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.