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 THAT FIRST MEETING, DEBORAH kept the rest of the conversation light. After an hour of discussing big families and being the oldest versus being the youngest, she told him she wanted to explore Hell more. He stood as she did because that is what his mother taught him to do if a lady stands in his presence. In response, she smiled.
“Can I come see you again?” she asked.
Once again, he was stunned. Why would she want to see him? Why was she talking to him at all? But talking for an hour had enlivened him. He felt less morose. He wasn’t planning on openly objecting to her leaving but inside he was disappointed.
Unable to come up with a more articulate response, he simply nodded.
Deborah was true to her word. She returned the next day having walked to the Pit and back. Heinrich waited in the same spot, concerned that changing locations might put her off talking to him. The first time she’d walked up, he clutched his gun and sank into the darkness. This time he remembered his manners and stood as she approached.
Their conversation began with the Pit. Deborah admitted not being brave enough to enter the place, but she peered in from the top of the 12 o’clock stairs. The description she offered was The Pit, ready for the purge, full of fighting, screaming people. Then she saw the mushroom cloud, which Heinrich had never seen in life or in Hell.
“They told me about that up at The Gate,” she explained to him. “Apparently the Americans made this bomb and dropped it on two cities in Japan at the end of the war. I never expected to see it. And I don’t understand why it’s here.”
Gradually, talking the problem out, they arrived at the conclusion most of humanity would arrive at: the explosion in the Pit was a purge to clean the place out.
“Heinrich, why do you think you are here?” she asked, looking at him with pursed lips. It wasn’t an accusation. It came out as a curious and genuine question.
The answer felt obvious to him, even if he’d never said it out loud. “I kill people,” he declared. “But….” The rationalizations came to him: But Germany was betrayed and something needed to be done in response. But the prisoners needed to be controlled or the prison would become dangerous for everyone involved. But his superiors had plans and he had his orders. All of these excuses entered his thoughts. Looking at her made them all fly away. Her skin was pale with soft wrinkles falling around her eyes as they looked at him with curiosity and not judgment. Her brown eyes held a brightness in the center that made her look alive. Even the curve of her neck contained strained lines where veins should be. Somehow he couldn’t offer excuses to her. Instead he asked her a question he’d been thinking about for a while.
“Why are you kind to me?” he asked.
She answered honestly. “It’s an experiment.”
After two months of irregular but always promised and fulfilled visits, she began to teach him English. She’d done so for the children in her synagogue while on Earth. Without books or a blackboard, she could only offer conversational English, but she was determined, and he couldn’t stand to disappoint his only companion, so they muddled through.
He came to look forward to her visits. Sometimes she left him to explore Hell. This worried him more and more as the months wore on. What might happen to her out there? For the first time, he began to hope Rolf had succeeded in destroying the other Nazis. What would happen if she ran into them? He didn’t like to think about it. Sometimes he broached the subject with her. At one point he even suggested he come with her as her bodyguard. In response, she smiled and promised that she would be fine. Because she was non-violent, she explained to him, others were rarely violent with her. This statement hung between them for several minutes. To Heinrich, the manner of her death should have taught her how wrong she was. Still, he couldn’t bring himself to say that to her. Countering her beliefs might make her dislike him. That might make her stop visiting. And that was something Heinrich couldn’t face. Sometimes she left him to return to the Gate. Most of her family was up there. Heinrich resigned himself to these absences because at least up there she was safe.
After several years, they ended up in a discussion Heinrich should have seen coming.
“What did you mother teach you,” She asked, “about the Jews?”
Deborah asked about his mother so often; he didn’t see the question as odd.
“There are two answers,” he sighed. “Because my mother was two different people.”
They’d discussed this concept when talking about their respective childhoods often.
“Before the Great War and after the Great War?” she clarified.
“Yes. Before, it wasn’t mentioned. And I think there were Jews around us but we didn’t talk about it.”
“How did you know, then?”
It was a good question. Deborah often asked him good questions that he hadn’t thought to ask himself. “Because I knew they were different. Even though why they were different wasn’t said, I knew they were. And I remember my mother talking about this woman who lived near us. She talked about the way she did her hair, the way she disciplined her children because she never hit them and the way she dressed. Everything was scrutinized. Everything was an example of this woman being different, being deliberately different. But mostly she kept her distance.”
“And after the war?”
“Far worse.” He told her the story about the Night of Broken Glass. “Her reaction bothered me then and again just before I met you. She didn’t care. There was no softness to her when she talked about it. She was very hard.”
They sat on neighboring stones in front of the fire. The arm’s length between them dissolved in the first year. He meant her no harm. She offered respect and meant no harm in return.
With a moment of silence falling between them, Heinrich let himself ask her something that continued to be on his mind. “Why do you visit me? Why do talk to me? Why are you kind to me?”
She turned to face him with the warm light of the fire illuminating her, making her skin look alive.
“I want to know what happens if you and I become friends,” she explained.
For some reason, this truth was far more uncomfortable than not knowing.
“You shouldn’t want to be my friend,” he burst out.
“That’s my choice isn’t it?” She laughed.
“This is not funny,” he answered back. “I am…” how to describe his current opinion of himself? “Disgusting. You should judge me. You should hate me. Why do you talk to me? Why do you degrade yourself by being near me?”
“That’s my choice,” she reiterated. This time her tone was corrective.
Heinrich buried his head in his hands, crestfallen at her subtle rebuke. Finally, he whispered, “I hate me.”
“I know you do.” She said, rubbing his back. “You’re almost ready.”
“For what?” he demanded incredulously.
“You’ll see,” was the only answer he would get for another decade.
If Deborah’s plan for Heinrich involved him hating himself, then he would hate himself all the more. She wasn’t merely his only friend, she was his world. Whatever she wanted, he wanted to give her. Because she wanted him to speak English, he learned everything she taught him and practiced constantly during her absences. If she wanted to talk about his mother, he would volunteer the most intimate details of that relationship. He sat on the ground confessing the things his mother taught him to do when she needed to relieve her migraines. He’d never admitted that to Otto, though his friend heard rumors. Even Gerta, Heinrich’s wife, only knew parts of it. And if Deborah wanted details of the camp, Heinrich would allow his self-loathing to grow as he answered every question.
“You said you saw their faces, the men in the camp. Why do you think that is?” she asked him at the end of a week-long visit.
They’d found if they lay between the stones and the fire, their skin felt warm and tingly. The closer they came to the flames, the more they could feel detail. Heinrich could rub two fingers together while nearly touching the fire and feel the grooves of his fingerprints, a detail lost at any other time. With so few barriers left between them, Deborah now sat with Heinrich’s head in her lap, the two of them as close to the fire as they dared come.
“I don’t understand why,” Heinrich confessed. “I think about it now because you and I talk about it—because I think about you and what happened at Auschwitz.”
She’d explained the process of her death in detail, which broke Heinrich’s non-existent heart. She died under Otto’s leadership—the man Heinrich had trained, led and nurtured destroyed a woman he would come to need more than existence itself. Of course, he’d known what happened to the Jews taken there, but he thought of it in terms of moving frightened animals through a slaughter. Never once, until he met Deborah, did he narrow his vision down to that of a single person being put through the process he’d helped design.
“The question in my mind is, why was I thinking about it before you came?” he continued. “I see it all differently now.”
“Do you want to think about them?” Deborah asked. “Do you want to see their faces?”
Heinrich shut his eyes and softly shook his head in her lap. “I push it away. Now it bothers me.”
“There was someone I knew there,” Deborah mentioned it as a passing fact as she laid one hand on his chest and the other on the top of his head. “My brother.”
“What is his name?” Heinrich hoped she would offer one of a dozen answers. He wanted to hear the name of any of the men who fought him, even a little. Their executions were brutal, but wouldn’t it be better to tell the man’s sister that he died fighting? Also those were the only names he knew. Only the troublemakers stuck with him a decades after his death. Too many of them had been nothing to him. Maybe they were numbers but they were never names.
He should’ve known. Of course the last name was Molinsky, and he didn’t remember anyone with that name. “I don’t remember him.”
“He was shot trying to escape, the day of the liberation,” she offered.
Heinrich gasped. “Do you know the time of day?”
“Late morning, afternoon, maybe? He said he could see the Americans, but they were very far away, on top of a hill.”
“I do know him.” Heinrich was glad. “I shot him.” Something occurred to him, in that exact second that he wanted to say and had never occurred to him to say up until then, a thing he hadn’t said to anyone even in the last handful of years before his death. “Deborah,” he began. “I’m sorry.”
Above him she swam in a pool of warm light, smiling. It brought out for him powerful memories of his mother before the war, back when her kindness could’ve reminded him of Deborah.