A Pre-Christmas Carol: Stave Four

The Last of the Spirits

Splurge stood there in the cold, shoulders hunched, just waiting for the inevitable “Ebeneeeezeeeeer!” from behind. It didn’t come. He checked his watch. It was now thirty seconds past three, and it was very cold. He was half afraid to turn around, for fear of what he might see (or what might suddenly appear behind him when he did), half just wanting to get this whole thing over with. Also, if nothing else, he still had his keys with him: he could simply let himself back into his apartment. But that was behind him, and so he’d still have to turn around. He did so.

There was nothing there.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Splurge basked in the familiar glow of the festive wonderland that was his shop front. Then he let out a totally involuntary yelp. Just in front of him, hovering, oh, about four and a half feet from the pavement, was a hand. A spectral hand. A skeletal, disembodied hand that beckoned him to come towards it. Splurge’s teeth began to chatter, and not just because he was wearing a Hawaiian shirt outdoors at night in late December.

The hand, he soon realised, was not actually disembodied. Now and again, when his window display emitted a particularly bright burst of gaudy light, Splurge could detect the outline of a figure that was not so much lit by the flash as unlit. Even the night itself shone back more colour than that shrouded watcher that stood before him, beckoning.

Seeing Splurge’s hesitation—for there were eyes, it seemed, within the hood—the phantom beckoned more vehemently. Splurge, wary of whatever anger it might show, stepped forwards.

“Are you the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come?” asked Splurge, his voice wavering.

The phantom said nothing, only beckoned.

“You’re here to show me the things that haven’t happened yet, but are going to happen…but like, stuff that’s further ahead than what the Presents guy just showed me?”

The phantom said nothing. It might have nodded, but in the dim light it was impossible to tell. Splurge noticed suddenly that no mist came from within the hood: if this thing had breath, it was as cold as the winter air.

“You want me to come with you?”

On shaking legs, Splurge walked forwards to meet his chilling guide, but no sooner than he started he had to stop. The phantom stretched out its lone hand, pointing down the road behind. Splurge turned, and had to shield his eyes. The way ahead was bright, and strains of joyous music flickered through the air.

This was not the street his shop was on. Or rather, now that he looked closer, it was. But it was not the street as he knew it. As the Ghost of Christmas Presents had foretold, Crockett’s Costumes and Capers was hollow and empty, flaking chipboard nailed over the windows, a too-hopeful “To Let” sign plastered to the door. Splurge’s heart fell to see this. It fell further when he noticed that his own shop was in much the same state.

A wind blew down the road, but it was dry and hot. Dust stung Splurge’s eyes. “Is this what you brought me here to see?” he asked the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. “That what Christmas Presents spoke was true?”

The phantom remained silent, but it stepped forwards, pointing down the road whence the wind had come. It was warm now, Splurge realised. It was genuinely, really warm.

“Is this Christmas?” asked Splurge, hurrying to keep up with the long stride of the phantom. “Is this Christmas, or some other time of year? Are you here to show the damage done to other holidays, by observing just the one?”

In the road, the spirit stopped. It turned and raised its pale hand once more. It looked as though it might have spoken, but if it had the sound was drowned out by the engine of a helicopter low overhead. A spotlight snapped on, illuminating Splurge and phantom and hollow shops.

“Put your hands on your head and lie face-down on the ground,” boomed a voice from the helicopter. “Our elves have you surrounded. Do not resist. Remain calm.”

“Spirit,” began Splurge, struggling to speak over the din of the helicopter. “What place is this? What is it you would have me see?”

Splurge watched the phantom, waiting for its answer. It did not come. What did come was a DeLorean, which ploughed into the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, leaving nothing more than a black rag flapping under its front wheel. The gull wing door swung upwards, open.

“Come with me if you want to live!”

There was a deafening burst of gunfire from the helicopter, and behind the chipboard, the windows of Crockett’s Costumes and Capers—the sign now faded almost beyond recognition—shattered across the dark shop floor. More out of shock than any deliberate action on his part, Splurge threw himself into the DeLorean and it sped away. He didn’t even have a chance to close the door, let alone clip in his seatbelt. Beneath the growl of the helicopter, he could hear the car pinging “bing, bing bing,” annoyedly, incensed by this comparatively trivial danger.

Splurge struggled to decide what to do first: close the door, or put on his seatbelt. He decided pretty quickly to go for the door. Splurge flailed around for the strap, flapping in the fierce force of the air, then found it, dragging the door closed. Immediately, he felt a lot more secure. He panted for a moment, not really aware of what was going on outside beyond the fact that the searchlight still occasionally swept overhead, sending gunmetal shimmers up from the bonnet of the car. He felt around for a switch or handle to close the car window, then felt stupid when he realised that there was no window: just some metal slats welded into the frame. The windscreen was the same.

There was a screech of tires as the car turned a sharp corner, and Splurge was about to say something unpleasant about the driver’s technique. Fortunately, he realised just in time that this might not be a sensible thing to do. Instead, he decided to try and start up a conversation.

“Is this still Middle Whittering?” he asked, eyes still squinted half shut against the dust that whipped through the windscreen slats.

“It hasn’t been called that in a long time,” replied the driver beside him. Splurge turned his head, as much to shield his eyes from the dust as to look out the side of the car, and caught sight of a vast, vast billboard, towering well above the crumbling houses in its shadow.

“HE SEES YOU WHEN YOU’RE SLEEPING,” read the text at the bottom. “HE KNOWS WHEN YOU’RE AWAKE.” Splurge couldn’t see anything higher up: his view out the DeLorean’s window was severely limited.

“This place is Tannenbaum 28 now. The date is February fourteenth, 2037.”

“Valentine’s Day?” Splurge couldn’t believe it, not least because it was so warm outside.

“Christmas Day,” corrected the driver. “Just like yesterday and tomorrow and the day after that. It’s always Christmas now. Never Winter and always Christmas.”

“What?” This was just too far-fetched to be true. “How?”

“It just started earlier and earlier every year, until…well…we were all part of it. I was part of it.” He swerved to avoid the smouldering wreckage of a fighter jet on the road. “Everyone just got further and further into debt, and before you knew it, the Father owned the whole country.”

“The Father?”

“Who else?” the driver snapped. “Father Christmas.”

The steady drone of the helicopter engine had fallen behind, but in its place there was a new noise. At first Splurge thought might have been another engine, but as it drew closer, he realised it was hooves, rapid hooves…the sound of sleigh bells audible beneath.

Suddenly, something crashed into the slatted window. Splurge instinctively leaned into the car to get out of the way, and it was fortunate he did, because an instant later there was a cluster of wickedly sharp spikes jutting through the slats, and then the whole window was torn away. For just a moment, Splurge found himself staring into glowing eyes, set above a snarling, drooling mouth, the creature easily keeping pace with the car. Then, the driver swerved left, bashing into it. Splurge caught a glimpse of tumbling brown fur in the rear view mirror before a near-miss with a lamppost sheared it off.

“Hold on,” said the driver, hitting a button on the dashboard. There was a sudden roar, and the engine began to whine. “I’ve got to get this baby up to eighty-eight miles per hour.”

The inside of the vehicle was still too dark to make out its driver, but Splurge watched the tritium-illuminated dial of the speedometer intently. Seventy-one. Seventy-five. Seventy-seven. Eighty. Eighty-one…

There was a flash of green in front of the car. Splurge could just make out a pointed cap, and hands slinging a sort of metal cord across the road. All four of the DeLorean’s tyres burst spectacularly. Bare rims screeching on the asphalt, the car skidded sideways and began to roll. “This never happened in the book,” thought Splurge as he flipped over and over for what felt like ages.

“Get out,” said the driver, almost before they came to a halt.

“What?” asked Splurge. It was more of a reflex than an actual question.

“Get out!”

Splurge unbuckled his seatbelt and immediately landed on his head. It was a good thing there was no window on his side anymore, because there was no way the gull wing doors were going to open now that the car was lying on its roof. The driver crawled out of that same space.

Splurge gasped. Partly because the driver was way, way older than he had expected, partly because he was wearing a very familiar (albeit extremely threadbare) Hawaiian shirt.

“You were brought here by the ghosts, right?” asked the driver.

“Yeah.” Splurge was too stunned to say anything else.

“Right. Well, whatever you do…no, forget that, just focus on doing what they suggested. If you just keep doing your own thing…well…” he spread his arms, gesturing towards the dust-blasted, all-encompassing remains of Middle Whittering, the remains of the world. “Basically, that’s what I did, and it turned out like this.”

Splurge shivered despite the hot night. “Sure,” he said, “whatever. What do we do now?”

“No!” yelled future Splurge (for it was he). “Not ‘whatever.’ Promise me you’ll take heed of what the spirits said!”

“Yeah, fine, I will. Whatever.”

“No!!!” Future Splurge was even more annoyed. “Definitely not ‘whatever.’ Swear you’ll heed the spirits’ words. Especially those of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.”

“B-b-but…” now it was regular Splurge’s turn to be annoyed. “You ran him over!”

“Did I!?!” Future Splurge’s eyebrows went way, way up. Splurge hadn’t even realised his eyebrows could do that. Unless they couldn’t, and he’d develop the ability only when he was old enough and wrinkly enough. “Whoops.”

“No, not ‘whoops.’ What did he say?”

A siren began to wail all around them.

“Aw, geez,” said future Splurge. “Run.”

“What?” Splurge’s reflex “what” kicked in again.

“Run!”

From the road they’d just driven down (or at least, the road Splurge assumed they had just driven down—they’d spun around quite a bit before coming to a halt), there was a hollow, mechanical voice.

“Ho ho ho. You’ve both been very naughty.”

A red coat filtered into view through the warm, dark air of the winter’s night. A shiny gold belt buckle caught and threw back what little light there was. Future Splurge threw himself down and started rummaging around for something in the DeLorean.

“We’re right outside SkyNick Headquarters right now,” he said, loud enough for Splurge to hear outside the car. “They’ve got their own stationary time machine for, you know, various nefarious purposes. Get there, and get out of here. You know what to do.”

Splurge was pretty sure that the main thing he knew what to do was to get out of here, but he got the point. Nevertheless, he lingered. “Is that…Father Christmas,” he asked, still staring at the figure steadily advancing through the gloom.

“No.” Future Splurge emerged from the DeLorean holding an extremely large candy cane. “Just one of his helpers.” He pumped the candy cane, levelled it, and pulled the trigger. Half of Saint Nick’s head exploded.

The  jolly old elf slumped down, still standing. Then, just a moment later, he straightened up. The flesh that had been blown away reformed as a metal skull with a glowing red electronic eye. “No sugarplums for you,” he droned.

“Get to the time machine,” shouted future Splurge. “Now!” He pumped the candy cane again.

Regular Splurge as about to argue, but before he could, there was another mechanical “Ho ho ho” from nearby. Through the darkness, he could see a ring of robot Santas closing in.

“Go!” Future Splurge backed away as he fired at the approaching horde. There was no way he could stand against them all. “Go now! Sponge this timeline from the world!”

Splurge did as he was asked. He ran all the way into SkyNick Headquarters. He ran all the way through the winding corridors inside. He ran all the way to the time machine, and then he stopped. Standing there, in front of the vast, crackling device handily labelled “Time Machine,” there was a familiar figure, standing with his back to him.

“Future Ebenezer?” Splurge stepped forwards, about to put a hand on his shoulder. “Is that you?”

“In a manner of speaking.” The figure turned. “But now I am known by a different name. For now I am Father Christmas. I am…yourself! For in a situation involving time travel, why should there be only two yous?!?”

This Splurge had a long white beard. Splurge thought he might—just might—have seen a beard just like that behind the text on the billboard he’d read.

“What?” asked regular Splurge, again more as a reflex than because he wanted to. “That’s impossible!”

“Search your feelings, Splurge. You know it to be true! Join me, and together we can rule Christmas…together!”

“Noooooooooooooo!!!” yelled Splurge. Rushing forwards, he threw himself through the waving fronds of the timestream. He hit the ground painfully, just a couple of feet farther from and a fraction of a second later than where/when he’d jumped in.

“Oh,” said Father Christmas Splurge, “by the way, that’s not a real time machine. It’s just some blue streamers tied to a fan.”

It was clear there was to be no easy escape from this situation. Splurge realised now he could not simply run. Instead, he dusted himself off and crawled over to Father Christmas: himself, from the future. He grabbed the hem of his robes, clinging tight.

“Please,” he begged. “If you really are me from the future, you’ll have learnt the error of your ways. It isn’t right to celebrate one holiday at the expense of all others, and when the celebrations of a day are spread out over many months, they lose most of their magic. Please see sense, as I have now, and mend the grave injustice that we’ve done.”

Father Christmas began to back away, but Splurge wrapped his arms around his knee, detaining him. “Please let this lesson not be learnt in vain,” he pleaded. “Please…please…please…”

Father Christmas, Splurge’s future self, said nothing. His only response was a peculiar transformation: he became an armchair.

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