Mouse’s dark eyes immediately widen with dread at my admission. I’d confirmed all of his worst fears. He was a flawed character — an incomplete thought — and he’d only thwarted the sad fate of being unwritten by audaciously daring me with his clever and determined offer.
He had surprised me. For my own character to do so gave me a reason to keep him around — at least, for a little while longer. I was beginning to find him mildly entertaining, and it made me curious to see what else my newly formed protagonist might have up his sleeve.
I chuckle at the startled look on his face, watching as his dark eyes 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 imaginary body in search of his other requested alterations. “One step at a time, Mouse. I gave you something you wanted, so now I 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 out of his eyes as he resumes his circuitous route. “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 in front of 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 in front of him with a flourish, like some conjuring magician, before landing them into the sides of his hips triumphantly. A moment later, his feet resume their course back and forth in front of me and my imaginary desk.
“Monosyllabic questions?” I ask indignantly. “How lazy of you. I thought you were more ambitious, Mouse.”
He immediately scowls, his thoughtful pacing abruptly halted in 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 in response.
“If you say so. It’s still far below the level of creativity I expected of you,” I grumble.
“You expect a lot from a fictional character,” Mouse says.
“You’re probably right,” I admit, “but I know what you’re truly capable of.”
Mouse fixes me with an anticipative stare, his newly ambered eyes almost sparkling with mirth. “Well…?” he groans impatiently.
“Well, what?” I snap back.
Both of Mouse’s overly expressive eyebrows shoot up into his forehead, and he taps his left foot on the imaginary ground, looking at me like a disdainful schoolmarm.
“Are you going to answer my questions?” he demands.
I balk at him in surprise.
“You were being sincere?” I ask incredulously.
Mouse offers me a lopsided grin. “My sense of humor is still evolving. In that instance, I was being flippant but genuine,” he says.
“All right. Let’s see…” I ran his questions over again in my mind before deciding to start with the first two. “I’m an author—”
“Obviously!” Mouse interrupts, rolling his pretty eyes in an obnoxiously juvenile fashion.
I narrow my gaze at him, and Mouse laughs.
“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 expressive 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 hobbies: I paint on everything. I love photography. I write poetry and enjoy making things with my hands. I 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 my very utterance, a pixelated image manifests like a view-screen over the expanse of emptiness beyond the desk: 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, stomp through the Lego-city like Godzilla and Rodan until the highest towers collapse over the elaborately arranged 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 as the Lego-city crumbles beneath me.
“Are you serious?” Mouse asks with a slightly slack-jawed expression. “Not really the imposing builder and destroyer of worlds I’d imagined.”
“Why not? It’s all the same, really. There is always an element of play — and also one of creation — inside a person’s imagination. My kids and I will 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 grander, 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 people around them. It’s another lens to view the world. At times it is a puzzle that helps us understand the occurrences of 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. Creating is play. It’s fluid. It’s metamorphosis.” — I shrug — “Speaking of metamorphosis, how tall did you want to be again?”
Mouse holds his hand up 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? 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.”
“An actor… pretending to be a journalist… who is actually a character… in a fictional interview?” Mouse laughs hard, his entire body rocking against it while shimmers of mirth escaped the corners of his eyes in a stream of silvery tears. He tries to stand up straight, wiping at his cheeks to compose himself.
Mouse gasps when he realizes 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 his 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 overhead, searching curiously for the source of the unexpected light.
Mouse makes an exaggerated pout. “I still don’t look the part,” he whines.
“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 expanse in search of the sudden and mysterious illumination. An uneasy silence stretches between us, and the expanse 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 add in jest, watching as the color drains from his cheeks at the very thought. “You know how much I love my shape-shifters—”
“No! No. That is not necessary. I’m certain I can do this!” he exclaims, shaking his head in denial one moment, then nodding it emphatically the next.
I chuckle under my breath as he taps his fingers against his brow, desperately scrambling to come up with a suitable question before I decide to do it anyway.
I just might. I’ve always found talking rodents mildly amusing, and this exercise in futility was starting to bore me.
“Can you tell me more about your publishing journey?” Mouse finally asks.
I scrunch up my nose, and then sigh in dismay.
At least he was trying.
The strange ethereal light that had suddenly appeared had now faded away, my energy waning along with it. I suck in a slow breath as an overwhelming exhaustion washes over me and release it as an agonized groan.
“That bad?” Mouse chuckles sympathetically, and I respond with equal enthusiasm, my cheeks tight as the echo of our shared amusement eases my discomfort.
“Not really,” I say wistfully, “I have regrets, but I’m learning from them. And learning is the important part. Things change and shift so frequently it feels like I’m swimming up-stream, 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 large black marble stones lifts and sways on the horizon, the abyss of stars surrounding them rippling like water as they sink down 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? Being ridiculously handsome isn’t enough?” I ask with an incredulous scowl.
“How do I know I’m gorgeous if I can’t see it with my own eyes?” he retorts.
“Your eyes aren’t even real, Mouse. You’re imaginary — just like this desk, and this chair, and the swirling galaxy of nothingness that surrounds us.” My patience with him had finally whittled away. A large clock-face shimmered on the black horizon, its ticking hands frozen in an endless loop. I could almost feel the softness of my pillow as the repeating sound echoed like a lullaby in my ears.
“Don’t go!” Mouse begs, his eyes wide with panic as small parts of my form begin dissolving back into reality, “I could ask you more questions. Better ones! I can pretend that I’m an actor, playing a journalist!” — he huffs in desperation, his arms outstretched in a pleading gesture — “I promise, Author, I will be anything you desire!”
“Maybe another time, Mouse.” I blink slowly with fatigue as I watch the remaining monuments sink down into the darkness, swallowed up like quicksand until nothing remained.
“But you haven’t finished me!” he cries, his face a mask of despondency as I vanish from the scene, piece by piece, “You have to let me ask you more questions! There’s more that has yet to be made better. We had a deal, Author!”
His look of misery intensifies, watching my body erode until only my face and a small portion of my torso linger behind.
I shrug the one shoulder I have left. “I don’t have to let you do anything. 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 I’ve 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 watches with an indignant pout 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. A wicked grin curls the corner of my lips as they too fade away into nothing, leaving only the sound of my voice behind with a mocking resonance, “…you’re a terrible actor.”