Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Christmas Carol'd (Part 5)

The blackness evaporated from Scrooge's eyes, and he found himself not back in his bedroom as he had expected, but standing in the middle of a cold, empty street lit weakly by lamps. There was snow on the ground and a gloomy atmosphere surrounding him, as though all the rest of the world was gone and he the only survivor.

Except for a single shadowy post opposite him, there was nothing to see. He looked around, puzzled by the apparent lack of a third ghost, not sure what to do next. Then a branch erupted from the shadowy post, arching up from the middle of itself to form a long, thin arm which pointed directly at him.

It was the third ghost, dressed in a ghastly black robe like some ancient monk, its head covered by a drooping hood. Scrooge blinked twice to try and clear his eyes, not sure if he was truly seeing what stood before him. There was no hint of a face beneath the cowl, no evidence of breath or warmth in the body beneath the robe, no form to the length of arm which stretched toward him. Simply the ghost with its appendage pointing ominously at him, and the thought in his head that he must approach it to end the nightmare.

"You are the final spirit?" Scrooge queried timorously. He coughed, and realized that his legs were shaking. "That is, you are the Spirit of Things to Come, who will show me what might happen if I don't change my ways?"

The cowl moved slightly in a mock-nod, as though the head were straining against immovable bonds.

"Spirit, your appearance is fearful, like Death itself, and I fear this encounter. But I want to get over this and return to my slumbers, so if you have some message or vision to give, pray proceed with all haste!"

The arm of the phantom dropped back to its side, the cowl moved slowly from side to side as though the ghost were shaking its head, and then both arms reached up to the hood of the robe and pulled back the cowl. A sweet, gentle face was revealed, a face glowing with joy and happiness, a face radiantly smiling. It was his own face but younger.

"Good Ebenezer, I don't wish you frighten you. Mine is not a message of Death and the Grave, but a message of Hope and Heaven. I had hoped that this color might look better to your eyes, but the lighting of this street is so unlike that where I come from, I had forgotten that all turns to ebony and ivory in the relative darkness of Earth."

The ghost waved an arm, and the street lamps increased their brightness by a magnitude; now the robe was revealed to be a deep, dark, royal shade of blue, sparkling with iridescence. Scrooge was so surprised that he stopped his breath for a moment. From a moment before, all of his fear and anxiety had vanished, and he was filled with an admiration - nay, a yearning - for the wondrous cloak.

The ghost laughed. "There! That's better. I see by your eyes that you are more approving of my garments now. Come closer, Ebenezer, and let us look more closely upon your future!"

"But," Scrooge stammered, "you ... I ... you are myself!"

The ghost nodded, delighted. "Yes! Yes, you see before you the very essence of yourself, transformed by the delights of heaven into a magnificent creature of light and life and love, eager to share with his fellow beings the joys not only of Christmas Day, but every other day as well."

Scrooge felt confusion boiling up inside. "How can that be?" he sputtered. "I am no creature of light! I am a creature of commerce and business, logic and temperance! I have no deep faith in God and spirits to lend credence to such a conversion!"

"No," the Spirit admitted, "you are not yet a creature of light, although you possess the ability. It is the will that you lack."

"And you have devised some remedy that will restore this 'will'?" asked Scrooge.

"The only remedy," said the Spirit slowly, "is Death, but not of the kind to which you are acquainted."

"Then of what kind do you speak?"

"Death to Self."

"Death to Self?" echoed Scrooge. "Do you mean giving up what I want, and dedicating my life to others?" He laughed scornfully. "I've seen the people who do that, those do-gooders. Preachers, missionaries, going off to foreign lands to catch some horrid disease and die in squalor. Nurses, philanthropists and the like, who serve in soup-kitchens and workhouses trying to save people who aren't even worth the trouble of saving. It's all for naught. They all die in the end, lonely and miserable."

The Spirit laughed, and the sound of his laughter was like sprinkles of rain on the driest earth. "Ebenezer, you look upon death as an enemy which must be fought and defeated, yet it is not so."

"No?"

"Death is not your enemy; it is your Self which is the enemy. If you have conquered and controlled the Self, you will never fear Death."

Scrooge looked upon the face of the Spirit with something akin to fear and hope, all mixed together. "I want to believe you, Spirit. I realize that there is not much time remaining for me here on this earth. But I don't want to waste it -"

"Every moment you spend on your Self is a wasted moment, Scrooge. Every moment spent dwelling on the things you want and wish and covet, are wasted moments."

"So you would have me spend them on helping others? You would have me spend them on people who will neither appreciate the effort nor thank me for the trouble?"

The Spirit sighed. "Yes, Ebenezer. I would. For it is not the regard of men which you should covet, but the regard of their Creator."

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Christmas Carol'd (Part 4)

Scrooge had never set foot in the house of his clerk, Bob Cratchit, although the invitation had been offered countless times. It was not so much a 'house' as a set of small rooms stacked between two adjoining buildings. But the Cratchit family had made the best of the situation.

The main room, in which was placed the dining table, was barely adequate to seat the entire family at one time. The adjoining kitchen, if it could even be called a kitchen, barely fit two adults standing side-by-side. A steep stair led from the back of the kitchen to a pair of bedrooms above; four children in one room, the two adults in the other.

Scrooge marvelled that they were able to fit the family at all.

Besides Bob Cratchit and his wife, there were four other little Cratchits: Peter, Mary, Elizabeth, and little Tim. At the moment in which Scrooge and the Spirit appeared in the room, they were all seated around the table, eyes closed and heads bowed, preparing to ask a blessing on the food.

"Dearest Father," Bob intoned respectfully, "we thank you for this bountiful blessing of food, and for Mr. Scrooge, whose generosity provides us the means for sustaining the life which you have granted us. Amen." The family echoed the 'Amen'.

Scrooge was surprised to hear his own name used in the prayer. "Did you hear that? He thanked God for me!" The Spirit shushed him impatiently, pointing a finger at the family as if to say, "Listen!"

"I've got a bit of good news today," said Mr. Cratchit as he started to pass the bread around the table.

"What is it, my dear?" asked Mrs. Cratchit, a kindly-faced woman with tired eyes.

"I stopped by Mr. Trelawney's shop on the way home," he said, "and he led me to believe that he looks kindly on the idea of hiring young Master Peter, here, in a starting position."

"Oh, my!" said Mrs. Cratchit. "Glory be! That would be a blessing, indeed, my dear." She turned to her son. "What do you think of that, Peter? Fancy starting a job over at Trelawney's? He's a good man, and you'd learn a great deal."

Young 'Master' Peter blushed. "Is that true, Father? Does he really want me?"

"Indeed, he does!" Bob assured him. "He's seen you hauling things to and fro in that wagon of yours, and commented on your strong back and quick feet; he's looking for someone to make deliveries, and you'd fit the bill nicely."

"That would be wonderful, Father!"

Bob grinned. "I thought you'd say that, Peter, so I told him it was highly probable that you'd take the position. He'd like you to start the day after Christmas, if you're available."

"If I'm available - !" The family laughed at the joke.

"Cratchit has a good head on his shoulders, you know," said Scrooge to the Spirit. "That's why I hired him. He saw a good opportunity to enhance his family's fortune, and took it! And young Peter will follow in his father's footsteps. Perhaps Peter will one day work for me as well!"

"Perish the thought!" said the Spirit. "Besides, Cratchit would never allow his son to work for a man like you."

"What?" Scrooge said, taken aback. "But you heard him say how generous I am!"

"Cratchit is always saying things like that," said the Spirit. "He can't help himself. He's infused to his marrow with kindness; he'd say kind things about his worst enemy - if he ever had one! - just for the sake of mercy. But I repeat - he will never allow Peter to work for a man like you."

"Why ever not?"

"Because though he bears his own cross of shame and humiliation like a saint, he will not impress that same fate upon those he loves."

Scrooge frowned. "Why do you call his employment a 'cross'? It is simply work, and he is compensated for his trouble."

"You speak a half-truth. It is simply work."

"You imply that he is ill-paid?"

The Spirit looked him full in the face. "I don't imply anything. A fact requires no implication."

"But - !"

The Spirit shushed him again. The Cratchits were talking again.

"So - " Bob was talking earnestly to his wife while the children chattered among themselves - "he suggested that we bring him in once or twice a week for the treatment, and he'd only charge us for the quarter hour, although he'd be getting half an hour's worth."

"But can we afford even that, dearest?" his wife rejoined over the hubbub of the table. "It's still more than fits in the monthly accounts."

"I've thought about that, " said Bob brightly. "If I cut back on my lunch allowance, just a bit, I should be able to squeeze it in. It adds up to a tenpence a week. That ought to be enough."

"But you'll starve!"

Bob laughed and patted his stomach. "Not with this, I won't. Besides, it'll help keep me sharp at the office. Many's the time after a hearty Cratchit lunch I've nearly dropped off to sleep over the books!"

"I knew it! I knew it!" Scrooge whispered gleefully.

"Shush!" barked the Spirit.

"Did he say how long it might be before the leg is up to full strength?" asked Mrs. Cratchit with an earnest look of sadness in her eyes.

Here Bob's smile faltered a bit. "He's - he's not sure about that side of it," he said. "He's seen some success with others, but he say's every case is different. We won't really know until we try."

Mrs. Cratchit sighed resignedly. "Well, we've got to try, don't we?"

Mr. Cratchit nodded. "Yes, we do."

"What are they talking about?" asked Scrooge of the Spirit.

"Tiny Tim."

"Who?"

The Spirit looked exasperatedly at Scrooge. "Timothy Cratchit, the youngest member of the family. Did you notice anything peculiar about him?"

"Other than the fact that he has no table manners?"

"Scrooge, you're impossible! Did you not take note of the crutches in the corner?"

"The - ? Oh, yes, I see them. Why? Are they his?"

"Of course! Have you not seen his legs?"

"Well, no, I didn't. They were all sitting down when we came in."

"I didn't mean, this time. I meant, haven't you ever seen him before today?"

"I don't remember," Scrooge said defensively.

The Spirit considered Scrooge's face for a moment, then sighed. "How you can be so observant with a column of numbers and so blind to the needs of your fellow human beings, is beyond my understanding."

Scrooge shrugged. "It just isn't my gift, I suppose."

"No, it's not your gift. It's your curse." Then the Spirit seemed to come to a decision, and he turned Scrooge around to face him.

"We've come to the end of our time together, Scrooge. An ordinary man would have learned a great deal by the things that have been seen tonight, but you are no ordinary man, and I have grave doubts about your ability to take these lessons to heart. Nonetheless, I have done what I can, and will leave the rest up to the next ghost. But before I go, I have one question for you."

"Yes?"

"If you knew that you had the power to restore health to that boy, but it would cost you all your worldly possessions, would you do it?"

Scrooge's eyes turned away. "I don't know. That's asking quite a bit ..."

"If it would save his life, would you do it?"

"That's a different question altogether, now ..."

"Would you do it?" the Spirit insisted.

Scrooge swallowed, hesitating. "I really don't think so, Spirit. I mean, what would I live on? How would I survive? What would become of me?"

The Spirit nodded grimly. "I suspected as much. Jacob was right to recommend three ghosts, for you certainly are a hard case. Very well. My time is done. You have one more chance to salvation, Scrooge. Let's hope it's enough!" And for the third time, the robe twirled through the air.

A Christmas Carol'd (Part 3)

"What is the meaning of this?" screeched Scrooge as he beheld the huge monster sitting at the head of the dining room table. The table was stacked high with food and drink of all kinds, and the smell of roasted meat and fresh buttered bread wafted through the air like a torrential river. Music filled the room, but there were no players within sight.

After his eyes had adjusted to the glaring light, which came from hundreds of candles placed willy-nilly throughout the room, he realized that the 'monster' was, in fact, merely a giant, bearded, red-cheeked man wearing a tremendously oversized robe and holding a bucket-sized goblet in his hand. The man drank from the goblet for a long moment and then slammed it down on the table, leaving foam on his upper lip. "Ah! There you are, you miserable skin-flint. Come, mortal, share wassail with me!" he shouted happily.

Scrooge struggled to maintain his composure. "No, thank you kindly, sir. I'm not in the habit of drinking or dining in the early hours of the morning; it unsettles my stomach. And I think my stomach has become too unsettled already."

"What! You still believe this to be nothing but a dream!"

"I do. Given the nature of your appearance, how could it be otherwise?"

"Do you not recognize me, then?"

Scrooge was perplexed. "How could I, sir? I've never seen you before in my life!"

The giant stood up from the table - he must've measured close to ten feet tall, nearly at the level of the ceiling - and pointed a finger down at Scrooge. "Oh, you've seen me, you old sinner, but you simply refused to acknowledge me!"

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean."

"I am the Joy and Bounty of Christmas, the Spirit who calls all men to share their blessings with their fellow creatures, to shower them with love and kindness, to give them a taste of the Heaven to come!"

"I still don't know what you mean."

The giant grinned. "I'm sure you don't. You've passed a million people on the streets without giving them so much as a civil nod of your head. You're so wrapped up in your own little world of finance, gain and profit that you hardly see the nose in front of your face!"

"Are you saying that I should give all my money to the poor?"

"Give your money to the poor, and they will be fed and clothed for a day. Give of yourself, you miserly wretch, and they will be fed for a lifetime."

"Now you're speaking in riddles," Scrooge complained.

"You think so? Come, let us venture out into the world so that I might show you, for words seem to gain no purchase with you." He strode over to Scrooge and swung his robe around them.

Scrooge was surrounded by darkness for a moment, and then found himself standing on an unfamiliar streetcorner, the giant by his side, across from a small group of carolers who were finishing up the last stanza of a song. A crowd was milling about, some stopping to enjoy the music, others just smiling as they went past, intent on their purposes. As the singers finished their tune, the audience of passers-by clapped; some dropped coins into a top-hat which had been turned upside-down on the sidewalk. The singers bowed and nodded, speaking their thanks in a jumble of words.

Squinting into the poor light cast by a nearby lamp post, Scrooge recognized his nephew, Fred, among the singers.

"Why, that's Fred!" he exclaimed.

"Yes, indeed, it is," agreed the giant. "This is one of his favorite activities, singing on the street corners at Christmastime."

"Very unbecoming, even for someone of his low station. Entertaining strangers in public."

"Entertainment is not his chief purpose, old man."

"What do you mean? Is this another riddle?"

"No, you imbecile! Observe the man. See? The singing is done, yet he and his fellows do not disperse. They engage the audience in conversation. He is not seeking accolades for his performance, though it was a fine one. No, he is seeking to make friendships, to deepen his ties with humankind. Listen and learn, Scrooge!"

Scrooge walked slowly over to where the crowd were still milling about, now including the singers as anonymous members. Each of the singers seemed to be talking to one or more of the former audience in excitable, happy tones. Fred was in an earnest discussion with a young man who appeared as though he hadn't eaten in several days.

"My good man, you simply must come! There will be far too much food for my own family, and you know the old saying: 'The more, the merrier'! It truly is the watchword of our household. My wife would be most pleased to make your acquaintance!"

"He's at it again," said Scrooge in a disgusted tone.

"At what again?" asked the Spirit. "Inviting people to dinner?"

"People?" Scrooge repeated. "That isn't a 'people'. That's a homeless man without the wit or intelligence to hold down a job, let a alone a conversation. The only thing he sees in it, is a free dinner and an opportunity to find out where the silver is kept."

"You see great evil in this man, yet you do now even know him."

"I don't know him personally, but I know his kind! They're too lazy to find jobs, they beg for money from those who cannot afford to give, and then they drown their sorrows in the bottle until their minds are gone and they die in Bedlam!"

"Yet your nephew sees him in a different light. He sees a human being who is suffering from want of food and friendship, and seeks to rectify the situation with a simple act of kindness."

Scrooge shook his head. "He will rue the day."

"Indeed?" The giant stroked his beard momentarily. "Let us pursue the end of this matter." And his robe flew around them again.

When the darkness had cleared again, Scrooge saw that he and the Spirit were now standing in the parlor of his nephew's house. A large multitude of people were sitting or standing around, laughing and talking and singing; a rollicking dance was being played on the pianoforte by a pretty young woman, beside which a beaming young man stood to turn the pages; against the far wall was a table spread high with all manner of delectable foods; and in the center of the room sat the poor young man who had been befriended by Fred, surrounded by smiling, happy faces who were watching him sketch a rapid caricature of one of the young ladies on a piece of paper. Various compliments, directed at the young man, were tossed through the air to bounce against the ears of Scrooge.

"You have truly captured her beauty!"

"She will be most pleased with this, I think!"

"I've never seen the equal of this. Can you do me next?"

"Surely, this work must be in a museum!"

And so on.

Scrooge was puzzled. "Why do they make such a fuss of that young man?" he asked. "Soon this little party will be over, and the young man will be back out on the street, no better than before - other than a full stomach."

The giant shook his head. "How little you know of your nephew, Scrooge. He does not abandon his friends, even his new friends, to chance and fortune. This young man has lost belief in himself, and needs to hear that he has some use in the world. Your nephew recognized this fact, and brought him to this gathering for just that purpose, to allow him the opportunity to receive the praise he deserves for his talent."

"That talent won't keep him from the poorhouse," prophesied Scrooge.

"If Fred has anything to do about it, it will," contradicted the Spirit. "He has brought the young man into contact with people who recognize true talent when they see it, and he trusts that their ministrations will help restore this young man to his rightful state. By the end of this evening, the young man will be engaged with work that will last him for many months, and his confidence in his own abilities will be resurrected."

"To what end?"

"To that, I cannot know," admitted the Spirit. "Yet is it not enough that you see how Fred refuses to turn his back on mankind, but makes every effort to seek out those who require assistance, whether for physical or spiritual needs, and find a way to help them?"

"It is still a waste of time," Scrooge muttered. "That young man may have artistic talent, yet his present circumstance shows that he lacks the talent for making enough money to sustain himself."

"You would be surprised to find out how little is required to sustain oneself."

Scrooge smiled grimly. "Now on that account, I am well acquainted, Spirit. I happen to know a man who can survive on very little. Indeed, how he has managed to maintain a family of such prodigious size on so meager a salary, is quite beyond me!"

"You speak of your clerk, Robert Cratchit."

"I do. Now, there's a man who performs miracles with money!"

It was the Spirit's turn to smile grimly. "Indeed. How fortuitous that you should mention the man, for it is to his house that we next direct our eyes." And the robe twirled again.

A Christmas Carol'd (Part 2)

Promptly at one o'clock in the morning, a bright light appeared outside the curtains of Scrooge's bed and he awoke. He had always been a light sleeper.

"Is that you, Spirit?" he called out sleepily.

"It is," returned the Spirit.

"And you are the one foretold by my friend Jacob?" as he opened the curtains and pulled his robe around his thin frame.

"I am," returned the Spirit.

"And you will be showing me scenes of the past so that I might attain a new understanding of the present and the future?" as he squinted toward the light.

"I will," returned the Spirit.

"You're not much to look at," remarked Scrooge, whose eyes had now adjusted to the brightness. He beheld a dour-faced old man - or young man, it was actually hard to tell - dressed in a white nightgown and a ridiculously tufted nightcap, holding aloft an oil lamp.

"It is not I upon which your gaze should be set," said the Spirit. "It is the past - your past! - on which your attention should be focused."

Scrooge shrugged. "Lead on, then, Spirit. Only - how shall we view this past? I am not familiar with the mechanism for time-travel."

The Spirit held up his arm, the one not bearing the lamp, and said, "Take hold of my sleeve, Ebenezer Scrooge. We shall fly up and out the window, into the cold night of winter, and back through the years, carried aloft by the thoughts and memories which fill the evening air."

Scrooge looked over at the window of his apartment. Here on the second floor of the building, the window stood some twenty-odd feet above the earth. There was nothing beneath the window but cold, hard ground.

"Couldn't we just take the stairs?" he suggested. "I'm sure that the flight through the air would be impressive and all that, but truthfully, I'd be perfectly content to simply walk downstairs and out into the yard before we begin our journey through Time."

"But we have miles to go before we reach our first destination, and our time is short; we cannot walk the entire distance."

Scrooge looked dubious. "But what has distance to do with Time? If our intent is to move through time, what purpose is served by moving tangentially across the surface of the earth?"

"Our destination is neither here at this physical location, nor here in the present time; it is across both time and distance."

"You surprise me, Spirit. Is it really necessary to move a specific distance across the earth as well as through time in order to arrive at our destination? I mean, it's quite impressive to leap about from this year to that, but the whole effect is somewhat tarnished by requiring
the traveller to navigate through the normal three dimensions as well. Can't you just snap your finger, or wave your lamp, and bring us to our destination?"

The Spirit sighed. "I can, but it's rather tiring, moving in four dimensions at once."

Scrooge frowned. "But you are a spirit, are you not? I had thought spirits impervious to physical limitations."

"What ever gave you that idea?"

"Well - " Scrooge thought about it - "I'm not sure, but surely there is precedent set in the literature whereas those unbounded by corporeal existence are likewise unbound by physical distance."

"Your knowledge of literature, like your knowledge of human nature, is appalling."

Scrooge shrugged. "Forgive me, Spirit. I am a simple man of business, with no experience in spiritual matters. It just seemed to me that you were going to a lot of trouble when it would be much easier to -"

The Spirit snapped his fingers, and they were suddenly standing before a tiny schoolhouse nestled in a tiny country valley, far from the lights and bustle of London.

"- snap your fingers," finished Scrooge, his voice fading off as he took in the new surroundings.

It was now daylight, and snow surrounded the little schoolhouse on all sides. A single rough road ambled beside it, edged by shrubbery which was also topped with snow. In the distance, the clatter of jingling sleighbells could be heard. Smoke curled up from the chimney, evidence that the building might not be completely empty.

"My old school," muttered Scrooge in a muted monotone.

"Yes," the Spirit said, "your old school. Inside that school, at this very moment, a boy sits and studies his books, thinking himself all alone and abandoned, unloved."

"It was a logical conclusion," Scrooge noted peevishly. "My mother was dead; my father had sent me away to this school because he didn't know what else to do with me; and I had been unable to make any friends among the country children, for they were rough and wild, and I was a child of the city." He paused, reflecting. "I was miserable, and the only joy in my life was found in those books of mathematics."

The Spirit nodded. "Until your sister, Fanny, arrived to bring you home." He turned and pointed to a young girl who was climbing out of the sleigh which had pulled up in front of the little schoolhouse.

She was a fragile-looking creature, not an ounce of fat on her bones, but with a smile that shone like sunlight on a cloudy day. She bounded down the path to the schoolhouse door like a deer running free in a field, full of an intensity and joy of living which exuded from her
countenance. Quickly she opened the door and dashed inside, calling "Ebenezer!" the whole time.

Scrooge heard the sound of his younger self replying to her calls, and marveled at its timbre. It was was very high, very light, very hopeful. He recalled the joy of seeing her again after all that time he had been away, and nearly called out her name in unconscious greeting - but
remembered at the last moment that he was seeing only a shadow of the past, not the reality of the present.

He watched as his younger self was pulled eagerly out the door of the schoolhouse by his erstwhile younger sister; he heard her entreaties and promises - "Father is ever so much better now!" - and watched as she cajoled him into the sleigh, covering him with kisses; he smiled at his doppelganger's apparent embarrassment.

"She was an amazing creature," said the Spirit somberly.

"She was the best sister for which a man could ask," said Scrooge.

"'Tis a pity that she didn't live to full maturity," remarked the Spirit. "Yet she showed more love in her short years than many show in a lifetime."

"It was her doing that changed my father," said Scrooge.

"It was, indeed."

"He was an unlovable man, and yet she found a way to love him. And she loved him so much that he finally relented, and allowed me to come home. I still don't know how she did it, but she did; and I came home, and we were a family again, if only for a little while before he died. Without her, I would've rotted away in this faraway country, alone, unloved. She saved me from that unthinkable fate."

The Spirit looked at him for a moment. "For love, she saved you. And for love, she brought another human being into the world: your nephew, Fred."

Scrooge felt his face grow red. "It wasn't fair that she died the way she did. It should've been him that died, not her!"

"She was willing to take the risk. She knew how to love, and she knew how to sacrifice."

"But to die - for a child!"

"Yes, to die. For a child." The Spirit sighed, and snapped his fingers again. Instantly, they were transported to the interior of a house, in a darkened bedroom lit only by a single candle. A young woman lay in the bed, her face pale beyond pale, a young man in obvious distress holding onto her hand and crying. She was smiling.

"Isn't he beautiful, Fred? He's the most beautiful thing in the entire world!" she said in a voice that bespoke extreme exhaustion.

"Fannie, you need to rest. Please. Close your eyes and get some rest, and everything will be fine!" The young man - her husband - whispered fervently.

"Yes," she said. "Yes, I'll rest. And in the morning, we'll all have breakfast together, all three of us. Our family, our big, happy family!" Then she closed her eyes.

The man held onto her hand for several moments, then put his head down upon the bed and wept.

"She loved her family," said the Spirit. "She loved her husband and her little boy, though she scarcely knew him. And she loved you, too."

"She did," agreed Scrooge.

"And yet you turned your back on them."

"No," countered Scrooge. "They turned their back on me. He turned his back on me."

"You were trying to take his son away from him."

"He was all I had left of her! I wanted to give him everything that she would've wanted! The best education, the best opportunities -"

"You were not content in your role as the benevolent Uncle. You tried to usurp his role as father. You left him no choice but to flee your influence."

Scrooge looked away. "Perhaps. But I meant for the best."

"It is those who intend the best but rely on their own methods of delivering it, that fall to ruin."

Scrooge said nothing, brooding. The Spirit sighed, then snapped his fingers again, and they were suddenly standing in the midst of a bustling warehouse street. Stewards and workingmen ran to and fro, hauling crates and shouting excitedly. Above a warehouse door hung a sign: "Fezziwig Limited." A jolly round man in an old-fashioned suit stood on the top stoop, beaming at the busy people below on the street.

"Fezziwig!" exclaimed Scrooge, a smile breaking out across his face.

"Your old employer," stated the Spirit. "Behold how he gazes out across the throng of people, showering them with generous and beneficial wishes upon their good fortune."

"He always knew how to throw a party," Scrooge commented. "Oh, look! There's Jacob! My, he was a handsome man in his younger days."

And, indeed, it was Jacob Marley - or the image of a younger version of the man - strolling toward the steps with a stack of account books under one arm and a bottle of wine in the other. He smiled and called out to old Fezziwig, who greeted him warmly and ushered him inside. As the door opened, the noise of the shop billowed out into the street; there
was the sound of a fiddle warming up, and the gentle rapping of a foot upon the floor, keeping time. The musicians were warming up for a party. Fezziwig followed his young apprentice into the shop, followed closely behind by Scrooge and the Spirit.

As they came inside, a sight of pure happiness filled their eyes. In the well-lit interior of the warehouse, bounded on all sides by stacks of crates and barrels of merchandise, a hundred people - fifty couples - were milling about, talking and bowing and laughing and shuffling their
feet in time to the music. There were tables of wine and food at either end, gaily colored and filling the room with robust fragrances of roasted chicken, buttered squash, apple tarts and cinnamon dainties.

The musicians completed their preparations and launched into a full-bore performance, and then the floor became filled to capacity with dancers twirling and spinning, parading and prancing. Young Jacob Marley, a sly grin upon his face, danced with a red-cheeked girl in a bright green
gown. Scrooge remembered her as the daughter of one of their wealthiest clients, but could not recall her name. He looked around to see if he was himself in attendance. Ah! There he was, off in the corner, chatting quietly but earnestly with a young lady whose countenance even
now, after all these years, took his breath away.

"Alice!" he cried.

The Spirit nodded. "Yes, Alice, your betrothed. It was she who captivated your attentions in these, your younger days, before the account-book became your god and master. See how earnestly you smile at her! There were a thousand dreams wrapped up in that smile."

"If only she had understood -"

"That there are more important things than money? Oh, she knew that perfectly well. She was quite willing to cast money aside to focus on the things that really matter - like love and generosity."

"If you'd let me finish!" Scrooge hissed. "I meant to say, if only she had understood that a man must build up a career for himself before he can afford to invest in things like a wife and a family."

The Spirit shook his head. "Yet so many men cannot wait for this 'career' of which you speak; they realize that Time will not wait for them to make these decisions, for Time and Circumstance make bones of us all, and it is best not to tarry long on our choices, for by tarrying we
often lose the opportunity for choice, and the choice is made for us."

"She made her choice. She chose someone else."

The Spirit shook his head again. "No, Scrooge, you made the choice for her. You put her off again and again, each time setting the bar of your decision-point higher and higher. Eventually she realized that you had already made that decision, and she would never be good enough for your
aspirations. So she broke off your engagement, and sought someone who was willing to forego his pride for the sake of love."

"What? You mean that Dawkins fellow? He's nothing but a shopkeeper, and a poor one at that. He gives credit to nearly everyone, regardless of their ability to pay, and barely manages to keep his family decently clothed and fed."

"Yet they are happy, are they not?"

"How would I know that? It's not as if I go around asking them such frivilous questions!"

The Spirit looked carefully at Scrooge's face for a moment. "No, I suppose you don't. It doesn't seem the sort of question whose answer would interest you, regardless of the outcome. But I can tell you with complete sincerity that they are happy, the both of them."

Scrooge's face twisted in mock appreciation. "Well, thank you for sharing that little tidbit with me, especially as it concerns a woman who stabbed me in the back. Would you care to twist the knife a little more, perhaps?"

"No need for sarcasm, Scrooge. I only share the information so that you might be glad for them. But I see you are not quite ready for that level of intimacy with others." He snapped his fingers again, and they were immediately inside Scrooge's bedroom again.

"My time with you has come to a close," the Spirit intoned wearily. "And not a moment too soon. You are still too full of yourself, but I have faith that my fellow spirits may take the seeds that I have planted and water them into full fruition, and thus choke out the weeds which
have overtaken your heart."

"It hardly seems likely," yawned Scrooge. "If they, as you, have nothing of consequence to show me, they will merely be wasting our collective time."

"Nevertheless, I leave you to their care. Farewell, Scrooge! Pay heed to our ministrations!" And then the Spirit was gone.

Scrooge looked around. He was standing in the middle of his bedroom wearing his bedclothes and slippers. A single candle on the nightstand was lit. The clock was just beginning to chime - once, twice. Two o'clock in the morning.

A loud crash came from the adjoining room, and the door flew open.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Christmas Carol'd

Marley was dead; of that fact, Scrooge had no doubt. He had attended the man's final hours, he had witnessed the certification of death, he had walked behind the carriage as it trolled slowly down the street to the graveyard. He had stood silently before the crypt nearly seven years ago and wept at the loss of his only friend. So it was somewhat of a shock to find the man standing in the parlor of his apartment, looking for all the world as though he were waiting impatiently for a train to arrive.

"You're late, man!" said Marley in an exasperated voice. He held a watch in his hand, stretching it out towards Scrooge so that the fob formed a straight line to his vest pocket. "Do you have any idea of the hour? You're not a young man anymore, Ebenezer. You can't keep working as though you are."

"And a good evening to you, too, Jacob," replied Scrooge, unperturbed. “Pardon me for asking, but aren't you dead?"

“I am.”

“Then to what circumstance do I owe the pleasure of this super-natural visit?”

"The twilight of your mortal days, and the long night ahead."

Scrooge looked sharply at his former partner. "And your purpose?"

"You know why I have come."

"I do?" Scrooge scratched a finger underneath his chin as if in thought. "Perhaps. At least, I have an idea. Might I hazard a guess?"

"You may."

Scrooge straightened up and spoke distinctly, as if reciting from a book. "You wish to persuade me to change my ways, to become a better man, so that I do not die alone and unfriended as you did."

"That is the gist of the matter, although I should add that I was not completely unfriended."

Scrooge clicked his teeth. “Oh, I do apologize; you are quite correct. I do seem to recall that there was a singular mourner at your gravesite. I believe he was your friend.”

Marley put away the watch slowly, his movements slow and deliberate.

"You always were my best friend, Ebenezer. And I do thank you for attending me."

"It was the least I could do for the man who stood beside me all those years, who taught me all there was to know of Business."

Marley looked sorrowful. "I taught you of Business, yes, but nothing of Humanity. That was my error and my downfall. And I would that you avoid my fate by learning something of it before it is too late."

"And what is your fate?"

"To wander the earth til the end of Time, observing the tribulations of the living but unable to assist them in their want." Marley's eyes took on a solemn and downcast appearance.

"Yet surely you are here to assist me in my want of education. How is it that you are able to effect this effort but none other?"

"It is by special request, as it were. There are those who believe my errand to be a foolish one; I hold that it is not. My hope is that your regard for me may yet be enough to sway your mind to the right path."

"Really? And will a happy conclusion bring some respite for you in your suffering?"

"It would be most comforting to me."

Scrooge smiled. "Then, by all means, let us proceed!"

Marley's head tilted curiously to one side, his brow furrowing in consternation. “How is it, Ebenezer, that this visage, long separated from your view by the curtain of Death, does not startle you with horror?”

“In our time together, Jacob, did we not see the worst that the natural world has to offer? Now you show me the face of a friend I have long treasured, and by your words, a hope that there is, indeed, something beyond the grave. How then could I react with anything less than joy?”

Marley nodded. “You have a refreshing way of looking at things, Ebenezer.”

Marley turned round to face the fireplace, in which a single log glowed with a singular flame. “Nevertheless, your unaltered path is clear. At its end is doom and misery, a fate that I would not see you meet. Therefore.” He hesitated a moment, then turned round again to face his old friend.

"You will be visited by three ghosts this night. The first will come at one, the second at two, and the third at three."

"How wonderfully precise! I suppose there is some meaning behind the numerilogical sequencing?"

Marley ignored the question. "The first ghost will show you what has been; the second will show you the things that are; and the third will show you what might come.”

"Couldn't I have them all three at once, and get it over with?"

Marley considered. "No, I don't think that would work out at all. They're rather difficult to handle in the same room all at once. No, it's better to deal with them individually. You'll understand when you see them."

Scrooge shrugged. "Oh, all right, then. Have it your way. Will you be attending me, or are there other lost souls on whom you must pay calls this night?"

Jacob fixed him with a baleful stare. "Oh, how I wish there were others! Alas, my power to bring change to this world is limited only to the single person with whom I had affection during my life upon the earth, for I have no other friend or family alive."

"That's too bad, Jacob. But I am glad to see you again, regardless of the circumstance."

A small smile broke out on Marley's face. "Thank you for that, Ebenezer. It means a great deal to me, seeing that you remember me still, and think of me fondly."

"You will always be my friend, whether in this world or the next. Or whatever state it is in which you find yourself."

Marley bowed his head in appreciation of the compliment, and strode slowly towards the fire grate.

"Remember," he said, turning his head back to Scrooge, "the first ghost will come at one o'clock. Heed his words, friend Scrooge." Then he faded like a mist and was gone.

Scrooge stood for a long moment peering at the place where the shade of his friend had stood. Finally he breathed a sigh, pulled the watch from his own vest pocket, and consulted its face.

"Nine o'clock," he muttered. "Still plenty of time to take a quick nap. If I'm going to be up all night with ghosts," he said to the room, "I'm going to need some rest."

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Epilogue (Revised)

     Harry was the first to arrive. He hadn’t been near the old pub for years, but it didn’t matter; the place hadn’t changed a bit. The booths were the same dark color, the walls were covered with the same old portraits whose subjects could barely be discerned through the smoky glass, and the windows to the street were still smudged and dirty and warbled with age. He picked the old booth in the back, the one they had always sat in, far away from the rest of the crowd. It was good for private conversations.
     He didn’t recognize the barman. The price of the beer was a bit steeper than he’d remembered, too, but that was to be expected. Times change, Harry, he reminded himself. He nodded to the barmaid as she placed the glass on the table; then, after taking a sip, then looked out the window and tried to make out the shapes of the people on the street through the murky glass.
     Ten minutes later, a woman in a tweed pantsuit came through the door, her reddish-blonde hair cropped close to her head and hidden somewhat under a matching beret. She was a year or two behind the fashions, but she walked confidently with the air of someone to whom such trivialities didn’t matter. She spotted Harry almost immediatlely and waved, then signaled to the barman, who nodded and turned to start filling another glass.
     “Goodness, Harry! You’re a bit early, aren’t you? I didn’t expect to see you for another half-hour or so.” She slid an enormous handbag onto the seat across from him and pushed it against the wall.
     Harry smiled. “I’ve gotten a bit better at being on time over the years, Hermione,” he said, and stood up to give her a hug. Then, “Sit down! Sit down! Tell me all about how things are going in the real world these days.”
     “Real world!” Hermione snorted as she sat down. Harry noticed she’d put on a bit of weight around the hips and middle, but her face was still the same. He idly wondered if she was wearing one of those girdle contraptions.
     “The ‘real world’, indeed! My goodness, Harry, you should be telling me about the ‘real world’, living in LA like you do. How do you ever breathe in that place? I’ve seen the cable feeds. The air is all so yellow and foul.”
 Harry grinned. “Oh, we like it that way. It keeps the tourists from taking all the parking spots.” She guffawed. “But it’s not like London’s doing any better.”
     She nodded. “Yes, London has had its days, and that’s the truth. Seems like we saved the world only so it could go on trying to kill itself all over again.” She stopped and looked at Harry full in the face, studying him. “You’ve hardly changed, Harry. A bit of gray here and there, a few lines around your eyes, but you still look very much the same.”
     “Even without the scar?” he asked, pointing to his forehead which was clear of any mark.
     “Oh, you finally got that taken care of, did you?” she asked with an air of curiosity. “I was wondering how long it would take before you got tired of it.”
     “Five years,” he admitted. “Must’ve been the hundredth time it came up in an interview – ‘Oh, you’re the famous Harry Potter!’ – when I realized that no one was ever going to take me seriously until I got rid of it.”
     “And the glasses?”
     “Contacts, of course.”
     “Of course.”
     “I even thought about dying my hair once, but decided I didn’t want to be mistaken for a Weasley.”
     She laughed. “Still, those of us who knew you best would always be able to spot you, wouldn’t we? After all we went through.”
     Harry nodded. It had been many years, but most of the memories were still fresh. Some still hurt.
     “Have you heard from him, then? Is he coming?”
     He shook his head. “Haven’t heard a word. Hasn’t he talked to you?”
     She sighed and looked down at her glass. “No. He didn’t even send a Christmas card this year. I still get one from Arthur and Molly, but that’s about it. I hear he’s very busy nowadays.”
     “Yes, that’s probably true. He probably doesn’t get much rest in his line of work.”
     She looked up at him. “It’s funny, you know. You were the one we thought would go on and get involved in politics. Everyone said you had a bit more ambition than most, that Riddle’s influence had left you unsatisfied with an ordinary life, yet there you are out in California, writing your plays and living the quiet life up there in the mountains, and he’s out here stumping and kissing babies.”
     “Yeah, well, the life under the microscope got old very fast. Guess I had had enough for one or two lifetimes.”
     “Yes, you had.”
     “It’s a nice life, you know,” he said quietly, taking a deep breath. “No one looking over your shoulder. No one stopping you on the street. I can stroll through a crowded store and no one looks up. I can walk down the street like an ordinary person.”
     Her eyes followed him sympathetically. “Is that why you moved away?”
     He nodded. “There wasn’t anyplace around here I could go that would be safe. Not right away.” He looked around at the people sitting quietly in the pub, at the people walking past on the street outside. “Now, it probably doesn’t matter. I doubt anyone remembers anymore.”
     “Everyone has such short memories,” she agreed. “They latch onto the next big thing, and you were the next big thing nearly twenty years ago. The earth has moved on.”
     “I’ll drink to that,” he smiled, and clicked his glass against hers. They drank together.
     “So,” he said as their glasses were being refilled by the attentive barmaid, “what about you? Last I heard, you were settled down and living in Epping. Is that right?”
     “Yes. We’ve got a lovely little cottage there, just perfect for the three of us.”
     “Three?”
     “Well, five would be more accurate, I suppose. Me, John, Kitty and the two dogs, Wallace and Gromit.”
     Harry laughed. “Wallace and Gromit! Too perfect. I suppose they both like cheese, do they?”
     She giggled, the same giggle he’d heard nearly twenty years ago, only perhaps slightly deeper in pitch. For a moment, he could see her as she had been twenty years before, her eyes twinkling with some secret joke. “Of course. John and Kitty spoil them rotten, regardless of my instructions, and they have to be taken round to the vets on occasion when they’ve had too much, but they’re quite well-behaved.”
     “And I thought you’d always been a cat person.”
     “I was, I was,” she sighed again. “Crookshanks was a wonderful cat, but he went the way of all cats in the end, and had to be put down when it hurt too much to watch him stumbling around. And John had always fancied dogs. Well, Kitty was having a bad day when she was about five or six, and John brought home these two little drowned rats from the local shelter to try and cheer her up, so what was I to do? Of course, she fell in love with the little miscreants at once.”
     “And named them?”
     “Yes. She always adored those characters. And she loved having her own. Fed them cheese whenever she could. Played dress-up with them, putting them in pants and overalls. Hilarious. I knew it was all over the minute she named them.”
     Harry laughed at the picture that had formed in his mind of a little girl dressing up her two dogs in fanciful costumes, complete with hats and overalls.
     “What about you, Harry?” asked Hermione, her head tilting slightly to one side. “How are things going with your writing? Are you working on any new plays?”
     “Not at the moment,” he said. “It had got to a point where there was nothing new coming out of the well, and I didn’t want to merely rehash the same old themes, so I decided to take a break for awhile. Only the break is taking longer than I expected.”
     “How long now?”
     “Two years.”
     “Two years! Oh, Harry –“
     He held up his hand to the question forming behind her concerned brow. “No, I’m all right, Hermione. I’ve got enough contract work to keep me busy.”
     “Contract work?”
     “Screenplays. Rewrites. Hollywood stuff. They send round these drafts for rewrites on contract, just clean-up stuff, really. When I’m done with them, they get sent out again for a round or two of final polish before the shooting script gets approval. I’m sort of the middle-man in the process.”
     “Sounds dreadful.”
     “It is. But it pays the bills.”
     “Well, that’s good, I suppose.” They sipped their drinks for a moment, looking out the window again at nothing in particular. Then Hermione turned back, looking down at her glass and tracing its rim with her finger. “Harry,” she started, then hesitated a moment before continuing. “I don’t mean to be nosy, but – are you seeing anyone these days?”
     He looked at her and shook his head. “Not really, no. Occasional dates with people in the acting company, nothing serious. Usually just out for dinner or drinks.”
      “I suppose you still miss her quite a bit, don’t you?”
      “Every day.”
      “I remember your wedding like it was yesterday. She was so beautiful.”
      “Yes, she certainly was. Beautiful face, beautiful mind. Beautiful heart.”
      “I cried when your note came. It seemed so … wrong. Such a wonderful person, to have to lose her so soon. I thought you were awfully brave about it.”
      Harry smiled. “Well, you know me. Got to put on the brave face when things are going poorly. I’d rather gotten in the habit that last year at Hogwarts when we felt like we were fighting uphill against such ridiculous odds, so it wasn’t very hard to keep up appearances.”
      “I never asked you before, Harrry, because it just didn’t seem like the right time. But now it’s been so long … I hope you don’t mind …”
      “Why didn’t I use magic?”
      The question hung in the air like a thick, black cloud. Hermione gazed at him with mixed anxiety and compassion, unable to do anything but nod her head slowly. Harry leaned back in the booth and sighed.
      “Because she wouldn’t have wanted it that way.”

==

      “I met her only a year or so after Jenny and I broke up. She was such a nice, ordinary girl, Lucy was. Working in a bookshop. Reminded me of you a bit, with her head always in a book. She kept her hair up, though, so it wouldn’t get in her eyes. She had the prettiest green eyes.
      “She didn’t fancy the idea of magic, you know. She thought it was dreadfully unfair that some people had the ability to use it and some didn’t, but she didn’t harbor any ill will against magical folk. Just wished things could’ve been on an even keel. We used to argue about it a lot in the beginning. To me, it was no different than a man born crippled comparing himself with a man born whole. It’s just his lot in life. Roll of the cosmic dice. With extra gifts comes extra responsibility, that kind of thing. She didn’t see it quite the same way, though. Thought it was a bit unfair on God’s side, giving magical abilities to one lot and not the other. She was all for going right up to the gates of heaven and giving Him a piece of her mind.
      “She was a feisty girl. And I loved her for it.
      “It was five of the best years of my life, being married to her. We were all for having kids and not caring one way or the other if they were magical or not, but it didn’t happen. And then she started getting sick, and the doctors found out she was dying. I tried to convince her to see the Healers, but she would have none of it. ‘I’ll live and die a Muggle, Harry!’, she said to me, and I respected her for that. She fought it hard, but in the end, she lost the fight, and I lost the best friend I’d ever had.
      “’I’ll see you on the other side,’” was the last thing she ever said, and I know it’s true. I imagine she’s over there now, having a wonderful time with Sirious and Remus and Tonks and Dumbledore ... and my parents.”
      Hermione reached out and wiped a tear off his cheek. A similar tear was rolling down her own cheek, but she ignored it.
      “I’m so sorry, Harry. I hadn’t realized.”
      “No, no one realized,” he said quietly. “I didn’t want anyone to realize. I wanted to live in a non-magical world with a non-magical wife and pretend that there was nothing I could’ve done to save her. And I have gone on living like this because it was the way she wanted us to live.”
      “And that’s why you sit on your mountaintop and write your plays? Because she wanted you to live this way? Even after she was gone?”
      He shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t know. I look at it like this: For the first few years of my life, I wasn’t even aware of the world of magic. For the next few years, it ruled and nearly ruined my life. Then for five glorious years, I did without it, and was happy, mostly. Ever since, I’ve been content. I’ve come to realize that I have everything I need, and I’m all right with it.”
      Now it was his turn to look down at his glass. His voice dropped a bit as he continued, almost as though he were praying quietly to himself.
      “You and I are a bit different from the rest of them because we grew up in the Muggle world. We knew how to get by without it. Maybe it’s just a way for me to return to that world again, to that time before I was aware of the wizarding world. Back when things were simple.”
     “Simple! Simply awful, you mean. As I recall, you were treated very cruelly in those ‘first few years’.”
     “Yes, I was,” he admitted. “But I think things might’ve been too easy for me if I hadn’t. With magic, there is a strong temptation to fix the symptoms rather than the problems, to make things feel better without actually addressing the core issue.”
     “Well, no one put a hex on the Dursleys to make them treat you better!”
     “No, and I’m glad they didn’t. I didn’t want to force them to do something against their nature; I wanted the Dursleys to treat me well because they wanted to, not because I made them.”
     “Have they ever?”
     A slight smile played at his lips. “You’d be surprised. Actually, they were the first ones to comfort me when Lucy died. Aunt Petunia really softened up when I got married; she seemed to take it as vindication of her own status that I’d married a Muggle. We had a nice, long chat about it. And Uncle Vernon really appreciated that time I went over and helped out after his heart attack, especially since I did it without any magic. And then there was Dudley, of course.”
     Hermione looked surprised. “Dudley? Your cousin, Dudley?”
     “Yes. Cousin Dudley. He was the one who introduced me to Lucy. She was his tutor, back when he was trying to brush up on his reading skills so he could get a job.”
     “What? Dudley? You’re kidding. He had a tutor?”
     He laughed. “Oh, yes. After getting out of the Reform Center, he found it difficult to get a job without some remedial reading studies. So he went down to the College and signed up for a reading tutor, and Lucy was assigned to his case. Something about her made him think of me, so one day he rings up and asks me to come down to the pub to meet her, and the rest … well, you know the rest.”
     His eyes glistened. Hermione nodded sympathetically.
     “I’d never met anyone like her.”
     “She seemed very nice. At the wedding.”
     “I wish you could’ve gotten to know her.”
     “I do, too.”
      “After we got married, we lived as ordinary people. Muggles. For five glorious years. And then she was gone.”
      Hermione leaned in closer, her voice soft, compassionate. “We all wondered what had happened. We hadn’t heard from you in so long, we wondered if perhaps you’d taken Orders or something like that. And then it seemed that you just dropped out of sight.”
      “I did,” Harry said in a tired voice. “Dropped out of life, the universe, and everything. Ran away and hid inside my books.”
      “Luna was the one who told us, you know,” she said.
      “Luna,” he said, and grinned in spite of himself.
      “She keeps her finger on the pulse of the Muggle world, our Luna does,” remarked Hermione, and there was a twinge of pride in her voice as she said it. “Sure, some of the stuff she comes up with is outlandish and crazy, but she doesn’t miss a trick. She caught the obit in one of the Muggle papers and saw your name and wondered if this was the Harry Potter she’d known as a kid, so she did some checking around, in her own way. When she’d confirmed it, she sent copies round to us all, even though none of us had spoken with her in a dog’s age.”
      “I appreciated the card you all sent,” Harry said. “It was quite nice. I … I just wasn’t ready to go back into the wizarding world again. Not yet.”
      Hermione sat back in the booth and looked out the window. “Ron was quite angry, I recall. He thought you were turning your back on us. On him. But then he was having a rough go of things himself at the time. The job wasn’t turning out like he’d expected. His father was starting to show signs of that blood disease again. And of course his wife was struggling with depression.”
      “Oh, yes. What was her name again?”
      “Toby. Tobit Mallory Weasley, née Hodgkins.” She said it with an odd turn of her mouth. Harry noticed but didn’t change his expression, asking his next question in a lightly joking tone.
      “You know, I never did understand why you two didn’t hook up. You were all over each other that last year, as I recall.”
      Hermione laughed shortly. “You’re changing the subject, Harry! Subtle, very subtle.”
      He smiled, glad she hadn’t overreacted to the jibe.
      “But, yes,” she continued, “We were quite the item for awhile. How often I look back on those days and think of how simple we were, how naive. We bonded because of the constant danger we were in, and the years we’d had together in school. But when school was done and the danger passed, there really wasn’t much there to hold on to. I can’t believe we lasted nearly two years. By the end of that two years, we were ready to kill each other. If there’s anything in my life I’m grateful for, it’s that I didn’t marry Ron.”
      “Was he really that bad?”
      “No, not really; but he was a different kind of man than the one I needed. You remember how insensitive he could be sometimes. His head was either wrapped around a Quidditch pitch or a dinner plate, or both. There really wasn’t room for anyone like me, who needed to be constantly reminded of how much she was loved.” She smiled wistfully, remembering.
      “I remember the final straw like it was yesterday. He hadn’t gotten me anything for my birthday, but happened to have tickets to the local match. And he thought it would be all right to go out with the lads instead of taking me out for a birthday dinner. I told him that, if he went, it would be the last time he’d see me. He went.”
      “But that wasn’t the last time you saw him, surely?”
      “No, but it was the end of us. I soothed my aching heart in my books, in my graduate studies, and he spent a few months drowning his sorrows in Stout Ale until he met up with Toby, and the rest is history.”
      “I seem to recall something in the news a few years back that she had been in the hospital about the time he took the City Council post. But then she was out again by the time he moved up to District.”
      “Yes. Clinical depression. Post-partum. Two kids, four years. Not surprising. But as I mentioned, he wasn’t the most sensitive soul on the planet. She wasn’t getting any sympathy from his end, so she took to the trying home-made magical remedies. But she wasn’t very good at it. Ended up in St. Mungo’s for a time, as I recall. Molly had to step in for awhile to help out with the children. That didn’t help with her husband’s issues.”
      “But they’re still together?”
      “So far as I know. As I said, I haven’t heard from him lately, and that was all a few years ago. I think he’s going to run for a Regional post soon, though. There was some mention of it in the paper a week or so ago.”
      The door of the bar opened with a jingle, but Harry, with his back to it, hardly noticed. Hermione looked up at the sound and smiled broadly, raising her hand and waving happily. Harry turned around.
      It was Draco Malfoy.
      He reminds me of Narcissa, thought Harry as he stared at Draco’s face. The chin was still somewhat narrow, but the eyes and forehead were unmistakedly Narcissa’s features rather than those of Lucius. And the years had added a bit of padding to his cheeks, giving him almost a Father Christmas kind of expression. It gave Draco a much friendlier visage than Harry recalled. And the broad smile on his face was so unexpected that Harry couldn’t help but smile back.
      “Harry! Good to see you, mate!” Draco said, holding out his hand. Too surprised to do anything but respond automatically, Harry held out his own, and Draco shook it firmly before turning to give Hermione a hug. “And you, Hermione!” He turned and gestured at the barmaid for a glass, and then nodded towards the table. They all sat down, Draco sliding in next to Hermione and looking across to Harry, who was still a bit startled.
      “Well, now, Harry, how’ve you been? I haven’t seen you in a dog’s age. How long is it now? Nearly twenty? Hard to believe.” He turned to Hermione. “Been getting him up to date on all the latest news, have you? I suppose we’ve all got a bit of catching up to do.”
      His bright white teeth gleamed as the barmaid brought his drink, and he winked at her. “Thank you kindly, dearie,” he intoned, and she blushed as walked away from the table. “She’s new, but quite good,” he said in a conspiratorial voice. “Used to be down at the Mortar and Pestle, but she likes it better here. Old Vic takes good care of her.” He nodded towards the barman, who smiled and nodded in return. Harry felt a flush of embarrassment. He hadn’t even bothered to ask the man his name.
      “We’ve been doing a bit of Q&A, Draco,” Hermione said, in answer to his question. “We were just talking about Toby.”
      Draco shook his head mournfully. “She had it rough, she did,” he said. “I was getting a bit worried about her, you know. Things were touch and go for awhile, but she managed to pull through. Did you know Pansy was working with her, down at St. Mungo’s? She’s really good with those depression cases. Went though so much herself, she was a natural to help others.”
      “Pansy?” Harry echoed. “Pansy Parkinson?”
      “Pansy Dawson now, Harry,” said Draco. “Married Peter Dawson, a Healer with quite a bit of talent. They met at St. Mungo’s, in fact, when she was doing her Practicals. Oh, they’ve been there nearly fifteen years now. He’s head of the De-Poisoning Department, and she runs Emotional Aspects of Unavoidable Illnesses. Toby came in not too long after young Freddie was born, and it wasn’t but a month or so before Pansy had her back up and running again.”
      Harry was still trying to deal with this new image of Draco, this talkative, congenial man with the twinkling eyes and narrow chin who looked a bit like the old Draco but sounded like a completely different person. He couldn’t help staring, even though he knew it was a bit rude.
      “Freddie?” he said quizzically.
      “Yes, Freddie. That would be Ron’s son, the one who wouldn’t take breast or bottle and cried incessantly, which nearly drove his mother round the bend. After all the trauma of dealing with Angeline, it was a miracle Toby didn’t go completely bonkers, but Pansy is certainly a miracle-worker, with a solid talent in the Healing Arts. I hear from Ron that Toby still gets together with her now and again for tea.”
      Hermione looked up sharply at this. “You’ve been talking to Ron? Do you know if he’s coming?”
      Draco nodded. “Saw him just the other day, down at the Happy Hypogriff. Said he was looking forward to it. He’s been a bit run down at the office, you know, needs to take a break, and here’s a golden opportunity to kick back, see some of the old crowd again.”
      “Pardon me, Draco,” Harry said carefully. “I don’t mean to be rude, but … do you actually hang out with Ron Weasley nowadays?”
      Draco looked at Harry blankly for a moment, then smiled apologetically. “Oh, I’m dreadfully sorry, Harry. I’d gotten so used to things these past few years, I’d quite forgotten you’d not been round.”
      “It may be a bit of a shock,” he continued. “But Ron and I have rather become … good friends. It’s all very natural, of course, as we’re both in the same racket.”
      “Racket?”
      Draco laughed. “I know, it’s not quite P.C. these days, but it’s a bit more accurate than saying we’re in the same ‘business’, truthfully. Politics is a racket, you know. We politicians row in strange waters, and, as they say, ‘the pirates mix with the merchants’. Hermione probably already told you, but Ron is up for SouthEastern Regional this year, and I’m up for SouthWestern. We’ve both gotten too big for our trousers, as it were, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if we don’t end up going head to head for Minister sometime in the future. But for now, we share a lot of the same concerns and interests, so we end up spending quite a bit of time together.”
      This was all quite a bit to take in one sitting, but Harry struggled to maintain his composure.
      “Does he ever … does he ever mention me?” he asked weakly, and then almost immediately regretted it. It sounded so trite, so self-serving. But Draco didn’t even hesitate.
      “Of course he does, Harry!” he said brightly.
      “He’s a simple soul, Ron is,” he explained. “He’s not complicated like you and I … or Hermione, for that matter,” he said, smiling at her. “He’s dog-loyal, but he’s a bit of a child in the way he thinks. That’s why he has done so well in the Southeast end, where people’s concerns are focused on the basics: food, family, job. He is well-liked, one of the gang, the kind of man you always want to stand beside you. And he always speaks of you in particular with great fondness. You were always his best mate.”
      Draco sipped at his drink for a moment before going on.
      “But you have to admit, your disappearance from his life left a rather large hole to be filled. Toby tried to fill it, but a wife can only do so much. A man needs his mates. He feels lost without them.”
      “And when I … left,” Harry interjected, “you … stepped in?”
      Draco nodded, a bit sheepishly.
      “Like I said, Harry,” he said. “We are both in the same racket. Even the worst of enemies can find common ground when put in close quarters for long periods of time. We worked together on many committees for many years. We matured. We learned to put our personal issues aside for the common good. And we discovered after not too long, that we had much more in common than not.”
      “Really.” Harry sounded skeptical. Draco laughed in a light, casual tone.
      “Yes, Harry, we really did. We both want to be well-liked; we both want to do great things for people so that they will remember us. I lived in my father’s shadow for many years; Ron lived in his brothers’. We understood each other.”
      Harry thought about it for a few minutes, considering the truth of Draco’s words. Ron had always been jealous of Harry’s fame, and his own brothers’ abilities and accomplishments. There had always been an undercurrent of competition between them, although it was always unspoken. And the same could be said of Draco, who had sought the admiration and respect of his parents, even going so far as to undertake a very dangerous task for the Dark Lord.
      It all made sense.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Ghosts

In his dream, he hears the sound of the shotgun blast, which he at first mistakes for the backfire of a car, and then he hears the squealing of the tires as the car races away. It is the squealing of the tires, the urgency, the need for a car to be racing away, that causes the surge of panic in his veins. Richard Davis, who is standing in line at the Seven Eleven at the corner, purchasing a pack of cigarettes for the girl he has left back in the motel room, realizes with a sickening, repetitive dread, that he has forgotten the future again, that he has left her to die again, that she is now lying on the motel bed with her face seared off by the blast; and it is this red, skinless face with the bone and muscle and sinew exposed that will be seared forever into his brain when he bursts through the shattered door of the motel, seared so deep and so intently that it will haunt his dreams for twenty-five years.

Richard Davis wakes up in the future with sweat on his brow and sweat on his sheets and a sharp but familiar pain in his chest, and wonders for a moment if his time has come, if perhaps now he can die in peace and end the dream.

But he doesn't die. The dream doesn't end.

Instead, he remembers. Again.

It had happened twenty-five years ago when he was in college. He had been working in an insurance company as an office assistant to a Claims Investigator. He enjoyed the job; he liked filing the paperwork and updating the databases on the primitive dBase system. He enjoyed reading through the cases. Having grown up on Hardy Boys and Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigator mystery stories, he viewed it as the next-best thing to detective work.

Most of their work was mundane: interviewing clients, researching background data, cross-checking facts. But every once in a while, an interesting case would come along, like the case where the husband murdered the wife for the insurance money, or the case where the businessman pushed his partner out of the office window, then tried to write a fake suicide note, hoping to get full control of the company so that his embezzlement could be hidden.

The image that haunted Richard Davis was associated with one of the interesting cases. It was the last case, in fact, that Richard had ever worked on.

He had been all alone in the office late on a Friday night, sitting at Mr. O'Brien's desk, reading through the latest copy of Playboy (which Mr. O'Brien left in his bottom right drawer), when the telephone rang. He answered it. It was a woman. She sounded terrified.

“Danny, you gotta help me,” she said. “I got no place else to go. It’s Bill. He’s gone off the deep end. He’s gonna kill me!”

Danny. That was Mr. O'Brien. Danny O'Brien.

“I’m sorry, Mr. O’Brien isn’t here,” Richard said. “This is Rich… um, Mr. Davis. Can I help you?” He didn't bother to mention he was just the assistant.

“Who? Mr. Davis? You a friend of Danny’s?”

“I work with Mr. O’Brien.”

“Oh. OK. Look, I gotta get out of town. Bill’s looking for me, and he’s gonna kill me if he finds me. I need to talk to Danny. I don’t have his home number. I always call him at the office. He don't want me calling at his house, on accounta his wife. But I gotta talk to him. Do you have his number?”

He was forming a mental picture of the lady. Blonde, deep red lips, smartly dressed, hair partly mussed. Like one of those femme fatales from the movies. Standing in a phone booth with the rain pouring down, eyes furtively glancing all around, trembling from fear. He could almost hear the musical soundtrack in the background.

“I’m sorry, but Mr. O’Brien has gone out of town for the weekend. I don’t have a phone number for him, but he’ll be back on Monday. I can give him a message if you’d like.”

“Monday’s no good. I gotta get out now!”

“I’m sorry. Is there anything I can do, Miss –?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know what to do! If Bill finds me -!”

His mind was flying through several scenarios, all of them taken from late-night movie plots. “Where are you? I can come get you.”

A pause. “What was your name again? You say you’re a friend of Danny’s?” A hint of suspicion in her voice.

He tried to play it cool. “Yes, ma’am. I’m Mr. Davis. I work with Mr. O’Brien – Danny – here at the office. We work together. I’m at his desk right now.”

“OK. It’s just – I’m a little nervous, you understand. I gotta make sure.”

“Of course, I understand. Why don’t I come get you, and we can talk?”

“I don’t need to talk. I just need money.” She sounded tense, and then a note of bright hope entered her voice. “You got any money you could bring me? Enough to get me outta town?”

“I’ve got some. It might be enough to get you to Chicago or Memphis.” He actually didn’t have any, but he knew where the petty cash was kept, and he knew that Mr. O’Brien kept a stash in his drawer for emergencies. He figured the boss wouldn’t mind, since it was for a client.

“Well, that ain’t much, but it’s a start.”

“Where are you at?”

“I got a room at the Buzz Inn motel out at the airport. Room 124. I wanna get out on the next flight.”

“OK. I can be there in about half an hour. Will that be all right?”

“Yeah. OK. Half an hour.”

“All right. I’ll see you then.” Richard moved to hang up the phone.

“Wait!”

Richard put the phone back to his ear again. “Yes?”

“When you get here, knock four times. Like this. Ta-ta, ta-ta. OK? So I know it’s you.”

“Four times. Got it. OK. Good-bye.”

Richard sat back in the boss’s desk and smiled. He felt just like a character in a movie. A real detective case!

--

It only took twenty minutes to get to the motel. Richard drove carefully but quickly. He was a combination of nervous and excited. He slid to a stop in the gravel parking lot, braking just a little too hard. His heart was racing. He was going to meet the mystery woman! For the third or fourth time, he checked the stash of bills in his coat pocket. It was all still there. He got out of the car and looked at the single-story stucco building which had once been white. Room 124 was just a few doors down. He walked over to it and knocked four times. Ta-ta, ta-ta. And he waited.

He sensed her through the door, peering through the peephole. She didn’t immediately open it. He resisted the urge to look around, figuring it would make him appear nervous. Which he was. He could feel sweat forming on his forehead.

The doorknob turned and the door opened just a crack. He could see the chain was still engaged.

“How much did you bring?” she whispered harshly. He could smell cigarette smoke.

He leaned toward the door. “Two fifty,” he whispered back. The door shut in his face. He could hear the chain rattling. Then the door opened, just enough for him to walk through. “Get in! Quick!” He slipped through the gap. The door was immediately shut behind him, the deadbolt thrown, the chain re-hung.

The air was filled with smoke. The girl was holding a cigarette between her fingers, and the ashtrays in the room were filled with butts. Richard coughed. It was hard to breathe. He wasn’t used to cigarette smoke.

“Where’s the money?” she said, and now her voice was normal. He took a good look at her through the smoke, and realized that she really was a girl, just a girl. Sixteen, maybe seventeen. A little thing, no more than five feet tall. Her hair was blonde, with brownish roots. Colored, probably. Heavy eye shadow, badly applied – or smeared from crying. Thin body. She was wearing skin-tight yellow leotards with a purple skirt, and a yellow halter top.

He pulled the money out of his coat pocket in a wad and handed it to her. She took it without even looking at it and stuffed it into an orange fringed purse that was lying on the bed. Then she turned and sat down next to it. The covers were all rumpled. The television was on but the volume was turned off. Evidently she had been watching it while waiting for him.

She sighed loudly. “I called the airport,” she said, looking at the ground. “They got a flight to Charleston that leaves in an hour. You mind dropping me off?”

“Not at all.”

“It’s just that I don’t want to walk over. Too open. Somebody might see me. Besides, I wanna get there right before they start boarding. They might have guys casing the joint, and I don’t wanna sit around in there.”

She put the cigarette in her mouth and sucked on it as though it was the last cigarette on earth. He had a million questions for her, questions about who she was and what was going on, but wasn’t sure how to begin. His curiosity overwhelmed his mind. He was insanely curious, but didn’t want to be too nosey. Before he had the chance, though, she breathed out a long stream of smoke and shivered. Her shoulders dropped, relaxing.

She started talking.

“I was hoping for Chicago or Memphis, but those flights are all booked. I can get to Charleston, though. That should be far enough, for a start. Then I can catch a flight down to Florida, or New Orleans. Somewhere away from here. Someplace where they can’t find me. Some town big enough, so many people, they won’t think it’s worth looking for me anymore. I’ve always wanted to go to New York, but that’s too big, too dangerous. I’m not ready for that kind of town.”

“Who are you running from?”

He hadn’t meant to interrupt, but his mouth finally engaged with his brain.

She looked at him for a moment. “Danny didn’t tell you nothin? About me?”

He shook his head. She laughed short and humorlessly. “Figures. He keeps things pretty tight. Probably planning on busting the whole thing up himself. A hero. Always gotta be a hero.”

“Busting what whole thing?”

She took another long drag on her cigarette, stubbed it out in an ashtray, then looked up at him as the smoke rolled from her mouth. “You don’t wanna know, mister. You really don’t wanna know. Your best bet is to just drop me off and then forget you ever seen me. Don’t even tell Danny you helped me out.”

He was going to have to tell Danny. He had to explain about the money. But she didn’t need to know that.

“You don’t look too old,” she observed, now looking at him very carefully. “How long’ve you known Danny?”

“Couple years.”

Something seemed to click in her head. “You’re one of those college boys, ain’t ya? One of Danny’s ‘go-fers’?” She shook her head, with a fatalistic laugh. “Figures I’d get one of you guys. My luck.”

Richard bristled. “Mr. O’Brien trusts me to handle a lot of the legwork and research on his cases.”

“Yeah, yeah, great. Look, mister, can you do me a big favor before we go?” She was pawing her purse open. “I’m outta smokes. Can you run over to the corner store and pick me up some?”

“Uh – sure.”

“Marlboro.”

“OK.” He reached over and unlocked the door, dropping the chain latch. He turned the knob and opened the door. “I’ll be right back.” He stepped outside and shut the door behind him. He heard the bolt and the chain as she relocked it.

Right. Back.