Beth didn’t know who, or what, the three pale men were, but her instincts were telling her she didn’t want to be in the same state as them much less the same diner. Before she could try to run though, her mother rested her hand lightly on Beth’s arm. It was a subtle sign, but it was clear enough.
These guys weren’t the sort of thing you could run from. At least not in the circumstances Beth found herself in.
There were other exits from the Crossroads. Beth guessed she could slip into the kitchen and head out behind the diner if the three looked away at the same time. It was a plan, but an unworkable one.
For one thing, the three were keeping a casual eye on everyone, their gaze tracking so that they weren’t staring at anyone for too long but also weren’t leaving any gaps in their field of view.
For another, even if discounting that they were moving like they were controlled by a single hive mind, running away would leave her parents to deal with the problem and, despite having no sense that she could help, Beth didn’t want to leave them alone with the strange creatures.
“What do they want?” she asked, in a quick, low whisper. She didn’t lean in to make sure her father could hear her, instead relying on context and eye contact to make up for any inaudible syllables.
“Dinner,” her father said, his voice above a whisper but quiet enough to be drowned out by the buzz of chatter that filled the Crossroads.
Beth risked another glance at the three and saw that Melinda was seating the three in a booth among the regular dinners. Their line of sight to Beth and her family was cut off by the tall back of the booth but it also meant she couldn’t keep an eye on them either.
“Are those people what I think they are?” her mother asked.
“Yes, most definitely,” her father said.
“What are those things?” Beth asked. Anger and fear warred within her and neither seemed to make rational sense.
The source of the chaos in her was three pale looking guys in boring business suits. They didn’t have tentacles or hollow pits were their eyes should have been. There was nothing that marked them as inhuman, except for how they seemed to move in unison, but that could have been her imagination running away with her. Beth believed that was entirely possible given the events of the day.
But she felt so certain that they weren’t human, and that they weren’t supposed to be here.
“Those are why we came here. To a place full of regular people,” her father said.
“We’re hiding?” Beth asked. “Why?”
“Because what happened to you isn’t a part of the normal reality of this world,” her father said.
“What does that mean?” Beth asked, inquiring not about the words her father had spoken but rather the consequences they implied.
“When we travel into stories, we can physically move from this world to one where the cosmic principles and the fundamental laws are different. Grandma Ruth didn’t have a problem with that. She saw it all as miracles, and miracles don’t have any boundaries or limits.”
“You think differently though?” Beth asked.
“I do, but it’s not an area which is open to easy study and review, so I can’t say for sure how things really work.”
Melinda chose that moment to stop by with a trio of water glasses for them and a pitcher for refills.
“Do you folks know what you want?” she asked.
To get out of here, Beth thought, but since that seemed impractical, she said, “cheeseburger, medium well, no lettuce, fries and a strawberry shake.”
Her parents ordered their dinners or dessert or coffee. Beth wasn’t sure since the booth with the men in it was so terribly distracting.
Once Melinda left with their orders, Beth’s father resumed his explanation.
“The best I can offer is some details I’ve observed,” he said.
“You need to give her more than that to go on,” her mother said.
“I know, but it’s a delicate line to walk,” he said.
“Between what and what?” Beth asked.
“One of the things I’ve seen is that who we are and what we believe shapes the stories that we connect with. I know that probably sounds obvious but consider the implications there.”
“Everything we learn changes the kind of stories that are meaningful to us, which means if things go bad, we can start getting drawn into nothing but bad stories?” Beth asked.
“It’s even more complicated than that. When we’re in a story, even if we can’t influence the elements that are on the readable pages, we can still bend and shift the fundamental nature of the narrative.”
“So if I’m in a bad mood, even a good story can turn into something miserable?”
“Mood seems to play a part in it but there’s other factors as well. I want to be careful of what I say because in a large part the stories we can walk through are a reflection of who we are, who we’ve been and who we have the capacity to be.”
“So I can find my best self in a book?” Beth asked.
“Yes, though it’s easy to find the sides that you don’t want to see too,” her father said. “My concern, or one of my concerns, is that you be free to find those things, good and bad, rather than settling into the beliefs I hold.”
“Why would that be bad though? Don’t you know what’s going on better than I do?” Beth asked.
“I know myself better than you know yourself. But that’s because I’ve had more time to work out who I am,” he said. “What I will never be able to say though is that I know yourself better than you do. I might see some things you don’t, but there’s a world of difference between what I see on the outside and how you experience your life from the inside.”
“So how does all that apply to those creatures?” Beth asked.
“It’s simple. Sort of,” he said. “We influence the worlds we walk in, and the connection between us and the Unread allows new realities to overlay our own. That can be an extremely dangerous thing. If things go like they did for you, everything is fine. The Unread washes in and it washes out with no sign left of its presence.”
“What else can happen?” Beth asked.
“Sometimes those worlds don’t go away, not entirely. Sometimes bits of them hang around, impossible things that can create impossible problems. That’s what those people are here for. They want to stop you while they can, before it becomes impossible.”