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.
The last contemporary character death. Nadia is a British attorney of Indian descent who spent her life fighting against a mistake she made at the age of 13.
Tomorrow, in Chapter 6, we reenter Hell.
The Pit: Watchmaker’s Hell: Book One
London, UK, Earth
NADIA PATEL WAS A FAILURE. Since she graduated from law school ten years earlier she’d seen a steady increase of responsibility and influence in her work. Her focus was in juvenile criminal law as defense counsel. Three years ago she’d been asked to join Amnesty International, working with cases primarily in India and the UK. According to her biography on Amnesty’s website, she’d helped overturn a dozen wrongful convictions for young men and women, she’d found asylum for another three and continued to appeal and fight for every client she’d had since her career began. She never gave up on them, possibly because years earlier, she felt her family had given up on her. As a young person, she herself had failed profoundly, causing her to feel that her work was a temporary challenge, not a list of laurels she could rest on. Her nice house in central London was a temporary privilege that might soon be taken away without cause. Even her relationship with her long-term partner Sarah was a thing she felt she could fail at any time. Nadia Patel was a failure—but only in her own mind.
Other people have commitments to helping others. Nadia had a commitment to offset the mistake she made at 13. At 37, she still drove hard against her own nature, hoping that in doing so she would no longer be the 13 year old who’d killed a friend. While at university, she trained to work with the suicide hotline. At that time, she expected to become a social worker. Both things didn’t work in the end. While training for the hotline, her calls were monitored by a more experienced counselor. Said counselor could take the call over if the trainee was not doing well. Nadia’s mentor was Helen, who had lost her brother to suicide at the age of 15. Helen’s life was about crisis prevention and recovery. She chaired the annual suicide prevention fundraising marathon through North London. She volunteered as a family counselor in the local community center, offering free counseling to families with an abusive parent. 25 years earlier, she helped set up the hotline and promoted it by placing fliers, speaking to community groups, and putting ads in various London papers. In many ways, Helen was who Nadia wanted to be when she grew up. In turn, Helen was determined to help Nadia become a solid counselor. But Helen ended up having to take calls from her every single shift because Nadia broke the rules so often. She was never to argue with the caller. She argued with everyone, even when she didn’t mean to. She wasn’t to share personal information. But if she understood what the caller was going through, too often she would admit that fact, trying on a human (as opposed to clinical) level to reassure them. Helen was a patient mentor, but after a year, she told Nadia that this was the longest she’d ever spent monitoring another counselor’s calls. She asked Nadia if the hotline was really the best place for her. Nadia bowed out gracefully, agreeing to try something else, but asked if she could return and try again at some point in the future. Helen agreed.
Social work proved as bad a fit as the hotline had been. She found herself arguing with landlords who’d kicked poor families out on the street in winter, with the police whom she felt were harassing the children she worked with and with co-workers who treated social work as if it were any other hourly job. Her boss at that time was a friend from university named Rebecca. Finally, Rebecca convinced her that she wasn’t bad at social work as much as she was a good fighter. And if she was a good fighter, then a good fight is what she should be offering to the world. Somehow, she had to find her way out of social work to do something that meant she could advocate for others.
The night Nadia died, she spent four hours on the phone for the suicide hotline. It took 10 years before Helen allowed her to take calls on her own, now as a volunteer counselor instead of a paid counselor. In those years she went through the same training over and over, still getting nowhere. Eventually it wasn’t about the training. Nadia got better because she got older, calmer and more self-assured. Yes, she wanted to argue with people, but she did so all day. As a volunteer with a day to day debate outlet, it was easier to just listen to the people who needed her help. Helen always said listening was the greatest skill a counselor could have. People become instantly calmer if they know someone is willing to stop and hear them out. Nadia didn’t hear that at 20, but in her 30s, it started to make more sense. Helen gave Nadia the Volunteer of the Year Award in 2009. Sarah wanted to put it over the mantel in their townhouse. Instead, Nadia put it into a box of old mementos and promptly forgot it existed.
When the call came in, the last suicide hotline call Nadia would take, Sarah was finishing her last bit of fish and a story about the fishmonger’s rude son. Nadia had hotline calls routed to her house phone. The peace and quiet at home were a much better environment than the call bank, which always smelled like the fast food place (Chips! Chips! Chips!) next door.
“Is that?” Sarah asked, her fork still halfway to her mouth. Nadia nodded. “Go, then. I’ll tidy up.”
The caller’s name was Jeff. For about an hour, Nadia went in circles with him. It was important to find out how far the caller already was in their plans. Pacing around the lounge, Nadia asked broad questions. “What makes you feel that way?” “Have you thought any more about that?” As Sarah leaned into the door frame between the kitchen and the lounge to motion that she was headed up to bed, Jeff admitted to laying out a dozen of his grandmother’s Lorazepam. That drug in that quantity was dangerous. Nadia shook her head at Sarah and pointed to the phone, their long-practiced sign language for ‘this will take a while, I won’t be up anytime soon.’
After a day in court on her feet, Nadia couldn’t pace anymore. She sat down on the floor, stretching her legs underneath the coffee table, and encouraged Jeff to tell her about the bullying he endured at school. Sarah must’ve been doing a puzzle before Nadia came home. An unfinished, fragmented version of Monet’s Water Lilies lay before her. It was always good to have something to do with her hands.
Two more hours later, Nadia tapped a corner piece on the table while listening to Jeff’s low mournful voice on the phone. He wasn’t telling her something. Yes, there’d been a ridiculous amount of victimization at that school, but something was missing. The torment at school had begun a year earlier, why was he contemplating ending his life on this particular evening?
“Talk to me about today,” Nadia prompted.
“I don’t understand,” Jeff responded.
“What happened today that made you feel this way?”
Jeff groaned. “There’s this kid. He’s so gay. And I was looking at him and thinking, ‘Why does he get to walk around like that and no one does nothing?’ Most days, I leave him alone. I don’t…but I was going into the cafeteria.” Jeff began to sob. “He was in my way.” There was a long pause.
“Jeff, I’m still here. I’d like to know what happened.”
“I shoved him. He split his lip. Everyone laughed.” Jeff trailed off again due to more sobbing. He finally returned with. “I don’t know why I did that.”
Here was the conundrum Nadia faced over and over. These calls needed to be about the caller. Nadia’s role was to listen, to assess the risk and, if needed, to summon help. But Jeff’s story left her feeling empathetic. She wasn’t meant to tell this boy her name, let alone her story. Pushing into the conversation with her own story, her own trauma, was an aggressive move. One of the reasons she left counseling and social work for law was because she wanted to argue with people, even though that wasn’t her role. She changed her role to suit her personality. When on the hotline in the years since, she’d focused on stepping out of her own personality, stepping out of herself, to be what the other person needed. But who she was informed how Jeff saw himself today.
“Why would I do that?” Jeff cried distractedly.
The aggressive part of Nadia won the battle. “When I was 13, I knew this girl. She was my friend, but we moved. A year later we came back, and she became my victim instead. These kids in Birmingham, they always pick someone who ‘deserves it’ according to them, and I guess the skinny Indian girl was an easy choice. When I came back, I looked at Peggy, and she had these freckles and just a bush of hair on her head and I thought, ‘Why not her?’ So I went at her. I knew better. I knew what that felt like. I did it anyway.”
“You’re like me?” Jeff asked.
His voice was brighter and less tear-filled. He sounds better, she thought and let out a huge sigh of relief. Her gamble had, at least not immediately, done harm. “I made a mistake. I am human. I did something that hurt someone else.”
“I think I deserve to die,” Jeff announced. With that they seemed to have backtracked. Nadia dropped the puzzle piece and began gesturing as she spoke.
“You say that now. But this feeling is temporary.” Nadia calmed her voice, chanting in her own mind don’t argue, listen, don’t argue, listen.
“You still think about it. Don’t you?” He asked desperately.
She needed to lie. When she asked Helen, years earlier, if it was ever ok to lie to a caller, Hellen told her, “Yes, sometimes we must do the wrong thing for the right reason.”
Nadia took her advice. “It is a part of my past.”
It defined her adult life.
“I have moved on.”
She could hear Sarah’s loud ‘ha’ in her head.
“I made a mistake.”
Well, at least that part was true.
She wasn’t letting on how big the mistake really was. She didn’t trip Peggy once; she humiliated her, tormenting her for months on end.
“This is temporary. You don’t have to make any decisions based on how you feel tonight.” Nadia downshifted back to her training.
“What happened to the girl?” Jeffrey asked.
Shit, worst possible question. Peggy killed herself on December 18, 1987. In her note, she named Nadia’s constant torture as the reason she could no longer go on.
This one had to be a lie. The truth would cause more problems. In the middle of the mental turmoil, her mind seemed to rebel against her, giving her a sudden splitting headache. “I’ve talked to her since. She has a happy life now.”
“A happy life now?” He responded, clearly not believing this.
The answer had been too vague. Nadia needed a specific story to offset her mistake. She took a reunion with Peggy’s mother and twisted it for her purpose.
“We ran into each other at the book fair last September. I wanted to let her know what I’d been doing with my life. She told me she was glad I was doing well,” Nadia lied.
Again, the person Nadia ran into at the book fair was actually Peggy’s mother. When Nadia saw her from three aisles over, Nadia turned to Sarah, announcing whom she’d just seen.
“You could leave it,” Sarah suggested, not looking up from the book she was examining.
“Who would that make me?” Nadia responded. Rolling her eyes, Sarah waved Nadia away.
“No one I know. Go on then.”
As she walked over to the hunched figure in the peach cardigan, Nadia did the math on how long it had been since she’d seen her: while at university, so at least 15 years.
“Excuse me.” Nadia touched the shoulder with a grey haired bob laying on it.
Peggy’s mother, whose name Nadia suddenly realized she didn’t remember, turned. For a moment, her brow furrowed, analyzing the thirty-something before her.
“Mrs. Olson. I’m Nadia…that is, my name is Nadia Patel.”
Recognition flashed all over the woman’s face. “I’m not Mrs. Olson anymore. But I do remember you.”
Good God, how could you not, Nadia wondered. “I am working as a barrister now and I still volunteer with the suicide hotline and I worked with Amnesty International for the last three years because I work with juvenile offenders and now I’m working with the Scotland Yard on policies with juvenile offenders and…”
The run-on sentence had no end. The bravado that carried Nadia over to this woman suddenly dropped off, causing Nadia to realize two things: 1) she’d forgotten to ask this woman how she was or even what her new name was and 2) she desperately wanted forgiveness from someone she’d already robbed blind.
Nadia’s posture was constricted as she held her hands tight over her stomach. The former Mrs. Olsen reached out and patted her hand. “I am so glad you are doing well.” It would seem that the former mother of her former friend felt differently about this woman who was, after all, just a child who made a mistake.
“What really happened to that girl?” Jeff asked again.
“I told you, she’s well now.” Nadia groped frantically for specifics. “She’s divorced. Still loves to read, obviously. She’s a grown up about it. We all are in the end.” Liar, she thought to herself.
“It’s bad. Whatever you’re not telling me. It’s really bad.” Jeff sounded like he was crying again.
Maybe the truth is better, she thought. Her internal voice argued with itself that there was no way this truth was better. So, time to come up with a new lie. “Fine. She transferred schools and never spoke to me again. It’s entirely possible she still hates me.”
The line went dead. Nadia hit redial on her cordless phone and let it ring a dozen times. She hung up and dialed the emergency number. The pain in her head didn’t just grow worse—it was more like an explosion went off. In reality, a blood vessel had burst.
“999, what is your emergency?” the operator answered.
Nadia lost control of her body and slid to the floor. “Hello, what is your emergency?” the operator tried again. When Nadia didn’t respond, the operator continued, “I have your address and I am sending a squad car to your house….”
If she could sit up and talk, she’d have screamed “No” or said anything about being on a hotline call moments earlier. Because without that information, it would take hours to unravel what just happened and send someone to help Jeff. Instead, the police came to Nadia’s house, waking up Sarah and still arriving too late to save Nadia.