Dinner only lasted so long, but since her parents didn’t seem to be in a hurry to leave, and the three strange guys were still in the Crossroads, Beth got to decide what she wanted for dessert.
“A banana split,” she said. She wouldn’t usually have had room for one of the Crossroad’s monster sundaes after a full meal, but she felt ravenous. Even the slightly sick feeling in her stomach from the topic of conversation couldn’t push aside the need for a heaping helping of more food.
“The same,” said her mother.
“Just another coffee,” her father said.
Beth looked at both of them with an eyebrow raised as their waitress went to put the order in.
“I still have papers to correct tonight,” her father said.
“And you have no idea the kind of calories that worrying burns,” her mother said.
“Do you think the creepy guys will leave before we finish?” Beth asked.
“They’re leaving now,” her father said, without looking directly at the booth where the pale guys in the dark suits sat.
Beth couldn’t resist casting a glance in their direction, but she looked away almost as fast as she could. Their expressions were as blank they’d been when they entered the restaurant, but she sensed palpable waves of aggravation rolling off them.
She played with the last of her fries as they left, carefully scooping up the remaining ketchup on her plate until they were out the door.
“They were mad,” she said.
“Yeah, I bet they were,” her father said. “Also afraid.”
“Of wait?” she asked.
“You, or what you could be,” he said.
“I don’t understand that completely,” Beth said. “When I came back I stepped through a Silence Breaker’s portal. Those aren’t quiet and they last for a little while, but no one showed up at first and the portal was gone the instant I stepped through it. So there shouldn’t have been any danger for them to notice, should there?”
“The real world has different rules that the worlds of the Unread,” her father said.
“Is there any connection between them?” Beth asked.
“Some, but in this case what the Burners were looking for came from the residual effect the Unread leaves on the real world.”
“What residual effect?” Beth asked
“The people, places and things where the Unread touches on the real world stay ‘soft’, for lack of a better term, for a short while after we leave the story. I don’t know why but I do know that it makes it easier to get back into a story that’s not complete if you need to.”
“So if I wanted to go back to Elgamire, I could have turned around and walked back right after I left?” Beth remembered the temptation to do just that and felt freshly shaken that it had been a real option.
“It would have been more likely than getting in there at any other time,” herr father said.
“What about now?” Beth asked. “Could I still go back?”
“Do you want to?” he asked.
“No, but I want to understand how this works,” she said.
“I’ve always found it difficult to return to a story that I’ve already visited once,” her father said. “Grandma Ruth though walked in the same bible passages every time she traveled. I don’t know if that’s a matter of what we read, who we are, or a higher force at work. I do know though that once you’ve walked in another world, the temptation to do so again is very hard to resist.”
“Except for the creepy guys showing up, it didn’t seem so bad,” Beth said. “I knew things about Elgamire and Lagressa that I couldn’t ever know in the real world. It was scary and dangerous but safer too somehow. Does that make sense?”
“Far too much sense,” her father said. “Like I said, there are natural safeguards in place when we’re in the unread. A lot of things will just kick us out of the story, and like you said, we know these places and the people in them.”
“Can we use that?” Beth asked. “I mean if we get sick can we go somewhere that they have magical healing?”
Her father grimaced and was silent for a second.
“Tell her,” her mother said “We agreed that she needs to know.”
“Yes, that can work sometimes,” her father said. “Sometimes it doesn’t though, and sometimes it makes things worse.”
“How can it make things worse?” Beth asked.
“The time we spend inside a story can vary,” her father said. “You said you only spent a few minutes in your book, but hours passed in the real world.”
“Picture what happens to someone who needs medication if they come back and it’s been hours, or days, or weeks since they took it,” her mother said.
“Wait, we can lose weeks in there?” Beth asked.
“There’s no guarantee how much time will pass, but yes, it can be weeks or longer,” her father said.
“But I was starved after just a few hours,” Beth said. “If it’s weeks, wouldn’t I be dead?”
“No. Tired? Yes. Weakened? Yes. I’ve never heard of anyone returning from the unread and dying of starvation or thirst, and I lost over a month one time,” her father said.
“Ok, so they’d be weak, but at least they’d be healed right?” Beth asked.
“Changes made in the Unread don’t always, or even often, remain when you return to the real world,” her father said. “You can take someone who’s sick into the Unread if you’re lucky, but their illness might come back even worse when you return. Or they might not be able to return at all.”
“Wow. But still, even that’s better than dying, isn’t it?” Beth asked.
“We don’t know what happens to the Unread after we leave it,” her father said. “It’s possible that it fades away into nothing, which would be just like dying except no one would remember you.”
Beth slumped in her seat.
“It does,” her mother said and placed a hand on her shoulder.
“Let me make it a little bit better for you then,” her father said.
“How? You’ve said that nothing there is real, except that it might rip away bits of my life and possibly kill me so hard that no one knows I’m dead.”
“What you’re a part of now will do all that, but it will also do this too,” he said and placed his hand on the book she’d given him.
At their table, in the previously unoccupied seat near on her father’s side, Beth found herself staring at a woman with eyes like the depths of the sea. There were no scales on her and she held no blade in her hand, but Beth recognized her in an instant nonetheless.
“Well, this is an interesting place to find myself,” Lagressa said.