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