Saturday, November 20, 2004

Two-Thirds of the Way Day

Breakfast and backstories.

After writing chapter 28, I wonder if it might not have worked better as a third-person narrator's summary of the first-person story that it is now. Oh well. No re-writing for now.

Chapter 27

Seamus awoke with the morning light of a fictional dawn just starting to show through his window. He tried to slide his arm out from under Cassidy without waking her – they hardly seemed to have budged for however long it had been that they were asleep – but she gave a slight mummer and opened her eyes. There was a brief look of confusion on her face, but then she remembered where she was and relaxed. Her arm had been draped over Seamus' chest, and she gave him a quick hug with it before moving to let him get up.

Seamus gave an experimental stretch and found that he was still incredibly stiff and sore. But at least he was rested now, so he figured he would gradually work out the kinks as he moved around. More than anything else he felt filthy. Both he and Cassidy were a mess.

He let Cassidy take the upstairs bathroom for a shower and ventured downstairs for his own. He went cautiously at first, but as far as he could tell, it was quite a reasonable replica of his house that they were in, and he didn't run into anything else creepy or out of the ordinary. As he showered, he gingerly washed out his various cuts and scrapes, wishing he had taken the time to do so the night before. He found some Neosporin and Band-aids in the medicine cabinet and patched up the worst of them. Nothing looked like it would be too serious, though.

When he got back up to his room, he found Cassidy there wearing a pair of his jeans and one of his t-shirts.

"I hope you don't mind," she said, noticing him looking at the clothes. "The Book actually had a change of clothes waiting for me but just look at it," she gestured to a corner where a couple of rumpled garments had been tossed, "I mean, it's pink for goodness' sake. And a skirt?! If we run into another giant killer eagle thing I am not going to fight it off in a skirt."

"Oh… no, no problem at all." Seamus was actually more interested in looking at her hair at the moment. Still slightly damp from her shower, it seemed to have been quickly and furiously toweled, and then forgotten. So that explained its propensity for sticking up and out everywhere.

They went downstairs to find something to eat for breakfast.

"Help yourself to anything you see here," said Seamus, looking through the cupboards and the refrigerator. "There seem to be plenty of options. As a matter of fact, it looks like The Book stocked up far better than I ever do in real life."

Cassidy turned out to be a fruit, granola and yogurt sort of girl, and Seamus ate a banana while he toasted a bagel. The Book had taken its realism to the point of not leaving them a convenient place to sit and eat, however, so they moved a couple stacks of old newspapers and a box of Matt's electronic equipment onto the floor, clearing off a couple of places at the small kitchen table. (Seamus' house actually had a large dining room table as well, though most people were not aware of that fact, as it was almost never visible.) Cassidy looked around as she ate.

"You know," she said, "this house makes me think of living with my freshman roommate, only on a much larger scale. I remember our room was always filled with her clutter – clothes and books tossed everywhere, and random boxes of stuff stacked wherever there was space. I could never figure out where it was all coming from, or why she even needed it all. To be honest, it nearly drove me batty. I was a complete neat freak back then."

"Really?" Seamus hadn't had her pegged as a neat freak.

"Oh yeah," she went on, nodding. "I was pretty different back then, though. You would hardly have recognized me."

"What were you like?"

"I was very quiet and shy, the wallflower type. I spent most of my time at my computer or with my books. That was good for my grades of course, but not so good for making new friends at college. Oh, and my hair was completely different, too – it hung straight down, nearly to my waist. I usually just had it in a long braid or in a bun or something."

Seamus was having trouble imagining her like this. "So what happened?"

"I broke up with my boyfriend," she said, looking back down at her breakfast and stirring it a bit. "We had been together for the last year or so of high school, but then he went to Reed and I went to PSU. We thought it would be fine – we were both still in Portland after all – and for a few months it was. But then after a bit, it started getting harder and harder to find time to spend together. And that's when I discovered he had started dating a girl at his school and, well… that pretty much did things in."

"I'm sorry," said Seamus, wishing he knew of a better response.

"Oh, ancient history," she said, brushing it aside, "Anyway, that's what it took to shake me up. I realized that I was always too protective of myself, and it wasn't doing me any good. I had gotten hurt anyway, and in the meantime I had been holding myself back from fully participating in my life, from making friends and seeking out new experiences. So it was time for a change. The first thing to go was the hair."

"That must have been quite a change. I would have liked to have seen what you looked like before you cut it, though. I always like long hair."

"Me too. That's why I cut it. I had to make sure it was still me under there, that no matter how much things might change, I would still be alright. And it made a huge difference. That first big change gave me permission to change even more. I started going to parties, making new friends, being more outgoing. And interestingly enough, the more I changed, the more I really felt like me. I went through lots of phases of course, and lots of ups and downs." She laughed. "Can you imagine? I had all my hair bright red for a while. Toned that down considerably, though." She gave a little tug at the blue patch by her ear. "And of course, the extra earring and the tattoo came a while later."

"Tattoo?" Seamus said, "I didn't know you had a tattoo."

"Sure I do," Cassidy said with a smile. "You just don't know where it is yet."

She didn't seem like she was going to elaborate, so Seamus let it go. When they finished eating, he picked up their dishes and took them to the sink, then realized that there was no reason to bother washing them, so he just left them there. He was about to suggest that maybe they should find The Book again and learn more about this mission they were supposed to be helping with, when he heard footsteps coming up the stairs from the basement.

Seamus and Cassidy shot a quick glance at each other, but neither had time to ask if that might be The Book already coming to look for them. The footsteps reached the top of the stairs and turning the corner into the kitchen came a dark, looming figure. The floorboards creaked under its weight, and the sunlight streaming in through the windows grew fainter.

Big Jake pushed back the hood of his parka and spoke.

"Well, I don't know whether to say I'm glad you've made it this far or not, though I'm certainly impressed. Mind if I sit down?" He pulled up a chair without waiting for a response. His voice was still gravelly, but it sounded focused now, and civilized, in contrast to the vague ramblings or ominous mutterings that Seamus had heard from him before. It was undeniably Big Jake, however. The grungy black clothes, the pockets bulging with odds and ends and scraps of paper, the spark in his eyes steadier now. All were unmistakable.

"What are you doing here?" Seamus and Cassidy both asked at the same time. Seamus noticed that their voices sounded just a little more scared than he would have liked.

"Hey now, go easy on me," Big Jake said, "I've had a rough time getting here as well, and I'm just here to talk to you."

"Talk to us?" asked Seamus, suspiciously. "About what?" He knew that this wasn't really his house, but he still felt defensive at finding the homeless guy from outside the library in his kitchen all of a sudden.

"About The Book," said Big Jake, looking him in the eye, his voice serious, "and about what it wants you to do. There are things you must know before going any further."

"What sort of things? And how do you know about The Book?"

"And just who are you, anyway?" Cassidy chimed in. "How did you get here?"

"So many questions!" Big Jake gave a harsh laugh. "Alright. Let me back up a bit and explain."

Chapter 28

Big Jake had taken the seat across from Cassidy at the kitchen table, so Seamus pulled up the stool by the counter for himself. He was still nervous around Big Jake, but also intensely curious. He remembered the peculiar comments Jake had made to him outside the library, the first day that he stole the key to the basement, and the time he and Cassidy had gone in together. Maybe that was all about to be explained.

Big Jake looked thoughtful for a moment, as though deciding where to start. Then he leaned his elbows on the table and began.

"My real name," he said, "is Jacob Steele. Professor Jacob Steele, as a matter of fact. Don't laugh. You may not believe it, but it's true."

Seamus and Cassidy had their attention completely fixed on him, but were certainly not about to laugh. As unlikely as it seemed for this man in front of them to have been a professor, they knew that pretty much anything was possible, given everything else they had gone through over the last few days.

"I taught literature at Stanford," Big Jake went on. Noticing the start of recognition from Seamus, he added "This was well before your time, of course. A good 15 or 20 years ago. I don't even know for sure anymore. I was younger back then, young for a professor, though I don't remember my age. So many things have faded, especially time."

His voice dropped a bit, and Seamus wondered if he was going to lapse back into his old mumbled ramblings. But Big Jake merely looked contemplative for a moment before continuing.

"I taught a few classes – a freshman writing course, history of the short story, that kind of thing. But one thing that always fascinated me was old, rare books. I collected them, any that I could find and afford. So as you can imagine, I soon began to spend a great deal of time with Stanford's special collections, in the rare books division. So much time, in fact, that it became a problem. I was neglecting my work and my students. I would go in sometimes and emerge hours later, not really sure what I had been doing in there all that time. And then I found it.

"It was a small, leather bound book, unmarked, un-cataloged, blank inside. I didn't know what it was or why it was important, I just knew that it was the reason I had been drawn there. I found a way to smuggle it out with me, and I took it home.

"I began writing in that book, and it began writing back to me. And then it began pulling me in, much as it did for you, I expect. At first just a few visits to some of my favorite classics – I still felt like I was in control, and I loved it. But then I got in too far. I met the entity that controls all of this and it had me trapped. It said that I had a power it needed, and spun me shining tales of its noble goals. I was taken in by this and foolishly agreed to do what it asked of me.

"I read when it asked me to, and wrote when it asked me to, pouring all my creativity into my tasks. And as constantly as I was giving myself to it, it was draining me. I discovered too late that it was not really me that it needed and wanted. I was just a tool it was using on its way to a greater goal. But by then I was helpless. All of my energies were flowing outward to the Book, leaving me none to defend myself or escape.

"And yes, the Book is what I was creating, a physical manifestation for the real world of the force that now had control of me. I was not the one it was looking for, the Key. The Book would help it find that one. But the Book had to be created first, and to do that required a human being. Nothing created entirely in and by forces of fiction could have a sustained presence in reality. So it used me. The greater the Book grew, the weaker I became.

"But also as the Book grew, I started to become aware of what would ultimately happen if the plans succeeded. What it is aiming for would mean the complete destruction of the world as we know it. Old books will not simply be brought back to recognition, but brought to life. There will be a complete merging of reality and fiction, to the point where each term is meaningless. Everything that has ever been imagined will exist at once, bringing contradictions, chaos and collapse to the entire world."

Big Jake paused here, letting this sink in. Seamus and Cassidy simply watched him, not knowing what to say.

"Eventually, of course, the Book was finished and I was of no more use. I was a mere shell at that point, barely conscious, with no thoughts of my own. I had no idea how long I had been in the service of this power. It spat me back out into reality homeless, jobless, nearly mindless. I wandered up and down the state for a few years, getting by I never knew quite how, but then found that I kept being drawn back to one place in particular: the Menlo Park Library.

"I didn't know it at the time, but that was where the Book had been installed, and was waiting for you to come along. The remnant of my old self that remained in me was drawn to it; the one miniscule part was seeking the whole that had left it. And that part, weak as it was, grew stronger from the proximity. I began to come across random memories and images from my past, though at first it seemed more as if someone else's thoughts were intruding on mine. I gradually pieced them together, though they always remained clouded over by my new persona.

"Those small pieces of me were what recognized you and what you were doing. They knew also that they had to find some way to warn you, but they were powerless in that world. And so, with incredible, painstaking efforts, I managed to pull together the most complete, coherent version of my former self that I could, for one final bibliomorph. And that is what you see before you. Big Jake yes, but also Professor Jacob Steele. I will probably not last much longer here, but I had to come, to make sure that you knew what you were facing."

He leaned back in his chair, slumping, looking like the effort of talking had worn him out.

"Wow," Cassidy said at last. "That is incredible. Seamus, what are we going to do about this?"

"Hold on," said Seamus, still focused on Big Jake. "How are you telling us all this? It doesn't make sense. We're inside the Book now – at the very least it should know that you're giving away its secrets, and I'd expect it to just do away with you entirely."

"No," Big Jake replied wearily, "it doesn't know about me. It can't. All that is left of me is the one smallest part that it could never pull away. It took everything else, but what remains is undetectable to it. It will never know I was here."

As he spoke, Seamus could see him starting to blur at the edges. "We're starting to lose you," he said.

"Yes, I must go. I do not have much strength left. Remember what I told you, though. If it gains possession of you the way it did of me, the results will be far more disastrous." And with that, Big Jake faded, flickered, and was gone.