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Year:
2008
Publisher:
Paw Prints
Language:
english
ISBN 13:
9781439514931
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House of Stairs

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eVersion 1.0





House of Stairs


by William Sleator


1974

Jacket Text

Part One

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10



Part Two

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20



Epilogue

Publication Info



Jacket Text

Peter. Lola. Blossom. Abigail. Oliver. Five sixteen-year-olds. All orphans. All living in state institutions. Until they were brought one by one to the place which was not a hospital and not a prison and not like anything any of them had ever seen. No walls, no ceiling, no floor. Nothing but stairs—and the red machine.

William Sleator, author of Blackbriar and Run, has used his imaginative sense of suspense and characterization for a highly readable and chilling story of an all-too-possible future.



* * *



This book is dedicated to

all the rats and pigeons

who have already been here





Part One





Chapter 1


The whirring around them had been going on for quite a long time. It sounded as though they were in an elevator, but the movement was so smooth that he could not tell whether they were being carried up or down or even to the side. Once again, as they had done several times in the past hour, his hands moved involuntarily to reach up and push the blindfold away from his eyes; and once again they were stopped by the cord that bound his wrists. But he did not struggle against the cord. Peter never struggled.

After a time the whirring stopped. The cord was removed, and he was pushed gently forward. Quick, efficient hands untied his blindfold and pulled it off. The door behind him slid shut, the whirring began, faded away, and he was alone.

For a moment he could not see, quickly closing his eyes against the white glare. He closed them again just as quickly, suddenly dizzy, after his first clear look at where he was. It was very cautiously that he opened them for the third time.

All he could see were stairs. The high, narrow lan; ding on which he stood seemed to be the only flat place there was, and above and below him, growing smaller in the distance, were only flights of steps. Without railings they rose and fell at alarming angles, forking, occasionally spiraling, rising briefly together only to veer apart again, crossing above and below one another, connected at rare intervals by thin bridges spanning deep gulfs. Nothing supported them; the glossy white material from which they were made seemed to be strong enough to arch alone across great distances. They were not outdoors, the all-pervasive yet indirect glare came from artificial light, but he could see no walls, floor, or ceiling. Only stairs.

It was terrifying. The vast spaces on all sides of him, the precariousness of his position were enough to make his sight dim and the blood rush from his head. And the stairs, twisting around him in senseless complexity, endless, going nowhere, dizzied him, sending him stumbling backwards against—

He spun around, stopping himself just in time from plunging into the gleaming white void behind him. There was nothing there but empty space, and more stairs. But the elevator—there had to be a wall for the elevator to move in! But there was nothing. It must have been some sort of electronic bucket on a chain. Shaking, he sank to his knees at the base of a flight of steps leading up from the landing. He wrapped his arms around himself and dropped his head onto his chest, closing his eyes, and tried his best not to move, or to think.

Why had they put him here? It must be some kind of punishment, but what had he done wrong? They had been strange to him recently, he began to realize, going over the past week in his mind. The lingering looks he had noticed, as though he were ill; little extra gestures of concern, like the second piece of pie he had been given at lunch yesterday. While they had been happening he hadn’t seen any significance to them, but now, putting them all together, a pattern began to emerge. But it was not a pattern that should have led to punishment; it was more as though they knew he was about to undergo a dangerous operation.

But it didn’t make sense. This wasn’t a hospital, and it was punishment. It was horrible here. Even though his eyes were tightly shut he could not lose the feeling of where he was. The smallness and the vulnerability of his perch made his skin prickle and his head begin to spin again. No! he tried to tell himself, Think about something else, think about being in bed, under the covers. But before he could do that the other thought came, even more terrifying: How long am I going to be here? Involuntarily he moaned. Maybe it isn’t just going to be for a few minutes or hours; maybe I’ll be here for days; maybe forever.

He couldn’t bear it. Even an hour in this place would drive him mad. But maybe … maybe there was a way out, maybe he could escape.

Slowly he opened his eyes. Very carefully he moved his head around, without getting up, and looked up the steps behind him. If he was going to find a way out, he might as well start there. But they were so narrow, vanishing up into whiteness, so steep, so high, and there were no railings. No, he couldn’t go up them; he couldn’t go down either. What if he should get dizzy again, and slip, or take the wrong step? No, it was safer to stay here, and wait. Perhaps something would happen; perhaps they had made a mistake, and someone would come and get him out. He closed his eyes again, pressing himself against the stairs.





Chapter 2


Walking down the corridor at the old orphanage, the first orphanage, the one he loved. His room. His and Jasper’s room. The window seat, the two beds. Jasper looking up from his desk, smiling, glad to see him. Jasper saying something. Something very important. The most important message, the secret message. But the buses, the buses were so loud, he couldn’t hear him. “Louder, Jasper, louder!” But Jasper keeps smiling, keeps talking, doesn’t notice. Millions of voices, and the matron and the doctor are there, and the wardens and the social workers, and the foster parents, and Jasper is off in the corner, he can’t see him anymore, can’t hear him. What was the message, Jasper? What was the message?

A shiver went through him. He swayed, lifting his sweaty forehead from his arms. It took him a moment to realize where he was, and that he must have been dreaming. The dream had been beautiful at the beginning, terrible at the end, but he longed to be in it again. If only he hadn’t awakened!

That was when he noticed the figure moving far below him. A very small figure with dark hair, walking up a flight of steps. His heart began to beat furiously. He started to call out, but at the first croaking sound his voice caught in his throat, and he blushed. Very slowly and cautiously, resting his hand on a step, he stood up. He began to be conscious of the regular sound of footsteps in the vast quietness, as the person below marched up the stairs. Obviously it was someone familiar with this place, for there was no hesitation in his gait, no apprehension as he looked calmly from side to side. It must be someone coming to get him out. I have to call out to him, Peter said to himself. What if he doesn’t find me, and goes away, and just leaves me here?

This thought was enough to bring out his voice. “Hey?” he said falteringly, and then more loudly, “Hey!” Still not a shout, but enough to make the figure below stop and look around. “Up here!” Peter stammered. “Above you!”

The black head below him suddenly became white as the person looked up at him. The hair was quite short, but the pointed face was thin and delicate, and Peter could not tell if it was a boy or a girl. The voice, however, though rather rough, was distinctly feminine. “Hey!” she shouted up at him, her words carrying clearly across the space between them. “What is this?”

“Wh-what?” Peter murmured, more to himself than to her. But that must mean she didn’t know any more than he did! The disappointment made him feel faint. “But don’t you know?” he said.

“Speak up!” she shouted, her hand at her ear. “Can’t hear you!”

“But don’t you even know?” he screamed, clenching his fists, his throat suddenly clogged with tears. “Don’t you know?”

“No, I do not know!” she shouted back, her hands on her hips, “but I’m gonna find out pretty quick.” And she began running up the stairs.

As she bounded toward him, he reflected that even if she couldn’t get him out, it was probably better to have her here than to be alone. Although she was a bit frightening; he wished it could have been someone who seemed gentler. He looked aside as she reached his landing, too shy to meet her gaze.

She was a little shorter than he, and had to stand quite close, the landing was so small. He turned to look at her. But the black eyes in her olive-skinned face were so direct and penetrating, yet speculative, that he quickly looked away again.

“So you don’t know where the hell we are either?” she said.

Peter shook his head, a little startled by her use of profanity. “No … um, somebody … they just took me here, they blindfolded me and just left me here. I don’t know anything.”

“Me either. And they pulled that blindfold stunt on me, too. I knew they had it in for me, but I never thought they’d do anything like this. Who brought you here, anyway? I mean, you must have known who it was, if they took you away from home and all.”

“But they didn’t. I mean … I don’t have a home. I don’t have any parents. I live in an orphanage.”

“So do I.”

“You do?”

She nodded.

“So today they just called me to the office,” he continued, looking down at his feet, “and blindfolded me, and told me to go with the person who was there. And they tied my hands—”

“Can’t you talk any louder? I’m right next to you and I can hardly hear a thing you’re saying.”

He raised his voice with an effort. “And took me in this car, and brought me here, and took the blindfold off, and that’s all.”

“Yeah, same with me. Except I thought I knew what they were doing. They’d been threatening to throw me in reform school for months, and after that last little trick I pulled—” She paused and chuckled to herself, “—after that, I thought, sure thing, they finally did it. But you— hey, look at me, I don’t bite—”

He raised his head, his eyes wavering across her face.

“You don’t exactly seem the type who’d do anything, ah, anything they’d get after you for.”

“No,” he said, “I never did anything they didn’t like. That’s why I can’t understand why … why they did this to me.”

“Yeah. Well I don’t get it either, because if you’re here it couldn’t be like a punishment thing. So you’re an orphan, too. That’s kind of interesting. It must mean something….”

“Mmm,” he said. It was awkward, standing so close to her, so carefully he stepped back and sat down on the second step, looking over both sides to make sure he was exactly in the middle.

“But the question is, how do we get out?” she went on. “Got any ideas?”

He shook his head.

“Yeah. Well, let’s see….” She was wearing jeans and a tight black T-shirt, standing with her feet apart and her arms folded across her thin chest. She took a package of cigarettes out of her pants pocket and held it out to him; he shook his head. Smoking was a serious offense, but she seemed perfectly comfortable as she pulled out a cigarette with her lips, lit the match with one hand and brought it to the tip of the cigarette, then flicked the match down into the void.

“Let’s see,” she continued, blowing out smoke. “The thing I can’t figure out is, are we aboveground, underground, or what. I mean, if we knew we were aboveground, the way out would be down there; if we knew we were underground, the way out would be up. Could you tell, when they brought you here?”

“No.”

“Neither could I. That must have been part of it, the rats; not to let us know where we are.”

“What—” He hesitated, then went on. “What was the … the trick you said you did?”

“Huh? Oh, that!” She smiled. It was a conspiratorial smile; and her eyes, wrinkling at the corners, lost some of their wariness. “See, there’s this big cow of a matron at the house I live in, and she really hates my guts. God, all the extra stuff I always have to do! And lectures, ‘Young ladies don’t do this, young ladies don’t do that,’ it all made me want to puke. So the other day …” She giggled, “I snuck into the science room (you can get past the electric eyes if you crawl, you know), and there’s this snake there, in a cage. Just a black snake, scared to death of people. So I broke open the cage and took the snake—”

“You picked it up?”

“Sure. Why not? And I took it down the hall—I had to hide it under my shirt so they wouldn’t see it on the video screens—and got into the matron’s room. That was kind of tricky, I had to get in through the window by climbing out along this ledge with that snake squirming all over me. And then I put it in her bed, and got the hell out of there. Not that it made any difference; she knew it was me, of course.”

“But what happened?”

“Well, I sort of wanted to hang around that end of the building, but of course there’s bed check, and anyway, it would have been kind of suspicious. It didn’t matter in the end, the way she yelled, the whole dormitory heard it. Everybody sat up in bed, saying, ‘What’s that? What’s that?’” She mimicked mousy feminine voices. “But I kept my mouth shut, not wanting to give myself away.” She took a deep drag on her cigarette and dropped it casually over the edge. “They dragged me into her office the next morning, and she didn’t even bawl me out, she was just real quiet and tense, it was kind of scary. But worth it, to hear the old cow scream like that…. Anyway, that was two days ago, and now they blindfold me and bring me here. I thought it was because of that, but now, I don’t know.”

“Mmmm,” Peter said.

“You sure don’t talk much. What’s your name? Mine’s Lola.”

“Peter.”

“How old are you? I’m sixteen.”

“So am I.”

“Hmmm, that’s also kind of interesting. Both from state ‘homes’”—she said the word with an ironic twist—“and both sixteen.”

“I don’t care if it’s interesting or not,” he forced himself to say. “I just want to get out of here. I hate it!”

“Well, if you hate it so much, kiddo, why don’t you do something about it?”

“Oh, I don’t know….” His voice trailed off again from its brief emotional burst, returning to the barely audible murmur in which he habitually spoke. “What is there to do? Just …” He sighed, “just wait until they come to get us out.”

“But who says they’re gonna come and get us out, huh? I’m not gonna wait around in this … this …” She gestured, “this … place till some administrator out there remembers we’re here. I’m gonna find the way out. And if you don’t want to stay here till you starve to death, I’d advise you to come with me. I don’t know what they’re trying to do, but I don’t trust them, not one little bit. Come on!”

“But….” He remembered how confidently she had negotiated the steps, and his own fears. But she was probably right; his only hope was to go with her. He got to his feet, rather unsteadily, not looking down.

“Now, up or down? Don’t you have any ideas?” She paused only briefly. “All right, I'll say … down. This place is just too big to be underground.” And she started down the steps at a quick pace.

He began following her very slowly. It was horrible; every time he took a step he pictured himself plunging forward into empty space. He went carefully, setting both feet firmly on each step before descending to the next. Very soon she was far below him.

She stopped to wait for him at another small landing. “Can’t you go any faster?” she said when he approached.

“We’ll never get anyhere at this rate.”

“But I …” he began. It was useless; she, who was so unafraid, would never understand. The hopelessness of the situation rose up inside him in a wave of self-pity. He swallowed, unable to keep his eyes from filling with tears.

She was watching his face. “Oh, well,” she said, her voice suddenly softer. “Big deal. It probably doesn’t make any difference anyway. Go as slow as you want. I’ll stay with you.”

She kept just ahead of him as they went on, turning back often to talk. “So what’s your life story? What about your parents? Did you ever know them?”

“No. I … can’t remember anything about them. They told me that my father … died in the war—”

“Same as everybody else.”

“—and my mother … she died in a car crash.”

“What kinda place they put you in?”

“Oh … different ones.”

“Yeah? What were they like?”

He thought of the first place, the one they had moved him from just three years ago. It had been an old building, with windows that opened and every room a different shape, with beds and desks that weren’t part of the wall and they let you move around the way you wanted. The one where the matron had especially liked him, and the teachers had been interesting and kind. The one where he and Jasper had been roommates, and best friends. Jasper, who had always taken care of him. He would probably never see Jasper again….

“Well?”

“Oh.” He had forgotten where he was, losing himself in memories; but somehow he had managed to keep walking. “I was in one place … for a long time. It was … it was real good there.” She looked back, noticing the new sound in his voice, then turned quickly away. “But then, they moved me, three years ago, to another place—”

“The rats!” she interrupted quietly, but with surprising vehemence.

“—that was real big, and … I didn’t know anybody. Then they kept moving me to different ones, because I kept … not adjusting. And then, today I thought, I thought they were just taking me to another one.”

“Yeah,” she said, and stopped walking. They had reached another landing, where the stairway divided into three parts: two flights going up, and a narrow bridge without railings fifteen feet long, connecting to another flight. There was still no bottom in sight, just more stairs crisscrossing below them.

“We’re not getting anywhere,” Lola said, looking down. “Except it seems like there’s more stairs down there, closer together.” She turned to him. “Listen, we’re gonna have to cross that bridge. I know you don’t want to, but it’s the only way to keep going down. I’ll go first.”

The bridge was only about a foot wide, arching slightly. Even Lola seemed rather hesitant as she stepped onto it, and it took Peter nearly ten minutes to inch his way across. Down they continued, until suddenly Lola stopped short and he almost bumped into her. “Wait a minute,” she said slowly. “Something weird here…. It’s getting harder and harder to go down. I mean, there’s all those stairs down there but….” From the landing below them, three flights went up, none went down. “But it’s like they don’t want us to get to them.” She looked behind her. “Sorry, kid, but we’re gonna have to go back and take that bridge up there. This way goes nowhere.”

Backtracking became more frequent, for it was difficult to see very far ahead, and any direction that looked promising seemed eventually to direct them upward again. Nevertheless there were always stairs below them to hide whatever bottom there might be. Their progress became more horizontal than vertical, with more bridges to negotiate, and these continued to be a trial for Peter. At last Lola noticed his shaken condition. “Hey, wanna sit down?” she said, as they stepped off a bridge onto a landing hardly big enough for them both.

“Oh, yes,” he said gratefully, and immediately sat down on a step. Lola reclined across from him, stretching out her legs and resting her feet on either side of his. She lit another cigarette, then put her hands behind her head as she puffed, the cigarette dangling from her thin lips.

“Now I’m beginning to figure this place out,” she said. “Maybe there is a way out down there, or up there,” she jerked her head in that direction. “But they don’t want us to get to it. These cruddy stairs just don’t connect. There’s no way to get to those stairs down there.”

“Mmm,” he said. Inside himself he knew that the situation was, of course, hopeless; and that it was only a matter of time until even she would have to give up. But in the meantime it was diverting to follow along after her; there was, after all, nothing else to do, except dream.





Chapter 3


Lola watched the pale, fleshy face in its frame of whitish blond hair slowly grow glazed, the eyes staring off unfocused into the distance. She had already typed him as one of those shy, sensitive creeps. The kind who never wanted to have any fun because he was always afraid of getting caught. Why didn’t he realize that the whole point was to get away with things, to prove that you were better than all those stupid administrators, with all their stupid rules?

So now they had put her in here. She glanced around again. In a way she was almost glad. It was better than being in solitary or cleaning the toilets. It was more interesting, for one thing, and kind of a challenge. The question was, why had they put him here? He had obviously never dared to break a rule in his life. Sometime she would have to figure that one out.

In the meantime she was getting hungry. Now that she had decided, for the time being, to stop looking for the way out, food was beginning to be her main concern. Food had always come regularly before, but now that the situation she was in was completely different and unknown, it was possible that the food situation might be different too. Assuming they were going to be here for any length of time, it somehow didn’t seem possible that someone would come and bring it to them—that just wouldn’t fit in with this place. What if there wasn’t going to be any food, then what would she do?

She tossed her cigarette away and looked at Peter. “Hey!” she said. He started, and his eyes came back to her face. “You hungry?” she asked.

“Um … no, I … I wasn’t thinking about it.”

The mumbling, hesitant quality of his speech irritated her. She did feel sorry for the poor kid; he’d probably had it rough; but it would have been better to be here with somebody who could help. She was going to have to take care of him as well as herself. “Well, I’m hungry,” she said, and stood up. “Come on, come on, honey, you’ve had your rest. Time to get moving again.”

Now she proceeded in an upward direction, but also moving across, changing stairways frequently. She knew it was rather aimless; but she also knew that the only thing to do was to explore, to see as much as possible, in the faint hope that something might be different somewhere. But even in a million years would she ever get to know this place? It was impossible to tell whether or not they had been in a particular spot before, whether they were covering new ground or just going in circles. And it didn’t help to have to go so slow! Why couldn’t he get used to it?

She fought down a growing feeling of desperation. She couldn’t give up, she had to keep believing that there might be a way out, that something might change. If there was anything at all to be done, she was determined to discover it; and since feeling desperate would only make it more difficult, she refused to allow herself that luxury.

Being ravenously hungry, of course, did not help. She had only missed one, perhaps two meals, and already it was growing more and more difficult to ignore the empty feeling in her stomach. How would she feel after another day or two? She had always tried to be tough, and was determined not to weaken now, but she had never really been faced with hunger before, and was not sure how to handle it. She even began to imagine that she was smelling food, and cursed herself for being so vulnerable.

And then she stopped, motioning behind her with her hand for Peter to keep quiet. She waited, hardly breathing, and the sound came again. It was an undefinable series of noises, partly whirring and mechanical, but also strangely moist. Slurping, she would have called it. “Did you hear that?” she asked, turning to Peter.

“I guess …,” he said vaguely.

“Well, listen! I want to know what you think it is. You’ve got to do something to help, every once in a while!”

His eyes grew moist.

“And don’t start crying. I’m being nicer than you deserve. Just listen!”

“Yes … I hear it, for sure,” he said at last. “It sounds like … like some kind of machine that makes animal noises.”

“Yeah. It sounds kinda like that to me too.” She was indecisive only for a moment. Though there was certainly something menacing about the sound, any change would be better than this endless and aimless climbing. “Let’s see, it sounds like it’s over there….”

At first it was difficult to tell exactly which way to go, but after a few wrong guesses the sound began to grow steadily nearer. Soon it was quite clear that it was coming from a landing directly above them. The sound was quite regular: a whirring, a few soft clicks, then wet, chewing noises, a little pause, and the whirring would begin the pattern again. And the smell of food—of good food—was stronger now. Perhaps it wasn’t just her imagination.

The spiral stairway they were climbing led to a round hole in the landing, near the edge, through which they would have to climb to reach the top. Lola paused for a moment, her head just below the hole, then took three quick steps and poked her head through.

One inch from her nose was a bulge of white cloth, and it took her a moment to realize that it was a person, sitting on the floor with her back to the hole. A very fat person, with an abundance of golden curls tumbling down over her round back to the bulges at her waist. Still silently, Lola crept up a few more steps until she could peer over the girl’s shoulder. In front of the girl, built into the floor, was a plastic hemisphere about a foot in diameter, made up of many diamond-shaped facets. It was red, and had a faint glow. As Lola watched, the girl leaned forward, peered into the plastic, and stuck out her tongue. Immediately the whirring began, then the clicks, and a brown cylinder rolled out of the slot. The girl was ready for it, her hand poised, and it had hardly appeared before it was in her mouth. Then came the animal sounds.

Stifling a gasp, Lola watched in amazement. Without pausing, the girl leaned forward the instant she had swallowed the food and stuck out her tongue again. There was the whirring, the clicking, the brown cylinder rolling into her hand, and then the noisy eating.

The next time, Lola was ready. Moving quickly, she leaped to the landing and grabbed the cylinder the instant it appeared.

The girl shrieked, and Peter’s head bobbed down out of sight through the hole. Her hand over her mouth, the girl stared at Lola. Her features seemed small, lost in mounds of pink flesh; and her body jiggled underneath the white ruffles of her dress as she pressed herself backwards against a flight of steps. Lola was poised on the lower steps of another flight, across from the girl, her arms folded across her chest and the cylinder swinging casually from one hand.

“Oh, my,” the girl said, taking her hand from her mouth and pressing it against her. “Oh, my, you scared me!”

“Well what else could I do, seeing you eating up all that food and me starving to death, huh?” Lola smiled thinly at her, her head to one side.

“Yes, but—” said the girl, and then uttered another little squeal as Peter poked up his head once again.

“Come on up, Pete,” Lola said. “There isn’t much room up here, but there’s food.”

The landing was a sort of crossroads, four flights of steps rising up from it, each opposite another, as well as the spiral stairway from below. The hole and the food apparatus and the fat girl took up all the floor space, so Peter sat down hesitantly on one of the stairways.

If she had to pick the two worst people in the world to be here with, Lola reflected with irony, it would certainly be these creeps. She studied the cylinder in her hand. It was different from the synthetic protein she was used to, and had a tantalizing smell. She bit off the end and began to chew. An incredibly rich, succulent flavor filled her mouth. She took another bite, and another, suddenly understanding the fat girl’s piggishness. It was the most delicious thing she had ever tasted.

“My God!” she said, swallowing the last bit. “What is this? It’s fantastic!”

“Meat,” said the girl. Her voice was high-pitched and babyish. “It’s real meat. I can tell.” She was staring at Lola; there was an unexpected hardness in her small eyes. They were like a doll’s eyes, strangely emotionless; and, to her surprise, Lola felt a pang of fear. But in a moment the girl looked down and edged toward the red structure on the floor.

“Hey,” said Lola, as the girl moved the next cylinder toward her mouth. The girl stopped, her mouth open, her eyes on Lola. “Give it to him,” Lola said slowly, making her voice as tough as possible; something about the girl’s eyes had put her on the defensive. “It might be the last one.”

The girl looked around to where Peter was sitting, and with obvious reluctance stretched her pudgy arm toward him. He took the meat and nibbled at it cautiously.

“And the next one’s mine,” Lola went on, nearly snarling. “You’ve had plenty.”

“Then get it yourself!” said the girl. She moved her rear end up onto a step. “I think you’re mean.”

Feeling foolish, Lola kneeled on the landing and bent over the screen. She stuck out her tongue. Nothing happened.

“Hey!” she said, and stuck it out again, farther, leaning closer to the glass. But again, nothing happened.

“Ha ha,” said the girl, not laughing. “It doesn’t work when you do it.”

Nor did it work when Lola made Peter do it, or when she tried again. At last, returning to her steps, Lola said, “Okay, you try again.”

And it worked. “Here,” said the girl, handing Peter the first piece. “You can have as much as you want. But she isn’t getting any. She’s too mean.”

“Aw, cut it out,” said Lola, trying to sound casual but actually feeling rather worried. “Look, I was just trying to make sure we got some too. I mean, who knows how much is in there? It could have run out any time.”

“But you didn’t have to be so mean about it,” said the girl, staring at Lola as she chewed. “And you didn’t have to scare me at first. You almost made me throw up. And I could have fallen off. You should be careful in a place like this, so high up and— Oh! What is this place anyway? When are they going to come and get us out?”

“We don’t know any more than you do. They may never come and get us out. Which is why we gotta try to get along, and share things.” It was almost more than Lola could bear, being so hungry, and at the mercy of this creature.

“You don’t know where we are either? Either of you?” said the girl. “But … but I don’t understand.” She swallowed, then leaned forward and stuck out her little red tongue automatically, reaching out her hand to catch the food without even looking at it. “I mean,” she went on, chewing, and pointedly ignoring Lola’s hungry eyes, “why did they bring me here? I didn’t do anything wrong. And all these steps, what are they for?”

“Wish I could answer that one for you,” said Lola. “And, ah, by the way, next time you get a chance, toss one of those sticks over this way.”

“Oh, all right,” said the girl, and handed her the next one.

Lola ate quickly. “How’d you figure out how to do that, anyway?” she said when she finished, lighting a cigarette.

“You smoke?” the girl said, amazed. “But I thought only—” Suddenly she stopped.

“Sure I smoke. I’m not gonna let anybody tell me what not to do. And you thought only what?”

“Oh, nothing, nothing,” the girl said quickly. “I didn’t mean anything.”

“Mmm,” said Lola, watching her, wondering what she was trying to cover up. “Well anyway, did they put you down right here, or what?”

“No. See, I was blindfolded, and they let me off somewhere up there,” she gestured vaguely. “So then, I didn’t understand, and I was afraid, and I didn’t know what to do, so I just waited there for awhile, but nothing happened. And then I thought, well, maybe there’s a way out, so I started walking down the steps.”

This babe is not nearly as helpless as she at first appears, thought Lola.

“Then I got to this landing, and I saw this screen and thought maybe it was a way of communicating. So I kept talking into it, and then yelling and screaming into it, but nothing happened, so I got mad and stuck out my tongue. And then the meat came out. At first I couldn’t figure out why, or what made it happen, and I tried everything, and it didn’t work, and then I stuck my tongue out again, and more meat came out, and then I knew.”

“How come you’re so sure it’s real meat?”

“I …” Suddenly the girl seemed confused. “I … I just know, that’s all. I … My mother and father.” She sighed. “They … they had it once.”

“Your mother and father? You mean you have parents?”

“So what if I do? What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing at all. It’s just that both of us are from state homes, and I sorta figured anybody else in this place would be too.”

“Well, as a matter of fact, I don’t have parents.” She looked down for a moment. “My mother and father … about a month ago, they died in a car crash. And since then, I’ve been in a weird place, this real high-security place, and they kept giving me these … these tests. It was horrible. Then today they brought me here.” Still kneeling on the landing, she leaned forward and stuck out her tongue. But this time there was no whir or click, and no more food.

Lola could not help but smile to herself at the girl’s attempts to get the machine to respond, having been in the same position herself just a little while before. The girl blew and puffed, dribbling little bits of saliva down onto the screen.

“You might as well give up,” Lola said at last, tossing away her cigarette. “The machine thinks you’ve had enough. And it’s right.”

“Oh, shut up!” said the girl, who seemed close to tears. “Ever since you came along you’ve been saying mean things, and bossing me around, and acting like I’m pitiful, and—”

“Who said—?”

“It isn’t just what you said, it was the way you acted. Because I’m fat, you think I’m not as good as you. But you’ll see, you’ll see who wins in the end. I hate you!”

“What the hell are you talking about, winning and stuff?” said Lola, stunned. “You act like we’re having a war or something.”

“We are. And you started it.”

“Oh, come off it. It’s stupid to fight. What I wanna know is, what made the machine work in the first place? Why in hell sticking out your tongue should make it work…. It doesn’t make any sense, no sense at all, like everything else here.” She looked in frustration from one face to the other. Peter’s was glazing over again, and the girl was staring petulantly off into the distance. Once more she cursed her luck for being in here with them; and she cursed it too for being in here at all. Yes, it was a game, a challenge, and she wanted to win. But it was a game with no apparent logic or rules. For the second time, but not for the last, black fingers of doubt crept into her usually confident mind.

“Hello,” said a voice from above, a gentle, musical voice. “I’m so glad I found you at last.”





Chapter 4


Peter was startled. No one had said anything for quite a while, and then suddenly there was this new voice. He looked up.

A girl was standing on the stairway across from him. She was slender and tall. Her face, with its small chin and rather prominent nose, was not exactly pretty; but her serene expression, and the pale, shining hair falling to her waist, made her beautiful. “I … heard your voices,” she said, looking back and forth between them, a tentative smile hovering around her thin lips. “And I’ve been looking for you for awhile. I was so glad. For a long time I thought I was … all alone here.”

“Uh … glad to see you,” Lola said. “Come on down.”

“Okay,” said the girl, sitting down on a step and tossing her hair back with her hand. Her gray institutional dress, which would have looked dreary on most people, was somehow flattering on her. “I’m kind of disappointed, actually. When I first heard voices I thought it meant I would be able to get out, or at least find out what was happening. But then I heard what you were just saying, about nothing making sense here, and I guess … well, you probably don’t know any more than me.”

“Right,” Lola said.

“But what were you saying about …” Her face twisted into a rather humorous, quizzical expression, “about sticking out your tongue, and making it work?”

“The food thing,” the fat girl said, pointing at the floor. “See? I found it first,” and she shot Lola a chilling glance, “and I figured out that if you stuck your tongue out at that screen, food would come out. Good food. But then she came along—and him too—and she kept being mean, and then it stopped working.”

“But how strange that it should work that way,” said the new girl, smiling around at the three of them. “Why …?”

Lola shrugged her shoulders. “Who knows? You hungry? Maybe it’ll work again.”

“No, no thanks. Not now.” There was a silence as the three of them stared at the newcomer. She shifted uncomfortably. “Well, um, what are your names? Mine’s Abigail.”

“Lola,” said Lola. “And this is Peter. And you?” She looked at the fat girl.

“Blossom,” the fat girl said, rather reluctantly but with a haughty toss of her head, and Lola snorted. “Blossom Pilkington,” she went on. “And you can just shut up! I knew you’d do that.”

Lola turned to Abigail. “You an orphan?” she asked.

Abigail nodded. “I never knew my parents. I’ve always lived in state homes. But how did you know?”

“Me and Peter are just the same.”

“I knew my parents,” Blossom said. “They died about a month ago. And before they died we lived in a real—” Suddenly she stopped, and then sighed.

Lola studied Blossom for a moment, then said, “And me and Peter are sixteen.”

“So am I,” said the others together.

“Well, so now we know everything,” Lola said, standing up and stretching. “But I wonder how many more sixteen-year-old orphans are gonna show up? If any.”

“It does seem sort of strange, that there’s a boy here,” Abigail said, looking at Peter. “You’d think they wouldn’t put us in here together.”

“Why?” said Lola. “After all, nothing in this place makes sense.” She put her hands on her hips. “But I’m getting tired of just sitting here. I wonder if there’s any other things like this?” She touched the screen with her foot. “And there’s a couple of other things I’m beginning to wonder: Is there any water around, for instance; and is there a toilet?”

“That’s right,” said Abigail.

“Yeah,” said Lola. “You can have all the food you want, but you can’t live if there’s no water. And we are gonna have to go to the bathroom sometime. We could always just do it off the edge—” (Blossom pursed her lips and looked down at her lap.) “—but that might get kinda messy after a while. And I bet there is a toilet somewhere, if we can only find it. This place is all so sparkling clean and pure; whatever it’s for, going on the floor isn’t part of it. I’m gonna look around. Anybody coming? … No? … Okay.” She turned and ran lightly up the stairs.

“Whew! Am I glad she’s gone,” Blossom said, the moment Lola was out of earshot.

“Why?” said Abigail. “What’s wrong with her?”

“I guess you didn’t notice. For some reason she was trying to be nice to you, but she was horrible to me. Wasn’t she?” she turned on Peter.

“Um … I don’t know.”

“But you heard the things she said,” Blossom insisted. “They were mean, you’ve got to admit it.”

What could he say? She was right in a sense, and he longed to agree with her, just to get her to leave him alone. But he did feel a vague loyalty to Lola, a reluctance to speak against her.

Finally, however, with both of them staring at him, he gave in. “Yes, she was mean, I guess.”

Did Blossom really smile slightly, or was it only a little twitch in her puffy cheek as she turned back to Abigail? “See?” she said. “He thought she was too.”

Abigail seemed rather embarrassed. “Oh, all right. But you can hardly blame anybody for acting funny in this place. It’s so scary, not knowing why we’re here, or what’s going to happen to us.”

“But you … you don’t seem frightened,” Peter said. “Even … even when you first found us, you were so … calm about it.”

“Was I?” Her pale cheeks flushed slightly. “Well, I am frightened, but I guess I don’t … I’m just the way I am.”

“Well, I’m not that frightened,” said Blossom. “I mean, somebody’s going to come and get us out pretty soon, of course. This is all just a big mistake. It has to be.”

Abigail’s eyes met Peter’s for a moment. There was really nothing to say, Blossom was so positive. Peter wanted to believe her, it would be so nice if he could. But he knew they didn’t make mistakes like this.

“You’ve been in state homes all your life?” Abigail asked him, breaking the silence that followed Blossom’s outburst.

He nodded. “And you?” he asked, trying to turn the conversation away from himself. “What … what kind of place were you in?”

“Oh, it was okay. I guess I’ve been lucky. It wasn’t one of those huge ones. It was kind of small, and the teachers were nice, and I have some good friends.”

“You mean you don’t hate it?” Blossom sounded incredulous.

“No.”

“But there must have been some teachers that were horrible, and some creepy kids that you hated.”

“Well, yes, there were, I guess.”

“Well, you don’t have to sound so snooty about it,” said Blossom. “What’s wrong with hating somebody? ‘Loathing is endless,’” she quoted in her high-pitched, nasal voice. “‘Hate is a bottomless cup. I pour and pour’ Did you ever hear that? It’s from some ancient play or something.”

“No.” Abigail seemed embarrassed again.

“That was the only good thing about being in the place I’ve been since my parents died.” She spoke of their death easily now, as though they had gone for a holiday at a resort development. “There were so many people to hate, that’s what was good about it. But I had friends too, good friends, at the school I went to before my parents died.” She paused. “Do you … do you want to know something? Something about my parents?” She looked eagerly back and forth between then, and her voice dropped to a whisper. “I probably shouldn’t tell you, I know I’m not supposed to talk about it, but … well, since they did put me in here with you, and everything is so strange, maybe it’s okay.” She folded her arms. “Anyway, I want to tell. I bet you won’t believe it. But it’s true, it’s really true.”

Suddenly Peter wanted to know what she was going to say. There was something strangely compelling about the eagerness in her voice; and Abigail, who had been staring into her lap, was now watching Blossom just as intently as he.

“Listen,” Blossom said. “Listen.” She spoke very slowly and distinctly. “We lived in a house. With real grass around it, and a live growing tree.” She sat up a little straighter, watching for their reaction.

“A house?” Abigail said. “But—”

“Yes.” Blossom nodded. “Some people still live in their own private houses. You didn’t know that, did you? Hardly anybody knows. I mean, the President lives in one, everybody knows that. But some of his top advisers do too, his chief aides and advisers. There’s a whole neighborhood with houses in it, and a big wall around it. Of course it’s a secret, because if anyone outside knew about the houses, they would think it wasn’t fair, and it would be bad for the administration’s image. So we went to a special school; they never let us meet outsiders. And our house had a swimming pool, and a special room to eat in, that wasn’t the kitchen, a room just for eating. And sometimes my mother even made our own food, and it was so good. Oh, it was so good.” She clasped her hands together, and for a moment her eyes slipped shut and her head tilted back in a kind of reverie.

Peter found that he was listening closely to her, hanging on every word, just as Abigail was doing. He couldn’t deny that Blossom could be fascinating, almost charming in some odd way. And even though her story was preposterous, she spoke with such intensity and conviction that it was difficult not to believe her.

“Really?” said Abigail skeptically.

“Yes,” Blossom insisted. “My father was a psychiatrist. He checked people out, people they were thinking of hiring. And that’s why we got to live in a house, and have meat every week, and a pool, even though all the press releases said we lived in residential megastructures like everybody else.”

Peter leaned back again. Blossom’s story was a direct contradiction of information that had been drummed into him for his whole life, but nevertheless he believed her. Why should I make it up? her tone implied with every matter-of-fact word. It was the same way when she had gotten him to admit that Lola was mean; Lola really had been mean, after all.

“I just thought of something,” Blossom said. “The food thing doesn’t work for me anymore, and it never worked for them, but maybe it would work for you. Why don’t you try it, Abigail?”

“I’m not really hungry,” Abigail said.

“Me either,” said Blossom. “But I mean, what else is there to do until they come to get us out? Come on, just try it? Just get down there and stick out your tongue.”

“Well …” said Abigail. She was clearly uncomfortable. Peter wished Blossom would leave her alone.

“But why not?” Blossom said. “Are you afraid?”

Abigail shook her head. “No. It’s just that … I’m not hungry now. And if you’re the only one it ever worked for, then you should probably try.”

“Well, all right,” said Blossom. “I’ll do it now. But I’ll get you to do it sometime.” And once again she began laboring awkwardly over the screen.

Peter closed his eyes. It was difficult at first to get into the daydream; the hard realities on the other side of his eyelids did not want to retreat. But gradually his head began to fill with warmth. The steps dissolved into a white mist, and back through the mist came his old room, his and Jasper’s room. Jasper, sitting on the bed and taking off his shoes, smiling, punching Peter on the shoulder and telling him not to worry. “You’re okay, Pete, you’re better than a hundred of those slobs put together. Tomorrow I’ll tell them so myself.” Jasper’s strong, hard body as he got into bed, so different from Peter’s. Strong, to protect him, to take care of him. Jasper, who always took care of him—

“What?” said a voice. It sounded real, but it was a familiar voice, and Peter knew it was part of his daydream. How strange, that the dream should sound so real. “What,” said the voice again, “are you doing down on the floor like that?” And there were footsteps, and he heard Blossom’s noises stop. But that voice, how could it be real? Apprehensively, he opened his eyes.

His feet on the spiral stairs, the top half of his body already through the hole, looking around at the three of them with an expression of amused bewilderment on his face, stood Jasper.





Chapter 5


Abigail hadn’t heard the boy approach either. She had been sitting there trying not to look at Blossom and making an effort not to get weepy about being here, when suddenly someone said something and there was a boy, a very attractive boy, climbing quickly up to the landing.

“What,” he said, looking around at them briskly, “are you doing down on the floor like that?” Blossom was perusing him from her kneeling position, and Peter was gaping at him, his usually expressionless face spread wide open in disbelief. Abigail couldn’t imagine why he should seem so surprised; it had been startling to see the boy appear, but it wasn’t as if he were a ghost or anything.

“Food,” Blossom said, pulling herself up to her step and still eyeing the boy. “Food used to come out of that slot. I was trying to make it come out again.” As she explained, the boy turned away from her to look appraisingly at Abigail. His eyes were a very intense shade of blue-gray. Abigail met his gaze for a moment, then looked down, a flutter of excitement beginning in her stomach. Already his arrival had changed the situation completely for her. Blossom and Lola, after all, were girls. And Peter, though he seemed nice, wasn’t very good-looking and was so terribly shy. But this new boy! He was just the kind of boy who got her all stirred up, who distracted her, who made it practically impossible to think about anything else. And even though she knew that it was wrong to have such feelings, she could not make them go away.

She looked up at him again. He already seemed slightly bored by Blossom’s explanation of the food machine, staring off into the distance and tapping his foot restlessly. His dark blond hair was just curly enough, Abigail reflected, and just the right length to set off the planes of his lean face. He was wearing athletic clothes—a white T-shirt and gray sweat pants—but they certainly looked good on him: It was clear that the body underneath, which he held erectly, was hard and smooth-muscled.

And of course it wasn’t just the way he looked, it was the confidence and energy and potential high spirits that he exuded. They rippled in the air around him like waves from a pebble tossed into a pond. Though his presence made her tense, Abigail nevertheless felt suddenly more comfortable, more at home, than she had felt since she had entered this place.

Peter was still gaping at him, but now he seemed puzzled. “And now it doesn’t work at all, nobody can make it work,” Blossom finished, and, with a quick glance in Abigail’s direction, the boy turned to Peter, really looking at him for the first time. Abigail felt her heart contract in a sudden spasm of pity—the expression on Peter’s face had become so unutterably pleading and pathetic, like a begging dog looking up at his master. But why?

The new boy didn’t seem to notice. “So,” he said, “you the only other guy? Anybody else around?”

Peter was studying his face intensely. And all at once his expression faded, the life in it suddenly draining away. He looked down.

“Huh?” said the boy.

“Um … there’s another girl,” Peter said, his voice fuzzy. “Lola. We haven’t found anyone else yet.”

“So it’s us two guys alone with three girls, huh?” Grinning, the boy cuffed him lightly on the shoulder and Peter flinched. Then he sighed and looked up again.

“What … what’s your name?” Peter said.

“Oliver.” He turned and stepped lightly over to the empty flight, sat down, resting his elbows on a step behind, and looked around at them again. “Two guys and three girls,” he went on. “So far. And nobody knows a thing. Including me. There I am, just leaving the locker room to go to soccer practice, and they call my name over the loud-speaker to come to the office, and then they blindfold me, and bring me to this … this crazy place.”

“The same thing happened to all of us,” said Blossom. “And we’re all orphans, and all sixteen.”

“Really? No kidding! Me too.” He chuckled briefly, shaking his head. It bothered Abigail a little. He was taking the whole thing too lightly; somehow it didn’t seem real.

“Well, I think they’re going to come and get us out pretty soon,” said Blossom. “I mean, they have to. I don’t deserve to be here. That other girl, Lola, thinks they’re just going to leave us here, and maybe that’s what they’re going to do to her, but—”

“But she might be right,” Abigail interrupted, turning from Blossom to look Oliver briefly in the eye. “It couldn’t be a mistake, it’s all too crazy and coincidental. Don’t you think so? I’m really kind of scared. It’s so … uncomfortable here, and who knows what might happen next? What … what do you think?”

“I don’t think anything yet,” said Oliver. “Who can think in this place?” He looked casually over his shoulder at the empty space below him. “But it sure beats solid geometry by a mile, I can tell you that!”

“But,” said Peter, “but what if … what if they leave us here for a long time? I … I don’t think I could stand it. I mean … I mean, there’s nothing to lean against, nothing that feels safe. I just can’t stop thinking that … that….” He stopped.

Abigail had never heard him say so much at one time.

“Stop thinking what?” Oliver said. “Come on, you can tell us.”

“I … thinking that I’m going to fall,” said Peter, and looked down at his feet.

“Yeah, and who isn’t?” said Oliver. “But you’re not going to fall unless you want to—or unless somebody pushes you, and I don’t think I’m going to push you. And I don’t think these girls want to push you either, do they?”

“I wouldn’t mind pushing Lola,” Blossom murmured.

“Say, where is this Lola, anyway?” Oliver asked.

“She went to find a toilet,” said Abigail. “She thought if there was a food machine, there would probably be a toilet somewhere. And water. It makes sense. Somebody should have gone with her, I guess, but I was so tired of walking around.”

Oliver was watching her. “And what’s your name?” he asked.

“Abigail.” She forced herself not to look away from him.

“And I’m Blossom.”

“Blossom, huh. And my buddy there, what’s your name?” He was still watching Abigail. When no answer came from Peter, he looked over at his face.

“Peter.”

“Uh-huh. So it’s Oliver, Abigail, Peter, Blossom, and— don’t tell me—Lola!”

He was making it all seem like a game. Abigail couldn’t understand how he could be so jaunty about the situation, but she was beginning to accept it, to drift with the mood he was creating. Peter, after his brief look of despair, now seemed more alert than he had ever been, gazing at Oliver in that doglike way. And Blossom now seemed to be relaxing. Abigail sensed that he met with her approval.

“Yes, Lola,” Blossom sighed. “If only she wasn’t here! Everybody else is nice.”

For a moment no one spoke. Abigail wished Blossom would stop talking that way, it was embarrassing, and so pointless.

“Well anyway,” Oliver said, “here we all are. We might as well enjoy ourselves while we’re waiting.”

“Well, maybe we should try to make the food thing work,” said Blossom. “Maybe it would work for Oliver.”

“Sure, why shouldn’t it?” said Oliver. “They don’t want to starve us. Actually, I think it’s kind of fun here, like a dream in a video show. We should probably all be dancing and singing.” He stood up suddenly and jumped down to the landing. Spreading his arms, he began to sing, smiling at each of them as he turned in a small circle. “Just singin’ my cares away,” he sang. “On the happy little steppy steps. Just singin’ till my heart goes—” He stopped suddenly and reached out for Abigail’s hand, pulling her to her feet. “Come on, you too,” he said, swinging her arm and swaying back and forth. “Let’s give them a little show.”

Abigail had never been touched by a boy before, and though she felt a bit frightened and embarrassed, nevertheless the pressure and warmth of his hand were strangely thrilling. And he began singing again, funny nonsense words that made them all laugh, that made Abigail almost forget where they were.





Chapter 6


Their voices, when Lola heard them at last, meant that something strange was going on, that much she could tell as she made her way up the spiral flight. (Somehow she had ended up below them.) There was a lot of chatter, as though they were all talking at once, and laughter. The nerve of them, laughing! She had been thinking hard as she wandered, and was in no mood for laughter herself. Even Peter seemed to be talking a lot. Or singing. The unlikelihood of Peter singing was what made her begin to think that there was an unfamiliar male up there, and that he was singing.

She stopped just below the hole. “Happy little sunshine, baby boo,” came the singing voice. “Gurgily goo, Boppity boo. Strange flowers, growing in my garden of love, my garden of love love love.” Mystified, Lola took a deep breath and stuck her head through. It was a new boy all right, and good-looking, she supposed, in a kind of chiseled and yet puckish way. He was shamelessly showing off, singing some stupid song, and they were all adoring him. Especially Abigail, who was standing beside him and actually holding his hand. It was awful, grimly watching them have fun, feeling out of it, but afraid to interrupt and spoil it all.

But he noticed her right away. “Lola!” he said, stopping suddenly. “It is Lola, isn’t it? Welcome to the funny farm.”

In two bounds she was up on the landing, standing an inch away from him, and glaring up into his eyes. He was at least four inches taller than she, and grinning at her in this maddening way. “Yes, it is Lola,” she said, “and this must be the funny farm. What the hell’s going on?”

“We were just having fun,” Blossom piped up in her nasal whine. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Lola put her hands on her hips. “Who said there was anything—”

“Yeah,” said the boy, turning his head to look at Blossom. “She didn’t say there was anything wrong.” Blossom glared at him, but he didn’t seem to notice, turning back to Lola. “I’ve been working,” he explained good-humoredly. “Entertaining them. Keeping their spirits up.”

Lola looked quickly around at the others. All the laughter had gone out of the situation. “Oh,” she said, still an inch away from him. She wanted to say something slightly nasty, for it wasn’t very pleasant to have ruined their fun. She felt like an old grouch. “Oh,” she said again, and looked down; then she slipped quickly past him and over to the empty stairs across from Blossom. She sat down and lit a cigarette, forcing herself not to notice how few were left.

“So why the silence?” said the new boy, turning from one to the other of them and shrugging slightly. “Why the long faces? We were having fun.”

“Why don’t you ask Lola?” said Blossom. “She’s the one who ruined it.”

That did it. “Yes, why don’t you ask Lola?” Lola said, ripping the cigarette from her lips. “Ask Lola, because she knows; she knows where we are. If any of you spent one second using your feeble brains to think about it, you’d know it too. We’re in a prison, do you realize that? A prison. And it’s not just an ordinary prison, it’s a torture chamber. Get that? A torture chamber. But it doesn’t torture our bodies, it doesn’t do easy, obvious little things like pulling off our arms and legs or sticking red-hot knives under our fingernails. Oh, no. It’s worse. It’s supposed to make us go insane, don’t you realize?” She waved her cigarette over her head. “All these stupid stairs going nowhere, no flat place, no walls, nowhere to hide, no way to get out, no explanation. Don’t you realize? They made it on purpose, it’s all for us, they’re doing something to us. It’s so obvious. And you sit around laughing and singing stupid songs. Think about it.” She paused for breath. They were all staring at her as if she really were insane. “And,” she went on, “and … oh, hell! And I found a toilet. And I guess we’ve gotta drink out of it too. I couldn’t find any other water.”

For a moment no one spoke. The new boy’s face had loosened, the high color draining from his cheeks; but almost at once he pulled it back together, looking at her now with angry determination, and no humor at all.

Abigail spoke first. “A toilet? You really found one?”

“Yes,” said Lola proudly, partly mollified. “And wouldn’t you know, it’s right in the middle of one of those lousy bridges. The worst place it could be. Don’t you see what that means? Doesn’t it tell you something? Why are we being forced to drink out of it, why in hell should it be there, except to be unpleasant and frightening to us?”

“I—I guess you’re right,” said Abigail. “I’m sure you’re right, there’s no other explanation. But we … for a minute we forgot. For a minute, we were almost having fun. That’s all.”

“I know,” Lola said less fiercely. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to spoil it. But I was so upset about all this.”

“So what? Other people get upset too,” the new boy said. He was still standing, staring at her. “That doesn’t give you the right to criticize what we were doing. You act like you think you’re pretty tough, but you’re just as hysterical as any other girl. We don’t have to listen to it.”

He was her adversary now, she could tell. And she had done it herself, just as she had done with Blossom. Silently, she cursed herself. It was so stupid, opening her big mouth like that and making him hate her; it was just going to make everything worse. But maybe it wasn’t too late. Even though “hysterical” still rankled, Abigail’s recognition had calmed her down to the point where she could swallow her pride. “I know,” she said. “I shouldn’t have gotten so mad. But it was frustrating. Nobody seemed to understand how serious this was. But,” and she let her pride sink down to the bottom of her stomach, “but what you were doing was a good thing, I guess. I’m sorry I said it was stupid. It’s,” she sighed, “it’s important to keep people in a good mood.”

The boy grunted, turning from her to the food machine. “Oh,” she said. “Did anybody make it work?”

“No,” Blossom said pettishly. “And nobody even wanted to try.”

“Well, I’m ready now,” said the new boy. “Suddenly I’m starving.”

And they tried. One by one, each of them struggled over the unresponsive screen while the others watched impatiently, growing hungrier and hungrier, waiting and hoping for the whirs and the clicks that would not come. And at last they grew tired of it, and quietly, one by one, they retreated to their respective stairways, Oliver sitting above Peter. They sat for a while, too dispirited to speak; until at last their eyes began to close.





Chapter 7


When she awoke, Blossom could not remember for a moment where she was. There was a gleaming whiteness, and something sharp pressing painfully into her back. But most strange and disturbing of all was the terrible emptiness inside herself, the emptiness that she could not bear. She had to make the hunger go away.

And then it all came back to her: the blindfold, the stairways, hating Lola, everything. Hating Lola: She clung to that. Hating was so vital, so necessary. It was even her duty, in fact, to probe into Lola’s odiousness, and to help the others, for their own good, to understand it.

Lola opened her eyes and sat up. “Mmm,” she said thickly.

Oliver sat up and stretched. “Hello, everybody.” He yawned. “So we’re still here, huh?”

Abigail was still trying to sleep, curled up against the steps, her eyes closed. Peter’s eyes were closed too, his chin resting against his chest.

Blossom was beginning to feel something else, almost as uncomfortable as the hunger. It was horrible having to ask Lola for help, but there was really no alternative. “Uh,” she said. “Um, I have to—I mean, how do you get to … you know, what you found …?”

“Oh, yeah,” Lola said. “The toilet. I suppose you want to know where it is.”

“Well, you’re the only one who knows.”

“Well, okay.” Lola looked around. “Anybody else want to come?”

“I think I’ll stick around and watch over the sleeping beauties here,” said Oliver. “You can tell me how to get there later. I’ll be able to find it. And maybe I’ll try to get this thing here working again.”

“Well, come on then,” Lola mumbled, and they started off.

Lola moved quickly. Soon Blossom was out of breath. Her thighs rubbed together stickily, and her skirt, which was beginning to feel dirty, flapped irritatingly around her knees. And Lola was far ahead now, making Blossom feel clumsy and slow.

And then Lola stopped at a landing ahead. She looked from side to side, as if trying to decide which way to go. Blossom hurried to catch up with her. She was panting and her forehead was damp when she reached the landing. Lola still had not moved.

“What’s the matter?” Blossom said, gasping for breath. “Did you already forget where it is?”

“No, I did not forget,” said Lola, turning to her. “I’m just trying to decide which is the best way to go. And you can find it yourself if you don’t like the way I’m doing it. I’m getting pretty sick of your attitude. Why are you always picking at me? What have you got against me anyway?”

“I—” Blossom began. She had to be careful. Now she knew it had been a mistake to make it so obvious to Lola that she hated her. She had to undo that now, for only if Lola trusted her would she have the necessary power over her. “I just … when you first came along, you scared me, and you were mean. That’s all.”

Lola slapped herself on the forehead and rolled up her eyes. “You still thinking about that? How long does it take you to forget something stupid like that?”

I never forget, thought Blossom.

“I mean, I already told you, I was just worried about the food,” Lola went on. “By now you should know the way I talk. It didn’t mean anything.” She shook her head. “You know, we’re in a pretty tricky spot as it is. You’re just making it worse.”

“I … I guess you’re right,” said Blossom, making an effort to sound contrite. “I never really meant it, really. I just didn’t want you to boss me around.”

“Mmm,” said Lola, her eyes probing. “Sure that’s all it was?”

“Yes,” Blossom nodded quickly, pursing her lips. “I’m sure.”

“Well, let’s hope it’s all over with now. I won’t stand for much more of it.”

“I … I know you wouldn’t stand for it,” Blossom said softly. “I guess I was just waiting for you to tell me to stop.”

“Well, now I’m telling you. And I'll tell you something else. Somebody’s got to get bossed around here, you better get used to it, because somebody’s got to be the leader. If there’s no leader, we’ll never get anywhere. I’m not saying the leader’s gotta be me, necessarily, but there’s gotta be one.”

Now that her breath and her wits were back, Blossom rose to Lola’s opening. “Oh, but I think it should be you,” Blossom said. “Who else could be the leader? Not Peter, and not Abigail, and not me. That just leaves you and Oliver. And, well, Oliver….”

“Yeah?” said Lola. “Well Oliver what?”

“I just think he’s sort of strange,” Blossom said thoughtfully, twisting a ringlet. “The way he was dancing around like that, singing those stupid songs and things….”

“You looked like you were enjoying it.” Lola was squinting at her suspiciously.

“Well, yesss.” Careful now, Blossom told herself.

“In fact you were the one who defended him, if I remember it right.”

“But I was still mad at you then,” said Blossom. “Now I—”

“Don’t you have to go to the toilet?” said Lola, turning around. “It’s this way.” And she started up the stairs.

Blossom felt like kicking her. She just had to find something she could use to turn the others against her.

Ahead, Lola bent over and picked something up from a step. It looked like a scrap of cloth. Lola waited, whistling through her teeth, and she actually turned and smiled at Blossom when she reached her.

“We’re almost there now,” Lola said, sounding pleased with herself. “See this? I tore it off my shirt and left it here yesterday, as a marker.”

“Oh,” said Blossom. It had been a clever thing to do in this confusing place, though it annoyed her to have to acknowledge any virtue in her enemy. Nevertheless, remembering her role, she said, “That was smart of you. I never would have thought of it.”

“To tell you the truth, I almost didn’t myself. In fact—” Watching Blossom’s face, Lola’s smile quickly faded. “But I would have found the way without it,” she added, her voice guarded again. “I’m gonna leave it here for the others.”

She still doesn’t trust me, Blossom said to herself, following her upward again. I’ve got to get her to trust me. But how?

And in the end she succeeded, though not without a sacrifice.

The toilet, as Lola had said, was on a narrow bridge, just a small round hole filled with water, flushing constantly. It was difficult to get to, even more difficult for Blossom to drink from it, and then squat there, teetering and clutching at the bridge, while she used it. And embarrassing; for though Lola seemed to be staring politely off in the other direction, when Blossom looked back at her to check she was almost sure she saw Lola quickly turning away, a smirk on her face, as though she had been watching her and laughing. It was infuriating. And when she herself, overcoming her natural repugnance in order to pay Lola back, turned to spy on her sitting there, Lola just waved and cried out, “Enjoying the view?”

But Lola grew more serious as they started to leave. “Hey, listen,” she said. “Those other guys are gonna have trouble finding this place, even with that marker I left. It might be good if we left something here, so they could tell from below which bridge it was. And I don’t really have anything to leave, I’ve already torn up my shirt. But maybe, well … well one of those ruffles on your dress, if we could hang it down over the bridge, it would be real easy to see from far away.”

Her dress? But it was her favorite dress. It was unthinkable. How could this hateful girl even suggest it? Her voice shrill, Blossom began to shout. “They can find it anyway! Why should I—”

Lola’s expression stopped her. She was nodding, her lips pursed, her eyes sliding off to the side. It was just as if she were saying, I knew you’d say that, you trivial, selfish thing. With a tremendous effort, Blossom forced herself to think rationally. There was no way of avoiding it; she had to tear off that ruffle. Not only was it a matter of principle to show Lola that she was wrong about her, but if she didn’t make this sacrifice now, Lola would probably never trust her. Breathing heavily, Blossom picked up the hem of her skirt. Hardly able to watch her hands, she pulled the bottom ruffle off all the way around the skirt. She stepped out of it, and staring hard at Lola (who was watching her as though she couldn’t believe her eyes), ripped apart its one seam, turning it from a circle into a long strip. “Here,” she said wheezily, and handed Lola the piece of cloth.

For a moment Lola seemed confused. She stood there, the cloth dangling from her hand, still just watching Blossom with her head tilted to the side, squinting. “You know,” she said at last, “I never thought you’d do that.”

“I … I didn’t want to,” Blossom said, pleased with Lola’s reaction. “But what you said was right. And what does a dress matter in here anyway?” With what she hoped was a sad little gesture, she picked up her ruined hem and gazed wistfully at it.

“It’ll be a big help,” Lola said. “It really will. Everybody will appreciate it.” She turned away quickly, ran out along the bridge, and tied one end of the cloth around it, so that it hung several feet below, motionless in the still air.

After that, Blossom got what she needed with hardly any trouble at all.





Chapter 8


They had been up for hours now, and had been working at the machine, on and off, for the entire time. They were hungry, not having eaten since the previous afternoon, and getting more and more irritable. And still the machine refused to respond.

“Stubborn bitch!” Oliver said. He was out of breath, sweat was dripping from his nose, and his T-shirt clung stickily to his chest. Struggling over the machine without any breakfast, without even having brushed his teeth, was not very enjoyable. Yet he had forced himself to keep on trying. It was not only that he was hungrier than he had ever been in his life; he also desperately wanted to be the one to make the machine work. Somehow his relationship to all the others depended on it.

“Using dirty words isn’t going to do any good,” said Blossom peevishly. She was hunched over at the bottom of her stairway, staring intensely down at the machine.

“Well then you try again,” Oliver said, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand and sitting down. He watched the fat girl bend over the screen for the hundredth time and stick out her tongue at it. He felt like hooting at her, for she looked ridiculous; but though she was a cow, there was something about her that made him feel he should watch his step with her.

Lola sat tensely on her step, biting her thumbnail as she watched Blossom. Every once in a while her hand would move toward her shirt pocket and the pack of cigarettes, then quickly back to her mouth again. She was unlike any girl Oliver had ever known (he hadn’t known very many), and made him feel slightly uneasy, for she did not respond to him the way other girls had. He felt no power over her, no ability to make her stammer and blush by merely smiling at her, and for this reason he did not know how to behave with her. He also didn’t like it that she had been the one to find the toilet. It put her altogether too much in the leadership position, the position he craved for himself. That was why he felt it had to be he who made the food machine work, and that was why he was beginning to resent Lola.

At least there were Abigail and Peter! With Abigail he thought he knew where he stood; she acted just the way he expected girls to behave. And furthermore, here they were without any adults around! He had never been alone with a girl, and the thought of what might possibly happen was terribly exciting—though also a little frightening.

He shifted on the step, and Peter looked up at him for a moment, wide-eyed. It had been rather unexpected to find himself almost at once the object of Peter’s intense devotion, but Oliver didn’t mind. It made him feel confident and powerful to have someone look up to him so much. Although, down at the bottom of it, something about Peter gnawed at him.

He shook his head, smiling to himself, trying to laugh at and discard the discomforting fact that there wasn’t one of them that didn’t bother him in some small way. What was it that Lola had been shouting about yesterday? That they were in a prison, that they were being tortured and driven mad? It was a bit farfetched; but on the other hand, it might just be possible that each of them had been picked for a certain reason….

He shook his head again, looking down at Abigail and smiling. He wasn’t used to thinking this way, and didn’t enjoy it.

Abigail smiled back, rather wanly.

At that moment Blossom turned toward them, noticing his expression. “Are you laughing at me?” she demanded, getting up from the floor and plumping down on her step. “How dare you laugh at me? Here I am, trying to make this thing work, while you sit there, laughing and jeering and—”

“No, no!” Oliver waved her down. “Come on, calm down. I was only smiling at Abigail. Can’t a guy even smile?”

“What’s there to smile about?” said Lola. “We’re trapped in this prison and now that food thing won’t even work.” She gestured at it contemptuously. “It was just teasing us before, making us expect something and then taking it away. And I’m having a cigarette!” she added defiantly, taking out the pack and quickly lighting one.

“Who said you couldn’t? Oliver asked her. “We’re not hallway patrolmen.”

“Oh, who said you were?” said Lola tiredly.

Oliver couldn’t stand it any longer. He wanted to get away from all the frustration and the bickering. He wanted to get away with Abigail. “Come on, Abigail,” he said rather awkwardly, hardly daring to hope that she would have the nerve to go off with him. “Um … maybe we should go look around. There might be another food machine somewhere that works.”

Abigail looked down. “Oh …,” she murmured. She waited for a moment. “Um … well, all right,” she said at last, standing up and smiling nervously. She blushed.

“Well, come on then,” he said quickly. Now that she had agreed, he wanted to get her away as soon as possible, before anyone else could offer to come along. “Let’s go.” He jumped down to the landing and onto her stairway, pushing her lightly on the back. Without looking at the others, they started up.

Abigail continued to seem embarrassed, looking down at her feet as they climbed. Obviously she had never been alone with a boy before. There was nothing unusual about that, of course; boys and girls were kept strictly segregated in all state institutions. As they grew into their teens they would sometimes have classes together in order to get used to one another; but they had all been taught from their earliest years about the dangers of mixing too freely with the opposite sex. It was immoral to get very intimate with anyone, unless you were about to be married.

Still, people have feelings, and do not always agree with everything they are taught. Though Abigail seemed a bit apprehensive, her very acceptance of his invitation was enough to tell Oliver that she might be interested in trying what was forbidden. The thought of it set his heart beating quickly; yet he had no idea what he should do.

“But … but what is going to happen to us?” Abigail said at last. “Yesterday you thought this was all like a game, but I bet you don’t anymore.”

He looked down into her worried face, feeling a new and unknown kind of excitement flowing from her helplessness. It was true that he no longer thought it was a game, and was actually rather frightened about the situation. But the last thing he would do was admit his real feelings to her: His strength depended upon feeling superior.

“Don’t get upset,” he said. “It’ll be okay. Please.” They had reached a small landing, and stopped walking.

“I usually don’t get upset,” Abigail said, her eyes on the ground. “I’m usually calm. Most people I know … think I don’t have any emotions, because I don’t show them very much. But I do have them. And sometimes … they’re very strong.”

“I … I can tell that,” Oliver said in a hoarse whisper. The situation was becoming almost too much to bear, being alone with a girl and talking about something as intimate as her emotions. He was breathing heavily now; and when Abigail suddenly looked up at him, her face close to his and her eyes very wide, all at once something inside him took over. It didn’t matter now that he didn’t know what to do; of its own accord his hand reached out and grasped hers, and he bent down his head and kissed her on the lips.

Oh, it was strange, thrilling and strange! The touch of lips was new to him, and the sensation of it rang throughout his body. Her lips were hard at first, and dry; but then they softened, and parted slightly, and she fell against him, her free hand draping across his back.

In a moment Oliver broke away, besieged all at once by a totally different set of feelings. There was shame; shame and acute embarrassment at having done something so intimate and so wrong. But more than that there was a kind of terrible responsibility. What did it mean to this girl that he had touched her that way? What would she expect from him now? And would he be able to live up to her expectations? She was watching him, startled by his sudden pulling away; and from her parted lips and dazed, half-closed eyes, he sensed that she would still like to be kissing. Abruptly he turned from her.

“What’s wrong?” said Abigail. “Did I do something wrong? Oliver! What is it? Say something, please.”

He closed his eyes and shook his head.

“But … but I thought you wanted to. You started it. They always said boys wouldn’t respect girls who … did that, but I thought it would be different in here. Oh, Oliver, please tell me what’s wrong!”

“I … maybe we should go look around,” he said, still not looking at her. “Maybe there’s another food machine.”

After that, she stopped asking. They wandered slowly for an hour or so, not speaking, avoiding one another’s eyes. And as they wandered, Oliver began thinking again of the touch of her lips, of her arm against his back; and as those memories became more intense, the shame and fear began to be forgotten. Soon he felt like kissing her again.

“Abigail,” he said, stopping in the middle of a flight.

She turned to him with a melancholic, resigned expression. “Could we go back now?” she said. “Maybe something happened back there.”

“All right.” He sighed, searching for words. “But … I just want to say, I’m sorry if I acted funny.” He paused again. He couldn’t tell her his real reasons: There was something unmanly about them. “It has nothing to do with you. It just … reminded me of something.”

“Are you sure?” Abigail said. “Because I got the distinct feeling you didn’t like me. You don’t have to like me, you know. I don’t want you being nice to me, unless you really mean it.”

“I do like you,” he insisted, suddenly wanting the conversation to end. “But we better get back to the others. Come on.”

They started down. But suddenly she gave a little cry, and stopped. Below them, a red light was flashing on and off, glinting against the white surfaces. And all at once the air was filled with whispering voices.





Chapter 9


“I hope they hurry up and bring back some food,” Blossom said, twisting her hands as she watched Oliver and Abigail disappear into the whiteness above. “It must be way past lunchtime by now.”

“I wonder if food is really what they’re after?” Lola mused.

“What do you mean by that?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Haven’t you ever wondered what it might be like to be alone with a boy?”

“What?” Blossom was shocked. “You mean…. But that’s immoral and dangerous! Didn’t they ever tell you that? Why—”

Peter closed his eyes. He wasn’t interested in their conversation, which, being naïve, he didn’t understand anyway. He wanted to think about Oliver. Basically, it was like having Jasper back again.

But no sooner had that thought entered his mind than another came and quickly contradicted it. It really wasn’t like having Jasper back again, it was very, very different. His delight began to fade. It disturbed him, for instance, to see Oliver go off with Abigail. He would even have braved the steps and bridges to be with Oliver, but clearly Oliver hadn’t wanted him to come, and the rejection was quite painful.

It had never been like that with Jasper … Jasper … The old home. The room they had shared. The pictures came easily to his mind now, and they had undergone a change. The walls of the room swayed with rainbow colors, and the furniture seemed to be alive, each object with its own benevolent personality, murmuring comforting words to him, enclosing and protecting him. He let himself drift into it, cradled in the warm, underwater, rainbow-hued dimness that undulated around him.

But suddenly there was something in the way. Something harsh and irritating. He tried to push it away, but it would not go. Something was flashing on and off, and there were strange sounds, and a girl screaming. Reluctantly he opened his eyes.

It was the food machine. Its screen, which usually glowed dully, was now flashing on and off with an intense, bright red light, so bright that it dazzled his eyes. And all around them were invisible, whispering voices, saying something indistinct that he could not understand.

Blossom was hysterical, jumping up and down and pointing to the machine. “What’s it doing? What’s it doing?” she shrieked, stopping to stick out her tongue frantically. “Maybe it’s going to work now, maybe it will work, how can we make it work?”

Lola, who had leaped to her feet, was oddly enough staring at Peter. “Peter,” she murmured, in a strangely hushed voice, “Peter, what’s the matter with you? You’ve been sitting there staring at that blinking light for more than a minute and you didn’t even notice it.”

“What?” he mumbled. “Staring? But … but I was asleep, dreaming. My eyes were closed.”

She was standing motionless, watching him. “They were open,” she said, her voice still hushed. “They were wide open, Peter, your eyes were open the whole time.”

“Who cares about his eyes?” Blossom shrieked. “What are those voices saying? Maybe they’re telling us what to do. Maybe they’re telling us how to work the machine! We’ve got to do something!”

“How … how long ago did the others leave?” Peter asked, ignoring Blossom. A prickling of fear was crawling up the back of his neck. It seemed to him that they had left about fifteen minutes ago, and that the light had been flashing for only a few seconds.

“They left a couple of hours ago,” Lola answered, still staring at him.

“Why are you just standing there?” cried Blossom. “Do something, this might be our only chance!”

What were the voices saying? Peter wondered as he got to his feet, trying not to think about what Lola had just told him. They seemed to be saying the same thing over and over again, but the different voices were not speaking in unison, and the individual words were blurred and indistinct. It was like a hundred people with cotton in their mouths, whispering the same thing at different times.

“I know!” Blossom cried. “They’re saying, ‘Food will be coming soon. Food will be coming soon.’ Listen, can’t you hear it?” Her eyes were darting wildly, and she clasped her hands together. “Oh, I hope they’re right, I hope they’re telling the truth! It’s been so long since we’ve had any food.”

“Shhh!” said Lola, waving her hand at Blossom. “I’m just getting it…. And you’re wrong,” she went on suddenly. “That’s not what they’re saying at all. They’re saying ‘Nude in the house of the doomed.’ It’s obvious.”

“But why would they say that?” Blossom cried shrilly. “It’s meaningless.” She spun around to Peter. “You can hear it too. They’re saying, ‘Food will be coming soon.’ Aren’t they? Aren’t they?”

Peter shook his head. “I … It, it sounds like … ‘Be careful in Oliver’s room.’”

“What?” cried Blossom. “But you’re both wrong. They’re saying—”

“They’re saying ‘Nude in the house of the doomed,’” Lola insisted. “Because that’s what we are. We’re helpless in this crazy place. Or at least they want us to think we’re helpless. You just think it’s food because that’s all you ever think about.”

“Stop saying things like that!” Blossom shouted, stamping her foot. “Stop being mean to me! Just remember, you said a couple of things this morning that I could always tell a few certain—”

“What?” Lola stepped toward her. “What the hell are you talking about, you—”

She was interrupted by voices from above, and hurrying footsteps, “—it isn’t,” Oliver was saying. “Can’t you hear them? They’re saying, ‘She gobbled him up in the womb.’”

“No, it’s ‘The dish ran away with the spoon,’” said Abigail, sounding out of breath. “It really is, Oliver.”

Lola turned back to Blossom, stepping menacingly toward her. Blossom took a step back. “What the hell did you mean about—”

For a moment they were all in motion: Lola moving toward Blossom, and Blossom backing away; Oliver jumping to the landing and Abigail, shaking her head, coming down a step behind him; Peter moving forward, almost involuntarily, to greet Oliver. And in that moment there was a whir and a click from the floor, clearly audible above the whispers rustling around them.

Five hungry pairs of eyes focused instantly on the slot beside the blinking light. And out of the slot rolled a tiny ball, not a cylinder; a tiny ball hardly big enough for one small bite.

They all started toward it at once.

“Stop!” shouted Lola. And there was such urgency and command in her voice that they did stop. “Wait! Don’t move. Listen.” She was breathing heavily. “Stay where you are. One of us just did something that made it work. Nobody knows what it is, right?”

They nodded silently.

“So stay right where you are and do what you were just doing. That’s the only way to figure it out. And don’t grab the food! Wait till we know how to make it work!”

Lola stepped toward Blossom again, Blossom backed away (not without a glance of longing at the little ball on the floor); Oliver went quickly back up to his step and jumped down, Abigail shook her head behind him; and Peter moved toward him again.

And nothing happened.

“Again!” Lola cried. “Exactly like the first time!”

The voices whispering around them, echoing through vast white spaces. The red light blinking in steady rhythm, falling rhythmically back at them from above in hundreds of pieces, so that they could not help but move in time with it. Now they were all watching each other, timing their movements to each other as well as the blinking light.

And there was a whir and a click and another little ball rolling onto the landing.

“Again!” Lola cried. “Exactly like the first time!”

It was at this moment that it became a dance. Lola and Blossom facing each other, moving away from the light, then back at each whir and click, and away again to bring on another; Oliver jumping down to the landing, and Abigail shaking her head behind him; and Peter each time moving toward Oliver, then away again, watching the red light flashing on Oliver’s cheekbones, Abigail a vague, moving shadow behind him.

Blossom, of course, was the one who broke it.

“No!” she gasped, pushing Lola aside with her outstretched hand at the beginning of another repetition, and she pounced at the little pile of brown balls. “I’m too hungr—” and her mouth was full.

At this, the others pounced too, even Peter. For a moment it was a wild free-for-all, pushing and grabbing, all of them out of breath. Somehow no one got pushed off the landing, and everyone got at least a few bites, but only enough to have a very mild effect on their hunger, although Blossom got more than the others. The meat was just as delicious as it had been before.

When there was no more left, Lola backed away from the others, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “You sure botched that one,” she said, still panting slightly.

“Who, me?” said Blossom, looking up at her from where she was kneeling on the floor, scraping up a bit of food that had been flattened under someone’s shoe.

“Yes, you!” The whispering and the flashing light were still going on, but as Lola took out her next to last cigarette, they both stopped, quite suddenly. The stillness was startling.

“Well, you don’t have to look at me like that,” Blossom retorted, filling the silence with her whine. “We did figure it out. We can always do it again.”

“Can we?” Lola said, blowing out smoke. “Who says so? The other time it worked, doing the same thing didn’t make it work again. Why should it be any different now?”

“But …,” said Blossom.

“We should have kept going until it stopped on its own, and saved some food for later,” Lola went on. “That would have been the only sensible—”

“Oh, leave her alone,” said Oliver, in a voice so uncharacteristically irritable that it sent a small shock through Peter’s body. Oliver retreated to Abigail’s stairway and sat down beside her. “We got enough to eat. Stop bitching.”

“Maybe you got enough,” Lola said, rubbing her shoulder. “I can still feel it where you pushed me away. God damn, I wish I were stronger than you!”

“Please,” Abigail said. “Stop fighting, please. Look, we did get some food, we should be glad about it. And maybe it will work again. We won’t know until we try.”

Which they did. They tried, awkwardly and with the embarrassment that, due to the excitement, had been missing before. And it did not work.

“I told you so,” Lola said, when they had given up. “Now we’re going to have to figure out something else to do.”

“Not now,” Abigail said. “Please. I’m exhausted. We’ve been up for a long time, I want to get some sleep.”

And so, with a kind of relief, Peter returned to the magic room, where everything was beautiful and strange, and where effort and pain, and stairways, did not exist.





Chapter 10


Abigail and Peter had no trouble getting to sleep but it was quite awhile before Blossom and Oliver dropped off, and Lola was the last of all. She was also the first to wake when, about fifteen minutes after she had finally dozed off, the whispers and the flashing light began again.

“Nude in the house of the doomed. Nude in the house of the doomed,” whispered hundreds of invisible voices on all sides of her, as Lola sat up, rubbing her eyes and trying to decide if she really had to wake them all. Yes, she decided, she did have to. It was too important an opportunity to miss, for perhaps their dance would work now, as it had the other time the whispering and the flashing light had come.

Abigail was surprisingly difficult to wake up, and Peter was nearly impossible. It was only after Oliver shook him roughly for nearly a minute, shouting in his ear, that he finally opened his eyes, murmuring, and not seeming to see any of them.

The dance did not go well at first. They were stumbling and dull-witted, and Lola was in a hurry, for there was no way of knowing how long the special conditions would last. But finally they did get into the rhythm of it, remembering, in their hunger, their precise movements from before. And it worked.

It went on for about ten minutes; and when the light and the whispering stopped, so did the food. They had earned a rather substantial pile, but even Lola made no attempt to put any aside for later. They devoured it instantly.



* * *



And so they learned the first rudiments of their dance, and that they were to be told when to perform it. It was not long before they learned as well that the machine was a capricious provider, for even with the flashing light and the whispers and the dance, it did not always work. Nevertheless, it fed them often enough, and kept them hungry enough, so that every time the whispers and the light began, they would instantly begin to dance, hoping that this time there would be food.

And of course, whether it worked or not was part of a pattern, and there would be other patterns too. But as yet they were too close to the outside world to be able to understand them, or to tolerate what was inevitably going to come.





Part Two





Chapter 11


In the days that followed, they began to talk more freely. Of course they were still very uneasy about where they were and what was happening to them, but most of them were beginning to grow a little more accustomed to being there, and could occasionally think about something else.

“So I said, ‘Listen, if you think you’re so tough, prove it,’” Oliver said. “So we started circling each other.”

“You mean you started to fight, right in the hall and everything?” Abigail asked with awe in her voice. “But what if a hallway patrolman came along?”

“I didn’t care. I was furious. I wasn’t going to let anybody push me around!”

“Yeah, and how about the video screens?” Lola said. “I suppose you managed to get out of range of them, huh?”

“I wasn’t thinking about it,” said Oliver, annoyed. “Anyway, so we start circling each other,” he went on, trying to put back into the story the tension that Lola had broken, “and then suddenly he comes at me, and starts to hit me, and I give him a kick, just like on the video shows. I kicked out and knocked him down, and he just lay there, and gave up. And then I got out of there fast, and the wardens never found out it was me. He was too embarrassed to tell.“ He sat back confidently.

Lola shook her head. “Oh, sure. How about the video screens?” she said.



* * *



“But I can’t stand it,” Blossom moaned. “I can’t stand it! Why didn’t it work?”

For fifteen minutes they had been dancing in rhythm to the light with no result, until at last one, then another pellet had rolled out, and the light and the voices had suddenly stopped. Blossom and Oliver had each snatched one pellet; the others had nothing. It was unbearably frustrating, for not only were they hungry, but food was the only comforting thing there was, the one relief to everything harsh and barren and alien around them. To each of them, it had quickly become more important than anything else.

“I don’t understand,” Abigail said faintly. “We did it just the same the last time the light and voices came, and the time before that, and it worked both those times. It just doesn’t make sense.”

“And it wasn’t even trying to make us change anything,” said Oliver, shaking his head. “You know it always feeds us first when it wants us to change. And we were doing it exactly the same as last time, I know we were.”

“Maybe there’s some kind of pattern to it,” said Lola. “I mean for when it works and when it doesn’t.”

“Oh, there is not,” said Oliver. “It’s completely unpredictable. The last two times it worked, the time before that it didn’t work, like this time, then before that it worked, and before that it didn’t work for two times…. Who can remember anyway? There’s no pattern. It’s just fickle.”

“Machines aren’t fickle,” Lola said, turning away.



* * *



“And my best friend’s father was the director of the whole International Industrial Conglomerates Lobbying Operation,” said Blossom.

“Not that guy Edward Baker Jackson, who’s always on video programs?” Oliver asked.

Blossom nodded. “The Edward Baker Jackson. My best friend’s father. They lived in a house too, near ours. He was really a famous lobbyist, and brilliant, his operations were always successful. In fact my father used to say it was really him who—” She stopped and put her hand over her mouth.

“Who what?” said Lola.

Blossom thought for a moment. Yes, she decided, she could tell them that. She took her hand away from her mouth. “Well … well maybe it doesn’t matter. I’ve already told you so much really classified stuff anyway. My father used to say it was really Mr. Jackson who ran the administration, that he had the President in the palm of his hand.” Blossom looked around at them proudly, folding her arms across her chest. “And he was my best friend’s father.”



* * *



“Books?” Oliver said, amazed. “But why use a book? They’re so slow, and most of them aren’t even programmed.”

Peter was embarrassed. “I … they just had some, at this place where I was…. And, I kind of liked it. It felt like … like it was only talking to me, and … and I could go slow, if I wanted, without worrying about keeping up with the others.”

“But really, that is kind of silly,” Abigail tried to explain. “I mean a book is much less personal than a programmed screen that can respond to you according to your needs, and concentrate on what’s hard for you, and go fast on what’s easy. A book stays the same no matter who’s reading it. And anyway, I don’t see how anyone could read a whole long book, it must be so boring!”

“But … but it wasn’t,” Peter said faintly. “I … almost forgot I was reading it. The … the whole story was going on in my head.” He stopped and looked down.

“I still don’t understand,” said Oliver. “I mean watching a real-life hologram right before your eyes is better than anything you could imagine.”



* * *



“Hey!” Lola said, in the middle of the dance. “Look at the light! It’s not red anymore, it’s green!”

All but Blossom began to slow down.

“Don’t stop!” Blossom shrieked. “Keep dancing! Who cares what color it is? What difference does it make?”

And she was right, it really didn’t seem to make any difference; for they soon learned that the color of the light had no relation to whether or not the machine would give them food. Sometimes it would be red, sometimes green, and eventually they stopped wondering about it altogether.



* * *



Blossom watched Lola wandering far below them, exploring again, and her eyes were cold and sharp. She turned back to the others. “What good does she think it’s going to do to go stupidly running around like that?” she said. “She just does it to get away from us, because she can’t stand any of us. She thinks she’s better than we are, doesn’t she, Peter?” Blossom waited. “Peter! You know she thinks we’re all stupid, tell them, you know she does.”

Peter was looking down, twisting his hands. “I … I guess she said … I don’t remember….”

Blossom turned contemptuously away from him. “You don’t remember anything. You don’t even know what’s going on half the time. But I remember. I remember what she said. And it wasn’t pretty.”

Oliver was watching her. She could see the interest in his eyes, even though he was pretending not to care. “Quite a few things,” Blossom went on temptingly. “Interesting things. But not pretty. Not pretty at all….”



* * *



“It was only an eight-lane road,” said Lola. “But I was going pretty fast anyway, too fast, I guess. And I had the smog lights on and everything, but I could still only see about thirty feet ahead, even in the middle of the day. And it was an old road, so suddenly there was this curve ahead and before I knew it I was going off the edge. Sheesh!” She shook her head.

“But what happened?” said Abigail.

“Nothing. I mean the car was a total wreck, including the gas mask compartment, but I just opened the door and walked out of—”

“Next to the highway? You got out of the car next to the highway?” said Oliver, incredulous. “I thought you said the masks were smashed.”

“They were. But in the first place it was a miracle I wasn’t already dead. And then I kept going back to the car and sticking in my head to get the good air that was still left, and running back to the road and waving at the cars. It was a lucky day for me ’cause a cop car came by just as I thought I was gonna pass out. Took me right back to the home, of course. It was a long time before I tried anything like that again!”



* * *



Peter had gone away. His body sagged limply against the stairway like a half-stuffed toy, and his head hung grotesquely to the side, his mouth open. The sight of him frightened Lola. “Hey, Peter,” she said. “Peter, wake up. Can’t you hear me?”

“Oh, leave him alone,” Oliver said sharply. “I’ll wake him up when the time comes.”

“But … but it doesn’t seem right to let him get like that,” Lola said. “He keeps doing it more and more. We should really try to stop him, or else sometime we might not be able to wake him up at all.”

“How do you know?” said Oliver. “I’ve always been able to wake him up; I always will be able to. Leave him alone. He’s happier the way he is.”

“How do you know he is?” Lola asked.

“What difference does it make to you?” Oliver said, ending the conversation.





* * *



Lola was alternately grinding her teeth and chewing on her nails. It was always worse after they had eaten to be without a cigarette.

“Will you stop making that noise?” said Blossom. “It’s driving me crazy.”

“‘Will you stop making that noise?’” Lola mimicked her in falsetto. “‘Will you stop making that noise?’ And for Christ sake will you leave me alone! You’d grind your teeth too! God damn this place, God damn that machine. Why the hell can’t it give us cigarettes?” She stood up angrily.

“Oh, calm down,” said Oliver. The good humor in his voice was wearing thin, a