In life, we are plagued by the uncertainty of an afterlife, and it is often expected that when we die, everything will suddenly make sense. But when a group of strangers, similar only in their time of death, find themselves in the afterlife, they are faced with more questions than ever before. Are they in Heaven or Hell? If they’re in Heaven, why is there a Nazi wandering around? Why are there no children? If they are in Hell, what universal law did they break? Is there a way to repent and move on to a better eternity? At least one man seems to have some answers. Marcus, a Roman dead for 2,000 years, gains the group’s trust by leading them through the perils of their new reality. But soon it becomes clear that Marcus is only telling them half the story.
L. A. Barnes is public librarian in the southern US. She is a Nerdist podcast listening, South Park loving, Twin Peaks conspiracy theorizing, Stephen King reading and Joss Whedon worshiping geek. The Pit is her first novel. She plans to explore the Watchmaker’s universe through four more novels.
AN ABUNDANCE OF CHARACTER DOESN’T STOP THE CHINESE
Nadia, Sid & Marcus
The Pit, Hell
“I THINK I DESERVE TO DIE” were Jeff’s words to her, nearly the last thing she heard on Earth. Nadia heard it over and over again. In her late teens, Nadia too felt that she deserved to die. Now that she was, did she feel differently about death? Did she deserve this place?
Some people die too young, don’t they? Peggy and Allison’s faces swam before her. Peggy died at 13. Nadia could buckle under the weight of that fact. At 37, she was now triple Peggy’s final age. She was a car-driving, legal-drinking, voting person older than Peggy was when she died. Did Peggy deserve to die so young while Nadia lived on?
Sitting along the wall, all she could hear around her was crying. The whole group was shocked when she and Marcus returned without Alex. There were a handful of exceptions. Jesusita, the South American woman, held Regan to her chest, offering the occasional ‘Shhh, shh’ to Regan’s wailing. Nadia glared at the two of them for a minute. Something about Regan’s crying struck Nadia as histrionic. She had an intense desire to smack Regan in the back of the head. Why am I being such an asshole, Nadia asked herself. So what if Regan’s crying? What’s wrong with that? Fox and the other military types had already mounted a rescue mission. It came to nothing. They returned with only Alex’s empty jumpsuit. It was all that was left. The Indians had stomped on all the shards, making them minuscule. Now Alex’s former men and women in arms stood in a tight circle, talking quietly to one another. Nadia could swear they kept using words like ‘protect’ and ‘watch out for.’ Perhaps they now felt the need to protect this group Alex built. If so, they were welcome to it. Nadia had no idea how to begin doing such a thing. Sid sat in front of Nadia, elbows on his knees, his fingers running through his black and grey hair. Only his grief seemed real to her. After all, who were the rest of these people? They knew Alex for an hour, tops. Like a small electric shock, it occurred to Nadia that she’d only known Alex less than two days. How did his loss manage to cripple her? Another thought arrived, less electric and more like a hum: Because that’s what grief does. It makes things unreal, turns off empathy and numbs.
Marcus sat so close to her, she could feel her arm against his. For no reason she could articulate, this left her feeling enclosed. Or maybe it was the wailing going on all around her. She wasn’t sure. Marcus’ slight frame against hers’ wasn’t physically imposing; it shouldn’t have had this effect. Maybe, a dark voice in the back of her thoughts said, it’s because you blame him. He had been the only other person there when the fight started. She looked at him out of the corner of her eye. He looked distraught, holding himself and rocking. Liar, the voice whispered at the image of a near fetal Marcus. Now she felt able to identify the source of that little voice: it was her aggression. In response to this revelation, the voice offered another missile: There’s something wrong with him. But he didn’t join that argument, she reminded the voice. I did. Did she escalate the fight? That’s what happens when I listen to you, voice, she told her aggression. People get hurt. Like Peggy. Did this mean she could add Alex’s soul to Peggy’s life on her casualty list? Probably. Nadia wanted to cry. But as she’d already learned, there was no longer any water in her body to expel.
She’d already lost one person today. No, she corrected herself, she’d lost three because Allison and Christoph were missing too. It was her aggression that wanted to blame Marcus. To decide he was somehow wrong or…she didn’t know what. But that meant losing a fourth from the original five she’d met just after death. Without Marcus it was just her and Sid. She needed to bury that little voice, her aggression. It got Alex destroyed. It wanted to take Marcus from her too. Next it would turn on Sid. There was no room for a problem with Sid or Marcus because she couldn’t stand to lose anyone else.
Sid finally lifted his head. His temples were cracked from the pressure of his hands pressing against the skin. His fingers had been intertwined in his hair. Now that he removed them, his hair stood on end. His button up was no longer tucked in and looked wrinkled. The hems of his slacks were frayed and worn near the ankle. And how had she not noticed he’d died barefoot? The bottoms of his feet were covered with spider-web-like cracks. Nadia wondered how long Sid had been falling apart. Meeting Nadia’s eyes, he asked the one question everyone was thinking.
“Where did he go?”
Nadia shook her head.
For a moment, Sid looked around at the rest of the group. Then he muttered, “As if they knew him.”
“We didn’t know him,” Marcus responded.
“I’ve had both those thoughts,” Nadia declared. “And many others.”
“Now that it turns out there is death for The Dead,” Marcus elaborated.
“Death for The Dead?” Sid repeated skeptically. “You did not just come up with that.”
Marcus shrugged. “It was in a movie.”
“All right.” With that, Sid clapped his hands together and stood over his two grieving friends. “I’ve had it with this non-crying shite. I know I sound like a broken record, but I want to go look for Allison.”
If Nadia couldn’t stand to lose another from her original group, then Sid’s idea was, “Brilliant. Let’s go.”
Marcus led them to where he last saw Allison, the foot of the 12 o’clock stairs. Since arriving in the Pit, Nadia hadn’t been to this area. With no fire to light the base of these stairs, she routinely forgot they existed. Now she stood, squinting up at the top. They looked exactly like all the other stairs but darker and empty. This finally struck Nadia as odd. She realized it should have far sooner. Why were they empty all the time? 8 o’clock thru 11 o’clock had a constant stream of people coming down because they connected to Asia. Asia had the most people and by extension the most Dead. 1 o’clock thru 3 o’clock were nearly as bad because they connected to the African continent, whose large population also produced a steady stream of Dead. Only the smallest stairs, Australia and New Zealand at 4 o’clock, had frequent breaks when the stairs were un-trod upon. Nadia felt all the more foolish that she hadn’t noticed the lack of activity in this part of the Pit. “I looked for them here, of course,” Marcus narrated. “And at the 1 o’clock area. I tried to search 11, but,” he pointed, “as you see that’s not easy.”
The Chinese were the biggest nationality in the Pit for the obvious reason that they were the biggest nationality on Earth. Everyone near the 11 o’clock fire faced inward. They were in such a tightly packed group that Nadia could just barely see the light from their fire reaching up from the middle.
“That’s an odd way to queue for the fire,” Sid observed.
“I suspect,” Marcus explained, “they are all Chinese even though 11 o’clock, by my logic, should serve Japan and the Korean Peninsula as well.”
“How can you know that?” Sid questioned as he stared over his shoulder at the 11 o’clock group.
“I looked at this when I was here with Allison.” Marcus took Nadia’s hand, helping her step up five steps. “Watch near their stairs.”
Nadia did as she was told. The Dead came down the 11 o’clock stairs looking annoyed. As soon as they reached the bottom, people at the edge of the big Chinese group waved them along the wall. They were directing The Newly Dead away from the big group. As Nadia watched, one small man in a dark green military uniform reached the bottom of the stairs. The gatekeepers at the edge of the group moved aside to let him in instead of waving him along the wall. She described what she saw to Marcus and Sid.
“I bet you anything,” Marcus called up to Nadia, “they have people controlling the platform as well.”
“Why?” Sid asked.
As if on cue, the Chinese let out a unified grunt.
“Is that a word?” Sid asked, looking shocked. “I don’t speak Chinese…”
He was cut off by more grunts, these being a beat apart each. Sid looked up at Nadia, alarmed. Nadia shook her head again. Whatever this was, she didn’t like it.
The grunting gained another noise: stomping. One stomp, one grunt, another stomp, another grunt and so on. With each cycle, the group’s voices grew louder and the rhythm faster.
With his arms crossed over his chest, Sid waved his companions into a huddle. “This is tribal.” Nadia had no response. “This is not good,” he added.
The chanting and stomping rose to a speed that put them on top of one another.
The little voice that Nadia tried to bury moments earlier resurfaced. They’re dangerous, it said. This time she wasn’t as quick to rebury it.
Finally the preparations reached a crescendo. The Chinese faced out to the rest of the Pit in unison. They let out a unanimous yell, with those on the outer edges pointing in the air toward the 4 o’clock area. The yell was unmistakably a war cry.
Nadia drew Marcus and Sid closer to her as the Chinese swept past. The three of them flattened themselves against the stairs, huddled together as the Chinese reached their destination: the 4 o’clock fire currently occupied by Australia and New Zealand.
The Chinese were organized in small groups of three. The first three reached the first Australian, a tall dark-haired woman, and set to work. The first Chinese man grabbed her shoulders from behind, throwing her to the ground. The other two grabbed her legs. They both stomped once on her hips. The crunching noise echoed throughout the Pit. She screamed. The initial attacker stomped on her face. More stomps came on her legs. This time the crunch sound had given way to a sharper cracking noise. The skin attaching her legs to her body was breaking. By then the man who stomped her head had done enough damage to stop her screaming. Her torso still twisted, arms flailing. She was obviously still in her body. Finally, a third stomp on her hips separated her legs from her body. The freedom from her legs gave her more room to move. She turned over, grabbed at the ground, trying to pull herself away. Now Nadia could see her face, or at least she could see the hole where her face had been. Jagged edges ran along her hairline down her temples, all the way to her chin. Her initial attacker stomped on her back. The other two joined in. Together they destroyed her torso. They waited. She hadn’t moved during the torso destruction, but then after a beat, her arms reached out, still trying to grab the ground and pull herself away. Apparently her soul still remained with the head, shoulders and arms, the remainder of her body. As the rest of the Chinese set upon all of the Australians and New Zealanders in the same three-man fashion, the first attackers stomped for the last time on all that remained of the first victim. They crushed her arms and head. She finally stopped moving all together. To ensure their victory was complete, they stomped on her shoulders and the remaining shards, crushing them to dust.
The screaming and crunching echoed through the Pit, surrounding Nadia’s every thought. Standing on the stairs, she’d been frozen, watching the carnage. Marcus hit her leg to get her attention. While grabbing her hand, he yelled, “climb!” She turned. Too rattled to remember why there were stairs in front of her and not caring where they would take her, she climbed. Behind her she felt Marcus’ hand in hers. Further back, she heard Sid’s labored, unnecessary breathing. Without a word, she climbed.
Once she arrived at flat ground, she ran, head down, mindless of her current location. When a rock wall brushed her arm, she finally noticed where she was.
Nadia stopped and screamed. In the darkness, she saw nothing but two rock walls parallel to one another, three feet apart. There was no end in sight.
“Oh God, we’re trapped!” she yelled.
“Nadia, keep moving,” Marcus answered from behind her. “I promise, we aren’t trapped. Just keep going.”
Shaking, Nadia ran her hand along the wall as she moved forward. She felt the end of the wall before she saw it. With a gasp, she stepped out into the rest of Hell.