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.
IN ORDER TO TAKE THE POWER of out of shameful thought, sometimes it is necessary to say the thing out loud. “I think I deserved to die,” Nadia explained.
“Why is that?” Sid answered devoid of judgment.
“Failure. Multiple rounds of it,” Nadia answered.
They walked along the worn path with Alex’s Tribe following behind them in rows of three or four. The soldiers, with Fox as their leader, insisted on patrolling the edges of the group. Almost everyone except Sid, Nadia and the soldiers were supporting or carrying an injured tribe member.
“Ah, failure is my old friend for I am an addict,” Sid sighed. “Sometimes I think that is why I’m here.”
Nadia hadn’t thought to link her feelings over her life’s value (or lack thereof) to her confinement in Hell. “That can’t be it alone,” She whispered, almost to herself.
They walked a few more feet in silence. Fox walked from out of the darkness into their sight, crossed in front of Reggie and Sun who were directly behind Sid and then walked away on the far side of the group. This route was Fox’s new group patrol. Nadia didn’t understand what it was meant to accomplish, but she’d never kept 120 people safe, so she stepped aside and let him do it.
“Don’t we all fail?” Nadia offered. “On some level? Sometimes I think that’s part of being an adult. It’s defined my adulthood anyway.”
For a moment she wondered if she’d gone too far in starting this conversation with Sid. He didn’t respond for too long; instead, he looked at the ground as he walked, clearly thinking.
“There was an incident with my daughter. And I was wasted, of course. But I can’t take that back. I can’t make it better.” His voice betrayed tears he couldn’t cry in his new body. “That’s why I think I’m here.”
His statement brought up something Nadia hadn’t really thought about since Alex was destroyed. “We were asking ourselves that once, before we lost Alex. Then we stopped,” she thought out loud.
“Because Alex drove us in that direction,” Sid pointed out. “After that, Marcus took the wheel.”
Nadia realized something. “And there was no discussion of why we are here at all. It evaporated.”
Sid leaned nearer to her to whisper, “like he’d planned.”
“Do you think…” she began and then faltered, “he knew the battles were coming?”
“He knows where danger is in the Pit, I’ll give him that,” Sid offered. “I’d hazard a bet, that mother fucker walked the two of you into that fight. First to destroy Alex and second to scare you.”
“He didn’t want me there,” Nadia answered. “He just wanted to end Alex—to stop Alex’s ideas, his way of thinking—”
“His questions,” Sid interrupted. “The question of why we are here.”
“If that’s what he doesn’t want us to see,” Nadia concluded, “then that’s what we need to ask the Nazi.”
Yi Soo nodded to Fox as he walked by her for the fourth time. The Korean woman stood at the back of the group, half carrying an African woman who spoke little English. Yi Soo entertained her companion, who’s name she didn’t know, by teaching her English words for things.
The woman pointed to Pit Mountain. “Mountain,” Yi Soo answered.
Her own English was developed over years in school, of course, but also from her first two years of college in New York City. After a nasty incident when someone broke into her apartment and attacked her roommate, she felt the need to return to her hometown of Seoul, South Korea.
The day she died, she’d taken Kwang Soo, her son, into the heart of Seoul via the commuter train. Their plan was to buy cleats for Kwang Soo’s orthopedic shoes and then have lunch with her husband near his law firm. The whole thing was a massive compromise. She wanted Kwang Soo to play soccer. It was a sport she enjoyed when she was eight years old. It was safer because no one would be throwing bats around. And he wouldn’t require any special equipment despite having a slightly malformed right foot because he already had special tennis shoes for that foot. Kwang Soo wanted baseball. It had to be baseball, nothing else would do. After going around and around with the boy for a month, Yi Soo’s husband, Jong Kook, intervened. He knew her objection was impractical no matter how many practical excuses she threw on top of it. She had an aversion to the sport despite the fact that she’d gone to NYU on a softball scholarship. Finally she was honest with herself and her spouse. She hated the sound of baseballs hitting bats. It made her sweat with a racing heart and a panicked brain. Somehow, for her, the sound was the same as the bat hitting a skull.
Jong Kook chose his moment to stage this conversation well. Yi Soo was at her most honest in bed, with the lights off and the house still. Their marital bed was a sanctuary for her that Jong Kook fought hard to maintain. The boy wasn’t allowed in their bedroom, ever. They rarely discussed minutia of running the household there. There was no TV in that room or radio. They tried not to argue in that room. And after consulting a psychiatrist, Jong Kook instituted the rule that anything that was said in bed had to be accepted free of judgment. It was there that Yi Soo admitted she couldn’t stand the idea of attending her son’s games and hearing the bat hit the ball over and over.
The next morning, Jong Kook offered the solution. Maybe Yi Soo didn’t need to attend all the games. She countered that this would cause their fellow parents to talk.
“Let them,” Jong Kook shrugged. “They always do—they always have,” he explained, referencing her notoriety.
As she walked with the unnamed African, Do Jin and Woo Bin walked in front of her. These three Koreans died together when the commuter train derailed. Now Do Jin was missing his left foot and needed Woo Bin’s help to walk. Every few minutes or so, one of them would glance back at her.
“Kim Yi Soo ssi?” Do Jin would call out using the formal form of her name.
“I’m still here,” she responded in Korean. “I’m fine.” Do Jin nodded and continued his labored struggle forward.
While on the train, she suspected that Do Jin recognized her. When she chose her and Kwang Soo’s seat, she noticed him because he was handsome; she might be married, but she was still human. His seat was two rows up and across the aisle from hers. As she arranged crayons on Kwang Soo’s tray, she saw the smallest flick of his head from her direction to the front of the train. Then he turned to his companion, whispering something. In turn, his companion peeked over the seat in her direction—all signs that added up to her notoriety following her even ten years after her name had left the papers in Seoul.
The African woman pointed to something sticking out of Yi Soo’s pocket, asking for the word in English. Yi Soo looked down to see Kwang Soo’s blue crayon sticking out of her pants pocket. Overwhelmed, she stopped walking and bent over. A small sob escaped, with no tears to wash it away.
The great question of death for Kim Yi Soo was not why Hell and not Heaven. Or why her Buddhist teachings hadn’t predicted the place she now walked through. The question that gnawed at her and left her constantly searching was what happened to Kwang Soo? What happened to her son?
As the train smashed into something unseen, Yi Soo was thrown forward. As it came off its tracks, she was thrown sideways, hitting her head on the side of the train hard enough to cause her death. When the car she rode started to slide on its side, Yi Soo was stuck in her dead, motionless body. She could see Kwang Soo, small and crumpled, across his seat. She desperately wanted to reach out to him, to touch him and check if he was harmed. Instead, the ripple of air came, forcing her out of her body and sending her to this new world.
Fox came by again, did his round and was gone. What was he expecting to happen, Yi Soo wondered? It seemed like most of them were in danger of literally falling apart but they hadn’t seen other people. And unknowingly she agreed with Marcus; people were the real danger in most places.
“Crayon.” Yi Soo stopped walking and took the thing out of her pocket. “Blue.” Looking down on it, she wondered which part to point at to indicate the color and not the thing itself.
The image she saw when she looked up would be burned into her thoughts for some time afterward. The African woman’s eyes were wide. A hand was over her mouth. With a swift motion, she disappeared backward into the darkness. It all took less than a second. She was gone. Someone had grabbed her and dragged her away.
In response, Yi Soo did the only thing that made sense. She screamed.
Before the scream, Sid and Nadia were still deep in conversation.
“He saw it.” Nadia whispered to her companion. “Whatever you’ve got in your waistband.”
Sid answered her conspiratorial tone by raising his shirt just enough for her to see the object in question. “It’s a gun.”
“What good is that?” Nadia laughed.
“Exactly. That woman of his, Regan, she found it and treated it as if it were hugely important. She said it was worth more to Marcus than her existence.”
“She’s fairly histrionic,” Nadia dismissed. “It could be hyperbole.”
“She brought us all those weapons,” Sid concluded. “This is the only one she intended to keep and hand over to Marcus. It’s important.”
“Then perhaps we won’t show this one to the Nazi,” Nadia suggested. “We have the body to trade for information as it is.”
They were interrupted by Yi Soo’s scream.
“I was just here,” Fox yelled. His men had already run into the darkness looking for the African woman and her captor. They came back empty handed and no wiser on what was going on.
“Why would anyone do that?” Sid asked.
Alex’s Tribe stopped as soon as Yi Soo screamed. Sid and Nadia ran from the front to get Yi Soo’s explanation of what happened. Now they wanted to know why.
Fox, for his part, seemed less surprised and more inclined to blame himself. Nadia was too confused by the new development to notice anything odd in that.
“You stay with us,” Do Jin whispered to Yi Soo.
“I can take care of myself,” Yi Soo answered. She was rattled, but the overprotective older Korean brother thing Do Jin was doing bothered her. “As you well know.”
Do Jin looked insulted for a beat and then he thought of something. “You have no baseball bat.”
It was a solid argument, and she had no retort, so she said a word that wasn’t a word. “Hull,” she groaned. ‘Hull’ is most often used by teenagers when they feel burdened by routine requests from their elders.
Do Jin laughed and shook his head. It was the closest he would come to an accent for his over-protection.
At that moment, someone else screamed. Fox and Sid rushed to the source. When they returned, Sid only offered one thought.
“We need to do another count,” he informed Nadia and walked off.
Nadia looked stunned. “Who would do this?” she asked herself.
“The Nazi or Marcus,” Yi Soo answered. They were the only two options because they were the only potential threats anyone knew of.
“But why?” Nadia reasoned. “The Nazi might want…bodies or something. But he ran when we confronted him in the Pit. Why would he sneak up on us now?”
“Marcus doesn’t want us to meet with him,” Yi Soo reasoned.
“But why take people?” She thought about it more and came up with nothing. “I don’t understand.”
Sid returned. “We’re down by 10 people,” he informed them.
Nadia was flabbergasted. “How did we lose 10 people in the last hour?”