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.
We meet our first contemporary character, Allison.
The Pit: Watchmaker’s Hell: Book One
Los Angeles, CA, Earth
ALLISON YATES DIED AT 3:45 p.m. on a Tuesday. At the time of her death, she was 17 years, 1 month and two weeks old. It was far too early; she was far too young and wholly unprepared.
The outfit she died in was thrown together from the few items she owned that didn’t require immediate laundering. Like most 17 year olds, she lived with her parents. Unlike most 17 year olds, she’d done her own laundry for nearly four years. She laundered her six-year-old sister’s clothes as well. Her parents were not intentionally negligent; they were always busy and often lax in the minutia of running their household. When they weren’t busy, Anna and Ben Yates wanted to cuddle up in bed with their daughters and watch Disney movies or chat with friends on the phone or go out to eat. Thus, Allison took care of herself, and often her sister. She’d learned to cook, clean, launder and even sign most of her sister’s permission slips in her mother’s place. There’d been no parental help on homework in years despite her father being a college professor. She’d chosen her college and applied, filling out every piece of laborious paperwork herself. The outfit the coroner would cut off her to begin his autopsy was all cotton. Cotton, if whipped out of the dryer fast enough, didn’t require ironing. Thus it was all she ever bought.
Her final meal on earth was a blueberry scone and a cup of herbal tea with honey from her assumed last stop of the day, Starbucks. This particular Starbucks sat directly opposite the British Consulate in Los Angeles. That autocratic nightmare occupied four hours of her last day on Earth.
In two months’ time she would have escaped L.A. for college in London. Her father, Ben Yates, was English. Her mother, Anna Yates, was American. From birth, during her parent’s sophomore year of college, until her 10th birthday, she was raised in various college towns up and down the east coast. At that time, Ben accepted a teaching position at King’s College in London, causing the family to live near his mother and sister in North London. Allison loved it there, and when her father accepted a teaching position at UCLA four years later, she was devastated.
Allison’s odd meandering life turned her into a walking contradiction. She looked and sounded American but wanted desperately to be English. Her errand with the British Consulate was prolonged because of the confusion her accent caused. She just needed her U.K. passport updated to leave for college. Upon hearing this, the stern obtuse woman at the consulate gave her papers to fill out. Allison began working on them only to realize halfway through that they were requests for a foreign student visa. She didn’t need a visa because she was a UK citizen. While she tried to explain this, the stern woman looked her up and down: a white tank top, peasant skirt and sandals were not the fashion for English teenagers, but they made sense if one is stuck in sunny California. Once Allison convinced her nationalist foe that her father was English, said foe retrieved several papers from the back, handed them over, and told Allison she could leave now. While stomping out of the building, Allison opened the envelope in her hands. It wasn’t clear what the subject of the papers was, but the name at the top in bold letters was ‘Bates, Amy.’
“Jesus motherfucking Christ,” she mumbled as she stormed back into the consulate.
At Starbucks Allison finished her too-sweet scone and downed the last of her tea. She pulled her passport out to verify its existence for the fifth time. Her own red, chin-length hair and seemingly blue (but actually hazel) eyes looked back at her. Her name was correct at the top; everything looked fine until she read the height for the first time, 5 foot 4 inches. “I wish,” she laughed.
She’d left the paperwork on the kitchen table while she’d driven her sister to school several months earlier. After school, Allison returned home to find them missing. When her mother came home that night at 10, Allison asked about them. Anna Yates had, in an odd moment of attentiveness, finished them and mailed them to the necessary address.
Can a person die of frustration? Allison wondered. People die of heartbreak, why not frustration?
She flipped open her messenger bag and pulled out her phone. She let out a deep sigh as she put her phone to her ear with one hand and pinched the bridge of her nose with the other.
“I was about to call you!” Anna Yates answered.
“Mom, how tall am I?” Allison asked.
“Nope, 5’2. My passport is wrong.”
“Oh, why did you write down wrong the height?” She seemed genuinely surprised.
“You filled it out for me.” Allison tried to avoid sounding accusatory since her mother was impossible to talk to when defensive.
“Did I?” In Anna’s defense, filling out the papers was very parental and therefore out of character. “I’m sure it will be fine.”
Details seemed to not matter when the mistake was Anna’s. They mattered more when the mistake was Allison’s. This mistake would cost Allison hours of life to fix. The consequence of failing to do so may be that she would be unable to enter the U.K. It occurred to her that she could use her U.S. passport to enter while lying and saying she was on a leisure trip. The next opportunity to suffer for this error would be when she tried to leave London to see her family for Christmas. She smiled as soon as it occurred to her; then she would get stuck in the U.K., unable to return to L.A.
“Never mind,” Allison offered. “What did you want to talk to me about?”
“What do you mean?” Anna Yates had the memory of a small child.
“You said you were about to call me?” Allison prompted.
“Oh, could you…if you’re done…could you maybe…”
Out with it, Allison thought. Don’t ask me to do shit for you and waste my time.
“…could you pick up your sister from ballet?” And there it was, “It’s just that I’m swamped at work.” And the excuses began. “All these skinny women whose pee just turned a stick blue are treating the buying of their first onesie like they’re buying a house.” Anna ran an infant and children’s clothing boutique.
There was something that Allison always wondered in these moments but never felt shitty enough to ask until then: “How did you get her there? The class is only an hour long. How did you get there and manage to get back to Santa Monica—”
Anna interrupted “Your father dropped her off on his way to Pasadena.” Allison should’ve seen that one coming. “I meant to grab her but I also meant to be back from lunch sooner….” Anna returned to her babble about the skinny ladies buying onesies. Allison heard this often enough to recite it verbatim. The truth was clear, if accidentally so. Anna planned to lunch with a friend and was late because babbling ensued and also because Anna rarely bothered to look at the time.
Allison looked at her watch, an expensive Aspry model she’d inherited from her English grandmother: 3:05. Dance class had ended five minutes ago. Allison had only one weapon to counter the request, but it was a good one.
“Mom, Mom…Mom!” Allison interrupted her mother’s smoothly flowing monologue. “I don’t have the car seat anymore. I took it out when I was cleaning my car out yesterday.”
Megan Yates, like her sister, was small for her age. At only 40 pounds, the state of California recommended that a child her age and size sit in the back of any vehicle in a special seat that would protect her in the event of an accident.
There was a short pause and then Anna offered the response Allison was least expecting, “Oh, I’m sure it will be fine.”
Allison loved her sister. She would say so if asked. But when she pulled up to the ballet school, a small store front in a 10-piece strip mall in West Hollywood, she looked at the small figure waiting alone and felt a distinct weight on her upper body. Megan made her feel this in addition to the whole love thing. Allison reminded herself not to take this out on Megan, who was not responsible for being six years old and unable to drive herself home.
Allison opened the back door. Megan peered inside. “Where’s my seat?” she asked.
“Mom says you don’t need it,” Allison blurted out with a shrug.
“Anymore? At all?” Megan jumped up and down in her little pink leotard. That wasn’t what Anna Yates meant. Momentarily, Allison considered correcting this error. But then she discarded the idea. Let Mom deal with the fall out on this decision, for once.
Allison buckled the seatbelt, then moved the chest strap behind Megan otherwise it would sit across her face. Megan offered a detailed rundown of her time in dance class. Apparently a fellow dancer named Cassie had pushed her down as soon as she arrived. Cassie’s only punishment was a talking to. As Allison slid back into the driver’s seat, Cassie had pushed Emma, Opal, Norma and two of the Jennifers. Allison adjusted her rear view mirror so she could see her sister. Megan was munching on animal crackers Allison had placed in her backpack that morning and explaining that Cassie had had to dance by the bathroom for the rest of class instead of the super best spot by the window because “she’s not apposed to be pushing everybody.”
“This Cassie chick’s got problems,” Allison mumbled as she pulled into traffic, at which point the occupant in the back seat wanted an explanation of the use of the word ‘chick’ in this context.
Allison wanted this last, unexpected, unwelcome errand over. On a good day, when traffic was with her, she could make this trip in less than 20 minutes. This beat the often repeated, entirely untrue, assertion from the film Clueless that you can get anywhere in L.A. in half an hour. But that Tuesday, Allison found herself surrounded by L.A.’s biggest traffic problem: the flakey driver. Inside the cars around her, drivers were putting on makeup, eating two-handed foods and talking on every model of cell phone ever made by mankind. Despite the legal requirement for some form of headset to be used while operating a vehicle, Allison routinely counted a dozen drivers with cell phones held up near their wide yapping mouths while the other hand rested halfheartedly on the wheel. It would appear today was not a good day. Traffic and the mindless L.A. driver were very much against her.
Allison sped up as Megan asked for an explanation of the word ‘figurative’ which Allison had used when explaining the word ‘chick.’ “We use the word figurative,” Allison began, channeling a bit of her literature professor father as she did so, “when we want to say something that sounds interesting or that we want to emphasize but we don’t want to just say, ‘This happened or that happened.’”
Allison’s white compact sped around an ugly green sports car. The driver honked, and Allison rolled her eyes and applied more pressure to the gas. The car was a gift from her parents. They had wanted to buy her something newer, but she talked them out of it. Her logic was why spend money on something if she couldn’t take it with her to college since she was headed overseas. They praised her maturity, not knowing her real reason for the suggestion. She was trying to get out of the extra obligation a more expensive car might bring along with it. A cheaper car might keep them from constantly asking her to stop at the store on the way home and to run by her mother’s boutique and drop off this or that or (of course) to pick up her sister.
“I love you Megan,” Allison called into the backseat.
“You say it funny,” Megan replied.
Perhaps she was grinding her teeth a bit, but several sedans were moving slowly next to one another, creating a road block. “Megan,” Allison offered in a correcting tone.
Megan finally repeated what she’d been told to say: “I love you too.”
Allison was a full 30 miles over the posted speed limit when she approached the white van. The van’s driver was a blond woman in her fifties. In that vehicle’s rearview mirror, Allison could she her talking distractedly with a passenger. Allison cursed inwardly but not aloud because of ‘little ears.’ She moved her bumper within a foot of the van’s and yanked the wheel to the left while accelerating.
Allison Yates would spend several years of her eternity examining the next sixty seconds. At the time, the sequence of events was too jumbled together to sort out. It was only later and with help that she was able to understand what she referred to as ‘the accident’ and what her companions in death would call, ‘that time you killed five people.’
Allison’s car moved into the white van’s blind spot. The white van tried to change lanes, causing them to collide. Both drivers lost control of their vehicles. The white van spun off and slammed into the pillar of an overpass. Allison’s car spun into oncoming traffic. Next, a grey sedan collided with the rear passenger side. Allison heard Megan scream. Allison saw a flash of the driver’s blue eyes before the grey sedan hit a nearby electrical pole. A motorcycle hit the driver’s side door inches from Allison. She heard the cyclist’s head ram into the hood of her car. A red sedan crashed into her head on. Finally, a semi added one last vehicle to the pile. It flipped her car. She rolled four times.
With the car settled, Allison could still hear honking and screeching in the distance. In front of her, a small piece of white fabric stuck out from her steering wheel: the faulty airbag. Was everything vibrating? There was a small noise from the backseat.
The rearview mirror hung by a wire from its original location. In its surface, Allison could make out a small slumped figure in the back seat.
Still more collisions sounded in the distance.
She turned to look at Megan. Megan wasn’t moving. An unnatural stillness had taken over her body. Before Allison could connect this image with her own memory of dead bodies, something invisible hit the tiny form. A less-solid version of Megan burst from her motionless body. They made eye contact. Megan looked terrified. Then she floated up and away so fast it was as though something had sucked her away from the car.
Allison turned to face the shattered windshield again. Every part of her screamed in pain. Something was wrong in her chest. Her internal organs had been tossed around too much inside her. They were now ripped. Her chest was filling up with blood. It was what she imagined a stabbing to feel like, if she were stabbed internally by a blunt object.
Everything in her body suddenly stopped. The pain stopped. Her chest’s natural rise and fall stopped. Her whole body was still, but she could feel its presence. She felt her arms but couldn’t move them. She wanted to lift her head but remained slumped to one side instead. In a panic, she tried to throw her limbs around and scream. Nothing happened. Was this what death felt like? Being trapped in her earthly body?
A transparent ripple of air appeared out of nothing. It sped toward her. Before she could attempt another scream, it slammed into her. She felt a ripping sensation all over. It was as if the ripple had caused her whole body to split down the middle, her skull cracking down lengthwise, her skin tearing like paper, everything inside her separating in two. The last faint rip left her vibrating with pain but free. Somehow she was behind herself, staring at the headrest of the driver’s seat with her curly read hair peeking out either side. Relief at her freedom washed over her. She floated for a moment and then heard a crack behind her. There was a swift wind, like a door opening in a moving vehicle. She began to fall backward and down.
As she passed out through the barrier between the world of the living and the world of The Dead, a German History Professor miles away in Amsterdam began to dream an odd dream that was part memory and part nonsense.