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."
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.