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.
Chapter 13 - I warned you about the language thing
A vision of The Pit at the conclusion of WWII, through the eyes of Heinrich von Helldorf.
The Pit: Watchmaker’s Hell: Book One
WWII IS A FUCKING NIGHTMARE, EVEN IN THE PIT
The Pit, Hell
April 29, 1945
IF THE PIT IN AN UNPOPULATED world fills up too quickly, taking only a week by 2011, then the Pit in wartime is absolute anarchy. First there is the sudden influx of Dead as more people die during a war then during peacetime, tipping the Pit closer to the purge faster than expected. War also increases violations of the one law on Earth, causing a higher percentage of The Dead to come to the Pit instead of the Gate. This relates to the increase of lifeless, motionless bodies that fall into the Pit. At times Marcus gave up recruiting in the Pit altogether because bodies would rain from the sky for hours at a time, crushing anyone below and filling up the limited space. However, all of this has a small impact when compared to the attitude The Dead hold upon arrival. Many died angry in mid-battle. For them, Hell is just the next battleground to continue the fight. Others in WWII and several years prior, died only after their captors lied to them, disrespected them, did everything in their power to strip their humanity away and brutalized them. These Dead, the victims of the Nazi propagated holocaust, arrived absolutely livid, ready for revenge.
Heinrich was never much of a joiner. He’d been involved in the army for the paycheck and because it was better than shoveling pig shit on the various farms where he could find work. He was seduced into the SS by their claim that they wanted him because of who his father was and who he should have been if his father had lived. Also, the SS had Otto, and Heinrich liked Otto. It was Otto who told the SS recruiters about Heinrich’s family lineage. They were expecting a member of the upper class; instead they got a rude, uneducated farmhand with no respect for their authority. If he didn’t like joining, he really hated dealing with social pressure. The National Socialist Party was all about social pressure. They wanted to control whom he befriended (the list of non-acceptable persons was amazingly long), what he read or listened to, and whom he married. He felt marrying Gerta was an act of near defiance because she was so overlooked by the other party members due to her age and lack of connections. The care and hiding of his mother was another act of defiance, albeit a more dangerous one. He never understood their interference in film and radio because he saw them as a waste of time. The use of national resources on Goebbels films really baffled him. When he openly complained about the money spent on propaganda, arguing that instead they should just shut the radio stations and movie theaters down, he was disciplined. This intense narrowing of his life as the party and the SS came at him from every side pushed him farther away from them.
When Heinrich fell off the platform, he fell into a nest of Nazis who didn’t bother to catch him. His descent was slowed as he landed on a swarming mass. They promptly dropped him to the Pit floor. All around him, black-clad legs rushed by. First someone kicked him in the face. He responded by grabbing at the nearest set of legs, only to lose them in the scuffle. Then he rolled sideways, trying to position himself on all fours to stand, only to have a woman trip over him, scream and kick his crotch. Shoving every body part around him, he stood, immediately backing himself up against the Pit wall.
At 6’4”, Heinrich was taller than the group rushing around in front of him. He stretched up to see over their heads. To the left, a large gathering of prisoners in blue-on-blue uniforms faced into a circle, chanting. Some deep instinct in Heinrich assumed this was not good. To his right, a large gathering of tan uniformed soldiers did the same. They were surrounded. Both groups were bigger than the panicked group in front of him—the one he supposedly belonged to. He should join the fray, finding whoever was in charge and offering to help defend their fatherland. He was needed; clearly every man was needed when they were so outnumbered. But they weren’t in the fatherland. They left that on Earth. And his loyalty to his nation was pragmatic at best. Why should he stick around and risk further injury for these people?
He stretched up again, looking for a way out. Forward there appeared to be space and then a huge pile of bodies. The pile was mainly nude, with scattered blue on blue striped uniforms and the occasional military uniform. It rose so high, Heinrich couldn’t see the top. But there was clearly a path for people to walk around it.
Heinrich ducked his head and began shoving his way through the crowd of Nazis. Several of them hit him as he passed. Someone tried to grab his arm, but he wrenched free and kept toward his goal, the big body pile. Once out of the crowd, the blue-on-blue striped group turned out to face the Nazis and let out a concurrent scream—a war cry. They rushed at the Nazis bent on total destruction.
Heinrich ran the perimeter of the body pile. Two attackers broke formation from the battle and grabbed him, throwing him to the ground. They grabbed at both his arms while stomping on his armpits, cracking the skin connecting his limb to his body. With three stomps, his left armpit caved in, and his arm separated from his body. Heinrich kicked and struggled, wrenching his right arm free. He sat up. The shorter attacker, a heavily browed man with a black triangle on his lapel, shoved him back to the ground. The taller attacker, a skinny man wearing a yellow triangle, kicked him in the torso. Black Triangle stomped on his hip, cracking the skin that attached his left leg to his body. A familiar voice rose above the cracking and screaming of the Pit, calling out his name.
“Heinrich!” Otto yelled, diving at Black Triangle. Heinrich threw Yellow Triangle to the ground, holding him there, he stomped on the man’s face twice. Otto grabbed him, pulling him off his attacker.
“We need to go!” Otto dragged him around the body pile and up an unknown set of stairs.
Outside the narrow passageway at the top of the 12 o’clock stairs, Heinrich might as well have been on another planet. The battle was gone. The screaming and crunching was gone. No one pursued them. They were, for a moment, free—free but injured. Heinrich hadn’t thought about the damage to his new body before, but now he realized he was in trouble. His left arm was gone. The entire back of his head was open. His right arm was held on by less than two inches of skin. And his left hip was just as bad.
Heinrich started to explain this to Otto, when he realized they were not alone. At the beginning of a road whose end Heinrich could not see was a group of men in black uniforms with red swastika armbands. He couldn’t help but feel annoyed. Otto was more loyal to the Party than Heinrich had ever been, so of course he’d walked Heinrich out of the Pit straight into a group of Nazis. Heinrich felt he could only be happy if he never saw another swastika. They gathered around a small man sitting on a boulder. His uniform’s insignia implied he outranked everyone around him. Short, slight and bearded, he looked to be a contemporary of Heinrich and Otto. Having no idea who the man was, Heinrich asked Otto.
“He died just before I did. We met on the platform. His name is Rolf,” Otto assured him.
“Everyone!” Rolf stood on the boulder to speak to the two dozen Nazis assembled before him. “I am so glad you are all here to help us continue our work.”
What work? Heinrich wondered.
“When we die and go to the Pit, we do not understand how big the afterlife really is,” Rolf explained to them.
“His accent is odd,” Heinrich whispered to Otto. Rolf sounded like he was on stage. The accent was, strictly speaking, common in Berlin.
“His mother was Austrian,” Otto whispered back. It was clear Otto believed this. For some reason, Heinrich didn’t.
“This place is vast. And without your help it could become chaos just like the Pit,” Rolf continued.
Everything he said sounded really rehearsed. Heinrich realized that was what made his accent sound odd; it was over pronounced and showy. “I don’t like him,” Heinrich decided on the spot.
“You don’t like anyone,” Otto laughed.
“And you like everyone.” Heinrich rolled his eyes. It was the truth of why they were friends. Otto was the only person determined enough to make it past Heinrich’s rough exterior. Otto could befriend anyone. Otto could befriend a cow. Otto even had Jewish friends before he was shown the error in that behavior by his father.
“Excuse me, would you like to include everyone in your discussion?” Rolf asked condescendingly.
“No, teacher. We would like to talk amongst ourselves,” Heinrich added in his best schoolboy voice.
Rolf jumped off his boulder and approached the problem two in the back of his classroom. “Otto, whom have you brought me?”
“This is Heinrich von Helldorf. He ran the guards at Dachau and trained the guards for the rest of the camp System,” Otto explained proudly. “He was decorated for it.”
“You’re injured.” Rolf pointed to Heinrich’s empty left sleeve. “We can fix that, you know.”
Despite the fact that Heinrich wasn’t really a joiner, there were ways to include him in a group. Appealing to his selfish nature was the best among them. But anyone who knew him used this tactic on him frequently, and he’d come to recognize the signs.
“We can regrow limbs,” Rolf explained with a smile.
“How?” Heinrich demanded.
“You come and work for me,” Rolf answered.
“Doing?” Heinrich knew there would be no regrown arm for free. He wanted the cost up front.
“We’ve brought the camp system down here. This place could become overwhelmed with degenerates, perverts, scum, Jews, gypsies, unless we do something about it.”
“A camp?” Heinrich shouted.
Rolf laughed. “It is nothing more or less than you were already doing.”
That was the problem. Heinrich needed to choose between a new arm or never setting foot in a camp again. His injuries debilitated him in this dark and dangerous place. Heinrich was practical before he was anything else. Still, he died to free himself from Dachau. He would rather be destroyed than return.
“I’m not going back to any fucking camp,” Heinrich declared.
“But we can work together again,” Otto protested.
Rolf put up his hand to stop Otto. “He can choose as he wishes.” He gestured to his right, down the long dark road. “We are going this way.”
“Then I will go this way,” Heinrich indicated the other direction.
“But Heinrich…” Otto began.
“I will see you again old friend,” he added through his teeth. “Enjoy the camp.”
With that he left for an unknown destination.
The Waterfall’s Fire, Hell
Heinrich lay down in a curve near the low fire that had become his home. Raising his hand near the flames, he let his skin nearly touch their warmth. Why did the fire make him feel alive? Inside his thoughts, he heard Deborah Molinsky speaking to him as if she were there. I think this is a gift to the damned, a gift to give you hope, like the river. If she were really there, she might have stroked his hair. Thinking this only made the loss of her more present. If he wanted to cry, he would need to get up and go stand in the river. Otherwise, there was no moisture in his body to expel. Instead, he allowed himself to feel the loss of this woman. If she were there, he thought, he would want to lay his head in her lap and wrap his arms around her legs, stopping her from going anywhere. But she wasn’t with him. He’d been alone, without Deborah or Virgil, for the last year. Sometimes he thought the loneliness would break him, cracking him from the inside out. Then he would see his reflection in the river and find nothing about him had changed. All the damage was internal.
Only two more bodies and he was done with the Pit. Only two more bodies and he could be reunited with Deborah. No, not reunited, that wasn’t good enough. Two more bodies done would mean he could rush to Deborah and maybe even receive the smallest of praise. With that comforting thought, Heinrich raised his hand again to think about how the fire was the only thing outside of Deborah’s presence that made him feel alive.