The sounds of the street faded as the glass door closed behind me. I passed tables, bookshelves, and only a few people on my way to the door in the back labeled "Employees Only". A man with a lumberjack beard was being served at the counter, and raised his eyebrow at me as I opened the door, and I shrugged back. No, I didn't work at the hipster coffee shop, but there wasn't really anything else I could tell the man.
Beyond the employee door was a small storage room with two more doors. I ignored the one leading to the real employees' break room, and instead opened the wooden one, which released a puff of air that smelled like old books and berries. I left the real world behind and entered the Hallway, a passage lined with doors that stretched infinitely in either direction. My fingers trailed over the dark orange wallpaper as I stepped around the narrow gutter filled with deep water. You had to keep your hands on the walls to stay within the safe, known areas of the Hallway. Otherwise you could be lost forever among the endless doors leading to other worlds.
The second door I came to was the one I wanted, marked both by an old parchment sign and a dulled brass handle. The smell of berries grew stronger and the noise increased as I walked into the busy room. Sprites flew everywhere, holding trays of tea and coffee and pastries aloft with magic. Monsters made the ground tremble slightly when they walked, and a few dozen other people sat at the mismatched tables and chairs. Some avoided the sunlight streaming through the windows, but others crowded around the large glass, through which different places could be seen through each pane.
I relaxed for the first time in days. Here, I could be myself. Here, people valued me for more than filing paperwork and making appointments. Here, I was among others who were just like me. Bookers, born from stories both old and new.
"Alice!" called a girl, and I turned to see Wendy at our normal table. She was one of the bookers that appeared younger than she really was, like me. With her soft brown hair and dark eyes, she was virtually my opposite. We both had stories set in Victorian England, which wasn't rare, but we connected well anyway. I pulled a wooden kitchen chair away from the table and sat down.
"So," I said. "How was your date last night?"
Wendy shrugged. "I suppose he was nice, but he was all, 'Science, science, no fantasy, blah blah blah.'" Her uncomplimentary impression made me smile. "I think there's still some hope for him, though," she continued, stirring her cup of tea. "He invited me out again, and I think I might go."
"His 'science' thing doesn't bother you?" I smiled at the curly-haired sprite who delivered a cup of shining blueberry tea to me. She didn't smile back, which puzzled me.
"Nah," Wendy replied. "If we really got serious, it wouldn't be too hard to tell him that we exist. I don't think it would be too hard on his brain."
"I dunno," I said, tasting the tea. "Some of those guys are really stuck in their ways. I tell you this from ex-"
A crash sounded from just behind me. A man with a sunken face was apologizing profusely to the curly-haired sprite whose tray he had bumped into and knocked out of the air. The sprite, confusingly, was angrily yelling at him. Sprites were normally very kind, or at least even-tempered, so I was confused. The man jerked, stricken, and began to back away, but the sprite followed, and when her tirade was over, she faked a kick at him and abandoned her tray on the ground, the dark red liquid seeping into the carpet.
After a few moments, somebody nervously laughed, and the babble of the room broke out again. I turned back to Wendy, whose face was as sour as I felt. Neither of us commented, preferring to leave it in the past. I raised my head when I heard Wendy's voice again.
"Hey, Evan," she said glumly. I turned and saw a college age boy pulling up the cafe-style chair next to me.
"Hi, Wendy," Evan answered. He dropped his arm around my shoulders. "And how is my Alice?"
"Fine." I gently shrugged his arm off. Thankfully, he didn't seem upset.
"Why only fine?" Evan examined Wendy's face. "You're not looking happy either. Date was a bust?" he guessed.
"No," Wendy said. "It was okay." Evan waited, but Wendy didn't say anything else.
''What's wrong?" he asked both of us, evidently confused.
I decided to say something, even if I wasn't sure why we were upset. "I guess that sprite getting mad - like, actually angry - is the problem. It's sort of weird, actually. One second we're fine, the next we're sort of gloomy."
Evan furrowed his brow. "You know, Frank acted the same way earlier. There we were, enjoying a perfectly good game of Call of Duty, then he gets mad and stops playing. A second later, he was laying around like he didn't care about anything."
"Yup," said Wendy, plopping her head down on her hand and trailing her finger around the rim of her cup. "That's how I feel." I nodded in agreement.
"I don't feel that way..." Evan looked around and trailed off. He lowered his voice. "But it looks like everybody else is." I followed his eyes.
The chatter in the room had slowed. Just enough people were talking to create a low buzz of cover, but all the others were staring despondently into their cups or blankly at the walls. Even the imps, which were normally alight with mischievous energy, were barely tying people's shoelaces together and dumping cinnamon into their cups.
"How good for you," I snarkily shot at him. I regarded my tea on the table in front of me, now too cold to comfortably drink. I thought about calling a sprite over to reheat it, as I would normally, but today I just couldn't bring myself to care. I took a sip anyway. Yep. Cold. I made a face at the cup and drank some more.
Evan hadn't moved for a minute, staring at me. I ignored him. "Something is wrong," he said.
"Nothing is wrong, we're just not having a good day." Wendy lifted her head and scowled at Evan. "Why do you have to constantly analyze everything? Why do you have to constantly analyze me?" She raised her voice and some people turned their heads. "You know I've had no luck with relationships, and yet you totally rub it in my face."
"Wendy, calm down," Evan said, looking frightened. "I wasn't trying to be rude, honestly."
"Yet you were!" Wendy trilled, her voice becoming high-pitched. I groaned. We were in for a huge scold-fest. Wendy did that sometimes. She glared when she heard me. "You could have been kinder, too! I think I'm done here." With a bang, Wendy knocked her chair over and stormed out. Anybody who wasn't looking at us previously was surely staring now.
A few moments of silence passed, then everybody went back to staring at their own tables instead of ours. There was no conversation anymore, though some people paced. I sat straight up in my chair, appalled. Wendy's brother John, who would normally follow her, or at least come try to talk to us and figure out what was wrong, walked past without saying a word.
I looked over at Evan, whose eyebrows had shot up to his hairline. I felt that way, too. "Something is wrong," I agreed. Everybody but my boyfriend was acting weird. Less happy, either gloomy or angry.
"Why do you think I'm the only sane one around here?" Evan sounded thoughtful. I wanted to yell at him for his use of 'sane', but tried to hold myself back.
"I don't know. Think. You're the only one here that's not a real booker," I snapped, then sighed. "Sorry."
Evan smiled and took my hand. "It's okay," he said. "I don't think it's you." I sort of smiled back, grateful to have him. A long time ago, he had been a normal human. Snow White's evil stepmother somehow gained enough self-awareness to travel from her story into the Hallway and then into the real world. The queen had then tricked Evan into eating her poisoned apple. It had taken both Snow and me to get the queen back into her story's world, the only place where she could be held. Later, I had woken Evan up with a kiss after our other efforts had failed. As far as we could tell, Evan was only part booker, immortal but unable to enter the story worlds like I could.
"Hey," Evan said, interrupting my thoughts. "It's kind of dreary in here. Come back with me." He tugged me up, and I let him lead me out of the tea shop, leaving my half-full teacup sitting on the table. We entered the Hallway again, and Evan kept his fingers on the wall as we passed a few doors. I didn't bother counting, but I recognized the place he had taken me to instantly.
"Where's Frank?" I asked as we passed through the large living room that Evan shared with some booker roommates. Frank was normally sitting on the couch, playing video games or something, but after Evan's story I expected him to be passed out. He wasn't anywhere to be seen.
"Maybe he's sleeping," Evan said to me, sounding just a tad too cheery. He didn't think Frank was sleeping, but I decided not to call him out on it. "I'm going to go check on Jack." He knocked on a door across the room from me, then opened it without getting an answer. I scanned the space, trying to find evidence of Frank. The couch was a little more threadbare than over in the other building like this, the one I lived in. The television was on, set to a news channel, but the volume was low enough that I could sort of hear the conversation at the other end of the room.
"You can't just stay here forever," Evan was saying.
"I can and I will," came the muffled reply. I peeked in around Evan's torso. Jack, renowned for his dealings with giants, was huddled under mountains of blankets and pillows. Blackout curtains stopped the Los Angeles sunset from coming into the room.
"What happened?" I whispered.
Evan glanced down at me, not surprised I had followed him. "It's his turn to do the dishes."
"Seriously? That's it?" I looked back over at Jack. His bored eyes were barely visible behind the hills of white. Evan sighed.
"Go away, Alice," Jack moaned. "I don't need you here to watch my fall from fame."
I rolled my eyes. "You're being dramatic."
In a moment, Jack was visible. "Am I?" he asked angrily. "And you're just the expert on drama, aren't you?"
"Hey, man," Evan interrupted. "It's cool. We were just leaving."
"See that you do." Jack fell back onto his pillows as Evan shut the door.
"Sorry," I said sheepishly. "I didn't mean to make things worse."
Evan shrugged. "I get the feeling that he would've gotten mad at something anyway. Don't be sorry." We sat down together on the couch, and Evan turned the volume up enough that we could hear it, but hopefully not to the point that Jack would start yelling at us again. He was an avid fan of his sleep even on normal days.
The television was showing footage of a newly-dug ditch and a shadowed man in the middle of Los Angeles's Grand Park. No, it wasn't a ditch, I realized. I heard Evan inhale sharply then turn the volume up even more. A male voice-over was describing what we were seeing.
"... a strange person, described as 'hulking' by one eyewitness, reached down and started to dig up the middle of Grand Park. We're live on the scene with Shelly Maysberry. Shelly?"
An overly blonde woman stepped onto the screen. "Thanks, Mark. As you can see, there's a bit of a commotion down here." She wasn't kidding. Police tape covered the area, and there was a small, bubbling geyser of mud in the middle of the field. "Eyewitnesses say that a large man came down to the park just half an hour ago. He reached the middle of the park and began to tear up the field. A pipe was ruptured, which is the cause of all the water we're seeing here. A few park-goers called nine-one-one, and police arrived quickly, but apparently not quickly enough." Cut to a badly-filmed video of the big man looking up, then running away. "Police are on the lookout and ask that anybody with information call this hotline." A phone number flashed. The number faded, and a grainy but horrifying headshot filled the screen. Yellow skin, black lips, long hair.
"That looks like -" I began.
"Frank," Evan finished. "I think it was." He raised the remote and turned the TV off. We sat in silence for a minute, and I felt my mood darken.
"He's a fool to do that." I scowled and squeezed Evan's arm hard. "I mean, what was he thinking, ripping up Grand Park like that? It wasn't like that was subtle or anything. Now everybody knows something weird is happening. What if this is the tipping point? What if now, humans will flood our Hallway and be lost for eternity? Frank could be the one to destroy the world. Frankenstein's monster, indeed."
Even interrupted, sounding nervous. "Alice..."
"What?" I snapped, still glowering.
"Are you okay?" Evan took one of my hands, and I let go of his arm. He lifted it and pulled me in closer.
I wasn't. I had been sort of hoping that the darkness that had been overtaking the bookers was somehow avoiding me, but apparently not. It felt so real. When I had seen Wendy, Jack, and now Frank, go completely haywire, I thought that they weren't trying hard enough, that they could have controlled it. These emotions weren't coming out of nowhere, though. They were things I really felt, blown way out of proportion.
"I'm not okay," I said into Evan's shirt. "But maybe tomorrow I will be." With the daylight fading fast, I sank farther down into the couch and Evan and I fell asleep, troubled by the day.
Morning came. Things weren't better. Jack yelled at Evan when we went to check on him. The police were still out looking for Frank, and there had been a few other incidents around the world, local ones that would connect if somebody happened to put them together. If we didn't stop the problems soon, somebody would.
Back at the tea shop, it was obvious that some bookers had actually stayed overnight in their chairs, staring listlessly and screaming at each other in turns. Only a couple were on the floor, but it looked like the majority had gotten up and left. Maybe to their houses, maybe to their stories. The feeling was worse for me, too, and I ended up arguing hotly with a few bookers before Evan pulled me out.
"What are you doing?" I protested when we left the tea shop.
"It's obvious we don't have many allies," Evan replied. "Making enemies will not help."
"Enemies! I don't think an argument is going to end with enemies!"
Evan shrugged, his fingers trailing the wall. "Maybe not, especially with this... problem around. They're all too busy sitting there to hold a grudge."
I sighed. "You're right. I'm sorry. It's just so hard to stay calm. But having you around helps, I think." We stepped around the river gutter, and I was puzzled to notice that the river had slowed to a trickle. It was deeper than I had always imagined. I could lose things in there.
"You think I help?" We entered Evan's house again. From the looks of it, Frank had returned while we were out. Video game controllers and a messy box of crackers were lying around the living room, though the door to his room was shut tightly. Hopefully he hadn't led the police here. Of course, I was finding it difficult to care if he had or not. I sat down heavily on the couch.
"Evan?" I began. "What if this problem is too much for us to solve?"
"I have to believe we can do something," he answered, sitting down next to me. "If not... then I'm alone among you depressing lot for eternity. Unless the humans decide to find us..."
"That's just it," I interrupted. "The consequences of failure are too big. But success? That's insurmountable."
"If we don't do something, who will?"
I sat in silence. I needed this. It was the opportunity I had been waiting for - to prove that I wasn't just a silly little girl who let people walk all over her - but I never imagined it to be this difficult. I didn't want to move. I didn't want to think. The only times, lately, that I had felt the need to do something was when I was angry. Then, it was all I could do to hold myself back. I couldn't imagine living like this for the rest of eternity.
"Where do we begin?" I asked, overwhelmed.
"I think," said Evan, standing up, "That it's time to see the Wizard."