Monday, December 24, 2018

Oliver Twist, Zombie Hunter? (A Mark Flyleaf Story)

"Do you know who I was?!" the scrawny blond boy screeched.

"Yes," Mark said, trying to remain calm. "Of course. I understand that—"

"I was Oliver. Bloody. Twist. You hear me? The original. From Dickens' pen itself."

"Yes, I—"

"I've been fan-fictioned, bowdlerized, plagiarized, and reimagined like you would not believe."

"Yes, I understand, but—"

"I've been a musical, a whole slew of movies, and three graphic novels. And now I hear that Oliver Bloody Twist is going to be in a new novel fighting zombies, and I wasn't offered the part?"

"Well, yes. The author was, as you say, reimagining your character as—"

"Stop interrupting me!" The boy turned his back on Mark and glanced up at his two Uruk-hai bodyguards framing the closed office door, the tops of their bald, cadaver-colored heads lifting the corners of two panels of the drop ceiling. "You don't interrupt Oliver Bloody Twist," the boy said to no one in particular. The guard on the left nodded slightly, skewing his blood-red necktie slightly to the left and setting the panel above his head to wobbling.

Mark gritted his teeth. Child literary stars were always the worst, and Dickens characters doubly so. They could be neither reasoned nor bargained with. The best tack, Mark had learned, was simply to let them expend their energy, lose all their steam, and then step in afterward to establish the limits of reality — fictional though their reality was.

But that sometimes took a lot of waiting. He fought the urge to drum his fingers on the desktop.

The boy turned back to him with a sneer, his eyes wild. He stared Mark down, ran his fingers through his hair.

"Well?" the boy said.

"Well what?"

"Haven't you got anything to say for yourself?"

"I thought you didn't want me to interrupt."

The boy's eyes became slits, and his sneer took on a canine edge. Mark was reminded of a poodle pup trying to play the wolf.

"As I was saying," Mark continued, "the presumptive author of that particular novel is planning on reimagining you, that is, reimagining Oliver Twist, as a man in his early twenties. A rather buff young man, I understand. It takes muscles to fight zombies apparently."

"Your point is?" the boy asked, leaning in over Mark's desk.

The boy's chin and upper lip were utterly smooth, his Adam's apple still the size of a grape. His voice hadn't even dropped, and it never would. It had been a long time since Mark had had to explain that those who became fictional characters as widely read and recognized as, well, as Oliver Twist, were for all intents and purposes frozen forever into the descriptions their first authors gave of them. In short, the original Oliver Bloody Twist was a short, prepubescent ragamuffin, as this entitled slubberdegullion was and always would be.

It was time for Mark to turn on the diplomacy. "Considering your, uh, high status in the fictional world, it would take a rather, uh, egregious amount of painful recharacterization for you to take on this particular role of 'Oliver Twist, Zombie Hunter.'"

The boy straightened his back, pursed his lips, and stared Mark down some more.

He's trying to be intimidating, Mark thought, noticing that the boy, standing straight, was only slightly taller than Mark was sitting down. The boy's nose was only crotch-high to his two massive Middle-earth bodyguards, and Mark wondered what it must be like to have to stare at Uruk-hai ass wherever you went.

Mark cleared his throat to suppress the urge to chuckle. "Perhaps it's better to think of it as just a name that you're sharing. You will always be the original Oliver Twist. This one will just be some other character who, um, shares a number of traits with you. You know, the way it is with movies."

"Movies? What the hell do movies have to do with it?" The boy slammed his tiny fist on Mark's desk. "I am a fictional book character. Book character. I couldn't do a movie if I wanted to. But this is a book. This is a book about Oliver Twist. This is my turf!"

This is Tom Sawyer all over again, Mark thought. Enough was enough. "I'm sorry, but if I send you on this role, one of two things will happen. One: The novel will be written, but your character will be so incongruous that it will be panned by reviewers. Your reputation — Oliver Twist's reputation — will suffer. And my reputation will suffer for sending you there. Two: The author will try to write the book but, unable to align your traits with what the story calls for, he'll hit an impasse and never finish the book; that would mean that every other character in the book will be out of a job because of you." Mark's voice slowly rose in volume during his explication. He felt the heat in his face, first from anger and frustration, and then from the embarrassment of realizing that he sounded like a disappointed father admonishing his son. Only this blond nuisance wasn't his son. In fact, he was much, much older than Mark.

The boy looked away, working his jaw, and began pacing the room. After three circuits of the carpet, he looked to his bodyguards and rasped "Get out!" like a locomotive releasing steam.

The first twinges of fear entered Mark's consciousness. His little rant had been unprofessional; he wondered if it hadn't actually been dangerous. As the Uruk-hai pulled open the door, Mark said, "Well, look. I've got—"

The boy silenced him with one pointing finger, not even deigning to look at him.

The Uruk-hai ducked out the doorway, their satin neckties hanging like red arrows from their throats as they ducked through into the waiting room. Mark had expected them to slam the door behind them, but they shut it delicately, soundlessly.

The boy turned back to Mark with a new face. The anger was gone, and in its place, fear. In spite of his pre-adolescent looks, the boy's age showed through in his frightened eyes, which glimmered with the first hint of tears. "Look, man," he pleaded, all harshness gone from his voice. "I really need this. I haven't done any real work in years. And I can't...," he trailed off, breaking eye contact.

"You can't what?" Mark asked cautiously.

The boy paced the room, gesticulating with his arms as if trying to catch words from the air. "Look," he said finally, dropping his voice to a whisper and cocking a thumb at the door. "I don't know how I'm even going to pay those two this week. And do you have any idea how much they eat?"

"But you're the original Oliver Twist. You're supposed to be one of the richest characters in—"

The boy's downcast eyes said it all. Mark had heard rumors but wanted to believe they were untrue. He reached across the desk, grabbed the boy's wrist, and before the boy could recoil, Mark slid his shirtsleeve up his arm. From his wrist to the crook of his elbow, his flesh was covered by an intricate series of black dots, red carets, and pilcrows.

"It's true," Mark said in disbelief. "You're an addict."

The boy looked away but didn't deny it.

"What is it?" Mark asked, releasing his grip. "Wite-out?"

"Wite-out. Crystal stet. Invisible ink. Mad libs. You name it. And now I'm broke. You gotta help me, man!"

Mark sat back in his chair and thought for a moment. He had seen child characters self-destruct before. Dorothy Gail. Johnny Appleseed. Pippy Longstocking. But somehow, without consciously realizing it, Mark had always held out hope for Oliver Twist. There wasn't much Mark could do, but he had to do something.

"Are you, you know, getting help?"

The boy glanced at Mark, embarrassed, and he pulled the sleeve back down over the evidence of his shortcoming. "I am."

Mark could tell the boy wanted to just leave it there, but he wasn't about to help an addict stay an addict. He stayed silent until the weight of that silence forced the boy to speak again.

"I've been going to meetings for one of those twelve-chapter programs, twice a week for the last six months. Doctor Lecter says I've been making some great improvements."

"Doctor Lecter?"

"My therapist. I see him once a week, too."

"How can you afford a therapist?" Mark asked.

"Doctor Lecter is a kind man. He doesn't charge me anything. Sometimes he even makes me dinner, and he's a wonderful chef."

Mark stared into the boy's face and saw embarrassment, sadness, pain, and desperation. But he didn't see deception. "Fine," he said, turning to his computer. His fingers scampered across his keyboard as he narrowed down the character listings. "I'll find you some work, but you've got to promise to keep on the straight and narrow."

"I will, man. I will. I promise."

Mark scribbled some information on a transfer slip and passed it across the desk. "Here," he said. "It's just a bit part in a Michael Connelly novel, but it'll get you working again."

The boy looked down at it. "Thank you," he murmured sheepishly.

A moment passed in silence.

"Is this," the boy started. "Is this all? Do you have anything else?"

"I don't know if I should give you more than one role."

The boy sniffed and said, "Work will keep me busy. If I can stay busy, I won't have time to..." He didn't finish the sentence, but rubbed his forearm. He raised his head, and Mark saw the damp streaks shining down his freckled cheeks. "Please, sir, can I have some more?"

The boy's pitiful voice tugged at Mark's heartstrings. And then he remembered something.

"Ooh! Yes! I've got it!" Mark exclaimed. He typed furiously at his computer to track down the listing. "I just got this one in yesterday. It's actually a big role. Here it is!"

"What is it?"

Mark scanned the information on the monitor. "It's a — it's a role for a young king."

Mark started to see hope in the boy again. "A king?" the boy asked.

"Yeah. Rules a whole . . . looks like continent maybe? This is a big role in a multibook series. This could be your second chance."

"A multibook series?" the boy said, his eyes wide with possibility. "Is this the title role?"

"No, no," Mark said, filling out the transfer slip. "The individual books aren't going to be named after characters. But, if you get the job, you'll be playing a boy named . . . ," Mark stretched out the word named while he scrolled to the bottom of the entry, "Joffrey."

The boy smiled for the first time since he had been in Mark's office. "You think it'll have a happy ending for me?"