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.
Sid, a child of at least two worlds, dies in London in 2011
The Pit: Watchmaker’s Hell: Book One
Siddig El Tariq
London, UK, Earth
SIDDIG EL TARIQ WAS, LIKE Mr. Spock on Star Trek, a child of at least two worlds. Mr. Spock was of two literally different worlds: Earth and Vulcan. Sid, as he was known to everyone but his mother, was a child of England and Egypt. His mother was English, prissy and shockingly traditional given her youthful dalliance in Cairo. Sid often felt his mother looked on the outside like any of his friends’ mothers, the same un-alluring twin sets in pastel colors with sensible slacks or skirts (always below the knee), the same scorn for the Irish, despite having never been to Ireland and having few Irish acquaintances. There was just the one thing that made her stand out: her dark-skinned husband and son. When asked about anything that made the family different from their neighbors like, for example, Tariq’s occasional trips with Sid to mosque, Patty would gloss over it with, “Oh you know that’s just something they do,” and then change the topic to the weather or the next flower show in the same breath. Sid believed his mother and father never would have married if they’d met a few years later. But at 20 and 22, respectively, they did meet, while she was on holiday in Cairo and he was working in his father’s sweets shop. Tariq El Muhammad owned an import brokerage in South London, much to his son’s constant embarrassment. Once, while high at university, Sid confessed to his friend George, “I’m the child of two clichés: the Middle England twit and the Arab trader. Where does that leave me?”
The day Sid, died he had more to do than time to do it in. He ran to mosque at noon, always a difficult errand, but he’d promised the Imam he’d bring fliers he’d printed for the next interfaith lecture that he was not planning on attending. After dropping them off with the Imam’s secretary, Sid went on to run through a few prayer cycles before readings began. Once the rituals were done, Sid tried to escape before the Imam caught him but to no avail. The Imam found him while he was hunched over near the front door, putting on his shoes.
“Brother,” the Imam began, touching his shoulder. “Will we see you tonight?” The socials were a monthly event that allowed the (mostly) men of the mosque to bring their families. Everyone sat together, not divided by gender, eating and talking. It was the progressive Imam’s first push toward his more inclusive vision of the mosque. Sid supported this vision but had an excuse to not come and immediately pulled it out.
“I have my daughter this weekend,” Sid explained, realizing half-way through that this was the last thing he should’ve said.
“Fantastic. I want to meet her,” the Imam responded. “That is what this is all about you know.” And he launched into a speech Sid had heard on many occasions.
It wasn’t that Sid didn’t want his daughter, Alice, to come to the mosque. For a moment, he considered lying and claiming his ex-wife had a problem with his faith, but that would never work. Poppy, the ex-wife in question, called herself spiritual but not religious. Because Sid’s reversion to Islam had helped him remain sober, she supported it and told him several times that Alice could go to Mosque for this exact type of event. The Imam eventually might meet Alice (in fact they would meet at Sid’s funeral), at which point Alice might let the truth slip. Instead, Sid went with an excuse that was partly true.
“I get only so much time with her. I really hate to go out. We like to sit and read out loud together. It’s silly, but it’s our ritual and I want to preserve it,” he explained. That excuse got him out of the mosque and back to the 40 mortgage applications he had to process before picking up Alice at school.
The problem with Alice coming to Mosque was a visual thing. Despite the progressive Imam’s vision, the mosque was still highly male driven. This had been true when Tariq brought Sid to Mosque as a child. Sid felt that perhaps he should have a moral problem with this, but instead his response was resigned. This is what he imagined mosques all over the world looked like. Yes, it should change. Yes, it was time for this change, but that wouldn’t happen for years, possibly decades, probably not in his lifetime.
The specifics of bringing 16-year-old Alice to the Mosque was the image of her walking into a room of mostly men. He had no reason to distrust the men in his mosque. There was no specific act he assumed would take place. The problem in question was that recent events had left him deeply uncomfortable with the idea of leading his daughter into a room of mostly men. It contradicted all logic. The Imam would be there, it was a community event, ergo everyone would be on their most socially acceptable behavior. The problem wasn’t logical, nor was it the fault of anyone in the mosque, but at the end of the day, he no longer liked his daughter being around men in general.
“Are we getting take-away?” Alice asked as she buckled her seat belt.
Sid responded with his best offended expression. “I’ve got groceries in the back. I shall be cooking.”
“So steak and baked potatoes then?” Alice laughed.
“I am a simple man. I like simple things,” Sid responded.
“It’s all you can cook. You’d think my half-Arab father could manage a kebab every now and then.”
“Oh,” he groaned as he pulled out into traffic, “doing that properly involves digging a pit in the garden, and there’ve got to be coals…it’s so much easier to just broil a steak.” He switched conversational gears. “What are we reading tonight?”
When Alice was small, he read to her. Now that she was older, and since Sid sobered up, she began reading to him.
“We could go with Watership Down?” Alice offered while playing with her phone.
That answer was too easy. He loved Watership Down. If she was offering one of his favorite books, he was suspicious.
“What are you reading? I want to be included.” She groaned at the parental speak. “Let me into your brain girlie.” He pressed his finger to her temple.
“Stop. I’m reading Stephen King,” she answered matter of factly.
“Ugg, American and horror. Which one?” He asked.
“Gerald’s Game.” Alice shrugged off his horrified look. “I got it at the library. Everyone had checked out all the others.”
Sid had read Gerald’s Game when it came out in the 90s. The main character spends days handcuffed to a bed because her husband dies of a heart attack just before their sex game can begin. Poppy and Sid agreed years earlier that Alice could read whatever she liked so long as she didn’t hide it and brought it to them when she had questions. He shuddered to imagine the questions that came from that book. But he also wasn’t allowed to shame her about what she was reading, again at Poppy’s behest.
“We could do Carrie I suppose…no, she kills everyone at the school dance,” Sid muttered out loud.
“That’s why I want to read it. My therapist says it’s working as wish fulfillment so long as I don’t actually hurt a certain someone.” The last two words came out with a bitter tone. Sid knew who the ‘certain someone’ was; she needn’t explain. “I can imagine all I want for him to be dragged into a sewer by a murderous clown or locked in hotel in Colorado with ghosts—”
“Certain someone wouldn’t have been in The Shining. That little boy was special; he shined or what have you. Certain someone is…” he searched for the word.
“Evil,” Alice offered.
“I like worthless. But evil works very well, you are quite right.” Then after he finished the treacherous right turn into his neighborhood. “We should read Dolan’s Cadillac. It’s about burying someone alive.”
By the time Sid pulled the potatoes out of the oven, his left arm was feeling numb. He shook it off as a minor ache. While eating, his chest felt slightly tight, but he attributed this to the fact that he’d forgotten to take off his tie.
After dinner, Sid rested, now tieless, on the sofa while Alice squinted at her father’s e-reader. “This is very involved.” The story in question was about burying a man alive in his large automobile. “Where would we get a dump truck?”
Sid knew she was back into revenge wish fulfillment. “We’d have to nick one, I suppose.”
“There should be a network of survivors for this kind of thing,” Alice mused. “And I don’t mean for sitting in a circle and talking about our feelings. I mean so we could find someone in construction whose daughter had that thing happen to her too….”
“And he loans us the dump truck,” Sid finished. “Excellent plan. We’ll need an attorney who’s also in the network—to defend ourselves when he’s found.”
“Or better yet, a restaurant full of network members establishing our alibi,” Alice countered, looking excited.
Some say there is a special privilege in dying in the presence of a loved one. Having missed his father’s death by moments and then dying in the presence of his daughter, Sid would openly disagree. Dying old in a bed in the presence of a loved one was a privilege. Sudden death is too often harrowing. Both Tariq’s death and Sid’s were traumatic, the first because his father died by hanging himself and suicide offers its own special kind of grief. The aftermath of his father’s complex financial shenanigans that left his mother hundreds of thousands of pounds in debt didn’t help either. The second because Sid wanted Alice’s move into adulthood to be smoother and less traumatic than his own. He’d already lost that battle on one front.
Alice lost her virginity at the all too young age of 14. This event left her parents back-tracking through the preceding months trying to understand what went wrong. Turns out, three months before, Alice asked her mother if she could go to a party with people Poppy didn’t trust. Poppy, of course, said no. But it was her weekend with Sid, so Alice waited until he was intoxicated, a nightly event, and asked him. Of course, he said yes. Alice drank too much for the first time, passed out, and woke up to find a certain someone on top of her, raping her. Sid blamed himself, which was convenient, since Poppy blamed him too.
One of the bigger regrets in Sid’s life was that this discovery did not end his drinking and drug use, though it was the beginning of the downward spiral known well to any who enter recovery. While Sid partied from his teenage years through college, the death of his father precipitated a tipping point in his addictive behavior. From Tariq’s death to the death of a friend of Sid’s, Sid’s alcohol and cocaine abuse began a cycle that escalated out of his control. His personal rock bottom came during a ‘golfing weekend’ in Scotland. Both Sid and his friend George took hits off a bad batch of cocaine. Sid had a heart attack that nearly killed him. George died, and the hotel doctor was unable to revive him.
The pain in Sid’s chest became more pronounced. As Alice began the next story in Nightmares and Dreamscapes, he leaned back, trying to relax more to make it go away. It didn’t work.
“I think,” he began quietly, “that we need to call 999.”
Alice paused for a second, stunned, then ran for her cell phone in the kitchen.
“Don’t run,” Sid groaned from the sofa.
Between calling 999 and the ambulance arriving would be 12 minutes. They tend to be busy at night due to all the injuries people visit upon themselves while out and about. Sid would die in five minutes with Alice, crying and terrified, by his side.