The next thing I knew, everything around was pitch dark. There was no sign of Jenna, Ben, or anything resembling furniture. Instead, once I started slowly regaining my consciousness, I noticed that I was in a large, wide room, lying on the hard, steel floor.
"Hello?" I called out in panic. "Is anyone there? Jenna, Ben, can any of you hear me?"
There was no response, just a long, dreary silence.
Then I became aware of something else: I was starting to shake rather violently, something which I could never recall doing before. Whether it was the shaking which I felt first or the icy teeth of the air that I now felt running its way through the empty room, I could not remember. All I knew was that the only way to describe this feeling was as cold, that sensation which every living human being except for me was able to feel when the temperature within any particular environment started to drop, whether it came as the result of too much air conditioning or the polar vortex which we were starting to face. This feeling has allowed humans to understand that their environment is changing in a very significant way and to be able to adapt to this change, serving as protection despite how bothersome it felt, just as pain did.
However, my body had been designed to never experience this sensation, providing me with all the warmth which most humans will never have. I was like the majority of mammals in this sense, whose fur has covered their bodies their whole lives and allows them to survive being outside in any kind of weather. As I was now, it was as if these animals had suddenly had all their fur cut off: I had no form of protection from this unusual feeling other than curling up and wrapping my arms all over myself, rolling around wildly an attempt create enough friction within myself to keep warm. It was for nothing, and I could only go on doing this as my teeth kept shattering and the hairs in my arms rose up in goosebumps.
"Feels terrible, doesn't it?" I heard someone asking in a quiet yet eyrie voice.
I sat up, keeping my arms wrapped around my knees, and looked around me. "Who is this?" I asked in desperation. "Please show yourself! I need all the help I could get right now!"
Just then, right before my eyes, a teenaged girl appeared. She had long, wavy blond hair with a red ribbon tied around the top of it, and was wearing a white, slightly transparent nightgown which showed off her pale, slender body. Her eyes were aqua blue, with long eyelashes that gave them a sharp appearance, and her lips were curved up in what looked to me like a grim smile.
"Who are you?" I asked when I was finally able to speak up.
"Isn't it obvious?" the girl asked, speaking with a hint of a European accent. "I'm the girl you and your friends had spent the last hour researching: the infamous Christa, who was the first girl Claus had ever experimented on."
If I hadn't been cold to the point of instability, I would have dismissed this as being completely crazy, as perhaps being a crazy dream or a hallucination caused by having hit my head too hard on the floor. However, given the condition I was in at the time, I was prepared to believe anything.
"Christa?" I said, saying her name out loud to make it clear who I was seeing. "How did you get here? Why do you still look so young if you supposedly…?"
"I have a strong connection with all of the girls who'd been affected by Claus' blessing, or curse, if that's how you prefer to see it," Christa replied with the grim smile still in place. "As to my appearance, after we die, our souls maintain the appearance in which our bodies were at their healthiest state. With me, it happened to be how I looked when I was sixteen and had been living with Claus for a couple of years."
"So you were actually well at the time?" I asked.
"Physically, yes. In addition to no longer being able to feel the cold, I was being well-fed, being given only the most wholesome food which was available at the time and going on walks around the forest and even riding around with some of Claus' horses. Emotionally, though, I was happy but at the point when I know think that I started losing touch with reality. As far as I knew, I was now living in a paradise, being able to get anything I wanted and being looked after by someone who seemed to really care about me."
"But I heard that there were signs of how you were starting to realize that Claus was more controlling," I said.
Christa now looked at me more seriously, the smile vanishing and replaced by a slight frown. "That may have been correct. Claus did make me feel a little uneasy in those early days, but being so young, I didn't think it was any different from when my uncle went a little far in protecting me, or when he tried keeping adult matters from me. I assumed that he was acting strangely for my own good, and that everything he told me about how young girls managed to be corrupted very easily truly was a warning about the dangers of the outside world. As a result, I complained very little when I couldn't go far from home without being accompanied by Claus and just did as I was told."
Of course, I thought. A girl as sheltered as Christa was must have been an easy target for Claus.
"So, did anything change after you stopped feeling cold temperatures?" I asked.
"In a way, it did, at least in the winter," Christa responded. "Claus gave me permission to stay outside as long as I wanted in snowy days, sometimes going around in nothing but the nightgown which I'm wearing right now. I took full advantage of these days, diving into the large piles of snow which covered up the place during blizzards and then rolling around as carefree as a dog, making many snow angels as I went along, some of which remained imprinted in the snow until the last of it had melted away in the spring. If I walked, my footprints appeared to remain permanent as well, leaving a trail which ran all the way into the nearest town during one of my longest escapades."
"Did you ever do anything with Claus?"
"Other than trips to New York City during Christmas, we rarely did anything besides staying in the cottage along with Penelope, who was my governess. Penelope was almost as captivated by Claus as I was, and his word was always law to her, so she never permitted me to break the rules Claus set up for me even when he was away. And whenever he was with us, she always insisted that he tell one of those long stories of his adventures which he used to tell me back in Switzerland, and once he got started, she refused to budge from her seat, looking as if she was captivated by every word he said."
"I see," I responded, wondering how it was that a full grown woman could have been so clueless about a man like Claus. "Did you ever suggest doing anything differently?"
"At first, I didn't. Claus' stories of how dangerous this country was for young girls had me fully convinced that I had no choice except to stay at home," Christa replied. "Then, around the time when I turned thirteen, I asked Claus if we could go on a trip with our horses around the summertime instead of during winter, as we usually did. There seemed to be no visible danger in going outside in the summer as far as I could tell. I could walk around outside just as easily during those hot and dry days as I could when it was cold and snowy, and summertime was always so beautiful in the area where we lived. The flowers always blossomed, and the animals would roam around every second of the day and night. Penelope loved it so much, and always accompanied me on walks when she thought it was suitable for me to go outside."
"And how did Claus respond?" I asked.
"He got extremely angry," Christa answered. "He insisted that my blessing only took effect in the winter, and that if I really wanted to do the same things during the summer, I really was a foolish girl, since it would most likely result in my death. He then showed me a photo of two girls around my age who were walking through a field in a sunny day, wearing white sundresses and bonnets, while also being both barelegged and barefooted, and laughing so much that the rouge of their checks was obvious despite the photo being in black and white. 'You see that?' he yelled, practically shoving the photo into my face to get his point across. 'That's the pure decadence which is the direct result of what's considered to be the perfect weather! Girls your age start feeling that they must go around without shoes or stockings because it's too hot. Can you guess what follows? Soon, they get the desire to get completely clad in their own homes, usually within the company of men. And then, everything else which girls were taught to value in their youth is also forgotten, to the point where they become shallow, vain women!"
"'But what does that have to do with wanting to go out during the summer?' I asked, suddenly getting very scared of what Claus was telling me."
"He believed that the summer was what encouraged most of the degenerate behavior in adults," Christa explained. "That because girls are often allowed to go around in light clothing and without their shoes and stockings, they're being prepared for sex and other behaviors he deemed unacceptable, including drinking on access due to feeling too hot and going to parties because of the good mood you were in during those times. The way he saw it, the winter and cold was preferable for maintaining purity and a good character because it forced girls to remain fully clothed and to want to spend more time at home instead of going out and exposing themselves to the atrocities of the outside world."
"So, that was it? That was his whole reason for the creepy things he did to all these girls?" I asked desperately, trembling a whole lot more than I'd been doing before.
"Pretty much," Christa said, looking at me with pity in her eyes.
"And how did he come up with this weird spell or whatever it is that makes us immune to the cold?" I asked.
"That was not strictly his doing," Christa explained. "People like us have been around for centuries, Angela, but it does take certain people to activate this spell on others. A couple of individuals become like that later in their lives, while others, like yourself, were born this way. However, this is not the result of anything genetic."
"So what is it?" I demanded. "Please explain it to me."
Upon looking around, however, I started noticing that everything was starting to look blurry again, including Christa, whose look pity was now replace by a dark smile.
"Sometimes, it's best not to know certain things," she told me. "You still have a long life ahead of you, Angela, while I only got the chance to remain alive for ten years after that confrontation with Claus."
"What happened to you? Did he kill you, or did you get sick on account of the heat?" I wanted to know.
"My knowledge of what was happening to me soon lead to my death," Christa said in an ambiguous tone. "Yes, going out during the summertime soon became unbearable after that, but there was a lot more going on as well, some of which I've lost all memory of. One of those things involved how Claus then forced me to remain in my room for half of the summer, which caused me to become more conditioned to remaining indoors during the nicest of days. And then, of course, there were the other girls which started taking my place, but I was never fully informed about them at the time, which resulted in me not being able to understand what happened between them and Claus."
By this point, I could only hear Christa's voice, while everything else appeared fully white.
"Christa! Christa, what's happening to me?" I cried out. The dreadful feeling of coldness was now gone, but was being replaced by numbness and a state of deep confusion over all of my surroundings.
"Goodbye, Angela," Christa's slowly diminishing voice answered back. "Have a good life, and avoid seeking any further knowledge of Claus or your condition. You'll be a lot safer this way."
And with that, I heard from her no more.