Cornelius the Collector
rating: +14+x

"Here you are, sir."

Mr. Bear placed a vial of clear blue liquid on top of a messy, massive purple desk, draped with a thin black cloth and smothered in stacks of manuscripts, notebooks, graph paper, blueprints, pencils, pens, inkwells, a modeling mannequin, a picture of his niece, an assortment of popsicle sticks, a jar of lollipops, another jar of quills, a pile of envelopes, a wax stamp, an ink stamp, two balls of string, three pairs of scissors, an alarm clock, an unplugged computer mouse, a typewriter, and a small, neat, golden plaque that read, in fancy cursive font:

Dr. Cornelius Młynarczyk Wondertainment

Behind the desk sat the namesake — a tubby man in a black and purple suit, stained in several places with ink (though it was hard to make out due to his dark palette). He had a bright pink handkerchief in his left breast pocket, and he had a matching belt and bracelets on both arms. His eyes were a deep blue, and his hair was a rusty brown — colors sharp and distinct, in direct contrast to his almost greying skin, that of someone who never stepped outside unless absolutely necessary. He was mindlessly toying with a large yellow yo-yo in his right hand, and with his other he had propped his tired head up on the table. He looked as if he had been in this position, doing this activity, for days.

But when he saw the vial, he smiled softly, almost shyly, revealing a row of teeth that never got braces but probably would have benefited from them.

"Thank you, Brainy. You're being a great help. Have a Wonderful day, and keep up the good work."

Cornelius sat up, and reached a slow and steady hand towards the vial, picking it up and examining it in the light — of which there was not a terrible amount. Cornelius's office had two or three bright, directional lamps, but when they were not in use they were turned off, and he always kept his heavy curtains drawn. Currently there was only one, to Cornelius's left, that made the desk glisten with stark shadows.

After turning the vial from side to side, and finding it satisfactory, Cornelius stood, and pocketed it… but he did so slowly, and unsurely.

"Brainy? I have dismissed you. You're free to go."

"I know so, sir." But Brainy maintained position, looking quite uncomfortable in his teddy bear face paint and his white and blue suit.

Cornelius scanned him up and down, as best he could in the mere red glow that reached as far as Brainy stood.

"But?"

Brainy swallowed. "But, sir, I feel a right to know."

"Know what."

"Well, sir, you've asked me to 'skim off the top', so to speak — to take a sixth, a-and you were very precise about that, so I've been very precise about it, and to take that sixth, and give it to you, which I have done, dutifully, every time, but, eheh, you see, I just am feeling like… if you, if you, take, my project, and tell me just to change the slightest piece — with something so important as this? I am curious, and I feel like I ought to know, you know? This is the sixth, you have a full soul now — or the means to make one, and I can't imagine there was anything else you'd be so set on doing, and I want to know… I want to know what you're doing, sir. If. You wouldn't mind. That is. Heheh. Ahem."

Cornelius's position hadn't changed. He was half turned away from Brainy, his stare still inquisitive, his pose mid-action, his eyes curious.

"I can leave, if you'd—"

"No, no, that's quite alright. You're right. You have a right to know. Can you keep a secret, Brainy?"

"Wondertainment's practices, projects, and productions are strictly confidential — trade secrets are big keep-its, sir."

"Yes, I know you know that. I mean, from the other employees. Toy Tinkers. Can you keep a secret from your friends?"

Brainy clicked with his tongue, absently. "I haven't told them about the sixths that I'm giving you, sir, yes. I think I've proven I'm safe. Not to sound full of… myself. Heh."

Cornelius let the silence pervade again, if only for dramatic effect, and then smiled in the same fashion as before. "Alright, Brainy. I need you to come with me."

Cornelius stepped back into the blackness, where Brainy lost him.

"Sir, where did you—?"

But before he could finish the thought, a light poured out of a door that Brainy had never seen through the shadowy office. The silhouette of Cornelius waved to come through, and an anxious Brainy complied. Stepping through the doorway, it soon became apparent that Brainy was looking at a long spiraling staircase, in which the only way to go was down.

He made eye contact with Cornelius, who only smiled wider (but not very wide — the smile of Cornelius was always a modest one, one that never liked to be the center of attention). Cornelius wordlessly began down the staircase at an eager pace, and Brainy followed close behind, feeling it rude to question where they were going. The stairwell's chrome-white walls were claustrophobia-inducing, and the ornate metal stairs clanged and rattled with each step. The awkward staircase was a short trip, though, as Cornelius quickly landed at the bottom, and opened a well-used red door. Brainy saw him disappear through it as it exuded an old, loud creak.

As Brainy landed on the final step, he startled.

Cornelius had stepped aside, in a stance akin to the butler welcoming someone into a fancy mansion — but beyond him, centered in a glorious spotlight, was a body. Limp, tied, and red. Bright red.

Brainy felt as if he had just walked in on a crime scene.

"Ta-daah," Cornelius whispered weakly, keeping his smile.

Brainy Brian, who would have been named Wordy William had that not been a coworker and close acquaintance of his, was very suddenly at a loss for words. Unappreciative of his stationary reaction, Cornelius went ahead and flipped the lights, to reveal that there was more to the room than just the… husk in the center. There were, in fact, a great many things. Tables upon tables of materials, for one — googly eyes, loaves upon loaves of stale bread, the other five clear blue vials, balls of a wide spectrum of yarn, cloth, wool, two jars of honey, three unmarked closed boxes, buttons, string, sewing materials, worked leather, sheets of metal, screws, bolts, nails, marbles, literally just a pile of rocks, a related pile of gemstones, a couple tupperwares filled with several types of dirt, glass tubes, containers of sugar, containers of salt, and a single out-of-place plastic arm.

On the other side of the room, there was a slanted table used to hold all manner of tools — hammers, nailguns, stapleguns, pliers, saws (including a bone saw), scalpels, tweezers, razor blades, a machete, wrenches, ropes, zipties, an alarming variety of mirrors, a retractor, those flashlights that you peer into ears with, a stethoscope, a collection of kitchen knives, magnets upon magnets, electrical tape, several coils of multicolored wires, a blowtorch, and a… guitar?

But the most pervasive elements of the room were the bookshelves. One would strain to tell if this was some sort of laboratory, or instead was an unorthodox library. If there was any sort of wallpaper, it was impossible to tell, as the circular space was covered from floor to ceiling in bookshelves along the wall. Each bookshelf was packed to overflowing with tomes, to the point that it bled out into tall stacks of books on the floor, some of which were so large as to obscure the bookshelves themselves.

"Welcome," said Cornelius as he walked towards the body, "to my workshop."

"W-w-what am I looking at, what is this!?"

"It's my secret, Brainy. It's my secret room."

"At the back of your office?"

"There's a reason I keep the lights off. It's surprising just how easy it is to hide things. I hardly had to try."

"B-but what is this, what is this?"

"Oh, him?" Cornelius put an arm around the body's shoulders. "He's the project you're helping me make."

"…Make?"

"Come on, come closer, I have things to show you."

Brainy hesitated, perspirated, and contemplated. "Will it…?"

"He's got no soul, Brainy, why do you think I needed this? He's harmless, come in."

Brainy, feeling pressured, walked slowly into the room, making sure to keep a respectful distance from the corpse. He jolted when Cornelius grabbed its chin and lifted its head up suddenly, to show the face of a young boy with bright red lips and equally vibrant cheeks.

"Here he is, Brainy. The culmination of my efforts. Of my work."

"What work?"

"That's a long and winding conversation, Brainy. One that I will have with you later. But for now, I wish only to boast, if you would so humor me."

Brainy nodded.

"It's taken me several years, and it's taken me many travels to find the books I have sought… but in secret I have been building this body. It is no ordinary body, Brainy. I did not find it, it was not given to me. I built it. He is sexless — without genitalia. He will have no libido, nor a drive for violence. He will only have the capacity to love. Love… and to make music."

Brainy decided not to speak, despite the pause.

"He's the star of a band, Brainy. He's the star of what I'm going to call… 'The Little Misters'."

"…Plural, sir?"

"He is only the first, Brainy."

Brainy gave Cornelius a look that you're not supposed to give your boss — a look that read "what are you, mad?". Cornelius either thought it was amusing, or didn't notice it, because all he did was grin.

"Eventually, there will be ten of them. Then maybe fifteen. Twenty? It depends, Brainy, it depends. But it all has to start somewhere, and he is that 'where'. And now," Cornelius pulled out the vial Brainy had given him, "he will come to life."

Brainy's eyes widened. "Right now?"

"With your help, yes. We're going to put a soul into his body."

"I-I-I don't know how!"

"Trust me, I have innovated on the ancient designs of homunculus crafting. They made it such a chore to get a soul into a body, but my methods make it easy. It won't take more than two minutes, if you bring me the rest of those five vials over there."

"Well? Come now, I'd rather not do all the walking."

Brainy slowly made his way towards the tables of materials, and plucked the vials from atop a mountain of metals, plastics, and esoterica. He was more than just hesitant to the idea of joining Cornelius by the corpse's side, but Dr. Wondertainment's beckoning hand inevitably drew him close enough to hand the vials over.

"Thank you. Now, I'm going to need you to hold his mouth open as I poor these down."

"What!?"

"I could do it myself, but each vial has exactly one sixth of a child's soul. I'd rather cut the possibility of spilling as low as possible, and for that I request that you hold his mouth open. Can you?"

Brainy hadn't winced more in his life.

"C-could I at least have gloves…?"

"They're right by the surgical tools, over there."

Brainy dashed towards where Cornelius had nodded, found a pair of blue plastic gloves, and returned with at least a molecule of confidence more than he had before.

"Are you ready?"

"Yes, sir."

Cornelius tilted the body's head back, and motioned for Brainy to take the helm. Brainy, shakily, placed his right hand behind the cadaver's head, and used his left to hold open his mouth.

"Perfect. Now, keep him still, please." Brainy kept as still as he could, while Cornelius lifted the first vial. Cornelius was not an expressive man — everyone who worked with him saw as much. His feelings were private, his smiles were polite, his voice was modest, his movements were calculated. In a place such as Wonder World!™, his attire was quite drab. In a place with a great many neon colors and harsh, exciting shades, his outfit always stood out as being particularly dark and unassuming, even if it would be considered eccentric in the outside world — it was strange in its normality.

But here, Brainy thought that he had seen a bit of that mask fall, as Cornelius looked as though he was just barely keeping down his energy. His smile was still small, his movements still slow — but they were less slow. His smile wasn't as small. And his eyes… his eyes looked as if they were just about to pop out of their sockets.

Cornelius removed the stopper, and took two deep breaths. "Alright. First one, down the hatch. Thank you," he read the label, "Lily."

The sparkling blue liquid poured cleanly into the open throat, and slowly spiraled down it like a toilet being flushed. Cornelius honored each "donor" as they were used — second was Genevive, then came Adrian. Cornelius mused that his uncle was named Michael, before pouring the fourth one in. Then went a Howard, and then…

"Thank you, Benji." Cornelius began to tip the final vial, but, right before a drop had spilled out, he stopped. "Brainy, I'm going to need your compliance. When this sixth vial goes through, step away from him, and when he wakes up, don't say a word."

"Not a—?"

But before Brainy could question further, a piece of Benjamin's soul circled the drain, and disappeared from view. As asked, Brainy immediately leapt back, not sure what it would do when it got up. But… to Brainy's surprise, much of his fear had dissipated. He found himself beginning to share Cornelius's excitement. The body had yet to move, its head still tilted back on the chair, its jaw still low, its eyes still closed. Cornelius appeared to be holding his breath, both his hands pulled back near his chest, his right still clutching the final empty vial.

But then, as Cornelius had seen jumpscares do in many a horror movie, its eyes shot open.

Cornelius put both his hands over his mouth, but his eyes betrayed that he had smiled in such a way that no one had ever seen him smile. Not politely, nor modestly. Quickly, though, he regained his composure, and motioned for Brainy to remain quiet by placing a finger on his mouth. Afterwards, he knelt by the body — person, the… vessel, and spoke softly.

"Sit up, please, and close your mouth."

The thing complied, at snail's pace, assuming an upright position in the chair — still very much restrained by leather straps. Brainy could see now that its eyes were just as red as its lips, cheeks, and hair.

"Who am I?" It said in a young, androgynous voice.

"You should first ask, 'what am I', because that is a question I can answer. And you, my child," Cornelius ran a hand through the soft red hair, "are the first Little Mister. You are an artificially created human, and your purpose is to entertain children."

"Entertain children?"

"Yes, entertain children."

"How am I going to do that?"

"Wait here." Cornelius stood, strode past Brainy without looking at him, and secured the guitar that was sitting by the side of all the tools. He brought it back to the Little Mister, and showed it to him. "You are going to entertain children with your voice, and with this. It is an instrument, and it is called a guitar. You will learn how to play it — singing and playing guitar for children is your greatest passion. You will follow it to the ends of the earth."

The thing nodded.

"How am I to play the guitar?"

Cornelius lowered his head in thought for a second, and then made towards the leather straps. He undid the ones restraining the Little Mister's arms, and then placed the guitar on his lap. "You will teach yourself, with my help. For now, see what you can come up with."

Its hands slowly grasped the guitar, steadily and precisely.

"There is more I must teach you, and listen to me closely."

The thing turned its attention away from the guitar and towards Cornelius once more.

"You work for the Dr. Wondertainment company. You will live happily in Wonder World, and you will not be afraid of crowds. You're going to be a little nervous about your abilities, you will play up this fact because it makes you relatable, and cute. You have stage fright, but your love of entertaining overcomes this fear each time. You enjoy pancakes, and you like them more than waffles. You will also answer to Dr. Wondertainment. Not the company, the person. You will know them as Dr. Wondertainment, because everyone will refer to them as Dr. Wondertainment. They are your father. They brought you into existence, and you love them."

Cornelius took the Little Mister's right hand, and covered it with both of his.

"I am Dr. Wondertainment. I am your… your dad. And I love you."

The Mister's expression had not changed — it was never anything but stone cold, straight faced… mild, unreadable. Nevertheless, it said the following:

"I love you too."

"Good, good," Cornelius wiped the hint of a tear from his eye. "Soon, soon you will have brothers. Maybe even a sister or two, if ever I feel like fathering one. You will love them as you love me, do you understand? And they will be your music partners. You will sing and play with them. You will perform with them. You will entertain children with them. And you will do it out of the goodness of your heart, because you love all human beings, no matter their gender, their sexuality, their race, or whether they are artificial beings or not. Do you understand?"

It paused. "I understand."

"Good. Now, sleep."

It went very suddenly limp, and Cornelius swiftly grabbed the guitar to make sure it would not fall.

"Brainy, do you know what we should call him?"

"I… I'm… n-no, sir, I've…" Brainy could hardly speak, in much the same way as he could hardly believe his eyes. Was this a dream? A hallucination? It wasn't out of the question. Especially not for Brainy.

"I think I have it. He's a Little Mister, so he must be 'mister' something. Mister, mister… he must be… he must be…" Cornelius's eyes darted from one thing to another, looking for inspiration from anything around him. "Oh, oh of course. He must be Mr. Red."

"Hhh, hh, heh, heheh, yes, sir, that, that seems fitting."

"I… I made him red because he's the first, and red is the first color in the rainbow. Though, I plan to make many more than seven Misters, the color theme will not continue. But, it is marketable… for now. Can you imagine, Brainy? A children's band, a Wondertainment children's band. There they will be, the face of all our products… the forefront of our image. It will be a new era of Wondertainment, do you understand?"

Brainy expected the monologue to continue, but instead Cornelius had cut it short and stared unblinking at him. "Uhh, uh, y-yes, sir, I understand, sir."

"Their albums will sell like nothing we've ever made before. And in each, there will be songs, songs that sell our products. They will be in all our commercials, they will be the… the Wondertainment family. A whole… a whole family." Cornelius put his hands over both the Little Mister's ears, and angled its head up, so he could stare directly into its sleeping face. "The Little Misters. And he will be our main singer. Mr. Red. It's perfect. Now, stay silent, Brainy. Wake up."

The Little Mister's eyes shot open, just as before.

"You, you will be named Mr. Red."

"Mr. Red?"

"Yes, Mr. Red…" Cornelius suddenly pulled back from the Little Mister, and held his own head as he hunched over.

"S-sir? Sir, what's wrong?"

Cornelius groaned, and stumbled his way into one of the bookshelves, which he used as support to keep himself upright, his face turned away from Brainy. Brainy began to come closer, but before he could come to Cornelius's aid, Cornelius yelled:

"Junior! You are… Mr. Red Jr., do you understand?"

"I understand," said Mr. Red Jr..

"Sir, Dr. Wondertainment sir, what's wrong, would you like me to help?"

Cornelius only stumbled forwards more, avoiding Brainy's outstretched hand.

"With two D's, it's, it's… Mr. Redd Jr., with two D's! D-do you understand?"

"I understand," said Mr. Redd Jr..

"What is this about, sir — why two D's, why 'junior'?"

"Because Mr. Redd can't be replaced…"

"B-but sir, there is no Mr. Redd, who are you…? D-do you want me to get someone? I-I can go upstairs, I can—"

Cornelius suddenly turned around, and grabbed Brainy by the wrist, at which Brainy yelped. Cornelius's eyes had become very suddenly bloodshot, and his body was shaking absolutely uncontrollably. His breaths were quick and shallow, his nose was twitching, and his mouth was slightly open.

"Brainy."

"Ahh, ahh, y-y-yes, s-sir?"

"Do… do you ever feel like you're not in control of yourself, Brainy? Like you're present for all your actions, but there's someone in the back of your head… and that's you, and all that you are doing is by some different you, someone who's seeing with your eyes and speaking with your mouth but they're against you? They're against everything you're for, and they're taking every chance they can to steer things in their direction? Or that, that, there's an outside force, guiding what you do? Do you ever feel like you have no options? That what you do was planned from the beginning?"

Brainy was frozen. Cornelius was frozen. Their eyes were locked together, Brainy staring down into the hunched over Cornelius. Cornelius thought that he might have seen Brainy's eyes begin to water, and his cheeks begin to flush red… but then he smiled. An unhinged, maniacal smile. One that couldn't fool anybody.

"No, sir! I'm a Toy Tinker, and every day I strive t-to make ch-ch-children happy, and I love my job, and everyone I work with, and everything I've ever done has been because I wanted to, sir, sir, I-I'm a model employee, j-j-just like I've always been, just like everyone is, and I am here to make the world a better place, sir! I-I'm here to make the world a better place!"

Cornelius's grip on Brainy's wrist loosened, and as soon as it did, Brainy jumped back, towards the door out of the workshop. Cornelius dropped to his knees, and his arms fell uselessly to his side. In a moment, his eyes welled with tears that fell down his cheeks and pooled on his chin.

"S-sir?"

"LEAVE!"

Cornelius's voice-cracked scream followed Brainy up the stairwell, into Dr. Wondertainment's office, and all the way home.

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