Beth stepped through the rift in space. Thoughts of all the things that could go wrong didn’t trouble her, because something had already gone very wrong.
It was nighttime. She’d only been in the forest for what felt like a few minutes but somehow hours had passed.
She’d missed school.
She’d missed being picked up.
She turned on her phone and found it was at zero bars worth of signal. A moment later though it found the local cell towers and was fully connected.
The synced time said it was 8:13pm. Seven hours, roughly, from when she’d left.
Assuming it was the same day still.
Panic shot through her at the thought that she could have been gone for days, or weeks. Another glance at the phone reassured her on that count though. It was still the same day.
The phone buzzed as delayed voice messages and texts flickered across the top of the screen.
People were looking for her.
She was in so much trouble.
She turned to look back at Lagressa and Elgamire. She knew she should thank them both for getting her home. She hoped either would offer some idea for how to deal with the missing hours.
Unfortunately, neither were in evidence.
There was no rift in space. No “ever dark” forest. No mysterious scaled woman with a blade of moonlight. No proof of anything Beth had just seen, and no explanation for why she’d vanished for so long.
Her phone buzzed again.
Another voicemail from her mother.
Beth knew she should call them. She’d never skipped school before. She’d never missed her ride home.
They were going to kill her.
Except that they wouldn’t. They’d be concerned. They’d be disappointed. They’d look for what they could do to help her.
The thought of watching her mother worry the first joint on her right index finger with the thumb of her left hand made Beth want to scream.
She paced around the tree she’d sat beside that afternoon.
Was she hallucinating? Had she dreamed the whole trip to Elgamire?
No, that didn’t fit. Her memories felt continuous and, more importantly, if she’d been wandering around in a hallucination, or dreaming of Elgamire, someone would have noticed her. There weren’t any simple options for getting from the courtyard she was in to a place outside the Parell Prep grounds. Someone would have seen her if she was sleep walking around the building, and they would have woken her when classes let out if she was anywhere near the tree. There courtyard was too empty for her to have been hidden.
But Amy’s crew hadn’t noticed her?
That still didn’t make a lot of sense, but maybe that was why no one else noticed her?
The more Beth paced, the more questions rose to batter her mind.
What were her parents going to do? What had they already done? Was she a missing person? Were the police looking for her? Would it be safe if they found her?
They would have questions, and Beth didn’t think the truth was going to be something anyone could accept. She’d lived through experiencing Elgamire and talking to Lagressa and, without the rift to look back through, she was having a hard time believing either of those things had happened.
She stopped pacing for a second and drew in a deep breath. It helped but it didn’t change the fact that it was after 8:00pm and she’d been missing for too many hours to explain away easily.
And that was what she needed. An explanation.
As a rule Beth didn’t lie to her parents much. It wasn’t that she couldn’t, but shades of the truth were much more effective and believable than straight up lies.
She resumed pacing as she tried to work up the story she’d tell them.
It needed to be simple. And believable. And absolve her of any blame.
Kidnapped by alien spies?
Beth shook her head. Her brain was her best asset. It got her into Parell and it could carry her to a great college if she used it right. The problem was it came up with things like “alien spies” when she needed real answers. Almost anything would be better than “alien spies”.
Cyborg sharks? Laser monks? Time traveling muscians? Her brain rose to the challenge of finding even worse options than alien spies in exactly the manner she needed it to provide her with a real answer.
Beth wanted to scream, but she couldn’t. There might still be people working at the school. She didn’t want to attract any of their attention.
Instead she hit the tree.
And immediately wished she hadn’t
Nothing special happened. It just hurt her hand.
The pain did break through the panic she feeling though. A little bit.
She tried another deep breath.
She didn’t know what she was going to say. She didn’t know what she could say. There wasn’t really an option that would lead to her parents, or the school, laughing off an unexplained absence like that. Maybe for other kids it could happen.
People like Amy could get away with cutting classes because no one wanted the headache of tangling with her family. As a scholarship student though, Beth always felt like she was under more scrutiny than the regular kids. As if there was a default assumption that she wasn’t worthy of the place she’d been given and the Powers That Be expected her to provide proof of that deficiency at any moment.
What the cost would be for disappearing was anyone’s guess. They probably wouldn’t kick her out. Probably. But there was sure to be some form of punishment.
With another deep breath and a sigh, Beth called up her home number and tapped it. She was going to have to tell the truth. She could leave out the part about Elgamire and Lagressa. No one would want to believe that. They would think she was inventing the kind of excuse a five year old would try.
As the phone began to ring, Beth thought of Lagressa’s words. Of how she could have stayed in the Blessed Realms and left her problems behind. It was tempting but she had to hope that whatever trouble she wound up in would be temporary and not worth losing her home and her family permanently for.
“Hello? Beth?” her mother said, picking up the phone after the first ring.
“Hi Mom,” Beth said.
“Are you ok? Where are you?” her mother asked. There was a tension in her voice that Beth only rarely heard.
“I’m fine,” she said. “I’m still at the school. Could you or Dad swing by to pick me up?”
“He’s already on his way,” her mother said, relief flowing from her like a river.
“I’m sorry Mom,” Beth said, struggling to find the right words to make up for what had happened.
“It’s ok, we know it’s not your fault,” her mother said.
Questions sprang to Beth’s mind about what exactly her mother thought had happened but before she could ask them, her mother spoke again.
“Open your book, dear,” her mother said. “To the same page you were on before.”
Beth’s hands felt numb. What was her mother asking her to do? No, not what, why? Why was her mother asking Beth to do anything with a book?
Of everything that had happened, that request made the least sense, but Beth did as she was asked.
And her father walked forth into the world, stepping forward as though he was emerging from the pages of the paperback in Beth’s outstretched hands.
“There are some things we need to talk about,” he said, turning to face her with a sad smile on his lips.