When I was nine my best friend Marcus and I discovered that the Good & Plenty machine at Epic Encores Video Store was broken and no longer required our quarters; the knob just turned and turned, raining down as much licorice booty as any boy could ever want. Marcus didn’t like licorice and would frequently end up outside, projecting paste all over the sidewalk. But he couldn’t resist the fact that we weren’t paying for it. I always told him to go down the street a little bit so Sandy wouldn’t see him launching and figure out the machine was broken and have it repaired. Marcus would always go too far down the street in my opinion. He would sometimes cross over to the next block and puke outside the florist which made no sense at all because the florist hated kids in general.
Epic Encores was always my favorite place to go on my way back from school. It smelled like old popcorn, the same way the arcade used to smell before it closed. It always seemed like the best things in Brunning closed. Brunning lay just outside of Utica, New York. There used to be a Nestlé chocolate factory there but it shut down in the seventies. Brunning was cold almost all year.
To the left of Sandy’s counter was a heavy red curtain partition with a placard above that read “Adults Only.” Marcus and I were obsessed with what was back there. When we asked Sandy he just giggled like a big bird and said, “That’s the first door to Tickle Manor,” and model-walked away from us, giggling and chattering to himself.
Whenever Sandy said something, he would say it again softly. “Sandy echoes,” Marcus later told me. He always had the coolest way of describing people. I’ll never forget “Sandy echoes” because it was the last clever thing Marcus ever told me before he disappeared.
It was hard to tell how old Sandy was. He just acted like a big kid and had a shiny catfish-looking face. He had two close brown eyes that shone as if everything was fascinating to him, and his blond hair was buzzed high on the sides and neatly combed over on top. The only thing that really bothered me about Sandy was how wide his mouth was and how thin his lips were. I imagined Sandy could deposit a whole Big Mac into his mouth at once, or fold a whole steak into it. The day he caught us at the Good & Plenty machine, Sandy lowered that mouth of his in line with our eyes. It was impossible to tell if he was going to bite or smile. But he did smile, and at close range the smile seemed to wrap clear around his head.
“We found it like that,” Marcus said, his forehead getting jumpy the way it always did before he had to go down the street.
Sandy looked at the machine. “Ya boys tickled my machine, didn’t ya?” he smiled.
“No,” I said, “The knob just keeps turning.”
Sandy shook his head. “No, no, no. Ya tickled my machine until it went, didn’t ya?” He laughed loudly and it hurt my ears. “Mr. Tickle sure would get a kick out of you two right now with your mouths all sticky and guilty.”
“Who’s Mr. Tickle?” I said.
Sandy looked surprised. He looked at Marcus like I was crazy. “You don’t know Mr. Tickle? Oh me, oh my, he would be plenty offended. Good & Plenty offended!”
Marcus and I exchanged glances.
Sandy snickered through his nose. “Who do you think puts candy in these machines?”
“You,” Marcus said.
Sandy whipped his face at Marcus, eyes shining with irritation. “I don’t have that authority. I’m just a greeter still,” he grumbled. “I meet the children for Mr. Tickle. But Mr. Tickle sees to the candy machines. You see the way they stay nice and full, don’t you?”
I dreamily scanned the plastic bulbs of Runts, Skittles, gumballs, and Good & Plentys, all stocked up to their chrome tops.
“There’s nothing uglier than a half-full candy machine,” Sandy said. “Kids can’t resist the look of so much c-c-candy. Mr. Tickle loves his children. I shouldn’t be telling you this, but Mr. Tickle broke the machine so you would keep coming back. He likes you boys. He especially likes this guy,” Sandy said, jabbing a thumb at Marcus.
“Really?” Marcus beamed. “Where is Mr. Tickle?”
I looked at Marcus and jealousy raked through me.
“Why does Mr. Tickle like him so much?” I whined.
Sandy’s eyes gleamed merrily into mine, his mouth spreading out in an abundant grin. “Because,” Sandy said, walking two fingers up my T. Rex shirt, over my shark tooth necklace, and tapping my chin, “this boy eats the candy even though the candy makes him sick. Candy is good for children. Mr. Tickle likes good boys. He has 85 children.”
“Eighty-five?” Marcus gasped.
“Uh-huh,” Sandy said. “Of course, they’re not from him.” Sandy lowered his voice and looked around. “You see, he can’t have children of his own. But he adopts. He’s always adopting.” Sandy’s eyes saddened then. “Mr. Tickle never married.”
Right then a woman with a dog approached the door and Sandy’s face froze. Marcus and I looked back as she came in with an amiable little dachshund. When I looked back, Sandy wasn’t there, but three-quarters of the way back to the cash register.
We decided it was getting late, that we should get going before our parents sent a “search party,” as they liked to say. I had to pry Marcus away from the dachshund. On the way out, I turned and watched how Sandy took the woman around, making recommendations. He acted just like an adult.
He caught me watching him and when the woman looked away he puffed up his face like a panda and I laughed. When the woman looked back, his face was normal again, but when she looked away Sandy made his face into a zombie and Marcus and I laughed about it all the way down the street.
My big brother Spencer was getting into a lot of trouble that winter. It was a big year, as mom and dad were constantly saying, because it was his senior year, which was a very important thing. He was thrown off the basketball team for fighting, and was later airbrushed out of the senior picture for vandalizing school property. He had gotten himself drunk and climbed onto the roof of Brunning High and gone around smashing out all of the halogen security lights. Then he shaved his head bald and dad wouldn’t look at him.
“I wasn’t drunk, Jamie,” he later told me. “I was just mad about coach kicking me off the team. I wanted payback, you know?” Spencer told me a lot of things he should have been telling my parents. But he couldn’t talk to them about anything for some reason.
“Spencer doesn’t talk about feelings,” my father once grumbled to me in a moment of frustration. Sometimes I thought my parents told me things they wished they could tell Spencer.
I started to get the impression that they wouldn’t even realize if I came home late or not. I sensed there was no actual “search party,” and so I started staying out later after school, going around Brunning with Marcus, kicking through the snow, checking on my favorite stores to make sure they hadn’t closed. We started spending more time at Epic Encores.
It became more and more apparent that Marcus was Mr. Tickle’s favorite, and I angrily resorted to reminding him that I was second favorite, and that second was the best. But this didn’t bother Marcus at all, which only exacerbated my envy. I found out that he was going to Epic Encores without me. Curtis Ahrens told me he saw Marcus back by Adults Only chatting with the worker. He said the worker was yanking back the red curtain a little and yanking it closed. He was really driving Marcus crazy, Curtis explained.
Just before Christmas break, Marcus didn’t come to school. Then police came in and talked to the teachers. Marcus wasn’t at home either. The police asked me if I had seen him. I said I hadn’t. I wasn’t scared but glad. I would have Epic Encores all to myself.
It snowed hard that afternoon. I happily kicked my way through it to town.
The horror section was always my favorite. I was forbidden to rent horror movies but I could always look at the boxes and gaze for a long time at the horrific movie stills on the back, and read the horrific synopses. Looking at the movie boxes was nearly as good as watching them for real.
A patter of fingertips thrummed across the back of my neck and I turned around into the slash of Sandy’s smile, his eyes staring deeply into mine. “Which one does he want?” Sandy asked. “Is it ‘Terror Train,’ ‘Summer Camp’?”
I was holding the box for “Terror Train,” eyes downcast. “ ‘Terror Train’ looks cool,” I said glumly.
“Then ‘Terror Train’ it is.”
“But I’m not allowed to watch horror movies.”
Sandy giggled. “It’s your parents, isn’t it?”
“Mr. Tickle would be very depressed to hear this, so we’ll keep that between us. See, Tickle kids watch all the horror movies they want.”
Sandy nodded very slowly and happily. “Uhh-huh!”
“Don’t they get scared at bedtime?”
“Bedtime!” Sandy clapped two hands over his mouth to stop the laughter. “Tickle kids don’t have a bedtime, Jamie. They stay up allll night long.” Sandy walked his fingers up my chest. “They stay up until 13 o’clock.”
“I’ve never heard of 13 o’clock.”
“Thirteen o’clock is what parents don’t tell their kids about because it’s the greatest hour of all. Don’t you see how your parents never want you to do the best things? The really, really fun things? They never want you to see 13 o’clock so they give you a bedtime.”
“What happens at 13 o’clock?”
Sandy shrugged. “Eat ice cream in bed. Drink grape soda on the couch. Watch horror movies in the movie room. Throw popcorn in the air. Anything they want, really. Tickle kids like to wrestle and Mr. Tickle doesn’t say boo.”
“What if they get hurt?”
He shook his head fast. “Nope. Everything’s padded at Tickle Manor. All the floors and walls are gooshy. Tickle kids fall down a lot, you see, because Tickle kids don’t have to tie their shoes.”
My heart was pounding.
He studied my face and checked the front door. “You know,” he said very slowly. “There’s an opening in Tickle Manor.” He waved suggestively to the heavy red curtain with “Adults Only” above it.
“But kids can’t go back there,” I sighed.
“Ah,” Sandy grinned, waving his finger around, “But what did I tell you about rules? Doesn’t a little boy always want to go where he shouldn’t? Doesn’t Mr. Tickle know this when he makes his signs?” He leaned forward, his mouth an inch from mine. “That sign is Tickle Kid code. That,” he purred, “is the first door to Tickle Manor. Would you like to see?”
I smiled. I couldn’t wait to brag to Marcus when he came back. I would brag until he cried.
Sandy took my hand, looking back once over his shoulder. He jigged, and I laughed. Then he model-walked. At the curtain he paused. From behind it, someone blew their nose. Then I felt Sandy grab onto the back of my neck and it hurt, and when I looked up at him he’d made his face into a hungry great white shark. My belly fluttered, and I started laughing, laughing even as he forced me through the curtain into the foul-smelling room where I saw Marcus perched sleepily upon a gigantic purple chair.
Terence Lane is completing his master’s in fine arts in writing and literature at Stony Brook Southampton. He has published fiction in the Southampton Review and has work forthcoming in the summer 2012 issue of the Avatar Review.