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 and Allison's lives are more connected than they realize. They won't find this out until they get to hell, first Christoph has to die.
The Pit: Watchmaker’s Hell: Book One
Amsterdam, Netherlands, Earth
THE MODERN FAIRYTALE OF the terminal diagnosis states that a person facing the end of his life can finally really live. He can bungee jump, ride bulls and sky dive. He can engage in hedonistic pleasures with no worry of sexually transmitted diseases, increase of waistline or alcoholism. He can spend all his remaining money on anything he chooses. He can forgive without reservation and truly love as he’s never loved before. As far as Christoph Schmidt was concerned, this fairytale was bullshit. Bungee jumping, bull riding and sky diving all require energy, which he no longer had. Truly enjoying hedonistic pleasures is difficult when one is in constant pain. And spending all his money required the sale of his remaining assets, which was a process that only moves quickly in movies. In truth, his terminal diagnosis made him less loving and forgiving. The pain, combined with the ticking clock of his impending demise gave him a kind of tunnel vision that cut out anything but what he needed in the present. Did his colleagues need to see him one last time, searching for a final profound memory of their relationship with him? Maybe, but he neither noticed nor cared because what he needed to do was quit his job teaching history at King’s College in London so that he had the freedom to leave England immediately. Did his last two remaining siblings need their brother to return to the family home in Frankfurt where they nursed their dying mother years before? Probably, but he didn’t want to be nursed and needed to go to Amsterdam. Did his estate agent need his patience as they went through the frustrating process of selling his house in London? Definitely, but time and patience he did not have.
Over the course of his life, death was an almost constant companion. His father, a survivor of Dachau concentration camp, died when he was 10 years old. He was too young to fully understand the concept of death, but it didn’t seem as different as the grownups said it would be. Hans Schmidt suffered from long periods of deep depression that his wife credited to his incarceration during the war. For months at a time, his children would come and go in the house without seeing him or talking to him, as he never left his room. As a result, after his death, his absence wasn’t immediately noteworthy. As Christoph became a teenager, he thought more and more about his father’s in-between periods when he was out of his room—those times when he would come home to his father trying to braid his sister’s hair while their mother made dinner or arguing with his older sons about politics. He came to realize these times were gone as well.
At 30, he lost his mother to the same disease that threatened his life. There were no final adventures for her either; she faded in and out of consciousness, delusional from medication and pain. She’d already buried her oldest son, who died in an accident seven years earlier. Christoph always felt her life had been unnecessarily hard. He was exceptionally unhappy that her death had been hard as well. During the long aftermath, only Christoph’s wife could console him, though he didn’t like the word ‘console.’ It implied the thing was done: he is in pain, his wife consoles him, no more pain. Grief was not a simple hurt that needed to be cured. For him it was a process of years. Years where Sabine listened to him go over the same pain again and again, tolerated bad moods and argued against selfish behavior. Just when he started to feel himself again, the doctors found Sabine’s brain tumor. It was his turn for years of patience with his spouse.
He was better at it than he would have thought. But that didn’t matter; the result was the same anyway. In the end, she was barely able to lift an arm off the bed. She died at the too-young age of 37, turning Christoph into a widower as well as an orphan.
Christoph woke up for the last time in a long-stay hotel in Amsterdam. In the disorientation of gradual consciousness, he wasn’t certain he’d fallen asleep. These days he rarely slept without tossing and turning for an hour or more. To be asleep in the early evening meant he’d fallen asleep accidentally. And he must have slept because he’d talked to Sabine. For a moment it seemed as though it had been real. His chest suddenly felt tight: that familiar emotional pain of realizing he couldn’t talk to her anymore because she’d been dead for nearly 18 years. It must have been a dream. The rare dreams he had in the last two months were all anxiety dreams. He kept dreaming that the house in London was crumbling into the Thames.
The dream from his last sleep was part memory, part nonsense. He was 22 in Berlin on the day he met Sabine. She sat across a worn wooden table, a droopy sweater over her leotard from dance class. She looked perfect, the absurd slender only dancers seemed to have, brown hair cut so short it rarely moved when she did and large, round, brown eyes. In life he chatted her up the minute he met her, much to the annoyance of Heida, the sister he was supposed to be taking to dinner. Sabine responded to his advances by looking down at him incredulously.
“You’re pretty bold,” she said to him over that table in life and in the dream, “for someone so short.” She took a sip of her wine and waited to see how bad his Napoleon complex was.
“Fuck you, I’m adorable,” he responded, laughing.
She nodded like his insecurities were pleasantly manageable. Then she switched back to teasing. “Come now, you are an educated man. You can do better than that.”
“Fortune favors the brave, then,” he offered in the early version of his professor voice.
She smiled, looking him over in a way that he really liked. “You are adorable.” She reached out her hand to grab the bottom of his face. “With this crooked little chin.”
He grabbed her wrist. In life this was an important moment of physical contact between them. In the dream, he looked down and saw his smooth hand become wrinkled. His clothes changed from jeans and a t-shirt to slacks, a button up and a sweater vest, his outfit from the morning of the dream. The hair on his arm went grey. Suddenly he was 55 and Sabine was still 22.
She leaned closer to him, making deep eye contact.
“I have a new trick,” she whispered. “Would you like to see?”
Yes, he desperately wanted to see this new trick. She pointed to her face. Her large brown eyes became blue and then green and then back to brown again.
This was all new; she’d never said that in life. Her smile dropped at once. She twisted her wrist out of his hand. “I may run in the desert. You have to take care of me. I make terrible choices. You have to choose the same. I can hurt and maim and kill, you know. It’s in me. And in you. Sometimes I think we can’t be forgiven after all we’ve done. Will you have faith in me then? Can you restore our salvation then?”
He heard himself respond. “I care nothing of salvation, only for you.”
She laughed with her face twisted into a grimace. “I will hurt and maim and kill. But if you are at my side I will never stop touching you.” That was a hell of a promise from a dead woman.
Christoph sat up in bed. He was clothed on top of the covers with the duvet pulled over his legs. The bed was uncomfortable because that’s what happens when you put itchy sheets on a cheap mattress. The bedside lamp was still on from when he’d been reading before he slept. The chain he always wore fell under him while he slept and left a deep red line on the left side of his neck. How did I fall asleep? he wondered. And why do I feel so…. In his mouth there was a feeling past the normal gross swampy sleep mouth. He tried to swallow. Suddenly his jaw felt compelled to open on its own. He desperately tried to keep his mouth shut as he ran for the bathroom. Stomach acid and bile flowed out of him into the toilet.
Now he knew how he’d fallen asleep. His pain pills were opiates. Opiate’s biggest side effects are drowsiness and nausea. He’d accidentally taken an extra dose. After rinsing his mouth and beard out, he checked the pill bottle on the night stand. Only two left. The clock read 12:15. The pharmacy wouldn’t open until 9. He usually took 4-6 pills in a single dose every six hours. He was going to have a rough night. He slammed the pill bottle down, cursing his inattentiveness.
There was another vial containing a single pill next to the clock. It just sat there, reminding him it was an option. The doctor who had handed it to him had launched into a clearly rehearsed speech about ending one’s own life. Christoph had interrupted her with, “I’ll know. When it’s time to take it.”
“Yes,” the doctor had responded. He’d cut her speech down to its conclusion. “That is what we tell people. Did you come across that while researching this clinic?”
Christoph declined to answer and exited as quickly as possible.
“You’re a bastard,” Heida yelled in German on his voicemail. “Call me when you get this. Don’t tell me you can’t call because it’s late, I will be up.” His sister must have gotten the papers he asked his lawyer to send.
She answered on the first ring with a repetition of her assertion that their parents might not have been married when he was born. “I’m not signing this,” she added. He’d sent her power-of-attorney forms. They would allow him to be free of the minutia of settling his affairs.
During the tiny pause she’d left after her declaration, he was about to explain that no one was making her sign anything. But then she launched into more insults: “What I really can’t believe is that you had the nerve to send this to Marguerite as well.” The woman in question was their youngest living sibling. “She’s been crying since dawn.”
“Yes, but you were a long shot,” he said over her continued insults. “And she might actually give a damn about how much I want this to end.” Heida’s words overlapped his on both ends with only ‘give a damn’ being said to silence.
“You’re being selfish. And the thing you want to end is your life.”
The pills were wearing off mighty fast. His head did a pulse of pain against the cellphone; her yelling in his ear was not helping matters.
“I’m hanging up now.” He announced. She continued to curse at him as he hit the end call button.
He dialed Marguerite, who answered in two rings, sobbing.
“I’m sorry.” All his conversations with Marguerite had begun this way over the last few months; it had replaced ‘hello.’ “I really don’t want to upset you.”
He waited. Marguerite needed more encouragement to speak. She would not force words on him like Heida. “Don’t you think…” she began in a small voice after several minutes of silence, “…we’ve buried enough people we love?”
It was a solid point. Of the original six Schmidt siblings there were only three alive. Plus, all their grandparents and both their parents were gone. And, of course, Christoph cremated his wife, though the exact nature of her final arrangements seemed beyond the point.
“You bury me either way,” he explained. She sobbed more, taking huge gulps of air while he waited for the storm to pass. Once she was calm, he offered a little perspective. “I meant to wait for the anniversary of Sabine’s death.” His wife would be dead 18 years in two weeks’ time. This was met with more sobbing. “But I can’t Marguerite. The pain is too much.”
He waited while her emotions overwhelmed her. Finally he went in for the kill. “Please help me this last time. Heida won’t, and as you so astutely pointed out, there is no one else.”
Amid the crying and the gulping for air, Marguerite offered one word: “Yes.”
What to do with the rest of an uncomfortable last night? Marguerite would surely sob for a while longer, sign the papers and maybe scan them and send them off tomorrow. So it would be another night, if not longer, to wait. He straightened the duvet on the bed and took his laptop over to the room’s slanting table. His emails betrayed his intentions: constant back and forth about the sale of his house in London. He checked the only unopened email on this thread and found it was just another plea for patience from his estate agent. He groaned. Other emails were from fellow professors around the world, asking to meet soon because they’d heard he was ill and wanted to say goodbye. He had ignored these with increasing frequency over the last few weeks. It seemed everyone was trying to tie him to this world. What a terrible idea.
He needed something to read. His taught European history, with his specialty being the history of his homeland: Germany. He pulled up his Kindle app to read an old favorite, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. He found it oddly funny to read about Hitler’s childhood. In all his research and despite a professional necessity, he’d never been able to understand that man, possibly because he was looking for a political counter argument that made sense but was taken too far and there wasn’t one. Instead, research into Hitler only offered a lot of crazy sprinkled with some self-serving lies. The version of Hitler’s life in Rise and Fall that Christoph found fascinating and even entertaining included the assertion that his parents were so closely related (they were second cousins) that they needed special permission from the local church to marry. And her mother was semi-adopted by his much-older father and raised by him for several years as ward in his house. Also, Adolf himself may have had a sexual relationship with his niece because at that point incest was just something the Hitler family deemed normal.
The book opened to the last passage he’d read, which was months earlier. A name jumped out at him: Otto Mueller. He leaned back in his chair, reeling at the effect of the long forgotten name. Mueller was the subject of Christoph’s doctoral dissertation. Mueller was an SS officer who ran Auschwitz in the early forties and the Gestapo in 1945. He was the highest-ranking Nazi whose whereabouts were unknown. In January, February and March, witnesses saw him all over Berlin—and then nothing. The city fell, and no one saw him. Hitler committed suicide, several high-ranking Nazis were around to witness or later view the body, but Mueller wasn’t there. Mueller’s body was never found. In Christoph’s dissertation, he argued, convincingly, that Mueller fled Germany for Argentina in a private plane just before the Allies invaded Berlin.
Christoph made an annoyed face no one was there to see. A good man, a molder of young minds, dies in a sad little hotel room in Amsterdam. But a fucking monster that killed hundreds of thousands of innocents ended his life in the sun in Buenos Aires.
His phone beeped, announcing a text message from his lawyer and a distraction from the massive injustice that is the world.
Had a good feeling about M. Been up waiting. Got scan of signature. All is official.
His affairs were officially and legally in Marguerite’s hands. Christoph let out a relieved sigh. He shutdown his computer, went over to retrieve the one pill he needed and turned out the light.