"So, we're doing you today," Talulla said, biting on the end of her pencil.
"I know," Goldilocks replied a little sadly. "Does it have to be my turn? Why can't Ariel go?"
Talulla leaned across the desk, her curly brown hair brushing the surface. "Because Ariel is basically a fish, and I would have to buy scuba gear before interviewing her."
Goldilocks frowned. "But the story says she becomes human to marry the prince," she said. "Don't you have her in the basement anyway? And she was never a f--"
"We're not supposed to be talking about secretly selfish mermaids here!" Talulla hissed.
"Secretly selfish?" Goldilocks looked offended. Talulla sighed. She was supposed to be on good terms with the Characters, not make them think badly of her. And she had to stop insulting them.
"I'm sorry," Talulla said, smiling with tight lips. "But please stop trying to... pardon the pun... pry into other people's businesses?"
"Ariel isn't your business!"
Talulla sat back and rolled her eyes. "No, she is her own business, of which I am not prying into. Now, let's get to work, shall we?" She pulled a notebook from her desk drawer and placed it in between the two of them. "Mind if I ask you a few questions?"
Goldilocks pouted. "As if I had a choice," she said. At the look on Talulla's face, she said, "fine. No, I don't mind."
"Good." Talulla opened her pen. "Your part of the story begins with you talking a walk and finding the bears' house, does it not?"
Goldilocks sank lower in her chair. "It does."
"Tell me why you went on that walk. Give me background about your family, pets--if you have any--where you lived, what your house looked like... etcetera, etcetera."
Goldilocks blinked, then spoke. "I have a mother, father, and brother," she said. "And a cat. I lived in a small cabin, not far from the edge of the woods, and I went on the walk because it was something I did every day. But I wanted to explore a bit, take a different route, so I strayed off the trail and ended up at the house."
Talulla was scribbling furiously. "And why did you go in?" She asked. Goldilocks shrugged.
"I was curious," she said.
"Curiosity kills the cat," Talulla said with a heartless laugh. "Would you please give me detailed descriptions of your daily life, starting from age six, and an accurate report of what happened after you went inside the bears' house?"
Goldilocks swallowed. Then she began to speak, and Talulla went writing down faster than you could say, "someone ate all my porridge!"
Talulla had been doing this for quite a few years now. She was a Tale Binder, someone who had the power to bring fairy tale characters out of books. Their job was to protect them, to help them succeed in their stories, but Talulla was different. She abused her power, using it for fame and fortune. She had always enjoyed writing, but her imagination was somewhat limited and she could never find the inspiration to write a good story. And so she brought her first character, Cinderella, into the human world. They became good friends, but Talulla would not send her back into the book. She came from the first version of Cinderella, written by the Brothers Grimm--because Talulla had a plan.
She asked Cinderella a lot of questions about her background. Detailed questions, not things you would say in an ordinary conversation. Soon enough, Talulla used the information the princess had given her and turned it into a book. It was the story of Cinderella, but deeper, more exciting--and told from the girl's perspective. Talulla's book earned her so much money she decided to do the same thing with Snow White, then Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood... the list goes on and on, and so does the number of books that Talulla published.
But there was a problem. Talulla would still not send the characters back.
She was afraid that they might try and unite, to stop her. The few people that had refused to give her information were locked inside Talulla's basement until they gave in, and so went the rest of the Characters she had summoned. It turned into a sort of prison for the heroes of fairy tales. Their powers were useless in the human world.
You may be wondering why I chose such an awful person to be the main character of this story. Well, Talulla certainly wasn't my first choice. But she's not all that bad, you'll see soon enough.
Goldilocks had finished telling her part of the story. Later Talulla would change a few things here and there, write better descriptions and such. But only one thing could be said about her future book: it wasn't hers. Goldilocks was the one and true author, and yet Talulla treated her like an animal, getting the things she needed out of her and then throwing her away.
"Can I go back inside my book now?" Goldilocks pleaded. Talulla looked at the girl's half-hopeful, half-scared eyes and felt a quick flash of guilt. Then it was gone, replaced once again by her greed for fame.
"I'm sorry," Talulla said, though she wasn't really. "Into the basement you go." She walked over to the basement door in the corner of the room, unlocked it, and Goldilocks stepped inside. Once she was safe and secure, Talulla turned back to her desk and began studying the papers. Money, here I come...
"Ah! Miss Marnie, come in." Talulla's editor, Mr. Bobsworthy, beckoned her into the room. She smiled, clutching her satchel firmly to her chest, and sat down in the chair opposite of his desk.
"Good day," she said politely, placing the bag in front of him. "Here's my latest work, as I promised."
"Oh yes, a retelling of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, I presume?" Mr. Bobsworthy took the papers out of the bag and rifled through them excitedly. "My, my, you always have had the magic touch when holding a pen," he muttered as he read at top speed.
Talulla's smile wobbled. There it was again, that guilt. She quickly pushed it away. "Thank you," she said. She waited for him to finish reading.
"My goodness, I think this might be your best one yet!" Mr. Bobsworthy peered excitedly at her over his glasses. "You've explained what happened before and after the visit to the bears... such imagination! And how you tied it all in with her grandfather's mysterious death..."
"Yes, well..." Talulla's stomach churned uncomfortably.
"Well what? Don't tell me you're having second thoughts about publishing it?" He laughed as if it were a hilarious joke.
"I... might be," she replied meekly. Mr. Bobsworthy's smile instantly vanished.
"Why, really, Talulla," he said sternly. "Your books are among the most bought in the world. Four billion copies sold alone of your Cinderella retelling. This one is even better, in my opinion, imagine of all the publicity!"
Talulla looked at the floor. Why was she just feeling guilty now, after publishing twenty-one books?
But she couldn't stop now. She didn't want to disappoint all her fans, or to be shamed and teased in the writing business. People would wonder why she suddenly stopped writing. It would be all over the news, and that would be more to bear than the guilt...
She made up her mind. "I'll publish it," she said, and Mr. Bobsworthy clapped his hands together.
"What a relief! Alright, let's talk about the cover..."
Finally home again, Talulla flopped down on the couch and exhaled. Her mind drifted to all those Characters in the basement, of how she had only been feeding them bread and water... she'd given them hard mattresses to sleep on, no books to read, nothing to keep them the slightest bit entertained. Whenever one of them was sick, she just ignored it. Only one of them had died--Dorothy, from The Wizard of Oz. The memory hit her like a punch to the stomach and a tear slid down her cheek. The girl had gotten skinnier by the day, until she was carried off to wherever Characters go after they die. Talulla wasn't punished. The rest of the Tale Binders had lost track of where she was. She had hidden her location well, not allowing anyone to put it up online. Those who did know were only her most trusted colleagues, and they had sworn to never say a word.
Now she wasn't sure about anything anymore.
"Hello, there!" A voice popped up from behind Talulla. She gasped and fell, startled, and jumped up from the floor. There, standing behind her couch, was a little girl.
"Who--who are you?" Talulla whispered frightfully. "What are you doing in my house?" On closer inspection, she saw that the girl was wearing a blue and white checked dress with a little white apron. Her hair was golden and curly, and her eyes blue. For a moment she thought this was Goldilocks, but this girl was much younger and had a different face.
"My name is Alice," the girl said.
Talulla's eyes grew wide. Alice. From Alice in Wonderland. It had to be. "What are you doing here, and how did you escape from your book?" She hissed. She had planned to use Alice for her next novel, and had kept the book on a shelf in her room.
"Well, I was sent here to give you a dreadful punishment," Alice said casually. "But... well, I thought I might as well try and convince you first." She walked around the couch and sat on it.
"Con--convince me to do what? Punish me why?"
Alice rolled her eyes. "You have a very ignorant mind," she observed. "I'm here to punish you because of all those Characters you've imprisoned--and I am told you killed Dorothy."
Talulla looked at the floor and mumbled something about being sorry.
Alice put her hands on her hips. 'Hmph! Sorry, indeed. SORRY doesn't cut it, Miss Talulla! No, you have to put. Them. Back."
Talulla looked up. "I--I can't," she said. "Please, they'll do something to me if I do, and--"
Alice held up a hand. "You think I'm the only one against your practices? Why, there is a whole band of us! And not just heroes, villains too. The ugly stepmother wants Cinderella."
Talulla was shocked. "But... but she hates her!"
Alice scowled. "Must I explain everything?" She exclaimed. "Miss Talulla, they are in the same book, therefore one cannot work without the other. Their story cannot go on if a Character is missing. You refuse to believe that Characters are alive and have feelings just like you."
Talulla wasn't going to deny her, because everything she said was true.
"Now, you either apologize to those Characters and put them back, or we'll send everyone here to capture you themselves. Which one sounds better?"
Talulla swallowed. "I am sorry," she said. "I truly am. But... if I stop taking Characters from books, I won't be able to write anymore. And I love to write." That part, at least, was true. Writing was a part of her. The only thing she lacked was imagination.
Alice shook her head. "No, you must stop taking all the credit," she said. "Stop using other people's stories and make your own."
"But I can't! I can't create anything with my mind, it's all flat!" She cried.
Alice raised her eyebrows. "You already have a story," she said. "Just write it down. Now, you are going to release those characters whether you like it or not." And she led the way into Talulla's office, where the door to the basement stood. Talulla, with no choice, unlocked it and entered.
What she saw made her gasp.
When she came to deliver food three times a day, she had never really gone into the basement itself. She left it in the hallway, not wanting to waste time.
Unlike the smelly prison she thought she had forced these Characters into, her basement was sparkling clean. The floors had been swept and scrubbed until they shone, mattresses fluffed and repaired with an old sewing kit Talulla stored down there. Her Characters had built tables and chairs out of boxes, bed frames out of old shelves. It looked cozy and welcoming.
All her Characters were there. Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks, Ariel, and so many more. They all stopped in their tracks and stared, uncomprehending, at Talulla. She saw hatred on some faces, reproach and sadness on others. The guilt stabbed her again, and she stepped forward.
"I am so sorry," she said. "To all of you. I was horrible, selfish, greedy, and I got caught up in all the money I had earned. I took the credit from all your stories, which were wonderful, and made them mine. I am a nasty, terrible person. I don't expect any of you to forgive me." She bowed her head and awaited their response.
"You mean you're going to send us back?" Snow White cried. Talulla nodded, and cheers bounced around the room.
Alice stepped forward, holding a pile of books. "I believe you will need these," she said.
Talulla looked at the faces of her Characters. "I won't be publishing your book," she told Goldilocks, who looked so glad she might burst. "And... I'll take off all the others too."
"No," Cinderella said gently. "Leave them. Just give us credit."
Talulla wasn't sure how to give the story credit to a bunch of supposedly made-up characters, but she nodded. One by one she took the books from Alice's stack and closed her eyes, concentrating on sending each Character back to their home. They disappeared, one after the other, until only Alice was left. The basement seemed cold without them.
Alice looked pleased. "Good," she said, satisfied. "Now I won't have to go 'off with your head!' and murder you."
"Queen's orders, never mind." Alice laughed. "You did the right thing, Miss Talulla. And remember: you already have a story. You just have to write it." And she held out her own book and disappeared inside it, leaving Talulla alone in her abandoned prison.
Many things happened after that day. Talulla refused to publish the retelling of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and Mr. Bobsworthy was livid. He resigned from being her editor and went off to work for someone else. Talulla thought she was better off with out him. She did, however, give the Characters credit for her other novels:
I am ashamed and extremely sorry to say that my past twenty-one fairy tale retellings are not completely mine. Most likely about 80% of credit goes to my magical friends, of who's stories I have used as my own. This is an apology to them, and to all of my fans, for using something that is not mine. I hope you will all find it in your hearts to forgive me.
She did lose a lot of money and respect over this, but she didn't care. Apologizing felt like the right thing to do, and after doing the right thing after so many years of wrong, she finally felt free.
A few months later, she thought about what Alice had said. "You already have a story. You just have to write it." An idea flashed into her brain. She pulled out a piece of paper and began to write.
Once, there was a Tale Binder...