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The Quest You Have Chosen Defies Your Fate

Beth Cato is the author of The Clockwork Dagger steampunk fantasy series from Harper Voyager. Her short fiction has appeared in InterGalactic Medicine Show, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Daily Science Fiction. She's a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cat.

You are reading a book, and within that book you now walk through the iron gates of the junior high school of your youth.
You don't understand how you are reading of a real place within this old fantasy book of adventures you found in the closet of your childhood bedroom. These particular pages didn't exist before, here in this volume that you read until its white spine was bowed, swaybacked, broken.
Today you have fallen between the plot lines, the inked illustrations, the bookmarks you once placed at the major decisions you were asked to make--yes, your cheating is known. The bookmarks are gone. You can no longer flip back to choose between releasing the unicorn on page 32, or continuing into the forest on page 210, or the various other forks in your literary path.
Instead, you are at your old school. Again.
Fog shrouds the buildings and open corridors of the campus. A backpack weighs down your left shoulder. Your AD&D books must be in there. They were your lunchtime salvation. The one time each day you could cast magic spells.
You were supposed to be a wizard, after all. To awaken one day with extraordinary powers. But you lived on contemporary Earth, and reality shriveled the brilliant dreams that empowered you through the night.
A boy emerges from the fog. Your first bully, from fourth grade. "Hey, stupid!" he calls. "Oink, oink! Fat, ugly, stupid!" Weeks and months of daily abuse are compacted into a torrent.
Other figures emerge from the mist. That horrible boy from seventh-grade math. The girls from eighth-grade P.E. Your brother, frozen as he was at an angry twelve. Their jibes flow together and compete for precedence.
You back away, then stop. Hopelessness clenches your throat like a zombie's hands. What's the point of resisting? It'll only continue tomorrow. You are doomed.
That's why you sometimes read this book and purposefully made the wrong choices, the ones that led to literary suicide. You were a loser in reality. May as well be a loser in an adventure book, too, right? The quarry was the quickest death, page 70. Or the dragon's lair, page 111--that had a nice illustration. Or being enchanted into an eternal stupor in the witch's cave, page 53. These pages knew your bitter laugh when you reached an intentional THE END.
Why are you still reading this book right now? These words revive the fatness and futility you knew at thirteen. Why did you even keep a book that evokes such terrible memories?
Because your fantasy wasn't constantly mired in despair. This book also brought hope that you could leave behind your Podunk village. That your magic would manifest itself. That you could save the world--that you mattered.
So many emotions are crammed between the pages. So many almost forgotten crumbs and stains.
The bully mob swarms. Their words are like knives that pierce deeper than the open scissor blades you often held against your wrists. If you tore your eyes away from this page and pulled up your sleeve right now, you'd find the scars. Those old tally marks, so stacked and close they are impossible to count.
As a teenager, you thought your reality offered you no choices.
Well, you have a choice now.
You can hunch your shoulders, ignore them. You don't want to be a tattletale. Not like the teachers would care, anyway. Do you stand here and endure, as you once did?
If so, turn to page 10.
Do you start to run?
If so, turn the page.
You run.
The backpack pounds your spine with each stride, but you won't drop it, not even to move faster. You won't let them take the one magic you possess. So you run. Your lungs and throat sear with the need for oxygen. Your body jiggles and quakes--oh yes, their jeers on that ring out loud and clear--but you keep going through the fog, past the statue, past the band room.
In reality, it wasn't until college that you really discovered running. It was mortifying at first--the rhythmic slap of butt cheeks and thighs--but for some reason, you kept waking up at five o'clock. The world looked different at that hour. Full of potential--magic, of a sort. You run, and you are a galloping unicorn, Hermes, the wind itself. Your feet devour the earth.
You run across the basketball courts and through the field. The movement is easy now. You have found your groove. You're not running out of cowardice; you run because it sets you free.
In a blink, a wall emerges from within the fog: the chain link fence with its diamonds draped with dew. You slam into the wires; they chime and bounce you backward. Water droplets fling from the fence and shock you with cold.
The fence falls away with a violent, metallic shudder. There is no path ahead; there is complete openness.
Everything goes to black.
Turn the page.
Congratulations. You are still alive.
You're in your bedroom, leaning against musty cardboard boxes. You have returned from the spaces between the pages.
Your hands are large as you grip the cover. You wear a ring. The high-pitched voices of your children carry from the backyard.
Beyond them, you still hear the decades-old specters in the fog. Times like this, their catcalls are so loud that they penetrate reality, but you keep moving, even when you are still. You are swift and strong.
Your choice is clear.
Close the book.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, August 20th, 2015

Author Comments

This is my first published story in second person. It's also a semi-autobiographical work. The emotions are true, though many of the personal details have been altered. This story is dedicated to the dear friends and teachers who provided me with bright lights in that dark time of junior high school.

If you're in that darkness right now, start walking faster, and eventually you will be able to run. I'm cheering for you.

- Beth Cato
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