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11. a memory of the man

You snuggled under the covers, feeling safe and protected, and you sang the TK Wanderlad theme song to yourself until you fell asleep.

MICKEY LADDOW

The stitches on the cowl and mask were red, crisscrossing in patterns that reminded Mickey of an old train map that had been on the wall of his father’s study for years — one that traced the route of the first days of the Union Pacific Railroad.  The stitches looked more like decorations than anything else, and didn’t seem to be really holding the cowl together.  He found that his hands were turning the cowl and mask over and over, and he took in the twisting patterns of red, crossed lines over its burlap surface.  Mickey’s fingers traced circles around the inner edges of the mask’s two eyeholes, over and over again, just staring down at the mask.

You’ve done a lot already to earn this — ten years and a lot of false starts.  But, here you are.  You’ve found what you needed – and you’ve gathered the people you need.

I- …

No — none of that.  Mickey felt a sensation like icy knife-points digging into the back of his head, behind his eyes — a familiar pain, one he’d felt too many times for him to count over the last decade.  You need to remind yourself.  Put it down.  He let go of the mask — dropped down onto all fours in the mud, expressionless despite the agony.

… you need to go home.  You need to go home.  Tell dad everything.  Tell him you’re scared.  Tell him what’s happening. 

Give it up, Mickey. You say that, again and again, but it doesn’t do any good, has it? It hasn’t done any good in ten years – and you’ve never told your dad. Even if he believed you – you’d still take the blame. But, think about it, Mickey. Do you really think that’s an option — after everything you’ve done?  Do you think your father would be in any way sympathetic?  Do you think he won’t just kill you himself?  You’ve come and gone too far.


You have to try.  He’ll help you.  He’ll make this better.  A centipede crawled across Mickey’s hand.  He didn’t move.

Like when you first saw the man?  Did your father make 
that better?  Your father couldn’t protect you – so someone else had to be the one to do that.   You remember: you were five, but you remember things from back then, pretty well.  You’ve made sure of that. Think about what happened when you first saw the man.  

He remembered the date from his mother’s daily cartoon calendar.  She’d been alive then.  It was October 31st, 2004.  The cartoon on the calendar was something about cows and spaceships.  The house smelled like cinnamon.  His mom had made Halloween cookies to hand out to the kids.  The cookies were shaped like pumpkin faces; his dad called them Jack-o-Lanterns.  It was late, after he’d collected candy.  He’d shouted ‘trick or treat’ so often his voice was hoarse.   He was watching TK Wanderlad on cable.   So that meant it had been some time between 8 and 10 at night.  In 2004, TK Wanderlad ran in two-hour blocks on Sunday night cable TV.  So it was a Sunday.  He’d dressed up like TK — his hero — for Halloween.  He’d been in his costume. He’d insisted on wearing it to bed.  He’d been sitting in the big leather chair in the TV room with a bowl of popcorn.

You were attentive.  Everyone always said that about you.  You paid attention.  And you noticed something more than just the show.  With the music playing, and TK’s circus dancing on the television screen, you noticed something else out of the corner of your eye.  Through the TV room window above the television.  You stood up to look. You could see your own reflection a little bit in the glass.  You realized that you had pieces of popcorn on your face when you talked up to the TV room window.  And there were raindrops on the glass.  It had started to rain a little earlier that night, as you were taking the walk home with your parents, and by the time you’d gotten inside, it had been raining harder.   But you could still see outside, even though it was dark.  You could even see the woods from there.  And you noticed.  You saw the man, standing there like he’d just walked right out of the woods.  Just standing there at first, looking at you.  You remember how he was dressed — pretty much like the clothes in the bag you’re holding now.  You’d never seen him before, and yet — you somehow recognized him.  Do you remember that?  You knew him somehow, even though you’d never seen him before.  But you recognized him, too, somehow.  It wasn’t so much how he looked as what he looked like.  It was familiar to you.  You felt like you knew him.  Like you’d seen him many times before, even though this was the first time you’d ever met him.  And, yeah, maybe for other kids … he might have seemed scary.  But he wasn’t scary to you.  You remember.  He was big, and tall, but you remember how he didn’t seem to be unfriendly — just mysterious.  Standing there, looking at you.  And then — he waved.

Mickey lifted a hand from the mud and waved it, like he was calling to someone to come to him.  He waved to you, and you walked right out the door.

And you walked right out the door.  Your mom and dad were in their bedroom.  They thought you were asleep in the TV room downstairs.   But you quietly unlocked the back door and walked right outside.  They didn’t hear you go.


Out into the rain, but you didn’t notice.

You didn’t feel it.


Didn’t feel a thing; numb hands and feet.  Buzzing, in your brain.  But you could still walk.  So you did.

Mickey stopped waving, stood up, and began to undress, lifting first one leg and then the other to take his shoes off, the bottoms of his feet stabbed by branches.  He didn’t show any outward sign of being in pain.

You walked down the stone path to the edge of the woods, just past your back yard.  And you were dressed like TK.  Just like the opening of the show, when TK runs out of his cabin, past the farmhouse and the mill wheel, waving to his grandmother as she was putting up the washing.  You couldn’t hear the TV any more, but you could hear your favorite show’s theme song in your head.

And you reached the man, and he got down on his knees so that you were the same height, and he looked at you from out the eyeholes of the burlap mask that covered his whole head.  You were sure he had to be magic, with how he was dressed.  You thought maybe he came to you because of how you were dressed.  Did he think you were TK?  Was he really magic?  Was he somehow who he seemed to be?  You remember what he said.

He said to you: “It’s all true — all of it. Every word. We need your help. You’re the only one who can help.  Will you help? You’ve got a lot of things to do.”

You’d heard those words before.  You knew what they meant.  You nodded.  So he dropped to his knees and hugged you.

He hugged you, and then released you. You almost couldn’t feel the hug, which you thought was strange, because the man was so big.  You remember how he told you that he was happy you could see and hear him. You remember how he told you he’d been looking for so long for someone who could see and hear him for so long, but hadn’t found anyone who had been given that secret, special gift that you had.  That part had left you confused, but before you could ask about it, he told you that the gift would disappear if the secret of the man ever got told to anyone. You didn’t understand that, either, but you wanted to help, and you nodded when he asked you if you could protect the secret of your gift. That’s when he hugged you again.  He looked and sounded like he was crying, but you couldn’t be sure with the mask covering his face; it had sounded like he was crying, though. He told you he was so glad to be there with you; his gratitude made you felt like you could trust him.  He told you that you’d have to lead the way.  He told you that you had to help him move, that he’d be stuck in the forest forever if you didn’t.  You always wanted to help everyone.  He told you that you would have to guide him out of the forest; he told you it was as simple as you reaching out to him. So, you did just that – you reached out to him, and you found that it was just so effortless for you to guide him. You walked him along the path, all the way back to your house.  You came back inside — just as careful, and just as quietly as before — and you brought him into your home. You got out of your wet costume, and put on your pajamas.  He was there, standing silently beside you. You dried your hair and then you went upstairs and kissed your mother and hugged your father good night, and they did not see the man – and you didn’t mention him. Then, you climbed the stairs, and you got into your bed.  You felt safe.  You felt protected.  The man stood over you. You couldn’t see his face beneath the burlap, but you could tell where he was looking by the eyeholes. You could tell what the eyeholes must be seeing, where they must be looking. At first, he was looking down at you, turning his head as if to slowly take in the length of the bed where you lay through the eyeholes of the mask. Then, he was looking over toward your bedroom window; then, it seemed he was looking toward your bedroom door. He turned his head so slowly. But he only moved his head; he never left where he stood at the side of your bed. The rest of him was so still. You thought you knew what was happening – you thought he was checking everything in your room, looking for any possible danger or threat. It made you feel as if you were important – like you had a secret guardian, and that there was nothing that he couldn’t see or hear.  You felt like there was nothing he couldn’t protect you from in the world.  You knew he would always be with you whenever you were in danger, or when you felt weak.  You knew he would guard you from the things beyond your bedroom door, from the things outside your bedroom window.  You snuggled under the covers, feeling so safe — and you sang the
TK Wanderlad theme song to yourself until you fell asleep.

Mickey realized that, even as he was remembering, he’d been changing his clothes.  He’d taken off the jacket and set it down on the grass.  Then, he’d put on the trousers, cinching them tight with the rope.  They were much too big for him, so he’d cut off the extra length of the cuffs off with the knife before setting the blade back down.  He’d put on the baggy turtleneck, and then he’d got his boots back on.  He slid back into the jacket.  It felt comfortable this time.  There was no sense of nausea.  He threw his old clothes into the creek.  And he realized that he was singing, very softly, to himself.  He’d been singing the whole time he was changing:

In a magical forest,
there’s a boy named TK,
and he helps the folks in town,
Even though they put him down.
And the magic is waiting!
You can find it every day!
There’s a love we all can share,
If we all join in and care!
TK Wanderlad,
Maybe someday soon he’ll visit you
!”

Mickey pulled the burlap mask over his head.  The cowl fell across his shoulders and was held in place by the jacket.  He zipped up the jacket, and then bent down and picked up the knife again from where it lay in the grass.

It’s all true — all of it. Every word. We need your help. You’re the only one who can help. Will you help?  You’ve got a lot of things to do.

Mickey stood up and squeezed the familiar handle of the knife in his left hand — the hand of the weapon, the hand of power. ”You’ve got a lot of things to do,” he said.

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Published inpart 1

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