Part II - Negotiations
Mouse’s dark eyes widen with dread at my admission. I’ve confirmed all of his worst fears. He is a flawed character — an incomplete thought — and he has only thwarted the sad fate of being unwritten by audaciously daring me with his clever and determined offer.
He has surprised me. For my own character to do so gives me hope, and a reason to keep him around — at least, for a little while longer. I am beginning to find him mildly entertaining, and it makes me curious to see what else my newly formed protagonist might have up his diamond-print sleeve.
I chuckle at the startled look on his face, watching as his dark eyes gradually lighten to an amber hue. He bats his thick, luxurious lashes as if suddenly seeing the surrounding space more clearly.
“How is that?” I ask, tilting my head as I watch him poke and prod his own body in search of the other alterations he’d requested. “One step at a time, Mouse,” I tell him. “I have given you something that you wanted — now I should get something in return.”
Mouse nods excitedly. “All right. That seems fair.” He runs his fingers over the top of his head, pushing the wild auburn waves from his eyes as he resumes his circuitous steps across the platform. “Questions… questions…” he mumbles to himself.
I watch him for a while, the setting around us darkening with a strange sort of dusk as Mouse ponders and paces, moving like a swinging pendulum before my eyes.
“There really are so many to choose from,” he remarks with a laugh. “How about: Who? What? Where? and How?” He finishes his list with a broad grin, waving his hands with a flourish like some conjuring magician before landing them onto his hips in a triumphant pose. A moment later, his feet resume their thoughtful pacing.
“Monosyllabic questions?” I ask indignantly. “How lazy of you. I thought you were more ambitious, Mouse!”
He scowls, abruptly halting mid-step. “Who are you? What do you do? Where are you from, and where are you headed? How have you accomplished your greatest achievements? I just boiled them down into a more simplistic form — for expediency.”
I raise a skeptical eyebrow and he flinches.
“If you say so. It’s still far below the level of creativity I expected from you,” I grumble.
“You expect a lot from a fictional character,” Mouse replies.
“You’re probably right,” I admit with shrug, “but I know what you’re truly capable of.”
Mouse fixes me with an anticipative stare, his newly lightened eyes sparkling with mirth. “Well…?” he asks impatiently.
“Well, what?” I snap back at him.
Mouse’s brows shoot up into his forehead, and he taps his left foot on the ground, looking at me like some disdainful schoolmarm. “Are you going to answer my questions?” he demands.
I balk at him in surprise. “You were being sincere?”
Mouse’s lopsided grin lights up his entire face. “My sense of humor is still evolving. In that instance, I was being flippant but genuine,” he says.
“All right. Let’s see…” I run his questions through my mind once more before deciding to start with the first two. “I’m an author—”
“Obviously!” Mouse’s sarcastic tone rankles me, and I narrow my gaze at him. He just laughs, rolling his pretty eyes in an obnoxiously juvenile fashion. “I mean, elaborate at least a little, Author. What sort of things do you write? Swashbuckling adventures? Bird-watching guides? Pop culture exposés? Erotica?” He waggles his eyebrows at me suggestively. This time, I can’t help but chuckle along with him.
“I write fantasy novels, short stories, and serialized fiction, primarily. I dabble in a host of other creative endeavors: I paint on everything, for example. I love photography and visual arts, and I enjoy making things with my hands. I probably spend the bulk of my time — when not working or frolicking inside my own head — having mermaid tea parties and supersonic helicopter races with my two young children.”
At this, a pixelated image manifests like a view-screen over the expanse of emptiness beyond the floating platform. A faded rug over a battered hardwood floor sets the scene where a city of Lego-brick buildings shake and shudder. A young girl with ringlet curls, accompanied by her giggling younger brother, stomps through the city like Godzilla and Rodan, squealing with triumph as the highest towers collapse over the wooden train tracks that snake through their bare feet in concentric circles. A painted tin rocket ship zooms through the air, shooting imaginary laser beams as I chase the squealing children through the make-believe city, crashing down in the center of the rug to invade. The Lego city crumbles beneath me, and the image fades away.
“Are you serious?” Mouse asks. “Not really the imposing builder and destroyer of worlds that I’d imagined.”
“Why not? It is all the same, really. There is always an element of play, and also one of creation, within any person’s imagination. My kids and I build massive cities and railways, only to mow them down with a toy ambulance, driven by a blue-haired fairy princess who fights zombies. Of course, when writing I do it on a much more complex scale. Writing is cathartic. Even when we don’t do it knowingly, we always put bits of ourselves into what we create — memories, emotions, experiences. They all hide under the surface, peeking out in bits of conversation, in snippets of scenery, in the particular way a character relates to the other people around them. It is another lens through which we can experience the world. At times it is a puzzle that helps us understand our past. Other times, it’s getting to say something you can’t find the words for in person. Sometimes it’s simply the insatiable need to make something new. Creation is play. It’s fluid. It is metamorphosis.” I shrug. “Speaking of metamorphosis, Mouse, how tall were you hoping to be again?”
Mouse holds his hand several inches above his head. “I’m really not very good at this interview stuff. Perhaps, if you had made me into a reporter, or a police detective instead, then I’d have a clearer idea of how to go about all of this?”
“Why don’t you just pretend?” I tell him. “Maybe, rather than a detective, you’re an actor! You can portray the part of a journalist in some thriller movie, asking me questions for an article that will ultimately unveil a critical clue to the fate of humankind. You must ask just the right questions to uncover the truth and thwart this vast and deadly threat.” I smile at him encouragingly. Mouse shakes his head.
“An actor… pretending to be a journalist… who is actually a character… in a fictional interview?” He laughs hard, his entire body rocking while silvery tears stream from the corners of his eyes. After a moment, he tries to stand up straight, wiping his face with both hands in an attempt to compose himself. Then he gasps, realizing that he’s several inches taller than he’d been just a moment before.
“Now you’re as tall as I am!” I exclaim, nodding to myself as I notice the pleased flush of Mouse’s chiseled cheeks. He’s at least six feet in height, casting a long shadow over the length of the desk as he stands there, beaming at me with a wide and dashing grin. I squint up into the shifting atmosphere above his head, searching for the source of the unexpected light.
Mouse makes an exaggerated pout. “I still don’t look the part.”
“Stop complaining, Mouse. I could always just shrink you down to the size of your namesake instead,” I say tersely, shielding my eyes as they sweep across the blossoming horizon. The endless void shimmers with a mysterious illumination — warm, familiar, comforting. I know the sensation has a deeper meaning, but I refuse to acknowledge it yet.
An uneasy silence stretches between us, and the expanse suddenly withers and darkens. Gradually, my gaze returns to find a look of anxious dread frozen over my character’s now devilishly handsome face.
“Is that what you were truly hoping for, Mouse? A body with whiskers and a tail?” I ask, only partially in jest, watching the color drain from his face at the mere thought. “You know how much I adore my shape-shifters,” I add.
“No! No. That is not necessary. I am certain I can do this!” he insists, shaking his head in denial one moment, then nodding it emphatically the next.
I chuckle under my breath, watching as he taps his fingers against his brow, scrambling to come up with a suitable question before I decide to make good on my threat.
And I just might. This exercise in futility is starting to bore me.
“Can you tell me more about your publishing journey?” Mouse finally asks.
I scrunch up my nose, then sigh in dismay.
At least he’s trying.
The strange ethereal light has now faded — my energy waning along with it. I suck in a slow breath as an overwhelming exhaustion washes over me, and I release it out as an agonized groan.
“That bad?” Mouse clucks his tongue sympathetically and laughs. I respond with equal enthusiasm, the echo of our shared amusement easing my discomfort.
“Not really,” I respond wistfully. “I have regrets, but I’m learning from them. And learning is the important part. Things change and shift so frequently, it feels sometimes as if I’m swimming upstream, trying to keep everything balanced while the current keeps pulling me in reverse. Still, I keep pushing onward.”
Mouse frowns, sensing my shift in mood. “Sounds unpleasant,” he says.
Another enduring silence stretches between us, and I pan my gaze over the abstract monuments in the distance. An arrangement of black marble monoliths sways and dips below the horizon, the abyss of stars surrounding them rippling like water as they sink into the darkness and disappear.
Mouse clears his throat loudly, redrawing my attention, and I realize he’s waiting for his reward.
“I suppose you’d also like to have the physique of a Greek god?” I grumble, lifting my arm above my head and snapping my fingers with a loud CRACK!
Mouse’s torso stretches like rubber — his thin, wiry frame leavening like well-baked bread in all the right places. When I’m finished, he flexes his newly muscular body with a satisfied grin. He has wide shoulders and a broad, firm chest that fills out the tacky diamond-print shirt until it looks like the fabric will burst at any moment.
“I like it!” he exclaims, whistling appreciatively as he thoroughly examines his new form, turning from side to side for a better downward view. “Though a mirror would still be handy, if you wouldn’t mind?”
“Do you really need to look at yourself?” I ask. “Being ridiculously handsome isn’t good enough?”
“How do I know I’m gorgeous if I can’t see it with my own eyes?” he whines.
“Your eyes aren’t even real, Mouse. You’re imaginary — just like this desk, and this chair, and this swirling galaxy of wonder that surrounds us.”
My patience with him has finally whittled away. A large clock-face appears over the black horizon, its ticking hands moving in an endless loop. I can almost feel the softness of my pillow, the repeating sound of the clock echoing like a lullaby in my ears as I slowly drift away from the scene.
“Don’t go!” Mouse begs, his eyes wide with panic as parts of my body begin dissolving back into reality. “I could ask you more questions. Better ones! I can pretend that I’m an actor, playing a journalist!” Mouse beckons to me, his arms outstretched in a pleading gesture. “I promise, Author, I will be anything that you desire! Just give me one more chance—”
“Maybe another time, Mouse.” I blink slowly with fatigue as I watch the remaining monuments sink down into the dark, swallowed up like quicksand until nothingness remains.
“But you haven’t finished me!” he cries out, his face a mask of desperation as I quickly vanish, piece by piece. “You have to let me ask you all the questions! There’s more to me that has yet to be made better. We had a deal, Author!”
His look of misery intensifies as he watches me erode until only my face and a small portion of my torso remain behind.
I shrug the one shoulder that I still possess. “I don’t have to let you do anything,” I tell him. “I’m tired, Mouse. You got more out of me than most. Be satisfied with that.”
Mouse scowls, but it looks strangely seductive on his newly fashioned face. “You’re the worst writer that I have ever known!” he announces bitterly.
I laugh again, but it feels strangely hollow. “I’m the only writer you’ve ever known. I imagined you into existence, you ungrateful little cretin.”
He pouts indignantly as the rest of my face dissolves, leaving only my mouth behind.
“By the way, Mouse…” My voice echoes in the void and his expression brightens for an instant. My lips curl wickedly as they too fade away to nothing, leaving only the mocking resonance of my voice behind. “…you are an absolutely terrible actor.”
Copyright © Everyn Kildare