“The world of competitive spelling is not Hell,” says Ink Catherly. Then she adds, “H-E-L-L. Hell. It’s not. That.”
“Ink,” warns Mama Carpenter, “You listen to what I’m telling you. If you’re going to be the kind of girl who doesn’t cooperate, who badmouths Mama Carpenter, who doesn’t study her spelling, or who won’t give me the data I need for her spelling bee forms—you’ll find out what Hell is like real quick.”
Ink glares at her. “I don’t care. This is just a stupid orphanage with stupid priorities and I’m going to leave your whole world behind as soon as I can.”
“Go to the quiet room,” Mama Carpenter says. “You go to the quiet room, and you think on what I’ve said, and when you come out, you’d better be ready to tell me what Ink is really short for.”
“Just because you can’t spell Pancreozyminchoriomammotropinate,” sulks Ink.
“Disrespectful child,” sulks Mama Carpenter back.
Ink stomps off.
Floor 93-DL: They throw their children into pools, here, when the children are bad.
There is never a shark in the pool when the child is thrown in.
But sometimes there is a shark, once they hit.
“Children with overactive imaginations bring their own doom down on their heads,” say the parents, philosophically. “You cannot hold us accountable for the actions of imaginary sharks.”
There is so much blood!
But I think that it is better, because if the children survived, then as adults they could dream up scarier things than sharks.
When they threw me in, the water was a shock, and above me, as I turned and struck for air, the waves broke the sky into ten thousand parts.
“Now we have no sky,” they mourned. “Plus, you are still alive and have not been eaten by a shark.”
“Perhaps it disgorged me, and I am now a revivified shark-powered horror,” I said.
This was not responsible of me.
In the quiet room Ink meets Emily.
Emily is a girl. She’s been stuffed in the orphanage just like Ink was. And Emily is on Jump.
“What’s it like?” Ink asks, after a while.
Emily blinks. Her eyes clear and focus. She looks at Ink. Then she laughs a bit, nervously. “What? Jump?”
Emily shrugs. “It’s a thing,” she says. “T-H-I-N-G. Thing.”
Emily paces in long circles around the room. Suddenly, Emily jumps. Her head strikes something that Ink can’t see. There’s a sound like a ringing bell. When Emily lands, she has a crisp five dollar bill in her hands.
“It’s Jump,” Emily says.
Ink watches Emily pace. “How does it work?”
Emily flushes suddenly. She sits down. She tries to hold herself still. “It’s not like you think,” she says. “I can stop. If I want to.”
Ink looks blank.
“It’s not important,” Emily stresses. “Not like spelling. That’s what Mama Carpenter says. It doesn’t mean anything when I jump.”
Emily’s fingers twitch. She looks down at the floor.
“It’s just a little bit of a pill,” Emily says. “Just a little bit. Only, it’s like . . . when I don’t Jump, when I haven’t, when I’ve just been spelling, it feels . . . stressy. S-T-R-E-S-S-Y. Stressy. Oh God.”
Emily jerks to her feet. She paces about furiously. Then she jumps.
There is a sound like the ringing of a bell. Chocolate bars fall from the air all around Emily. Emily seizes one, strips off the wrapper, and begins to chew frantically as she paces.
“It’s not very quiet for a quiet room,” Mama Carpenter admits. She’s leaning against the door behind Ink.
Ink glances briefly at Mama Carpenter but she can’t take her eyes off of Emily for long.
“It’s supposed to be a quiet room,” Mama Carpenter says. “That’s why the walls are soft and there aren’t any toys. It’s so that you can settle down and learn the futility of protest.”
Mama Carpenter’s voice is apologetic.
“But you can’t really destimulate a Jumper, and I can’t afford a separate quiet room for each of you, so if you grow up bratty and intemperate, you’ll have to blame my underfunded orphan spirit-breaking budget.”
“It’s all right, ma’am,” says Ink. “I didn’t really want to be destimulated anyway. What is she jumping into?”
“It doesn’t matter, Ink. P-A-N-C-R-E-O-Z-Y-M-I-N-C-H-O-R-I-O-M-A-M-M-O-T-R-O-P-I-N-A-T-E. Ink.”
“You looked that up,” Ink accuses.
Mama Carpenter says, smugly, “It’s not your name, though. No one compounds random pituitary hormones when naming their child.”
“Enh,” shrugs Ink.
“It doesn’t matter. The jumpers say they’re popping invisible demons, but—well.”
Mama Carpenter raises her voice.
“It’s not very important to pop invisible demons, Emily, is it now? It doesn’t matter in the real world, you know. Not like algebra or spelling.”
Emily flushes bright red, crouches against the wall, and hides her face in her hands.
“I’m sorry, Mama Carpenter. I’m sorry. You’re totally right! It’s just . . . it’s just . . .”
Emily retreats to spelling.
“J-U-S-T. It’s just! It’s just that if I don’t pop the demons, they ally with the forces of Hell, and if I do pop them, I get prizes!”
There’s a flash of brilliance in Emily’s eyes.
“I bet I could pop one that would give me good grades on spelling quizzes! Q-U-I-Z-E-S. Quizzes!”
“Oh, Emily,” says Mama Carpenter. Her voice is sad.
Floor 93-DF: I took a picture of a camera. The camera, naturally, exploded.
For most of the day, I thought that was a special property of Floor 93-DF. But I asked Brad and he explained that it’s part of how cameras work in general. The infinite recursion of the photograph collapses the dimensions and makes a nanoscale white hole. It’s not unusual, any more than the infinite recursion effect you get with two mirrors is.
I thought Floor 93-DF was weird. But it’s not. There’s nothing wrong with it except that it is just too much like home.
“Invisible demons, you say?” Ink asks.
“They march around,” Emily says. “Then I jump. I pop them with my head! But when the Jump-trance fades, I stop seeing them. Then . . .”
“Then I kind of want to see them again,” Emily confesses. “Because I know they’re there. They’re always there. And I can pop them! It’s like a zit. It’s irresistible! You have to pop them! I have to pop them, Ink!”
Emily springs to her feet in a fury, charges halfway across the room, and jumps.
The bell rings furiously. A disembodied voice announces, “DOUBLE PRIZE—DRAGON!”
“Nice,” Mama Carpenter admits. She’s a little impressed despite herself.
“Dragons help you map the emptiness,” Emily says.
Emily looks pleadingly at Mama Carpenter.
“That’s like spelling, isn’t it?”
“It’s exactly the opposite of spelling,” Mama Carpenter says. “O-P-P-O-S-I-T-E. The opposite!”
“Is that how you spell opposite?” Ink asks, momentarily distracted from the meat of the story. “I mean, I would have said the same thing, but spelled out out loud like that it sounds wrong.”
“Don’t mess with Mama Carpenter when it comes to spelling,” says Mama Carpenter. “I don’t run a state-approved orphanage for nothing.”
“This is a weird floor,” Ink says, in a small voice. “But it does have demons, so I guess it’s a step in the right direction.”
“Hon,” says Mama Carpenter, “if you’re looking for Hell, this world is pretty much it. Just ask Mephistopheles.”
Ink looks around frantically.
“. . . no,” says Mama Carpenter. “It’s a Faust reference.”
Mama Carpenter peers at Ink.
“What kind of family do you come from, Ink, where you can grow to twelve long years old and you don’t even know Doctor Faustus?”
“F-A-U-S-T-U-S,” spells Ink, in a desperate attempt to recover her intellectual cred.
“Honestly,” says Mama Carpenter. “You’re probably lucky you’re an orphan.”
Floor 93-DN: There was a Jesuit booth in the mall here. He was giving away free knotted whipcords, so that people could perform home mortification in honor of the Lord.
It was really really funny, but then it made me sad.
There was a beggar in the corner of the mall, and he’d been whipping himself there, which only made sense, because the mall was the closest thing to a home that that beggar had. And his back was leaking blood, great smeary streaks of it, and where he’d cut the muscles open he was growing angel’s wings.
I was scared for a long time, because I knew where the exit had to be in a world where self-mortification had temporal rather than spiritual benefits. Then I found out that it still counted even if you used a topical anesthetic so it wouldn’t hurt.
I’m going to try it soon, so I can move on.
Wish me luck.
“I’ve got to make dinner,” says Mama Carpenter. “So you two stay in here and you think about what you’ve done. And maybe if you’re willing to open up a little, Ink, and if you’ll can it with the jumping, Emily, I’ll bring you both a portion before bed.”
Emily looks appalled.
“You can’t threaten us with bed without supper! That’d be inhumane,” Emily says.
“You’ve got Jump food,” Mama Carpenter points out. “You can Jump yourself down a bloody Chicken Kiev if you want to.”
“Jump food makes me feel so guilty,” says Emily.
“If you don’t learn the futility of life,” says Mama Carpenter, “you’re never going to make it in the real world.”
Ink spells, clearly and precisely, “B-I-T-C-H.”
Mama Carpenter waits.
“Well?” says Mama Carpenter.
Ink is mute. She doesn’t say the word, which means that technically she could have been misspelling some other word such as “Apples” instead of spelling “Bitch” correctly.
Mama Carpenter sighs.
Mama Carpenter shakes her head sadly. She walks out. She closes the door behind her. She slides the lock shut.
“Seems to me like Jumping is better,” Ink says.
“No,” says Emily. “It’s meaningless. I don’t want to do it any more, Ink. I mean, I really don’t. I just . . . it’s hard to stop. It’s shimmery and shiny and it draws you in and—”
Emily interrupts herself and switches topics completely.
“—you shouldn’t be so mean to Mama Carpenter, Ink. She’s a morally ambiguous character with both virtues and vices! That’s different from being evil. She just . . . she can’t help that we’re bad children.”
“I’m an explorer,” Ink says.
“That’s a phylum of the class ‘bad child,'” Emily proposes.
“. . . It seems like Jumping is better.”
Emily sighs. She sits down again. It looks like the Jumping fit is fading. Emily looks at her toes.
“I sometimes wish it were,” Emily says. “W-I-S-H. Wish. I sometimes wish that it were better. That maybe someday someone would come to me and say, ‘Thank you, Emily. Thank you. If you hadn’t Jumped so much, then I’d be dead now, or broken. It mattered that you popped all those demons. That sense of meaning you had when you stomped around and jumped—it was real. Thank you for giving yourself over to service.'”
“But they won’t. They won’t ever. Because it’s just a stupid addiction. It’s just something I learned how to do and I’m not smart enough to stop.”
“I’m sorry,” Ink Catherly says.
Floor 93-DW: I told Mama Carpenter that finding Hell was more important than a stupid spelling bee. She told me that little girls who refuse to spell afflatus wind up in Hell soon enough.
It’s my own fault, I think. I didn’t realize I should be taking her literally until I saw the Gate That Proper Spellers Cannot Pass.
It was right there. I could see the flames. They shone like the stars in a winter sky. They shone like the dance of the angels. They were warm and bright and they kindled my heart, and I have been aching ever since.
I have decided to study l33t in case I find that gate again.
Emily looks up. “That demon there is the passage to the next level,” she says. She points languidly, then lets her hand fall.
Emily shrugs a little.
“I don’t know what that means,” Emily admits. “I just thought it was neat. I don’t see them very often. They’re one of the ones I avoid, like the extra lives.”
Emily gives a pained half-smile. “I knew a Jumper who got an extra life once. It . . . it wasn’t very nice.”
Ink’s eyes are intent. “Where is the demon?”
Emily shrugs. “It doesn’t matter, remember?”
Emily stares at Ink.
“It’s short for Incompatible,” Ink says.
Emily is quiet and solemn. Her thoughts linger for a moment on Ink’s words.
Then Emily points, and Ink follows her finger, triangulating against where a hypothetical second Emily might point.
And Ink Jumps.