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.
Time to lift the veil on the bizarre connection between Allison and Christoph.
The Pit: Watchmaker’s Hell: Book One
FUCK YOU, I’M ADORABLE
Allison, Sid, Christoph, Nadia, Marcus and Alex
The Pit, Hell
ALLISON FOUND HERSELF IN a mental fog. She tried to concentrate on moving bodies and talking with Christoph but every few moments something unwanted would invade her thoughts. Christoph asked her what she liked to do for fun as they lifted the body of old man in a hospital gown.
“Why does that question always make me forget everything I do with my time?” she laughed. He nodded and smiled.
“You say it funny.” Megan’s voice, clear and in her thoughts unbidden, was chiding her: ‘I love you.’ Allison did her best to shake it off.
“I had more free time when we lived in London,” Allison explained. “I’ve been pretty focused on that last quarter of the marathon that heads straight to college.”
They put the old man onto the ‘respectful pile’ that they were building. The pile of dead bodies made Allison think about the last dead body she saw on Earth: Megan’s. She couldn’t think about that.
“Did you have a college picked out?” Christoph asked.
“King’s College in London,” Allison answered on autopilot.
“I taught there.” Christoph looked her up and down. “We’ve met, correct?”
Finally something else to focus on. She looked at him. Her shadow cast over him, making him hard to see. Something about him was inviting—familiar.
“We must have. My father taught there—Ben Yates,” she offered.
“Brit. Lit? I remember him introducing me to a skinny braces-having blue-eyed girlie.”
“Your eyes are brown,” he corrected as they picked up the body of a young man with tattoos.
Allison pulled the line of a bitchy teenager from her favorite television show. “My eyes are hazel, Helen Keller.” Christoph gave her a derisive snort. “When I was a kid I used to deliberately wear these bright blue and green shirts to bring it out. I thought my changing eye color was my magic trick.” For some reason, Christoph gave her a critical look. “What?” she asked.
Whatever it was, he shook it off. “Nothing,” he responded. But he seemed to have lost the thread of conversation in his thoughts.
Their next body was too disturbing: an old woman in mid-scream, entirely nude. She was clearly frightened and in some kind of physical trauma. Allison looked at her face and the image changed from the old woman to Megan slumped dead in her car seat. Allison’s unnecessary breathing became more labored. She knelt down to pick up the body’s legs on Christoph’s prompt and heard Megan’s voice in her thoughts, You say it funny. The psychosomatic heavy breathing worsened. She needed to distract herself from thinking about Megan.
“Do you speak any German?” Christoph asked for no apparent reason, his head cocked to the side as he looked at her. She shook her head. “French? Or Spanish?”
“Yeah, man. I loved French. Spanish didn’t work for me though,” she explained to Christoph. She pressed herself to further the language discussion with Christoph, but the image of Megan reappeared. She needed something, anything to break the cycle of distraction, remembrance and pain.
As they lifted the body of the traumatized old woman, underneath was Allison’s temporary salvation, another concentration camp body.
Allison called him CC, short for concentration camp. To keep thoughts of Megan at bay, Allison sang to him softly. “Come on CC/We gots to hide you from the Nazi.” Once he sat against the wall, the others went to gather more bodies to place on top, and Allison was left alone with him. The process of moving him left his shirt askew with a peek of sad brown chest hair showing. “CC, you’re all untidy.” Allison grasped his neck, leaning him forward to straighten the shirt’s back. As she leaned him back against the wall, she accidentally looked in his eyes. His face was inches from hers, an uncomfortably intimate proximity. He looked shocked, gaunt and beaten down. It occurred to her that some of the bodies were nude, he was not. Perhaps this was how he looked when he died. He died in this uniform. “Someone murdered you.” It was an obvious statement, but she regretted it as soon as she said it; it brought back the image of Megan slumped in the car seat.
Allison backed away from CC, struggling to breathe. As Marcus and Alex walked by carrying a body, Marcus said, “You don’t need to breathe,” in a slightly annoyed tone. The near hyperventilation stopped immediately. Instead, Allison was flooded with images of the accident, her sister, and her own broken body. Overwhelmed and unable to do anything else, Allison kept backing away. She started crying, but no tears released from her eyes. In the middle of the Pit, Allison fell to the ground.
Someone came and sat next to her. At first she assumed, for no reason she could articulate, that it was Christoph. Then she heard the voice. “Are you well?” It could have been her father’s, that baritone voice with the English accent. She turned and found Sid had come to her rescue. She shook her head. She was not well. Looking at Sid, she noticed for the first time that despite racial differences, he could’ve been a double for Ben Yates: six feet tall with a slender body that looked like it would sway with the breeze.
He enveloped her in his arms without another question. Being rocked with her head against his shirt felt good—natural. The unsuccessful crying stopped and she relaxed a little. “When I am upset. I read an old book,” he explained. “Something I’ve read before and know well. My therapist says it’s almost an addiction in and of itself, but this one I was allowed to keep since I don’t hurt anyone doing it. There are some books I know so well I could recite them from memory.”
Allison finally found her voice. “Tell me one,” she asked.
“Hmmm…let’s see. Something about finding ourselves in this place makes me want to go with Alice in Wonderland. Do you know it?”
She’d never read it.
“Well, then. It begins, ‘Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do.’”
After a few chapters, Allison was calm but shattered. It was as though she’d survived some physically draining experience like running a marathon or giving birth. Sid led her back to the others, who sat in a circle. Sid immediately dubbed this the ‘sharing circle.’ Allison took her place between Sid and Christoph.
“What do I do with it?” Alex asked the group at large. He held his own severed index finger out for Sid to see. His right hand had a jagged stub where it should’ve been. “It happened when we were moving bodies.”
“Well, I have a really dirty thought,” Sid began, “If your pants were feeling empty.”
“I’d like to derail that train of thought, right now,” Nadia interjected. The men were back to giggling about missing penis issues.
“Because…I don’t know why but that idea is very pervy.”
“I can’t just put it on the ground right?” Alex reasoned out loud. “Because people will just step on it.”
“It’s not as though you can reattach it,” Christoph pointed out.
“Put it in your pocket,” Allison suggested.
“Like saving it for a rainy day?” Alex asked.
“Or an extra finger kind of a day?” Allison shrugged as she suggested it. Christoph laughed. Allison turned to look at him. The firelight behind him gave his whole face a glow. He looked luminous, which was weird. Shouldn’t he just look like some old professor friend of her father’s? She turned away, shaking her head.
“Ok, we need a new plan,” Alex announced.
“Yes!” Marcus exclaimed.
“Oh, you have an idea?” Alex asked.
“No, I was hoping you did,” Marcus answered. More laughter. Unconsciously, Allison turned to look at Christoph again. God he looked good. He looked warm and inviting and alive. His beard looked like it needed touching. Her hand traveled slowly toward its goal.
“What are you doing?” Christoph asked. Everyone else turned to look.
“Sorry.” Allison snapped out of her daze for a moment, realizing how odd trying to touch his beard looked from the outside. “Just losing my mind.”
“Ok,” Alex transitioned, drawing everyone back to his big plan.
Allison hadn’t listened, it sounded like they were going to talk to someone.
Once the others were distracted, Christoph whispered to her. “What were you doing?”
“I wanted to touch your beard.” Try as she might, she couldn’t revive herself. But this state of mental exhaustion didn’t involve images of her dead sister, so she had good reason not to fight her way out of it.
“Fine.” He shrugged. “Touch my beard.”
She reached up and stroked his cheek. It was as comforting as she’d imagined it would be. She let out a little hum. He removed her hand.
“Better?” he asked. This time it was her turn to shrug.
“Are you well?” he asked, still holding on to her wrist.
She looked at him, intending to answer the question, but he was so close, their position was so natural, and the firelight made him look so inviting. She felt that kissing him was the natural next thing to do. It would be restorative. She didn’t bother asking herself why she believed a kiss from Christoph would revive her, she just blurted out, “I want to kiss you.”
This made him drop her wrist and roll his eyes. “You’re teasing me.”
“I’m not.” Though she hadn’t stopped to consider what his reaction to her statement would be, she had no counter to disbelief. She sat there with her hands in her lap, looking down.
“Don’t look so dejected,” he whispered.
“I don’t mean to,” she whispered back.
“Do you have…. What is the American for this? Daddy issues?” he asked.
“In your case it would be granddaddy issues,” she shot back.
“Excuse me. I am not old enough to be your grandfather,” he whispered, clearly offended.
She did the math. “Just barely. You have 38 years on me. So if my mother had me when she was 19, and she did, and she was born to you when you were 19…”
“Your mother was 19 when you were born?” Christoph finally sounded judgmental.
“Yes, I was a surprise—the surprise that caused my parents to marry.” She left it at that for a moment. Trying to focus on what Alex was saying, instead she leaned closer to Christoph. Her arm touched his and they both leapt away.
The others looked up again. Allison and Christoph tried to look normal. When that failed, they tried not to look noteworthy.
“I can’t kiss you,” Christoph whispered, once the others’ attention was back on Alex. “It’s too odd. And the others would judge.”
Allison tsked. Considering his opinion on pregnant 19 year olds, he would be on the lookout for the judgment of others. Then the thing he hadn’t said occurred to her. “You didn’t say you didn’t want to.” Why did she want to kiss him? She seemed to be waking up to her full mental capacity. Her full mental capacity thought the mentally exhausted part of her was insane. Still, shouldn’t he want to kiss her? She was the firm young thing.
He frowned. “There’s no point.”
“Good deflection professor. Now try again.”
There was a long pause during which she stared at him and he engaged in an internal debate. Finally he hissed. “I thought it when I saw you.”
“You wanted to kiss me?”
He answered with a tense, “Yes.”
If she couldn’t understand this, maybe he did. “Why?”
“I don’t know.” He made the mistake of turning to look at her. Their eyes met; he responded by looking away.
“What is going on?” she demanded, still whispering. Christoph offered a hostile shrug in response.
They realized they were being stared at.
“What is happening on that side of the circle?” Alex demanded.
“I wish I knew,” Allison answered, throwing her hands up.
“Allison and I require a moment alone,” Christoph said in his most dignified, professor-ish tone.
“The Hell you do,” Sid responded.
“You were alone with her,” Marcus observed.
“That’s entirely different,” Sid laughed.
“How?” Marcus asked.
“First, he’s not going to read her Alice in Wonderland…” Sid began.
“You don’t know I won’t. You’re not the only one with books memorized,” Christoph interrupted.
“Oh, really? And what do you have memorized?” Sid demanded.
“The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich?” Christoph said it like a question—because who would want to hear a recitation of that.
“Excuse me,” Allison announced. “I would like a moment alone with Christoph.”
Naturally she didn’t get what she wanted. Instead the group split them up. She got Marcus, which was a relief because Christoph would receive a talking to from the rest of the group. As she and Marcus wandered through the middle of the Pit, she couldn’t help but look over her shoulder at the others. The adults surrounded Christoph as he stood with his back against the wall and his arms crossed over his chest. They were too far away to hear exactly what was being said, but at one point she swore Sid had yelled something about ‘giving her sweets and getting in his van.’
“They’re coming down on him pretty hard,” she observed.
“What was going on between the two of you? Did you know each other on Earth?” Marcus asked.
“We met once, a few years ago. I barely remember. Mostly I can’t stop thinking about the accident,” Allison explained.
“Where did you meet?” Marcus pressed.
“In London. Where he and my father taught,” Allison answered.
Across the Pit, Christoph and Sid were arguing, with Nadia standing between them as referee.
“And the accident happened in…?”
She was distracted by the argument she hadn’t been invited to and began answering on autopilot. “L.A.”
“You were born in…?”
“New Jersey.” Across the Pit, Sid bore down on Christoph. Allison felt afraid for him.
“You father was born in…?“
“London,” Alex intervened, standing between the two men, facing Sid.
“You were headed to…”
“London,” Alex spoke to Sid calmly as he shot aggressive glances around Alex at Christoph.
“Your mother was born in…?”
“Flint, Michigan.” Marcus and his questions could’ve been on the moon for all she cared. Christoph stood, arms crossed over his chest, looking defiant and, inexplicably, appealing.
“You met Christoph in…?”
“Berlin.” She finally snapped back into the present moment. “No. We met in London.”
Marcus smiled. “Did you think that because Christoph was born there?”
She laughed. “Christoph was born in Frankfurt.” Wait, how did she know that?
“Are you sure?”
She was positive. But she didn’t know where the information came from. Looking at Marcus, she sensed that he knew what was going on. How could he when she didn’t know what she was thinking and saying?
“You should try to remember your life a little more clearly,” Marcus pressed.
She looked at him like he was nuts. “I remember my life, man.”
“Still. Try to dig deeper. You never know what you might find.” Marcus looked older all the sudden, almost wise. “The argument should be winding down by now. I’ll send Christoph over here so you two can talk.”
The last word came out like a euphemism. Allison had no idea why.
“We need to get this ‘sorted,’ as Nadia has explained to me repeatedly.” Christoph leaned against the wall, hovering over her position on the first step.
“You think I’m into you now, don’t you?” she asked with a groan.
“Well obviously you are,” Christoph answered, dismissively.
The way he said it was so fucking annoying. “Set ego aside professor, you are extremely resistible. I was in a weird daze, being upset and all. Now I’m fine.”
“You don’t want to kiss me anymore?” It sounded like a challenge.
“Embarrassment cured me of that impulse. Thank God,” Allison spat back.
“Don’t do this. We need to talk; stop with the evasion,” Christoph ordered.
“Your ego, man. You’re pretty bold for someone short,” she answered.
“You’re barely 5 feet tall,” se teased.
“I am 5’2.” How did she get on the defense so fast? “Look, the only thing we have in common is that we both love London, which is not really—”
“I don’t love it there. I lived there but I had no intention of dying there.”
“Where did you go?”
“For what, hookers and weed?” she mocked.
“I don’t need hookers.” He pronounced the last word with disgust.
“You’re kind of a snot, you know that.”
He sat on the ground in front of her. “Fuck you, I’m adorable.”
This time she saw him in almost no light. For some reason, the lines on his face were less pronounced. For a moment, he looked like he could’ve been college age. She noticed for the first time that his chin jutted out and to the right. “You are, aren’t you?” she said on autopilot. Then she grabbed his chin. “With this crooked little chin.”
He grabbed her wrist, looking at her as though she’d said something way over the line. “Why did you say that?” he demanded.
“Christoph let go of me,” she asked.
“No, why did you say that and grab me?”
“You’re cracking my wrist, let go.” She wrenched her wrist out of his grasp. “It just popped in to my head. I don’t know why.”
He looked her over like he was reading a sign in a foreign language.
“When were you born?”
“January 28, 1994.”
Apparently the time for staring had stopped, and now he needed to look away and count under his breath.
“Why does it matter when I was born?” she demanded.
“You were born 10 months after my wife died,” he said, almost to himself.
“You were married?” she asked, wondering about the odd segue.
“You felt familiar when I met you before,” he explained.
“You didn’t.” She shrugged.
“It made me uncomfortable,” he confessed.
She looked at this little ball of man, sitting there hugging his knees, looking confused. “Sometimes I look at you,” how to explain this? “You look younger. Or there are fewer lines.” The image of him younger came to her in pieces. She could see his unlined eyes and crooked chin but not his ears. “It feels like you should have longer hair. In a ponytail.” Hair falling over his eyes when he bent forward made sense.
“I had longer hair in college.”
“Were you born in Frankfurt?” she asked.
“Yes.” The expression on his face implied that he wanted to cry out of shock. “I think I understand what’s going on.”
“Please tell me. I’m tired of being confused.”
“I think you might be the reincarnation of my dead wife.”