Once upon a time, there was a little boy, about five and a half years old. He had bright blue eyes, and shiny blond hair, and faint freckles on his face, and his front teeth protruded slightly over his bottom lip, as if they hadn’t quite made it back inside his mouth after he gave one of his sweet smiles. And his smiles made his eyes crinkle slightly in the corners, and showed one big dimple on his left cheek, and a smaller one on his right cheek.
And he was the nastiest boy you could ever meet. It’s not just that he was rude or selfish or unpleasant (which he was), and it’s not just that he didn’t care a jot about other people’s feelings (which he didn’t) or that he went out of his way to annoy them (which he did); the little buck-toothed boy was a full-blown misanthrope. He hated other people – it didn’t matter who they were – and he tried his hardest to hurt them. And he enjoyed every second of it.
There was only one thing that troubled the little buck-toothed boy. If he was so mean, why did people who met him think that he was nice? It worried him so much that he thought about it all day and at night he tossed and turned and couldn’t sleep for thinking about it. It preyed on his mind in the morning (when he glued a water balloon full of urine to his sleeping father’s forehead), at lunchtime (when he soaked pieces of paper in alcohol, lit them, and threw them at his sister’s kitten) and after supper (when he carved offensive words backwards into the windows of his room, so that passers-by could read them). One day, he could stand it no longer. He set off to find the answer, taking only a rolled up handkerchief, stuffed with a bread roll and a wad of cash from his mother’s wallet.
He walked for miles and miles, looking for someone to ask. Finally, he saw a huge, grey, concrete block of flats, squat and squalid, with dark passages leading up to inconsequential-looking doors. The little buck-toothed boy knocked on the first door he came to, and it was answered by a stooped, shriveled old man in a singlet and brown trousers.
“Hey old man!” the boy shouted.
The man's reply was a feeble wheeze. “How can I help you, s-hhz-onny?”
“Do you think I’m nice?”
“I ghhz- I guess so.”
“Wh-hhhg-why you remind me of my son, when he was a little boy. Of course, that was years ago, before he pass-hzz-passed awy. He was a sweet lad like yourself-ffz.”
“That can’t be why everyone thinks I’m nice, you senile old goat! Not everyone has a dead son – idiot. Anyway, you stink! I’m glad your son is dead!”
And the little buck-toothed boy ran out of the building, hitting the fire alarm. The old man was left wheezing in his dim doorway, a single tear sliding down his weathered cheek.
The boy ran until he was out of breath. Suddenly he saw a little field of tulips bobbing in the warm summer breeze.
“Hey, stupid tulips!” yelled the little buck-toothed boy.
“How can we help you?” said the tulips.
“I need someone smart. Do you know anyone smart?”
“Well, we don’t get around much, but we have seen that big billboard.” The tulips waved their heads towards a poster further up the road, with a serious-looking woman on it. “She’s a psychiatrist, and they’re always very intelligent.”
“I knew that!” said the boy, and he stomped off through the field, kicking the tulips over and jumping on them.
After another long walk, the little buck-toothed boy barged into the psychiatrist’s office. She sat behind a mahogany desk, looking over her glasses at her patient.
“… and so ever since then I just have no confidence at all in social situations.”
“Oh boo hoo,” said the little buck-toothed boy. “Why don’t you just go kill yourself?”
“Hey!” the patient spun around, shocked. “Why did you…”
“Shut up, nut bag,” said the boy, and spat on him. He turned to the psychiatrist. “Are you smart?”
She looked mildly back at him. “Well, I graduated magna…”
“Whatever. I have a question, and I need a smart person to work it out.”
“I think I can guess. You’re wondering why you are so badly behaved, aren’t you? Well, first let’s talk about your parents.”
“That’s not the question, you dumb bitch! I want to know why everyone who meets me thinks I’m going to be good, when I’m not.” And he ran up to the psychiatrist and kicked her in the shin, before pulling a bookcase over and storming out.
The little buck-toothed boy didn't stop until he reached the woods. If people couldn’t help, maybe the animals could. He asked the deer, but they ran away as soon as they heard his voice, so he decided to tell the wolves where they lived. He asked the wolves, but they just howled their foolish songs about love and snow and the moon, so he told them the wrong place to look for the deer. The animals were as useless as people. It was hopeless.
Finally, just when the little buck-toothed boy was ready to give up, he came across a sun-lit glade, with a sparkling stream burbling through it. There was an old, shaggy bear leaning back against a mossy tree-trunk, contemplating the world.
“Excuse me, Mr Bear,” said the little buck-toothed boy.
“How can I be of assistance?” asked the bear, with a deep, wise-sounding voice.
“I’ve asked everyone, but no-one can help me. I’ve been really mean and horrible to everyone, and I like it. But everyone I meet thinks that I’m a good little boy. Do you know why?”
The bear nodded sagely. “That’s a tough question, all right, and I’m not sure that my answer is going to please you. Because there’s no one reason that people think you'll be nice. They just assume you will be. People like putting every new thing they come across into boxes, so they can pretend that everything in a box is essentially the same. It’s because people are scared of things that are different, and by assuming, and using their little boxes, they can pretend that they are capable of understanding the world, rather than dealing with the terror of knowing that they can’t possibly understand anything.”
“Oh,” said the little buck-toothed boy.
“For example,” said the bear, “people also assume that just because fairy tale animals are anthropomorphic, they’re not still animals.” And he ate the little buck-toothed boy up, rending his flesh and gnawing on his bones.
And then, licking the still-warm blood from his snout, the bear looks straight out of the screen, and locking his deep brown eyes with yours, speaks to you. “Of course, I’m not sure that it was the little boy making assumptions about fairy-tale animals. He didn’t know that he was in a fairy tale, after all. I guess I was subverting your expectations as the reader, rather than his as the character.”
The bear considers further for a second, shifting his bulk, then looks back up at you. “Still, even that may not truly represent the situation. Because I’m a character as well, I can’t know your expectations in advance. In some ways, we’re actually addressing the author’s assumptions about what your expectations will be. So if you expected me to eat the little buck-toothed boy, then you would have subverted the writer’s assumptions, rather than the other way around."
A strand of pink slaver drips from the bear's open maw. "Now, if I really wanted to challenge assumptions about fictional characters, both yours and the author’s, I could just climb straight out of the screen you’re looking at and maul you. Your skin tearing, the crack of your bones beneath my paws, and the feeling of sinking my teeth into your warm, sweet flesh.”
The bear belches, and you can almost smell the fetid stench of raw meat. “But of course, I've just eaten. Still, if you would like to come back to this paragraph a little later on, feel free. I’m quite at my leisure.”
And with a wink at you, the bear lies back against the cool moss, and turns to watch the brook shimmer in the dappled afternoon sunlight.