Somewhere in the void of my mind there is a place that is both empty and full at the same instant. Crumbling monuments of ivy and stone punctuate the landscape unending. Waterfalls cascade into an abyss of stars, and a lone, crudely painted desk with a mismatched chair rest on a floating platform in the center. In that place, my consciousness desperately spins out imagery, filling in the cracks that expand and contract from one scene to the next.
A figure manifests within — a shimmer, a haze; Mouse forms into this imaginary world like a popped opalescent bubble in the sunlight. He's short and thin as a rail, with a wild mop of auburn hair, slightly pointed ears, and large, dark eyes. He has expressive and bushy eyebrows and a cunning little smirk that hovers like the faintest hint in the corners of his lips as he watches me, watching him.
“Can you pass me a mirror?” he asks, his voice gravelly and raw from its very first use.
I roll my eyes in response, knowing that I’d made him slightly narcissistic. This was unfortunately inevitable, due to the narcissistic nature of what I’d created him for. Witnessing the disdainful shrug of his bare shoulders, I was already wondering if that had been a hasty mistake. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that his initial and only concern would be of his own appearance.
Without another thought, I dress him in a loose pair of olive-green overalls rolled up to mid-calf, a black-and-white shirt with tacky diamond print, and a wide-brimmed hat wreathed in bright plastic flowers. He stares down at his new and strange attire and his dark eyes round out with horror.
“That was cruel, even for you! Now the readers will be tainted with this horrid and tasteless image of me from this point onward. First impressions are important, you know? What do I have to do to get a suitable dashing-hero description out of you?”
“Continue to ask questions,” I answer. “I’d like you to interview me for this ‘Author Introduction’ I’ve been writing. If you do a good job, and you behave yourself, I’ll dress you, or undress you, however you like, in whatever story you’re inclined to exist in.”
He purses his supple lower lip and ducks his head in contemplation, gripping the pastel splattered hat in his fist before yanking it off in annoyance.
“Any story I want?” he finally asks, lifting a skeptical eyebrow.
“Why not?” — I shrug — “My characters do whatever they want half the time, regardless. It is unbelievably frustrating, trying to straighten out all their antics during revision. I’ve added entire books to a series I hadn’t intended, just because some wayward secondary character decided they wanted to take a leading role without permission.”
Mouse sucks his teeth and rolls his eyes like a well-practiced teenager, his arm jerking up and down as he waves the floral-topped hat at me in accusation.
“Oh, please! You know you set all that up. You’re like the evil puppet-master, putting the pieces into place and sitting back to eat your bucket of salty popcorn while you watch it all explode in front of you.” The words pour out of him in a single breath before he heaves in another mouthful of air. “Don’t act so innocent — you know you love it!”
“More than you could possibly imagine — but the fact still remains: stories sometimes take on a life of their own. Occasionally, characters make decisions even the writer doesn’t expect, and the story takes a turn that the writer wasn’t anticipating in the least. More than once, I’ve added a minor character to a project in passing, who turned out to be more important than I knew when I initially created them — detrimental, in fact. So much so, that they ended up changing the direction of the story completely.”
“Is that how you write your books? Just plop down some exotic scenery, make up a few tormented characters, then set them loose to run amok and give you a story?”
I narrow my eyes at his mocking tone, my lips forming a hard line. Mouse withers in front of me as he realizes his mistake.
“Take my story in any direction that I don’t like, and I’ll be forced to re-write you,” I say evenly.
Mouse gulps hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down his long spindly neck like a buoy in turbulent waters. He simply shakes his head in denial.
“No. You’re goading me, aren’t you?” I grumble, leaning my elbows on the surface of the imaginary wooden desk as I peer up at him from beneath a frustrated brow. Mouse’s stiffened shoulders gradually melt in to a more casual pose as he observes me, waiting to see what I’ll do next. Still, he says nothing. Perhaps he’s not been developed enough to even know what to say?
“Of course, that’s not how it works, you cheeky little gnat,” I snicker. “What a terrible story that would make! No direction. No plot. No point to care for the characters, or their adventures.” — I smile, my anger momentarily muted — “Sure, some characters are entertaining purely based on their personalities. You could listen to them blather on and on about absurdity, and they’d still engage you with their wit and lively delivery.”
“You mean, characters like me?” Mouse grins elatedly again, his dark eyes twinkling like a gambler who’d just won an honest wager.
I felt slightly guilty, having to burst his ego again. He seemed like a very earnest sort of fellow.
“I have yet to decide if I mean you to be witty or not,” I answer truthfully.
Mouse deflates once more, and he leans back against the edge of the desk, his fingers gripping the straw hat so roughly I can hear the brim snapping in his fist. I narrow my attention at the sharp, crackling sound and the way it echoes unnaturally through the imaginary space around us.
“I don’t like the way you’re looking at me,” Mouse suddenly grumbles, half under his breath. “I feel as if my fate has been sealed and you are tightening the noose around my neck with your eyes.”
“Maybe you’d worry less about your neck if you kept to task and did what I asked of you in the first place?” I prompt. Mouse blinks several times in confusion, and I groan, shaking my head in exasperation. “The interview I requested?”
His whole face flushes a vibrant red, and he waves the straw hat back and forth in front of him as if to fan it away. “Of course! How silly of me. What would you like me to ask first?”
“Seriously, Mouse? You have no ideas of your own?”
“You made me this way!” he huffs, tossing the hat out into the abyss beyond the desk with a swift flick of his wrist.
A sense of calm settles between us as we both watch it swirl into the darkness below and disappear.
“Start with my background, perhaps?” I offer.
Mouse grunts indignantly at my suggestion and shakes his head. “You should never start a story with boring background info. I learned at least that much from you.”
I can’t help laughing in response. There he is, earnestly forming his own personality in front of me, and I’m left feeling both amused and in awe at the very concept of fiction.
“Which one of us is the character here?” I jest, stretching my long legs out in front of me and resting them on the edge of the desk nearby.
Mouse glares down at my imaginary boots, only inches from where his ugly green overalls meet the surface of the wooden desk, and he quickly steps away.
“You tell me, Author. Did you create me, or did I make you up instead?” he asks with a smug little grin.
“You are witty — and slightly sarcastic. I think I’m liking you more after this realization. If you don’t want to start with background information, then what would you prefer?” I ask.
Mouse scowls and purses his lips, as if trying to stifle something that could end up causing him more harm than good. I watch as he turns and paces up and down in front of the desk with a look of overwhelming frustration.
“Go on. You know it’s eating you up, Mouse. Just say it,” I snap.
His tormented expression darkens, and he turns away in shame. “I think you’re lying. You don’t like me; I’m quite certain. You’re going to kill me off horribly, aren’t you?” He looks broken — lost — a being without purpose or function. “Why else would you make me into such a mockery?”
I laugh in disbelief — the kind that bursts out unexpectedly, like the loud crack of a whip. “I’m not yet certain how you’ll end up, to be honest. I don’t really like to plan that far ahead — unless it’s absolutely necessary for the outcome of the story. Leaving some things open and loose gives the characters room to grow and change, allowing them to show a side of themselves I might not realize they even possess. I find when I give my characters some space, they usually end up surprising me.” I lean back in my chair until it hovers precariously on two legs, the dark abysmal nothingness stretching out behind me into eternity. “Honestly, Mouse, I wasn’t thinking that far ahead when I created you either. You’re formless, with no history and no future except the one I dream up for you from this point onward. You’re not bound by a setting, a plot, or the opinions of other characters. Right now, your path is the brightest because you have nothing but possibilities ahead of you.”
Mouse takes a hard step back in surprise at hearing my praise, his arms a whirling windmill while his bare feet teeter and slip unsteadily over the edge of the platform behind him. My arm whips out on instinct, and I lean forward in my chair, grasping hold of his forearm and guiding him back onto the solid patch of imaginary ground beside me.
“There now, Mouse — if I wanted to eliminate you, I could’ve just sat back and watched you plummet over the side. Wouldn’t even have had to get my hands dirty.” I can’t help laughing as I release him, and Mouse heaves a series of long breaths, his eyes wild as he turns to peer at his almost demise below.
“That was close,” he mumbles. “What would have happened if I’d gone over?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea.” — I shrug and shake my head — “Dissolved like a lump of lard in stomach acid, perhaps? Or erased, line by line, like a sketch?”
Mouse blanches at the thought, quickly turning to step away from the edge — closer to the safety of the desk and my immediate vicinity.
“So, what do you suggest, Author? Should we make another attempt?” He tries to smile reassuringly, but it looks more like he’s swallowed something sour and it’s sticking sharply in his throat.
I roll my eyes in response to his obvious and pathetic desperation. Only moments before, the cheeky bastard had called me a liar. Now that he knew the stakes, he was kissing my rear end like the dirty little gnat he truly was.
“Perhaps, if you want to continue existing, the first thing you should do is try not to get on the Author’s nerves,” I say, laughing bitterly. “Antagonizing your creator is not usually a good idea, Mouse. You’ll likely end up someplace very foul by the end of the story. I’d suggest you try to figure out what makes you — as a character — unique and worth keeping around. You’ll worry a lot less about your head if I have a sufficiently good reason to keep it attached there.”
“I should figure it out? Isn’t that your job?” Mouse sputters in disbelief.
“Yes… yes it is,” I respond with a grin.
Mouse grows silent, pondering it awhile. His dark eyes focus on an abstract thought in the distance, and he smiles.
“If I agree to your task, I want you to make me better,” he announces, puffing up his scrawny chest for emphasis. “I want to look more dashing — dark hair and bright eyes, a fine jaw, a built physique. I want to be taller, smarter and more witty. I want readers to be curious and inspired by me. I want your other characters to envy my ability to create my own destiny — through my relationship with you.”
I just stare at him, absolutely stunned.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” I admit, the slow grin taking over the entirety of my face. “I’m impressed, Mouse. Maybe, I’ll keep you around after all.”
[To Be Continued...]