“Alright, Jack. Are you ready?”
After being strapped down by the orderlies, an older gentleman with a white coat stepped over and looked down at me as my back caressed the cold, metal slab I was fastened to. I presumed this was Doctor Covenwood, the lab’s head of operations.
“Uhhh… I guess so.”
This was risky business. I would be humanely injected and gassed with various chemicals to render me medically dead. Then, I would be revived to report my findings as part of a study on near-death experiences and the afterlife. If I survived, $5,000 would be deposited into my bank account as payment.
“Don’t worry, Jack. We’ve done this dozens of times so far and have yet to lose a single soul. You’ll be fine.”
I know what you’re thinking and you’re right; this was not legal by any stretch of the imagination. No one in their right mind would have even agreed to participate in such a study, but I was truly desperate. The pandemic left me jobless and the bills were piling up. An old college buddy who works for the lab knew about my situation and reached out to recruit me for the project.
“Alright, Jack. I’ll be in the next room behind the one-way glass. You’ll be able to hear me over the intercom. Once we start, there’s no going back. This is your last chance. Are you absolutely sure you want to go through with this?”
I mulled it over for a moment, but the choice was clear. There were certainly other options at my disposal for recouping my financial losses, but that wasn’t the only reason I agreed to take part in the study. The real reason I was risking my life ran much deeper than that.
“Let’s do it, Doctor.”
A smile spread across his face.
“That’s the spirit!”
Doctor Covenwood scurried out to the control room and fired up the intercom as quick as he could, probably to get the ball rolling before I changed my mind.
“Remember, Jack, you’ll only be gone for thirty seconds, then we’ll bring you back. Still, it may seem a lot longer to you once you’re… well, wherever it is you’re going. Time dances to the beat of its own drum in some places. Retain what information you can upon waking and tell us what it is you’ve seen.”
I nodded at the camera hanging above me from the ceiling.
“Alright, Jack. This is it. See you on the other side.”
I remembered bracing myself for death, but it’s all fuzzy after that; bits and pieces of memory floating in a vast ocean of consciousness. I can only recall the sensation of falling and the occasional voice whispering in my ear, though I could not for the life of me make out what it was saying. When I finally came to, the scene in front of me took form and revealed my surroundings.
However inexplicable it may seem, I was in what appeared to be the lobby of a large building. There were hardwood floors, lavish staircases, and gorgeous rays of light flooding the room from tall, stained-glass windows on every side of me. Directly in my line of sight was a desk and what appeared to be a receptionist. He looked up and smiled.
“You must be Jack. Please, come with me.”
In an instant, without even getting up from his seat, the man was in front of me. Before I could react, he took me by the arm and we appeared somewhere upstairs by the balcony in front of a door.
“Here you are – Room 371. The Overseer will see you now.”
And just like that, he vanished again.
Thanks. I guess.
Overwhelmed by everything, I didn’t enter the room right away and instead leaned over the railing and surveyed the area. That’s when I noticed a plethora of shelves lining the walls, each with their own collection of jars; a soft light emanating from within. I wanted to study them further, but was cut off by a booming voice that echoed through the hall.
“Come in, Jack. I haven’t got all day.”
It was coming from Room 371. Not wishing to further test the patience of whatever being was summoning me, I opened the door and walked in.
“Please, Jack. Have a seat.”
Sitting at a desk in the room was a clean-cut man in turn-of-the-century attire, gesturing at the chair in front of me.
I sat and the man stared me down. If he was trying to intimidate me, it was working.
“Alright. On with it. I know you must have questions. Fire away.”
He was right. I did.
“Where are we?”
“You humans are so predictable. Well, for lack of a self-descriptor, this is what you would refer to as the hereafter – a place where all souls go upon expiration.”
“So Heaven is… a cathedral?”
He chuckled again.
“Who said anything about Heaven? There is no good or bad place, just this. And no, it’s not a cathedral. It appears different to every departed soul. You see it as a cathedral, another might see it as a monastery, or even a small cottage tucked away in the hills. Whatever peaceful scenery makes the transition easier.”
He adjusted himself in his chair, raised his hand, and lifted a single finger.
“One more question, Jack. Then we move on to more pressing matters.”
This was my chance. The reason I was there in the first place.
“Can I see my wife and daughter?”
He didn’t expect that, turning his chair to face me.
“Ahh, I see. Now I understand. Is that why you joined Doctor Covenwood’s little study group? That I wouldn’t have predicted.”
He saw the surprise in my expression.
“Oh yes, Jack. I know all about the good doctor and his trials. He works for us.”
My surprise turned to confusion.
“Works for you? What do you mean?”
The Overseer raised his hand again and snapped his fingers. All at once we were transported to another space. It was small and white. Too white. And the lighting was strange. Brighter than your average room, but still dimmer than a hospital. It was off-putting. To make matters worse, I was strapped to another table, completely immobile in the center of the room. The Overseer stood by and picked up tools from a rolling cart. Needles, blades, among other sharp utensils.
“I can’t believe a human would risk his own life on the off-chance he might be reunited with loved ones. It’s admirable, I suppose, but no, Jack, you will not see Charlotte and Leslie. We have far more important business to attend to.”
My heart was pounding. I had no idea what he was up to, but I knew it couldn’t be anything good.
“What’s going on? What are you doing?”
He cracked a smile.
“Well, Jack, what the good doctor failed to let you in on was that our agreement involves him sending us wayward souls. In exchange, we offer him information about our world.”
He walked around to the opposite side of me with the cart and pushed it up against the table. I winced and let out a small scream. He laughed.
“You see, Jack, human souls are a delicacy here. The taste is so… intoxicating.”
He closed his eyes and trembled.
“We were never meant to devour souls, but we’ve been hear for so long. Billions of years. Maybe more. We, like all things, need stimulation. To that end, we face but one obstacle. The pesky laws of this realm dictate that we can neither lie nor take what isn’t ours. It’s a failsafe of the Creator’s design, put in place to keep us from harming you, making it physically impossible to extract your soul without consent. You must give it to us willingly.”
Though frightened, I mustered up enough courage to respond.
“Why would I do something like that?”
He replied with a horrible grin.
“That’s the beauty of our arrangement. When a normal soul dies, we give them the option. Let us cut you open and take your soul, or live in a jar for all eternity. There’s almost no incentive to hand it over, so almost everyone chooses the latter option. In your case, your time isn’t up. The doctor is waiting on the other side to revive you, but I won’t let him unless you give me what I want! Time will remain still until your soul is mine. Your thirty seconds will never end.”
He licked his lips in anticipation.
“If you want to go back, just say the word. Otherwise, get comfortable.”
It was a lot to process. Still, none of it mattered. Seeing my wife and daughter again was the only thing keeping me going. Knowing that I couldn’t be with them eliminated any incentive I would have had to continue living.
“No. You can’t have it. I’ll stay.”
His smile vanished as he threw the cart and grabbed me by the shoulders, placing his face directly over mine. His eyes were now red and his mouth full of dagger-like teeth that overlapped one another in a grotesque pattern.
“You will give me your soul and I will rip away every last fiber of your flesh to get it.”
He dug a silver blade into my chest and drooled over the wound. It was like battery acid. Worse than any pain I had ever felt before. I screamed in agony. He backed away, wiped his chin, and his face returned to normal.
“Sorry about that. I got a little carried away. Still, you will agree to my terms, or suffer further torment.”
The pain was immense, but I would not bow to him.
“No. I refuse.”
His grin returned.
“You misunderstand, Jack. The torture you will experience is not of a physical nature.”
He snapped his fingers and we were transported again, somewhere else entirely.
I was alone, in a familiar forest; one just outside town where we liked to camp from time to time. The sun was setting as the evening drew near. The air was still and the wildlife quiet.
This was the night they died.
“What do you think, Jack? I’d say it looks almost identical.”
The Overseer appeared before me.
“What the hell is this?”
His lips stretched wide across his cheeks.
“Just a recreation of the events that led up to your family’s death.”
I looked at him in disbelief.
“You remember, don’t you? You were out here gathering firewood while they played by the lake.”
A tear rolled down my cheek.
“When Leslie fell, bumped her head on the dock, and then sank deep beneath the water? Charlotte called out to you, but you were nowhere to be found.”
It happened as he spoke of it.
“Jack, she fell in. Jack, help! Oh my god, she’s unconscious. Jack!”
Just as I did that night, I dropped the branches in my hand and ran as fast as I could towards the lake. Recreation or not, I couldn’t ignore my family.
“Your wife jumped in to save her, but her legs were far too weak to swim.”
The Overseer appeared at every tree I passed, his voice staying with me every step of the way.
“The physical therapy worked wonders, but she had only been out of her wheelchair for a month.”
He was right. On her way to work, Charlotte was struck by a drunk driver. She survived, but her spine suffered a lot of damage. The doctors weren’t sure she would walk again. This camping trip was supposed to be a celebration. It was the first thing Charlotte wanted to do when she was upright again.
“Stop it, you bastard!”
Charlotte continued to call out for me.
Her voice was muffled by the water she was treading. There was a sickening gurgle in between her outbursts; a gut wrenching sound that haunted my every nightmare for months to come and rang in my ears even after waking.
“You arrived at the lake, but it was too late.”
I ran over, tears wetting my face, and pulled Charlotte and Leslie from the water. The Overseer stayed close and observed. I tried my best to administer chest compressions and CPR, but it was no use. My girls were dead, and I could do nothing but sob over their corpses.
“Alright, Jack. Time for Round 2!”
The Overseer snapped his fingers and we were back in the forest. Soon enough, I heard Charlotte’s voice, once again crying out for help. To my dismay, the sequence of events had begun again.
I turned to the Overseer, standing by my side, and took a swing, but there was no connection. My fist stopped inches from his smug face, halted by an unseen force. He cackled in response.
“Why are you doing this?!”
“You know why, Jack! Give me your soul, or submit to this existence! You will be stuck here forever, left to relive the worst night of your life again and again!”
I ran to the lake. Faster this time. Still, when I arrived, they were gone.
“That’s right, Jack. No matter what happens, this will be the conclusion. You will never make it in time. Never.”
We appeared back in the forest.
“What will it be, Jack?”
I ran again. The Overseer followed.
“No. I won’t do it. I can save them, this time. I know I can.”
The Overseer’s eyes became red as he moved from tree to tree.
Charlotte continued to call out for me, I continued to run. After it was done, it started again. And again. And again. All the while, the Overseer stayed and watched and laughed. Eventually, I cried myself dry. I pressed on anyway, determined to save them, even if it was all part of an elaborate illusion. I needed this. More than the Overseer knew.
Eventually, he interrupted.
I ignored him at first.
I ran as fast as I could, Charlotte’s voice as my beacon, well on my way to another lakeside funeral.
The Overseer stepped in front of me. The scene around us vanished. We were now surrounded by darkness; a mysterious place devoid of any and all light.
“If you truly insist on continuing this run down memory lane, then I think it’s time we changed some things. Have fun, Jack. This will be your life now.”
He snapped his fingers and I was back in the woods. This time, I was completely alone and a dark fog hung above the forest’s canopy, cloudy and still. Focused, I ran past the trees, but Charlotte’s voice never met my ear.
Something was amiss.
I arrived at the lake moments later and was greeted with the usual, horrific sight. Charlotte and Leslie, face-down on the surface of the water. I pulled them out, as I had so many times before, but something changed when their bodies touched the shore.
They stood up.
Charlotte and Leslie’s lifeless bodies now stood upright before me, eyes darker than the deep abyss they were pulled from. Water spilled from their mouths as they walked toward me. Charlotte then spoke.
“You killed us, Jack. You killed us.”
I backed away in terror, sobbing the whole way.
“Charlotte, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Leslie stepped ahead.
“Why didn’t you save me, Daddy?”
I fell to my knees as they approached.
“I love you both so much and miss you terribly. Please forgive me. I never meant for this to happen.”
Charlotte leaned over and put a cold hand on my head.
“You lived. You don’t deserve forgiveness on top of that.”
She pressed her lips to mine and the taste of death coated my tongue. I tried to disconnect, but she forced me against her with brute strength, her arms wrapped tightly around my head. Then, she began sucking the air from lungs.
Leslie chimed in.
“This is how we felt, Daddy. We couldn’t breathe. Now you can be like us.”
I struggled and struggled, but couldn’t break free. Just before losing the last drop of air in my lungs, something happened. It was faint at first, but then grew to an audible whisper. I recognized it as it crept into my ear. It was the same disembodied voice that followed me to the afterlife. I could now tell that it was that of Charlotte. The real Charlotte.
Save us, Jack.
I didn’t know what she meant.
Please, Jack. You have to make a deal with the Overseer.
Make a deal. Okay. I could do that.
By some miracle, I was able to rip myself away and inhale as much oxygen as I could in one breath. Then, before the corpses could attack again, I called out to the Overseer.
“Okay! I’m ready to bargain.”
The dead versions of Charlotte and Leslie vanished. The sky opened up, revealing a full moon. Its dim light soaked small ripples in the lake as the Overseer walked up from behind.
“Had a change of heart, have we?”
I took another deep breath. Charlotte’s whisper was still with me, guiding me the rest of the way.
He can’t lie. Ask him some questions.
“Okay, I’ll give you my soul, but first, I have questions.”
He rolled his eyes.
“Fine. On with it then.”
Ask him about the jarred souls. What he does with them.
“What do you do with the souls once they’re jarred?”
He squinted at me, suspiciously.
“Where is this coming from, Jack?”
I was firm in my reply.
“Just answer me.”
He clenched his teeth.
“Fine. For the most part, they stay, untouched, in their jars, on their shelves. But… sometimes… we take them out and ask again for consent.”
“How do you do that? Torture?”
His eyes widened at the word.
“Of course, Jack. What other way is there?”
Ask about us.
“What about Charlotte and Leslie then? Do you torture them?”
He leaned in and snickered.
“Yes. The same as I’m torturing you now. They relive this night just as you have. Your wife is strong, but I’ll break her. Then they’re souls will be mine, just as yours will be. A matching set if there ever was one.”
My blood was boiling. I wanted to lash out, but Charlotte’s voice soothed me.
Save us, Jack.
The pieces clicked into place.
“Alright. I’m going to give you a choice.”
The Overseer scoffed at me.
“You’re going to give me a choice?”
“Yes. I can guarantee you that Charlotte won’t give in to your head games and neither will I – not so long as we have each other. You can either keep trying and torture us until the end of time – or, if you have better things to attend to, and I’m sure you do, you can let me go.”
He looked shocked.
“Let you go?”
“No more torturing my wife and daughter and allow the doctor to revive me. When I die, my soul is yours to do with as you please. It’s the only guarantee that you’ll get any of us.”
He stood back and pondered for a moment.
“You make a compelling argument Jack. Normally, I wouldn’t even consider a deal like this, but I’ve wasted enough time on you three as it is. As such, here is my counter offer. I’m feeling generous, so I’ll offer you two years on Earth with your soul intact and your family will rest during that time. Then, you will die, and I will retrieve all three of your souls. Your familial bond can serve as consent for the lot of you.”
There was no way I would accept those terms, but Charlotte’s voice chimed in.
Take the deal, Jack. It will be fine. We’ll have two years to find a way out of it.
I didn’t like it, but I had to listen to my wife. She always knew best.
“Okay. You have yourself a deal.”
The Overseer smiled and then snapped his fingers.
I awoke in the lab to Doctor Covenwood at my side, tending to the wound in my chest, left by the Overseer.
“Oh good, you’re awake!”
Knowing the hand he played in this, I looked up at him in disgust.
“I know. I know. I’m sorry, Jack. It’s just the way it has to be. This research is vital to the progression of mankind.”
He finished bandaging me up, undid my straps, and backed away, probably expecting a fist to the face.
“You’re just lucky I was able to make a deal with the Overseer to protect my family.”
I stood up and Doctor Covenwood stepped out and into the control room, opting to speak through the intercom.
“Actually, Jack, that was all a part of the plan. One soul at a time used to cut it, but as of late, the Overseer wants more.”
He let out a loud sigh before continuing.
“There’s no way out of this, I’m afraid. In two years time, you’ll be done for. I hope you understand.”
The sound of tapping away at a keyboard came through the speaker, followed by a voice. Charlotte’s voice.
“Save us, Jack.”
My heart sank.
“I used old recordings of your wife and created a simple program that would allow me to alter my voice to sound like hers. Everything I said over the intercom, you were able to hear on the other side. I’m so sorry, Jack.”
Oh my god. What have I done?
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