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.
GEORGIE WATCHED THE LINE of water approach her toes, barely touch them and then flow back into the ocean. There was, strictly speaking, a tide at the Gate. It was so small that it didn’t look like waves, the result of a large current moving through. Rather, the water flowed in and out like water rocking in a bath tub. The line of water reached its farthest point from Georgie, a half meter away from her exposed toes and then resumed its forward motion toward her.
“What are we looking for here?” Ryan asked. He was new to ocean duty at the Gate.
“They didn’t tell you the story?” Georgie cocked her head at him, squinting in the bright light.
Ryan shrugged. “I just got here.” He had died the previous day, in his sleep, from a small growth in his esophagus.
Georgie had an affinity for anyone else who, like her, died in their pajamas because spending eternity in a red cotton pajama set with Minnie Mouse’s face emblazoned all over the shirt and in miniature on the pants was embarrassing. Though having died of cancer, she was grateful to be in something of her own and not a hospital gown.
“Years ago, someone came out of the ocean.” Georgie straightened up and adopted her best storytelling at bedtime voice. “He just walked out—”
“But people go down there,” Ryan interrupted. He’d heard a piece of this story, but to him the story didn’t matter as much as the inconsistency it represented. “People choose to leave this,” he indicated the vast rolling green hills behind them, “whatever this is. And they go down into Hell.”
Georgie bounced her head back and forth. “Well yes—”
“And they can come back,” Ryan declared. “So why is this guy walking out of the ocean in the 80s such a big damn deal?”
“Because he hadn’t been here,” Georgie declared. “No one knew him. Actually his family knew him, but they also knew he was dead….”
“Yeah, how does anyone know that?” Ryan interrupted.
Georgie ignored this and finished her thought. “They knew he was dead and suspected he was in Hell and then all the sudden he was walking out of the ocean.”
“So, he got like a day pass?” Ryan tried not to sound sarcastic.
“He redeemed himself.” Again, Georgie offered this as a large declaration. She even put both hands in the air to punctuate it. Her companion’s face remained blank.
“He was a bad guy?” Ryan asked.
“Well, he was a cop.” Georgie put her arms down. Given Georgie’s personality as Ryan had observed it (conservative, highly Christian, pro-established society), he would have expected a more enthusiastic response.
“You’re not pro-cop?” he laughed.
“They’re very important to society,” Georgie answered automatically. Then she added with the largest amount of annoyance he’d seen her show so far, “I just wish I could drive from Pike’s Place to my house without being pulled over.”
Ryan found this hilarious. “You could not have been pulled over more than me.” Ryan’s arms bore what tattoo artists commonly call ‘sleeves,’ meaning so many tattoos that the skin is not visible anymore.
Georgie was Native Alaskan and therefore blessed with more pigment than Ryan, meaning she was brown. She looked her companion and his tattoos over for a moment. “I hope not.” Ryan continued to laugh.
“So we are hoping for more redeemed souls,” Georgie declared, gesturing out to sea.
“So we’re looking for head.” Ryan offered in the worst word choice he could come up with.
“People swimming,” Georgie corrected. So that’s what she sounded like when annoyed. “And we will welcome them.”
“People swimming.” He imitated her voice. He stretched his head up and looked at the long line of water that touched the sunless horizon. “I guess they’ll be easy to spot.”
Something about the horizon stuck Ryan as upsetting. “Is it all the same?” he asked her. “The sun never sets here.”
“There is no sun,” she corrected. “The light comes from God.”
Ryan suppressed an eye-roll. “But it never gets dark right?” His companion nodded. “And the ocean has no waves. And the grass never grows.”
“There are flowers when people come,” Georgie corrected. She referred to the flowers that marked The Dead’s entrance to the Gate from Earth.
“Yeah, but no weeds.” He groaned and leaned his head on his hand. “Nothing changes here.”
“You’ve been dead a day.”
“And I’m already bored,” Ryan announced. “I’m thinking, what’s it like down there?” He pointed toward the horizon. “What if Hell is more interesting?”
“That’s not….” Her intended condemnation of any suggestion that Hell might be in any way a pleasant place was interrupted by a feeling. Georgie looked down to see water flow over the top of her foot. She gasped and jumped up as the water continued to flow in, saturating the narrow strip of sand that faced the ocean and flowing over the green grass at the foot of the hill Georgie and Ryan were scrambling up.
“What the fuck?” Ryan looked around as if something else was about to happen.
The water covered the cuffs of Georgie’s pajamas, turning Minnie Mouse’s bright red into a deep maroon. “Hey,” Ryan yelled over the top of the Hill, “we’re flooding! The ocean is flooding!”
Georgie stopped him as he turned to scramble up the hill. The water receded away from her feet. “Look,” she told Ryan, “it’s going back to normal.”
But it didn’t go back to normal. The water flowed past the two soft indents in the sand where Georgie and Ryan sat moments earlier and kept receding past its normal stopping point. For the first time in the year she’d been dead and despite all the walks she had taken along this shore, Georgie could see the sand under the deep blue water. A shoe, buttons and even a knife were littered along the newly exposed sand: debris from previous generations. When the water reached a full ten meters from where they stood, it stopped and reversed course. This time, once again, it reached the cuffs of Georgie’s pajamas. She and her companion watched it in silence.
“What does it mean?” Ryan asked her.
“I wish I knew.”
The water behaved normally for another twenty minutes, but Ryan and Georgie didn’t resume their previous positions. Instead, they stared off into the horizon, really waiting for the first time. Neither spoke or acknowledged what they were doing, but both were certain that the ocean would produce something, soon.
Finally they saw the tiniest head bob along the water in the distance.
That ocean was vast. Georgie and Ryan assumed correctly that they had some time to organize a welcoming committee. Ryan ran to every crier on every hill he could reach and gave them the news. In turn they shouted it out for everyone to hear. Two people were coming up from Hell. Georgie assumed that the newly redeemed would want to dry off as soon as they arrived and searched for blankets. She found torn felt blankets in red and blue.
Once Georgie returned to her original watching spot, she found a crowd gathered there. She begged her way through the throng of Dead staring out into the horizon. “I hope it’s my father,” she heard one woman say. “It could be my brother,” another man whispered to the person nearest him. Several Newly Dead brought bunches of flowers gathered from their entrances into the Gate. Georgie exited the crowd near a tall black man who had his niece sitting up on his shoulders.
“Can you see anything?” Georgie called up to the girl.
“Heads.” The young black girl shrugged. “Nothing distinct… wait, no…” She yelled in triumph. “Nappy hair!”
Several people in the crowd clapped and cheered. “And…” the girl put her hand over her eyes, trying to see further out, “slick, black hair…maybe Asian?” Georgie thought she might cry. Two souls earned salvation and were on their way back to their families. In her mind, it was as God intended.
For Ryan, it was proof that there was more to the afterlife than the unchanging green hills of the Gate.
Miles away, Lt. Avery Fox and Do Jin Kim beat their way steadily toward the crowd waiting for them at the shore.