This is, I think, a chapter belonging to a longer tale. It was partially inspired by this sketch of a giant mouse / rat, and will hopefully fit into the book at some point, when there is a book.
This here Giant Mousekin is named Harlowe, and this has not been his story so far, but it probably will be, before too long.
This is what Uncle Normand had said, showing me the sketch his girlfriend Genevieve had just drawn for my character – just like that, with no reference material or anything. My first RPG character ever.
I did not particularly want to be there, among a bunch of almost-grownups (they were all out of University now, some for the second time even), playing this game. It had no discernible rules, just an enormous rule book with suggestions about how to tell stories using plastic random number generators (dice).
While I understood that the Internet had not been widely appreciated yet when Normand was still young and forming his core interests, I was already on my fourth hand-me-down iPad by this point – we had machines to calculate probability and tell us stories, since like, forever, so this whole rolling dice and using pencils and paper thing seemed kind of a waste of time. Actually, a literal waste of time, because it was definitively slower. Normand disagreed that this meant the time went to waste – literally or otherwise – and then warned me about misusing the word literally, but didn’t want to go into it so much beyond that, this time anyway.
I liked the shapes and colours of those crazy dice though. Also, Genevieve was playing too, and she was my favourite adult in those days, hands down. She reminded me of what mom might have turned out like had she not had a kid when she was in high school. A free spirit, never a bad thing to say about anybody.
Genevieve was a Healer. In the game, I mean. In real life, she groomed animals as a hobby and sold things online for money. My mom probably would play a Bounty Hunter or something (in-game or real life, take your pick), but Normand never, ever invited her to play because she never, ever wanted to. Typical only-siblings, is what mom chalked it up to. I wouldn’t know about that.
Normand had been trying to explain to me how to make a character for the game, so I could play with him and Genevieve (he called her something that sounded like “JEnnEh!“), and her friends Lynda Spokes and … some other guy something-something. Lynda Spokes changed boyfriends a fair amount in those days, and I’ve never been good with names.
We were visiting my Great Aunt Bee in her great old house, and she had suggested since Normand and his friends were there using her kitchen and eating her food anyway, that they should include me, though she hadn’t asked me if I wanted to play, or even if I had had other plans for that afternoon. I didn’t, but that didn’t matter, I could have. After securing my place in their game, Great Aunt Bee had left to go run errands in town, which probably meant she was going to the river to paint water.
The rules for making a game character were seven chapters long, I’m not even kidding. It took us a long time, because I wanted my character to be a Rat and Uncle Normand didn’t want characters in his story that weren’t Human, which is speciesist but don’t tell that to Uncle Norm. We spent a long time discussing this.
I had said why can’t I be a Rat, and he said that would be too hard because I’d get killed by the first sword or arrow or fireball that hit me, and they did that kind of stuff a lot in their group’s games. They used little painted figures of heroes and monsters to represent the various scenarios of carnage and heroism that they would dream up on the kitchen table (I was never sure where from, the books were sometimes consulted, seemingly at random, but I don’t think the stories were written in them), and that was the other reason I didn’t just find a nook in the house somewhere to hide in until game night was over. I liked those things – the miniatures, or “minis”. Normand told me they weren’t for playing with. Yeah, right. I saw the way all the adults handled them – they were hanging onto playtime for as long as they could. Those miniatures held their little dreams – each and every one.
Normand had probably four hundred, each about 25 to 50 mm high. A few were smaller and some were much bigger. A few of them were even made out of lead, which I found funny because lead is toxic and people in the seventies and eighties were tragically naive about science. I liked holding those ones the best, of course. Some of the minis were clearly heroes, because they looked noble, or crafty, or wise, or some other heroic thing. Others were clearly monsters, having teeth and horns and extra limbs and bland or garish colour schemes. Genevieve had to tell me not to put the minis in my mouth, twice. I couldn’t help it – forbidden fruit.
Some miniatures were harder to glean the spirit of – like the figure of the smiling bartender hiding a meat cleaver behind his back. His secret cleaver had blood painted on it. Or the Goblin who wore a rainbow-striped cloak and carried a basket of kittens. Genevieve had done that one, using her 3D printer. She was a Maker. I liked these obscure ones the best – the miniatures who neither seemed Good nor Evil, just conflicted and weird. Regardless of where on the Good-Evil axis each landed, almost all of them were armed, because fantasy worlds are exceedingly perilous, apparently.
Fine. A regular Rat was done for in a place like that, I got it. What could I accomplish anyway as that size, said Lynda’s boyfriend whose name I don’t remember. A Rat could sneak into small places, I suggested. Wouldn’t that be useful? I could spy on things for them. Lynda’s boyfriend just shook his head sadly, saying they already had a thief for that stuff (his character). I asked him could a thief squeeze him or herself through a hole the diameter of a carrot? He said with magic potions yes, but conceded, not normally. Genevieve told me that the group was trying to find a role for me, so that I would have my own place and my own story, within their shared story. That was why they called it a Role-playing game. OK then.
I understood this because Genevieve was a teacher and good with words, although she didn’t know either of those things yet. I pretended not to understand, because I have a rivalry with teachers that goes way back. Don’t learn them an inch- they’ll teach you a mile – That was what Normand told me once, about teachers. Normand did not use the metric system, except for measuring temperature.
I had said that I could be a Magic Rat then, with Magic Rat powers, like super strength and telepathy and double-jumping, but Normand didn’t like that idea, like, at all. He’s always going on about how Old School he is, which seems like an unnecessary thing to say when everybody already knows that he’s old.
Magic Rats, he said, didn’t exist in his Champagne. I said how did he know? How big was this planet we were all supposed to be on, in this make-believe game? I assumed it wasn’t Earth – there were fairies. How did he know there were no Magic Rats anywhere on the entire planet? He said he just did, because he was the Dungeon Monger. This was not the real title for what he did in the game, but I preferred it, since he mongered fish part-time in town back then and once I learned monger was a word, I needed to use it frequently or I would lose it forever. That’s still how I thought words worked back then.
Well, I said, I didn’t want to play, because he had said I could play any character I wanted to, and I wanted to be a Rat. I had seen one behind the fish monger’s store that past summer, just strolling around behind the dumpsters, like it owned the place. It was bigger than I had thought Rats were, but not really as gross. It didn’t act very afraid of me, but when I walked toward it, it gave me a hard sideways stare and then was gone through some chain link into the tall grass before I could say, so long and thanks for all the fish. I had been mildly fascinated by Ratkind ever since. This was the third reason I didn’t immediately say no to playing in Normand’s Champagne, once he had told me I could be anything. The possibilities were staggering.
Lynda (named after the website, I asked) tried solving the problem by telling Normand that my character was a Giant Rat who had once been a young woman who was turned into a Rat by an Evil Witch. Normand started arguing about how curses work and Genevieve told him to cut it out, and besides, Lynda’s character was a Wizard and knew all sorts of cray people from her past. Lynda’s character was a woman but instead of being a Witch she was a Wizard, like in Harry Potter books, where both girls and boys can be Wizards, and just call themselves Wizards, regardless of genitals. I asked her if men could be Witches and Normand said those were called Warlocks (in his world – now a given) and then I asked why men and women Wizards were both called Wizards but men and women couldn’t both be Witches or Warlocks, and he pretended to not hear me while flipping through his rule book for something urgent. I think he was looking for a clause that might get him out of having to include his ten-year-old niece in their adult make-believe world that had been alive longer than she had.
Lynda reminded Normand that her Wizard had two Dark Secrets she had been waiting to announce for a special occasion, and that she was going to use one of them to help explain how I – that is, my character – became a Giant Rat. She said I could be a young woman whom her character had once met, and helped out of some trouble, and they had formed a special bond (like a big sister, little sister thing, but with more magic), and then Lynda’s character had to leave to attend magic school, and years went by. Then an old school enemy of hers decided to curse my character into Rat form (not a curse in my opinion but I didn’t want to interrupt again) to get back at Lynda’s Wizard for… something, I don’t remember the whole story. My character was forced to take on the life of a mercenary because nobody trusted a Rat the size of a Human, who could speak and open doors and carried a sword.
I thought that idea was pretty good, if not a little complicated, but was still trying to figure out how all of this was getting decided, and where the rule book came in, and why sometimes one or more of them consulted the rule book for some answers and sometimes they just argued about things until they agreed, or agreed to disagree. Normand broke ties, because that’s what the Monger does. In this way, everybody seemed to end up agreeing that all this make-believe stuff was, for all intents and purposes, real enough every Thursday from about 3pm to 8pm, somehow. Normand was obviously not loving the idea of the Rat but seemed OK with the idea that I (that is, my character) could be an anomaly. That had story-hook potential, which pleased him.
What did I think of being a Giant Rat, cursed by an Evil Witch, asked Lynda, hopefully. Well, I said, I didn’t want there to be Evil Witches in this world, only Good ones. Witches had gotten enough of a bad rap over the years, why did the stereotype need to be perpetuated forever, even in make-believe worlds? Lynda’s BF was about to answer that but Genevieve just handed him the chip bowl, kind of harshly, so he shut up and ate them with a shrug.
I wanted my character to be a Royal Fish Monger who had drank a cursed potion and became a Giant Rat, and was now looking for the antidote, so he could get back to Royal Fish Mongering. Normand shook his head quietly (I think he was trying not to grin, he finds me hilarious for some reason), but didn’t immediately shoot the idea down, so I continued. I did not want to play a young woman, I wanted to be an older man, about Normand’s age and size, kind of pudgy but strong. My character’s name, I said, would be Mormand. Lynda’s BF found this hilarious, almost choking on a mouthful of potato chips, but Uncle Norm said I had to pick a name that wasn’t a big joke like I usually do, so I said fine, I’ll call him Harlowe. I didn’t just make that name up, but that’s a whole other story.
So that’s how Harlowe the Giant Rat Mercenary came to be. He had average “statistics”, except he could sense things really well, like smells and sounds and tastes and sometimes heartbeats, and could climb and jump like nobody’s business, and he had a sword and a pouch with some things in it. I didn’t really pay attention to all the details and numbers, I was already searching through Normand’s minis for one that looked exactly like Harlowe, who was now real in my mind – just like that.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
When Maevis Morgan met her Uncle Normand for the first time that she could remember, she was seven years old. Her mother Ani had dropped her and the hamsters off at Great Aunt Bee’s house. Bee was Ani’s aunt, and she had an old house in the woods, outside of Elder Falls, a small town which Maeve now remembers as being entirely in the woods, like the Ewok village, but without as many tree dwellings. New Brunswick, to her, was one giant forest, because Ani could never go on enough about how much she never wanted to see another pine tree again. Maeve spent the better part of her childhood either being completely unaware of other provinces entirely, thinking Nova Scotia was an island, or else imagining New Brunswick as a kind of large forest nation, with occasional cleared spaces for backyards and industry only.
Her mother had stayed at Bee’s house for four hours this time around, enough time to ensure Maeve wouldn’t bolt into the treeline, before saying goodbye to everybody, and jumping back into the family car, headed for somewhere out West. This time, she would be gone for at least three weeks, maybe as much as two or three months. Beatrice had insisted Ani give them some kind of ETA this time around – it wasn’t fair to the child, the older woman whispered to her niece, when neither thought Maeve was close by and listening.
“Aunt Bee!” Called Ani from the hatchback, which was already running, the family dog jumping furiously about between front and back seat. “Tell Normand hi for me when he shows up later, ok?” The young dog barked crazily, desperate to stay with Maeve, but Bee’s house – her entire property, in fact – was a strict no-dog zone. Maevis loved their dog but understood her mother needed him more than she did right now. She would cry a little about missing him later.
Great Aunt Bee and Maevis were on the stoop, the old woman with a dishtowel and saucer in her hand, the young girl sitting resolute on the top step, hamster cage clutched perhaps too tightly on her lap, though nobody would notice that, except perhaps for the hamsters, Hammy and Herma, who could sense the girl’s uncertainty about the future, a thing that makes hamsters go a bit crazy, I am told. They were both furiously chewing on the metal bars, though where they thought they might go, only another hamster could properly explain.
Bee called back to Ani, who was trying to get the dog to settle in the back seat, “you can tell him yourself, he should be here in a half hour, he gets off work in a few minutes…” but the woman already knew Ani wanted to get on the road, she was so much like her father that way.
Ani called back, over the rattle of the hatchback’s loose muffler, “We saw each other last Christmas, Bee – we’re fine, we talk on Facebook, and I have to go.” The dog was howling now, but Maeve knew he’d settle after they hit the Tim Hortons on the way out of town.
“Let her go, Aunt Bee” Maeve said, “Dooley’s going to tear the car apart any second, and I don’t like goodbyes anyway”, her voice a touch raspy at the end.
Aunt Bee looked at her young grandniece, revealing nothing, then said, “Alright, dear. Me neither, actually, they have been far too many of those lately, haven’t there?” And with that, she waved the dishcloth at Ani’s car, which was already in reverse and weaving crazily down the curved drive, Ani hanging out of the driver’s window now, a barking dog head sprouting like a second head from behind her, “Goodbye my Love! I will miss you every day and every night! Write me emails! I’ll write bac- DOOLEY!!!” and at that the car swerved wildly, came to a sudden stop just shy of the treeline, and several awkward moments followed while Maeve’s mother and Maeve’s dog struggled for control over the front seat, until he was finally leashed to something in the back, and the window was rolled up, Ani waving through the front window as the car resumed sliding slowly and impatiently backward down the driveway, disappearing into the New Brunswick pine.
There was a light hand on Maeve’s shoulder briefly, then nothing, the screen door clapping shut as Great Aunt Bee disappeared into the old house to leave them both alone with their thoughts on the matter.
Maeve wasn’t sure she wanted to go in yet. At least half the time, her mother would forget something and come back to get it. One time Maeve even imagined she might come back, having forgotten to take her daughter with her, but it was usually dog food, or some CD for the car. The dog food bag was still sitting on the bottom step, with Maeve’s other things. The girl had taken it out of the car as a kind of experiment, to see whether Ani would notice. She hadn’t.
After about two hours, it seemed fairly clear Ani wouldn’t be back for the dog food, or for her. Bee hadn’t come back out either, which Maeve found mildly concerning. What if her mother dropped her off on the very day that the old woman finally died suddenly of old person complications? She was alone here, without any internet, which meant she was not in civilization anymore. She imagined there was an old-timey rotary phone somewhere inside the house, but she had not Googled how to use one properly, in case of an emergency. She didn’t know the street address here anyway. There was no street, only a dirt road, trees, and whatever lay beyond, in every direction.
The sun had gone down about a half hour ago, and just before the girl decided she might as well go inside, a firefly appeared along the treeline. She had never seen a firefly before, but soon decided she could watch it all night, if it decided to stay. It was like a fairy, flitting about in the trees all along the edge of the property, winking into and out of view as it spiraled and corkscrewed about lazily, searching for whatever fireflies search for.
Maeve opened the dog food and started feeding kibbles to the hamsters, who grabbed the things greedily from through the bars, satisfied that the food situation was in hand at least, even if they were in a strange place, and outdoors at that. Herma could tell they were both being watched from the treeline around the house, but was trying not to freak out too much about it. Hammy was just furious he hadn’t been allowed out in the house to poop under a sofa yet, and was destroying a toilet paper roll in vigorous protest.
Eventually, a car could be heard pulling into the property’s long driveway, somewhere in the trees that had two hours earlier swallowed Ani and the dog. The approaching engine was different, a bigger vehicle, probably a truck. When it emerged from the trees, she saw that it was indeed a pickup. Japanese make; Maeve could tell by the headlight shape. She snapped suddenly out of her funk and remembered that she had an uncle whom she had never met. Her mother’s brother. She couldn’t imagine what her mom’s brother would be like, aside from the fact she now knew he drove a pickup truck, and that he wasn’t very punctual. Would he look like her mother? Would he talk just like her? How long would he stay before leaving again?
Uncle Normand took a long time to pull the truck up to the house. He wasn’t used to kids, he assumed Maeve would run under the tires or something, so swung the thing way over to the side of the house, and carefully pulled to a stop in front of the small lawnmower shed, under the old Weeping Willow tree. The engine hummed for an extra moment and then shut off with a click. Uncle Normand got out, waved absently to the niece he had only met once before, when Ani forced him to hold her momentarily as a newborn, and then ducked his head back into the truck’s cab, emerging with six or seven grocery store bags. He shut the door with his foot and started toward the stoop, now lit up by a string of patio lanterns that Maeve had not noticed had been turned on some time ago.
“Nice hamsters.” Normand nodded to the cage on her lap. “Don’t let them out in the yard, the barn owl will get them. She’s wily.” He put down his grocery bags a few feet away, and stood in front of her awkwardly, scratching his forehead.
Maeve noted the faded, Force Awakens t-shirt Normand had managed to fit himself into.
“I don’t really like Star Wars”, she announced. “It’s not science fiction, it’s fantasy in space, like with wizards except they’re Jedi and there are monsters, but they’re just aliens. Star Trek is science fiction.” Maeve waited to see what that would do.
Normand paused, nodded, more or less in agreement. “Just aliens, eh? What, you don’t like aliens?”
Maeve shook her head quickly “What? No. I mean, yeah I like aliens I guess. I mean, I think they’re real.” A pause. “Don’t you?”
“You mean, do I think they’re here, among us?” Normand made his eyes go slightly crazy, for comedic effect.
Maeve changed the subject.
“Do you go by Normand, Norman, or Norm? Does anybody ever call you ‘Normy’? Do they shout your name when you enter a room?” Maeve had handed him the Question Sandwich, which Ani had already warned him about in a lengthy email the day before.
“I usually go with Normand, but you can call me Norm if you need to. Don’t shout it in a bar though, OK?”
Maeve took a moment to parse his deadpan response. He sounded like he was talking to a coworker, and they were both working at a call center, like in that show she liked watching but wasn’t supposed to watch, because it had inappropriate words in it.
She worried at once about the possibility she might be a closet Star Wars fan.
“Mom called the turtle Norm.”
“Of course she did. Your mother hasn’t changed since she was ten, you know. Your age.” He thought, and added, “I probably shouldn’t tell you that. Do you mind if I sit down?”
Maeve shrugged, then nodded, then slid herself over to give the large man some room. He grabbed the groceries in one hand, and swinging them up onto the porch, dropped himself down next to her. The old boards of the stoop gave a bit. A comfortable pause as Normand poked at the hamster cage, no interest in asking their names.
The firefly had summoned a friend, and they were blinking about in pursuit of each other, higher up in the tree. Maeve and her uncle both watched them go, as she considered his words, about her mom. “That explains a lot about the last three years though”, Maeve offered, eager for the opportunity to have her opinion of her mother’s mom skills on record right away.
Normand had long practiced the ability of letting only one side of his face betray his amusement. He could do either side equally well, and kept the side facing the girl fairly slack. After a moment, he turned to cock and eyebrow at the young girl.
“Ani explains a lot about a lot of things.”, Normand winked mysteriously at Maeve, paused for effect, then stood with a grunt, grabbed the groceries, and took his leave, into the house. Maeve could hear him greeting Bee loudly, and soon they were talking French and English, all mixed together, like that was no big deal. Their own mixed-up magical language.
Maeve blinked back at the fireflies, who seemed unconcerned. Where was she, and how had she ended up here?
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