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.
ARRIVING AT THE WATERFALL should have been a profound experience. The place has given hope to millions over the years as it is one of the few beautiful landmarks in Hell. Most stare up at it for long periods of time, contemplating their new existence. Instead Alex’s Tribe limped up to the thing, broken, beaten and far more interested in the man who exited a fireside area to the right of the Waterfall than the thing itself.
Sid and Nadia walked at the front of the group and the minute they saw the expression of the man they sought, they knew they’d made a significant error. When they’d seen him from the platforms, he seemed like a menace with an offensive symbol on his coat. Who did he think he was prancing around, picking up concentration camp bodies and wearing that swastika? It hadn’t occurred to either of them how tall or broad he was. Now that everyone was on the same level, Sid, in particular, realized they were looking at someone bigger and stronger than either of them. Or at least he would have been on Earth, and these two people were too newly dead to shake off the fears they brought with them from home.
Standing at the edge of a cozy looking fireside, looking alarmed at their sudden arrival, Nadia noticed he’d ditched his coat and exposed the white undershirt he wore beneath. He was handsome, in a rugged, obscenely masculine kind of way. His blond hair was cut within an inch of his head. His broad face displayed his pronounced bone structure. Only his china blue eyes with their long feathery lashes were soft. Looking him over reminded her of the exact thing she needed to remember at that moment: he was human. This former abomination before them was just a man who was surprised to have his peace disturbed.
“Hello.” Nadia put up her hand to stop the rest of the group behind her and then she stepped forward, along with Sid, to address their oracle. “My name is Nadia Patel. This is Siddig el Tariq. We would like to talk to you.” She spoke slowly. “Do you understand anything I’m saying?”
“I speak English,” he answered, clearly annoyed.
“Oh, thank the gods,” Nadia groaned.
Behind her the group was getting restless. Sun and Reggie entered the clearing, ignoring Nadia’s order to stop. Sun still had to help Reggie walk. She herself was covered in cracks and about to lose her right arm from holding Reggie up through the journey.
The Nazi pointed to the group behind this man and woman. “How many?”
“There are 103 of us now,” Sid answered. “Someone took our people as we walked here.”
The Nazi nodded but didn’t look sympathetic or reassured.
“We would like to talk…” Nadia began repeating.
“No, I no want to talk,” The Nazi interrupted while backing away from them.
“Please, we mean you no harm,” Nadia begged.
But the Nazi was still on the retreat. “You are too many. I don’t like. You should go to The Camp. There you talk to Deborah or you go to The City and there you talk to Virgil.”
For a moment he was gone.
Before Nadia and Sid could react, he was back. Pointing to Sun and Reggie, he explained, “Water heals. Get in the water. It fixs you.”
With that he was gone.
Once most of the group was either in the pool or waiting their turn on the edge, Nadia and Sid went looking again for the man they came to see. If they’d been thinking practically on the way there, they’d have realized a huge group coming at one person might be overwhelming. They reasoned that approaching him alone might be less intimidating.
“Hello, sir?” Nadia called out as she and Sid entered the boulder-strewn area beyond the fireside. “It’s just us this time—just Sid and myself.” They looked behind several boulders. “I promise, we mean—”
“I am here,” the man called out, clearly annoyed.
He was there, in a crevice in Pit Mountain, hugging a rifle and wearing his offensive coat.
Sid and Nadia came nearer to him until he put up a hand to stop them. “Is close enough, yes?” he explained. “You sit.”
Sitting on her heels, Nadia started a clearly prepared speech. “First of all, I want to apologize. I was one of the people who threw things at you a few days ago. And I think we, that is my friend and I, both made some inappropriate gestures when you objected. For this we are also sorry.”
Catching Sid’s face in the perimeter of her vision, she suspected he wasn’t entirely sorry, but she ignored it.
“Everyone does this.” The Nazi shrugged.
So apologizing didn’t get the ball rolling. What would?
“I heard you mention Deborah and Virgil before. Who are they?” Nadia asked in what she hoped was a light conversational tone.
“They are my friends,” the Nazi explained.
“You have two friends—” Sid joked. He intended to say ‘… which is two more than I have at the moment, so good on you,’ but he was interrupted.
“No.” The Nazi sounded defensive. “I have four friends. Deborah and David and Virgil and Misha.” Then he added at as an afterthought. “And Otto, but we don’t talk now.”
“At least two of those names were quite Jewish,” Sid pronounced, holding back a shocked laugh.
The Nazi straightened himself to explain with pride, “Yes, now I am Dead I have Jew friends.”
“Good on you,” Sid answered.
The exchange bought them the smallest moment of goodwill, but it was enough for Nadia.
“Thank you so much for telling us about the water. We’d never make it to Deborah or Virgil without healing here first,” She offered. “What is your name?”
“I am Heinrich.”
“How do you do,” Nadia responded on rote.
Heinrich scoffed. “So English.”
“My parents were born in India, actually.”
“And what is you?” Heinrich asked Sid, clearly curious.
“My mother was English, my father was Arabic.”
“Is it confuse to be two things?” Heinrich stammered, uncertain of his words.
In response, Sid shrugged. “Sometimes. Mostly it’s complicated.”
Now leaning toward them, Heinrich looked interested in two people from places he’d never get to see.
“And you?” Sid asked.
“I am German,” Heinrich answered automatically. “Mama is German, Papa is German—just German.”
“Are you proud of that?” Sid asked, using the non-judgmental tone that had helped Nadia on the way there.
“Yes,” Heinrich shrugged, “why not?”
“I’ve had German workmates over the years,” Nadia began. “They do get tired of being compared to your generation.”
“I do not understand your English?” Heinrich responded. “Why compare? The children never want to be like parents. They are different. They must be because they are new and because Hitler is not there to tell lies.”
“You know now that Hitler lied to you?” Sid asked.
“Very much lies. I am fool. I am failure. I believe all this. But my daughter and her little friends they can do different things. They do not have to fail like Papa.”
“I wish it were that simple,” Nadia whispered, almost to herself. Both men heard but let the comment lie. “We think we are here, in Hell, because we failed. Do you know why people are condemned to this place?”
“I know I am here,” Heinrich began, “because I kill many people. That is bad, no excuse—is always bad. My friend Misha is captain of ship with many Africans. I forget the word.”
“Slaves?” Sid asked.
“Yes. He bring slaves to America. He kill Africans on his ship many times. This is why he is here. Virgil shot a man who shot at him, just one man. That is why he is here.”
“And Deborah?” Nadia asked. “Who did she kill?” The sudden outburst of anger that came next started both Sid and Nadia.
“No,” Heinrich yelled. “Deborah is not like us. She is good. She no kill people.”
“I am sorry I yell but I don’t like people say bad things on Deborah. She do not come here. She is not like us. She go to the Gate when she die.”
“I’m so sorry. We won’t say anything bad about your friend,” Nadia promised.
“Wait, everyone you know, except for Deborah, killed someone and they came here?” Sid asked.
“I think yes, but it is confuse because…” Heinrich struggled to find the words to explain, “I work at Dachau. I am boss of guards, yes? So I kill prisoner. I come here. But I tell guard, ‘You go kill prisoner.’ Do I come here or do guard come here?”
“And you don’t know, after all these years?” Nadia asked, concerned.
“No, I not know,” Heinrich agreed.
“Sod a dog,” Sid said to himself, “I think I’ve got it.”
Sid and Nadia gathered the whole group plus a reluctant Heinrich around the fire to discuss what they’d figured out.
Nadia offered to start the discussion. “When I was 13, a friend of mine killed herself. I was bullying her at school, and she said she couldn’t take it anymore. For years, I’ve felt responsible for her death. It turns out I actually am responsible in the great scheme of things.” With a large, relieved, unnecessary expel of air, she sat down.
Sid volunteered to go next. “Hello, my name is Sid.” No one answered his little joke so he pressed on. “When I was still using, I shared a bag of drugs with a friend. The drugs were bad. We both had heart attacks, but I survived, George did not. I bought the drugs. I placed them in his hands. I believe that I am responsible in what Nadia calls, ‘the great scheme of things’ for the death of my friend. As best we can tell, this is what most of us are here for. We all caused the death of another person. Some will be quite obvious.” He sneaked a peek at Heinrich. “Others less so. We’d like to hear from everyone willing to speak. If we’ve all had a similar experience, then it might mean we are right in our assumption.”
Thus the line of over one hundred confessions began. Some were, as Sid predicted, obvious. Reggie, the inmate from Australia, robbed a convenience store and shot the clerk. The soldiers told the same stories they’d told when Alex asked them to speak, though every man and woman in uniform seemed concerned about Fox. Being a gunner with two more experienced gunners meant it was unclear how many people he’d killed.
“It could be 50,” he explained to the un-militarized in the tribe, “or it could be five.” Throwing up his hands, he sat down.
The less expected stories were the ones that affected Nadia the most. Sun had killed another child with a rock because he had a toy she wanted. “That,” she explained, “was how they knew I was crazy. That’s why they took me away.”
Jesusita killed a friend in a factory accident as a teenager. “I turned the vat wrong, just a little.” She was dying fabric with large vats of boiling dye. “And it went on her. It was horrible.”
The Koreans caused the largest disruption of the group. Do Jin, the older man in the lab coat, confirmed that he was in the military. It is mandatory for all Korean men to serve. At one point there was a skirmish between a boat he was traveling on and a North Korean vessel. The North Koreans fired for no apparent reason; Do Jin manned the guns when they returned fire. “I was never certain that I killed anyone. Because they don’t tell the truth about their casualties.” He let out a frustrated snort. “They don’t admit they fired first. It’s impossible to get any information. So I assumed I would never know.”
Do Jin tried to stop Yi Soo from standing and speaking next. She shook his hand off her wrist and muttered something in Korean the rest of the group never heard.
“I was in New York,” she began. “Going to school on a softball scholarship. Everything was normal to me. I had good grades, nice roommate, silly crush on my history teacher. The dorms were full, so the university rented me a small apartment near campus. After practice one day, I came home and this man had broken in. He was attacking my roommate.”
“The word in English—” Do Jin began.
“I don’t want to know the word in English.” She cut him off and then continued. “I had my bat. I reacted. I didn’t think. I hit him until he stopped moving. The police were very professional. They talked to me, they took me to make statements, they didn’t make me stay in the jail or charge me with any crime because they knew I wasn’t dangerous. I acted in defense of myself and my roommate. But I beat that man to death. And I’ve never gotten away from it. Everyone in Seoul knew because it made the papers. It’s never really gone away.”
Her story seemed to have reached its natural conclusion, but she didn’t sit down. “Excuse me, I want to ask our German friend something?”
Heinrich hovered near the entrance to the fireside area, listening but not engaging.
“Do you know what happens to children?” Yi Soo asked him.
“I do not know. No one has seen a child or a child body,” Heinrich explained.
“No one ever or no one you know?” Sid clarified.
“No one I know,” Heinrich answered. “Virgil explore the most far. He see the Camp and the City. In the City he hear things about more of Hell. There is many rumor about children. One say that to kill child is not crime. I do not agree—is rumor. Another say that all child body in a special place in Hell. Another say all child killers go to separate Hell.”
“But I killed a child,” Sun interrupted. “So that can’t be true.”
“Yes,” Heinrich shouted, suddenly excited. “We know a thing that is new.”
“We can discover things through each other,” Nadia offered.
“I like this,” Heinrich admitted, finally leaning further in to see everyone.
Nadia smiled in response but remained silent as Woo Bin stood to speak.
Unnoticed by the entire tribe, the teenage Woo Bin became more slouchy and morose as the others told their stories. Now that it was his turn, he looked like he might burst into tears.
Do Jin leaned over Yi Soo to ask him something in Korean. Woo Bin shook his head vehemently and raised his head to address the tribe.
“I was clubbing the night before I died,” Woo Bin began. “When the sun rose, I was still drunk and my friend wanted to race. We’d done it before. But we kept choosing worse areas, because otherwise it was boring. We chose areas with more and more people because then we might get chased by the police or caught. It was a dare that kept getting worse.
“I had my father’s hummer. It’s very illegal. He bribed people at the docks to ship it over from China. It was big and yellow and offensive. I thought it was cool.”
Woo Bin finally started to cry. “I thought I would get caught. I thought my father will deserve this. I didn’t think I would hit anything. Seoul’s a very safe city. People don’t run into the streets. Especially if they see a huge yellow thing coming at them. How could I hit anything? They would see me first, wouldn’t they?”
At that point, Woo Bin stopped to cry again.
“I thought you were on the train with Do Jin and Yi Soo?” Nadia asked.
“Who didn’t see you?” Sid prompted, overlapping Nadia’s question.
“No, it was I who didn’t see them.” Woo Bin indicated Do Jin and Yi Soo, who both looked confused at first.
The truth hit Yi Soo first. “You’re the one who hit the train. You derailed us.”
While everyone inside the tribe was guilty of murder. Woo Bin had the questionable distinction of being the murderer of two other members of the tribe.
It took three people to tear Yi Soo off Woo Bin. Throughout her attack she screamed something at Woo Bin in Korean. Do Jin would later translate this phrase as, ‘You murdered my son.’ She had to be dragged away, still screaming. Woo Bin was too distraught to remain a part of the tribe’s discussion. Do Jin took him away to calm him down.
Once the fireside area was no longer dominated by screaming or crying Koreans, Nadia stood to get everyone’s attention.
“If Heinrich would indulge us,” Nadia began, “I think we all have questions.”
“My English is not good,” Heinrich groaned. But, thankfully, he wasn’t backing away.
“Many of us speak English as a second language. We muddle through.”
Faced with 100 hopeful faces, what was Heinrich to do? With a sigh, he shrugged and sat down next to Sun. “Good, good. Thank you.” Nadia clasped her hands together. “Let’s get started. One of the big mysteries down in the Pit is the bodies. For example our Korean friend who just left has….” Nadia stopped speaking and stared off into space. “Wait, Do Jin has a body. No, Do Jin has a body!” The second recitation was screamed.
“Nadia repeating the phrase doesn’t force it to make sense for the rest of us,” Sid quipped.
“I can’t explain…it’s because of Woo Bin and,” with her thoughts running too fast for her words, she looked to Heinrich to explain.
“The boy, who cries.” Heinrich attempted. “He kills the man from Korea in doctor coat. And Korea man has body here.”
This was lost on the crowd. Except for Nadia, who looked like she may jump up and down at any moment. “And you worked at Dachau, of course.” Nadia let out a deep sigh, finally facing the people who had no idea what she was talking about. “The bodies, ladies and gentlemen, are our victims. Our penance is…” She trailed off.
“We take them to the river,” Heinrich explained. It seemed time for Heinrich to show them how it was done.
“This is so odd,” Sid groaned to Nadia.
Heinrich stood in the pool alone, holding CC in his arms.
“How am I in Hell, watching a Nazi send one of his victims to the great cloud place in the sky?” he continued.
Nadia, practically dancing on the balls of her feet, felt differently. “After this, Woo Bin could do his first body,” she planned, “and maybe that will calm him.”
The whole tribe watched as Heinrich whispered something in CC’s ear. Then he faced up to the clouds and the light and held the body up as if offering it to them. The clouds parted, the light seemed to reach down as the water in the river, pool and waterfall began to run backwards. As the water flowed up, the light reached Heinrich and the body began to float. The body rose entirely out of Heinrich’s arms, with him bathed in the bright yellow light. As soon as CC disappeared into the cloud cover, the water stopped moving. Everything held for a full minute. With his back to them, Heinrich was motionless. Then the water began to flow normally, the light began to recede and everything went back to as it was.
Naturally, Nadia and Sid were closest to the edge of the Pool. Nadia couldn’t help but notice that Heinrich took too long to turn around. She tried inching closer to the edge of the pool, but Sid pulled her sleeve stopping her.
“Let him be,” Sid whispered.
In another minute, Heinrich turned around, wiping a real tear from his face. Nadia gasped.
“You can cry?” she asked him.
“In the water only,” Heinrich answered.
“What happened for you?” Sid asked.
“I am him,” Heinrich explained, climbing out the pool, “in his life. I see all his life. And his death. I see me kill him.”
“How many times have you done this?” Nadia inquired.
“326,” Heinrich answered, unfazed.
Do Jin talked Woo Bin into carrying his duplicate to the pool. Yi Soo was still too upset to help or even watch. For the onlookers there was no difference between Woo Bin’s sending off of Do Jin’s duplicate and Heinrich sending off CC. But Woo Bin was more upset by the experience than Heinrich had been.
Before the light had finished receding, Woo Bin collapsed into the pool and refused to come out. The experience of seeing life through Do Jin’s eyes helped Woo Bin understand what he’d ended when he slammed his Hummer into the train.
Finally, once the tribe returned to the fireside area, Do Jin pulled Woo Bin out of the water. Sitting on the edge of the pool, the older man talked the teenager through his revelation.
“I saw everything,” Woo Bin whispered in Korean. “I am sorry your mother was so angry—”
“We don’t need to talk about it.” Do Jin cut him off. “She came around. But did you see who I killed?”
“Yes, I saw his face, even though I know you didn’t. My vision followed the bullet,” Woo Bin explained. “And I even saw you here. I was you watching me send your body away. It was so odd.”
Through the conversation, Do Jin remained focused on the young man. But something about the last thing Woo Bin saw caused Do Jin to stop talking and look down. It occurred to Woo Bin that Do Jin had figured something out.
“We need Yi Soo,” Do Jin exclaimed.
“No, she is angry. She should be—” Woo Bin pleaded.
“No, you don’t understand. You saw what happened to me after I died.” Do Jin’s revelation still wasn’t clear to Woo Bin. He attempted to explain further. “If you killed Yi Soo’s son, then you can find his body, give it to the river and then find out what happened to him. You can find out where he went when he died.”