I was a bloody mess. After the twelve car pile-up on the freeway, it was a miracle I was even conscious, albeit just barely. There was only one hospital within a thirty mile radius, so all of us were sent there; some via ambulance, others by helicopter. Overwhelmed with the influx of patients, the staff scattered us all over. I was in a bed normally reserved for the lesser injured out in the foyer, as were some of the others involved in the crash. We were separated only by thin curtains as surgical teams struggled to keep us breathing.
If I’m being honest, at the time, I couldn’t even remember my own name, let alone what had happened. It all felt so surreal; like a dream I couldn’t wake from.
“We’re losing her!”
Those were the first three words I comprehended since arriving at the hospital. They came from a doctor operating on a young girl in the bed to my left. Through blurred vision and a small gap in the curtains, I could just make out her features.
She was maybe six years old with long blonde hair, bloodied and in critical condition. She looked so familiar, but I couldn’t figure out why. As I stared, it came to me.
My daughter. Yes, my daughter. She looks just like her.
That was it. She reminded me of my daughter, Leslie. I smiled, but then remembered the last time I saw her. It was in her casket as she and my wife were both lowered into the earth, victims of a car accident themselves.
Oh no. Did I cause this? Was I trying to kill myself?
As the pieces were coming back to me, I remembered the accident, though I couldn’t quite place how it all started. Still, it posed the question; did I do this to be with them? Did I want to die the same way they did?
No, no. That can’t be. I would never purposefully harm others.
Unless… I was intoxicated.
I could now taste it. The faint, leftover residue of alcohol on my tongue.
Oh god. No, please no. What have I done?
Just then, the sound of a flatline rang through the hospital. It was her; the young girl. She was dying.
A slew of doctors rushed over, including some of my own. There were chest compressions, the kiss of life, and a few shocks from the paddles, but it was no use. I watched in horror as her head tilted to face me, lifeless and cold.
Something happened when I saw this girl die. Something I can’t quite explain. Whether it was a result of my trauma or the medicine I was administered, I can’t be sure. I only know that I cracked.
“Leslie! No! My little girl! Please no! You have to save her!”
My heart broke and my sanity along with it. All I could see was Leslie, lying on a stretcher on her way to the ER, lying on that slab in the morgue, and finally, lying in her coffin at the funeral.
Some staff ran over and held me down as I stood up in an attempt to run to the girl’s aid. They were about to inject me with a sedative, but it was too late. I was in pretty bad shape; just barely hanging on. This sudden burst of movement did me in once and for all and my flatline was the next sound echoing through the halls. My time was up.
And that was that. Fade to black. Lights out. It was all over. At least I could finally see my family again.
Little did I know, things would not be that simple.
It was instantaneous. There was no tunnel and no light at the end of it. No portal to walk through or pearly white gates to enter. I simply opened my eyes and I was there. Where, exactly? I couldn’t be sure at the time; it looked like an ordinary room, covered from corner to corner in a lavish, white overlay. It wasn’t what I would call vast, but it certainly was large. Approximately an acre of coverage, if my depth perception could be trusted.
After a moment or so, a man appeared before me. Late 50s, maybe. Gray hair. Gray mustache. Turn of the century attire. I took a step back, startled by his sudden arrival.
“Don’t be frightened! We never could get the hang of subtle entrances. Sorry about that.”
I remained silent, unsure of how to respond.
“Well, I’m sure you have your questions. Fire away!”
He was right, I did.
“Where are we? Who are you?”
“Ah, yes. The usual queries. This, my dear friend, is heaven, and I am an angel, here to transition you through the process.”
“Process,” I asked.
“Yes. The process of death.”
It was coming back to me. The accident, the hospital, and that poor little girl.
“So I… didn’t make it?”
He bore a look of concern.
“I’m sorry to say, no, you did not. But please, if you’ll accompany me on a little tour, I can show you to your room. You may have died, but this is the best place you could have ended up, I assure you!”
He started walking to the opposite side of the room. I followed, but continued asking questions.
“So this is the heaven? I made it here? But didn’t I cause that terrible accident?”
“Cause it? No, Jack. Even in your drunken state, you were trying to stop it from the side of the road, yelling over to that lunatic swerving all over the place.”
The memory was coming into focus. I wasn’t driving. I was walking along the freeway with a bottle of whiskey in hand, making the trek to my wife and daughter’s crosses where they died years ago. Inebriated, I couldn’t run away fast enough when the cars finally collided, caught in the wreckage as soon as the fireworks began.
The man watched as the revelation washed over me.
“Remember now, Jack?”
I nodded, relieved that I wasn’t the reason those people were hurt. That brought me to my next question; a more pressing matter.
“My wife and daughter? Are they here? Can I see them?”
The man offered me an apologetic look.
“I’m sorry, Jack. They’ve already transitioned. Charlotte and Leslie are no longer with us.”
My heart sank. For an instant, I had hoped that I could see them again. Knowing the truth crushed me. I had to know more. To know that they were okay.
“When you say transitioned, what does that entail, exactly? Does that mean they moved on – that they’re at peace?”
We reached the end of the room where there was a single, red door. The man grabbed the handle and opened it, gesturing for me to enter.
“Well, let me show you!”
Without any other options at my disposal, I hesitantly walked past the threshold of the doorframe and the man followed, shutting the door behind us. He then walked ahead and turned back to me with his arms outstretched.
“Welcome to our Hall of Operations!”
There was a tinge of pride in his voice as he said this.
“Hall of Operations,” I asked, confused.
“Please, right this way!”
We walked down the corridor and he pointed out the various rooms along the way, all identical to one another. I looked through the small windows of their doors and saw people, some of which I recognized from the crash, lying on tables within, unconscious. There were others in the rooms with them, their hands held over the bodies as a steady stream of blue, glowing particles was extracted and absorbed, from what I could tell.
“I don’t understand. What is this?”
The man was now grinning from ear to ear.
“This is where the magic happens. A mutually beneficial transaction between angel and human. We fulfill your wildest dreams, and in return, you give us a piece of your soul.”
For the first time since arriving heaven, I was now worried.
“You want a piece of my soul? Am I hearing this right?”
He put a hand on my shoulder, undoubtedly in an effort to calm my nerves.
“Don’t worry, Jack. It’s a mostly harmless procedure. You won’t feel a thing.”
I pushed his hand away and took a few steps back, scared of what I had gotten myself into.
“Jack, please, listen to me. As angels, we require the essence of human souls to sustain our life force. From birth, as a measure of evolution, a piece of your soul is sectioned off from the rest. You technically don’t even need it. It was always meant to be passed along to us in the hereafter. It’s the only part of you we can access.”
His explanation seemed genuine. I stood still and lent him an open mind as he continued.
“While we extract this piece, you will be locked away in your own mind. We can create for you, your own personal heaven. Anything or any place you want, and it’s yours. An even trade if there ever was one.”
Upon hearing this, I gathered my composure and asked a question.
“So… you could reunite me with my family?”
“If that’s what you want, then yes. Just know that it won’t actually be them. It’s all a fabrication of the mind. A very powerful one, but a fabrication nonetheless.”
I was vulnerable. My wife and child were gone, I had just died myself, and I had no idea what was going on. That’s why, in this moment, his honesty was enough to earn him my trust. That, and the promise of what he offered.
“I don’t care. I just want to see them again.”
He nodded in agreement.
“Very well. Follow me to your room and we will begin the process.”
We walked past at least another hundred doors or so, and that’s when I noticed her through one of the windows. It was the girl. The one who died next to me in the hospital. She was standing in a corner, as an angel closed in on her. My parental instinct kicked in and I burst into the room without any hesitation.
“What’s going on,” I demanded.
The angel looked to the man behind me.
“It’s alright, Lucien. He knows her.”
Lucien turned his eyes to me and explained.
“She’s frightened. That’s all. I was trying to help her.”
The young girl continued to cower in the corner, probably scared and confused with no idea where she was or what was happening to her. I took a deep breath and reeled back my initial aggression, now knowing what it was she was going through.
I walked over and kneeled down in front of her.
“It’s okay. What’s your name?”
There was silence at first, but eventually, she spoke up.
“Abigail… You can call me Abby.”
“It’s lovely to meet you, Abby. I’m Jack.”
She was still nervous, but I could see the apprehension leaving her eyes as I continued to comfort her.
“You know, Abby. I have a daughter around your age. Her name is Leslie. You look a lot like her.”
Her face grew curious.
“Really,” she asked.
“Yes, really. You’re the spitting image of her. If I didn’t know any better, I would say you were twins.”
She laughed, and I with her.
“Abby, I made a promise to my Leslie. I told her time and time again I would never let anything bad happen to her.”
Tears forced their way out and down my face.
“Why are you crying, Mister Jack?”
I wiped the tears away and did my best to fake a smile.
“I’m going to make that same promise to you, okay? These men might seem scary, but they’re not here to hurt you. They’re just going to put you to sleep and give you the happiest of dreams. It’s confusing, I know, but you have to trust me. I won’t let anything bad happen to you.”
She looked up at me and stared with an intensely serious look painted on her face; as serious as a six-year old could look.
“You promise… right?”
Another tear rolled down my face. I may have broken the promise I made to Leslie, but I could make up for it now, at least in some small way.
“Yes, Abby. I promise.”
With that, Abigail was no longer scared, and the man and I left the room and continued down the hall.
“She’s not going to feel any pain at all, right?”
The man answered while continuing his march forward.
“No pain at all, you have my word.”
A few moments later, he stopped in his tracks.
“Alright, Jack. This is it.”
We were at my room. It was the same as the rest in every way, but it somehow felt tied to me. Perhaps I was just projecting. After all, this was to be my final resting place.
Or was it, I wondered.
“Say, what happens after the procedure is complete?”
The man looked at me, puzzled.
“When it’s complete?”
“Yes. What happens then? Do I stay in my dream world?”
His eyes rolled a bit and his lips scrunched up in contemplation.
“Is that what you want, Jack?”
I thought it over for a moment, but the answer was clear. Having an imaginary Charlotte and Leslie was better than not having them at all.
“Yes. That is very much what I want.”
“Then it’s settled. Now please, lie down on the table.”
I did as instructed.
“So, who will be my angel?”
He pulled over a cart of utensils in preparation.
“You’re looking at him, Jack. We’re all assigned specific souls. You’re one of mine.”
I took a closer look at the utensils. There were knives, scalpels, scissors, and something that looked akin to an oversized nut cracker.
“What is all that,” I asked, growing worried again.
“It’s okay, Jack. While we do have access to this particular piece of your soul, it’s still difficult to get to. In the later stages of the extraction, we’ll need to clear off some of the skin and bone for easier retrieval.”
His words were no comfort and he could tell.
“Relax, Jack. Like I said earlier, you won’t feel a thing. Soon, you’ll be with your wife and daughter again, as happy as can be.”
He placed his hands over me to begin and I tried my best to forget about the strange tools next to my head. Before he could put me to sleep, another angel walked in unannounced.
“Sir, the fragmenter is full. What should we do with the soulless while it’s being emptied?”
Hearing this, I sat straight up on the table.
“Fragmenter?! Is that where I’m going after this is done?!”
The man sighed and looked over at the angel who had barged in.
“You bumbling idiot. This one’s still awake. We almost had him.”
Oh no. That means… Abigail!
“I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t know.”
The angel rushed off. I followed suit and stood up to make a run for the door. The man was too fast. He lifted me up and pushed me against the wall with incredible strength.
“Not so fast, Jack. You’re not going anywhere. I’ll rip that soul piece out with or without your cooperation.”
His eyes. They turned a dark shade of red. And his teeth. They became razor-sharp as his mouth opened wider than any human’s could. My eyes darted down at the cart by his side. It was almost within reach.
“You’re lucky, Jack. Not many people have seen an angel’s true form.”
I managed to slip my arm out of his grip and grab one of the knives. Without a second thought, I lodged it as deeply as I could into his leg. All at once, his face reverted to normal and he began writhing in pain, letting go of me and falling backwards in the process.
I immediately ran out the door and down the hall as fast as I could, the promise I made to Abigail replaying in my mind, every step of the way. I couldn’t save my family from this terrible fate, but I could at least save her.
In the distance, I heard the man stumble out of the room and shout a command.
Doors opened and dozens of angels left their posts to chase after me. Luckily, my head-start was enough to escape their grasp. I was able to reach Abby’s room with just enough time to open the door and shut it behind me before the stampede of celestial beings reached my position.
Once inside, I looked to the center of the room. Abigail was on the table, awake. That meant the extraction hadn’t started yet. Lucien was standing at her side with a cart of utensils now looking over at me, baffled.
“What’s going on,” he asked.
I didn’t offer him any answers. I simply ran over, picked up Abigail, and grabbed another knife from the cart. I then stood in the corner in a fighting stance, ready to fend off any would-be attackers.
“Mister Jack, what are you doing?”
I looked at Abigail with a half-smile.
“Abby, I made you a promise. I intend to keep it.”
She looked so confused.
“But you said-“
“I was wrong, Abby. These are not good men. Don’t worry, I won’t let them hurt you. Close your eyes and look away, Sweetie.”
She hung her head over my shoulder and hugged me tight. I didn’t know what I could realistically do to help her, but I would be damned if I didn’t try.
Just then, the man burst into the room, limping, with a flood of angels following behind.
“Jack. Put her down. She is of no consequence to you.”
My blood was now boiling.
“Like hell she isn’t! You will not touch a hair on her head – not if I have anything to say about it!”
Lucien made a move towards me. I readied myself.
“Lucien, don’t. It’s alright. I can handle it.”
Lucien backed off and the man limped forward. I stood my ground.
“Jack, what do you plan to do, exactly? Fight off all of heaven’s angels with one silver blade?”
I pointed down at his leg with the knife.
“It hurts, doesn’t it? With this I can hurt you.”
Him and the other angels in the room laughed.
“Of course it hurts, Jack! But allow me to show you something. Watch closely.”
He snapped his fingers and the wound was gone. No tear in his clothing, no more blood dripping from his leg. He even walked about in a circle to show me that it had truly healed.
“You see, Jack, we can do anything we want – even this!”
He held his arm forward and the knife was pulled through the air by an unseen force, landing in his hand. I was now defenseless. I held on to Abigail as tightly as I could.
“You can’t beat us, Jack. You’re ours now.”
He stepped forward. I looked over at the scared girl in my arms and thought of my little Leslie. I remembered the fond times I had with her and my wife, as well as the horrific aftermath of losing them. A specific memory bubbled to the surface and stood out above the rest. It was one of the many times I visited those crosses on the side of the freeway.
It was dark. Well past midnight on Christmas Eve of last year. There were no cars on the road. Not a single one. Everyone was with their families for the holidays, rejoicing and partaking in the festivities. And here I was, on the side of the road, paying my respects to the family I no longer had. There would be no more holidays for us. No more anything at all.
I looked down at the unopened bottle of whiskey in my hand. I was five years sober up to that point. Didn’t even drink the night they died. It wasn’t how they would have wanted things to go. At least that’s what I told myself, and I believed it. I believed they were still out there somewhere, looking down on me, and that kept me holding the wheel steady. But I realized, in this instance, darkness all around me, not a soul in sight, that I was truly and utterly alone. They weren’t with me. They couldn’t be. They were gone.
They’re dead, Jack.
These words, now truer than they ever had been before, repeated in my mind as I stared down at the whiskey. It was as if the bottle itself was speaking then; taunting me to put it to my lips and drink away my misery.
And you know what? I did just that.
Half the bottle was gone in mere seconds. I swear I didn’t even feel the burn as it swam down my throat. Or maybe it was just dull in comparison to the immense anguish I already felt. Either way, the guilt broke through and came through in waves, bringing me to my knees directly in front of the wooden markers that memorialized my loss.
“Charlotte… Leslie… I’m so sorry…”
My face and neck were soaked in tears and whiskey drool.
“I’m sorry that I’m so weak. I can’t do this without you. It should have been me instead. I wish it had been me.”
I leaned against the crosses and sobbed louder than I ever had before.
“Leslie… I couldn’t protect you… My little girl…”
That was my lowest moment; a reminder of my failure as a parent. There was nothing I could have done to prevent their accident, but that didn’t stop me from blaming myself.
I took one more look at Abigail as the man took his final step in our direction.
“Wait! Please, wait!”
To my surprise, he stopped.
“What now, Jack? Going to grovel for your lives?”
“No,” I said, “I want to make a deal.”
The angels laughed again, louder this time.
“Oh Jack, what could you possibly have to bargain with?”
“My soul,” I stated plainly.
“We already have access to both of your soul pieces. You’ll have to do better than that.”
I quietly prepared myself for my final offering. I would be handing over everything to these foul creatures. As much as I didn’t want to, it was all I could think to do.
“No. My entire soul. The whole damned thing. Send her back to earth, intact, and, when she eventually dies, she’s off limits. Agree to these terms and my soul is yours.”
An angel chimed in from the room’s entrance.
“That’s not even possible! We can’t take more than a piece.”
The man spoke up.
“Actually it is.”
The other angels now adorned looks of astonishment. It was clear that the man knew far more than them; things that were apparently above their pay-grade.
“We can take an entire soul, but only at the full consent of its vessel. Even then, it’s a difficult surgery. Still, I’m willing to give it a go. The benefits outweigh the risk. Jack, are you sure you want to do this? It will be no walk in the park. You have to be absolutely sure. It won’t work unless you give in completely.”
“Yes. Save the girl and I’m yours.”
A grin I can only describe as being sinister stretched across his face.
“Very well, Jack. You have a deal.”
Without warning, I became light-headed. I saw the man and the angels standing there, but they were now blurred; out of focus. I quickly put Abigail down before succumbing to the dizzy spell and ultimately collapsing to the floor.
“Oh my god, he’s breathing. He’s back with us!”
My vision was still foggy. I could only make out the faint silhouettes of individuals huddled around me as I wavered in and out of consciousness.
“He needs oxygen, stat!”
After a minute or so, I passed out all together. The next thing I knew, I was waking in a hospital bed, a nurse swapping out fluids on my IV.
Oh no. I’m alive. But Abby…
“Oh, you’re awake! Glad to see you back in the land of the living. Things were pretty dicey there for a while.”
I had to know.
“That girl who was next to me. Is she okay? What happened?”
She looked concerned.
“I don’t know, sir. Please calm down. Any sudden movements could break your stitching.”
It was my fear that they revived me before the deal could be struck. Before Abigail could be saved.
God I hope she’s okay, wherever she is.
“Can you find out for me? Please? Her name’s Abigail.”
Before she could respond, another nurse showed up at the entrance of my room, holding the hand of a young girl.
It was Abby.
“That’s him! That’s the man!”
She ran over and hugged me. The nurse with her chimed in.
“I’m sorry, she just insisted on seeing you. Says you helped her in the crash.”
Abigail turned around.
“Not the crash – in heaven!”
The nurse laughed a little.
“Oh yes, my apologies. In heaven.”
Abigail looked back at me and smiled, the same way Leslie used to.
“Thank you for saving me, Mister Jack.”
We dislocated and she went off with the nurse. A tear fell from my eye as I watched her leave. Not one of sadness, but of joy.
Abigail was safe.
The only conclusion I can draw is that the angels made good on their deal just as I was being revived. With that said, they will more than likely show up at some point to collect on it. Maybe today, maybe tomorrow, or maybe even after I finish typing this up. Whether I like it or not, those are the terms I agreed to.
I’ve been through some serious hell in my life with the loss of my wife and daughter, and now, I will go through even worse when my soul is removed, I’m sure of it. Like the man said, it won’t be a walk in the park. Still, seeing that smile, something that wouldn’t have been possible a short time ago, I would do it all again. I would re-live every second of pain I’ve ever felt and still make the decision to go through more just to see her safe.
It’s what they would have wanted.
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