Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
It all started when I was a little girl. Christmas Eve, 2004. I was eight years old.
“Santa, is that you?”
Footfalls on the staircase echoed through the house as I jumped out of bed and ran past the doorframe to catch a glimpse of the man himself.
I waited patiently in the hall just outside my room. An outline appeared at the top of the stairs and then slowly made its way to me. The floorboards struggled to hold its weight as the sound of bending wood ricocheted off the walls and burrowed into my ears.
Once the figure reached me, its form was illuminated; bathed in the dim moonlight that shone through my bedroom window and leaked out into the hallway. My excitement was immediately replaced with pure terror. The thing standing in front of me was not Santa, not by a long shot. It was a walking shadow; a dense patchwork of pitch blackness in the shape of a man. I could neither breathe evenly in its presence, nor could I bring myself to run, petrified in a state of shock.
Then, he made his move.
Darkness spilled out from the shadow man’s hands as he extended his arms out over me. Soon, I was encased in it; all light fading from view. Aside from the pounding in my chest, all sound had ceased as well.
All I could think to do was call out to my father. Surely he would rescue me from this nightmare.
“Daddy! Help! I’m in here!”
Of course, he never showed. Wherever I was, whatever energy had enveloped me, I was now unreachable. My connection to the outside world was lost, and I was alone.
Before the inclination to cry or scream further could kick in, my tomb broke apart and dissipated entirely, revealing new surroundings.
I wasn’t home anymore.
Not even close.
Despite the circumstances, it was breathtaking. Less a place than it was an endless expanse. There were constellations all around; at my sides, above, and even below me. The only thing that separated us was a thin, almost transparent glow. It made up a floor beneath my feet, a ceiling overhead, and walls, barely visible in the distance. It was an inexplicable light box off in some segment of the universe, partitioned from the rest. An absurd, but brilliant architecture resting in the framework of space.
In admiring the stars and galaxies, I took in a dreadful sight. The shadow man was there with me, just a few yards from my position. He bolted in my direction and I ran; faster than I had ever run before. Escape, however, was not an option. We were in an enclosed environment. Large as it may have been, there were no exits, or at least none that I knew of. Still, guided by a pervasive fear, I ran. I ran until my lungs caught fire and my legs gave out.
I collapsed, and that’s when he struck.
The predator leaned over his wounded prey and placed his hands over my chest. From there, I was drained. Not of my energy, but something else. A swirl of glowing particles arose from my body as the silhouette craned his neck back in satisfaction, like a wolf howling at the moon. His dark, featureless face will forever be etched into my memory.
And then, as I was nearly sucked dry of whatever it was the shadow sought from me, my consciousness wavered. In a matter of seconds, my eyelids drooped and the lights went out. At the time, I thought it was death taking hold. Even at eight years old, I welcomed it. Anything to end the torment. But, as luck would have it, this was not death chasing and torturing me in a light box among the stars.
It was something far worse.
I awoke in bed, my father stationed at my side, trying his best to calm me.
“Come on, Sweetie. It’s okay. It was just a nightmare.”
I wrapped my arms around him and squeezed as tightly as I could, elated to see him again, when just moments before, I was convinced I never would.
“It was a monster! It was gonna get me!”
He pulled my arms away and held my hands in his, looking me right in the eye.
“It was just a bad dream. I won’t let anyone hurt you, okay, Chelsea? Not ever.”
His words were comforting, but he was wrong.
“It wasn’t a dream. You have to believe me, Daddy!”
He sighed and smiled.
“Well, there’s nothing we can do about it now. I’ll leave the door open a crack and you try to get some sleep, okay?”
I nodded and he left, but I didn’t sleep for the rest of the night. It wasn’t a dream. I was certain of that. Every bone in my body rattled and the skin around them crawled at the mere thought of the shadow man and his light box.
It was real. I knew it was.
The years came and went. Every Christmas Eve was the same. Creaks on the stairs followed by the shadow man taking me to his light box and bleeding me of my life force. Then, I would wake in my father’s arms as he consoled me to the best of his ability. No matter how much I insisted it was all true, my psychiatrist and father both believed it to be a recurring nightmare, nothing more. Eventually, I stopped screaming in the middle of the night and pretended to be normal, if for no other reason than to be treated as such.
I lied and told them it was over. From that point forward, no one would ever have to know but me. It was my cross and mine alone to bear.
More time passed and I grew up. I graduated from college and bought a house of my own. The light box stayed with me every step of the way, but I never backed down, outright refusing to let it control my life. This attitude gave me strength in the face of trauma, and for a while, it felt like I was winning. The Christmas Eves didn’t get any easier, but the fear and misery I experienced in the aftermath that followed was fading faster with each passing year.
If this was something I had to live with, at least I could do it on my own terms. It’s what she would have wanted.
But then, the unthinkable happened.
Christmas Eve, 2019. This would be the first holiday I spent in my new home.
The sound was identical to the one from my childhood. Though I had grown used to the routine, it didn’t stop me from hoping each year that it would finally be over, especially now being in a new location for the first time. Location, of course, didn’t matter. I was its focus, not the place.
I hid under my blankets as the goosebumps started forming. Being used to the routine also didn’t afford me a thicker skin in the moments leading up to each event. As soon as it began, I was transformed into an eight year old girl again, frightened of the boogeyman.
This was it. I steeled myself and braced for the worst. The milky, black fog then seeped under the covers and engulfed me completely, placing me in an all too familiar coffin. From there, the darkness relented and transferred me to that godforsaken light box in the sky.
Everything looked the same, just as it always had, save for one glaring difference.
The shadow man was gone; in his place, a gentleman in turn-of-the-century attire, sitting at a desk.
“Hello, Chelsea. Please, have a seat. I think it’s time we talked.”
I was floored. This had never happened before. There was never any dissonance in past events across years of being abducted. It was always the same.
“I can see that you’re confused. Please, have a seat, and all will be explained.”
The feelings that washed over me in this moment were many. Relief over not being chased again; hopeful that this was the end of my many tortured holidays; and even proud that I had somehow ended it myself, having stood my ground over the years. The one that bubbled to the surface above all the rest, however, was curiosity. That’s why I did as instructed and sat at the desk across from the mystery man, anticipating the answers he could offer me.
“Okay, Chelsea. Fire away. What is it you want to know first?”
I pondered a moment and then asked.
“What is this place?”
The man smiled.
“It’s the place where your kind come to rest after expiration.”
“Expiration,” I asked, “You mean death?”
“Yes. Not here, specifically, of course. This is just where we harvest energy.”
I looked around at the vast emptiness.
“Really? There’s nothing here.”
The man chuckled.
“Of course there is! You just can’t see it. We’re a loose collection of molecules doing work at a subatomic level, myself included. I only took this form to make things easier for you. Here, have a visual representation!”
The man snapped his fingers, and all at once the light box vanished. We were still at the desk, but were now at the center of a massive office-space, surrounded by what must have been thousands of cubicles, all with their own workers, rifling through documents and filing cabinets and answering phone calls.
I looked back to the man, still confused.
“I don’t understand. Is this heaven? Are you angels? What’s going on?”
“Angels? Heaven? That’s just what you humans call us. Here, we’re just celestial overseers in the next world. No labels. Just work and dedication.”
Nothing was making sense.
“Why am I here? Why is any of this happening to me?”
The man offered a look of vague concern.
“Well, Chelsea, heaven doesn’t run on will alone. It needs energy to keep going, and we take it from people like you.”
A short man with glasses hobbled over with a stack of paperwork.
“Overseer, what should I do with-“
“NOT NOW, LUCIEN, CAN’T YOU SEE I’M BUSY?!”
Lucien’s eyes widened with regret.
He took off into the maze of cubicles, a trail of papers left on the floor in his wake.
“I’m sorry about that, it’s so hard to find good help these days. Where were we? Oh yes, energy.”
He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms.
“Despair is the greatest energy reserve in the universe. One soul’s worth is enough to power heaven for years. Because of that, we send operatives out every now and again to collect soul pieces from humans. You were the next candidate on our list.”
“Me? Why?” I asked.
He leaned forward and his lips contorted into a wicked smile.
“Your mother’s death? Ring any bells? It was a perfect storm, really. Your mother passing on Christmas Eve, the night when a child is supposed to be at their happiest. From that point on, the holiday was tainted for you. You hurt with every breath you’ve breathed since, but the anniversary of her death bridges you to our world. It’s when your despair is at its peak – ripe for collection.”
A knot formed in the pit of my stomach. As hard as it was to overcome the shadow man’s visits, it was nothing compared to the pain I felt every single day over the loss of my mother, even as an adult. When I was six years old, I wrote a letter to Santa, asking for a cure. It would be my Christmas gift to see her better and walking around again. The cancer took her anyway, and it destroyed our family.
When the shadow man first came up those stairs years ago, I desperately hoped it was Santa, so I could ask him to bring her back.
The tears came without warning and quickly wet my face.
“Chelsea! Don’t fret! You’re one of the lucky ones. Most people have their soul ripped apart until they die and are banished into the ether with all the other abominations, but you’ve lasted far longer than the rest; well into adulthood. Your soul is tarnished, but you still cling to life with a vicious grip, the likes of which I’ve never seen!”
I wiped away my tears and looked back at the man, a smug expression painted across his face.
“So, what is this? You’re letting me go?”
His boisterous laughter bounced off the cubicles and rang in my ears.
“Quite the contrary, Chelsea! Now that your soul is damaged, I want to re-map it; insert my own pieces and build a better weapon. With you, we can extract more energy – enough to sustain us for centuries to come.”
My heart sank when I realized what he was saying. The shadow man. I would become a creature like him.
“No! I refuse!”
“Oh Chelsea, you don’t have a choice in the matter.”
He snapped his fingers and we were in another room. I was strapped down in a chair and could not move, much as I tried. The man came around wearing a lab coat and brought with him a cart full of sharp utensils.
“Don’t worry, Chelsea. This is only going to hurt a lot.”
I screamed, but it didn’t faze him. He picked up a silver scalpel and carved deep into my chest. The pain was intolerable and I vocalized it.
“No need to cry, Chelsea. You have a lot of tissue around your soul, but I’ll get to it, just you wait. It’ll all be over soon.”
Though it shouldn’t have been possible, he reached his arm all the way into me. The pain had yet to subside, but this sensation took the foreground. It was undoubtedly the strangest thing I’ve ever felt.
“Ah! There it is! Lucien! Bring the pieces!”
Lucien stumbled in with a tray of jars, each with a faint orb of light inside, and then placed it on the cart.
“Thank you, Lucien. You may leave.”
The man awkwardly reached for a jar, his other arm still in my chest. Lucien was still there, watching.
“Here, Sir, let me help you!”
Lucien attempted to push the tray closer. It collided with the man’s arm and fell to the floor, breaking every last jar and freeing the soul fragments within, creating a remarkable disc of light in the middle of the room that grew larger with each passing moment.
The man pulled his arm out of my chest.
“God damn it, Lucien! I told you to leave! If the light from these souls reacts with hers, she could reconstitute and wake! We’ll have to wait for the next bridge! You IDIOT!”
The light washed over the room and filled my field of view. I was entombed again, but not in darkness. It was a soothing energy that seemed to heal my wounds and render me painless. Then, like the darkness before it, it dissipated and transported me far, far away.
In a strange turn of events, I had been saved.
I awoke in the comfort of my bed at home, jumping upright with a loud gasp, taking in as much air as I could. After gathering some composure, I noticed a slight burning between my breasts, so I ran to the bathroom, removed my bra, and faced the mirror.
That’s when I saw it.
It was a souvenir from heaven. A scar, right where the man cut me open; a reminder of things to come.
This Christmas Eve, when my despair bridges the gap between our worlds, I will be waiting. However foolish it may be, when I’m in heaven again, I will stop at nothing to see my mother. Now that I know an afterlife exists, it’s the only thing on my mind.
Mom, if you’re out there listening somewhere, watching over me, just know that I’m coming and I won’t let them have me. We’ll be together again, you, me, and Dad. I promise.
I’m going to bring you back. Whatever it takes.
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