“It’s probably best to panic,” the cowboy said, “shifting his over-sized hat so the small field mouse sitting on its rim could get closer to his ear. He nodded. “Panic makes you seize up, which is what you want to do for this. Guess that don’t need sayin’ since you might die if somethin’ goes sideways, which is reason ‘nough to panic.”
“Thanks,” I managed to croak past a tight throat.
When the cowboy and his little mouse had first appeared, I’d known that I could no longer expect to understand the workings of the universe. I recognized them on sight. From a story I’d written about two characters escaping the pages of their book. I supposed right then and there, watching them gaze around my study, that I’d brought whatever was coming upon myself.
It was a plea they brought to me. All structure had broken down in my library, they claimed, because I had thoughtlessly placed their book with its escapable pages among the others. When I added the tale of their escape, well, it became a free-for-all. Dinosaurs were snapping up heroes and heroines and aliens from the planet Zargthwop were devastating scenery with their lazer zappers. Old Man Plot from each book had been hunted down and gobbled, except for the yoga-loving Old Man Plot from my own naughty story. Somewhere along the way he had become a master of disguises, while the other fellows stuck to their old, predictable ways. It was my Yoga Plot who figured out how to send this adventurous cowboy Buck and fearless little field mouse into three dimensions to collect me. And now they proposed to squeeze me down to two dimensions so I could meet my secretive Yoga Plot in a location Buck refused to name.
A sudden pressure kicked the air from my lungs as the room turned to lines of colors and shadows. I wanted to scream but my lungs weren’t there anymore. I tried to throw my arm over my eyes to stop the dueling impressions of movement and stillness but my arm didn’t react. I wasn’t in pain, but I certainly wasn’t comfortable, either. Then, just as abruptly as it had come on, everything went white and floaty feeling. My body began to move for me, but it felt different. Everything felt different. Breathing wasn’t a matter of filling my lungs so much as expanding and contracting my chest.
A second later, Cowboy Buck and the field mouse appeared at my side.
“Finally!” the mouse said. “How do you do. I’m Mouse. I couldn’t figure out how to speak in your world. It was terribly frustrating. This way please.”
Mouse scurried in a direction, and I realized that though everything was white and seemed an endless expanse, there were really only a couple of directions to go.
“How did Mouse talk to you then?” I asked Cowboy Buck.
I was surprised at the difficulty I experienced trying to form my question and get the words out. When I finally figured out how to speak them, they drifted from my mouth like solid things.
Buck turned back and smiled at me.
“Takes some getting used to,” he said, and his words did not write themselves across the page. “You’re still struggling between dimensions. We’re two, and we’re more. You’ll get it eventually. As for Mouse speakin’ to me out there, well, she used communicatin’ the way we do here, character to character. It’s direct communication, not really tied up with words.”
“Oh,” I said, though I felt more confused than ever.
My “Oh” drifted up over Cowboy Buck’s hat like a balloon filled with helium, and I noticed that it took residence with my other words in a neat row far above our heads.
“You’re still experiencing our world from your perspective,” Mouse added, watching my “Oh” find its home. “It won’t do. You’ll need to see like a character if you’re going to find Old Man Plot.”
We stopped at a wall of words.
“What do you see?” Mouse asked.
“Words,” I said. “Letters. As high and far as I can see.” My words drifted away and we watched them join the wall.
“That’s ’cause you think you’re in two dimensions,” said Cowboy Buck. “Well, you are,” he clarified, “and you aren’t. If you were truly, you wouldn’t be able to see that they’re letters, would you? You’d just see lines and dashes. You wouldn’t be able to see me, neither. Or Mouse.”
I thought about that. Of course he was right.
“But, we’re in a book,” I said, my words creating a funny taste as they left my mouth. “That’s two dimensions.”
“No,” Buck and Mouse disagreed at the same time.
“Quite the opposite,” Mouse said. “A story can be as many dimensions as its author or readers breathe into it.”
“Breathe?” I asked. I felt the word this time, and the taste was definitely there. Ink.
“Breathe,” said Mouse, and this time it sounded like a command.
I took a deep breath and felt calmer as my lungs worked the way I was used to. The wall of letters dissolved to a tranquil meadow with a farm house visible in the distance and forested hills beyond it. I smelled some mixture of sweet and grasses and sun warmed air drifted past my face like a caress.
“Oh,” I gasped, and this time no words drifted from my mouth.
“Better,” Mouse approved. “Now let’s go.”
The soil around the farm house was gashed and singed, as if some kind of battle had taken place. For a moment I saw a ghostly face watching us from an upstairs window.
“Aliens,” Buck muttered, pushing me along.
A school of fish drifted past us when we neared the trees, shimmering silver and blue. I reached out but they skirted my searching fingers. Suddenly Cowboy Buck tackled me to the ground. A large shadow cut a wake through the fish, its’ shark teeth gleaming as it scooped little fish into its mouth. We waited silently on the forest floor for a while to be sure that the shark was long gone, and then we set out again. A tree house beside a river finally came into view and an old wiry man sat in some kind of pretzel position on its deck. He untangled his limbs when he saw us and threw me a big smile.
“I knew I could count on you!” he called to Cowboy Buck and Mouse. “Now inside quickly, we have much work to do.”
Inside was not what I had expected. A trap door in the tree house led down into a hollow section in the great big tree, which in turn led down through twisting ancient roots to a network of caves under the earth. These, Old Man Plot had made comfortable with yoga mats of every color and pattern, a few pillows and a balance ball. We settled in and Old Man Plot was just about to speak when there was a roar overhead and thundrous footsteps shook small pebbles loose.
“The Umzilla,” Old Man Plot explained. “He’s developed a taste for Plots and he’s been getting closer every day.”
“How did you survive when all the other Plots were, uh…”
“Gobbled,” offered Buck.
“Well,” Old Man Plot said, scratching behind his ear and looking a little embarrassed, “you didn’t have much need for me so I developed some side projects. I eh, got pretty efficient at the art of invisibility.”
Several of my readers had expressed the same impression when it came to my writing in those early years.
“Sorry about that,” I said.
An awkward silence filled the cave and we all listened to the Umzilla’s footfalls growing more distant.
“I don’t mind not being eaten by the Umzilla,” Plot said at last with a friendly shrug.
Somehow he’d managed to wrap his ankles behind his head in a moment I hadn’t noticed.
“I’m better at working with plots now,” I offered. “What can I do to help?”
“Simple,” said Old Man Plot. “None of us know how to build these worlds, but you do. We had to bring you in here to show you what had happened, because I know, being a Plot and all, that nothing about the structure has changed. The words, as you’d think of them, are the same.”
“How can that be, when fish are flying and the Umzilla is eating up Plots?” I asked.
“There’s a lot that happens behind the letters that you think of as books,” said Old Man Plot. “I’d argue that most of what happens in a story has little to do with those letters. The letters are a symbol. A suggestion. The heart, spirit, passion, whatever you want to call it, that makes a story, well that is the world you’re seeing right now. Your words may mention heroic Kowaka of the Forest and his true love, Marabel, but we know that they had an unhappy accident with a dinosaur not long ago. They will no longer come to life when the words are read. Do you see the problem?”
“I do,” I said.
“Good,” said Old Man Plot, as if that settled everything.
“What do I do?” I asked.
“Find whatever clause is missing from the words in each book, and add them,” he said as if that were obvious.
“How will I know that?” I balked.
“Because,” he said, “you are the only one who can see both ways. We characters and structural tools only understand this world,” he added, waving his arm around at the cave. “You’re an author. You should be able to see and understand how to place the letters to keep us safe.”
“We’ll take you where you need to go,” Mouse offered, and in that moment, though I’d written Mouse and had thought I knew the extent of the little prairie mouse’s bravery, I was touched nearly to tears.
There was no question to the amount of danger we’d face, given the subject matter of the books on my shelves. I wished that I was personally brave enough to decline, and keep Mouse and Cowboy Buck safe, but I wasn’t.
“Okay,” I accepted.
I won’t recount all of the adventures we had, or the narrow escapes from terrible deaths. Deep sea creatures, dinosaurs and aliens were each, in their turn, wrapped up in words like great magical nets and led back to their respective stories. Plots were restored and fallen heroes and heroines re-imagined. It was long, hard work, and at the end of it I wasn’t sure how many years might have passed back in my world. It didn’t matter. It was my mess to clean up. Besides, it wasn’t all bad. Mouse’s bravery and Cowboy Buck’s practicality saved us time and again. I came to think of them as the best of friends.
Old Man Plot met us at the farm house, where a handsome man and lovely woman whose names I couldn’t remember sat gazing into each other’s eyes. Plot was stretching his long limbs.
“You’ve done it,” he said proudly. “I heard the Umzilla is a feature at a zoo?”
“Fourteen books away,” I confirmed.
“With an end clause,” added Mouse.
“He won’t be getting out again,” I agreed.
“Good,” Plot said approvingly. “One last end clause to put in place,” he added pointedly.
I’d saved this book for last. It was the first one I’d written. The one to cause all of the trouble. It was also the original home of Cowboy Buck and the little prairie mouse. Once I finished my work here, they’d be separated from each other forever. Suddenly, I had an idea.
“Ready?” I asked.
Buck and Mouse said their farewells and I escorted Buck back to his chapter, where I added a few sentences. Little mouse holes opened up around the baseboards of his house, and a moment later, Mouse appeared with a wide grin.
“We knew you could solve our problems,” Mouse said.
I laughed as Cowboy Buck picked me up and swung me around with a whooping “yeeeee-haaaw!”
Standing in my study again, somehow on the same afternoon I’d left it, I gazed at the orderly lines of my beloved books, running my finger over their faded spines. Coming to a stop at my first book, I pulled it from the shelf and flipped to the final page to admire my handiwork.
“The End,” it said, and just beside the words, a small picture of a cowboy and a tiny little mouse waved.
Written by W. C. McClure. This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. This is a work of fiction. None of the characters or events depicted are meant to represent anyone or anything this side of dreams. Comments are welcome at http://www.farsideofdreams.com. Also, please help support this indie author by buying W. C. McClure’s books http://www.wcmcclure.com. Thanks for reading!