Flash Fiction Month 2016, Day 18
Challenge #8: Write a story set during or in the wake of a disaster, featuring an anachronism.
There was a blinding flash of light, and a deafening bang.
“Well,” said Gaius Ofonius Tigellinus, squinting out over the burning ruins of Rome, “there goes the distillery.”
Emperor Nero didn’t say anything. He just kept singing. Badly.
There was another blinding flash of light, and another deafening bang, this time right beside the two betogaed figures on the palace roof.
“Ahh!” yelled Tigellinus. “By Pluto’s purple pectorals, what was that?”
“Hic!” said Nero. “Hic! Hic! Hic! Hic!”
Tigellinus wasn’t sure if he had developed a case of the hiccups or was just stuttering in Latin.
Flash Fiction Month 2016, Day 17
There was a blinding flash of light, and a deafening bang.
The entirety of the the Quantum Trans-chronometrical League of Scientists stared in surprise.
Adolf Hitler stared back.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” he began, with the aid of a futuristic-looking translation device, “not more than a minute ago—in my time—I was presented with a glorious device capable of transporting me one hundred years into the future of my very own thousand year Reich, now destined to…why are you all covered in disgusting red goo?”
The first two rows of the auditorium hastily shuffled back.
A few seconds later, Hitler exploded.
“Huh,” said one of the delegates, peeling a fragment of toothbrush moustache from his glasses. “It would appear that one can use time travel to kill Hitler after all.”
If you’ve enjoyed this story, you can find my work from previous Flash Fiction Months collected in these books:
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Flash Fiction Month 2016, Day 16
“So we are agreed. If any member of the Quantum Trans-chronometrical League of Scientists is successful in developing human time travel…”
“Ah!” Sergei Konstantinovich Krikalev thrust a hand into the air.
“Forwards doesn’t count!” The chairman banged his gavel on the podium thrice for emphasis. “If any member of the League is successful in developing human time travel, they will make their way to this location, at this time…” he checked his watch. “…nnnnnnow!”
Absolutely nothing happened.
“Well, that’s most disappointing.” The chairman leafed carefully through his notes, selected the next seventy-three pages precisely, tapped them straight on the wooden surface before him, and chucked them in the bin. “However, I understand that there have been numerous insightful developments in the study of relativistic aberration of cosmic rays at velocities approaching ten percent of the speed of light. If you will all turn to page eight hundred and six of your…”
There was a blinding flash of light, and a deafening bang. Continue reading
Flash Fiction Month 2016, Day 1
Challenge #4*: Write a story of precisely 1,000 words, including at least 15 examples of jargon or slang. It must include a flashback and a flashforward, but with the exception of these sections the story must take place within a single day. The story must also include a fossil, an hourglass, a broken clock, an old lady’s wrinkled face, and tree rings.
Ron jabbed his shovel into the earth. Or he would have if there had been any earth available. Instead, for the seventh time in a row, he hit a big rock lurking just beneath the surface. It was like the rocks were following him around. Rocks were crafty that way. Blisters stinging from the sudden jolt, he straightened up to have a stretch. He could remember the conversation that led him here, way out in the middle of nowhere, like it was yesterday…
“You know that guy Mike? The one who was all like ‘I’m gonna be a famous footballer, you’ll see!’ and then stopped turning up at school before he even got his GCSEs?” Jenny flipped over the souvenir hourglass Ron had brought her back from the Isle of Wight, watching the sand trickle through.
“He ended up planting trees in British Columbia.”
“Hahaha! What a loser.”
“Nah.” The sand having run through, Jenny flipped the hourglass once more. “Turns out he actually made a shedload of money doing it.”
And that was it. Or at least, Ron was reasonably confident that was it. Now that he thought a little further back, he may also have seen something about the whole tree planting setup on TV beforehand. It wasn’t clear. He’d accidentally swallowed a tiny bit of petrol earlier that day trying to siphon fuel from the generator into the quad bike to avoid having to walk to the planting site, and he was beginning to suspect that it was messing with his brain. It had certainly stripped most of the skin off the roof of his mouth.
Only one thing was certain. You had to be crazy to try planting a thousand trees a day.
“You’re never gonna be a highballer if you keep stoppin’ all the time like a big wet wuss.”
Ethan was a case in point.
“We’ve got all day,” groaned Ron. “Quit hassling me every time I take a two second break.”
Ethan pointed at the smashed-up station-style clock the loggers had left behind while clear-cutting the place. “It ain’t break time.”
“That thing hasn’t worked since we found it.”
“It. Ain’t. Break. Time.”
Ethan was very much a case in point.
“You’re not the boss of me!” It sounded even dumber when Ron said it than it had in his head, but he carried on regardless. “You get paid per tree. That means you can take a break whenever you want.”
“Nope.” Ethan looked insufferably smug. “You get paid per tree. That means you’ve gotta bag out as quick as you can, and bag up again even quicker. Screef for show, plant for dough!”
Ron wasn’t sure what “screef” meant, but he’d heard about enough cache whores and slutty trees (and sexy trees for that matter) to guess that it wasn’t good—though at the same time it probably wasn’t as sexual as it sounded. At least he hoped it wasn’t. However, he couldn’t think of anything to say in response, so instead he just went back to digging.
That was, if anything, the problem. Ron knew he shouldn’t have to actually dig holes to do this: he should just be able to stick the shovel in, push a sapling in beside it, then pull the shovel out, nice and neat. As it was, the whole block was raw land full of red rot, and as a result his work for the day was probably worth a grand total of about eight dollars. Less if the bean-counters decided that the planting wasn’t up to scratch, and some of those trees were looking very slutty indeed.
Ron took a step forward and found that his not particularly neat row of trees was going to be further disrupted by a massive, rotting tree stump squatting right in the middle of his line. The thing was probably a thousand years old. Or a hundred. Or whatever. Ron could see it had a lot of rings, but didn’t know how the whole ring counting thing was supposed to work.
“You’ve got rookie stare,” said Ethan. “What’s up?”
Ron was going to say something about how Ethan should stop watching him and get on with planting if he was so enthusiastic about making all that dough, but instead he just sighed.
“This job sucks,” he said at last. “You come all the way out here, you do the same thing over and over again all day every day, and it’s really hard, and it costs you just to be here. I had to buy this stupid shovel and everything. Even if I stick around until the end of the season, I’m still probably going to end up owing my boss money.”
Ethan put a hand on his shoulder. “Yeah,” he said, consolingly. “This year’s pretty much gonna suck for you.”
“Thanks. I feel loads better.”
“But next year—if you make sure there’s a next year—you won’t be a rookie. And the year after that, you might be a highballer. And then…” he stood up tall, doing a kind of fist on chest salute. “Then it’ll suck less.”
There was a pause. Ron squinted at a rock he was pretty sure was actually a fossil. Although he would have been more sure if he knew anything about fossils, or the geology of this bit of Ontario, or generally anything that would allow him to identify such things. He really wished he hadn’t tried to siphon that generator.
“Look,” said Ethan, “I’ll level with you. It’s this, or head back early and face Ms. Andrews being disappointed with you for the rest of the day. Whaddaya say?”
Forty minutes later, Ron would be trudging back across the campsite, Ms. Andrews’ wrinkled face scowling at him all the way from the hatch of the food truck, her silent disapproval boring deep into his brain.
But he would be planting again the next year.
And the next.
And Ethan would be right: it would suck less.
Flash Fiction Month 2016, Day 3
The cruelty of the sphinx was the cruelty of a thousand ages. The cruelty of wind and sand. The cruelty of stone. She remembered the mighty river that had cut her from the gorge. She remembered the sweeping grit and pebbles that had shaped her face. And she resented the pitiful trickle of dust-robed pilgrims who had come to replace it, treading its long-dry course.
“What,” hissed the sphinx, “goes upon four feet in the morning, upon two feet in the afternoon, and upon three feet in the evening?”
The man visibly quaked as he answered. “It is…man,” he said. “Man crawls on all fours as an infant, stands upon two feet when grown, and uses a stick also in old age.”
This defeat stung the sphinx, but her stone face would never show it. “You may pass,” she breathed, her voice hard as ever.
Many years passed, and the sphinx’s hunger for torment grew ever greater. The winds changed. The sands changed. But minds of stone will never change. Continue reading
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.