WILL unpacked his duffel bag on a park bench. Malibu Barbie was wearing a bright yellow sundress with yellow strappy sandals, and he carefully positioned pink sunglasses shaped like tiny hearts on her nose. Next was the hat, a wide-brimmed straw hat with yellow and pink ribbons that curled onto her bare shoulder. Excellent. The hat was critical, since it would keep Barbie from spotting what Mr. Potato Head, sitting next to her on the bench, was doing.
Mr. Potato Head was carrying a small cane, and he was using the tip to stealthily slide Barbie’s skirt up her tanned thigh. His face was a masterpiece of dumb lust. He didn’t see Mrs. Potato Head behind the bench, snarling, her red patent leather purse ready to descend on his head.
He photographed the scene, packed up the toys, and was out of the park and back home before the dew had dried on the sweet summer grass.
WILL had started Bad Toys as a joke while he was still in Afghanistan. The unit had received a care package from a small town in Kansas. PFC Braddock and Corporal Binns had pulled everything out, looking for copies of Maxim, cookies, or microwave popcorn. The rest of the unit had watched the unpacking in disbelief. Barbie and Ken, Mr. Potato Head, GI Joe, Humpty Dumpty, a plastic bag of small green soldiers, another of cowboys and Indians. Some soft little stuffed animals from the zoo, giraffes and hippos and lions.
The plastic warriors had quickly found homes in BDU pockets, but the rest of the toys had sat in the mess tent, on the table with the silverware, staring at them with painted eyes like some bizarre raspberry blown from America. Until Will had carefully positioned Barbie kneeling on Humpty Dumpty’s face, her head thrown back in passion. Barbie was surprisingly limber. Ken and GI Joe had their own fling on top of the salad bar, tiny erections made from elbow macaroni filched from the kitchen. Will never stopped to analyze what he was doing, but from that strange beginning, Bad Toys became an Internet sensation, and Will grew the heart of an outlaw.
HE WAS a year out of the Corps, finishing up a degree in classical history at George Mason. Will thought he might go to law school since he felt like a cynical asshole all the time. Law seemed to be the proper career for a person with his outlook on life. His mother had suggested he might want to talk to someone at the VA. He’d assured her it wasn’t PTSD, just a bad mood that had lasted three years. He kept forgetting to schedule the LSAT, though, and when he should have been doing research and filling out applications, he found himself roaming the city with a bag full of toys, planning a little street art. So he was ripe for it when one of his professors pulled him into his office. “William, I’ve got a problem.”
“What’s the matter, Dr. Jones? You don’t have another flat tire, do you?” Will wasn’t sure how a grown man with a PhD and a head full of gray hair had managed to not learn how to change a flat, but he had spotted him in a downpour, wringing his hands and trying to figure out which end of the jack was up.
“No, it’s a bit more serious this time.” His office was crowded with overflowing bookshelves, the only visitor’s chair holding a pile of files in primary colors. “Just move those, William. I need to tell you a story.”
Will put the files on the floor, sat down. “What’s up?”
Dr. Jones stared out the window, his hands on his hips. “I have a nephew. Did I tell you? His name is Tom. My older brother’s son. He’s a gentle boy, not really strong. He’s been working on his PhD in Elizabethan literature.”
“He’s at Oxford.” Dr. Jones pulled his desk chair around and sat. “So what happened is that last year, late in the summer, he got sick. It was totally unexpected, but he had leukemia. It seemed to come like a lightning bolt out of a clear blue sky. Neither of us really knew how to handle it. He and I, we’re the only family we have left now.”
“He went to a doctor, right?”
“Oh, yes, of course. I don’t mean we didn’t know what to do to get him medical care. We didn’t know how to handle the emotional consequences. The threat. The unexpected mortal nature of the condition. I was overprotective, I’m afraid, and Tom became… somewhat eccentric. More so than his usual, and he was always an original boy.”
Will raised his eyebrows.
“I remembered you had been a Marine. You’ve got a Purple Heart, correct? I saw the tag on your motorcycle. That made me think you might have a better understanding of the way near-death changes a person. That you might understand what he’s going through.”
“Okay.” Will was remembering the way this particular professor liked to lay extensive groundwork before he got into the meat of a lecture.
“The oncologist told Tom his leukemia was in remission about a month ago, and he was free to continue his studies, so he went off to England to work on his dissertation. And that’s when the… when the strange….”
“He started to see ghosts. Not just random ghosts, like ghosts on the street. Not like Casper. He’s talking to the ghost of Christopher Marlowe. And that’s not even the worst part.”
Will opened his mouth to speak, realized he didn’t have any idea what to say, and closed it again.
“He’s become convinced after talking to Marlowe’s ghost that Kit was not killed in Deptford in 1593, but that he escaped and went to live in Germany.” Dr. Jones stood up, began an agitated pacing. “William, do you understand my concerns? If he begins to spout off crackpot theories about Christopher Marlowe, his academic career will be in ruins before he’s even granted his degree. I mean, these conspiracy theorists are the laughingstock of the academic world!”
“Wait a minute, I’ve heard about this. Some people say Christopher Marlowe faked his death and he was really Shakespeare or something, right?”
“There’re a hundred theories. That is the stupidest of them all. William, I’m afraid this belief of his is somehow rooted in his leukemia. It’s like he has some emotional trauma from being so ill, and it’s finding expression in
this—” He waved his hands. “—this ghost obsession.”
Will waited. He still wasn’t sure what Dr. Jones wanted.
“Do you understand my concern? You see how this could happen?”
“Yes. What do you want me to do?”
“I want him at home, where I can care for him properly. I’ll pay for the plane ticket and give you money for expenses. You aren’t enrolled in any classes this summer. I want you to go to England and bring him home. Would you consider doing me this favor?”