Daniel Maron took the toy from a mound of rubble outside Berlin. He did not know which poor child it had belonged to previously, and he did not much care. The Führer, long may he rot, had already taken his coward’s exit. The Allies had won and, as dictated by the old saying, the victors had a right to collect their spoils.
Other men had chosen their souvenirs: this man a red armband, that man an iron cross, that one an officer's tongue. Daniel did not seek anything so morbid. He did not seek anything at all, and he might have returned home empty-handed had the toy not called his name.
It stood tall and proud in a field of ash and charred shapes: a tiny bronze suit of armor, a handspan tall, gleaming through the smoke. Daniel bent down carefully and held it in his hands, stupefied. It sat among glowing embers, so it should have been coal-hot, but no, it was cold to the touch. The little soldier stood on a small triangular platform, his sword and shield at ease. He looked like a regular Don Quixote in miniature. Daniel smiled, imagining the excitement this find would bring his young son, Matthew.
He just needed to wipe away a little blood...
Matthew never played with the little soldier. In fact, he hardly looked at the thing after his father presented it to him for the first time. Small wonder: its limbs were not opposable, and its sword and shield would not budge. This made it a poor opponent for Matthew’s other toys, which were Supermen, and pistol-wielding cowboys, and fighter jets. That was one reason he left the soldier alone. The other was the little slit of darkness in the soldier’s mask, right where its eyes should have been. Whenever Matthew looked at the suit of armor, even out of the very corner of his eye, the hairs on the back of his neck would stand on end. Although he knew better, he felt watched. Observed.
Matthew never played with the little soldier at all. He tried keeping it on his dresser, but while it was there, he could not sleep. Next he put it in the closet, then the trunk with the rest of his toys. Both spots were preferable to having it out in the open, but the comfort in hiding was erased by the inevitable. In the morning, after the scrape of the sliding closet door, or the creak of the opening trunk lid, the soldier would still be there, too close for comfort. Waiting. Watching.
Then one ruddy dusk, Matthew's parents found him dead, face down in the bloodied garden pond.
Matthew never played with the little soldier, yet there it stood at the edge of the garden pond. Mrs. Maron, the mourning mother, wailed and weeped. When her voice became too tired to scream, she whispered Spanish prayers, slapping the still surface of the pond. Blood and water splashed up in cones, soaking her slip and seeping through the surrounding soil.
Daniel looked everything over, unsure of what to feel as blood splashed against his trousers. As a matter of survival, he had long ago numbed himself to death—of course, this was his son, his flesh. He saw himself every time he looked in the boy’s eyes. But no… he could not open himself up to this pain. If he felt this death, he would have to feel them all. That, he knew, he could not survive.
After the child-sized coffin had been paid for and the funeral had been suffered, life for the Marons snapped into a most peculiar routine.
Mrs. Maron had quit her job after Daniel's discharge. So, while Daniel was at work, she generally kept the house and tended the garden out back. But there was only so much of that to do. The tables, the counters, and the little soldier on the mantle were all dusted. The hedges were clipped and the flowers were watered. She had to keep moving, or she would be forced to remember what she had seen. Without meaning to, without even realizing, she prepared a sack lunch for Matthew. She did it every day while Daniel was at work, and she threw the food away before he returned. She envied her husband's strength and did her best to put on a brave face.
Daniel could not stand the sight of the little soldier any more. He slid it under Matthew’s bed. He hid it behind the couch. He threw it in the trash. Each time, it returned to its spot on the mantle. Finally, he assumed his wife wanted to keep it for some reason or another. Unbeknownst to him, his wife assumed the opposite.
Though the waking mind conceals much, the sleeping mind reveals all. Mrs. Maron was sleepwalking. Every night, without fail, she walked out to the pond and rested there, clutching the daisies that lined the edge of the water. Daniel became aware of this habit early on, and though it scared him, he understood. He took to rising before dawn to carry his wife back to bed.
One night, like all the rest, he awoke to an empty bed. So, he yawned and stretched and stumbled down the stairs to retrieve his beloved somnambulist. But this time, when he reached the pond, she was not at rest. One hand held a gleaming object. The other clawed savagely at the earth. Suddenly she stopped and lifted her digging hand to inspect it in the moonlight. Her fingertips were covered in a very dark liquid: a mixture of mud and Matthew’s blood. Daniel called to her, but she would not be distracted from her task.
She took the little soldier and lifted his mask as high as it would go, just to the tip of the nose. A grin was revealed, wicked yet relaxed, with teeth even sharper and shinier than the bronze around it. Mrs. Maron took her bloody fingers and wiped them across the soldier’s mouth and—was Daniel deceived? Did the soldier’s grin grow wider? No; that was an idea only a mad person would entertain.
He was not mad… but it seemed Mrs. Maron was.
My God, he realized. She's returning to the scene of the crime. She killed him! In her hysteria, she killed our Matthew. I should never have left her here alone. The war... did something to her, something worse than what it did to me.
Daniel sent his wife away. The place was a hospital in name, but Daniel knew people who went there never got better. He did not visit her, not once. She wastes away there, even now.
As for the toy soldier, Daniel wiped it clean of blood. He placed it in a small lunch pail, which he secured with a padlock. Then he locked the pail within a jewelry box, and the jewelry box within Matthew’s trunk. There it lay, behind three locks, rusting among matted stuffed animals and broken action figures.
Daniel remarried. Her name was Anita Renoux, and she did not care to take Daniel’s last name, thank you very much. She had two daughters, Amanda and Amelia, who grew to love Daniel as their own father. Together they revived the garden. Daniel built a little blue bridge over the pond. The girls watered the flowers. Whenever Anita was not at work, she made crustless sandwiches and sweetened her lemonade with scandalous amounts of sugar. All was well, or so Daniel thought.
In the night, while the adults slept, Amanda and Amelia dared, then double-dog dared each other to sneak through the off-limits door. Inside, they found Matthew's bedroom. The bed was still unmade, and fighter planes littered the window sill. Of particular interest to the girls was the old toy trunk which sat by the foot of the bed.
One of the girls--and they argue to this day about which of them did it first--pressed her ear to the lid of the trunk. A voice from inside, faint but clear, whispered them secrets. Secrets so scandalous, the girls kept asking for more. Only when the telling was done did the voice inside the trunk reveal his price.
One summer evening, while Daniel was out shopping, Anita and the children disappeared. There was no conversation, no note.
The abandonment disturbed him, but it was not the most disturbing part of his day. For when he returned home, the toy soldier had returned to the mantle. Heart thumping, fingers numb, Daniel ran to the Matthew's room. All three locks were still intact; the one on the lunch pail had even rusted shut. He could not have opened the box if he wanted to, and yet the soldier was free. It was impossible. Wrong.
That night, Daniel’s neighbors did not sleep. At the same time, they did not dare voice their discontent. The sounds they heard emanating from the Maron house were wretched. A steel axe striking bronze. A chainsaw screeching against plate armor. The crackle of a great fire. The screams of a man at his wit’s end. Then, after a few hours of silence, they heard a car start up and squeal away.
Daniel drove right up to the edge of the towering cliffs near Manzanita and exited his car, leaving the engine running. There he stood at the brink of oblivion, hundreds of feet over the angry ocean. Tying the soldier to his torso, he felt the anguish he ought to have felt for his son. Somewhere deep within, a floodgate opened. He felt pain for every brother he lost in the war; he felt pain for all the innocent lives he had taken; he felt pain, most of all, for the death of the good man he had once believed himself to be.
With the little soldier’s sharp edges scratching at his chest, Daniel dove from the cliff. Most folks assume he met fate on the toothy crags below. Perhaps not; perhaps he washed ashore and survived for a time, but surely not for long. His body was never recovered.
Months later, a young family acquired the Maron house at an extreme discount. The patriarch was not quite established in his practice. A house this grand, at this price… the Smiths could not believe their luck. The previous owners had even left behind furniture, and to Mrs. Smith's surprise, it suited her taste perfectly.
The children, too, loved everything about the place—except, perhaps, the toy soldier on the mantle.