“Before I answer all your questions, can you just answer one of mine?”
Binny sniffled. “OK.”
“How did you know?”
“I had a dream. I was home. But it wasn’t my home. It was the same but different. It was your house. And I saw the cats.”
“Yes, but what made you even wonder about me? About who I am? What made you suspect?”
“Some strange man takes an interest in me, acts differently than everyone in this place, and reveals nothing about himself. You don’t think those are some pretty big red flags?”
“Yes. I suppose they are.”
“My turn to ask a question.” Binny said.
The man laughed. “Shoot.”
“What should I call you?” There was no humor in Binny’s eyes as she asked the question.
“Well, that is a good question. I honestly hadn’t thought about that.” The man said. “I suppose you could call me ‘Dad’, but that’s weird, because I’m not really your father. Jay is your father. And besides, if anyone in this place ever heard you say that, it might raise questions.”
“I don’t think I’m supposed to be here.”
“I don’t think so either,” Binny agreed.
“How about just ‘Hillel’. It’s my name after all.”
“Okay Hillel.” Binny rolled the name on her tongue getting used to the feel of it.
“And besides, calling your parent by their first name is a subversive way to deny their parental role,” Hillel joked.
“Subversive?” Binny looked confused.
“It’s something you would do.” Hillel smiled.
“How do you know what I would do?” Binny was more curious than defensive.
“It’s funny. At first when I started writing the book, I had to make up what you would do. And invariably I would just think of what my middle child would do.”
Binny imagined this alternate version of her walking around in a real Madrona. It was yet another version of her existence, and she already had two.
Hillel continued, “But after awhile, you started doing things a little differently than she does. You became your own person. So every time I would wonder what you would do in a particular situation, instead of thinking of her, I would just think of you.”
“So the answer to the question of how I know what you would do is, I just think of you, and you tell me.” Hillel smiled broadly.
“That is super confusing.”
“Not to me.” Hillel’s grin was now ear-to-ear.
“What are you so happy about?” Binny asked, sounding slightly annoyed.
“This is just pretty cool. Getting to meet you. Like this. It’s kind of awesome,” Hillel gushed.
“I don’t get it. Aren’t I a figment of your imagination? Can’t you meet me in your head any time you like?”
“Do you feel like a figment of my imagination?” Hillel asked.
“Sometimes. Yeah. I just don’t know what’s real. Is the book real, is this real? I just don’t really know what to think. Neither feel like a real life, but for different reasons. You know what I mean?”
“I do.” Hillel nodded in sympathy.
Binny thought for a moment. And then, for a brief moment, the clouds lifted from her face. “I just realized something. You’re here!”
“Yes. I am.” Hillel grinned.
“No. I mean, you’re my author, and you’re here. Two told me that wasn’t possible. They’d made sure of that authors couldn’t get into the Stacks. How are you here?”
“Well, it’s a funny thing actually,” Hillel said.
“Well, not ha ha funny exactly.” Hillel paused. “I think I found a loophole.”
“Yeah. So they way the Stacks works is that all the characters in fiction spend the day in their books, being themselves, and then leave their books each night and come here.” Hillel explained.
“Right. That part I get.”
“And when authors write themselves into their own books, the Keepers have a way to keep them trapped. So while all the other characters in those books show up here every evening, the authors are stuck.”
Binny watched Hillel speak, wondering what he’d done exactly to avoid the Keeper’s prohibition. “Two called it Diyu – the place where the authors are stuck.”
Hillel continued, “But no author has ever written about the Stacks themselves.”
“No author has ever written about the Stacks. If the setting of the book is the Stacks, then all the characters in the book will show up there. And if I’m in the book, then I get to show up too. I think the Keepers never considered this possibility.”
“You’re writing a book about the Stacks?” Binny looked confused.
“Yes.” And then Hillel added, “In fact, I’m writing it at this very moment.”
“You’re writing right now?” Binny was incredulous.
“Yes Binny.” Hillel looked like he’d pulled off a good practical joke.
“This conversation? This place? All of it?”
“Yep!” Hillel looked just a touch smug.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Binny yelled.
Hillel was taken aback. “What? What’s wrong?”
“You’re the one putting me through all this! It’s mean.”
“Hold on a second. I’m not putting you through anything.”
“You’re writing this very conversation as we speak. Every word coming out of my mouth. Every thing I do and say. It’s all you. I’m just a puppet, and you’re pulling the strings!”
“Binny, calm down. It’s not that simple. I already told you. I don’t just tell you what to do. I imagine you in my head in certain situations, and then you tell me what you’ll do. You have much more control than you think.”
“Fine. Give me wings. I want to fly out of here.” Binny demanded.
Hillel started laughing uncontrollably. When he’d laughed for awhile, and was able to get control of himself, he wiped away a tear and said, “Binny, I can’t do that.”
“Why not? You just said I tell you what to do. Here I am telling you what to do. Give me wings!”
“No.” Hillel smiled sympathetically.
Binny thought the smile was condescending. “Why not?”
“Because that wouldn’t make sense in terms of the story.”
“I don’t care about your stupid story. So far it’s brought me nothing but heartache.” Binny was on the verge of tears.
“Hold on. Hold on. Calm down. Everything’s gonna be okay. I promise,” Hillel reassured.
“I don’t like it here. And you put me here. Why did you put me here? Why are you putting me through this?”
Hillel took a deep breath, stood up, and pointed his head at the skies. They were black with impressionist streaks of purple and white light sprinkled with stars. The country sky was positively breathtaking. Hillel looked back at Binny and began to explain.
“It’s complicated. But I’ve been writing the sequel to ‘Echoes of the Past’, your first book. I’m so excited for people to read your book and the one I’m finishing, that I started thinking of ways to get people introduced to the whole universe that you’re in. You know, build interest.”
“OK. So go do a reading at a bookstore or something. What does that have to do with why I’m stuck here?” Binny’s anger flashed through her words.
“Those readings don’t really do much. But it occurred to me, that if I paired you up with some characters that people already know and love, that readers might read about it, see how awesome you are, and then want to read about you in your adventures with your siblings and your friends back in the Madrona Heroes books.”
“You put me in fan-fiction.” Binny said. She had a look of disgust on her face.
“I prefer to think about it as a transformative work that borrows from popular as well as not-so-well-known literary threads to create something wholly new. A very fair use.”
“Hermione and Katniss think fan-fiction is lame.” Binny had an I-told-you-so look on her face.
“I know.” Hillel smiled gently.
“Right of course you know. You wrote that too.”
“My head is starting to hurt.”
“I’m sorry.” Hillel looked genuinely concerned. “You look almost exactly like her, but not quite. You’re different. In a good way.”
“Like your real daughter?” Binny asked.
“You’re my real daughter too. You just live in a different universe.”
“Two different universes. And if you could do me a favor. Please don’t put me in a third anytime soon. It’s all I can do to handle these two for now.”
Hillel laughed and agreed to Binny’s demand.
“What’s her name? Your daughter that I’m like?”
“Her name is Bella.”
“Oh. Did you give me a ‘B’ name to match hers?”
“I didn’t. It’s a coincidence. I had other reasons to give you the name I gave you.”
“I can’t tell you. It’s a spoiler.”
“Oh my god you’re annoying. Seriously. This is not at all what I expected.”
“I’m sorry. I’m doing my best,” Hillel said contritely.
“Yeah, we’re both doing your best,” Binny snapped. Then, after thinking for a moment, she added, “Wait. Fine, don’t give me wings. Just give me a way to fix this place. It sucks you know.”
“I can’t just fix things for you.”
“Why not!” Binny thundered.
“Because, I’m not the hero of this story. You are. You’ve got to figure this out for yourself.”
That stopped Binny’s anger at least momentarily. She didn’t expect that answer. “I’m the hero?”
“Yep.” Hillel nodded.
“You stocked this story with some of the most famous characters from popular books – unlike yours by the way which as far as I can tell nobody has read – and you decide to make me the hero? I really wonder about your decision-making.”
“Me too.” Hillel nodded sympathetically. “Look, there’s good news. This is a key inflection point in the book. This is the point where the hero – that’s you – stops wandering around wondering what to do, and becomes a warrior for her cause. That’s now.”
“How can I be a warrior if you won’t even lift a finger to help me?” Binny whined. Binny’s eyes were piercing as she spoke.
“I never said I wouldn’t help. It just can’t be Deus Ex Machina.” Hillel explained.
“God in the machine.” Binny said excitedly. “In other words, you can’t just give me the magic bullet to solve everything.”
“Exactly!” Hillel smiled proudly at Binny’s quick grasp of the situation.
“So how exactly can you help me?”
“The way all authors help their heroes. They leave little clues throughout the book for the hero to piece together to solve the problem on their own.”
Binny looked like she’d been hit by lightning. “Wait a minute. The dream. You gave me the dream.”
“Of course I gave you the dream.”
“You could have just told me you were my author…” Hillel was about to respond, but Binny continued. “…but that would have been Deus Ex Machina. So, if that’s the case, why did you ask me how I figured out who you were? You knew exactly how I figured it out.”
“Yes, but I wanted to know what you were thinking, and how it made you feel.”
“You realize this is completely weird.”
“Yeah. I know.” Hillel chuckled a little.
“OK. Fine. We’ll do it your way Mister Author. Can you at least give me a clue on what to do next?”
Binny got exasperated. “Can you then tell me which clue it was so I don’t have to spend forever racking my brain? Don’t you think you owe me at least one hint given what I’ve been through?”
“Fine. Fine. You’ve earned it.” Hillel surrendered. “The clue is what Michel said to you about the first time he was here.”
“About how the fire hurts?” Binny said.
“No… about how it used to be different. Remember when he was talking about the first time he was here in the Stacks and he said, ‘Things were different here then.’?”
“That’s my clue?”
“It’s a lousy clue.”
“Sorry kiddo. That’s all you get.” Hillel looked genuinely pleased with himself. “Hey, one other thing. I think it’s probably best for you to not broadcast that I figured out a way in here. They found a way to keep authors out before. I don’t want them to do that again.”
“Okay. But how will I find you again if I need you?”
“Binny, I’m always there. I can always find you.”
“Right. Of course you can. But I can’t find you.”
Hillel locked his hands and leaned in a little closer to Binny. “Binny Jordan, if I’m not there, it’s because you don’t need me. OK?”
Binny thought for a moment. “OK. But can I ask you one more question?” Binny asked in a softer voice.
“Sure. As long as it’s not you asking for another clue.” Hillel looked like he wished he could do more for Binny than he was offering.
“You said you started our writing this book to get people to read the other books – The Madrona Heroes Register books.”
“Yeah. That’s true,” Hillel said.
“Is that still why you’re writing it?”
The question hung between them for a moment as Hillel contemplated. And then he finally broke the silence. “No. That’s not the reason anymore.”
“I started writing this story to help people find my other books. I thought it would just be a short story, or a novella. Just something quick and dirty, you know? But the more I wrote, the more I got excited about this whole place, and all the characters, and wanted this story to stand on its own as something people would fall in love with.”
“OK. That’s pretty cool actually.” Binny thought for a second. “Oh, and by the way, if this is a book for kids, I’m not sure it’s appropriate to have some of their favorite characters killing themselves to avoid boredom.”
“So now you’re a character and a critic?”
“You made me. Deal with it.” Binny felt like her point had been made.
“Understood.” Hillel smiled and waved as Binny walked to the other end of the garden, and disappeared through the gate, heading to her room in Misselthewaite Manor for some well-deserved rest.