Christmas has always been a hard time for me. I’ve never felt the warmth of family coming together or the anticipation of opening gifts. I’ve never gone to midnight mass or experienced the thrill of sitting on Santa’s lap and telling him what I want. I’ve never helped my mother make ginger bread cookies or gone caroling.
But Christmas isn’t hard because my life has lacked those holiday essentials. No, instead it’s because of the memories that surround that annual celebration. The reminder of what I went through…of what I’ve seen.
I’m getting ahead of myself.
It happened when I was six. I was living with my mother. My father was out of the picture, just a hateful name on my mother’s tongue. I never met the guy. And to be honest, I never wanted to. Why would I want to develop a relationship with someone who abandoned my mother and I after I was born?
So it was just the two of us, two quiet souls just trying to make the most of our meager lives. We lived in a small house on the edge of town. My mother worked two jobs and couldn’t afford a sitter so I spent a lot of time alone in the house. She made me swear secrecy and not tell anyone at school because she was afraid social services would take me away. Looking back, they probably would have if they found out.
But they never did and I spent a lot of time in a world of make believe. I had to. We didn’t have a television or even a radio, so if I wanted to escape somewhere, it had to be in my head. I didn’t mind because I didn’t know any better. I spun worlds and characters, imaginary friends, and silly things that little boys fantasize about.
I’d come home from school, make myself some cheese and crackers (the kind of cheese you’d squirt from a can), and launch into my world of make believe. I was a space warrior, a pirate, a solider, anything I could think of. I’d run around the house fighting aliens or the enemy, shooting at them with imaginary guns or fighting them back with invisible swords.
Eventually, the sun would set and I would end up asleep in my bed. My mother would come home around ten, check on me, kiss me on the cheek, and then rush back out to her other job which kept her busy until after three am.
So you see, she didn’t have a lot of time for me. She didn’t have time to get us a Christmas tree, or decorate our house, or anything. Christmas was just another day for me. But God, I wanted it to be so much more. I got so jealous listening to the kids at school talk about their presents, the sleigh ride they went on, their visit to Santa at the mall. I became hungry for those things. I wanted them more than anything else. I wanted to play in the snow and come rushing back inside to a cup of hot coco and listen to jingle bells while I warmed myself by the fire. It was all so festive, so magical.
Now, I’m not telling you these things for you to pity me. I don’t care about that. I’m telling you this so you understand why I did what I did.
About why I went to Christmas Land.
I stirred in my bed and listened to mom shut the front door behind her. My cheek was still damp from her kiss and I knew she had just left to go to her second job. I rubbed sleep from my eyes and bundled up in my covers. It was cold, my breath pluming out before me. Mom must not have been able to pay the heating bill this month.
As I tried to go back to sleep, my mind wandered. It was only a couple days until Christmas and I dreaded listening to everyone at school gloat about their presents and all the cool stuff they got.
Buried under my blankets, I started to drift. The house was silent and dark, my bedroom door open to reveal the barren living room.
The voice shattered the serenity like a hammer on glass and my eyes shot open. My heart began to race in my chest as I tried to determine if I had imagined the voice or not. Mom had just left, I was supposed to be alone.
“Pssst, hey, kid. Come over here.”
I sat up, breathing fast. I hadn’t imagined it that time. It was a male voice, low and deep but inviting. It had come from the living room.
“It’s ok, I just want to talk to you for a second.”
Swallowing hard, I slid off my bed and tip toed to my door. I peeked around the corner, trying to see through the black. Had mom brought a friend over and left him here? I thought about turning on a light, but for some reason the thought scared me. What if I didn’t want to see whoever was out there? What if it wasn’t one of mom’s friends?
“Over here, by the fireplace.”
I squinted towards the ashy, empty space against the wall. I didn’t see anyone. I was a mess of trembling nerves as I crept towards where the voice had come, keeping my head on a swivel.
I stopped in front of the fireplace, scratching my head.
“That’s better. I’m up here!”
I jumped, taking a step back as the voice echoed from the chimney. As I settled myself, my mind began to spin. Who was up there? And how had they gotten there? The only person I knew who went down chimneys…was Santa!
Fear subsiding, I knelt down and cocked my head up under the fireplace to look up the chimney.
Dangling from the darkness was a long, charred hand. It hung motionless, like a dead pendulum. Long fingers hung like silent chimes, the skin as dark as soot. The hand was attached to an incredibly thin wrist that disappeared into the black.
“Hey kid,” The hand said from no visible orifice.
I just stared at it, mouth dropping open. What the heck was this? How was a hand talking to me? And what was it doing in MY house?
“You’re pretty brave, not running away,” The hand continued, still motionless in the air, “Most kids see me and book it! Not you though. You’re a tough guy huh?”
I shrugged, still not sure I was awake and listening to a hand in my chimney.
“Well, let me cut to the chase. I heard you like Christmas. Is that true?”
I told the hand it was.
Still unmoving, the hand continued, “Well…that’s great. Because I have a surprise for you. If you want, I can take you to a magical place called Christmas Land. In Christmas Land, it’s always snowing just like the North Pole! Not only that, there’s also hundreds of dazzling Christmas Trees like you’ve never seen! And Christmas lights all through the sky, oh they’re beautiful! Christmas Land is full of little boys and girls just like you! Doesn’t that sound wonderful!? Don’t you want to see it?”
I shifted in my empty living room, curiosity pushing aside fear. That did sound good. That sounded like exactly what I wanted. As strange as the offer was, as bizarre a circumstance I found myself in, I felt pulled to comply. It was a nagging in my head, a whisper behind the voice I heard. I bit my lip and thought about my mom. She wouldn’t be home for a couple hours. She didn’t have to know.
The hand swayed gently, “I promise to have you back before your mom gets home. You want to see the lights don’t you? You want to play in the snow?”
That I did. And honestly, I was so desperate to experience Christmas that it didn’t take much to convince me. I told the hand I would come, making it promise to take me back home before three. It promised.
Smiling hesitantly, I reached up and grabbed the hand which was now opening its fingers. On contact, I felt something jolt through me, like a quick blast of icy wind. I gasped and I heard the hand whisper something to itself from the darkness.
Before I could respond, the hand gripped mine and I was lifted off my feet in a rush. Darkness blasted around me and I squinted, my eyes watering. I could smell ash invade my nostrils, the chimney squeezing in tight around my shoulders. The hand never let go and we just kept soaring up…and up…and up…
Up for far too long. We should have reached the end of the chimney by now.
And then I audibly gasped as light exploded across my vision and heat rushed in to wrap itself around me. I blinked, wind tearing my eyes and I realized I was falling. I was falling fast and the hand was nowhere to be seen.
I started to scream, realizing I was falling towards the earth from high up, impossibly high up.
And everything was wrong, all wrong. I expected to see my house, my neighborhood, a dark landscape below me. But what I fell towards was nothing like that.
I fell towards charred earth and dusty mountains. I fell towards pits of fire and empty wasteland. I fell towards a mass of something wriggling and screaming.
As terror poured from my mouth, hair slapping across my face, I saw that I was falling towards a massive net, dangling over the earth, filled with screaming children.
When I registered what it was, I only had a second to cover my head before I smacked into them. My breath was crushed from my lungs and I felt bones break under me as I made contact with the other kids. I felt my shoulder scream with pain and I wriggled on top of the pile as hands reached for me, tried to pull me under, tried to get me off of them. Faces stared up at me, terrified, tear streaked faces.
Confusion and horror crashed together in my young mind like two trains on the same track. I didn’t know where I was, what was happening, or what I had just fallen into. I kicked at the hands grabbing me, frantic to be free from their touch.
There were hundreds of kids below me, most of them crushed and dead from the weight of those above. I rolled over and pressed my face against the mesh, looking below us. Blood dripped from the bottom of the net and I could hear the slow grind of breaking bones in the air.
And then the net began to move. I gripped it and pulled myself into a standing position, face pressed against the fibers, desperate to see where I was.
The vision that awaited me still haunts me to this day.
We were hanging above a vast plain of red earth. Foothills rolled below us, empty of forest or foliage. Rock formations jutted from cuts in the dirt like emerging infections, sharp angles and dangerous surfaces. Ash rained from a crimson sky, a constant curtain of never ending flakes.
It looked like snow.
Walking across the expansive plains were dozens of towering, naked, sexless humans. They rose hundreds of feet in the air, all silent with eyes that looked glazed over as if they were asleep. They were rhythmic in their movement, order to their steps. They worked together, all across the horizon, bringing down nets and emptying them into colossal piles.
Dozens and dozens of human mountains scattered across the horrific world, bleeding cairns that screamed and howled in the wind. I watched in devastated horror as the children were emptied from the nets and tumbled down the piles, still fighting to get away. Even as they did, one of the enormous humans would come forward and kick them back, killing them in the process. When the piles were high enough, an enormous blazing rock was set at the top to begin a slow burn down the mountains of flesh.
In a sick way, it reminded me of a star atop a Christmas tree, the orange and red stone lighting the pile with disturbing color. As it burned away the bodies, a thick black smoke wafted from the death and rose up…and up…high into the sky…
My bloodshot eyes followed the dozens of plumes of smoke towards the heavens…and for a second time, my breath was robbed from my lungs.
Stretching across the expanse of the sky, from horizon to horizon, was an absolutely titanic human body. It was naked, like those below, but its skin was pale, almost white. Its hairless torso peaked in and out of the black smoke and cloud cover, winking down at us from an impossible height. Its head was bald and its moon sized eyes were closed and unmoving. Its mouth was a long line across its face, a pasty trench of overwhelming size.
And it just hung above us all, still and silent.
Peaking around the colossal body was the broken remains of a destroyed galaxy. Half alight planets and stars hung miserably across the vermillion heavens, entire worlds cracked and crumbling through the solar system like blazing comets.
And that’s when I noticed something.
I noticed the motionless body in the sky was absorbing all the smoke and death through its nostrils, like black holes sucking in all matter. And the more it breathed in, the more it began to take on color.
They were trying to wake this thing back up, revive it from whatever state it had fallen into.
Before I could even digest all this, our net dropped and I was falling once again. I heard my voice join the others, screaming, howling. We were being emptied onto a new pile of children. I hit the squirming mass with a thud and felt myself slide and somersault down it. Hands clawed at me as I tumbled, rolling further down, until finally I was at the base of the flesh mountain. The ground shook as one of the massive, sexless humans approached carrying a blazing boulder.
Me and three other children began to run, hauling away from the pile as fast as we could. I didn’t know where, but in the distance I saw spires. I headed towards them. The giant holding the boulder kicked at us and two of my companions were destroyed instantly.
Tears pouring from my face, I ran and ran and ran. I could hear roaring behind me, a great bellow of fury at my escape. I didn’t stop, didn’t care that I couldn’t breathe, didn’t notice the burning in my throat as I inhaled ash and soot. The ground shook and fire blazed and hell was all around me.
The spires formed definition and I realized as I sprinted closer that they were chimneys, sprouting from the earth like broken tunnels. Hundreds and hundreds of chimneys of all shapes and sizes. Together they formed a field of stone and brick stretching for acres and acres. Nets hovered above them from spikes the size of sky scrapers.
As I approached the chimneys, I noticed that children were shooting out of them like bullets, only to fall into the waiting nets.
I didn’t have time to feel sorry for them as I reached the edge of the chimney fields. I didn’t know what I was doing, didn’t have a plan, I just needed to escape this nightmare. Tears rolling down my cheeks, I scrambled up the shortest chimney I could find, brick licking my skin and drawing blood. My ruined fingers dug into tiny holds and I pulled myself up, weeping, until I was sitting at the lip and looking down into empty darkness below.
Sobbing, I said a prayer and took one last look behind me.
The titan in the sky had opened its eyes.
Wind suddenly whipped across my face and suddenly I was deafened by a great roar that shook the heavens. The giants below fell to their knees, hands upraised, as the very vault of the universe began to open and shift, shaking reality in an explosion of color and sound.
Gripping the top of the chimney, screaming into the gale, I rolled forward into the open jaws of darkness.
I fell, down, down, deep into the long neck of the chimney and listened to the world end and be reborn behind me. I fell until all I knew was darkness.
When I eventually woke, I was lying in the middle of the road, surrounded by police, paramedics, and a very concerned crowd. Red lights flashed across my blurred vision and I blinked back black.
Questions rained down on me, worried voices that became jumbled to form a roar of noise. I looked down at myself and saw I was covered in blood and ash, my clothes hanging from my body in burned shreds.
I fought against paramedics trying to shove an oxygen mask over my face and screamed for my mother, fear and horror consuming me. I blacked out soon after.
I awoke a few days later in a hospital bed, my mothers tear-streaked face staring down at me. Mercifully, she held her questions back. Instead, she hugged me tight and kissed my face, whispering her love.
It wasn’t until I was released a few days later that I was told what had happened. According to the people who found me, I had suddenly appeared in the middle of a highway. A highway three states over from my house and home.
It was a miracle someone didn’t hit me with their car.
My mom took me home and for years didn’t ask questions. She knew something horrible had happened to me and I think she always suspected someone had come and snatched me from my bed and dumped me in the road. I let her believe that despite the contradicting timeline.
I’ve never fully recovered mentally from that night. How could I? I witnessed something no man was ever supposed to possess memory of. I saw something that defied…everything. Where had I been taken? Where was it now? Was it some distant future or some alternate plane of existence?
And just what was that thing in the sky…and where was it now?