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these roads I've walked

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1.

Kevin was all of 25 years of age when it happened. It wasn’t the first confrontation of its kind, nor would it be the last, but it was the one that stood out the most.

He had just finished catching up with Phillip at the local record store —Phillip had wanted him to hear something his band had been working on— when Kevin noticed a person following him as he was leaving. Kevin didn’t react. If they’re not aware they’ve been caught, then just carry on as normal, Smith’s words rang in his ear. Naturally, Kevin did. The guy tailing him wasn’t even trying to disguise his presence. Was he an idiot?

Turn here, Smith’s voice in his head said as Kevin reached the next alleyway. Kevin did and fit his back flat against the wall and waited for the person to come around. Make sure you take them by surprise.

The person turned the corner and Kevin was quick to shove them back first against the wall, his forearm pressed up against their throat.

“Who are you and why are you following me?” Kevin said. He looked the person over. Male. White. Young—probably in his 20s. Short brown hair. Lean build. Handsome face. Around the same height as Kevin. His blue eyes were wide open. 

“Shit! I’m sorry,” the man said, his pupils dilated and face flushed. “You’ve misunderstood my intentions. Let me go, please—I can explain!” Kevin could hear the waver in the man’s voice.

“Not likely. Why are you following me?”

The man raised his arms by his sides, “You can check me for weapons. I’m unarmed.”

Kevin frowned but had another look over at the man. In his red and white striped shirt, blue jeans, and converse sneakers, he wasn’t exactly dressed inconspicuously like other attackers had in the past. Kevin had a feel of the man’s pockets, but there was nothing. However, Kevin didn’t let go.

“Okay then. Tell me why you’re following me.”

The man chuckled. “I’m a fan?”

Kevin increased the pressure on his hold of the man. “If you wanted an autograph, you could’ve just asked for one out in the open. But you were waiting to get me alone.”

The man sighed. “Okay, okay. This wasn’t how I wanted this to play out.” Kevin narrowed his eyes.

The man’s face started to redden and he gazed dropped to the left. “I was going to ask if you’d wanna go out sometime,” he said, somewhat quietly.

Kevin’s eyebrows furrowed and he loosened his hold on the man. “Go out?” 

The man turned his gaze back to Kevin. “Yeah. Like maybe a movie date or something.”

The cogs turned in Kevin’s head. Oh.

Oh.

Smith hadn’t prepared him for this. Sure he’d been asked out by his fair share of people, but they had all been women. He stepped back, looking the man up and down. He really was handsome. His appearance and outfit made sense. The flustered face made sense. Why he wanted Kevin alone made sense. He was just a normal person with a crush. No mission to kill.

A flush started creeping up Kevin’s neck and spread to his cheeks. His parents had gone against societal expectations when they married as an interracial couple. They had no time for discrimination and nor did Kevin. And Kevin had long since come to terms with his attraction to women and men. “Um sure,” Kevin said, rubbing the back of his neck. “Sorry about that. You’re one of the few guys who hasn’t tried to kill me the second we’re alone.”

“Damn, that must be hard. I guess with how popular you are, it’s to be expected. Start over? I’m Nick,” Nick said, offering his hand.

Kevin took hold of his hand. “Nice to meet you, Nick. I’m Kevin. But I think you already knew that.”

Smith would definitely tell him not to trust so easily. But it wasn’t so much that Kevin trusted, it was that he had become observant enough to decipher bullshit when it appeared in front of him. He’d had to. 

And while his safety was important, Kevin learned that not everyone was out to harm him. Letting the suspicions or fear dictate his life would only prove detrimental to his well-being. To live a great life that was open to new experiences and connections, you just had to have a bit of faith. 

Nick grinned at him, his cheeks rosy red. Kevin grinned back. This could be fun.

2.

In the years after Audrey had dismissed him from Billy Bat, Kevin would sometimes hear her voice in the back of his head. That man is trying to scam you or this has no profit potential or this is the same as gambling. It was sometimes frustrating as Kevin really had no need for her comments; he’d seen many people try to dupe his parents and even experienced it himself. Mostly her comments just served to remind him that she had once been in his life. 

Despite that, part of him was grateful to Audrey: grateful for the lesson she had inadvertently taught him back those many years ago. 

It was 2001 and Kevin had just bought the latest Billy Bat issue from a newsstand. It was the issue that he’d arranged to have a big warning on the back cover, instructing people to steer clear of the Twin Towers in New York. Only, his warning hadn’t been printed. That was strange. He checked the date of the issue—it was all correct. But where was his warning?

It didn’t remain strange for long. The television announcement he made to warn everyone had not been aired either. Instead, Audrey had publicly dismissed him. Kevin was no longer a part of Billy Bat. It didn’t make sense—Audrey was well aware of Kevin’s comics predicting the future, heck, that’s how she had marketed Billy Bat so successfully for so long much to his dismay. Why hadn’t she listened or believed in him?

After the Twin Towers came crashing down, Kevin confronted her. “Why? Why didn’t you publish or air my warning?”

Audrey just tilted her head up from the newspaper she was reading, looking at him through her designer sunglasses. “It was unmarketable,” she said before taking a sip of her tea and returning to read the newspaper.

And that’s when he realised. She didn’t care. Audrey had put a price on human life; a price that she wasn’t willing to pay, despite having the means. 

You couldn’t put a price on human life, but Kevin learned that didn’t stop people from trying to.

3.

Shortly after Kevin had started drawing for the official Billy Bat comic, the real Chuck Culkin approached him with a peculiar question.

“Do you think people can be redeemed?” Chuck said, watching over Kevin’s shoulder as Kevin inked another page of Billy Bat.

At the time, Kevin hadn’t thought too hard about the question or why Chuck had asked it.

“I guess it depends on what they need redeeming from,” Kevin had answered, not looking away from his work for even a second. “However, if you were to ask Billy Bat, he would say yes.”

When Kevin was met with silence, he turned around to see Chuck with his head in a comic. “Chuck?” 

There was a sniffle and then Chuck looked up from the comic. He took his glasses off to wipe a tear from his eye. “Ah. That’s exactly what he would say.”

Kevin narrowed his eyes. “Who?”

Chuck held up the comic in his hands. It was one of Kevin Yamagata’s Billy Bat issues. “See here,” Chuck said, pointing to the page he had opened. 

Kevin scanned the page. Unsurprisingly, it was one he was well aware of; his dad had been a Kevin Yamagata fanatic, after all. The page in question was located near the back of the issue and showed Billy Bat patting the dog villain Marlon on the shoulder, telling him that if he really wanted to then it wasn’t too late to change his ways.

“This very issue of his Billy Bat has kept me going, even on my darkest of days,” Chuck said. He looked up at the ceiling. “It makes me feel like even someone as terrible as me has hope.”

“You’re not terrible, though,” Kevin said. “And I’m sure Kevin Yamagata would tell you the same thing.”

Chuck smiled, looking back down at the comic in his hands. “Even so.. I’d like to apologise to him one day. And until that day arrives, I’ll keep soldiering on. Just like Marlon.” He nodded to himself before straightening his posture.

Kevin’s eyes widened. There was a spark about Chuck, like his resolve had been strengthened just by holding onto that issue of Billy Bat. 

Was this the power of comics? No. This was the power of Kevin Yamagata’s comics. To think that they had been Chuck’s motivation for all these years was truly remarkable. 

When Kevin looked down at the comic in Chuck’s hands, it was blazing in a whole new light. Would his Billy Bat have this effect on people? 

Many years later he received his answer in the form of a letter.

Dear Kevin,

There’s a story I’d like you to know. It’s about a boy who had a dream. He dreamed that one day he would be a famous comic creator and save the world. 

When he was old enough, he started as an assistant for a comic that garnered decent popularity. However, the creator of the comic, who was also his mentor, had to abandon the comic for a while and left it in the young assistant’s hands. The young assistant wasn’t prepared and grew frustrated that he couldn’t draw oceans nor nail down the expressions his mentor could—his own looked too cute. But then he was visited by a mysterious man who had a keen interest in the cute way the young assistant drew the protagonist of the comic. They formed an agreement and the young assistant drew the cute version of the comic that the mysterious man liked, and the mysterious man became the public face of the comic. 

The comic exploded and ended up with its own television show, merchandise, and international theme parks. It had all this success but the young assistant, who by then was a middle-aged man, was not happy nor felt accomplished as he once hoped he would be. Even though he had technically made his childhood dream a reality, he felt like an imposter, like he’d let his first ever comic mentor down. He wished that he could talk to his mentor one more time and apologise. Instead, all he had was his mentor’s old comics, motivating him day by day.

But then came another young man and this young man drew the comic’s protagonist with ease; he had nailed the expressions that the assistant never could and the stories just flowed out of him so naturally. He took over for the assistant, who had aged and had been struggling to keep up with the demand.

The young man was amazing. His comics revitalised the assistant in the same way his old mentor’s had. The assistant built up his own collection of this young man’s comics and looked to them whenever he felt down. There was just something so moving about the comics. The young man was the perfect successor to the assistant’s old mentor.

Then one day, when the assistant was old and bed-ridden, he managed to converse with his old mentor for the first time since many decades ago. All he could do was apologise, but as the comic successor had once predicted, his mentor didn’t think he was terrible at all. 

I don’t think the successor ever fully realised how powerful his comics were. It wasn’t just the mentor’s comics that had kept the assistant inspired and motivated, but also the successor’s.

And that was when the assistant realised. His purpose wasn’t to save the world with his own comics, but rather to pave the way for his mentor’s successor to do so. After all, the assistant still couldn’t draw oceans.

You won’t remember but you once said to me, “I hope I can make as big of an impact as Kevin Yamagata’s comics.” You can. You did.

Forever a fan,

Chuck Culkin

Kevin dropped the letter onto his desk and wiped the tears from his eyes. Chuck had passed away only a month ago. 

“Chuck… Your oceans were beautiful,” Kevin said, his voice wavering.

Kevin wished he could’ve corrected the story to Chuck’s face and tell him the impact Chuck’s own comics had. He sat back on his chair and let his head fall backwards.

With the power to sustain and instil hope in people, comics were a powerful medium. 

4.

Some people might have called Kevin a mama’s boy, for he and his mother got on really well. But the truth was, it was hard not to be somewhat of a mama’s boy when your mom was as great as Kevin’s. 

Kevin had heard all the stories about her. Diane Goodman had managed to single-handedly save his dad by quelling a riot at work. She married Kevin’s father despite not being approved of by his family. She had joined protests for Black civil rights. She had donated large sums of their wealth to small charities of colour. She had done a lot. Despite knowing this, she still managed to surprise Kevin.

It was one of the times Kevin had returned to visit his childhood home as an adult. He had been having a coffee with his mom at a little cafe when it happened. A white man was sprinting down the street carrying a handbag with a short Asian woman chasing him and yelling at him to return her bag. She would never catch him at her pace, though. 

Naturally, Kevin stuck his leg out just as the thief ran by, effectively tripping him. The woman’s handbag fell at Kevin’s feet. He reached up and offered it to the woman as she caught up. 

“Thank you so much,” the woman said, trying to catch her breath.

The thief, however, started moaning about the pain in his leg. “He assaulted me!” 

He was loud enough that he caught an officer’s attention about ten metres away. The officer came over.

“What’s going on here?” the officer said, thumbs hooked on his belt.

The woman whose bag had been stolen had managed to get her breath back. She pointed at the thief. “That man stole my handbag and tried to run away with it!”

The officer hummed as his eyes skimmed over Kevin and his mother before looking at the thief clinging to his leg on the ground. “Who assaulted you?”

“That man!” the thief said, pointing at Kevin. 

The woman who was the victim opened her mouth to speak at the same time Kevin’s mom put a hand on her son’s knee. “Actually it was me. But I was just stretching my legs when he tripped over them,” Diane said. 

Kevin frowned, the confusion clear on his face. His mom was taking the blame for something that wasn’t even an offence or crime, but something helpful. If anyone was getting in trouble for it, it should be him. But his mom always had her reasons, that much he knew. He would let this play out and if things started heading south he would take her place.

If the frown on the officer’s face was anything to go by, he clearly wasn’t happy with this. His gaze lingered on Kevin. Eventually he just sighed and put his hand on his belt. “Okay, ma’am. I’m going to have to take you in.”

“What!” Kevin and the woman who he helped said in unison. 

“That guy was running off with my handbag!” she said. 

Diane had the same neutral expression on her face. She had expected this, Kevin realised. And she was trying to protect him. But it was ridiculous! Protect him for helping the woman? The thief, who was still moaning about their leg, was the one at fault.

“You really want to arrest me despite this whole cafe of witnesses?” Diane said, unperturbed. 

The officer just gestured for her to get up.

But Diane didn’t move. “I hope you know what you’re doing. I have the support of every single witness here, I have the support of multiple activist groups, I have access to proficient lawyers, and most importantly, I have the resources to make one hell of a change to this world.” 

The police officer sneered. “Are you threatening an officer?” 

“Of course not. I’m just stating some facts.”

“Get up,” the police officer said. 

Kevin put a hand on his mom’s arm, but she just gave it a gentle pat and got up out of her seat.

“Mom, no—” Kevin said and made to move. Diane pushed him back down in his seat and stood. Kevin’s eyes widened—this couldn’t be happening. The police officer was smirking and Kevin had never wanted to punch someone in the face so hard before.

He could hear customers in the cafe making all sorts of comments on the situation, not quietly either.

“Imagine arresting one of the city’s most generous donors for stretching her legs. That guy’s clearly not gonna have a job tomorrow.”

and

“Isn’t that the Golden Cola lady? Her husband won’t be happy.”

and

“Tch. Typical police. Blind to the truth.”

and even a child’s voice,

“Mama, why is the policeman taking the good lady and not the bad man?”

The child received no response.

Just as Kevin was about to stand to stop his mother from approaching the officer, something remarkable happened.

The child, maybe all of 6 years old, ran up to the police officer.

“Excuse me, Mr. Policeman, the bad guy is over there!” the child said, pointing at the man on the pavement. “I saw him running with the short lady’s bag!”

The child’s guardian quickly caught up and led the child away from the cop. But the damage was already done. Everyone’s eyes were on the police officer, wondering how he would respond. 

The police officer hesitated, his hands hovering over the handcuffs from his belt. All the comments and attention had clearly gotten to him. Despite this his hands still lingered.

“Put those handcuffs near her and I’ll personally see to your dismissal,” said a familiar voice. Kevin turned to glance at the voice. The man was in casual dress and didn’t even look away from his newspaper, but Kevin couldn’t place where he’d seen him before.

The police officer’s eyes widened, his hand slightly trembling as he stepped away from Diane. The man must have had quite some power. 

While under the scrutiny of all the customers, he turned to the thief and cuffed him instead. Once the two of them had left, everyone resumed what they were doing, as if nothing had happened. A few of them nodded at his mother.

As his mom sat back down, Kevin opened his mouth to speak but didn’t know what to say. She carried on sipping her coffee, unfazed by the events. But something had happened. Even if his mom denied it, she had somehow unified the people in the cafe. It was like she had known from the start exactly how this situation would go down.

“How?” Kevin said.

Diane just smiled at him. “Times are changing. Sometimes you just need to have a bit of faith in humanity. Helps that there was a reporter here too,” she said, nodding at the man busy reading the newspaper. That explained where he recognised him from: television.

“You’re amazing,” Kevin said.

Diane just reached across and pinched his cheek. 

5.

Sometimes Kevin wondered how he got Timmy so wrong. He often thought back to that sunny afternoon where he and Timmy spray painted Billy Bat on the walls of Timmy’s old neighbourhood. It had been so fun and carefree until the group of Nazis showed up. He really should’ve known then, when the Nazis were nice to Timmy, that he wasn’t who he appeared to be.

Once Kevin was dismissed from drawing for Billy Bat, things had escalated so quickly. Timmy took over completely and changed Billy Bat’s appearance back into something akin to Chuck Chulkin’s style, claiming the world needed a positive figure post-9/11. And eventually, Timmy started to insert Billy Bat everywhere he could, even sought to build Billy Bat theme parks in nations mid-war. 

It was 2007, Kevin hadn’t seen Timmy in-person in years. But as it was, Kevin was having a drink at a bar when he heard the television announce Timmy’s name. It was impossible to completely block out Timmy’s presence, he was everywhere. Kevin had learned to deal with it. But for some reason he turned his attention to the television. 

It was the Late Show with David Letterman. Timmy sat down in his seat; he was dressed in an impeccably tailored suit and his black hair had grown so long, down past his shoulders. 

The interview was going smoothly, just how Kevin expected it would. However, one response left Kevin’s head spinning.

David Letterman cleared his throat. “So, tell us. We’ve all heard how Kevin Goodman encouraged you to create and submit your own Billy Bat comic when you were old enough. Is he—”

“Sorry, I’ll have to interrupt you there, David. You see, there seems to be a misconception here that I should put to the rest. Kevin Goodman encouraged me, sure, but he wasn’t the first nor my inspiration,” Timmy said.

Kevin raised an eyebrow.

“Oh?” David Letterman said.

“It was Chuck Culkin who led me on this path. I met him as a very young child and, after seeing my illustrations, he instructed me that this was my destiny.”

Huh. Was this just another lie or was it the truth? And if it was true, how did it come about? As far as Kevin was aware, Chuck Culkin had maintained extreme privacy during his final years.

“Well that sure is something,” David Letterman said. “Why are you only telling us now?”

Timmy chuckled. “I never intended to keep it a secret, it just never came up. I’m telling you now because I believe it’s time for the world to know the truth. Chuck Culkin’s Billy was always superior to Kevin Goodman’s.”

Kevin rolled his eyes and decided that was the right moment to tune out. He finished drinking his beer and left.

It really was amazing just how wrong he had been about Timmy. So what if Timmy thought Chuck Culkin’s Billy was better—that didn’t faze him. What fazed him was the secrets Timmy kept and just how cunning and calculated the man must have been to get where he did. Did Chuck Culkin foresee all this? Was this just another step in the plan for Billy Bat’s global takeover?

Kevin sighed. People were never as they seemed. He needed another drink. 

+1

As Kevin got older, he settled down with his longtime partner Monica in a house in the middle of nowhere that had seen better days. The nearest shops were miles away. It was a drastic change from the bustling cities or suburbia he had lived in as a young man. But it was home and he was happy.

Most of his time was spent making comics, but occasionally he would have Billy Bat fans rock up to his house—there was signage in the closest town that directed fans his way. That was always fun and somewhat surprising as, despite his old age, he had a mix of young and old fans. To see his comics, new and old, resonating with society still was a beautiful thing. 

He was never one to dwell long and hard on the themes of his work—he just drew and wrote as it appeared in his head. But that was enough. Enough for people to relate to and learn from. 

And eventually, after his passing, Kevin’s comics would save humanity. 

His comics would teach humans how to be humans again. That humans are capable of love and kindness; that they are inherent qualities in humans, they just needed some reminding.

Because at the end of the day, humans were humans; mistake-ridden, selfish, and stupid, but also loving, caring, and compassionate.

Besides, who else would the bat and its many forms have to torment if not the humans?