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.
“I MAY RUN IN THE DESERT. You have to take care of me,” Sabine had said to him in the dream. “I make terrible choices. You have to choose the same.” Her voice ran through his thoughts as he chased her diligently through the desert.
Her lead on him was smaller this time—no more than three seconds. If he pressed himself, he could see her back bobbing through the desert with Pit Mountain at her side. But as soon as he pressed to run harder, so did she, and he stopped gaining on her.
Clearly this was what Sabine had warned him of in the dream. She was literally running in the desert as promised. The next two instructions were harder to interpret. In fact, he’d changed his mind on what they meant several times since they left the Pit. First was the instruction to take care of her, which could mean not letting her throw their relationship away. As angry as she claimed to be about his one-night stand in the middle of their marriage, he suspected something else lay underneath. Sabine had been angry at the time but forgave him. Perhaps Allison would calm down once the memory of their reunion surfaced. Or perhaps this was an Allison reaction. Not that it was easy to separate the two of them. This meant that taking care of her could involve either eliciting the memory of their resolution or healing what made Allison run—what made her angry. In his experience, human beings don’t really heal. ‘Healing’ belonged along ‘console’ in the Overly Simplified Dictionary. You cannot heal a person; the wound always remains. At best, people learn not to react to the thing, and over time, it gradually means less to them. The next part of Sabine’s prediction involved choices that Allison would make: ‘terrible choices.’ She’d made a few already. She’d run from him into a strange world she knew little of. He was instructed to ‘do the same.’ At first he assumed this meant he needed to chase after her. But then she ran off on him a second time, leaving him less certain.
In the dream, she’d also talked of their mutual salvation, which he didn’t understand at all. There might be a meta salvation to do with their condemnation in Hell but that seemed unlikely. He had no idea why he was in Hell. His fellow condemned Dead, Alex, Allison, Nadia, Sid and Marcus, seemed like decent people. In particular, Alex’s presence in Hell struck him as odd because Alex was genuinely kind. So Hell must not be a place for bad people but rather a sort of fluke that happened to The Dead.
Could the salvation be the restoration of her love for him? If so, weren’t they already there? Or would helping her accept her love for him in a more mature, less frightened-child way be the restoration of Sabine’s love for him?
Allison’s words returned to him as loud in his mind as Sabine’s, “I know who I am.” He’d gained ground with her over the last hour. When she told him she loved him, it didn’t sound like Sabine saying it and not just because the two women had different voices. There was so much fear in Allison’s tone when she said it. Sabine offered it in a million different ways, freely, angrily, passionately, tenderly and more over their fifteen years together. Sabine always told him their connection began as lust and moved toward love. The first time she’d said it, it had sounded like a realization, sudden and celebratory. Allison protected herself the whole way through the admission. It was tortured in a way he didn’t understand.
“Allison!” he screamed. “Stop this.”
She stopped and rounded on him. “Leave. Me. Alone.”
“I can’t,” he spat back. “You are the reason I am in this damn desert. You are the reason I care whether or not I’m in Hell. And I am convinced I died to be reunited with you.”
“I thought you killed yourself because you had cancer.” She rolled her eyes.
“That’s beside the point—” he began.
“You are cheating scum. That is the main point,” she interrupted, still standing five feet from him.
“It was one time,” he groaned. “My mother died. I fell apart.”
“And one of your students!” So clearly she was ignoring everything he said. “You were after a barely legal—”
“I was 30. She was 25. I was not in pursuit of a young girl.”
“You talk like we had some kind of true love. That’s bullshit. You couldn’t have really loved me and betrayed me the way you did.”
“Enough.” He waved his arm in the air to cut her off. “I never said it was true love because true love doesn’t exist. I made a mistake because I was human. I loved my mother more than I will ever love anyone and I once told her I hated her. I loved Heida and I hung up on her right before I died. The love I have for you and my behavior aren’t the same. No matter how much I love you, I still do stupid, insensitive things from time to time, and so do you. I failed both of us. I had a perfect love for you, but it didn’t turn me into a perfect person. My love for you didn’t enter into it until I returned and made it right.”
He left off the thing he really wanted to say: that he fixed what happened between them because he was an adult. And that’s how adults behave.
“Do you remember what happened during those two days?” he pointed out. “What you did after I told you and you left the house?”
This question put an immediate stop to her anger. She turned wide-eyed and searching. “Oh, that’s what that was,” she muttered, distracted. “I wanted….” She looked so guilty, he knew what she’d discovered.
“You wanted to sleep with all my friends.” Nearly two decades later, it still bothered him to say it out loud. “Instead you just slept with one. You told me about it later in therapy.”
Allison looked confused and crestfallen. “God, I don’t want this.”
“I know that’s why you came back. I understand it moved us on to a place—”
“No,” Allison cried, “this is too much.” She backed away. “Please don’t chase me this time,” she begged.
“Please don’t run,” he responded.
“I have to. I have to get away. I can’t do this,” she begged.
“If you need a moment alone, take it. Just don’t run,” he answered.
“I can’t stand it. I need more than a moment. I need this weight off me. And now it’s only getting worse,” she pleaded.
What weight had he placed on her? He looked, again, at the person in front of him: this young girl, overwhelmed—a 17 year old who didn’t know how to process 37 years of new memories. And there must be something else as well.
“Please tell me who makes you feel weighted upon?” he offered. “Because it’s not me alone. I didn’t do this. You came into Hell this way.”
She began to sob. Direct confrontation of her need to flee made the situation worse. He needed her to stay more than he needed to run right at the problem. “Please stay here. We won’t go over anything big, I promise,” he assured her. “We’ve only done Sabine memories. But you’ve grown since then as Allison. I need to know who you are now. You can’t tell me that while running away. Please, just talk to me.”
It barely worked.
“You want something from me,” Allison accused with her body in a tortured knot on the ground.
Christoph felt they were on the edge of something in her that he didn’t recognize. It couldn’t be a Sabine memory or Sabine behavior. This was all Allison.
Maybe he’d been right in pushing for more from this young woman.
“I don’t,” he answered. “I love you.”
For some reason this was the wrong thing to say. She moved to stand.
“Stop.” He made a mental note not to talk about himself or his feelings. “We were going to talk about you, remember? You need to catch me up on life as Allison.”
“I don’t see why you care.” Allison tried to sound disdainful, but it came out frightened.
Was that the problem? This young woman might be insecure under the weight of a grown woman’s memories.
“Of course I care,” he offered. “This is part of you now. The being that is my wife went through things. I want to know what they were.”
She relaxed her stance. Her hands flopped into her lap, her back curving to display horrible posture, and her lower lip pushed out. “There’s not a lot to me, man.” She added a shrug to her other non-committal body language.
“That’s not true of anyone,” Christoph argued. “You must have friends, interests.”
Rolling her eyes, she exclaimed, “I don’t have that kind of time on my hands. I’ve got shit to do.”
“What shit do you do after school for example?” he pressed.
“Um.” She looked up while answering for no obvious reason. “First I pick up my sister. Then I have to get her home and get her started on her homework. And I have to work on mine, but I do that while like cooking and whatnot. And there’s always laundry because Megan will spill anything and everything on her uniform. Plus, yesterday I had to find paperwork for the quarterly taxes—”
“Wait.” Interrupting was probably not a great idea, but he needed some context. “Why are you taking care of your sister so much?”
She’d been nonchalant in listing her after-school chores; now she went back to Sabine’s non-expression—that look of no emotion and ultimate control told him he was nearing a sensitive area.
“We’re a very close family.”
“So close that you’re doing someone’s taxes?”
“I’m not doing taxes; the tax guy needed copies of the employee W-2s. So I sent him the file off—”
“Employees?” he asked.
“The clerks at my mother’s store.”
“And your mother couldn’t handle what was obviously her errand, because?”
“It wasn’t like she was out with friends.” Allison sounded defensive. “She was working. Tons of new mommies were coming in the store looking for baby clothes. The files were at home on my mom’s computer, I could send them, so I did.”
“Do you handle your parents’ business chores often?” he scoffed.
“You sound judgmental,” she accused. “You don’t know anything about my parents.”
Since the only thing Christoph remembered of Ben Yates was his sneer, he felt this accusation was hypocritical. But he knew better than to say that openly.
“You were loved, that is obvious, or you would be insane,” he began.
“Can we not talk about this anymore?” she interrupted.
With that, he saw the problem. It was Allison who ran away—not the part of her that was Sabine. Sabine left in the occasional cold huff, but she didn’t flee. Those few minutes of discussion on Allison parents told Christoph volumes on Allison’s relationship with love.
“I think I remember having sex with you,” Allison declared. This attempt to not just change the subject but bury it under something more titillating was the poorly executed maneuver of an inexperienced person.
“What does that feel like for you?” It was a question he’d never thought to ask. What did sex feel like for a woman?
“Um,” Allison mumbled, “it’s warm. I would’ve thought having someone lay on me would be uncomfortable, like before today I thought that, but it’s like having a person blanket. It’s nice. Especially if it’s cold out.”
“And it makes me tense. I feel like I could compress, like in an explosion. You know how they say when something explodes, first everything collapses in and then boom, it all goes out. It feels like that. Like someone’s poking me with a stick of dynamite.”
“My dearly departed penis shall henceforth be known as your personal stick of dynamite,” he assured her.
“Were we into like, weird shit?” Her voice took on a faux nonchalance.
“No,” he answered.
“You’re sure?” she pressed.
“I’d like to think I would remember. Why do you ask?”
“I have this weird memory I can’t place,” she explained. “I’m on a bed and I’m being held down. Or I’m bound.”
“That’s disturbing,” he admitted. “Sabine never told me any story of her engaging in bondage.”
There was a long pause. He waited for her to elaborate. She didn’t. Instead, she looked at the ground while biting her lip. It occurred to him that his admission might’ve shut down her openness. He hadn’t meant it that way but he needed to keep in mind at all times how his questions would be interpreted by a teenager.
“Tell me more,” he pressed.
“No.” She frowned and looked away. “It’s nothing. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Even if I wasn’t there that day, I could still help you contextualize because I know my wife,” he offered.
Groaning, she threw her hands in the air. “You can’t get all judgey on me again.”
“I’m sorry,” he assured her. “I won’t get judgey.”
“Because this is hard, you know,” she ranted. “And very confusing. I don’t get memories. It’s just fragments, images and emotion.”
“I understand. I’m sorry. Please share your fragments with me.”
“I’m on a bed and my arms won’t move or can’t,” she explained, sounding exasperated. “That’s one. In another, you are there and I’m relieved…because you have something for me. And in another I’m on the bed and something is way wrong—like this pain that makes me think my brain is pulsing inside my skull—like my skull should shatter from this pain. And there’s one where someone has their hand on my mouth.”
Christoph put it together based on those four fragments from the same day. In a reactionary move born out of the exhaustion of chasing her through the damn desert all day, he did the exact wrong thing. He reached across the divide between them and grabbed both her wrists. “Don’t run,” he ordered.
“Christoph what is this memory?” she demanded.
“After everything I’ve done for you…” he began.
“What the fuck does that mean?” Panic bled into her voice as she tried to wiggle out of his grasp.
“You owe me this one Sabine,” he spat.
Allison eyes grew wider as she put a piece of the puzzle together. “You were the one with your hand on my mouth. I know your smell. You had a hold of me.”
One of the reasons she successfully took off on him twice already was the speed with which she reacted. In an unnecessary breath, she slipped out of his grasp and onto her feet while he floundered on the ground.
“You killed me,” Allison shouted. Naturally, with that, she was gone.