« Back
Generated: Mar 22, 2019 2:05 PM
Post last updated: Jan 10, 2019 12:31 AM
cum vix justus sit securus
jean and imrainai in the good place
Permalink Eye

As waiting rooms go, it's a very nice waiting room.

The chairs are cushily comfortable, like sitting in a hug. There's music, but it's very faint and instrumental and probably classical. The color scheme is mostly white, with touches of cheery primary colors.

Foot-high green letters across one long wall proclaim:

EVERYTHING IS FINE

Permalink Eye

Well that isn't ominous at all. She doesn't feel like anything in particular is wrong, but if someone is trying to convince her of that then maybe she should double-check.

She doesn't have her purse with her, that's a problem. Or her phone, that's also a problem. Or her keys. How did she even get here. 

It occurs to her that she has no idea where "here" is.

Permalink Eye

One of a pair of white doors opens.

A white-haired gentleman in a colorful suit peers out -- sees her -- smiles.

"Karen! Come on in."

Permalink Eye

"Hi!" she says, automatically, still trying to remember where she is. Probably she made some kind of appointment and then completely forgot about it. Usually that results in her not going to the appointment at all, but oh well. Maybe he'll give her some kind of hint what this is before she actually has to say anything.

She follows him through the doors.

Permalink Eye

He gestures her into a chair, and sits across a desk from her.

"Hi, Karen. I'm Michael." His voice is very warm and only a little scripted, like a salesman at an expensive store when you've already decided to buy something and are just working out the details. "How are you today?"

Permalink Eye

"Good! I'm good."

Well, some internal voice berates her. I am well.

She bites her lip. "I'm sorry, I've had a long day, can you remind me what we were going to talk about today?"

Permalink Eye

"Right! So."

He takes on a somewhat graver look.

"You, Karen Teller, are dead. Your life on Earth has ended, and you are now in the next phase of your existence in the universe."

Permalink Eye

"Oh," she says, quietly. 

Huh. OK. Well. This seems fairly unbelievable, but it does explain the hole in her memory, so there's that.

"So are you, like, Michael the Archangel? Because you look pretty different in the paintings, but I guess you would."

Permalink Eye

"Well, you know, that's sort of a complicated question," he says, sounding like he's explained this quite a few times before but doesn't at all mind explaining it again. "The thing you have to understand is ... Christians got maybe five percent of it right. Actually, just about everyone got about five percent of it right. Muslims, about five percent right. Hindus, about five percent right. Buddhists, about five percent right. Of course, Doug Fourcett got like ninety-two percent of it right. That's a picture of him right there."

There's a framed picture on the wall of a teenager with wild hair. The placard beneath does indeed say Doug Fourcett.

Permalink Eye

"Oh," she says again, looking at the picture.

Doug Fourcett looks pretty modern and American to have been the one person in all of human history to have gotten the afterlife mostly right, but the world does contain exponentially more people now than it has for the vast majority of human history, so maybe that's not as statistically unlikely as it seems.

Anyway. That's not important. Dead. Or dreaming, dreaming is really more likely. But on the off chance that she isn't, she should probably try to figure out what's actually happening.

"So, uh, what did he get right, then? What happens now?"

Permalink Eye

"Well. It's not the Heaven or Hell idea that you were raised on, but generally speaking ... in the afterlife, there's a good place, and there's a bad place."

He pauses for perhaps a moment longer than strictly necessary.

"You're in the good place. You're okay, Karen. You're in the good place."

Permalink Eye

"Oh," she says, like she's not sure whether to be surprised by that or not.

She would be lying if she claimed that wasn't a relief, although the idea that she might be completely wrong about the metaphysics of the universe is - well, not unbelievable, actually, it's not like she's particularly dedicated her life to figuring out the metaphysics of the universe, and this place doesn't seem particularly lake-of-fire-y, so that's good, but -

"Why?"

Permalink Eye

"Well, Karen, you spent your life helping people, and just putting goodness out into the world and improving the lives of everyone around you. You worked as a nurse and brought comfort to the last days of suffering people. You looked after children and brought happiness into their days. You wrote stories that shone a light into lonely and troubled souls. Did you know that once, after reading your blog, a stockbroker reconsidered his life, gave his entire fortune to charity, and became a contemplative friar?"

Permalink Eye

"Gosh," she says, because she's not really used to the idea of anything she's said or done mattering in any kind of tangible, observable way. "Good for him. Although I guess if Christianity is completely false, then being a contemplative friar is probably not the best possible career path."

Permalink Eye

"Oh, no, it turns out that the best possible career path is working for a particular start-up in San Francisco. But that's not important. What's important is that you, Karen Teller, are in the Good Place! Wouldn't you like to have a look around?"

Permalink Eye

"Oh. Yeah, that sounds good," she says. Actually the best possible life path thing is important, but if she's actually dead then she's probably going to have time to look into this later.

Permalink Eye

He beams, and ushers her out a different door into the cool fresh air of a sunny spring day.

The neighborhood looks like a cross between a charming old European city and Disneyland: the buildings are just a little small, the roads curvy and foot-trafficked, the stonework spotlessly clean except where it's instead overgrown with ivy or sprouting tiny flowers in its cracks. There's a soft babble of running water and of the separate conversations of smiling people strolling from one place to another; several of them wave cheerfully at her and Michael. Even the breeze has an inexpressibly pleasant scent to it -- cookies almost ready to come out of the oven, maybe, or wildflowers heavy with morning dew.

"So this is how it works," Michael says, as they walk. "The Good Place is divided into distinct neighborhoods. Each one contains exactly three hundred and twenty-two people who have been perfectly selected to blend together into a peaceful, harmonic balance."

(Welcome! says a banner on a second-story wall, in the same large green text as the wall of the waiting room. Various storefronts identify themselves as Infinite Light or Your Anticipated Needs or the Small Adorable Animal Depot. Each is uniquely cute and cheery and welcoming in its design.)

Permalink Eye

It's hard not to be genuinely impressed by how nice everything is, though it does seem a little - cartoony, maybe, like a parody of goodness produced by someone who can mostly imagine it but who hasn't ever actually experienced it.

"It's nice," she says, because it is. "Can you travel between the neighborhoods?"

Permalink Eye

"Yes, well, there is a train that goes between neighborhoods. But you can only travel on it with special permission, because any kind of disruption to the balance of a neighborhood could ruin its perfection. Which would be awful!"

Michal comes to a stop at an intersection with a frozen yogurt store on each of the four corners, puts a hand on her shoulder. "You're going to have a million more questions, I know. But right now, better grab a seat." He gestures towards a nearby grassy lawn, where people are gathering to sit on folding chairs, arrayed in arcs in front of a small stage.

Permalink Eye

Karen is honestly pretty sure that if you put any group of three hundred and twenty-two yet-imperfect humans in a neighborhood, then you're going to get some kind of imbalance anyway, but she cooperatively heads over the the grassy lawn and takes a seat.

She looks around the crowd a little. She has no idea whether the good place is like high school, but that was the last time she went to an orientation thing like this, and in high school it seemed pretty important to get to know the other people quickly, because you were all sort of going to be stuck together for the next - gosh, this time it's supposed to actually be forever, isn't it. She had better figure out how to make this go decently well.

Permalink Eye

The people finding their seats are of varied ethnicities, and dressed in different styles, some of them conspicuously regional -- there's a man in some kind of plain robes, and a woman in a sari -- though with a general tendency towards neat grooming and pastels. There's variety in age, too, within a range of maybe twenty to fifty: no children, and no really old people, but there's gray hair and wrinkles visible. All the conversation she can hear is in English; a few people look like they already know each other, but mostly it's the polite chatter of introductions.

And then there's something like very low-key fireworks, tracing out a rectangle in the air in front of them, and the crowd goes quiet as a white screen flickers into existence, and the orientation video begins.

The video features a cheerful Michael, welcoming them all to their first day in the afterlife. He explains, with visuals in the best Powerpoint style, that every one of their actions has been judged and totaled up according to a perfectly accurate measuring system, with some being marked positive and some negative according to "how much good they put out into the universe."

(A few examples flicker briefly by on the screen -- "eat a sandwich" and "sing to a child" and "give out full size candy bars at halloween" are the green color of positive actions, "buy a trashy magazine" and "use 'facebook' as a verb" and "commit genocide" are the red of negatives.)

After death, the video-Michael explains, everyone's score is calculated, and the people with the very highest scores get to come to the Good Place. ("What happens to everyone else, you ask? Don't worry about it.") And what's more, each person's actual soulmate ("yes, that's right, soulmates are real") is in the neighborhood too; they will spend eternity together.

"So welcome to eternal happiness," he concludes. "Welcome to the Good Place. Sponsored by ... otters holding hands while they sleep! You know the way you feel when you see a picture of two otters holding hands? That's how you're going to feel every day."

Everyone applauds as the video ends.

Permalink Eye

She claps enough to not look conspicuous.

OK. Yeah. That's a thing. She was confused for a bit, and she's actually still pretty confused about the specifics of what's happening, but the important thing is that this isn't - obviously it's not heaven, but it's also not any kind of good afterlife, because whoever or whatever created humans could not possibly have produced an afterlife that both utterly failed to meet humans' psychological needs and that sorted people based on how many sandwiches they ate.

Also soulmates aren't real. Probably. What would it even mean for a soulmate to be real. What if they're real for everyone else but she's somehow particularly bad at - uh-uh, nope, not thinking about this, there are important things to attend to, such as the fact that whatever this place is it is not what it claims to be.

If the afterlife is bullshitting her - and it clearly is - then her next best guess is her existing model of the universe. But this clearly isn't heaven, and it doesn't seem to be hell, and -

Oh. 

She'd expected purgatory to feature more obvious suffering and less bald-faced lying, but this is a model she can work with. She just has to learn to be the sort of person who can successfully exist in heaven, and maybe then she'll get to actually go there.

(Also maybe she's dreaming or she's been abducted by aliens, but those don't really imply anything about what she should be doing, so she's just gonna go ahead and assume that this is purgatory. 'Try to be better' seems unlikely to backfire, as general plans of action go.)

Permalink Eye

Michael finds her in the dispersing crowd.

"Karen! I'm so excited to show you your new home. You're going to love it."

Permalink Eye

"Oh." She had not actually expected to receive any more individual attention, especially if all of them got here at the same time (did they?) and there's only one Michael (is there?) and there's no particular reason why she should be more important than anyone else (is - no, actually, she definitely isn't). "Um, do you need to show anyone else their houses first? I'm sure everyone else is really excited to see them, too."

Permalink Eye

"Well aren't you sweet! That's just like you, Karen. You're a very special person." Michael steers her along a quaint little cobblestone path, gesturing as he speaks. "You helped so many people. And now you're in the Good Place. Welcome to your new home."

He's come to a stop in front of a big, open house, single-story but wide and sprawling, full of floor-to-ceiling windows and open walls and porticoes so that it's hard to tell where the wide lawn ends and the airy interior begins. There's flowerbeds neatly laid out around the building; the roof is grass-covered; and she can already see, through the windows, the potted greenery inside.

Permalink Eye

" - oh, wow."

It's a weird house. It's not the sort of thing she would have expected based on the aesthetic of the town, and it doesn't have much in common with the places she's imagined that people in heaven might live, but it's interesting, and that's something. Besides, if this place is purgatory, then it's probably all been set up for her benefit in one sense or another, and she owes it to whoever runs this place (God? Michael?) to investigate it.

She steps inside.

Permalink Eye

"You see, in the Good Place," Michael's saying, behind her, "every person gets to live in a home that perfectly matches his or her true essence."

Karen's true essence, it appears, is open and airy and decorated in precisely selected shades of just-barely-not-white, walls and plush carpets and furniture, in that way that suggests the simplicity is not only deliberate but very expensive. It also features quite a lot of throw pillows. And knick-knacks.

The whole house appears to be more or less one room, with half-walls and screens and alcoves that hint at divisions without ever really interrupting its unity. There's potted plants scattered everywhere in it -- some on the floor, some on tables, some hanging from the ceiling. The sitting area has shelves of books; the kitchen has a waffle iron and an ice cream maker and a pasta machine and any number of less readily identifiable gadgets; there's a grand piano and a sewing machine and a crafting table.

Along one wall, stenciled in swirly gold calligraphy, is the Serenity Prayer:

      grant

         me the SERENITY

to accept

              the things

I cannot change;

COURAGE to

                     change

the things I can;

            and the

WISDOM

     to know the

           difference.

Permalink Eye

She wanders around the house for a bit, noting various objects and smiling at some of them. When she notices the prayer, she smiles very genuinely, like she's just been tremendously reassured of something.

"It's beautiful, thank you. Is there a reason there are so few walls?" she asks, trying really hard to sound cheerful about it. It's not actually hard to come up with explanations for why not having walls might be good for building character (maybe it's supposed to help her trust her community, or just keep her from shutting herself off from her community?), but she's curious about what she's supposed to be getting out of it.

Permalink Eye

"Well, it lets in the light to all the parts of the house, and it means you never have to be away from the people you love. Isn't it perfect?"

There's a knock at the door, and Michael beams. "Ah, speaking of which!"

Permalink Eye

A smiling young man peers around the corner of the door, smiles wider still, comes all the way in.

Permalink Eye

"Karen, this is Jean Dulac, and he is -- your soulmate."

Permalink Eye

Aw, frick. She'd known they were going to do something with the soulmate thing at some point, but she'd been assuming she didn't have to think about it yet, because surely even an incompetent heaven with even a basic understanding of her would be able to tell that they couldn't just throw a complete stranger at her and tell her the person was her soulmate and expect that to go even passably well.

At least he's cute, supplies the part of her brain that isn't screaming about danger and terrible matchmaking procedures, before she can tell it to shut up.

She forces a smile, mostly because that seems like the safe-and-polite thing to do. Tries to look reasonably enthused about the situation. Only mostly succeeds. "Hi! I'm Karen."

Permalink Eye

"Karen! It's so lovely to meet you."

He takes her hand -- bows over it instead of shaking it, just barely brushing his lips over the backs of her fingers, so smoothly it almost seems like a normal thing to do.

Permalink Eye

Michael beams and laughs.

"Now excuse me. I have other people to attend to."

Permalink Eye

Frick frick frick frick frick that's so cute and also there is no way she's going to be able to handle this situation without ruining everything somehow -

"Of course," she tells Michael, with the 25% of her brain that's still working. "Uh, have fun!"

Frick frick frick -

Permalink Eye

Her soulmate waves to Michael, kicks off his shoes, perches on the back of an oddly-shaped couch, still grinning at her.

"So! Karen. Is 'tell me all about yourself' too broad?"

Permalink Eye

She nervously clasps her hands in front of herself. Mentally promises her brain that it only needs to make it through this one interaction, and then they can absolutely faceplant on a pillow somewhere and quietly scream. "Um. Possibly. Uh, I don't know what you've been told about me - I haven't heard anything about you at all yet - but, uh, I'm a certified nursing assistant and assistant librarian from Missouri, and I like - " come on, brain, you must have liked something at some point, just say something " - writing things, mostly fiction. I don't know if I was ever any good at it, but they claim that a lot of people benefitted from reading them, so that's something."

Permalink Eye

"Oh, that's amazing -- I'd love to read some, sometime, if you were all right with that -- but I'm sorry, I'm putting you on the spot. Is there anything you'd like to hear about me, or shall I investigate our new house and let you settle in?"

Permalink Eye

"Oh, yeah, lots of things? I'm not sure how to break them down in a way that'll make them easier for you to answer, but, uh, I don't actually know - anything about you, really?"

Frick, this is probably terribly rude, and she's handling this way worse than everyone else, but it's not like it's actually particularly reasonable for anyone to just drop her in a house without walls with a strange man she's never seen before and if her brain isn't working at optimal levels right now then it's not really her fault -

Permalink Eye

"Oh! Well, let's see. I'm an actor; my favorite living poet is Tahar Bekri; I died in a riot; I speak English, French, Arabic, and a smattering of Hebrew; I can juggle flaming torches, hold my breath for three minutes fifteen seconds, and wiggle my ears -- probably all at the same time but I haven't actually ever tried."

Permalink Eye

"Oh! Cool. Very cool." 

She's already exhausted and her heart hurts and she's not actually sure how she's going to live in this house with this person for longer than a day without making it painfully obvious that she's entirely too upset to be in whatever sort of good afterlife this place is currently claiming to be.

"So you're sure we're dead, then," she says, staring at one of the plants instead of at him. "I don't remember dying, I wasn't entirely sure it'd actually happened."

Permalink Eye

"I certainly remember it. I think there are ways you could have died that are quick enough there'd be nothing to remember? Or maybe you were in shock -- I don't know how being in shock interacts with being dead..."

Permalink Eye

"Yeah. That makes sense. I've, uh, never been dead before."

Permalink Eye

He giggles. ...And then pauses and visibly thinks about it again and starts giggling again and ends up falling off the couch and having to pick himself up off the floor, still giggling.

"You saw nothing," he informs her. "Anyhow. It's my first time too. We can figure it out together."

Permalink Eye

She smiles and visibly relaxes at this reaction. "Good. We should probably figure out whether this house has anything that can be described as a room, at some point."

Permalink Eye

"One hopes there is at least a bathroom."

 

There is, as it transpires, a bathroom, tucked away next to the bedroom area. It has a door that locks, even.

The bedroom area has two twin beds, about three feet apart, like it's straight out of a Hays-Code-era movie. The elaborately carved headboards form the two halves of a heart, separated down the middle.

Permalink Eye

"An interesting design choice," she settles on, frowning at the bedroom. "Lots of interesting design choices around here."

Permalink Eye

"There are a few, at that," he agrees.

Permalink Eye

"It's not really a bad house? It's just, uh, missing certain generally agreed-upon elements of houses," she says, uncertainly.

She goes to check whether there's any food in the kitchen. Food is a good thing to keep in kitchens.

Permalink Eye

There is food! Shelves and shelves of lovely ingredients, arrayed colorfully in various appropriate glass containers. There's six different kinds of rice she can see, and at least eight of legumes, and quinoa, all with cute little scoops for measuring out the appropriate amount to cook; there's white flour and wheat flour and rye flour and cornmeal; there's squashes in interesting shapes and colors, more varieties of leafy greens than she knows names for, bottles of creamy milk, a whole shelf of little spice bottles in alphabetical order.

Permalink Eye

Gah. She knows how to cook rice and quinoa off the top of her head, so she's not going to starve, but she was really hoping for, like, pizza rolls. Maybe some waffle mix to go with the waffle iron. Maybe some eggs, even fancy kitchens should have eggs, and hardboiled eggs aren't a terrible food item. But probably the kitchen isn't set up for her, given that she has no idea what to do with any of this. Maybe Jean will get something out of it.

"So, uh, do you know anything about cooking?"

Permalink Eye

"Sure," Jean says brightly, lying through his teeth. "What're you in the mood for?"

Permalink Eye

"Ah." Foods. What are foods. She just wants to eat something. "I trust your expert judgement."

Permalink Eye

"I'm touched."

He starts moving about briskly, opening cupboards and retrieving gadgets of Lovecraftian complexity, measuring out ingredients.

Permalink Eye

She has no idea what he's doing, so she'll just watch him and try to look like she appreciates his superior abilities in this area. Which she does. She just also has no idea what he's doing.

Permalink Eye

He looks very much like he knows what he's doing! A dash of this and a sprinkle of that and tasting something off the spoon and, oh, is that how you use that (it isn't, that is not at all how you use an egg boiler, but he looks very confident doing it).

Eventually it goes into muffin pans, and the muffin pans go into the oven.

Permalink Eye

She is duly impressed! At least one of them is getting something out of at least one element of this house. 

"Most impressive. Uh, I didn't ask you earlier where you were from?"

Permalink Eye

"Oh! Tunisian born and raised. And you?"

Permalink Eye

"United States. Born in Kentucky, moved to Missouri when I was a teenager. Which part of Africa is Tunisia in?"

She's pretty sure it's in Africa, but she never technically finished high school, and dear God sorry for not praying about anything earlier but please let Tunisia be somewhere in Africa.

Permalink Eye

"The northern coast, just south of Italy. I've been to the United States a couple of times, but never to Kentucky or Missouri; did you like it there?"

Permalink Eye

"Yeah, actually. Missouri more than Kentucky. I lived right outside St. Louis - the city with the arch, if you've seen pictures. It's really nice. Highest murder rate in the country, for some reason, but otherwise really nice." 

Permalink Eye

"It sounds like an interesting sort of place. Are there many Francophones there?"

Permalink Eye

"...I don't think so?" She's not entirely sure what's prompting this question. "Uh, the city was founded by the French, but I think today it's mostly native English speakers. Same kind of diversity that most American cities have, but no really noticeable French influence."

Permalink Eye

 

 

"You're not speaking French, are you."

Permalink Eye

"...no. Aaand you're presumably not speaking English right now. Huh."

Permalink Eye

"No -- I can, though, it's a common enough language..."

Halfway through the sentence he acquires a charming, mild, not-quite-French accent.

Permalink Eye

"Oh, wow, that was - you only have an accent when you're speaking English - or, I guess you do all the time, but whatever they're doing for the automatic translation removes it when you're speaking French - that's so weird, translation is subjective, so there's something else interpreting what you're saying before it gets to me - we can probably test how well it's succeeding, though? Did you see any pens in here - "

She wanders back through the rest of the house looking for notebooks and pens, obviously delighted by the chance to investigate the mechanics of how this place works. "Though it's possible it works on writing, too, in which case I won't be able to note what I'm hearing without the mechanism automatically translating it. Although you do speak multiple languages, so - are you still hearing French - ?"

Permalink Eye

He follows her obligingly, with a slightly adoring grin; her search turns up both notebooks and pens in the crafting area.

"I am -- which is odd, really, if I had to pick one native language I'd say Tounsi -- you sound French-from-France, too, not like you're from home, I'd have commented on that sooner..."

Permalink Eye

She takes out a pen and a notebook and scrawls something, then holds up a paper that says You sound French from France, too, not like you're from home. "Still automatically translating?"

Permalink Eye

"Yes -- and that's word-for-word what I said, too, it's not getting confused translating back and forth."

Permalink Eye

"Weird. I wonder if there's a way to outmaneuver it. I mean, it's convenient in the short term, if unnecessary for helping the two of us communicate, but I'm going to be sort of annoyed if I have to stay monolingual for all of eternity. I wonder if it translates sign language. This'd be much easier to test if I knew sign language."

Permalink Eye

"I do know a sign language, but--"

There's a loud noise from the kitchen, followed by the shrill wailing of a fire alarm.

Also, there's kind of a lot of smoke.

Permalink Eye

"...oh dear."

She's sort of surprised that the house even has a fire alarm. At least it'd be the sort of burning building that would be virtually impossible to get stuck in.

She heads back to the kitchen.

Permalink Eye

The oven door is slightly dented. Smoke is billowing out. 

 

"I ... don't suppose there's a fire extinguisher in this house..." Jean sighs. 

Permalink Eye

"Not that I've seen?" She's not actually sure whether it's safe to take it out of the oven at this point, but she's also pretty sure you can't just leave burning items in ovens indefinitely and expect that to go just fine, so she scans the room for oven mitts. 

Permalink Eye

There don't seem to be oven mitts. ...there's a dish towel?

Jean manages to get the oven turned off before retreating from the smoke, coughing. 

Permalink Eye

Dish towel's something. She wraps it around her hand, holds her breath, retrieves the muffin tin, and then drops it on the counter before retreating from the kitchen entirely, coughing and trying to wave the smoke out of her eyes without crying. May or may not have burnt her hand in this process, but at least the hot things have been separated and are no longer making each other hotter.

"So. Uh. That's. That's a thing. Uh, probably it's impossible to actually burn the house down within twenty minutes of receiving it - "

Permalink Eye

"I'm sure the house will be fine -- are you all right -- we should get you out of here--"

Permalink Eye

"I'm fine," she coughs, before noting how much her hand hurts. "Uh, I should rinse this off - I'm fine other than that, yeah - "

Permalink Eye

"I'll get you water," he says firmly, taking her elbow and firmly steering her out the nearest aperture. 

Permalink Eye

She follows, because this seems simpler than doing anything else. 

Permalink Eye

And when she's out on the lawn he ducks back in, returning a moment later with a bowl of water which he holds out for her hand. 

Permalink Eye

She rinses her hand off. "Thank you. It's not that bad, I don't think it needs to be bandaged or anything." 

Permalink Eye

He sets down the bowl of water and takes her hand in both of his; frowns at it, makes a disapproving noise. "You should have a bandage. And ointment. It'll heal faster. We need a first aid kit and a fire extinguisher -- and a new oven, probably -- maybe we can just ask Michael..."

Permalink Eye

"Ask Michael what?" says a voice from behind him.

Permalink Eye

She makes a startled and not particularly dignified noise.

"Michael! Hi! We were, uh - we were making muffins."

Permalink Eye

"Oh, how wonderful! I'm afraid I'm not familiar with this method."

Permalink Eye

"Uh, yeah, it's - we didn't quite succeed."

Permalink Eye

"You know, that's so uniquely human," Michael observes, in a tone of fascinated delight. "Humans never cease to amaze me."

He contemplates the plumes of smoke.

Permalink Eye

"Yeah," says Karen, not entirely sure which part of that she's agreeing to. "Um, what are you, if I might ask?"

Permalink Eye

"I am an Architect. We design neighborhoods like this one. It's very difficult, you know, arranging all the tiny details to be absolutely perfect."

He lowers his voice conspiratorially. "In fact -- I really shouldn't be telling you this -- but after thousands of years, this is my very first time designing a neighborhood by myself!"

Permalink Eye

She's not even going to try to figure out whether there's any chance of that making sense right now.

"Oh! Wow. Congratulations, then! Uh, sorry about the kitchen. I'm sure that was just, uh - " she should probably not immediately throw Jean under the bus to save face " - my fault, I should've been more careful with everything. Sorry."

Permalink Eye

"Don't worry about it!" Michael claps her on the back. "I'd be delighted to rebuild your perfect house from the molecular level. It's no trouble at all!"

He snaps his fingers, and the house is instantly returned to its former state.

Permalink Eye

"...Oh. Huh. Well, thank you."

Permalink Eye

"Of course! If you want to burn it down again, just let me know, any time."

Permalink Eye

"We'll, uh, keep that in mind," says Karen. "Thank you again."

Permalink Eye

"You're very welcome! Enjoy your house, Karen, Jean."

He wanders off, humming off-key.

Permalink Eye

She waits until Michael looks like he's probably out of earshot - not that she really believes that anywhere is out of his earshot - and then turns around and looks at Jean.

"I'm just gonna, uh, go back into the neighborhood and see if any of the restaurants have takeout. If that's OK. Not that I don't trust your abilities as a cook. Just, uh, to be on the safe side."

Permalink Eye

"You're hurt, and I, ah, exploded dinner; why don't you let me do that?"

Permalink Eye

"Are you sure? It's no trouble - "

It's a nonzero amount of trouble, but she's really hungry and she has no idea what they eat in Tunisia and walking helps her think and she really really really needs to think right now.

Permalink Eye

"Quite sure. I like getting to meet people."

Permalink Eye

"OK. Thank you, then."

Aaaah.

Permalink Eye

"But of course. I'll be back before you know it."

Permalink Eye

She thanks him again and waves goodbye and waits until she's pretty sure he's actually, genuinely out of earshot. Assuming Jean is, like, a person, and not some kind of construct. Man, that would be super annoying.

She grabs her notebook and pen, locks herself in the bathroom - she's pretty sure Michael isn't going to ambush her in the bathroom - sits on the toilet, and puts her pen to paper. Any afterlife worth its salt is probably already capable of watching all of her movements and reading her mind (she really should've thought about this before, but oh well), so writing things down shouldn't give them any more information than they already have on her, and if it does, well - she'll be nice about it, then, but she has to be able to think.

Dear God, she scrawls at the top of the page. I'm not sure I've ever been mad at you, but I'm getting pretty close. I hope this is intentional on your part.

She makes a list of the things she knows (Michael is lying to her about various things, Jean isn't her soulmate because that would be dumb, this place isn't hell and it definitely isn't heaven, Michael can arbitrarily alter the environment and at the very least respond to people talking about him, something has to be monitoring them at all times for the translation thing to work, Jean thinks they're really dead - she's not a hundred percent sure she trusts him on that, but she trusts him more than Michael) and things she doesn't (whether this place is purgatory, what it is if it's not, how she died, whether she's actually dead, how Jean was selected to share a house with her, why the house doesn't have walls, why the heck purgatory would lie about the existence of God, whether there actually is a God, what's going to happen to her niece and nephew, what exactly she's planning on doing).

She doesn't cry after this. She does rest her head in her hands and really struggle to care about whether she's still going to be locked in the bathroom by the time Jean comes back.

Permalink Eye

Jean investigates the neighborhood and talks to people and smiles a lot and makes himself endearing. He ascertains that if he speaks deliberately accented English, people hear his accent regardless of what language they're hearing him in, and proceeds to do that. He finds a burger joint eventually -- burgers and fries are American, right, maybe his supposed soulmate will like those -- and obtains two paper bags of food from them; on reflection, he stops by the pie place he noticed earlier and picks up an apple pie. (He smiles extra at the woman running the pie store; he thinks he might be able to convince her to teach him how to cook.)

He does not break down and curl up into a ball of despair and cry his heart out. Not even a little bit. He is so good at this.

When he returns -- "home" -- he's smiling and whistling.

Permalink Eye

She hears whistling and picks her head up out of her hands. Tries to immediately decide whether to leave the notes in the bathroom or take them with her; she's not actually sure how much of her thought process she wants to keep secret, or how much of it she could if she wanted to. She can't immediately decide, so she decides to go to the bathroom and wash her hands like a normal person who is locked in a bathroom for normal reasons. She ends up keeping the notebook with her, more out of momentum than out of principled choice.

"Hi! Uh, the bathroom works and does not seem to be explosive. So that's good."

Permalink Eye

"The restaurants were also non-explosive! Do you want to be fancy and set the table, or eat from the bags and call it a picnic?"

Permalink Eye

She contemplates setting foot in the kitchen again.

"Picnics are good."

Permalink Eye

Jean finds a spare quilt and lays it out on the floor under a potted tree. And then there can be burgers and fries and apple pie and carefully internal despair.

Permalink Eye

She sits on the quilt and eats. She notes that the burgers and fries and apple pie are all really good, thanks him for getting them, and then internally reflects that she still has absolutely no idea how to exist in this place.

"Did you ever, like, think about the afterlife before you died?"

Permalink Eye

What do normal people say to this. "Not much. I was never particularly religious. Did you?"

Permalink Eye

"Yeah. Probably an excessive amount. I knew all these kids who were, like, mildly freaked out by the idea of hell after reading one too many Great Awakening sermons. Which, you know, makes sense. But for some reason I was always way more scared of heaven."

Permalink Eye

"Of heaven?"

Permalink Eye

"Yeah! I mean, it's dumb, right? But if you're in hell then at least you can know that the place around you isn't good. You can, like, recognize that and shake your fist at it or beg God to take mercy on you. But if you get to heaven, and you find that being there doesn't fix everything - maybe that it isn't even very good, not the way you need it to be - then that's sort of it, right? If there isn't any situation where things could really stop feeling broken, then what exactly could you do about it?"

Permalink Eye

 

"I don't know. Maybe it just means you're broken."

Permalink Eye

"--not that you're broken, of course, sorry. I just -- think that's what I would have probably said."

Permalink Eye

"Mmm. I think maybe everybody's a little bit broken."

She is not super sure where she's going with this anymore, but it seems like the thing to say.

Permalink Eye

He looks thoughtful. "I think there's something to that."

Permalink Eye

She is now really unsure where to take this conversation. She nods thoughtfully and eats the rest of her apple pie.

Permalink Eye

It's really good pie.

 

When it's gone, Jean contemplates the forks and plates and the lack of a dishwasher and the fact that he has no idea how to wash dishes by hand. Eventually he settles on quietly throwing them in the kitchen trash and hoping Karen either doesn't notice or decides it's a charming Tunisian custom.

Permalink Eye

Karen is, in fact, not super focused on noticing things. Awkwardness is terrible and it's been a really long couple hours. She decides to examine the contents of the bookshelves.

Permalink Eye

All of the books are charming and leatherbound and completely blank.

Permalink Eye

....Oh. OK. Well. Notebooks are always good, she does actually also need notebooks.

"Did you see anything that looked like a library in the rest of the neighborhood?"

Permalink Eye

Jean comes over, drying his hands on a dishtowel. "I can't say I did; why?"

Permalink Eye

She shows him one of the books. "They're blank. All of them, apparently. Which is fine! It just, uh, leaves something to be desired in terms of reading material."

Permalink Eye

This is, Jean reflects, rather adding insult to injury.

"Perhaps it's some kind of oversight," he suggests.

Permalink Eye

"...I suppose," she says dubiously. It seems like the sort of thing that even a normal person would be unlikely to miss, let alone a being that designed a neighborhood that's supposed to be perfectly calibrated for its residents.

"Maybe we could ask Michael about it," she continues, mentally bracing herself in case Michael decides to appear out of thin air again.

Permalink Eye

"I'm sure he's very busy, I wouldn't want to bother him..."

Permalink Eye

"Yeah, that seems likely. I'm sure he has to deal with everyone's concerns." He hasn't been acting like he has to deal with everyone's concerns, but maybe there's some kind of time dilation thing going on. Or, more depressingly, maybe everyone else has fewer concerns. "I think I'll just, uh, see if there's anything vaguely library shaped in the neighborhood. I should probably figure out where everything is anyway."

Permalink Eye

"That's a good idea." And he wants nothing more than to let her do that and take the time to despair in private, but what he wants can't be his priority right now. "Maybe we should go for a walk around the neighborhood. See things, meet people."

Permalink Eye

"Sure!" she agrees brightly, mostly because she wants to be the sort of person who can agree brightly to things. "Uh, unless you have other things to do, I'm sure I'll be fine on my own, too."

Permalink Eye

"Nothing remotely so important." He offers her his arm.

Permalink Eye

Aaaah what do you do with people's arms. This is the worst part of purgatory, she's going to embarrass herself and then be unable to die of embarrassment. She'll be fine as long as she can think about something other than her own incompetence (like investigation, investigation is a good thing to think about), but Jean is periodically making it super difficult to think about things other than her own incompetence.

She smiles politely and accepts. 

 

Permalink Eye

Jean smiles, pats her hand, and leads her out the nearest house-aperture and down the path.

It's sunny, and a little breezy; plants are rustling gently in their window-boxes, birds are chirping from somewhere unidentifiable, the air is heavy with the scent of jasmine.

They're not the only ones out enjoying the perfect weather. People are walking and talking and smiling, mostly in couples, here and there in groups or alone. Some couples are holding hands; a man and a woman are lying on a hillside, cloudgazing, their arms around each other.

Bells jingle softly as people go in and out of stores, all of them small and cute and welcoming. Elements of Happiness, promises the sign in front of one; another says CHOCOLATE EVERYTHING in gilt letters over the plate-glass window. Further along, they can see Everything FITS! and The Good Plates and From Schmear to Eternity and quaint little carts laden with flowers and pinwheels and tiny cacti in teacups.

Permalink Eye

....aww, the tiny cacti are kind of cute. They're not what she should be thinking about right now, but it's important to be able to appreciate the good things in no-longer-life.

She looks around for anything that might be a library or a bookstore or a church.

Permalink Eye

Perhaps she wants Chicken Soup for the Mouth, or Caviar On A Stick, or Warm Blankets, or Bagel On A Stick, or Tea for Two Couples Cafe, or Hot Dog On A Stick On A Stick, or The Pesto's Yet to Come, or Steak On A Stick (Extra Sticks)?

Permalink Eye

Not-heaven is an entirely ridiculous place. At least it has lots of restaurants. More variety would be nice, but maybe she can get away with eating takeout for a while and not have to figure out her kitchen just yet. Focus on the good. Focus on the good.

She'll circle back around to Elements of Happiness, on the grounds that she's not actually sure what that one is selling.

Permalink Eye

Items in the store window include:

- a dummy in a flowing blue-and-white dress, skirts arrayed in careful pleats

- a large Canadian goose with a ribbon around its neck, preening contentedly

- several bouquets of roses (various colors)

- a shelf of decorative bells, including a commemorative bell from the 1893 World Fair

- a set of cookware, marked 90% off

Permalink Eye

She's getting more and more concerned about not-heaven's economic system (doesn't a 90% off sticker imply that you still have to pay for things here? She supposes that's arguably a good thing, if there's anything they can't get by getting Michael to snap his fingers, but she doesn't have any money, and the idea of finding a job in a town that seems to be 70% restaurants is sort of making her stomach turn), but she figures the best way to handle that is to get more information.

"This one seems like it has some variety," she says brightly, before letting go of Jean and walking in on her own. She is pretty sure this is horrible and rude, but touching people she doesn't know is taking up like three quarters of her ability to think, and she would really like to be able to think right now.

Permalink Eye

The bell over the door jingles cheerily; the proprietress, who's wearing an unbelievably frilly tiered pink dress, looks up from her knitting and waves. "Welcome to Elements of Happiness! How can I make you happy today?"

Permalink Eye

"We'll have to see!" says Karen, cheerfully. "You wouldn't happen to have any books here, would you? I was looking for a bookstore earlier, but I haven't found anything yet."

Permalink Eye

"Hmmm. Have you looked behind the pastries?"

Permalink Eye

She glances around the shop to see if there are any pastries about.

Permalink Eye

There are! There's a whole display case full of various fruit pastries. (They smell delicious.)

Permalink Eye

Aw, neat. Maybe she'll have one later.

She checks behind the display case.

Permalink Eye

It's kind of pushed up against the wall, but if she really stretches and squeezes into the gap a little, she can juuust get hold of a package neatly wrapped in butcher paper.

Permalink Eye

...huh. 

She grabs the package.

"Did you mean this?"

Permalink Eye

"Are there books in it?"

Permalink Eye

She takes that as permission to unwrap the package.

Permalink Eye

Inside is:

another package, also neatly wrapped and tied with a perfect bow.

Permalink Eye

She unwraps the second package. She's not gonna keep doing this forever, but she needs to make a serious effort to unwrap the thing herself before it makes sense to ask for help.

Permalink Eye

Inside there's ...

... yeah, it's another box.

Permalink Eye

All right then.

"It's wrapped very thoroughly, whatever it is."

Permalink Eye

"...ohhhh you've got the package, haven't you."

Permalink Eye

"...the package?"

Permalink Eye

"Yeah! The one wrapped in brown paper, right?"

Permalink Eye

"Yeah."

Permalink Eye

"Yeah that one's just a package."

Permalink Eye

"Oh. Whoops. I didn't see anything else back there, sorry."

Permalink Eye

"Hm. Maybe under the escalope...?"

Permalink Eye

"Under the....?" she trails off, looking around again. What the heck is an escalope. "Sorry, where?"

Permalink Eye

"The wiener-schnitzel."

Permalink Eye

She looks over the pastries again and smiles. "Sorry, I'm afraid I wasn't a person of discriminating taste when it came to food. It'll be nice to get to try so many new things now, but for the moment I might need some hand-holding. Can you point to it?"

Permalink Eye

"Over there." She points at a row of cloches under heat lamps, on the other side of the store.

Permalink Eye

"Thank you! I'll check it out."

She moves to the other side of the store. She's pretty sure there aren't any books in here and that the store is deliberately designed to be confusing and frustrating, but that doesn't mean she has to let it win.

Permalink Eye

There's drawers under the rack of heat lamps!

 

...there aren't books in the drawers.

There is a cat in one of the drawers, with about a dozen kittens.

Permalink Eye

"Aww!" she says aloud. She was already pretty sure there weren't books in here, and kittens are way better than the experience of unwrapping an infinite package.

"Does the cat have a name?" she asks over her shoulder.

Permalink Eye

"Quvenzhané."

Permalink Eye

She considers immediately giving up and attempting to sidestep the awkwardness of inevitably pronouncing that wrong, but that's a coward's way out.

"Quavenzhane?" she tries.

Permalink Eye

"Gesundheit," says a man coming in through a side entrance.

Permalink Eye

She waves politely and decides to test whether the cat is amenable to petting.

Permalink Eye

The cat is not. The cat spits and scratches.

Permalink Eye

"Sorry!" she tells the cat, holding one hand with her other and hoping she doesn't collect too many more hand injuries in the next day or so. "I'm sure you're very busy."

Permalink Eye

"Are you.... talking .... to a cat?"

Permalink Eye

"Yeah! Um, I know animals can't understand it - can't understand the words, anyway, I think they get something from the tone - but it's a good habit for some people, if it makes it easier to be thoughtful about how you treat them." Don't think about the fact that grown-ups probably shouldn't have to do this. Her aunt Lauren talked to her dog all the time and nobody ever thought that was weird. But maybe you're supposed to talk to dogs more than cats, because dogs are better at recognizing spoken commands. This is not a productive line of thought.

She holds out her left hand. "I'm Karen. Don't mind the left-handed handshake, it's just that the other one's still bleeding."

Permalink Eye

It takes him a number of indecisive false starts before he decides on shaking it with his own left hand. 

"Egbert." His intonation is flat enough it's a little hard to recognize as a name. 

Permalink Eye

"Pleased to make your acquaintance. I assume you live in the neighborhood?"

Permalink Eye

"We're not alive."

Permalink Eye

"That's a good point. You reside in the neighborhood?"

Permalink Eye

"Yes. Everyone does."

Permalink Eye

"Well, not everyone-everyone, Michael said there's a train that connects them and lets people visit. But I'm guessing they'll probably wait for everyone to get settled in before they introduce anyone new. How're you liking it so far?"

Permalink Eye

 

"It's perfect."

(He doesn't say it enthusiastically, but he's not sarcastic either. He sounds like someone explaining that the sky is blue or that down is that way.)

Permalink Eye

"I'm glad you think so," she says brightly. "I'm still working on finding everything - haven't found any books yet, for one thing, and I was hoping I'd be able to catch up on my reading. Do you run any of the shops in town? I'd love to hear about whatever it is you're working on."

Permalink Eye

"I don't."

Permalink Eye

"That's sort of a relief, I was hoping I wasn't the only one. I'm not entirely sure when everyone else found the time to start running theirs, given that it's only been a few hours since the orientation."

Permalink Eye

"I imagine you could ask Michael."

Permalink Eye

"I probably should! Jean didn't want to bother him with little things, but if I can't find a bookstore then I might just ask him about opening one myself. - Sorry, Jean's my soulmate, according to Michael. I suppose you have a soulmate, too?"

Permalink Eye

"Everyone does."

Permalink Eye

"That is what they said. You'd think there'd be some people who're perfectly happy on their own, but I suppose it is what it is. Anyway, love to have the two of you over sometime, after you're settled in. We've got this absurdly complicated kitchen that looks like it's begging to be used to feed everyone in the neighborhood."

Permalink Eye

"All right."

Permalink Eye

"Excellent! I'll have to talk to Jean about it before I finalize a time, but if you tell me where your house is I can stop by later and invite you over properly."

Permalink Eye

"It's complicated. You wouldn't remember it."

Permalink Eye

"That's a shame. Anywhere you're likely to be in the near future? I'd ask for your phone number but I don't know that anyone has those anymore."

Permalink Eye

"There aren't phones here."

Permalink Eye

"That was my impression, yeah. I imagine it's useful for encouraging face-to-face interaction with each other, which is great, but I will have to figure out how to handle logistics properly without them. Hm, tell you what, I think Jean's probably still outside. I suppose we could just head back out and ask him when would be a good time to have you over. Keep it simple."

Permalink Eye

"That sounds simple," he -- agrees? That was probably agreement.

Permalink Eye

"Mhmm!" she says brightly, before making her way back to the front of the store. She calls out to the proprietress before leaving. "Thanks so much for humoring me, but I think I'll have to admit defeat for today. Love to see the rest of the shop some other time, though!"

Permalink Eye

She waves cheerfully.

Permalink Eye

Jean is outside, looking -- contemplative, but in a way a little like someone carved a sculpture of Man Looking Contemplative and left it out in front of the building.

Permalink Eye

"Hi!" she says, waving a little. "So I don't think there were any books in that one. I am beginning to suspect that there aren't any books for sale anywhere, in which case I think maybe I should talk to Michael about setting up a little bookshop somewhere. I did get to meet one of our neighbors, though! This is Egbert."

Permalink Eye

Jean stops looking statuelike as soon as she starts speaking. He smiles at her and Egbert -- more at her, though -- and offers the latter a hand, which Egbert stares at blankly for a moment before shaking.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Egbert. Karen, of course you should have a bookshop if you want one. I'm sure it can be arranged."

Permalink Eye

"I mean, there's no hurry. But it seems like something to look into, I think, given how much time we have on our hands. I was wondering if you'd like to have Egbert and his soulmate over for dinner sometime? I was thinking it'd be good to try to get to know some of our neighbors."

Permalink Eye

"Of course! That's a great idea. Maybe next week, give you some time to get settled in before trying to host social events?"

Permalink Eye

"Sure! Leeet's see, I'm not sure if we're still using days of the week here, so - eight days from now, around 5 PM? Does that work for you, Egbert?"

Permalink Eye

"Yes, all right."

Permalink Eye

"Great! See you then!"

She takes Jean's hand and pulls him in a random direction until they're well out of earshot.

"He's fantastic. Bluntest and most pedantic person I've met in years. Also the most sincere person I've run into here by a long shot, self included. Really genuinely a pleasure to talk to, somehow. You don't have to cook the dinner, by the way, if the kitchen's intent on murdering us then it seems like whoever wants to use it should be the person to brave its attacks."

Permalink Eye

"But you've already been wounded in battle. I can hardly send you back to the front lines." He takes her hand, turns it over to gently kiss the injured palm.

Permalink Eye

You know, it really says something about the restorative power of Egbert's presence that this doesn't make her want to sink into the floor and possibly die again.

" - oh no, I forgot to tell him where our house is. We're totally going to argue about who gets to fight the kitchen after I get back, though! Hold that thought!"

And she dashes off to find Egbert and correct her mistake. He can't have gotten very far.

Permalink Eye

Egbert is nowhere to be seen.

Permalink Eye

Darn. Hopefully she'll be able to find him again before eight days have elapsed. He seems like the sort of person who might decide to randomly become a hermit in the woods for seventy years with relatively little preamble, but maybe Michael can point her in the right direction next time she sees him. She heads back to Jean.

"No luck, I'll have to try tracking him down later."

Permalink Eye

"I'm sure it won't be too hard. We are all neighbors."

Permalink Eye

"In theory! But I have no idea how big the neighborhood is, and since we don't have to work and there isn't a church or a school or anything resembling a government it's all - haphazard." She sighs. "Anyway, no, you should not take the full wrath of the kitchen on by yourself."

Permalink Eye

"But then how am I to redeem my honor?"

Permalink Eye

Her mouth opens, but she pauses, like she thinks this is actually a convincing line of argumentation.

"You can help me figure out how to find or create a bookstore," she says, after a moment. "Maybe we can find some cookbooks along the way."

Permalink Eye

"As you wish."

Permalink Eye

"Cool. So that's my plan right now, what's yours?"

Permalink Eye

"Figure out how to get you a bookstore!"

Permalink Eye

"Oh. OK. Well. Our goals are conveniently aligned. I guess now we just have to find Michael?"

Permalink Eye

"I guess so! Do you want to get started on that now, or do you want a little more time to get adjusted first? You did, ah, just die."

Permalink Eye

"I suppose I did." On the other hand, the longer she has to go without books and something library-adjacent and at least the possibility of doing research, the worse off she's going to be and the more mistakes she's likely to make in handling this place. "I feel OK, though. I expect the not remembering helps with whatever trauma I'd be going around with otherwise. And I don't know that I have anything better to do, if there's nothing that you particularly need help with."

Permalink Eye

"This is obviously important to you. I can't imagine what I'd have to do that could be more important than helping you with it."

Permalink Eye

"I mean, you could also have something that was important to you, and I'd help with it. But if there's nothing pressing, then - hm, saying Michael's name hasn't resulted in him teleporting here, so I think we either have to find him or ask some of the shopkeepers how they opened their shops."

Permalink Eye

"Which of those would you rather?"

Permalink Eye

"Shops seems like an approach we're more likely to make immediate progress on. You hungry at all?"

Permalink Eye

"I could eat!"

Permalink Eye

"All right then!"

She heads into - what are their options again, does this place have anything in the way of pizza or hotdogs or maybe Chinese food?

Permalink Eye

Well.

There's Hot Dog On A Stick On A Stick.

Permalink Eye

- y'know what, good enough. And she's kind of curious about what that even means.

Permalink Eye

What it means is this:

You take a hot dog.

You stick a stick into it, at a ninety-degree angle.

You take another stick, and stick it through at a forty-five degree angle, so that it intersects both the hot dog and the first stick, in a triangular sort of shape.

Then you grill it. And offer it for sale at "FIFTY PERCENT OFF NOTHING!!"

Permalink Eye

...well, y'know what, it's still a hotdog. This is a pointless but apparently harmless process.

"Two hotdogs, please."

Permalink Eye

Two hot dogs! (With four accompanying sticks!)

Permalink Eye

"Thank you! So! How did you come to open up this store?"

Permalink Eye

"It was waiting for me when I arrived! I always dreamed of running one of those stores that sell things on sticks, you know. I never thought I'd be so lucky as to run one that sold things on sticks on sticks."

Permalink Eye

"That sounds absolutely delightful! I'm so glad you get to have it. I was thinking about opening up a shop myself, I'd noticed there weren't any bookstores."

Permalink Eye

"...oh. Well. I ... suppose you can do that?"

Permalink Eye

"Do you think it'll be a problem?"

Permalink Eye

"No! No, I'm sure it'll be fine that you want to do that. Even if Michael didn't give you one at the beginning. He probably just forgot. You should go for it!"

Permalink Eye

"All right then! Thanks! I can't imagine we're supposed to go all of eternity without trying any new things. Thanks again for the hot dogs!"

Permalink Eye

"You're welcome. Good luck!!!!"

Permalink Eye

"Thanks!"

She reports back to Jean. "Seems like most of the stores were already here when people got here. We'll have to talk to Michael. D'you want a hot dog or do you have dietary restrictions? Or just not like hot dogs, that would also be fine."

Permalink Eye

"I like hot dogs!" He accepts one, considers it somewhat skeptically, attempts to figure out a moderately well-mannered way to eat it without stabbing himself in the mouth.

Permalink Eye

She just pulls hers off the sticks. "They're a little ridiculous. But they make the guy who runs the store really happy, so that's all right."

Permalink Eye

Oh that's allowed? Good. He follows suit. "You're very sweet, you know that?"

Permalink Eye

" - aww. Thanks. I try."

Permalink Eye

"You succeed! It's terribly charming."

Permalink Eye

"Well, I'm glad you think so, anyway. It'd be a pretty questionable state of affairs if you'd gotten a soulmate you couldn't stand."

Not soulmates not soulmates not soulmates ugh it seemed like the thing to say she is just going to make this pointlessly harder for him later -

Permalink Eye

"That would be terrible. I feel for my poor counterfactual self."

Permalink Eye

"Yep! Poor guy. Hopefully whoever's in charge of his counterfactual unreality notices this and corrects it for him."

Permalink Eye

"Oh, I don't know. He probably finds doomed pining very appealingly tragic."

Permalink Eye

"Well, as long as he's enjoying himself. And as long as you are. You're probably the most important one of yourself, as the one that really exists."

Permalink Eye

"Conveniently, I am also the luckiest one of myself." He beams at her.

Permalink Eye

She smiles back. "Well, I'm glad you think so."

Oh, but this is gonna be a mess.

"So. Any idea how we go about finding Michael again?"

Permalink Eye

“I could set something on fire,” Jean suggests, cheerfully. 

Permalink Eye

"Hmmm. That does seem like the sort of thing that might make us unpopular with the neighbors, even if it doesn't cause any permanent property damage."

Permalink Eye

He laughs. "Well, all right. We could go back to where the orientation was, I suppose?"

Permalink Eye

"Seems like a good first line of attack!"

So she finishes her hot dog and heads back to the orientation area and checks that Michael doesn't already happen to be there. Failing that, she'll look around for anything that looks like it might be the office that she originally came in through.

Permalink Eye

Neither of those things are manifest! Perhaps she is looking for this man walking six very small dogs? Or this charmingly disgusting chowder fountain?

Permalink Eye

Nope!

Hmm. She spends a little bit of time thinking about what a reasonable and ideal and confident version of herself would do in this situation, then hops on the orientation stage and turns on the microphone.

"Hey! Has anybody seen Michael?"

Permalink Eye

A baby that a tired-looking man is walking up and down the street, nearby, wakes up and starts wailing.

All six of the very small dogs begin yapping back and forth with impossible rapidity.

Permalink Eye

Wow, there are babies here?

"Guess that's a no," she says, upon receiving zero responses, and hops off the stage and over to the man with a baby. Under normal circumstances she would be mortified, but her ideal self does her level best to fix her mistakes and then moves on, so that's what she's gonna do. "Hey, sorry, didn't mean to startle anyone."

Permalink Eye

"It's all right," sighs the man, jiggling the howling baby. "Don't worry about it."

Permalink Eye

She is now really curious about this baby, but you can't very well talk to someone while they're trying to soothe a crying baby, so she'll just wait until the baby is successfully soothed.

Permalink Eye

The baby is doing the thing babies do where it screams until it's red in the face and dripping snot, and then is distressed by the fact that it is red and dripping, and screams some more to express this.

Permalink Eye

"Uh... anything that might help? Do they like stuffed animals? Singing?"

Permalink Eye

He shrugs helplessly with the shoulder the baby isn't on. "Sometimes she does this. We call it 'existential angst.'"

Permalink Eye

"Relatable, kiddo."

She will wait until the baby is done or until she's told to leave. The baby is not gonna beat her for endurance.

Permalink Eye

 

"I hope babies need to sleep, here," he sighs, eventually. "...Janet?"

Permalink Eye

"Hello!" says a spontaneously existent personage.

Permalink Eye

"Janet, do babies need to sleep in the Good Place?"

Permalink Eye

"Yes, they do."

Permalink Eye

"Thank you, Janet." Pause. "Janet, is the continuum hypothesis true?"

Permalink Eye

"The truth value of the continuum hypothesis is not determined by the axioms of set theory ever since the second draft."

Permalink Eye

"Ever since the--"

(The baby takes one look at Janet, takes a deep breath, and starts screaming with even greater vigor.)

"...thank you, Janet." (Baby-bouncing.)

Permalink Eye

"You're welcome!" And she disappears.

Permalink Eye

"Who - what just happened?"

Permalink Eye

"Oh, that was--"

The baby spits up on his shoulder. He sighs, shifts the baby to his other shoulder, and uses the corner of his sleeve to wipe its mouth.

"That was just Janet."

Permalink Eye

"Hello!"

Permalink Eye

The baby screams.

Permalink Eye

"I'll - I'll just go talk to Janet over here while you try to calm her down?"

Permalink Eye

"How can I help you?" says Janet to Karen, a little loudly to be heard over the baby.

Permalink Eye

The man with the baby flees.

Permalink Eye

"Hi!" She pauses. "Um - who are you?"

Permalink Eye

"I'm Janet!"

Permalink Eye

"Oh," says Karen. "That's, uh, valid. I'm Karen."

Permalink Eye

“...Jean,” he adds, politely, since it seems called for. 

Permalink Eye

"Yes you are!" agrees Janet.

Permalink Eye

...well, y'know, at least this person seems pretty satisfied with her not-life.

"How'd you do the teleporting thing?"

Permalink Eye

"I live in a boundless void when I'm not here. When someone calls for me I appear, to help them with whatever they need to have the ideal Good Place experience."

Permalink Eye

"Oh. So you work with Michael?"

Permalink Eye

"Yes, I helped him implement his neighborhood design!"

Permalink Eye

"Cool!"

This is definitely a test of some kind. She's not sure what the test is, though. She kind of wants to pass the test, but she doesn't know how to go about passing the test when she doesn't know what the test is, so maybe she should just run right ahead trying to accomplish her goals and become a better person until the charade ends and someone points out all of her flaws to her and lets her know how she can fix them.

"We were trying to find Michael just now. See, we were thinking, there are lots of stores in town, but there don't seem to be any bookstores or libraries? And bookstores and libraries are pretty great."

Permalink Eye

"This neighborhood doesn't have any, but if you need any book, you can ask me and I can get it for you."

Permalink Eye

"That's good to know! Is there a reason why the neighborhood doesn't have any?"

Permalink Eye

"That was Michael's design! He's the Architect, I'm just the Janet."

Permalink Eye

"I see! He probably doesn't want to make any changes to his design right away, then." 

Permalink Eye

"He didn't specify! Would you like me to ask him?"

Permalink Eye

"Sure, if it's no trouble!"

Permalink Eye

Janet disappears to go ask Michael why the neighborhood doesn't have any libraries or bookstores.

Permalink Eye

"Oh, I'm so glad you asked, Janet! Because the fulfillment of Jean's and Karen's bond as soulmates will be filling a library with beautiful stories and plays and poems the two of them write together."

Permalink Eye

Janet pops back to relay this verbatim!

Permalink Eye

"Huh," she says, thoughtfully. "Yeah, that makes sense. Thank you, Janet. Does the library building already exist?"

Permalink Eye

"Not yet, but I'll be happy to put one up to your specifications as soon as you're ready!"

Permalink Eye

"Cool! Thanks Janet! I should probably go home and talk to my soulmate about all of this."

Permalink Eye

"Okay!" And she disappears.

Permalink Eye

"And get you some rest," her soulmate agrees, smiling. "If babies need to sleep in the Good Place, you probably do too."

Permalink Eye

"This is possible."

Permalink Eye

"Don't make me pick you up and carry you to bed. I'll do it, you know."

Permalink Eye

If she had to pick one person here who was least likely to be an actual person, she would probably spend longer than entirely necessary waffling between Jean and Janet right now. She's still really undecided on whether he likes her even a little bit, and main thing keeping her from saying that he definitely doesn't is that it would sound pretty horrifically rude if she were wrong. But there's no way this is genuine. Nobody ends up genuinely moved to act like this after six hours of knowing someone, and this is about a million times more true if the someone is her.

He's an actor. And it's possible that he's a very good actor when circumstances are less overwhelming, sure. But she's a writer, and more than that, she's a nurse. She's been watching people die for almost as long as she's been telling stories, putting on a brave face for them all. She might have lost to the baby, but she's not gonna lose to her disaster buddy. Nor is she letting her disaster buddy hurt himself, because when you get assigned a disaster buddy you look out for them throughout the ensuing disaster, no matter how ridiculous they are.

"That's all right," she says, after a pause that's only a little bit too long. "You should conserve your strength to brave the horrors of the kitchen."

Permalink Eye

He puts a hand over his heart, "You wound me, madam. A hit, a very palpable hit."

Permalink Eye

"I have the utmost confidence in your ability to recover."

She takes his hand and walks him back to what passes for their house.

Permalink Eye

He beams at her adoringly the whole way there.

On the way in, he plucks a flower off a low-hanging tree branch and tucks it behind her ear.

Permalink Eye

This would be cuter if there were any substance to it, but it only sort of makes her want to die, so hey, progress.

"I'm actually gonna stay up and read for a bit before I go to bed, OK?"

Permalink Eye

"Of course. Going to ask the ... magical void person ... for a book?"

Permalink Eye

"That's the plan." She pauses dramatically. "Janet?"

Permalink Eye

"Hello!" says Janet, who is just behind her now.

Permalink Eye

She manages to only startle a little bit.

"Janet! Hi! You, uh, you can just make things?"

Permalink Eye

"That's right! What would you like me to make?"

Permalink Eye

"I need a Revised Standard Version Bible, a Biblical concordance, an encyclopedia of saints, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a transcript of Doug Fourcett's famous speech, annnnd a pile of Batman comics from the 50s."

Permalink Eye

Now all of those things are in a precarious stack in Janet's arms and she hands them over. "Here you go!"

Permalink Eye

"Thanks so much, Janet!"

Permalink Eye

"You're welcome! Will there be anything else?"

Permalink Eye

"Maybe later! That's all right now."

Permalink Eye

"Okay!" and she's gone.

Permalink Eye

 

Jean would be having a lot of feelings about the sudden existence of books in his life, and about the particular selection, if he were currently having emotions about anything besides his sister.

 

"Can I get you anything, before you settle in with those? Make you coffee?" He does know how to make coffee, and surely there's coffee in the kitchen somewhere, heaven wouldn't not have coffee.

Permalink Eye

She hates coffee.

"All right! Thank you so much."

Permalink Eye

Lo and behold, the kitchen does have coffee! And elaborate coffee-making devices! Which he knows how to operate because sometimes he goes with his sister to conferences, and she stays up late hyperfocused on some interesting point raised in a talk, and makes nonverbal demanding noises in the direction of the hotel coffee maker, and he has to figure out how to make it work or she'll be very cranky indeed --

(he's not crying he's not crying he's not crying)

-- and so he produces a cup of absolutely flawless coffee with an adorable foam bear on top of it, and deposits it quietly at Karen's elbow without disturbing her reading, before disappearing off to change into pajamas.

Permalink Eye

...gosh. That's probably not indicative of anything but it's a really cute coffee bear. 

The fact that Jean has ever succeeded at being adorable just makes it more important to figure out what's going on, though, so she redoubles her efforts. The first thing she needs to do is read Doug Fourcett's speech; figuring out what Michael's core claims are seems like an important step.

 

Permalink Eye

RANDY: Hey, man, whadya think happens after we die?

DOUG: Dude. Duuuude. [INHALES DEEPLY] What if, like... WE are what happens after we die. No, like. Like. Dude. Dude, where's my Doritos. OK. [EATS DORITO] Like. You die, and there's just, like, this guy in a suit. And, like, he's not YOU, but, like, he's the universe LOOKING at you, right? Just this old white guy with a suit and, like, a dumb tie. And, like, the man -- like, dude, I mean THE MAN, you get that, right -- the MAN does this math shit, like, Big Brother, yeah? Like. [UNINTELLIGIBLE, EATING DORITO.] And if you did bad shit you go to, like. Like. Like, man, a BAD PLACE. And if you did good shit ... if you did good shit ... no, dude, lemme finish, this is gonna be deep, OK ... if you did good shit, you go to, uh, uh, uh. Like, a GOOD PLACE. But, like, if you did even a LITTLE bit of bad shit, you go to the bad place, OK? Like. Fuck, man. [WAVES DORITO FOR EMPHASIS] Like. If you buy pizza, but, like, for your homies and shit, right, and your homies give you the money and shit, you know, but, like. Dude. Like, here's the thing, you keep the tip. Ha. The tip. Like Ted. Fuck Ted. Like, if you do that shit even once, then WHAM. Straight to the bad place. So, like, there's a good place and a bad place and paperwork and shit. Who the fuck knows. But, like, it's not god or some fucker doing shit TO you, it's shit you do to YOURSELF, man. Like. Whoa. It all makes SENSE, OK? Like, you get here and you look at it and it just makes SENSE. This is some good shit, dude. Bro. Bro, you're the BEST. But, like, OK, it makes SENSE, like. Like, if you text in a movie, then, like, they take your phone away. And then they rip your [EXPLETIVE DELETED] hands off. Like, DUDE. Just, OFF. But, like, it comes from INSIDE you. Like. Who you are ... is about WHO YOU ARE, man. And, like, there's angels and shit, and demons and shit, and, like, shit. Like, I mean, SHIT. Like, some crazy robot lady shit. It's wild. Not a robot. But, like, you know, OK? You know what I mean. Don't give me that shit. ... OK, so there's a medium place, but, like. It's fucking boring. Like. SO boring. Dude. Lame. It's so ... They can, like, men in black. Like. Wham. Dude. Badass. ... You got your homies and shit, and, like. You got the dude where it's like, it's like, you got a CONNECTION. Like. Damn, dude. Like, you meet this dude and you're like, whoa, dude, we got a CONNECTION. You know? Just like that. Whoa, dude, CONNECTION. It's like being alive, but, like, not. But you can learn shit. And, uh, teach shit. Yeah. You can't get married, though, none of that shit. There's all this shit, like, paperclips. Just, paperclips. And, like. Burritos. Shit, dude, now I want a burrito. Damn. Dude, I'm so high right now, you don't even know.

RANDY: Dude.

DOUG: DUDE.

Permalink Eye

So approximately eight percent of this is supposed to be nonsense, and the other ninety-two percent of it is meant to be meaningful information on the nature of the system. The part about almost everyone going to the bad place is just a little bit more than eight percent of the speech, so that part has to be one of the supposedly solid parts. They're probably gearing up for some kind of aesop about how all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, because obviously if they were working with this paradigm for real then she would totally be in hell, and that would sort of contradict some of the other claims raised.

The part about the medium place could be (supposedly) false, the part about no marriages could be (supposedly) false, the part about learning and teaching could be (supposedly) false. She's pretty sure she's met the not-a-robot lady. She saw the first Men in Black movie once when she was six and is not entirely sure what that part is referring to, but maybe she can rent a DVD or something, and that part is also short enough to be supposedly false. The self as the source of torment is a repeated theme throughout the speech, so that part is probably supposed to be solid - which, OK, fallen nature of mankind, original sin, she's sure there's some way for that to actually make sense.

Probably, if she wants to move on, she's got to become the sort of person who could live in heaven for all eternity and never do anything even as bad as texting during a movie or not tipping a pizza guy. This sounds like a lot of work, but hey, she has forever.

She reads the catechism until she gets bored, reads a Batman comic, reads the catechism again, takes a sip of coffee - yup, she still hates it - checks that Jean isn't sitting up in bed staring at her, and carefully pours it down the drain. She hand washes the cup and returns it to the cabinet. 

She checks on her disaster buddy.

Permalink Eye

He is tucked neatly into one of the beds, sleeping. Sleeping the most sleepingly anyone has ever slept. It is extremely sleepful sleeping.

 

 

(He's wide awake, but hey, he's an actor.)

Permalink Eye

He seems pretty asleep, that's good!

She still doesn't want to share a room with a man she met twelve hours ago. Possibly this is silly and she should get over herself? It's not like they're sharing a bed or anything? But it still sounds... kind of uncomfortable. Really, really uncomfortable.

"...don't get sent to hell or anything," she whispers, because it is kind of irresponsible to leave your disaster buddy in the middle of the night, but if wishing can affect the outcome then she's going to wish.

She leaves the maybe-technically-a-house and goes for a walk around the neighborhood. Maybe any of the stores are still open at whatever ridiculous hour it probably is.

Permalink Eye

All the shops are dark and shuttered. There's no moon out, but the stars are very bright in the dark sky, enough so to faintly illuminate the empty streets.

It's very quiet. Everyone else must be in bed at this hour. Even the crying baby seems to have gone to sleep.

Permalink Eye

That's cool, how well you can see the stars. She wonders if they're real stars, if they're really on a planet that they can explore. She wonders if the baby was born on Earth, or if it just appeared here, and whether it counts toward the inhabitant cap. She wonders if they're supposed to have more babies, and how that's going to work with immortality, and whether there will be enough planets around all of those stars to sustain them. She wonders if three hundred and twenty-two people are enough to maintain sufficient genetic diversity, or whether inbreeding is the sort of thing you only have to think about when you're in a fallen world with fallen people and thorns and thistles and smallpox.

Except they are, still. Fallen.

She sits on a bench in the middle of the neighborhood and hugs her legs to her chest.

"I don't get this place, God."

Permalink Eye

God doesn't answer.

The chowder fountain splashes quietly.

Permalink Eye

"I can't say I entirely understand it either," says a very tall man, who has quietly come up behind her.

Permalink Eye

She thinks she's getting better at not startling when people appear behind her, so that's cool.

"I assume you're not the addressed."

Permalink Eye

"I'm told they say something about assumptions."

He puts a hand on the end of the bench where she isn't sitting, vaults over the back to sit beside her.

Permalink Eye

"Well. I haven't met God yet, but when I do, I expect him to have a much better idea of what's going on than either of us do. And I expect him to either be a being of currently unfathomable majesty who has not revealed himself to us because in our current imperfect state we would be incineratedor else for him to be played by Morgan Freeman."

Permalink Eye

"Perhaps God resides within all of us," he suggests, gazing contemplatively off into the distance.

Permalink Eye

"Highly plausible, but I'm going to be disappointed if that's the only place."

She offers him her hand. The right one, this time, even though it's still bandaged. "Karen Teller."

Permalink Eye

He takes it between both of his. "Hercule Flambeau. I hope I have not disturbed you."

Permalink Eye

Sounds French. Maybe Jean would like him. "Nah, it's cool, I didn't have a plan when I came out here anyway. Do you have one of the shops or anything?"

Permalink Eye

"I do indeed. It's called 'Bling and a Prayer.'"

Permalink Eye

"...what's it sell?"

Permalink Eye

"Jewelry. Various sorts. You should come see it sometime."

Permalink Eye

"Maybe I will! Or - I suppose I definitely will, given the timelines we're working with."

Permalink Eye

"Forever is a very long time," he agrees. "I suppose that in enough time, everything will happen."

Permalink Eye

"I don't think that follows. Like - you can have a repeating decimal that just goes on in the same sequence forever, right, so even though it's infinite there are some sequences that will never occur in it. But I guess humans probably expect somewhat more novelty in their lives than repeating decimals do."

Permalink Eye

"And yet who is to say that, in the vast infinitudes of time, even the numbers in their perfect order might not grow weary and stray?"

Permalink Eye

 

"That sounds like it would cause...... problems."

This is probably not the response she's supposed to have, it's probably very profound or something.

Permalink Eye

"And yet, we are told that all things are possible with God."

Permalink Eye

"Which doesn't imply that all possible things will happen. For instance, God abides by his promises, no matter what."

Permalink Eye

"Does he? Are there things, then, of which even almighty God is incapable?"

Permalink Eye

She pauses.

"You know, I have a lot of time on my hands now, so I'm going to go ahead and become a proper theologian and get back to you on this when I know more."

Permalink Eye

 

"That's certainly ambitious," he says, a little taken aback.

Permalink Eye

"Well, I figure persisting in ignorant speculation would be falling short of what I can now reasonably expect from myself. - what about you, any particular goals?"

Permalink Eye

"I am of the opinion that the journey is more important than the destination."

Permalink Eye

"You know, I can see that, but I think I tend to do more journeying when I have somewhere in mind to go. But maybe that's not everyone."

Permalink Eye

"And if your destination is somewhere you cannot yet imagine?"

Permalink Eye

"Well, you won't learn how to imagine it by standing still. You pick an easy destination, and you learn things on the way, and then you can see further than you could before, and you can imagine more, and then you pick another destination, and you see where that process takes you, I guess."

Permalink Eye

He nods, apparently considering this.

"It's been very interesting speaking with you, Miss Teller."

Permalink Eye

"Yeah! You too. I hope I see you around."

She leaves before he can. She can't really stay on this park bench forever. She also can't go home, because there's a strange man sleeping in her bedroom and this is a problem.

She needs to think about how she's going to get out of here. Or how she's going to figure out what's going on. Maybe if she could talk to Michael? Maybe if she read more books? Maybe if she sucked less at reading?

She finds a garden and a different bench and prays. She's super unclear on whether you get to pray for anyone outside purgatory when you're in purgatory, but she prays for her niece and her nephew and her sister and her parents and random people she knew on tumblr and people in war zones with actual problems.

Eventually she falls asleep.

Permalink Eye

 

Jean wakes up.

It's morning. His bed next to him is cold where his sister should be.

His soulmate's bed is empty.

He goes into the bathroom; turns on the cold water tap; cries, silently, for ten minutes. Washes his face with cold water until it doesn't look like he's been crying, wishing for his cosmetics. Apparently they don't have those in heaven.

Dries his face. Dresses. Goes out looking for his soulmate.

Permalink Eye

 

It turns out that park benches aren't great places to fall asleep, which she feels like she really should have anticipated. Her arm hurts and her neck hurts and she feels like she got about half of the amount of sleep that she probably actually did. It's early morning, but she still doesn't have a ton of time to figure out what she's doing.

Purgatory. Right. Becoming a better person. Better people probably don't abandon their disaster buddies, nor do they lie to them about whether they went home last night, nor do they attempt elaborate technically-not-lying deceptions involving ducking into a bathroom somewhere and summoning Janet to ask for a change of clothes. At least she can honestly say that she didn't intentionally fall asleep out here.

She combs a few twigs out of her hair and attempts to take stock of her surroundings.