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Authors: Heather Lyons

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The Collectors' Society 01 (6 page)

BOOK: The Collectors' Society 01
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Finn bites his lip as he glances toward the door. A sigh heaves out of him. “This is going to be a lot to take in, so you may want to sit down.”

“I’d prefer to stand, thank you.”

He scans the room once more before holding up a finger. I watch as he crosses the room to where a black waste bin sits by the door. A newspaper is extracted and then shaken before he returns to where I am. “I’m not always the best at explaining things,” Finn says. “Mary says I’m a bit like a bull in a china shop. But if you want to know today’s date, it’ll be on this.”

I take the paper from him and stare down at it.
The
New York Times
, it reads across the top. Just below that, in smaller letters, reads a date that cannot be. I shake my head and blink rapidly before holding the paper up to eye level. Once more, my stomach drops as I take in the date Finn claims to be this day’s.

It’s approximately one hundred and forty years later than the date I woke up on.

I carefully fold the newspaper, painfully aware of how strongly my hands are trembling. I clear my throat, but it doesn’t help how raspy my voice is when I speak. “I see.” And then, after another cough, “How curious it is that Van Brunt can produce a time-traveling doorway.”

A warm hand cups the back of my elbow and leads me the scant distance it takes to reach a chair. “You should sit down. Let me get you some water.”

Yes, because drinking water makes it all the better.

As he strides across the room toward a small side desk, my attention reverts to the windows before me. Tall glass buildings reflecting hazy sunlight stare back, taunting me in their alien construction. Memories of Wonderland’s architecture surface, and while I’d marveled at how radically different the intricate gold-adorned buildings in the Courts looked compared to England’s, they now seem positively antiquated compared to what I’m seeing right now.

A glass of so-called calming water is set on the table. “Are you okay?”

It’s the second time he’s asked me this question in less than a quarter of an hour. Hysterical laughter bubbles up my throat in response, but I swallow it back as he drops into the chair next to me. There’s concern in those blue-gray eyes of his, concern that has no right to be there.

He doesn’t know me. He doesn’t know my experiences. If he did, the concern would go running into the distance.

I haven’t been okay in nearly a year.

I sip the water slowly. It’s icy cold, allowing me to trace its path down into my stomach. “I am fine, thank you.”

Finn leans back into the chair. “Are you a reader?”

I slide the glass back onto the table. “I feel as if my day is looping, because Mary asked the same of me less than an hour prior. It leaves me to assume I’ve been brought to the future to discuss literature rather than save Wonderland.”

He lifts a hand to scratch his forehead. “Actually, as weird as it may seem, you are here to do both.”

It’s enough to give me pause, and for the door to open and bring with it Van Brunt. “My apologies.” No doubt taking in what must surely be my pale countenance, he asks Finn, “What all have you told her?”

Finn rises from his seat. “Not much. We’d only just begun.” He taps on the newspaper lying between us. “But I’ll leave it to you to finish the rest.” He turns to me, and once more I spy concern shining out from his eyes. “If you need anything, I’m in 1510.”

Van Brunt lowers himself into the chair so recently vacated. “The Librarian awaits your field paperwork, Finn. I’d hate to think of what she’ll be like if it isn’t filed within the hour.”

How interesting it is that this man’s name is familiar to Van Brunt’s lips. Along with Victor’s, they are the only one so far to be so.

Finn slides the newspaper underneath his arm. “I’m on my way to do it right now.” When he makes his way to the door, I steal another glance just in time to watch him throw the paper away.

“Well now,” Van Brunt says. “It’s time for those explanations, isn’t it?”

T
HERE ARE MOMENTS IN one’s life that always leave a person wondering if they’re dreaming. I’ve had plenty of those moments—years of them, actually. In Wonderland, the amazing became mundane, and yet, the entire time I was there, I often speculated if I was in fact in England, asleep in my childhood bed. That perhaps I was riddled with fever, even close to my final sleep because I no longer questioned the extraordinary I lived through. Day after day, year after year, my existence devolved into one dream state after another until it was all I knew, all that I hoped for. All that I expected. When I was forced to leave it behind, and after I practically bargained my soul to do so, the promise of quiet, mundane events held me together when the urge to shatter into mindless grief and insanity proved nearly irresistible. For weeks, I was willingly restrained in a special coat that kept me from tearing my hair out, and lived in a room with soft walls that refused to allow self-harm. I howled, I raved, I frothed at the mouth. I tried to bite nurses who came to close, and I threatened to unleash an army against them more than once if they dared touch me.

I plotted how I could go back. Prayed I could find an answer, that perhaps now I had the clarity to find what I could not then. And then I despaired when I accepted I couldn’t, shouldn’t, and wouldn’t.

Slowly, but surely, I acclimated to my new existence. My days morphed into the regulated and predictable. People who surrounded me became reliable and steady. I was in an asylum, yes, but hope sprung that I could put that foot in front of the other and move on whether it was my wish or not.

And now, here I am, a hundred and forty years in the future, with a man who possesses more secrets than any person I ever met in Wonderland, and I’m fearful I am once more trapped within a vicious cycle of unrealistic dreams.

He wants to send me back. Is it even possible? And if it is, could I even allow it?

“The Collectors’ Society,” Van Brunt says as he leans back in his chair, “has been in existence for really only a very short time—approximately a century, give or take.” Strong fingers tap on the table beside us. “There are multiple ways to label people, as you may well know. In the literate world, we can simplify this in that there are readers and non-readers. Within the readers category, we can further label people by how passionate they are with the books they choose. Some people escape into the stories they read. Some read for purpose or information. Some read out of resentment or necessity. But let us, in this moment, focus on those who find books to be an escape or an extension of their imagination. These readers see, within their mind’s eye, the characters and settings in the pages below their fingers. They feel the emotions woven between the words. They live through every heartache, every embrace, every terror. Books, to these people, become tangible, living things. The characters they read become genuine souls.” A half smile curves his lips. “People like this are often accused of living within their fantasies. They’re said to have their noses stuck in books. But the reality is that some of these people actually
do
escape into books.”

My fingers streak through the condensation on the glass. “Are you inferring that . . .” I don’t even know how to properly verbalize what I think he’s telling me, it’s so ludicrous.

“I’m not inferring anything. I’m telling you there are people who have the natural ability to lose themselves in a book.”

“You are surely speaking of imagination.”

The corners of his lips tick upward as he slowly shakes his head. “Not at all. There are people who literally enter books.” Another hand is held up. “Let me clarify that. They are people who enter the worlds associated with books. We call them Timelines.”

There’s that word again:
Timeline
.

“To make a long story short . . .” He pauses, his mouth twitching at the inadvertent pun. “Every time a book is published and embraced by a large population, a Timeline is created—or at least made visible to the rest of us. Timelines are worlds filled with people who are living out their lives just like you or me. There are countless worlds in existence right now, and more being created every year. Our scope of the universe is not as small as we once imagined, Ms. Reeve.”

For a long moment, nothing more is said between us as his words sink into me. What he’s saying is madness. “You’re telling me that . . . authors . . . actually breathe life to their characters?”

“While that point is debatable, the rest are not. There are countless worlds associated with books, Ms. Reeve.” His voice, his words, are gentle but insistent. “I know this is a lot to take in, but—”

“Are you saying that authors are
gods
?”

At first, Van Brunt is startled by my question. And then he laughs, albeit quietly, briefly. “No. But there is something to be said about the power of stories. While not all in the Society possess the ability to naturally escape into Timelines, we have found technological ways around this roadblock.”

I fly up, my feet clambering for solid ground. Water sloshes out of my glass as it skids across the table. “This is insanity.” The chair I’ve abandoned skitters behind me on its rolling feet. “Until this moment, I would have said I’d become something of an expert in insanity, but this exceeds anything ever experienced in Wonderland.”

He also rises until he towers over me. “Ms. Reeve—”

Confusion swirls throughout my mind so strongly I fear that this is yet another dream, and that I am back in my bed in the tulgey woods.

His large hand is surprisingly gentle on my shoulder. “How about we take a tour of the Institute, and we can continue our discussion as you get a feel for our work—or even table it until a later time, one in which you feel more ready to hear the truths we toil beneath.”

A beep sounds once more in his pocket. Van Brunt sighs and tugs the small rectangle back out of his pocket. As he stares down at it, I choose to do so this time, too.

The glass on the front of the box glows with words:
Wendy Darling / V’s pen unusable, will have to build a new one
.

Van Brunt angles the box toward me. “It’s called a cell phone. In the Twenty-First Century, people are able to easily communicate with anyone they wish with small devices such as these. It allows you to send messages or speak to and listen in return to others.”

I watch in uneasy silence as he taps on the front of the cell phone. Words magically appear:
Estimated completion?

Just a few seconds pass before new words materialize.
1-2 weeks, tops.

My voice is hoarse. “Is somebody communicating with you right now?”

He nods. “Ms. Darling. She’s down in the tech lab.” And then, no doubt after he sees the confusion on my face, he adds a bit more clarification. “The Collectors’ Society is housed in a multi-purpose building we refer to as the Institute. It includes office spaces such as these,”—he gestures around the room before motioning me toward the door—“laboratories, an extensive library, common rooms, a gym, a restaurant, storage, and living quarters for members. One such laboratory is for the building of machines and devices. Ms. Darling is the head of our technology department, and she—”

These are facts. I like facts. Facts are solid. One can hold onto a fact when everything else is soft and muddled. And yet, right now, as the bigger picture both expands and contracts around me, I could not care less about whether or not Wendy Darling builds machines that apparently allow people to communicate across vast distances. There’s only one thing I need to know.

“Am I from a story?”

His mouth snaps shut as he tucks the cell phone back into his pocket. I’ve stopped short of the door, my feet weighed down by invisible lead. I’m undeterred, though. If I’m going to sink once more into madness, I might as well get as many answers as I can before doing so. “We came through time and a magical door from the Pleasance to here. Am I from a story?”

For a moment, I wonder if he’s going to ignore my question. But then he says quietly, firmly, “Yes.”

I’m reminded of a time that I stood before the Courts, a bloody sword in my hand and my existence on the line, and I no longer knew if there were shins below knees or feet attached to ankles. But, damn if I didn’t ensure my voice was steady when I addressed them. “Are you?”

He turns to fully face me. “Yes.”

A breath is pulled in through my nose, out through my mouth. “What about the rest of the Society?”

“Some, but not all. We are an eclectic mix here.”

“Are we real?”

Deep lines of confusion groove his forehead. “Pardon?”

“You claim we are from stories. Made up . . .” I swallow hard. “In somebody else’s imagination. Are we real? Am I?”

Understanding fills the blue of his eyes, and something more. Something like . . . sympathy. “Do you feel real?”

I do not want sympathy, though. So, I tell him the truth. I tell him, “Not always.” Not anymore.

A hand goes to the small of my back; I flinch at the light pressure. But Van Brunt has his way, because we finally exit the conference room. “Let us take that tour, Ms. Reeve.”

Over the next half hour, Van Brunt takes me from floor to floor, showing me labs and offices and introducing me to people whose names I fear I will never remember. Everyone is polite, although some more voraciously friendly than others. There’s a sense of recognition on their behalves upon introduction that I do not share, and my unease grows exponentially.

BOOK: The Collectors' Society 01
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