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.
LT. FOX, DO JIN AND HEINRICH arrived at the Waterfall with Woo Bin, Nadia and Sid in tow. The scale of the Waterfall struck Sid for the first time. As a lover of guitar music and a child of his 70s/80s generation, he couldn’t help but think of it as a Stairway to Heaven. It wasn’t of course.
Sid’s choice to remain with Alex’s Tribe was internal but difficult. The idea that the Gate was filled with rapists and child molesters hurt Sid to his core. He’d never embraced Islam’s vision of Heaven until he’d met his current Imam. As the most progressive Imam Sid had ever known, he pushed Sid to reread the passages in the Quran in the original Arabic. Then they discussed what Sid read. The Quran provides images of bounty, peace and life everlasting. To Sid it all sounded like a thing Allah provides for other people but would not be available for him. The Imam reminded Sid that his addiction was a disease and he’d worked to write the wrongs he’d committed; therefore Allah may deem him worthy of Heaven. “But even if he did, it wouldn’t feel that way for me,” Sid explained. “I’ve been places where everyone else is happy and at peace. When my daughter was born, my mother was overjoyed. My wife was moved by this little creature we’d made. And I was just numb.” The day Alice was born, Sid was high. The Imam suggested that this was the problem. “Even now,” Sid countered, “everyone is trying to help me. I’ve a new business partner: solid man, willing to take me on even though everyone else believes I’m washed up. I should be relieved, but in my mind I think, ‘How will I cock this one up’? That’s what I’m trying to say. Everywhere I go, I take this inner monologue that taints everything. Everywhere I go, no matter how amazing it is for others, I turn it into something darker. Hell is with me wherever I am.” The Imam began with an obvious suggestion that this was something Sid should go over with his therapist in addition to his Imam. But he agreed that the work Sid needed to do to let Hell go might be more internal. Perhaps Allah couldn’t just hand that peace to him. At this stage of his life, he would have to find it with the guidance of the Quran and the Hadith, but it would not wait for it to be externally tacked on him by Allah. The Heaven promised to them by the Quran was not an external thing but a place Sid could work to reach in his own attitude and thoughts.
As Sid stood next to Nadia, watching Lt. Fox whisper in the ear of the Iraqi, he felt how appropriate his location was. In the end, that was why he’d stayed with Alex’s Tribe. Hell was where he ought to be because it was with him no matter where he went. The Gate’s apparent abundance of free evildoers didn’t change that. His body wasn’t in the Pit. He had no idea where it might be. And he accepted that he may never find it. The idea that his daughter might go to that place when she died, however, left him feeling mournful and as though he’d failed her again.
The light bathed Lt. Fox as the body in his arms started to lift. This must be the greatest moment of existence in Hell, Sid thought. The act of righting a wrong, the relief it provided, the way it drained power from thoughts of self-accusation, was the closest Sid ever came to feeling peaceful. He longed for it, even as he reminded himself it might never come. Heinrich told them some bodies were inaccessible. Some members of the tribe would never get the release that shone all over Fox’s face.
With the light and the body gone, Fox turned to face his friends. “Well,” he began. Instead of finishing his sentence, his eyes’ widened. Before he could articulate what stunned him, the part of him that stuck out of the water slammed down, hitting the surface of the pool with and audible smack. His arms flailed. Sid and Nadia ran for the pool’s edge to help. Then Fox’s feet rose, heels first out of the water. His legs followed, pointed toward the top of the waterfall. Fox struggled to pull his head above the water. The clouds parted as they had when Fox sent off the insurgent. The light expanded, coming down to touch the gunner. Sid jumped in and grabbed Fox’s arms. By then his whole body floated upside down. Sid had him by the hands, stopping further motion up the waterfall.
“What is happening?” Nadia asked Heinrich.
“I do not see this.” Heinrich looked as shocked as the rest of them.
“I think this is how I leave,” Fox explained. “I must’ve only had one body.” Then he groaned. “I didn’t hold my own with Marr and Willis as much as I’d thought. They were carrying me.”
“Are you seriously bemoaning your lack of murders?” Sid joked.
“A little.” Fox was all seriousness. “I know something…. I can’t tell just anyone though….” Fox struggled for the words.
“Can you tell Heinrich?” Nadia offered.
“That works,” Fox responded.
Sid and Heinrich switched positions. Everyone watched as Fox whispered something in Heinrich’s ear. The only words Sid picked up were, ‘do you understand?’
“I know. He tells me,” Heinrich answered softly. Relief bled over Fox’s face.
Nadia wanted to say goodbye. She entered the water and thanked him for protecting everyone. This reminded Fox that the uniforms now lacked an internal leader. “It’s got to be you,” he told Heinrich. Before the Nazi could protest, Fox pressed on. “You’ve done this. You can do it again.”
Sid’s goodbye consisted of the few words he believed Fox may have come across during his time in the Middle East. “As-salaam ‘alaykum, my brother.” And he kissed him on both cheeks. This common parting phrase translates as ‘peace be with you.’
By the time Woo Bin and Do Jin said goodbye, Fox was shaking and crying. After he reinforced that Do Jin and the other military members of the group were to follow Heinrich now, there was nothing more left to say.
With a single motion, Heinrich extended his arms and let go. Lt. Avery Fox floated up into the clouds. Once his dark fingertips were surrounded by white, the clouds closed, the light receded and it was over.
“If we do our bodies,” Sid reasoned, “we don’t get a choice. We have to go to the Gate.” The only person who could hear him was Nadia.
Even with the sadness of Fox’s disappearance, they pressed on.
When Woo Bin sent Do Jin’s double into the clouds earlier, he’d seen Do Jin’s life. At that time, he followed the bullet of Do Jin’s only kill to the North Korean it hit. This helped Do Jin find the correct body in the Pit. It also meant they knew in advance that Do Jin only had one body and would be leaving them shortly.
After saying goodbye, Sid and Nadia stepped aside to let the two Koreans talk. Even without knowing a word of Korean, they knew what the conversation centered around. Do Jin still wanted Woo Bin to find Yi Soo and bring her back from the dark side.
“But Lauren, Virgil and Deborah all chose to come here. Lauren mentioned having to figure something out, but it’s possible,” Nadia countered.
The universe suddenly clicked into place for Sid. “I think I’ve found a reason for existing,” he told her in his most facetious tone.
“You’re serious,” Nadia retorted. “Don’t cover it with jokes. I can tell you mean that.”
“I can bring her here,” Sid whispered. “If I make it to the Gate before my daughter then I can protect her by taking her from that place and bringing her back down here.”
“Why would you wish this place on anyone you love?” Nadia wondered aloud.
“Because that place holds a thing I cannot stand,” was the only answer.
As Do Jin sent his body away, Nadia heard a voice she’d thought she’d banished. “I think I deserve to die.” It was Jeff, the young man from the suicide hotline, speaking about his regret over hurting his classmate. And she thought the same thing for herself, many times over the years. Now that she was dead and condemned to Hell, that thought felt melodramatic. Everyone here was dead, all ages of adulthood, race, religions and political leanings. Everyone dies. Everyone, by extension, deserves to die, not because all human beings are evil but because death wasn’t a horrible punishment only visited on the wicked. Everyone deserves to die as surely as they deserve to breathe. It is not good or bad but instead it is the truth of being human.
Nadia asked herself if she deserved to be where she was, in Hell. On some level, yes. She belonged with these people who’d made similar mistakes. On another level, she hated this condemnation. The world was far less fair than she’d once hoped. She spent her life working against a crime she’d committed at 13. Why didn’t all the good she’d done outweigh that one mistake? Because some-one died, she told herself. The crime was too large to ever make up for it.
Looking up at the parted clouds, Nadia wondered if Jeff killed himself. If so, was he up there? Naturally this made her wonder if Peggy was up there as well. The thought of 13-year-old Peggy up there in the place Lauren described suddenly made Nadia feel ill. Now she understood why Sid wanted a trip to the Gate just to retrieve his daughter and bring her back to Hell with him.
She could make it to that place and bring Peggy back. That could be the task past retrieving her body. She could protect Peggy from the bullies at the Gate. It was the truest counterbalance she’d ever been offered for this particular crime.
To Sid, Nadia whispered, “I think I understand what you mean.”
Once Do Jin left them, floating into the clouds. Woo Bin left too walking down the worn path to rejoin the rest of the tribe. Only Heinrich, Pati, Sid and Nadia remained.
When Heinrich had sent off the first body in front of Alex’s Tribe, he was a little self-conscious. After all, he usually did his work alone—very alone. True, Virgil was there the first few times. Then Misha was with him for years. But in the last year, he was always alone. Looking down at David’s body, Heinrich felt the least lonely he’d been in the last year, and it wasn’t because of the three people who watched him from the clearing.
Hoisting David into his arms again, Heinrich faced the waterfall. What if this trip into someone else’s memories wasn’t all he’d hoped it would be? At moments of self-doubt, he heard Deborah’s voice the way he had once heard his brother’s voices when lonely. Let go of your expectations then, she would’ve told him if she’d been there, and let it be fulfilling in whatever way it can be.
Taking this advice as gospel, Heinrich whispered his apology in the body’s ear. Then, as always, he faced the Waterfall and let the experience wash over him.
David Molinsky was born a week early and small. He was born at home with a whole coven of ladies aiding the mother in birth. Being born into a Jewish household was something Heinrich had experienced 298 times. The anticipation of what may be to come distracted him during David’s birth. As he saw David’s mother looking sweaty and exhausted, he refocused himself on the moment in front of him, reminding himself this was special, sacred and pure. To see through another person’s eyes was the greatest gift Hell gave to Heinrich. He needed to appreciate it every last time.
Once the baby David was cleaned and cuddled by Mama, he could be taken out to meet his father. Heinrich had wondered before about David and Deborah’s parents. What must these two people who raised two extraordinary human beings be like? It turns out they looked ordinary. Heinrich already saw their mother looking like she’d just given birth. Their Papa was tall, thin and looked almost exactly like David except he wore glasses. As baby David, Heinrich felt the warm and firm touch as Papa held him. He felt safe.
As all babies are, Heinrich/David was then passed around to be inspected by other members of the family. Swaddled and loved, Heinrich drank it all in. Then inside infant David, it was as though time moved in slow motion. The dawning of what Heinrich was about to see, what he wanted desperately to see, was upon him, and the effect was overwhelming. Coming toward baby David was a twelve-year-old Deborah Molinsky. At that age, her nose really took over the rest of her face. So apparently she grew into it later. Her eyebrows were also very threatening to any other feature. But her eyes were filled with the joy that Heinrich would cling to years later. And of course, she wanted to hold the new baby.