The Gates of UpTop, panels of red and gold lacquer, trembled beneath the blows of a pick-axe. The very walls circling the UpTop Kingdom shook from the force. Grunting could be heard on the other side of the Gates between strikes and the contour of a pick-axe was everywhere.
Even if the Sea of Sand had not stood in the way, the Gates could be reached only after a sheer climb of over ten thousand feet. There had never been a need to repel a serious invader. There had never even been a thought of invasion. The Gates, therefore, had been built only for decorative purposes.
The UpTop People had watched with babbling wonder as the traveler had approached Gray Matter Rock. They had waited for him to die of thirst or keel over from sunstroke. He had not. When he had finally passed under the critical angle where he could be viewed by the Great Lenses, their babbling wonder had turned to mute horror. The citizenry now stood in the square, with hushed breath for the inevitable. The Gates of UpTop vibrated on their hinges like a plucked string until…
Finally, the Gates fell inward, throwing up motes of dust.
As one, the People of UpTop drew back.
A man stood in the entryway, a pick-axe held in two strong hands, a bright red beard outlining a dazzling white grin. He was slicked with sweat. The light on his hardhat was blinding.
The troops, who had been part-time volunteers for the entire history of UpTop, stood stupidly, waiting for orders.
WHERE IS THE KING? asked the Little Miner, before spitting on the ground.
Nothing worse than waking up with wet pants. No matter how old you were, it made you feel like you were a kid again. Some dumb kid that couldn’t even take care of himself.
Martie’s head, which had some kind of painful cotton candy where his brain was supposed to be, rose and fell back against the pillow. The cotton candy of his brain protested any movement. It was one of those mornings where too much direct sunlight or moisture threatened to melt what was left of his neurons.
“I hate it when I piss the bed.”
Martie reached under the covers, not daring to open his eyes, put his thumbs under the waist of his pants and threw them away into a corner. His underwear followed shortly thereafter.
He’d made it home last night. He was sure of it. Or to the mission. Or something. He was in a bed, and that was the important part. There was a mattress under his back. Otherwise, this was going to be another one of “those stories.” The ones he kept pretending to be ashamed of or amused by, instead of coldly indifferent to.
“Rosalie! Vamanos! Laundry!” he shouted.
No one responded, and he was so fucked up it seemed like there had been an echo.
He had a maid.
A mattress and a maid.
He was certain of it.
It might be three o’clock in the morning for all he knew. Rosalie didn’t show up until noon, when he was still dead asleep most days. He pushed the covers off the bed. Martie didn’t sleep in his own piss. No matter how far he’d fallen. No matter, how much cotton candy there was in his head, Martie didn’t sleep where he’d pissed.
He’d wake up to Rosalie clucking and tsking in a few hours. Then she would feed him breakfast. Eggs and bacon and hashbrowns. He’d have an orange juice and promise that he would do better. He’d have been dead years ago if it wasn’t for Rosalie.
Unless he wasn’t home.
Unless he was somewhere that somebody could see him.
In which case he’d pretend he was embarrassed. He was getting worse at pretending to be embarrassed. You could only piss yourself so many times before it got to be routine.
Except… he didn’t have a home anymore.
That had ended months and months ago.
They’d kicked him out of the house.
They’d kicked him out of the van by the river.
And they’d kicked him out of the mission.
Martie didn’t have a bed.
His thoughts felt suddenly clear.
Where the fuck was he?
He opened his eyes, just to check where he was so it wouldn’t be a complete surprise when he decided to get up.
He saw a clock.
No, not a clock.
The Big Clock.
“Fuck me,” he said.
His heart skipped a beat, but unmercifully found its rhythm again.
“How are you feeling, Martie?”
“Oh, better. Much better.”
“Are you going to all the meetings?”
“Yes, absolutely. I’m making a lot of progress. I’ve been doing a lot of work on myself.”
“When’s the last time you used?”
“Not since that last time I told you about, when it got really bad.”
Barbara still wanted to be friends. Martie didn’t know why. She hadn’t forgiven him. Not really. She just felt guilty that all her love hadn’t been able to make him give up heroin. All her love hadn’t been able to fill up the hole inside of him. Barbara still thought of it as a failure on her part.
Quietly, in an ugly place in his heart, Martie agreed with that assessment.
He hadn’t forgiven her for abandoning him with himself.
He still had cycles so he wasn’t always lying. Sometimes he was a month on then a week off. Two months on, a week and a half off. He never stopped using entirely but he sometimes he came close and in those moments between shooting up that it was almost like being clean. It was goddamn agony. Before this phone call he’d been in a continuous haze for two months.
“I’m seeing someone,” said Barbara.
“Oh, that’s nice.”
“He’s a good guy. You’d like him.”
“I’m happy for you.”
Strange how he didn’t feel anything at all. Not rage. Not acceptance. Not anything. There’d been a time when the thought of Barbara with another man would have sent him up the wall. There’d been a time when he would have strangled the bastard. He heard crying on the other end of the line.
“Are you sure you’re okay, Martie?”
He was too tired to resent the implication. Too tired to have this conversation. Too used up to do anything but Need.
“I said I’m fine.”
He hung up the phone. Barbara wasn’t a quiet crier. She wailed and wailed and Martie couldn’t sit alone in a mansion and listen to that. It was day outside. Regular people liked days like this. Regular people didn’t listen to their ex cry on the phone on a day like this.
The Need howled its predator cry.
Ever since he’d cut back on using this time, it felt like his skeleton was trying to crawl out of his skin. Morning runs left him tired but didn’t seem to exhaust that essential energy inside him. The runs only left his body aching and imprisoned his racing mind. He had to make things. Not games. Not yet. But making things had always used that energy up so it wouldn’t tear him apart.
He decided to fuck around in the garden.
He would have liked to have called it “gardening” in his garden, but it was only really fucking around. He didn’t give a fuck about flowers. You couldn’t make flowers if you didn’t give a fuck, you could only move them around. All Martie gave a fuck about was being able to take a picture of “a garden” so people wouldn’t give him so much grief about using. So somewhere far off Barbara would think he was actually getting better. The only thing he could make these days were goddamn illusions.
Junkies aren’t known to garden.
Therefore, Martie decided he would garden.
Except… he was a junkie.
Honesty had a terrible way of creeping up on him when he was sober.
He, Martie, was a junkie. All of his other labels and descriptors disappeared under the weight of that single word.
Martie shoveled some dirt where he planned to build a shed. The shovel blade bit into the soil with a sound like “liar!” He knew he didn’t want a goddamn shed, because he hated gardening. He wanted to make a game, but he couldn’t. He wanted to make something useful. Something like a game. He didn’t know what, though.
He kept digging.
There was no particular reason for the digging. Other than that he felt lost, small and alone, and there happened to be a shovel in his hands with which he could finally dig the actual grave he’d been trying to carve out of his arm with a needle for the last several years.
He told himself it was a well. There were plenty of reasons to dig a well. Of course not with a shovel, but there were plenty of reasons people dug wells. It was a logical justification, if not quite an explanation.
But it was still a lie.
The next day, he kept digging.
He liked to feel the Earth creeping up over him. Liked to hear the sounds from up above fade away. Loved to feel like he was ancient and below and lived apart from the surface.
He dug the next day. And the day after. And the day after that.
His hands were a mess of blisters but he didn’t stop.
Somewhere, deep below everything else, he felt the Little Miner in his head trying to make his way to the surface. It stood to reason, that if he dug down, met the Little Miner halfway, then maybe he’d feel alive again.
He dug down for weeks, in a frenzy.
And somewhere, from below, the Little Miner was digging up.
Martie had made up the Little Miner for his Narcotics Anonymous meetings. The miner was a dwarvish man in a silver hardhat with a bright flashbulb, the protagonist of some as yet unmade game. The bulb was so the miner could make his way through the darkness and the gleaming silver pick-axe was a weapon against the obstacles in his way.
Martie had laughed with some of his junkie friends about it. About how everyone in the meeting had nodded solemnly and said if this metaphor was God as Martie understood him, then it was a fine God indeed.
“Can you believe the shit they let me get away with? I’ve got them all fooled.”
His dealer had shared a laugh with him over it.
Who would believe in something so obviously stupid?
He believed now.
As he dug, Martie came to realize that the Little Miner he had laughed at, that he thought of as a joke, was perhaps the last little part of himself that could actually save him. And he was terrified because he’d been right to laugh.
How was an imaginary game character supposed to help him out of this?
Toward the end, when he realized what he was actually creating, Martie had to get smart. He found a desperate focus, like the final flicker of dying candle. He had to hire a back-hoe. He had to hire a crane. He had to hire welders.
In the end, he’d told everyone the Pit was going to be a storm shelter. Then he’d built a shed over it and told everyone he’d filled it in. Everyone forgot about it. He was erratic. He was crazy. He was on drugs. He did crazy shit all the time.
He’d bought a giraffe once, then gave it to the zoo when the city complained. It later died when the zoo hadn’t been able to undo Martie’s neglect.
No one cared that he’d dug a hole in the ground.
When he dug the Pit, Martie felt the way he had felt when he made video games. He felt like the missing part of him, the part that Barbara always called the Sadness Hole when she brought it up in their arguments, was suddenly full.
When he finished the Pit, Martie stood back and beheld his creation… and realized what he had actually done. He’d known the Pit for what it was then. Not just a hole in the ground, but the last desperate attempt by everything worthy in him to heal everything that was broken.
And Martie knew that such healing would cost him everything.
Looking at the Pit, Martie realized that he was, in fact, broken. No whole and complete person would have ever created such a thing.
The Pit presented a clear and immediate choice.
So that night Martie chose to stick a needle in his arm.
Junkies fuck up.
Martie was a junkie.