It was holiday season, and the manager hadn’t looked too closely at his resume - which he’d altered, leaving out the parts that would get him weird looks. He’d gone into the interview scruffy and several days unshaven, wearing an army surplus jacket and a knit cap to cover his hair. He’d been polite but kept his voice soft. He’d wrapped a present beautifully right there on the spot with hands rough with gun calluses, curled ribbon into ornate bows with a blade he’d used to draw blood.
“You’re hired,” the manager said. Christine was barely twenty-five. She needed all the help she could get, and no one wanted to work gift-wrap at the service counter in a toy store during the holiday rush.
But he needed something to keep his hands busy. A little extra cash couldn’t hurt.
She looked his resume over - John Jewett High School, Class of 1988, and USAF 1988-2009 - and asked for his driver’s license to make a copy of it. Had him fill out a few more forms. Had him fill out a survey about when he could work (any time she needed him). She gave him a black polo shirt to get him started and a temporary name badge that he could fill out himself (Evan, in perfect draftsman’s print).
And then she sent him out to the service desk with two teenage boys, Jayden and McKay.
Evan tried not to flinch when they introduced themselves - he’d removed his cap and jammed it into the pocket of his jacket, which he’d stuffed into a locker Christine had given him a key to, just off the break room - and he pretended not to notice the way they nudged each other and eyed him, mouths curving in cruel amusement.
“McKay,” he said, arranging the gift-wrap supplies with absent hands. “That your first name or last name?”
“First name,” he said. “Why does everybody ask that?”
“Because it was originally a last name, probably,” Evan said.
Jayden - he was tall and blond and golden-skinned, with sly green eyes and a pouty mouth - leaned on the counter beside Evan, trying for cool and casual but every line of his body screaming aggression.
“Aren’t you kind of old for a dead-end retail job like this?”
“No one’s too old for money,” Evan said.
Jayden glanced at McKay - who was dark-haired and dark-skinned and midnight to Jayden’s noonday - and McKay sidled closer, leaned on the counter on Evan’s other side.
“You live in your mom’s basement or something?”
“No, I don’t live with my mother.”
Jayden and McKay exchanged more glances. Evan remembered being able to communicate like that. With people he’d never see again.
“Live with a girlfriend?”
Jayden smirked. “A boyfriend?”
“No.” Evan glanced at him. “Basketball or football?”
Jayden’s smirk dissolved. “What?”
“Basketball or football. Which do you play?”
The smirk returned. “Basketball. Something a shorty like you wouldn’t know anything about, though, huh?”
Basketball had been the sport of choice under the Mountain, at more than one base. Evan could play, was passing fair.
“Not really much for playing sports,” he said.
McKay eyed him. “But you could tell we play?”
“You seem the type. I remember, from high school.” Evan continued to arrange the gift-wrapping supplies.
McKay arched an eyebrow. “Oh yeah? And what type were you in high school?”
“I was an artist.”
Jayden and McKay exchanged a fistbump, laughed.
“I bet you were,” McKay said. “What happened after high school?”
Evan straightened a tape dispenser. “I grew up.”
Jayden and McKay traded more looks, but before conversation could continue, a customer arrived. She placed a box of legos on the counter. Evan asked quietly if the gift was for a girl or a boy; she said it was for a charity raffle.
He covered the box in paper, folded creases sharp enough to cut, sealed it up so the tape was nearly invisible. He spun a bow, stuck it to the top of the package, then slid it back across the counter.
“Thank you,” the woman said. She put a dollar in the little tip jar.
Jayden pocketed it immediately. He glanced at Evan, daring him to make an issue of it.
McKay waggled his eyebrows. “So you’re still an artist.”
Evan said, “I know how to wrap presents.”
Truth was, McKay and Jayden weren’t bad at wrapping packages themselves, had worked this gig last season. They were saving up extra money for prom next semester. McKay’s parents could have covered it for him, but they wanted him to learn “important life lessons”, so he had to get a job like any other peon. Jayden’s mother probably could have helped him, but he was man enough to provide for himself, thanks.
“What d’you need the money for?” McKay asked. “Besides, you know, a razor and a decent haircut.”
“Charity,” Evan said.
Evan was good at wrapping odd-shaped packages, so whenever someone came with an irregular tube or a stuffed animal or something bizarre, Jayden and McKay sent the task Evan’s way. And he took the tasks, without question. (One thing he’d always been good at was following orders.) (Giving orders was another skill set entirely.)
Evan showed up for work the next day clean shaven, out of respect for Christine, and he made some more effort at combing his hair. Jayden and McKay ribbed him, asked if he was trying to impress a MILF or something. Evan ignored them, wrapped presents, and ate his lunch (homemade sandwich and side salad) by himself.
“You’re like a robot,” Jayden said, after lunch. “It’s kinda scary.”
“No,” Evan said. “The scariest robots are the ones who are indistinguishable from humans.”
McKay whistled. “Well, that was deep.”
Evan said, “Don’t swim after me. Though you can drown in two inches of water.”
Jayden started to laugh, paused. “Wait. That wasn’t actually funny.”
“I wasn’t trying to be funny.” But Evan smiled at the next customer who approached the counter, wrapped the package quickly and efficiently.
The old lady smiled back at him and pinched his cheek. “You have a lovely smile. My Leland had a smile like that.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
The old lady scooped up the package and shuffled away.
“Dude,” Jayden said in a low voice, “are old ladies your thing?”
“Sometimes,” Evan said, “smiling is my thing.”
Jayden and McKay had three hobbies when they weren’t working: ribbing Evan, rating the MILFs who came to the counter, and recounting their Call of Duty glory moments. Evan ignored the ribbing and the uncouth commentary about their female customers (though he failed to inform them when Christine was standing right behind them during one of their more explicit conversations). He did his best to tune out their video game talk.
“You don’t play video games?” Jayden asked.
“I’ve played them before, but they’re not really my thing,” Evan said.
McKay kept his voice low, chastised after whatever Christine had said to them in the breakroom. “What, you afraid of a little gunfire and combat action?”
“You’re not?” Evan asked.
That set both boys to laughing.
McKay laughed so hard he started to hiccup. “You’re afraid of - of what, loud noises and a bit of blood?”
“Gunfire,” Evan said quietly, “isn’t just loud noises. Combat isn’t just a bit of blood.”
“Oh yeah? Then what is it?” Jayden asked.
“I hope you never find out.” Evan wrapped another gift, smiled another smile, and then took his fifteen-minute break.
That was the beauty of gift-wrapping and dealing with Jayden and McKay. Evan didn’t have to think too hard, but he had to concentrate just enough that his mind couldn’t go wandering, couldn’t head for places it shouldn’t, places with explosions and screams and death.
Places with darts and culling beams and Wraith.
Evan returned to the counter, ready with a smile and steady hands. A customer stepped up to the counter, pushed a box of legos across to him. A lego Millenium Falcon.
Evan said, “For a boy or a girl?”
And then Evan really looked at the customer. “Colonel Sheppard.”
“No offense, but this is a pretty dead-end job,” Sheppard said.
Evan held his gaze for a moment, then set about wrapping the box. “Pretty sure this job will not have dead ends for anyone, sir.”
“You still call me sir. And here I’d heard you were retired, resigned your commission.” Sheppard leaned on the counter, his posture all too reminiscent of Jayden’s.
Jayden and McKay were hovering behind Evan, hanging on to every word.
“I am retired.”
“And yet -”
“With all due respect, sir,” Evan said, “here’s your present.” He pushed the wrapped box across the counter.
Sheppard stared at it for a second, baffled. “This is - wow. Beautiful. Have you always been able to -?”
“Happy Holidays, Colonel.”
Sheppard tucked the gift against his hip. “Major, can we talk somewhere?”
“I’m not due for another break for another four hours,” Evan said. “Just got done with my break.”
Sheppard darted a glance at Jayden and McKay. “Don’t make me do this in public.”
“Do what, sir?”
“Lorne. You can’t just -”
“I can and I did, sir. Twenty years. Have the pension to prove it. So if you’d please step aside, I have other customers -”
Sheppard caught Evan’s wrist. Evan twitched his scissors into a stabbing grip without thinking. Sheppard paused. Released Evan’s wrist slowly. Leaned in, lowered his voice.
“Look - you didn’t do anything wrong.”
Evan raised his eyebrows.
“Yes, people died, but you made the right command decision.”
“You did. You think I like the result any better than you? Yes, I’m alive. Yes, I’m needed. In the grand scheme of things, they were expendable and I was not.”
“We’re all expendable, sir. It’s why they give us numbers.”
Sheppard looked aggrieved. “We all experience survivor’s guilt. You think I like it? You think I like being the one who has to make that call?”
“I made that call, not you.”
“I know, and I’m sorry, but I’m also not sorry to be alive -”
“I didn’t do it for you.”
Sheppard recoiled. “What?”
“I didn’t do it for you,” Evan said again.
Sheppard looked confused. “What are you saying? That you did it for the good of the expedition?”
“I’m saying I know what you and the rest of your team are like, the lengths you’d go to to keep each other alive. I know what it’d do to you, if one of you didn’t make it back. And because I value your happiness over the safety of my own men, I am no longer fit for duty.”
Color crept into Sheppard’s cheeks. He swallowed hard. “When you say your happiness -”
“I mean your team’s.”
Behind Evan, Jayden and McKay shifted nervously.
Evan said nothing.
Sheppard fumbled for words. “But - but if you’d followed my orders, if you’d left me, he’d have been uninjured -”
“And you’d have been dead and that would have been worse than a broken arm.”
Sheppard stared at him for a long time. “Since when?”
“He never said -”
“He doesn’t remember.”
“But he’s Rodney -”
“Second childhood took some things no one knew about. Things that were expendable.”
“If you’ll excuse me, sir, I have a dead-end job to keep working.”
“Major. You’re a fine airman, an exemplary soldier -”
“There are no dead ends here.” Evan caught Sheppard’s gaze and held it.
Finally Sheppard stepped back, nodded. “All right. I’m not going to change your mind. Just - if you ever change your mind, we’ll take you back. Georgia, she - she misses you.”
Georgia. Atlanta. Atlantis.
“I miss her too.”
“Happy Holidays, Colonel.”
Sheppard melted back into the crowd.
There was a pause, people watching him go. Anxious shoppers clutched their packages close, gazed at Evan with wide eyes. He pasted on a smile.
A mother clutching an armful of Barbies stepped forward. “That bow you did for that man just now, I want one of those.”
Evan nodded. “With pleasure.”
After the last customer left, Evan, Jayden, and McKay helped Christine and the cashiers Stella, Yuki, and Lara close up. Back in the locker room, Evan unpinned his nametag, left it in his locker. He shrugged on his army surplus jacket, tugged on his hat and gloves.
Jayden and McKay had been quiet for the rest of the shift, kept casting him glances sidelong but didn’t say anything.
Finally McKay spoke up. “So you used to be a soldier?”
“So...you’ve seen people die.”
“Have you ever killed anyone?”
Jayden hissed at him, dug an elbow into his ribs.
Evan said, “Yes.”
Jayden froze, mouth open, eyes wide.
The others stayed facing their lockers, pretending not to hear.
McKay swallowed hard. “What was it like?”
“If you really want to know, find out for yourself. Otherwise, stick to your video games and leave the real work to the professionals.” Evan closed his locker, snapped the lock into place. He nodded at Christine, headed for the door.
She followed him, tugging on her own coat and hat. “He called you major. You need a masters or its equivalent to make major.”
“That wasn’t on your resume.”
“Like I said, I need something to keep my hands busy.” Evan kept walking, heading for the back door that led out to the parking lot.
Christine bit her lip. “McKay was incredibly out of line. I’m sorry.”
“It’s better that he’s naive enough to ask the question than experienced enough to know the answer.” Evan held the door open for her, walked her to her car.
“This is really is a dead-end job for you -”
“I know,” Evan said, “but I promise, I’m not going to die here. It’s just one season. Revenge, or so they say, is a season hell. I made my choice. The universe has had its revenge. After this season, I will be done.”
Christine paused halfway into the driver’s seat. “Has anyone told you that you’re scary sometimes?”
Evan smiled. “Never.”
Christine slid into her car, and Evan shut the door for her. He turned and trudged through the snow to his car. He turned on the engine so it’d warm up while he scraped snow and ice off the windows and mirrors.
Then he drove home, and had supper, and watched a movie, and went to bed, and he had untroubled dreams.
“Now this one. Give it a really big, fluffy bow.”
“Am I wrapping every single gift for your family?”
“This one’s for my niece.”
“And that one was for your sister, and that one was for her husband, and -”
“You’re better at it than I am, all right? And I want - I want them to have the best Christmas possible.”
“All right, all right, I get it.”
“So you’ll do it?”
“I’m doing it, aren’t I?”
“A really big fluffy bow.”
“One really big fluffy bow, coming up. It’s a good thing I love you.”
“Used to be you couldn’t stand me.”
“You did kinda drive me crazy at first, but what can I say, I’m a sucker for blue eyes and big -”
“Yes, that’s exactly how I was going to finish that sentence.”
“It’s a good thing I like you.”