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.
CHRISTOPH SHOULD NEVER have looked away. Not for a second. But the idea was overwhelming for him as well. Sabine Wallace Schmidt, reborn and walking around the world without his knowledge—his dead wife’s soul somehow housed inside this girl, younger than all of his students. When he expressed the idea, he looked at his feet for a moment, just a second really, and she reacted so fast that he was left stunned. Without a word, Allison flew up the stairs and away from him. He gave chase after a quick gasp. Her lead was a mere five seconds. Three hours later it still held.
Outside the Pit, there was clearly a world to explore, but Christoph didn’t notice this or care. As soon as Allison flitted out of the narrow passageway at the top of the 12 o’clock stairs, Christoph lost sight of her for a second. Bursting from the passageway himself, he glimpsed her hair as she took a hard left into the desert. She could’ve chosen the road that led from the passageway to an unknown destination. There was even a strip of worn ground, not really a road, just a path, that led to the right. Allison chose the hard left, but thankfully, she kept Pit Mountain to their left the whole way, saving them from wandering and getting really lost in whatever stretched out to their right.
“Allison!” Christoph screamed. “Stop this!”
It was an appeal based on logic.
“This is nonsense.”
Intended to trigger the adult that lay inside her, he stopped running and screamed at her in frustration.
“Just stop!” he ordered.
She continued to run.
“Dammit,” Christoph groaned and resumed the chase.
If he could just talk to her, then all would be right. He and Sabine could always talk things out. The worst crisis of their marriage had occurred five years in. He made a mistake, admitted it, and dealt with her reaction. Christoph was prepared for the sort of reaction he might get from his mother or Heida. They were both screamers. No painful emotion could be conveyed at a normal volume. Importance had to be emphasized with the inconvenience of aching eardrums. If they weren’t screaming, the subject of conversation must not matter. But Sabine wasn’t a screamer. Christoph admitted his transgression, and the words fell between them. Sabine didn’t say a thing. She didn’t ask him how he let this happen. She didn’t challenge his reasons for his betrayal. She didn’t call him the list of names that described him and his actions. Instead, she turned on her heels and walked out—a dark, cold, calculated response. She left their house in Stockholm for two days. He had no idea where she went. He couldn’t find or contact her. She returned on her own, still angry but willing to talk. It took months to repair their marriage. In the years since, maturity gradually exposed to him the reality of that situation. If she hadn’t returned, already willing to talk, that would’ve been the end of them. Without her choice to want their relationship healed, they were done. Their marriage, a thing they’d worked on together, a thing that fed him and kept his life fulfilled and stable could be ripped out from under him upon her decision alone.
He had to get her to talk. No matter what. And luckily, Allison wasn’t as silent as Sabine…
“Running out of steam, old man?” Allison shot back over her shoulder.
…though nothing she said gave him hope.
Desperate and mentally exhausted at a chase that didn’t change in three hours, Christoph stopped, picked up a small rock and threw it at her. His aim was better than he’d have thought. He hit her in the back, causing the rock to break her skin and fall inside her. Allison screamed and turned to face him. Her face, so unlike Sabine’s, exposed her fury with him. For a wild moment, he considered running from her, as she was clearly going to attack him. Instead she took a step toward him and then stopped in shock.
“What did you do?” she demanded, reaching down her back. “It’s in me!” Fury gave way to panic as she announced, “JesusmotherfuckingChrist, what did you do?”
He didn’t actually know what he’d done. “It’s just a pebble, calm down.” He tried to sound calm himself.
“I hate you, you nasty dirty old man,” she screamed as she lunged at him. In a swift arm movement, she punched him hard in the chin. He heard his face and her fist crack. They both stepped back from the other in pain, him holding his chin, her holding her now injured hand.
Finally, he thought of a thing that might keep her in one place for a few moments. “Hate me all you want. Just don’t run.”
Her glare was Sabine’s: that controlled facial expression without a single movement of cheek or brow and eyes that pointed at him, accusing him of some crime. But she stood still, for the moment at least, and that was the thing he needed.
“I’ve missed you so much,” he blurted out. “Please sit and talk with me for a moment.”
“Asshole, you don’t know me,” she answered back, curling her lip into a sneer.
That expression wasn’t one of Sabine’s. But it felt familiar. Searching back, he associated that sneer with work for some reason. He could remember sitting at a meeting and catching a similar expression out of the corner of his eye. In the memory, he turned left and saw the English professor he knew—but not well—Ben Yates, sneering at the dean of undergraduates’ plan for increasing the freshman class size. That expression definitely wasn’t Sabine; it was all Allison.
“You have your father’s disdain,” Christoph groaned. Allison’s head went back with her brow furrowed.
“You’re pretending to really know my father?” She asked. “Or pretending that you care.”
The insult felt unprovoked. Why wouldn’t he care about her father? “I have no notion what irritates you,” He explained.
“I agree.” She retorted, flopping on the ground.
“You didn’t offer an explanation,” he prompted, sitting across from her.
“You didn’t ask a question.” She elevated her foot, clearly rolling the pebble down into her shin.
“Why are you angry at me? Why are you running from me?” he demanded. “This should be our tearful, glorious reunion instead of insults and pursuit.”
Instead of answering, she stared at him, clearly aghast, but he still didn’t know why.
The absence of answer infuriated him. “You are always doing this to me: walking away, going silent. We have to discuss things to get through them. Haven’t we both learned that?”
Still no answer. She put her foot down and continued to stare.
“You can’t shut me out. You can’t pull our relationship away and expect me to just stand here and tolerate it. You take us away from me as if it were yours alone. It terrifies me as much as it did in our twenties. Our relationship is not a one-sided conversation.”
“No, but this is,” Allison interrupted.
“I don’t understand,” Christoph responded.
“This is a one sided conversation,” she elaborated. “I wasn’t invited.” she motioned to the area in front of him, “to this thing you’ve got going on with a dead woman.”
It was Christoph’s turn to stare, aghast at her. “I’m trying to talk to you.”
“You’re trying to talk to Sabine.” Allison sounded calm, even a little sad. “She’s not here, man. It’s just me.”
That couldn’t be right. She remembered what he looked like when they met. She knew things Sabine knew.
“In the Pit, you said things only Sabine said.” He needed to explain. “You evoked this memory—”
“Accidentally,” Allison interjected. “That thing about you looking adorable and your crooked chin, I didn’t remember it. Those were my thoughts. I said them out loud.”
“You thought it was original to you,” he clarified. She nodded.
“I still do.”
“You said that to me. The first day we met, when we were out together for a drink,” he pushed. “Don’t you remember?”
“I remember London. Before that Virginia. And I just barely remember New Jersey.”
“Not Berlin?” This couldn’t be right.
“I’ve never been there,” she shrugged. The cold expression was gone, replaced by a blankness that, while frustrating, also implied an honest lack of emotion. Did she look so young a moment earlier?
“I don’t think I’m wrong about this.” At this point, Christoph argued out loud with only himself. “I had this dream—”
“And I came to you in a dream,” she interrupted, incredulous. “Ok, this has gotten way weird. I’m out.”
She waved her hands in the air and started to rise.
“Fine,” he swallowed, hard and unnecessarily and made a huge conciliatory gesture, “you aren’t Sabine. Sit and talk to me for a moment. We are alone in this desert together, why not chat? I will even help you get the pebble out if I can.”
Rolling her eyes and looking far too young, she agreed.
Allison removed the rock from her body with various yoga moves that maneuvered the thing up her and out of her mouth. Afterward, Christoph sat on the ground, across from her, talking about his life.
He had a half thought-out, vague plan. If she wasn’t having clear memories, then the Sabine part of her was lying dormant. But dormant didn’t mean non-existent. All he needed to do was provoke the right responses. Surely that would remind her who she really was.
First he described the Berlin of his youth, which was really West Berlin with the wall still up. When they met, Sabine was an Austrian dancer who grew up in Vienna. The vastly bigger, wilder Berlin represented a major change for the 22-year-old woman. It was to her what New York City was to so many Americans—and what Paris might’ve been to the European Sabine if she’d bothered to learn French as her mother wanted her to. But descriptions of Berlin disinterested Allison to the point that their conversation became wholly one-sided. He described and she chimed in when necessary with one-syllable affirmations. Berlin connected the two of them, Christoph concluded, but it didn’t evoke enough reaction. Instead, he needed to dig deeper.
For his second attempt, he addressed his own death because he knew it would parallel her’s. In fact, he designed his own suicide to match the end of her life.
Therefore, describing the end of his life must evoke something in her. And her death must be her last Sabine memories before rebirth as Allison—if that was how this reincarnation worked; he wasn’t sure it was, but still.
“I went to Amsterdam,” Christoph explained. “As soon as I was free of King’s.”
Allison stared off into the desert, only half listening. “I wanted to end my life on my own terms.” The wording reflected things she said to him before her death.
Allison tilted her head, still staring off into space.
“I went to a clinic I’d been to before—one where I knew the staff, or at least their predecessors, and knew they would be helpful.” That had to elicit something. He tried using some more specific references. “It was facing the docks on Prins Hendrikkade—tall brown brick with loads of windows.”
“I died in a car accident,” Allison answered, sounding unattached to the idea.
Time for him to try another tactic, this time digging much deeper. He redressed Sabine’s childhood memories as his own.
“My father was in Dachau.” That part was true. He looked at her as he said it. She only offered a faint interest. “So for years he experienced depression and survivor’s guilt.” Every noun in these sentences mattered to Sabine. “I would come home from school and he would be sitting at the kitchen table.” Not only was she not reacting, she was now playing with her hair. “He would be crying, and if he saw me, he would pretend he hadn’t been.” She must’ve found a split end because she pulled a hair out and frowned at it. “Can you imagine that?” It was blatant but at this point he needed to be.
“Yup,” she answered, automatically. “Grey-haired woman, sitting at a table crying and then wiping her eyes while she pours milk.”
“A woman?” He smiled.
“Yup.” Allison nodded, looking off distractedly into the distance.
“A woman at a table?”
“Yup.” She finally looked at him and saw how pleased he was.
Narrowing her eyes, she demanded, “What?”
“My father was in Dachau and he was a man.”
“Why did I see a woman?” Allison returned to her hair, still not connecting with her mistake.
“Can you still see her?”
Allison nodded, still pursuing split ends.
“Describe her for me,” the patient professor prompted.
“Uh.” Allison returned to squinting into middle distance. “Old lady. Not like real old. Like, not your age. But maybe 40. And…” Finally looking surprised, she connected with the image. “It makes me feel guilty.”
“When she stops crying?”
“Yeah. I know she’s pretending to be happy for me. It’s all wrong. It feels confusing and…” Allison let out a gasp. “Son of a bitch, this is a Sabine memory.”
“Your.” His companion’s face swept from revelation to anger and he corrected his pronoun. “Her mother was in Dachau. It was one of the things that bound us.”