“She doesn’t look like much.” Katniss peered down at the girl.
“It’s not up to us,” Hermione replied.
Arya rolled her eyes.
Katniss, Hermione, and Arya pondered their new charge. Tears streamed down the girl’s face. She was on her knees trying desperately to wipe something unseen off the seat of her jeans, and craning her neck to see the target of her efforts.
“Hellooo?” Hermione waved a small wave trying to get the girl’s attention.
“What are you doing?” Arya asked the girl, sounding bored.
“There was… I stepped on the cans. I didn’t see them. And then I slipped. I landed in dog…” The girl looked up, seeing the faces that surrounded her. Several times the girl looked like she was about to say something and then thought better of it. She wasn’t sure whether to be more scared, or more confused. Confusion had won out for the moment.
“Oh my ears and whiskers, how late it’s getting!” Katniss laughed as she spoke.
“That’s really not very helpful you know,” Hermione chastised.
Arya rolled her eyes for the second time.
“She should know it.” Katniss insisted with mostly mock petulance.
A soft chuckle emanated from another figure that was quietly watching the proceedings. Neither old nor young, neither beautiful nor ugly, her most defining characteristic perhaps was her monochromatic gray. It was like you could only see her on a black and white television while everyone else was displayed in color. Everybody in the Stacks referred to her as ‘One’.
The girl slowly rose to her feet after realizing that whatever had been on her pants was now gone. The air was different. The smell was suddenly of books, all sawdust and ink. The tears had stopped.
Hermione stuck out her hand. “Hello. Welcome to The Stacks. I’m Hermione.”
The girl looked at the outstretched hand and made no move to reciprocate. It was as if she’d been offered a fish. “I’m sorry, who are you again?”
“She said, she’s Hermione.” Arya repeated, sounding exasperated.
The girl’s eyes darted unblinking between the three girls, they looked to be about eleven-year-olds, and the older woman that surrounded her. “And where – ”
Katniss sighed and muttered under her breath interrupting the girl, “Yeah, she said that too.” And then more directly Katniss spoke slowly and with a forced smile, “You’re in the Stacks.”
Sensing the impatience coming from the three girls, the girl stammered out a response. “I don’t know what that is.”
“That’s okay.” Hermione took one of the girl’s hands in her own and patted it. “I’ve got a thirteen step plan to get you acclimated. The most important thing is that we’re going to take it slow.”
“Or…” Katniss said as she raised her eyebrows cutting off Hermione’s recitation. “We could just throw you in the deep end.”
“Wait what?” Hermione looked stricken.
Arya laughed at Hermione’s consternation.
Katniss pulled the scared girl towards her by the shoulder and continued, ignoring Hermione’s objections. “You’re not in Kansas anymore.”
“Kansas?” The girl’s voice cracked.
“A joke. Sorry. You’re not in, where was it? Oh right. You’re not in Madrona anymore.” Katniss said with some sarcasm. “In fact, that place isn’t real.”
Now it was One’s turn to interrupt, but all it took was a look.
Katniss noticed and said to One, “Apologies, apologies. Another dumb joke.” Returning to the girl she continued. “What I said before, about your home, Madrona, not being real, that’s not exactly what I meant. What I meant to say, is that, that place, the place you were just at, only exists in a book.”
The girl stared at Katniss and repeated the last fragment, “A book.”
“Yeah. A book. And not a great one, frankly, but that’s neither here nor there.” Katniss replied.
Hermione was full on frowning now.
Arya covered her mouth trying to stop the gales of laughter she felt welling up inside her.
“OK. Fine,” The girl replied, clearly not believing a word she’d been told. “I’d like to go back there now please.”
“Oh, don’t worry, you’re going back,” Arya chimed in.
“Yeah kid, don’t worry. You’re going back whether you like it or not,” Katniss added.
The girl frowned a little at being called a kid by someone her own age but tried to keep things focused. “Great, I’d like to go back now please.”
“Well, actually, that will happen tomorrow.” Hermione tried to sound reassuring.
“I have to get home. My parents – ” The girl sounded nervous.
“This is your home right now.” Katniss took a step backwards and motioned to their surroundings.
The girl looked past the others for the first time. She was in what essentially looked like a library – was a library. But not just any library – probably the largest library in the world. It stretched endlessly in every direction – up, down, and outward as well. There were no bare walls visible as every inch of space was covered by row after row of books.
Periodic small desks interrupted the shelving as did some large screens, with attendant clusters of furniture. Almost all of these spots were occupied with people reading, watching, and in a couple of cases dozing. It seemed like there were just as many people as there were books. Maybe more. The entire space seemed like the very busy downtown of a moderately-sized city comprised entirely of people and books.
The girl stood close to a nearby railing. Approaching it gingerly she looked up. It quickly became apparent that she was only on one floor of the structure. Circular levels, with large empty spaces in the middle like donuts, went up as far as the eye could see.
The girl looked down and immediately regretted it. The floors went so far downward that she might as well have been peering over the edge of a skyscraper. She couldn’t see all the way to the bottom. The top hadn’t been much more in evident either, now that she thought about it.
“It can be very disconcerting the first time,” Hermione said in a reassuring voice.
“I’ve got to get home,” the girl repeated. It seemed like she was saying this mostly to herself.
Katniss shook the girl gently but firmly to get her attention. “Binny, listen to me.”
The girl’s eyes opened wide and she cocked her head. “How do you know my name?”
Katniss answered as if to a small child with which she was exasperated. “As I said, that home you’re so desperate to get back to is in a book. You are a character in that book.”
Binny pursed her lips, now finally understanding the premise she was being asked to believe. “Right, and I suppose you’re all characters in that book too.”
“As if,” Arya snorted.
“Not that book. We’re characters in our own books,” Hermione said gently.
“And you said your name was Hermione, so…” Binny said.
Hermione nodded slowly up and down.
Binny was feeling more and more uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation, but tried to go along with the game. At least she hoped it was a game. “And you are?” She said to the short-haired boyish looking girl.
“Arya. Arya Stark.”
“I’m sorry, I’ve never heard of you,” Binny said.
“Whatever. My books aren’t exactly for kids,” Arya harrumphed.
Binny speculated that talking to these girls might give her more information that might help her get home, so she decided to play along. Binny turned to Katniss and said sarcastically, “So who are you supposed to be, Tris from Divergent?” Binny laughed nervously at her own joke.
By the reactions on the girls’ faces Binny could tell immediately she’d said the wrong thing.
Katniss looked like she was going to scream for a moment and then said to Binny in a low voice. “No. Tris was published three years after I was, and as far as any resemblance between our characters, feel free to bring that up with her. I was here first.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to… What I meant to say… I mean… Who are you?” Binny was stammering a bit.
“Katniss Everdeen, at your service.”
“Ha!” Binny let out a yelp. “Of course. And I’m Princess Leia.”
“That’s a movie not a book,” Arya muttered mostly under her breath.
“Well, there’s the novelization,” Katniss said to Arya.
“Really? You both know it’s always better when the book comes first,” Hermione interjected.
Nods of agreement.
Binny just stared, not quite comprehending what was being discussed.
Katniss looked back at Binny. “Princess Leia? No. You my dear are Binny Jordan. You, or rather your character, has two siblings – an older brother named Zach, and a younger sister named Cassie. You live with them and your parents in the Madrona neighborhood of Seattle.” Katniss thought for a brief moment. “And I’m pretty sure that in the next chapter you’re going to find out that Cassie has a super power. Invisibility I believe.”
“Wait. What? A superpower?” Binny shook her head trying to make her thoughts more orderly. “How do you know all this stuff?” Binny said, her mind reeling.
Arya unsheathed a long, pencil thin sword and artfully placed it’s tip under one of the volumes on a nearby shelf. As she pulled it out the book came out perfectly balanced on the narrow face of the sword’s blade.
“Arya, I’ve told you not to do that. It could damage the books,” One said.
“No need to worry. Needle isn’t for damaging books,” Arya replied.
While Binny had noticed the gray woman standing just beyond the three girls, she wasn’t quite sure who she was. But she did seem kind of in charge. Binny watched her admonish the girl who called herself Arya and decided not to address her directly. Binny didn’t want to be the object of the gray woman’s judgy looks.
Binny looked at the book Arya had retrieved. The cover was mostly teal and featured an illustration of what looked to Binny like her, her siblings, Penny – the girl across the street, and Caleb, the old man she’d just run past in the Madrona woods a few minutes earlier. Above the illustration it said “The Madrona Heroes Register – Echoes of the Past.”
Binny stared at it not sure what to do.
“Go ahead.” Arya said, a little bit of mischief in her eyes. She seemed to be enjoying Binny’s confusion. “Open it.”
“You might as well read it. We all had to,” Katniss said looking like she hadn’t quite enjoyed the experience.
Binny took the book and opened it to a random page. It was the last page of the fifth chapter. Binny read the words on the page:
The crunch of the can under her foot as she crouched backwards into the car was her first signal that something was wrong in her little corner of the universe. Between the cans on the floor of the car, and her backward momentum, Binny lost her balance.
Binny stopped reading. The words described exactly what had just happened to her a few minutes ago. The book referred to her by name. Could this be a coincidence? An elaborate prank? “How did you, I mean, where did you…” Binny’s voice trailed off. She wasn’t sure exactly how to form a coherent question from the various thoughts that were ping-ponging around in her brain.
“Binny, haven’t you ever wondered what happens to the characters in books when the reader has stopped reading?” Hermione sounded like she was trying hard to sound positive and friendly.
“What happens to the characters in books when someone stops reading?” Binny’s voice rose. “Nothing happens. They’re characters in books. They’re not real. Ow!” Binny recoiled.
Now it was One’s turn to roll her eyes. “Katniss, don’t pinch the poor thing.”
“Did that feel – real?” Katniss elongated the last word as she said it to Binny.
Binny rubbed her side where she’d been pinched. “Yeah.”
“What’s real is such a boring topic. The important question is, why would anyone sit there in the pages of a book while it’s not being read. It seems like a dreadful way to spend your time,” Arya said petulantly.
“You people are serious.” Binny said, the realization suddenly dawning on her face.
Katniss sounded like she was working very hard to remain calm. “You are a character in a book. We are characters in books. Everyone in this place is a character from fictional literature. When we’re not in our respective books, we all come here.”
Binny scanned their faces. They were all nodding their heads in agreement. They all looked so serious but how could this be anything but a joke? But these girls, and One, seemed to be absolutely serious. They believed what they were saying.
And if they were right, that would mean that she, Binny Jordan, wasn’t real. She was a character in a book. And in her spare time she hung out here, in the Stacks as they had called it, with other characters from other books. Binny started to get frantic. That was insane. In fact, maybe she was having a mental breakdown. She had been pretty upset right before she’d arrived in this place.
Or better yet, maybe this was all a dream. Of course, that was it. All she needed to do was finish sleeping and when she woke up everything would go back to normal. None of this was really happening. Binny was asleep.
And with that thought and the beginning of a smile on her face, Binny Jordan promptly passed out cold in a heap on the floor.
Katniss shook her head in disgust.
One sighed softly.
All Hermione could do was shake her head, punctuating it with, “Well, that went well.”