Like Clockwork (mm mc)

Copyright © 2005

View the dream cast for Like ClockworkEric rolled over in bed and thought the same he did every morning. "This is the life." He rested his arms behind his head and luxuriated a while longer in the queen size bed, a large feather pillow beneath him, a down comforter above him. The bedroom was decorated in the best of taste and immaculately clean, except for the heap of his dirty clothes flung in the far corner. Yes, things had really improved for the better after he moved into his girlfriend's place.

Speaking of whom, the long-haired beauty stuck her head around the corner, still sopping wet from her shower. The room filled with the scent of steam and her lavender bath oil. "Eric, you gonna get out of bed any time today?"

"Aww, it's so nice and comfy here." Eric patted the mattress beside him. "Melissa. Why don't you come back in here with me."

Melissa rolled her eyes and returned to the connecting bathroom, toweling herself dry. "So do you have any auditions today? Wasn't there that thing with the Coastal Players?"

"Not until tomorrow. C'mon back to bed. It's all cozy and stuff."

From the bathroom, she raised her voice over the hum of her hairdryer. "Some of us have work. Any commercials?"

Eric lifted himself up onto his elbows. "What, for your work?"

"No, you nit. Are you up to act in any commercials?"

"Nah, I'm not really looking for any new commercial jobs."

"Well, why not? You said they pay great and the hours are short. Why not look for more of that?"

Eric rolled over in bed, pulling the comforter up beneath him in bunches. "Aw, it's the work itself. The pressure, the demands. It's just so damn exhausting. Like that Pearly Paste toothpaste job last time. It totally wore me out."

Melissa stuck her head around the corner, mascara in hand, one eye done, one not. "Eric. You just stood in front of a mirror in your pajama bottoms, smacked your lips and said, "Mmm, minty!" How in any realm of reality is that exhausting??"

Eric shrugged. "I got nothin'."

Melissa threw her free hand up in an exasperated gesture and returned to her morning prep work. She walked into the bedroom fastening on her earrings. She was dressed for the office where she worked as a receptionist, in smart blouse, skirt and carefully-matched accessories. Eric now lay atop the comforter, clad as he was whenever he slept, in only his jockeys. "Honey, you can't just lie around all day."

"I'll get up eventually."

"Eric, sweetie, look at you."

Eric looked down at his briefs with concern. "Why? Is there that stain problem again?"

"That's not what I meant. You're tall, you have that beautiful smile, you're young, you're built like a linebacker, and you can act. So why don't you get the hell out there and act? That is what you spent all that time and money at college for, isn't it?"

Feeling the lecture coming on, Eric said, "What if I told you I had an acting job today?"

"No, really? With who? Doing what?"

"For Gerry's clockwork business."

Melissa pulled on her shoes, sighing. "He doesn't count. Can he even afford to pay you this time? What does he need you for?"

"He needs an actor to help present some big windup toy to a muckety-muck business owner. He's throwing a party today, this owner guy. I get free eats out of it, too."

"There's a major step in your career." As Melissa reached for her purse, she leaned onto the bed and looked her boyfriend in the eye. "For God's sake, Eric. You're a talented actor who never acts. You have to want some kind of role, some goal, some focus to drive you as an actor, otherwise you're just going to be one of the massive 99% in your profession that stays unemployed. You're too damn talented for that. You must want something for your life. What do you want?"

Eric pursed his lips and looked up at the ceiling, appearing to give the matter serious thought. "Breakfast", he decided. "I want some breakfast."

Melissa got up, a look of surrender on her face. "As it happens, that's what I want too, right now, apart from a boyfriend who knows what the hell he's going to do with his life. You want eggs or pancakes?"

"I dunno. Which are you having?" Melissa shot him a withering glare. Eric just stared back blankly. "What?"

* * * * *

Eric stalled around the apartment as long as he could. He was still cajoling Melissa to come back to bed even as she grabbed her coat and walked out, telling him to get a job. "Got one!", he called back to her.

"A real one!", she stressed, slamming the door for emphasis.

Eric took his time getting dressed, flip-flopping back and forth and what outfits to wear, confounded by the fact that he looked great in all of them. Doubly confounded in his selection by knowing that he'd look great if he were wrapped up in a burlap bag. Eric spent a good hour and a half on his hair, with no time worrying about shaving as it usually took his beard a good week or two to sprout its first trace hairs. He played with a bowl of Coca Puffs and half a bagel for a while, flipping through channels on Melissa's 40-inch plasma. Having run out of things to waste his time on, Eric briefly toyed with the idea of doing the dishes and straightening up the apartment, shuddered at the thought, and decided he'd leave for his new "job" early.

That was the way Eric thought of his "job". In quotes. It was his handy-dandy fallback position to do some modeling work (with occasional limited acting) for his friend Gerry. Such assignments were hardly steady work and not more than a meager source of sporadic income, but they had the tendency to crop up with just enough contribution to the rent money right about the time Melissa got started on a resurgence of her "get a job" nagfest.

Eric hopped off the bus and flashed a smile back as it pulled away from the stop. Young ladies smiled back from their windows, and Eric pondered for a moment that this was a slow morning in that he had only flirted with three female passengers this time. He strode toward his first (and only) appointment for the day, which was less than fifty feet from the bus stop.

Eric stopped at the storefront as he always did, and paused to admire the vast array of clocks and timepieces in the front window. A display of everything from cuckoo clocks to digital wristwatches ticked and tocked from behind the glass, framed on either side by glass shelves of intricate little mechanical men and music boxes of the kind normally associated with Swiss tourist attractions. Eric liked the children's combination bedside lamp, nightlight, and alarm clock. On it, a little toy soldier hummed out of a watch tower a waved a tiny sword to herald the hour, or blow a little bugle, depending on what the clock had been set for. Eric clicked his tongue. Now that would be one hell of a job. To wear a cool costume and only have to do the one thing, over and over. You'd know your job description to the letter, and you'd only have to work so much during the day. How cool would that be?

Eric looked up at the sign painted in gold letters across the glass above the door. "LIKE CLOCKWORK Timepieces and Mechanical Devices", it read. "The Porapetto family, proprietors".

Eric walked inside to the chime of small bells triggered by the movement of the door. "Dude", he called out, "when are you ever gonna change the sign out front? As far as the Porapetto family goes, you're pretty much it these days."

"You're late." Gerry Porapetto stepped out from behind one of the numerous shelves that crowded the shop. He wore a worker's apron and compact safety goggles. In his hands he carries tools for use in intricate mechanical work, such as on one of the old, ornate clocks that filled the shop. Gerry stuffed the tools that were in his right hand into a pocket of the apron and brushed the hair away that had fallen into his eyes. Gerry was only a bit older than Eric and had a look that could be almost as striking as his actor friend's, if he were interested in spending at least an hour or two each day at the gym and an additional hour fussing with his hairdo. But it was apparent from the immaculate shop and the careful attention paid to all the items within and their flawless inner workings that Gerry's interests lay elsewhere.

Eric approached him in a casual stroll. "Only by about fifteen minutes."

"Try a half an hour." Eric shrugged. No biggie. "I was about to call. I really need you for this job."

"Hey, you hire me because I'm the best."

"I hire you because if I didn't make these offers you'd never do anything and besides, you're the only one I know with any acting ability that I can affo--" Gerry stopped himself from finishing the sentence, pulled his safety goggles up to his forehead and rubbed the bridge of his nose.

"You were saying--?", Eric prompted.

"I just know you need the work, is all."

"And the price is right", Eric added, knowing what Gerry was thinking. Gerry pretended not to notice that Eric had picked up on his monetary implication and busied himself organizing the tools in his hands and those in the pockets of his apron. Eric knew enough not to press and instead gazed around the shop. Eric loved coming here. The shop had been in Gerry's family for generations, at the same location, since his great-grandfather ran the business. His granddad, his great-uncle, his father, and two other uncles had all contributed to the Like Clockwork shop in some fashion or another since its inception those many years ago. But not since his great-grandfather had their been a Porapetto with the intuitive gift for watch making and clockworks like Gerry. Not even his father, a protégé of the shop's founder, could do things with the tools of the trade that came so easily to Gerry.

The standard array of antique clocks and modern devices lined the shop walls, with glass-top cases displaying beautiful bejeweled wristwatches and pocket watches. The steady ticking of the different timepieces came from every corner of the room and all along its many shelves. Eric loved to stand in the center of the shop at the top of the hour, as the different chimes, bongs, and tones were like a windup symphony.

But the true joy for Eric were the creations of Gerry's. Only a handful of the clocks hanging here or sitting upon the shelves were actually made by one of the Porapetto family. A clock that took his father nearly seven years to complete hung over the back door, with a small card below it warning that it was not for sale. The sign was a matter of pride, as no customer ever inquired about, or even seemed to notice, his father's clock. Yet Gerry knew how hard his father had fought with the thing to meet all his specifications and designs. The clock was quite homely, but was endearing to Gerry for the knowledge of the time and effort that he knew had been put into it. Gerry felt it was important that now that his father was gone, some part of him remain forever within the shop, even in the shape of an unattractive old wall clock. Nothing Gerry had made could ever be called unattractive.

A special corner near the back of the shop which had grown exponentially by the year exhibited the fine craftsmanship of the last surviving Porapetto. Mechanical creatures and lovely windup figures all handmade and finished to perfection. Exquisite tiny dancers who whirled atop mirrored stages and music chimed form a hidden box beneath them, an extraordinary bear which walked and reared back as if to roar, emitting only the soft pang of repeating tunes by Dvorak. Mechanical men marched in place, a miniature farm with an entire barnyard of animals that kicked, barked, flapped, and mooed as they moved about on hidden tracts in carefully orchestrated chaos.

Gerry's creations were becoming known far and wide, and even as they began to dominate the back of the shop, so did their creation dominate the shop owner's mind and the majority of his schedule. Salesmanship and advertising were fast taking second place to the prized creations of Gerry Porapetto. Fortunately for him, the word of his wonderful designs and windup delights sometimes brought with it special commissions, which also brought in some monetary assistance to the meager shop's financial struggles. When time came to present a sufficiently grand order, Gerry was not so obsessed with his work to ignore the fact that as a presenter, he was dreadful. Hemming and hawing and clearing one's throat could quickly undo the magic of even the most magnificent clockwork piece. That was when he called upon Eric.

With a satisfied eyeful of his favorite shop, Eric turned back to his friend. "So, then. Whattaya need my help with today?"

"Something big." Gerry curled a finger toward himself. "C'mere."

The duo walked down one of the cluttered aisles to an area which Gerry had cleared. Standing in the center of the open spot was a gigantic music box ballerina. She stood upon a circular pedestal of three feet in height, poised as a dancer would be in repose, awaiting her cue to begin her routine. The ballerina herself was five feet, eight inches tall. Her features were delicate and soft, her attire sparkling and ruffled. Every detail, from her the sheen of her silken slippers to the aux diamonds in her tiara had been executed with the utmost precision. Gerry stood admiring his handiwork and Eric let out a low whistle.

"Jesus, Ger. This is, like, the biggest damn thing I've ever seen you do. What the hell's she for?"

"Big ceremony for Impresario Industries."

"Materials alone must've cost you a frickin' fortune."

"The patron footed the bill."

Eric paused. "Waitaminnit. That's the big company for that, whatshisname, Suede guy, right?"

"Sway. Archibald Fenworth Sway. And yeah, it was all out of his pocket."

"Damn, that guy's loaded. Like, we're talkin' megabucks."

Gerry grinned, then turned back to his ballerina. "Anyway, this darlin' is what I've been working on obsessively for weeks."

"Which explains why I haven't heard a peep out of you in like a month."

"I've had time to work on this. Business has been slow."

Eric smirked. "Now there's a surprise."

Gerry frowned, considered making a retort, but decided to let it go. He preferred to enjoy the victory of his finished creation.

"So, what does she do? All your doohickeys move or spin or play music or something. What does the beautiful ballerina girl do? She dance?"

"More than that. I was about to make the final adjustments when you came in."

"Ah-ha. So I wasn't the only one running late."

"Just shut up and let me do this." Gerry lay down on the floor and used his tools to adjust something underneath the circular pedestal. Eric could hear what sounded like a hinged metal panel opening, the twisting of screws or the like, then a soft hum. A few clicks and ticking noises, then the slap of a tiny door being closed and locked tight. Gerry slid himself away from the gilded contraption, got to his feet and brushed himself off. He hung his apron and goggles on a nearby hat stand, announcing, "That ought'a do it."

Eric just stared at the unmoving ballerina. "Kind of understated, isn't it?"

"Until you actually turn it on, yeah." Gerry reached down around the back of the pedestal and activated the main switch. There was a loud hum as the pedestal beneath the ballerina glowed to life. As light shone up from below, the ballerina went through fluid movements as she rose up upon her toes, beginning her dance. Music began to pour out of speakers in the base of the pedestal, playing Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. The ballerina moved in a fashion that was smooth and flowing, and not at all like the herky-jerky motions of most of Gerry's smaller mechanical crafts.

As the ballerina danced in harmony with the classical ballet piece, the outer shell of her pedestal rotated, it's ornate golden frame moving in a counterclockwise fashion. Beneath that shell, an intricately painted scene in blues and greens of an identical ballerina danced through a variety of steps and movements that were unveiled in turn as the cutaway windows in the outer shell rotated past them one after the other. As the stage itself gave its performance, the light-up platform upon which the mechanized dancer pirouetted played a series of animated silhouettes, with shadowy ballerinas engaging leaps and spins of the kind no music box dancer, no matter her size, could ever achieve. The three aspects worked together in unison to create a stunning presentation.

Eric stared at the giant mechanical toy ballerina in awe. Searching for proper words of praise, he found none and so resorted to his standard vocabulary. "Dude, that's tight."

"Thank-you, Eric. I'm pretty proud of it."

"This Sway guy's sure gettin' his money's worth."

"Let's hope he thinks so", Gerry said, shutting down his dancer. She stopped in mid-step, her arms above her head, her eyes staring outward to some distant point. Gerry looked up at her and admired her face. "I wanted to make her pretty. She's pretty, don't you think?" She was indeed. Her face was reminiscent of something between a classical Venus and Audrey Hepburn, circa 1954.

Eric shrugged. "If she was real, I'd do her."

Gerry stuck his tongue in his cheek. "I'll take that as the compliment I'm sure it was intended."

"So what do I get to do? You gonna, like, put me in some real tight ballet dancer's tight with a puffy-sleeved, sparkly doublet and stuff?"

Gerry shook his head. "Hardly. Nothing that--um, revealing. You get to wear this." Gerry opened up a sideboard cupboard door and pulled out a mannequin dressed in a bright red military uniform. The jacket was trimmed with yellow ribbon, the tall hat was adorned with a matching plume. The slacks were white with a broad red stripe running down the outer seam. Gold braids laced back and forth across the front of the jacket's chest flap, which was secured at the waist with a silver-buckled white belt two and half inches wide.

Eric was ecstatic. "Duuuuude! No FUCKing way! I get to be a toy soldier??" Eric did a little spin on one foot, arms pumping, hands in fists. "This is so monster! I was just thinking about how cool it would be to--you're not yankin' me, are you? I get to wear this? Like, in front of people?"

"That's the general idea", Gerry said. "And may I say you're doing an awful lot to relieve my concerns that you might not go for this."

"Are you kidding me?", Eric said, already kicking of his shoes and peeling off his shirt. "I wanna get into this thing before you change your mind and take it away from me!"

"Well, as much as I appreciate your level of spaziness, go easy on it. It's a rental. I have to give it back."

"Ohh, I will be gentle with you, my little Babes In Toyland beauty", Eric jeered, pulling the trousers unceremoniously from the mannequin.

"You disturb me sometimes", Gerry observed. "The boots are over there." Gerry thumbed toward the back corner. They're genuine Aigle riding boots I borrowed from a friend's ranch. So again, be careful with them. I even polished 'em up for you to look your best."

Eric spied the boots and did another little hop up and down. "Sweet!" He stepped out of his pants, kicking away his own designer jeans in favor of the striped pants of the oversized toy he was so anxious to become.

"For someone so big into playing dress-up, it's amazing you don't get more theatrical work", Gerry observed.

"I had two acting jobs only last month, so back the fuck off, man."

Gerry rolled his eyes. "Temp jobs. One as a hot dog outside P&L's Chili Dog palace and one as a chicken in the mall food court in front of Chiks-To-Go. Not exactly your best work. Weren't you up for some big part with Shakespeare By Sunset in Montreal?"

Eric fastened his toy soldier pants and shook his head vehemently. "Montreal is like a thousand some miles away, they wanted me for some kind of two-year contract and Shakespeare has too damn many words. Fancy words that are a bitch to memorize."

"Yet some would say two years of guaranteed, respectable steady work might just beat standing around in a big chicken costume clucking and flapping your arms."

"Hey, don't knock the chicken costume. That was a sweet outfit. You should'a seen the boots on that thing, how they looked like big chicken feet with the three toes, and the tail with all the feath--", Eric stopped, looking up at Gerry as he reached for the soldier jacket. "Say, what does a toy soldier have to do with a ballerina, anyway? Something to do with The Nutcracker?"

"I asked that too. It has to do with Impresario's once-major competitor, Sentinel Enterprises. Here." Gerry produced a small folder and handed Eric a business card inside it. It was creased, a bit weathered, but the printing was still plain to read. It was an old card for the chairman of Sentinel Enterprises. It's logo, printed in red, embossed upon the white card, was a stalwart tin soldier.

"Oh, I get it. So the toy soldier was like, the competition's symbol or something. But hang on, you said 'once-major' competitor. They go belly up?"

"Better. Sway bought 'em out. Absorbed the whole company. He's owned them for, must be, over half a decade now."

"So he wants to use their old mascot becaaussse--?" Eric was still confused.

"Impresario's logo trademark is a ballerina." Gerry showed the folder to Eric as he retrieved the business card. There on the front of the folder was a sleek graphic of a ballet dancer above the word Impresario in expressive line work. "Whenever there's a big shindig or get-together, Sway likes to show the toy soldier presenting, or bowing down to--"

"Or basically kissing the ass of--", Eric interjected.

"Right. --the ballerina. It's Mr. Sway's way of still driving home the point that the ballerina defeated the toy soldier. That he's in charge and in total control. It's an ego thing."

Eric shrugged. "That's cool. Whatever floats his boat, man. If it means I get to be a toy soldier for a while, I'll kiss whoever's ass he wants me to." Eric nodded to the mechanical ballerina. "And like I said, she's hot." Eric stroked his chin a moment, then asked, "How are we getting her to wherever it is we're going?"

"We're not. Sway's arranged for--" Gerry was cut off by the buzzer from the back door. He held up one finger to Eric, who was still fussing with his soldier's jacket. One second. Gerry opened up the back door of the shop, which had a double-door beside which he also swung open to expand the size of the entry.

Two burly men in green uniforms stood there. One carried a clipboard. "We're here for Mr. Sway's Ballerina."

Gerry gestured to the mechanical dancer not twenty feet away. "She's all ready to go, gentlemen."

One of the two men looked out back at a truck and whistled. Two more men jumped out of the truck's cab and bounded up the stairs. The first man handed the clipboard to Gerry and said gruffly, "Sign here. States you give us permission to take it to the event hall."

Gerry scribbled out his signature and the men went to work carefully transporting the ballerina out the back and onto their truck. The first man directed the others, who to their credit, handled the ballerina like fine china. The first man reached into his breast pocket and handed a small envelope to Gerry. "This is for you."

Gerry opened it up and found a small note from Archibald Sway. It read: "I trust I shall see you and your much-celebrated actor friend at the hall promptly at 1:45. No later. Ceremony commences at 2 o'clock sharp. Tell my man. ~Sway"

Gerry looked up to see the first of the movers eyeing him expectantly. "You can tell Mr. Sway we're running right on schedule." The man just stood there expectantly, eyebrows raised. So? "Um, we'll be there. Right when he wants us." The man nodded and ushered his companions out the doors.

Gerry closed the doors behind them and returned to Eric, who had stood watching the proceedings. "Well, that was all official. Now I'm nervous and stuff. What am I supposed to do as the toy soldier? I don't wanna piss this guy off."

Gerry pointed to the shop's main counter. "He gave us a DVD we can watch on the player in my truck. It's not much to learn, just a minute or so intro. The big thing is getting the attitude and presentation right. But that's your specialty. And I've never seen anyone learn lines as fast as you, so I wouldn't worry about it.

"Cool. Disc's on the counter?"

"In a white plastic case."

As Eric sauntered over to the counter, he commented, "This may not be the time to say this, but did you know that technically, an impresario is a supporter of the opera, not the ballet?"

"How the hell would you know that?"

"Hey, I'm an actor. I know stuff like that."

"Maybe the company was founded on the idea of an opera about a ballet. He wanted me to build him a ballerina, I build him a ballerina. You find the DVD?"

"Yeah, it's right there next to all these past due notices and overdue bills."

Gerry dashed to the counter and snatched up the DVD. "Okay, okay. hurry up and finish suiting up. Time's a' wasting and you'll want to have time to get your part right." Gerry tapped the plastic DVD case.

Eric fingered one of the bills. "I thought I was the only one who waited until he got the pink one before paying."

"Enough already", Gerry scolded. "The clock's ticking and you're not even half toy soldierized. Let's get cracking." Gerry shooed his friend back away from the countertop. "Besides, as delightful as I'm sure you find this type of gig, I suspect you'll want to save a little time to work on your audition piece for that Coastal company."

Eric looked at Gerry, sharp-eyed. "Did I tell you about that?"

"Either that or I'm psychic, and I doubt it's that." Gerry looked hard at Eric. "That's coming up, isn't it? And it's a pretty big deal. You are gonna audition, aren't you?"

Eric smacked his lips. "Came and went, depends on your point of view, and not exactly."

"You cannot mean to tell me you blew the Coastal Players audition", Gerry frowned.

Eric smirked. "Yeah, well, "blew the audition" would imply that I actually went. So no, technically, I didn't blow the audition. You have to show up to do that."

Gerry dropped his hands to his sides. "What the hell happened this time? You were a shoe-in! That producer chick was so into you that you could've shown up and recited Mary Had A Little Lamb and you still would've gotten the job!"

Eric fumbled with his costume, trying to appear preoccupied. Gerry cleared his throat. Eric sighed, answering, "Well, dude, it was a touring company. You know, "another op'nin, another show" type of thing. You know what a pain in the ass it is to travel. All that packing and unpacking and stuff. I can catch the next acting job that comes along and just stay in town. How does this jacket work?"

Gerry approached his friend, exasperated. "You've passed up catching the last three jobs that have come by. What's your problem? Was it that the touring role was too lowly or something? Did they have you pegged for chorus?"

"Supporting male lead, actually. Do I button up the braids first or this big white belt thing?"

"For Christ sakes", Gerry huffed. "Here." Gerry stood behind Eric and tugged the red cavalier's jacket around his friend's buff torso, doing up the fringe and regalia. "You really are nothing but a fucking boytoy."

Eric leaned his head back and flashed his winning smile. "It's what you hire me for."

"And anyone else would hire you for, if you'd get off your lazy ass and let them." He plucked the tall hat from the mannequin's head and tossed it at Eric, bouncing it off his chest.

"Dude! Easy! I'm lucky this jacket's so frickin' padded. You could'a hurt me, man."

"I should be so lucky. Put on your boots. What did Melissa say?"

"Told her the audition wasn't until tomorrow. I'll tell her the truth eventually." Eric stepped into the tall black boots, grinning. "Sweeeet. I'm a storm trooper, baby!" Gerry rolled his eyes. His friend truly was hopeless.

Eric had started goose stepping around the room, barking out pseudo-German gibberish. "Ach! Zeese! Nein! Bleirtz!" Gerry fought to keep from bursting out laughing at the sight of his uniformed pal marching about stiff-legged in his huge boots.

"Alright, you clown", Gerry said. "Enough already. Get over here." Gerry patted the seat of a wooden stool he'd pulled before him. Eric dropped his act and zipped over to the stool, hopping onto it, tucking his feet around its wooden legs. His face glowed like a small boy about to be photographed at a county fair.

"So whatta we do now? You gotta adjust my braided bandoliers?"

Gerry held his mouth tight to keep from chuckling. Then, "No. I have to make you look like a toy soldier instead of just a plain ol' everyday soldier. I'm painting red circles on your cheeks. Like an old-fashioned windup toy would have."

Eric shrugged. "Cool. What do I do?"

"Sit still. And smile."

Eric flashed a beautiful, warm smile that could well have lit up the room. Gerry paused and stood staring, his bottle of special face paint and tiny applicator brush held in his hands. "How the hell do you do that?"

"Do what?", Eric asked, still smiling.

"That. Smile on command and look as if you're the happiest man on the planet. How can you just--I dunno, whip that smile up--and have it look so stinkin' sincere every time?"

"Maybe I am the happiest man on the planet." Eric wiggled his eyebrows. "You ever think to ask me?"

Gerry bit his lips, choosing not to comment. "Don't move."

Carefully, Gerry painted bright red circles onto his friend's cheeks, following the natural curve of his face. The subtle circular pattern that appeared on many people's faces when they smile provided the path for his delicate brush strokes to follow. In a few short minutes, Eric's face was painted with large, cardinal red cheeks that almost looked as if they belonged there. During the entire process, Eric sat perfectly still and his smile never wavered.

Gerry held up a finger to indicate that Eric was not to move. Eric nodded slightly, his head dipping not more than a quarter of an inch, and stayed still. Gerry put up his brush and bottle and retrieved a tiny blow dryer. It could serve as a hair dryer, but only if it was employed at a salon for Barbie dolls. Gerry turned on the tiny dryer and waved it over Eric's face. The soft gusts of warm air blew over Eric's cheeks and Gerry watched carefully until the surface of the paint changed just enough to show that it was dry.

Gerry clicked off the little blow dryer and began to wind up the cord. "You're done." The entire makeup job had taken no more than five minutes.

Eric stopped smiling and began to flex his face, opening and closing his mouth. "Feels funny."

"It would", Gerry said. "It's a lacquer-type face paint. Made to look like the paint on a toy or a doll. Got it at that costume shop downtown. It won't smear, but you need a special paint remover to get it off. You'll adjust to it."

Eric dashed to a mirror to look at himself. Gerry watched him go, adding to reassure him, "It's okay. I have the remover. Full bottle. You'll be fin--"

But Eric cut him off. "Fuckin' COOL!!" He touched his face with his fingers. Gingerly at first, then he dragged his palms down his cheeks roughly. "Holy shit. It really doesn't run at all. How slick is that??" Eric tapped his painted cheeks with a fingernail. "Dude. It's's like hard nail polish or somethin'."

Gerry nodded. "It should look like an enamel finish. You can perform under stage lights with that on without any fear of it running due to the heat of a spot or your own body temperature."

Eric couldn't take his eyes off the mirror. "Damn, I look fucking awesome."

Gerry grabbed up the last of his things and tossed Eric a pair of white cotton gloves. "Well, let's get your fucking awesome self loaded onto the truck or we're going to be late."

"You know, when I was a kid and me and my friends went to the summer carnivals", Eric said, tugging on his gloves, "I mean those cheap-ass ones, that toured from town to town, setting up in unused parking lots and stuff." Gerry nodded that he understood. "First thing I'd always do is find the booth where you could get your face painted. I loved that shit. I'd get made up like Bozo the clown, like Spider-man, that kind of thing. Used to leave it on all day. Hated when I had to take it off." Once gloved, Eric clicked his heels together and stood at attention. "And to think that now I'm gettin' paid for it."

"Just not much", Gerry lamented.

"Pshaw", Eric scoffed. "This I'd do for free." Then a thought came to him. "Maybe we could just leave the cheeks on, you know? I could go to the mall with 'em on. Revisit the Chiks-To-Go stand. Or go to a movie like this. I might just start a new fashion trend. Whattaya think?" Eric flashed his winning smile and gave his friend a big thumbs-up. He did look adorable as a toy soldier.

"It would lose something without the uniform."

"I could borrow it. You could rent it to me. Sub-let it. For cheap, since I was the first guy to test-run it."

"Get in the truck."

* * * * *

Gerry tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. He waited patiently as Eric sat in the back seat of the truck, in full costume (sans hat, which was too tall to wear while inside the vehicle) watching the supplied instructional DVD for what seemed to be the billionth time. Gerry leaned back toward his friend. "Eric, we're gonna be late."

Eric shut off the small fold-down DVD screen and closed his eyes. "Just another minute or two" was all he said, putting his palms together as if in prayer and pressing his fingers to his lips.

The duo sat in the parked truck which stood in the spot reserved for them near the employees entrance behind the Impresario Banquet Hall. The Hall was known not only for the celebrated guests who had performed there, but for being connected, through a series of other buildings, to Mr. Sway's mansion home. One of them, anyway. Gerry knew that Mr. Sway wanted to meet with them both before the proceedings to give his hired actor his own personal take on how the toy soldier should present himself as well as to check out the performer and assess his worth for the task.

Eric sat very still, his mind focused on the tiny role he was about to portray. His thumbs rested under his chin, his steepled fingers pressed tight to his lips, his breathing coming deeply in and out of his nose, Eric might have looked like a seminarian if not for bright red costume and painted cheeks.

"Eric", Gerry prodded, "it's like a two-minute part. You show up, make your shpeal, then get out of the way. What requires this much concentration? I don't want Sway all pissed at me if I don't show up on time."

"It's more than a two-minute shpeal", Eric said, not opening his eyes. "Why does a man whose business revolves around the icon of a ballerina even want a toy soldier doing the intro, anyway?"

"Eric, we've been over this. He bought out the other compan--"

"Because, and I'll bet you five-to-ten I'm right on this, there's gonna be some bigwig from the old Sentinel company in attendance today and he wants to rub it in his face personally. For that, my toy soldier had better be damn well perfect when it comes to the bowing and scraping before the beloved windup ballerina girl. Now be quiet. I'm getting my head to where a soldier would prostrate himself for a dancer."

Gerry paused a moment, thinking this over. For a typically vapid actor, Eric had his moments of insight that were impressive. And an intense focus in preparing for a role that was more than a little unnerving. "Y'know, this is the only time when I'm around you that you actually creep me out a bit. This whole Finding Your Motivation thing you do--"


Gerry went back to tapping his fingers on the wheel. After another few minutes, he said, "We really should get in there. Can't you do all this concentrating inside?"

"Too many distractions."

"Well, I think I at least should be in there so Mr. Sway knows that we're here and ready to--"

"Then go!", Eric snapped. "In the meantime, just shut the fuck up." Eric continued his focusing exercise as an irritated Gerry climbed out of the truck.

"Lock it behind you", Gerry said, adjusting his tie as he walked toward the door.

Eric sat still, finding whatever toy soldier there was within him and drawing the clockwork man to the surface.

Inside the ballroom, Gerry gasped at the magnificence of the surroundings. Indescribably high ceilings, an expansive circular dance floor, a winding staircase that lead to an upper-level dining hall, and both a grand main stage the covered the length of the far side of the room, and a miniature stage off to the right of the main floor. It was on this smaller stage that the mechanical ballerina had been installed. The closer quarters would make the glorious contraption appear larger and more grand, as well as be easier to unveil using the lavish curtain already in place there.

The room was abuzz with activity. Chef's and servers busied themselves about the room seeing to the arrangements upon a variety of hors d'oeuvres tables. Musicians hurriedly set up their instruments and music stands on the far side of the ballroom. Stewards and the hall captain checked about here and there to verify that no speck of dust was out of place and all that could shine, shone.

Feeling safely hidden in the crowd of people, Gerry could not resist taking a peek behind the curtain of the small presentation stage and glanced in at his creation. Even in the dim light behind the curtain, Gerry could see how regal his constructed dancer appeared and that it was indeed in these grand that she belonged.

"Mr. Porapetto!"

The voice crying out his name caught Gerry's attention and made him jump back away from the curtain. Given the harsh tone of the voice which startled Gerry, he was certain that someone amongst the throng of workers was calling out to scold him for peeking at the ballerina ahead of the scheduled time. Gerry whirled about to see that the voice came from above him. At the top of the winding stairs stood the imposing figure of Mr. Sway. With a beefy hand he waved for Gerry to mount the stairs and join him at his perch.

Quickly, Gerry did as bidden. Two steps at a time, Gerry made his way up the marble staircase to meet the man who had hired him. Mr. Sway was a large man, broad shoulders, stout build, round-faced, receding hairline. He was always immaculately attired in exceptional suits so that his girth could never be easily identified as muscle or fat. This afternoon he wore a tux. He carried with him a slender black cane with a silver tip. It was not needed for any infirmity but rather as an affectation during formal occasions to give him an added air of importance. It was an addition he did not require. Mr. sway's presence alone was strong enough to indicate to even a perfect stranger that he was unquestionably the man in charge.

Gerry bounded up the last few steps and moved toward Mr. Sway with an extended hand. Mr. Sway did not take it. "Cutting things a trifle close, aren't we, Mr. Porapetto?" Mr. Sway's stare bore through the smaller clockmaker. "I was quite certain that I had stressed the importance of punctuality to you."

"Oh, you had--you did! We've been here for something close to fifteen or twenty minutes, actually."

"We? Your actor friend is in attendance?"

"Oh, yes sir. He's been studying the DVD you provided very seriously. He's preparing for his role right now."

"Preparing--?", Mr. Sway paused, dwelling on this. "He feels the need to prepare his mind even for the brief role of an introductory character?"

"Oh, absolutely. He's very professional." In this much, Gerry felt he was not exactly lying. When it came to actually going through with a part he was committed to, Eric did a wonderful job. As far as anything else in his life went, Gerry felt the label of "hopeless slack-ass" fit his friend far more accurately than "professional".

"Impressive", Mr. Sway commented. Gerry felt a little of the tension leave his shoulders at his patron's approval. Mr. Sway snapped his fingers and an unobtrusive young steward nearby whom Gerry had not even noticed sprang from behind one of the columns behind them and hurried into the adjoining room.

Gerry turned to see that just beyond the curved archway behind them was a rather extravagant dining hall where a host of fashionably-attired men and women were finishing what was presumably their expensive luncheon. The young steward was making his way to another archway which allowed access to another set of stairs down to the ballroom floor. He removed a velvet rope which until then had barred the guests from the main ballroom. At the sight of the rope being removed, the crowd of attendees began to make their way to the back archway and down the stairs to await the grand unveiling.

"I should like to meet this professional actor friend of yours", Mr. Sway said, drawing Gerry's attention back. "I would prefer to pass along my own insights about his small role before he takes the stage, provide him with his costume--"

"Mr. Sway, sir, he's already in costume."

Sway looked harshly at Gerry. "He is? How is that--?"

Gerry hastened to explain, "I just assumed since you had entrusted me with the task of acquiring the actor, that I would also see to it that he arrived fully prepared to perform, not just with his script, but with costume." Gerry did not like the way Sway was staring at him. "I made sure to get a costume that resembled the logo used on the Sentinel business card you gave me."

"While I appreciate your initiative, I would have preferred that you consulted me first. I have very specific ideas about how the toy soldier should appear. He is at least dressed in blue, is he not?"

"Um, red, actually."

Mr. Sway made a low rumbling noise in his throat and Gerry could feel his commission check evaporating with that growl.

By now the guests were gathered around the ballroom floor, seated at what few chairs were scattered around the edges of the room, or milling around refreshment tables, all eyes glancing expectantly at the small stage in anticipation of the unveiling. The young steward appeared at the edge of the presentation stage curtain and looked up at Mr. Sway. He waved his arm backward, toward the hidden entrance to the small stage. Mr. Sway acknowledged the signal with a nod.

"Your man is attentive, if nothing else", Mr. Sway observed. Gerry looked at his patron, confused. "I've just been signalled that he is already in place and ready to begin. Right on time."

"I can go get him if you want", Gerry offered. "Maybe we can switch his costume or something. You can at least talk to him about your ideas on--"

"The damage has been done", Sway said. "Let us just see how this plays out, shall we?" Gerry offered a weak nod and slowly started to back away. As the lights dimmed around the room and the guests grew silent, Mr. Sway noticed Gerry's attempt at departure. Gerry had turned to descend the staircase, but before he could take another step, Mr. Sway's cane appeared suddenly, cutting the air with the slicing sound of a foil, blocking his path. "Stay. You'll watch the performance here with me."

Sway's free hand darted out like a cobra, clutching Gerry by the wrist in a powerful grip. Mr. Sway pulled Gerry up to the balcony railing beside him. Bringing Gerry's arm over to the railing, he did not release Gerry's wrist until his hand was resting upon it. Now shaking slightly, Gerry looked up at the formidable man. The last thing he saw as the lights went out was Mr. Sway's broad and humorless smile.

A spotlight shot out from the back of the room, illuminating the stage at the left edge of the curtain with a circle of intense white. Within the span of one heartbeat, Eric the Toy Soldier stepped into the light and stood before the crowd of onlookers. The show was now to begin.

"Ladies and gentlemen", Eric spoke in a proud, strong voice. "I am under orders to come before you today for a grand presentation! To honor you, our guests. The generals of our fine company--" An additional spotlight swept over the crowd, pausing briefly on various company heads, who nodded, waved. "--and of course our Commander In Chief, Mr. Archibald Fenworth Sway!" Eric gestured broadly with a stiff right arm toward the balcony where Sway stood.

A tight spot lit the imposing form of the company president, which received a smattering of applause from the crowd. Sway lifted his cane to his forehead and gave it a small jerk in recognition. He looked down to his toy soldier emcee, who shone with what certainly appeared to be great admiration for this great man. Eric held his pose until he knew the guests' eyes had returned to him and he then stood at attention and saluted Mr. Sway. With a voice rich with devotion and respect, Eric spoke one word.


Sway's features softened and he gazed at the toy soldier with appreciation. He nodded to Eric, who had waited until then to drop his salute and return to his duties addressing the crowd.

The extra spotlight focused on the balcony went dark. Sway leaned to Gerry and whispered, "He does bear a striking resemblance to the defunct competition's old icon. Well done."

"Thanks, sir", Gerry said, feeling some relief come back into his voice. "I tried to--"

"That moment of recognition just now was not in my script", Sway interrupted.

Gerry felt his pulse increase, realizing that Mr. Sway was correct. That salute and pronouncement of "Sir" was entirely Eric's invention. Gerry braced himself for a scolding.

"I approve", Mr. Sway said.

Gerry held his breath. Then, "Eric is an excellent actor. He tries to put as much insight as he can into every part he performs."

"So I see", Sway replied. The patron's eyes were glued upon Eric. Gerry watched Mr. Sway as he not only took in, but examined Eric's every movement. His expression penetrating but approving, Mr. Sway's gaze never wavered from the toy soldier, and he never blinked. After a moment or two, he licked his lips. Unnerved, Gerry also altered his own gaze to watch Eric.

Eric continued to speak boldly. "It is my proud duty to unveil to you a great new lady to honor this great company. It is for all that this humble serviceman is worth to present her to you, to be permitted to stand in her shadow and await further orders. I trust she will be as pleasing to you as she is to me, her loyal cavalier."

Eric turned stiffly, like a mechanical man, and with rigid steps, marched to the opposite side of the small stage. His legs pumped up and down without bending his knees. His stiffened arms swung in unison with his legs, right arm forward as the left leg swung up and vice versa. His marching was so crisp, so carefully executed, that tiny gasps and whispered comments peppered the audience. Eric was truly moving as if he were nothing more than a giant toy soldier. All in attendance were truly amazed that he could so quickly and convincingly go from doting announcer to living plaything.

Gerry noted another small gasp immediately to his right. He looked to see Mr. Sway watching entranced, his face now split with a broad, sincere smile. As Eric the Toy Solider marched, Mr. Sway unconsciously kneaded the fingertips of his right hand with his left. It was no doubt a nervous habit that few ever witnessed.

At the far end of the stage, Eric stopped his march and turned to face the crowd with military precision. His left hand reached out and grasped the curtain. His eyes shot upward, toward the balcony. With a strong voice he called out, "With your kind permission, Sir!"

Gerry could hear the swivel of the spotlight from the lighting booth and panicked mutterings. Clearly, this was another of Eric's additions and the light crew weren't sure how to respond. Did they hit their boss with another tight spotlight? In another second, the decision was made for them. Out of the darkness, Mr. Sway's voice came strong and clear.


Eric's heels came together, his boots striking one another with a harsh clap. "Sir! Yes, sir!" Eric then turned, left-face, and marched back to where he had come, dragging the curtain open with him. This time, his marching did not go unrecognized by the crowd. The onlookers applauded as Eric made his trek back those few feet to his original mark. Gerry looked again at Mr. Sway, whose face was split in a wide, toothy smile. He was now rubbing the top of his cane, chuckling to himself. Mr. Sway was mumbling something over and over under his breath, which Gerry made out after a few repetitions.

"Perfect, perfect..."

Eric finished his cross and turned to face the clapping crowd. He stood at attention and waited the few moments for the applause to subside. Beside him, dark shadows covered the presentation stage. It was apparent that something large was situated there, but set beneath the curtain rod overhead and the light fixtures immediately above, it was impossible to tell what it was.

Eric spoke again. "My friends and comrades in arms, it is my great honor to present to you the great lady of our corporate family. She is here today to share a brief dance with us before taking up her post in the main foyer of the new Impresario Learning Center!" Eric held for the applause about the new center. He then took a step forward and his expression grew solemn.

"It is all that this stalwart soldier can do to linger in the shadow of this great lady. To swear his oath to forever stand sentinel by her side, always at the ready should she call." Eric's stress on the word sentinel was not lost on any of the audience, particularly not Mr. Sway. "May I give to you now--the Dancer Impresario!" Eric's hand gestured grandly to the lighting people and the stage came fully to life in a blaze of spots and lights above and below. the crowd gasped at the sight of the regal ballerina, standing in graceful pose upon her platform, ready to dance for her admirers. The crowd was stunned for a moment and "ooh"ed and "ahh"ed at the sight of her, then quickly broke into thunderous applause.

Gerry breathed a sigh of relief. He had done it. His work was a success, and Eric had not blown his performance. Now all he had to do was get the hell out of there before he decided to ad lib and screw everything up. It was then that Eric held up a hand to the crowd, urging silence. Within another few moments, the applause died down. Gerry grew anxious. What the hell was Eric doing? he was supposed to turn in an about-face and march off the way he had come. Gerry bit his lower lip, wondering if he should intervene. He glanced up at Mr. Sway, who seemed most interested in what was to come next.

Eric spoke again, "I humbly extend my service here above and beyond the call of duty to help bring our great lady to life." Eric then turned toward the stage and marched over to the edge of the mechanical dancer's platform. Gerry knew what he was up to. He was going to activate the dancer. This was something that a couple tuxedoed assistants were supposed to do following Eric's exit. Instead, Eric stood before the ballerina and, much like a toy soldier, bent suddenly at the waist, bobbing slightly as he bent over, and turned on the switches he had seen Gerry use earlier. Eric was nothing if not observant.

The platform beneath the ballerina came to life and additional streams of light shone upward to illuminate her. The onlookers applauded. Eric then started up the rotating base, much to the delight of the audience, particularly the ladies, who cooed and gasped as it whirled about. Then, pausing for dramatic effect, Eric started up the dancer. She spun and pirouetted as the crowd cheered, showing an enthusiasm that might be reserved for an actual diva rather than one of the wind-up variety.

Eric stood again, his body jerking back to its upright position. Eric marched around the base of the stage and looked up at the mechanical dancer, then at the crowd. Once more he shot one arm out toward the ballerina in an extension of presentation. Everyone applauded loudly. Eric then marched around to the front of the stage and did something that no one, least of all Gerry, expected. He went down on one knee in supplication before the dancer.

"I am forever your humble servant, Milady Impresario", Eric spoke boldly. "Please know that I am your sentinel, recognizing I am beneath you, I still strive to ever serve you better."

After a moment lingering down on one knee before the aloof mechanical goddess, Eric stood, bowed to her, then spun to face the balcony. He bowed to the darkened form of Mr. Sway, then backed away from the stage in the direction which he had come. With every two steps back, he bowed again toward the dancer. It took him more than half a minute to make it the twelve or so feet to the side door. Without adding anything further to his act, Eric slipped out into the shadows.

The lights then came up all around the room and happy chatter and small bursts of applause peppered the hall. The orchestra began to play a lively waltz and one or two attendees took to the small dance floor provided. Most huddled around the presentation stage and admired the craftsmanship of the clockwork ballerina.

Sway turned to Gerry with determination in his eyes. "Bring him to me."

Eric was in the hallway adjoining the smaller stage, leaning against the wall, panting. He had been "on" out there, and he knew it. He could feel the part, feel the crowd, feel the moment. It was exhilarating for him. It was acceptance. Acceptance on a grand scale.

Gerry burst through the door nearby and gasped, "He wants to meet you!"

Eric turned his head, the adrenaline beginning to wear off. "Who does?"

"Mr. Sway! He was fucking blown away by your performance!"

"They all were", Eric said matter-of-factly. "Couldn't you feel it?"

"Forget the basking, I'm serious. Sway wants to meet you like right now!"

"Okay, tell him I'll be out in a sec. Which way's the bathroom? I am absolutely baking in this thing. I have to change out of--"

Gerry grabbed Eric by the wrist. "UHN-uh! I've got a feeling he wants to meet you just as you are!"

Roughly, Gerry shoved Eric through the door and back out onto the ballroom floor. Upon reflection, Gerry realized that this wasn't the most brilliant move he could have made. Once back amongst the crowd, everyone present, especially those lingering around the ballerina, burst into appreciative applause. Eric offered curt bows, numerous thank-yous, but it was clear they weren't going to let him advance another foot across the floor. Men shook his hand and congratulated him, women swooned and threw their arms around him, declaring he was everything from "absolutely adorable" to "a real man who knows how to treat a lady with respect". Eric thanked them all, accepting pecks on the cheek from the women, slaps on the back from the men, and posed on demand as people pulled out their cell phones to snap pictures.

Across the way, Mr. Sway was already down on the main floor and working the room. When he saw that Eric was detained by his new adoring fans, Sway excused himself from those with whom he was visiting. Sway strode toward his toy soldier announcer, the thick throng of people clearing a path for him as he went. Once he stood before Eric, towering no less than a head above him, the actor saw whom he was seeing and immediately snapped to military attention.

Mr. Sway nodded, pleased with Eric's show of respect. "You did a fine job today, son", he said. A few of the company audience members exchanged astonished looks. Mr. Sway was not one to share compliments freely.

Eric snapped his arm up in a stiff salute. "Sir! It's been an honor serving for you, Sir!" Eric remained frozen in that position, taking the proper soldier's attitude that his salute was not to be dropped until given leave to do so by a superior officer.

Again, Sway nodded in approval. Slowly, Mr. Sway began to circle the posed toy soldier, looking him over as if in inspection. The onlookers all stepped back by several feet to give the large man plenty of room. After a slow pass once around, Mr. Sway stood before Eric and smiled pleasantly. Sway then gently placed a meaty finger underneath Eric's chin, examining him as if he too were one of Gerry's creations. Eric lifted his chin just a bit more, trying his best to appear dignified. Mr. Sway licked his lips, then gave a small nod. "At ease, my boy."

Eric dropped his salute and assumed the correct military stance for "at ease", hands behind his back, feet shoulder length apart.

Mr. Sway said to Eric, "Might I invite you to partake of the reception here before you return to your standard tour of duty, toy soldier?"

"If it would please you, Mr. Sway, sir, it would be my pleasure and a great honor."

Sway liked what he was hearing. "Good, good. Feel free to linger as long as you like. Meet your newfound admirers."

Eric grinned. "I would be delighted. Just permit me to change into something--"

Mr. Sway lay a heavy hand on Eric's shoulder. "As you are now is just fine, son. No need to change clothes. Understand?"

Eric felt the weight of the massive paw and looked into Sway's commanding eyes. "Yes, sir. No need to change."

Sway smiled. "Splendid. Now, for your first assignment, soldier", and Sway turned Eric to face someone across the room. "Would you be so good as to escort that fine woman there in the pearls over to the orchestra for a quick dance?"

Eric smirked. Okay, whatever. "Certainly, sir." Eric began to walk towards the woman in question, but sway had not yet removed his hand and held him back. "One more thing, could you be sure to--" Sway leaned in close and whispered something in Eric's ear. Gerry watched, unable to make out what directions were being conveyed, but saw Eric's eyes widen at the request. Once finished, sway pulled away and said louder, "That wouldn't be too much trouble, would it?"

Clearly shaken, Eric composed himself quickly and answered, "N-no, sir. I'd be glad to."

Sway let go of the actor's shoulder and patted him on the back, sending him on his way. "That's a good boy."

Gerry watched as Eric strode across the room and bowed before the woman in pearls, asking her to dance. She giggled, clearly enchanted, and took the hand he offered as his lead her to floor. In a moment, much to the delight of all the ladies watching, she was engaged in a waltz with the toy soldier. Gerry took note of the man who had been standing beside her. A short man with thinning hair and an unattractive mustache. He appeared to be fuming at the sight of the handsome, costumed Eric giving the lady a spin on the floor. He was obviously her husband.

Sway watched the two dance, smiling broadly. His left hand fondled the top of his cane, and he occasionally cast glances at the fuming man. Eventually, the man turned away and tried to occupy himself with a dessert tray.

Gerry leaned toward Sway. "Excuse me, sir. Who is that man over there?"

"One of my many vice presidents in charge of sales. Formerly chief executive of Sentinel. That plain-looking woman dancing with your fine friend", and he indicated her with his cane, "is his wife."

Gerry furrowed his brow. "Why does he work for you now?"

"Because no one gave him a better offer than I did after the buyout." Sway clicked his tongue, smirking. "No one gave him any offers. I saw to that." Mr. Sway turned away, pleased with what he'd set in motion. "I like to remind him on occasion who took his great Sentinel from him and to whose tune he now dances. It's good for morale." Gerry gave the patron a questioning look. "My morale", Sway clarified. Gerry was impressed, but only by his friend's ability to predict the situation by virtue of actor's insight alone.

Gerry began to walk away and Mr. Sway stopped him. "Do me the pleasure of lingering until after the reception, Mr. Porapetto. I have a new proposition for you." Gerry nodded, uncertain what to make of that, but unable to resist the idea of more money.

* * * * *

Within another half hour, the reception broke and people went on their way, stopping for handshakes and congratulations with Mr. Sway. Eric had danced with more than half a dozen women, and charmed everyone he'd spoken to in casual conversation and cocktail chatter throughout the hall.

Finally, Eric the Toy Solder and Gerry were among the only people still remaining in the hall as stewards and server attendants bustled about, clearing tables and putting things away. Eric came up to Gerry and Mr. Sway, walking normally. All the dancing and robotic, toy soldier affectations had worn him down. Besides, with his main audience having departed the scene, he saw no need to maintain any pretenses. "Looks like your party was a big success" Eric said.

"It was indeed, my toy soldier", Sway smiled. Due in no small part to you."

"Actually", Eric began, "just so's you know, my name is really--"

"Your friend Mr. Porapetto here will be staying on with me for a while", Sway interrupted. "I trust that is not a problem."

Gerry looked up at Sway, saying, "Well, we both came in my truck."

Eric smiled sheepishly. "Yeah, I don't have a car."

"I'm sure Mr. Porapetto can entrust you with his truck, my good toy soldier, and I can have a car bring him home later."

Eric looked at Mr. Sway uneasily. "Um, sure. I mean, if it's okay with you, Ger."

Gerry felt the meaty paw of Mr. Sway again rest upon his shoulder, pressing down. " I mean, yeah, shouldn't be a problem." Gerry reached into his pocket and handed Eric his keys. Eric took them gingerly, still keeping an eye on Sway.

"Okay, then. We're good. See you later."

Eric started to leave, quickly, and Gerry was led away by Mr. Sway. Gerry stopped suddenly and turned to his patron. "Oh, geez, I'm sorry. I forgot to tell him something. Won't take a second." Gerry wriggled out of Sway's hold and dashed over to his friend. "Hey, buddy! Forgot to tell you! The special makeup remover to get that face paint off--I'll tell you where I keep it. Unless you want to leave those cheek circles on all day!"

Eric looked at Gerry funny. "Dude, you have it in your backroom cabinet. You told me in the truck. And no, after all this time, I'm more than ready to get this shit off my--"

Lowering his voice, Gerry said, "I know all that. I just had to ask you. What did Sway whisper in your ear? When he asked you to dance with that guy's wife?"

Eric's eyes came into sharp focus. "That was too fucking weird. He told me I should only introduce myself to everyone as "Mr. Sway's toy soldier". Never to give out my real name. How bizarre is that?"

Gerry swallowed. "Pretty bizarre." Then with a quick jerk of his head, indicated his pal should beat a hasty retreat.

Loud enough to be heard, Eric commented, "Cool. Cabinet, back room. Got it, thanks. So long!"

Gerry rejoined Sway, who eyed him suspiciously, but said nothing. Mr. Sway led Gerry to a back hallway and then to a large elevator with royal blue doors. Once inside, the two began to descend. Gerry assumed they were on their way to some kind of basement office, but they went down two floors, then three, then four, and kept going down.

"I thought the ballroom was on the ground floor", Gerry chuckled nervously. "I didn't realize you had this many levels in this building."

"Few do", Mr. Sway said. After six flights down, the doors opened and Mr. Sway gestured for Gerry to get out. The two of them made their way down another long corridor to a tall set of double doors that appeared to be mahogany. Beside the door was a key pad with numbered keys as on a telephone, and a row of colored buttons underneath. Sway began to punch in a complicated code of numbers interspersed with colors.

Hating the silence, save for the beeps of the buttons being pressed, Gerry asked, "So. What is it exactly that you'd like me to create for you this time?"

"Better for me to simply show you", Mr. Sway said. With a rude "clack" and a soft hiss, the great mahogany doors opened by a crack. Sway pushed open the doors and ushered Gerry inside. Once inside the darkened room, Gerry stood waiting to see what Sway was going to reveal to the clock maker which the rich man had taken such pains to keep hidden. "My...hobby room", Sway said. And with the sound of a soft hum and then a harsh knock, the room was filled with light, illuminating its wide expanse.

Gerry felt his jaw drop. "Holy shit."

The room was long, wide, and screamingly white. The walls, floor, and ceiling were all painted a shocking titanium white that nearly glowed under the numerous banks of florescent lights. Against those walls, under that ceiling, and upon that floor was the same theme, repeated over and over in various forms of posters, photos, oil paintings, models, display cases and life-sized mannequins. Toy soldiers. But this was by no means a gallery or museum which chronicled the vast army of toy soldiers in all their many incarnations. This room featured but one type of toy soldier and one only. This shrine was to the blue-coated soldier with crisp white breeches, tall black military boots, and black bicorn hats topped with lush plumes.

The Napoleonic soldier was shown in every possible position and posture throughout the room. Standing at attention, marching, dueling, guarding. If not for the bleached white skin and rouged cheeks on each sentry, the soldiers could almost pass for real historic figures if the more exaggerated, mechanical poses were overlooked. Gerry walked up and down the room, letting out a low whistle. There were smaller displays and shelves here and there which sported small toy cannon artillery, grenadiers and guards, but for the most part, the room was dedicated to the bold cavalier. Gerry paused beside a massive bookshelf which was full to bursting with books and antique volumes on toy soldiers or actual cavaliers. there were several such cases around the room. But this one stood beside an impressive mannequin which stood upon a cylindrical silver stand.

The faceless mannequin was of course attired as the soldier, and Gerry was astonished at the fine attention to detail in the uniform. Not only did it feature the blue jacket and white breeches tucked into tall polished boots, but high red color and tunic front, gilded with fine gold braiding. A red sash was wrapped tightly around the waist, and a loose tassel end hung tastefully to one side. White belt straps crossed the chest in a broad "X", the top belt accented by an additional line of red. Matching white gauntlets were upon each hand, a step above the simple white cotton gloves Gerry had supplied for Eric earlier. Gold insignia neatly decorated the jacket sleeves as well as the collar, shoulders, and trim of the great hat.

Gerry's gaze traveled upward from the dashing plume of the hat to a large 22x28" oil painting hung in a small recess behind the soldier mannequin. It was a head-and-shoulders portrait of the celebrated toy soldier, in a uniform identical to the one on the mannequin, but with a very detailed and lifelike face looking out from beneath the bicorn hat. Gerry might have interpreted the painting as that of a man in a toy soldier's costume rather than a toy himself, but for the pale skin and the very pink blush on each cheek. It was nowhere near as pronounced as the red circles Gerry painted on Eric, but they were still just overdone enough to appear unnatural rather than flattering. But the crowning touch was the eyes of the soldier in the painting. It may have been a masterfully sculpted toy, but it was certainly not alive. The eyes were dead and glazed, like those of any Victorian doll, they could have passed for human were they not completely devoid of any fire of life.

It took Gerry a moment to register something in the painting, so caught up was he in the fine detailing. Once he recognized it, he gasped. From behind him, he heard Mr. Sway give a sly chuckle, then fall silent again. Gerry kept his eyes focused on the painting. The shape of the face, the chin, the nose, the mouth, all brought someone very specific to mind. The image bore a striking resemblance to Eric. Gerry felt the hairs rise up on his arms. Had Sway somehow seen Eric before and based this painting upon him? Had he seen Eric perform on stage in some local production and taken a fancy to him, with his taking the role of emcee today being mere coincidence? Or had he been watching over Gerry and since the clockmaker accepted the assignment to make the ballerina and taken note of Eric's appearance on one of his visits to the Porapetto shop? Gerry looked at the signature delicately scrawled in the lower right-hand corner of the painting. He could not make out the artist's signature. Something that started with "Ken" or maybe "Kerr". But he could make out the date jotted down right beside the surname. 1979. Eric hadn't even been born yet when this was painted. Gerry leaned in closer, taking another look at the face of the mindless toy sentinel framed upon the wall. Upon closer scrutiny, Gerry conceded that the face in the painting was not an exact likeness of his actor friend. But by God, it came close. If not his twin brother, it could certainly have passed for his cousin.

Suppressing another shudder, Gerry directed his attention to another soldier hat on display nearby. It was separate from all other collectibles, resting upon what to Gerry looked for all the world like a charging basin, of the kind used for rechargeable batteries. Gerry reached for the hat, curious to pick it up, but was stopped by the loud throat-clearing of Mr. Sway behind him.

"I see that you have no trouble in divining the focus of my collection", the large man said.

"Hard not to", Gerry responded.

"And it took you no less than two minutes to find your way to the jewel of my collection. I'm impressed."

Gerry turned back toward the mannequin. "Yes, the uniform is pretty stunning."

"It is indeed, but I am referring to the oil painting."

"Oh." Gerry looked back at the painting again, still a bit unnerved by the similarities to Eric. "Tell me", Gerry ventured, "who exactly is that painting based on?"

Mr. Sway tapped his temple with one finger. "Upon my imagination. I described what I thought would be the ideal features for the ideal toy soldier. He came very, very close to capturing the vision I held, too."

No wonder Sway was so taken by Eric. Gerry went with a hunch, asking, "Does the painting have a title?"

"Mr. Sway's Toy Soldier."

Eric smirked. Of course it was.

Eric turned back to Mr. Sway, the novelty of the room fast wearing off. "So tell me, Mr. Sway, why am I here exactly? Why did you want me to see all this?"

"Because I felt that you can help me, Mr. Porapetto."

"Help you with what?"

"Help me to fulfill a lifetime dream. To bring my toy soldier to life."

Gerry looked around the room at the preponderance of imagery and models. The light began to dawn. "You want me to create a life-sized mechanical toy soldier for you--like I did for the Impresario ballerina?"

Sway shook his head. "No, not exactly." He strode across the room, tapping his cane alongside him. Once he had reached a wall bearing a print of a legion of his toy soldiers in the midst of a pitched battle, he spun on his heel, facing Gerry again. "I want you to make your friend Eric my toy soldier."

Gerry thought about that. He had called upon references of old screen goddesses and the like to craft the face of the ballerina, but there was no reason he couldn't create a toy soldier figure based on someone he knew personally. In many ways, it would be easier. Gerry already felt the wheels turning in his head. "Yes, yes, I could do that. Sculpting the toy soldier's face to resemble Eric wouldn't pose a problem." Gerry moved toward Mr. Sway. "In fact, I could even have a mold made of his face, to ensure that the likeness is--" Gerry stopped talking when he saw Sway shaking his head again.

"You misunderstand. I want your friend Eric to be my toy soldier."

Gerry paused again. "You mean--to act out a role as the toy soldier. In like, a play or another presentation or something?"

"No. To be my toy soldier. Period."

Gerry blinked. Did he mean what he thought he meant? "I'm not sure I follow you."

Sway walked past Gerry, moving to straighten one of the many knickknacks set up around the room. "You follow just fine. You're trying to alter in your mind what you know full well I meant." Sway fiddled with a few figurines and a holiday ornament, blowing away a small piece of lint from the top of the glass case. He then turned back to Gerry. Well?

Gerry felt his stomach grow heavy. "You want Eric to just...BE a toy soldier. You mean, you want to dress him up, paint his face, and--and--"

"Play with him as one would a toy, yes. Exactly. I don't want a toy that looks like him. I want him. To become a toy. A living, breathing, toy soldier. My toy soldier, to play with and amuse myself as I please. To be forever at my beck and call, always in costume, always ready to perform or standing waiting for my next call."

"You've got to be kidding me."

"Not in the least." Sway moved his eyes toward the ceiling, peering at something beyond the overhead lights and glaring titanium paint. "Long have I fantasized about having someone who could fulfill the role of an actual human toy soldier. A handsome young man who would dress solely in that fine uniform--or rather, one identical to it that I would have made specifically to measure for him--who would move only as a toy, stiff-legged and marching each time he moved. Saluting me as his lord and master, bowing respectfully, acting out scenarios of chivalry and valor. My very own adult's toy. Your Eric would be admirably suited."

Gerry began to stammer. "But-but-but what would--why would he--why would anyone want to be--"

Sway took Gerry by the shoulder and guided him to the far corner of the room to one of the less interesting showcases. "Look. The transformation from human being to toy would be relatively simple, at least physically. Here", and he tapped the glass above a large metal tin, "is a special facial scrub which took me years to track down. It bleaches the melanin out of the skin using a mixture of natural extracts and herbal ingredients. It is entirely harmless and extremely effective. And here."

Sway swung Gerry around to another portion of the case, excitedly opening up what looked to be a tiny gold treasure chest. Within was not a stash of miniature doubloons, but a fine red powder that glittered and sparkled in the light. Sway reached into his breast pocket and withdrew a white handkerchief. "Observe." He dabbed the hanky into the powder and then swiped it lightly across the top sheet of a writing tablet kept near the chest. A swath of soothing pink streaked across the white page where Sway had touched it, which quickly spread outward until its edges were nicely faded, blending almost perfectly with paper. Sway smiled, satisfied at the result. "The prefect rouge", Sway announced. Then, looking at Gerry, "For his cheeks. It lasts for months. Again, it took me some time to have my staff of chemists come up with just the right solution--"

Gerry pulled away from Mr. Sway's grasp. A feat Gerry silently attributed only to the man's excited nature, making it easier to tear free of those massive paws. "What you're asking", Gerry said, his mouth feeling thick, "would be akin to selling Eric into indentured servitude. To just drop him off here for you to seize control of him--"

Sway was back behind Gerry, both hands on his shoulders. "Ah! But there's the difference, you see. I have no intention of abducting the good lad. I want only to accept him into my home. To take up this role of his own free will. To be measured for his uniform, apply his makeup, to learn his orders and execute his marches. To become this thing--this character", he corrected himself, "as effectively and professionally as he became the toy sentinel emcee this afternoon."

"I don't know that you could convince him to--", Gerry began.

"Aha! But there, you see, is where you come in. I ask only that you bring this offer to him. Just as you would provide word of any audition, or recommendation from an agent or entertainment executive. And do so as a friend, to gently nudge him toward the right decision, to take advantage of this truly rare and extraordinary opportunity." Mr. Sway slid around to Gerry's side and looked him in the eye. Sway's eyes were wild with excitement and anticipation. His mouth curved into a grotesque smile of encouragement. Slowly, he nodded his head at Gerry. It was okay. Just say yes. Say you'll do it.

Gerry scratched his head in what he hoped was a casual, absent manner, when what he really wanted to do was grip his shoulders with both hands to keep from trembling. "Ah, the idea of having a human toy soldier is...well, gee, it's pretty intriguing." Gerry paused to choose his words as carefully as he could to avoid upsetting this powerful and clearly unbalanced man. "But for what you're talking about, you'd need a very dedicated actor to assume the role of your personal, um, that is, to be a genuine living--"

"Plaything", Sway suggested.

Gerry nodded slowly. "Yes, okay, let's call it a plaything. Uh, even with excellent pay and an appreciative audience, albeit a small one, even the most dedicated actor would have to get tired of the same role, the constant unending playacting day after day. Pretending to be something you're not on stage for two hours is one thing, but to do so indefinitely--"

"I have no intention of paying him."

Gerry turned to look at Sway, incredulous. "You don't?"

"Of course not. If he is to truly become my toy, he should be treated as such and receive no more compensation than one. To be forever at my beck and call. Some days I no doubt will get great pleasure from playing with him, using him for amusement, and on others he would be neglected. Who ever heard of a child on Christmas morning paying a salary to his new toys?"

Gerry swallowed. "Then, you'll have to forgive me, sir. I just don't see what motivation Eric could possibly have to fulfill this plan you've got laid out for him."

"He would of course need this first", Sway tossed a DVD to Gerry. "It's an explanation of his role, not unlike the one he watched for his part as emcee. It's longer, more detailed, of course, but the concept is the same."

"And--and I still don't see how this could--"

"It's laced with subliminals. Very powerful subliminals that I have taken painstaking research to ensure are most compelling and virtually impossible to resist."

Gerry's face blanched. "Subliminals?"

"I would advise against watching the video disc with him, by the way."

"He-he usually insists on focusing on that kind of thing alone, anyway", Gerry deadpanned, still trying to absorb the idea of his friend having his mind warped while he thought he was studying for a role.

"Splendid", Sway said. "He will also need this." Sway then handed Gerry (he could see that the young clockmaker was too stunned to catch anything he might toss at that point) a packet of four CDs together in a combination jewel case. "This is an audio history of the toy soldier--edited to my specifications, of course--filling him in on posture, stances, vocal commands and proper responses, simple warm-up exercises to achieve the look and movement of one made out of wood or tin, rather than flesh and bone. If he has a headset that is not too cumbersome, I find this series has an outstanding effect if left running while he sleeps."

Gerry nodded again, even slower than before. "Uh-huh. I see."

"And naturally there is this", Sway added, offering the toy soldier hat to Gerry. Gerry took it, finding nothing unusual about the bicorn hat other than its historic significance. It looked like something that should be atop Napoleon's head rather than his slacker friend Eric's. It was a bit heavy, but no more so than the less elaborate rental costume hat Gerry had Eric wear earlier that afternoon.

"So, what does this do?", Gerry asked. "Aside from help him get into the role?"

Mr. Sway held aloft a small remote control and Gerry looked about the room for a television screen, assuming that Mr. Sway was about to turn on some demonstrational video to explain the use of the hat. Instead, Mr. Sway simply pointed the remote at the hat, causing vibratory, and not unpleasant, sensations, to creep up Gerry's arms. Gerry felt his limbs grow a bit stiff and, completely unbidden, felt his feet slide together until his insoles were touching. It felt good and frightening at the same time. Gerry could not deny that the sensation was appealing, but he also knew he had no intention of putting his legs together and standing in that manner. He was also aware that he suddenly felt no compunction about moving out of that position.

Mr. Sway pressed another button on the remote and the pleasing sensations rippling up Gerry's arms and down his legs ceased. Gerry let out a deep breath, feeling as though his will had been returned to him. Sway walked over to Gerry and with two fingers, gently undid hidden fasteners around the front of the bicorn hat. Beneath the material was an intricate web of slender, ultra light wires and tiny connections. Small white suction cups of the kind used to monitor heart patients were placed at regular intervals along the interior.

Sway saw Gerry's expression change to one of recognition when he registered that inside this hat was an elaborate weave of pleasure-inducing and action-controlling circuitry. Gently, Sway folded the front of the hat back down and secured so that its interior would never be noticed. Smiling, he said, "You should see how effective it is when the hat is placed directly upon your head." Sway stepped away and Gerry looked down at the soldier's hat, suddenly very grateful that he had only been holding it in his hands.

Sway then turned around suddenly and, with extended hand, said, "Oh, I'll take that, if you please."

"Oh, right. Of course." Gerry moved to walk over to Mr. Sway and hand the patron his fiendish mind control hat when he found his legs pop up in a manner he had not intended. With knees locked, Gerry marched over to Mr. Sway with grandly pivoting legs, snapping up and then down like the toy soldier he suddenly felt he was. By the third step, he was before Sway and felt his knees beginning to bend slightly once again, but the experience had been extremely unnerving. Sway took the bicorn hat from Gerry even as the clock maker bent over and clutched at his knees, rubbing furiously to get them to obey him. "What the hell--?!"

"That is only residual effect from having held the hat whilst I activated it" Sway explained. "You will find your legs return to normalcy within a few moments. "I merely wanted to make a point. As you can see, I have put much consideration into how I may inspire an actor to retain the role of toy soldier even without monetary compensation."

Gerry was more than a little angry as well as frightened by this display of control over others. Gerry's outrage was emphasized by the stamping of his feet as he felt normal feeling return to his legs. "So your intent would be to keep Eric in that hat 24/7 then? Is that how it would work?"

Sway pursed his lips, looking at the ceiling, considering this. "That would be the ideal, yes, but he need not always be in the hat. I would expect him to occasionally go down on one knee, remove his hat out of respect for his master, tuck it under one arm while making announcements, so on and so forth."

"But you'd keep him in the hat most of the time, with the juices running? How good are the batteries in that thing?"

"Not good enough to run indefinitely", Sway admitted.

"Then we're right back to the question of how to keep him--"

"Nor would the hat have to be."

Sway then walked over to one of the bookshelf displays and through the activation of another keypad on the side of one, slid the shelf around to reveal another, far more advanced, mechanical setup of wires and interfaces, this one with toggles and switches. The center of the reversed shelf looked like a guard's watch station, of the kind seen set up at country borders in old films. Within the alcove was an interworking of machines easily ten times as elaborate as what Gerry saw within the lining of the bicorn hat. All along the right side of the station were slots and receptacles for CDs, cassette tapes, DVDs and VHS tapes, and even a small video screen which would pivot out and face whomever was standing within the alcove.

"The introductory material", Sway explained, "the DVD, the CDs, the costume, are all mere preliminary steps to get my toy soldier to stand here." And he tapped the edge of the station with his cane. "Once ensconced within its confines, he could be programmed to be a human toy and have his programming reinforced on a daily basis until he is indeed a living plaything who exists solely for my amusement, and is more than happy to be so."

Gerry swallowed again, chewed his tongue for a moment. Then, he considered aloud, "But Eric has a very strong sense of self. He's lazy, yeah, but he really does love who he is as a person and is proud of his acting ability as well as of his looks. This can't possibly work on a strong enough personality--can it?"

Sway thought about this. "True, it would be far easier on a weaker personality who was more susceptible to suggestion. One who didn't particularly care for who he was and wanted to become something more."

"Or something less", Gerry corrected.

"Or something different, let's say", Sway compromised.

"But Eric doesn't want that", Gerry said. "He's so resistant to change that he doesn't even want to go on tour in his chosen profession. I can't believe he'd be willing to have his own consciousness reordered."

Sway smiled warmly. "And that's where you come in." Sway walked over to Gerry and placed two meaty paws on either shoulder of the young man. "Were I to approach him on my own, no doubt he would most likely turn my offer down, even with a handsome introductory fee. But if his friend were to recommend the role, suggest a meeting with me personally to rehearse before some proposed event at which he was to perform, watch over him to make sure he watched his DVD and listened to all of the audio programs..." Sway let his voice trail off, knowing Gerry would complete the thought.

"Then even someone with as strong a sense of self as Eric could be molded to the identity you desire", Gerry finished.

Sway's grin was now very wide. "Just so."

Gerry looked at the extensive brainwashing equipment and felt a chill run up his back. This man had indeed been spending a lot of time thinking about this. The idea of how thoroughly he had worked this through unnerved Gerry. "Geez, you've--you've really put a lot of thought into this, haven't you?" Gerry bit his lips, his mind racing to try to find some way to gracefully bow out and head for the exit. Eric may be something of a stooge, but he was Gerry's friend, after all. To agree to rewire his brain, for all intents and purposes hand him over to a life of slavery, or servitude, was immoral at best and criminal at worst. To reduce him to a mere rich man's plaything... Gerry let out a slow breath and turned to Mr. Sway. "Look, this is all really terribly, um...impressive. And, ah, a bit overwhelming. But I have to say--"

The man handed Gerry a check. "An initial fee. For beginning proceedings. Additional payments for commencement of the alterations and final delivery would come successively. Apart from financial assistance for materials, costume fitting, whatnot. But I will need to know when you can start."

Gerry's eyes grew very wide as he looked at the sizable figure scrawled on the small slip of paper. He swallowed. Then he looked up at the patron.

"Is Tuesday good for you?"

* * * * *

Eric entered the apartment he shared with his girlfriend still riding on the high he felt having been so well received at the Impresario luncheon. He had languished away an hour or so at the Like Clockwork shop, where he had left the truck and cleaned himself up after his big performance. He had returned the toy soldier costume to the dressmaker's mannequin that Gerry had on hand in a hall closet. The mannequin proved handy for those times when Gerry asked Eric to perform various roles to promote the shop and different costumes were needed. Now it served well to properly store the rental costume. Eric knew he could have simply checked among Gerry's receipts and found out where the costume had been rented and return on his way home. But Eric liked the costume and wasn't ready to send it off just yet. Gerry could do that. As it was, wearing that bright red thing had made Eric feel special. True, he didn't feel all that special as the toy soldier until after he had become the center of attention at the luncheon reception, but that was enough to endear him to the uniform. Eric had left the costume on during his ride back to the shop. He had been forced to remove the tall black hat since the truck's cab didn't allow enough room for it to remain on his head, but he left the rest of the suit on. He even waved at passing drivers as they spotted him, flashing a smile at the other motorists and feeling as if her were on a parade float rather than driving a borrowed truck.

Once in the shop, Eric actually marched around for a little bit, basking in the feeling of being the star performer, the stalwart tin soldier, the protector of the Grand Ballerina. Then after a bit of that, Eric reluctantly put the costume neatly on the mannequin and silently bid it goodbye. Other costumes Gerry had asked Eric to wear usually wound up in a heap on the bathroom floor or tossed atop the counter. But this one deserved special consideration for the joy it had brought him.

Eric found the solution Gerry had told him about to remove the red circled cheeks from his face, but then decided he liked the way he looked with the toy soldier cheeks on, so he left them there. Eric was not so foolish as to think he could hop on the bus with Toyland cheeks painted on his face, so instead he lingered around the shop, listened to the radio, flipped through a few magazines, and enjoyed the fun of having the face paint on, smiling as he caught glimpses of himself reflected in the glass of display cases and in the occasional mirror. Eventually, he mustered up the courage to wipe away the red cheeks which had served as a sign of his toy soldier office and took the bus back home.

Eric sauntered into the apartment to find his girl seated at the small dinette table, shuffling through a stack of bills. The pile was nothing compared to the past due notices and shutoff warnings Gerry had to contend with, but the usual monthly selection of outgoing payments was discouraging enough. Eric glided over to his girl, not noticing the defeated expression on her face. He tossed his keys on the counter and launched into his speech.

"You are so not going to believe the awesome time I had at that luncheon gig thing!" Eric gave Melissa a quick peck on the side of the head and then went to the refrigerator for a bottle of Yoo-Hoo. He was already guzzling it down when he plopped into the chair across from Melissa. "I was supposed to be the emcee at this presentation reception, right? But they had me do it dressed up as a toy soldier. I was a freaking toy soldier, and I was GOOD at it! Afterward, all these old company wives were all over me for pictures and dancing and stuff. Oh, oh, oh! And this huge-ass guy, the one who ran the whole thing, was like, totally impressed with me. I kicked ass. Damn, you should'a been there."

Melissa looked up from her bills and just stared icily at her boyfriend.

Eric blinked. "What??"

"I intercepted your voice mail."

Eric blinked again. "Whattaya mean?"

"The one from the Kischner Agency."

Eric sank in his seat. "Ohhhh shit."

Melissa tossed down the pen with which she had been writing checks, bouncing it against the tabletop. "They have had a series of jobs for you lined up since February, Eric. February! You won't return their calls, when you do you miss their appointments. For Christ's sake, they have a client who's been ASKing for you specifically! Someone actually WANTS you to be their ad spokesman, and you won't take the job! What the hell is wrong with you??"

"It's for this fruity arts and crafts store. I don't wanna do tha--"

"It is for a nationwide CHAIN of crafting stores! Do you have any idea how much money you could make if a series of ads with you in them caught on?"

Eric spun his chocolate drink bottle back and forth in his hands. "They want me to wear this cornpone red plaid shirt and bib overalls with these totally gay green rubber gardening boots. I'd look like a complete--"

Melissa grabbed up a wad of envelopes from the table, waving the bills at Eric. "Do you?? Answer me! Do you know how much money you could be bringing in? For you, for US?!"

Eric leaned back in his chair and sighed. "You didn't get the full story from just that one message, I'm tellin' you."

"Five. There were five messages. Eight, actually, but I couldn't handle listening past five."

"They're talking about having me go to all these different states, different parts of the country to do special ads for each location, for whatever plants and flowers are, whatsitcalled, indigenous to that area. I'd be packing, unpacking, puttin' on the gay green boots at every stop, wearing them for hours at store openings--"

Melissa leapt from her chair. "Oh, for GOD'S sake!" She began pacing around the table. "I don't beLIEVE you!" Eric cringed as she stomped about, making growling noises low in her throat. "As if it's not bad enough that you sit on your dead ass and refuse to get up and go to a job, you can't even accept a job that comes to you!"

Eric sank in his chair like a scolded little kid. "I went to the job today. I was a toy soldier. Everybody thought I did a real good job."

Melissa turned on him. "And were you even paid for it? Could Gerry actually afford to pay you this time?"

Eric ran his tongue along the front of his upper teeth, then admitted, "A little."

"But not as much as a national campaign for a craft store, I suppose", she hissed. She threw her hands up and marched into the kitchen area, leaning on the edge of the sink, staring out the small window there.

Eric leaned forward at the table, rested his arms upon it, fingers interlaced. After a few moments of painful silence, Eric asked, "What can I do? What do you want me to do?" He expected her to demand that he get on the phone immediately and take the TV ad job. He felt a churn begin in his stomach, as that meant he'd have to go through all the hassle of traveling, with the packing, the unpacking and so on.

But instead, she said, "Go buy some milk and bread."

Eric wasn't sure what to make of that. "What's that?"

Melissa didn't turn around, but busied herself with the dishes in the sink. The dishes Eric had neglected to clean up. "Go buy some milk and a loaf of bread. Get the twelve-grain, go to the Mr. Yuromoto's shop three blocks down. On Denver."

"I know where it is."

"Well, he's the only one who carries it."

Eric slowly got up from the table, relived that he wasn't being asked to make the call to the TV ad people. At least not yet. He was about to ask for the money to pick up the groceries, but decided he was on thin enough ice already. He dug into his hip pocket and found six dollars in rumpled singles and some odd change. That should be enough to cover it. "I'll be right back. I won't be long", Eric assured her, as if his girlfriend might be afraid that he would abandon her on top of everything else.

"Take your time", she said, still not turning to face him, sounding exasperated. Eric slipped out and closed the door quietly behind him.

His walk down to the market gave him time to think, or more accurately, dread the upcoming heart-to-heart session that was no doubt coming from Melissa upon his return. Even if she hadn't asked him to "get off his dead ass" and take the job now, it was more than likely that she would once she'd had a chance to cool off, or failing that, better organize her angry thoughts into a coherent argument. By the time Eric had lingered around the market, flipped through several magazines he had no intention of buying, and made his purchases, his mood was already improving. His thoughts were drifting back to how it felt to be the toy soldier at the Impresario luncheon, to be the center of attention adored by all. He resolved right then and there upon reentering the apartment to offer to make the call about the job himself, without additional prodding from Melissa. It was hardly something he looked forward to, but if it would thaw the ice between them, he'd almost be willing to do it. Almost. He could always take the job and then cancel on it, later claiming to Melissa that somehow the deal had fallen apart through no fault of his own.

Eric juggled the plastic gallon of milk in one hand and the loaf of twelve-grain bread and the dozen eggs in the other, cursing his refusal to accept a bag for them. Melissa had not requested eggs, but Eric thought it would be a nice gesture if he made her French toast. Melissa didn't particularly care for French toast, but Eric did, and it was among the few dishes he could prepare without setting off the smoke alarm and destroying the ingredients. And he could make little smiley faces across the toast with powdered sugar to help cheer his sweetheart up. Or perhaps to celebrate his decision to behave more responsibly. Well, his posed appearance of behaving more responsibly, anyway.

Eric took the side door once inside the apartment lobby to take the stairs up rather than the elevator. Though his hands were full, Eric toy soldier-marched across each landing, hopped up the ascending stairs, marched some more when possible. It helped his mood. And it was fun. As he climbed the final stairs to the apartment, he felt certain that everything would be alright. Standing in the hallway just a few feet from Melissa's door, Eric saw all of his belongings, what few there were, crammed into a couple beat up suitcases and left on the floor in front of the apartment, its door tightly locked. And he knew his certain feeling was wrong.

* * * * *

Gerry paced back and forth in front of the counter of his shop. He held his phone in one hand, his finger hovering above the speed dial button for Eric's apartment. Gerry had played what he would say to his actor friend several times over in his mind, revising it slightly every time. Twice he had dialed, but hung up before the other line started ringing. Gerry paced about some more. He had already found the toy soldier's rental costume, neatly put away on the dress maker's mannequin. That was unlike Eric, to show such care to a costume after he was done with it. As was the post-it note he'd left in the back room where he'd undoubtedly removed his face paint. Upon the bottle of makeup remover the little yellow paper bore but one word, "Thanks!" Gerry did not need any more writing on the post-it to understand that Eric was thanking him not for the makeup remover, but for the whole experience of being the toy soldier.

Gerry looked at the pile of bills he'd set aside. Now there were two piles. One was for outgoing payments that had another week before they were due. The other was for shutoff notices, final warnings, and similar receipts stamped in red which required immediate attention. Attention that could be given by way of the check from Mr. Sway. The check he had not yet cashed or deposited, and would not do so until he had spoken to Eric. Gerry thought of how happy Eric was playing the toy soldier at the luncheon reception. Then an image of the painted portrait in Mr. Sway's hobby room superimposed itself upon Gerry's memory. He saw the face, so much like Eric's, made up like a plaything, his eyes dead and staring out at nothing, awaiting the commands of his master. Gerry let out a long breath through his nose, unable to wish such a fate upon his friend. But there were all those bills...

Gerry pushed the button on his phone for Eric's apartment and it rang. Once, twice. Then Eric's voice said, "Hey, buddy." Gerry was thrown for a loop because Eric's voice came not out of the phone, but from across the room. Gerry looked up and saw his friend standing in the doorway of the Like Clockwork shop with a sheepish grin on his face. On the fourth ring, the other end of phone line picked up.

"Eric!", Gerry said with surprise, seeing the man he was calling standing right in front of him.

On the phone line, Melissa responded to what she thought was Gerry's greeting to her. "Eric isn't here. That good-for-nothing son of a bitch doesn't live here anymore--!"

Without even hearing the strident voice of the angry girlfriend, Gerry shut off his phone, absently commenting out the corner of his mouth. "Never mind." Gerry looked at Eric, who stood with his hands stuffed into his pockets. "What are you doing here, pal?"

Eric shrugged. "Melissa kicked me out."

Gerry looked behind Eric and saw two overstuffed suitcases, a few odd pairs of shoes, and inexplicably, a loaf of bread, a gallon of milk, and a carton of eggs.

"She--she what--?", Gerry tried to process this new information. He looked back to the food set atop the suitcases. "She threw you out--with milk and eggs?"

"Guess she didn't want me to starve on the street or anything." Eric glanced at the food. "She actually sent me out for those beforehand. So she could dump my stuff." Then he added absently, "The eggs were my idea. Don't know how good they are now after that ride over on the bus. The milk may be close to being cheese by now."

"There's an office fridge in the back", Gerry said, jerking a thumb in that direction.

"Thanks, man."

When Eric returned from putting away his food, he found Gerry hauling in the suitcases and setting them behind the counter, out of the way. He looked up as Eric approached and asked, "So what happened?"

"She got sick of me being a slacker. She wanted me to take a TV ad job, I didn't want it, she booted my ass. End of story."

"You had a TV ad offer?"

"Let it go, man." Eric sighed. The usually jovial boytoy looked considerably glum. "Now I need a place to crash. Or maybe even--"

"A job?", Gerry ventured.

Eric nodded. "Believe it or not. If it could get me my own place. I don't need anything fancy." Eric leaned his arms upon the countertop, looking around at nothing, appearing as lost as he felt. "So, need any more modeling work, Ger?"

Gerry looked pensive for a moment, then said, "Believe it or not, I think I do."

Eric perked up. "No shit? Anything as cool as that toy soldier gig?"

Gerry managed a weak smile. "Funny you should ask that."

* * * * *

Eric sat transfixed by the images on the portable DVD player. Gerry had set him up in a spare back storage room of the Clockwork shop, which was easily converted into an efficiency (very efficient, anyway) apartment for Eric. It basically consisted of a cot, a makeshift dresser/nightstand, and the cluster of Eric's tings tossed in a heap in the corner. Eric occasionally helped out with customers and stock to earn his keep, but that's not what he was doing now. Now he was preparing for his latest role, which is how he spent most of his time these days.

Eric was wearing a cobalt blue pullover, white chinos, and black shoes he'd recently polished. For some reason, these were the only colors he cared to wear lately. White pants, blue tops, black shoes. It just seemed to feel right to him. He began his mornings each day by polishing his shoes. Eric found himself compelled to make certain that he never appeared in scuffed or dull shoes. It seemed an odd thing to be concerned about all of a sudden, but he passed it off as some form of processing the grief of having been thrown out by Melissa. There were other actions he'd taken which didn't quite make sense to him but seemed logical all at the same time. Like using a sizeable chunk of what little money he had to take his jean jacket to a special clothing store that accented, decorated, and altered leather and denim, mostly for bikers. Eric had his stonewashed jacket altered to a stunning overall royal blue. Wearing it just made him feel better, somehow. Whatever works, he thought.

Gerry had also been rather distracted these past few days, but with different concerns. He had been trying to concoct a plausible reason why his client Mr. Sway wanted Eric to return to his role of toy soldier for no other reason than that he wanted him to, without any reception or ceremony to account for it. Gerry also struggled with arriving at an explanation for why Sway had gone to such lengths to provide "preparation materials" for Eric's role, or even why the patron had such materials readily on hand in the first place. It had taken him some time, but Gerry finally felt he had come up with a cover story that sufficiently covered all the bases.

Gerry ushered out the last customer in the shop that morning after he'd made his purchase of a small mantle clock--there weren't that many customers in the shop these days anyway, regardless the hour--and Gerry flipped the "Open" sign around to "Closed", and stuck up the magnetic little clock sign with movable hands that explained when he'd return. Gerry looked at his watch and adjusted the sign. "Be back in 5 minutes" it read. Gerry thought about all he had to explain to Eric and how much time it might take his friend to swallow it all. Better make it ten minutes. No, fifteen. Gerry had decided on a half hour just to be safe by the time he headed to the back room to talk to the friend he was slowing escorting to a life of role-playing slavery.

Gerry stood in the doorway of Eric's little backroom home and watched him as the actor stared intensely at the laptop-sized DVD player. "Um, Eric, I just thought you might want to know what the deal was this whole toy soldier gig." Gerry waited for some response, but Eric just kept staring blankly at the screen. Gerry spoke again. "Because, you know, it may seem kind of odd for Mister Sway to be so into you coming back to do the toy soldier thing again." Again, nothing. Gerry saw the dim light from the changing images on the DVD reflect on Eric's face, but from his position, Gerry could see only the opened top of the player, not what was being shown on its reverse-side screen. Gerry took a step forward, curious to just catch a peek at the prerecorded training movie, remembered Sway's warning against it, thought better of it, stepped back to the door jam.

"Eric?" Gerry watched his friend sitting before the screen. Gerry had not seen Eric blink in the entire time he had been standing there. Gerry looked at his watch, then back to Eric, then at his watch again. Two minutes. Five. Ten. By twelve minutes, Gerry realized that Eric had not blinked once. He was literally caught up in his movie.

"Eric? Eric!" Gerry raised his voice repeatedly, but was unable to break through to his friend. Finally, he shouted, "ERIC!!"

Nothing. He just kept staring at the DVD, breathing deeply, otherwise not budging an inch. Gerry slowly walked up to the DVD player and gently closed the lid, pausing the playback. Eric blinked, then looked around the room as if he were uncertain where he was. Once he had his bearings, he looked up at Gerry.

"Sorry, man, did you say something?"

Gerry paused a moment, then said, "I was calling you."

"Hey, didn't hear you. Guess I was really into the whole character prep. You know how I am. How long you been standing there?"

"Not long", Gerry lied.

Eric stretched. "So what did you want?"

"I just thought you might want to know why Mr. Sway's so hell-bent on having you become a toy soldier for him again. You see, it's--"

"Nah, not really", Eric said back, reopening the DVD player.

Gerry was quick to rush forward, holding the player's lid down. "What, really? You don't even care why he wants you to perform for him as the toy--"

"Dude, it doesn't really matter. If he wants me to do the toy soldier thing, I'll do the toy soldier thing. It's cool."

"And yet you told me you couldn't hack dressing up as a gardener or whatever for a series of craft store TV ads. But you will get duded up as a windup toy."

"That was gay. Their costume's stupid. This is cool. Besides, they wanted me to travel all over hell's half acre. Sway's local."

"Still, I bet you're wondering why he just happened to have this training DVD for the role, and the set of CDs and--"

"Nope. Didn't think about that." Eric started to open the player again. Gerry stopped him.

"It doesn't strike you as even a little strange that this guy--"

"You said he was a collector or whatever. That's cool. My uncle collected turtles. Posters of 'em, toys and statues and like that. If Sway's thing is toy soldiers and he wants to see a real one perform and I fit the bill, well, whatever. He's happy, I'm happy, you're happy."

"So the extensive prep work--some might say programming--doesn't phase you at all?"

"Ger, I once had this civic theater director who made us do warm-ups before every performance where we had to imagine we shoved a lemon up our asses and then squeeze the juice out of it."

"You've got to be kidding me."

"No lie. So if Sway wants me to watch a video or listen to tapes to get into character, it's no big thing. If it helps me, and it doesn't involve getting corn holed by an imaginary citrus fruit, I'm good."

"So, you sure you're okay with--"

"Dude, you're starting to freak me out." Eric shot Gerry a stern look. "I need to get this down. I want to do right by this guy. And I need to be on by Monday already, so if you don't need me for anything else..."

"It's by Tuesday. We see him on Tuesday."

"Even so. I need to march before my commander in chief. I want to be in proper form."

"Before your what?"

"Ger. Actor doing prep work. Please go away." Eric snapped open the DVD player and within seconds his eyes were fixed on the screen, glazed over and unblinking.

Gerry watched his mesmerized friend for another few moments, the turned away. He went back to the counter and sat down. There were only a few past due bills left to deal with. Mr. Sway's previous checks had taken care of the others. Gerry sat staring at the few remaining notices, thinking about how he would have them paid off soon, at nothing more than the cost of selling out his friend. Despite what his clock sign on the door said, Gerry did not reopen for business for another two hours.

* * * * *

Gerry couldn't sleep. He kept closing his eyes and seeing Eric being dragged away into a dungeon by the devilishly smiling Mr. Sway. Eric's arms flailed, his wrists and legs manacled, as he stood attired in the authentic toy soldier panoply, his face painted like a mime's, as the large patron pulled Eric into a barred cell by a length of stout chain. Once inside, Sway forced a bicorn hat upon Eric's head, silencing his screams and replacing his look of terror with a pasted-on smile, which was just as frightening. The door of the cell slammed closed with a resonating clang, and Sway tossed a small drawstring money bag through the bars to land at Gerry's feet, its contents spilling out upon the cobbled dungeon floor. Gerry looked down at the gleaming coins that were his payment for his betrayal. Thirty pieces of silver. Gerry picked up one of the coins, upon which were engraved the regal profile not of some past president or monarch, but of Eric dressed as the toy soldier. The profile of Eric came to life upon the coin and he turned to face Gerry. In a ghostly voice worthy of Jacob Marley, Eric's face intoned, "How could you?'

Gerry opened his eyes to the darkened bedroom in which he lay. Gerry had not dreamed the sequence of events that had just run through his head, but they had the same affect as a nightmare, even more so, for being consciously imagined. Gerry rolled over and looked at his bedside clock radio. It was 3:37am. Gerry had been lying there, running horrendous scenarios in his mind for close to four hours. Gerry got up and clicked on a nearby light. He sighed. "And I don't even do anything I like for four hours."

He kept an apartment above the Like Clockwork shop, which served very well to not only keep an eye on the shop, but of late to stay within close quarters to Eric to ensure that he stayed true to his preparation for his upcoming role of toy soldier. The latter was less and less of a concern every day. Eric was becoming obsessively focused on becoming the best toy soldier he could be, according to Mr. Sway's specifications. Gerry opened a drawer where he had tucked away the last thing Sway had given him along with the DVD and CDs for Eric. It was a script of commands with which Gerry had been entrusted, meant to put Eric in his final stages of initial preparation and more easily guide him to Sway's palatial estate to begin his new life as a human plaything.

Gerry flipped through the few pages that were there, skimming the basic instructions and commands to be executed. Notes on how he was to address Eric after he went under for the final time at Clockwork. And of course, when to give him the hat. That was tomorrow. One day prior to his appointed appearance at Sway Manor. The week had gone by so fast, with Eric unbelievably susceptible to all suggestion and programming. He would make one hell of a good toy soldier.

Gerry made his way out of the darkened bedroom and into the hallway which was dimly-lit by the glow of the night light he left burning all night in the bathroom. using the dim glow to guide him, Gerry made his way toward the kitchen in the hopes that a late night snack would calm his nerves and help him sleep. Maybe a cup of herbal tea, too.

Gerry stopped short as he approached the kitchen, caught off-guard by a silhouetted figure standing nearby at the head of the stairs. The figure was clearly that of a man, and one of considerable build at that. Gerry felt his heart pound rapidly, as he had not heard anyone enter or force the lock. How had the intruder made his way inside anyway, without sounding the alarm system set up for the shop downstairs?

"Who's there?", Gerry hissed in a stage whisper. The figure just stood there. Louder, Gerry added, with what he hoped was a threatening tone, "I have a gun!" Of course he didn't, but he'd say he had a bazooka on hand if he thought it would send the stranger running. But still the figure just stood there, not even turning his head to see who was threatening him.

Gerry reached over and flicked on the hall light. He did not have high hopes of taking on this formidably-built, stoic figure, but Gerry's eyes had already adjusted to the dark and he could brace himself against the glare of what would no doubt seem an intense burst of light in the relative darkness of the small apartment, even from the 60-watt bulb of the hallway overhead light. If he were to challenge the intruder, he'd be better off to do so after disorienting him. Squinting his eyes just enough to prepare himself, Gerry flicked on the light and readied himself to pounce, or run like hell past him and down the stairs, whichever seemed more practical.

The light came on, flooding the hallway with light and shining into the kitchen, illuminating the stranger. Only it wasn't a stranger. There before Gerry stood Eric, standing stiff and at attention, hands at his sides, feet together, eyes staring straight ahead at nothing. He was clad in only his boxer shorts. Gerry let out a huge sigh of relief. "Eric? Jesus, man! You scared the hell out of me!"

Eric just stood there, staring. "Eric? You hear me? You gave me quite a scare, buddy." Gerry approached his friend and could just make out a distant mumbling sound, like a radio left playing all night from one apartment over, its broadcast voices and tunes not quite penetrating the walls. "Eric?" Gerry made his way over to his friend and waved a hand before his eyes. Nothing. No response. But that strange mumbling sound seemed to be coming from Eric. Gerry leaned in close and could almost make out what was being said. Was this one of those odd occurrences, like Eric picking up radio stations on his dental fillings? Gerry stepped over to the kitchen and flicked on the light there, too. In the new light he could see the answer to the riddle.

"You have your headphones on." Gerry saw that, as instructed, Eric had gone to bed wearing his headphones to absorb the instructions on the CDs while he slept. Gerry shook his head. "C'mon, man, let's get you back to bed." Gerry tried to take Eric by the shoulder and guide him back down the stairs, but Eric wouldn't budge. It was as if his feet were glued to the floor. Gerry got behind Eric and put both hands on his shoulders, pushing his full weight into his friend. Still Eric could not be moved.

"This is for the fucking birds", Gerry huffed, now irritated by Eric's frozen and immobile toy soldier stance. Gerry reached up and took one of the headphones in his hand to remove it from Eric's head. Like a shot, Eric's strong hand snapped up and grasped Gerry' hand by the wrist. Eric's grip was powerful, putting considerable pressure on Gerry's arm. "Ow! Eric, let go!", Gerry howled. Gerry tried to pull away, but Eric only clutched harder. It was then Gerry realized that as he tried to jerk away, he still had the headphone in his hand. Gingerly, Gerry let the headphone out of his grasp. After he did, Eric relinquished his hold on him. Gerry stepped back, massaging his wrist. Even though Eric kept staring ahead in a blank manner, it was clear he didn't want his headphones removed.

Not sure what else to do, Gerry returned to his bedroom and retrieved the pages with sway's instructions. Gerry looked over the pages, considered what he needed to do, and then very rapidly snapped his hand forward, knocking the headphones off the top of Eric's head just enough to expose both his ears to Gerry's voice. As Eric's hands snapped up reflexively to straighten his headphones, Gerry barked, "Attention, soldier!" Eric immediately snapped to full attention again, his headset left off-kilter. Gerry referred to his sheet again and then said, "About face! Forward march!" As commanded, Eric turned around in a perfect about-face, and began to make his way forward. "Down the stairs!", Gerry added, fearing that Eric would keep right on marching as though on flat ground and tumble head-over-heels down to the bottom. But Eric made his way down the steps with great purpose, his body straight and feet marching solidly. Gerry could hear the soft voice of Mr. Sway emanating from the crooked headphones, describing how a perfect toy soldier should behave. Gerry tried not to listen.

Gerry followed Eric down the steps and directed him with military commands as needed back to the small room he'd been occupying. It was an odd thing for Gerry to watch his friend march barefoot, with no customary thud and click of booted footsteps. Gerry instructed Eric back to his cot, and watched as his friend sat down in very crisp, rigid movements, even swinging his legs up onto the cot in one swift, stiffly-executed pivot. As Eric lay back down, his eyes closing again, Gerry plucked the headphones from his head and set them atop the table nearby which was serving as Eric's nightstand.

Gerry was on his way out the door when he heard the telltale squeak of the cot springs. He turned back around to see Eric sitting bolt upright in bed, his eyes once again staring ahead. Robotically, Eric reached over to the nightstand and snatched up his headphones placed them back upon his head, pressed "PLAY", and then lay back down, closing his eyes and drifting back to sleep. Gerry stood in the doorway, listening to Eric's steady breathing and the distant sound of an authoritative voice giving commands like that radio left on in another apartment. Eric's face was still placid, but the corners of his mouth almost seemed to turn up slightly in the hint of a smile.

Gerry suppressed a shudder and returned to his home upstairs. No matter how many cups of herb tea he consumed, he doubted he'd get any sleep tonight.

* * * * *

"I slept like a fucking log!" Eric shoveled forkfuls of scrambled eggs into his mouth as he sat at Gerry's kitchen counter for breakfast. "Ever since this whole studying for the part of the soldier started up, I've been sleeping like a brick. Like a baby."

"Like a toy soldier-in-training?", Gerry offered.

Eric laughed. "Heh. Yeah, like that. Wonder what all's on those CDs, though. Besides the character descriptions, I mean. Must be some kind of sleep aid to help me stay zonked and wake up feeling so charged the way they do."

"Must be, something like that", Gerry offered lamely.

"You gonna eat your bacon?", Eric asked, already stabbing it with his fork.

"Uh, no. You can have it."

Eric had already peeled the three crispy strips off the tines of his fork and began chomping on all of them at once with a tremendous chaw. "I'm eating better, I'm sleeping better. It's just so cool to have an acting gig again."

Gerry stirred his coffee absently with a teaspoon. He took his coffee black, but had learned that stirring it sometimes helped it to cool a bit faster. "And all this excessive study and rehearsal doesn't bother you."

"Define excessive", he answered, knocking back a slug or orange juice. "I'd rather have a director who knows what the hell he wants instead of bombarding me with conflicting ideas and vague notions. Good direction's hard to come by. Besides, it keeps my mind off'a what happened with Melissa."

"I was wondering about that", Gerry said.

"Well, don't you worry about it, pal", Eric beamed. "Toy soldiers don't have girlfriends. It's against regulations."

Gerry raised an eyebrow. "Is that actually on your CDs?"

Eric shook his head, mopping up residual egg off his plate with some toast. "Naw, made it up myself. Sounds good, though." He laughed again. "Maybe our Mr. Sway will like it."

"I don't doubt that", Gerry mumbled.

"You got any more of those cherry turnover things?", Eric asked, not picking up on any of the tension radiating from his friend.

Gerry cleared the breakfast counter of everything except for Eric's toaster pastry. As Eric munched happily on his dessert and Gerry fussed with the dishes, Eric asked through his flaky mouthful, "So wussah bi' sup'pize?"

Gerry looked back at him. "Pardon?"

Eric held up one finger. Hang on a sec. Swallowed his mouthful of pastry. Well, most of it, and repeated, "So what's the big surprise?"


"Yeah, there's supposed to be some big build-up to my meeting with sway tomorrow and today I'm supposed to get it. It's like the pees-day-reZIStance in helping me prepare for my role."

Gerry wondered what he meant by that, then it registered to him. "Oh, right. That." Gerry went back to his dish washing. "I'll show you when you finish your turnover."

In a gesture straight out of an historic border house, Eric shoved the rest of the turnover in his mouth in one bite. "Less do it!"

Gerry wiped his hands on a dish towel and said, "Follow me."

The two went downstairs and Gerry led Eric over to a drawer where he kept valuables, such as any jewelry in the rare instances when someone wanted a gem-encrusted clock. He unlocked it and pulled forth what looked to Eric to be a large hat box.

"What, is it a bejeweled chapeau?", Eric asked. "A ruby hat, perhaps?" Gerry just stared back quizzically, the obscure stage reference lost on him. "Well, open it up, man", Eric urged.

Gerry lifted the lid and revealed there amongst a careful packing of white tissue, a crisp black bicorn hat.

Eric reached toward it very gingerly, his eyes sparkling and mouth agape. "Dude", he gasped. "This is a thing of beauty." As Eric began to feel the edges of the hat, lightly fingering the trim, gently tracing the lining with his thumb as if he were a longtime connoisseur of chapeaus, something caught his eye. It was the bruising around Gerry's wrist where Eric had grabbed him roughly the night before.

"Ger, buddy, what the hell happened to you there? Looks like you got into a fight or scuffle or something."

Gerry quickly put his hand behind his back. "It's nothing. An accident." Then, quickly redirecting the conversation, "You're supposed to put it on." He nodded at the hat.

"Can I?", Eric asked, as a little kid would upon getting permission to engage in some grownup activity.

"Mr. Sway thought it would help your character to wear the hat on the last day before meeting with him while you studied the DVD and all that. Just final prep stuff."

Eric lifted the hat from its box and spun it lightly in his hands. "Sweeeet."

Gerry placed a hand on the hat, to stop Eric's playing with it. Even at the slight contact, Gerry could feel a small ripple up his arm emanating from the hat. It was definitely geared up to control whomever handled it. Gerry supposed that was the reason for Eric's sudden giddiness from handling it. "Eric, this doesn't bother you? I mean, being asked to wear a costume hat while you prepare for your...your role?"

"Dude, I told you, it's all good. He wants me to practice wearing a Carmen Miranda fruit hat, I'm cool with it. Just tell me what to do, point me in the right direction, then remember to sign the check."

Eric spun the hat again and lifted it to place it upon his head. Gerry held Eric's arm, stopping him. "It's not exactly the right kind of hat though, is it? I mean, it's nothing like the one you had on before. Before when you had such a good time."

Eric did not pick up on his friend's attempts to stall him, to hold off on his hypnotic enslavement, even for a moment longer. Instead, he held the hat in front of him, looking it over. "Yeah, but this thing is boss! It's like the Rolls Royce of toy soldier headgear." He continued to trace the outer trim with his fingers. "Man, it even feels good just to hold it."

Gerry began to say something else, but Eric didn't wait to hear what it was. He put the hat firmly on his head. As soon as he did so, his eyes came into sharp focus and he inhaled sharply two or three times in a row. "Uh! Uh. Uhh."

Gerry's eyes widened too, not knowing what to expect next. "Eric? You okay? Eric??" Gerry was not prepared for this pronounced a reaction to the hat. He hadn't even been given the remote which Sway had used with it previously.

Eric's eyes glazed over and he stared straight ahead at nothing, as would a dedicated soldier at attention, awaiting inspection. Gerry waved a hand before his friend's blank eyes, garnering no response. Slowly, Eric's arms, which had been hanging limply at either side, stiffened and came to rest firmly against his body. His legs, which had been positioned in a loose, comfortable stance at about shoulder width, also pulled together to a rigid posture, Eric's heels clicking together softly.

"Eric? You still in there, buddy?"

There was moment of absolute silence. Nothing. Eric stood there like a statue. Gerry felt his own heartbeat increase in sympathetic concern for his actor friend. To stem off a rising sense of panic, Gerry reached up to remove Eric's hat. But just as he did so, Eric turned sharply in a right-face motion. He then marched with heavy, deliberate steps to the back room. Gerry stood there at the counter, stunned for a moment, then followed him.

By the time Gerry reached the doorway, Eric was already executing a number of stiff choreographed movements. Taking his chair, sitting down in it, hefting and setting up the small DVD player, all in very clipped, artificial toy soldierish motions. He was clearly going back to his training videos for final reinforcement. Gerry sighed in resignation and turned to go, but then saw Eric activate a small lever on the flip-up lid of the DVD player which Gerry had not noticed before. The lever released a small panel which extended outward, holding a final DVD disc. The disc was gold, with a printed impression of the toy soldier's portrait on its label. It was identical tot he portrait of the toy soldier on Mr. Sway's rec room wall. The portrait of the toy soldier identical to Eric.

Eric popped the new disc into the player even as the previously-hidden drawer retracted, becoming hidden from view again. The new disc loaded and began to play. Gerry could not see what was being played for Eric, but he could tell that it was something with a strong hypnotic message, if only from the stern tone in the narrator's voice and the harsher musical underscore. Curious, Gerry stepped around to stand beside Eric just to get a quick peek at what his friend was seeing, what was programming him.

But as Gerry stepped around past the back of the DVD player to view its monitor, the screen blinked off to a black screensaver with a tiny animated toy soldier marching back and forth across the monitor. Eric's head turned stiffly to the side and stared at Gerry. Had Eric been in control of his faculties, Gerry would have expected him to say, "Do you mind?"

Gerry slowly backed away, and no sooner had he cleared the DVD player than it blinked again to life, and Eric's head turned back toward the screen, his eyes wide and mesmerized by whatever it was he saw. Gerry noticed a small light aglow on the side of the disc player he had not noticed before. It glowed a soft green. Gerry leaned forward and passed his hand before the light. The light changed to a flashing red, and Gerry heard the screen blink out again. Eric looked up at him, his expression a bit more menacing this time. Gerry quickly backed away and the flashing red light reverted to green as the screen flickered back to life. Eric's gaze returned to his final disc.

Gerry surmised that the light was some type of eye beam to prevent anyone from breaking in on Eric's training and getting a peek at his programming. It was clear Mr. Sway wanted the final disc to be for his personal toy soldier's eyes only. Gerry shook his head and went back to the main store, trying to suppress a shudder, determined to keep his mind focused on the day's work.

* * * * *

It was shortly after the lunch hour that Gerry was sweeping the floor and felt a major creep-out as he caught sight of Eric sitting at attention, bicorn hat upon his head, staring blankly at the repeating loop of the DVD. Setting his vacuum against the wall, Gerry looked in on Eric, and decided he had been sufficiently exposed to the mind-warping hat for one day. Standing almost flush with the back of the DVD player so as not to trip the eye beam, Gerry reached over and quickly lifted the hat from Eric's head. Eric started a moment, gasping slightly, his nostrils flaring as if he'd just gotten a small electrical shock.


Gerry hesitated, prepared to place the hat back upon Eric's head if need be (for all he knew its removal could trigger a seizure). But the continuous play of the DVD screen caught Eric's attention and he continued to stare at it, his breathing slowly taking on a steady, rhythmic pace again.

Gerry breathed a sigh of relief. Eric was still being fed a steady stream of toy soldier brainwashing by way of the video disc, but at least the hat was off his head. As Gerry watched his friend being programmed, he unconsciously enjoyed how good the hat felt in his hands. It was still warm from being on Eric's head for so long, and Gerry could almost feel the soft, compelling pulsing of the circuitry beneath its beautiful, rich blue material. Gerry was going to set the hat aside on a nearby table, just out of reach of the entranced Eric, but now he thought that could wait a while. He'd set it down in a minute. Just as soon as he tried it on for a second. Just for a second. It was a pretty cool hat, after all.

Gerry lifted the hat up and prepared to set it upon his head when he looked at Eric, seeing his friend with glazed eyes, staring helplessly at the screen which was slowly transforming him from a man with free will to a mindless living plaything. It was enough to snap Gerry out of his own daze.

Gerry shook his head, blinking his eyes. He tossed the hat across the room, to catch upon an old coat hook fastened to the wall. Gerry let out a deep breath, relieved and frightened by how close he'd just come to succumbing to the hypnotic pull of the toy soldier hat. He looked at it again, dangling from the wall hook, still swaying slightly, and felt a sudden urge to rush over and put it on. He fought it. Gerry grabbed up the vacuum and busied himself with cleaning up the floor, humming loudly to himself, pretending that the distraction helped.

* * * * *

That afternoon turned out to be one of those rare and annoying occasions at Like Clockwork where the few business tasks that required Gerry's attention transpired all at once. An order of two grandfather clocks, the sale of which Gerry had been anticipating for two weeks, was due for pickup at three. The client arrived early and Gerry needed to assist him in getting the clocks out the back door and loaded onto the customer's truck. At precisely that instant, Mrs. Merriweather, a full-bodied woman in a plumed, oversized hat decided to visit the shop in search of a new curio. Mrs. Merriweather was a nice enough woman, if somewhat decision-impaired, and often needed Gerry to walk her through the various selections available before she felt she could commit to any of them. This time, Gerry literally had his hands full with the large grandfather clocks and couldn't tend to her.

"Eric! You want to give Mrs. Merriweather a hand?"

Eric, of course, sat mesmerized before the DVD player, either not hearing Gerry's shout for help or unable to respond.

Mrs. Merriweather was starting to get fidgety. "Gerald, darling! Do you think you could help me with these adorable knickknacks? I haven't the faintest idea which one would look best in my newly furbished sitting room. I've completely updated the decor, don't you know!"

The squat, balding man who'd ordered the grandfather clocks was trying to keep the large timepiece steady as he and Gerry carried it down the back stairs. Gerry's sudden turn back at the call of Mrs. Merriweather caused the clock to shift, and the man's grip to loosen.

"Hey! Watch it, willya? This thing's gotta go on the truck bed, not on my head!"

"Sorry about that." Gerry readjusted his grip on the clock. "Eric! A little help here!"

Eric kept staring at the DVD.

"It's all blues and apricot, you see. With the most dashing arrangement of crystal. The new curio has to be a perfect compliment. Oh, I don't know which to pick!"

"Not so close to the railing, man! Those were my knuckles you almost scraped off, there!"



"I am on something of a schedule, you understand, dear! The tea party is at four!"

With some huffing and puffing, Gerry managed to help get the first grandfather clock onto the truck bed. As the squat customer began to secure it in place, Gerry excused himself. "Hang on. Won't be a moment."

"Make it snappy. Whatsherbiddy in there isn't the only one on a schedule."

Gerry stormed into the shop and across the floor toward the back room. Mrs. Merriweather tried to flag Gerry down. "I really do need your assistance, dearest."

Gerry held up one finger as he passed. "Be right with you, ma'am." He moved rapidly into the back room and slammed the DVD player closed. Even without the continuous playback, Eric kept staring straight ahead, blankly.



Gerry sighed. He knew what he had to do. With a sharp tone, Gerry hissed, "Attention, soldier!"

Eric was on his feet in an instant. "Sir!"

Then Gerry gave Eric a good whop alongside his head. "Snap out of it!"

Eric blinked, then looked around, apparently more thrown by the fact that he was suddenly standing up in the back room than that his buddy had just smacked him. "Huh? What? Gerry, how did I--?"

"Later", Gerry said gruffly. "There's a nice old lady in the next room. Help her pick out something nice for her sitting room. She likes stuff you have to wind up. Go."

Eric seemed to like being given an order like that, even without preamble or explanation. "You got it." With that, Eric marched, full toy soldier style, with rigid pumping legs, out of the back room and over to Mrs. Merriweather. He stood before her, clicked his heels together sharply, and saluted.

Mrs. Merriweather was flustered by Eric's military response. "Whu-well-what do-whup-wulluh--!"

Gerry felt his eyes pop. "Oh, shit."

Quickly, Gerry took Eric by the shoulders and directed him toward the back stairs. "Change of plans. Help the guy moving the grandfather clocks."

"Will do!"

Mrs. Merriweather watched as Eric marched off to help with moving the oversized collectibles, then looked at Gerry with a puzzled expression.

"Friend of mine", Gerry said, anticipating her question. "Actor. Studying to play the part of a soldier. He's getting into character. Doesn't want to lose it." Mrs. Merriweather seemed satisfied with that, curving her lips into a circle and mouthing "Ohhh" as if this explained everything.

The rest of the afternoon went surprisingly well. Mrs. Merriweather decided upon a little windup penguin which skated on a mirror lake of "ice", would tumble onto his backside into a glittering ceramic snow drift, then pop up and repeat his performance until he wound down. The collector of the grandfather clocks was thrilled at how quickly and efficiently Eric got his second clock loaded and secured onto his truck. Gerry tucked away the DVD player, feeling that Eric had gotten more than enough programming for one day. That, and Gerry was starting to feel tremendous pangs of guilt over what he was about to deliver his friend into the following morning.

Gerry closed shop early, and as he made his way across the shop, turning off over head lights and shutting down automated displays, he saw Eric seated in the chair behind the register, his feet up on the counter. He wore a huge grin on his face and the bicorn hat upon his head.

Gerry was worried at the sight of Eric in the hat again, more so for the gigantic grin he wore. Gerry found it even more unnerving than the glassy stare Eric had sported earlier. "You going to wear that thing to bed then tonight, or what?"

"I'd love to, if I didn't think I'd squish it. Damn, man, I don't know what it is about this chapeau, but it feels just too freakin' fantastic. And you know, I feel pretty damn good when I have it on, too. It's weird. Cool, but weird."

"I can only imagine", Gerry said. "Maybe we should put it away for now. Don't want it to get wrecked before your big debut--"

Gerry reached for Eric's hat, but his friend slapped his hand away. "Hey! Get your own."

Gerry didn't like where this was going. He had accepted the money from Sway and had programmed his friend to be the patron's personal boytoy, but enough was enough. Gerry remembered all too clearly what happened to him when Sway had used his mechanized hat to control him after only holding it. And now here was Eric, not wanting to take the thing off after wearing it for a good chunk of the day.

"You should see how effective it is when the hat is placed directly upon your head."

That was it. Gerry couldn't go through with it. He'd call the whole thing off, tell Eric the job fell through, find some way to pay back Sway and wash his hands of the whole thing. He had no clue where in hell he'd come up with the money, but that was not as important to him now as seeing to it that Eric retained his freedom.

"Look, Eric, there's something we need to talk about."

"Dude, isn't that your phone?"

Gerry blinked. "What?" He turned to look at the shop phone, which sat silently beside the counter.

"Naw", Eric clarified. "Your own phone." He pointed his index finger at the ceiling. "Upstairs."

Gerry paused, and did indeed hear the soft ringing of the phone in his apartment above them. "Hold that thought", he said, bounding up the stairs to get the phone. If it was Sway, he'd break things off with him right now.

Eric sat leaning back in the chair, enjoying his hat and anticipating his big acting job for the following day. He closed his eyes and marveled at how well the hat fit him, how right it felt upon his head. Funny, he was never one for hats. Messed up his hair. But this one was different. Eric relaxed, letting the sound of speaking from Gerry's apartment drift down to his ears. Who had called him? Eric wasn't usually the type to snoop, but if it was his big toy soldier patron, he'd want to know what was being said. Eric strained to hear the one-sided conversation, eyes closed, head cocked slightly to one side.

"Yes, I realize the date was last month."

A tense pause.

"Look, I know all that. Yes, I'm aware of the penalty fees. But business has been slow and money's been tight.

Another pause. This time, Gerry jumped in, his one indicating that he was interrupting someone.

"No, I didn't call you because I had nothing to tell you! If I don't have it, I'm not going to check in every day to let you know everything's status quo and that I'm still broke. And I can't jus--no! See, and you'd just say that! And didn't I just say I already knew that? Look, I--!"

A final pause. Longer than the others. When Gerry spoke again, his voice was low, with an edge to it.

"Yes, I understand. Fine. If it comes to that, do what you have to."

Eric heard Gerry's footsteps coming down the stairs, slowly. It was not like Ger to hang up without saying goodbye. As Gerry rounded the corner, Eric opened his eyes and looked at his friend. "Problems?"

Gerry massaged the back of his neck with one hand. "Um, there's...there's something else we're supposed to do tonight. As final prep for tomorrow."

Eric dropped his feet down from the counter. "Groovy. What is it."

"Mr. Sway gave me several trigger words you're supposed to have down. Be familiar with."

"Trigger words? What, you mean cues?"

Gerry realized his slip and agreed quickly. "Yeah, that's what I meant. Cues. You have some cues to learn. Whenever you're ready."

Eric stood up, tall and at attention, shoulders back. "I'm ready now."

Gerry nodded his head. "We can do it in back."

Gerry watched as his friend strode happily back to his cramped quarters to receive the last of his marching orders, at least for the initial stages of his enslavement. Gerry felt a lump in his throat and a roiling in his stomach at how easily he had shifted from a position of moral high ground to ethical surrender. It hadn't taken torture or threat of death to make him cave. All it took was those few lingering past due notices and the threat of legal action for lack of payment.

* * * * *

Eric noticed that Gerry seemed distant once they began the review of Eric's cues. He moved as much like an automaton as Eric was supposed to as a toy soldier. Only without any of the vigor or determination. Eric passed it off as fatigue from Gerry's foolish attempt to help load the grandfather clocks. He was obviously just wiped form the physical exertion to which he was unaccustomed. Gerry withdrew some papers from a folder he had neatly tucked away under the counter and began to lay them out for review. Eric sat in silence as Gerry went over the pages, scanning them once, then twice, heaving a resigned sigh when he was done. Then Gerry approached Eric and reached to remove his hat. Eric quickly placed a palm against Gerry's chest to stop him.

"Dude, I already said I want to leave the hat on."

"It's part of the cue work", Gerry said.

At that, Eric let his friend take the hat, though he felt reluctant about it. Gerry was quick to set the hat down upon the counter and return to his pages. Eric wondered if perhaps Gerry hadn't caught his hand on some of the trim along the edge of the hat, since he yanked his hand away from it rapidly upon placing it on the countertop. Eric watched in fascination as Gerry picked up one of the pages and read it again thoroughly. He then selected one of his many tools he always kept on hand for more delicate work on the clocks and watches, and turned the hat over on the counter.

Gerry looked inside the hat as if he expected to find something in there, then reached inside with both hands, the small tool in one, and felt his way along the lining for something, Eric was unsure of what. There was a soft tearing, as of Velcro, and Eric sat up straighter, concerned that Gerry was ruining the hat. But then Eric saw how intently Gerry was looking back and forth from the hat to what was obviously instructions on the page and trusted what he was doing, while deliberate, was not destructive.

Eyes now intent upon whatever it was inside the hat, Gerry twisted his hand at the wrist, presumably adjusting something (what?) with his watchmaker's implement. Gerry gripped the outside of the hat with his free hand to steady his grip, then looked upward at the ceiling, at nothing really, as his fingers felt their way with practiced skill to execute whatever task they were meant to do. After another moment, Gerry let out a small sound of victory, or accomplishment at least. "Ah."

Eric then fancied that he heard a very quiet hum emanating from the counter. It was the hum of something sophisticated, like a digital clock working. But digitals were not something found in the Like Clockwork shop. The sound faded as quickly as it came, and Eric shrugged, passing it off as something coming from one of the numerous contraptions that filled the shop, most of which he was unfamiliar with. Another animated curio, maybe a small shop light. It didn't matter. Gerry was now finished with whatever he was doing with the hat.

Gerry picked up the second sheet of paper. "You're supposed to respond to everything I read aloud with the phrase 'For I am an obedient toy soldier'. Got that?"

"Let's do it."

Gerry cleared his throat, then began to read Eric's cues. "You will be stalwart and true and follow your orders with pride. And why?"

"For I am an obedient toy soldier", Eric replied crisply.

"You will wear your uniform proudly and renounce all other attire. Because?"

"For I am an obedient toy soldier."

"You will respect and obey your commanding officer in all things, and be happy to serve at all times, remaining forever at his beck and call. This is fact--?"

"For I am an obedient toy soldier."

Gerry rose, bringing the hat over to Eric. "And you will wear upon your brow this fine bicorn hat and feel that is an extension of who you are. You will be always loathe to remove it." And Gerry set the hat firmly upon Eric's head. Eric felt a broad smile spread across his face as the hat came to rest where it belonged.

"For I am an obe--" That was as far as Eric got. His smile disappeared, his eyes glassed over and he felt within him a rush of fulfillment that exceeded all dreams he had of contentment. Gerry took a step back, looked at his friend, wiped a hand across his brow. He said something, strong and clear. Eric only knew this by the fact that Gerry's stance and expression implied a forceful statement of some kind. Eric had no idea what Gerry had said. But his body responded. Eric rose to his feet and stood at attention. It felt wonderful to do so. Gerry said something else and Eric saluted. Gerry walked around the far end of the counter and stood upon a stool he had tucked away in the far corner of the shop. He began to speak again, and Eric did an about-face and walked around the counter to stand in the middle of the shop.

Gerry proceeded to call out various phrases and cues, none of which were in any way clear to Eric's conscious mind, all of which were obeyed instantly and flawlessly by his body. Eric marched, parading up and down the shop, saluting, bowing, turning, and even kneeling respectfully as was called for. All of this Eric observed from somewhere inside himself, both completely aware of what he was doing and still surprised at everything. His expression was blankly submissive, and it hid the strange feeling of joy that welled up inside him. As if a lifetime dream were being realized.

The odd hypnotic exercises continued for most of the evening and on into the night. One page at a time, Gerry went through all of the commands he had been instructed to. Eventually he made it to the final portion of the last page. For a long time, Gerry stared at it. Twice he began to speak what was written for him there to say. Twice he closed his mouth and licked his lips. Finally, Gerry simply folded the paper up and tucked it away in his back pocket, whatever magic words typed neatly upon it left unsaid. Gerry approached his friend, dressed before him in casual rumpled clothes and military hat, standing at attention, showing no signs of fatigue save for an eagerness to please hidden within the depths of his glazed eyes.

Gerry spoke one last thing, quietly. The last thing Eric was aware of was his entire body stiffening beyond even what it had been. His head tilted back and he seemed to fall backwards. Eric seemed to think he had been put to bed, or at least rest, for the night. But whether he had been laid down upon his cot or simply propped rigidly against a wall he could not say.

* * * * *

Eric woke up in bed feeling incredibly rested and rejuvenated, though somewhat surprised that he wasn't wearing his headphones. He was wearing only a pair of boxers, but had no recollection of having getting undressed and going to bed. He got up, noticing that his legs did feel a bit sore, as if he'd spent a long time running or working while standing up. A few stretches seemed to put things right and he wandered out into the shop, intending to head upstairs to Gerry's apartment for breakfast.

Despite the early hour, Gerry was already up and dressed. He was at the door, receiving a delivery of some kind. The man in the uniform bore a striking resemblance to one of the workers from Sway's company who had retrieved the giant ballerina. This time it was drop off rather than pick up, and the package was considerably smaller. Resting upon a metal hand truck with a high back of at least six feet was a brown parcel package of about the size of a dress box. An awfully big dolly for a package that Gerry could have tucked under his arm. Gerry signed for the package and the workman made a gesture at his watch, indicating the time and presumable their schedule. Gerry nodded, acknowledging him. The man departed, leaving his hand truck behind.

Eric approached as Gerry placed a static sign upon the glass of the window of the entrance. It declared the shop closed for the day.

"Um, I was just coming up for breakfast", Eric said, still uncertain what to make of the hand truck or the newly-arrived parcel delivery.

"I was bringing it down to you when I had to get the door", Gerry said. He gestured to a tray sitting upon the counter, with a steaming plate of scrambled eggs drizzled with melted cheese, a side of bacon, two crescent rolls, and a glass of juice.

"Dude! That's perfect. Nice an' hearty, just the way I likes it!"

"A soldier's breakfast", Gerry deadpanned, knowing that was precisely what it was intended to be.

Eric picked up the tray and began to move toward the stairs up to Gerry's apartment when he suddenly hesitated. "Should I go up, or--?"

"Eat it in the back room", Gerry said.

"Yeah, right", Eric said, shaking his head at his own foolishness. "A toy shouldn't be allowed up into a real person's living quarters unless he's brought there." Eric paused only for the briefest split-second as those words left his mouth, his face an expression pondering if he'd actually just said that, then he nodded curtly, realizing that statement was correct. Eric ate heartily as Gerry leaned over the countertop, shuffling through more pages of instructions, munching on a cold pop tart.

When Eric was finished, he picked up his empty plate and stood. "Well, I'd better get dressed so we can get going", he said.

Gerry put away his papers, saying, "Hold up. There's one last thing. Sit down." Immediately, Eric did so. Gerry took the plate away and pulled up a chair to face his friend sitting upon the cot that had served as his bed for these last few days. Gerry held up a hand, saying, "One last cue you need to have down." Eric nodded. Gerry placed a hand upon Eric's head, and Eric let him, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. Gerry spoke five words.

"Man no more. Toy forevermore."

Eric slumped forward, feeling a sensation wash over him, as if those words were a baptism which washed away his old life so that his existence could begin anew. Once again, Eric's consciousness receded inside himself.

The next thing Eric knew, he was standing there in that back room as Gerry knelt before him, pulling down his boxers. Eric remained standing and at attention, uncaring that his friend was fully exposing him. Eric stayed as still as a soldier during an inspection. Dimly, Eric was conscious of his legs being lifted and himself stepping into starched, buttoned breeches. Then his arms were placed through the sleeves of a shirt or tunic of some kind. Again his legs were lifted and he stepped into very firm, tall boots. A thick jacket was placed around his shoulders, again his arms pushed through sleeves, these thick, cuffed, and fastened. He kept staring straight ahead. He did not need to look down to see what was being done to him, not did the person doing it require his assistance. He was a toy being dressed in his doll clothes. That was all.

Finally, Eric could see Gerry in his field of vision, standing before him, the parcel box Eric had seen him signing for earlier in one hand, now empty, Eric precious bicorn hat in Gerry's other hand. Gerry tossed the empty box aside, it landed upon the cot.

"Don't need that anymore", Gerry mumbled.

Then carefully, delicately, Gerry set the hat upon Eric's head, pushing it firmly down in place, sending a final rush of satisfaction through the human plaything. Gerry's eyes looked bloodshot and weary as he stepped back and examined his handiwork. Then he stepped forward and placed his arms around his stiff and unresponsive friend. He whispered something into Eric's ear with a voice raspy and choked.

"Man, I am so, so sorry."

Gerry remained there hanging on his friend the toy soldier for a few minutes before he stepped away, wiping his eyes with the palm of his hand. Eric stayed standing in place, staring straight ahead, and heard the low squeak of small wheels. Gerry wheeled the hand truck up to and behind Eric. With only the slightest encouragement, Eric lifted his heels and Gerry slid the base of the truck under Eric's feet. Gently, Gerry pushed Eric backward, and stiff as a board, Eric came to rest upon the high back of the dolly. A new item ready for delivery. Silently, Gerry wheeled his former friend and latest creation out the back door to the enclosed alley where he kept his truck. Eric was wheeled up a ramp and loaded onto the back portion of the truck, whose seats had been folded down to accommodate him. Eric was laid flat upon the floor and secured in place with elastic straps. Gerry got into the cab and drove off with his friend, ready to hand him over to his new life, or complete lack thereof, to secure his own continued freedom by selling out another's.

* * * * *

Sway threw the door open wide and smiled even wider. "MISter Porapetto. Right on time. You have the item?"

Gerry jerked his head back towards his vehicle. "Loaded on the truck."

Sway snapped his fingers, and two sturdily-built men hurried to the truck, opened the back and gently eased the dolly with the petrified actor-cum-toy soldier upon it down to the ground. The wheeled him up to Mr. Sway, whose eyes danced with delight at the sight of him. "Take him to the sub-basement", he told the men. "Outside the hobby room door. You know the one."

Without another word, the tow men wheeled the prostrate Eric around the corner and down a descending service ramp.

"You aren't concerned about them, you know--knowing?", Gerry asked of the workmen.

"They are paid well, and often to be not too observant", Sway said matter-of-factly, placing a sizeable arm around Gerry's shoulder and leading him inside. "Now let's see how well your handiwork fares when dealing with animated creations that don't require clockwork parts, shall we?"

Eric was experiencing the strangest sensation of forward movement without doing anything to propel himself on his own. It was odd. Eric blinked his eyes, or he would have, had he been able to blink. Had he been sleeping? It seemed as though he had been, but he had no recollection of opening his eyes, which would seem to indicate that they hadn't been closed. He decided to get up and have a look around, to get his bearings, when he realized that he was unable to move. Had he been in an accident of some kind? had he taken a bad fall and wound up paralyzed? He had no idea.

"Is over here okay?" That was Gerry's voice. It came form behind Eric. At least if he was going to be propped up on a board in some intensive care room or something he'd have good company.

"Yes, that should be just fine, my boy." That voice was unmistakable, too. Deep, resonant, powerful. Mr. Sway. That's when it all came back to Eric. He was supposed to perform today for Mr. sway as a toy soldier. That was today, right? When had they left for Sway's place? Why didn't he remember arriving?

Eric felt himself being spun around and stood upright. He braced himself to fall over, but that didn't happen. He felt something slide out from underneath him and be pulled away. Then he saw Gerry wheel a hand truck around in front of him and set it aside. Gerry was about six inches shorter than he should have been. Then Eric realized that Gerry wasn't shorter, Eric was elevated on some kind of platform.

"I like the stand, don't you?", Sway asked Gerry. "A small ramp in back for wheeling him up, a pedestal to place him above the rest of the collection without being too ostentatious."

"Yes, of course", Gerry agreed nervously. "It looks nice. Very tasteful."

Eric eyed the room he was now in, becoming a bit less concerned that he had no idea how he had gotten there. "Holy crap", he thought. "Is this like some kind of shrine to me? There's like, toy soldier Eric's everywhere."

"I still marvel at the resemblance he bears to my ideal", Mr. Sway said, beaming with no small measure of pride.

"Yes, it's pretty remarkable", Gerry said half-heartedly, a pained look on his face. His eyes were tinged with regret.

"And his stance", Sway observed. "My, my. He has taken to his conditioning quite well. One would be willing to swear he was born into the military." Sway shook his head slightly in admiring disbelief.

"He marches pretty good too", Gerry said, then lowered his head, wishing he could take the remark back, feeling stupid.

Eric found the jabbering conversation back and forth between the two of them more than a little disconcerting. "What, are you guys talking about me?", Eric said. They continued talking as if Eric hadn't spoken. As a matter of fact, he hadn't. He just hadn't realized it yet.

"You must admit the uniform is exquisite", Sway beamed. "The bicorn hat, the crisp white breeches. The proper--and I stress that heavily--the proper boots."

Gerry nodded, but it was the jerking motion of someone who wanted to find an exit and beat feet. "Yes, I see the difference between the, um, true toy soldier's uniform and the more...theatrical version that I--"

"Clownish", Sway corrected.

Gerry swallowed. "Right. Clownish version that I had him in at the unveiling party. He looks good in the blue."

"Hey! I'm in the room, assholes!", Eric blurted out. It was only then that he realized he was only thinking these remarks and his mouth had never opened. His eyes widened ever so slightly, but the expression in them became wild with concern. "Dude! I'm not saying a word, am I? Why the hell can't I talk? What is UP with this?"

Sway walked right up to Eric and brushed his uniform jacket. "He is so devilishly handsome, you know. Tell me this is not the face and form of someone who was born to exist as a beautiful plaything, Gerald."

Eric's eyes focused upon Gerry and saw that he looked very uncomfortable. "Not as frickin' uncomfortable as me, Mr. Frozen-In-Place", Eric thought angrily.

"Yes, sir", Gerry agreed. "Like I said, he looks good." For an instant, Gerry flashed a look at his paralyzed friend and did his best to silently convey two words. "I'm sorry."

Eric caught the expression and its intended message and with his own glare sent back his own two-word response. "Yeah, right."

"Let's see how your work with our fine toy cavalry guard has been coming along, shall we?", Sway said to Gerry. He turned to Eric and said boldly, "Attention, soldier!" Instantly, Eric felt his back straighten, his arms stiffen, and the heels of his boots click together. His shoulders went stiff and his chin raised a fraction of an inch.

Eric's mind raced. "Holy shit", he thought. "Did I just do that? I just went from like, relaxed frozen to all at-attention frozen??" A rush of readiness ran through his body and his mind sharpened, ready to take orders and follow them to the letter.

"Forward march, my boy", Sway commanded. Six paces."

Arms stiff and legs rigid, Eric stepped down off his platform and marched forward, moving in a wooden fashion more reminiscent of an antique mechanical man than a human serviceman. He stepped purposefully forward by six paces and then stopped, standing at attention, ready to receive his next order. As he stood there, barely registering what he'd just done, Eric had only one thought. "Whoooooa."

Sway moved up to Eric and leaned close to his new toy's ear. In a husky whisper, Sway said, "Report."

Strongly, Eric hollered out, "Toy soldier reporting for duty, SIR!"

Sway practically giggled. "This IS delightful!", he chirped. Sway clasped his hands together and beamed at the beautiful young toy soldier. "Oh, I must see him make rounds around the room. Quickly, my lad", he waved to Gerry, "move those chairs out of the way and slide back that display table. That one, there. I must have the actual toy soldier circle the toy soldier room!"

Eric still remained at attention, but felt himself bristle at the idea of being sent clomping around like a windup toy. "Screw you, fatso. No way in hell I'm putting on a mini dog and pony show for the likes of yo--"

"Toy soldier!", Sway barked. "March around the full perimeter of the room at once and report! Is that clear?"

Eric was cut off in mid-thought by his own reply. "Yes! Yes, sir! Immediately, sir!" Eric then did an about-face and began to march around the room. He moved in the clipped, high-stepping march of the toy soldier and made his way slowly and deliberately all the way around the far edges of the entire room, turning sharply at each corner, clicking his heels together as he went. Eric was not sure which was more alarming to him, the fact that he was marching along with no effort nor control of his own, or the fact that the act itself felt so damned important to him, so fulfilling.

Eric came to a stop before Sway, and saluted his master respectfully. "The perimeter is all clear, sir! No intruders about, sir!"

"Well done, soldier", Sway beamed, returning a sloppy salute and signaling Eric that he could return to standing at attention.

"Sir! Thank-you, sir!" Again, Eric felt a moment of concern, because hearing those words of praise from Mr. Sway filled him with an abundant pride and momentary happiness. What the hell was happening to him?

Sway reached over and gently touched Eric's face, or as gently as his meaty hands would allow. "You are indeed perfect, my boy. You are just what I wanted."

Eric hated being kept stuck at attention, forced to endure the pawing manhandling of the large patron, and thought impotently, "Geez, man, get'cher porky mitts off of my mug already."

"All that remains", Sway went on, "is to alter that complexion to the faded hue that is was no doubt always meant to be."

Eric wondered what that could possibly mean when Sway stopped his train of thought and blurted out, "But wait! First you must see yourself! It suddenly occurs to me that my soldier has never even seen his true self. I insist he do so before we continue our exercises!" Sway snapped his fingers at Gerry, and pointed to a full-length mirror that was set against the side of a display shelf several feet away. The mirror had a frame with a wheeled base, and Gerry rolled the mirror over to Sway, who glided it to face Eric. "Behold the greatest toy soldier of them all", Mr. Sway announced to his beautiful plaything.

Eric saw himself as the toy soldier for the first time. He stood tall in the blue jacket with red high collar, golden fringe over each shoulder. Twin white bands strapped tightly across his torso in a bold "X", fastening underneath and around the red sash about his waist, respectively. The white breeches on Eric's legs were starched and neatly pressed, and perfectly matched the stout gauntlets upon his hands. The pants hugged his legs snugly, as did the tails of his coat which swept around his hips and hung down to behind his knees. The shining, polished black boots stood as tall as the young man's knees, with extended portions rising up over his kneecaps. And of course, upon his head was the black bicorn hat that Eric had formerly loved so much, now adorned with an added plume of red and white.

Eric had to admit, he did look kick-ass. But the knowledge that he had not dressed himself this way, had no say whatever in this entire situation, it seemed, seriously undermined any enjoyment he could possible have felt over his impressive costume. He would have gulped, swallowing hard to emphasize his worry, but he could not even do that. Instead, his still-glassy eyes began to register panic.

Sway paused. There was something in the look of his toy soldier that was not right. The large patron had been so caught up in the realization of his dream that he had not noticed it before. He pushed away the mirror and stood before Eric. "Toy soldier", Sway addressed him in a voice thick with authority. "Turn and face your commanding officer." Instantly, Eric did so. Standing at stiff attention, Eric turned crisply to look directly at Mr. Sway. The patron eyed the living plaything suspiciously. "Who am I?", he asked.

"You are my commanding officer! I answer only to you!", Eric shouted back, his voice sounding as eager to please as a raw army recruit. Eric was both surprised and shaken to hear that tone in his voice, to say nothing of the words that came out of him.

Sway stuck his tongue in his cheek, thinking, staring intently at his beautiful new toy. "And what am I, toy soldier?"

"You are my undisputed master, SIR!" Eric felt his heart pounding in his chest. This is not what he thought he had been rehearsing for with such dedication this past week.

"Show your respect for your master", Sway said, his voice taking on an edge of something menacing. Gerry watched from what he hoped was a safe distance, beginning to realize what Sway had divined was going on.

Eric snapped off a strong salute, holding it until given permission to drop it. he had wanted to punch the big man full in the face, or turn and run, as was more in tune with the rising fear he felt inside him, but his arm came up in the sign of military subservience regardless.

Sway leaned in closer. He was nearly nose-to-nose with Eric, and was examining him with intense scrutiny. Eric could feel the warm breath coming from Mr. Sway's nostrils as he looked his human toy over. Eric's expression did nothing to betray the fact that he wanted to cry out against what was happening to him. But his mouth remained firmly closed, his eyes staring forward, his face blank. Sway took hold of the frozen toy soldier with one meaty hand. With his thumb on Eric's cheek, the rest of his fingers on the other, Mr. Sway turned Eric's head a few inches to one side, then to the other. Eric's arm remained held in a rigid salute. He appeared to be nothing more than what he was supposed to be, a living toy soldier.

Then his eyes moved.

Still frozen in his position of military respect, Eric's eyes looked upward at his new master towering above him. Sway jolted back, clearly thrown by Eric's movement, which should have been impossible.

"He's aware!", Sway roared.

Sway turned to face Gerry. "He's conscious of what he's experiencing right now, isn't he?!"

Gerry took two steps backward, and began to stammer. "Well, sir, you see sir, Mr. Sway, I really did put him through all the training like you said, honestly, I did. He's not faking it, I know it for a fact. You have to believe that, sir, please, you really have to. He's a really, really good actor, but he is stuck as your toy soldier. He can't move or anything, I swear it."

Sway spun back around, looking over his new living toy, still stuck in the position of salute. There was no way Eric could have been faking the way in which he had snapped into his salute posture, nor the manner in which he was holding it. "No...", Sway conceded. "It is clear that he is not in control of his actions. His motor skills are that of an obedient toy soldier. I can see that from the tension in his muscles, from his forcedly placid expression." Sway stepped one pace closer to Eric. "But his eyes..."

Eric's eyes were indeed alive with fear and concern. That too was beyond mistake.

Sway looked again at Gerry. "You didn't give him his final conditioning command, did you?"

Gerry blanched, astonished that Sway had so quickly diagnosed the problem and what had transpired the night before. Gerry shook his head, his mouth open with no words forthcoming. Unconsciously, Gerry's hand went to his back pocket.

"And you have the final command with you!", Sway accused.

Gerry kept shaking his head, now more as a plea against being made to produce, and worse, use the final command that would rob Eric of his last vestige of humanity.

Sway stormed over to Gerry and extended a massive palm. "Hand it over." With a shaking hand, Gerry did so. Sway snatched the folded paper out of Gerry's hand angrily. Quickly, he unfolded the rumpled page and read it over. This was it. This was the carefully and precisely-worded command that would force Eric to recede his personality down inside himself and submit 100% to becoming nothing more than a simple toy soldier, a living and breathing object of pleasure who existed only to obey orders and perform for its master. With a grunt of frustration, Sway approached Eric with the page in hand.

Eric felt his heart pounding so hard in his cheat that he feared he would fall over from coronary thrombosis. Never in his life had he been so terrified. He had done a lot of stupid things as a kid growing up, including surfing during bad storms and dirt biking down dangerous condemned back trails. As an actor, he had faced the dread of stage fright more times than he cared to count. But none of that compared to this. Here Eric was frozen in place, literally trapped in a role, and faced with losing his very identity, being stripped of his own will. He was going to be made to lose himself in the part.

Sway looked at Eric, frozen in salute, then down at the page. Sway realized that this final order would be most effective coming from Gerry. The clockmaker had spoken all the preceding commands, and it would solidify the programming far better if Gerry was made to do the dirty work. Sway could take over after the final nail had been hammered in place.

"Porapetto!", Sway barked. "Come here beside me." Legs trembling, eyes beginning to tear up, Gerry obeyed. he now appeared as weak-kneed as he felt he was inside.

As Gerry took his place beside the large man, Sway looked again at Eric. The stalwart toy soldier, in full regalia, held his salute. He was so perfect. The face, the physique, the uniform. Except for the fact that he were breathing, he could very well be yet another one of Sway's vast collection. That, and the light that shone from behind the soldier's eyes. It shone fearfully, true, but that spark was truly what separated this soldier from any other in the hobby room. Even from the prized portrait painting which so resembled him. This truly was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for Mr. Sway. To have, to control, his very own living toy soldier.

Sway handed the paper to Gerry. "Here."

Hands trembling, Gerry began to read aloud. "Lis-listen well, toy--"

"No", Sway said flatly. "Leave it. Put the paper away." Gerry looked up at him, questioningly. Sway smiled, admiring Eric and the predicament he had been put in. To his toy soldier, Sway said, "At ease, soldier." Eric immediately assumed the perfect military position of 'at ease', hands behind his back, feet planted in a firm but relaxed stance. Sway nodded in approval. Then, to Gerry, he admitted, "I rather like him this way."

"You--you do?", Gerry ventured.

"Yes, I do. I had not anticipated the extra joy that could be added by a preprogrammed toy soldier who actually is conscious of what he is, of what he is compelled to do. He is alive, after all. He was not originally a toy. He should be aware of the privilege of office that's been granted him."

Gerry looked at Sway and realized what he was enjoying so much. It was not the helplessness that Eric was experiencing. Sway really did want a living toy soldier more than anything. But there was one thing he wanted more. Power. And the large patron was enjoying the feeling of power he had over Eric. Of holding him in his sway.

"I would say that you have done well", Sway told Gerry. "This added touch is indeed quite brilliant. True, you did not come by it in the way I would have preferred, but there it is, all the same." Sway looked at Eric again. "There's only one thing left to perfect the good soldier's look. Wait here."

Sway strode across the room and came back with the cleansing scrub that bleached skin out pigment and the small treasure chest of rouge powder. He set them on a small table near Gerry. "I trust you know what these are for?"

Gerry nodded. "Well, that's that, I guess. Sorry about withholding that final order thing, but looks like it all worked out okay. I'm gonna get goin--"

Sway took Gerry by the shoulder, halting his departure. "If you could be so good as to disrobe the soldier before you go, my dear boy."

Gerry looked up at Sway and shuddered. He knew it was a command and not a request. "S-sure. I-I could do that for you."

Sway stood by, arms crossed, and watched as Gerry slowly removed Eric's hat. Then began to unbutton his jacket, lower the cross-straps over his chest, and loosen the red sash from around his waist. Eric stayed at attention, but his eyes sent the message that he was thinking, loud and clear.

"Ger, if you fuckin' leave me starkers in front of Tubbo the Whack-Job, so help me I will kick your scrawny little ass."

Gerry looked up into Eric's eyes and mouthed once again, "Sorry."

Eric looked back, his eyes conveying his response. "My ass."

One piece of the uniform at a time, Gerry stripped Eric of his rank and regalia. The gauntlets, the jacket, the sash and straps, the tunic, the boots, and finally the trousers. With each item, Eric moved as needed when prompted by Gerry's tugging and pulling of the uniform, then went back into position at ease. In short order, Eric had been stripped down to nothing, left standing humiliated and exposed, bare naked and in military posture.

Gerry rose, and turned to walk out, facing toward the door, unable to look his friend in the eye. "Th-there you go, Mister Sway. He's all ready for the next step. I'll just see myself out and you can call mail me the rest of the paymen--" Again, Sway's large hand stopped Gerry from moving away.

Gerry looked at Sway and saw that he had picked up the container of the bleaching skin scrub and held it out in his palm to Gerry. Gerry looked at the substance, knowing full well what the offering implied, but unbelieving all the same.

"M-Mr. you expect me to--to-?"

Sway smiled. "If you could be so kind."

Finding himself trembling again, Gerry walked up to Eric, the scrubbing solution in hand, and gently lifted the applicator up toward his friend. It had a small length of plastic handle that would keep any of the bleaching agent from getting on his own skin, but not for long if Gerry couldn't stop himself form shaking. With a quick swipe, Gerry gently stroked the applicator over Eric's chest. At first, it looked like nothing more than a swipe of astringent, or some other skin cleanser. The surface looked a bit damp, but there was no visible discoloration. Then within seconds, the skin there began to grow lighter, the pigment fading away until the epidermis grew ghostly white. Unable to halt his curiosity, Gerry reached out and touched the skin lightly with two fingers. The surface was dry. Gerry pulled his hand back and looked at his fingertips. None of the scrub had come off onto his own skin.

"Splendid", Sway observed. "Hurry along and make my toy soldier's skin more presentable, won't you? I'll be back to check on you within the half hour." Sway began to walk out, then turned back and added as an afterthought, "Be sure to brush away any stray hair as you apply the bleacher. It tends to act as a depilatory to most body hair. So take care around the scalp as well. I don't want my toy soldier looking bald."

Gerry began to protest, but Sway was already out the door and had closed it behind him. Gerry heard the beeping of the keypad security lock beyond and then the thudding clack of the door locking tight. He sighed, then turned to his unhappy task.

A few more swipes and Eric's pectorals and the top of his abdomen was white as snow. Gerry waited for the surface to dry, even though it was only a second's pause, and brushed away what few chest hairs were visible. They fell away easily, what few there were, as Eric tended to keep his body smooth for any possible modeling work. Gerry was only working on his friend for a few minutes when he felt the overwhelming need to speak with him, to explain. Gerry cleared his throat, then said, "Permission to speak freely, soldier."

"You little son of a bitch", Eric spat.

Gerry kept working on whitening Eric's body, still too afraid to look his friend in the eye. "Glad to see I could give you back the power of speech, at least. I didn't know if that was going to work."

"Don't do me any favors, you backstabbing little fuck."

"I was in a desperate situation. Sway offered me a solution."

"This?!", Eric yelled. "This is your solution? To let him turn me into his own personal plaything?"

"You seemed pretty geeked about it beforehand. 'Prep work, Ger. Actor getting ready for his big job. Leave me alone.' I thought you were gonna wet yourself when I told you Sway wanted you to be a toy soldier again."

"Not forever! I thought it was just a role! What did you think it was??"

"It was a way out for me."

"Yeah, and a way for me into Sway's demented toy chest! Hell's bells, if I knew you were this desperate for cash, I'd have taken the gay crafting store job and sent you a check every couple weeks!"

"But we all knew that was never going to happen, didn't we, Eric?" Gerry stopped wiping the bleaching scrub over Eric's skin and looked up at him accusingly.

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

Gerry pushed the applicator into the solution container and swiped it around in a circular motion more times than necessary. "You wouldn't work to save yourself from financial ruin, or to save your relationship. You didn't even see that coming until after it hit you square in the face. You have nothing else to do with your life besides be someone's boytoy."

"That's not for you to decide!"

"It's not something you do too well on your own, I've noticed." Gerry angrily swiped the applicator down Eric's arms, leaving white smears of skin in its wake. "I mean, Jesus, man. You're an actor who doesn't act! You have job offers you never take! What is that? What are you, anyway?"

"I am an obedient toy soldier", Eric answered without hesitation. Gerry and Eric looked at each other, shocked into silence by that instant and irresistible response. Then some of the anger left Eric's eyes and he whispered, "What the hell have you done to me?"

Gerry scrubbed away at Eric's exposed body more and more rapidly, anxious to be done with his task. Eric pressed the question again, this time with the rising fury that comes from betrayal. "Answer me, dammit. What the hell have you done? How much of who I am have you helped this sicko strip away? Do I lose my memory next? Do I wind up believing that I was made in a toy factory somewhere? Huh?"

Gerry hurriedly bleached away at Eric's legs, his ass, his crotch area. Eric's pubic hair started coming away in clumps, slowing Gerry down, who began to swear under his breath. Eric continued to demand answers.

"Do I wind up being used as some sick-ass sex toy? Is that it? The good little toy soldier down on his knees serving his commander with a post-battlefield blowjob?!"

Gerry was caught ripping away clusters of hair as they fell away in his hands, sticking to the applicator head. "No, of course not! I would never--"

"What? Sell me into slavery? 'Cause that's what you fuckin' already did, man!"

"He never said anything about--he just wanted a human toy soldier--I'm sure he doesn't want you to--you know--do that--"

"And how do you know that, Ger? Look at me! I can bench press over three-hundred and seventy-five pounds and I can't move my goddamned arms, Gerry! He can make me do anything he wants to! Will you stop fucking painting me already! Look me in the eye, you little shit!"

Gerry just kept bleaching the color away from Eric's skin that much faster. "I can't stop, I can't...I have to, I have to finish this, put it behind me...I have to get out of here..."

Eric raised his voice. "Is he gonna keep me locked up here forever? Part of his little showroom? What if he gets bored with me? Will he throw me away once I can't even function in normal society or will he, like, sell me to some rival collector? Did you ask him any of this, man? Did it, like, cross your mind at all??"

"Eric, don't ask me this stuff. I just don't--"

"I'm a goddamn muther-fucking TOY for Christ's sake! I've been reduced to some overgrown developmentally-impaired rich guy's actual BOYtoy! Gerry! Listen to me!!"

Gerry dropped the applicator to the floor and pushed his hands over his eyes. Eric's voice was everywhere, it seemed. So loud, reverberating in the large room, pounding into Gerry's head, stinging his guilty conscience. Choking back the need to scream, Gerry said firmly, "Stand down, soldier!"

Eric fell silent.

Gerry leaned against his friend's firm body, which had never swayed once or lost any of its strong posture during their heated exchange. Steadying himself against the prisoner within his own body, his jailer said, "Silent running, soldier. No more talking." Gerry looked up to see Eric's mouth closed tight. Not forced, but sealed shut all the same. He would remain that way until spoken to by his superiors or given a direct order to the contrary. Silently, Gerry finished his task, leaving his friend a pale imitation of his former self in every sense of the word.

The only sound in the room as Gerry worked was the occasional sniffles as he fought back his tears.

* * * * *

Gerry saved the face for last. He had worked diligently to white out the rest of Eric's skin tone and had done an admirable job. From the neck down, Eric looked like an albino, or a muscular man carved out of marble, or more accurately, like a whitewashed wooden toy. Very gently, Gerry grazed the surface of Eric's skin under his chin, around his jaw line, around, behind, and within the curves of his ears. Gerry took great pains to follow the edge of Eric's hairline yet not get any of the hair-removing bleaching agent on his beautiful thick hair. Before long, Gerry had made up all the space around Eric's features, leaving him looking as if he were wearing some kind of skintight, open-face hood that had a top opening for his hair.

Gerry looked into Eric's eyes and could see no expression there. No accusing glare, no silent messages behind his frozen stare. Gerry wasn't sure if this was due to Eric possibly receding into his toy soldier character or if his friend was just not talking to him anymore. Gerry waved a hand before Eric's unmoving eyes.

"Eric? You in there?"


Gerry huffed a frustrated breath out his nostrils and lifted the applicator to Eric's face. "Soldier, close your eyes." Eric did so. So he was hearing Gerry, at least, pissed off or not. Gerry applied the last of the bleaching scrub with the utmost care. Very slowly he worked his way around Eric's eyebrows, being mindful not to erase them with the depilatory makeup. Eric lost a few stray strands of hair, but the brows remained for the most part intact. Gerry then covered Eric's mouth, gently whiting out his friend's lips, making them as alabaster white as the rest of him. Then came Eric's nose, and Gerry took pains to cover every curve, to touch up the area around Eric's nostrils without allowing the scrub to seep in and interfere with Eric's breathing.

Finally, the eyes. So, so very tenderly, Gerry applied the last of the facial scrub to the are around Eric's closed eyes, losing only two eyelashes along the way. Then he wiped down Eric's eyelids, as lightly, as gently as was humanly possible. Gerry examined Eric's painted face, looking for any missed spots, for any pore or portion that may have escaped him. He found only two, one just below Eric's right ear, another at the corner of his left eye. They were easily taken care of with two quick dabs and Gerry stepped back a pace, setting down the applicator and scrub solution to look the naked toy soldier over. Gerry was both relieved that the job was done and unnerved by the knowledge that the bleaching would not begin to fade at least for another month, perhaps longer.

Gerry sighed, then ordered, "Open your eyes." Eric did so, and there was something odd about seeing his friend looking outward from that bleached white body. It truly was transforming. In fact, Eric no longer looked quite like Eric. He looked--


Gerry turned around to see that the comment had come from Mr. Sway. He had reentered the room and was standing by the doorway, watching intently. Gerry had not heard him enter. He wasn't certain if that was because he was so absorbed in his application of Eric's makeup or that the large man had simply moved with great stealth. Either way, the result was the same. Gerry jumped a bit, surprised to find he was no longer alone with the living toy soldier. Eric, of course, did nothing, remaining frozen in place.

Sway strode up closer to examine his new acquisition, admiring the job Gerry had just done. "That's the tone a toy soldier's skin should have." Gerry noticed that Sway once again had his cane with him, something that had been absent before. He tapped it on the ground before him as he walked right up to Eric to look over the painted face. "Much, much better." Sway admired how the bleach worked its way into every pore of Eric's skin without clogging their natural look nor taking on the effect of heavy pancake makeup. Sway felt that, had he not known better, he'd be willing to swear that Eric had been born looking that way.

"So you're all set then", Gerry said, closing the lid on the makeup tin and handing it back to Mr. Sway. "You can take this and you can take it from here. I really need to get going, and leave you to--"

"Dress him."

Gerry looked back at Sway, thrown a bit by his request. No, his direct order.

Sway continued to stare at the newly-bleached Eric, the metal tin in one hand, his other resting on the head of his cane. He said, "Put him back in his uniform. He needs to be in it to be complete." Then sway looked at Gerry. "If you would be so very kind." He smiled, making Gerry feel a sudden chill.


Sway stepped back and returned the tin of skin bleach to the case where he had always kept it as Gerry gathered up Eric's uniform. Gerry paused momentarily as he began to put the white shirt on Eric's back. When had he started thinking of the costume as "Eric's uniform" rather than just a character's outfit? Gerry shook the thought away, knowing that this uniform was indeed Eric's now, however it was thought of. Sway stood by with both hands on his cane and watched approvingly as Gerry slowly returned Eric to his robes of office. As Eric let him.

Before long, although an agonizingly long time for Gerry, Eric was once again attired in jacket, breeches, sash, and boots. Gerry held the hat in his hands, feeling no effect from it, possibly because he was so overwrought at this point that no amount of indirect mind control machinery could affect him. He turned back to Sway who nodded, indicating that Gerry should proceed and place the finishing touch atop the toy soldier's head. Gerry turned back to Eric, setting the hat to rest firmly atop his head, making him a toy soldier once again. "That's it", Gerry thought to himself, "think of him as a big toy soldier, not as Eric. He's just a toy soldier now. No reason to feel guilty about dressing some guy's giant toy soldier doll." It didn't really help ease his guilt, but Gerry was able to get the hat on Eric and in place, if nothing else.

Gerry turned away from the toy soldier and noticed the small treasure chest with the rouge powder in it. "Oh. Sorry. Did you want me to--?"

Sway was already stepping up to his toy soldier, his mouth as happily expressive as Eric's was placid. "Allow me." Sway produced a white cotton glove from his jacket pocket and pulled it on. He flipped the lid of the treasure chest and dabbed his thumb into the sparkling red crushed crystals. With two quick swipes upon Eric's face, Sway deftly rouged his cheeks. The added blush brought a certain life to Eric's face, but also drained the last vestige of humanity by making him appear every bit the painted toy soldier.

Sway pulled off his glove and folded it, inside-out, inside a handkerchief and tucked it away in his breast pocket. Gerry silently wondered if perhaps Sway wouldn't frame it later, or have it shellacked and added to his collection. The entire enterprise had begun to make Gerry very sick. Sick with guilt, sick from Sway's little obsession. Gerry was sickened by what Eric had now become, by what he had to become to put him there. Gerry moved quickly and silently to the door. He was just going to make his exit without further conversation. He could always mail Sway for the remainder of his payment which would free him from the last of his debts and then never make contact with him again. There was only one problem with that plan. The door was locked.

Gerry tugged on the handle and tried to find some other latch or release which would get him the hell out of there when Sway, still admiring his toy soldier, as always, spoke. "I trust the two of you have had a little chat?"

Gerry heaved a heavy sigh. Why deny it? "Yeah."

"He's not too happy with you I suppose."

"You suppose right."

Sway reached into his jacket again, this time producing the remote Gerry had seen before, the one Sway had used on Gerry in conjuncture with the circuit-laden bicorn hat. "Well, we could easily fix that." Sway waggled the remote playfully, then pressed a series of buttons on it, pointed it at Eric, and pressed a final button.

Eric came alive. His face lit up with a brilliant, beautiful smile, his eyes danced, and his posture, while still keeping a military formality, seemed more animated. Gerry stared at Eric, amazed. Sway grinned. "Toy soldier?", Sway prompted.

"SIR!!!" Eric snapped from his at ease stance to one of full attention, but did so with a slight hop, as if standing at attention were his favorite thing in the world to do.

"Report your status, toy soldier", Sway commanded.

Eric looked fit to pop. With a voice alive with glee, he answered, "Sir! Yes SIR, Commander In Chief Sway, sir! I am one happy little toy soldier! It is my proud duty to serve you, sir! I am the happiest toy soldier servant in the whole darn world, sir! YES, sir!!" Eric snapped a crisp salute and held it. His smile was so bright Gerry half expected it to spread clear across his face and lift his ears, knocking his hat askew. Gerry had once seen Eric at birthday celebration thrown for him by all his acting class buddies and most of the folks from the local civic theater. By mid-evening, with the combination of the free-flowing drinks and the fun and friendship, Gerry saw Eric laugh himself silly that night with genuine heartfelt joy. His expression back then was nothing compared to the raw, unbridled happiness he displayed now. Had Sway's device actually made Eric happy to be a toy soldier?

"Well", Gerry said, feeling a bit relieved, "it looks like you have things well in hand. I'll just be go--"

"It's an affectation, of course", Sway said. "He only appears to be happy, claims to be happy. This", and he held up the remote, "can only command his movements, his actions, not his heart and mind."

"Guess nothing's perfect then." Gerry moved back to the door, looking again for some way to open it.

"And the easy way is seldom the best way, nor the most effective." Sway pointed the remote at Eric again, whose expression once again became flat and placid. His shoulders slumped by about half an inch, still held in position, but no longer forced to appear joyful about it. "Return to attention, toy soldier", Sway commanded, and Eric did as bidden.

"Could--could you open the door please?"

Gerry felt the weight of Sway's cane as it came to rest upon his shoulder. He turned to face the large man, who no longer held the remote control. Sway had put it away, but Gerry could not see where. Sway removed the cane and set it to rest on the floor before him, placing both his hands upon it, his eyes smoldered with hard determination. He wanted something else, and he appeared immovable, in both body and mindset.

"Your work is not yet done here", Sway said with finality.

Gerry looked at him askance. "What? Why not?"

"It is my wish that you continue on as my toy soldier's keeper."

"His keeper? What do you mean by that? You wanted a living toy soldier, you've got him. He's right there! What do you still need me for?"

"He is at the beginning point of becoming an excellent toy, this I will grant you. But he has some ways yet to go." Sway cast an admiring glance at his new human toy. "If we abandon his programming at this early stage it will be but a few days, perhaps a week, before he reverts to his former self, particularly considering the certain...omissions from his initial training. I cannot allow that."

Gerry was incredulous. "So what am I supposed to--?"

"There are advanced stages that are to follow. At present he is programmed to act as a toy soldier. I want him to actually BE a toy soldier. To feel as one, to always want to move as one, to have no other motivation or option than to be one. He is currently a human being acting as a toy. I want him to be a former human being who is an actual toy."

Gerry blinked. He had been quite certain that at this point he could make a run for it and never look back. He would have to deal with the guilt of having dropped off his friend in the clutches of Sway the "slave owner", but at least he'd have put some distance between himself and this surreal situation. Gerry looked at Eric, frozen in place, the stalwart toy soldier, his eyes blazing with impotent fury. Gerry swallowed. To Sway, he said, "I thought you were going to take over from here."

"Oh, please. A man with a champion show dog drops him off at the groomer's and then expects to retrieve him later in presentable condition. He does not sully himself in doing the work with his own hands. Eric is the equivalent of my show dog. Only he is a toy rather than a canine and his showing is to be solely for me. You are my groomer. I wish you only to complete what you've already started."

Gerry hung his head. "I--I don't know if I can. I brought him in this far, that was hard enough. I really, really, think I should respectfully decline and leave you two to--" A slip of paper came into Gerry's view of the floor. It was held in one of Sway's beefy hands. Gingerly, Gerry took it, turning the blank rectangular slip over in his hands to see what was on the reverse side. It was, of course, another check. The amount dwarfed anything he had seen up to that point. Slowly, he raised his head and met the commanding eyes of Mr. Sway. The patron spoke but one word.


Gerry sighed. "He...he needs to feel his limbs, his arms and legs, growing stiffer first, right? That's the next step?"

Sway smiled happily. "Just so."

* * * * *

Gerry was now perhaps one more payment check away from being completely out of debt. Such a payment from Sway would bring Gerry only up to zero, rather than have any kind of financial assets, but still the thought of no more past due notices and threatening phone calls was appealing. Far more so than his present situation, to say nothing of Eric's.

Gerry was spending the majority of every day on Sway's property. For all intents and purposes, Like Clockwork was officially closed for the time being and Gerry's new job entailed spending every waking hour, or nearly so, at work further shaping his friend's mind into that of a happy, obedient toy soldier. The clockmaker had been at it for only a week or so by now and it was not going well. The mind control aspect, the reinforced hypnosis, the continued brainwashing was going along, well, like clockwork, but the subject's satisfaction with the advancing success in stripping away his free will and liberty was well below optimum.

"What the fuck are you doing to me now??"

"You keep talking to me like that and I'll stop giving you the ability to talk."

Gerry was fiddling with a portable sound system that was hooked up to a series of lights and a small screen which flashed images. The combined stimuli playback was all part of Eric's ongoing programming. Eric stood, in costume, before Gerry at attention, his face in its now-standard expression of outrage and disgust as he derided his former friend for his further betrayal in continuing to work to keep Eric enslaved as a human toy.

"You didn't give m the ability to speak, jackass", Eric spat. "I already had it and you just took it away is all."

"Well, after a week of feeling guilty and thinking I deserve your chastising, I've had about enough", Gerry answered, a clear strain in his voice. "So change your goddamn tone or I'll take your voice away again."

"If I could move I would so totally kick your ass."

"Why don't you try that?"

Eric blinked. "Try what? Kicking your ass? Let me go and I'll be glad to--"

"No, try moving."

Eric eyed Gerry suspiciously. "This is a trick."

Gerry hit a couple switches on the contraption Sway provided at which Gerry had been working. "No, it's not. It's part of your programming."

"You're just gonna flip on that mechanized doohickey, whatever it is, and make me do whatever you want. Whatever he wants. And stop saying my 'programming' as if I'm some kind of stupid compute--"

"I've already run it", Gerry said, standing up. "The machine, I mean", and he patted the top of the system. "You've been out for the last two hours. You just don't remember it." Eric cocked his head to one side, listening for the telltale hum of the machinery shutting down. Sure enough, he heard it. Fading fast, but there it was. "Now try to move", Gerry ordered.

Cautiously, Eric tried to take a step forward. His legs responded. Stiffly, but they responded. Eric's eyes lit up. Had he been set free at last? Had his ol' pal Gerry finally caved and decided to let him go? Eric was up on his pedestal, so he gingerly stepped down from the raised platform to the floor. His legs did feel oddly stiff and somewhat hard to move. Eric assumed that this had to be due to the hours on end he had spent standing at attention as well as being made to march stiff-legged, almost goose-stepping. Funny, but as stiff as they were, his legs weren't sore, though.

"What's to stop me from kicking your ass right now?", Eric asked.

"In a minute. Try this first." Gerry extended his arm in front of him, palm flat, fingers together, like an old action movie karate chop pose, and nodded for Eric to do likewise.

Eric had an overwhelming desire to pop Gerry in the chops, but found himself following his friend and trainer's directions despite himself. Eric stuck his arm out, hand poised just as Gerry indicated.

"Now do this", Gerry said. He spread his fingers wide. Eric tried to do the same. but to no avail. His fingers were held together and were unwilling to spread apart. Eric looked at his hand with great concern, his brow knit. His tried to make his fingers come apart, but they just stayed as they were, as if they were glued that way. "Go on, try", Gerry prompted.

"I am trying, asshole!", Eric snapped. The odd thing was, Eric really was trying as best he could, although he felt no strain in his arm or his fingers. It was as if there were no muscles or tendons down there to manipulate. As if his hand and fingers were one solid body part. No, one solid structure.

Gerry nodded. "Good." Gerry picked up a nearby clipboard and made a few notations. Then he held his hand out again as it had been before. Eric's arm was still extended outward in front of him, since he hadn't been told to lower it. "Now try this", Gerry said. Deftly, he circled his hand at the wrist, spinning it around in a slow arc.

Eric tried to move his hand in the same way. He had taken enough acting classes that this type of stretching and limbering exercise was very familiar. But during all those classes, Eric's wrist had obeyed him. This time, Eric's hand stayed as stiff as before. Again, he tried his best to concentrate and make his hand and wrist move as they should, as he remembered them to, by sheer force of will, but he may as well have been trying to make his nose jump off his face and dance the fandango. The worst part of it, though, was that Eric had the pervading thought that this was normal. That his hand was never meant to have full range of movement. He knew this was wrong, but still, the thought was there.

"What the hell have you done to me now, you fucking jackass?!"

Gerry jotted down more notes on his clipboard, but as he wrote, he said, "From now on, whenever you have the urge to insult me, you will only be able to address me as 'Gerry'. Now come on over here." Gerry stepped several feet away and curled his finger inward to beckon Eric to follow.

Eric's face reddened as much as it could through its bleached surface and he answered, "I'm coming...Gerry." The combination of his expression and the tone in his voice clearly indicated that Eric had wanted to say something far more caustic than just "Gerry", but was unable to do so. He began to take a step forward, but found that his arm still protruded before him, stiff as a board. Eric cleared his throat. Gerry looked at him, questioningly. Eric nodded his head toward his arm.

"Oh, right", Gerry said. "Put your arm down."

Eric found he could lower his arm easily, though his fingers were still stuck together. He gave a quick glance to his other hand and found that it was similarly frozen.

"C'mon, let's move it", Gerry prodded.

"Okay, okay...Gerry", Eric answered. His voice was thick with venom. Then he began to walk toward Gerry, perhaps with the hope, if not to strangle him, then to at least haul off and smack him with one of his stiffened arms. Eric took his first step, and found his knees would not bend. His feet shuffled a bit, so it was not a case where he felt as if his boots had been glued to the floor, but his legs were now like rigid iron bars. Eric continued to shuffle forward, looking more like a doddering old man than a toy soldier.

"Do it right", Gerry insisted.

"I'm trying to walk, my knees won't work!"

"You know the right way to go", Gerry said.

Eric knew he was right and stopped fighting it. He relaxed and allowed his right leg to step forward, and up it swung in a stiff-legged march, landing firmly as the left leg followed it. Once he stood before Gerry, he fought the urge to salute with all his might. It wasn't easy. His mind declared that Gerry was a superior and the proper respect should be shown. Still, Eric was able to fight the feeling off. At least for now.

"Go like this", Gerry said, and dropped down to his haunches, knees bent, the seat of his pants resting on his heels, the balls of his feet supporting his body.

"You known I can't...Gerry", Eric said back. Gerry had never heard his name uttered with such contempt. It made it sound like a swear word.

"You can stop calling me 'Gerry'." Eric sighed in relief. "From now on you have to address me as 'Mr. Porapetto'. Got it?"

"Yes...Mr. Porapetto." Eric's face was so flushed with anger the rouge upon his cheeks almost shone.

"Now get down on your haunches like me."

"I can't!"

"Then try at least!"

"I'll try my best, Mr. Porapetto", Eric said, his crisp and respectful response due to Gerry's brusque tone. Eric tried to bend his knees, to go down into a hunkered posture, but was no more successful than when he attempted to spread apart his fingers. After a minute or two in the attempt, Eric said, "Mr. Porapetto, I'm really trying but am unable to comply."

"Good." Gerry rose, made another note on his clipboard. "Now try this." Gerry stuck out one leg and slowly rotated his foot at the ankle. Eric rolled his eyes but did as he was ordered. Nothing doing. His ankles were in the same condition as his wrists. They also felt as if they belonged that way.

"Unable to comply, Mr. Porapetto."

"Great. That's right where we should be by now." More scribbling.

"So what, am I stuck not being able to bend me knees or elbows or turn my wrists and ankles at all? Ever? Is that what my life's gonna be like from now on?", Eric asked curtly. Gerry gave him a cold stare. "Mr. Porapetto", Eric added quickly.

"Not exactly, but much of the time, yeah. Go ahead and try to bend your elbows. It's alright, just try it."

Though highly suspicious, Eric went ahead and tried it. To his amazement, he found that his elbows would bend! Not easily, by any means. They moved like ancient gears that had been left untouched and in the same stationary position for ages, but he could indeed bend his arm if he moved carefully, slowly, and gave it great effort. Yet, even with his arms bent, Eric felt they belonged--and would feel much better--held stiff at his sides. After holding them in a bent posture for a few moments, Eric let his arms straighten out again, which they did with great ease. As if they were returning to their proper shape.

"Ten-HUT, soldier!", Gerry barked.

Instantly, Eric snapped to attention and his hand shot up in salute. "Sir! yes, SIR!" He stayed there, in that position, as Gerry pointed at Eric's saluting arm with the pen he was holding. Eric saw what he meant. It felt perfectly natural, even right, to bend his arm in a salute. So there were occasions that would call for Eric to have increased movement. There just wouldn't be that many, or many variations, is all.

"Eric!", Gerry gasped. "Mister Sway has brought by her royal highness the Queen of Toyland!"

Instantly, Eric dropped to one knee, plucking his hat from his head and placing it over his heart. "Your majesty", Eric said in a voice rich with respect and admiration. Again, Gerry leaned down and looked his transformed friend over, tapping him here and there with his pen. The hat held over the chest by a bent arm. The bended knee. Eric felt himself fuming.

"So I can move", he grumbled, "I just can't do it myself, huh?" Eric grinded his teeth. "Is that right, Mr. Porapetto?" Eric's eyes were afire as he looked at Gerry, saying his name with twice the venom he'd used before.

Gerry sighed. "Man, this could be a lot worse."

Eric shot him an evil look. "How?"

"Sway could be training you, maybe. He could have insisted on having your conscious mind erased! You could be going through all this without even knowing what was happening to you."

"And so this is better? Being a prisoner in my own body? Is that the ideal situation, Mr. Porapetto?"

Gerry kept his focus on his clipboard, unable to look Eric in the eye. "You should be thanking me for training you."

"Thank-you for training me to be a mindless meat puppet and some old pervert's personal plaything, MISter Porapetto."

Gerry threw the clipboard down. "For fuck's sake! You think this is any easier for me?! It's not like I want to do this--as if I have a whole lot of options. I'm as trapped here as you are!"

Still down on one knee with his hat over his heart, Eric looked hard at Gerry. "Funny, I don't see you in a cute little solider outfit." Eric breathed heavily out his nose. then added, "Mr. Porapetto."

Gerry spat back, "Call me sir, then!"

"Sir, yes, SIR!"

Gerry got up, kicking the clipboard across the floor. He ran his fingers through his hair in exasperation. Without turning back around, he muttered loud enough to be heard, "Toy soldier Eric, whatever freedom of movement and speech you still have, use it. You're free to move around. You have... ", he searched for the right term. "Base liberty."

Eric got up, reflexively returning his hat to his head. He moved about, stiffly, his knees and elbows still resistant to his attempt to bend them, his wrists and ankles as stiff as if they were soldered in place. "So how long do I get to stay like this, sir?", Eric huffed, knowing his freedom could be taken away as easily as it was given.

"Hell, I don't know. Sway's not even planning to check in on you until tonight anyway, so...I guess we could at least take a break. I dunno, talk or something."

"I doubt there's a whole lot I have to say to you right now, sir."

"Christ, address me however you want for now."

"You fucking rat bastard."

Gerry shrugged. At least it was better than a false, forced show of respect. He turned back to Eric. "So how does the suit feel?"

"What do you mean?"

"Just what I said. Is it hot? Is it itchy? It looks like pretty heavy material and you are marching around in it all the time and stuff. How is it? I know I'd be past ready to kick off my shoes and go barefoot, slip into some jams by now."

"You don't even wear jams."

"My point. You okay in there? I mean, as okay as you can be?"

Eric paused and considered this. Then, "You know, it's weird, but I don't even think about the uniform." He looked himself over. As fanciful, as stiff and formal as he appeared in the costume, he was amazed at how comfortable it felt on him. "In fact, until I do something like take my hat off in respect, I don't even notice I have the uniform on." Gerry squinted his eyes as he absorbed that information. He also noted that Eric no longer called his outfit his costume. It was a uniform. His uniform. Eric closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Gerry remained quiet, wondering what his friend was doing. Softly, Gerry could hear the air conditioning come in through the vents in the back of the room. Eric stayed standing still, eyes closed, then after a few minutes, he shuddered. His eyes snapped open.

"What is it?", Gerry asked.

"I just had the strangest feeling. I got a chill." Gerry looked at him, not understanding. Eric clarified, "From the air conditioning. I felt the cooler air."

"In that thing?", Gerry pointed to the heavy jacket and breeches on Eric's body.

"No", Eric said. "I felt as if...naw, that's just too bizarre."

"You felt what?"

"I felt as if...I was naked."

"Dude, one thing you most certainly are not is naked." Gerry rubbed his chin, thinking. "Eric, why don't you take your jacket off a sec. I want to see something."

"Ger, I'd rather not."

"Do it anyway. Just trust me."


"Just take off your jacket, willya?"

"Seriously, I'd really prefer to leave it on--"

"Soldier! Remove your jacket! That's an order!"

"Sir! Yes, SIR!!" Eric grabbed the front of his jacket and pulled at it to take it off. The jacket came off quite easily, and slid off Eric's muscular frame, off his shoulders down to about the elbows. Then he stopped. It was clear the jacket could be taken off all the way, but Eric's body stiffened as if unable to complete the action.

"What's the matter? Go on, get it off."

"I can't."

"Why the hell can't you?"

Eric's eyes were growing frantic. "Ger, let me put the jacket back on. Hurry."

"It's still partway on, Eric. Look, just keep on--"

"All the way! Let me put it back on all the way! If you give me a direct order I'll have to follow it, I know, but if you rescind the last one I can put it back. You have to let me put it back."

"Eric, what's happenin--"


Gerry was so thrown by Eric's heartfelt and panicked plea that he answered just as quickly. "Soldier, belay that last order! Get back in uniform. Now!"

"Sir, yessir. Right away, sir", Eric said, pulling his jacket back on and straightening it out to its original drape. Eric sighed with great relief and felt his confidence returning.

Gerry asked softly, "Eric, what was that just now? When you tried to take off your jacket, what were you feeling?"

"Like I was ripping my own skin off."

"Good God! It--it was painful? Were you in pain??"

"No, no. Nothing like that. It's just..." Eric tried to put what he had experienced into words. "It was like I was trying to take a part of my own body--an essential part--off and get rid of it." Eric patted the sleeves of his uniform, bending his elbows with some effort. " part of me now."

Gerry took a step back, stunned. This was unexpected. Gerry knew that at some point Eric would feel that the uniform was part of his body, part of his very identity. There was even special training sessions for it. But it was not to happen for a while yet. Eric's mind, his subconscious, and in all probability, his "teachable nature" as directors were wont to call it, had him anticipating what was to come well ahead of time. His mind was beginning to collaborate with his programming, whether Eric wanted it to or not.

Gerry swallowed hard. The reality of what was happening--of what he had taken a part in--was becoming increasingly clear to him. He was stripping his friend not only of his freedom, but of his very humanity.

"I can't do this", Gerry said.

Eric said, "It's cool. The jacket's back on me. We're safe. Just don't ask me to take it off again, and--"

"No, I mean I can't do this. Any of it. You've gotta get out of here."

Eric wasn't sure what to say. "You mean, you're letting me go?"

"No, I'm ordering you to go. Eric, get the hell out of here."

"Like this?!" Eric gestured to his ensemble with wide sweeps of his stiffened arms.

Gerry took in not only Eric's bright uniform, but also his bleached skin and rouged cheeks. "We can always say you're an albino if anyone asks. And we'll throw a pair of coveralls or something over your costume--"

"No! My uniform must not be covered!! It must be seen in all its glory!"

Gerry and Eric exchanged shocked looks. Apparently, Eric was just as surprised by his adamant declaration as Gerry was.

"Um...fine, then", Gerry said. "You're an actor, we'll say you're coming back from a production or something. It doesn't matter. What matters is we get you out of here."

"I'll be walking like a goddamn toy soldier. I can't even bend my arms right."

"It'll wear off! Eventually, without continued reinforcement, it's bound to wear off. I'm pretty sure that's how it works."

"You're pretty sure?"

"Eric, just go! Do you want to be reduced to a brainless toy for the rest of your life?"

"Sway's gonna kill you."

"Let me worry about that. Just. Go."

"This doesn't mean I won't still kick your ass when I become human again."

"Just move!"

Eric's heels clicked together and he saluted his friend. He then moved quickly toward the door, his stiff legs pumping so that he looked like a windup toy whose springs had snapped, making him operate at too rapid a pace. He made it to the door, which he knew by now Gerry had access to open. Gerry did not have access to much in Sway's domain, but being able to come and go in the toy soldier room was one of them. The door opened for Eric and as he reached the threshold, he stopped suddenly. His legs snapped together at stiff attention and his arms pivoted awkwardly, as if groping for a doorknob or some other handhold before coming to rest once again at his sides.

Gerry watched incredulously as his friend stood there unmoving inches away from his break for freedom. "Go on! What are you waiting for??"

Without turning around, Eric said flatly, "Toy Solider Eric has not been given leave to depart." There was a heartbeat of silence as each of them registered what Eric had said, then he went on. "This toy soldier has not been summoned by his master to perform for his amusement nor received any other orders to leave these premises. It is not for the toy to dictate where it will go or what it will do. Only that it remain on hand so that it may be played with as needed."

There was another pregnant pause as Eric stood there, his back to Gerry, unmoving, until he crisply did an about face and turned to face his friend and trainer. Eric had a pained look in his eyes, but the rest of his expression was one of determination and purpose. He said, "Sir, with your permission, I respectfully request that we continue my training to become a good little toy soldier. As I rightfully should be."

Gerry felt a large lump in his throat. He should have seen this coming. Sway had invested too much in this "dream project", both in effort and capital, to have it so easily undone. No doubt there were untold layers of subliminals and who knew what else in his training videos and audio tracks that would keep Eric in his place until such a time as he happily surrendered to his new status as a toy slave. If Gerry was truly earnest in his desire to release his friend from this mental bondage, if it was more than just lingering second thoughts, it would take much more than a quick decision to let Eric try to make a break for it, to simply run away.

"Sir?", Eric asked again. "Should we not continue my training?"

Gerry sighed heavily. "Yes, I suppose we should at that."

Gerry knew that somewhere, Mister Sway was no doubt smiling, knowing that his project was running along smoothly, whether the participants wanted it to or not.

* * * * *

Eric marched crisply back and forth across the room. "Hup, two, three, four", Gerry uttered in a low voice. His prompting was hardly necessary, for Eric's pace and his posture was strong. He looked very much in his element as he strode by in his bright uniform, his stiff legs snapped up then down.

"Ease your pace down, soldier", Gerry said.

"Sir!", Eric said back, slowing his pace in response to the command. His grand marching steps became less pronounced, but his movements still seemed smooth, which was amazing enough, given that Eric still was not bending his knees.

"Formal walk, toy soldier", Gerry suggested.

"Sir." Eric reduced his pace to one of a brisk walk. His step was still strong, but the distance covered with each movement was less than before. His legs remained stiff, but Eric had achieved a nice, steady pace without looking awkward or mechanical. Unconsciously, Eric must have registered that this was something of an accomplishment, because the corners of his mouth curved upward.

"Freedom of speech", Gerry said, given his friend leave to talk as he wanted. "How's that feel, buddy?" Gerry and Eric's relationship, while by no means returned to its former friendship, had softened from its previous state of prisoner and rehabilitater. Gerry frequently tried new trick to gain Eric his freedom, none of which thus far had proven successful. Eric understood what Gerry was trying, and though not quite ready to be sympathetic of his friend's position, appreciated the efforts (better late than never) and as such followed his training with devotion. Eric told himself this was to serve as proof against any questions Sway might have as to the training's progress. Beneath that Eric knew he was still compelled to follow his training whether he wanted to or not. Telling himself he wanted to as a means toward eventual escape made the compulsions, the constant feelings that he was meant to be a living toy, a bit easier to bear. A bit.

"It feels good", Eric said.


"Yeah, weird as that sounds. It feels--I dunno, natural."

"You don't have any problem with losing the range of motion in your knees, your joints?"

"Hunh-uh. In fact", Eric grinned, "I sometimes get so into it I can't figure out how I managed to get around before with my knees floppin' all over everywhere."

Gerry smiled back, but wasn't sure how he felt about that idea, nor that Eric had given voice to it. Gerry knew that if he was going to break his friend out of this situation, this Toyland prisoner scenario, he'd have to come up with something quick.

"Walk over here", Gerry directed. "Come sit in this cuirassier's chair Sway had built for you."

"It is a cool chair", Eric said, walking over to it with clipped, formal steps. Sway had whipped up something to keep his toy soldier from being left standing upright like a mannequin 24/7. He knew that, despite the best and most thorough hypnotic conditioning, Eric's legs, knees, and spine would eventually suffer damage if he was forced to stand at attention during periods he should be at rest. So sway built his toy a throne to sit in. It was designed to be comfortable, though it's decoration was reserved. It was almost entirely white, with a high back, covered along with its seat and armrests with high-quality red velvet cushions made to conform to he shape of Eric's body. A bold "X" was carved into the chair back, with a delicately painted toy soldier's hat at its top, center. The design work stopped there, lest the toy soldier's throne begin to resemble that of a king's. Sway alone was to be king of his castle, and all his soldiers, toy or otherwise.

"Have a seat, soldier", Gerry ordered.

Doing a quick about-face, Eric turned his back to the chair and sat down. His knees bent with very little resistance. Once seated on the comfortable throne, Eric's knees jerked only slightly as they settled into place. His arms rested neatly upon the arm rests.

"Knees okay?", Gerry asked.

"Yep. Just needed a second to get my footing." Eric glanced at the floor. "Feet firmly planted. I'm good." Eric flashed a happy look at Gerry. "Dude, most actor's piss and moan about getting a chair with their name on it. I've got my own fuckin' throne, man."

"Is that why you're smiling?"

Eric's expression changed to one of surprise. "Am I smiling?"

"Sure are." Gerry scribbled something on his clipboard.

Stiffly, Eric brought his hands to his face, his elbows hesitant to bend at first, and through gloved fingers felt his face. His mouth was unmistakably split into a broad grin. "I--I didn't even realize. I just--I just felt so good."

Gerry sighed. If he did come up with some foolproof way of getting Eric out of here in one piece, would he come up it before Eric no longer wanted to go?

"Ger, I'm worried", Eric said.

"I know buddy. I was just thinking the same--"

"A toy soldier isn't supposed to show emotion unless he's given leave to. I shouldn't be smiling like a village idiot unless Mr. Sway tells me to. I mean, if I'm marching and supposed to look all official and everything and my face breaks into some big goofy "cheese" and I don't even realize I'm doin' it--"

Gerry went down on one knee to look his seated toy soldier friend in the eye. "Eric. You're not a toy. Remember, you're a living, breathing, feeling human being with thoughts and dreams of his own."

"But if I should displease him--"

Gerry held Eric's bleached face in his hands. "Stay with me, pal. You're Eric. You're a person. You gotta hang onto that. I will get us out of this, I swear to God."

Eric held Gerry's gaze, eye-to-eye, nodding as if he understood. Then, after a moment, he said, "Still, you'll watch me, right? Make sure I don't slip up? Let me know if you catch me smiling when I'm not supposed to, or--"

"Eric. That doesn't matter. Listen to me--"

"You'll promise me, won't you?", Eric said, his tone pleading. "Promise you'll keep me a good toy soldier all the time. 'Cause I know despite everything you're still my friend and I'll believe you if you promise. Just to make sure he doesn't suspect, and because a good toy soldier is supposed to always be at the ready, to serve his--"

Gerry clutched Eric by the shoulders. Eric stopped talking. Quietly, Gerry said, "I promise." Eric's eyes met Gerry's again, still looking a bit frantic. Gerry patted his friend gently on the arm. "I promise."

The fear left Eric's eyes and he grinned at his friend and trainer with great appreciation. Gerry got up and walked to the other side of the room, making as if he was busying himself with information on his clipboard. In truth he needed only to rub his eyes to prevent any tears, to massage his temples in hopes it would clear his thoughts. Eric still maintained his conscious mind, or at least most of it--or perhaps only thought he did--but his quick-study, teachable nature was working against them. Gerry flipped a page on his clipboard, compared it to one of a set of cards Sway had begun sending down to them to chart his boytoy's (his slave's) progress. Gerry swallowed hard, then flipped another page. He referred to another card. Then a third. Gerry glanced back, over his shoulder, at Toy Soldier Eric, who sat proudly in his toy chair, a look of satisfaction upon his face. Sway would be down to check progress soon. Gerry tossed aside his clipboard and let out a deep breath as the reality of the situation settled upon him.

As of today they were now a full two weeks ahead of schedule. They were running out of time.

* * * * *

The rocking horse was huge, as far as toy rocking horses go. Gerry had a few toy props brought in as an extension of the training process he was being made to put Eric through. He had done so through the handful of workman to whom he had access both for expediency's sake and to keep Sway out of the loop for the time being. The rocking horse had been set up in an open area on the left side of the room. The horse was big enough for a man to sit upon without crushing it, but not so huge that doing so would make a man appear like a small boy. The horse was made entirely of wood, painted white and decorated with blue and red panoply with gold accents. It looked as if it were made to compliment Eric the toy soldier, which of course it was.

"So do I get to ride the horsie, mom?", Eric said, standing beside the faux stallion.

"Not just yet", Gerry cautioned him. "I brought it in here for something else I want to test. Close your eyes."

"Huh? What for?", Eric asked, even as he felt his eyelids drop. Gerry had been granting him increasing times to speak freely, but that did nothing to counteract his compulsion to follow orders quickly.

"Part of the test", Gerry assured him. He then reached over and pulled off one of Eric's white gauntlets.

"Dude, my glove. I'm out of uniform--"

"Don't worry, soldier", Gerry said. "I need you to follow an order in which your hand has to be free." Eric relaxed immediately upon hearing that. If it was an order to remove the glove, that was okay. Provided it wasn't as a precursor to removing his entire ensemble. Eric's mindset rested in a precarious position that way.

Gerry took Eric's hand, its skin still bleached almost as white as the leather glove, and guided it over to the toy rocking horse. "I'm gonna rest your hand on a surface. Tell me what you feel."

Gerry set Eric's fingertips upon the painted red saddle of the horse. "Feel that?" Eric nodded, his eyes still closed. "Get a good feel of it." Eric ran the flat of his palm over the saddled, across the horse's back. "So tell me what you feel?"

Eric grinned. "The horsie."

"No, no", Gerry said back. "Describe it."

"What, you mean how it looks? From memory?"

"The surface. What does it feel like?"

"Like painted wood."

"And that feels like?"

Eric paused, finding the right descriptive words. "Smooth. Polished. No, wait. Sanded. Yeah, sanded smooth. But wooden." Eric ran his hand along the flank of the oversized toy. "Definitely wood."

Gerry licked his lips, then said, "I'm going to move your hand around. Allow me to do so."

"Yes, sir."

Gerry tried to ignore the now common address of respect and placed Eric's hand upon the horse's large neck. "How about that? How does that feel?"

"Like wood. Strong, thick, but wood."

Gerry stood behind Eric and with hands upon his shoulders shifted his body around the prop animal. "Let me move your entire frame, soldier."


Eric's hand was next placed upon one of the horse's legs. "And that?"


Gerry moved Eric three more times, questioning each time. Each time was the same answer. "Dude, it's all wood. The whole thing. Is this to check and see if my sense of touch is unaffected by all this?"

"Something like that. Last time. How does that feel?"

Eric touched the object beneath his fingers lightly, then ran his hand up and down it slowly. He ran his palm across it. "Same deal, man. Wood. I'm telling you, I can feel stuff fine."

Gerry mumbled angrily. "God dammit."

"What?", Eric asked, confused. "Permission to open my eyes, sir--"

"Open your eyes, Eric", Gerry said.

Eric looked down to see that his ungloved hand was resting upon his forearm. In moving Eric around, Gerry had skillfully rolled up his jacket sleeve, exposing the skin above his gloved hand. Eric looked without comprehension at his bare bleached fingers upon his whitened arm. "But--but I felt wood..."

Gerry stroked his chin, ran his fingers over his mouth, his face a mask of concern.

"Gerry, I still feel wood. I'm looking right at my arm, and it feels like I'm touching wood, like the toy hobby horse." Eric looked at his friend with great confusion in his eyes. "Gerry, I am turning into wood?"

Gerry sighed, rested a caring hand upon Eric's shoulder. The situation was just as he'd feared. "Buddy, we have a lot of work to do."

"I quite disagree", a commanding voice came from behind them. The two turned their heads to see the large form of Mister Sway striding into the room.

"Sir!", Eric said, snapping to full attention before his master.

"I didn't know you were going to pay us a visit today, Mr. Sway", Gerry said nervously.

"Nor did I, until I felt the need to investigate why my toy soldier trainer would order a large rocking horse to be delivered to my collection room." Gerry silently cursed himself. He should have known that any order would have to be cleared by, or at least later reported to, Sway, whether or not the man was initially informed of it. So much for keeping things a secret in that regard. "An excellent exercise, my dear Mr. Porapetto. Fine comparison between the two toys. Wood for wood touch test. Very novel."

"Yeah, well, it just came to me." Gerry's idea was to discern how far gone Eric's sense of identity had eroded so as to better determine how much needed to be done to repair it. As identity and sense of self went, Eric's was pretty far gone.

Sway plucked the leather gauntlet from Gerry's grasp and looked to his prized possession, Eric. "And what are you then, my good lad?"

"Sir! I am a wooden toy soldier, sir! I am here to serve you!"

"And you are made out of--?", Sway led him with his tone of voice.

"I appear to made entirely of wood, Mister Sway, Sir!"

"Excellent, just excellent", Sway said, smiling. "That you are." Sway pulled the glove back onto Eric's hand, rolled down his jacket sleeve.

"Sir! Thank-you, sir!"

Sway clapped Eric on the back. "Stout lad." He then turned to Gerry. "You don't give yourself enough credit. I can see quite plainly what's being done here."

Gerry gulped. "Y-you can?"

"You're proceeding miles ahead of schedule. You say you still have a lot of work to do. Nonsense! If anything, I'd say you're quite ready for my toy soldier's first command performance. Surely that's good news, wouldn't you say?" Sway directed his last sentence at Eric, who responded enthusiastically.

"Oh, Sir! Yes, SIR! It would be an honor to serve, sir! YES, sir!"

"Tomorrow afternoon, then", Sway said, turning toward the door. As he walked, he patted the large rocking horse above its rear. "Just wanted to make sure you weren't turning my toy soldier room into an oversized nursery."

"No, sir", Gerry said flatly.

Sway exited the door, waving his cane over one shoulder. "Tomorrow afternoon at 2, then. Main foyer of the West wing. Until then, carry on."

Eric saluted. "SIR!!"

After Gerry was certain Sway was gone, he rested one hand on Eric's shoulder, cueing him that it was okay to drop his salute. "Good job on the happy soldier act, Eric."

Eric looked at Gerry from the corner of his eye, his arm still up in stiff salute. "What act? When he said I'd be performing for him tomorrow, I swear to God I never felt so fucking happy in my whole life. It was like I was being granted a childhood dream come true."

Gerry swallowed, then reached up and eased Eric's saluting hand back down to his side.

"Ger, you gotta get me out of this. I don't even know what thoughts are mine anymore and what's been tacked on. I'm starting to get really scared over this."

Gerry placed both his hands upon Eric's broad shoulders and rested his forehead upon his friend's jacketed chest. "Don't worry, I think I have a plan", He said. But what he truly felt like saying was, "Dear God, I'm scared too."

* * * * *

"Give it one more try, buddy", Gerry pleaded.

"Dude, I can't!" Eric looked exhausted, but it was the weariness of frustration rather than actual exertion. "We've been trying all morning. Besides, we should be practicing. Going through my routine. If I'm supposed to perform for Sway at 2--"

"At this point, you're so thoroughly programmed that he could shout out military commands in Cantonese and you'd know how to follow them. This is important."

"So is my show! I have to be a good toy soldier for him--!"

"Don't make me give you a direct order, Eric."

Eric sighed. It was clear he was torn. He wanted to learn to resist his programming, but an ever-growing part of him wanted desperately to do the best possible job he could when performing for Sway. He took a deep breath, licked his whitened lips and tried to remind himself that those thoughts were not his own. "So what now?"

"Same as before. Just try to move on your own."

"I've got base liberty?"

"No, no!" Gerry ran his fingers through his hair, aggravated. "It's more than that. I'm not just giving you permission to march around to whichever corner of the room you want. Walk! Walk like a normal human being. Like Eric! Jog, skip, whatever." Eric looked down at himself, at his uniform, and mumbled something. "What?!", Gerry spat.

"I'm not just Eric. I'm more than that now. I'm a proud toy soldier in the service of--"

Gerry was up in Eric's face instantly. "Stop it! Who are you? Who are you REALLY?"

"I'm...Eric." His voice faltered, he seemed to strain to get the words out."

"Say it like you mean it!"

"I'm E-Eric!"

"So just go for a walk, Eric. Lounge around the house, flop down on the floor, go out for coffee."

"I'm not supposed to depart the premises unless given leave--"

"Just DO it!!"

Eric struggled, his body still straight, his posture rigid. He tried to swing his arms at his sides, to take a few casual steps. His shoulders seemed to stiffen to halt the swing of his arms, drawing them in tight to his sides. His attempted casual gait only worked for two paces, then his bended knees locked and he returned to a stiff march. He sighed and tried again, recalling a role in which he once played a hobo who bounced about with a spring in his step and arms akimbo. Gerry held his breath in hopeful anticipation as Eric struck the pose, eyes closed to reinforce the image of that character, and began to tromp forward with an exaggerated posture of someone without a care in the world.

But the image of the playful tramp in his tattered rags was too contrary to how he saw himself now. No sooner did Eric raise his bended arms and begin to clomp about with high-stepping knees than his newly-conditioned body snapped back into position. Eric's eyes popped open, his expression that of a man who'd just run full-bore into a brick wall.

Gerry spluttered. "Wha--what? What was that? What happened? You were doing great--!"

"I CAN'T DO THIS!!", Eric shouted. "STOP trying to MAKE me!"

"Eric, you just need more practice is all. Stop thinking of yourself as nothing more than a toy soldier, and envision--"

"I AM nothing more than a toy soldier!"

His outburst silenced them both. Eric's passion, his outcry with its mixture of futility and pride stunned them both with the reminder of how intense and comprehensive his conditioning had been.

Eric lowered his head, the rest of his body still at stiff attention. "I apologize most humbly for raising my voice out of turn, sir."

Gerry felt his own panic rising within him. "Eric, listen to yourself! This isn't you! I'm not a superior officer and you're not a goddamned toy! Stop acting like you're just some rich man's stupid plaything and stand UP to this--!"

"Then stop fucking yelling at me already!", Eric shouted back. "I'm trying the best I can! So back off! It's your fault I'm like this in the first place and besides we should be rehearsing for my performance before my master!"

Again, stunned silence. But it was shorter this time, and Gerry's panic was replaced by determination. "Okay, if that's the way it's gonna be, fine. We'll get you out of this stupid costume first, then. We'll retrain you buck naked if we have to." Gerry strode forward and reached up and took Eric's bicorn hat in both hands, to tear it from his friend's head. Instantly, Gerry's wrists were in terrible, stabbing pain.

Eric had clutched Gerry's wrists so rapidly that Gerry never even saw him move. "You will not touch this soldier's regalia", Eric said mechanically. "Mister Sway's toy soldier is to remain in full uniform at all times. No one--NO one--is to remove it without his consent." Without any visible effort, Eric lifted Gerry off the ground by his wrists. Gerry felt his heart pound in his chest as he rose six, then seven inches, off the ground.

"Eric! Omigod, Eric!"

Eric looked at his friend with focused, intent, and dead eyes. "You are in violation of this mandate." They were the eyes of a soldier trained to follow his orders at all costs.

"Eric, please put me down", Gerry pleaded. "I won't try to take away your costu--your UNiform anymore. I promise!" The pain in his wrists increased as Eric steadily tightened his grip. If Gerry needed to be reminded of how much stronger and larger his friend was, this was it. "I will never disobey that order again, soldier! I swear it! Now please put me down so we can continue your training!"

Nothing. Eric's eyes were still dead.

"You need to rehearse for your performance for Mister Sway! For your commander in chief! For your..." Gerry choked on the words. "For...for your master..."

Gently, slowly, Eric lowered Gerry back to the floor and released his wrists. Gerry darted away, rubbing his wrists and gasping. Within fifteen seconds, the light came back on in Eric's eyes.

"Oh, sweet Jesus. What was I doing--did I hurt you?" Gerry shook his head, looking away. "Are you okay?" Gerry nodded. "Are you sure?" Eric took one pace toward him, a sharp military step. Gerry held up one hand to keep him away. Eric took a step back. Then quietly, he spoke.

"Ger, I think--I think this is what I am now. I can't move normally anymore because my wooden toy body doesn't work that way. It's not built like that."

Gerry answered in a harsh whisper. "It's not a wooden toy body. It's flesh and blood, like anybody else's. Deep down you're still like anybody else."

Eric did a precise about-face. Softly, he said back, "No I'm not. I'm just some rich man's plaything." He drew himself up to full toy soldier posture. "And I need to rehearse my marching." And Eric marched stiffly across the room.

Gerry knelt down, massaging his wrists to ease the lingering pain. He closed his eyes and felt warm tears roll down his cheeks. If he was going to save his friend, it would not be done through any conventional means. If Eric needed to follow orders, then Gerry would just have to change what those orders were.

* * * * *

Two o'clock that afternoon arrived far too rapidly for Gerry's taste. But he escorted Eric to the main foyer of the West wing promptly as scheduled. There Sway had set up a large and ornate high back gold chair that made Eric's toy soldier throne look like a folding chair. Sway had taken his place upon it where he could view the whole of the foyer, which was an expansive, circular affair with polished tile of beige whose understated hue was crisscrossed with bold swaths of burnt umber. On one end of the foyer was an arched entryway that led to the rest of the wing. It's opening was usually draped with a heavy red curtain, held open on either side of the doorway with a stout rope of gold braid. Today, however, the curtain was down. It was through the curtain that Eric was to make his entrance. As instructed, Gerry had led Eric to a spot behind the closed curtain and set him up for his performance.

"You all set, buddy?", Gerry asked. Eric said nothing. He simply stood stiff and tall, eyes front and focused straight ahead at the folds of the curtain. Gerry asked again. "Eric? You ready for this? You even in there?"

In a formal voice, Eric said, "I am awaiting my orders."

Gerry just nodded, and suppressing a shudder, took the long way around to enter the foyer from a side door. There he found sway seated in his grand chair, overlooking the foyer and sipping a glass of Chablis as he anticipated the coming performance, looking like a royal attending the opera.

"Mr. Sway?", Gerry said tentatively. "He's ready for you."

"And the accompaniment is prepared?" Sway didn't look up from his glass.

"Yes, sir. The musical selection's all set up as you requested. Eric--er, your toy soldier is just awaiting your command."

Smiling slightly, Sway said, "Splendid. You may go."

"Um, if it's all right with you", Gerry said, "I'd like to stay and see the presentation. I mean, if that's alright."

Sway looked over at Gerry with an indignant glare, as if ready to accuse the clockmaker of wanting to intrude upon a very private moment. But then Sway's expression softened. "Ah. The trainer wishes to see his subject demonstrate what he has been taught, is that it?"

Gerry smiled sheepishly. "Something like that."

"I can hardly fault you that", Sway grinned. With an absent wave of one hand, Sway said, "There should be a servant's chair tucked away in one of the alcoves at the top of those stairs there." Gerry looked up to see a couple small arches at the top of an impressive set of winding stairs. "Just stay out of the way of the proceedings."

Gerry nodded and made his way up the stairs. Each arch along the hall was covered with a heavy curtain similar to that draped over the main foyer entryway. Gerry found a small dining room chair in the first alcove and sat upon it, looking down into the foyer below. Within a few moments, the grandfather clock nearby began to chime. Once, a melodic if brief cascade of chimes, then again. Two o'clock.

Sway lifted a small remote from the arm of his chair and held it up, presumably aimed at the stereo system tucked away somewhere that Gerry could not see. "Toy soldier!", Sway announced with great authority, "You shall come out upon hearing your music." Sway waited a beat and then pressed the play button on his remote, setting the small device back down upon the arm of his chair.

Within another two seconds, music blared from hidden speakers and echoed throughout the foyer. It was the opening of the theme to Babes In Toyland. Sway was nothing if not apropos. Before the first measure had fully begun, Eric burst through the curtains and marched forward, the drapery billowing impressively around him as he passed. Sway actually inhaled sharply--not quite a gasp, but close--at the sight of him. He had seen his toy soldier many times in preparation, but this was the first he'd seen him in action. In truth, Eric did look impressive. His march was strong, his presence intense, his eyes determined. For a brief instant, Gerry recalled the young Tom Cruise's grand entrance in the movie TAPS, as he strode purposefully and intently down the hallway of the military academy.

Eric marched before Mr. Sway, pausing before him to snap to attention and salute with great respect, then continue his march. Eric moved with such precision, such exacting steps and turns that he could almost have been a toy soldier in reality rather than a human being--or even a former one. His unerring execution of each step and motion spoke of someone or something mechanical, but that nothing mechanical ever exuded such a sense of pride in what it was doing. Though Eric's eyes stayed fixed and static, there was something about the set of his jaw and the strength of his shoulders that reflected a feeling more of a recently-decorated Marine than a windup toy.

Gerry had suspected that the instrumental from Babes In Toyland would be followed by other playful, even infantile, tunes on the CD he knew only as "Toy Soldier Initial Promenade". But to Gerry's surprise, what came next was a selection from Brahms's Hungarian Dances. The beat was solid and emotive, Eric's proud marching steps kept perfect time and the impact of the classical music brought an air dignity to this living toy soldier.

Gerry had seen Eric go through his programmed routines dozens and dozens of times during training, but never had he seen the power and presence which he displayed here today. This was not merely a mind-controlled actor being forced to carry out his preprogrammed steps, nor was it the movements of some zombified puppet. This was the steady march of a proud and stalwart living toy soldier. Unconsciously, Gerry found himself sliding to the edge of his seat, leaning upon the railing with mouth agape as he watched the valiant living toy make his rounds before his master.

The music continued in a classical vein. There was a selection of Tchaikovsky's, but it was from Symphony #5, particularly the grand trumpeting sequence which lent Eric's high-stepping movements so much importance. There was even some work of Prokofiev's, whose lighter strains gave a much-needed touch of cheerfulness and even fun to the proceedings. Through it all, Eric moved with dignity and grace, despite the stiffness in his limbs, the rigidity of his face. Sway leaned forward eagerly as he watched every step, every cadence. His hands gripped the head of his cane tightly, and though his mouth betrayed no indication of his emotions, his eyes shone like that of a child on Christmas morning. Halfway through Eric's grand and expansive march in time to Symphony #5, Sway licked his lips.

At the climax of the musical pieces, Eric stood proudly before his master, shoulders back, legs together, and he very slowly, very purposefully, raised his hand up in salute. Chin raised, eyes sharp, Eric simply looked at Mr. Sway. He was a toy soldier--the toy soldier--whose march was done and now awaited some sign of his owner's approval. It was not long in coming.

Sway rose to his feet, his cane neatly tucked under one arm, and applauded his meaty hands enthusiastically. The sound of the solitary applause filled the foyer and echoed loudly. "Bravo!", the large man shouted. "Bravo, my toy soldier! Bravo, indeed!" Gerry realized at this moment that he had left his chair (when had he done that, exactly?) and leaned over the railing. He had also been captivated by Eric's performance. Gerry had seen his friend "fret and strut upon the stage" a great many times, but nothing to equal the sheer intensity of what he had just witnessed. Eric shone with a brilliance of one who had accomplished, deliberately or otherwise, what so many actors seek to do all their lives. He lived his part. He did not act a role, he was his role.

It was then that Eric did something unexpected. He dropped his salute and he bowed. He bent stiffly at the waist, bending forward to an almost perfect right angle, in a show of silent gratitude to his lord and master for the appreciation of the production. Sway's clapping increased in sound and excitement.

"Yes! Yes, my soldier! Bravo to you, lad! Bravo, my toy!!"

After a moment bowed before Mr. Sway, Eric righted himself, paused, then did and about-face and marched back through the curtains just as he had come. Sway continued to applaud loudly, cheering again as the heavy drapery billowed as Eric made his way through them.

Gerry raced down the stairs with the intent of slipping back out through the side entrance from which he had come to check on Eric. As he hit the landing, he looked briefly at Sway. In his wild and ecstatic eyes gleamed the look, the thrill, of someone who had discovered something of which he would never tire, would never become bored. In anyone else, in any common man, there was the potential for lost enthusiasm, for eventual loss of interest in any endeavor, in any hobby or pursuit. But Mr. sway was in so many ways anything but a common man. Gerry felt a chill as he saw that this man had found in his living toy soldier something which he would enjoy with equal, perhaps increasing, enthusiasm, all the years of his life.

Gerry joined Eric behind the curtain. There his friend stood at rigid attention, once again facing the closed curtain. Like a mechanical man who had returned to his starting position. Eric's frame was still. In fact, Gerry noted that all through his strenuous routine he had remained perfectly stiff and unaffected by his exertions. His final salute and bow to Sway were given without the slightest sign of strain or shortness of breath. Now, however, in these close quarters, Gerry could see that Eric was breathing hard, almost panting, but was doing so with the utmost control. His shoulders, his chest, rose and fell only slightly.

"Eric? You okay?" Eric remained in his rigid posture.

Gently, Gerry reached up and took Eric by the face, trying to turn his friend toward him. Eric did not budge. Quietly, Gerry urged, "Soldier, look me in the eye. That's an order." Slowly, stiffly, Eric turned his head and looked at his friend.

"That was quite a show you put on out there", Gerry commented. Dimly, Eric seemed to understand what Gerry had said. He inclined his head forward almost imperceptivity, in sign of appreciation for the comment. Gerry slipped a hand between the opening of the heavy curtain and peered out of the crack. There, Sway sat upon his grand chair, once again partaking of his Chablis. He muttered giddy remarks to himself.

"Wonderful, just wonderful. So very worth it. Worth it all. Wonderful."

"Looks like you went over a big hit, too", Gerry said. Eric's expression seemed to change slightly. Did the corners of his mouth turn up just then? Was he going to smile? No, it was gone. Gerry passed it off as a trick of the light. "I promise you, buddy, I will not leave you like this. I will help you. I already have an idea. I will help you and I will make this all better. I swear it, man."

Eric looked at Gerry. His friend's words had been heard, and Eric offered another curt nod before turning back to face forward again. But just before he did, Gerry thought perhaps he saw something appear there in Eric's eyes. Something distinctive, yet indeterminate. Something he had not seen there before.

* * * * *

"You are free to go, Mr. Porapetto."

Gerry resisted the urge to answer, "Oh, really? I was unaware I was a prisoner here" when in fact he knew that's exactly what he was. Instead, he answered simply, "Pardon, sir?"

"It would appear your work is done here", Mr. Sway clarified. "And you have done an exemplary job. All that remains now is for our good toy soldier to receive the proper regimen of repeated reinforcement in his programming." The patron reached into his jacket's inside pocket. "And I've something else which--"

"If it's alright with you, I'd like to stay", Gerry said.

Sway stopped, his hand still inside his jacket, and looked evenly at Gerry. "And why is that, pray tell?"

"I watched the whole performance of Eric's--"

"Of my toy soldier", Sway corrected.

"Of your toy soldier", Gerry amended, "and it was absolutely incredible. I mean, to train him was one thing, but to see him in action like that, well, I was really blown away."

"I don't plan to share him, you understan--"

"Mr. Sway, I'd like to finish training him, if I may."

Sway's hand came free from his jacket. "Would you indeed?"

"Now that I have a better idea of your...your vision, I'd be honored if you'd let me see this thing through to the end. Oversee all his programming, make sure everything's solidified. That everything's done right." Gerry looked at his feet. "Also, I really feel the need to--to make sure he's ready, really ready, for this new life before, you know, before I say goodbye to him forever." Gerry looked back up at the large man. "I mean, if I may."

Sway smiled widely. "That you may."

That was two days prior. Since then, Gerry had redoubled his efforts to reverse Eric's programming and undo the damage he had done to his friend. He wasn't making much progress. "How's it feel now?"

"Like it's a part of me. Part of my body. Like it's painted on."

Gerry rubbed his chin, ran his fingers through his hair as he paced around Eric, who stood as usual, at full attention. Gerry traced the sleeve of Eric's uniform with his fingers. He adjusted the seam down the side of the trousers, brushed the tassels on the bicorn hat. It was naturally still made of the same material it had always been.

"You don't feel any of that?", Gerry asked him, his worry increasing. "The brush of the cloth against your skin? The set of the hat on your head, against your hair? The cut of the jacket? Any of it?"

Eric shook his head once, stiffly, mechanically. "Dude, it's like I said. It feels like it's painted on me. It's as wooden as I am. It IS what I am, sir."

"Knock it off. You don't have to call me 'sir'."

"I can't help it anymore, sir."

Gerry looked at Eric's face. He raised his eyebrows just enough to indicate that he wasn't kidding. Eric's show of respect was now thoroughly engrained. If he had the freedom of movement to shrug, he would have.

"I'm gonna have to readjust the tapes", Gerry pondered aloud.

"Begging your pardon, sir", Eric asked, "What tapes?"

Gerry grinned broadly. "I've been altering your programming." Eric's eyes darkened and he took one step forward, his arm rising toward Gerry's neck. "Whoa! I've--I've been clarifying your orders!" Eric stopped. His eyes came back into focus.

"What--begging your pardon, what does that mean, sir?"

Gerry let out a sigh. He was determined to help Eric regain his freedom, but he didn't want to be daily hefted off the ground by his neck and flopped around like a rag doll to do it. "To help you become a better toy soldier", Gerry emphasized, "I created my own set of overnight tapes." He held up a pocket tape recorder and showed it briefly to Eric before stuffing it back into his pants pocket.

"Sir, where did you get--?"

"Never mind that, soldier. It's classified. But suffice it to say that every night when you've ease after lights out, I've shifted your headphones into this little baby and set it on continuous loop."

"And--and that will make me a better toy soldier?" Eric's eyes took on a pleading quality that Gerry was certain was a silent plea for freedom.

Gerry rested a hand on his friend's shoulder. "I think it'll help get us all what we want." He gave Eric's tasseled shoulder a quick pat. Eric opened his mouth as if to ask another question, but Gerry interrupted him, blocking his chance. "Move about, soldier. How's that uniform feel now? Any different?"

Eric stepped forward, lifting his right arm as he did. He held it before himself, staring at it as if it were something he had never seen before. "It even looks like painted wood to me", he marveled. He sounded more amused than frightened. "It's really a part of me now."

"Not if I have anything to say about it", Gerry said.

"Sir", Eric said, "this chick I used to do plays with for civic theater used to say that you can't fight fate. If something is destined to be, it's destined to be. You know, inevitable. How do we know I wasn't always meant to be a toy soldi--"

"Do NOT finish that sentence, soldier!", Gerry snapped. Eric stood at attention, his eyes aimed straight ahead, an obedient soldier waiting to be dressed down by his superior. Gerry paused, allow his expression, and his mood, to soften. Then he told his friend, "Eric, destiny is a matter of choice. We make our own destiny. Promise me you'll always remember that. You understand?"

"I do, sir."

Gerry waited. "And--?"

"Sir, I promise."

* * * * *.

Gerry stood at the doorway of the toy soldier room and gestured toward the open threshold. "Out you go, soldier."

Eric stood there, staring, stupefied. "But sir, Mr. Sway's toy soldier is not permitted to exit this room unless specifically summoned--"

"Under direct orders from Mr. Sway himself."

Eric blinked, confused. "Why? Am I to perform today?"

"Mr. Sway agreed with me when I suggested you be taken to different areas of the mansion--secluded though they are--to accustom you to being called to a variety of locations for your performances."

Eric faltered. "Yes, sir, but..."

"And to aid in the expediency of getting from point A to point B, if you know your way around better."

"With respect, sir, are you quite SURE of these orders? Did they come directly from Mr. Sway?"

Gerry leaned out the door and nodded. In stepped Mr. Sway, smiling bright. Eric snapped to full attention.


"At ease, my toy soldier", Sway said cheerfully. "You may take the good Mr. Porapetto at his word. He is indeed acting on my authority. You are to follow his commands as my own."

Eric saluted sharply. "Sir! Yes, sir!"

"Let's head out to the East Courtyard", Gerry said. "March, soldier." He jerked a thumb toward the doorway and Eric dutifully marched out, but faltered just past the doorway. Gerry noted this, adding, "Wait there and I'll direct you as we go."


Gerry reached out to shake Sway's hand. "Thank-you for taking time out of your busy schedule to help out. I thought he might need the extra nudge from you to follow this unusual command."

"Well done indeed", Sway beamed. "And a fine insight in giving him a better feel for the lay of the land, to make his arrival for his requested appearances more swift. You were right to ask to stay on. I was right to allow it." Gerry nodded in appreciation and started to leave. Sway took him by the arm, halting his progress. In a low whisper, he said, "And may I congratulate you on providing him with such fierce loyalty to me. Most satisfactory."

Again, Gerry nodded, knowing full well that Eric's unthinking loyalty to Sway was one of the things he was determined to break.

The East Courtyard was beautiful. An interconnecting series of wide paved pathways lined by thick flower hedges. A large sitting area was at the center of it, with a gushing fountain buttressed by heralding angels. Concrete benches circled the outer perimeter of the area, with a slightly more sculpted bench with waterproofed outdoor cushions centered before the fountain. A perfect spot for a midday picnic performance by a toy soldier.

"This is really nice", Gerry remarked."

"There is plenty of room for me to march", Eric observed.

"You ought to do that", Gerry said. "Get a feel for the setting, make your way around it, see how well you can maneuver, about-face, turn, step, like that."

"Yes, sir", Eric smiled.

"You're smiling again", Gerry told him. "You asked me to warn you."

"Am I?", Eric asked, alarmed.

"Yeah, but I can fix it", Gerry said. He pressed three fingers firmly against Eric's forehead, just where his hat met his brow, and said aloud, "Your body at liberty. You have base liberty."

Eric looked at Gerry, befuddled, as Gerry removed his fingers from Eric's head. "Sir, what--?"

"Forward march, soldier", was all Gerry said.

Obediently, Eric began to march forward. But he didn't get far. After two paces, Eric's legs did something they were not supposed to do. They bent at the knee. Eric was astonished. "Wha--what's-?"

"Keep going", Gerry urged him. Eric looked back at him, confounded. "That's an order, soldier. March", Gerry said firmly.

Eric did, or rather he tried to. He lifted his legs up stiffly, as a toy soldier, but they came down as a normal man's. Knees bending, ankles cushioning each footfall and adjusting to the solidity of the ground. Eric faltered, taking several steps all at once, baby steps, then bigger ones, trying to regain his balance. Instinctively, his arms shot downward to brace himself. He clutched at his knees, one hand going around to support his calf. It was only after he had lunged for his legs that Eric realized he had acted with full motion of his arms. His elbows bent, as did his wrists. He had full use of his fingers. Eric lifted one white-gloved hand to his eyes, watching in shock as he flexed each finger individually. "What--what's happening to me??"

Gerry was at his side in a heartbeat. "Don't panic", he said, which is always the last thing you want to say to someone about to panic. "Your new programming is working."

Eric was finding it difficult to breathe. He gasped, "My--programming?"

"Your new nightly tapes. I've been feeding you new posthypnotic suggestions for hours every night for almost a week now. Restoring your body's natural range of motion." Gerry beamed with excitement. "And it works! It works even better than I'd anticipated. I hoped that--" Eric lowered his head, gasping. He looked as if he were about to suffer and anxiety attack. Gerry pushed him gently from behind. "Walk around, Eric! Keep moving. Your body's been conditioned to move like a wooden toy for ages now. Get used to the proper feeling. Reclaim your body, pal!"

Eric tried to resist, but Gerry pushed him again, a bit harder. Eric tried to march, but as he lifted each leg, his knees bent. When he tried to swing his arms in a pendulum fashion, his elbow always bent on the upswing. Gerry cheered him on. "That's it, buddy! You're doing it!" Eric tried again, frustrated by his body's refusal to move like anything other than flesh and blood, muscle and sinew. "Don't march", Gerry said, "just walk. Run, skip, hop!"

Eric found himself walking, stumbling a bit, his face a mask of disgust and disapproval. His arms bent, as did his legs, his fingers curved inward into fists. He shuddered involuntarily. "Ger, this isn't working!"

"What do you mean? It's working great! Look at you go! And see, you just called me 'Ger" like you always used to--"

"Sir! I meant to say 'Sir'! I swear it!"

"Eric, it's okay. It's just the new subliminals are kicking in, is all. Accept 'em. Feel what you're supposed to feel. It's part of your training--your new training. First your body, then your min--"

Eric tried to right himself, to stand up stiffly, to march. He tumbled almost down to his knees, catching himself reflexively as one hand snagged a bench. Eric saw his hunched posture, his bended knees, his flexing arm, his crooked elbow. His eyes were wild with fright. This was all wrong.

Gerry knelt down beside him. "Eric, are you alright? You have to trust me, it's gonna take some adjusting to, but the more we practice getting you back to normal, the smoother your recuperation will be." Eric shook his head, back and forth, with a swing that he clearly thought was too excessive but couldn't restrain. Gerry blinked. "What?"

"Dude, it just--it just allows for too many choices, too much freakin' chaos! My arms could go anywhere, my legs could like, spring out and start pin wheeling or something!"

"Eric, get a hold of yourself. This is how you're supposed to be. This is how you always were, before--before, you know."

"Dude, change me back."

"What? Are you serious?"

"Just like, my arms and legs and stuff. And my chest and abs and my ass. I need to feel wooden again, man. Seriously, I'm going out of my mind like this. Feels like you turned my body into rubber. God, this just isn't normal! C'mon, hurry!"

Hesitantly, Gerry went through the procedure of reinforcing his friend's conditioning to believe himself to be a living toy soldier. Three fingers upon his brow, another trigger command uttered with authority. Steadily, Eric rose to his feet. His body grew stiffer, his stance more forced and wooden. His knees locked, his arms went rigid at his sides. His head lifted just a touch higher, his jaw stiffened. He looked very uncomfortable. Like a statue or a mannequin, or more accurately, like a young man who had been forced to act as one.

"Damn, man. That's more like it." Eric breathed a sigh of relief, although his body looked anything but relaxed.

Gerry looked at him. "Seriously. You feel better this way?"

"Only way to be", Eric answered crisply. "Anything else is just too--I dunno--wobbly."

"So wait a minute", Gerry said. "You're saying that I can actually give you increased mobility now--"

"Yeah", Eric agreed. Then corrected himself, "Yes, sir. I just don't want it, I guess."

Eric marched back inside, leaving Gerry to ponder this revelation. It would seem that if he was going to reprogram this toy soldier, it would have to be from the inside out.

* * * * *

Sway's visits came at more frequent intervals. As Gerry worked daily with Eric, perfecting his appearance, his posture, his movement as a toy soldier, Sway came by to check in on them more and more. At first it was once every few days, then every other day. For the last half week, Sway had come by every day for four days. Each time, he lingered just a little bit longer. On this particular day, he had been loitering about the toy soldier room for nearly three hours.

"I'm surprised to see you have such a renewed interest in the process", Gerry commented. In truth, Sway's near constant presence was making him very nervous. At first he didn't know how he was going to undo the damage he had done to Eric with Sway always hovering nearby. At first.

"And why is that such a surprise?", Sway asked.

Gerry gave a half smile. "I seem to recall an analogy involving dog groomers. The owner only involves himself in the end result."

"You will note I have not interfered in the process. I am merely observing."

Gerry gave him a full smile. "Of course."

Still, Sway got the hint. He rose from where he was seated, bracing himself on his cane. "But I understand if my presence can have an intrusive effect on the process. And I have duties to attend to."

"I don't mean to be rude", Gerry offered.

Sway held up a hand to shoo the idea away. "You have given more than ample demonstration of what you can accomplish when left to your own devices. Far be it from me to sabotage your handiwork, intentionally or otherwise. Continue the good work."

Eric had been marching around the room, varying his cadence with different types of music being played. Gerry signalled for the toy soldier to pause, leaving him standing by his small throne. Gerry then dashed out the door to catch Sway beginning to head down the hallway. "Excuse me, sir, I didn't intend to usher you off", he said, knowing full well that was exactly what he had intended. "But may I ask you something?"

Sway turned only halfway around. He had no intention of lingering too long answering inquiries. He truly did have other things to do. "That being?"

Gerry stepped toward the large man. "I do understand your desire to observe the final stages of the training, but I was just curious why you don't do it remotely." Gerry pointed upward, indicating the various security cameras which peppered the entire building.

Sway smirked. "Not every room is under constant surveillance, Mr. Porapetto."

"Even one containing a prized possession?"

Sway tilted his head. "Sometimes one likes to be surprised by that prized possession. That can be difficult if you know everything in advance."

"You weren't the type to peek at your Christmas presents, were you?"

"Even if you already know what you're getting, it's preferable to first lay eyes on it at the proper place and time. Good day, Mr. Porapetto." Sway took a few more steps away and then paused. "Oh, and Mr. Porapetto?"

Gerry stopped on his way back into the toy soldier room. "Yes, sir?"

"You know the last of the those pesky bills that you still had to deal with?"


"You need not know them anymore. I took the liberty of seeing to it."

Gerry blinked. "Why, thank-you, sir. I hadn't expected you to--"

"Carry on." Sway strode away, and was gone around the corner in a few seconds.

Gerry grinned, and reentered the work room, closing the door behind him. He had learned what he needed to. Sway hadn't been watching Gerry to catch him at something. Sway had been watching Eric, like an overanxious little boy watches something being made for an upcoming birthday.

Gerry walked up to Eric and told him it was time for all good toy soldier's to take a power nap. Eric marched over to his pedestal, climbed up onto it, and closed his eyes, falling asleep instantly. Gerry set Eric's headphones in place with their recurring loop of hypnotic instructions. Then Gerry plucked the headphone plug out of the disc player and plugged it into a small handheld tape recorder, into which he popped a small blue cassette tape.

"Sweet dreams, little toy soldier."

* * * * *

"You suggest that he be allowed to roam freely about the house?", Sway said, incredulous.

Gerry leaned forward, eager to impart his idea. "Not at random, by any means. But we could assign him specific hallways and rooms he could go to and from, to widen his knowledge of the dwelling as well as give him a larger area to practice his marching routines." Sway rested the head of his cane against his chin, weighing the proposition. "He could certainly respond to a summons a lot faster if he knew precisely where he was going."

Sway gave a curt nod. "Agreed. I shall draw up a list of places where the toy is permitted to go. Once you have it you may plan his exercise regimen accordingly."

By that afternoon, Gerry stood in one of the many carpeted hallways that lanced in and out of the expansive building and hollered marching orders at Eric. Eric the Toy Soldier marched his way up and down the halls, the resonance of his footfalls varying in degree as he maneuvered from carpeting to polished tile to parquet floor. Both Gerry and Eric became very familiar with the layout of their surroundings, including what halls, rooms, and foyers were closest to the exits. The largest door was of considerable interest to Gerry, for it was the main entrance which he hoped one day to pass through forever--on the heels of Eric as he made his bid for freedom. Gerry had marched Eric by that foyer, eyeing that door, three days running before he summoned the courage to guide his charge across the foyer and up to it.

Gerry peered out the large windows on either side of the door, pushing aside their gauzed curtains to ascertain that no one was in sight. "We're gonna try something new", Gerry told Eric. "We're gonna see how well you can march across thresholds."

"With respect, sir, we've already seen how I can navigate doorways when going to and from the courtyards, the main garden, and from room to room", Eric said.

"Yeah, well, this one is different." Gerry opened the front door wide and gestured to the world beyond. "You're going through this one."

Eric blanched at the idea. "Sir, that's against regulations. The toy soldier is to remain on the premises at all times."

"There's a party outside then", Gerry explained. "The toy soldier has been summoned to perform."

"Then it must be in one of the courtyards or elsewhere on the grounds", Eric offered politely. "There's nowhere beyond that particular door that would provide for--"

"Soldier!", Gerry cried. "Just try to walk out the fucking front door already!"

"But sir..."

"That's an order!"

"Sir!" Eric marched forward, his boots clicking across the floor of the main foyer. His arms swung at his sides, his stride was powerful. He stepped right up to the main door--and smashed right into empty air as if he'd hit a brick wall. Eric stumbled back, Gerry gaped in awe. Eric looked up, shock and surprise on his face. Before Gerry could give another command, Eric drew himself up as tall as he could and tried again. A second time, Eric smashed into what seemed to be an transparent barrier. The most practiced mime artist could not execute the "invisible wall" trick with so convincingly. Eric still appeared stunned, confused. He tried a third time, but with less force and aggression. He marched at a slow, steady pace and this time, though he was indeed stopped, it appeared as if he were pressing against an invisible tarp or some other durable object that had been draped over the doorway. It had only the slightest give, then forced Eric back inside. "Having difficulty complying, sir."

Eric looked at Gerry with a defeated look on his face. And something else, too. He looked ashamed of having failed to follow an order.

Gerry stepped through the open door and spread his arms wide. "Eric, there's nothing here. See?" He waved his arms for good measure. The barrier that's blocking you isn't here", and Gerry tapped on the door frame with his knuckles, "it's here." and he pointed to his head.

Eric simply shook his head. "It's against regulations. The toy soldier must never leave the premises of his Commander in Chief."

Gerry let out an angry breath. 'For Christ sakes." He walked over and took Eric by the arm and began to pull him through the door.

"Sir! No! You mustn't!"

"I'm just going to show you that you can go wherever you want to go if you'd just--" Gerry was stopped short when Eric hit the threshold. He spun around and saw Eric standing stiff as a board, feet firmly planted on the floor, unable to get past the door. Gerry yanked until he was leaning back on the heels of his shoes, but Eric wouldn't budge. Gerry leapt behind Eric and pushed his back with all his might. Eric may as well have been sculpted from lead. "A little help here, soldier!"

"I can't sir! I'm sorry, sir! I'm not allowed to!"

Frustrated beyond words, Gerry actually backed up almost twenty paces and ran headlong into Eric's back, broadsiding him like a hockey player, only to fall backward as if he'd launched himself into an unyielding tree stump, which for all intents and purposes he had. Gerry tumbled to the ground and skidded across the tile floor. Eric did an about face and looked down at his trainer.

"I'm terribly sorry, sir. Are you alright?"

Gerry looked up at the stalwart toy soldier who, admittedly, looked pretty impressive from the lower angle. "I think we're gonna have to wait a while before we tackle the exits", Gerry conceded.

Eric gave a curt nod. "Very good, sir." Then went back to standing at attention, awaiting his next command, a look of relief settling in his eyes.

"It has been nearly a month, you realize", Sway said, his voice even and controlled.

"I'm aware of that, sir", Gerry replied. The two sat in a small sitting area in the east wing of the building, surrounded by three tall but slender shelves of leather-bound books, a series of tasteful antique mahogany furniture, and a large oriental throw rug. Mr. Sway and Gerry sat upon heavily cushions armchairs. Sway sipped tea from a silver serving set. Gerry had been summoned after the tea was served. It was clear that he had been called in strictly for the interview, not for a social meeting.

"Nearly a month of you working--dutifully, I admit--on my toy soldier's programming and training."


"And in that time I have not seen him perform for me. Not since the delightful afternoon march in the West Wing foyer. You are aware that all of your debts have been paid, and that I was pondering additional bonus payments for you but for the length of time you have taken to--" Sway stopped. Gerry was about to ask him what was wrong, when the large man held up one finger. Then Gerry heard it. The marching. The steady echo of booted footsteps making their way down the halls, around a corner, then lighter--across a carpeted floor--and then down another corridor, fading slowly. Gerry gauged the sound as being one flight above them and slightly to their left. Sway sighed.

"Ah, wonderful. I confess that your suggestion to have the toy make his way around the house was a stroke of genius. Just the sound of him coming and going at various intervals throughout the day has been most--"


"I was thinking empowering, actually." But then the smile faded from Sway's lips and he leaned forward, gripping the head of his cane tightly. "But the novelty of hearing him without seeing him begins to fade. I question how much longer you truly nee--"

"How about this afternoon?"

Sway stopped. "This afternoon."

"Yes, for a performance. I'd say that he's more than ready. And the marching display he gave you a month ago is nothing compared to what he can do now." Sway's smile returned. "We can do it this evening, if this is too short of notice."

Sway picked up his teacup. "I will have to learn not to underestimate you, Mr. Porapetto. Let's say early evening, shall we?"

"Where would you like him?"

Sway didn't have to think about it. "The Grand Ballroom. I already have the decorations ordered and the interior design prepared. It is simply a matter of informing the staff."

"The decorations?", Gerry asked. He hadn't expected Sway to go so far as to redecorate in observance of his toy soldier's official debut.

"Nothing overly pronounced", sway assured him. "Just a few items to help create the proper mood." He took a sip from his cup. "Six o'clock, then?"

Gerry heard the marching footsteps above him, this time to the far right, strong, steady. He forced a smile. "Six o'clock then."

Gerry and Eric approached the Grand Sway Ballroom, one mincing along nervously, the other marching proudly. "How you doing there, buddy?"

"I am fully prepared to perform for my master", Eric said with pride.

"Super. That's just swell."

A flurry of servants came out of the entrance to the ballroom carrying ladders, various materials, tool boxes, and so forth. They hustled past Gerry and Eric looking frantic and worn, trying not to notice the giant toy soldier marching his way past them, keeping their eyes straight ahead, some glancing at their watches. One of them paused briefly to tap Gerry on the arm.

"You're not supposed to go in", he said.

"What?", Gerry said, caught off guard. "Why not?"

"Command performance, I guess."

"I am to perform only for my master", Eric announced proudly.

The servant began to hustle away, muttering, "I did not hear that, I did not hear that..."

Gerry called after him. "Is there somewhere else I can watch what's going on inside the ballroom without actually being in the ballroom?"

"I couldn't say", the servant said, walking faster.

"Couldn't say what?", Gerry prompted. Then he spread his hands wide. Come on.

"I couldn't say if there were a small spot in the lighting booth above the main floor to the right where someone could possibly observe without being seen. I couldn't say", he said, walking backwards to still put distance between himself and Gerry while speaking to him.

"Thanks!" But the servant had already fled the scene and rounded the corner. Gerry turned to see Eric standing before the double doors, awaiting his orders to enter. Gerry stuck his head in to see Mr. Sway seated atop what could only be called an emperor's throne in a dimly-lit and shadowy ballroom that appeared, even in the dark light, to be massive. Gerry called out to him. "Sir? Um, Mister Sway? We're all ready for you on this end."

In a loud voice, Sway answered back, "Very good! Your services are no longer required for this evening!"

In other words, thought Gerry, get lost. He quickly ducked back into the hallway outside the ballroom and looked at Eric, who stood tall, at the ready. Gerry began to fuss with Eric's uniform, straightening his tassels, brushing away any lint. He spent several seconds fluffing and adjusting the plume on Eric's hat.

"With respect, sir", Eric said, "please stop fussing with my attire and stand aside so I can respond when I am summoned."

"Right. Sorry." He patted Eric on the back. "Good luck. Or break a leg. Whatever."

Gerry dashed down the hallway and around the corner, looking for the service door to the light room. Two storage bins and one janitor's closet later, Gerry found the lighting booth. He had to race up a flight of steps to get to the cramped quarters, but he did find it. Inside, several lighting consoles seemed to be operating on a preprogrammed sequence. Gerry saw at least two small digital readout screens ticking off numbers in various codes. Gerry opted to find a place with a view to sit and take care not to touch anything. He found a small stool near one of the slanting panes of glass that overlooked the ballroom. Heavy curtains were draped on either side of the glass, most probably to obscure the technical booth from any partygoers who might occupy the room during other occasions, so some of Gerry's view was blocked. He had a clear shot of the front of the room where Sway sat, as well as the entrance and a good chunk of the floor, but several other places were hidden from him. Not the best seat in the house by any means, but at least he could see what was happening for the most part.

The lights in the room had already been turned up. Gerry supposed that Sway did this while Gerry was searching for the light room. In the brighter light, Gerry could see that the room was decorated to excess with life-sized posters of toy soldiers, candy striped sentry posts, 12-foot-tall stuffed dragons to be slain, streamers, glitter, carved wooden toy soldier trumpeters, and an impressive roll of red carpet. Gerry couldn't make out all of the decorations from his vantage point, but what he could see was considerably over the top.

Gerry stuck his tongue in his cheek. "Just a few items, my ass."

A machine next to Gerry clacked loudly, making him jump. Then all the lights in the room below went dark. Then a spotlight shone on the main doors. "My toy soldier!", Sway called out. "Come forth and be recognized!" The twin doors swung inward and Eric the Toy Soldier stepped into the room.

Gerry had to admit that he looked impressive. Even having seen him in the uniform day after day, it was something else entirely to watch as Eric entered the massive room that had been prepared just for him, to see him march forward majestically and stand before his master. Eric followed the red carpet down the length of the room to Mr. Sway, and his pace was so perfect and rhythmic that the automated spot had no trouble following him. At the foot of Sway's throne, Eric saluted.

"Sir! Mr. Sway's Toy Soldier reporting for duty, SIR!"

Sway fingered his cane in one and grinned ear to ear. "And is the toy soldier ready to perform?"

Eric inched himself up even taller. "SIR! Yes, SIR!!"

"Then perform."

Sway hit a switch beside his throne and all the lights in the ballroom came to life. Eric did an about-face, and by God, did he perform. A series of drumbeats sent him marching in complicated crisscrosses up and down the length of the room. Eric moved flawlessly with each beat, his booted feet matching every percussion with impact upon the floor. Each pause in the drums halted his progress. Energetic drum rolls and snares caused him to execute a series of intricate turns and postures, never once losing his footing, never once losing his place.

As Eric marched his way back up to Sway, he paused and saluted again. The drumbeats stopped. At first Gerry thought that even Sway had been practicing with the music to choreograph that moment, but then saw that he had once again hit the switch beside his throne, temporarily pausing the playback. Sway called out to Eric, "Present arms!"

Eric thrust his arms forward and Sway gabbed a prop bayonet (at least Gerry hoped it was a prop) which Eric snatched from the air handily. Sway began the music again and Eric did and about-face and continued on to another set of complicated marches, this time punctuated with impressive spins and twirls with the bayonet rifle.

Gerry leaned closer to the glass, truly impressed. "Well, this is new."

Eric continued on as the static drumbeats shifted to a medley of pieces by John Phillip Sousa. With each musical number, Eric's marching shifted just enough to follow the piece, never enough to destroy the illusion that he was not a military man, not a performer, but a toy moving either through some artificial means or strange enchantment. Gerry watched as Eric tucked the rifle under one arm, swung it around to his other side, whirled it over his head like a propeller, and thrust it against his shoulder. Gerry wondered what other surprises were laced into Eric's subliminals, that could so effectively train him to carry out a marching routine with the precision of a marine.

Eric continued with his rifle for about half a dozen Sousa marches. Sway was clearly entertained by everything Eric did, and Gerry had to admit to himself that even he was not bored watching it. Then the music shifted again, this time a contemporary arrangement that sounded like an orchestration from one of the Harry Potter movies. As Eric marched past sway, he very formally returned his rifle to the large man, then turned past what seemed to be nothing more than a prop and deftly pulled a dazzling silver sword from it. Eric handled the rapier like a master swordsman, moving it with the same precision and stiffness that he moved his body. Eric made his way to the stuffed dragon and, despite the very transparent threat posed by the overstuffed plush figure, pantomimed a very believable, even gripping, saga of the brave toy soldier battling the evil monster come to threaten his kingdom.

Gerry began to feel uneasy. He had coached Eric in marching, posture, certain military gestures and postures, as well as making checks to verify that he was making the full transformation into a toy. But Gerry had never taught him any of this. He had never even seen Eric rehearse any of this. Gerry felt a chill run up his back as he realized that Sway's many hypnotic audio and video discs were clearly layered with level upon level of programming meant not only to make Eric believe he was a toy soldier, but to fill his mind with all the activity and amusing playtime that a toy soldier was meant to act out. As long as Sway could access Eric's mind, he could make his body do anything.

After the fight with the dragon, which ended with what looked like the death of the beast, but not without the valiant hero losing his life in the process, the lights dimmed so Eric could relocate. The lights again came up to reveal Eric standing at the main doorway again, standing tall and very much alive. Gerry felt something wet against his cheek and was surprised to find that Eric's previous death scene was so heartfelt that, without realizing it, Gerry had begun to cry. Gerry looked down at Sway to find the mogul blowing his nose and wiping his eyes with a handkerchief.

"Huh", thought Gerry. "Maybe the fat man is human after all. Partly, anyway."

The music rose up as the lights came fully on and Eric began tom arch forward from the doors. The music was rich, resonant, and powerful. It took a few measures for Gerry to place it. It was Dvorak's Symphony From The New World. The strong beat sent Eric marching, engaging in amazing swordplay, and eventually thrusting his sword dramatically into a scabbard he had secured on his belt (when had that happened?). Eric retrieved his rifle and used it an even more amazing and captivating ways as he marched his way through all four movements of the symphony. Even the second movement, the slowest of the four, allowed Eric to execute some truly impressive marching choreography.

Gerry was uncertain how long Eric's performance had lasted, but by the end of the Dvorak symphony, Gerry felt as if his backbone was about to snap. Sine the mock fight with the dragon, Gerry had been leaning forward, his nose almost pressed against the glass. He fought to straighten himself as Eric made his final approach to Sway's throne. The fat man was applauding and shouting bravo at his toy soldier. Tears streamed down his cheeks and his face was the picture of joy. Eric deftly managed a final twirl with his rifle to bring it to rest quite spectacularly against his left shoulder. With his right hand, he saluted his master. In anticipation of what was coming next, Sway stopped his applause.

Eric shouted with vigor, "Permission to speak, SIR!!" sway indicated his toy soldier could proceed. Eric shouted again, "I am your toy soldier! I serve only you! As your personal toy soldier, I am forever loyal to you, Mister Sway! My Commander In Chief! My lord and master! For you I have my life's code!"

Sway dabbed at the corners of his eyes and said quietly, "Recite your code, toy soldier."

Eric shouted with great conviction, "SWAY! TOY! GOD! COUNTRY! My master is Mister Sway! I am his Toy! I respect my God! I will fight to protect my Country! SWAY! TOY! GOD! COUNTRY!"

Gerry sat in the booth with his jaw hanging open. This was so far beyond play-acting, past any role Eric could ever possibly imagine. Gerry thought, "This guy really thinks Eric is his big fat toy. Eric's really no longer human in his eyes." Gerry watched as Sway made Eric recite his code three more times. Finally, Sway dismissed his plaything, and Eric marched back down the carpet and out the twin doors. Gerry looked down at Sway, who looked as if he'd just had the time of his life. he was still laughing, still calling out "Bravo!" at odd intervals. From beside his throne, he picked up a black leather binder and opened it. In it were a set of CDs, at least twenty. The CDs were all gold, and even at the distance he was, Gerry could just make out the insignia of a toy soldier's bicorn hat printed upon each, with a different number for every disc.

"And that was only disc one", Sway commented to himself, looking over the first selection in the binder. "With twenty more already in production." Sway set the folder down and went back to applauding for his toy soldier and cheering his praises.

His head spinning, Gerry raced out of the light booth and ran back to where Eric had exited the ballroom. Eric stood there, facing the doors, waiting patiently should he be summoned back for any reason. Gerry raced to his friend's side, expecting to find him exhausted, panting for breath. As it turned out, Eric was only breathing slightly harder than normal. Gerry put a hand upon his friend's shoulder. "Eric, are you okay? You must be spent! Can you hear me? Permission to speak freely!"

Without turning his head, Eric spoke into the doors. "All he wants to do is play with me, that's all." He paused. "...and when he's not there, all I'm supposed to do is just stand around waiting for him to come home and wind me up and march me around. That's all, that's my job. I'm a toy soldier." Sway's cheering still filled the ballroom, the echoes reaching them through the closed doors.

Gerry was beginning to freak out. "Eric, you have to settle. Don't lose it on me now. Here, lemme see--" Gerry reached over to Eric's other shoulder and guided Eric to turn around. Gerry had to take a step back when he saw Eric's face. In Eric's eyes was a wild and untamed expression. Exaggerated by the white face and rouged cheeks, Eric's eyes practically bulged from their sockets, as though he were unable to process what he had just experienced, what it all meant. For a second, Gerry almost fancied that he'd seen that overwhelmed look on Eric's face before, but dismissed it, as he was far more concerned with Sway's reaction to all this.

Gerry spoke very quietly and evenly to Eric, doing his best to discount the somewhat crazed look in his eyes. "Eric, I can see how far gone Sway is now. He's got what they used to call 'collector's mania'." Eric's eyes seemed to come back into focus, he titled his head by almost a quarter of inch as he tried to comprehend. Gerry went on, "I've seen it before with some of the regulars to the LIKE CLOCKWORK shop back when my father ran it. Some collectors have this intense look, of someone obsessed with collecting, of obtaining a specific item, and they will do anything to obtain it, then to keep it. And they never, ever tire of playing with it." Gerry stopped, took a breath, licked his lips. "Eric, Sway will never get tired of using you as his toy soldier."

Eric looked at Gerry with eyes that were suddenly wholly innocent. "He won't?"

Another burst of joyous laughter and cheering came from inside the ballroom. Gerry shook his head in answer to Eric's question, as if one was needed. Gerry knew the time had come. He had to get Eric out of there now.

* * * * *

The nest day Gerry was ready to go bright and early. He was tempted to try to break Eric out that night, but his friend was so worn from the effort of his performance--much more than his stiff posture and controlled breathing indicated--that Gerry knew Eric needed a full night's sleep. One more night would only help Gerry's efforts, anyway. Gerry gathered up a few belongings that he had sneaked in weeks ago; pants, sweatshirt, and shoes that were a bit too big for him which he hoped would fit the taller Eric. He paced the toy soldier room, waiting for Eric to awaken with his reveille alarm clock. Gerry had no intention of rousing him too early. After what seemed an eternity, Eric was finally awakened by his recording of the military bugle.

Gerry was at his side in an instant. As Eric blinked his eyes open, Gerry removed his headset and unplugged the small tape player. "Rise and shine, soldier boy. Time for your greatest adventure."

Eric rose quickly to his now-standard upright posture and said, "Good morning, sir." He stepped down from the reclining bench on which he slept and stood tall for inspection.

"We're doin' something a little different today, Eric", Gerry announced.

"Sir? If I may, isn't it time for the toy soldier's morning workout?" Eric cast his eyes toward the weight set Sway had installed in the room, though tucked tastefully away in a corner. Sway wanted Eric to be his toy forever, but he knew those muscles wouldn't maintain themselves.

"Not this time, soldier", Gerry said. "It's true confessions time. Unless I truly screwed this up, I'm busting you out of there today."

Eric raised one eyebrow. "Sir?"

Gerry picked up the little tape recorder and popped out the small blue cassette. "In direct defiance of the orders from my--superior, I guess--I have been feeding you different programming, buddy."

"I-I don't understand, sir."

"You will in a sec. Just lemme finish."

"Yessir. I beg your pardon."

"I knew after our whole walking-out-the-front-door fiasco that trying to give you control of your body back was not going to cut it. So I went to work on your mind. Every night when you were supposed to be getting more creamy mind control goodness from Sway's insidious little CDs, I've been having you listen to subliminal hypnosis tapes of my own invention to restore your own conscious thoughts, your own personality. Of being Eric rather than a toy soldier."

Eric's expression grew concerned, but Gerry put a palm flat to his chest to calm him. "Hang on, hang on. At ease, pal." Eric calmed a little. "The whole point was that it be a secret. That this freedom be all set up, but hidden in the background of your mind. If it was too obvious, too overt, it might mess up your marching and whatever else sway might request of you and then we'd both be screwed. So you still got a heaping full daily allowance of his videos and CDs during the day, which worked damn well--as we saw last night--but your sleep cycle was all mine."

Gerry reached into his hip pocket and pulled out a bundle four tapes, one red, one green, one yellow, one orange, held together with a thick rubber band. "There was supposed to be a whole series to follow this", and he held up the blue tape, "But after last night's big opening I think we'd better just hurry things along right now."

Eric stared at Gerry. "Sir, how long have I been listening to your tapes at night?"

"A little over a month now."

"Sir, this is highly irregular. I'm not supposed to be thinking for myself, I'm a toy soldier, I--" Eric paused. "Sir, did it--did the tapes work?"

"We're about to find out."

Gerry placed a hand around the back of Eric's head, bracing him. He then rested his forehead against Eric's. "Listen carefully", Gerry said. Then he recited, "From out of a plaything held under another's Sway--"

"--a man shall arise to greet the day.", Eric answered, completing the verse. Then Eric blinked, like someone awakening from an extended nap. "Ger? What's happening?"

"I returned your sense of self to your conscious mind", Gerry said, bustling about the room, gathering up clothes.

Eric looked at himself, his body. He still moved like a toy. "I--I still feel as if I'm made out of wood, man. This uniform, it still feels like it's painted on my body."

Gerry poked under the bed, looking for an odd shoe. "We'll work on that."

"Seriously, I don't know if I can take it off. It'd be like--"

"Like ripping off your own skin", Gerry said. "Yeah, I know, I know." he stopped rushing about and looked at Eric. "Will you let me do it?"

"What do you mean?"

Gingerly, Gerry reached over and lay a hand upon Eric's hat. Eric just stood there and let him. Then Gerry yanked the hat off of Eric's head and jumped back three paces. Eric was amazed. "Whoa! Dude! How the hell'd you do that? It felt like it was all glued onto me and stuff."

"Well, you didn't try to strangle me over it", Gerry observed. "That's gotta be a step in the right direction."

Gerry tucked the hat under his arm and looked into Eric's eyes. They were bright and lucid, lacking the intense focus and mindless determination of the toy soldier. Gerry asked him, "Do you remember everything that's happened? Do you remember--"

"Being Sway's toy soldier? Yeah. The training, the marching, me threatening to kick your ass, you feeling bad about handing me over, me getting kind of hardcore plaything and almost choking you--sorry about that, by the way--me not being able to handle getting back my full range of motion. Hey, is that why it's so fucking hard to move right now? So I don't freak out again?"

"We'll work on that, too", Gerry said, yanking off Eric's military jacket.

"Dude! It's like you're undressing and folding painted wood. Awesome."

"Applaud the magic act later", Gerry said. He pulled a gray hooded sweatshirt onto Eric's shoulders. "In the meantime, wear this."


In short order, Gerry peeled off Eric's tall boots, pulled some baggy cargo pants on over his military breeches, and forced his feet into a pair of basketball shoes. They were a half size too small, but Gerry figured at this point beggars couldn't be choosers.

"So...what are we gonna do now?", Eric, still not quite sure what a man who felt like a toy soldier was supposed to do dressed in street clothes.

"You're getting the hell out of here", Gerry told him. "We're marching--literally--to the front door and you're going right over the threshold and back to your life."

"What--what am I supposed to do when I get there?"

"Whatever the hell you want."

"Ger, I'm not even sure I know what I want."

Gerry looked him sharply in the eye. "Call the crafting store people. See if you can still get the sponsor gig. Go on tour with a repertory company. Go back to college."

"I never really went to college--"

"Work backstage at some civic theater! Bag groceries at the Quality Food Mart! I don't care! Just get the hell out of here and away from Sway."

"Dude, he's totally gonna kick your ass."

"That's my problem. I made a deal with him, not you. It's not like you can sign a contract making yourself someone's slave. Now go." Eric just stared at his friend, overwhelmed. "March!"

Eric grinned. "Heh, heh. I've got a whole sense of self thing goin' on. I don't have to follow your orders anymore. Ha."

Gerry spun Eric around and pushed him in the back as hard as he could. "Get your ass in gear already! Before he finds out what we're doing!!"

"Geez, okay, okay. I just thought it was kinda funny is all. Don't have a stroke."

And so the former living toy soldier of the renowned Mister Archibald Fenworth Sway, disguised as Eric the slothful actor, marched down the hallways of the palatial mansion, and up to the main entrance.

Eric paused there briefly, remembering his last attempt to make his way through this egress. He extended his arm up gingerly, saw how it passed beyond the frame easily, let it pivot there a moment, then pulled it back in. With one grand step, Eric then crossed the threshold of that main entrance and stepped onto the paved ground beyond. Letting out a deep and satisfied breath, he then made his way, stiff-legged and swinging arms, back into the real world.

* * * * *

It took a little while making his way down the street for Eric to tone down his toy soldier marching. He smiled and waved at a few passersby, but was met by questioning expressions and strange looks. Eric simply kept cheerfully on his way. When a young mother ushered her two children to the other side of the street to avoid Eric's high-stepping approach, the actor realized he had to do something to reign himself in before he got hauled off as some kind of deranged street person. Within a few blocks, he was able to restrain himself and tone his march down to a walk, rigid and formal-looking though it was. He caught his reflection in a few shop windows and saw that, with his face and hands still bleached and his cheeks rouged for who-knew-how-long, it was in his best interest to try to put up as normal an appearance in posture and movement as possible.

After a few more blocks and several tries, Eric was able to bend his elbows enough to put up the hood on his sweatshirt and stuff his hands in the jacket's pockets. Some people might mistake him for a gangster that way, but it was better than being seen as toy soldier stripped of office.

Eric pondered where he was supposed to go next. Gerry had given him a considerable wad of cash and pocketful of change to get wherever he was going. All that he needed now was to determine where that was. He could not go back to Melissa's apartment, tempted as he was to pound on her door and yank his hood back and declare, "You see what happens when I actually take a fucking job, bitch?" What few possessions he had were back at Gerry's place, above the Clockwork shop. It might be nice to retrieve some of his own clothes, at least. He needed to get out of the too-small shoes and into his own sneakers.

Eric found a key to the shop's back door in one of the pockets of the hooded sweatshirt. He made his way inside and let himself into the room upstairs. He thought it would feel great to be back in his own clothes, to dress himself for once. It was actually very difficult getting his stiffened limbs out of one set of clothes and into another. He saw that he still wore his toy soldier breeches underneath the baggy cargo pants. He opted to leave them on, telling himself it was because it was too hard to try to peel the form-fitting trousers off, simply to pull on his loose-cut jeans which would fit over the top of them easily. Once attired in his own jeans, sneakers, and a nice Abercrombie hoodie, he took a look at himself in the mirror. It felt odd, and strangely inappropriate. His whitened skin cried out for a formal uniform around it, his head needed a bicorn hat atop it. He turned away from his reflection. It made his head hurt.

Eric picked up the phone, expecting to hear a message that the line had been disconnected, considering Gerry's long absence from the residence. But he was pleased to hear a dial tone. Eric dug through his clustered drawer of business cards and phone numbers scribbled on matchbooks and cocktail napkins until he found the number for his agent. He called to find out that the crafting store sponsor job was given to someone else. Melissa had called the agency on the day she'd thrown Eric out, informing them that Eric had gone on a "journey to find himself", whatever the hell that meant, and that he would not be taking the job. When the agent learned that Melissa had acted without Eric's knowledge, he cursed her for a "malicious cunt", and assured Eric he would move heaven and earth to recover that acting job or find him another job just like it. All Eric needed to do was say the word. Eric hung up before saying anything.

Eric reached up and massaged his jaw, trying to think. He was overwhelmed by the preponderance of options that lay before him. Should he call back the agency? Should he not? What jobs were even available? How long would they last? How far away were they located? And even with a guaranteed job and location, what guarantee had he of how his acting would be received? As he stroked his chin, he was suddenly taken aback by how easily he'd bent his elbow. He had to sit down on the threadbare couch and rub his brow with the tips of his fingers, reminding himself that being able to bend his elbows, to flex his fingers, to bend his knees to sit, was normal.

He needed to get out of the small apartment, to leave the shop where all this began. Pulling his hood up, Eric decided to go to the theater, to see if perhaps any roles awaited him there. As long as they were right there, on familiar ground, on a stage with which he was well acquainted.

Eric walked into the local community theater to the exuberant greeting of the lanky stage manager who had known Eric for years. "Eric! My God, what a joy to see you! Where the hell have you been keeping yourself?" The manager embraced Eric with spindly arms and hugged him tight.

"Um, actually, someone else has been keeping me."

Not registering the comment, the manager went on, "People have been asking about you! Where's Eric? How can we find him?"

Eric was surprised. "Who's' been asking about me?"

The manager continued his monologue unabated. "Does Eric have an agent? What's his contact informa--whoooa, nellie." The stage manager pulled back Eric's hood. "My God, man, you're a ghost! Look at you!"

"Um, yeah...see, the thing is..."

"Faaaantastic!", the manager cheered, laughing. He nodded excitedly, pointing at Eric's pale features. "Am I right? Huh?" Eric just shrugged. What? "You're doing The Fantasticks now, aren't you, you sly dog! You're doing the mime, right?"

Eric smiled weakly. "Can't put one by you."

The manager smacked Eric on the arm. "Leave it to you to go for the role with the least dialogue", he chuckled. "And leave it to you to come right back here where your heart is without even getting out of makeup." He hugged Eric again with one arm. "That's my boy!" Then he paused, considering. "Who's doing Fantasticks now, anyway?"

Eric swallowed. "Small group. Real small. I'd never heard of 'em before. Tiny hall. Each time it's like a...a command performance."

"No acting job too big or too small, right?"

"Something like that."

"Welllll, on that particular subject", the manager said, his arm still around Eric, "I have something just for you."

"You do? Really?"

The manager led Eric over to the message pin board by the small drinking fountain, near the janitor's closet. "Voila!"

Under the JOBS AVAILABLE section of the board were no less than three offers specifically for Eric. Two from different touring companies (one international), one from a theater in Chicago. The shortest offer was for a two-year contract. Gingerly, Eric plucked the cards from the board. "How the hell did any of these people even know I existed?"

The manager poked Eric in the chest with one finger. "You, sir, make one hell of a toy soldier, you know that?"

Eric started. "What? What do you mean?"

The manager waved a hand. "That one-time gig you did for the big business mogul at some statue unveiling. You were a toy soldier for that, right? Heard you made a big hit. Went over quite a treat."

Eric let out a deep breath. "Oh, yeah. That. That was pretty okay."

"Okay?! These fine folks", and he tapped the cards vigorously, "thought you were fucking brilliant. They know when an actor can become his part, and when his ad-libs come from the heart and not the ego. You nailed it, and you wooed them, lemme tellya."

Eric licked his lips, gazing at the cards. "These people were all there?"

"Anybody who was anybody was there. But most importantly", and he patted Eric on the shoulder, "you were there."

Eric stared at the cards, with contact numbers, names, and extensions. Each one had its own hand-scribbled notes urging that Eric contact only their particular group. Will wait for your call. and Eagerly holding production for your reply. and Willing to negotiate best offer! He noted the dates, then looked at the tear-off page calendar bolted to the wall above the stinky coffee machine. There was still time to take advantage of any of these offers. Eric felt his head swimming.

"So what's it gonna be, champ?" the eager manager beamed. "You know where you wanna go?"

Eric nodded slowly. "I have a pretty good idea of where I should be, yeah."

* * * * *

Gerry toyed with the idea of going back home but didn't really see the point. He had to face Mr. Sway, to confess that he'd been working in secret to undo Eric's mental conditioning, had set the precious toy soldier free. Gerry would have to return the uniform, minus the breeches of course, and find some way to refund the enormous amount of money he'd accepted from Sway and spent. Perhaps he'd end up having to work for Sway for the indeterminate future to pay off his new debt, provided Sway didn't have him killed first. Gerry took some solace in the notion that even in the event of his death, at least Eric's own programming would eventually fade without regular reinforcement. At least he hoped it would.

Gerry felt his heart jump in his chest when another thought occurred to him. What if Sway instead insisted that Gerry become the replacement for Eric? Gerry recalled all too well how easily he had responded to the circuit-laden bicorn hat, even when simply holding it. He knew that he would have very little to offer in terms of mental defenses should Sway decide to transform Gerry into a mindless plaything.

Gerry sighed. Let him. It was no less than the clockmaker deserved for having been so willing to sell out his friend in the first place.

Gerry had gone outside the Sway mansion and taken a long stroll outside its perimeter before approaching the doorway to Sway's private quarters. For all Gerry knew, this could be his last time spent in the outside world, so he might as well enjoy what freedom he still had, even if it was just to wander around the grounds. After a couple turns around, Gerry built up the courage to approach the main door and knock. He didn't need to. As soon as he raised his hand to grasp the knocker, the great door swung inward. There, filling the opening with his large frame, stood Mr. Sway.

"Forgive the less than formal approach of opening the door myself, but I found it quite necessary to greet you face-to-face immediately, Mr. Porapetto. It took you long enough to finally come up to the door. I applaud your courage in finally facing me."

Gerry swallowed, uncertain of what would come next. Clearly, Sway was fully aware of what had transpired by now and wanted to attend to Gerry personally. "I know why you are here and what you have done", Sway said. He then stepped aside and gestured with a meaty paw fro Gerry to come inside. "Enter."

Gerry stepped inside like a man being escorted to his doom. The door closed behind him with a resounding thud. He wasn't sure if he heard it lock behind him, but he wouldn't be surprised if it had. "You realize now that your life as you've known it is over", Sway said, his deep and resonant voice sounding very foreboding.

"What?", Gerry gasped. "Can't I at least--look, we can talk about this. If you'd only hear me out--"

Sway held up a large hand, silencing Gerry's pleas. "We'll have none of that, Mr. Porapetto. It is unseemly. I gave you a task to do, and I paid you well, if I may say so."

"Yes, very well, sir, but--"

"I am not finished", Sway stressed. Gerry closed his mouth. "I paid you well and you did not do precisely what it was you were paid to do. Now did you?" Gerry just looked at him, frightened, not sure what to say. Sway had him and he knew it. "Let's just have a look at your handiwork, shall we?", Sway said. He then stood tall and shouted, "Toy soldier! Front and center to your master's chamber!"

Gerry shuddered, knowing that this dramatic display was to drive home the fact that no one was coming, no nattily-costumed actor-cum-plaything was going to appear in the doorway to perform for him.

Then Gerry heard marching. The sharp clack of boots upon a tile floor, making their way toward them. In another few seconds, Eric appeared in the entryway, fully attired in his crisp uniform, boots polished, jacket neat, hat firmly perched atop his head. Eric clicked his heels together and saluted. "Sir! Your Toy Soldier reporting for duty to perform for your amusement, SIR!!"

Gerry's jaw fell slack. "No, you did not do what you had been paid to do", Sway commented. "You surpassed it! You went above and beyond the call of duty and you brought my dream to life!" Sway clutched Gerry's hand in his own, engulfing it as he shook it heartily. "Well done, my boy. Well done, indeed!"

Sway then led Gerry over to face Eric. Eric stood tall and proud, the perfect toy soldier, exactly as he'd been before, but for one detail. His eyes shone with the light of lucidity, his mouth gave a slight hint of a smile of pride. "This is for you", Sway said, handing Gerry an envelope. "A bonus to show my appreciation for the work you've done. A significant bonus, I might add." There are also some papers that need signing in addition to those you signed earlier. Confidentiality agreement, legal matters of that type. Can't have everyone wanting a toy soldier such as my own, now can we?" Gerry simply nodded absently, looking at Eric, still frozen at attention. "I shall retrieve the necessary documents, if you'd be so good as to await my return here", Sway said. "And I suspect that you and my toy soldier would like a moment alone, to say your final goodbyes. I realize how difficult it must be for you to lose a friend and give him away as a finished creation, as a work of art. It is no wonder it took you so long to approach the door." Sway smiled at Gerry, who did not see it, as he was still gaping at Eric.

"I shall move at a leisurely pace", Sway informed them as he departed. "So you may take your time. At ease, toy soldier."

"Sir!" Eric slipped easily into an at ease posture. When Sway's heavy footsteps faded, Gerry spoke.

"What the hell are you DOING here?!"

"I'm being a toy soldier, dude."

"I risked everything for you! I was ready to have that psychopath kill me to set you free, dammitt! What the fuck--?!"

"Don't talk that way about my lord and master, Ger."

"Eric, how can you even joke about--??"

"Dude, this is what I want."

Gerry froze in mid-curse. He couldn't have heard that right. He leaned forward, his face twisted by confusion and shock.

"I mean it", Eric repeated. "I seriously want this. I may even need it."

Gerry put a hand to his lips. "It's the programming. Your brainwashing is even deeper than I expected. We have to--"

"Dude, no. You gave me my brain back. I've never been thinking clearer. That's how I know this is what I need to do. This is where I belong."

Gerry's head was spinning. "You can't mean that. This life--this is--"

"Tailor made for me, man. And I'm, not just talkin' about the outfit. Think about it. I never have to travel. Fuck, I never even have to go outside. I always have the right clothes for the job, I never have to fret rent or utilities, and I will always--always--have an audience that will absolutely love me and everything I do. It's perfect for me. It's better than perfect. It's like my destiny."

"You can't mean it, Eric. Thin about what you're saying."

"I have thought about it! This is the ultimate job for me, and you know it. You have to know it. Think about who I was before. Look at who I am NOW. Look at how cool I am. How amazing I've become, how this all is."

"You've been reduced to a toy. An object."

"A living toy. A beloved object."

"I betrayed you, turned you over to this lunatic. I surrendered a life that wasn't even mine--"

"Blessing in disguise, man. You helped me find myself."

"But is this what you wanted to find? To be so little? To be almost nothing? To be reduced to--" It was at that moment that Gerry recalled the wild and uncontrolled look in Eric's eyes after his grand ballroom performance for Sway. Gerry realized where he had seen that look before. It was five years ago, when Eric received recognition from the largest civic theater organization in town for his outstanding work in a series of local plays. The acceptance, the accolades, had stunned him. But stunned as he was, he was in his glory. That was the look in Eric's eyes when Sway cheered him as his personal toy soldier.

"Eric, this isn't at all what you think. It'll be--"

Eric reached over and gave his friend a great bear hug, lifting him up. He held on for a long while, gripping Gerry tight. He then set Gerry back down slowly, patting his back affectionately. "I'm not all toy-soldierized again yet with the stiff limbs and all that, so I figure that's the last chance I'll get to do that." Eric looked down the hallway. No one was coming yet.

"If I go back to the original CDs and videos, if I ditch your tape, I'll end up all stiff and wooden with painted-on clothes again, right?"

Gerry blinked nervously, shaking his head. "I--I--but--"

"Right?", Eric asked, eagerly.

"Yes, yes, you will, but are you sure you--"

"Asked and answered. Now, why is it that even back in uniform I still feel so damn--I dunno--loose and free. It's throwing my game off. I need to stiffen up, start feeling like a toy again or I'm gonna blow the first official day of the rest of my life. I so totally know you did something else, Gerry."

Gerry nodded. "Yes, I--Eric, don't ask me to--"

"What was it? Can you fix it? Will it take long? Is it so complicated I can't do it without you?" Eric looked back down the hallway. Still clear, but he knew their time was short. "Come on!"

Gerry reached up to Eric's hat and felt inside the plume. Within a few seconds he fingered something and drew it out. It was a slender golden rod that looked like an old-fashioned fountain pen that had been squashed flat. Atop the rod, where the quill tip might have been, was a tiny light blinking red.

"That thing? That's it?"

"To counteract the hat", Gerry said. "I knew I couldn't rip out the circuitry without ruining the look of the hat. I didn't know the circuitry well enough to rewire it, again, that could ruin the appearance, so--I blocked it."

Eric stared at it, amazed. "With that? Dude, it's so tiny. That is sweet!"

"Well, I am a machine smith who works with tiny watch parts."

"Right, right. So shut it off."

"Please, Eric, don't ask me that."

"Already have. Just shut it off, okay?"

Gerry felt as if he were about to cry. "Eric, you do it. I can't. I just can't." He held out the rod to Eric, who took a step away from it.

"No way. It's gotta be you."

"Jesus, Eric. No. I can't being to--"

"It's gotta be you, man. You got me into this--thanks for that, blessing in disguise--now finish the job."

Gerry looked at the rod, then he looked at Eric. The tiny light blinked like an electric heartbeat.

"Send me on my way, man!", Eric said.

Gerry held up the rod, "God, I am so sorry."

"I'm not. Do it."

With that, Gerry snapped the rod between thumb and forefinger. Instantly, the tiny light went out.

Eric stiffened. "Oh. Ohhhhh...that's it. Th-that's it.....ohh, yeeeaahhhhh..." His back straightened, his shoulders went back, and his arms slowly and steadily returned to his sides, his elbows going straight. His knees began to lock, his feet slid together until they touched. He giggled.

"Eric, please tell me you'll reconsider."


"That you'll at least think about it."

"So if I go back to the programming as is, or as was, I'll return to being a good toy soldier, right? Just double-checking. Stiff body, feel like wood, the whole package?" Gerry nodded. "But most important, I won't blank out and go zombie-like or turn into a robot, will I?" Gerry shrugged, not understanding. "Dude, I will be aware of everything, right? I'll be able to discern every command, experience the sensations, hear and relish every moment of applause, every compliment, every single word of praise about how cool I am?"

Gerry let out a deep breath. "Yes, Eric. You will be fully aware of all you experience but you will be physically unable to do anything whatever about it. Your mind will stay your own, but your body will always be a toy for Sway to control. You go down this road, you won't be able to undo that. That'll be your life from here on out."

"Sweeet." Eric reached into his breeches, with some effort due to his stiffening arms, and pulled something out. "Then make sure you get rid of this damn thing." He tossed it with a flick of his wrist to Gerry, who caught it.

Gerry looked down at it. It was the cassette he'd made to return Eric's sense of self. It was apparent Eric no longer wanted it.

Sway approached from down the hallway. "I trust we've said our goodbyes."

Eric snapped to tight attention. "Sir! Yes, sir!"

Gerry sighed. "Looks like it."

"Then just a few final formalities", Sway said. He guided Gerry over to a nearby antique writing desk that until then had been purely an ornamental piece, and laid down several forms swearing him to secrecy which Gerry signed without looking at them. "Our business is concluded", Sway said. "Oh, and I had meant to give you this back during the last time I expected you to leave us, M. Porapetto. If you'd be good enough to take it with you now." Sway handed him an big gold embossed envelope, of the kind used for oversized greeting cards. It felt thick, as would a letter with many pages. Gerry tucked it into his back pocket for later perusal. Whatever it was, it could wait.

Sway led Gerry to the door, chattering about what a grand job the clockmaker had done, how pleased he was with his, as he put it, "priceless collectible". Gerry heard almost none of it. When they'd reached the door, Eric called out to them.

"Sir! My Commander In Chief, SIR! If I may be so bold, sir!" The duo turned around to face the living toy soldier, who slowly and purposefully brought up his hand in salute. "Mr. Porapetto, it was an honor to serve with you, sir."

Sway smiled broadly, Gerry could only turn away. "Yeah. Sure."

Sway gave Gerry one last shove out the door, and as the large wooden door swung slowly closed, Gerry watched as the great man stood before his former friend. Sway said something that Gerry did not hear, and Eric went down on one knee. "It is my privilege to serve you, my master", he proclaimed. As Sway laughed with delight, Eric darted a quick look out the door at his departing friend, giving him a wink and flashing a beautiful smile. The door closed on that smile.

* * * * *

Gerry spent the rest of the night drinking. He wandered from bar to bar, tormenting himself with the idea that he had cursed his friend to a life of servitude, had sold him into slavery. Yet he was equally torn by the revelation that after he had at least attempted to make amends, his directionless friend, bereft of goals, truly believed he belonged in the hands of someone who wanted to keep him only as a human toy.

Gerry awoke in his own bed with no memory of how he had gotten home. He silently thanked the heavens that he had not driven the night before and took some small comfort in knowing he had endangered no one in that regard. By midday he was feeling better, physically at least, and his hangover was in retreat. He sat behind his shop counter and brooded, unable to bring himself to open the shop for business. He looked over his stack of bills, all of them now paid in full, many paid for months in advance. He was indebted to no one, save his own conscience.

Separate from the piles of receipts and accepted payments was the rumpled gold envelope that Sway had given him. No doubt Gerry had tossed it upon the counter whenever it was he had stumbled in the night before. He opened it, half expecting a bomb to go off to silence him forever for the part he'd played in betraying--or perhaps saving?--his friend. It was not a bomb. It was a small selection of formal announcements and invitations from a host of official and regal-sounding clients, all of whom spoke glowingly of the day that Eric made his grand debut at Impresario Industries. But none of these notes spoke about the actor who portrayed the toy soldier, but about Gerry's magnificent mechanical ballerina. They were requests to build similar giant figurines, invitations to oversee projects involving intricate clockwork displays and attractions. Every proposed assignment was different, few had immediate time frames, and not one of them mentioned a job for compensation of less than six figures.

Amidst the many contact letters was a small yellow slip of paper with a handwritten note from Archibald Sway.

My apologies for the delay in getting this to you. I wanted to be certain you were not distracted from your immediate duties. Good fortune.

Gerry shuffled through the various envelopes atop the counter and found the one with the final bonus check from Mr. Sway. He tore it open and fell back into his chair at the sight of the amount. It took him only three minutes to make his next decision. He telephoned one of the clients from the gold envelope and accepted the job. It was in Switzerland, where his grandfather had begun his work. He then called the others in turn to inform them of his schedule and that, with their patience permitting, he would see to each of their requests in turn. Of nineteen possible commissions, he was refused by only two.

Gerry held a liquidation sale to clear out the shop space and two days following was on a plane to his first job. Upon the door of the LIKE CLOCKWORK emporium was a sign announcing the store's closing and thanking all its customers for their years of kind support and patronage. Gerry had no idea what possible success or failure awaited him in Switzerland, or London, or Paris, or any of the other places on his list of 17 sizeable commissions. But he did know that he would march headlong into each them with the confidence that can only come from one who is master of his own fate.

And he swore he would never allow himself to become complacent, to simply stand around and await orders, to move at another's whim like someone's personal toy soldier.

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