front of him, mimicking his at-attention position.

For a moment, the two exchanged looks, neither speaking. The grandmother and mother wordlessly observed from their table.

The boy’s pudgy arm bent as he nervously brought it up and saluted Jack like he was some great commander whose orders he’d obey without question. He looked just as scared as everyone else in the mall, but Jack sensed an emotion greater than fear had compelled the youngster to get up and come to him. Something Jack hadn’t felt in a long time.

Jack slowly copied the gesture until his gloved hand touched his forehead. As they both brought their arms down together, the boy came closer. Taking the wool mitten off his tiny hand, he offered a handshake, which Jack accepted without removing his glove.

Beaming proudly, the boy put his mitten back on and returned to his table. One by one, the other shoppers who had seen it began to smile until they broke out into quiet laughter and applause as the musicians started to play “The Parade of the Tin Soldiers.” He knew they wanted him to approach the platform and march around, but they were even satisfied to see him remain perfectly still.

Later that evening, when the mall was about to close, the tables were all but emptied, the musicians playing their finale, “Silent Night,” Jack still stood erect near the pillar arch in front of the clothing store, humming along as some of the remaining shoppers sang in their seats.

He noticed the mall manager coming his way and grew anxious.

“It seems you’ve enjoyed yourself,” the manager said.


“Everyone’s been talking about you the entire night. You really left an impression.”

“Oh…I’m glad to hear it.”

“The people we hire to play the toy soldiers tend to act friendly, playful. But you took the role differently. I mean, maintaining that serious look for the entire night. It was like going to Buckingham Palace and watching the guards there. You put a lot of effort into it.”

“Thank you.”

The manager put his hands behind his back. “This gig ends soon, doesn’t it?”

“At the end of the month.”

“If you’re interested, I have a job you might like. Full time work. It’s a bit outside the box, but you strike me as the kind of person who’d do well in it.”

Jack almost dropped his rifle before resuming his pose. “That…that’d be great.”

“Excellent. We’ll talk about it soon.”

The manager walked away, leaving Jack to watch the musicians put away their instruments as the last of the shoppers were leaving through the main entrance. By then, Santa Claus’ red throne was empty.

With no one left to witness it, a smile gradually appeared on the toy soldier’s face, and when it was fully formed, it looked as though it had been there the whole time.