Beth held onto her mother for a moment longer than she would normally have.
“Had a tough day at school?” her mother asked, covering the extended hug with a reasonable explanation. Beth took the opening and, after another long second, let go and sat back in the booth.
“Yeah, it was kind of intense.”
“It’s not always like that,” her father said.
“Did you tell her how she could avoid it happening again?” her mother asked.
“Well, there’s no definite methods that can ensure that,” her father said.
“But there are things she can do to stay safe,” her mother said.
“Things like what?” Beth asked.
“There are tricks you can use to fight the pull of the hidden pages,” her father said. “They’re not foolproof and it’s not your fault if they don’t work, but if you’re being drawn into a place you don’t want to go, you can sometimes get free before you wind up in the Unread.”
“That sounds good,” Beth said. “What kind of things can I do to stay here?”
“Well, the first and most effective defense seems to be to know nothing at all about the hidden pages or that they’re a doorway to otherworlds,” her father said.
“It’s why we never mentioned anything about this,” her mother added.
“So if I’d known this could happen…?” Beth asked.
“You might have been drawn in at a much younger age,” her mother said.
“Or into a worse story. I’ve met others who’ve been drawn into books like we have. For quite a few their first trip into a story came after someone told them about it, and it was into the kind of dark and twisted tale that they couldn’t keep off their mind.”
“What about just not reading books?” Beth asked. “Wouldn’t that be the best way to be safe?”
“I’ve met people who tried that,” her father said. “The problem there is that our minds can create their own stories. Deprive us of our books and we wind up walking in our daydreams, and those are more dangerous than any book.”
“Why? I don’t daydream about terrible things. Or I wouldn’t if I knew I could be swallowed up by them,” Beth said.
“Remember what I said about stories being expressed and having a sort of reality because they’re held in our minds? Well none of that applies to daydreams. You might have the happiest daydream playing through your head but it’s still incredibly dangerous to wander into it because yours is the only mind giving it form.”
Beth thought about that and tried to find the downside to being in a place where her thoughts determined reality.
“Why is that bad? Couldn’t I do anything in there?”
“Yes, but that’s the problem,” her father said. “When every passing thought can become real, including the subconscious ones, you can run into the worst things you can imagine. Literally.”
“What about only reading happy books then?” Beth asked.
“It’s close to the same problem as not reading at all,” her father said. “Our minds connect with whatever they want to connect with. We don’t always have control over that.”
“And don’t you dare think about turning your mind off,” her mother said. “Tell her what happened to Kevin.”
“Who’s Kevin?” Beth asked.
“A friend of mine from college.” Her father didn’t seem either happy or eager to discuss the subject, but with a glance at her mother for support, he sighed and continued. “I made the mistake of telling him about the Unread. He thought it was marvelous and started reading like a fiend. Eventually he found his own hidden pages in a book about a far future setting. Long story short, things didn’t turn out well for him there after a while and he started drinking heavily to forget what he’d seen and what he’d lost.”
“Something tells me that wasn’t a good idea,” Beth said.
“It was not,” her father confirmed. “Day dreams are dangerous because they’re too empheral and can draw from the subconscious as much as they do our waking minds. Drunken hallucinations are even more chaotic and they pull even more deeply on our unconscious fears.”
“What happened to him?”
“We don’t know,” her father said. “One day I came back to the room and the place was wrecked. Not someone got drunk and made a mess wrecked. More something like a tornado hit the room and reduced everything to splinters wrecked. Kevin’s wasn’t there. No body and no blood, but I never saw him again.”
“Wait, didn’t you say there were safeguards in place? Natural ones?” Beth asked.
“There are, but they’re not absolute,” her father said. “Generally if something is going to kill you in within the Unread you’ll fall back to our world. I’ve been shot at, blown up and fallen off a plane and wound up back here safe and sound.”
“But we don’t know that’s always how it turns out,” her mother said.
“There’s other problems that arise when that happens too,” her father said.
Before he could continue though, three pale men in dark suits entered the Crossroads. They were tall without being remarkably large. They wore the same style of suit but the clothes weren’t a uniform. Even their hair and facial features were the same in many details but just different enough to prevent them from looking like clones of each other. When they looked around the diner it was with the casual disinterest of people trying to decide if a restaurant was clean enough to eat in but there was a slight pause as each of them looking over the area where Beth and her family were sitting.
For her part, Beth couldn’t take her eyes off them. She wasn’t sure why they drew her attention though. They were out of place, but there were always out of place people in the city. That’s what made it a city instead of a town. These three were different however. There was a scent that wafted in the door as they entered. It took Beth a moment to puzzle out what it reminded her of.
Breathing in more deeply, she smelled the aroma of old books layered under the distinct scent of a bonfire.