Beth wanted to run to her father and embrace him. She also wanted to run away from him and hide. It was an interesting and uncomfortable feeling, and it got worse when he continued speaking.
“So how was your first trip into the Unread?” he asked, not stepping forward but instead allowing her to decide how close they should be.
“How did you do that?” Beth asked, referring to his casual entrance from the pages of the book she held.
Accepting that she’d been drawn into a book was simple. She’d been there. Everything had been tangible and real while she was in Elgamire so her senses gave her all the proof she needed to believe it was happening.
Talking to Lagressa had been terrifying but simple as well. It was unbelievable to find yourself speaking with someone who should have been a fictional character but, once you’re in the middle of a conversation, those concerns weren’t much of an issue.
What both Elgamire and Lagressa had in common though was that they were additions to the reality that Beth knew. Prior to being drawn into the book, Beth thought that the real world consisted of the things she saw every day. Being confronted with Elgamire as a material place, and Lagressa being a living breathing person, just meant that there was more to the world than Beth had been aware of when she set out for school that morning.
With her father, the situation was different. Her father was a part of her world. One of the core elements of it. Finding out that her father was part of some unknown and impossible aspect of the world was like finding out that water wasn’t really wet. Too many other things rested on the idea that her father was a typical history professor at the local college. The most exciting thing he was supposed to be associated with was helping her study for her mid-term exams.
“I picked up a few tricks in my misspent youth,” her father said, smiling in a transparent attempt to disarm her. It was an obvious ploy to get Beth to relax, but despite that it still worked. He wasn’t yelling at her, he wasn’t mad at all in fact, and he didn’t seem to be worried, so Beth’s own fears didn’t find any scaffolding to hang onto in his words.
“Did you know I could do this?” Beth asked.
“No, but we should have that conversation somewhere else,” her father said.
“Are we going back to Elgamire?” Beth asked.
“Your Mom will come pick us up. She can meet us at the Crossroads,” her father said.
The Crossroads Diner was a popular spot for students after school let out since it was within walking distance of Parell Prep. By 8:00 though the teenage crowd would have ventured on to other hangouts and the patrons would be family’s out for a late dinner or second shift workers catching the equivalent of an early lunch.
“Are we in trouble?” Beth asked.
“Nothing we can’t work out,” he said. “For now though, how about you pass me your book?”
Beth resisted the immediate urge to give the paperback in her hand over to her father. She wasn’t sure why though. His request was perfectly reasonable. The book had already gotten her into trouble, and a return trip to Elgamire was not at all likely to end well.
But she held onto the novel anyways.
“Beth, you need to give me the book now dear,” her father said, his calm manner edging to worry by rapid paces. “I know it’s hard, but I promise I won’t damage any of the pages in it at all, seen or unseen.”
It was an oddly specific promise but Beth felt something relax inside her when she heard the words.
With a nod, she stepped forward and placed the paperback in his hands.
That’s when she noticed the shadowed trees of Elgamire that had been gathering substance behind her melt away into mist.
“What was that?” she asked, the pounding of her heart threatening to drown out any answer her father gave.
“That was the reason I wanted to get here quickly,” he said. “Come on, I’ll explain more over dinner. You need food and I need about a gallon of coffee.”
He offered her his hand and Beth raised her eyebrows at him. They hadn’t walked hand-in-hand since she was a toddler. However upset he expected her to be, she hadn’t been thrown that off balance by her trip inside her book.
“Ok, I get it, too cool to walk with your Dad,” he said and turned, putting his hands (and the paperback) in his coat pockets.
“So how is Mom going to know to pick us up?” Beth asked as she fell into step beside him. The walk to the diner wasn’t a long one but she wanted to get in as many questions as she could before they got there..
“I told her I’d take you there before I left,” he said.
“Will it be ok for us to talk about what happened?” Beth asked. “I mean in public like that?”
“The Crossroads isn’t usually full, so we can get a table towards the back.”
“Good, cause I’m starving. But that doesn’t make sense. I just had lunch an hour ago. Didn’t I?”
“Time still passes when you’re in a book,” her father said. “The rules are a bit different for how things work, but it’s a safe bet if you’ve been away for a while that you’ll need a meal when you get back.”
“Was I really inside the book then?” She’d accepted the reality of it, but that didn’t mean it felt any less impossible.
“There’s different lines of thought on that,” her father said. “My grandmother Ruth, she said we were walking the saints. She mostly found her hidden pages in the bible though.”
“Great grandma did this with the bible?”
Meeting Lagressa had been weird enough. Beth couldn’t imagine meeting meeting someone from a holy book though. How could you talk to a saint like they were a regular person? On the other hand, talking to someone whose touch was meant to drown people would probably have been unthinkable for Great Grandma Ruth, so perhaps it was good they’d each encountered the kind of people they could relate to best.
“That she did,” her father said. “I’ve never found myself in a biblical setting though. From what I’ve seen, the pages we walk through are a sort of partial cosmos that’s constructed from our interaction with works that we connect to on a fundamental level.”
“Does that mean that they’re real?” Beth asked.
“As real as our imagination.”
“Then they can’t really hurt us?”
“I didn’t say that,” her father said, turning to her with a grave expression. “There are some natural safeguards in place, but those only go so far. If you’re not careful, or if you make the wrong choices, things can go very badly.”
“How badly?” Beth asked. “Could I have died?”
“We don’t know,” her father said. “Sometimes people don’t come back for years, and sometimes, like with your great grandmother, they don’t come back at all.”