Chapter 0b [The man in the hat]

It's your turn, I heard. The words weren't spoken, so much as they were conveyed into the fabric of the world. I was being listened to. "She's been there for weeks," I said. "Doing nothing. Just sulking."

Does it bother you?

"Well, yeah. I get that everything that happened had to, you know, for the story. But shouldn't she, at least, get a happy ending?"

She's looking hard enough for one. Have you been watching what she's reading?

"Yeah, I got that. Fairy tales and pulp action stories. The heroes win, and everyone lives happily ever after."

She thinks she's the hero, then.

"Fuck if I know. You picked her."

Are you angry?

"You know how I feel."

Do you want to do something about it?

"What could I possibly do?"

There's a secret panel, on the top floor. Pull it down, and behind it is a sixth door. Behind that door is a ladder.

"So, there's more story for her?"

It's up to you whether to open the door.

I smiled. And I dropped into the house.

"Sola!" I shouted.

"Kadin?" I heard her yell. But the silence after that shout suggested that she realized my voice wasn't anything like his. Iwent downstairs, to the library.

"I have good news," I said, when I stepped into her line of sight.

She threw a hardcover copy of The Eyre Affair at me.

Tell her not to throw that book.

"The author says not to throw books."

No, not that book.

"Why just that book?"

It's not worth the trouble it could cause.

I decided to tune out the non-sound.

"Follow me," I said.

"You're crazy," said Sola. "You're a crazy, sadistic asshole."

"No, it's not me," I said. "It's the author. Just please, follow me."

"No."

"Fine. Just, come upstairs whenever you're ready. To the top floor."

She stood up, crossed over to the book she threw at me, picked it up, and threw it at me again. It hurt. A lot.

"Just, come."

I waited a moment longer while she glared, then she bended down to pick the book up again, and I ran up the stairs.

I went all the way to the top room, and started searching, until I found a loose board in the wall and pulled it free. I could see part of the door behind it, so I kept pulling away planks until there was a closed door before me.

I twisted the knob and pulled it open.

Behind it was a thin, weak-looking ladder made of charred wood.

It's not yours to climb.

"I know."

I stepped back out of the house, and watched.

It took Sola an impressive three chapters to succumb to curiosity and go upstairs. I watched her stare at the ladder, and my heart rate quickened as I waited for that beautiful, cathartic moment where she'd climb up and we'd both find out what was above it.

She picked up the copies of No Exit and The Myth of Sisyphus, threw them into the ladder's tiny room, and slammed the door. Then she marched back downstairs.

The end

Afterword → [forthcoming]

Chapter 5 [Sola]

I crossed the threshold at the top of the stairs into the small, wooden room full of cold light, and I felt that my hand was empty. "Kadin?" I said. I turned. I looked down the stairs, behind the door. "Kadin?" I said, louder. "Kadin!"

This wasn't fair. That's not the way this works. Kadin had to be there somewhere.

I ran back down. "Kadin!" I shouted. He wasn't in the bedroom. He wasn't in the garden, or the library, he wasn't in the kitchen or living room or bathroom or the other bedroom or the little, under-the-stairs closet.

I looked out from the balcony, and he wasn't outside. And he wasn't in the tiny wooden room at the top of the house, with a cot in the middle and a rough, scratchy blanket, and an end-table with two thin books laid on it.

I looed at them -- I mean, I didn't pick them up and read their covers, but I looked at the books themselves -- the physical shapes of the two thin, white slivers that looked closer to brochures than books, and I refused to comprehend their titles. I just buried my head in the mattress and cried myself to sleep.

While I slept, I dreamt. Every dream was about Kadin, and I would emerge from the dreams to find myself laying on the cot wrapped in the terrible blanket, terrified to go downstairs to the more comfortable bed because it was the bed I shared with Kadin. Each time I woke it was like he was gone again.

At some point, I kicked over the table with the books on it, and, charitably, they stayed kicked over, scattered onto the floor.

I don't know how long this went on. The thing about pain is, when there's no one else there, it doesn't run out. Unless you get too hungry or too tired or too close to death, the hurt never comes to a natural stop. All that happens is eventually you reach a point where you start clawing out for someone to stop it for you.

I didn't have anyone. But I did have the house.

It seemed better to just keep suffering, rather than let this house have a chance to make it worse, when I reached out to try to feel better. Until, eventually, it didn't seem better. Pain can be like that sometimes.

And so, maybe weeks later, I fell out of the bed, and slowly, slowly dragged myself to the two white books on the floor. It must have taken days. Each inch closer, I would collapse and cry at the distance between me and the books, at my fear that they wouldn't help. I hated myself for kicking the table, so they were so far away.

But then, finally, I read the titles.

They were familiar books: The Myth of Sysyphus by Albert Camus, and No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre.

I didn't open them. I knew the books.

I threw them under the bed, and forced myself to my feet. I went downstairs, past the bedroom, past the garden, and into the library. Then I staggered to the shelf of books I had personally organized, filled with all the books I wanted to be able to find whenever I felt the impulse.

I pulled down a copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales, collapsed next to a chair, and started reading.

Chapter 0b →

Chapter 4b [Kadin]

We kept track at first by marking days in scratches on the wall. We just wanted to know, we weren't waiting for anything. But it's hard to tell whether a day has passed, when there's no sun, and laying together in bed until we decide to get up, feeling totally rested every time, it's hard to believe that we were getting up in a strict 24-hour cycle. The routines we developed served as our next calendar -- we had a rotation, periodically paying tribute to Jennifer, Perdita, and Edward, then on the fourth cycle to the hypothetical memories of our past selves.

But that, too, faded, like the routines of eating and sleeping. So did the pattern of distance and intimacy that played out over days or weeks or months, needing more time alone or more time together, chafing against one another or desparately needing each other. It's hard to generalize a relationship that way. It's also very hard to remember anything particular about that time.

We read a lot. Perdita's library was essentially our home, although we dragged one of the heavy leather chairs up to Edward's garden to support the occasional change of scenery Sola needed more often than me.

And of course, some nights, I would wake up shaking, sure I remembered stories of war, of pain and of family, echoes of my life before the black. Sola would wrap her arms around me, and hush me, and her face would mirror mine in the type, if not the intensity, of pain I suffered.

Eventually we figured out that those dreams came most often after I'd read a book that dealt heavily with immigrants living in a place called England, and Sola concluded that I was just having bad dreams about my books. We agreed that I would stop reading books about immigration.

She had nightmares when she read medical texts.

But it wasn't bad. Everyone experiences some amount of pain in their life, and if the books in Perdita's library (and the experiences of Perdita, Edward and Jennifer) are representative, Sola and I suffer a lot less pain than what seems to be the average. We don't really need to eat, we sleep whenever we like -- sometimes it feels like weeks at a time -- and we have the constant companionship of each other. I haven't been alone in what must be at least a decade.

When Sola needs time alone, I just go to sleep until she wakes me up.

The books on my nightstand had grown heavier, thicker and with smaller text. Sola's, too, had acquired a depth neither of us would have considered when we came here. It seemed that reading as one's sole hobby had at least that advantage. And I was getting bored of it, but I was glad in Sola's company. We talked about it, a lot, because there was never much else to talk about, but we tended to agree. the house was boring. But we loved each other.

And one morning (I say morning, because we were in bed and had just slept) we had just had that conversation, and were smiling and kissing and I heard a click and a creak, and I looked over, and the final door had opened.

I felt like the shadow of a bucket of ice had been dropped down the inside of my chest, but the feeling sort of fizzled. I braced myself to get terrified again, but I didn't.

"Do you see that?" Said Sola.

"Yeah," I said. "Are you okay?"

"I feel fine," she said. "You?"

"I'm okay." I stared at the ashen steps past the charcoal-black door, and tightened my grip around Sola's hand.

"So," she said, "What do we do?"

"Well, we've been saying we're bored. Maybe we should go for it."

"I think we should talk about it some more," she said. "I don't think I'm ready."

"Well, I absolutely won't go without you."

"Good," she said. She smiled, and kissed me, and said, "And I would never go without you."

We spent another several days living as normal, discussing the door, finishing the books we were reading and reading the books that we'd been meaning to read. We made meals of the things in the kitchen we'd always meant to cook, and we had the conversations that had been sitting in the dusty corners of our minds. And eventually she said, "We're going to do it, aren't we?"

"I think we are, yeah," I said. "I think we sort of have to, and I think we're ready."

"Okay," she said.

We dug through a bureau that had manifested one day, put away our clothes and found our oldest outfits. Sola put on her shimmering blue shirt. I put on my bright orange t-shirt with the red patch over the heart.

We held hands, and we went upstairs, to the library, and upstairs, to the garden, and upstairs, to our bedroom, and, then, upstairs.

Chapter 5 →

Chapter 4a [Sola]

We went up the stairs slowly.  For the first time, I wasn't excited to find out what was on the next floor.  Kadin hadn't been in a rush to get anywhere since we got here.  Now, neither of us really wanted to move. I don't know why he was climbing the steps, but I felt there was nothing much left to do.

The fourth floor was a bedroom.  There was one big bed, nightstands and lamps on either side, and lots of shelves, which were mostly empty.  Kadin just sat down on the edge of the bed, without looking around.  After a lazy scan around the room, so did I.

"So, I guess one of us is next," I said.

"I guess so," said Kadin.

I picked at my fingernails.  The foot of the bed was facing the next doorway, but it was a good six feet away.  It loomed.

"I don't want to go," I said.

"Neither do I," said Kadin.

"Is there something we can do?"  I said.

"I think..."  Kadin paused, he gathered his thoughts, then he said what he was thinking.  "I think that neither of us has to die.  I don't think we have to go any farther than this.  Because, look, I don't even know if there's a way out of this world.  Who knows if there's anything waiting for us at the top of this tower."

"So, what are you suggesting?"

"I'm suggesting that we just stay here.  Look, I like you.  And I don't know you very well, but I can easily imagine wanting to spend the rest of my life with you.  There's a kitchen downstairs, a library big enough to last us each half a lifetime, and I'm sure there are no end of puzzles to solve if we spend enough time digging around this place, never mind a lifetime to get to know each other.  Why don't we just stay right here?"

"What about home?"  I said, barely thinking about it.

"What home?  Do you remember a home?  I don't even know if I have a home.  I mean, why are we here, if we've got a place to be wherever we come from?  Were we plucked out of perfectly clean and satisfying lives?  I don't know where I come from, but I don't think I have anything to go back to.  Do you?"

For the first time I started to think about my inability to remember my life before the black, as though that amnesia meant something about it.  I struggled to remember a family, but ended up hitting nothing but a wall of faded emotion, guilt and anxiety.  I tried to think of a home, and all I felt was cold.  It was suddenly very scary to think about getting out of this house.

"Okay," I said.  "Let's stay."

***

The first few days went slowly, but the house seemed prepared to welcome us -- almost as if, no matter where we had stopped, it would have been ready to accept us as tenants.  The shelves by the bedsides populated themselves with an arrangement of objects, toys and trinkets and tools that would disappear in the morning if they hadn't been used.  In this way, they slowly began to fill with things that we felt were worth engaging with.

We made a hobby of pulling the dust jackets off the books in the library, revealing a rich catalog of books in a surprisingly intuitive organization beneath the concealment of snail titles.  They seemed arranged to guide us, book by book, through different trains of thought, areas of study, or historical and literary movements.

We set up little monuments to our missing companions.  Perdita had left that stack of books next to her chair -- we piled them on top of it, there to greet her if she ever returned.  For Edward, we kept the balcony clear and occasionally put down offerings of food or water, as a deference to his belief in his authority.  We didn't know what to do for Jennifer, but Kadin occasionally ran her a bath.

And on the fourth night, or whatever night-like passage of time, since we reached the fourth floor, I slid closer to Kadin on the large bed we were sharing, and tugged on his shoulder.  I had been awake.  He hadn't.

"What's up?"  He said, orienting himself to the lamp I'd turned on.

I kissed him.  And I felt the first moment of peace and pure happiness I had found since -- well, at least since we came to the black.  As far as I could remember, it was the first peaceful moment of my life.

When I removed my lips from his, he smiled his eyes still almost shut against the light.  "Tell me in the morning if that really happened," he said, and then he fell back to sleep.

When he woke up, I told him, and we kissed some more, and he told me he loved me, and I told him I loved him.  And a lifetime in that house in the middle of the black didn't seem like the worst possible lifetime.

Chapter 4b →

Chapter 3b [Edward]

I ran my thumb along one of the waxy, green leaves emerging from the wall, tugging slightly, trying to see behind the plants. There was no great revelation waiting behind them -- they were just growing on a lattice bolted to the marble wall. "Look," I said, aloud, to the empty room, feeling a little silly, "I don't know what all this is for. I don't know who I'm talking to. But I assume that there's someone out there listening. I don't know what kind of game you're playing, or why you're playing it, but it's sick. You've killed two people, and as far as I can tell, you're going to try to kill more."

The sound of running water trickled around on the floor and in my ears, and reminded me of my office, at home. It was calming, until it reminded me that I couldn't remember where I had come from. Then, the bubble was just annoying. So I kept talking, to whoever, to myself, because it made me feel better. "I'm not going to let it happen. I don't know what I'm going to do, yet, but the three of us -- Kadin, Sola and me -- we're getting out of here, all of us. And if there's a way to get

Perdita and Jennifer back, we're going to."

I guess I expected an answer, because I waited, poised to respond, for several long, still seconds. But, it didn't happen.

I sat down against one of the pillars, looking out at the balcony. First, I was just staring. Then I tried to start working it out. There was no railing. That was scary. Sort of unprotected. Like, all-or-nothing balcony relaxing. I'd be clinging to that pedestal for dear life. And that hat.

The hat.

There was a hat, on a pedestal.

The guy in the hat said hats were symbolic. That they meant you worked for the author.

Hats have always been a symbol of authority. The pope had that special hat, and kings have crowns, and you're supposed to take off your hat to show deference. Hats are a universal symbol of power. Like a helmet. Like armor. Like armor and gold and status all wrapped up in one and

I was already holding the hat. The glass doors were hanging open and I was standing in the windless cold, three feet from the edge of the balcony.

I thought about putting it on, but, no. It would be better to confer. A good leader listens to those who would follow him. So, I went downstairs, fidgeting with my hat, reminding myself that, even if it would be much more convenient to just leave the hat resting on my head rather than in my hands, it wouldn't look right to come downstairs wearing it before I brought it up.

I found Kadin and Sola slouching at the kitchen table, pulling forkfuls of rice to their mouths out of the same pot. I cleared my throat, loudly and pointedly.

"Hey Edward," said Kadin. "Find anything interesting?"

"Yes," I said. I decided to overlook his obvious insubordination. "The guy in the hat said that hats symbolize an association with whoever's in charge. That means they're a gateway to power. I guess you guys missed the hat on the balcony upstairs, but I intend to use it to attempt to leverage some power for us and get us out of here."

"Do you have a plan?" Said Sola.

"Yes," I said. "I'm going to go back upstairs and put the hat on, and see what happens from there."

"Before you do," said Kadin, "If the hat means you work for the management, won't putting it on just put you into their hands?"

"I have control over myself," I said. "Now, follow me."

They mumbled between each other for a moment, and then obediently followed.

We passed the library and returned to the marble hall. Then I stepped out back onto the balcony, and slowly, reverently, lowered the hat onto my head.

"We're not alone," I whispered.

"Obviously not," said Kadin. "But just for laughs, care to tell us what you mean by that?"

"There are hundreds of people trapped here." And there were. I saw an ocean of faces standing out in the black, looking up

toward the balcony, looking to me to lead them up, up through the house and out to wherever it led. Or out, to lead them on a dark and cold march through the black until we finally reach its inevitable end.

I turned around. "We have to go," I said to Kadin and Sola. "You need to follow me."

"Follow you where?" Said Sola. "The next door hasn't opened yet."

"This way," I said. "Out, and to the end."

I turned, full of confidence, knowing they, my lieutennants, were at my heels.

"Stop it," said Kadin. Obviously, he was talking about the abysmal dimension we were in. He was asserting his confidence that I would bring it to a stop.

"He's already gone," said Sola. Clearly talking about the man in the hat.

I stepped forward, and the great mass turned to follow me as the ground beneath me let go and I felt I was flying.

Chapter 4a →

Chapter 3a [Kadin]

The ash-black door of the next floor swung open to reveal a short expanse of white marble. We all stepped up, marvelling, into the room, filled with light that seemed to come from nowhere. Like the library, this floor was one big, open room. Unlike the library, it was all marble, the ceiling was about fifteen feet high, and there were eight huge Doric columns spacing out the area around the staircase. The slabs from which it had all been carved must have been huge, because there were very few gaps. Every gap, as well as a few great cracks that had formed, seemed to have been sealed by melting gold into them.

There were also channels of water, cut into the floor, which would fall down from the ceiling along one wall, then cross the room, and disappear under the opposite wall. The purpose of the water seemed to be to feed the thick, green plants growing like a jungle out of the two side walls.

Past it all, on the furthest side of the room, there was a huge, gold-framed glass door, with a marble balcony. On the balcony was a pedestal. On the pedestal was a hat. It was a bowler.

Beyond the pedestal was the black from which we had come.

I sat down, leaning against the marble wall of the stairwell. I tried, but I couldn't think of anything to say. Seeing the field of black out beyond the window brought back somewhat painfully the reality of our situation. This house was really in that black.

Sola came around to the side I was sitting in, and started examining the plants, tugging on the leaves to get a closer look. Without looking, she said, "Are you okay?"

"I'm really not sure," I said. "No, I don't think so."

"Well, what's wrong?"

I looked out towards the black again, and I wanted to look away immediately. But I feared that the explanation I gave would falter if I wasn't watching it, and I didn't want to stop telling her. "The black out there goes on for so long, it seems infinite. I really believe that if you left by the front door of this house and kept walking, you'd never find a reason to stop but death. It makes me feel so incredibly small, makes moving seem so meaningless."

"Did it ever feel different, back before we were here?"

"I don't know," I said. And when I didn't say more, she walked over and sat down next to me. So I continued. "I guess there was more, before, to distract me."

"Well, I can see two bright sides to that problem," said Sola. "First, there are more distractions here than I ever remember having. We're living in a world that's a puzzle. I'm not too interested in solving it, but I can't imagine how this place could get boring.

"Second, maybe you could walk until you died in any direction here. But we're in an incredibly unique position. As far as I can tell, we're in literally the only place with another direction available: up."

"Thanks, that helped." It didn't. But her sitting next to me did. "Where's Edward?"

"You didn't see? He had a little freak-out when we got upstairs and said he was going down to check on Perdita."

"I wasn't paying attention. Too much marble and gold. Do you think we should go check on him?"

"Sure," she said. We stood up, and returned to the library.

He was sitting against the bookshelf, next to Perdita's chair, next to her piles of unread books, with an odd expression on his face. I mean, it wasn't odd like he was making a face or anything. He just seemed to be calmly scrutinizing her chair, which seemed inconsistent with freaking out and finding her missing.

"Any news?" Said Sola.

"I got down here just in time," he said, "To see her melt into a puddle of blackness and evaporate into thin air. I'm starting to take this whole symbolism thing a little bit more seriously."

"Why, what do you think it meant?" I said.

"She was thinking too much. Spending too much energy trying to figure everything out, instead of just going with it and using the symbols to control her circumstances. I think that's what happened to Jennifer, too. She got too freaked out, and literally overheated."

"So, what do you think, then?" I said.

"I think that we should go upstairs and explore that marble room."

We did.

He walked around the room, in two big circles, all the while muttering, "Mm-hm, mm-hm." As though he was thinking through something very important. Which, I guess, he might have been.

Sola whispered in my ear, "I think we should leave him alone. Want to go have some food?"

"Okay," I whispered back. Then, louder, "Edward, we're going to go downstairs and make some lunch. Come downstairs when you're ready."

"I will," said Edward. "I'll let you know what I figure out."

Sola and I went downstairs, to the kitchen, and started looking through cabinets trying to find something to eat. She pulled out a box of rice, I found some broccoli in the fridge, she pulled out a pot, filled it with water and started cooking, and I started exploring the spice cabinet.

"Do you think we should be more freaked out than we are?" Said Sola.

"I think I'm pretty freaked out," I said. "Two people have evaporated today. I'm glad Perdita closed all the blinds down here."

"Did you find salt?" She said. I passed her the container.

Chapter 3b →

Chapter 2b [Perdita]

'The Luminiferous Sludge of Man and Snail' was not an interesting book. It seemed to have nothing at all to do with Sludge or Luminescence, mostly following the sordid lives of some late 19th century businessmen. After I got through a chapter, I gave up on it. I dropped it next to the chair and started looking for another book. Then I found another, and another. Where I dropped 'The Luminiferous Sludge' there formed a stack, then a pile.

"Hey, check under the dust jacket," said Edward.

At first I didn't hear him, then he said, "Hey, Perdita. Try it."

"Try what?" I said.

"Look under the dust jacket."

I did. The book I was holding was called 'A Snail in Time,' but under the dust jacket the spine of the book said 'A Wrinkle in Time.'

It felt strange, looking at the pile of snail books next to me and knowing none of them was about snails. I wondered where I'd gotten the idea to look under the dust jacket.

Of course, it was Edward's idea. But was that really all that likely? I must have thought of it myself.

"Hey, Perdita," said Kadin, who was standing near me.

How likely was it that he was near me, at all? His book, "A Critique of Pure Snails," seemed more likely to be mine than his, more likely still to be a figment of my imagination; a billboard held up by my mind as a desparate plea. Maybe I was hallucenating the dust jackets.

"Why do you think she's not answering?" Said Sola.

I stared into the pages of the book, but wasn't really reading. I was just staring at the words as though they were pictures. I didn't know what I had been doing two days earlier, before I was here. I didn't know where here was.

I wondered whether the five of us had, all of a sudden, lost our grip on the shared illusion that was reality, and this was what was behind it. An empty world with a bored god, toying with the last remaining souls.

"Perdita, come on," said Sola.

I heard a series of noises, but they didn't coalesce into any sort of coherent thought. It was like they didn't carry meaning, like the bridge between Sola's body and my mind had been severed. Edward emitted some noises, too, as though meaning carried between the two of them, but not to me.

He said, "I think she's the reason why."

Maybe illusions like this one break up slowly. The world went, then logic. Now, the remains of other people were beginning to melt away. Maybe it wasn't a shared illusion. How can I know I wasn't alone?

I tried to read another passage of the book, but where the story once was, there was now only a few hundred small, black symbols arranged into neat rows.

"Perdita," said Kadin, "You need to come with us now. The door is open."

"We've been trying to tell her for a half an hour," said Edward. Their voices washed over me like white noise. "I think she's the one who doesn't move on."

"I refuse to accept that we're just going to be whittled down like that," said Kadin.

The pages of the book were uniformly black. I couldn't make out the faces of the people in front of me.

"I'm with Kadin," said Sola. "This doesn't have to be a pattern. But, I do think we should go. Maybe she'll snap out of it and follow us?"

It all seemed a mesh of moving shapes and solid colors. My mind seemed to have stopped organizing sensory input into meaningful patterns. Around the edges, everything seemed to be blackening.

"Perdita," said Kadin. "Perdita! Listen. We're going upstairs. The door opened a little after we all started reading." A mouthlike crack in reality was opening and closing near my face, suggesting the deep, consuming blackness that had loomed at the corners of existence for my entire life, spitting me out into the bright and waiting to swallow me again. It kept making those sounds: "You need to snap out of it if you want to come with us. If you do, follow us, okay?"

The mouth turned, and took with it all three lights, which drifted upwards and out of existence. Then the black spread out from the symbols on the pages of the books and covered everything, and there was no house, and no world outside, and no other people, and no me.

Chapter 3a →

Acknowledgments: Observant reader Caitlin McGuire caught a typo on this page.  It has now been corrected.

Chapter 2a [Sola]

Edward said, "Why did we come up here?" We were at the top of the steps and my heart was pounding. I didn't know how to answer him. I just wanted to get away, and the only way out is up.

"Jennifer just burned to death," said Kadin.

"Hey, you don't know that's what happened," said Perdita.

"She was a pile of ash," said Edward, "And the door nearly caught fire."

"And we're in an all-black world where a man in a tophat told us we were governed by metaphor," she shot back. "I say we look for more information."

"Like what?" Said Edward.

"I could go downstairs," said Kadin. "See if anything has changed."

I made a noise. I'm not sure what noise, but Kadin responded to it. He looked at me, smiling.

"Do you want to come with me?" He said.

The staircase, behind the gaping doorway, looked blackened and steep.

"No," I said. "I think I'll wait. Just hurry back."

"Oh, okay," he said, and he turned and went downstairs.

The new floor was one big, open room, with a long, rectangular pillar in the center -- the staircase came  up to where we were standing, then, around the other side, went up further. I checked, but the coal-black door going up was shut and locked.

Forming a triangle within the room were three large, leather chairs, thickly cushioned. And the walls, every inch of them, were shelves, and every shelf was filled with books.

Kadin came back upstairs. "It's the same," he said. "Nothing has changed. On the bright side, that means we can still get to the food."

"So, what do we do now?" Said Edward.

"I think," said Perdita, "That we need to talk about symbolism. There were obvious signs downstairs when Jennifer died, and I think we need to explore that for our own safety."

"Okay," said Kadin, "Well, there were only four beds."

"There are only three chairs here," I said.

"That's disturbing," said Kadin.  "Jennifer slept in the bathroom, which was where she died. But there's only one room on this floor, and we're all in it. So I don't know if that helps."

"Her dress was fraying," I said. "You mentioned that, Perdita."

"So?" Said Edward.

"Well, it looks like we've all got different sorts of significant clothes. Kadin has that red patch. Her clothes were fraying, you don't have sleeves..."

"Red patch?" Said Kadin. He looked down at his shirt, and that must have been the first time he noticed that there was a square of red fabric over the orange, right over his heart. "Huh," he said. "What about yours?"

I stepped closer, and we all stepped into a tighter circle to examine each other's clothes.

"Your dress is sort of shinier than the rest of ours," said Edward. It was -- all four of the articles of clothing that we showed up wearing seemed to be made out of the same rough, dyed wool, but mine was more finely woven.

"Yours seems kind of glimmery," I said to Edward. "Come closer? Look, your vest is sewn together with gold thread. It's all woven through it, too."

"Cool," said Edward. Then I didn't want to keep looking at him, so I turned to Perdita.

"Oh," I said. "Look, yours is coming apart at the seams."

"Why would you say that?" Said Perdita.

"What? I was just telling you. Is there any thread here? Can we mend it?"

"What's wrong with you? Are you trying to kill me?"

"What are you talking about?" Said Kadin. "Relax."

"You relax," she said. "There are only three chairs on this floor. So obviously one of us isn't making it up to the next one. I don't want it to be me." She backed away from the group, just a little bit. "Why would you just go and say that I'm coming apart at the seams?  Do you not realize how horrible that is?"

She started to turn red, flushed with frustration.  "I need to do something." She looked around her. "Jennifer didn't eat." She pulled a book off the shelf, and stormed over to a chair, and sat aggressively in it.

"There," she said. "I won't be the one not doing what this floor demands of us. Whichever one of you wants to not read, be my guest."

Edward walked over to a shelf, and started reading titles aloud. "Snail and Peace, The categories of the Snail, The Snail Diaries, I think these books are all about snails." He shifted over to the next set of shelves, and kept reading. Kadin and I also stepped up to shelves. "Snail Murders," he said.

"Quest for the Golden Snail," read Kadin.

"Snail gods," I read.

"Mine is called "The Luminiferous Sludge of Man and Snail," said Perdita. "And it's fantastic."

Edward pulled a book off the shelf, then walked over to and sat down in a chair. "What'd you get?" Said Kadin.

"How to Win Snails and Influence People," he said.

"Cool," said Kadin.

He and I walked over to the far end of the room, near the chair facing the closed doorway concealing the stairs.

"What do you want to do?" He said.

"I don't want to steal the seat," I said. "But I don't want to be the only one standing."

"Why don't we share it?" Said Kadin.

The chair was certainly big enough. I pulled two books off the shelf, "Snail Upwards" and "The Anatomy of A Snail," handed one to Kadin, and we stood in front of the chair, and sat down together.

Chapter 2b →

Chapter 1b [Edward]

The coffee was brewing. I woke up early, before the others. I never need much sleep. So I went to the kitchen to see if I could find coffee, and there was a machine in a cabinet. I set it up and started it, then started searching the kitchen to familiarize myself with its contents.

The refridgerator was well-stocked, and the cabinets had plenty of stuff as well -- pots and pans, as well as cereal, pasta, and canned foods.

When Sola and Kadin woke up, I was already cooking breakfast. French toast, scrambled eggs and bacon.

"Good morning," I said. "Breakfast? Coffee?"

"Yes, please," said Sola. "Although, is there tea?"

"Far left cabinet," I said. "I'll start the kettle. How about you?" I said to Kadin.

"I'll have tea as well, if that's alright."

"Sure," I said, and I started filling up the kettle in the sink. "Where's Perdita?"

"She's waking up Jennifer," said Sola. She had pulled a chair over to the cabinets and was balancing up on it on her toes, searching the very back of the top shelf. "Aha," she said, and pulled out and dropped down a rectangular green box of tea bags. "What kind of tea do you want, Kadin?"

"Earl Grey, if it's there."

"Oh," she said. The box of Earl Grey was at the front of the next shelf down, so she pulled it out and dropped it next to hers. Then she dropped airily down from the chair onto the floor.

Perdita came in then, with Jennifer hanging onto her, an arm around her shoulder.

"Come on, Jenn," said Perdita, and she brought her over to a chair at the table. Jennifer shifted herself off of Perdita and onto the table and chair for support.

"What's wrong?" said Kadin.

"I didn't sleep," said Jennifer.

"She's not feeling well," said Perdita. She crossed the room, and pulled the window curtains shut in front of the window over the sink. "To be honest, I think she's reacting pretty normally."

"Do you need to eat?" I said.

"Yes, please," said Jennifer. I made her a plate, with two slices of french toast, a big serving of eggs, and three slices of bacon. I brought it over to the table and put it down in front of her, then grabbed her a fork and knife.

"Is that tea?" She said. The water was boiling.

"Yes, did you want some?"

"Please."

"What kind do you want?" Said Sola.

"I don't mind, anything."

"Ooh, I know what to get you," she said. She climbed back up on the chair, and fished around in the top shelf again. She returned with another box, then got mugs out and started putting tea bags in. She left another two mugs out, and asked, "Perdita, did you want tea, or coffee?"

"Coffee," she said. So Sola poured the water into the cups, and passed them out. Then she and Kadin joined Jennifer at the table, and I made them plates and brought them over.

"Oh, I don't eat bacon," said Kadin. "Thank you, though."

"I'll take it," said Sola. And she did. Kadin spooned some sugar into his tea, and they started eating. Jennifer switched from pushing her eggs around with her fork to staring into her cup of tea.

Perdita prepared our cups of coffee. "How do you take yours?" She said.

"Milk and sugar," I said. "Although, there's honey in the fridge. So I'll use that."

"Alright," she said. "I'm taking milk too. I normally take it black, you know." She was staring at her coffee. "It's just so black, and there's so much black today."

"Jennifer, you haven't touched your food," said Kadin.

We all looked at her, and it must have made her self-conscious, because she ducked her head down and said, "Maybe it would help if I just had some water."

Perdita got a glass and filled it. She brought it over to her, and said, "Here, let me check your temperature." Before she touched her, she said, "Your dress seems to have gotten very frayed."

Jennifer said, "No, it came that way, when I showed up here."

"Really?" Said Perdita. "That's odd." Then she put her hand on Jennifer's forehead, and said, "Oh my god, you're burning up." "It's nothing," said Jennifer. She took a sip of her water, but seemed like she had to force herself to swallow. Then she looked up, and we were all still looking, and she looked back down into the glass. "You know what? I'm just going to go take a cool bath." She got up and strode around the table, back through the main hall and towards the bathroom.

"Do you think she's okay?" Said Kadin.

"She doesn't seem okay," said Perdita.

"I'll go check on her," I said. I got up and walked through the living room, but the door to the bathroom was shut. Perdita followed me, and Kadin and Sola shortly after. I tried to open the door, but the handle burned, and I pulled back.

"What happened?" said Kadin.

"It's hot," I said.

Kadin stepped forward, and put his hand against the door. "Oh my god," he said. "There must be a fire in there."

Smoke started rolling out from underneath the door. But it wasn't smoke, it was steam, and I could hear the water gushing from the faucet.

"I'm going to try to break down the door," said Kadin.

I just stepped back. We all did. And Kadin did, then he ran and threw himself at the door.

It cracked, but it didn't crack like wood. It cracked the way a scab cracks, leaving a more wounded flesh exposed between the crags. And in those cracks, the door was red, like burning embers.

Kadin threw himself at the door again, but he staggered back from that lunge. The force of his body against it seemed to cause it to flare up, briefly flaming, and the door started to burn or rot away from the brown it had been, towards the charred black of the front door. There were other noises inside, like crackling flames, all distorted by the hiss of the gushing pipes.

Then the water stopped, and so did everything else. The door went black, the embers chilling themselves. Then, as we all stood and watched, the handle clicked and the door drifted open under its own weight.

The shining white floor was marred, at the door, by a black stain of soot. I touched the door gently at first, but it was cool, and I moved it to examine the back. The same sort of cracks had emerged, but here they were long, straight, and tightly grouped streaks, like nail marks clawed down the inside.

Perdita ran from the room. Sola moved to follow her, and Kadin stayed with me.

"Why do you think it was her?" He said.

"I don't even know what the fuck happened," I said. "Sort of puts me off my breakfast, though."

"Come on," said Kadin. "I don't think we should be in here."

He left the bathroom, and after a moment, I followed, heading for the kitchen. But I stopped, in the hallway, where Perdita, Sola and Kadin had all stopped. Because the door at the end of the entry hall was hanging open, and there was a staircase leading up.

Sola looked back when she heard me come around the corner. Then she ran up the stairs.

And I followed.

Chapter 2a →

Chapter 1a [Jennifer]

I was the last one through the door. I thought that the tophat man was coming in behind me, but as soon as I stepped through the door shut, and it was just the five of us. Edward turned around as soon as it shut and tried to turn the handle, but it didn't open. "Damn it," he said, "What's going on?"

"Why don't we just wait," said Perdita.

"Yeah," said Kadin. "If we take it easy, I'm sure we'll be able to figure this out."

"This door's locked, too," said Sola. At the opposite end of the entryway, only about seven feet away, there was another door. It was the same charred black as the front door, but the rest of the hall was actually pretty homey. There were two open doorways, one on either side, and the thresholds were a normal brown wood. There weren't doors blocking them.

"Where do you think it leads?" Said Kadin.

"I don't know," said Sola. "Why don't we look around, maybe there are clues."

"There's a kitchen in here," said Perdita. She had stepped through the doorway on the left.

"I'll check this way," said Edward, pointing towards, then walking through, the doorway on the right. "It looks like a living room," he said, "There are two couches, some windows, and a door at the back."

I didn't move from near the front door while they were looking, but I did ask, "Is it the same kind of door?"

"No," he said. "It's just regular wood."

"Same as in here," said Perdita, not quite shouting but loud enough for everyone to hear. "I'm going to open it, okay?"

"Yeah, we're coming now," said Kadin. He stepped through the lefthand doorway, and Sola followed.

"Wait," said Edward, who strode across into the kitchen, as well. I managed to pry myself away from the entry hall and step off into the kitchen, but I didn't let go of the wall. I stayed close to the way out.

The kitchen was mostly white, with some yellow tiles on the wall behind the sink. There was a refridgerator, and a microwave, and a stove with a tea pot and a frying pan on it. There was also a table, with tall chairs, and the door, at the back of the room and made of the same wood as the door frame. It was open, and Perdita was standing in it.

"It's just beds," she said. "Bunk beds."

"Come on," said Kadin, softly. "Let's stay together." He stepped forward into the room, and Sola followed him. Edward beckoned me, with a hand gesture, so I went in, and we entered the bedroom.

The carpet and the blankets were brown. The sheets were white, and there were two bunk beds, four beds. There was a window between them, but it just looked out into that blackness that was outside the house. There was a window like that in the kitchen, too.

"Well, there's nothing symbolic about this room," said Edward.

"Really?" Said Perdita. "You don't see any symbolism here? All the brown? The bunk beds? The fact that there are only four?"

"It's just some weird house," said Edward. "Why would the number of beds matter?"

"Because there are five of us," I said.

"You know, in Japanese culture, the number four means death," said Sola. She was leaning against a ladder, and had one foot on the bottom rung.  Perdita looked at her funny, and she inched further up the ladder away from her and said, "Sorry."

"There's another door through here," said Kadin. He was pointing just behind where the door into the bedroom had opened, so I stepped out of the doorway and he gently pushed the open door aside.

It was a small door, with an angled notch taken out of a side.

"It's a closet," said Perdita. "Under the stairs. Do you think those are stairs, behind the black door in the hall?"

"Must be," said Kadin. He opened the door, and there were boxes stacked inside, but enough space was left to walk through the closet, and out the identical door on the other side. He crouched down and walked through, pushing the door open.

"In here is just a tub," he said.

I followed him through, past the stacks of batteries and long-lasting protein bars. The room on the other side was white, but not the homey white that the kitchen was. It was clean. Sterile. The tiled floor was scrubbed to a reflective shine, and the porcelan tub in the center of the room looked like a shrine. Copper pipes rose out of the floor and arched over it, but nothing touched the tub. It just rested, pristine and continuous, on the floor.

"No mirrors," said Kadin. The others were coming through, now. I ran my hand along the edge of the tub.

"There are mirrors everywhere," I said.

Kadin opened the door just past the closet door. "Edward," he said, "Is this the room with the chairs you were describing?"

He walked over and looked. "Yes. So, it looks like we have four rooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, a living room and a bedroom. And there's food, at least in the closet, we should check the cabinets in the kitchen. And it looks like we should have water."

He strode over to the tub and turned on one of the taps. It hissed for a moment, then a good stream of clear water gushed out of it.

"Why did you do that?" I said.

"Now we know. We've got food, water, and a place to sleep."

"Speaking of sleep," said Sola, "Am I the only one who's exhausted? Dibs on a top bunk."

"I got the other one," said Kadin. They, and Edward, left for the bedroom. Perdita came forward, and put her hand on my arm, and said, "Are you coming?"

"I'll catch up," she said. "Or maybe sleep in here."

Are you sure, honey? It could be cold."

"I could run the hot water. Besides, there weren't enough beds anyway."

Chapter 1b →

Acknowledgments: Observant reader Caitlin McGuire caught a typo on this page.  It has now been corrected.

Chapter 0a [Kadin]

If you could shut your eyes, so that everything you could see was uniformly black, but still let the image of a single body through, and that body was about twenty feet away and slender and dressed like he was on his way to the opera, or maybe backstage, waiting for his cue, that's what it looked like. Maybe he was farther away, though, and a lot bigger than a normal person, or a lot closer, and improbably small and high up.

When he talked, he sounded person-sized, but like he was talking over a loudspeaker. As if the same sound hit your ears three different times, coming from three different ways.

"Do you wonder why you're here?" He asked.

I didn't. I was too preoccupied by the lack of depth-cues around me.

"Yes," I heard a woman's voice say. It was off to my left, so I turned to look. Just behind me, barely out of sight, were four more people. We were standing in a semicircle facing outwards, though when the woman spoke the rest of us shifted to look towards her.

She looked middle-aged, and was almost definitely person-sized. Maybe just a little short of average height. She was wearing a green tunic, kind of almost-emerald, and had chestnut hair. She wasn't turning to look at anyone else.

Past her, the next three were: a woman in a long-sleeved blue shirt and denim jeans, whose hair was long and black and whose skin was tan; a man in a white vest, over a pink dress shirt and silver-and-pink tie and black slacks; and a thin, young woman in a purple dress, who might not even have been in her twenties, and whose hair was a flaxen.

"Where are we?" Said the man in the white vest. "I was busy."

"Were you?" Said the man in the black outfit that was less black than the blackness everywhere else. "Doing what?" That was when the woman in the green tunic seemed to notice the rest of us.

The man in the white vest opened his mouth, but didn't speak. I realized sideways that I didn't know where I had been before then, only that I had been.

"Right. So, on to business." The man clasped his gloved hands before him. "You are in a book, that's set in a house. I'm here just to smooth the process, get you going, get you inside, and let you play. The rules are pretty simple. Everything is symbolic. Like, for example, my hat indicates the fact that I work for the author."

"So, what are you, the narrator?" Said the girl in the purple dress.

"No," said the man in the hat. "You are all going to get turns at being the narrator, in a way. It will shift periodically. Don't worry too much about it, just know that sometimes your thoughts are part of the story."

"So, when we think things," said the woman in the green tunic, "They become part of the symbolism?"

"Yes, exactly," said the man in the hat. "But only if you're narrating, and remember, symbolism drives the direction of the story, so watch your thoughts." He smiled when he said that, like it was some kind of joke. Then he said, "Why don't you all take a moment to introduce yourselves to each other? Let's start with you," he said, pointing directly at me. "Give us your name, and tell us something about yourself."

There were suddenly four people staring at me. The man in the tophat continued to shift his gaze around to all of us, having returned his hands to the clasped position in front of him.

"Hello," I said. My voice felt funny, going straight outward like that. I could hear it, but it was like it only hit my ears once. It didn't bounce off a wall or floor or ceiling somewhere and slowly lose its shape in the air around me. It just went. "My name is Kadin. I'm a teacher," I said. "I teach sixth graders. I haven't been doing it long."

"Good," said the man in the hat. "Now, moving down the line."

"Hello, my name is Perdita," said the woman in the green tunic. "I worked at a library for several years, but I've recently returned to school."

"Thank you, Perdita, though I urge you all to remember that you can say anything about yourself, not just your profession." "My name is Sola," said the woman in the blue shirt. "And when I was seventeen, I used to dance all the time. Now, it's less often, but I still twirl around in the kitchen, you know? To the radio."

"Excellent. Next up?" Said the man in the hat.

"I'm Edward, and I'm a CFO," said the man in the white vest.

"Of what company?" I asked.

"Last one," said the man in the hat. Edward looked toward her and away from my question.

The girl in the purple dress said, "I'm Jennifer, and I would like some water."

"Then follow me," said the man in the hat.

He started moving, through and past us, at a walking pace. When I turned to follow him, I saw ahead of us the porch of a house. It was made of charchoal-gray wood, and the wall of the house was an almost-matching shade of shingles. It was about fifty feet away, or farther and very large.

Edward marched forward, keeping pace with the man in the hat. I started walking, too, although on my first step I nearly fell over, because when my foot landed, it didn't make a sound. It just stopped when it reached solidness.

I took my next step carefully, afraid that the solidness was inconsistent. It landed, level to the last step, and just as silently. Then I felt someone grab me.

"I'm sorry," said Perdita, when I jerked my head around to look. She was gripping the edge of my shirt, which I noticed was a strong shade of orange. "It's scary, walking like this."

"I know," I said. "It's alright." I kept walking, and she walked in pace behind me until we reached the steps of the porch, when she let go and gripped the banister, apparently more confident in the blackened wood floor than the black. The man in the hat was standing next to the door, and Edward standing next to him. Sola climbed the five steps up to the porch calmly, and Jennifer scurried up after her.

Then the man in the hat smiled broadly, and he stepped in front of the door, put a key in, turned it, and opened it wide to let us in.

Chapter 1a →