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.
NADIA BREATHED LIKE SHE’D just been set free from a coal mine and like she still needed air. She didn’t realize until that moment how badly she’d wanted to escape. This ‘weird vacation’ (her favorite of Alex’s words) that is death was wearing thin for her. She wanted to be back in her old body. She wanted to be back in her house, snuggling with Sarah on the couch listening to some CD Sarah found in the car, probably something lame and five years old, like Coldplay. As big a relief as exiting the Pit was mid-battle, it still wasn’t going home. They were still in Hell.
Nadia walked forward into the darkness, breathing deep unnecessary breaths. Sid wandered down the hard-packed road that led outward from the Pit. Marcus sat down on an obliging boulder to address the two of them.
“No matter how much time I spend in the Pit, it is always such a relief to leave. You’d think I’d be accustomed to it by now. But I’m not,” Marcus began.
Was there something strange in the way Marcus was talking? She didn’t know and didn’t hear him. All she could think about was Sarah: Sarah with her freckles and alabaster skin. Sarah who was asleep upstairs when she died. Sarah who may have awoken the next day to find her dead on the lounge floor. Sarah who would now have to float the mortgage on her own and wouldn’t be able to. Sarah with her terrible taste in music.
“Nadia!” Marcus yelled to get her attention.
Nadia broke out of her reverie. “I don’t think the life insurance can pay off the mortgage,” she said to herself as she turned to face him.
“I’m sure you did the best you could for your family,” Marcus answered. It sounded like he’d dealt with this kind of haze before. But how could he have? He was young, and she hadn’t done this during their short acquaintance. So how would he know about insurance and mortgages—
“Nadia!” This time Marcus slapped his hands together to draw her focus. “I understand you are crashing, but there are a few things we need to talk about and then I promise, you can grieve.”
That sounded like an acceptable agreement. “Proceed.” It was a word she’d used and heard in court a million times. It came out via autopilot.
“When we die we drop into the Pit and we don’t realize how large Hell is,” Marcus explained.
“You have a speech.” Sid’s deep voice boomed from Nadia’s right, reminding her he existed. In her grief. she had developed a severe tunnel vision that shut out all else. “How nice.”
Marcus tilted his head and gave Sid a smug smile. “Yes, now that we are out of the Pit, things can be explained.”
“Like your face?” Sid responded.
This finally broke Nadia out of her reverie. “What’s wrong with his face?”
“Look at the eyes,” Sid hissed to her, pointing.
The second Nadia turned from Sid’s face to Marcus’, she wanted to jump back. Marcus’ eyes were wrong on some instinctive level. He looked like a moving statue.
Marcus put up his hand, a gesture meant to imply surrender to this sudden overreaction.
“This face was very expensive,” Marcus laughed. “I happen to like it.”
“Why change it at all?” Sid demanded.
“I wanted to look younger. It makes my work easier. People disregard a young man, especially one of this build. They see me as nonthreatening. As a result they are more open and talk more,” Marcus offered calmly.
“You wanted to get information out of us?” Sid looked like he might be sick.
“I wanted to get to know you.” Marcus spoke slowly, talking Sid down. “I can only help so many people. I have to choose. It feels cruel sometimes, but this comes from experience.”
“How old are you, really?” Nadia asked.
“Very old. When I said I’d heard the phrase ‘death for The Dead’ from a movie, I was lying. I’ve never seen a movie. Or a photograph. Or a car,” Marcus explained. “I don’t actually remember Earth that well. It’s been too long. I can remember my mother’s face, her clothes, but I don’t remember what they were called. And no one wears anything like it anymore. Sort of all knots and draped cloth.” He made a line from his left shoulder to his right hip and then vice versa.
“Like a toga?” Sid laughed.
“No, that’s what the men wore. I’ve been trying to remember that word for a few years now. No one says it anymore,” Marcus sighed.
“Dear God, are you a subject of Caesar?” Nadia thought out loud.
There was a momentary change in Marcus’ expression at the sound of that name. It was gone before Nadia could analyze it.
“Anyway,” Marcus changed the subject, “I would like to lead you through Hell.”
Sid continued his mocking tone. “Oh our very own Virgil.”
“Who talked to you about Virgil?” Marcus’ tone was sharp, murderous. “How do you know that name?”
Even Nadia knew the name. “He’s a poet.”
“Yes,” Sid elaborated. “He guided Dante through Hell and Purgatory in the Divine Comedy.”
“Oh, that book.” Marcus looked relieved. “Never mind. Let’s talk about Hell. When I died, this place was chaos…”
“No, no,” Sid interrupted. “Go back. Who is the Virgil person that upsets you so much?”
It would appear that Marcus now had more control of his expression because he didn’t blink. “We have work to do.”
“You have work for us?” Nadia asked, skeptical. What kind of work would there be in a place where no one eats, sleeps, poops or breathes?
“When I died—”
“A trillion years ago…” Sid interrupted. He was officially the bad kid in the back of the class who won’t let teacher speak.
“I know what happened to Allison,” Marcus said, cutting off Sid’s mirth. “If you want the information I have, then you need to do as I say.”
Nadia looked between them. Sid was seething, Marcus annoyed. She thought they might come to blows.
“As I was saying,” Marcus continued. “When I died, this place was chaos. The whole of Hell looked like the Pit. I’ve organized it as best I can. That work continues. I want your help with this mission. You didn’t choose to come here—neither did I. But as strange as it might seem, we can build an existence in Hell—one we can be proud of. Or we can lead an empty existence, just getting by: no meaningful aim—no purpose. That’s what our mutual enemy, the Nazi, is doing. He’s dragging those bodies around because he is part of cult led by a woman named Deborah and a man named Virgil, which is why I reacted to that name. They believe somehow the bodies are their key to escaping Hell. It’s a fantasy—one that has caused the Nazi to waste years with bodies that don’t move or talk instead of time with real humans who might challenge him or help him grow. You’re both smart, interesting people. I wanted both of you to come with me. I wanted Alex too.” Now he sounded tearful. “It didn’t work out that way. But I want you to be part of my team. I want to work with you both. What do you think?”
“What happened to Allison?” Sid demanded. It was less hostile this time, more pleading.
“I assure she is safe. That odd behavior we witnessed, her sudden attachment to Christoph, is the result of a past life resurfacing. That process is extremely confusing for adults who know who they are. I haven’t seen someone this young go through it, so I’m not sure if it will be faster or slower for her. At any rate, I sent her and Christoph away to a place where they can reconnect,” Marcus explained.
“She knew him,” Nadia realized. “The sudden attachment. He was her…what?”
“Probably her lover. At the very least he was someone very important to her,” Marcus elaborated. “And for him, it’s still the same lifetime. He’s rediscovering someone who died on him, obviously, seventeen or so years ago.”
“Remarkable,” Nadia exclaimed.
“I love it when people find past lives. It’s absolutely stunning what they carry around with them.” Marcus sat up more, his weird eyes alive and excited. “My friend Julian actually remembered seven separate lives. It took him decades to sort it out. When he did, he claimed he remembered being in a loin cloth, running his finger through colors and then putting them on a cave wall in a design.”
“He was a cave man?” Sid asked.
“I know! He’s the only one I’ve ever met who remembers back that far.” For some reason, the subject of Julian caused Marcus to look at the ground, pausing mournfully. “But I digress. Here is the deal I give everyone: You work for me. As you do, I will reward you with information. I know all about Hell, and the more you know, the more independent you can become. If you have all the knowledge you need, you can leave my team, though I hope you won’t. Sid, I understand your concern for Allison. I plan on giving her and Christoph the same speech, the same offer when they emerge from their confusion. But please believe, for right now, she is exactly where she should be.”
“How can you know she is safe?” Sid asked, shaking his head.
“In Hell the safest places are where there are no people. They are alone. That makes them safe,” Marcus offered.
“What about the others?” Nadia asked.
“My team in the Pit will be bringing people out soon,” Marcus assured her.
“How big is your team? Alex’s little group down there was, what, 50 or so people?” Nadia wondered aloud. “If they are coming out two at a time….”
“We don’t need all of them,” Marcus answered. “We will be bringing those we’ve chosen to work with.”
“And the others?” Sid asked. “Pati and Abdul?”
“I like Pati and Abdul. I wanted them. But in the confusion…” Marcus began.
“Wait, you’re doing this piecemeal. You’re leaving most of them aren’t you?” Nadia demanded. “If they stay, the blast will come and destroy them. That is, if a fight doesn’t destroy them first. How can you just leave them there?”
“We can’t take everyone. This place would be chaos…” Marcus countered.
“I don’t care about Hell. I care about these people.” Sid retorted. “The last thing Alex did was bring this group together. We’ve lost him; how can we do nothing for this group he created?”
“Let’s be honest about something here,” Marcus argued. “Alex didn’t put together a group the way I put together my team. He took whoever was willing and threw them together. This isn’t some great fellowship of like-minded people; it’s just a bunch of random weirdos who had nothing to do. Going back in there for those people is suicide. That battle was just the first. There will be at least one more. And with the element of surprise gone, the next attacking group will have to be more brutal. We may all be destroyed if we try to save them.”
Marcus made it sound so clear—so reasonable to leave all those people behind. Part of Nadia wanted to agree. They were the histrionic criers who’d taken up her space and disturbed her mourning for Alex. She didn’t know them. Why should she risk her eternal life for these people? The reason came out of her as she thought it: “It’s what Alex would do. Do you know what happened to him, when his body was destroyed?”
“No,” Marcus lied. “Some mysteries are beyond even me.”
“Then we operate on Earth rules,” Nadia announced. “Alex put that group together to search for answers. You say you need people. They are people. Going in to get them makes sense on every level.”
“Except safety.” Marcus finally stood up. “I don’t reenter the Pit after day two. It is too full, too tense, too dangerous. Risking yourself for those people is madness.”
Nadia looked at Sid, appealing to his sense of morality to stand by hers. But her companion was in his own moral quandary.
“Sid. If you want to go look for Allison…” Marcus offered.
“Wait, wait, wait,” Sid interrupted. “A minute ago you were very dead set on my leaving her and Christoph to it. Now I can look for them with your blessing?”
“I would like someone to survive to the end of day three,” Marcus explained. “And Nadia is bent on her own destruction.”
Sid wrinkled his nose, looking Marcus up and down. Finally he said, “I go where Nadia goes.”
“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,” Nadia exclaimed. “We’re going back in to get that group that Alex built….”
“Alex’s Tribe,” Sid smiled.
“I like that—his tribe,” Nadia continued. “To get his tribe out of the Pit.” She approached her last detractor. “Marcus we can do this. We will get in and get out fast. It will be worth it—all those people by your side, helping you. Please, say yes. Be our leader. Be our guide, our non-Virgil through the Pit one more time.”
A tense smile came over his face; he wanted to say yes but was still reluctant.
“Let’s negotiate. We are meant to work for you, quid pro quo, yes?” she offered. “What are all those people worth to you?”
“You’re eternal soul,” Marcus answered in his darkest voice. Then he laughed. “No, really. Let’s just call it a favor you pay back when it makes sense to us both—a huge favor though.”