The problem, of course, is that the world ended.
She’s lying in her bed, staring at the sloping scribbles on the ceiling. Downstairs, the party continues as ever. Voices rise from the parlor at all hours of the night, beckoning her with wild words she can’t quite make out. She needs to sleep, because tomorrow, she’s decided, is the day she’ll leave. Well rested, free of obstacles, she’ll walk out the front door: back into the world. Tomorrow. Tomorrow she’ll see things clearly.
This is a lie, and a bad one. She knows she can’t go back, even if she wanted to, so she sighs, throws back the covers, and creeps down to the parlor, eyelids and nightgown straps drooping as she pushes open the room’s oaken double doors.
The party’s in full swing. There’s music playing—the kind made with letters, not notes, which makes it hard to dance and even harder to listen to. It’s coming from the ornate black orchestrion against the far wall, where the high-ceilinged parlor opens into a smaller, cozily lit living room.
She hates the orchestrion: she even smashed it once, when she was drunk, hurling a poker from the fireplace into its glass face and throwing herself onto all fours to gut its metal innards. The tripping, muttering music finally stopped and she walked upstairs through the crowd of horrified guests, a resonator from the xylophone hanging from her mouth like a lollipop as she sucked on the sweet taste of victory. The next night the machine was restored, but she’d expected that. Nothing ever changes in the house. Not even her.
An old man with ears that fold in at the corners embraces her warmly. She returns the hug, tracing the familiar lines of his face with her finger: he was with her at her great-grandmother’s wake, held close to her chest, and again at her mother’s.
“Trouble sleeping, my dear?”
She forces a smile. “Do you have to ask?”
He releases her after a murmured word of encouragement and she looks around the room, taking in the timeless gathering, at once intimate and infinite. Though she holds out as long as she can, night after night, she never fails to feel the thrill that courses through her when she descends into the party, knowing that the guests number billions upon billions, knowing that they will always greet her with open palms, some leathery and powder-scented, others slick and untouched, knowing how badly they want to shake her hand, to let her look inside them, because she’s the only one left to give them the validation they need.
There are a few girls lying on the floor, dressed in ball gowns torn off at the knees—no, not just the cloth torn off, she realizes—the very bottom of their legs is missing as well. A wayward knight is examining them, addressing them in archaic Spanish. She’s about to join them when several glittering lizards leap into her path and set up camp in front of her feet. She steps back to avoid the reptilian congress, making her way to the well-stocked bar instead.
Not all of the guests are human: some are cats. Some are clocks. Some are miasmic clouds, swirling as they speak in fragmented thoughts. She doesn’t always know which objects are guests, or furniture. She could speak to them all, if she wished, objects and animals and fluid concepts alike, but she’s not quite that far gone yet. She’d like to keep some sense of reality intact.
Below and above the main floors of the house there are infinite levels. She’s peered into the basements and attics, but she’s never dared the stairs. The sounds drifting from the darkness are formless, cacophonous, laced with intimacies and revelations she doesn’t want to hear. She stays on the lighted path. She stays among those she knows.
She’s never been able to figure out if she is the guest and these are the hosts or the other way around, so she’s settled on thinking of the house as the host, with all of them as its guests. It’s a grand house, built around the world, not in it or above it but on the edge of it, like a planet’s ring. Out of its windows, she can distant stars, arranged differently than the ones she dimly remembers: they seem to fall into lines, scrolling past the glass in regular patterns.
She can’t break the windows. She’s tried. She’s tried to open the external doors of the house, but they won’t budge, and she’s unsure if they lead to her home or more house or infinite space. She thinks that when the world ended, it became the house, or else the house was always there, waiting to catch the detritus of the apocalypse.
The house isn’t the point. The point is what’s outside the house, and how when you’re inside the house, you can’t get a grasp on anything that exists beyond. In the old-fashioned parlor, television screens flicker, but no matter how hard she stares, straight on, the moving shapes on the screen always appear as if they’re on her periphery. She always turns away from the fuzzy figures in the end, getting caught up in conversation instead.
The bar is crowded with guests, all partaking of the dazzling variety of beverages and substances on offer. “LSD?” a woman next to her offers, adjusting her psychedelic muumuu before placing a tab on her own tongue. The tab is marked with an arcane symbol, a post horn outlined in red.
She laughs. “I don’t think I need any.” She orders wine instead, opting for the house special. She never recognizes what they give her. The beverages and food here taste like memories: they fade quickly on her tongue.
“Wouldn’t it be strange,” she remarks to the blond man beside her, “that if instead of just going mad, you could go sane? Like you’re going mad backwards? I wonder what that feels like, going sane.” She pauses, considering. “Probably a lot like going mad.”
The man sniffs and moves away. She recognizes him from somewhere—her lycée days, maybe.
She leans in, lowering her voice. “I know this might be a rude question, but—was your life ruined by reading?”
He laughs at a joke she knows she ought to understand. “By art in general, really,” he replies, sipping his drink: something red and treacherous. “I’m a bit of a cautionary tale.”
She rolls her eyes. Talking with the guests is often as frustrating as it is rewarding. All the knowledge in the world contained here, and no one can tell her where she went wrong. No one can tell her if this is her own doing, if she’s to blame for what happened. No one can even tell her what it is that happened.
A fragment of conversation drifts her way: “The truth of it is, your mother could just as easily be a typewriter. It’s not the object that matters, in the end, but the essence, the memory of the object, those certain aspects that can be incorporated into an unending variety of forms.”
She turns to look for the speaker, but is interrupted by a haggard woman wrapped in endless yards of patterned fabric, clutching at her hand. “I’m not asking for you to open me. I’m asking for you to own me. I’ve given up on autonomy. I just want to know how people get to be loved.”
She mumbles an excuse and backs away. It’s something she sometimes forgets about the guests—they’re people, like her. You can’t make a world out of a person. No matter how much you’d like to.
The crowd carries her along from room to room. She falls into step with a group of bohemians who relish movement for the sake of movement, dancing and slouching and slinking their way through the tangles of guests. They tell her their names, and she understands but she can’t quite pronounce them. All of the guests’ names sound like a thousand words at once. Gorgeous, polyphonic names, and she wonders if she has a name like that, too, recorded in some room of this enormous house.
She leaves the bohemians to watch a group of Ottoman-era artists making miniatures, and then talks for a time with a blind monk, a librarian who fascinates her with his knowledge of semiotics. She meets an heiress from Jamaica, and a teenager speaking nadsat, and an androgynous person from a frozen alien world. She gets cornered for a time by a spectacled man with a mustache who holds forth for several minutes on falls of frogs and the Super-Sargasso Sea and all the other vital phenomena he’s sure science has neglected. The key to her plight, he feels, lies somewhere in his implausible theories. “You see, we’re only different expressions of an all-inclusive cheese.”
“Thanks. That’s very helpful.” She makes an excuse and steps away, taking refuge next to a severe woman in a black dress who watched the whole scene unfold. “I thought he’d never stop talking.”
“Haven’t you learned not to give them an opening? Women converse; men monologue.”
She’s beginning to tire, but she knows she’ll resist her bed for another hour or two, so she joins the conversation of two tattooed men, who she overhears debating the mechanics of fate. She doesn’t like the one on the left: she keeps glancing at the illustrations on his chest, which she’s sure are becoming bloodier as they speak. The one on the right has dark brown skin covered almost entirely with ink, and he tells her that he received his tattoos before he went to sail the world, from a seer who wrote a complete epistemological theory out on his body, a map to finding truth.
“I wish I could understand them,” she says, scanning the unreadable symbols.
He smiles. “Me too.”
She wanders on, back towards her room, and runs across a man she knows, toga-clad and bald. Candles make him nervous, even more so than the others, all of whom have morbid fear of fire. The fireplaces in the house aren’t real. They look real, down to the last details, but they contain no flame; only flickering electric lights. She wonders why the house bothers with the illusion. She wonders what good it does to pretend.
“Why does it frighten you so much?” she asks, draining the last of the wine from her glass. “It’s been a long time since fire could hurt you.”
“I lost a brother at Alexandria,” he tells her. “Do you know what it is, to lose a sibling?”
“I was an only child.”
“Don’t you mean you were only a child?”
Her fingernails scrape the glass. “Shit.” She doesn’t catch it before it falls. As she bends down to retrieve the shards, the man’s leather sandals carry him into the crowd.
She dreams. It’s the most normal thing she does, now that the world is gone. Asleep, she talks to people she thinks she used to know. Not guests. Real people, maybe, in real places, but they shift and merge, the dreamscapes dissolving as she digs at the truth beneath them. Echoes of conversation sometimes stay with her, floating through her mind, detached from context. It’s like being at the party all over again.
The scribbles on her ceiling are scattered notes, etched in pencil: formulas and sequences of characters whose meaning she can’t remember, sketches of faces without names, and a countdown of the days she’s been here, marked with one long line each time she returns to her room from the party. The count isn’t accurate: time doesn’t pass normally here. Yet she feels compelled to keep drawing the symbol, to end each “day” with that last steady stroke, drawn as carefully as calligraphy before she collapses into bed.
She considers gouging her way out of the house one night, tearing into walls until she reaches the final one, and building a bomb the next, though nothing in the house seems to burn. A few nights later, in an idle way, suicide. She’s not sure that she could die even if she wanted to, which she doesn’t. But dying would prove that she was alive in the first place: that this wasn’t the afterlife. If it didn’t cut off her ability to explore other possibilities, she’d test the hypothesis just to be sure.
The orchestrion’s playing poetry tonight. Not all the guests seem to like it: she’s not the only one who covers her ears when it hits a dissonant note. A young lady passes, sighing and pressing her hand to her forehead as the cursed machine shrieks. “Alas! All music jars when the soul’s out of tune.”
One of her old friends is standing near the punch bowl. She thinks of him as “Newt,” though his true name is far more complex. He’s barely four feet tall, and holds a red-and-gray Thermos in his right hand, which he hoists in greeting as she comes near.
“Figured out what happened yet?”
“If I had, do you think I’d still be here?”
He shrugs. “I wasn’t sure you’d want to leave.” His voice is high, but it runs with undercurrents of other voices, deeper tones. Sometimes the guests morph, because they contain multitudes within them, but they usually show her the face she likes best. “Do you remember any more about the games?”
She’d talked with him a long time, some number of nights ago. He’d told her about a game his father tried to play with him once, and it had jogged something in her memory. She’d had friends. Somewhere back before the world ended. And they’d played grand games, games of calculus and chaos and chance, games she couldn’t quite recall the rules to, or the names and faces of the players.
“They’re not important. We were playing around with concepts. Just games, that’s all.”
“You were experimenting.”
“We were …” She can’t deny it. She doesn’t know what they were doing. She only knows it led her here.
Across the room, a sudden scatter. Several guests have bolted away from a wooden door leading to the basement. It’s rattling. She’s never seen the doors rattle before. When she’s dared to listen, dared to look into the darkness, the things living there have seemed far away. Levels down, with no interest in joining this civilized soirée. But she feels the ripples running through the crowd. The guests are afraid.
She shivers as the door shakes, looking at Newt. “Do they ever come up here? The things in the basement … do they ever come into the main house?”
He doesn’t speak. She starts to press him, but she’s interrupted by the sound of a bottle shattering in the next room. A quarreling couple comes storming through the crowd, oblivious to the hush that’s fallen over the parlor. This is the kind of drama the guests are used to. They relax, conversation resuming all around her. When she looks back at the door, the shaking has stopped.
Newt sets his Thermos on the table to fill up a glass of punch. “Let me know if you remember anything else,” he says, slipping off into the crowd with the punch and bottle balanced carefully in each small hand.
She gets a glass of punch herself, and goes to sit on one of the damask couches in the living room, her nerves still frayed. She finds two girls hiding underneath it. “From my brother Jem,” says the younger one, holding her finger to her lips. “Don’t tell him where I am, ma’am.”
The girl next to her worries her lip. She looks about twelve, all skinny limbs and freckles. “Yes. Please don’t tell anyone.”
She assures them she won’t, and sits at the other end of the wide sofa, listening to their whispers below. She doesn’t remember being that young. She must have been, if she’s this old now. But even “this old” holds little meaning: in years, she doesn’t know how long she’s existed. She doesn’t know how long it’s been since she first woke up in the house.
She looks out over the crowd, comforting herself with the sea of familiar faces. The guests she likes best tend to congregate here, near the doors leading up to her bedroom. They must come because of her; there’s no other clear connection. Sometimes she thinks she discerns an order to the rooms, to the cross streams of guests flowing through the house, but she can never make out the logic exactly. She thinks she used to know. She thinks she had the map to all these rooms, once.
A bulk settles onto the couch beside her. She turns and brushes the shoulder of a man wearing a bombardier’s uniform from some bygone war, the details of which escape her.
He sticks out his hand. She takes it. “And you are …”
She peers at him, still holding his hand. “That’s not really your name.”
He grins, lopsided. “Close enough.”
He’s speaking English. Some of the guests speak to her in Turkish, some in German, but most use the language of the twenty-five letters, the universal script. She remembers him from many years ago. Yossarian the Assyrian, or the Armenian, depending on which version of him you run into. He reminds her of her cousin, or maybe her father, or her uncle, because she can’t recall now which was which. She knows they all lived together in Istanbul for a time, with her great-grandmother, the one who taught her to love stories. It was through her great-grandmother that she met Yossarian, decades or millennia ago.
He drops her hand, letting it rest, conspicuously, on his thigh. She draws it away. “I’ve heard you can’t remember your name. Is that true?”
She nods. “Call me Ishmael, I guess. Or anything else you want.”
“Call me Washington Irving. Or Irving Washington. Or Yo-Yo. Everyone calls me Yo-Yo.” He leans in like he’s got a secret. “Actually no one calls me Yo-Yo. Please don’t call me Yo-Yo.”
“Okay, Yo-Yo.” She finishes off her punch. “Did you see something shaking the door in the parlor before?”
“I wasn’t there for it, but I heard about it. Seems like it was the most exciting thing to happen since you murdered the orchestrion.”
“You saw that?”
“I think you should have gotten a medal for it. I hate that goddam thing.”
“Glad I’m not the only one.” She sees the girls peeking out from under the couch, listening to their conversation. “How do you like the party?”
“I don’t think it matters whether I like it or not. I keep trying to get out. I never can.”
“I can’t, either. But I like it. Might as well enjoy it while we’re here, right?”
“It’s better than where I was before.” He glances around, taking in the scene. “And it feels like I fit. There are a lot of people from my time here, I see.”
“It was my specialty.” She’s surprised to hear herself say it, and Yossarian looks surprised, too. She lets her mouth keep going, willing her brain to stay offline, not to examine her words too closely. “My great-grandmother, who I’m named for, came to New York for a while just before the fall of the former USA. She loved stories; she devoured them, and your period interested her most, even though it was long before her time. She thought—and I postulated, in my thesis—that the 1960s were the beginning of the reality breakdown. The appearance of the first computers, space travel, psychedelics and mass rebellion against authority—it opened the human mind up to previously unimaginable possibilities. There’s still a lot of interest in that period, right in the middle of that bloody century. It spilled over so much into the next one.”
“Can’t say that surprises me.” He looks away, brushing something from his jacket. “You said you’re named for your great-grandmother?”
“What was her name again?”
She opens her mouth, her tongue rising towards the back of her teeth. He watches her as she fails to force out the sound. “Sorry. Thought it was worth a try.”
“Sometimes it works. I mean … with other things. Not my name. But sometimes I get bits of things back. Pieces of the puzzle, like my thesis, or bits of codes and random formulas. I just don’t know how they all fit together.”
They’re joined on the sofas by a couple of people she knows, a dark-haired pregnant woman in her early twenties and her blond kid brother. In her head they’re “Meg-and-Charles-Wallace,” all one word, run together and impossible to pull apart. They’ve come to speak with her often, at different ages. They talk theoretical physics like they’re discussing the weather, but then they start off into territory she doesn’t trust, with references to runes and telepathy and celestial beings. They want to help her, and they’re sure that they can. She wishes she believed them.
“Our father disappeared once,” the woman tells her. “If someone’s out there looking for you, they won’t give up. No matter how impossible it seems.”
“How are they supposed to find me? I don’t even know where I am.”
The boy speaks up. “We’ll help you figure out a solution. The answer’s stranger than you think, sometimes. You can’t always trust Occam when it comes to human nature.”
They talk for a while more, the little group, and she loses herself in their company. The girls come out from under the couch and giggle at the blond boy who talks like a grown-up. She begins to lose the thread of the back-and-forth, so she excuses herself, promising to return once she’s slept.
She starts off across the parlor to her room and then stops, looking back towards the door to the basement. It’s not moving now, but the guests are still avoiding it, leaving a semi-circle of space open around the entrance.
Her eyes dart over to Yossarian and the others. Making sure she’s out of their sight lines, she walks over to the door, opening it as unobtrusively as she can. It isn’t locked. None of the inner doors of the house are, which makes her wonder why the things in the basement don’t burst through. She steps inside, pulling the door almost closed behind her.
The stairs are empty. No monsters wait. In the pit below, she hears whispers. Languages she can’t decipher, sounds she cannot comprehend, murmurs and whines and susurrations. She wants to know what they mean. They creep beneath her skin: tantalizing, devilish tendrils of knowledge, reaching out from the shadows. Maybe she’s wrong to be frightened. Maybe the guests are, too.
Her hand lingers on the doorknob before she pulls away, taking herself upstairs to the refuge of her room. Back up in her bed, falling into dreams, she tries to remember if she left the door ajar. It doesn’t matter, she reasons: the door has no lock. It’s already open.
She wakes up to the sound of what she thinks is screaming. When she rushes into the parlor, she sees it’s the orchestrion: its gears are grinding, the whole machine shaking as it struggles to pump out its odd and awful music. Yossarian, standing a few feet away, raises an eyebrow at her. “Your doing?”
He shakes his head. He’s naked, the length and girth of him fully apparent. She looks away. She’s not sure what sleeping with a guest would do, but it would signal surrender, mean she’d given up on going home. Doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be fun, though.
She turns to survey the room, searching out other suspects. Someone grabs her wrist. They pull her down and she lands on the carpet, face-first. Yossarian’s yell echoes in her ears. Above her she sees her attacker: man-shaped and missing parts, tatters of yellow cloth hanging from his shoulders, his head a mushrooming horror of pallid, puffy skin. He’s raving like a vengeful god, he smells of rot and waterlog, he’s fashioned a weapon from bits of the orchestrion, and he’s raising it to strike. And he’s shouting, dripping calumny, telling her, telling her, in words that shouldn’t be—
You you you you you
It was you
Broke the world
Let us out
Let us in
We’re coming. We live here too. We live here too.
Her brain goes black. Above her, a collision. Slices of the scene break through her fractured perception: Yossarian, tackling the thing, tumbling onto the carpet. The thing, still screaming. She knows what it means. Sees flashes of her sin. This creature knows her crime. It came from those dark levels, above and below. It came through the door, the door she cannot lock. How foolish she was, how naive, to think the party could go on forever.
She finds a dark landing. Unoccupied. It’s one of the few spaces where the buzz of the party ceases, other than her own room. It’s cold, and there’s a large picture window, giving her an unimpeded view of what she used to think were millions of stars.
Not stars, she sees now. Code.
She can almost make the symbols out. It’s on the periphery of her consciousness, the meaning of those lines. Her fingers twitch, the ghost motions of creation almost at hand. Makers of new universes, she thinks. What they called themselves. Her and her friends.
Her undoing comes to her with the clarity of a picture book, the edges filling themselves in. She recalls nights without sleep in university, plugged into machines, working on new publications, playing the latest virtual reality MMORPG, switching back and forth between chats with friends in distant lands and those a few consoles down. Technology had no limits. She thinks of sleek cities, entwined with living biomes, giving as much as they took, powered by resources mined from uninhabited planets nearby in the solar system. Medical facilities capable of miracles. Centers of learning dedicated to transcending the limits of human perception, housed in sentient buildings and filled with gifted scholars from across the globe. She was connected always to multiple databases, able to pull facts and process figures the moment she considered a problem. It made them giddy, all of them, but they were restless, bored. There was still a lag between their own minds and tools they used, a gap in processing power. They were hitting the limits of the human brain, trapped in the physical experience.
What came next, when you’d stretched reality as far as it would go? When you’d conquered climate and space and disease: everything but death, and bodies, and time?
It had started out as a game. A flex board, suspended in space, flickers into her mind, scrawled on with new challenges every month, over years and years. “Challenge: build a working version of Maxwell’s Demon. If you can’t do it, you owe me lunch.”
“Challenge: break through the fourth dimension like you would the fourth wall. Document your efforts in interpretative dance.”
“Challenge: create an accurate catalogue for the Total Library. Fail and you buy my drinks for a month.”
Challenges, though impossible, were always accepted. They began to lead to breakthroughs. No one expected it, but she supposed it was something like the infinite monkey theorem (the basis of at least three hilarious challenges). Instead of monkeys, though, you had some of the most brilliant and hungry minds in the world, banging away on machines of a sophistication and complexity no typewriter could match, eager to evolve, to change the universe.
They were on the cusp of the singularity. They weren’t the only group, but they were the most reckless. They didn’t protect their findings: in fact, they made them open source. And thus the virus spread.
Someone clears their throat behind her. It’s Newt, politely breaking into her reverie. “Yossarian took care of the intruder. It’s back in the basement now.”
“That’s good.” She closes her eyes. “I think I may have let it out. I went down there last night.”
“All the way down?”
“No. Just a couple of steps. But it was enough. And now I know what I did to wind up here, or some of it. You were right about the games. That’s how it all began, but it was an accident.” She rubs her forehead. “I can’t remember exactly how it happened. But I did want … this. Something like this. We all did. We wanted to experience a new reality. To pull away the veil. The human body was an outdated model—that’s what we thought. We had to evolve.”
“You didn’t think about the consequences.”
No, they didn’t thought about the consequences. They didn’t realize evolution would render them immediately obsolete. She remembers the slippery dread, the realization that they were losing control of their project. A perfect world, they saw too late, has no place for human beings. A perfect world runs on its own.
“I can’t believe we could have changed things like this.” She presses her forehead to the glass. “Shouldn’t it have been harder?”
“That’s superstition, not science. Nothing’s going to stop you but the laws of physics, and even those were written down by man. Who do you think is going to stop you from changing the world?”
He was right. The universe had evolved by chance, following its own natural logical rhythm; of course it could be un-puzzled. Of course consciousness could evolve along with it. “We should have been more careful.”
“You should have been more careful,” Newt echoes. “But you got what you wanted. If it ever matters again, remember that when you start experimenting. Science is magic that works.”
He leaves her standing there, staring into space. The house spins on, into the void. Everyone else is gone. Trapped in their own virtual realities, maybe. Or dead. Corrupted by the virus that spread through their links, to every plugged-in system in existence, pushing consciousness to the next level. They transcended the physical. They got what they wanted. And here she is, alone. Awake all night in the infinite library.
She’s stopped making the mark.
The days, the nights, the no-times: they pass unnoticed. She spends long stretches in her bed. The party no longer seems like temptation, but a trap. She isn’t going home, and they will devour her, those fragments in the basement, those guests she pretended could replace her lost world. Like she once devoured them. She can’t escape this messy ouroboros. She made it. She got what she wanted: access to the all the knowledge of the universe, unfiltered, and time enough at last to explore its mysteries. But it means nothing on its own. It means nothing if she herself is only bits of data, left to float in the void.
“Feeling sorry for yourself?”
She sits straight up. Yossarian stands in the doorway. “I didn’t know you could come up here.”
“I can go anywhere. Anywhere but home.” He comes to sit on the edge of the bed. “I haven’t seen you in a while. And don’t take this the wrong way—you’re still a beautiful woman—but you look like hell.”
“I’m in hell.”
“I am. And I made it myself. I did this. Trapped myself here. And those things down in the basement, and up above—they’ll get me, Yossarian. If I’m here forever, they’ll take over the house, and my mind too. I can already feel—” She can feel the long stretch of eternity, laid out before her. She knows she will search out the things in the shadows, eventually. She can’t help herself. “We don’t have control anymore. Humans, or whatever I am. This isn’t a world of reason or beauty. It’s a world of chaos.”
“It was always a world of chaos.”
“Not like this. It’s never been so dark.”
“I once saw a man freeze to death in the blazing summertime, and another get sliced in half by a propeller on a day at the beach. It’s always been like this.”
“We were trying to escape that. That’s what this was all for.”
“You can’t.” He shook his head. “Hell, I can’t, and I already know how my story ends. That’s the secret: man is matter. No one’s safe. The only thing you can escape is the thing you know is killing you. If this place is driving you insane, leave.”
“I can’t. I don’t have a choice.”
He puts his hand on her arm. “This feels solid, but it isn’t. You know that. If you’re here, there’s something left of you in your old world. It might only be pulp, but it’s alive. And now you’ve got to decide if you want it back.”
His grip is tight, but she knows it’s an illusion. The world that came before was woven from illusion, too. She’s caught in between them. Between the world she knew, where she could pretend a higher reason ruled, and the new one she’s made.
Yossarian drops his hand. “Come with me downstairs for an hour. You’ve got a team that wants to talk to you. They want to help. There’s always a new plan to try, Ishmael or whoever-you-are. Believe me, I know.”
In the end she follows him. A collection of guests is waiting for her in the parlor. And her friends: Newt, the sailor with the holy tattoos, Meg-and-Charles-Wallace, the old man with the folded-up ears. There’s the blond man whose life was ruined by art, and a lecherous man dressed like a marquis who keeps leering at the girls she saw hiding under the couch the other night. Others join the clutch as she approaches. They all have suggestions, ideas.
“You need a signal. A sign,” says the woman in the psychedelic muumuu.
A small boy clutching a large conch steps up. “You need a signal fire.”
All the guests recoil at the word “fire.” But the blond boy, half of Meg-and-Charles-Wallace, backs him up. “They’re right. You need a signal; a trail for them to follow. The house is huge. You need to give them a way to find you, if they’re looking.”
“But how?” She’s not hopeful, but she’s touched by their efforts. They’ll be abandoned if she leaves. They’ll lose this connection, this ultimate validation. They’ll never be as real again.
They volunteer, one by one. “Use us.”
“It’s what we’re meant for.”
“Think of us as palimpsests.”
She shakes her head. “You’re more than that.”
The old man, her oldest friend, steps forward. “We are. But we’re tools, too. We put ourselves in your hands. We’ll do it for you. If you want to go back—we’ll do it for you.”
She looks around the circle. “Even if I wanted to … what could I do? I’d have to change you, somehow. Send out a permanent sign to anyone who might still be looking.”
The tattooed man gestures down length of his body. “We’re living parchment. Mark your message down.”
A few of the guests nod. The blond man stalks off, alone. He’s already a work of art, she figures. Doesn’t want any damage done to that pretty face.
She looks at Newt. “It’s an actual change in their composition. It could work, couldn’t it?”
A small shrug. He doesn’t want to tell her no.
“One problem.” Yossarian raises his hand. “This house has no ink.”
“It’s like the candles. Superstition. No one wants—well, no one wants exactly this scenario to happen, in fact.”
“You don’t have to write with ink,” says the marquis, sniffing a little. “Use whatever’s at hand. Your own body can supply what you need. It’s a remarkable thing.”
She raises an eyebrow, glancing at Yossarian. “Uncle Pervert’s got a point. Kind of. Could we use the beverages? Or anything else liquid? All these rooms are different—they must have all kinds of stuff.”
“Don’t know.” He grins. “But it would be fun to try.”
They find an old blender, its plastic peeling and yellow, but it still works when they plug it in. They try all sorts of combinations, scavenged by teams of guests, spread out through the house. Caviar. Pencil lead. Ketchup. Wine. Oils. Juice from vegetables, leeks and beets and berries. Wood from the furniture, ground down and pulped. Bits of old clothes. Corroded bronze scraped from door frames and the old coins her friend in the toga hoards. They test the ink on Yossarian’s skin, and prick after prick, it fails.
“There’s something else it needs.” The blond boy takes her hand, turning it over. “Your DNA. Your code.”
She looks down at her palm. “My blood.”
“Yes. Your signature, so that they’ll know it’s you. So that they’ll know what to look for.”
It hurts. She holds the old man, weeping into his arms, and they draw it out of her. She doesn’t know how much. They only tell her when it’s done. The ink is dark, red turning to black. When she regains her strength, when the house replenishes her, she begins to write.
She writes in all the languages she knows, and many she doesn’t. She tries Morse code, and pictographs, and any other sign that might signify her distress. Guests come up to her, guiding her hands, tracing the phrases on flesh. The same words, again and again. I’m here. Help. I’m here. Help. And then the mark from her ceiling, that long straight line. She writes what she remembers of her story, crammed in anywhere she can fit it. She draws maps and outlines of faces, hoping something will catch the attention of someone out there still searching. Someone she knew, or someone for whom she’s just a story.
She marks herself down on the willing skin. Her hands weary, but she presses on. Hours pass; maybe longer. The bodies line up before her. She may put herself down on thousands before they come. If they come. If any part of the old world still exists, to give her meaning, to guide her back home.
It’s a murmur, at first. From somewhere in the back. From the first ones to offer themselves up. And then it creeps across the room, more moan than word. Her head aches from strange fumes. She’s hearing things. She’s hearing each of the guests begin to speak. Over and over. And it sounds like—
Every one is saying her name.
She shoots up, whirling around the room. On all sides, naked guests, decorated in every kind of script, begin to utter the same sound.
Elif. Elif. Elif.
Yossarian grabs her hand. “There.”
She looks where he’s pointing, and sees the stars beyond the windows. They’re moving faster. Arranging themselves into lines, speeding past the glass. “They’re trying to get you out. Your buddies—they’re coming for you.”
She closes her eyes. She’s already among friends. But this party, like every party, has an end. Her old world, or what’s left of it, is crashing through the door. She can hear it now. She can hear the unruly speech of the real. It blends with the screech of the orchestrion, dancing, twisting through its notes, and she realizes, in the final moments—oh, of course!—that this is the way the music was meant to play.