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.
HEINRICH REGRETTED THE DECISION to help Deborah as soon as he saw the place. Of course, for most of the walk there, he saw nothing but road in front of him. Then when it was ten feet away, the brick archway presented itself. On earth it was more than an archway; it was a train depot accepting each train into Auschwitz. In Hell only the archway remained: an exact replica of the one on Earth with two darkened windows above the arch, letting it look like a gaping mouth with two beady eyes. And the black roof was still there like a pointed hat upon the devil’s head. As it soon the archway appeared at the bottom of the hill, Heinrich stopped.
“I know,” Deborah whispered in response. “This first view can be hard. But we need to press on. You get over it by forcing yourself through the experience.”
Looking at Misha, he could see the former slave ship captain was non-responsive to the simple brick structure. The reference was lost on him.
Heinrich couldn’t help but think, This is what Deborah and Hannah saw when they arrived at Auschwitz. This is the entrance to their personal Hell.
Deborah put her hand on his arm, urging him forward. It was clear that this expedition would be a bad idea.
They walked through the archway, with Misha becoming increasingly tense on Heinrich’s left side. As soon as they cleared the brick, Misha whipped his head back and forth, searching for possible attackers.
Beyond the archway lay The Camp itself, which instantly made Heinrich want to run. Lined up in perfect symmetry were the barracks, all wood one-story buildings with black roofs. A high chain-link fence ran the perimeter. Above the wide closed gates, a message was woven into the fence’s framework. “Arbeit Macht Frei,” it announced. In English the phrase would read, “Labor makes you free.”
“I recognize the phrase,” Deborah began, then she switched to German. “But the buildings are odd to me. The way I remember it, Auschwitz was mostly brick. These wood buildings…”
“Dachau,” Heinrich interrupted. “The archway is from Auschwitz, the barracks are from Dachau, the phrase is from the whole of the camp system.”
“When I arrived in Hell,” Misha explained, “it all looked different. It was a series of ships. A few decades ago, these buildings erupted from the ground, replacing them.”
“Slave ships, like yours?” Deborah asked. Misha nodded.
“They must have changed, swapped out for humanity’s newest crime,” Deborah concluded.
Waiting steadied Heinrich. They stood by the fence for several hours, and Heinrich found those hours restorative. The more no one came, the more time Heinrich had to remind himself that he’d been in this place before.
Deborah’s plan was surprisingly non-intrusive. They were to wait outside the gates, all nonchalant and casual. As guards walked by, she offered a hello, which was generally ignored. Eventually, she promised, someone would talk to them. Meanwhile, they chatted about their mutual acquaintances, all of whom were connected to Deborah. As always, Deborah translated back and forth between German and English, facilitating discussion between Heinrich, herself and Misha.
“David’s getting nowhere up at the Gate,” Deborah explained, then stopped as she noticed a young blond man in a black SS uniform within shouting distance. “Oh, Hello.” She waved and smiled. The young man looked at her as though she were a crazy person, which was not entirely inaccurate. “Anyway, the rabbi he was working with insists on surrounding himself with Jews and only Jews.”
“Hmm,” Heinrich observed. “That doesn’t sound like David’s type of fellow.”
“No, he doesn’t want that. And he isn’t ready to go off to the Ascension Fields just yet. So he’s at a loss for what to do with himself.”
“He could come down here,” Misha offered. “We would love to see him again.”
“I think if we had some progress to show him.” Deborah smiled at her two protégées. “He might see this work as realistic.”
It would appear success could gain Heinrich a purpose in the afterlife and more time with David—all the more reason to convert some guards.
As if on cue, the blond guard returned, heading directly for them.
“Commandant Mueller says you have to go,” the guard informed them from a safe distance.
Heinrich found his distance and orders odd. This man had a rifle on his shoulder and a knife sticking out of his belt. The three of them bore no weapons and genuinely wanted nothing but a simple conversation. Why were they a threat?
“Your commandant is named Mueller?” Heinrich asked.
The guard nodded.
“Otto Mueller?” Heinrich leaned on to the fence to look at him closer.
The guard nodded again.
“Tell him Heinrich von Helldorf is waiting to speak with him,” Heinrich declared. In his peripheral vision, he saw Deborah exchange a look with Misha.
The guard left in a huff.
“Are you ready to see Otto again?” Deborah asked.
“I’m not going to be kicked out of here by him,” Heinrich answered. “The least he can do is let us talk to people.”
The guard returned alone.
“He doesn’t believe me. He says I am falling for Jewish trickery,” the guard announced.
Heinrich rolled his eyes. After all these years, he had no idea how Otto would react to seeing him again. He knew he still missed his friend, despite the shift in perspective he’d had thanks to Deborah, David and the other Holocaust victims. But he also knew that no commandant he’d trained had a right to tell him he couldn’t stand outside the gates and talk to the guards. “This is bullshit,” Heinrich told the guard. “My name is Heinrich von Helldorf. My wife was Gerta von Helldorf, formerly Gerta Schmidt. She taught Otto how to sew his own buttons back on his uniform one spring while he learned from me at Dachau. My Mama used to make him yellow cake when he stayed with us during our leaves from the army. I’ve known him since I was 22 years old and he was 18. He is not going to tell me I cannot be here. He is not going to chase me away.”
The guard’s eyes had grown wider over the course of the speech. Clearly he wasn’t pleased to deliver this message to his boss.
They waited another two hours before the guard returned and told them to go to the front gate.
“Is this a good idea?” Misha asked.
“We need to be cautious here Heinrich. I don’t want to go into that place,” Deborah whispered. She was, finally, frightened.
The truth was Heinrich hadn’t really formed a plan. But he wasn’t inclined to bowing to lesser men. He’d been in charge of these men’s equals at Dachau. He knew standing his ground was better than running away when told to.
The gates slid open as they had the day he committed suicide by enemy soldier, moving parallel to the rest of the fence. Heinrich held out his hand, gesturing for Misha and Deborah to stop within an arm’s distance of the open gate. It would take a lot more than an invitation to stand at the front gate before Heinrich would lead these two under the false promise of freedom that was “Arbeit Macht Frei.”
They stood there with a half dozen guards staring at them for a full ten minutes. With his hands on his hips, Heinrich looked purposefully tense and unrepentant.
Misha and Deborah found hiding their nerves more difficult.
Finally Otto emerged from some building far beyond the barracks. Led by the now openly frowning young guard, he looked more strained than Heinrich had ever seen him. When they met just after their deaths, Otto was still Otto, ready to make friends with random Nazis (like Rolf) and ready to lead Heinrich into God-only-knows-what. But the last two decades had transformed Heinrich. It would seem some lesser transformation had taken place for Otto in Hell’s Camp.
Otto stopped, ten feet from them, just on the other side of the open gate.
“Are you with them now, these two…” Otto paused to give his word the right impact, “…cunts?”
Along the natural lines of Otto’s face, there were cracks running from his forehead to his chin. These weren’t injuries Heinrich could easily identify. When Rolf/Marcus’ men came to attack him, Heinrich had inflicted a number of different kinds of wounds. Most of them, punches, slammed faces into boulders, etc., made more of a central indentation surrounded by cracks. These lines implied stress to Heinrich though he didn’t know why.
And then there was Otto’s word choice. Otto loved his mama and had plenty of girlfriends he claimed to love. But he was prone to using that word, especially around other men. Most of the examples Heinrich could think of involved Otto using that word as part of various jokes about women. All these jokes were made in the presence of men alone and usually men whose society Otto coveted. Back in the day, Heinrich dismissed Otto’s language because he liked Otto and believed this behavior was exclusively used to create a sense of camaraderie between Otto and other men. Besides, in Heinrich’s generation, the word was more prevalent. If he threw a fit every time he heard it, he would come off as a crazy person. Still, hearing Otto use this word to emasculate Misha, a once brutal man, and to diminish and dehumanize Deborah, the most important person in creation, was not comfortable. And saying such a thing to a woman’s face didn’t sound like the Otto Heinrich knew.
“What happened to you?” Heinrich blurted out.
Otto ignored the question. “You’re running with Jew bitches and failures,” Otto sneered. His whole attitude was off. Otto had still been Otto when Heinrich ran into him in the Pit. The man standing before him now gave off so much anger and disgust, Heinrich didn’t know him.
“Jesus,” Heinrich swore. “What happened to you?”
“I stayed and fought for the cause,” Otto declared. “And you allied yourself with scum.”
“Do you want me to end you?” Heinrich asked genuinely. “At this point ending your existence might be an act of mercy.”
Something in Otto’s boyish but horribly lined face shut down. His expression went from angry and disgusted to mournful and determined.
“Get them,” he ordered the guards.
Misha ran first, in enough time to stay ahead of the guards. Heinrich turned to run before the first guard had cleared the fence. But he saw that Deborah was standing, shocked, as they ran toward her. Turning, Heinrich grabbed her and ran down the road.
The first guard, the young blond man, overtook them out of the Camp’s sight. Much to Heinrich’s horror, he grabbed Deborah out of his arms, throwing her to the ground. On her back like a turtle, she looked up and gasped as the guard brought his foot down on to her torso.
Heinrich body slammed him into the ground. From that position, he straddled the man and punched his face repeatedly. Two more guards arrived, heading straight for Deborah. Heinrich jumped up from his spot holding down the now shaking young guard. Grabbing the two new attackers by their collars, he drew them back and then slammed their heads into one another. They fell to the ground holding the holes where their faces had been. Another guard ran up, saw the carnage and started to back away. Heinrich was on him before he could turn. Tackling the man on the back, they both crashed into the ground. Heinrich pulled his foe’s hair back and then slammed his face into the ground over and over again. Someone yanked at his arm and screamed his name; Heinrich ignored that person. He wasn’t done teaching this guard a lesson. The voice screamed for Misha as Heinrich began grinding the guard’s face shards into the ground while the man’s arms flailed underneath him.
Finally he heard himself chanting, “Does it hurt? It should. I’m going to hurt you more.”
The voice screamed his name again. He heard feet running in his direction from behind him, the non-camp direction.
“I’m going to crush you,” Heinrich started on the still struggling guard’s shoulders.
Two pairs of hands grabbed an arm each and pulled him off the guard. The moment of obsession broke, and Heinrich could make out the words of the woman holding him.
“Heinrich stop. We need to leave,” Deborah screamed. She and Misha pulled him away.
“No, you don’t understand,” Heinrich yelled back at Deborah. “I wanted to hurt him.”
They stood in the river to repair the cracks and injuries from the attack. Misha wouldn’t look at him, partly because of the intensity of Heinrich’s violence and partly because Heinrich had called him a coward a few moment earlier. Deborah clearly thought he’d gone too far.
“I think I failed you Heinrich,” she announced. “David said the racism was the key to your brutality. I thought it was a lack of empathy. But I see now we were both wrong.”
“They would have hurt you,” Heinrich declared through a tight jaw. “I wouldn’t allow that.”
“I don’t belong to you Heinrich,” Deborah spat back. “Whether or not I get hurt is my business.”
“He called you—” Heinrich began.
“I’m a mouthy, unattractive, 48-year-old woman,” Deborah interrupted. “I’ve been called a cunt before—and by better men than Otto Mueller.”
Now that they were no longer in danger, Heinrich gained more distance from the immediate intensity of the fight. The distance made that moment seem odd and overly dramatic. Had he overreacted? It made so much sense at the time. But now that he was calm, he was less sure.
“What do you get out of it?” Deborah asked, looking so sad it broke Heinrich’s non-existent heart. “What does the violence give you that I cannot?”
Heinrich sat down on the edge of the river, hanging his head. “I wish I knew.”
Swishing through the water, Deborah came to him and placed her hands on his knees.
“No, don’t touch me,” Heinrich groaned.
“I’m not afraid,” Deborah answered. “But I want you to promise me something.”
“Anything,” Heinrich cried. He wanted to get down on his knees and wrap his arms around her waist. But she put up a hand to stop him as soon as he moved.
“Promise me this was your last fight. You lost control with those men, Heinrich. You went past defending us. I’m not sure you understood what you were doing while you were doing it. You have to avoid the whole situation to avoid losing control. You can’t fight ever again. Promise me you won’t. Promise me that you will walk away the next time someone confronts you. I really think that’s the only way for you.”
With no understanding of his own behavior, what could Heinrich do but agree?