If I timed the 911 call just right, the paramedics could revive me before I kicked the bucket for good. At least, that was the hope. Any number of things could go wrong, especially when it came to asphyxiation. I didn’t want to die, per se; I just needed a way in, and this was the only thing I could come up with, however foolish a plan it may have been.
I better be careful about this. Charlotte would never forgive me if I died this way. Get yourself in there and stick to the plan.
Before I could talk myself out of it, I dialed the number, gave the operator my address, and told her what I was about to do. After ending the call, I inhaled a deep, preparatory breath, placed the bag over my head, secured it around my neck, and then released the valve on the helium tank. Maybe it wasn’t the best way to go about taking my own life, but it sure as hell beat slicing up my arms and praying the ambulance would arrive before I bled out on the carpet. As a bonus, it would be completely painless; like falling asleep, if my research was to be believed.
As the gas filled the plastic bubble around my head, my vision began wavering. Darkness crept around my eyes and soon filled my entire field of view. Within moments, I lost consciousness. The last thing I remember was the faint sensation of my body going limp and my head falling against the back of the armchair.
This was it. I only hoped it wouldn’t be the end of me.
For what seemed like an eternity, there was nothing but blackness. Just an endless void that lacked any and all light. That’s how I perceived it, anyway; it’s possible I was seeing the back of my eyelids from a gurney on its way through the emergency room. I just knew I was conscious; at least in some fashion, but with no access to my physical body. An orb of awareness floating through a sea of nothing.
Panic overtook me as I drifted.
What if there is no afterlife? What if I did die and this is all there is to it? Am I doomed to remain this way forever?
These worries were soon put to rest by a dim, white light, visible in the distance. It grew larger in size as the moments passed, indicating that it was getting closer; or that I was getting closer to it. Before long, it enveloped me, bringing with it a soothing warmth, the likes of which I had never felt before.
The feeling subsided almost as quickly as it came, and the light dissipated, revealing my new surroundings.
I was in a white room with a single door at one of its walls. Not white really; I suppose blank is a better word for it; like a brightness with no color. It seemed to breathe as well. The walls, the floor; they expanded and contracted as translucent waves of glowing energy resonated throughout. The only dissonance was the view above. No roof or ceiling; just pitch black as far as the eye could see.
Seeing as the door was my only viable means of progressing, I gathered my wits and approached it. To my surprise, before I could even reach for the handle, it opened, and a man stepped out from within.
He was an older gentleman. Late 50s, gray hair and mustache.
“How do you know me?” I asked, alarmed by his arrival.
He snickered a bit before replying.
“Oh Jack, I’ve known you for quite some time, and I know exactly why you’re here.”
He snapped his fingers and they appeared on either side of him. My wife and daughter.
I took a step forward, but the man put out his hand to stop me.
“They can’t hear you, Jack. They are shells of their former selves.”
I wasn’t quite following.
“What the hell is going on here? How do you know me? What have you done to my wife and daughter?”
“You’re a lucky man, Jack. I’m going to tell you everything. Secrets no mortal was ever meant to know.”
He leaned in a bit before divulging his truths.
“Your kind call us guardian angels, but we don’t protect you; we just observe and make sure things go according to plan. You are the three I’ve been assigned to since Leslie’s birth. It used to be one per human, but there are less of us now than ever before. Now it’s one to a family.”
Confusion washed over me as my mouth opened, but no words came out in response. In truth, I didn’t know what to say.
“And this, if you haven’t guessed by now, is what you humans so lovingly refer to as heaven. The afterlife, if you will. An assortment of rooms, each with their own deceased. It’s a glorified museum of souls, really.”
Looking down at my battered wife and daughter, my patience wore thin.
“That doesn’t explain what you’ve done to my family!”
He threw me an arrogant smile.
“When a person’s been here long enough, we take their life force – extracting every last remnant of their soul.”
“And then? What do you do with the souls you take?” I asked.
His lip curled up a bit before answering.
“We devour them. You humans need air, food, and water to live; we need souls. It’s the only thing keeping us alive. This system of ours has been in place since the dawn of time and will continue long after the universe has folded in on itself. Charlotte and Leslie’s tickets are up. I’ve been picking away at them bit by bit. It’s a long and tedious process – one that’s very unpleasant for the soul’s host. They’re damaged goods now.”
My blood boiled at every word that fell from his lips. Without hesitating, I took a swing at him. My fist met the side of his face and then went right through; like punching a ghost.
“Nice try, Jack.”
My anger only grew.
“Why are you even telling me any of this?!”
His face wrinkled into a more serious look.
“It’s simple, really. I want your soul. Fresh meat is hard to come by these days. When a person dies, we have to wait to consume their essence; a grace period of sorts. From birth, all humans have a divine protection on their souls – a bothersome trait of your evolution. It lingers, even after death. We can only feed after it wears off. By dinnertime, the soul is stale and tasteless – barely enough to maintain our strength. We’re like vampires feeding on cows.”
“Then how do you plan on taking mine?”
His face lit up at the question.
“You are a curious case, Jack. Taking one’s own life is the only thing that voids that pesky barrier. That means your soul is now available for consumption. Unfortunately, even we have our rules.”
He no longer looked so enthused.
“Meaning what, exactly?” I asked.
“You’re not dead. Not completely. There’s still a chance you’ll be saved. That means, while you’re in this cross-section of life and death, I cannot retrieve your soul. Not without your consent.”
He couldn’t touch me. Not without my permission. That one fact gave me hope that the current could still shift in my favor. It was something I could potentially use to my advantage.
“So what is this then, you want me to just hand it over? Why on earth would I ever agree to that?”
He smiled and looked down at Leslie and Charlotte.
“These are – what’s the phrase – my bargaining chips?”
My eyes widened and my heart sank. I was undoubtedly fearful for their safety in all of this. Whatever he was up to, he certainly had my attention now.
“I know all about your haphazard rescue mission. But it was doomed from the start. Even if you somehow managed to escape with them, they have no bodies to return to. They were cremated after the accident. Hell, if I didn’t show up when you arrived, you would have never even found them in this godforsaken maze! It’s larger than the universe itself.”
He was right. It was my desire, all along, to bring them back with me, but I didn’t have much of a plan after getting in. The idea was to find whoever was in charge and beg for their help. I thought, at the very least, I would be allowed to communicate with them and make sure they were okay; maybe even ask for their forgiveness.
“So what are you saying? You can give them their bodies back? Make them alive again?”
“That’s not possible. Look at them, Jack. They’re well past dead. Not even I have the power to rectify what’s been done.”
I took a closer look. Charlotte adorned a pair of empty eyes and pale skin, stuck in a zombie-like stupor. Even Leslie, who had always been so vibrant and full of life when she was alive, was now still. As still as she was on that slab in the morgue after the accident.
I looked away, tears now rolling down my cheeks. I just wanted to bring them back. My wife and my sweet little girl. It was my job to protect them and I failed. I’m the one who did this. I was the one behind the wheel. It should have been me instead.
“I’m so sorry… It should have been me, I just-“
The man interjected.
“I can offer you a ceasefire of sorts. If you agree to let me absorb your soul, your family here will get a little break. Let’s say, one hundred years before their final extraction?”
It was probably a good deal, but I couldn’t bear the thought of my family being hurt in any way, even if it wasn’t for another century.
He placed his hand to his chin in contemplation before dislocating it and tossing me a stern look.
“Okay, how about a thousand?”
That wasn’t good enough. He needed something I had. So long as that was true, I could haggle for something better, like my family’s freedom.
“I want them alive again. If you can do that, we have a deal.”
He scoffed at my counter-offer.
“Even if their souls were in perfect condition and bodies unscathed, resurrection is not an option. It’s far outside the range of my capabilities.”
I glared at him in disbelief.
“How do I know you’re telling the truth?”
“You don’t have to believe me, Jack, but I’m not lying. One thousand years is the best I can do. Take it or leave it.”
Maybe he was being honest. Even so, I didn’t like the offer. If I accepted, I would be knowingly throwing my wife and daughter’s souls to the beast. They would be chewed up and swallowed like table scraps. No. I couldn’t let that happen.
The man let out a sigh of disappointment. He then waltzed over and put a condescending hand on my shoulder.
“Come on, Jack. Can’t you put your family first for once?”
My hands were now clenched; the tips of my nails almost breaking skin. I took another swing, but, much like before, my hand passed right through with no resistance whatsoever. He was toying with me and knew just what buttons to push.
“How dare you. How dare you stand there and judge me when you’re the one tormenting innocent people – leveraging two lives to bargain for a better meal.”
“It’s about survival, Jack. A fresh soul like yours could keep me alive for thousands of years. I can’t afford to be empathetic when my very existence is on the line!”
I turned away, completely disgusted, but half-considering his offer. It was, after all, the only one on the table. Even if they were going to have their souls desecrated, I could at least delay the inevitable.
“You know what, Jack. I’m going to make you one final offer. Your family gets a thousand years, and in addition, you will get a severance package. While your soul is being ripped from your vessel, I will put you in a trance. You won’t feel any pain. You’ll be locked away in your own memories, free to relive the best moments of your life again and again until your time is up.”
I stood silent for a moment, thinking it over.
“I like you, Jack. I really do. This could be beneficial for the both of us. Here, let me show you.”
The man placed a hand on my forehead. In an instant, the room faded, and I was transported into my car, driving down the back roads of our old neighborhood, Charlotte and Leslie in the backseat, looking out the window at Christmas lights. It was a memory of mine from last winter.
Just then, the man from heaven appeared in the passenger’s seat.
“This is one of my favorites. You were so happy back then.”
“What the hell are you doing here?” I asked.
“Don’t worry, they can’t see me. I’m in total control. Please Jack, humor me. Look at them.”
I stole a glimpse of Charlotte and Leslie through the rearview mirror. They were smiling, happily looking out at all the decorated houses. It wasn’t really my wife and daughter; just a memory, but it felt so good to see them like this. It was peaceful.
“I can make it feel like years in here, Jack. Just say the word and it’s yours.”
It was a tempting offer. More than tempting, actually. It took every fiber in me not to accept right then and there. The only thing I wanted more than to live in a fantasy like this was the real thing. More than that, I wanted my family to be safe.
“Why can’t you just let them go? I’ll give you my soul. I just want them to be safe.”
“I told you, Jack. It’s not within my power. Their souls have been thoroughly shredded.”
“AND WHO’S FAULT IS THAT?!” I yelled.
He shook his head in disapproval.
“Yours, if I remember correctly. You’re the one who swerved off the road and killed your family. I was just feeding to stay alive. Survival is a basic instinct that isn’t unique to just humans, you know!”
We sat quiet for the rest of the ride, both seething with anger. Once the memory ran its course and I pulled into our driveway at home, the man turned to me and placed his hand on my forehead again, putting me in another memory. This time, I was in a hospital.
I heard Charlotte screaming, and all at once it came back to me. This was the day Leslie was born.
“Beautiful, isn’t it. Gross, but beautiful.”
The man from heaven was now at my side, watching the moment unfold. After all was said and done, a nurse came over and handed me a newborn Leslie.
“Congratulations, sir. It’s a girl.”
She didn’t cry. Instead, her eyes opened, she took one look up at me, and then placed her tiny hand on my chest. She was mine and I was hers. My little girl. In the years that passed since this day, I had almost forgotten how much this moment affected me. This was, without a shadow of a doubt, the happiest day of my life.
The man from heaven placed a hand on my back and offered me a smile.
I looked back down at Leslie, but she was gone. In looking up, the whole room was now empty; no doctors, nurses, or staff. All life had vanished from the hospital. There was just me, the man, and a harrowing silence.
He sat down on the hospital bed where Charlotte had just given birth.
“These precious moments are all you have left now. You should take them while you still can.”
A single tear fell from my face. It started happy, rolling down my cheek at the sight of my daughter, so precious and loving. It ended sad when she disappeared, grazing my chin and hitting the floor with a heartbreaking splash. It reminded me of the day she was taken from me. The day I lost both of them.
“What’ll it be, Jack? The clock is ticking.”
It was probably the best offer I would get, but the image of Charlotte and Leslie, lifeless and broken, stayed with me. If there were ever a moment to fight for my family, this was it.
“Save my wife and daughter and I’m yours.”
The man’s face turned sour as he stood up and marched over to me.
“I have just about had it with you! Do you know how many people in the world would die for an offer like this? You killed yourself for your family and you can’t even lift a finger to help them in their time of need?!”
“I am helping them. It’s simple. You need my soul and I need their safety. Not for a finite period of time, and not in here. Down there, on earth, far away from things like you. Figure out how to make it happen or no deal.”
His lips contorted into a mad grin.
“You know what? I have a better idea!”
He placed his hand on my forehead once more and transported us to another memory. This one was all too familiar.
“No… it can’t be…”
Charlotte was in the passenger’s seat. Through the rearview mirror, I saw the man sitting in the back, next to Leslie.
“Oh yes, Jack, it can. This is the night you killed your family.”
I immediately attempted to stop the car, but my body’s movements were out of my control.
“No! You can’t do this!”
“Of course I can! Now pipe down, I’m trying to watch the show!”
Eventually, I swerved and we crashed into that damned tree. That cold pillar of wood whose image would forever be etched into my mind, plaguing my every nightmare. The sound of my daughter’s screams echoed all around before giving way to the shattering of glass and the loud crunch of deforming metal. The abrupt silence that followed was sickening. Just as I had on the day in question, I craned my neck back and saw Leslie, covered in blood and shrapnel. Charlotte was even worse. Her airbag failed to go off, so she ricocheted off the windshield, breaking her neck. Her head was hunched over; bent farther back than I thought humanly possible.
Shortly after witnessing the aftermath, I passed out, and the horror continued.
I awoke in the car at the same moment as before. Charlotte was next to me and Leslie was in the backseat next to that twisted angel and his piercing smile.
“So, what’ll it be Jack? Take my offer or we relive this crash indefinitely. Even if the paramedics revive you down there on earth, I can make this feel like a lifetime or more. You can have a thousand years of peace for your wife and daughter, or a thousand years of this. Can your fragile mind even handle that? Let’s find out!”
The car swerved, my daughter screamed, and my family died. Then it all started again.
“Come on, Jack! Just say yes. It’s that simple. Give me your soul!”
No. I had to fight for them. They were worth the anguish.
“Save them and you can have it.”
“Alright Jack, have it your way.”
Swerve. Screams. Tree. Death. It kept happening; an endless loop of torture. I must have experienced it over fifty times without pause. I wasn’t sure I could hold out much longer.
“I have to hand it to you, Jack. You have a formidable will on your side. Still, you will be crushed beneath the weight, it’s just a matter of time.”
It must have been the hundredth crash or so. It took me that long to notice it. I must have repressed the memory, or maybe it was knocked loose in the crash, but on this particular replay of events, out of the corner of my eye, I was able to catch a quick glimpse of what it was I was swerving to avoid.
It was a man, standing in the middle of the road. There was something familiar about him, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what.
A dozen more crashes came and went, each more devastating than the last. To distract myself from the pain of losing my family again and again, I focused on that man in the road, trying desperately to identify what it was I recognized about him. It was difficult in the pandemonium; his outline distant and out of focus, but eventually, it came to me. I knew exactly where I had seen him before.
Another loop started.
“I’m growing bored of this, Jack. Let’s strike this deal and be done with it.”
“It was you. You were the one standing in the road. You’re the one I was avoiding when I swerved. It was you, this whole time.”
Looking at him through the mirror, I watched him become visibly nervous when I finally put the pieces together.
“Like I said, Jack. Survival. If I waited any longer for any of you to die, I would have perished myself. It was nothing personal.”
The car came to a stop and my family vanished, leaving just me and him behind.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
I turned to see him staring out the car window, defeated.
“This little outing of ours had to be sanctioned with the higher-ups. They’ve been monitoring everything. I thought I tampered with your memory well enough for you to forget. Now that you know, they know too. I’ll have to stand trial. It won’t be long now before-“
In this moment, a beam of light penetrated the car and engulfed the man, effectively vaporizing him before my very eyes. A few flakes of ash danced through the air and settled on the seat below. Afterwards, another man appeared at my side in the passenger’s seat.
“Hello, Jack. How are you today?”
Startled, I fell back against the car door.
“Who are you?”
“One of the higher-ups he was talking about.”
He pointed at the pile of ash in the backseat.
“Is he… dead?” I asked.
“Yes, more dead than anything in this universe can be, in fact. I saw to it myself.”
Having seen what I just saw, I cowered a bit while conversing with this new danger.
“May I ask… why you killed him?”
“Certainly. You see, Jack, he broke one of our cardinal rules. It’s true that we feed on the souls of humans we’re assigned, but, no matter how hungry we get, we are not allowed to interfere in the natural order of things. You and your family were meant to live long lives, but he caused a premature disturbance, nudging your wife and daughter into the hereafter so he could feed.”
It was all becoming clear now. That man ruined my life. He was to blame for everything.
“He put self-preservation before our laws and that can not go unpunished. No trial. No questions. Please, accept my apology on his behalf.”
A wave of anger overcame me as I sat upright to meet his gaze.
“Apology? My wife and daughter are dead and their souls tarnished, all because you couldn’t keep one of your own in line? Keep your apology! It means nothing to me.”
His friendly demeanor turned cold as I said this.
“You know, people who speak to someone like me in that sort of tone usually end up like him.”
Again, he pointed to the backseat. I returned to a cowering position, realizing I may have just crossed a powerful, celestial being.
He sighed and then smiled.
“It’s okay, Jack. I will set things right.”
Like the man before him, he placed a hand on my forehead. After that, my sight was overtaken by a familiar darkness. A vast void where I could do nothing but drift. Then, I saw it. It was faint at first, but its glow became more visible as time went on.
It was a light, and soon it enveloped me.
I awoke in a hospital, the rhythmic pang of my pulse emanating from a monitor at the side of the bed.
Did he… bring me back?
A nurse passed by the room and did a double-take before entering.
“Oh my gosh, you’re awake!”
She dashed over to my IV and replaced the fluids while checking my vitals on the monitor.
“How long was I out?”
“Oh, about three days or so.”
Only three days? It felt a hell of a lot longer.
“You’re going to be on suicide watch after that stunt you pulled, just to forewarn you.”
“It beats being dead, I guess.”
“You’ve got that right, Mister.”
I hadn’t fully gathered my composure yet, but the nurse’s next words woke me right up.
“Oh. You have some visitors. It’s your wife and daughter.”
Charlotte and Leslie? What? But how?
“I’ll send them in.”
A few minutes later, I saw them. My heart nearly stopped right then and there.
Charlotte ran over pulled me into a tight embrace. Leslie followed behind.
“We missed you, Daddy!”
I don’t have words for how I felt. They were back. My family, in my arms again.
“Is this really happening? How are you here?”
“It was this man, Jack. He came and patched us up and then sent us back. It’s like we never left.”
She was crying. Happy tears, not sad ones.
“It’s a miracle, Jack.”
I took them in my arms and cried too, an enormous smile stretched across my face. This was now the happiest day of my life. I finally had my girls back, and I wouldn’t let anyone or anything take them away ever again.
Whenever that day does come and we have to move on to the next world, I will be prepared. Mark my words; somehow, I will find a way to protect their souls from harm. No one will lay a hand on my family; not while I’m around.
I won’t allow it.
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WRITTEN BY: Christopher Maxim (Contact • Other Stories • Subreddit)
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