The Tortured Soul of the Walking Man

Around town they called him the Walking Man. Nobody knew his name. Nobody cared enough to ask him. He was just the Walking Man, and had been for the past ten years. Though he scared only those new to town, the Walking Man was said to haunt Hillside. He would sit outside the CO-OP Grocery for hours in the summer, drinking coffee at a picnic table while the town hurried around him. When the weather turned cold and lives moved indoors the Walking Man could be seen outside still, a dark frame huddled over his steaming cup.

Two dollars a day for unlimited cups of dark roast, regular or decaf. Seven hundred dollars a year. Seven thousand dollars every ten years. The Walking Man wasn’t CO-OP’s best customer, but they all knew who he was. He never said anything, just smiled and nodded or frowned and shook his head. The most imaginative thought his tongue gone but most just assumed he was a mute, and they supposed that was sad but okay.

The Walking Man had two outfits. Both were frayed, faded, and old. In the spring and summer he wore dark denim pants and a thin gray jersey tee. The shirt had a cracked graphic that once sported either Mighty Mouse saying “Here I Come to Save the Day!” or the cartoon squash of a farm forgotten. When the weather turned cool and then cold the Walking Man put on a black sweatshirt. It was newer, and somewhat cleaner, and the face that looked out from his belly was Bernie Mac’s. Sweatshirt Bernie’s big mouth was opened, and in bright yellow above the head was cursive text that said “I AIN’T SCARED OF YOU MOTHA F*CKA’S!” Over the black sweatshirt the Walking Man wore a scratched, broken, stained brown bomber leather jacket.

His boots were old and burnt black, the rubber soles thin, the leather bent around the toes. Nobody wanted to know if the Walking Man wore socks.

The town of Hillside was one of transition. Students from neighboring Dolce Springs University lived in Hillside. New faces cycled through every four years, and it were these fresh faces that said the Walking Man was older than the CO-OP itself, though how would they know, young and new to Hillside as they were?

Those who had made a life in Hillside, and had seen the Walking Man since he first began wandering around town, only agreed on one thing regarding this mysterious character – he had grown more haggard with each passing winter.

He would be seen on the streets of Hillside and Dolce Springs at all hours and in all weather. An excited freshman might return to his dorm at four in the morning in the dead of winter, body flushed against the freezing temperature, spouting off how he’d watched the Man wandering among the orange lamplight of the quad.

“The Walking Man was just going from tree to tree!” the student would say. “He’d walk up to one, put a hand on its trunk and just stare up at its limbs.”

The Walking Man seemed to have an affinity for trees. There was a trail system called Elm Springs that connected Dolce Springs and Hillside, fifty miles of single track that runners and cyclists patronized on the weekends. The Walking Man had walked those fifty miles fifty times and more. Unbeknownst to anyone the Walking Man had spent years building the series of jumps on the four mile winding loop called Wormhole in the dead of the night with nothing more than the moonlight to guide his digging and patting and tamping. Why? Only the Walking Man knew.

Some bright summer mornings the Walking Man would go to Wormhole and sit on a jump and whistle “I’ll Fly Away.” He’d melt into the woods after the first biker came whizzing by.

Hard as he might be to spot in the woods, it was easy enough to find the Walking Man on the streets. He was thin but not unhealthy, dressed in his jeans and jacket, a thick black beard of long curling wires tangling and dangling from cheek and chin. His hair, greasy and matted, hung in thick clumps down to his shoulders, its ends sheared off in the fashion of one who carelessly cuts their own hair with a dull knife. Many said that the Walking Man smelled terrible – that you could smell him before you heard his boots clacking down the sidewalk – but in truth he smelled no worse than a handful of thick forest humus and a breath of fire smoke. But people wanted something else to say about this dark, wordless man, and stories of his horrific stench spread through town.

There was much conversation involving the Walking Man with the people of Hillside and Dolce Springs. What these folk discussed most, however, was the Walking Man’s time at the CO-OP.

For the first two years the Walking Man would sit at a table in the corner of the CO-OP’s outdoor seating. His clothes weren’t as old then, and his boots weren’t as worn, and his beard wasn’t as thick, but no one would sit within two tables of him.

Then he moved to the center table and people were forced to sit nearby, though grudgingly at the first. After a year of this he became little more than a CO-OP fixture, and so was accepted at his station. CO-OP patrons would sit all around – though never at the same table. They managed to settle into comfortable conversation with their tablemates.

And then, seven winters later, they found the Walking Man dead, frozen at his center table, a burnt manuscript littering the ground nearby.

The husk of black, curled paper turned out to be an unfinished manuscript. It was written by the Walking Man.

*

The Walking Man was once Damien Wolfe.

This was the first line of the book, and it opened the Hillside police into a world of first intrigue, then horror.

Damien Wolfe was an author, accomplished within certain spheres of literature, namely the supernatural. His work was character driven. He would conjure extraordinary circumstances to thrust at his cast.

He had risen to pseudo-fame in his early thirties with a series of short stories that detailed the dark forces of the Aizlor subterranean society, blind creatures who wormed and squirmed in the dark. They spun spells in the black beneath the earth’s surface. From there his career had blossomed in a modest fashion, with eight novel length publications that went deeper and deeper into the vibrations driving the dark soul of Tugger Wilde, an Aizlor sociopath inhabiting human flesh on Earth.

Each novel advanced a reader’s understanding of Tugger, who evolved into a loathsome, grievously jealous monster that burnt his victims for the simple crimes of a modern society: excess wealth and human greed.

Damien enjoyed something of a cult following, and at the height of his fame his book Take Me to the Fair was read as a serial on satellite radio. In fact, his biggest limitation was his inability to develop a character with favorable qualities, something his literary agent, Trip Gancer, often threatened to pull his hair out over.

So while Damien was never a bestseller his work did toy with the top fifty. Five of his eight books had remained in publication for fifteen years. Checks would come into the mail at his small home on the northern edge of Hillside, sums in the hundreds. The police found his home after contacting his literary agent to inform him of Damien’s death.

Trip was a small-sounding man who was not surprised with his client’s death. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see that one coming,” he said. “Ten years ago Damien wanted to explore life as a homeless man in a university town. I told him I thought it was ironic that he was going to buy a house down there if he wanted to be homeless. He said that it was all about appearances, and that he was doing it to get a new story, one that didn’t involve Tugger Wilde. I didn’t fight him over it. Damien was going to write a book about the experiences, call it The Tortured Soul of the Walking Man, but three years passed and nothing came of it. We cut ties about seven years ago, after he told me that his work had been killing people.”

When asked to explain further, Trip laughed. “Damien said that the characters he had fabricated in his novels were real – that he found them in Hillside, and that he had overheard some of his characters in conversation at the grocery store where you found him frozen up. Apparently one of his characters would sit near Damien at the CO-OP and start talking to a nearby tree. This person wouldn’t engage Damien, and when Damien attempted to speak to him or her they would up and leave the CO-OP. After this encounter Damien would come home to that dirty little hovel and the book with that character in it would be ruined, usually burned. These characters would vanish from Hillside, and Damien never saw them again.  So then Damien made a leap and assumed that Tugger was real, and killing his characters, and that Damien was to blame for ever creating the – his words, “Aizlor scum.” I tried to get Damien to move back to New York and get some counseling but he refused. Instead Damien swore off writing and started really living life as the Walking Man. He said it was safer that way. I gave up on him. That he has a new manuscript is surprising … would you mind mailing me the copy?”

*

The idea for the Walking Man came early in my career, Damien wrote. I was fascinated by the men and women who lived their lives wandering the streets, especially so in university towns. I wanted to spend a year – or two, or ten – in a homeless man’s shoes so that I might better understand their struggles. I would write a book about it. Here it is.

What you must know is that this project has ruined me, yet I have never felt more alive. I am alone. My friends forgot me. My fans – few as they were – no longer remember my name. I never had a family, so I am nobody. But I am free. And that might be more than you can say.

This was a passage from the opening chapter. It was dated February 11th, 2012. This was two years before Damien died of exposure at the CO-OP.

 *

This whole business about the dead characters was, the police thought, absolute nonsense.

Where do our characters go after they are killed? wrote Damien, the Walking Man. Where might we find them but in the recesses of our imagination, on the terms we feel most comfortable?

That Damien Wolfe was cracked in the head was without question. His home was littered with the ashes of his books. Smears of gray burnt grit covered the walls. Torn papers were gathered as drifts in the corners of his room. Where they decided must be his workstation sat a rusted typewriter, a rotting shell of misused metal. There were dark stains on the desk, tiny dried pools of red and brown. Analysis proved this to be blood, suggestive of Damien’s medium. Police were relieved to discover that Damien wrote with his own blood, and not another’s.

Carved into the wall of above his workspace was a quote. With every step I take I erase a word, yet here I write, and so my sins mount again.

The miles of Damien Wolfe, the Walking Man, explained. The police released a statement. Word spread, then went viral. Trip Gancer secured the rights for the publication of The Walking Man Diaries, a compilation of the readable pieces of Damien’s burnt manuscript. Eighty percent of the profits earned would go towards the non-profit organization called Street Shoes, which was not only partnering with POP! Cola, but also putting used boots on the homeless. The remaining twenty percent would go into Trip Gancer’s pocket, his standard agent fee.

Damien was to be immortalized as a hero to the people, to those without voices, the men and women and children without home. Trip Gancer had sunk hundreds of thousands into an advertising campaign for The Walking Man Diaries, and he was appearing on Oprah to promote Street Shoes. There seemed to be a profit in selfless service. Trip was shooting for fame, and bringing the memory of Damien Wolfe with him.

It was an hour before Trip was to appear live on Oprah that he received the call. The Elm Springs Trail Committee had dug up the bones buried beneath the jumps the Damien had built. They had decided to make the Wormhole trail friendlier to beginners, and found a burnt body in the mound of mud. They called the Hillside Police Department, Hillside found a note stuffed in a plastic baggie that read With every step I take I erase a word, yet here I write, and so my sins mount again. So they called Trip Gancer.

When he heard the news Trip’s first thought was “What about Oprah?” Then, “It’s not fair.”

Trip’s guest appearance was cancelled. He rushed to Hillside, and Oprah used Trip’s vacant spot to discuss the proper way to stuff a Thanksgiving turkey. The holiday season was fast approaching.

*

There were eight bodies buried underneath the series of jumps, all burnt to varying degrees, all found with the same note. With every step I take I erase a word, yet here I write, and so my sins mount again.

By comparing bone analysis with North Carolina missing persons database investigators were able to positively identify all eight victims. Five were male. When Trip saw photos of the victims submitted by the families he understood at last what Damien had meant all those years ago.

“Trip,” said Damien. “My work has been killing people.”

Damien’s victims looked like characters Damien had first described and then had Tugger murder in his books. Scott David, 25, protagonist of Then Came the Rain. Daniella Stuart, 17, girlfriend in Off to the Races. Franklin Potter, 44, from Why, Why, Why? William Johnson, 66, of Mary Says Not. Reeva Harlow, 27, antagonist of Swung from Boughs. Jane Kirkpatrick, 50, of Xylophone Dandy. Rick Mather, 14, of Here We Go. Again. And Tyler Prescott, 20, of Take Me to the Fair.

POP! Cola pulled their corporate partnership from Street Shoes. The charity was summarily dissolved, and Trip decided he was done with non-profit work. But where Street Shoes failed, Gancer Literary Agency flourished. In the media storm that seized the nation Damien Wolfe rocketed to the bestseller list with four of his novels. Topping the charts for seven months was Take Me to the Fair. Of his eight books, six sold a million copies in two years. To the people, Damien Wolfe was Tugger Wilde, and they couldn’t get enough.

Trip took this momentum to accelerate the hardcover launch of The Walking Man Diaries, which was projected to become an all-time bestseller. Imagine that.

After much discussion with the publishers Gancer Literary Agency decided to place a quote on the backside of the book’s dust jacket. The quote was from his February 12th 2014 journal entry, his final entry, two days before Damien was found dead at the CO-OP.

*

With every step I take I erase a word, yet here I write, and so my sins mount again. I am Damien Wolfe. I am Tugger Wilde. I am evil, and so are you. I have tried to be good, have tried to right the wrongs of my life, but you have beaten me down for above all I am the Walking Man. So my flesh melts into bone, and so my body shall freeze. But my words are blood and fire and then ash. So I burn you, brand you, and beg you remember me.

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