Many thanks and candles lit for Maryilee and Gem, who beta read at an amazing speed on this one. More author's notes, if you want 'em, at the end.
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Christmas Carol Redux
by peregrin anna
Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home.
~ Cardinal John Henry Newman
Eight o'clock, Christmas Eve. Most children may have been nestled all snug in their beds, but at McGinty's Bar there certainly weren't any sugarplums dancing around. Peace and goodwill were in pretty short supply, as well.
"Hi, Kara?" Chuck twisted the phone cord around his fingers as he spoke into the phone. "Look, I'm sorry I'm not there yet. I kinda ran into a snag." He looked down the bar at Marissa, who was ringing up a tab for their last customers--the only customers they'd had since six-thirty.
"Merry Christmas," she told the departing couple, with less cheer than Eeyore on a rainy day. Chuck stared at her in surprise while he listened to his date chew him out.
"What? No, I swear, I'll be there, it's just that I told my friend I'd have dinner with him and...well, he seems to be running a little late." Chuck glanced at the clock on the wall over the bar, then at Marissa.
A *little* late? she mouthed, eyebrows raised.
"Look, Kara, the party sounds great, I just can't be there right on time....No, no, I'm not trying to ditch you, it's just...hello? Hello?" He pulled the headset away from his ear, staring at it in disbelief. "She hung up on me."
"Speaking of ditching," Marissa began as she shut the register, "where is Gary, anyway? He did say seven, right?"
"Yeah," Chuck answered. "Not that it matters anymore, seeing as my date is off to find someone else to trim her tree."
"Well, at least you probably won't ever see her again."
"Thanks a lot, Marissa, that's a real comfort," Chuck retorted sarcastically.
Marissa sighed. "What I meant was, you won't have to explain it every time the topic of the holidays comes up. You won't be subjected to a year- long guilt trip. I, on the other hand, will have my mother reminding me for the next twelve months that I wasn't at home on Christmas Eve to sing carols and open gifts with the rest of the family."
"You're serious? You're gonna get in trouble because you missed out on a couple of hours?" Chuck was incredulous.
"You have no idea how important all these traditions are to our family. I thought I could at least get there by the time Uncle Harold read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas' to the kids--then, I might have been forgiven. Now, I'm just going to be dirt. Gary had better have a good reason for this," she finished darkly.
"You know what his reason will be," Chuck told her.
"I know, and I know it's important, but...well, so's my family," Marissa said defensively. "He knew I needed to be there for at least part of the evening."
"Yeah, well, this is the last time I let that stupid paper get in the way of my love life. If Gary wants to turn into a hermit, that's fine with me, but I have a life to live." Chuck sighed and looked around the deserted bar. "I'm sending the kitchen crew home. Nobody's coming out tonight. We might as well close up."
"Guess I'd better call my mom and tell her I won't be there for a while,"
Marissa muttered. Reaching for the phone, she added, "At least
I have the decency to call when I'm going to be late."
Gary Hobson just wanted Christmas to go away. All of it—the presents, the parties, the hustle and bustle—was more than he could take. Even the lights and decorations, the bright colored bulbs and plastic Santas he could see from the window of the taxi that was taking him to Aurora, seemed especially garish this year. They got on his nerves, like a jarring chord of disharmony, and drove home the fact that this year his Christmas was not going to be about the things that he had always thought it meant—home, family, friends, and comfort. In fact, judging by the attitudes of the people he'd run into lately, he was starting to doubt that Christmas had ever been about those things.
For Gary, the past few weeks had been a blur of activity—pickpockets, Christmas
tree fires, stolen packages, drunken brawls at office parties, family feuds,
hostile delivery men, and angry confrontations at the airport and Union station.
Whoever said the holidays brought out the best in
people hadn't spent much time in Chicago in December, or if they had, they hadn't been hanging out with a guy who got the newspaper a day early.
It wasn't just that people were ungrateful when he helped them; he was used to that. It was the contrast between what he'd always thought Christmas was supposed to be about and the actual effect that the holidays had on people. They were harried, frustrated, sometimes downright antagonistic at what they saw as his interference. No one seemed merry or jolly, not even the people who were paid to be that way. A department store Santa had threatened to file assault charges against Gary when he'd grabbed a giant candy cane from behind, just as it was about to topple onto the man and the small child he held on his lap. Elf security had jumped in to help at the last minute. As far as averting the accident, Gary's timing had been perfect, but the Santa had assumed that Gary had pushed the candy cane in the first place, and he'd had to do some fast talking to get out of the mall with no more than an admonition not to return.
That was fine as far as Gary was concerned. Being in stores this time of year, seeing the consternation and desperation on the faces of shoppers and clerks alike, was further proof that Christmas had deteriorated into something he didn't recognize and of which he wanted no part. He'd even given up trying to relax with the television; the ads that implied that perfume, power tools, and battery-operated plastic would make everyone's holidays perfect drove him nuts.
He'd always thought there was supposed to be more to it; that the Christmas spirit everyone always talked about was about something other than materialism and running from one obligatory event to another. At one time, he was sure, he'd even felt that spirit of something other, something deeper. This year, though, it was gone, and he wasn't exactly sure why. When he thought about the holidays, he felt empty; then he felt guilty for not being able to get into the spirit of things.
He supposed it was that guilt, more than anything, that had led to his offering to make Christmas Eve dinner for Chuck and Marissa. People he knew kept asking about his holiday plans, and while he really wanted to tell them he was just planning on sleeping it off like a bad hangover, he dreaded the looks of pity that would probably elicit. So, in the interest of having something to say when people asked him about it, he'd come up with a simple dinner, just the three of them, before his friends went on with their own plans and he went back to his apartment over the bar to wait for the next edition of the paper. Now even that little scheme was shot to hell.
He shifted in the back seat of the cab and reminded the driver of the exact address, checking his watch against the article in the paper. That particular spot on that particular page had been changing since about 4:30 that afternoon, and this taxi ride was the first chance he'd had to even catch his breath. Now, more than four hours later, his evening plans were ruined and there didn't seem to be an end in sight to the disasters he was supposed to prevent. Not that it mattered much. He'd wanted to have dinner with his friends, but seeing as he was exhausted and in one heck of a bad mood, he wouldn't have been good company at all.
He didn't know when it had happened; when the Christmas spirit had disintegrated and left everyone with one big obnoxious obligation. Must have been while he was hiding his head in the sand somewhere, but the paper had taken his blinders off at last. He'd been thrust into every possible negative situation lately, and he had seen what the holidays were really all about: things, money, and stress—most of all stress.
The crowning moment of it all had come this afternoon when he'd found an article about a fire in a church during a rehearsal for a children's pageant. It turned out that Mary and two of the Wise Men, kids who couldn't have been more than twelve or thirteen, had been smoking cigarettes in the vestibule. They had just tossed the smoldering butts into a wastebasket full of paper when Gary had found them, stomped out the embers with his boots, and alerted the adults in charge. Instead of thanks, he'd received a kick in the shins from one of the Wise Men, a flat out denial from Mary's mother that her angelic daughter could possibly be involved in such an escapade, and stern looks and pointed questions from the pastor about whether or not he belonged to the congregation.
So much for the religious aspects of Christmas. He'd never been much of a churchgoer, but he'd always assumed that people who were would be more in tune with the real meaning of Christmas. As far as he could tell, they weren't any happier than the shoppers at the mall.
"This is it," he told the cabby as they pulled up to a large Victorian home. "Wait right here, okay?"
"Sorry, buddy, I was off duty twenty minutes ago. I just brought you all the way out here outta the goodness of my heart, 'cause I knew you weren't gonna find no more cabs this time of the night on Christmas Eve."
Gary scanned the deserted streets and realized just how far away from home he really was. "Well, then, why don't you stay outta the goodness of your heart? How am I supposed to get back downtown?"
"You didn't say nothin' about going downtown. I live out here and I gotta get to my in-laws' or my wife's gonna kill me. Try a bus." He nodded at the meter. Gary shook his head as he pulled the fare out of his wallet--his last bills, he noted in disgust--and shoved it through the window.
"Merry Christmas!" the cabby called, waving out the window as he pulled away.
"Yeah, right back at ya, pal," Gary growled. He scanned the article one more time; three brothers were going to end up in the hospital after falling from the icy roof of this home. Apparently they were going to crawl out there to wait for Santa Claus. Maybe if he could take care of this right, their parents would let him use their phone to call for a ride or a taxi or something.
First, though, he had to find the kids. He heard young voices off to his right, at the side of the house, and when he came around the corner he saw small figures already crawling out of the attic dormer window. He looked around in desperation for a ladder, but of course there was none; the only way up was a spreading oak tree whose branches were low enough to reach if he jumped.
Time was running out. He shoved the paper inside his jacket and started climbing.
Less than ten minutes later, Gary was frantically disentangling himself from a broken tree limb and a snowbank as he tried to get out of the yard before the police arrived. He'd saved the kids—leapt onto the roof from the nearest tree branch and caught one before he could slide into the other two and send them all over the edge—but just as the boys had disappeared back into the attic their father had stuck his head out a second story window, seen Gary trying to climb down the icy branches as carefully as possible, and assumed he had a burglar on the premises. His yells to Gary to get out and to his wife to call the cops had startled Gary so much that he'd lost his grip and slipped onto a weak branch, which had promptly given way under his weight.
He'd landed in a pile of snow on the side of the house—thank goodness for small favors—but he wasn't safe yet. Sirens were approaching from the end of the block. Why weren't they ever that quick when he called them? He doubted the cops would believe the truth, and he was pretty sure the kids weren't going to back up his story. They were probably already in their beds, pretending to be sound asleep. If caught, he'd be spending Christmas Eve in a jail cell, which would certainly be the icing on the cake.
Out on the street, the police car came to a halt. Without stopping to check if all his limbs still worked, Gary sprang up and took off across the neighbor's backyard. He was usually a fast runner, but the snow and a series of fences slowed his progress through the neighborhood. His right knee was protesting the strain, and somewhere in the back of his mind he realized he had landed too hard on it, but he pushed the pain away and kept going. Luckily, it was dark and he had enough of a head start that by the time he emerged onto a street that had a few shops and a gas station, he had lost whatever pursuit the police had managed to put together.
Bending over to catch his breath, he looked across the street at the gas station. It was closed, but he did see a drive-up pay phone on one corner of the lot, a sight which lifted his spirits considerably. Checking around for more police cruisers, and not seeing any, he trotted across the street, feeling in his pockets for change. He had exactly one dime and one penny.
Not a problem, he figured, approaching the pay phone. He had a calling card, he'd just use that--oh, no.
The receiver was missing. A frayed cord dangled from the silver box.
In pure frustration, Gary kicked at the pole that held the offending contraption, and pain shot through his knee. Perfect. This was just perfect. Christmas Eve, he was out in the middle of nowhere with no way to contact anyone and no way home. He pulled the paper out of his jacket in hopes that there might be some sign of what he could do next, but there was nothing--no one to save and no help for him. He decided to start walking and hope he'd find another pay phone. It was all that was left to do. Of course, it would help if he knew where he was, or even what direction to walk. It occurred to him that he could try some of the homes in the neighborhood to see if anyone would let him use their phone or call a cab for him, but he dismissed that thought immediately. With his luck, he'd end up knocking on the door of the Chief of Police.
He was about to start down the street and look for another pay phone when the sound of a diesel engine surprised him. He looked up the street to see a bus approaching, "Downtown Chicago" flashing in its windshield indicator.He had no money, no tokens...but maybe he could talk his way onto the bus and pay them back later. It was worth a shot.
He waved, and the bus came to a halt about half a length ahead of him, splashing his lower legs with icy water as the front wheels rolled by. Figured. The door opened, and Gary hurried up to it.
He started to ask about a mercy ride when he saw the sign over the slot where coins and tokens usually went, just a white piece of paper with "Merry Christmas" in red and green marker. Crude holly leaves and berries were drawn in the corners, too.
"Hey, does that mean--" Gary began, a tiny glimmer of hope dawning.
"Rides are on me tonight, buddy. Happy holidays. You're lucky, though. This is my last trip tonight. At least," he added, eyes twinkling under busy grey brows, "it's my last trip in this vehicle. Christmas Eve--got lots to do, you know."
Gary nodded, relieved beyond all telling. "Well, thanks--I mean, are you going downtown?"
"All the way to Michigan Avenue, buddy. Hop on."
"Thank you," Gary said again, a little taken aback by an act of kindness after his recent experiences. "I--" The bus driver, with his grizzled beard and heavy eyebrows, looked vaguely familiar, but he couldn't place him. It was probably a mistake. He was just tired, that was all. "I--uh--Merry Christmas," he added as he climbed the steps and the door closed behind him.
"Same to you. Off we go!"
The interior of the bus looked like a Christmas package turned outside
in. Garlands of plastic holly with red velvet bows draped the railings; vinyl
cut-outs of snowmen and reindeer were stuck on the windows. The driver
had a boom box that was blasting out Christmas carols--Andy Williams or Perry
Como or somebody like that; cheesy stuff Gary's parents had listened to
while he was growing up.
None of this Christmas cheer seemed to have much of an effect on the bus's
passengers. Two teenage boys sat across the aisle from each other,
arguing loudly over a basketball. They gave Gary dirty looks when he
stepped over their feet to get down the aisle. A harried mother of
two was trying to calm a crying baby, while her toddler loudly demanded to
know how Santa was
going to find them at Grandma's apartment, when Grandma didn't even have a chimney. An elderly man in a filthy, torn overcoat clutched a bottle of whiskey to his chest and snored loudly.
Gary found a seat at the rear of the bus, hoping that no one else would get on and choose to join him. He was exhausted, all used up, and now he'd have to go back to McGinty's and either face his friends--Marissa would be worried, Chuck would be ticked--or find out that they had given up on him and gone home, leaving him to get through the rest of Christmas on his own. Not that that would be all bad. Maybe if he could just ignore it, he wouldn't feel so bad about not having much Christmas spirit this year.
Shifting to a more comfortable position, he stuck his long legs out in the aisle in the hopes that they would ward off anyone who wanted to sit too close or have a conversation. He didn't think he could take much small talk right now, and he knew he couldn't be nice. It was going to be a long bus ride if he had to stare out the window at all those lights and families gathered around Christmas trees in picture windows.
He didn't have that. Hadn't had it in what felt like a very long time.
It was the paper's fault. Too much of everything negative about the holidays had been dumped in his lap lately. He entertained the traitorous thought that maybe the world would be better off without Christmas, at least in its present state. Even Santa seemed overrated after the encounter in the store and tonight's events on the roof.
He stirred in his seat. This was getting him nowhere. He had to take his mind off himself and his own little pity party. What could he do?
Read the paper? Yeah, right. He'd read it, seen it, done it, from cover to cover. He was exhausted and cold and there was nothing else to do. Maybe he'd just take a nap. It wasn't as if he couldn't use the sleep, and his was the last stop on the line.
Trying to stuff the paper into the inner pocket of his bomber jacket, he realized that there was something else in there--his Walkman, the one Marissa had borrowed to use for studying for her finals while hers was being repaired, and returned yesterday. Too bad he didn't have any tapes with him. He pulled it out anyway, thinking maybe he could find a radio station worth listening to for a while.
He turned the case over, looked through its clear front window, and realized that there was still a cassette in it. Marissa must have left one of her books-on-tape inside by mistake. He didn't even bother to look at what it was--anything was better than listening to the cheesy carols the driver was blaring from the boombox at the front of the bus. When had the Partridge Family had come out with a Christmas album, anyway? If nothing else, maybe the story would lull him to sleep.
The little boy up front started singing--if any noise that loud and out of tune could be considered singing--in counterpoint to the driver's music. "JIN-gle BELLS!!! Batman SMELLS!!!"
Gary sighed and pulled the headphones over his ears, leaning back in the seat and closing his eyes. It was going to be a long ride. He was getting sleepy as he warmed up. The tape's introductory advertisements seemed to go on forever, and he felt himself drifting off.
Drowsy and dull, he heard the narrator announce in a sonorous English accent: "And now, A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. First published in serial format, this holiday classic..."
Great. More Christmas. Just what he needed.
Oh, well, he figured. The way this guy was droning on, he'd be asleep before he even got to the story. And if not, Gary decided, he could always cheer for Scrooge. Carried along by the endless introduction, he allowed himself to relax a bit more.
Afterward, he wasn't sure when his awareness slipped away from him and the dream, if that's what it was, began. Somewhere before he fell completely asleep, though, the face appeared in his mind.
"Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that."
Gary sat up so quickly he startled the snoring rhythm of the old man dozing two seats in front of him. His breath came fast, he gripped the seat in front of him, and he looked around wildly--until he realized that it was the opening line to A Christmas Carol. He sighed in relief, focusing on the floor, not daring to look around and register what kind of fool he'd made of himself.
This was Jacob Marley, Dickens's Marley, a man who had never even lived. What was it they always said in the movies? "Any similarities to any persons, living or dead, were purely coincidental."
J. T. Marley was dead. Gary knew this. He had seen him die, watched him take a shot to the back, been two feet away when the man crumpled and gasped out his last breath, heard the sound of the body bag's zipper before the coroner's deputies took him away. He had relived the scene in his nightmares, awake and asleep, for weeks afterward.
J. T. Marley was dead. There was no doubt whatever about it.
So why was Gary startled by his name now, nearly a year later?
"Old Marley was dead as a door-nail."
Still, the comparison was apt. The Marley Gary knew had been dead for a long, long time, and not just as far as the Census Bureau was concerned. The man had lost his soul decades before Crumb's bullet had stilled his cold, empty heart.
He was probably roaming round the afterlife right now in thick, long, heavy chains. If Dickens's whimsical philosophy of justice was correct, it would take J. T. Marley a number of centuries, if not millennia, to work off the weight of the evil he had done.
"You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail."
Gary relaxed, finally; sat back in the seat, folded his arms across his chest where the newspaper was tucked under his coat, and closed his eyes. The whole Christmas thing was just not destined to happen for him this year, was it? These were hardly visions of sugarplums.
On the other hand, if he had to think about J. T. Marley, it was a comfort to think of him dead. This was not the kind of thought Gary Hobson normally had about any human being, but Marley was a special case. Someone who didn't have a soul could hardly be counted as a human being, could they?
Relaxing still further, he began to drift off. It had been a long day, a longer week, a month that spanned eons. He hadn't slept more than three or four hours in each of the past few nights.
"There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am about to relate."
Gary smiled wryly, his eyes still closed as the suburbs rolled past the windows of the bus. As far as he was concerned, the only wonderful thing he needed to know about Marley was that he was, indeed, dead. Dead as a door-nail. Dead as a coffin nail. Dead and buried and gone.
So what was his image doing hovering three feet in front of Gary's closed eyes? It had to be a dream. There was no other explanation.
He opened his eyes again, resolving to turn off the tape player, maybe go help the mother up front with her kids, if she wouldn't think he was a busy body--
The singing had stopped--both the child's and David Cassidy's.
He looked around the bus, and realized there was no one else on it, except for the driver. The narrator of A Christmas Carol was still relating a scene from early in the book, the one in Scrooge's counting house where his nephew tried to get him to come for Christmas dinner, so Gary knew he hadn't dozed off for any substantial amount of time.
He shut off the Walkman, pulling the headphones from his ears with his other hand as he did so. The silence that greeted him was eerie. He looked out the window, and realized the bus was no longer passing brightly-decorated homes, sale-sign-festooned stores, and lines of traffic headed out of the city for the holiday weekend.
He looked out the window, and saw nothing at all. A black void appeared to have swallowed the bus, Gary, and the driver—swallowed them whole. They were still moving, though. He could feel the throb of the engine and hear the whine of wheels against pavement.
"Hey!" he called up to the driver. "Hey! What's going on?" The driver didn't turn around. Gary started up the aisle, keeping his balance by holding onto seat backs adorned with gold tinsel garlands that looked like giant glitzy caterpillars.
I'm probably still dreaming, he told himself. This is all just stress and exhaustion and that's why it seems so different, so real. Any second now, I'm going to wake up and that kid will be singing and the boys will be throwing their basketball and I'll find my legs have been moving because I dreamt I was walking...
Any second now...
If he knew it was a dream, why couldn't he wake up?
He finally made it to the front of the bus and tapped the driver on the shoulder. "Hey, where the hell are--"
The driver finally turned around, and immediately laughed at Gary's startled reaction. Gary jumped back, pulling his hand off the man's uniformed shoulder as if he had touched red-hot iron.
The face that was laughing at him was J. T. Marley's.
This was no dream; it was a nightmare.
The call had been made, her mother's sharp comments about priorities and questions about exactly when she was planning on joining her family endured, and now Marissa was cleaning and replacing glassware at the bar while Chuck closed out the register. From the hard clanks as Chuck pulled the cash divider out and slammed the drawer shut, Marissa surmised that it wouldn't be wise to point out that he was the one who had thought it would be such a great idea to stay open on Christmas Eve. Instead, she ran her fingers over her watch dial, frowned, and broke the silence by again broaching the question that had been preying on both their minds for the past two hours.
"Where is he, Chuck?"
She heard glasses rattle and coins jingle, felt the bar vibrate under her hand. "What kind of question is that? Probably out saving the world from demented reindeer or something--How the hell should I know?" Chuck snapped, even more tense than he had been earlier in the evening.
"Chuck--" Even with the noise he'd been making, she was taken aback by the vehemence of his reaction. She'd thought he was mostly upset about his canceled date and the lack of business. She sighed, began again. "It's just that he's really late now, and it's not like Gary--"
"If I knew where he was, do you think I'd keep it a secret?" He cut her off, his impatience so palpable as he stalked past her toward the back rooms that she could have grabbed a handful from the air.
"Yeah, I'm worried about him, too," Marissa admitted quietly, face turned toward a door she expected, hoped would open any moment.
She didn't think Chuck heard her, but then, she couldn't see the way he hesitated, his shoulders drooping, and glanced briefly at the same front door before he pushed open the swinging divider to the kitchen.
Given Gary's situation, it wasn't unusual for him to be delayed when he was supposed to do something with his friends. This was different, though. For one thing, he was later than she could remember him being before without a phone call or some word--except for the times when he had been in serious trouble. For another, the dinner they were supposed to have was something he had planned himself--he'd checked the paper that morning, breathed a sigh of relief when he told her that the evening was clear, and promised to make dinner for the three of them, something befitting the holiday. It was a kind of compromise, a way to make up for Chuck's insistence that they keep the bar open on Christmas Eve, and she thought it marked an end to a vague feeling of gloom and doom that had surrounded Gary like a fog for the past couple of weeks.
But. She tapped her foot while wiping down the last of the glasses. But, but, but...it was now nearly nine.
Her original annoyance had dissipated into concern that was gnawing more
and more fiercely by the moment. It wasn't like him not to let them
know he'd be late, especially when they had something planned, even more
so on a night like tonight, when he knew that she had passed on some of the
traditional family festivities she usually attended to have a bit of Christmas
friends--her other family, the big brothers she'd never had. He was far too considerate for that--unless something was wrong.
The CD changer shifted discs, and suddenly instead of bluesy instrumental versions of Christmas carols, she heard Johnny Mathis croon, "I'll be hoooome for Chrisssstmaaaaas; Yoooouuuu can plan on--"
She reached under the bar and punched the stereo's "Off" button with more force than was technically necessary.
Gary swallowed hard, backing away from the snake of a man who had somehow taken control of the bus.
"Apparently not as dead as some people think," Marley responded smoothly, smiling the same smug smile he'd employed while coolly discussing the logistics of presidential assassinations. He raised his right hand towards Gary's chest. It held a revolver. Gary looked down at it, gulped, and looked back at Marley. Suddenly the holiday blues didn't seem like quite such a big deal any more.
"No, I--I saw you. I saw you die--you--you--" Why did he always stutter at times like this? "I saw you die. You're dead."
"I'm here, aren't I?"
"I'm dreaming. You're not real." Gary backed farther down the aisle of the bus, and Marley stood and followed him--stalked him, the barrel of the gun never wavering. The bus continued on its way to...wherever they were going.
It had to be a dream.
"You're a hard man to track down, Gary Hobson. You've moved."
"Not far enough, apparently," Gary mumbled. He looked around briefly for emergency exits, then wondered what he would be exiting to; not that there was much that could be worse than this.
It was just a nightmare, Gary told himself firmly. He shouldn't have gulped down that hot dog so fast at lunch.
Marley continued to purr. "I enjoyed the hunt. I always enjoy the hunt, although this is cutting it close. I didn't think I was going to find you in time."
Gary had backed almost to the last seat, the one he had been sitting in. Marley was less than a yard away from him; he could smell the cigarette smoke on his breath. "In time for what?"
"I've brought you a Christmas present, Mr. Hobson."
"Whatever it is, I don't want it." Gary took a final step and the backs of his legs hit the seat. Marley continued toward him until the barrel of the gun was just millimeters from Gary's heart.
"I think you will want this. You have been looking for the Christmas spirit, haven't you?"
"Not from you, no thank you, no. You're just a nightmare. Just a hot dog that didn't go down right." Gary sat down hard on the back bench, trying to put some fraction of distance between himself and Marley. It didn't work. Marley leaned over him, eyes gleaming, smiling an oily smile that had nothing to do with happiness.
"Haven't you ever heard that if you die in your dreams, you don't ever wake up again? The mind can't handle its own death. Even if I am a dream, if I kill you now, you're as good as dead anyway." Marley's voice was steady, soft, and calm.
Gary swallowed hard, looked up again at Marley. Whatever was going on was clearly out of his control. He decided that, if nothing else, he could at least try to handle the situation with a little more dignity than he'd displayed so far. He was sick of being toyed with like a yo-yo on a string.
"Get it over with, then," he said with as much conviction as he could muster.
To his surprise, Marley laughed, backing off just a fraction. "Oh, this?" he asked, waving the gun a little and looking at it as if he'd forgotten all about it. "You think I'm going to kill you?"
"You just said--"
"I told you, Gary--" The name sounded condescending and uncomfortably familiar coming from Marley-- "I'm here to give you a Christmas present. A Christmas past. Even a Christmas future, if you're a good boy. This--" He nodded at the revolver. "This is just me messing with your mind."
Gary, speechless, looked from Marley to the gun and back. Christmas past? Christmas future? "Cut it out, Marley. This has nothing to do with Christmas," he finally managed.
"'You keep Christmas in your way, and let me keep it in mine,'" Marley quoted.
"You can keep your Christmas far away from me, thank you," Gary retorted.
"Unfortunately, that's not an option. They told me I had to take the job; it was some kind of ancestral obligation," Marley continued, suddenly leaning against the seat behind him instead of over Gary. "You know, working off my time in the afterlife for all my misdeeds in this one--somehow my family always gets stuck with the Christmas hauntings. We do make," he added, assessing Gary's tense befuddlement through slitted eyes, "exceptionally frightening ghosts. Wouldn't you agree?"
Gary didn't move. He was still trying to figure out what Marley was up to; or why his own brain had conjured up the man. Marley, expecting a response, grew impatient. He leaned into Gary's face and suddenly the front of the bus was visible through Marley's head.
"I said," repeated the ghost of J. T. Marley in stereo surround with echo enhancement, "WOULDN'T YOU AGREE?"
If Gary could have jumped backward through the rear window, he would have.
As it was, he banged his head sharply against it and landed in one corner
of the back seat. Marley had changed; not only was he suddenly transparent,
he was now even paler than usual, and his skin had a vaguely green tinge
to it. His bus driver's uniform was falling off his skeletal form, his skin
peeling off his bones, and his hair was coming out in clumps. The gun had disappeared; apparently he didn't really need it.
From now on, Gary decided, he was having peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. And he would eat them slowly, in small bites.
"Forgive me these histrionics," Marley said, rattling the yards of chain he was suddenly trailing from every limb, "but it's important to create the proper effect. Now, do I have your full attention?"
Gary nodded dumbly. On that, at least, they could agree.
"Good. Listen carefully. You are about to be visited by three ghosts. The spirits of Christmas Past, Christmas Pres--well, I'm sure you know the rest."
Gary blinked in disbelief. "You must be joking."
"No, I'm afraid I'm not. Someone up there has decided that you need some Christmas spirit."
"Christmas spirit? What do you have to do with the Christmas spirit? What do guns and ghouls have to do with Christmas?"
"More than you might expect. Certainly more than most malls and television specials have to do with it. More than all this"--he swept his arm toward the rest of the bus, indicating the trimmings, "Or this--" he snapped his fingers and the boombox blared out a few bars of Madonna singing "Santa Baby" before he pointed his index finger at the offending instrument and it exploded in a pouf of smoke and light.
Gary rubbed the spot on his head where he had hit the window. "What kind of stupid dream is this, anyway?" he wondered aloud.
"Well, if you insist on thinking of this as a dream, then I'd say it's your kind, I suppose. The kind you need."
"I'm supposed to think that you are what I need to see on Christmas Eve?"
Marley shrugged. "Suit yourself. But I'm here whether you believe it or not. They said you would be a tough sell. I guess you're less impressionable than I remembered."
"Who are 'They'?" Gary heard a beeping sound, realized it was Marley's digital watch, hanging off his arm on a patch of peeling skin. The man—or ghost or whatever it was--looked at it, frowning.
"I don't have time for this--there are plenty of other people who need my...assistance." Marley smiled wanly. "Let me finish and then I'll leave you alone. But then, you seem to already know the drill. Three spirits, past, present, future, will visit you and take you through the meaning of Christmas, heed their warnings, etcetera, etcetera."
"Look, Marley, I'm no Scrooge. I'm just a little down this year, that's all. I don't need--"
"This is my stop," Marley interrupted him, ignoring his protests, although the bus didn't seem to be slowing at all. "Remember, three spirits. I'll be watching from afar, and so on and so forth...Can I get off now?" he demanded of someone or something that was apparently located in the roof of the bus, since that was where he was directing the query. Gary looked up too, but didn't see anything. The bus came to a screeching halt, and Gary was thrown forward with a jolt. He stopped himself from hitting the floor by grabbing the tinseled railing of the seat in front of him; looked up, and Marley was gone. So was the black void outside the window.
Gary blinked, hard. The mother and children, the bum and the teenagers, the obnoxious holiday music and the suburbs of Chicago were all back. He shook his head and realized he was still wearing the earphones. The narrator was still reading A Christmas Carol.
"Whether these creatures faded into mist, or mist enshrouded them, he could not tell. But they and their spirit voices faded together; and the night became as it had been when he walked home."
He snapped the tape player off and tried to catch his breath. No one was looking at him; no one seemed to have noticed him at all. He breathed more deeply and relaxed against the seat back. Whatever had just happened, it was the most real, the most frightening dream he'd had in a long time. In fact--he sniffed cautiously and frowned--the smell of cigarette smoke still lingered in the air.
Gary shuddered. He wasn't going to go back to sleep anytime soon, he told himself, but he sure as heck wasn't going to be listening to that tape, either. He removed the headphones from around his neck and shoved the whole contraption into the front pocket of his jacket. He'd just watch out the window, try to count gas stations or something--anything to take his mind off the ghost of J. T. Marley. He wondered vaguely if he should go up and check the driver, just to make sure it wasn't Marley.
No, he decided, better to stay back here. If it wasn't--and he was sure it wasn't--he'd only make a fool of himself.
If it was, he didn't want to know.
Chuck tapped his fingers on the answering machine. Nothing. No: "Sorry I'm running late guys, I'll be there soon, order a pizza instead, ha-ha." Not even a: "Chuck, I'm down at the police station; would you come and bail me out?"
On the other hand, there wasn't any: "Mr. Fishman, Ms. Clark, please call the hospital regarding your friend Mr. Hobson." That had to be a good sign, right?
He wondered for the hundredth time why Gary hadn't kept the cell phone Chuck had given him. All right, so it hadn't been given out of the best of intentions; so Chuck had signed him up for the service just so that he, Chuck, could get free HBO. At least if Gary had hung onto it they wouldn't have to worry about him like this now. They could call. He could call. If he was able to call...
Chuck shook his head and looked around the tiny office, half-expecting Snow's cat to jump out of the shadows at any minute. At this point--shoot, it was nearly ten o'clock--he would have welcomed the little hairball-chucking monstrosity. It might have led them to Gary. It would, at least, have been something to do.
Okay, Fish, he told himself. Just hold on a second. Pull back. It's only a couple of hours. Gary is a big boy; he can take care of himself. It's not as if much could have happened to him on Christmas Eve--right?
On the other hand, it was Christmas. It wasn't like Gary to miss out on something like this, not if he could help it, not without a word. The guy was independent, sure, but he didn't let his friends down.
Chuck moved restlessly out into the kitchen, put on a pot of coffee for the sake of having something to do, and then moved to peer through the window in the divider that lead to the bar. Marissa was turned toward the front entrance, a glass in one hand and a towel in the other, but neither making contact, for all the world as if she was willing Gary to walk through the door. Chuck felt a squiggle of guilt worm its way through his stomach. He shouldn't have been such an ass. It was Christmas, after all, and he had a feeling that the holiday was pretty important to Marissa.
At one time, it had been pretty important to Gary, too. Last year had been such a fluke, the bomber and Chuck's encounter with the guy who claimed to be Santa--but at least all that had taken Gary's mind off the fact that for the first time he was spending the holidays without any family, blood or married or otherwise. This year had been different. Gary'd been running around like a chicken with its head cut off, trying to solve the problems of what seemed like the entire city of Chicago, and, from the hints he had dropped, the callousness, stress, and ingratitude he'd encountered in his adventures had been wearing at his normally rosy outlook on life.
In retrospect, Chuck realized that Gary had tried to talk to him about it, but at the time Chuck had brushed him off.
"What do you think Christmas is about, Chuck?" Gary had asked one morning last week--one rare, free morning for Gary--when they were walking back to McGinty's after a game of squash. They had passed a drugstore window filled with plastic Santas and penguins, and he had waved a hand at it, grimacing. "I mean, what's it really supposed to be about?"
"Women." Chuck had told him, scanning the crowds of downtown workers and shoppers for his dream date. "Beautiful, well-dressed, women at parties, just waiting under the mistletoe for the right guy to come and sweep them off their feet."
"And the right guy, that would be you?" Gary had asked, playing along for a second.
"Of course! I know what women want for the holidays. No one can fill their stockings like I--"
"C'mon Chuck, really. What's it about?"
Chuck had had a stroke of brilliance. "Elf costumes!"
It was enough to stop Gary in his tracks. "Excuse me?"
"We'll have our waitresses wear elf costumes! You know, short skirts, little fuzzy hats--"
"It'll draw in the clientele, Gary. This time of year a guy could use a little warmth and beauty. I know you know what I mean."
"No, Chuck, I don't. We are not going to make our waitresses wear elf costumes. "
"But Gar--I'm just looking out for the best interests of McGinty's. For your financial well-being."
"And I'm looking out for your health, buddy. How long do you think Marissa would let you live if you told her this little scheme of yours?"
"What? It's not like she would--"
"Hey, Chuck?" Chuck had realized Gary had fallen behind him, had turned to find his friend standing in the middle of the sidewalk while streams of people parted and flowed past him, staring yet again at some article in the paper. Chuck had stepped back to his friend.
"What is it?"
"Take my bag back to the office for me, will you? I have something to do."
And that had been the end of it. Gary had run off on some mission--an electrical fire caused by a short-circuit in some department store's Christmas lights--and Chuck had gone back to the restaurant, and neither of them had brought up the subject again. But Chuck had watched his friend grow more and more reserved, more withdrawn and distracted, as the holidays drew near. Chuck knew that Christmas was a hard time for a lot of people, but he hated to see holiday depression in his friend. He should have done more to draw him out; should have poked Gary into the Christmas mood with his own patented charm and finesse. That was his job, after all; ever since childhood, he'd been the one who could make Gary laugh when no one else could.
Tonight, he would--as soon as Gary showed up. And after Chuck kicked his ass for making them wait and worry like this.
"Hey, wake up."
Despite his best intentions, Gary must have fallen asleep again, for he opened his eyes to find a young boy, maybe eight or nine, shaking him awake.
"C'mon, Gar, what's wrong with you? This is our stop."
Gary shook his head, blinking hard. The kid standing over him had sandy brown hair and a scrawny frame; he was wearing a Cubs jacket that was dirtied and tattered in ways Gary recognized.
No. It couldn't be. That was more than twenty years ago.
"Wait, whoa--who are you?" Gary reached down to pull the youngster's hands off his jacket, and found that he was no longer wearing a black leather bomber coat--this was a Bears jacket. The same jacket he'd owned when he was in third grade. His own hands were smaller than he remembered, and his watch was missing. He frantically patted his chest--no paper. "Who am I?"
"Geez, Big Guy, you must have really been dozing. C'mon, Mr. Halloway up there is gonna get mad if we don't get off right now. Let's GO."
"Chuck?" Gary asked warily as he allowed the boy to pull him up out of
the seat and lead him down the aisle. The bus had changed, again.
This time it was a school bus, with green, high-backed seats scribbled with
black marker graffiti. The smell of diesel, rotting lunches, and kids
sweating in winter coats on the overheated, rattling bus was like a tonic
for time travel.
This wasn't possible.
He followed the little boy down the steps of the bus and onto a snow-covered sidewalk. The bus pulled away and Gary stared after it, completely befuddled.
"What's the matter, Gar? Stay up all night trying to work up the courage to call Carrie Elston again? Here, take your lunch box," the kid added, slapping it into Gary's chest. Gary didn't reach for it, let it drop. He realized that, while the kid who looked like Chuck Fishman, age nine, was shorter than he, Gary himself wasn't all that much taller. He was--he looked down at the Adidas sneakers and flared blue jeans--oh, God.
He was nine again, too.
Marley hadn't found a way to send him to hell; he'd done something worse. He'd sent him back to elementary school.
No, wait a minute. He was still dreaming. Had to be. Which meant that he was doing this to himself--he had put himself here. Which meant that he could take himself out.
He closed his eyes, tried to relax, breathe deeply, and focus on waking up in Chicago, 1997. Instead, he felt a punch on the shoulder and opened his eyes to see the kid staring at him with amusement.
"Gosh, Gary, what is the matter with you? You look like you've just seen a ghost or something."
"Ha-ha, very funny." Gary's own voice sounded strange to his ears--a little high-pitched.
All right, that was it. He might not be able to wake himself up, but there was no way he was going to go through puberty again. Maybe the best thing would be to play along, get to whatever point Marley or his own subconscious or the mysterious "they" wanted to make, and then get out of here. "That would be you, right?"
"Huh?" Chuck looked completely befuddled.
"The Ghost of Christmas Past, right? You're here to show me something I've missed, or forgotten."
"I swear, Gary, sometimes I don't get you at all. Are you sure you're okay?"
"Just tell me where the paper is."
"The paper, Chuck, the Sun-Times. Just tell me where it is and I'll play along, okay?"
"Okay, that's it. You are definitely out to lunch. I don't know nothing about a paper. All I know is, if we don't get to the basketball game by four o'clock, Coach is gonna cream us. I'm going. See you there, okay?" The kid--Chuck--headed off down the street without a backward glance, a "Happy Days" lunch box swinging in his hand.
Gary started after him in consternation. What did any of this have to do with Christmas? He couldn't remember this day of his life, but that didn't mean it hadn't happened. He had played basketball in the YMCA league in grade school, and Chuck had been his friend even back in third grade. The bus had certainly smelled, looked, and sounded like a school bus, and now he was standing on a residential street in what felt like early winter...but if this kid was really the Ghost of Christmas Past, what was he doing leaving Gary alone like this? And while Gary's body had obviously reverted to its third-grade status, his mind hadn't. He looked down at his feet again, saw the lunch box he had let drop. Maybe there was a clue in there.
There were corrected math papers with hand-drawn stars crammed into the metal box, along with the crusts of a peanut butter sandwich and a letter home about a Christmas program to be held at the school on December 12, 1974. He vaguely remembered being a jack in the box or a toy soldier or something like that. He knew, remembered with a start, that Chuck had been an elf. It was almost enough to make him smile. He'd have to remind Chuck--the grown-up one--about that next time he saw him.
Which brought him back to what he was doing here in the first place. Getting through it. Obviously that wasn't going to happen if he just stood around all day. He trotted off in the direction Chuck had taken.
Elm Street. He remembered it now. That was Mrs. Havelford's house, where he cut grass and shoveled snow, and there was Carrie Elston's house--man, had he had a crush on her. And right around the corner was the Y, with its indoor gyms for the leagues and fenced outdoor courts for neighborhood pick-up games, and there was Chuck talking to a bunch of junior high kids and--uh-oh.
The way they were standing over the little guy radiated hostility. Chuck had been shooting his mouth off, again. Gary hurried over to the court, but he was having trouble working the gate catch. His cold fingers fumbled with it; he wasn't used to these small hands anymore.
"Well, how do you know there's not, smart guy?" he heard Chuck saying defiantly to the largest of the three boys.
"Because I watched him die," the bully shot back maliciously.
"Santa Claus can't die! He's--he's--immoral."
The three boys hooted with laughter. "That's immortal, stupid," said the one with the blue coat. "You are right about one thing, though; he can't die."
"See?" Chuck triumphantly told the other two.
"He can't die," the older boy continued, taking a step closer to Chuck, "because he's never been alive. Ever. It's just your parents. They've been lying to you all this time, FISH. Ha!" He looked at his friends for confirmation. "Little guppy is more like it."
Gary finally got the gate opened and ran to the corner of the playground where the older boys had backed Chuck up against the fence. They towered over Chuck, but Gary was the same size as the smallest one. Chuck hadn't called him "Big Guy" all these years for nothing. All the same, it wouldn't have been a fair fight. And suddenly, a couple of the pieces fell into place. Gary remembered this scene, though he couldn't recall exactly what he had done. He did, however, remember being scared out of his wits.
"Chuck!" Gary called as he approached. "C'mon, let's go to the game." He pulled on the sleeve of his friend's coat. "Let's go."
"Oh, who's this?" snarled the biggest of the bullies. "Another guppy?"
"Look, we just want to go inside and go to basketball, okay?" Gary stepped between Chuck and the three other boys.
"Who do you think you are, some kind of hero? You think you're gonna stop us if we want to beat this pip-squeak Fish up?"
"Why would you do that?" Gary had forgotten how mean kids could be to each other. "He didn't do anything to you. It isn't fair."
"Fair? What's with you, kid? You trying to be nice so Santa will bring you a dolly?" The other boys snorted derisively. One of them shoved Gary's shoulder with an open palm, backing the two younger boys even farther into the corner. "You gonna play with your dolly, kid?"
Gary was trying to make sure that he stayed between Chuck and the others, but suddenly his friend shot out from behind him, ducking and turning out of the reach of the bullies, and, through some contortion Gary didn't quite understand, pulling his friend out along with him by the hood of his coat.
"Yeah, we were thinking about playing with dollies, but neither of us have any," Chuck shot back as the older boys paused, trying to figure out how their prey had escaped. "So we were coming to ask if we could borrow yours." He didn't wait for a response, and neither did Gary. They tore across the playground and sprinted for the safety of the building. The boys didn't try to follow them inside.
"Wow, did you see that move I made?" Chuck said as they jogged to the locker room, still pumped full of adrenaline. " 'We were coming to ask if we could borrow yours!' I am smooth!"
"Yeah, real smooth. Were you really talking about Santa Claus with those guys?" Gary slowed to a walk as they entered the locker room and pulled out their practice clothes.
"Ah..." Chuck pretended to search his locker for his T-shirt, which was already sitting on the bench. "You know. I was just...I was just stringing them along. I mean, I know there's no such thing as Santa--right?" He looked up, right at Gary, looking for a response, an answer.
The adult Gary, the one who was supposed to use the kid Gary's mouth to say the right thing, suddenly had no idea what to say--what he had said in the past, or what he should say as an adult. He knew that he had figured out the whole Santa thing about a year or so before, but he hadn't shared that with Chuck. His mom had made him promise not to ruin the fun for anyone else.
"Well, Chuck, I guess--I mean--" As he faltered, he suddenly thought about last Christmas, and what Chuck had told him about the man with whom he had shared a jail cell; the man who'd apparently been blown to bits by a bomb, except...
...there was the sled...
...and the tree in Gary's hotel room...
Gary's eyes widened as he suddenly realized why the first bus driver had looked so familiar.
"You mean what? Gar?" Chuck asked, waving a hand in front of his face.
"Maybe he's real if we--if we want him to be."
Chuck frowned at him, his mouth open. "What the heck is that supposed to mean? That's no kind of proof. Maybe those guys were right."
"Chuck, you can't believe anything those guys tell you. They were just trying to make you mad--"
Coach Davis slammed open the locker room door. "Hobson! Fishman! Let's go, boys! We have a game to play!" he bellowed.
"Right," Chuck answered, following the coach into the gym. Gary frowned. He hadn't been very convincing...but then, he wasn't Sam Beckett. The point of this wasn't supposed to be to change the past, was it?
"Coming, Coach," he called, obedience an automatic response. He turned too quickly, though, and ran head first into an open locker door. He put a hand to his forehead, and when he took it away the scene was blinking out around him. Thank goodness, he thought, I'm finally waking up...
But he didn't wake up. At least, he didn't wake up where he expected to. He was standing on a snowy hillside, surrounded by shouting kids. Looking down again, he realized that he was still a kid. Same Bears jacket, though this time he was wearing bright yellow rubber boots. He was holding something, he realized. A rope. Attached to the rope was a sled; his own wooden sled, the one his dad had made him when he was in first grade.
He looked down the hill and saw a small figure, forlorn, watching everyone else tobogganing wildly over the snow. This, he remembered; he knew what he had to do, and he smiled. He jumped on the sled and felt, for the first time in years, the rush of joy and speed and cold and freedom that took him to the bottom.
"Hey, Chuck!" he called to the boy who was walking away from the scene on the hillside, shoulders drooping, head down. "Chuck, wait up!" Dragging the sled behind him, he rushed to catch up with his friend. "What's wrong?"
Chuck turned and sighed dramatically. "All I wanted for Christmas--I mean, the only thing I wanted, Gary--was a sled. A Flexible Flyer. I wanted to be the fastest on the hill. I came downstairs all excited this morning and--and I didn't get it. Santa didn't come through. Guess it's true--he's not real after all."
Gary grinned at his friend, thinking about a Christmas yet to come. "Don't worry. I bet you get one someday. Maybe Santa's sleigh was just too full this year."
"Yeah, right," Chuck snorted.
"Anyway, in the meantime, you can use mine." The offer had the desired--and remembered--effect. Chuck's eyes widened and he looked with longing at the sled, at the kids screaming their way down the hill.
"You mean it?"
"Sure. C'mon, there's a long time before it gets dark. Let's go up." And the two friends raced each other up the hill.
Gary jolted awake, his head jerking forward as the bus came to yet another stop. This time the mother was gathering up her children and their bags and bundling them off the bus. "Bye! Merry Christmas!" the toddler called joyfully to the bus driver as he pulled his mother out the door. "Let's go, Mommy, let's go! There's Grandma's house!"
Watching the little boy go, Gary thought about the Christmas he had just relived. He had been that excited, once. He had believed. Even when he had stopped believing in Santa Claus, he had believed in Christmas. Hadn't making his friend happy been a way of sharing the spirit of Christmas?
Maybe that was the point of the whole dream, or whatever it was: that he needed to spend time with family or friends, to share the holiday in order to make it. Well, he was trying to do just that.
He peered out the window at the street signs, trying to figure out where they were, but he couldn't tell one residential block from another in this darkness. They had to be pretty close to downtown, though; it was almost--he looked at his watch--shoot. Past ten. There was no way Marissa and Chuck would have waited this long. Marissa had her family to get to, and Chuck had said something about the aerobics instructor from the gym and a big bunch of mistletoe.
Oh, well. Maybe next year. He shifted positions again.
When he looked down, he saw fresh snow on his boots.
Marissa had finished cleaning the glasses and was sitting at a table near the bar—their table, the one the three of them always used--when she heard Chuck approaching from the kitchen. He pressed a warm ceramic mug into her hands.
"Here," he said simply. "Coffee."
"Thanks." It was his apology, and her acceptance. Chuck wasn't one to dwell on shortcomings, especially his own. She noted that his fingers felt different, more tense than they usually did, when they brushed hers in the exchange.
"I thought you might—I mean, it's cold in here without any customers."
Marissa nodded, wrapping both hands around the large mug as she sipped thoughtfully, while Chuck pulled a chair around and sat next to her.
"Look," Chuck continued, hesitant, "Maybe we should call it a night. He probably just got delayed. You have family stuff to do and--"
"No, Chuck, I want to stay," she told him simply.
"Well, really, there's not much point," Chuck said so unconvincingly that she wondered if his nose was growing like Pinnochio's. "I mean, why are we—we shouldn't be…" he trailed off.
"But we are. Chuck, I'm sure he'll be here," Marissa stated firmly, the tone of her voice and the set of her chin offering no room for argument. And I'm not going to leave you to worry all by yourself, either.
She heard a creak as Chuck leaned back in the wooden chair. "Man," he sighed, "it's so gloomy in here. No wonder we're—well, you know."
She had to smile at Chuck's reluctance to even say the words. He was such an ostrich sometimes. "What do you mean, gloomy?" she asked.
"Most of the lights in the place are out, even the Christmas lights. I put out all the candles except the one at this table. You know—well, I mean, you don't, but—anyway, the corners in this building, they get really dark. Full of shadows, it's—anyway, even the music's off. Did you--?"
"I couldn't stand it anymore," she told him. "It was too…too much, I guess."
"But Chuck, if you think it's gloomy, why don't you turn some of the lights on? Turn on the Christmas lights, at least. Gary said you strung them all over the place this year."
"Nah," Chuck sighed. "It would be too—I don't know..."
Marisa's faint half-laugh was tinged with irony. "We sound like Gary."
"What do you mean?" Chuck sounded puzzled. "Gary likes Christmas—well, I mean, he used to, before the paper."
"That's what I mean," Marissa explained. "In the time I've known him, even last year, he's always seemed glad when Christmas has come around, he's looked forward to it, he's told me about his plans. This year, he hasn't said much about it at all, and when he has, he's complained about commercialism, and stress, and the way people act. He hasn't exactly been holly jolly. Haven't you noticed?"
"I guess so." Marissa had the feeling Chuck was squirming in his chair. "I think he tried to talk to me about it last week."
"And I blew him off." Chuck admitted reluctantly. "What about you? He always talks to you."
"I've been so busy with finals and Christmas stuff that I haven't--" Marissa
began, then realized what she was saying. "That's no excuse, though,
is it? The truth is, Chuck, he's dropped hints that he hasn't been
happy, but he never spoke to me about it directly, and I didn't make the
time to force the issue. Half the time, my mind was somewhere else,
and when it wasn't, he'd
see an emergency in the paper before we could even get a conversation started. Yesterday, when he said he was planning dinner tonight, I thought that maybe things were finally getting better."
"Maybe they were," Chuck said, "but that doesn't change the fact that he's not here now."
"What time is it?" She was half-afraid to hear his answer.
Chuck hesitated. "It's nearly eleven," he acknowledged. She could feel the table shake just a little—Chuck had a habit of jiggling his foot up and down when he was tense. "You don't think he—I mean, he wouldn't be so down that he'd just skip it all together, would he?"
"Look, Chuck, whatever Gary's feeling right now, I don't think he'd miss out on his own party, not on purpose."
"Just in case, I'm gonna check upstairs."
"Well…" Marissa started doubtfully, but then had a sudden, hopeful thought. "Maybe he went up there and just fell asleep. He's been awfully tired lately, the way the paper's kept him running."
"Whatever. It won't hurt to check."
"And if—" Marissa hesitated to say it, but it was time to make some decisions, take some kind of action. Neither one of them could take waiting around much longer. "If he's not there, we can decide what to do next."
"Okay," Chuck mumbled as he left the table. She heard him go through the kitchen door, heard the creaks of the staircase as he ascended.
Contemplating what, if anything, they could do next, Marissa cautiously reached out a hand until she could feel the faint heat that radiated from the candle in its textured glass holder. She pulled it closer and she could smell the melting wax and a whiff of something vaguely spicy. Even though she couldn't see the flame, she found comfort in its warmth as she wondered what she would have said to Gary if the two of them had found the time and place to talk about whatever it was about Christmas that had been bothering him.
If he was reading the landmarks correctly in the dark, they were somewhere near Elmhurst—they had covered half the distance to downtown. Gary rubbed his face, wondering if he was really awake this time. If this was a dream—he looked down at the still-melting snow on his boots and decided not to think about that too hard—if it was a dream, what did it mean?
And if it wasn't? Well, he'd learned to accept unusual happenings in his life since the paper came. There was the psychiatrist he had dreamed about a couple of weeks ago, who had then shown up in McGinty's, but Gary had come to the conclusion that the coincidence could be explained. The guy had been in the bar before, had spoken with him, and Gary had remembered him, on some subconscious level, and incorporated him in his dreams. Or something like that. He hadn't completely understood it when Marissa had gone on about it, probably quoting from a textbook, but it had been enough to ease his mind.
But this—this couldn't be explained away so easily. Or could it? Maybe someone had come onto the bus while he was dozing, wandered to the back, shaken snow off a coat, and then moved elsewhere on the bus. The fact that no one new was now on the bus didn't mean anything. They might have disembarked while he was asleep.
It was weak. He knew he was grasping at straws. But the alternative—that he had really been back in 1974, that J. T. Marley had really appeared as a ghost on a Chicago Transit Authority bus, wasn't something he could get his head around. It must have been a dream.
Actually, except for Marley, it hadn't been that bad. It was just his past, after all. He knew, without his dreams or—whatever—telling him, that he'd been happy then. What he didn't understand was why he wasn't now, why Christmas had turned into an obligation rather than a celebration. What had changed? He could blame the paper—and for weeks he had—but he was starting to wonder if there was more to it than that. Maybe it was he who was the problem.
He closed his eyes, running his hands through his hair as he leaned forward, elbows on his knees.
"What's the matter with me?" He hadn't planned to say it out loud; people tended to look suspiciously at those who talked to themselves. It was a surprise when someone responded. It was even more of a shock when he recognized the voice.
"What's wrong, Gary?"
It was Marissa.
No, he had to be hearing things. He opened his eyes warily. It was Marissa. And at about the same time he figured out that the bus had stopped moving, he realized that he wasn't on the bus at all. He was in McGinty's. The bar was quiet and nearly dark, but he was at the usual table.
"Marissa?" He wasn't sure if she was real. She looked real enough. He realized he was staring at her with his mouth open, and snapped it shut.
"What is it?" She seemed concerned, but unfazed.
"How did I get here?" He looked around cautiously, half-expecting to see J. T. Marley stride out of one of the corner shadows.
"You mean, how did you get to the point of not feeling the Christmas spirit anymore? Well, that's easy, Gary, you said yourself it was the paper."
"No, I mean here here. How did I get to McGinty's?" He reached out a tentative finger and touched the polished wood of the table. It was solid; it didn't dissolve.
Marissa's calm facade never wavered. "I think all the choices we make in life create a path that leads us to—to wherever we need to be. Through a series of choices you made, you ended up here."
Gary looked at her closely. She either didn't understand what he meant, or she was being deliberately obtuse and philosophical. "Look, Marissa, I was on a bus. Then I closed my eyes and I ended up here. How do you explain that?"
She laughed. "Gary, what are you talking about? You're here talking to me, you're not on a bus."
"But I was. Just a couple of minutes ago. That's the point." He leaned forward, his voice tightening. "Don't you get it? I've been teleported or something. I'm not supposed to be here. Look—where was I two minutes ago?"
"I don't know; you seem to still be quite a few miles away from me," she pointed out gently.
"I am. Or I was, I don't…" he trailed off, confused. This felt real. But the bus had felt real, too. So had sledding down that hill. He was losing his mind. Christmas and the paper and Marley had all finally driven him over the edge.
"Gary, I'm not sure what you're talking about, exactly, but—well, it's Christmas Eve. Miracles happen." That was vintage Marissa. Not a completely hopeless optimist, but always a believer.
Gary wasn't sure he wanted to believe in what was happening to him right now. "Yeah, well, I wouldn't call what's going on right now a miracle."
"Not now, perhaps, but maybe in retrospect you will. Sometimes blessings come in ridiculous packaging."
He narrowed his eyes. "Do you know what's going on? Are you really Marissa, or are you—oh, boy." He let out a frustrated breath and sank back in the chair.
"Am I what, Gary?" Marissa waited patiently for his answer, hands folded on the table in front of her.
"The Ghost of Christmas Present, right? That's who you're supposed to be. Lesson number two, or three, or—whatever, I lost count. Man, this is the strangest dream I've ever had, even including the Godzilla thing with the psychiatrist."
Marissa shook her head as if trying to puzzle out her friend, but didn't respond to the question. Instead, she said, "I don't know what you're talking about, but I'm here and so are you and maybe it's enough that we have time to talk together. Which brings me back to my original question—what's wrong?"
Gary considered her for a moment. If this was an apparition and not Marissa, whatever it was was doing a darn good imitation—down-to-business and at the same time understanding. If it was Marissa, however he had come to be there, wherever and whenever there was, well, he'd been wanting to talk to her for quite some time.
"What's wrong is, it's Christmas."
"Marissa, let me ask you something. What's it all about? Christmas, I mean? I used to think I knew, but now I'm not so sure. And now I don't know…what's the point?"
"That's a pretty big question, Gary. It means different things to different people."
He thought about what it had meant to him this year, and frowned. That wasn't it, it wasn't the whole point, and now that he remembered what it had felt like, what it had been like to be a kid at Christmas, he wanted that feeling back. He just had no earthly idea where to find it. Unless it was sitting right there in front of him. "Well, what about you, then? What does it mean to you?"
She closed her eyes and smiled, elbows on table, chin on her folded hands. "It's about faith. Peace. Miracles. Warmth in the cold. Family. And cinnamon."
"My mom always gave us hot apple cider with cinnamon at Christmas. I love that smell. It always takes me back to when I was a kid, when I felt safe and happy. It's…it's kind of like this candle here." She pointed at the flickering red glass globe between them.
"The candle is cinnamon?" He sniffed at it, but couldn't smell anything.
"Actually, I think it is, but my point is that Christmas is about what the candles stand for, too. A little bit of hope. Light in darkness."
"Light in darkness? Isn't that—" He hesitated, but Marissa had never been one to pussyfoot around the fact that she was blind. "Isn't that kind of a strange thing for you to believe in?"
"But that's what belief is about. ‘Faith is the evidence of things not seen,'" she quoted. "Besides, it's a metaphor. All the holidays at this time of year—Christmas, Hanukkah, Solstice, Kwanza—they all have something to do with light, with the return of the sun and the lengthening of daylight hours after the shortest nights of the year. Light is just cultural code for hope."
"And that's all there is to Christmas?" He had expected a more—religious, he supposed—explanation from Marissa.
"Isn't that enough? Gary, Christmas is about belief and faith. But those things aren't gifts just handed out like candy canes. You have to fight to hold onto them. And when you do—that's what Christmas celebrates; the rebirth of faith and hope when life is darkest, when we need them most. It's worth celebrating. It's worth remembering. Christmas changes people."
"Yeah, so I've noticed," Gary said sarcastically.
"What are you talking about?"
"I've seen how Christmas changes people. Everyone I've run into lately seems to be in a hurry, stressed out, and blind to the people around them; not just strangers, but their own family and friends."
"So what's your point?"
"The point is, you're saying that Christmas is supposed to make people happy, but obviously something is wrong, ‘cause from where I'm standing, all it does is stress them out and make them miserable."
"Gary, no person or event can make you happy. It's a choice that you have to make on your own. How you look at things determines how they make you feel. So the question is, Gary, how do you want to feel about Christmas?"
He hesitated, not sure how to put it into words. "I suppose--I guess I want to feel the way I used to, when I was a kid."
"Meaning what? What was Christmas like for you?"
He thought back to the Christmas he'd just relived. "It was fun; full of surprises. It was—it was magic."
She frowned. "What exactly about it was magic and surprising, Gary? The presents? Santa?"
"Well, yeah, I guess so," he admitted, but even as he did so he thought that sounded hollow.
"Don't you see? That's part of it, the whole Santa thing is a kind of belief, but it isn't everything. You can't be a kid again, and I think that's what all these people who are rushing around crazed with shopping and decorating and parties are trying to do—recapture something that seems perfect in retrospect but was never meant to be the main point of the holiday. What's worse, they're trying to do it with things, with presents and wrappings and decorations and food—with things. If you want Christmas to be special again, you need to go beyond that. We all do."
Gary sighed. What she had said was true, but he didn't know anyone who was truly beyond all that. He shook his head. "Look around you, Marissa, that's all Christmas is anymore. People run all over the place making themselves crazy to buy all the right gifts, go to all the right parties, wear all the right clothes, hang all the right decorations—and everyone ends up stressed out and disappointed. That's not the kind of Christmas you were talking about. How do we get there?"
"Well, no one has to be a part of all that. You can find your own way of celebrating—you don't have to do all those other things. You have a choice. You can bring the faith and magic yourself, as long as you really want it."
Gary spread his hands in consternation. "That's just the point, Marissa, I *dont'* have a choice. I have a paper. And it keeps sending me out in the middle of all this garbage, shoving it right in my face. How am I supposed to get beyond it? I can't ignore it, doing what I do."
"Maybe you're not supposed to ignore it. Maybe you're supposed to do something about it."
"I've been doing what I can, Marissa, but from the way people react to me, it's not enough. And when I do try to have a little fun, a little peace, by spending some time with my friends, look what happens. I get sent out on one mission after another until I've missed my own party entirely."
She smiled again, mysteriously, and for some reason he thought of Snow's cat. "Maybe not entirely. There's still time. It's still Christmas Eve. As far as the paper goes, I thought you had decided not to treat it as a burden. I thought you weren't going to let it take over your life."
"Yeah, well, lately it hasn't been working out that way."
"Then change it."
"I can't control what it shows me! I mean, this—" He pulled the offending sheaf of newsprint out of his jacket, unfolded it, and stopped in mid-sentence.
After a few seconds, Marissa said, "It's changed again, hasn't it?"
She always knew, and the fact that she did always mystified him. "Yeah," he sighed. "Marissa, I have to go. I don't want to, but--"
"Yes you do."
"No I don't. I'm sick of this."
"Gary, remember, you have a choice."
"I don't have a choice, and you know it. How can I celebrate Christmas knowing that--" He flicked the paper with his hand for emphasis. "--a bunch of carolers are going to get hit by a city bus that jumps a curb?"
"So you're saying you have to do this because otherwise you wouldn't be able to live with yourself."
"Gary, that just proves my point. It's your choice. It might be a choice you feel compelled to make, but it's still yours. It just feels inevitable because that's part of who you are. All the other choices you've made in this life have led you to this one. Look at the way you always decided to help Chuck when you guys were kids. Like that time at the Y."
Gary frowned, started to say something, then closed his mouth. He was pretty sure, pretty damned sure, that he had never told Marissa about that. Until tonight, he had forgotten it himself. Maybe Chuck had told her.
"It might seem to you that this is what you have to do, because that's the kind of person you are. But it's still your choice and frankly, if it wasn't the kind of choice you made, we wouldn't be friends." She reached out and touched his hand, briefly, and while it felt warm and real enough, there was something else as well—a sort of tingle like a faint electric shock.
"So you're not mad at me for missing dinner?"
"Not if you're doing what you want to do. Not if you're making the right choices for Gary Hobson."
"Chuck is your friend because of who you are, too." She smiled. "His choice. He'll be okay with it."
Gary rose and started backing away from the table. "Okay, well, uh, I gotta go, you know, but—thanks." The part of his brain that was still trying to figure out what was real and what was a dream—or whatever—thought he'd probably wake up any second now. In the meantime, he'd pretend like everything was normal, like this really was Marissa and not an incredibly realistic facsimile.
"You're welcome, Gary. Don't be long."
Easier said than done, he thought as he opened the door. The icy blast that hit him in the face when he opened the door was real enough. He shivered as he stepped out into the dark Chicago night.
"Gary?" Marissa frowned. For just a moment, she had thought—she reached out and touched the seat next to her, half-expecting it to be warm. It wasn't. On her face, she felt a blast of cold air, as if someone had opened a door or a window somewhere, but she knew that wasn't possible. She and Spike were the only ones in the bar.
Chuck had been gone for longer than she thought it would take to check Gary's apartment, but maybe he was just being…thorough. She checked her watch. As Chuck had said, it was nearly eleven. She'd better call her mother and let her know she wouldn't be joining the family for midnight services.
"No, it's all right Spike, stay." She patted her companion on the head and he sat again, but he didn't lie down; she didn't hear his tags jingle on the floor. He was on watch, too.
She went back behind the bar and picked up the phone there, but instead of a dial tone she heard voices.
"…name is Hobson. Gary Hobson." That was Chuck.
"No, sir, no one by that name is here." A woman's voice.
"Okay, what about John Does? You got anyone there without any ID at all?"
Marissa felt her stomach tighten.
"We always have several here at County General." The woman's strained courtesy had a weary edge.
"The guy I'm looking for is in his early thirties. Tall, dark brown hair, probably wearing a black bomber jacket and blue jeans…"
The thought that Gary, who was so much more than all that, could be reduced to a few surface traits, descriptions of things that she herself had never seen, didn't sit right with Marissa. "He has a fairly soft voice, trace of a southern accent," she contributed.
"Excuse me?" the woman at the hospital was momentarily confused by the new voice.
"Marissa?" Chuck, a mixture of disbelief and guilt in his voice.
"Is there anyone there who matches that description?" she asked persistently, ignoring Chuck for the moment.
"No ma'am—uh, sir—" The nurse gave up trying to figure out whom she should address. "There's no one here matching that description. I'm sorry I couldn't help you, but with the cases we have here tonight, it's probably just as well your friend isn't one of them. Good luck."
There was no second click.
"Chuck? Are you still there?" Marissa asked, still speaking into the receiver.
There was another long pause, then: "Yeah."
"Where are you, the office?"
"Yeah—what are you doing on the phone?"
"More important, Chuck, what were you doing calling the hospital? Do you really think it's that bad? Why didn't you say something to me?" Marissa could hear her voice rising, and quelled it. She wanted to stay calm.
"I didn't want to worry you," Chuck told her sheepishly.
Marissa sighed. "Chuck, get your sorry self out here and talk to me, okay? I know you think you're my big brother or something, but I really don't need any protecting. Let's figure this thing out together." He hesitated, so she continued. "Look, I feel stupid talking to you over the telephone when you're just a few yards away."
"Yeah, okay, I'll be right out." Marissa hung up the phone and rested her elbows on the bar, thinking about the sensation she'd had just a few minutes ago, that Gary had been there in the room with her. It was eerie, as if she had been visited by…by a ghost.
That was ridiculous. She was letting her nerves get the best of her. There weren't really any ghosts.
Especially not of people who were still alive.
Gary was jogging north on State Street, toward the river. God, his side ached. He was in good shape, and used to running, but this was a long distance, especially when he was already at the edge of exhaustion. The Loop was deserted and there wasn't a taxi in sight. He couldn't stop to rest. The accident with the carolers and the bus was supposed to happen in about five minutes, up at the State Street Bridge.
The question of what a group of carolers was doing in this part of the city at this time of night, had, of course, entered his mind. Maybe it was just another part of his dream. He wasn't going to take a chance and find out he was wrong, though. Marissa had been right. He was the kind of person who wouldn't take that kind of risk by choice. Other people, Chuck for example, wouldn't make the same choices, and it wouldn't bother them at all. Well, maybe that wasn't being fair to Chuck. It probably would bother him—a little. He would never admit it, though.
As he crossed under the El tracks that hovered over Lake Street, Gary could see a small group of people a couple of blocks ahead on the other side of the bridge. He skidded to a stop at the curb, glancing at his watch while he waited for a large truck to rumble by, then took off at a dead run across the bridge. If the paper was right, the bus would be there any second.
There were half a dozen people in the group, bundled in parkas and long coats and huddled together against the cold December night. Their voices carried to him as he reached the north end of the bridge; they were singing "Silent Night". Not for long, he figured. From the west he could hear—and a second later see—the bus coming east on Kinzie Street.
"All, is calm, all is—"
"Hey!" he yelled as he sprinted across the street. "Hey! You gotta get out of there! Hurry!" The bus was coming, moving much faster a city bus should. Gary plowed into the carolers and then they noticed him, as he pushed and herded them back up State Street, moving them as far away from the intersection as possible.
"What the heck are you doing?" screamed one woman in indignation. "What are you, some kind of Scrooge? We were just—"
She broke off as the bus careened into the intersection, jumped the curb, and plowed across the sidewalk where she had been standing only moments before. With a screech of brakes, the large vehicle came to a halt, half on the sidewalk, half in the street, nose to nose with a streetlight, but not before it had upended a newspaper vending machine.
"Oh." The woman looked at Gary, blinking, and her companions turned from staring in horror at the spot where they had just been to do the same. "How did you--?"
"Lucky guess," he said simply. "Merry Christmas," he added, as he left the carolers to see if anyone had been hurt on the bus.
He came around the front of the bus, noting that the newspaper vendor that had been knocked over was a Sun Times dispenser—big shock there--and knocked on the entry door. "Hey, what's going on in there? Are you all right?"
The door sighed open and before he could even register the driver's face, he heard: "…and folks dressed up like Eskimos…" blaring from a boom box. Oh, no.
The driver was--No.
He categorically refused to believe that this was the same bus. Of course, if it was all a dream, it might make sense, but he'd never had a dream in which he'd been so cold, or in which his side was splitting like this.
"Mr. Hobson, I presume?" The ghost of J. T. Marley smiled smugly from the driver's seat. "Climb aboard."
Gary shook his head, backing away. "No." It was, at that moment, the only word his mouth and mind could form together. This wasn't how the story was supposed to work. Marley wasn't supposed to come back.
"You don't have a choice."
"I do have a choice." He might not have the foggiest notion what was going on, but he knew that much. He believed it.
Marley tried to pull his rotting corpse imitation again, turning greyish-green and transparent and beckoning with one decaying arm, but this time it didn't have the desired effect. Gary stood his ground at the bottom of the steps.
"I'm not finished with you yet, Gary," Marley growled in Dolby surround. "You still have to deal with the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. That's why I came here."
"You were going to run down these people just to get my attention?" The idea was sickening.
"Like a moth to a flame, remember? I knew you would come. Besides, how do you know they're real people? How do you know they're not just…" Marley paused, chuckled, and waved a hand. "Shadows? Figments of your imagination? Dreams?"
Gary peeked around the front of the bus. The carolers had disappeared. He swallowed hard, then turned his attention back to Marley. "I don't know," Gary told him, "but I'm pretty darn sure that's what you are. And you can just go back to whatever dungeon you crawled out of, because I'm through with you. I've figured out all I need to about Christmas. I'm going home."
Marley twisted his lips together in a ghastly imitation of a smile. "Quite a noble speech, my friend. But you're not really as sure as you're trying to sound. I can tell. You still don't know where I came from, or whether you're awake or dreaming or somewhere in between."
"It doesn't matter."
"It doesn't? Then how do you plan to get home again?"
"I'll walk, thank you very much."
"Go ahead, then. Just don't be surprised if home isn't where you end up."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"We're not finished with you yet," Marley repeated. "There are still a few things you have to figure out." He had his hand on the lever that closed the door. "Suit yourself, though. If you want to walk, walk. There's more than one way to skin a cat."
Gary failed to see the humor in that last comment, but Marley was cackling madly as he pulled the doors closed and threw the bus into reverse, steering it back onto the street and off into the darkness. Gary watched it go, shrugging. He didn't need it anymore. It might be a bit of a walk back to McGinty's, but at least he was going on his own.
He nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard the sound behind him. He whirled around. Perched on the crumpled remains of the blue Sun Times dispenser was Snow's cat. It wore its usual petulant expression that told Gary he wasn't doing something he was supposed to.
"Yeah, well, I don't have to follow you, either, pal. It's late, I'm done, and I'm going home."
"Meow." The cat jumped down from its perch and took a few steps up the street, west, in the direction from which the bus had come. It stopped and turned back to Gary, clearly indicating he was to follow.
Gary paused on the brink of turning away. The cat might be annoyingly persistent, but it had never steered him wrong before. This was more than a dream, he knew, but he had now decided that nothing in it was going to hurt him. He wouldn't let it.
A sudden thought came to him. "Wait a minute—are you the last thing Marley was talking about? Are you supposed to be the Ghost of Christmas Future?" The idea was ludicrous—but ludicrous was becoming a relative term, given the night's previous events.
"It's my choice…" Gary tried to imagine how he would feel if he did turn and walk away.
The cat had never led him down the wrong path.
After Marissa had hung up the phone, she'd returned to the table to wait for Chuck to come back. She was starting to understand what he meant about the place being gloomy. It was cold, and there was a creeping sense of something incomplete that was getting under her skin. She stroked Spike's head, which was on her lap now, with one hand, and pulled the candle closer to her with the other. Its warmth was infinitesimal, but for some reason it was comforting.
So lost in thought was she that for once she didn't hear Chuck approach. The first indication she had of his presence was when he snatched the candle out of her hand.
"Watch out, sister, you'll burn yourself with that thing." She heard him set it on the table, smelt the acrid smell of the flame blowing out because of his swift movement.
"Chuck, I was fine, I—"
"You had it right in your face, Marissa." He didn't sit down. From the sound of his footsteps, she surmised that he was pacing around the table. Oh, good. This would get them somewhere.
"Why didn't you tell me you were going to call the hospitals? How many did you call, anyway?"
"Two before County. Before I was so rudely interrupted."
She wanted to feel relieved. "Well, like the nurse at County said, that's probably good news, right?"
"Yeah, right," Chuck muttered absently. "Unless—"
"You have to admit it's a possibility."
"No, I don't. What I have to do is have faith that everything will work out all right."
"What good is faith going to do us? Or him?"
"You might be surprised, Chuck."
"Look, Alice, I don't know what rabbit hole you fell down, but I hope you enjoy your stay in Wonderland. Me, I'm trying to do something that will actually help."
"Chuck that isn't fair." She had been trying to convince herself as much as her friend. At least she was making an effort. "Gloom and doom aren't going to help Gary."
"Yeah, well, all the faith in the world isn't going to fix things if—if it's already too late to fix them."
"Stop it, Chuck."
"I'm just being practical."
"You're just being morose. Why do you always have to look on the dark side of things?"
"This isn't like the Force, Marissa. There's no dark and light, just reality and—wherever you are right now." Chuck's voice was strained, the sarcasm forced. He stopped pacing and placed both hands on the table. "Look, whatever each of us thinks, this isn't getting us anywhere."
Marissa was inclined to disagree—hope and faith were tools of the trade, as far as she was concerned—but for the moment she let him continue.
"We need to do something. Are you with me, or not?"
Anything would be better than sitting here arguing. "What do you have in mind?"
"The usual, I guess, in situations like this. We call the police, we check his hangouts…"
"This is his hangout, Chuck."
"Well, where else do you suggest we look?"
She thought for a moment. There were few other places where he would go, especially at this time of night, which made his not being at McGinty's all the more disturbing…she stopped herself before her thoughts could go any further. "What about the Blackstone?"
"The what?" Chuck choked.
"Maybe he went back there. Maybe he just needed to get away—I don't know, Chuck. I know this is grasping at straws, but we can't just go out and wander the streets looking for him, can we?"
"I'm starting to think that's about the only other thing to do."
"That wouldn't be logical. The best thing we can do is wait here and make what calls we can."
"Okay. I'll get the phone book."
"Chuck?" she asked, following him as he went over to the bar.
"Where are the matches? I want to light this candle again." She'd brought it with her.
Chuck paused in searching the shelves under the cash register. "What is the deal with that, anyway?"
"You said yourself it was gloomy in here. I just want—" She paused, and the right words came to her from she knew not where, though they sounded terribly familiar. "I want a little bit of hope. You know," she continued as an old memory resurfaced, "my grandmother told me that when she was growing up, all the people in the Irish part of town would leave candles lit in their windows on Christmas Eve. It was an old tradition—it was meant to light the way for the baby Jesus, but it also signified welcome to all travelers on that night. A whole culture trying to make up for the lack of hospitality of one innkeeper nearly two thousand years ago."
Chuck didn't say anything, but in that moment she felt him relax and let
go of some of his hostility and tension. He fished the matches out
from a back shelf, and handed them to Marissa. She lit the candle,
and carried it over to the window. She was feeling for the ledge when
she felt Chuck's hand on the candle as well, guiding it to the deepest part
of the window well where
it could sit securely.
"Thanks," she said quietly.
"I'm just trying to keep you from burning down the place," he muttered, but the sarcastic edge was gone from his voice. It was progress. "It's not like it'll make a difference. It's just one candle."
"Maybe that's enough."
"Maybe," Chuck conceded. But...maybe we can do more. Wait here."
She heard him move from table to table, heard the clink of glass on glass. "Hey Marissa," he called from the other side of the room. "Did I ever tell you about what Gary did the Christmas I wanted a Flexible Flyer?"
Gary didn't know how long he'd been following the cat, but he knew it wasn't long enough to have left downtown entirely behind. Still, somehow, they were in a more residential part of the city now. It was a run-down area, one that he didn't know. When he turned and looked behind, he could see the Loop's skyline. He'd traveled more miles than he cared to calculate in the past few hours, and he still had no idea how it had all happened.
The cat turned another corner, bringing them to the corner of a darkened lot surrounded by an iron fence. It was, Gary realized as the shadows resolved themselves into shapes, a graveyard.
The perfect end to a perfect evening, he thought wryly. He should have expected this. He remembered seeing a black and white version of A Christmas Carol on television when he was a kid. The ghost of Christmas Yet to Come had scared him silly. After Marley, however, there wasn't much left that was going to frighten him.
At least, he hoped there wasn't.
The cat squeezed its way through the iron bars and turned to look back at him, meowing plaintively.
"All right, I'm coming." The gated entry was locked, so Gary had to climb over the top. He lost his grip and landed unceremoniously on his hands and knees in the puddle of snow and icy water on the other side. Perfect.
"What is it I'm supposed to see?" He followed the cat past rows of headstones, some standing tall, some leaning. It was an old cemetery, but mostly well-kept. Many of the tombstones had been decorated with wreaths and bows or flowers, and the snow had been shoveled off the walkways. Trees lined the walks, the ice on their crystalline branches refracting the streetlights near the entry. The effect grew dimmer and dimmer as he followed the cat to the back of the cemetery, which lay in almost total darkness.
There, amidst all the other decorated gravestones, was one lonely grey monument, nearly drifted over. No one had put flowers on it. There was no wreath, no bow; nothing to indicate that the person buried here had anyone to care for his memory. The cat leapt to the top and sat staring at him, its tail brushing back and forth across the headstone.
Gary had to squat down in the snow to brush the stone clear. He was drawn to it, but he hesitated before he swept it off to reveal the name. If this was following true to form, he had a pretty good idea what he'd find. He just wasn't sure he was ready to see it.
"Meow." The cat jumped down and squeezed itself between his hand and his leg, rubbing itself against his shin as if to lend moral support. Gary held a tense breath for a moment, blew it out, and then brushed the snow off the stone.
He had expected to see his own name, just like Scrooge had. Instead, the gravestone read:
That was all. No epitaph, no bible verse, nothing to indicate who Lucius Snow was or that whoever had buried him here knew the first thing about him.
The graveyard suddenly felt even lonelier than before.
"What're you trying to tell me here?" Gary asked the cat, but the animal only rubbed its head against his hand. Gary scratched it between the ears out of habit while he sat back on his heels and tried to puzzle out the whole bloody night.
If this was his own personal Christmas Carol, he should be seeing his own future. What were they doing at Snow's grave?
The very few people Gary had met who remembered Snow had spoken of him with confusion, suspicion, derision, and even awe, but only one person had spoken of him with any affection. Snow had left her waiting at a restaurant in Italy decades before and never contacted her again. He had, apparently, given up his one chance for love and human connection in favor of the life the paper had created for him.
Morris had told him that Snow had lived out his days in the basement of the Sun Times building, setting type a day early, ignored by most of his co-workers and laughed at by the rest. Hawks had called him a crackpot because he'd been obsessed for thirty years with the one story he hadn't been able to change: the Kennedy assassination. He'd tried to stop it, but then he met—then he'd met—
J. T. Marley.
Gary thought his brain was going to explode as the whole night came into a new focus. Snow had left him a message that read, "Live your life," but that was easier said than done. Obviously Snow hadn't followed his own advice. Why else would he have come to such a lonely end?
Gary's knees were starting to ache and the cold from the ground was penetrating his very bones. He rose.
This was a warning. From himself, from Marley, from Snow--he couldn't tell. It might not even matter. The whole night, the whole dream, came down to this. If he didn't hold onto his friends, if he didn't make the right choices, if he failed to keep in mind that this was all about choice and moving forward, and always had been, then he would end up as lost and lonely as Lucius Snow.
But he didn't have to, he reminded himself.
People were frustrated and stressed out because they allowed themselves to be that way. Because they bought into the hype and the pressures and the perfectionism. Because they forgot to slow down enough to enjoy the comforts, the real things that made the season more than any one person or group of people could pin down.
Warmth in the cold. Light in darkness. Hope.
Maybe even cinnamon.
If the future wasn't written anywhere, not even in the paper; if it was up to each person to make the choices that created it, then there was hope.
"C'mon, cat, let's go," he told the tabby. This time he led the way, out of the cemetery and back down the streets. He had no idea where exactly he was going, he just knew that his feet were turned toward home.
Something was happening around him, as he trotted through the streets,
using the skyscrapers as landmarks for general direction. Things were
getting blurry around him; the outlines of the houses and cars were fading.
He stopped for a moment, confused, and tried to focus on the objects closest
to him, but the cat continued on. Not wanting to lose sight of it,
it down an alley and around a corner, and found he was standing across the street from the Blackstone, just a few blocks from McGinty's.
He looked back, sure he couldn't have covered that much distance in so short a time, but there were only darkened offices and the tracks of the El, stretching, as he had once told Marissa, like a ribbon through the maze of bricks and mortar and cement.
When he came around the corner to McGinty's, he expected it to be dark as well. Instead, the windows were ablaze, flickering with light, and for a moment his heart leapt into his throat. He pulled the paper out again, scanning it quickly as he jogged the last block, but there was nothing in it about a fire.
As he approached, however, he saw that the building was not, in fact, about to burn down. The light came from candles, dozens of them, the same candles they always kept lit at the tables in the evenings. They lined the ledges of both front windows, sending a warm light into the quiet December night.
From half a mile away, he heard the bells of St. Patrick's Church start to ring. Midnight. Had they really waited that long?
"Chuck? Marissa?" he called as he opened the front door.
They were there, across from each other at the bar, staring at him in shock for one frozen second. Chuck's index finger marked a spot on a page of a telephone book, and Marissa had the phone receiver in hand, her finger poised to dial.
Spike was the first to break the tableau. He barked once, then padded over to Gary's side to lick his hand and sniff the cat as Gary closed the door behind him. Chuck hurried out from behind the bar.
"God, Gar, where the hell have you been? I—we—what's happened to you?" he asked as he got a closer look at his friend's damp jeans and exhausted—but somehow content—face.
Gary shook his head, completely befuddled by the events of the evening. "I'm not sure."
Marissa walked over to them, reaching out a hand. "Are you all right?"
Gary touched her hand, just to show her he was, but to his surprise, she pulled him close and gave him a hug. None of them were touchy-feely people; they must really have been worried.
"Yeah," he managed, hugging her back. "I—uh—actually, I'm good." A slow grin spread across his face as the three of them walked back into the bar.
"What kept you so long?" Chuck demanded.
"It's—" Gary looked from Chuck to Marissa and back. There was no trace of knowledge on their faces, no sign that they knew what had happened to him, even though they had, somehow, been there. "Well, it's a long story." He realized he was still gripping the paper, considered it for a moment, and then tossed it onto the bar. "Look, I know it's a little late for dinner, but maybe I could tell you over—"
"Coffee?" Marissa filled in.
"Yeah, great. Wait—" he continued, stepping toward the front windows. "What's with all the candles? For a minute there, you guys had me thinking the place was burning down."
Chuck, embarrassed, suddenly couldn't look him in the eye. "Oh, that? That's just—I mean it's…uh…"
"It's a Christmas thing, Gary," Marissa told him. "You remember Christmas, don't you?"
"Sure, but why'd you do it?" Gary insisted.
"Just wanted to make sure you could find us in the dark, buddy," Chuck said as off-handedly as he could.
"Light in the darkness?" he asked, but he was looking at Marissa.
"Welcoming travelers home," she added simply, and though she couldn't see it, he nodded.
"Hey, c'mon, let's get that coffee." Chuck never did know what to do with moments like these.
"Chuck, you sound like a commercial," Marissa told him as she followed him to the kitchen.
"Hey, guys," Gary said as he took one candle off the window ledge, bringing it with him. They stopped and turned, waiting--as always. He grinned.
"As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to
kindle a light in the darkness of mere being."
~ Carl Jung
What was it about that night?
Connection in an isolating age.
For once the shadows gave way to light;
For once I didn't disengage.
~Jonathon Larson, "Rent"
There are several things that inspired this story. One was seeing the Christmas fanfic section at the Sun-Times Vault website; another was the fact that a friend encouraged me to read Stephen King's The Green Mile , which was originally published as a series of short novellas. In the introduction King talks about Charles Dickens publishing many of his works in serial format, and for some reason when I read that I thought about the first line of A Christmas Carol: "Marley was dead, to begin with." Having just watched "The Wall" on tape again, I guess it was inevitable that something clicked.
What really spurred me to take this beyond yet another half-baked idea,
though, was my own personal experience of Christmas this year. All
through December, I couldn't wake up my own sense of the Christmas spirit,
for a number of reasons (including witnessing one of the most garish, gawd-awful
pageants I've ever seen), and I guess this story is my way of figuring out
what it's all really supposed to be about, or at least some piece of it. It's one of the most personal things I've ever written, certainly that I've ever shared with a whole group of people like this.
Incidentally, I had no idea what to do with Chuck's religious affiliation. I mean, one year he's talking about how he believed in Santa as a kid, the next he's saying he skipped his own Bar Mitzvah, and that just a few weeks after he made the sign of the cross in "A Regular Joe"...ooookaaaayyy....So I just ignored "A Bris is Just a Bris" and went with "Christmas".
Also incidentally, did you know that Lucius Snow--get it? Christmas? Snow? Ha! I crack me up--anyway, his first name comes from the same root as "Lucifer", and both mean "Light". That just occurred to me tonight. Interesting.
Finally incidentally, there really is such an animal as a Partridge Family Christmas album. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
I'd love to know what you think, whether you agree or disagree with what I've done. I will respond to any feedback you're generous enough to give. Thanks for reading, and may all your holidays be filled with light.
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