There was a weird notebook on Giana's desk, sat askew on top of her careful pile of color-coded Mead 5-Stars. This one was a blueish-green, the spiral seeming to be iridescent, and one of the corners was beaten up, like it had been placed without care in a bag one too many times.
She scoffed quietly. Her roommate, it had to be. Jayden wasn't very good about her things, wasn't very tidy about her notes, and had no sense of personal space. It made their shared room look a bit like an old Goofus and Gallant comic, with Jayden's stuff spilling over the imaginary line between their two halves of the room.
Giana sat down her things and began rearranging them, making sure everything was ready for the evening study session.
The notebook, the weird one, fell open, jostled by her pen case. She glanced over - not nosy, per se, but there was an unspoken agreement that if Jayden's things ended up on Giana's half of the room, then she couldn't complain about anything Giana might happen to learn from them.
Like where Jayden spent her weekends, for one. Or where she spent her money. Or where she got her money.
Giana knew a lot about Jayden, some of which she probably could have used to get herself a new roommate.
On the other hand, she and Jayden had several understandings, and one of those was, as long as Giana's stuff never crossed the line, she never had to tell Jayden what she did with her time.
It was a nice arrangement.
And all that had led to her glancing at the notebook on her desk.
Which had a sketch on it. A really nice sketch.
As far as she knew, Jadyen had no artistic ability. But there in the notebook, working its way around what looked like Calculus 101 notes, was a twisting and wild forest, leaves scattered on the ground in three colors and the trees twisting up outside of the page. The formulae were worked in so nicely that they looked intentional, almost like just another tree.
Giana reached out to the notebook, pulled her hand back, reached out again. It was late autumn, almost winter, outside, but in the notebook, it was just the beginning of autumn. She could almost smell the breeze, the leaf-mould and the way the fruit that might have just started to rot on the ground would smell like hard cider. She could almost feel the chill, enough that she grabbed her jacked and shrugged it on. Batharn Hall was an old dorm, and the heat didn't always work right. Sometimes, it just didn't work at all.
She could go for a hike, she supposed; she had at least an hour before she had to start studying. The woods to the north of the college weren't anything as beautiful as that, the ancient trees and the squirrel - had that been there before? - but they were a nice change from computer screens and from notebooks and pens and books and perfectly-aligned piles of studying.
She reached out to close the notebook; her thumb grasped the cover, but her fingers slipped right into the image, brushing against the leaves.
That was not supposed to happen.
Giana yanked her hand back and sniffed her fingers suspiciously. Had Jayden laced the notebook with something? Had she been experimenting with chemistry in the chem class she was barely passing?
She touched the page again, or tried to; again, she felt the crackle of leaves against her fingertips and the moist squishiness of the moss. She felt a light breeze, too.
She catalogued the dangers: she could be hallucinating. She could wander out into the halls; she could get caught here in the room acting foolishly. She could die, if there were some sort of drugs on the book, like…
Like they said had happened to her cousin Todd, when she was a kid, except there was no body.
He’d left a message talking about the stars in the notebook, the wild swirls of stars, and then — then he’d been gone.
Giana touched the notebook again. The ground felt damp, too, and giving — it hadn’t frozen over yet.
She should probably freak out. She should probably, if she was being very sensible, close the notebook and turn it in to lost and found. She should probably sit down and work on her studying.
She left her pinkie on the spiral and dipped her pointer finger through the page, watching it go in the page, out of the page. In again, out again. When it slipped into the page, it looked like a pastel drawing of a hand, of her hand. She bit her fingertip; it was still a real hand.
“Nerve sensation: unimpaired,” she reported, if only to herself. The other pointer finger yielded the same result.
She should close the notebook. She knew she wasn’t going to.
She thought she had an inkling what Todd had been talking about. The stars. The wild swirls. If she could turn the page, would she see stars?
Instead, she turned the lock of her room, turned the deadbolt, turned the light off. Methodically, she locked the door of her room and turned the deadbolt. Methodically, she packed her backpack with study snacks and a bottle of water. She slipped on a light jacket and changed her shoes.
Every few steps, she touched the notebook again, the vines twisting around the tree, the bark of that tree, the feather sketched lovingly onto the ground.
Had Todd done the same thing? Had he reached into the page, just to see what happened to his hand? Had he felt the cold of space or the warmth of a summer night?
How many other people had looked at a notebook and found they could reach into it?
Her mother’s cousin had vanished, too. Evelyn. Her mother never talked about it, but sometimes Great-Grandma Stone would mention Evelyn, and the letter, the careful handwriting. “It never was a suicide note,” Great-Grandma Stone liked to say. They were her last words, Giana’d been told.
Sometimes, she had learned as she grew older, people just — vanished. They left a note or they didn’t and then they were gone, no body, nothing.
The danger assessment on this was clear: if she was not hallucinating, then she might, too, vanish. She might step through into this tangle of vines and moss and never reappear.
Giana looked at her study notebooks and her neatly organized rows of pens and markers. She looked at the largest tree in the drawing, reaching up above and down out of the page; she slid her hand all the way into the page until she could pluck a leaf from a low branch.
When she pulled it out, it looked like paper, a concept of a leaf but brittle, stiff, and two dimensional.
“If this isn’t real,” she informed the leaf, aware of how this would sound to any potential hidden cameras, “this is really well done.”
Her mother had sat her town when Todd vanished and explained it to her. Sometimes people just didn’t believe in the rules of reality, and sometimes reality let go of them. It was important for Giana, her mother had said, to know where reality stood, to be very clear on it at all times.
Make believe had been strongly discouraged after that. Fiction, only acceptable in specific, school-assigned assignments. Science was the way to go. Science and History, math and engineering.
She opened her philosophy notebook and considered what to write.
The question isn’t where reality stands. The question is where it ceases to be a static entity.
That made her sound, she was afraid, a bit like she, too, was having a drug-addled episode.
On the other hand, if she never came back, she didn’t need to worry about how people would see her. And if she did —
She had read Wizard of Oz in the school library and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe while studying (putatively) for a geometry final, Alice in Wonderland while at summer camp, Neverending Story actually at school. She'd gotten more than enough magic slipped in when her parents weren't watching.
And she'd heard family stories - not just Todd, not just Evelyn, but others, too, along the way. She'd heard whispers about the land beyond.
What her aunt had said, before the rest of the family had leaned on her, before the police had decided it was just drug overdose, before the world, in short, had made up his own story, was that Todd had told her this:
There's an amazing world, and it's not here. There's this place just beyond the horizon, you know, you see it when you think that you're still awake but you're not; or you think that still asleep, but you're body isn't all the way sure. There's this place there, yeah; over the rainbow isn't really all that far off, is it? And I can see it now.
Somewhere, somewhere in the back of her mind, Giana had been looking for a Place Beyond the Horizon, ever since then. All of her studying, all order, everything organized, everything perfectly in place and color-coded, and all she really wanted what's the world Beyond the Looking Glass.
She picked up her pen again. She stared at what she'd written already. She wrote carefully, so that there could be no misunderstanding her words:
Maybe there really is something Beyond the Horizon. Maybe I'm not going to find it in a chemistry book.
She felt like she'd over prepared. She felt like this was the like this was the sort of thing you were supposed to do on a whim,impulsively, like making any preparation at all took some of the mystery away. On the other hand, oh, there was no changing that and who she was involved, at least, some provisions, although there seemed to be something just a little too meta about taking a notebook into a notebook. She was going to do it anyway.
She had done everything she could think of. And then she thought of one more thing and, just in case this really was a weird hallucination, or just in case this was going to take some time and she needed to buy herself that minute, or maybe just because she had some sort of feeling about might what come after her, she jammed the chair under the door handle.
And then she walked back, blinds closed, door closed, coat on, backpack on her shoulders. Giana reached into the notebook and grabbed a branch of the biggest tree, the one just right of center.
Her arm was in the notebook just past the elbow. She could feel the bark digging into her skin. She reached in with her other arm and grabbed onto a nearby branch. She could feel both of them now; she could see her arms, drawn and sketchy, and her chest, still her own, but not the place in between, the place where they went into the book.
Giana closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
She lifted up her feet and swung forward.
For a moment, she thought that she was insane, and then her weight was all on her hands, on her shoulders, and her feet were flying through the air.
She refused to believe she was going to run into a concrete wall with her favorite Escher poster - her mother hadn't liked that either - she refused to believe that she was hallucinating. She let go of the branches and landed instead in a pile of crunching leaves and tiny twigs.
She regained her footing and looked around. She was in here. She was definitely in a forest, at least. It didn't look like a drawing anymore, but it didn't quite look real, either. There was a fuzzy quality to anything in the distance, like it hadn't quite been filled in.
So she focused on the nearby things: the trees, of course, the bushes. Tangled vines draping off of the bushes and climbing up the trees and then back down.
There was a bunch of grapes right in front of her face, dark purple and small and smelling delicious. She picked them and dropped them in her coat pocket. She knew enough to not eat the pomegranate seeds; she knew not to take the food the fae offered her. You weren't supposed to root yourself in the strange land, not if you wanted to come back. She hadn't decided yet if she did want to return.
Had Todd known? Had he gone through those thoughts? Had he been tempted? Or had he just been hungry? What about Evelyn? Her family, it seemed, was full of disappearances, but she didn't know if they had wanted to return or not.
She'd had a road map of kin up to this point; now all she had was fairy tales and movies, stories and books.
And most of that was in how you talked to people. This place - there were no people here, not in front of her, at least.
Well. She looked at the tree. There wasn't any way out from here, so it seemed silly to blaze a path, dangerous to hurt the trees, but at the same time, it seemed unwise to just go wandering in a forest with no idea at all if she was heading in circles.
She dug in her bag until she found a pretty silver gel pen and wrote a G carefully on the tree, put her left shoulder lined up with that G, and walked forward.
There was no exactly forward in this place, of course. There were boulders and holes underfoot; there were brambles and bushes and vines. There were trees, so many trees, and there were little rock structures that spoke of someone having been through here, perhaps a very long time ago indeed.
She wrote her G on a tree and she looked around. She "Stopped to smell the roses;" she breathed in the air and rocked back on her heels. There was a musty smell to the place, not like ink, as she'd feared, but like a tree that had fallen in the woods (as one might expect). There was a pleasant chill bite to the air that didn't make her unpleasantly cold but let her know she was outdoors - even though she was, in theory, still in a notebook. There was a sound like the wind far away, and even farther than that, a bell chiming.
She headed to the next tree and wrote G, climbed it a little bit, as it had beautifully climbable limbs, and looked around.
There were trees. Of course. She snorted to herself a little; she'd have to climb all the way up to see anything but trees, wouldn't she? She clambered up a little more and sat there, eyes closed, feeling the branch under her butt.
This was the sort of unreality her mother had feared, and yet it felt real, solid, proper. She wasn't in a drawing. There were no cards talking to her, no queens yelling Off With Her Head, no evil witches, no Goblin King. There was nothing but trees and branches, tangles and vines and grapes.
On some level, Giana was pleased. She had gone through a notebook and ended up in a forest! That was pretty amazing. That was the sort of thing that Todd had done, but also that Sarah and Lucy and Alice had done. She'd gone into another world and here she was, sitting in a tree.
She climbed up a few more limbs, and a couple more, and then, holding her breath, jumped over to another, taller tree.
The thing was - she caught a branch, her feet slipped, she yelped and grabbed tighter, feeling her palms scrape, and caught her hold. She looked at the little trail of blood she'd left on the branch. So she could bleed here.
That was good to know, although not good. She dug through her bag until she found a bandaid and applied it carefully. She didn't want to get an infection here; she didn't want to find out if she could get an infection here.
Part of her had been hoping it would be like that old A-Ha video where they went into the comic and looked like a comic, but she supposed it would be harder to tell if one was bleeding and so on. The trees up here looked particularly normal, as if the further up she got, the more real they were.
She wasn't sure that was a good sign, not with the fact that she obviously could be hurt here, damaged here. Maybe it would be better for things to be a little bit less real?
Maybe it was a little too late to be thinking of that.
She reached the highest point she could climb to, the tree starting to bend alarmingly under her weight, and looked around. To the left, there was nothing but trees pretty much forever. To the right, the trees seemed to end in some sort of mountain range eventually; behind her, trees, forever. Ahead of her, there were trees leading up to a much closer mountain range. She could see what looked like a series of houses built right into the mountainside.
That looked like a good bet. Now all she had to do was remember what direction she was pointing by the time she got back down the tree, and then not lose that direction before she ended up hopelessly lost in the woods somewhere.