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.
FOR A DAY, HEINRICH SAT NEAR the fire, curled into a ball, anticipating some kind of attack. When Deborah left him after her declaration that he was ready, she promised to return with help. Naturally, he told himself the idea that Deborah would attack him was absurd. She never attacked him despite almost constant opportunities. He’d have let her a dozen times in the last year and had almost wanted her to several times. There would be some justice in her attacking him, after all he’d done. The camp system was built on Heinrich’s organization of Dachau. He trained Otto Mueller, his friend, her executioner of sorts. Heinrich could draw a line of fault from his place at Dachau to her death in the gas chamber at Auschwitz. But any suggestion of the kind was met with a swift rebuke from Deborah. There would be no violence between them. The mere idea was inappropriate. After all, “That is not what you and I are to one another,” she told him. “We cannot be friends and hold grudges. Otto and his guards are my murderers. Someday I will deal with him and them. Today, I am with my friend who has done me no harm.”
That answer somehow made Heinrich feel worse.
Still the hours passed. Heinrich stared at the fire and wondered who she would bring back. She’d never introduced him to anyone. Clearly, her family was at the Gate; she spoke of them in the present tense. There was someone, a man called Misha, down the road she visited with often. Heinrich got the impression that her relationship with Misha was similar to her relationship with Heinrich. Misha, according to Deborah, was once the captain of a slave ship. He’d been lost in the desert, literally, when Deborah found him while touring the outer gates of The Camp. For decades past his death, he’d wandered in the City and then the Desert, only avoiding destruction because he was so listless, potential attackers assumed he posed no threat. Small pangs of jealousy erupted when Heinrich realized Deborah was leaving him to spend time with Misha. When he asked her about it, in a manner he thought sounded nonchalant, she told him Misha need a friend as Heinrich needed a friend. The man had trouble with continued existence because how little he felt he deserved it, given his crimes on earth.
So far as Heinrich knew, Deborah’s only companions were himself, Misha and her family, but who could know? What did she do when she was at the Gate? Heinrich tried to imagine her drinking and laughing at a wild party. It didn’t work. Maybe it was the handful of years she had on him or his tendency to revere her, but the image of her and a crazy, drinking party just didn’t make sense. What could she be up to?
She’d told him he was ready. Ready for what? The strongest theory he had on her whole participation in his afterlife was that she intended to change him, though he didn’t really know in what way she was changing him. For the better, certainly. Any direction toward her was better than who’d he’d been.
Sometimes he wished he could go back into his life again and this time do one thing right. He wished he could call Otto and have her pulled from the train as soon as she arrived at Auschwitz. That would prevent so much unpleasantness for her. If he could reverse the world and intervene at the right moment, he could’ve saved her so much pain. Better yet, if he’d plucked her out of the ghetto before they shoved her on the train, then that would sidestep the possibility of her dying on the journey to The Camp. It was, he realized, a child’s game to wish away the bad things that happened to people he cared about. Wishing would not fix what had already occurred.
At the end of a question-filled torturous 24 hours, Heinrich heard soft footsteps approach down the worn path. His first thought was that Rolf finally sent another attacker. The timing couldn’t be worse. Deborah would arrive at any minute. This person could be a threat to her, which was unacceptable. Even if the attacker didn’t know Deborah would be there, he was probably coming for Heinrich, and that was almost as bad. What would Deborah think if she returned from the Gate to find Heinrich smashing someone’s head against a boulder?
Hiding in the fireside area, Heinrich tried to glimpse the attacker before the attacker could see him. The man was small, in his forties with a brown and grey beard and warm blue eyes. His clothes placed him out of time by a century. He wore his shirt open, and it had a ruffle line on either side of the ignored buttons. Presumably it was once white but was now a dirty grey. His trousers were a deliberate grey, drawing a straight line down to his pointed, dulled black shoes. Entering the clearing, the attacker hovered near the end of the worn path, staring up at the waterfall.
Based on the clothes and the manner of the man, Heinrich suspected he wasn’t an attacker after all. In fact it might be, “Misha?”
“Yes?” Misha jumped, having heard the voice but not seen who spoke.
Heinrich emerged from his hiding spot, approaching his friend’s friend cautiously.
“Are you Heinrich?” Misha asked in English, still looking skittish.
Heinrich affirmed his identity.
It seemed time for Misha to reveal his purpose for the visit. Something about him seemed shattered. Deborah told Heinrich Misha was responsible for horrible things. The slave ship Misha had captained treated the Africans like something less than human. In Heinrich’s thinking, Misha was a purveyor of an evil equal to the Nazis. But standing there, Misha looked confused and sad. He wrung his hands, realized he was doing it, and tried putting them in his pockets. He remained on the other side of the clearing, waiting for aggression that Heinrich wasn’t offering. In short, Misha looked more broken than evil.
“I’ve been waiting for Deborah for such a long time,” Misha finally explained. “She hasn’t been to visit and I wondered why.”
Heinrich knew why. Her last visit with Heinrich had been especially long, much to his delight. He didn’t really think about what it was like to be Misha, down the road, alone, waiting for his time with the only person in Hell who would talk to them both.
Instead of telling the truth, Heinrich made an excuse. “She went to the Gate. Something is ready; she says she has to prepare.”
“Oh, is she bringing others to speak with you?” Misha exclaimed.
Heinrich had no idea what that meant, possibly because of lack of necessary information or possibly because of the language barrier. He nodded to cover his ignorance.
“Oh.” It came out as a low groan. “It’s hard, but you can get through it.”
What was that about?
“For mine, she used people who were here. She found Africans who were willing…” Misha trailed off.
Why would Deborah bring Africans to speak with a slave ship captain?
“In a way it was a kindness.” Misha began to shake. “I see that now.”
Whatever Deborah had planned, it must have helped in the unraveling of the once towering figure.
“She suggested,” Misha rallied, “that I could help when you were finally ready.”
Wait, Deborah met Heinrich first. She met him the day she entered Hell for the very first time. A few years later she ran into Misha north of the Camp. How did Misha get ready for the transformation Deborah had in store for them both before Heinrich? That wasn’t fair. Heinrich spent more time with Deborah. He should have come first.
Still unaware of what was coming, Heinrich answered defiantly. “I am ready.”