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.
ALLISON WASN’T RUNNING anywhere, at least for the moment. But she also wasn’t talking. Instead she sat in front of him, knees in front of her, face in her hands.
“Please tell me something,” Christoph begged. “I need to know what’s happening to you.”
“What’s happening….” She removed her hands to address him and then groaned and put them back over her face. “I can’t talk.” She moaned from under her hands.
“Please,” He reached for her wrists to pull them from her face, “why can’t you talk?”
Under her hands, her eyes were shut tight and she was shaking.
“I can’t talk because I don’t have enough concentration left to string words into a sentence,” she burst out. “All this stuff is downloading into my head all at once. And nothing is clear.” Her words came out fast, as if she’d inadvertently realized she no longer needed to draw breath. “I remember the smell of your beer on that first date. And something about leather pants that you hated and I wore later on. And my mother crying and I don’t know how to comfort her. And how much I hated the point shoes she always bought me. Except I don’t have a problem with ballet. And the smell of the canal in Amsterdam, and I feel sick. But it was a nice smell. Except I’ve never been to Amsterdam. And the feeling of you on top of me, except I’ve never had sex. And sitting next to a warm fire and Christmas, but I’m mad at some shrew in the room named Heida and worried about someone named Margo or something like Margo, but I don’t know those people or who they are. And of being so angry at you that I would sleep with every professor at that college, except what the hell would that even be? Or mean? Or how could I be someone who does that? And I can’t think about any one of these things or try to analyze them because they are all on top of one another and I think my head might explode.”
Allison panted and shook. Her hands lay flat on the hard grit-covered ground, gripping it as if it would help with the onslaught. She looked like a drunk trying desperately to keep the room from spinning.
“We can do this,” Christoph began.
His wife/child companion shook her head violently. “I can’t… there’ve been 50 images in the last minute… I just….”
Gripping her shoulders, he bade her to look at him. “We handle one thing, one image, at a time. We figure out what it is, we move on to the next one.”
“We can’t—there’s too much…” she cried.
“We have eternity, Sabin—” Before he finished her name, she looked up at him. The cold eyes had returned. “What do you want me to call you?”
“Allison.” She pronounced each syllable through a tense jaw.
“Allison, my love. We have eternity to go over every image and understand it and move on to the next. Surely that is enough time.”
“I want to lay down.” Allison groaned as she did just that.
“First,” he sounded triumphant even in his own ear, “I want you to do something for me.”
“Dammit. No quid pro quo.” She stuck her finger at him. “Help or fuck off.”
Undeterred, Christoph couldn’t help but giggle. “Where does a California girl learn Latin?”
“At her private school in London. I’m really English.”
Then off his reaction, she added, “Don’t roll your eyes at me. My father is English. Ergo, I am English as well.”
“So American,” he teased, “deciding you can reinvent yourself as some other thing that you have no resemblance to and no invitation from.”
“Better than being German—” She interrupted herself as she realized something. “Am I German? Or Sabine? No, I’m not.”
“No, you are Austrian.”
“Sabine,” she emphasized her former name, “is Austrian.”
“You can make that mistake, but I can’t,” he countered.
“Damn straight,” she answered.
“Fine.” He couldn’t hide his mirth even thought it would provoke suspicion from her. “Can you tell me one more thing?”
“What?” she groaned.
“What language do think you are speaking?”
“What language have you been speaking since your rant a few minutes ago?” The entire conversation, from the removal of her hands from her face to that point was in German. “Just say whatever you are thinking. I am sure I will understand.”
Allison looked stunned. “Sohn von einem Weibchen!” In English, “Son of a bitch!”
They went over the disjointed images that paraded through her thoughts. First he walked her through that first day they met. His objective in entering the dance studio was to meet up with Heida and take her to dinner. As soon as he said, ‘dance studio,’ Allison saw the place in her mind. She described for him what he looked like to her, all cute and entirely full of himself with Heida in the background, arms crossed, clearly angry.
“What did she end up doing?” Allison mused.
“She left in a huff to have dinner with some of her classmates,” Christoph explained. “Later, she said I should have thanked her for that.”
“You probably should have. She isn’t the Schmidt family’s best ambassador,” Allison responded. “You say Heida and I feel love but in an odd way. Kind of like,” Allison let out a disgusted sigh to express the emotion, “I have to love Heida; she’s family and it’s not her fault she’s a pain in the ass.”
“Funny, that’s how I feel about Heida,” Christoph added.
Thinking about the dance class sent Allison to an image of her own feet sticking out of white sheets at the end of the bed. It took them twenty minutes to work out the vague memory. She knew what she smelled: lavender. She knew he was sleeping next to her; she knew they were in a hotel and she felt relieved. Questions about the hotel led them nowhere; he didn’t remember enough detail about any hotel they’d stayed in to be able to help. The smell turned out to be her perfume from the nightstand. She took that everywhere with her for years, so that didn’t place the memory. With no other option, they tried to figure out why she felt relieved in the memory.
“It’s a specific feeling.” Allison rambled her way through the description as ideas came to her with Christoph listening intently. “Not like something good happened and I’m happy about the good thing. It’s like I feel normal—that’s it. I expect to feel bad, but I woke up feeling normal, and that’s a relief. And it’s been a while. I hadn’t been normal in a while. I keep thinking there is no pain. But I expected there to be. And I think I feel rested. I think I’m remembering waking up and feeling rested and maybe healthy. Maybe after I was ill?”
This helped Christoph place the memory. “You had cancer. It could be from that time.”
“Were we traveling?”
Christoph sighed. “It was a long period: three years at the end of your life. When you were diagnosed, we were in Switzerland. Obviously we went to see your family and mine in Vienna and Frankfurt.”
“We wouldn’t have been in a hotel in Frankfurt or Vienna,” she pointed out.
Christoph thought harder. “You wanted to hike. You had this vision that you would do your chemotherapy and hike the Ruinaulta in the same day.”
“We were in a hotel then?” She shook her head. “Wouldn’t that be a mountain lodge? That would be too quiet.”
“You remember noise?”
“City noise, cars, people,” she thought out loud.
He was hoping it wasn’t the memory he’d first thought of. “You died in Amsterdam. We were in a hotel then.” He couldn’t stop himself from sounding sad.
“I think that’s it,” she realized. “I think that was the last day I felt well. I wanted to wake you up and tell you. That’s not what happened though. Instead of saying something—”
“You woke me up and we made love.” Christoph finished it off for her.
She examined him closely.
“What are thinking?” He had to ask, Allison was still harder to read than Sabine.
“You look 55,” she admitted.
Looking at her, she looked odd now. Like the oldest 17 year old in the universe.
“I know who I am,” Allison explained, off his examination of her. “It is fixed in my mind. But there are all these memories and emotions from another place, when I was someone else, I guess. When I was Sabine. I don’t know if….” She looked him over again. “I don’t think I can ever be her. For you. I’m sorry. I hate to see you in pain because for some reason, you in pain means me in pain.”
“We are connected,” he offered. “But you are Allison.”
“It’s like I have things that are hers and I don’t want to get rid of them. Or I don’t want to lose them,” Allison tried to explain. “These memories and feelings, maybe they just came with this recycled soul.”
It finally came together for him. “Sabine is your past.”
“You aren’t her.” Emotion threatened to overwhelm him in front of the woman who was not his wife. It occurred to him that he’d expected a version of Sabine to be dormant under Allison—as if she could be preserved in the universe as she was preserved in his memories, still 37. Still in love with him. Still wanting to live their life. But that was 18 years earlier. In the time since, “You moved on without me.”
“I guess,” Allison shrugged. “Please don’t look so sad.”
“I have no more control over that than you do of your memories. Or what they mean.”
“Why does it work this way?” Allison asked, half rhetorically, half honestly. “And why does it bother me so much, the way you look. Why do I hate that?”
“Hate is one side of a two-sided coin,” Christoph pointed out.
“And the other side is what?” He could tell Allison knew the answer. “Could it be that I love you?” The way she said it was so self-protective. Like she was just putting it out there and not risking rejection.
“I love you regardless of who you’ve become,” Christoph, the braver of the two, admitted.
For this admission, he received a long look full of confusion, fear and some other emotion she might not be able to admit.
“What would that mean?” she pressed, still a coward. “If it were like that—if something…was preserved.”
Smiling, he assured her, “I honestly don’t know. But I think we decide that between us. There is no society in this place to impose upon us what we are to one another. No church to give us rules of behavior. No mothers or sister to ask us, ‘Where is this thing going?’ Here, love means what we say it means.”
Wide eyed, she said nothing.
“What you need, I will be,” Christoph added. “I’m flexible that way.”
Her response to his offer of a massive emotional black check? “That’s sounds…like…really one sided.” She hugged her knees, pursed her lips and waited for his reaction.
For his part, Christoph shrugged. “What have I got to lose?”
Suddenly interested in something on the ground, Allison weaved her finger through the grit and mumbled, “Ok. I kind of love you.”
Her admission passed with little reflection. Christoph felt it was best, given her level of maturity, to downshift back to small talk. The loosening of her body and general relaxation of her voice implied to him that he’d been right.
“Mama would’ve been thrilled,” she explained, using Sabine’s term for her mother. “I got a 97 on my AP French final.”
Christoph laughed. “If only Sabine could’ve learned French the way Allison just learned German.”
“Everyone should learn languages with a big download into their head. That’s awesome—totally worth any headache it might cause on Earth.”
He felt so at home for a moment. It didn’t matter if Sabine had moved on and become Allison. He knew her beginning. The rest was time they needed to catch up on. And they had nothing but time.
“Years ago, I wished I could teach my students certain aspects of history that way. The Versailles treaty in particular is so necessary but such drudgery….”
He trailed off as she raised her head, looking confused.
“Something you said makes me angry,” she admitted. But she didn’t look angry. “Something in that sentence, it just came up all the sudden.”
It happened too fast for him to contextualize. “I have no notion…” he began.
“No, I know the words,” she interrupted. “It’s students.”
Oh, no. Not that, he thought to himself.
“You and students makes me angry,” she reasoned out loud.
All her other memories came in a non-linear order. He dreaded the memory of this conflict, the one that nearly ended their marriage, arriving before the resolution.
“Allison, let me explain.”
“You cheated on me.” Allison looked stunned. She had, of course, never been cheated on. The idea of someone she loved harming her in this way could wound her more deeply than someone who’d learned to protect themselves emotionally. “You slept with one of your students.”
“It was years ago. My mother died and I….” He looked down for a second—just long enough for her to react. When he looked up, he saw her back as she fled the confrontation.