The ice cracks as I claw my way up through the darkness of death.
Through the cold.
Then there’s light. A single icy glow.
The bright white oozes over a tunnel of sharp edges then explodes in a shower of daggers. The brilliant spot of my salvation waits as I climb, my fingers slipping and sliding. My body burns from the cold. Final images, pieces of my life creep and crawl through my mind, leaving faint smoky trails of memories.
My work. My home. My wife. My kids.
Gone. Left behind.
Because I died. I remember the end, the loud, terrible end.
But I move on. After a life of providing, of giving everything, of success. I go to the glorious promised reward. One I deserve.
My palms crunch against the ground as I haul myself onto a blinding plane of white. I stand and wait for my vision to clear, for the sight of the gates to Heaven’s eternal peace to appear.
But only a snowy expanse comes into focus. A gray cloudy sky hangs overhead, roiling and churning as if ready to fall and smother me. Cold sinks into my core threatening doom. And quiet settles in my thoughts, bringing dread.
“Hello?” I mean to yell, to shout, but the word is a trembling gasp.
I shuffle through the snow, squinting into the distance as the terrible rasp of my steps disturbs the silence, cuts it, destroys it. I worry that it will strike back.
The heavy stillness returns when I stop.
Where am I? There’s nothing but frozen ground.
No angels singing. No golden gates.
A howl calls in the distance. The quiet shudders as the sound rushes over the whiteness.
A scream answers.
I scan the whiteness. Not pure, not heavenly, but made of pain. A white so bright it hurts.
A crack sounds in one direction.
A growl comes from another.
I spin at every sound, unable to hold back my fear and confusion.
This isn’t right. This isn’t where I should be.
A spot forms in the distance. I’m not alone. The excitement at the thought sends me stumbling forward, my feet crunching in a horrible rhythm.
The shouts continue to attack from every direction. The cries of what must be agony. The roars of what might be danger.
“Hello?” I yell as I run. The dark dot grows bigger. Head and shoulders. Arms and legs. A person.
Maybe they don’t know where we are either. But at least I’m not alone.
I race up behind them. “Hello?”
They turn. Dark eyes. A darker smile. But a person.
I shuffle to a stop, glancing at my companion, then out at the frozen land. “Where are we?”
Under a worn jean jacket, his hunched shoulders jerk as he stares at me. “You don’t know?”
The wind howls, cutting past us like a thousand blades. My acquaintance flinches as the current whips across his body.
“I know I died. So this should be...well…”
“What? Heaven?” He laughs as the wind chills and the snow swirls.
“Yes.” That’s what I deserve.
His grin turns to a scowl as his fingers become black claws, as his skin shreds up his arm. He raises his hand, or what was his hand, and curls it into a fist.
Shock stifles my thoughts. Fear tramples any words I want to say.
He stretches his neck as his hair falls out and great horns sprout from his skull. “We are where we belong. Where the monsters go.”
His humanity crumbles. His eyes turn red.
“I’m not…a monster.” I back away, my hands curl into fists as fear and anger clash in my mind. “I’m a man.”
A beast looms over me. “What kind of man?” the creature says, the words wrapped in a growl.
“What does that mean?” I slip as I step back, falling on the ground with a sickening crunch. My hands sink into the snow which bites my fingers with icy teeth. “I’m a good man. I gave to the church. I worked hard. I provided for my family.”
The monster lunges at me, claws nicking my chin and spit dripping from his lips onto my face.
I kick at the snow and ice as I struggle to get away.
The creature that was a man, grins, then laughs a raspy sound of horror. With a step, it swipes at me.
With a shriek, I get to my feet and run. The silence of ice shatters under the weight of my breathing and pounding feet.
But it's growling and laughter fade. I glance behind. It’s gone. Keeping watch for the monster to attack, I try to brush snow off my skin, hoping to rid myself of the despairing cold. But the chill remains in the layer of white frozen to my skin. I fear it won’t ever leave.
Howls and shrieks and roars of who knows what snap and drift from everywhere. More monsters?
I don’t belong here.
What kind of man…the words eat at the edges of my smoky memories.
“What do I care about them? They mean nothing. It’s all about me.”
The words crawl through the icy wasteland. Who was that? Sounded like me. Words I once said.
“My deals. My success is all that matters.”
My life. Full of business. Full of money and smart choices. And family. I did everything for them. Pain shoots through my fingers. I look at my hands, and, with sharp creaks and pops, the snow falls away. And my skin does too. My hands hang from my wrists, knuckles swollen and fingers crooked. Not human hands.
“No.” I shove my hands in my armpits and run. “No. I’m a man. I’m not a monster.” I scream the phrase into the white, which swallows it.
“I’m not a monster.” But my hands. They’ll change back…once I make it out.
What kind of man…
Hundreds of figures dot the horizon. Bent and twisted. They scream. They groan. They snarl. I keep running. Because I don’t belong here. I have to get out.
Eyes watch me. Red. Yellow. Black.
Long arms reach for me as I pass. Hairy. Scaled. Scarred.
But I’m not like them.
Some huddle on the ground, heads bowed and skeletal arms wrapped around their bony knees. Blood splatters over the white and drips from teeth and talons.
I shouldn’t be here.
Wind stirs, a breeze that becomes a gust. Icy needles stab at my legs, tearing away my pants. Nice pants. Pants I paid good money for.
“Not a dime more.”
My voice again, harsh and cold, like the landscape.
“Because it’s mine, that’s why.”
My wife. My kids. A burden. But I loved them. Didn’t I? Or did it look good to have a family as I worked my way up the corporate ladder?
My pants reduced to tatters, the wind slices the skin from my legs. Though there’s no pain, I cry at the gashes and blackened flesh that’s revealed.
No. This isn’t me. It’s not real. Once I get out…once I reach my reward…
But the words from the past haunt me. My words. Whispers nip at my ears. I wave them away. I was a good man.
I stagger through the snow on legs that creak and crack, fighting what happens. Holding onto who I am.
What kind of man…
A roar shakes the ground. Massive beasts thunder over the ice, which splits and cries. They strike at each other, leaving trails of blood.
I sink to the snow, huddling into a quivering ball. “I’m not like them. I was a good businessman. I had everything I wanted. I lived a good life.”
Crying drifts on the breeze. My kids’ tears.
“Grow up. I pay the bills around here. And I’m not paying for some stupid ice skating lessons.”
My wife’s sobbing.
“Get off the floor. I didn’t hit you that hard.”
Slurred and angry, my words cut through the din of the stampede around me. Claws rake through the ice. Bodies that stink of rot and hatred close in, trapping me with myself.
What kind of man…
Tails whip my arms. Spikes jab my body, piercing what is left of me. Shrieking and bellowing, the horde passes.
I sit in the snow, as who I thought I was breaks and falls away.
And leaves the truth, one I denied, one that lurked underneath my pressed suits and charming smile.
Stomach hollow, my ribs stick out like all the sharp words I ever said. Thorns cover my arms. My tongue slides over jagged teeth.
I won’t ever find the golden gates.
Monsters don’t go to Heaven.
Kathleen Palm haunts her 100-year-old farmhouse in rural Indiana with her husband, two teenagers, four cats, and a dog. For the last 15 years, she’s been writing the creepy, fantastical, and weird and has had several short stories published. “The Path” appears in Burial Day’s Gothic Blue Book VI: A Krampus Carol and “Freckles” is in Bloody Red Nose: Fifteen Fears of a Clown. Find her on Twitter @KathleenPalm, watching scary movies in the dark, blogging at The Midnight Society, or lost in the Twilight Zone.