Chapter 1: In The Jaws of a Good Book
"Good evening, Catherine," came a familiar voice, surreptitiously injecting itself into Catherine's voyage with Captain Cook through the icy waters of the Bering Strait. That was strange, she thought to herself. Neither the words nor the voice seemed to belong to where she was. After fighting the impulse for a few moments, she reluctantly withdrew herself from her current literary adventure and returned to the land of reality, which landed her in the Cedarville branch of the Greene County Library, looking up at Graham Forster, the head librarian.
Graham was a congenial man of forty-nine with dark gray hair, tinged with silver streaks flaring out from either side of his face. He was always seen in rather loose-fitting sweater vests and wrinkled slacks, and upon seeing him for the first time, a person generally didn't find him or herself too interested in looking again. Graham had worked for the library since his teenage years, and like Catherine, his passion for books was his defining characteristic. Perhaps it was this fact that caused her to get along so famously with him. At any rate, he seldom approached her while she was reading, as he knew himself how unpleasant it was to be interrupted while immersed in a good book. Whenever he did, however, it was always an important matter.
Cat looked up at him and smiled at once, despite her recent discomfort in being jerked away from the arctic seas off the coast of Alaska. "Hello, Mr. Forster," she replied, sliding her faded, frayed canvas bookmark between the pages of her book and closing it. "You look better today. I see you've gotten over that cold you had last week."
"Oh yes, that's all but cleared up," he laughed, shooting her a tilted nod in thanks for her concern. "A nasty day like today is liable to send one into a relapse, though. That's one of the reasons why I was hoping I could talk you into leaving the library a little early today — because of the weather. It's been raining steadily now for a while, and the radio is broadcasting news of severe weather rolling in from the west. I'd hate for you to get caught in any of that on your way home today."
"Ah, I see," she sighed, glancing at one of the foggy windows and noticing the dim light that fought its way past the dense web of rivulets streaming down the panes of glass. "Maybe you're right. At the very least, I should try to keep from getting too wet. I have an umbrella with me, but it won't do me much good if it gets any windier."
"I'm glad you agree. Oh, and there was one other thing I wanted to speak to you about, if you have a moment. It won't take long."
"Oh? What is it?" she replied, piling together the sizable stack of books she intended to check out and take with her. "Does it involve that book you have there?"
"As a matter of fact, it does," he replied with a knowing smile. "You see, you've been such a faithful patron here for years, and there's no one I'd trust more with the well-being of any of our books than you. Your love of good literature is a welcome asset to our library, and as a way of thanking you, I was hoping you might accept this as a gift. It isn't much, really - just a book that I was given as a boy by the librarian who worked here then - but it means a great deal to me, and I think you'll enjoy it as much as I have. It's a book that you can really get yourself lost in."
"I don't know what to say!" she cried, accepting the book from him and inspecting it. It was about sixteen inches tall by ten inches wide, and it was bound in blotchy, faded red leather. The spine was creased and cracked so that nothing could be read from the broken flecks of gold that had at one time been lettering. Likewise, the front cover had been damaged and torn, and whatever lettering had been there had either been torn off or was faded and crumbled into nonexistence. It was close to two inches thick, and judging by the uneven, coarsely-grained pages, she judged it enclosed something on the order of three hundred or more leaves of parchment inside. It was a very curious, ancient-looking volume indeed, and she wanted very much to open it and investigate, but she had better manners than that. "Thank you, Mr. Forster! Is it really all right?"
"I believe it is," he chuckled. "Of all the people I've seen come and go in this library, you're by far the one I'd trust this to more than anyone. One thing, though; don't open it here. Take it home with you and make yourself comfortable enough to sit for a good while. Once you start this, you may have quite some difficulty stopping."
"That's my kind of book," she laughed, grinning at him and setting it on her stack of books with an interested glance. "I may just read it tonight. It'll be perfect for a wet, unpleasant day like this. What is it about?"
"It is called 'The Grammarian, ' and rather than spoil any of it for you, I'll let you read it and find out. I guarantee that once you open it, you'll be unable to tear yourself away. Now then, if you're ready, I'll check out your other selections for you and you can be on your way."
Thanking him again, Catherine grabbed her coat and umbrella while Graham picked up her stack of books and carried it to the checkout counter. He gave her some plastic bags to wrap everything in, and he waved at her on her way out.
"Good luck!" he called as she hesitated just inches away from the pouring rain. She laughed and grinned back at him before opening her umbrella and pushing her way out into the deluge. "You're going to want all the luck you can get," he chuckled, shaking his head and sitting back in his chair with a wistful grin. "I have a hunch you won't need it, though."
After a messy drive home, Catherine raced through the car port into the garage, where she shook out her umbrella and set it by the back door. She entered the small, two-bedroom house without announcement, taking her waterlogged shoes off at the door and trying not to rustle her bags too noisily as she crept down the hall past the kitchen. A greeting of surprise stopped her sneaky venture, however, and she gritted her teeth in frustration.
"Cat!" her mother cried from the kitchen as she tiptoed past. "You're home early! Good! Why don't you come help me peel potatoes? We're going to have a roast tonight, and your dad's invited some of his coworkers over for dinner, so we need to make a lot."
"Okay," she called back, secretly cursing under her breath. "Just let me put my books in my room and I'll be right there."
"Don't make me come get you later," her mom laughed at her as she trudged the rest of her way to her room, doomed to set aside her favorite pastime to do some mindless chores, as usual. Her mother meant well, but she didn't really look at reading in the same light that Catherine did. To her pretty, bubbly mother, reading was just something that her little girl did because she didn't have a boyfriend to keep her busy. The fact that her mother rarely read more than the blurbs of text that flashed on the TV screen didn't really mean that she thought reading was useless, but she also didn't see how it could possibly be as engrossing as romantic interludes, wild parties, and other things she had done when she had been Cat's age.
They were as different as two related women could possibly be. While Melody Richards was perky, bouncy, and still very beautiful in her mid-life years, her daughter Catherine seemed to be as unremarkable and plain as was humanly possible for a child of hers to be. She wore her long, straight brown hair in a loose braid, and she dressed in frumpy, baggy clothes that obliterated nearly all thought that she might have a figure, despite the fact that she really wasn't all that badly built. She had inherited her mother's slight frame and provocative curves, but she made every effort — whether conscious or not — to hide them from the world. She didn't put much emphasis on what others thought of her, since the real world and its denizens were never as interesting or important to her as those within her beloved books. She was already nineteen years old, and she had never once been out on a date, and hadn't even made that many friends. She didn't have any at all at the moment, as the ones from high school had all gone off to college, and as her family had not been able to afford to send her, she had been left behind to read her books and try not to think about her future.
Her father often pointed this lack of vision of hers out to her, and he was constantly giving her lectures on how she needed to get a job and help out with the expenses if she wanted to continue to live at home. Although she was welcome to stay with them as long as she wanted, she did feel badly about not wanting to contribute. It was so difficult to want to, though, when the world beyond her room was so boring and ordinary. Nothing ever happened to her that was as exciting as the events in books, so what incentive was there for her to go out there more than was absolutely necessary? The only place she actively visited was the library, and if she had been able to get a job there, it would have been about as good as it would get for her. However, the library was small, as was the town that supported it, and they already had all the help they needed. If she wanted a job, she had to be willing to work entry level at much less attractive locations, like a fast food restaurant or a grocery store. She hated the idea of having to get up every day and face mindless drudgery like that. School had been only mildly tolerable, as she coasted from class to class until she was able to retreat to the library and escape into one of her literary fantasies. Work was bound to be even worse.
She made a point of saving her sigh of discontent until she returned to the kitchen, and she scowled at her mother while she was given instructions on which group of potatoes was hers, and where she should stand to peel them, so as to stay out of her mother's way. She tried to imagine herself a tragic waif in a castle scullery, forced to endure the hardships of indentured servitude brought on by a poverty-stricken birth. She had almost convinced herself when her mother interrupted her self-pitying fantasy with her usual round of prodding.
"Did you have a nice time at the library today, Cat?" she asked brightly, slicing carrots and dropping the pieces into a large roasting pan which already contained a partially cooked roast, along with a substantial amount of broth. "You didn't stay as late today."
"It was all right," she replied dully. "Mr. Forster suggested I come home early to stay ahead of the weather. He gave me a book to thank me for coming so often. I think they're worried about the lack of people coming to check out books lately. If they don't get enough, the city might cut their funding."
"That's nice, dear," her mother commented dismissively. "You didn't happen to meet any nice boys while you were there, did you? I'm sure there are some smart, handsome young men who read. You should keep your eyes open for them; you'd already know of one thing you have in common, and that makes starting conversations so much easier!"
Catherine fought off the urge to roll her eyes. "I'm usually not really paying attention to the other patrons, Mom," she explained, resenting the familiar feeling that she had explained this more than once before, which she had. "Reading kind of takes up all of your visual faculties, you know."
"Well, I know, but you don't really have to read while you're there. You could always save the reading for when you get home. You check the books out when you leave anyway; what harm could it do to keep your eyes on something other than books while you're out and about?"
Catherine shook her head. While her father was pressuring her to find a job, her mother was fond of an alternate tactic — getting her to settle down with a nice, stable man who could take care of her. She believed that her daughter was ill-suited to holding down a job, but that her capacity for being a stay at home wife was just waiting to be awakened by the right guy. Although Cat knew they were both just trying to get her to improve her prospects for the future, she resented their constant nagging, and she often responded with harsh words or angry silence. This time, after having to leave her favorite escape from home and race back in the pouring rain, she was feeling particularly vitriolic.
"Mom, I don't want to keep my eyes on anything else. Nothing else is worth it. I'm sure that any guys my age who come to the library are only there to do research for term papers, and not because they actually enjoy reading. Besides, who am I going to run into that I don't already know? We only have one high school in this town, and everyone my age graduated at the same time I did. I know all the boys in Cedarville, and I'm not interested."
"So don't settle for them, then! Why don't you take a trip out to Xenia or Dayton and look around out there? It could be a lot of fun! You haven't been to either of those cities since high school anyway!"
Clearly, her mother's definition of fun did not agree with hers. Catherine was tired of arguing about this every time she and her mother had a conversation that made it past the greeting stage. She knew that if she continued to protest, her mother would eventually give up, but only after a long, drawn-out list of options and suggestions. Cat really wasn't in the mood to go through all of them again this evening, so she opted for a different strategy to throw her mother off the scent. "I'll consider it, Mom. Maybe it would do me some good to get out of Cedarville and see what else is out there. I'm not making any promises, though."
"Oh, that's wonderful, sweetie! I knew you'd get tired of hanging around us old folks all the time eventually! Now then, first thing we'll have to do is take you shopping! I know some people who can fix you right up with all the right makeup and clothes to make you look like a celebrity. A real makeover! Doesn't that sound fun? I'll have to blow off my visit to Mrs. Patterson's tomorrow, but all we were going to do was just go over some ideas for the upcoming veterans' fall banquet, and this is tons more important!"
Cat now knew that she had made a dreadful mistake. "I don't think we need to get so crazy about this," she stammered, so flustered that she dropped her potato. "I haven't even decided when I want to go!"
"Oh, that's no problem, Cat! You can go any time you want! I'm sure your father will approve if you let me talk to him first, and we'll give you some spending money and money for a motel and everything! You'll be fine!"
Staring helplessly at her mother's elated, flushed expression, Cat had no idea how to talk her way out of this. What a pain! She hated the idea of spending a whole day being dragged around town and poked, prodded, and painted on by strangers in an effort to make her "pretty." It was all such a load of nonsense, and no one seemed to realize it as much as she did. You couldn't polish a turd, as her grandfather used to say, and as far as the looks department went, she knew she was less of a gem and more of a turd. It all sounded so grotesque and unfair, but she knew that once her mother got herself all keyed up about something, there was no stopping her. It was useless to resist at this point, and the more that she did, the more fiercely her mother would push her onward.
It was over an hour later when Cat was finally released from her culinary enslavement, but she didn't have a chance to duck into her room, because dinner was ready, and her father and his guests had already arrived. She was forced to sit and try to digest her dinner while her father and his loud, rough cohorts from the Grayson Construction Company yammered on about the day's work, along with other dull, burly topics. They always made borderline off-color remarks about Melody, which she rewarded with giggles and faux indignation, and although they were actually decent men, when the three of them got together, it was as though they divided a single brain among them and became children again. Cat hated it. Now that she was of age, they were starting to make comments about her, although they weren't as racy as the ones directed at her mom, and she would have preferred it if they just ignored her as they used to. Tonight, however, they touched a nerve, and she quite lost her temper.
"You know, Bill," Jack Clemons commented after taking a swig of his beer, "your youngster is looking more and more like Melody every time I see her."
"Yes, she's definitely got Melody's looks," her father chuckled merrily. "Sometimes it's hard to see, though, the way she hides everything away from the world."
"Yeah, I didn't want to say anything, but she dresses like my grandmother used to," Flint Dickerson guffawed. "What do you say, Cat? Maybe we should call you Grammy Cat from now on?"
After having to endure her mother's nagging and nitpicking about her looks, Cat was understandably quite tired of the subject. To have her father's buddies picking on her too was entirely too much frustration for one day. "If I were your grandmother, I'd probably want to smack the kid who was responsible for you," she snapped, her eyes shooting daggers at them as she slid her chair back noisily before getting to her feet and stomping out of the kitchen. The raucous laughter that followed her out was enough to make her want to kick the wall. She was so angry, she could hardly see straight. She marched down the hall and into her room, slamming the door as she entered.
Flopping down into her slightly wobbly, worn, wooden desk chair, she rested her chin on her fists and let out a growl. Could the day get any worse? She wondered if she'd even be able to do her books justice tonight with her sour mood. She glanced over at the slightly damp plastic bags she had dropped by the foot of her bed, and she sighed. She was being silly, of course. A good book always put her in a better mood. She got up out of her chair and grabbed the nearest bag, intending to dig around in it until she found the book she'd been reading at the library. When she reached inside the bag, she noticed that "The Grammarian" was on top of the pile, and she paused for a moment as she was suddenly struck by indecision. Should she give it a glance before resuming her read in the other story? She had to admit that she was curious. If Graham thought it so good, it had to be worth a lot, and it was hard to resist a temptation like that. On the other hand, if she did give it a peek and liked it enough, she was liable to get hooked in and forget all about the other one. Without really thinking about it, she took it out of the bag and set it on her desk, sitting down and staring at it thoughtfully. Maybe it would be better to wait for this one. It was likely that one or both of her parents would be by to lecture her after Jack and Flint had gone. If they interrupted a good story, she was likely to get herself into an even worse argument with them. Still, the mystery of the nondescript volume was already working its magic upon her psyche, and she knew that it was impossible for her to resist a good mystery. Smiling and shaking her head, she opened the front cover.
As soon as the cover was lifted, the book snapped open as though it had a will of its own, and she nearly fell back in her chair in surprise. She didn't have long to react, however, because a blinding flash of light filled the room, and in the blink of an eye, she felt as though her body was being squished and stretched unnaturally, and her head lurched toward the shining pages of the book. It was sucking her into it! She tried to scream, but the whole process took less than a second to happen, and before she had even opened her mouth, she was no longer sitting at her chair. The last thought she had before she blacked out was that this was a rather ironic way for her to meet her end — in the jaws of a good book.