Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Yuletide Yarn, 8: Christmas Day

In his peripheral vision, Oliver could tell that it was morning. Pale grayish white light leaked in through the small window above the shower. He wasn’t sure what time it was, but knew it was still early.

He rolled over, then sat up slowly. He was slightly sore, his arms, legs, and joints protesting at the motion, but no more so than usual given the recent long flight. He stood up and looked at himself in the mirror. His hair was disheveled and his cheek bore the marks of laying flat against the tile floor, and he definitely needed to shave.

Was that all a dream? he thought to himself. It didn’t feel like a dream. It was so real.

At that moment, he heard his phone chirp from the bedside table. He walked from the bathroom to the bed, sat on it, and grabbed the phone. It was a text message from Dottie. It read:

“Happy Christmas, Ollie! I hope you and your family have a wonderful day. I know you’ve probably got loads of stuff to do today, but if you find yourself with a free moment this evening, I’m planning to have Christmas dinner out, maybe at Simpson’s Tavern.”

He re-read the message, then made a quick reply.

“Happy Christmas to you too, Dottie! Would I be imposing too much if I called you in a hour or so?”

A minute later, he got the reply. “Not at all! If I don’t answer, just call again. This phone is a bit wonky with international calls sometimes… <wink>”

He smiled, then slipped the phone into his pocket and made his way out of the bedroom. The common room was as it had always been, although the bedroom door opposite him was cracked slightly.

He headed downstairs. The twins’ rooms on the second floor were already vacant, and he could hear faint conversation echoing up from the kitchen area. Entering the kitchen, he was greeted with warm wishes of Happy Christmas from his mother and father and sisters. He saw them in a new light this morning, recognizing subtle signs that he hadn’t noticed before last night. Victoria gave him some good-natured ribbing about looking like he fell out of the bed and slept on the floor. He retorted with a quip that said Victoria looked almost, but not quite, as lovely as Daphne in the morning. This elicited an immediate laugh from everyone except Victoria, but she quickly licked her finger and drew it in a a vertical line in the air, as if awarding Oliver a point, and then hugged him tightly.

“I’m very glad you’re here, Ollie. I know I don’t always say it or show it, but I want you to know I’m always glad to see you.”

“I know, Vickie,” he replied, hugging her back. “And I don’t always say it or show it, but I’m always glad to be here.”

Victoria released him, reseating herself at the kitchen table while wiping her eyes dry. Oliver pretended not to notice as he said, “And that goes for the rest of you. I know I’ve been distant physically and emotionally, but I’m working to change that. I want you all to know that I am very happy to be able to spend Christmas here, with all of you.”

“I do have a request, however,” he said, sitting at the end of the table opposite his father. “Several, actually. First, regarding Christmas dinner. Would you all be alright going out instead of eating at home this evening?”

They said they would, especially his mother.

“And would you be very opposed to me inviting Dottie? I think she might be spending Christmas alone, and… well, I don’t think anyone should be alone on Christmas if they don’t want to be.”

They were all pleasantly surprised to hear that he was interested in having her around. Victoria and Daphne spent several minutes recalling fond memories of her from Oliver’s secondary school days, how she had been almost a big sister to them. His mother and father added to the color of the conversation, which ultimately ended in them saying that she should definitely join them if she wanted to.

Oliver continued. “Secondly, Mom and Dad, I know you wanted to have Christmas here because you’re thinking about selling this house. Can I convince you not to sell it? The house has always been in our family, and I would like to keep it that way if we possibly can.”

“Oliver,” his father replied, “I’d like to, but with none of us living in it, it just doesn’t make any sense to keep it.”

“What if… I… were to move into it?”

The stunned silence in the kitchen was finally broken by Daphne. “You mean, you want to move back here? From America?”

“I think I might,” said Oliver.

“But I haven’t had a chance to visit you there yet…” Daphne whimpered.

“Daphne, I formally invite both you and Victoria to visit me in America. My lodging is modest, but there are some great places to stay in New York. Plus,” he continued, winking at them, “you can help me pack. Mom and Dad, I would really like for you to consider joining them.”

“Um, well, that sounds lovely, and, um…” Oliver’s father began, sounding slightly confounded, “if you really want to move back, and back here particularly, then of course we won’t sell it. But Oliver, this seems… well, rather sudden. Are you sure about this? Are you feeling alright, son?”

“I’m feeling better than I have in ages, Dad. I… came to some realizations last night, and one of them is that home is where the heart is. My heart is still here, with you lot,” he replied, sharing a half-smile with Victoria. “And I want to keep that feeling alive in me all the time, not just around Christmas. This place helps with that. There’s something… magical about it.” He looked around the room, but his gaze encompassed the entire house, then came to rest on the family again.

“And finally, before we get into the full festivities of the day, I need to take a short walk. Can we wait an hour or so to start opening presents?”

They gave him questioning looks, with Daphne offering to go with him on his walk. He insisted that it was silly errand and that he would be back quickly, but that he wanted to do it alone. Victoria said it would take her at least that long to get ready for the Christmas photo session, and as much as some things had changed, Oliver knew better than to question Victoria on the subject. Ten minutes later, Oliver was out the door, Timothy’s journal and pen in hand.

He retraced his steps from his adventure, taking him first to the garden. It wasn’t quite like it had been in his visions, as snow had fallen overnight and still clung to the highest branches of the trees there, but it was very well cared for. From the sidewalk, he peeked into the bay window with the seat in it, and saw a wall mostly unadorned, but there was an elderly couple slow dancing in the room. Neither of them had the silvery hair of the Ghost of Christmas Past, and they looked thoroughly happy in each other’s company.

Oliver opened the journal to a blank page beyond the family tree and made a few notes. He then walked on, deciding to skip trying to get up to Simpson’s. They were going to be there later that day, which was soon enough. Instead, he wound through the streets until he arrived at Angel Gate. Walking through and to the right, he entered the lobby of the Silver Oak Care Center. A similarly dressed but different attendant was there, and looked up at his entrance, smiling a tired smile.

“Happy Christmas, sir! How can I help you?”

“I’m… uh, looking for Mr. Footuray. I think he’s a resident on the second floor…?”

The attendant looked confused as he said, “That name doesn’t sound familiar, but let me check. Maybe he’s a new resident that I haven’t met yet…” he trailed off as he tapped on the computer. A moment later, he shook his head. “No, I’m sorry sir, there’s no Footuray here. Perhaps he’s in another residence? There are several in this part of London…”

“Yes, probably so. I’ll check with his family… probably just got the address wrong. Thank you, and Happy Christmas to you,” Oliver said, opening the door to leave, then turning back to the attendant. “Excuse me, but do you have a volunteer program here? I’d be interested in getting involved, if so.”

The attendant’s face lit up. “Oh, absolutely sir! We rely on volunteers for lots of resident interactions. It requires the normal qualification process, but here’s an application.” He came out from behind the desk and handed a form to Oliver. Oliver accepted it gratefully, folding it and tucking it into the journal, making a few more notes on the page he’d started earlier as he left.

He continued walking, making his way back towards the Torrington house, flipping through the pages of the journal. As he did, a loose one fell out, threatening to blow away on a playful breeze. Oliver caught it just before it escaped fully, and noticed that the script on this page was different from the others used in the journal. The entry was actually made out to him.


I must apologize for our abrupt departure. When the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come released you, it marked my release as well. I no longer carry any mantle of Spirit of Christmas, and am going on to my final rest. I hope you, if not enjoyed, at least learned something during our short adventure together. As I said, I was never very good at actually being the Spirits of Christmas, but I always tried, and sometimes succeeded. My hope is that you will be counted among those successes. Always remember to do your part to keep the Spirits of Christmas alive! Farewell, my friend!

—E. S.”

Oliver smiled, tucking the page back into the journal, and the journal into his coat. He then pulled out his phone and made the call he’d been waiting for what seemed like his entire life to make.

“Dottie? Yeah hi, it’s Oliver… Yes, Oliver Thompson… Ah, yeah of course I knew you were teasing. So was I… uh… listen…” he fumbled the phone as he transferred it to the other ear. “You asked about me having a free moment, and… well… what do you think about joining me and my family for Christmas dinner?… No, no imposition at all. We were already planning on going to Simpson’s… Great! What’s easiest for you? We can meet at the restaurant or you can come by the house and we can ride together, or I can pick you up… although I don’t have a car… Heh, yeah, that would be difficult then. See you at our house at… six or so? Fantastic!… Happy Christmas to you too! Oh, and Dottie…” he paused, gathered his resolve, then continued, “at some point, I’ve got a crazy-sounding story to tell you…”


Saturday, December 23, 2017

A Yuletide Yarn, 7: The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come

Without preamble, Scrooge walked through the gate. Inside was a small courtyard with steps leading into the buildings on the left and the right. Scrooge turned to the right and climbed the steps. The double doors at the top were made of glass, and florescent light shone through them. Illuminated inside was what looked like a sedate admittance area, a young man in scrubs sitting behind the desk. The sign on the wall behind him read “Silver Oak Care Center — Hope For A Better Tomorrow.”

They walked through the lobby to a common area. It was crowded, with every comfortable couch and chair occupied by an elderly person. They were all watching “Love, Actually” on a large, flat screen TV at the front of the room. Orderlies wandered around the perimeter, a few of them watching the movie with the group. Scrooge spared a few moments for them.

“Wow, I’ve never liked these places,” Oliver said, shuddering slightly. “They always seem so sad to me, old folks left to live out the rest of their lives in a place that isn’t their home.”

Scrooge continued looking at the crowd. “At least they have each other, don’t they?” Scrooge mused, more a statement than a question. “But you’re right — not everyone is so fortunate at this time of year.” He turned and walked down a dimly lit hallway, climbing the stairs found there to the second floor. The hallways here were even dimmer, but on Scrooge walked with Oliver close behind. They walked halfway around the building, passing doors that were either closed completely or partially open with the room’s interior lights off. 

Finally, they stopped in front of a room whose door was completely open. The room’s lights were off, but the television was on, causing dull monochromatic light to pulse at random intervals, almost like a strobe light whose timing was broken. Scrooge stepped aside, allowing Oliver to peek in.

An ancient man sat in the bed there, the covers pulled to his waist, his back propped up against pillows leaning against the headboard. He scowled at whatever was on the television, and Oliver heard him actually snarl a little as his right hand shot up and the channel changed. He made a similar sound and motion when presented with whatever was the new channel, and repeated the sequence.

Oliver stepped inside, unsure of what to make of the old man. As he did, the old man glanced up at Oliver, the scowl never leaving his face. “Are you new here? You realize you’re supposed to be wearing a uniform of some kind, right?”

Oliver was surprised that the old man could see him. Certainly he can’t be…

“Excuse me, but am I to understand that I am in the presence of the former Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come?”

The old man put the remote down, but didn’t stop scowling. “Bah! As if there were any spirit left in Christmases yet to come. Humbug!”

Oliver stepped further into the room. He sensed Scrooge behind him, but didn’t take his eyes from the old man.

“Look at this!” the old man said with disgust, pointing at the television with the remote control. “Just look. An advertisement for the toy of the season, as if every child didn’t already have more than they could ever play with. But wait just a moment!” He flipped the channel, and holiday music filled the air. “THIS! Someone ‘singing’ Silent Night. Would that they were silent tonight instead of warbling and noodling all over a sacred song! They aren’t celebrating anything but the hope of selling more holiday albums. And finally,” he flipped the channel a third time, finding another ad. This one was a short message sponsored by Harrod’s. Oliver recognized the handwritten-styled trademark right away. “Seasons Greetings from your friends at Harrods, indeed! I have no friends there! They simply want to remind me that they’ve got loads to consume. Bah, I say again! Humbug!”

Oliver turned to Scrooge. As he did, he noticed an orderly coming down the hall, headed straight toward the room they were in. He pulled Scrooge further inside, and the orderly entered. She was wearing some nondescript blueish green scrubs and had her hair pulled back in a smart ponytail. It wasn’t until she was fully in the doorway that Oliver realized who it was.

Dottie, or a middle-aged version of her, knocked on the old man’s open door. “Everything OK in here, Mr. Footeuray? The TV bothering you again?”

“Do you know that I used to have grand visions of what Christmas would be like? Now look what it’s become. An unending season of hyper-consumerism, where people joust each other over things that no one needs. An excuse to indulge yourself in every vice and excess, and neglect those that want for even the most basic provisions of life. A forced spiritual isolation, since no one understands forbearance, mercy, benevolence, charity, or the common welfare anymore…“ It wasn’t clear as to whether the old man was talking to Dottie or to Oliver and Scrooge. 

“Well, Christmas isn’t what it once was, to be sure, Mr. F,” Dottie replied to the old man, assuming he had been speaking to her. “But I can’t believe it’s as hopeless as you make it out to be.”

“No? Dorothy, why are you here tonight, on Christmas? Why aren’t you celebrating with your family and friends?”

Dottie’s face fell slightly, but rallied almost instantaneously. “The people here are my family and friends, Mr. F. After all, you are one of my favorite people in the world!”

“What of your parents, my dear? Your husband?” the old man asked, the care evident in his voice.

“Well, my parents passed ages ago. And as for my husband…” Dottie paused for a moment, looking out the window thoughtfully. “I was in love once, but it didn’t work out for me. He moved to America and I never saw him again. So I went about my business, the years passed, and it brought you and I together! How can I not be pleased with that? The Christmas spirit isn’t gone from my heart. In fact…”

Dottie had moved around to sit on the edge of the bed. She slipped an envelope out of her pocket and handed it to the old man. He opened it. It was a Christmas card with a picture of a dog wearing a Santa hat, seeming to smile for the camera. Inside was a brief note penned in Dottie’s familiar handwriting, although Oliver couldn’t actually see what was written.

“Merry Christmas, Mr. Footeuray,” Dottie said, leaning forward and kissing him on the forehead. “Are you sure you’re alright? Can I get you anything?”

“You’ve very kind, Dorothy, but I’m fine. Thank you for the card.” He sagged back against his pillows, smiling wanly at her as she left the room.

When she was well down the corridor, the old man turned his attention back to Oliver and Scrooge. His scowl had returned full force.

“You see?” he said, his voice lower but no less vengeful than before. “She’s probably the only person left in the world that hasn’t given over to complete vapidity. And no thanks to you, I might add,” the old man said, jabbing a finger at Oliver.

“And you,” he continued, shifting the accusatory finger to Scrooge. “It took less than two hundred years for the spirit of Christmas to die. You realize that it had been going along just fine for thousands of years before that?!”

“Absolutely,” Scrooge said meekly, holding his hat between his hands again. “It’s the reason we’re here. We have visited the former ghosts of Christmas Past and Present in the hopes that they would take on the work of propagating the true spirit of Christmas again. They have agreed to do so, and I would ask the same of you.”

The old man stared at Scrooge for two seconds, then replied with a simple, “No.” He picked up the remote control and started flipping through channels again.

“No?” Scrooge questioned. He seemed flummoxed by the reply. Apparently he had expected nothing but a “yes” considering the willingness of the other two spirits.

“No,” repeated the old man. “I’ve already told you. It doesn’t matter what else has happened. By this time,” he said, waving his hand vaguely around over his head, “the spirit of Christmas is dead. I think it should be left to rest in peace.”

“Wait,” said Oliver, remembering lines from A Christmas Carol. “Your nature… Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life.”

As in the story, the old man’s kind hand began to tremble, but he was not yet willing to relent. “You show me a shadow that gives me hope, boy, and I will consider it.”

Oliver walked around to the other side of the bed and sat on it, just where Dottie had. He took the remote from the old man’s hand and started flipping channels. He had no real idea of what he was looking for, only that he would know it when he saw it. He stopped when he caught sight of the large fireplace in living room of the Torrington house.

A large Christmas tree, modestly decorated, was in the corner. There was a fire in the fireplace, and it illuminated at least a dozen stockings. A chair was near the fireplace, and an old man sat in it, children of varying ages sitting on the floor before him. He was telling a story, one that they had all heard before but that they never tired of hearing.

“It was on Christmas Eve that we found the book—”

A Christmas Carol!” shouted out one of the smaller children. It was a little girl that heavily favored Victoria. 

The scene cut to a different angle, one that showed adults and older adults. Oliver saw two almost identical ladies sitting next to each other on a comfortable couch, and one of them said, “Yes, Gemma, now let your unkie talk.”

“Sorry, Gramma,” the girl said, putting her hands over her mouth and returning her attention to the old man in the chair.

The camera continued to pan around the room as the old man told the story of opening the time capsule, finding the books, being woken up in the night by the ghost of Scrooge, and the rest of the adventures they’d had together. Oliver watched as his aged sisters, their husbands, their children and grandchildren, and his own children and grandchildren came into and went out of view. The camera finally came to stop on an even older version of Dottie putting her hand on the old man’s (who Oliver finally recognized as himself) shoulder as he finished telling the story.

“And that’s how we helped change Christmas, the same way our ancestors Tiny Tim and Uncle Scrooge did in their time. So always remember the lessons the spirits teach, and keep them alive in your hearts all the year through!”

The scene faded to black as Oliver turned to face the old man. Both of their hands were trembling at this point.

The old man looked into Oliver’s eyes, and through them into his soul. “Do you have the courage to form this shadow instead of these others I’ve been seeing for so long?”

As he had done with Scrooge, Oliver replied simply and honestly. “I do.”

The old man turned to Scrooge and climbed out of the bed, looking at Scrooge expectantly. Scrooge handed the top hat to the old man, then removed his frock coat and handed that to him as well. The old man put the top hat on, then flung the frock coat into the air over his head. It landed on the top hat and seemed to melt down along the front and back of the old man, forming a long, dark cloak with a cowl that completely obscured his face. The only part of him that was still visible was the outstretched hand, no long holding a remote control.

“Go now, and do not forget what you have learned and promised.”

Oliver was about to reply when he realized that he was no longer in the presence of the spirit. He was, instead, face down in the bathroom of his third floor bedroom at the Torrington house.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

A Yuletide Yarn, 6: The Ghost of Christmas Present

Scrooge winked at Oliver. “Yes, Simpson’s Tavern. Established in 1757 by Thomas Simpson.” The door opened as Scrooge was saying this, and he took the opportunity to go inside. Oliver followed close behind.

The tavern was busier than Oliver expected. Many of the booths were occupied, families gathered in small groups to enjoy a Christmas dinner without having to prepare it themselves, their chatter and laughter creating a low din against the backdrop of occasional moans from a sporadic winter wind. Scrooge found an empty booth and slid straight into it. Oliver was certain the last time he’d been in here the hanging lights over the booths had been sporting 150 watt bulbs, but this evening they were pleasantly subdued, their warmth contributing to the cozy atmosphere the tavern emitted.

“I used to be a regular here, you know,” Scrooge said to Oliver as he glanced around the tavern. “It hasn’t changed much from my time. It even smells the same.” The scents of roasted meat and boiled root vegetables mixed with the pungent odors of dark beers and Earl Grey tea. “Dickens wrote that it was melancholy, but that was a slight application of creative license on his part. This tavern has always been, if not festive, at least pleasant.”

Scrooge was obviously caught up in his own past, so Oliver indulged him for a moment. When nothing else was forthcoming, he forced the issue. “Alright Scrooge, I’ll agree that this is a nice enough place at which to enjoy a Christmas dinner, but why are we here?”

Scrooge came out of his slight reverie, glanced over his shoulder and around the end of the booth, then looked back at Oliver. “Maybe you should have a look for yourself.”

Oliver leaned over so that he could see around the edge of booth. The view revealed a slightly secluded booth that Oliver hadn’t seen when they first came in. Unlike most of the others this one only had a single occupant: Dottie.

She was sitting alone, her face staring down at the unlit screen of her cell phone. She activated the device, looked at it for a second, then dimmed it again. She repeated this process three more times over the next fifteen seconds. The cycle was interrupted by the waiter coming over to her table.

“And a very Merry Christmas to you, ma’am, a very Merry Christmas!” The waiter was a large man in every sense of the word. He had to have been almost seven feet tall, with a massive set of shoulders and a barrel chest that supported a large head with long salt and pepper hair pulled back in a festive ponytail. His beard sported the black and gray coloring as well, but his ear-to-ear grin lit his face as if he were holding a spotlight to it. He wore a white shirt trimmed in red with a forest green half-apron, from which he pulled a small, white pad and pen. “What can I get for you?”

Dottie hesitated, distractedly picking up the menu as she glanced at her phone yet again.

“Perhaps I could get you a cup of Christmas Cheer… while you wait?”

“Um… yeah, I think I’d like to wait at least for a few more minutes. What’s in a cup of Christmas Cheer?”

The waiter laughed, and it was by far the heartiest laugh heard in the tavern, although it didn’t seem out of place in the slightest. “Don’t worry ma’am, it’s naught but a mulled red wine with traces of cinnamon, citrus, cloves, honey, and a dash of nutmeg. Perfect for warming the spirit on a brisk Christmas Day!”

“That sounds really nice, thanks. I’ll have a cup, please.”

“Right away, ma’am, right away!” The waiter ambled away from her table toward the kitchen, emerging a moment later with a clear cup of something dark red and very slightly steaming. After delivering it to her table, the giant made his way to Scrooge’s and Oliver’s booth.

“Good evening, gentlemen! Good evening! May I—”

The waiter’s greeting abruptly cut off as he got a good look at the booth’s occupants.

“Oh, I’m sorry. My mistake. I… uh… My shift is just ending. I’ll send someone else over to take your order. My sincerest apologies,” he said, backing away from the table as quickly as possible, bumping into the edges of several booths along the way. At the earliest opportunity, he turned and dashed for the kitchen with an astounding fleetness of foot.

Oliver stared after him for a moment, confused. Scrooge cleared his throat in that significant way, and Oliver turned his attention to him. Scrooge was staring at Oliver expectantly, then glanced at the still swinging door to the kitchen. He inclined his head toward it. Oliver finally took the hint and slid out of the booth, walking toward the kitchen. He took another glance in Dottie’s direction as he made his way across the dining room. There she sat, still alone, nursing her cup of Christmas Cheer, glancing hopefully at her cell phone between sips.

He felt a familiar mix of emotions on seeing her again. He was excited and scared at the same time. He was beginning to realize that he often felt this way when challenging situations arose. He certainly felt it earlier in this adventure, when Scrooge asked him for help. He realized that he’d felt it on deciding which college to attend. He suspect that he’d been feeling it when he and Dottie broke up during the Christmas season he’d most recently visited.

Setting his feelings aside, he resolutely marched into the tavern’s kitchen. The kitchen was a bustle of activity and people, most of whom bore at least some resemblance to the waiter — including the women. They were all tall, although not uniformly so, and all seemed to exhibit a cheer in doing whatever job they were at. All, that is, except for the waiter, who Oliver could see disappearing through the back door to the alley behind the pub. Several of the other workers in the kitchen shook their heads as he scuttled past them, one of them rolling his eyes. 

On seeing the waiter exiting, one of the chef’s helpers immediately pulled off his chef’s hat and flipped his apron around. Doing so, his stature seemed to increase a bit. He immediately looked like a waiter that Oliver had had before, a friendly and attentive fellow, although not nearly as bombastic as the waiter who’d just fled out back. The chef-turned-waiter grabbed a tray from the front of the kitchen and began pulling ready plates from the end of the prep area. He hoisted the laden tray above his shoulder and headed through the kitchen door to the restaurant without paying any attention to Oliver.

Oliver followed the path through the kitchen, avoiding the people as they went about their business, and slowly opened the door to the alleyway. He found the large waiter there, squatting against the wall, smoking a cigarette.

“Fancy seeing you here,” the waiter said, exhaling a toxic plume of smoke in Oliver’s direction. Oliver stepped back just in time to avoid inhaling the worst of it. “What do you want?”

Oliver was taken aback at the abrupt change in the waiter’s demeanor. In the restaurant, he had been all graciousness and joviality. Here, he was a disagreeably unpleasant.

“I’m here with Scrooge—” Oliver began.

“Scroggie. I thought that’s who that was,” interrupted the waiter. “That old bastard dragged you into this, did he?”

“He asked for my help, and I agreed to try. I presume you are the former Ghost of Christmas Present?”

“Yeah, me and my brothers and sisters,” he replied, waving vaguely in the direction of the restaurant. 

“What are you all doing here?” Oliver asked, genuinely intrigued.

“Oh, we bought the place after Scroggie died. We’ve owned and been working it ever since.”

Oliver snorted. “No one noticed that the staff never seems to change or age?”

The waiter snorted back at him. “When you’ve got over two thousand siblings, it’s not hard to keep the faces fresh, even if we all resemble each other.”

“Hang about,” Oliver remembered something from A Christmas Carol. “Aren’t you born and, well, die, with each Christmas Day?”

“Nah, that was just Dickens filling in some gaps. A new Christmas spirit is created on December 26th, full grown. The one from the prior year, who does age rapidly as their day progresses,” the waiter said, pointing to his own hair, which seemed more salty than peppery at this point, “goes back to a state that represents the underlying current or feeling of their year. Lately, my brothers and sisters have been more and more lazy, selfish, and ridiculous. Practically none of them for the past twenty or thirty years are fit to work in the restaurant, and they also don’t want to. I think some of the older sibs are getting pretty fed up with the trend.”

“What about you?” Oliver asked. “What do you want to do after this Christmas Day is done?”

“I dunno,” replied the waiter. “Truth be told, I don’t feel lazy, but really don’t like the restaurant business very much either.”

“Well, in that case, maybe you’d consider being the rightful Christmas Spirit again? Scrooge told me that he felt like he wasn’t doing a very good job of it, after all.” Oliver looked at him hopefully.

The waiter stood up, stretched, and shrugged. “I can’t make the decision on my own, Oliver. I’ll have to talk it over with the family. Give me a minute, will you?”

Oliver nodded, and they headed back into the tavern. The waiter got the attention of the head chef and dishwasher, and they disappeared into an office tucked away at the back of the kitchen. Oliver re-entered the dining room and was on his way back to Scrooge’s booth when he caught a high-pitched, discordant, yet endearing voice coming from one of the other booths. Taking a detour through the maze of half-walls, he found Victoria, Daphne, and his mother and father having Christmas dinner.

“I just wish that he’d stayed, you know?” Victoria was saying. “Was he really that upset?”

“I’m not sure, dear,” his mother replied. “I know she meant a lot to him, and that their split just before uni hit him really hard.”

“The problem with him,” chimed in Daphne, “is that he’s a flighter. His fight or flight reaction is always flight. Literally, in this case. What time is he supposed to land in New York?”

His father checked his watch. “Not for another four hours or so. So what actually happened?”

It was his mother that replied. “I get the feeling he didn’t sleep very well for some reason, because he certainly looked haggard this morning. Then Dottie sent him a text message this morning, wishing him a happy Christmas and asking if he wanted to get together this afternoon.” Everyone nodded agreement. “I think he was pretty overwhelmed by… something… but ultimately, that he simply didn’t want to be here this year.”

The twins nodded and, much to Oliver’s surprise, looked genuinely sad. “It was nice to see him, even if it was a short visit,” Victoria said.

“I wonder if he’s ever going to invite us to visit him?” mused Daphne.

His mother shrugged. “I’m sure he will, when the timing’s right for him. In the meantime, I would like to continue our Christmas tradition of offering him a toast.” She raised her cup of Christmas Cheer in the air, saying, “To Oliver. May he have a happy Christmas, and come home again soon!”

“To Oliver,” they all said together, and sipped from their cups. 

About this time, Scrooge tapped Oliver on the shoulder. Oliver turned to him, not sure what to say. “Apparently they like having your around, my boy! Speaking of being around, did you have any luck with the waiter?”

“You know, I think I did. He seems more discontent with the way Christmas is than you are. He’s talking with some of the other Christmas Presents right now.”

“Did… did you just say he’s talking with Christmas presents?” Scrooge asked, trying hard not to giggle.

Oliver rolled his eyes. “Other Ghosts of Christmas Present. Good grief.”

Scrooge went back to his booth. Oliver followed, and as he sat, glanced toward Dottie’s booth. Her cup was nearly empty, and she continued to constantly check her phone. Her face looked despondent. By this time, Oliver realized who she was waiting for, and that that person was definitely going to disappoint her.

Scrooge looked over his shoulder to where she sat. “She looks lonely,” Scrooge noted. Before Oliver could reply, the waiter strolled up to their table. Scrooge scooted out of the booth so that he could stand before the waiter. The waiter’s posture seemed… different to Oliver. Straighter, less slumped somehow.

“I come to you today, hat in hand, realizing that—”

“Yes, yes,” the waiter interrupted Scrooge. “Christmas has… changed… under your watch. We’re aware of the fact. We have further determined that, while Simpson’s Tavern has been a fine establishment under our care, it, and our family, would benefit from some variance in approach and staffing. And,” he paused, glancing around, seeming to take in more than just the restaurant, “there’s still time to do more good this year.”

Oliver saw Scrooge unfasten his ascot and unbutton the topmost buttons on his shirt. A moment later, he withdrew a silver chain, attached to which was an amulet adorned with emeralds and rubies. They flashed and sparkled, but Oliver recognized that they were in the shape of a holly wreath. Scrooge slipped the chain over his head, extending it toward the waiter.

“I ask that you reclaim this token, so that each and every Christmas may be blessed by your wisdom.”

The waiter bowed low enough to allow Scrooge to slip the necklace over his head. When he straightened, his appearance had changed again. The apron had been replaced by a fur-lined green robe, the pad and pen by an empty scabbard. The amulet shone where it hung in the center of his chest, and a warmth and joy radiated from it. Oliver couldn’t help but smile at the site.

Thank you,” boomed the Spirit’s voice. “And Oliver, I hope that you will know me better very soon!” He laughed merrily, and Oliver and Scrooge laughed along with him, until they realized that they were no longer in Simpson’s Tavern. They were, instead, in front of an ominous looking brown brick building, and the evening was darker than before. Oliver didn’t immediately recognize where they were, and with the light haze obscuring his vision, couldn’t make out any street signs from where he stood. Scrooge walked away from the street a few steps until the front of the building came clearly into view. The sign above the large entrance read: “Angel Gate.”

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A Yuletide Yarn, 5: The Ghost of Christmas Past

Scrooge clapped his hands. “Excellent!” He pulled the repeater from his waistcoat pocket, checked the time, then grabbed his hat. “We should depart! Our first stop awaits! Follow me!”

“Our first stop? Where are we going?” Oliver asked, then immediately followed up with, “I’m not dressed for going out.”

“As during my own adventure, you will be subject to neither wind nor snow,” Scrooge replied, walking toward the stairs. “Unlike my own adventure, however, you do not have to cling to me while we travel. You need but keep up with me to remain in my sphere of influence. Come!”

Oliver followed him, and they started down the first flight of stairs. He couldn’t help but step softly, worried that he would awaken the twins on his way out. Scrooge chuckled again, and Oliver was impressed by how easily amused the ghost was. “No one will see or hear you until we part way, save the spirits we seek. If it be your wish to tread lightly, please do so. But know that it is not necessary.” As if to prove the point, Scrooge climbed on the bannister and rode it down to the first floor, a raucous “WHEEEE!” springing forth from his mouth as he did so. Oliver cringed at the racket, but no creature stirred as Scrooge disembarked from the railing. “As you see, unseen and unheard!” he cried up to Oliver from the foyer. “Hurry now!”

Oliver made his way quickly down the stairs using the conventional stepping method. He caught up with Scrooge just as Scrooge opened the front door…

…onto a brisk, clear mid-afternoon. The air was obviously chilly as the few people that were out and about were bundled quite warmly. Oliver, feeling not in the least bit cold, followed Scrooge to the end of the walk, then up the sidewalk where it turned out of the neighborhood. Everything looked essentially as it always had, although Oliver did notice some subtle differences — the fashion sense was late 80’s-style, as were the makes and models of cars he saw driving or parked along the streets.

“Alright, we’re in the past somewhere, but I’ll ask again — where are we going?” Oliver said as he took in the strangeness of being surrounded by London that was almost but not quite familiar to him.

“Don’t you know? Think about your past.”

“My past?”

“Yes, Oliver. As I said,” Scrooge replied, crossing his arms behind him as he strolled, “I need your help. The purview of Christmas Past is always the traveller’s past, in this case, yours.”

“So we’re in… on…?” Oliver looked questioningly at Scrooge, who shrugged in reply. “We’re… at… a Christmas day from my early childhood. Let’s see… it would have been one where we were staying at the Torrington house… Hmm…” He was struggling to remember. 

Scrooge’s eyes wrinkled as he smiled broadly. “I’ll give you a hint. We appear to be heading toward a garden.”

“That’s not much of a hint. There are lots of gardens around this part of London.”

“Yes, but this garden is still green, even on Christmas Day!”

That hint was enough to help Oliver recall a vague memory. As they turned one more corner, his recollection and vision coalesced at the same time. He saw himself, aged about five or so, playing in a large, unseasonably green garden behind the house of some friends of his parents. The garden was shared with several other houses, surrounded on all sides save the street side from which Scrooge and he had approached it. He watched himself climbing a tree and remembered what was going to happen next. He rushed to the edge of the garden just in time to see himself lose his small-handed grip on the limb to which he clung. He fell, landing flat on his back, knocking the wind out of his small frame. As his former self’s chest struggled to heave with the effort of silent cries, a lady rushed to his side from the house opposite his parent’s friend’s. 

Oliver had a very clear recollection of her being young and quite tall; as such, he was surprised to see that she was old and short. Her hair, though, was consistent: long and so light that he thought it glowed. She was dressed only in a drab cottony nightgown and an oversized coppery-colored beanie, but she made them both seem majestic as she tenderly ministered to young Oliver, rubbing his back and helping him to his feet as he caught his breath and began to calm down.

“Thank you,” young Oliver said to the nice lady.

“You’re quite welcome, Oliver. Try to be careful when climbing strange trees.” She gave him a playful tousle on the head then made her way slowly back to her house. Young Oliver couldn’t have seen her face after she’d turned away from him, but older Oliver did, and he was surprised to see how forlorn she looked as she re-entered her house. He stared after her for a few moments, noticing her cross to a room with a bay window overlooking the garden. She sat on what must’ve been a window bench there, staring after young Oliver as he went back inside. When he had disappeared behind the back door, the old woman’s gaze wandered around the garden, until it came to rest on older Oliver. She stared at him, obviously confused, then surprised. She rose quickly from the window seat and disappeared from view, but didn’t reemerge. Oliver waited, staring at the back door and window for a full minute before Scrooge politely cleared his throat.

“Did you learn anything?” Scrooge inquired.

“Maybe, I’m not sure. That old woman… who was she?’

Scrooge shrugged again, then said, “Have another look for her.”

Oliver turned back to the garden and noticed the sky had become darker, cloudier. The ground was suddenly covered in a rare, thin layer of snow. Without preamble, Scrooge said “Perhaps on another Christmas of significance?” He pointed toward the back window. Oliver walked timidly into the garden, which, while still green, looked far closer to succumbing to the turning of the seasons than it had a moment ago. 

He peered into the bay window overlooking the garden and caught a glimpse of the old woman. She was holding something in her hands, staring down at it intently. It must have been a picture of some sort, because a moment later she turned and secured it to the wall. Oliver noticed that the entire wall was covered with pictures of various sizes and shapes. Oliver walked up the three steps that led to her back door and hesitated, unsure of whether or not he would be able to interact with the past at all. Finally, he gently rapped his knuckles on the door.

It was opened a moment later by the same lady he’d seen a minute and twenty-five years ago. This time, she appeared to be middle aged, as if time couldn’t make up its mind on how it should be affecting her. She still wore the simple cotton nightgown and strange beanie, and smiled sadly at Oliver.

“Come in, Oliver. I’ve been expecting you all day.”

He made his way past her and into the house. “Is it Christmas day, still?” Oliver asked.

“It’s always Christmas Day… isn’t it Eleazar?” She wasn’t facing Oliver as she replied, but was instead staring down the steps to where Scrooge stood. Oliver glanced back to Scrooge, who had taken his hat off and held it in his hands before him. The woman finally stepped back, gesturing Scrooge inside as well. Scrooge came tentatively up the steps, bowing formally to the woman as he came into the house. She walked past both of them and back into what must have been the room with the bay window. Oliver and Scrooge followed her.

Oliver knew from his look through the window that there were pictures covering the wall, but he wasn’t prepared for what actually greeted him. Every space on every wall was covered with a picture of some kind. Many were photographs, but just as many were painting or sketches. They were all of people, almost all of which were in fellowship of some kind. As he looked over them, they seemed to change aspect, as if they had lenticular surfaces. The overall effect was that the walls all seemed to be constantly shifting on the edges of his vision.

Oliver noticed Scrooge admire one picture in particular. Scrooge reached out slowly, allowing his fingers to glide along the edge of the frame, and smiled. “Fran… the day she came and picked me up from school.”

The woman touched Scrooge lightly on the shoulder. “It was a good Christmas.”

“It was,” Scrooge replied, passing his hand over his eyes, and smiling. 

The woman took the opportunity to turn to Oliver. “Have you found yours yet?”

Oliver looked to where the woman had placed the picture he’d seen her staring at earlier. He didn’t recognize any of the people in any of the pictures in that general area, so finally responded, “No, I haven’t. Where is it?”

“It’s here,” she said, pointing off to the right of where Oliver was originally looking. The picture that he found there was of his family in front of the Christmas tree, the twins excited about opening their presents, but Oliver sitting by himself, holding one small, unopened box.

“That was not a good Christmas for me. That gift,” he said, pointing to where he sat slightly away from everyone else, “was from Dottie. It was a small, framed picture of us. On the back of the picture was a poem she had written to me.”

“Though we are apart
I will always be with you
As you are with me”

“She was already gone by then, and I didn’t see her again… until… ” he trailed off, recalling the surreal encounter with Dottie in the middle of what had already been a momentous day.

“And do you know what she went through that Christmas, Oliver?” the lady asked him, heading toward where she had hung the earlier picture. She pointed to the picture, and Oliver looked.

He saw a picture of Dottie just as he remembered her. She, too, looked sad, but far braver than he did. She and her father were standing next to a bed. In the bed was a woman he only barely recognized as Dottie’s mother. Her skin was pale to the point of translucence, except for her eyes, which were dark and sunken into her face. Despite their obvious pain, they were all smiling, as if they realized that these were some of the last moments they would enjoy together on this side of the veil. As he looked, he saw an animated tear trickle from the corner of Dottie’s eye, down her cheek, to disappear somewhere under her chin.

“That tear was for you, Oliver,” the woman told him.

“As sad as she was, no grief at that moment was greater than her separation from you,” chimed in Scrooge.

Oliver turned back to stare at both of them. They stood, side by side, looking expectantly at him.

“I… had no idea… of what a self-centered jerk I was during that time. I could have been a better person.”

“That is a lesson most of us must continually learn, my boy,” said Scrooge in reply. He turned then to the woman, and in a contrite voice, said, “By that token, I must apologize for the way our original meeting ended. You taught me truths that I had forgotten, and, as painful as some of them were, I did not repay your kindness in like. As hard as I have tried to fulfill the sanction of the Spirits of Christmas, I find that I am not fit to have capped your light, and humbly request that you allow me to let it shine forth once again so that others may benefit from your tutelage.”

“Besides,” Oliver added, “you don’t seem like yourself. Both times I’ve seen you, you’ve looked… sad. Do you… maybe… miss being the Spirit of Christmas Past?”

She smiled at Oliver, then, and turning to Scrooge, nodded slightly. Scrooge slowly removed her beanie. As he did, a light began to arise from the crown of her head. It became so intense that Oliver had to shield his eyes, throwing his arm across them and squeezing them tightly shut. When he was finally able to open them again, he could see that the woman’s static form had been replaced by one continually shifting. As Dicken’s wrote:

“…being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body…”

Except for the illumination where the cap had been, shining like a flame with the light of truth. A voice came from the light, saying:

Thank you, Eleazar, for your stewardship of my mantle. I take it up again freely, and bid you farewell.”

With that, another sudden flash of light filled the room, this one so abrupt that Oliver couldn’t help but be dazzled. When his vision cleared, he realized that they had moved in both time and space. It was evening, and snow was gently falling, although none was sticking to the ground this time. He and Scrooge were both standing in the corner of a busy foot-traffic thoroughfare that he recognized. Spinning around and looking up to verify, he turned slowly back to Scrooge for additional confirmation.

“Our next stop… is Simpson’s Tavern?!”

Monday, December 18, 2017

A Yuletide Yarn, 4: Scrooge's Ghost

Please note here that nothing else unusual happened before Oliver went to bed, aside from the fact that Victoria and Daphne had taken a marginal interest in the discovered book at last. The family was in the library, where Oliver’s father was digging through digitized copies of hand-written records he’d found on Oliver’s mother’s family. The twins complimented Oliver on his sitting prowess, as neither of them had ever managed to crack a stone simply by touching their bottom to it. Oliver was inclined to take the ribbing as good-natured. He was still coming off the surreal high from the run-in with Dottie. His family was a bit surprised to hear that she’d moved back to London and immediately began prying into his future plans. That annoyance dumped the “sur” from his “reality” with full force. He immediately responded with something completely non-committal and then claimed he was tired and was going to get ready for bed. It was slightly early, but his sleep schedule was messed up in any case thanks to losing five hours over the Atlantic. He took a melatonin tablet, then a shower, then went to bed. He’d had nothing mind-altering in any way, which makes what happened next even more inexplicable.

His bedroom was one of two on the third floor of the house. The third floor also had a common room separating the two bedrooms, but it was seldom used. The best thing about the third floor was that it afforded him the luxury of not having to share any personal space with his sisters. If fact, it had been they that suggested it years ago, when boys were still conceptually and literally icky. It had never bothered him, as he found the floor soothingly quiet, and never had trouble sleeping there.

Tonight, however, he tossed and turned, never feeling like he descended beyond a light doze before twitching or snorting himself to wakefulness again. Therefore, he wasn’t very asleep when, just after the stroke of midnight, he thought he heard a knocking on the door across the landing. He sat up, waiting to be sure. A moment later, he heard the knocking again, followed by the creaking open of the other bedroom’s door and a muffled “Oliver?” He didn’t recognize the voice.

Oliver got out of bed, pulling on the bathrobe hanging on the bedpost. He cracked his own door open, peeking through to get a glimpse of what was going on. He was greeted with a sight most unexpected. A man, dressed in some kind of Victorian gentleman’s costume, was leaning through the half-open door opposite him. He heard the man quietly ask “Oliver?” again as he took a timid step into the empty bedroom.

“Don’t move! I’m calling the police!” Oliver yelled at him from across the common room.

“Oh!” the man opposite him yelped, jumping slightly at Oliver’s exclamation. “There you are. You startled me!”

“Sorry,” Oliver said reflexively, then realized that in this situation, the apology was probably unnecessary. “Wait, uh… You just stay right where you are.” He began edging slowly back toward his nightstand where he kept his phone.

“Of course, pardon me, but I implore you to delay alerting the authorities. You see, I need your help. Oh, where are my manners, I should introduce myself,” the man said, taking the black top hat from his head and bowing very slightly. “My name is Scroggie, Eleazar Scroggie. Most people know me by the name Dickens gave me — Scrooge.”

This nutter is worse than I thought! How did he get into the house?! Oliver thought immediately as he backed away more hurriedly, never taking his eyes from the old man. 

The man held his hands up so that Oliver could clearly see them. “I assure you, I’m neither crazy nor criminal, neither screwball nor swindler. I am as harmless as a babe, as Wordsworth said. Please, feel free to get your cellular device, but will you at least sit and indulge me for a moment while I explain who I am and what brings me here? If afterward you are not convinced, I will submit to whatever justice and security you deem necessary.” He gestured toward the chairs in the common room.

The man certainly looked the part of Scrooge. He was dressed in an elegant, well tailored, black frock coat with a matching maroon waistcoat. His dress shirt with high starched collar was as white as the hair that neatly crowned his head. The red ascot encircling his neck would be proof against all but the chillest of winter winds. He wore his sideburns long and slightly bushy, and that style helped offset his sharp, hawkish features. His face was delicately lined, but the angles of the lines implied most of them resulted from ready smiles and laughter instead of age. Oliver didn’t feel particularly scared of the old man for some reason, but quickly retrieved his phone anyway. He cautiously re-entered the common room. The man calling himself Scrooge took the seat nearest the other bedroom, leaving the seat closest to Oliver free. There were only a few feet and a small table in between the seats. Oliver wasn’t sure why, but he swallowed his misgivings and took the other seat. The old man smiled at him and set his top hat on the table between them.

“Thank you, Oliver. I —” 

“How do you know my name?” Oliver interrupted. He felt like he didn’t have to observe the normal level of politeness given the circumstances.

The old man smiled. “I’ve known you most of your life, Oliver. I’ve visited you many times, unseen.”

“Do you have any idea of how creepy that sounds?” Oliver replied, shuddering at the thought.

“Yes,” the man replied surprisingly. “I will ask for your indulgence now while I relate to you my brief tale. By the end, you will understand why what I just said is not, in fact, creepy."

Oliver nodded, but narrowed his eyes, silently reserving the right to interrupt whenever he felt like it.

The old man nodded once at him, leaning back in the chair. “I know that you read A Christmas Carol with some frequency. I also know that by now, you suspect that it was based on a true story instead of being a work of pure fiction. Allow me to confirm that suspicion as a fact. A Christmas Carol was based on a true story — my story, but also the story of your ancestors: your great-great-great-great grandfather, Tim Crocket, and his father, my former employee and partner, Bob.”

Oliver gaped at the old man. Actually gaped at him, slack-jawed, bulging eyes, perhaps a bit of drool forming at the corner of his mouth. The old man chuckled at him again. “You may recall near the end of that story, I uttered the following lines: ’I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future! The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me!’ Does that sound familiar?”

Oliver nodded. He recognized the lines as ones that Scrooge spoke when he awakened from the visitation of the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come.

“I lived out those words, my boy. I kept the Spirits of Christmas alive in me all through the year and the rest of my mortal life, even when Tim was taken from us too soon.” Here, the old man paused a moment, lost in his own thoughts, before continuing. “At the end of my life, I was content. I had lived more in my final few years than most people live altogether. My nephew Fred and Bob’s family were well provided for, and I knew I would rest in peace. Only,” the man paused again, shifting uneasily in his chair, “I didn’t. You see, one moment I was closing my eyes to shove off the mortal coil, and the next I was here, in this form.” Saying this, the old man seemed to fade slightly, becoming dimmer, the color washing out of him, like an oil painting kept too long in direct sunlight. Oliver could swear that he could even see through him to the back of the chair, as if he were translucent.

“What I didn’t realize when I spoke those words was that the Powers That Be considered them a binding oath. I became the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet To Come.”

“The problem is, I’m not very good at actually being the Spirits of Christmas. I suspect that those  original Spirits are part of Creation itself, that human spirits aren’t meant to carry those mantles. You may have noticed that Christmas has changed dramatically since I was alive. I need your help to alter the course of Christmas again, to restore it to its former and future glory.” As he spoke the last, Oliver saw that he resume his normal, solid, Victorian, form.

“My help?” Oliver was somewhere between speechless and incredulous. “How can I possibly help?

Scrooge drew himself up, standing tall and erect as he said, “I have been led here tonight by the Powers That Be with what has been made known to me to be a chance to set things right again, to restore the proper Spirits of Christmas to their rightful places. I cannot do it alone, as I cannot see them or commune with them in their current forms. You, however, can and will recognize them if we do, indeed, encounter them. It’s possible that you already know them.”

I might know them? How is that possible? Oliver thought. He’d moved on from speechless and incredulous to a full-on flabbergasted state.

“Will you help me, Oliver? As in the story, I will be able to convey us to places unseen and unheard by mortal eyes and ears. But I cannot succeed alone. For the sake of Christmases Past, Present, and Future, will you help me?”

Oliver tried desperately to be thoughtful and rational about the decision, but ultimately his heart overrode his mind. At the very core of his being, the base of his soul, he understood that there was only one possible answer to Scrooge’s question.


Sunday, December 17, 2017

A Yuletide Yarn, 3: The Christmas Blues

If you are the kind of person that would find it unbelievable that something as interesting and compelling as finding a possible first edition of a 170-year-old book worth £30,000 could be summarily dismissed by not only one but two people simultaneously, then you probably haven’t met Oliver’s sisters. Daphne and Victoria Thompson, the twin red-headed apples of their mother’s eyes, were two of the reasons that Oliver didn’t come home for Christmas very often. It’s not that they were mean at all or purposefully inconsiderate, but they represented all of the things that Oliver had come to dislike about the holiday season. Their Christmas spirit was completely commercialized, consumed by consumerism, going so far as to revel in the way the season started before Halloween. They always asked you what you wanted for a gift, hounded you for the information, in fact, then decided that what you wanted wasn’t up to their standards and got you something completely different. Their standard, by the way, tended toward the ostentatious, which was nice on some levels, because if you weren’t going to get what you wanted, at least you were going to get something completely over the top and occasionally nice. There was a bit of quid-pro-quo with them, though — if they were going to go to the trouble of getting you something that they liked, you had better be sure to get them something that they liked in return.

These thoughts passed through his mind as Oliver slowly followed his parents to the foyer, their investigations temporarily suspended if not forgotten. He cringed inwardly, realizing that he was going to disappoint his sisters at the least. His luggage had been lost somewhere between JFK and Heathrow, and all of the presents he’d procured were inside it. As inconvenient as this was for him, it would be practically devastating for Daphne and Victoria.

Sidling into the foyer, Oliver saw that his parents were already taking bags and boxes from the twins. He tried to remain unnoticed, but unfortunately for him, his stealth was nothing compared to the twins’ perceptions.

“Ollie,” Victoria said as she unwrapped the scarf from her neck. It took a while, as the scarf was quite long, and Victoria was quite short. “There’s loads more in the car. Do you mind getting them?”

“Sure Vickie,” Oliver mumbled, stepping around the group and pulling on his coat. He almost, but not quite, stomped down the short walk to where Victoria’s car was parked. The setting of the sun was bringing on a rising chill in the air, although the breeze that accompanied it was still gentle. It might turn out to be a pleasantly cool evening, but the thought gave Oliver little comfort as he opened the driver’s side door.

“Good to see you too Vickie. Yes, it has been a long time, hasn’t it? Aw, thanks! I don’t feel like I look fitter than ever…” Oliver mumbled to himself as he popped the boot open. There were two large containers full of more gifts than Oliver had purchased in his life, sum total. He hefted one container out, careful not to jostle its contents too much, and turned to take it back into the house. As he did, his eyes were assaulted by a garish combination of blinking lights of every shade on the spectrum. Victoria and Daphne must have seen to it that the exterior of the house was “properly decorated,” and the lights had turned on just as he was going back up the walk. He felt his eyes watering from both the burning of his retinas as well as the crushing of the last remnant of his Christmas spirit. It was one thing to have a tasteful display of white lights outlining your house, but what Vickie and Daphne had done was… loathsome.

Hunching his shoulders against the display, he re-entered the house. The foyer was empty at this point, everyone else having migrated to the living room to arrange the stuff that the twins had already brought in. Oliver put the container down on the foyer floor then repeated the trip to the car and back, shielding his eyes this time as he returned with the second container. He took the containers one at a time into the living room where everyone was already admiring the tree and presents.

“Thanks, Ollie,” said Daphne, almost paying attention to him as she opened the containers and started pulling individually wrapped items out, transferring them to their proper places beneath the tree. Oliver noticed that his father has surreptitiously slipped away, probably finding his way back to the library to gawk at the book a bit more before dinner.

“Well now, that is just lovely!” Victoria said as she stepped back from the tree to give Daphne room to maneuver. “Everything is set just right, only…” she paused, leaning slightly toward the left, then the right, then stooping down a bit, before continuing, “Ollie, I don’t see anything from you under here…?”

“Oh Vickie, don’t start in on Oliver. His luggage was misplaced on his flight over here. All he has is what was in his backpack,” his mother said, seeming almost embarrassed at both the fact that she’d almost forgotten Oliver was there and that Oliver hadn’t managed to plan far enough ahead to have backup presents for just such an eventuality as lost luggage.

Victoria rolled her eyes. Actually rolled her eyes. Oliver wish he understood why his mother doted on her so much. He was fairly certain that that was the main reason she was as she was. Oliver suppressed a sigh, then said, “Did Mom and Dad tell you about the first edition A Christmas Carol that we found in the stone bench this evening?”

Victoria looked puzzled as Daphne stood up beside her. “A Christmas Carol, you mean the book? And which stone bench?”

“Yes, the book,” Oliver replied, glad to see the subject steering away from presents for the moment. “The stone bench out back. It turns out it was a time capsule!”

“Oh, how interesting,” Daphne said, with a tone that conveyed Oh, who cares about some moldy old book you found in the back yard? Oliver suspected that she was finally realizing that she was not going to be receiving anything gift-wrapped from the USA on Christmas morning. “It’s Christmas, Ollie. We really want our last Christmas in this house to be a proper one. How are we going to manage that when you can’t participate in the joy of giving?” She said it so sincerely that for a moment Oliver almost believed that she was genuinely concerned with his well-being, and that he might feel badly if he couldn’t give gifts to everyone in the morning.

Then the reality of the statement hit him, and he wondered why he had bothered to fly across the second largest body of water on the planet to spend time with these people. “That’s a fair point, Daphne. Luckily, I was just heading out to do some last minute shopping. Hopefully Harrod’s is still open.” 

“Oh good grief, Ollie, I was just teasing!” Daphne said as Oliver’s face fell even further. She came over to him and hugged him, joined a moment later by Victoria. “We’re glad you’re here, you know. The stuff doesn’t matter.”

“…well, not much, anyway…” said Victoria. She gave Oliver an extra squeeze as she said it, although he wasn’t sure if it was for jest or emphasis.

Oliver didn’t trust himself to say anything, so he simply hugged them in return. After a few moments, the twins simultaneously broke the embrace, and Oliver found that he felt slightly better.

“I really do want to get out for a bit. Vickie, can I borrow your car?”

Vickie looked slightly abashed, and Oliver took a small amount of sadistic pleasure in that fact. She dug through her purse for a moment, then handed her keys to Oliver. “For the records, Harrod’s is still open. But it’s a mad house. I wish you luck if you decide to stop by there,” she said, giving him a wink. It was hard to stay upset with the twins for very long. They had the rather annoying habit of doing something endearing just when you really wanted to dislike them.

 “Alright, I’d better get to it if I’m to have any chance at all. I’ll try to be back for dinner, but if I’m not, you go ahead without me.” A moment later, he was driving Victoria’s car through Soho towards Harrod’s.

The best thing about Harrod’s is its diversity. In almost no time, Oliver had found two very elegant hand-crafted Faberge-style Christmas ornaments for Victoria and Daphne at one place and a book on lapidary art and methods for his mother at another. His father’s gift was the biggest challenge. He’d finally managed to find a Meerschaum pipe carved with the likeness of Buddha on the side in a small corner of the men’s section of a jeweler’s shop. Strangely, it had caught his ear before his eye as he’d walked by it. For a moment, he thought someone had called his name. When he glanced in that direction, he could have sworn he had seen the face of an old man on the pipe, and that the face had actually moved when he heard his name called. On his double-take, however, he recognized the Buddha image for what it was, and discounted the calling of his name as a trick from the combination of large amounts of ambient music, cash registers, and conversations.

As he was finishing up the purchase of the pipe, he heard his name being called again. This time, he was certain it was someone purposefully trying to address him, and the voice itself sounded familiar as well. He turned around, searching for the source of the voice.

“Oliver! Oliver Thompson!”

A friendly looking lady was smiling and waving to him from just outside the shop. Her hands were full of small bags that jounced around merrily as she tried to get Oliver’s attention. Oliver smiled, realizing who it was. He made his way quickly out of the store, calling her by name as he emerged. “Dottie? Is that you?”

Dottie laughed as she nodded vigorously at him. “Oh do come here, then,” she said, holding her arms open. Oliver warmly embraced her, and a flood of memories almost overwhelmed him. Dottie Keating was the woman he was madly in love with all through secondary school. They had tried dating in their final year, but had broken it off when her family had moved to Scarborough and she’d decided to go with them instead of staying in London to attend university. He’d tried to convince her that he could attend any university she was willing to go to, but she had refused to hear of it. Her mother was sick, and she needed to be able to focus on her and her father’s care. She had wanted to “remain friends,” but Oliver’s heart had broken too miserably to allow for that. It was one of the reasons he’d chosen to attend Yale in the United States — a fresh start with nothing to remind him of what might’ve been.

“Wow, Ollie! You’ve not changed a bit, have you?” Dottie said, holding him out at arm’s length appraisingly. “What are you doing here? I thought you lived in the States now?”

“I do,” Oliver replied, sure he was grinning like a maniac but not being able to do anything about it. “Mom insisted on a full family Christmas at the old house. I made the trip, but something happened with my baggage, so I’m scrambling to find last-minute gifts.” He held up his packages as if Dottie needed proof. “What are you doing here?”

“Also last-minute shopping. Did you know I moved back to the city?”

“I didn’t know that, no. When did that happen?”

“The beginning of the year. Dad passed away just over two years ago now, and I finally sold the Scarborough house and came back here. All my best memories are here, after all, and I needed a comforting new start.”

“I’m sorry to hear about your Dad, Dottie. So, uh…” Oliver’s scattered thoughts were fighting for control of his language faculties. “Um, what new start happened for you?” he finally managed to get out. He was still smiling maniacally, but was also sweating slightly with the efforts of making cogent speech.

“I’ve re-enrolled in university! I’m in the anthropology department at UCL.”

“Wait, you’re at UCL?  Isn’t the anthropology department just around the block from the Torrington Place house?”

“Yes, yes it is,” Dottie said. Was she blushing slightly? “Anyway, I thought that was you in the shop and couldn’t resist the chance to surprise you. Are you going to be in town long?”

“Through the New Year, probably.”

“Great! I’d love to catch up a little more if you’ve got a chance. Can I get your number?” Dottie asked, although she didn’t make a move to get her cell phone out.

“Yeah, of course. That’d be fantastic!” Oliver said, and meant it. He gave her his number, and she sent him a text message to confirm that she’d entered it correctly.

“Alright, I don’t want to keep you. Please tell your family I said hello,” Dottie said, glancing at the time on her phone’s display. “And Oliver, I hope you have a very Merry Christmas.” She opened her arms again. Oliver didn’t remember Dottie being this big a hugger in school, but wasn’t objecting.

He hugged her goodbye, saying, “You too, Dottie. Merry Christmas to you too. Call me soon, I’ll treat you to a proper afternoon tea or something.”

Dottie laughed at that, saying “High tea? On a first date? Let’s try coffee first.” She released him and started walking towards another store. He walked in the opposite direction, toward the carpark. He couldn’t shake the surreality of the entire interaction. It stayed with him through the rest of the evening’s activities, including when he placed the gifts under the tree. It must have been the surreality that caused him to think, once again, that the Meerschaum pipe was calling his name as he left the living room and turned out the lights.