Martin and Lisa (I/III)

It is 1995. There is no sun in the Underworld.

Martin finds it creepy that there are portraits along the stairs.

One of them is a picture of Frederick. He looks a lot more like the hero than Martin does. But Martin knows him. He was Jane’s brother before Martin was.

“I wonder why you failed,” Martin says.

Then he takes out a bit of charcoal and scribbles a moustache on Frederick’s face.

“Now you’re an Archduke!”

Archduke Frederick, presumably of Austria, looks out impassively at the world.

The next portrait is a picture of Tad. Tad was Jane’s brother after Frederick but before Martin. Tad’s got a smooth smile. He’s pretty cool. Martin isn’t cool yet, so Tad’s coolness annoys him. He turns Tad’s picture around. He writes ‘kick me’ on its back.

Martin descends. He reaches the bottom of the stairs, and a land of mud and darkness.

“I have no idea where to go,” he says.

Nothing happens.

He clears his throat. He says, loudly, “I have no idea where to go! If only there were someone who could help me!”

The world shivers.

Light condenses from the darkness, and ten thousand miles of shadows grow deeper. The light is a girl. She’s carrying a jacket, and her name is Lisa.

“Hey,” she says.

“Hey.”

He looks her up and down. They could be siblings. They could be twins. She’s his height exactly, and she’s got his hair, and she’s got his smile, and she’s got his eyes.

“You’re kidding,” Martin says.

“What?”

Martin looks hesitant.

“She made me,” Lisa says, “a long time ago, to be her older sister. I was an answer to her suffering. I said, ‘maybe it’s for the best. Maybe suffering is transformative. Maybe if I leave her there to suffer, she’ll become something grander, something better, something new.‘”

“Yes,” agrees Martin.

Lisa grins at him. “It makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s a perfect answer. People die in droves, children lay in piles with their arms twitching, dogs starve, and it could all be part of a glorious purpose. The engine that drives the growth of the world. The answer to the Dukkha Call. And I was part of it.”

Lisa turns. She looks out at the mud. She slings her jacket over her shoulder and begins walking.

Martin follows.

“I, um.”

Martin clears his throat.

“That’s why I’m letting her suffer,” he says, “too.”

“Redundancy’s good,” Lisa says, cheerfully. “Hey, do you have a wish?”

Martin looks down. His eyes are in shadow. “I want to win,” he says.

Lisa grins at him. “That’s a good wish,” she says.

“Can you grant it?”

“Maybe!” Lisa grins at him. Her teeth are very white. “If nothing else, I can raise your hopes.”

Martin is not entirely sure how to take that. He retreats in the general direction of sarcasm, but doesn’t quite make it there.

“Yay,” he says.

In the distance, he hears a cry. “Help me!” it says.

“Ignore those,” Lisa says.

“Illusions to lead me off the path?”

“Dead angels,” Lisa says. “Probably some other gods too. They’re steeping in mud and failure until they become something grander, something better, something new.”

“Yay.”

“Do you know the rules of the Underworld?” Lisa asks.

“No,” Martin says.

“They’re like this,” Lisa says. “It’s easy to get into the Underworld. There is no body that does not have its personal gate of death; no soul, without its gate of emptiness; no mind, without its gate of deepness. That’s three whole gates per person, and girls have a fourth, so you can see how easy it is. Getting out, on the other hand, is hard. You can’t leave unless you’re the child of a god, beloved by the one who sits on the throne of the world, or a person inherently good.”

Martin looks wry.

Lisa grins at him. It’s a charming expression. “I know,” she says.

He snorts.

“I do,” she says. “I had the same dream you did. But then I got stuck.”

“I’m inherently good,” Martin bluffs. “Unlike some people.”

“Nice trick,” Lisa says.

They walk on for a bit.

“I mean,” Lisa says, “considering.”

Martin looks up, sharply. For a moment, there’s a force in his eyes. Then it fades, and he bursts out with a question that’s been nagging at him.

“Why are you a girl?”

“The monster isn’t as fond of boys,” the angel Lisa says.

“Oh.”

They walk on.

“People who don’t suffer,” Martin justifies, “remain small. They’re weak. They’re isn’ts. They’re shadows. They’re firewood people.”

“That’s true,” says Lisa.

Then the most remarkably clever and cruel expression comes on her face, and she leans close to him, and she whispers, “So are people who suffer, mostly.”

Martin makes himself walk on.

“Maybe you’re a stillborn thing,” Lisa says. “Like a fire made of wind, like a voice crying in the emptiness, like a dream in the mind of an uncaring man. Maybe you’re down here because you died. It’s the path most people take.”

“Maybe,” Martin says.

Lisa stops.

“Anyway,” she says. “This is your place.”

She gestures ahead of them, where the mud stirs in unseen currents.

“You’ll spend eternity drowning,” she says. “You won’t be able to breathe. Your struggles will be muted. You’ll never know what happened to anyone else you care about. There’ll be no boundary between yourself and the pain. Like with her.”

Martin looks at her.

“It’s not what I’m here for,” he says.

“It’s nicer than being a light spread through ten thousand miles of darkness,” Lisa argues.

“But is it right?”

“I hope so,” Lisa says.

Martin hunches his shoulders a bit. He looks out at the mud.

“I don’t want to drown in mud forever.”

“Enh.”

Lisa shrugs.

“None save the monster,” she says, “may choose the circumstances of their lives.”

Martin looks at the mud. He looks at Lisa. He looks at the mud. He looks at Lisa.

“Don’t ever tell her I did this?” he says.

She looks at his eyes. Then she grins to him, even as she tries to brace herself for war. “All right,” she promises.

PUSH!

Martin pushes Lisa. She falls backwards into the mud behind them. Then Martin runs.

There’s something on his hands. It might be dust. Or it might be Lisa-cooties. Martin can’t tell. So he scrubs his hands vigorously on his legs as he runs.

Angels

“There are angels in this castle,” White Lion says. “They are born to fill Zenobia’s emptiness with hope.”

Angels are a kind of spiritual being (“god.”) They generally wear jackets with holes for their wings. Where angels go there is the potential for virtue and good outcomes—even when things are bleakest. The smallest, but genuine, chance of impossible and unlooked-for grace travels with them, drifts down where they pass, flies with the sound of their wings. Thus we say angels answer emptiness with hope.

Sadly angels aren’t quite so much as one would want.

Their power is real. Sometimes an angel goes into a hopeless situation and something good happens that couldn’t have happened without the angel. Sometimes that possibility of a good outcome, of being good, of finding good in another—sometimes that possibility wasn’t even there without an angel, and sometimes once the angel arrives, you find it.

Or, a lot of the time, you don’t.

Known angels include:

Daniel, who knew what it took to save Jenna but couldn’t do it;
Evasive Angel, who allows anyone who catches her to change their fate, even to the breaking of the cycle of the world (but who cannot be caught);
Forbidden A, whom one ought not think about;
Magic A, who can do anything (sometimes); and
Realistic A, who can provide a pragmatic evaluation of any situation.

Sometimes when people are hurting all we can do is dream up legends for them.

It hurts! But that’s all that we can do.

And Pelopia says that that’s sort of what being an angel is like. Only, when she says it, it’s when we’d expect it to be sad, and instead she looks—

Like the sea is crashing, somewhere, on the shore; like the world is brilliant with love; like the sky is bright, too bright for mortal eyes to look at, and with the sun.

Martin (IV/IV)

There’s a knock at the door. Six-year-old Bethany answers.

Martin’s standing outside. He’s thirteen. He’s wearing a black suit. It’s snazzy. It might be older than he is. He’s also wearing goggles.

“Hi, Bethany, ” Martin says. “Could you take me to your room?”

“I’m not supposed to talk to strangers, ” Bethany explains.

“I’m not a stranger,” Martin says. “I’m the smith. I’m the test. I’m the maker.”

Bethany considers. Then she nods, gravely. She reaches up with her pudgy fingers and takes Martin’s hand. She leads him to her room. He looks over her toy shelf. He takes down a Barbie.

“Her name is Watcher,” Bethany says. “But she’s all weird.”

“Don’t worry,” says Martin. “I’ll fix her.”

**

Edna reads. Martin knocks on Edna’s door. Edna opens the door.

“Hi,” Martin says. “Do you have a Barbie?”

Edna looks Martin over. “Are you the Barbie Inspection Squad, or the Barbie Repossession Unit?”

Martin smiles at her. “Please, ma’am, just answer the question.”

“Yes,” she agrees. “Would you like me to fetch her?”

“That won’t be necessary, ma’am.” He slides past her into the apartment. His eyes scan the room. Finally, he sees it, on top of the VCR.

“Has your Barbie been acting . . . oddly, ma’am?” he asks. He walks closer. He touches it.

“Oddly?”

“In an aberrant fashion, ma’am. Doing things that one would not expect Barbies to do. Changing her appearance. Moving. Engaging in philosophy.”

“No.” Edna looks mildly unnerved.

Martin frowns. He twists the Barbie’s head off and looks inside. He shakes it some. Then he smiles. “Ah,” he says. “It’s stuck.”

He bangs the Barbie sharply against the VCR and something shiny falls out into his hand. Martin replaces its head with one sharp screwing motion. It locks back into place. Martin sets the Barbie back down.

“Thank you, ma’am.”

**

It is 2001. The monster sits in his living room and reads. Martin knocks on the front door. The monster answers. Martin smiles at him. The monster looks uncomfortable.

“Pardon me, sir,” Martin says, “but do you have a Barbie?”

“You can’t come in,” the monster says, then turns. Martin is already browsing the monster’s shelves. After a moment, the monster grinds out, “I have one. But it’s perfectly normal.”

Martin glances around, then spots it. He walks over to it. He holds it to his ear.

“I know why you’re here,” the monster says.

“Barbie Inspection Squad,” Martin says. He takes his goggles off and looks into the monster’s eyes. The monster adjusts his shiny tie. Martin looks away. “A while back, someone thought it’d be a good idea to come out with a new Barbie line that had souls.”

“You can’t just come in here and start taking my stuff,” the monster blusters. “I could have you unmade.

Martin replaces his goggles. He shakes the Barbie. Its eyes begin to shine with a golden glow. He holds it up. “See? Soul.”

“Glowy eyes,” the monster says dismissively.

Martin breathes in the Barbie’s mouth.

“Living with monsters is hard!” the Barbie says.

The monster clenches his jaw. “Mindless babbling.”

“See?” the Barbie says. “He disses me at every opportunity. And we never play dress-up. He likes his spider more than he likes me.”

“The Barbie Inspection Squad,” Martin says, gravely, “tracks these Barbies down and deals with the matter.”

Suddenly, the monster relaxes. “You don’t know what you are.”

Martin smiles lazily. “I’m the smith. I’m the test. I’m the maker. You’re just the dross.”

“Prove it.”

Martin pokes the monster’s chest. “I can touch you.”

“That’s even lamer than bringing my Barbie to life.”

Martin grins. He takes the monster’s hand. He leads the monster down to the basement. Then he lets go. He walks out into the middle of the room.

“It’s funny walking here,” he says. “It’s like the floor is piled high with the bones and wings of angels.”

The monster taps the floor with a foot. It’s stone. It’s dusted. It’s reasonably clean.

“I figure,” Martin says, “that you went through a few dozen before you got to me.” He kicks the air above the floor. “Frederick. Manuel. Steven.” With a tone of wry amusement, he adds, “Lisa.” Then he continues. “Cedric. Clay. Tilly. Basil. Gerard. Earl. Morgan. Thess.” He hesitates.

“The rest weren’t angels,” the monster says.

“Ah,” Martin says.

“So,” the monster says, “you can see names.”

“No,” Martin says. “I can do what it takes. I can kill woglies. I can make myself from nothing. And I can do this.”

He looks around. The room is full of the bones of things that never were. He raises his hand.

The air fills with a storm of becoming. Wings wake and bones straighten. Limbs and fluttering fills the room, and feathers squish into the monster’s mouth. Martin is gone, and the monster realizes, with an odd detached sort of humor, that he is drowning in angels.

The monster turns, choking and gagging, and flounders towards the stairs.

**

“Tell me,” Augusta says. “Why would anyone put a soul in a Barbie?”

“There’s only so much that Heaven can do in the world,” Martin says. “There’s only so much. So evil and horror slips through the cracks. A bunch of souls volunteered to get put inside childrens’ dolls, and come into the world, and help.”

“Oh.” Augusta frowns. “Then why is it bad?”

“I dunno,” Martin says, and shrugs. “It just kinda creeps me out.”