There were a selection of empty booths towards the back of the Crossroad’s Diner when Beth and her father arrived there. The counter had open seats as well but the booths near the windows were full up. It was a typical night for everyone in the small restaurant, which, Beth decided, was probably why she felt so out of place.
The shock of what had she’d experienced was rolling over in long, steady waves. One moment she’d think she was stable and had a handle of the world again. The next she’d see some seemingly normal thing and feel the sands of reality sliding out from under her feet.
The people in the diner were the definition of normal. But what did that mean? Beth had stood in front of someone who wasn’t human in a forest that was a single being, alive, and aware, and only barely mortal. The Blessed Realms had shapeshifters and invisible assassins and vampires and sorcerers who rivaled the gods. If Beth was able to travel there and back again, surely other people, and other things, could to.
So what did normal look like, when the paranormal could look like anything it wanted to? And how plain and simple could the world be when, at any time, a more interesting and vastly more dangerous world could reach out and pluck you away from everything you knew.
Or thought you knew.
“We’re going to grab a booth, Melinda?” he father said as the their favorite waitress passed by with a tray of food in one hand and a pot of coffee in the other.
“Help yourself,” Melinda said.
They settled into the back corner of the family dining area. It was still in full view of the counter and the rest of the diner, so it didn’t look like they were trying to conduct a clandestine meeting, but there was enough distance that the general cacophony of people eating and talking meant no one could easily listen in on what they were talking about.
“So you didn’t know I could do this?” Beth asked. That felt like a vital point to establish because if her father did know she could wind up being drawn off to a distant reality then he should have told her.
“No, we didn’t,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason who gets called into the Unread.”
“You called it that before. What’s the Unread?”
“My name for it. Grandma Ruth called it the ‘Quiet Times’. You’ll probably call it something else. What we’re all talking about is the places we go when the hidden pages draw us in.”
“Hidden pages?” Beth glanced at the nightly specials and decided to go for her usual order of a burger and a strawberry shake. The specials sounded good but they were all unusual dishes and Beth craved something normal and safe as much as she craved calories.
“Yeah, it’s a part of how this all works,” her father hadn’t even looked at the menu. Coffee was pretty much just coffee in his view, no matter where you went. “The places we walk through, and the people we need? They’re never a direct part of the story that we’re drawn into. When we go into a story, we always wind up in the unsketched edges. Not completely removed from it, but nowhere that the narrative would need to touch on our presence or the things that we do.”
“So it’s like we’re there but the book just didn’t have to mention us,” Beth asked.
“Exactly. Think of all the crowd scenes in stories. If you were at the ball with Cinderella and you spent the evening speaking with one of the dukes would it change even one word on the page?”
“But what if I grabbed Cinderella’s slipper and told the prince who she was?”
“That’s one of the limits of how this works,” her father said. “The stories can’t change once they’re written and read. They take on a reality in the minds of the people who read them. Not an objective, tangible one of course. I’m not saying if you read Cinderella you can go out and buy gifts off her wedding registry. The story though becomes a part of the person who read it.”
“What does that mean?” Beth looked around to see if Melinda was going to interrupt them to take their order but she was still busy with other patrons.
“If I told you that the story of Cinderella was that a young girl got turned into a pumpkin carriage, driven to the Prince’s ball and then lit on fire and was remembered as Cinderella because of the ashes she left behind, you would know that wasn’t right wouldn’t you?”
“Yeah, that’s nothing like the story of Cinderella.”
“But there is no Cinderella,” her father said. “She’s not real, so any story about her is just as real as any other, isn’t it?”
“Well, no…” Beth could feel that to be true but couldn’t find the words to explain why.
“It’s not because the story of Cinderella, its basic narrative, is a thing that exists in an expressed form. You’ve experienced it and that experience is real, so it holds the story in place. A writer can play around with the detail, they can tell a far future Cinderella story, or make all of the characters into ponies, but those are only Cinderella stories to the degree that they preserve the elements of the original tale. Beyond that the new stories will become their own tales. Like how the stories of super heroes mirror the stories of the gods of old. There are ties that connect them but so much has changed that they’ve become their own tales.”
“That’s all very fascinating dear, but I think our daughter has some more important questions that she needs answers to,” Beth’s mother said as she slid into the booth beside her.
Unexpected tears welled up in Beth’s eyes. Her father’s dramatic entrance had made him part of the strange and unusual, but her mother was still solid and real and, at that moment, Beth needed her more than she needed anything else in any world.