By Kit Campbell
When his break started, Coren tucked his hard hat under his arm and left the site. Sure, they were encouraged to eat there, but it wasn’t required, and Coren hadn’t been here long enough to deny himself the right to explore, when he could. This site was downtown, the skyscrapers towering overhead, blocking sun and sky from view. He could head in any direction, and there would be new people, new things, new experiences.
Yet he was not surprised when he found himself in front of the bookstore again, its exterior painted a deep green, its interior dark and coated with books in varying states of disuse. Of all the places he’d found in this strange city, it felt the most like home.
Despite that, he never set foot inside.
His own book he kept at home. It was large, leather-bound, with gold filigree along the edges. There was no title on the cover, and if there had been one inside, it had disappeared. Coren had come to understand that books were supposed to have text on each page, from start to finish, but this one was missing large swaths where the words seemed to have faded away into nothingness. At first he had assumed it was his parts that had vanished, but it was seemingly random, as occasionally his own name stared back at him from the page, along with those compatriots with whom he had shared his days.
He had wondered, if he knew the title of his book, if he’d found other copies in the bookstore (because he’d also learned that there were always more copies), would they be complete? Would he be able to read his own story? Or would they, too, be missing sections, the story forever unfinished because he had left it?
Having followed the crowds into a shop one day, Coren now liked to pick up a cup of coffee before heading to the construction site. It made him feel more connected, more normal. The other guys at the site did it as well, or stomached the weaker blend available to them there. Coren didn’t mind the work; it reminded him, in some ways, of what he had done back in his own world, though there was less responsibility tied to it. If he failed here, the world wouldn’t crumble.
He tried not to think about that last bit too often.
He looked up from his place in line. There was a barista this morning he’d never seen before, with long brown hair tied up in a loose knot that he’d often seen on women here. But when she looked up, Coren choked. No—it couldn’t be. Not here. That made no sense.
The woman met his gaze for a moment but moved on, apparently uninterested. No, he was imagining things. It was just someone who looked like her. Surely that happened all the time here, judging by the amount of people.
He reached the front of the line.
“What can I get for you?” she said, meeting his eyes and smiling that mandatory smile all service people seemed to have.
He ordered, moved off to wait. After a few minutes, the woman handed him his paper cup.
She had written “Coren” on it, but she had not asked his name.
He had never taken a sick day, but he called off now, hurried home. The book was where he had left it, in the middle of the “coffee table” (though the table did not produce coffee and did not seem to be that great a place to drink it). Coren snatched it up, flipping it open.
The first few pages were now completely blank. As he delved deeper inside, he eventually found text, but it was definitely emptier than it had been.
Coren took a deep breath, set the book down, and went back out.
He had known that he was not where he should have been. The battle raged down in the valley, and from his vantage point he could see the remains of his troops—the king’s troops—fighting valiantly against those of Garret. The sorcerer himself was nowhere to be seen, but Coren knew he must be there, knew that he would be waiting to face Coren. There was nowhere else to go, and they must do what must be done.
Still, Coren had hesitated. Despite knowing his duty, despite knowing the consequences if he was not victorious, there had been something else, some feeling that had lured him away from the battle below and back up the hill.
At the top, Coren could see the angry sea churning, the skies darkened by black magic, the water ripped up by unnatural tides. But closer, at the very crest of the rocks and grass, there’d been a rectangle, wrapped in paper, like a painting or mirror waiting to be transported. It stood on its own, not supported by rock or rise of land.
Coren knew he was needed at the battle, but he could not seem to stop himself from approaching the paper-covered rectangle. Nor could he bring himself to go around the back, to search for what made it stand. He had thought about that often in the days since, and had decided that had been a good thing, that his sanity might not have withstood the answer.
He knelt in front of the paper, delicately peeled it back from the edge of the frame. But that had not been enough to see, so Coren had pulled the paper more, roughly, ripping it across the middle. He ached to do what was required of him, yet could not leave until he saw what was beneath the paper.
It was a city, a mirror of those he knew, dark but highlighted with lights to impossible heights. Coren reached a hand out, but it met no resistance, no painted surface. And then there was darkness, and falling, and whispers, and finally, the new city, surrounding him.
And no way back.
She was still working the register when he returned, though the morning rush had ended. She glanced up as he entered, but was not surprised.
“I’m going on my break,” she told her coworker. She peeled off her apron as she came around the corner, headed straight toward Coren.
His brain tried to tell him to do something, but whatever it was got lost in transit. She reached him, wrapped her arms around his neck, and tilted her head up, running her lips along his. It was all Coren could do to not melt in her arms at the familiar sensation.
“I don’t understand,” he said.
“Come.” She led him to one of the tables, steered him into a chair. Then she loomed over him, hands on her hips, looking both so like his memories of her and so different. “What were you thinking?” she asked finally.
Coren looked down at her feet, then realized he was unsure he’d ever had the honor of seeing them before. Women here showed their feet off at every opportunity, and it was a shock to remember that he’d known something different, that as well as he’d known this woman, he’d never had the right to look before.
Did he have the right now? He looked back up to her face to find her frowning at him. Some of her hair had escaped out of the knot, framing her face, and he found her lovelier in that moment than all the elaborate updos she’d sported before.
“I don’t understand how you’re here,” he said. “I thought I would never see you again, my dearest Kelle.”
He half-expected her to sigh and collapse into his lap, but instead she pinched the bridge of her nose, still towering over him. “Why would you think that? Did you think I would just sit at home, staring out the window and wondering what had befallen you?”
Yes. But he didn’t dare say it out loud. He stared up at this plot twist, at the familiar face pulled into unfamiliar disappointment. She was a princess, the daughter of kings. Her father had not known about their relationship. Defeating Garret would have not only freed the kingdom, saved the world, but it would have finally given Coren the right to ask for Kelle’s hand. “You went through the battlegrounds. You went through the haunted temple. You climbed the hill.”
“Yes, of course.”
It had taken all of Coren’s stamina and training to do the same. Yet he sensed that she would not answer more at this time, that she was displeased with his disbelief.
“I loved you, you idiot,” she said, and Coren could not help but notice the past tense. “Do you really think I would not have done everything for you?”
He tried a different coffee shop for the next few days, but they roasted their beans for too long and he would go through the morning with a burnt taste in his mouth.
Kelle dwelt on his mind always. Here he was free—no story written down, no preordained destiny to fulfill. He sometimes wondered what it would have been—would he have defeated Garret, won Kelle’s hand, saved the kingdom? Or would he have fallen through Garret’s sorcery? He was no longer tied to what would have come, to his old world.
But Kelle…she had come after him. She had shown more loyalty and fortitude than he had experienced even in the best of his men. And despite being free of his story, despite having this wide world open to him, he found he loved her still, that knowing that she was here, even if she was angry with him, gave him a measure of comfort.
Back home, she had been a wonder, calm and beautiful and so far above his station that it had been an honor just to have her smile at him. But this—wasn’t this better? They were free, and they could do what they liked.
But there was that past tense “loved” hanging in the air between them.
She was still behind the counter, though it was later, Coren having taken an early lunch. There was a lingering line, but it cleared up fast enough, and he found himself standing in front of her once again. Today her hair was partially braided, long strands draping down her back. She regarded him blankly, without emotion, and Coren strongly considered just turning and running away.
“Kelle,” he said, then stopped, taking a deep breath. He had practiced; he could do this. “I was hoping—I was hoping we could have another chance.”
Kelle’s coworker on the next register over—shorter, rounder, one side of her head shaved and the other dyed purple—gave Coren a once over. “Break?”
Kelle nodded once. “Break.”
Coren found them sitting at the same table again, though Kelle did sit with him this time, her hands tucked between her knees in a familiar way that he’d walked in on her doing once or twice back home. She stared at his face, eyes bright and intent, and it was all he could do to keep her gaze.
“I am sorry.” He gave in, looking down at his hands. “I did not mean to drag you into this.”
“You didn’t drag me. I came willingly when it became apparent you were gone.”
Coren wanted to ask what had happened—had they defeated Garret, was the kingdom safe?—but found he could not. Without a way home, there was nothing he could do. He reached a hand carefully forward, and Kelle allowed him to take one of hers, something she’d only done a handful of times before. Her skin was not quite as smooth as he remembered, but she was warm and soft and there, and he found he had missed her more than he’d thought.
“I don’t have much here,” he said, mostly to her hand. “But I have a job, a place to live, and I’m saving up some money.”
She laughed and, startled, he looked up, meeting her eyes. “Coren, darling. You didn’t have much more than that back home. Has it ever been an issue?”
A few weeks later, Coren showed Kelle his book. She took it, reverently, running her hands along the edges of the cover before handing it back. Then she produced her own copy of their book out of her purse.
Hers was worn, dog-eared, a cheaper, smaller paperback. Some of the title still remained on the cover—of the—and there were a few letters, scattered about, that might have been the author’s name. An a. An r. A t. Something that might have been either an e or an s. Worthless in the long run, but Coren wondered if between the two copies they might be able to read the story.
If they wanted to.
“When you came through,” he started, “was there—was there a way back?” He had come through at night, in one of those places that seemed impossibly dark despite the surrounding lights, and he had wandered in confusion. He was not sure he would ever be able to find his way back, to see if he had missed something in those early hours.
Kelle shook her head.
“It’s not so bad.” She laid her book on top of his on the coffee table before wrapping her arms around his waist. “We still have each other. This world is fine. Sure, it has its dangers and its issues, but at least there’s no magic here to worry about.” She stiffened in his grasp. “At least, not yet.”
Kelle looked down at the books on the table. “That portal is still there. There is nothing to say that someone else might not come through.”
Garret. “Surely his plans are centered back home. There would be nothing for him here.”
Kelle pursed her lips, but she said nothing.
Coren checked his book each day, after that, just in case. But the months stretched and passed and everything remained as it was, and the books slowly were forgotten, pushed onto bookshelves with other books, though Coren never read them. Were there worlds within each one, worlds that could open into this one, disrupt their stories the way his had been disrupted? He did not like to think about it.
This place was not so hard to get used to. And he had Kelle, who seemed to be able to navigate anything thrown at her. If he had not known better, he would have thought this was her original world.
He had been here a year. It seemed a fitting anniversary to pull out the book and flip it open.
It was full.
Coren almost dropped the book in disbelief. He had assumed, if anything, it would become emptier, more of the story leaking out into this new world when or if someone or something came through. But what did it mean that all the words were back? Was the portal closed, the story now unable to be affected?
Hands shaking, he closed the book, running his fingers over the embossed title on the cover. Battle of the Ages. Below that, the author, and Coren stared at the name almost without comprehension. Garret Dunn.
He sat down on the couch—a fairly recent acquisition from IKEA, bought because Kelle thought it would be nice to have somewhere soft to sit together—in case his legs were going to give out. It hadn’t been just a portal—it had been a trap. And he had fallen for it.
Slowly, mindlessly, he flipped to the first page, read the first sentence.