The End of It
Splurge took a moment to confirm that the armchair was his own. Yes indeed, everything seemed normal. Then, suddenly, he noticed the chiming of the eBay clock coming from his kitchen. Ding…ding…ding…ding…he held his breath…ding…ding…ding…ding…ding…ding.
Nothing happened. Splurge waited a full two minutes just to make sure, but nope, still nothing happened. “Oh frabjous day!” he exclaimed, jumping up and clicking his heels together. “Calloh! Callay!”
He ran around in happy little circles. “My shop!” he cried to himself, suddenly. “It’s not boarded up! Those are the floorboards where the Ghost of Christmas Presents stood. And that…that spot on the wall is where the Ghost of Christmas Past stuck his ghostly gum!” He was actually a little disappointed to see that it had gone. He ran to the window and threw it open. “It’s not a post-apocalyptic wasteland! I’m not a dictator after all! Glorious! Quite glorious!”
“Yerwha?” asked a youth out on the street, perplexed by Splurge’s sudden public display of insanity.
“You there, boy,” said Splurge. “What day is this?”
“What day is this?”
“Today, sir? Why, it’s Christmas Day.”
“Is it really!?!” Splurge was astounded. He’d been away for very nearly two months.”
“I mean Halloween. Sorry, I was looking at your shop.”
“What?” Splurge looked down. Even in the daytime, there was a little pool of festive light shining on the pavement, because of course he’d never turned off the display. “Oh, of course you were! Of course you were. Ah-tee-hee-hee! It’s quite garish, isn’t it. Yes, quite awful. It simply has to go. I tell you what. Do you know the hardware shop on Bridge Lane?”
“I should think I do.”
“Of course, of course! I tell you what. Go down there and rent the biggest woodchipper they have, and I’ll give you twenty pence.”
Splurge grinned. “Come back with it in less than five minutes…and I’ll give you half a pound!”
The young man made an obscene gesture and walked off.
“What a remarkable lad!” said Scrooge, watching him make his way down the pavement. “A delightful lad!” and he skipped merrily down the stairs to the shop floor.
“I will do as the spirits asked,” he said, tearing down a cluster of crumpled foil snowflakes. “I will observe all the holidays that I can,” he swept the singing penguin off the counter, “and keep all of them in my heart.” Thoughtfully, he crumpled up a paper cut-out of Father Christmas that he had pinned to the back wall. “But only at the appropriate time of year!”
The young man from the pavement never came back with Splurge’s woodchipper, probably because the reward offered had been so insultingly small. Thinking back, Splurge wasn’t totally sure why he’d suggested it. He blamed years and years of watching the same old Christmas movies every year. It was probably for the best, though: in hindsight, Splurge would definitely still want to put on a big display (only, maybe not till December. Late November at the earliest).
“Oh my!” exclaimed Splurge, halfway through rolling up an inflatable snowman. The head stared accusingly at him as he tried to squoosh the last of the air out of it. “I must pay a visit to Brad Crockett! I must set things right with him, yes…” And he skipped out of the shop without even bothering to get dressed, though luckily for all involved he was still wearing the same clothes he’d had on the day before, so it didn’t really matter and I don’t know why I bother mentioning it, to be honest.
There was no bell or knocker at Crockett’s Costumes and Capers, but fortunately it was a shop so Splurge just walked in and went up to the counter.
“Mister Splurge!” said Brad, surprised. “What brings you here today?”
“Well.” Splurge put on an air of smug satisfaction. “I thought about what you said yesterday, about my October Christmas display competing with your Halloween sales, and do you know what I thought?”
“Um…” the colour drained from Crockett’s face a little. “No? What?”
“I thought I should try harder!” Splurge jabbed a pudgy finger in the air. “I thought I should set up a really huge display! And what’s more, I thought that I should organise a big, last-minute event!”
Crockett went quite white. “Oh.”
“And do you know what else I thought, Mister Crockett?” Mrs Crocket here came downstairs to see what all the noise was about. “Do you know what I thought?” Splurge let the words hang there. “I thought you might be able to provide me with some fake cobwebs.”
“You eh…fake…cobwebs, Mister Splurge?”
“Yes!” cried Splurge. “Fake cobwebs!” He quietened down. “I’ve been a fool, Brad. All these years I’ve been drawing Christmas out longer and longer, and you know what? I didn’t need to. Sure, it’s good for shifting CDs as gifts. Sure no other occasion’s quite as big. But there are other occasions, Brad, and I want to keep them.”
Splurge was better than his word. Together, he and the Crocketts had a spooky (and unusually profitable) Halloween, partly thanks to the crowd that gathered when police arrived to investigate a report of a madman leaning out a window in the area. Less than a week later they had a toasty bonfire night. After that came a reasonably quiet Saint Andrew’s Day. And after that (though not before its proper time) came a very merry Christmas: the merriest, indeed, that any of that happy group had ever had.
And may you have a Merry Christmas too.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
The Second of the Three Spirits
Splurge awoke in his ratty (but exceedingly comfy) old armchair in front of the TV, which was still showing whatever terrible sitcom had been on before. Definitely some kind of marathon. Why anyone would want to sit through more than one—indeed, even one—episode of this thing was beyond him, but presumably they had to fill the 2am slot with something.
“Ebeneeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeezeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeer!” wailed a voice from right behind him.
“Aaaah! Aaaah! Aaaaaaaaah!” Splurge had kind of a mini freak-out.
“Shhhhhh!” said the Ghost of Christmas Present—for Splurge was positive that it was he—“People are trying to sleep!”
“Sorry.” Splurge said it so quietly that it wasn’t even audible. He was having trouble controlling the volume of his own voice. “Wait…” he said, getting the hang of it again. “Why are you wailing? Aren’t you the fat, jolly one?”
“Ho ho ho! Indeed I am!” He certainly sounded jovial enough.
Splurge stood up and turned around. Despite the answer he’d just heard, this was not the fat, jolly spirit he had been expecting. In fact, this was definitely the worst one yet.
“I’m the Ghost of Christmas Presents.”
The spirit had no head. Or at least, it had no head in the traditional sense. It had a plastic Christmas pudding, sitting above its round, lumpy shoulders, and when it spoke the top half of the pudding flapped up and down, like some kind of hideous suet-based Pac-Man. Its eyes were plastic cherries, its eyebrows plastic holly leaves, its acne plastic raisins…or maybe it was just supposed to be the kind of pudding that had raisins anyway. It was kind of hard to tell what was anthropomorphic spirit-face and what was just plain old fake food. Splurge could feel his internal organs shifting into various uncomfortable positions within him, but it wasn’t because of the horror. That had faded, only to be replaced by a confusion the like of which no mortal had ever felt before.
“There’s something…up…with you, isn’t there?”
“Ho ho ho! You noticed!” The spirit held his sides—which Splurge now noticed were kind of lumpy and…was something wriggling about under that big red fur-lined robe? “I am pleased! You will have to notice a great many more things before this night is done!”
The spirit held out his hand, and after just a little hesitation, Splurge took it. He didn’t want to, but he knew by now that he was just going to have to sit through this. He wondered if there was any chance he was in hospital somewhere and this was all just a coma fantasy. Then he tried to work out whether that would be better or worse than it being real. It was a tough call.
Suddenly, without actually going anywhere, they were standing on the street outside. It was surprisingly nippy all of a sudden, but then, Splurge supposed, it was the middle of the night. “Know you this place?” asked the spirit.
“Well…yeah.” Splurge looked over at the front of his shop. “I can see my house from here.”
“Not that place!” laughed the spirit. “Ho ho ho! This place!” and he gestured with his neon plastic torch at the storefront of Crockett’s Costumes and Capers. “Do you know it?”
“I do,” replied Splurge, “though I’ve never had any occasion to go inside.”
“Well,” said the spirit, “perhaps this will be an occasion when you do. For it is an occasion indeed! Ho ho ho!”
Tugging Splurge along by the arm, the spirit stepped inside. The lock on the door didn’t seem to give him any bother. Inside, Splurge found that the Crocketts’ shop was much like his own—which he supposed was to be expected, since it was on the same street and presumably built at the same time—and that the lock to the apartment upstairs gave the spirit no more bother than the one on the front door.
Inside, the Crocketts were sitting around a rickety wooden table by an electric heater, and suddenly Splurge realised why it had been so cold outside.
“Spirit,” he said. “There must be some mistake! You are the Ghost of Christmas Present, but this is clearly the future—for this is Christmas Day! Why, you have quite forgotten Halloween!”
For the first time, the spirit spoke harshly: “If Halloween is to be forgotten, it had better get on with it, and decrease the surplus celebration!”
Splurge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with a mild sense of guilt.
“Besides,” continued the spirit, “I’m the Ghost of Christmas Presents. With an ‘s.’ Not Present like the stuff that’s happening now.”
Splurge began to listen in on the Crockett’s conversation. It seemed like a pretty rude thing to do, to be honest, but it was basically why he was there so, hey, that made it okay, right?
“Things’ll pick up in Summer,” said Mister Crockett, glumly. “Lots of stag parties and student dos, and before then even, there’ll be schoolkids wanting things for school events at Easter. It’ll be tough, but we’ll pay off that loan.”
“And I can put in more time drawing people in with the robot act,” put in Tinny Tom.
“Or we could just up and move away from that idiot next door,” said Missus Crockett.
“Hear hear!” They all drank to that.
“I thought they were supposed to be nice about me, albeit grudgingly,” said Splurge.
“Whatever gave you that idea?” said the spirit, plastic head glistening in the glow of the Crocketts’ fibre optic tree. “This isn’t just a Christmas story—it’s real life!—and you’re a real jerk.” Clearly he felt that was a little harsh, because he finished with another “Ho ho ho!” but it just fell flat. “Come on,” he added awkwardly. “I think we’re done here.”
“Spirit, wait…” Splurge began. “Tell me if they will pay off their loan. Will they get by on stag parties alone? Will Tinny Tom’s routine bring custom in?”
The spirit’s plastic cherry eyes glistened with varnish. “I see a boarded window at the front of the shop, and a living statue costume in a box in the attic. These are the shadows that I see. Now come, my time here is very brief: I must leave you now.” And he led Splurge back out onto the street.
“Spirit,” said Splurge as they stepped out onto the freezing pavement once more, “there is something I must ask. What is it that I see moving beneath your robes?”
“It is many things,” replied the spirit sorrowfully. “Look here.”
The spirit pulled open his robe, and suddenly the air was filled with a cacophony of ho-ing Santas, singing snowmen and penguins that for some reason played music from Fantasia. Within the spirit’s robe were a multitude of eyes—plastic, glass, felt—all staring back at Splurge, and Splurge got the impression that this churning mass somehow occupied a space greater than itself. Gazing at its surface, he felt a sort of gravity pull upon his eyes, as though this hideous apparition had some power to draw him in.
“I am all the presents nobody ever wanted,” said the spirit. “I walk the Earth for just this day: tomorrow I must trudge into the sea, and make my way to some poorer country that I may be melted down and, some years from now, reformed into this same shape. Or else to drift for a thousand years, the currents taking my components where they will.” And without another word, he began to walk the long way towards the coast.
“Spirit, wait!” Splurge cried. “This may be my street, but you have taken me a long way from home! I beg you: lead me back!”
“There is another who will lead your way from here,” called the spirit, over its shoulder. “And your way leads not back, but onwards and ahead.”
And Splurge’s blood ran cold, for he knew what came next.
The First of the Three Spirits
Splurge woke with a start. He had fallen asleep in his armchair, and found himself now sitting before what looked like one of those awful BBC Three sitcoms. He turned it off. The apartment was deadly quiet, like the moment in a horror movie just after the music stops, and just before the monster suddenly pops up. Nope. Splurge turned the TV back on. Uh-oh. No monster popped up, but the TV’s little info bar did. It said that it was twelve fifty-nine. No, wait, it had just changed…
“Ebeneeeeeeeeeeeezeeeeeeeeeeeeeeer!” moaned the ghost.
“Oh, geez, yikes!” Splurge flailed awkwardly in his armchair for a moment. “Why? Why does everyone keep doing that?!?”
“Just making sure your haunting is suitably ghostly, sir,” said the ghost. “Here, sign this.”
Splurge squinted at the document, but it was basically all small print. He scanned the first few lines, which were to do with injury and liability and loss of personal possessions and optional insurance and temporal something or other. It wasn’t much help, really, but he was pretty sure he could guess what was going on here. “You are the Ghost of Christmas Past?”
“Yeah, mate.” The spirit was chewing gum. “You’re booked for one, right?”
“Uhhh…no. I think you want next door, actually. I went over to borrow a cup of sugar once, and the guy there was like ‘No! Get your own sugar!’ so…yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s where you’re supposed to be.”
“Oh, a wise guy, eh?” The spirit spat his gum at the wall, where it hung like some kind of gross glowing ghost slug clinging to the stripy wallpaper. Splurge hoped it wouldn’t be there in the morning, because if it was he had no idea how he was supposed to get rid of it. He was pretty sure Cillit Bang wasn’t going to work on that. “Well tell me this, wise guy: how many people assume they’re being visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past on Halloween?”
Splurge had to admit, he didn’t have an answer to that.
“Come on. We’re going on a journey of reflection and nostalgia and regret and all that jazz.” Grabbing him by the arm, the ghost led Splurge towards the window.
“But…” stammered Splurge, “I am…you know, mortal! I can’t fly or anything!”
“Ah,” said the spirit. “Bear but a touch of my hand, and you can! Anyone can fly with EasyDjinn!” He paused. “That reminds me. That’ll be twenty quid.”
“What?” said Splurge. “I’m not paying that!”
“Too late. I already touched your arm. That counts as a flight.”
Splurge stood his ground, metaphorically speaking. Speaking literally, he was floating a couple of inches above the floor. “I’m not sure I even have twenty pounds on me.” He folded his arms.
“In that case, it’ll be six easy monthly payments of nine ninety-nine.”
“Aha!” cried Splurge. “Wait: I never signed that thing you gave me. See?”
“Ah,” said the spirit mysteriously. “But you did! No sooner than your hand had touched it, you formed a binding contract of goodwill and…you know…unicorn farts and…stuff. Look, those things all just get stuffed in a drawer anyway. Are you going to pay, or do I have to sic EasyDjinn’s team of leprechaun lawyers on you?”
“Alright, fine,” huffed Splurge. He fished his wallet out of his pocket and handed over a crisp twenty pound note, fresh from the hole in the wall. He’d got it out just in case he saw something else nice when he went for the fairy lights that evening.
“Oh, and were you planning on wearing clothes on your journey?”
What an odd question. “Yes.”
“There’s a five fifty baggage surcharge.”
“And a non-refundable ten pound timestream security deposit.”
“You have got to be kidding.”
The spirit gave him a serious look. “I never kid about company policy, sir.”
“Well I definitely don’t have enough to cover all that.”
“That’s okay, I’ll just repossess some of your historic birthday presents. Do you remember that bike you got when you were twelve?”
Splurge thought back. “What bike?”
“Okay! We’re all settled. Come with me, then!” And arm in arm, they floated off into the night.
Except it wasn’t the night outside the window. It was a different night. A much, much older night. They were standing outside a little semi-detached house. A semi-detached house that was very familiar indeed.
“Hey,” said Splurge. “I remember this! This is where I used to live!”
“Well duh,” said the Ghost of Christmas Past. “I’m hardly going to take you to some other schmuck’s childhood home, am I?”
“You know, for someone who had to announce themselves by wailing my own name in my ear, you’re suddenly not very professional.”
“Sorry. It’s been a long day. You’d be a bit crabby too if you had to work at one in the morning. I just want to go home, crack open a beer and watch The Big Bang Theory.”
“That’s…” Splurge wasn’t sure whether or not he wanted to encourage him to do any more spooky stuff—he’d had more than enough of that for one night, and he was sure there was more to come—but he couldn’t resist the opportunity to show the spirit up. “That’s even less ghostly.”
“Sorry, sorry.” The Ghost of Christmas Past was all humble all of a sudden. “Let’s just go inside, shall we?”
Inside, the place was just as Splurge remembered it. Even with the paper chains, the tinsel, the little foil ornaments and the strings of little coloured bulbs, he recognised every nook and cranny of the old living room. All the little details came flooding back, particularly the little patch of hideous floral wallpaper visible in a corner where the new more tasteful wallpaper had got torn away. In fact, a very young Ebenezer had got curious and started lifting it. At the time, he’d blamed it on the cat, but in retrospect he was pretty sure everyone had known who’d really been responsible. It hardly mattered now.
Looking around the room some more, Splurge was almost surprised to realise that the family he could see sitting around the tree, opening presents and enjoying mince pies, was his own. Or rather, him and his own, because he was the small child sitting in front of the fireplace rolling a toy fire engine back and forth and saying “Weeee-oooo weeee-oooo weeee-oooo” while the cat watched intently.
“Hey,” said Ebenezer, “that’s me!”
“Well, duh!” said the Ghost of Christmas Past. “Sorry,” he added after a pause. “It’s just…come on. I wasn’t just going to show you some random family’s Christmas.”
“I don’t know,” said Splurge, still looking at the happy little scene. “It seems as though you might as well have done. I mean, this is quaint and all, but what’s the point? It’s a nice, festive Christmas, just like I have every year nowadays. What’s this supposed to prove?”
“This?” said the spirit. “Nothing. But that…” he pointed. “That proves everything.”
Splurge followed the spirit’s finger. He was pointing at an Advent calendar sitting on a little table beside the fireplace. At first it didn’t seem significant—and actually, at face value, it wasn’t—but Splurge remembered its significance. And it was surprisingly sad.
“Remember well that calendar, Splurge,” said the spirit in a somewhat theatrical voice. “On the first of December, you opened all the doors and ate all the chocolate, and all the time until Christmas—even on Christmas day itself—you regretted opening all the doors and eating all the chocolate at once.”
“Aww,” said Splurge. “That’s really sad. And I was only little!” He felt like he should add something more significant, less whingy. “You’re mean.” That wasn’t it, but it was all he could come up with.
“Perhaps I am,” said the spirit. “But at least I’m not, like, the Grinch who stole Halloween. Or something. Look, the company gave me this whole speech I was supposed to read out at this point, but I think I must have thrown it away by mistake, because I was sure I had it in the pocket of these trousers, only it’s definitely not there now. But as long as you get the general idea that this is vaguely similar to what you’re doing in the present day, on a thematic level if nothing else, we should still be good, right? It still sort of works.”
“I guess,” said Splurge. Remembering that Advent calendar had really bummed him out. More than it probably should have, but hey, it was pretty sad. He’d been really upset at the time.
“Okay,” said the Ghost of Christmas Past, “great. Let’s go back then.”
“What?” Splurge was incredulous. “Already?”
“Yeah.” The spirit gave him a “whatchoo talkin’ ‘bout?” look. “What did you expect for twenty quid?”
“I don’t know.” Splurge took another look around his childhood home. “More than this.” Sure, how many people got to go back in time at all? But this was like booking a flight to some amazing foreign country and then never leaving the airport. “I’m sure they went back in time to way more than one place in A Christmas Carol.”
“You know what?” the spirit grabbed him by the arm once more, and suddenly they were floating back towards the present day. “You don’t like it? Go on the internet and complain.”
And that was that.
Marley was gone to begin with. There was no doubt whatsoever about that. Though the sign above the shop read “Splurge and Marley,” it was Splurge who counted up the money, Splurge who took the calls, Splurge who signed for the deliveries: Ebenezer Splurge.
You may think you have read this story before (or more likely seen it on TV, possibly in a form involving Muppets). You may be picturing Ebenezer Splurge as a grizzled old miser hunched beside a pitiful coal fire wearing a dressing gown and an old-fashioned nightcap, possibly eating gruel and muttering “Bah! Humbug!” in the general direction of a starving orphan on Christmas Eve. You may be picturing this, but if so, you’re completely and utterly wrong.
Ebenezer Splurge was the Christmassiest person to have ever stuck grimy vinyl snowflakes to the inside of a shop window. He was the Christmassiest person to have ever filled four extension cords with fairy lights, all plugged into the same (fifth) extension cord. He was the Christmassiest person to have ever placed a dead-eyed, slightly out-of-tune singing animatronic penguin upon his shop counter. Also, he was a fairly portly gentleman and he was wearing a Hawaiian shirt. In combination with the fairy lights, the animatronic penguin, the tacky window snowflakes, this might seem odd. It might, if it weren’t for the fact that it was October 30th, and that it was hot as blazes in Splurge’s music shop. He wanted all his many customers to have a warm welcome, after all. In fact, he had a mulled wine waiting for each and every one of them.
Yes, Splurge and Marley’s music shop was a music shop like no other, and for most of Middle Whittering’s inhabitants, it was their first stop for Christmas shopping: largely because at Splurge and Marley’s, the Christmas season started several weeks earlier than everywhere else. It was beloved…though not by all.
Ten more strings of ultra-bright LED fairy lights tucked in boxes under his arm, Ebenezer tried not to make eye contact with Tinny Tom, the silver-sprayed living statue outside Crockett’s Costumes and Capers. It was sad, really, what lengths the Crocketts went to just to draw attention to their cheap, disposable wares. Splurge adjusted the stack of 99p lights, making sure none of them were about to slip from out his grasp. Brad Crockett was the head of the family. “Tinny” Tom Crockett was his eldest son, and reasonably good at the robot statue act. But though Splurge was a generous sort—unusually generous, in fact—he couldn’t afford to toss money into the bucket every time he walked past. He was sure the Crocketts understood.
Ebenezer stopped and turned. It was Brad Crockett who had spoken: Splurge and Marley’s had the grave misfortune of being situated right next door to Crockett’s Costumes and Capers. “Yes?” asked Splurge.
“Em…” Crockett twisted a latex mask nervously in front of him. It looked pretty gruesome. “I was just wondering…about those lights, and the snowflakes, and the singing penguin…and the wacky waving inflatable arm flailing snowman you have outside sometimes…”
“Yes?” Splurge could see where this was going. It was not the first time Mister Crockett had broached the subject.
“Well, I was just wondering…it’s Halloween tomorrow, and as you know, it’s quite an occasion for costumes and decorations and…things of that nature.”
“Go on…” Splurge had absolutely no interest in hearing this again.
“Well…” Crockett looked like he might just twist that mask in half. “We haven’t sold quite so many of those things these past few years. It mostly seems to be on the day, like, with people seeing the display in our window and just popping in off the street. Only, you set up your Christmas things so early, and they’re all so bright…” He looked down at the mask, suddenly remembering it, and flapped it out, not too much the worse for wear. It was a zombie, so could probably benefit from being a little misshapen. “I sometimes wonder if Halloween might be forgotten altogether before too long, and with it Costumes and Capers. If you could just see your way to toning down your lights, Mister Splurge, just for a little…”
Splurge needed hear no more. “My dear man,” he said, placing a hand on Crockett’s shoulder, “if Halloween is to be forgotten, it had better get on with it, and decrease the surplus celebration!”
So without another word, Splurge turned and took the few steps necessary to reach the door of his shop. That little exchange had been most disagreeable—most disagreeable indeed!—and in his mild annoyance Splurge dropped his keys. Fortunately, all the pretty lights on the front of the shop meant he had no trouble finding them. He stooped, picked them up, stood, and immediately dropped them again. Just inside the shop, staring through the plate glass door, was Marley’s face. His old partner, not angry or upset, simply staring blankly, though for him to stare through that particular door in any manner whatsoever was to cock a snook at the nature of his absence. Marley should not—could not—have been here, and yet here he was, staring through the glass.
But Splurge had been deceived. Rubbing his eyes in disbelief (since he’d seen enough versions of A Christmas Carol to know that this was what one did when one saw one’s former partner in their doorway), he saw that it was not Jack Marley staring at him through the glass, but Bob Marley. Some peculiar trick of the indoor fairy lights had, just for a moment, given that most popular cardboard cut-out the very likeness of his former partner. Also, Splurge considered, on some subconscious level he may have associated this Marley with the other Marley. Picking up his keys again, he slotted them into the shop door, breathing a sigh in relief. He had been waiting for some rational explanation, and—he chuckled to himself as he thought it—clearly he had not been waiting in vain.
Still, Splurge could not help feeling just a little ill at ease as he locked the door behind him. He glanced warily about the shop as he made his way through to the stairs at the back, and found himself tiptoeing, rather than stomping, up to his little apartment on the upper floor. He let himself in—the apartment, of course, had its own lock, to prevent unscrupulous customers from helping themselves to the things inside—and put the kettle on, slumping down in the chair in front of the TV. He had a distinctly Christmassy plastic tub of biscuits on a nearby table, and he took out a custard cream, munching it thoughtfully as he pondered the significance of the vision on the floor below.
The kettle boiled, Splurge got up and made himself a nice cup of tea. It was hard to worry much about ghosts and ghostly things and ghostly goings-on when one had a nice cup of tea, but somehow Splurge still managed. The TV would distract him, though. He fancied something light-hearted, maybe something with Harry Hill and funny videos of cats falling into wedding cakes. He reached for the remote. But instead, his hand fell upon something else.
It was Ebenezer’s old phone. He had quite a generous contract that offered a handset upgrade every month. As a result, his cluttered apartment was now rife with phones.
Splurge was about to put the phone down (because actually putting it away would just be silly) when something curious happened. The phone began to ring. It rang not with the lively Reggae ringtone he had set, nor the irritating Nokia ringtone that it had by default, but with the familiar strains of Jingle Bell Rock. Almost immediately, there was a chorus of phones from all around the apartment—phones tucked in boxes, phones under papers, phones kicked beneath chairs—and Splurge knew none of them had SIM cards. Some of them didn’t even have batteries. They were…zombie phones!
This only went on for as long as the phones would have rung before passing the call onto the money-gobbling answer service where nobody ever bothered to leave a message, but to Splurge it seemed an eternity. Then, all of a sudden, the ringing stopped. It was replaced by the clanking of chains. The clanking of chains, and the clomp…clomp…clomp of footsteps up the stairs to his apartment.
Splurge twisted round in his big armchair, staring in horror at the door. The clomping got louder, closer, until it was at the door itself! And then…it continued. Pushing through the still-closed door like a swimmer emerging from a curiously vertical pool made of sloppily painted wood, the spirit of his former partner, Jack Marley, drifted into the room.
“Ebeneeeeeeeeezeeeeeeeer!” he wailed, clanking his chains furiously.
Marley glowed with an unpleasant pale light. Looking closer—because he couldn’t possibly bring himself to look away—Splurge saw that he was wound about with heavy chains, and that behind the chains trailed heavy money boxes, rattling with cash. Man, this situation seemed familiar. Familiar and pants-wettingly scary, now that he was seeing it in real life, instead of on a grainy TV screen at Christmas.
“Ebeneeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeezeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeer!” wailed Marley again.
Splurge had assumed that that name would stop giving him bother after he finished school. Right now, however, he would have happily endured another ten years of playground taunting if it would shave just ten minutes off this dreadful situation. He tried to say “Yes?” but could only manage a high-pitched, strangled “Meep!”
Marley waited for a better answer, but Splurge knew he wasn’t in any state to give it to him. He would have told him so, but obviously if he could have done that it wouldn’t have been an issue in the first place, so he just sat there, mouth hanging dumbly open.
“Aren’t you going to ask me to sit down?” asked Marley, after an exceedingly long pause.
“Um…” The unexpected question gave Splurge back the gift of speech. “Can you?”
“No,” said Marley firmly. “There’s no chairs.”
“Oh.” Splurge looked around his dingy apartment. There were chairs, but they were pretty much buried under piles of stuff. Splurge never sat anywhere except the armchair, and since the only company he had was his customers, he had never really had to entertain a guest up here before. Not that Marley looked like he was in any mood to be entertained.
“Ebeneeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeezeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeer!” wailed Marley, for want of anything better to say.
“Aaah!” yelped Splurge. “What do you want?!?”
“To spaaaaaare you, Ebenezer! To spare you from the fate that has befallen me!” Marley rattled his chains some more to chilling effect. “For you still have but one chance!”
“Oh dear…” Splurge fiddled nervously with the buttons of his Hawaiian shirt. “I think I know what’s coming next…”
“You will be haunted by three spirits!”
Yup. There it was.
“Without their visits, you cannot hope to shun the path I tread! Expect the first when the bell tolls one! Metaphorically, I mean. The first spirit will be here at 1am, but I’m guessing you don’t have the sort of clock that tolls.”
“I do, actually,” said Splurge. “Got it on eBay.” He regretted the purchase even more now than he had done when his credit card bill had come through.
“Oh!” said Marley, “that’s handy.” He began to drift towards the apartment window.
“Wait, old friend!” called Splurge. “There’s something I don’t understand!”
Marley paused. “Yes?”
“Would I be right in thinking that this is the same deal as all that stuff that happened in A Christmas Carol?”
“Right. The thing is…I love Christmas! I’m all about Christmas, and…you know that! Remember? It’s all MP3s nowadays. People only really buy CDs as gifts. That’s why we always have such a big Christmas display. I mean, that was half the reason we became partners all those years ago. And as I remember, it was pretty much all your idea!”
“Oh!” Marley put a ghostly hand to his ghostly forehead in a most dramatic fashion. “Do not pain me with these recollections! Can you not see my own guilty mind is burden enough?”
“That’s just it!” At this point, Splurge was honestly too confused to be afraid. “I don’t get why you’re here! I do so much Christmas stuff. You’ve seen the display downstairs, right? That’s even more impressive than it was when you were here!”
“Oh!” Marley did the hand on forehead thing again. “Follow me, Splurge, and I will show you the error of your waaaaaays!” He beckoned Splurge towards the window.
Afraid once more, Splurge followed, and what he saw down on the pavement outside was…well…it wasn’t what he’d been expecting, that was for sure. Down taking shelter in doorways, in alleys, in ragged-looking cardboard boxes, were a multitude of spirits. But they were not ordinary spirits. They weren’t even spirits like Marley, bound by chains and dragging boxes. These were strange, costumed spirits. Splurge saw an ethereal Easter bunny eating pizza from a bin. He saw a spectral leprechaun huffing from a bag. He saw a ghostly…well, it was basically just a ghost—the kind that looked like a floating sheet with eyes—but based on the variety of fairies and monsters and saints and historical figures, he assumed it was something to do with Halloween. A lot of the spirits were kind of hard to identify, but that Easter Bunny had him convinced that all of them represented some holiday or other.
Marley continued on his floating way out the window. “Expect the first spirit when the bell tolls ooooooone!”
“Wait!” shouted Splurge, again. “There’s still something I don’t understand!”
Marley stopped again.
“You’ve turned up as a ghost, but…you’re not dead. You just moved to Hull. That’s all.”
Marley’s face curled in pain. “Ebeneeeeezeeeer! Shun the path I took! For your soul’s sake, mend your ways, and do not follow me!” He continued out the window. “Shun my path Ebeneeeezeeeeer! Shunnnnnnnn!”
Splurge threw open the window that Marley had just drifted through. The spirit was already fading. He didn’t exactly have time for pleasantries. “And what’s with all the chains?” he demanded.
“Have you forgotten, Ebenezer?” Marley’s non-ghost smiled as it faded into the night. “This is my costume. It’s Halloween.”
Flash Fiction Month 2015, Day 16
Challenge #7: Write a Noir story with a non-human protagonist.
The side-effects were a problem. Not for Frank—it was his product, and an entrepreneur always stood by his product—but for business itself. It had been quite a while since he’d been able to act as the face of his own company. That was Tony’s job, though by now even he was getting a bit too scaly for the people on the street. Frank parted the blinds of his office window and peered out at the pinprick ember of the cigarette at the corner of the road. Tony spotted the sudden chink of light from the window and met Frank’s gaze, his eyes dim circles like a deer’s on the highway. Well, not like a deer’s, but not human either. That definitely wasn’t helping sales.
The phone rang.
“Yeah?” Frank ashed his cigarette into the coffee cup on his desk.
“Hey, Frank, is that you?”
“No, this is Frank’s secretary: the hot brunette with a voice like a cement mixer. Christ, Marty, of course it’s me!” Remembering that Marty was just about the last person who still bought in bulk, Frank added a laugh. “Now uh, how much can I do you for this week?” Continue reading
Flash Fiction Month 2015, Day 14
Once upon a time there lived a Sultan, ruler over a rich land. Wise founder of a thriving city, he would once a year open up his grand palace to accept gifts from his subjects, and to bestow gifts in return.
The first guest was a merchant, robed in garments of fine silk. “I bring a hundredweight of salt, in the hopes that your highness will permit me to continue trade with the nations to the East.”
The Sultan knew the merchant well: he travelled far to earn his coin and was in truth as much an emissary as a trader. “Your gift is received gladly,” he said, “and mine gladly given.”
And so the merchant departed, and the second guest arrived. This man was an artisan, dressed in white linen. “I bring a golden statuette, in the hopes that your highness will remember my work when he has deeds to commemorate or gardens to furnish with pleasing things.”
The Sultan knew the artisan too, for this was the man who had sculpted his likeness for the public square. “Your gift is received gladly,” he said, “and it will be remembered.”
And so the artisan departed, and the third guest arrived. Continue reading
Flash Fiction Month 2015, Day 12
In long-forgotten days the Titans dwelled. About this race nothing more is known, for theirs was a time of strife, and in their battles every scroll was burnt. For one hundred days the fires raged, their smoke throwing a shade across the world, so that from the ash of war a thousand years of winter bloomed, and from the winter Man’s first city grew.
Beyond the walls of that first city no crops thrived, for the earth was tainted by the dust of that great war. Barbarian hordes gathered in the corrupted lands, envious of the city’s wealth of grain, and so for centuries it remained under constant siege, neither side able to gain any ground. The stalemate looked set to continue for eternity, until one day a plume of smoke appeared on the horizon.
The Prince of the city saw the smoke and knew that the barbarians had unearthed a beast of war from the age of the Titans: a fire-breathing Chimera like those that had once seared the sky in service of forgotten kingdoms. Its hide was steel, its breath was wrath, and in its blackened footsteps a thousand warriors marched.
The Prince knew that no hero could stand against such a force, and so with great reverence he took his ancestral key and opened wide the gates of the Underworld, upon which the city had been founded. Four hundred fathoms the Prince descended, down steps carved by ancient hands, until his torch illuminated that which should never have come to light. Continue reading
Flash Fiction Month 2015, Day 2
Challenge #1: Steampunk. Gears, phlogiston, brass, outrageously skilled workmanship, class and all that.
Few cared to admit it, but Sebastian Lloyd had a head for business. It had been hand-fitted by Stanton Precision Instruments and was capable of processing more than sixty-two economic calculations simultaneously. If you wanted the best service, you went to Edwin Pierce Esquire or Jarvis von Hyde. But if you wanted the best price, you went to Lloyd.
Julius Foster rang the bell on the counter with a brass fingertip. There was a hiss of steam from the back room, and the sound of a chair being scraped back across the floorboards. Knowing the value of everything, and pursuing a more or less sedentary profession, Lloyd had not spared the same expense on his legs as he had on his patented pneumatic processor.
Foster took the opportunity to have one more look around the shop. The selection of wares out front was adequate—certainly a fair mix of parts—but there was nothing remarkable. Nothing befitting his steady rise into high society. Continue reading
Flash Fiction Month 2015, Day 1
Once upon a time, there lived a king in a marble tower. Around the tower there lay a city, and around the city there lay a wilderness, which the king tended as though it were a garden. No beasts stalked its hills, and no brigands lurked beside its roads, though the king’s domain stretched on for many miles and the members of his watch were few.
One evening, a sorcerer passing through these wild lands stopped to seek shelter in the tower. In exchange for a meal and a night’s rest, the sorcerer offered the king an enchanted rose: one that would never wither, and would never lose its scent.
But the king had many roses. Beyond the walls of his city, they sprang from the ground like wheat, and his tower was never without them. It was customary for his subjects to leave roses as gifts, the king explained, but surely a powerful sorcerer—a noble visitor from a foreign land—could afford to leave a more substantial offering?
A dark look passed over the face of the sorcerer, but still he conceded that the king’s words were true. “Bring me milk and honey, and a single pearl,” said the sorcerer, “and I shall conjure a gift like none that you have seen.” Continue reading