01 Feb The Puppet in the Tree
Every elementary school has a ridiculous urban legend. My school had Muppet Man, and I hated him.
Muppet Man was deformed. Ill-fated plastic surgery left him with the ghastly proportions of a marionette puppet, so he stole a rainbow animal costume from the school theater and wore it everywhere. He lived in an ancient oak tree in the recess yard. Some kids claimed he lived in the branches, watching us play from camouflaged hideouts of leaves and twigs.
The morbid kids said he lived in the trunk, eating caterpillar larvae and torturing the ghost of Jason Hughes.
Jason Hughes wasn’t an urban legend, unfortunately. He was just a tragedy. A doomed, anxious wreck cursed with ridiculously outsize glasses and an obsession with drawing. I remember feeling angry one rainy afternoon because I wanted to color with the teacher’s new markers, but Jason already used all the paper in the classroom. Nobody liked him much, including me. But I don’t know why. He was a sweet kid. Fretful, anxious, and a little too smart for his own good, but sweet.
Jason disappeared on a November evening in second grade. A few days later a teacher found his clothes piled at the base of the schoolyard oak tree. The principal called a school assembly to make the announcement. He made it sound like the clothes had been laundered and neatly folded, but my dad – a cop at the time, a cop with the bad habit of telling his kids things nobody should have to know – told me Jason’s clothes were filthy. Worse than filthy, in fact: matted with urine, feces, and blood.
He told me I couldn’t repeat it to anybody. I never did. It was too horrifying to even think about, let alone share.
That’s why I hated Muppet Man; nobody could say his name without some snot-nosed little shit from behind the tracks saying Jason’s. A horrifying schoolyard litany.
That was another problem. The kids at school knew Jason was my neighbor, and they knew my dad was a cop. After weeks of hysterical interest, I was abruptly ostracized.
It suited me fine. Over the past couple years, my dad had arrested the parents of at least two kids in my class, and they gave me hell for it. It was all right. I preferred books to people anyway and spent every recess reading under the oak tree. Sometimes I pretended to read to Jason’s ghost. Penance, I guess, for treating him so poorly.
One day in February I got to school two or three hours late. I don’t remember why. I only remember getting to school and plodding across the empty recess yard.
February is a bad month in that particular corner of the world. The sky goes from polished steel in the morning to icy steel in the evening, and at night dims to a flat watery darkness that makes my heart ache. The plants are all dead, the trees skeletal except for flourishing colonies of mistletoe. It looks like despair.
The empty recess yard was no exception. Everything was grey and pale and somehow brittle, like it would crack and shatter if you touched it. The almost preternatural stillness turned that pale winter fragility into something sinister. Paranoia skirled through me suddenly. What if, just what if, it was true? What if the universe was broken? What if the scene before me was a fragile husk, just waiting for a misplaced step to break it into pieces?
I swallowed a surge of panic and took extra care with each step, setting my foot down with excruciating gentleness. Sand crunched under my soles. Everything felt solid, but the sense of glassy fragility persisted. I fought the urge to close my eyes and walked as quickly as I dared.
My path took me right past the oak tree. Black, blown-glass bark glimmered faintly. Branches threw spiderweb patterns against the grim sky. They were bare except for nests of mistletoe. The tree was infested with it. Suddenly, with a disconcerting, painfully adult burst of clarity, it occurred to me:
The tree was dying.
I slowed to a halt, staring at it with the kind of hushed reverence you’re supposed to feel in church. The tree was scary but beautiful at the same time. More than that, it was a pillar of my memory; it was visible from my backyard, towering over the school and my childhood like a reassuring and eternal sentry. Except it wasn’t eternal. It would be gone someday, maybe before I left grade school. Maybe sooner.
My throat felt hot and tight. I took in the sight of the bare branches and tried to mentally edit out the mistletoe clusters. It was difficult: they burst from the tree thicker than summertime leaves, and they kept moving, jostled, no doubt, by the cold winter wind.
Except – another brutal, bleak epiphany – there was no wind. The dark mistletoe rustled and writhed like a trapped serpent.
Cold air stung my eyes as they widened.
Bright bursts of color flickered inexplicably among the branches, slithering through the mistletoe like a multicolored feather boa.
And glittering in that sinuous rope of color – eyes.
Glassy round eyes the color of limes.
The rope of color broke into tendrils and grew, not unlike the fungus in which it nested, overtaking the darkness with eyewateringly vibrant neon hues. Then they twined back together, worming behind branches and mistletoe before resolving into a fluffy, ridiculously proportioned caricature of an animal. A cartoon incarnate.
“Hello,” it said. Its voice made me jump: full and hearty and unpleasantly friendly. A cartoon voice.
My lip trembled. Tears pricked my eyes, scorching and frigid at once. “You’re not real.”
“Yes I am.” It fixed me with a sharp, reptilian stare that made me want to scream. “I might even be realer than you.”
The world looked glassier than ever, faded and brittle except for the obscenely bright monstrosity above me. I stamped my foot and held my breath, praying that the world would shatter, taking the technicolor monster with it. If I broke a broken world, would I break anything at all?
But the pavement remained solid. The frozen chill bypassed the soles of my shoes and leached into my feet.
The creature stretched and stretched and stretched, slowly snaking its way down the trunk of the tree. Simultaneously slothlike and reptilian, bursting with that ridiculous Crayola fur. It should have been funny. Why wasn’t it funny? Why was I scared? Why wasn’t I running away?
It slid down the bark until its eyes were level with my own. “Only really real things,” it intoned, “can hide themselves in plain sight. Real things like me and Jason Hughes. Your friends call me Muppet Man. You can, too.”
It extended a hand – long and absurdly thin, almost like distorted frog feet except for the rainbow fur.
I turned and ran into the school, screaming all the way.
The poor nurse tried to extract the story from me. I don’t even remember what I said. I just remember hiding under her desk and sobbing. When I finally blubbered the words Muppet Man and Jason, the school went on lockdown. The cops came. My father wasn’t with them. I watched through the window, gagging and crying and trying to forget Muppet Man’s bright green eyes. But how could I, when everything else – the oak tree and the police, the nurse and the sky and my own shaking hands – looked so brittle and faded? Muppet Man was the only vibrant thing. The only bright thing. The only whole thing.
The only real thing.
Some time later – maybe a minute, maybe ten hours for all I knew – a cop came into the nurse’s office. He grabbed my elbow over the protestations of the nurse and marched me outside. The world rushed past me in a grey, dead, glittering blur. The tree loomed ahead, dark and blank and terribly close.
I flailed, but he dragged me to the oak tree and shoved me forward. I stopped inches from the bark. Dark and dead and cracked, except for absurd tufts of technicolor fur.
“Did you do that?” the cop demanded.
“Do what?” I screamed. “Do what?”
“Did you put that,” he pointed to a particularly obscene knot of neon pink fur, “on this tree?”
I told him no. I told him it was Muppet Man, that I’d seen Muppet Man, that Muppet Man knew Jason and now he knew me.
The nurse sent me home shortly thereafter, and my parents packed me off to my grandparents’ house in San Diego that very night. I stayed for three weeks. Stayed until I stopped having nightmares of Muppet Man eating Jason’s bloody, shitstained clothes while I watched, trapped by his bright eyes like a deer in headlights.
I got home on a Wednesday evening. I know it was Wednesday because I remember looking at my mom’s calendar. Big and glossy and full of Beagle puppies. It always made me smile.
My parents fed me Burger King and ice cream cake, then sent me to bed.
When I pulled my covers back, I froze. Everything around me blanched, turning pale and glassy.
Everything except the dirty tufts of neon-bright fur on my pillow.
My parents assumed I did it and yelled at me for almost an hour, but they let me sleep in their bed anyway.
School was a nightmare. I spent the entire morning dreading recess. When the bell rang, I thought about throwing a tantrum just to stay in the classroom. But I’d get in trouble. My parents would be angry. I’d go to the principal’s office.
Besides, there’d be other kids on the playground. Vibrant, living, colorful, noisy kids. All that noise and brightness might be too much for Muppet Man.
I told myself these things, but still ran to the bathroom when the bell rang. I threw up, then sat in the stall until a teacher – summoned no doubt by a tattletale – came and told me I had to go outside.
I dithered in the corner by the tetherball court, as far from the oak tree as I could get. Even from a distance, I thought I caught glimpses of bright fur slithering through the branches.
I decided I was seeing things.
When the days finally got warmer – steel skies softening to rich blue in the daytime and Easter egg colors at night, bare branches sprouting buds, flowers growing in the planter boxes all around the school – I resumed my recess ritual of reading under the tree.
I was cautious at first, but determined. Every adult in my life had me convinced that I was hallucinating. Every kid in the school knew I’d had a breakdown about Muppet Man. The taunts alone were enough to steel my resolve.
Before I knew it, I was reading under the tree like always, the glassy winter horror barely more than memory.
One afternoon in April, something pulled me out of my book. I didn’t know what it was at first. Maybe the kids screaming on the jungle gym. Maybe the fifth-grade girls gossiping a few yards away. Maybe the warm breeze rustling the leaves.
I looked down and gasped.
Larvae crawled along my arms. The yellow-white caterpillar worms that lived in the bark, the kind all the kids said Muppet Man loved to eat.
I ran to the tetherball court and lingered until the bell rang.
When I got home that afternoon, I found clusters of neon fur all over my bedroom. I ran to my mother. She lost her temper, marched me into the backyard, and told me to stay until she was done cleaning up after me.
When I finished crying, I settled myself under the apricot tree and got lost in my book.
As the afternoon light deepened, rich daylight giving way to copper, something snapped me out of my reverie. I looked down and saw white worms. Soft and tiny and somehow wet, inching over my arms.
“Hello,” whispered an unpleasantly friendly voice. “Sorry it’s been so long. I guess I’ve been a bad friend.”
“I’m crazy,” I whispered. I snapped my book shut and closed my eyes. “Crazy, crazy, crazy –”
Scratchy polyester fur crumpled against my skin. “Not crazy,” Muppet Man said. “Just really real, like me and Jason Hughes. What are you reading?” He reached out, blinding multicolor fur blazing in the dappled sunlight, and flipped the book over. “Black Beauty. Is it good?”
“It’s great,” I wheezed. I wanted to leap to my feet, wanted to run screaming into the house, but my bones felt watery and frozen at once. I wouldn’t be able to stand up, let alone run.
Muppet Man brushed the worms off my arm and settled down beside me. His fur made me feel itchy. I didn’t look up. I already knew what I would see: that slothy dinosaur face dominated by glassy eyes that would blaze in the dying sun. I didn’t want to see it. I was afraid of what would happen if I did.
“My mom will see you,” I whispered.
He patted my arm, fur crunching again. “You should read to me.”
Tears flooded my eyes. “No.”
Strong, fuzzy fingers wrapped my wrist. “I want you to read to me.”
“If you read to me, I’ll take you to Jason Hughes.”
I almost scoffed. Jason Hughes with the giant glasses and the keening voice, anxious Jason Hughes who stole all the art paper in the classroom just to draw his stupid fish and stupid beetles, Jason Hughes who’d been reduced to bloody, shit-stained clothes at the base of the schoolyard tree.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because we’re lonely,” Muppet Man said.
I glanced at the house, praying my mother would look out and see us. “If he’s lonely, he should go home.”
“He can’t. His mom doesn’t like him.”
I pondered this briefly. I thought of my dad. My poor dad who worked himself to death with overtime. My poor dad who couldn’t catch a break at work.
But what if I could help him? What if I could find Jason Hughes, and give my dad all the credit?
“When would I see Jason?”
“It depends,” said Muppet Man, “on how well you read.”
I opened my book to the very first page and began to read aloud.
The scrape of the sliding glass door broke my concentration shortly after. I looked up and saw my mom. My heart leapt to my throat. I spun around hopefully, but Muppet Man was gone.
The next morning, I found clumps of neon fur in my dresser drawers. It clung to my pants and shirts like lint.
At the end of May, I found a note on my windowsill. Neatly folded construction paper printed with brightly colored marker:
Come to the School tree tonight at eleven. Your Friend, MM.
Coarse strands of yellow, pink, and blue hair sprinkled the note. I brushed them off and tucked the paper in my pocket.
I wasn’t stupid. I knew I couldn’t go alone. I was terrified of Muppet Man and almost as terrified of what my parents would do to me if they caught me sneaking out.
So I went to my father. I showed him the note and begged until I wept. He accused me of making it all up for a while, but in the end he agreed to take me to the school at the appointed time.
We lived only a few blocks away, so we walked. The evening was unseasonably cold, almost as cold as the day I first met Muppet Man. I fought back tears the entire way, clutching my father’s hand with both of my own.
The school gates were locked, of course, but there was a small gate hidden in a passage behind the cafeteria. It had nothing but a simple latch. The kids all knew about it, but the adults never did anything.
I led my father around the perimeter of the playground, keeping close to the buildings in order to hide in the shadows. “Wait here,” I whispered. He obliged, looking tired even in the darkness.
I looked at the tree. It didn’t look sick anymore. Leaves hid the mistletoe infestation. It looked full and healthy, the eternal sentry once more.
I stood by the trunk and whispered, “Hello.”
Something rustled among the leaves overhead. “Hello,” came Muppet Man’s warm, full voice.
The branches rattled and a dark, furry shape slithered down the tree. Glassy eyes caught the light of the moon and blazed. “He’s inside me.”
Muppet Man twisted and stretched down the tree until his eyes were level with mine. No longer was he vibrant or bright. His fur was filthy, caked with mud and sand, and bare, dirty canvas replaced large swaths of the once-lush neon coat. Of course he was missing fur. He’d been leaving clumps of it all over my room for months. It was a wonder he had any hair left.
“What do you mean?” My voice issued in a thin, wheezy whine.
Muppet Man crept closer, holding me captive with his glass eyes. His long, thin fingers touched his chin and pushed, sliding into his face and pulling it up like a child removing a Halloween mask.
My heart thudded, heavy and horrid as a war drum.
Enormous glasses glinted in the moonlight, tragically outsized for the decayed little face underneath. Jason Hughes’s rotted head was grey and so very fragile, gleaming like clouded glass under the moon. If I touched him, he would shatter.
The absurd costume fell to the ground with a whisper. Dull and faded. Even the eyes were dead now. The costume was dead. It had never been alive.
Jason’s empty sockets bulged, then broke and split apart with a series of soft, papery pops. Something roiled inside, thick and dark and gleaming with a thousand dim lights in colors I couldn’t name.
The world flipped and cold playground sand dug into my face. My dad’s scream shattered the glassy silence. Perhaps it shattered Jason’s poor dead face, too.
I curled up and lay still as my dad screamed and sirens wailed in the distance.
The ruined costume went into an evidence locker. Jason himself was laid to rest several weeks later. They held onto the body as long as they did in order to find out what happened to him. I asked my father about it, but he refused to tell me.
I was disappointed yet relieved, and I never tried to find out on my own.
I did my best to forget everything, and actually came close. I might have managed had my father kept his mouth shut.
He has a habit of telling me things I shouldn’t know. Things nobody should know. I guess it’s a personal exorcism, freeing demons that haunt you. It’s just that the problem with freeing demons is that demons usually go on to haunt someone else.
My dad retired a few years ago, but he still has friends on the force. They get together and talk every once in a while. They had one of their visits last night, and one of his friends brought up Jason Hughes.
“Did they find the guy who did it?” my dad asked.
“No,” said his friend. “But the costume. That weird puppet costume? It’s not in evidence anymore. It’s gone.”
“Did someone take it? Did they accidentally toss it?”
“We don’t know.”
That alone was enough to haunt me forever. But it didn’t stop at enough. Demons never stop at enough, if they ever stop at all.
I know this because when I got up this morning, I found dirty tufts of neon fur scattered all across my bedroom floor.