Floor 62: I saw a creature made of mouths and sorrow.
“As fair warning, ” the creature said, “Ink Catherly has certain misconceptions regarding her nature and destiny, and these are going to lead her astray. She cannot be trusted in such matters. If you wish to understand her truths, you must watch the world around her. Those fates that govern her life have taken the unusual course of arrogating to her exactly what Ink Catherly deserves.
“As for you, that is not so.”
The sun rises. Its light shines through the window. It falls on the face of a girl. She stirs. She frowns. The sun has no snooze button.
Her name is Ink Catherly. Named for the color of her hair, she’ll tell you, and maybe that’s the truth. She is twelve years old. She is awake.
Ink pads on her socks over to the closet. She looks inside. There’s a tower and a journal. “Same as last night,” she says. It’s important to know when things stay the same. She opens the journal. She reads.
To those who may find this book and this place,
This is a tower to Hell.
I did not know this at first. It was just a place of strangeness. It was a tower. Inside was a set of rising stairs. It led up to a series of empty floors. No one knew how many. That was the mystery. People never climbed all the way to the top. And people counting the floors—to see how far they’d come—always, always lost count.
So I decided to take a journal with me. And go inside. And climb. And each floor would be a new page. And I’d number the pages. And then I would know.
Ink looks at the tower. It ascends past the top of her closet, into the misty air above.
“Well,” she says. “Best go in.”
She packs a small lunch. She puts on her favorite hat. She puts two more hats, colored pens, a bug, some cynicism goggles, and a notepad in a backpack. She puts it on. Then she enters the tower and begins to climb.
Floor 1: Nothing of note.
“Agreed,” Ink agrees.
Floor 2: Nothing of note.
“Agreed,” Ink agrees again. She climbs for a while.
Floor 19: A bit dusty.
Ink looks out into the 19th floor. “I think his standards are high,” she says. “But I can appreciate the difference. Not many people have been to the 28th floor!”
She looks at the book. She corrects. “19th!”
Floor 24: I am not alone.
It is strange to imagine, but this place is inhabited. I do not know how it has escaped others’ notice. But I can hear the sound of shuffling footsteps. I can hear the scrape of metal on stone. There’s a stain on the wall. I think it’s blood. I am not alone.
Ink listens carefully. She hears the sound of shuffling footsteps. She hears a soft, low moan. She hears distant bells. She hears metal on stone. She looks around. She finds the stain on the wall. She rubs her finger on it. She frowns. “It’s too light for blood,” she says. She touches her tongue to it. Then she gags. “Dusty sticky wall!” she says. “Ick! Yuck!”
After a moment, she thinks. “It could be paint. Or jam.”
She sits down at the step. “Someone with a jam sandwich,” she says, imagining how it might have been. “They take a bite. Splurch!”
She takes out a jam sandwich. She takes a bite. It does not splurch. She frowns. She takes another bite. The sandwich obstinately refuses to spray jam on the wall. Finally, Ink rubs her finger in the sandwich and then smears jam on the wall. She compares the colors in dissatisfaction. Then she finishes her sandwich and has a sip of soda. She goes upwards.
Floor 31: I have seen them. They are blind. They have no eyes. They have knives. They wear blue and their faces are mad. One heard me. Or scented me. She came for me. I dropped this journal. I ran. I hid in the corner of some upper floor. She came past me. Sniffing for me. Listening for me. Hunting in her endless dark. But she moved past. I stood there, locked in a rictus of fear, my joints aching and my eyes full of sweat, for what must have been an hour. Then I crept back down. I found this journal. I moved on.
I do not know if this tower has an end.
“It’s strange,” Ink says softly. “I don’t hear the sounds of madness and pain.”
She listens. There’s a singing in the air. It’s ethereal. It’s gossamer. It rises above the sound of shuffling feet. It cuts into her mind and fills her thoughts with beauty. She takes out her cynicism goggles. She puts them on. She listens. The goggles don’t help.
“That’s strange,” she says. She takes off the goggles. She looks at them for a moment. Then she tries putting them on over her ears. Now she can’t hear the song.
Ink thinks. “I wonder,” she says, “if it’s their dedication to pain that makes them sing like that. They probably have knives that could just cut me open.”
She shivers and hurries upwards.
Floor 38: The Feast of Vermin
Ink flips through the next few pages. She turns back. She frowns.
“I guess he couldn’t forget it,” she says. “Or didn’t want to talk about it.”
She looks at the door. She takes the cynicism goggles off her ears. She listens at the door. She can hear the endless drone of insect wings and the breathy sussuration of their legs.
“I like bugs,” she says, defensively.
She listens at the door again. She thinks. “I could go up,” she says. “No one would know.”
She bites her lip. Then slowly, she leaves the door behind, and climbs.
Floor 42: I have seen the eyes of God.
I opened the door and there was a hall. And at its end, a statue. It was in the wall—pushing through it, like a man caught in a spider’s web, or behind a stretching plastic wall. Not all of it was visible. Just the face. A knee. One arm. The face had eyes. They were the eyes of God. They looked at me. They judged me. They rejected me. And I knew that I was damned.
Ink looks at the door. She looks up. She looks back down. She thinks.
Slowly, she opens the door. There’s a corridor, and a statue of a man. His face has sunk back into the wall since the journal’s time. It is no longer visible. Nor is much of his arm. There’s just the blank stone, and half an arm, and a knee, and on the other side of the wall, three fingertips.
Ink retreats. She closes the door. She sits down on a step. She reads ahead.
Floor 49: I am walking through nightmares. With each step I take, I see myself in horrible forms. Horrible lives. Torments and shames enough to end me. I cannot imagine that I shall shake this thick and liquid taint from my soul. Not with one shower. Not with a thousand. But I am almost to floor 50. I’ll stop after floor 50. That’s a good number.
“50,” she says. She’s still sitting on the step, down on floor 42.
Floor 50: I’ll stop after 51.
“51,” she says.
Floor 51: Just a few more. It has to end somewhere.
She flips through the pages.
“79,” she says. She reads it before she stands.
Floor 79: This is a tower to Hell.
I would go further if I could. It is my destiny. It is my curse. I cannot stop. And yet I have. My treacherous body will carry me no further. My hands write this of their own accord. My feet itch to carry me back down. I do not know why they bother. A few years will not matter. The devil will call me and I will come back, and then I will not stop.
Ink bites her lip. She stands up. She walks back down to the feast of vermin. She opens the door.
“Oh,” she says.
They are endless, but they are not vermin. The colors are an endless metallic sea. Their wings are butterfly wings. Their bodies are butterfly bodies. They cover the wall and the hanging vines in thick layers and clusters, and the beating of their wings makes the world ripple like the sea.
Then the butterflies rush past her, and out, and up, and the air is full of them; and the stairwell full of them; and then time passes and only a few million of them remain. They cluster all around her, and in their chamber, but most thickly on the stairs going down.
“Move, butterflies,” Ink says. She looks down. There’s no path. The butterflies cover the stairs like a carpet.
“Move you,” she says unhappily.
The butterflies flutter their wings.
So she climbs. She picks her way through the thin uncovered paths on the upwards stairs, and by floor 47, the butterflies are fewer, and she can take normal steps again. She climbs more slowly, even so. Floor 48. Floor 49.
She consults the book. “I should be having nightmares,” she says. She looks around. The air is thick with a butterfly musk. It’s hard to breathe.
She goes up. There’s a cacophony of voices whispering in the back of her mind. One resolves to clarity.
“Why are you here?”
Ink looks around. There’s just the stairs. “Because I’m an explorer,” she says. “Because there’s a tower in my closet, so I have to climb it. Because I couldn’t walk on butterflies. Because I’m looking for Hell.”
There’s a wisp of a hand touching her face. She can’t see anything. She can just feel its passage. There’s fingers playing with her hair, back behind her neck. There’s whispers.
“It’s destiny,” she says. “Like for him.” She holds up the book. “I knew I’d go to Hell. And then I found a way.”
The voices are hesitant, dubious. “This path leads not to Hell.”
“Why not?” Ink asks.
“You are inadequate for it.”
“Ah,” Ink says. She thinks for a while. “I’m going to go up,” she says.
The voices are silent; and she walks up; and she does not find Hell; and at the top, the tower opens into sky.
“It is strange and beautiful,” Ink says. Then she sits down. She hugs her knees. She takes twenty-five long breaths. Then she opens the book. She writes.
Floor 93: My name is Ink Catherly. I can see the sky.
Why are things strange and beautiful, when I wished to be in Hell?