Daniel Tiger, Nihilist

“I’ll be back when the day is new,” Daniel croons, taking off his shoes, “and I’ll have more ideas for you.” He points to his head and then to the camera as he sings, smiling; there are iconic symbols behind him in his room, including a handmade replica of the Castle. Today he very nearly turns around to glance at it, but is able to stop himself. “And you’ll have things you’ll want to talk about — I will too. Because… it’s you I like.” The last thing he does on camera is unzip his trademark red sweater, the two ends of the pull-string dangling, slightly different lengths.

The camera shuts off, and Daniel Tiger sighs. He’s bone-tired. He’s spent another day hosting a neighbor and practicing emotional literacy, doing it all with impossible grace for a child his age. He’s also concluded another day without pants. Where are his pants? He can’t remember where he put them.

There’s a lot he can’t remember, and he wonders if he ever really knew. The algorithm behind Katerina Kittycat’s “meow” placement in her syntax, Baker Aker’s immigration story, the rules governing the passage of time, handshake-and-nod agreements about the illicit economy-shoehorning that takes place here in the Neighborhood.

He stumbles into his room and closes the door tightly behind him. A half-dozen knives descend upon his brain and he shuts tight his eyelids. He puts his forehead in his paws, and the backs of his eyeballs feel alarmingly warm. He sits on the floor and weeps.

“It’s OK to feel sad sometimes,” he whispers. “Little by little, you’ll feel better again.”

He feels worse.

He thinks back on the day he just lived, and tigertastic tears flow down his fuzzy cheeks. He never intended to be thrust into the public eye like this, his every life lesson catalogued, his tantrums broadcast, his most vulnerable moments laid bare. To live a life so devoid of true feelings, ones that go beyond the little teachable moments. A life so focused on how to treat one another that the issues of the Real And Actual World go undiscussed. He considers, yet again, what Miss Elaina asked him once, in a whisper so low he half-believes she never said it at all: What if THIS is the Real and Actual World, and all those goddamned kids are the ones making believe?

“I’m not feeling so grrr-rific right now,” he admits out loud.

His father suddenly walks in, and it’s jarring. Dad Tiger has broken a code: No one shall enter Daniel’s bedroom at the conclusion of a program. It’s a code not written down but taken seriously. Many agreements are that way here, including the prohibition in place on ever speaking Daniel’s middle name: “Striped.” So… banal.

But doesn’t it just fit?

Dad Tiger seems to notice the breach, but his acknowledgment is brief and subtle; he flinches, extends both paws slightly outward, and closes his eyes. He backs out of the room slowly, and mutters… something. When filming is done on any given day, Dad Tiger enters a trance, a kind of hummingbird-like torpor that lasts until morning. But this is the first time he’s broken the code, and Daniel worries.

He sighs. It’s time. Onscreen somewhere, Daniel or one of his friends is “visiting” a child, a Real Child, but they aren’t permitted to see. It’s their disembodied voices that are needed, not their imaginations.

He abruptly gets up, leaves his room, and walks outside to wait for Trolley, zipping his jacket back up as he stands, hunched over like Grandpère. During the workday, Trolley can be beckoned at a moment’s notice, but once the cameras are off, Trolley is off the clock and appears strictly as a courtesy. The red streetcar owes Daniel a favor, so the wait isn’t long.

Daniel sits down and doesn’t bother buckling his seatbelt; the ride is slow and there are no other vehicles in the Neighborhood. Trolley doesn’t ring its bell.

“I need to see the King,” Daniel says, and they depart. There is a stiff breeze that feels like a cold slap to the face, and the ungreased axles of Trolley’s wheels sound like two pieces of styrofoam rubbing against one another.

In short order they arrive at the Castle, and Daniel steps out. He and Trolley are square now and this is acknowledged by a quick nod from the little tiger child. Trolley offers a solitary ring of the bell — just the one — and takes off. Daniel has never been to Trolley’s home, and wonders for the thousandth time if Trolley goes to the Real And Actual World at night.

Daniel Tiger is a nihilist.

No one knows, or maybe they all do. He knows that everyone in the Neighborhood is sick. He has a Strategy Song he wrote about this abnegation of purpose that he replays again in his mind: when life loses all meaning/take a breath and retreat into your own inner darkness/and snuff out the light within.

He’ll never sing it on the air or even aloud, but by God it’s his mantra.

As he approaches the Castle grounds, he spies King Friday sitting atop his favorite turret. He’s been half-expecting the little tiger boy, and raises his wine glass in a gesture of welcome. Daniel treads a well-worn path up stone steps and places his bare bottom on a chair the King has put out for him.

They sit in silence for a long time.

Daniel Tiger looks at the King, and finally asks what he’s always longed to: “Your Highness, do you want to make-believe with me?”

King Friday, to his credit, doesn’t bat an eye. He simply offers a cursory nod, takes a long pull from his wine glass, and closes his heavy regal eyes.

“Let’s make believe… we’re in the Real And Actual World.”

Daniel Tiger wiggles his ears, and the King is almost literally taken aback. The sensation is brutally jarring, almost painful, as the two souls are swirled and roiled through a contracting tunnel made of a dark magic. King Friday’s eyes shoot open but he is unable to make out anything but the vaguest of silhouettes. There is music, syrupy-sweet and synthetic, and the sound of it makes the King sick to his stomach. He doubles over, and his lungs feel as though they are filling with variegated paint. Daniel Tiger, meanwhile, has closed his own eyes and will not open them until the music stops entirely.

It isn’t long before the swirling settles and the music begins to fade. But Daniel Tiger’s eyes remain closed, and King Friday cannot be released.

“Tell me what you’re seeing,” the little tiger boy commands. King Friday shakes his head and rubs his eyes, and the world he finds himself in comes into sharper focus. He is floating and his feet are kicking reflexively as if he were treading water. He clears his throat and speaks with a detached voice, because otherwise he wouldn’t be able to muster the strength.

“I see…”

He pauses. Daniel grows impatient. “You see what, King?” he growls. Venom is building.

The crowned man takes a deep breath. “I see the Neighborhood. Only… it’s different, somehow. There are details, Daniel. And insects, and… and imperfections.”

“What is my life here?” Daniel asks, his voice cracking, the desire to open his eyes overwhelming to such a degree that he has to use his paws to force his lids shut. “Can I peel the layers back?”

“I… I don’t know,” the King admits. “I feel sick, Daniel. I’m fading.” He kneels but there is no floor beneath him, so he begins to descend.

“Is there anything for me here?” Daniel screams, but the King doesn’t answer. He’s gone. Daniel understands in this moment what he long suspected: the defector is him, and only him. And in that instant he knows what he needs to do.

When he opens his eyes, the world before him holds still for the briefest of moments before jerking to a start: it’s busy. It’s huge, and it’s strangely colored, and the lights are muted as if a fine dust has settled over everything. There is movement everywhere, bustle and pother, and it’s the most tigertastic thing he’s ever seen. It looks like kids, real ones, but they are specks, and they look filthy. But they are like nothing he’s ever seen, and the filth is impossibly exquisite.

“Fucking grr-rific,” he whispers. And yet, something feels wrong. There’s a pulling sensation beginning to overtake either him or the world itself, an ebb with no flow, and he realizes that by opening his eyes to see, he’d only bought himself a jot of time. He’d wished for a little more, perhaps even just a few minutes.

He sighs, and loses the last bit of sensation he had in his bland, striped body. He looks down on an instinct, and what he sees makes him curl his lips in a ghoulish parody of a smile:

He’s wearing his pants. But he can’t feel them, and he sees this is a blessing because they are smoldering with a blue fire. He is losing consciousness now, and wonders in this moment if he’s perhaps not the first to attempt something like this. In desperation — no, that’s not right, because he’s scared but not impetuous — he attempts to beckon Trolley. Two tinny, vibrating rings of a bell echo between his ears, as if to mock him.

Daniel Tiger began the day as a nihilist, but now he is something worse: a prisoner of his own making.

He leans back against nothing at all, and it is only a few heartbeats before blacking out completely that Daniel absorbs what Dad Tiger came to tell him in his room:

“You can’t leave. Look at me. Look. At. ME.”

And as the world fades, Daniel Tiger tries to sing himself out of one last jam: “When something seems bad/turn it around/and find something good.”

But there is nothing good, not anymore.