by Herschel Cozine
Here is another Christmas short story to enjoy that has never been published–this one isn’t a mystery, but a fun different sort of take on Scrooge!
I was ten years old. That was a long time ago, before television and all of the electronic gimmickry that permeate today’s world. We, my younger brother, Timmy and I, got our entertainment by listening to the radio, usually with the lights out as Inner Sanctum and some of the old, classic radio programs scared us out of our wits. Cool! There was nothing like a good scary radio program in the dark to get one’s creative juices flowing. Some of the best, deliciously awful pranks I pulled on Timmy were inspired while listening to the radio.
On this particular evening, however, we were not listening to the standard fare. It was a few days before Christmas, and the old, oft repeated Christmas Carol was playing. Lionel Barrymore, the quintessential Scrooge, was bah humbugging his way through his miserable life, the milk of human kindness having curdled long ago.
As usual, we had the lights off. I found it easier to concentrate on the program, scary or not, with no lights. As Scrooge was dragged from his bed and forced to revisit his shameful past, I became drowsy. I fought sleep, propping myself up on my elbows and staring straight ahead into the darkness of the living room where I lay on the floor. But in spite of my efforts I drifted off into a state somewhere between sleep and wakefulness. I could hear the moans of Scrooge and the wailings of the various ghosts as though through a tunnel. Finally I fell fully asleep.
My dreams normally consisted of past indignities I had inflicted on Timmy. I would dream of the mischief I had already accomplished as well as clever and devious tricks I could use in the future. My dreams were seldom wasted. Making life miserable for Timmy was a major goal in my young life; one at which I excelled. And his typical reactions to my taunting made them even more satisfying. Life was good.
I don’t know how long I had been asleep when I was awakened by a soft moaning, and a rustling. So low and soft was it that I wasn’t certain that I had heard it.
Then I heard someone calling my name.
“William Hagerman. Will…i…am Haggg..err..man.”
I opened my eyes slowly, fighting off the elements of sleep, sat up and looked around. I was no longer on the living room floor, but had somehow been magically transported to my bedroom. The night lamp was on, and it cast a dim light over the room. I was aware of a presence, although at first I saw nothing. Then a shimmering figure materialized at the foot of my bed. I rubbed my eyes, blinked, and peered through the dimness, not certain that anything or anyone was there.
The figure slowly took shape. He was dressed in a flowing robe, and on his head he wore a crown made of what appeared to be holly. A few red berries dotted the crown, surrounded by deep green leaves. Shaggy gray hair stuck out from beneath the crown and bushy white eyebrows capped piercing eyes which looked at me with a ferocity that made me shudder. An ethereal aura surrounded him, an otherworldly presence that, strangely, seemed perfectly normal.
After the initial shock wore off, I was, for reasons I cannot explain, not at all alarmed, or even surprised, to see him. I was convinced that I was still dreaming, and that the apparition before me was simply a part of my dream. I blinked once or twice, shook my head, and again looked to the foot of my bed. The figure was still there.
Again, a slow, mournful sound came from the foot of my bed. “William Hagerman.” A soulful, haunting sound that sent chills through me.
“Am I dreaming?” I said.
The specter shook his head. His shaggy eyebrows knitted together in a frown that both fascinated and scared me. Realizing I was now fully awake, I pulled my nightsheet to my face and peered over it.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“A ghost?” I asked.
“No,” he growled. “Not present. Presents. Plural.”
“You mean, like gifts?”
“Yes,” he said. Before I could speak further he went on. “You may think that the elves at the North Pole keep track of who is naughty and who is nice. That’s nonsense. Twentieth Century propaganda. I am the keeper of the log. I determine who gets presents at Christmas and who gets a rock in his stocking.” He paused, looked at me with a disapproving frown, and shook his head.
“And you, my friend, are in trouble.”
I was not surprised by this pronouncement. Certainly I had behaved badly over the past year, although no worse than previous years. Was my past finally catching up to me? And what did it portend?
“Why…why are you here?” I asked in my pitiful, hopefully adorable voice. He was not impressed.
“You are to come with me,” he said holding out his arm. “Take hold of my sleeve. I shall do the rest.”
“Where are we going?” I asked. “You’re not taking me to a cemetery, are you? I hate cemeteries. They’re full of dead people.”
“Don’t confuse me with Christmas Future. Come.”
“But it’s the middle of the night. Can’t we wait until morning?”
He waved his arm impatiently. “Do as I say. Your questions must wait.”
I put a tentative hand toward him, slowly reaching out, afraid that the touch of his arm would do me bodily harm. Remembering what happened when Scrooge had done this, I relaxed. I placed my hand on his sleeve, grabbing the rough fabric tightly. If we, like Scrooge, were going to fly through the night, I wanted to make sure I had a good grip on my ghost’s apparel. My life was in his hands, or in this case, his arm. I tightened my grip.
In a matter of seconds we were soaring through the night. Although it was December and the temperature had dipped into the teens, I was unaware of the cold. The breeze that brushed across my face was warm and refreshing. In spite of the circumstances I was enjoying myself. I had no idea where we were going or what would happen when we got there. And at the moment I didn’t care.
Night soon turned to day. Before I had a chance to ask any further questions we had descended and were now standing in the schoolyard. My elementary school was a small two-room schoolhouse situated by the edge of a river that ran through the heart of the town. A small playground containing a slide, two seesaws and some swings, sat between the river and the school. At this particular moment the playground was overflowing with children out on their lunch break, running off excessive energy that had been building up all morning.
I was transfixed by the scene. There were all my friends from my 4th grade class engaged in various forms of play. Jack was bouncing a ball against the side of the schoolhouse; an activity he engaged in religiously. Gary was on one of the swings. Davey and Freddie were running toward the seesaw. And to my astonishment I saw myself among them, pretending play but all the while keeping an eye on Timmy.
Two years younger than I, he was in the second grade. We shared recess and lunch hour, as well as the same classroom. The lower grades, one through four, were in one of the rooms, while grades five through eight were in the other. Next year I would be moving to the upper room. But for now we were together constantly. This fostered a relationship that only exaggerated the rivalry that siblings experience. And, being the older brother, I had the top hand when it came to devilry.
Timmy was sitting at the table, unpacking his lunchbox. He took an apple and a sandwich out of the box, placed the napkin under his chin, and opened the thermos. I watched as he placed the cup of the thermos on the table and poured. What was supposed to be milk was a green, globular semi liquid that plopped into the cup and splashed on the table and Timmy.
He looked at the mess with a mixture of horror and anger. Then, looking around, he spotted me, a grin on my face in spite of my efforts to look innocent.
“You toadface!” he shouted. “I’m telling mom!”
The second statement was a standard one, and totally unnecessary. I knew he would tell our mother, and I knew what my mother’s response would be. She would pat Timmy on the head, tell him not to cry, then give me a token swat on my rear. It was a ritual.
So engrossed was I in the tableau before me that I had forgotten about my escort. His voice interrupted my reverie, and I jumped slightly.
“Do you remember that?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Gross.”
“And you were responsible.”
It was a statement, not a question.
I nodded. “Yeah. Mashed potatoes and spinach juice. Yucky, huh?”
“Do you think that was a nice thing to do to your brother?”
“No,” I said. “It wasn’t supposed to be nice. Hey, nobody got hurt. What’s the big deal?”
The figure didn’t respond. Instead he held out his arm and signaled for me to take it.
In the wink of an eye we were standing in our kitchen. Before me was Timmy seated at the table drinking a cup of cocoa. I watched as he drained the cup, placed it in the sink and left the room. I turned to the figure with a puzzled look on my face.
“Don’t you recall?” he asked.
“I don’t know. What was wrong with that?”
“You fixed the cocoa for him, remember? Your mother had asked you to do this because she had a meeting and was late.”
Suddenly it came back to me. I nodded.
“Yeah, I remember.”
“What was in that drink?”
“You know,” I replied. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be here.”
“I want you to hear it from you.”
Trying hard to keep a straight face, I said simply, “Ex-Lax.”
“Aren’t you sorry for the discomfort you caused?”
“It was pretty funny at the time,” I said.
“This is your idea of fun? Tormenting your brother? Causing him discomfort and even a night’s sleep? It is shameful behavior. Unfortunately, it is just one of many such cruel jokes you have played this year.”
“Can’t a guy have some fun in his own house?” I protested. I was beginning to get a little annoyed that my sense of humor had come into question by this apparition. What right had he to judge me?
He held out his arm again. “Come.”
“How many of these things do I have to see?”
We don’t have time for them all,” my ghostly friend said. “But we have several hours in front of us, so we will visit as many as we can.”
He held out his arm to me again. I took it and we sailed magically through the night, stopping in the large open field behind our house. We lived in the country on a plot of land several acres in size. The meadow was a place for us to play, as well as a refuge for the varied wildlife that inhabited our property.
In front of me I saw Timmy running through the tall grass, chasing our dog, Milton. The tinkling of his laughter, carried by the gentle breeze, reached my ears. I watched as my own figure appeared at the edge of the meadow. I was watching Timmy as he laughed and cavorted with the dog. Then, looking past him to the edge of the meadow, my eyes lighted up with pleasure. I cupped my hands and called out.
The figure turned and looked in my direction.
“Look! Over there! Under the apple tree.”
Timmy’s face took on a puzzled expression as he looked from me to the tree and back again.”
“I don’t see anything,” he yelled.
“You can’t see it from where you’re standing. Go over there.”
He stared at me for a few minutes, trying to decide whether to believe me or not. One would think that after a lifetime of being lied to by his older brother that he would eventually think twice before acting. But Timmy had not yet reached this level of maturity. He started walking, slowly at first, toward the apple tree.
“Hurry!” I yelled. “It’s moving away.”
He picked up the pace. As he neared the tree, I picked up a rock and threw it in that direction. My aim and distance was perfect! The skunk, who had been rooting for food under the tree, lifted his tail and sprayed his scent toward my brother’s approaching figure. Timmy cried out, turned and ran in one direction while the skunk waddled off into the trees. I was still laughing when my mother collared me and ushered me into the house. She was as angry as I had seen her in a long while, and I was banished to my room for the rest of the day. This time she used a stick instead of her hand on my rear end. It hurt. But it had been worth it. It had been completely unplanned, and I was proud of the way I had improvised, taking advantage of a promising situation. It was one of my finest hours.
Watching the incident as it was replayed, I stifled a giggle. My ghostly escort threw me a glare of disapproval.
“That was a terrible thing for you to do,” he said. “Your mother had to burn his clothes. And it took a scrubbing with lye soap before Timmy was allowed in the house. ”
I tried looking repentant, but he wasn’t fooled.
“Come,” he said.
“Haven’t we seen enough?” I asked.
“There is still time,” he replied. “And there is much to see yet.”
I sighed. Thinking back over the past year, I realized with a sense of dread that my misdeeds were many and varied. There simply wouldn’t be enough time to revisit them all. And I had no desire to spend the rest of the night being admonished by this apparition over my past transgressions.
But my protests fell on deaf ears. The next several hours were spent reviewing my checkered career as an older brother. Ants in Timmy’s lunch box. Frogs in his pajamas. And the egg throwing fight, a one sided affair since I chose the chicken coop for my headquarters.
Morning was breaking as we made our last stop by the river where I had put tadpoles in Timmy’s Kool Aid. Tired and out of sorts from the long night, I watched in sullen silence.
Finally Christmas Presents spoke. “William Hagerman, you have seen your sordid past, or at least some of it, this night. But it isn’t too late for you to make amends.”
“Lighten up,” I said. “Didn’t you ever have a brother?”
“This isn’t about me,” he replied. “My job is to show you what a contemptible human being you have been this year. If you don’t change your ways, you shall be forever passed over when Christmas comes. You will be miserable watching while Timmy opens his presents, finds the BB gun he asked for under the tree. And you will have nothing. Nothing. For that is all you deserve.”
“No electric train?”
“How about my Tony Galento boxing gloves?”
A shake of the head.
“Not even a yoyo?”
“What do I have to do?”
The specter frowned at my question like a disapproving parent.
“Do? Repent, of course. Just as Mister Scrooge did.”
“But I’m not Scrooge. He was mean and stingy and hated Christmas. I love Christmas. And I…”
“Repent!” Christmas Presents shouted. “If you are to turn your miserable life around and make it worth living you will repent. You will be kind to your brother. You will be a good son and a good brother. You will help with chores around the house. You will help Timmy with his homework, play with him nicely, and treat him with respect and kindness.”
I was overwhelmed. It wasn’t possible for me to behave like a decent human being. I was only ten years old. Kids my age are savages. They are incapable of conforming to adult standards and expectations. My ghost friend should know that by now. Where had he been hanging out for the last century?
I started to protest, but he silenced me with a wave of his hand. “Starting tomorrow you will be nice to Timmy. You will not put salt on his corn flakes. You will not tie his socks in knots. You will not hide his shoes in the cellar.
I was flabbergasted! How could this apparition possibly know what my agenda for tomorrow was? He had described my mischievous plans to the letter. Falling to my knees, I clasped my hands and looked up at him.
“I promise,” I said. “Please don’t torture me any further. I will be good.”
Christmas Presents looked down at me, his face searching mine for signs of insincerity. At the moment there were none. I believed every word I said. I was a changed person.
Finally his face softened. “I believe you,” he said. “And as a reward you shall receive the presents that you have asked for.”
“All of them?” I asked.
“Yes.” He smiled benignly and turned for the door. Halfway there, he turned back to me and wiggled his finger.
“But remember. I will be watching. If you go back on your word you will be held accountable. Your presents will be taken from you. You will have no second chance. Your fate is in my hands. Don’t screw it up.”
With that he slowly dissolved in a mist that lingered after he had gone. I went over to it, waved my hand around, feeling nothing.
I suddenly felt very sleepy. I fought it, but sleep overtook me and I fell on my bed. I slept for several hours, waking to my mother’s hand on my shoulder.
“Are you all right, Billy?” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m fine.”
“It is almost noon,” Mother said. “You had better get up.”
I dressed hurriedly and went downstairs. Timmy was sitting at the dining room table, napkin tucked under his chin, looking wistfully at the vegetables on his plate.
“Hello,” I said.
He glowered at me and grunted.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
Timmy pointed at the peas. “I hate peas. Mom says I have to eat them or I can’t go out and play.”
I saw an opportunity to show the ghosts—and myself—that I was a new man. Smiling at Timmy, I said, “I’ll eat them for you.”
I took the plate and was scooping the peas onto the fork when our mother entered the room. She slapped my hand away and set the plate down in front of Timmy.
“Billy, will you leave your brother alone for a change? I would hope that on Christmas Eve you would behave yourself. Is that too much to ask?”
She sighed as only a mother can and waved me away.
“Now go outside before I send you to your room.”
I caught a twinkle in Timmy’s eye even though this meant he would have to eat his own vegetables. The little monster was enjoying the verbal lashing being inflicted on me. I made a fist behind my back, thought of the admonition of Christmas Presents, and relaxed. Without a word I went outside.
This ‘nice’ business was not going to be easy.
The weather was unseasonably warm. There was not enough snow for a snowman; even less for a snowball fight. My original plan to pelt Timmy with snowballs as he came outside had to be scrapped. In light of my resolve to be nice to him, the lack of snow was just as well as it removed temptation. No snow. No snowballs.
Timmy emerged from the house bundled up until he looked like the little man in the Michelin commercials. He took a tentative step off the porch. Fearing he would slip and fall, and still in my “be nice to Timmy” mode, I rushed over to help him down the steps.
As I took his arm he turned away from me, fearing, I am sure, that I was not there to help him. In light of past performances, his fear was well grounded, but today it led to tragedy. He lost his balance and fell headlong into a pile of slush. He came up crying and spitting out mud and yelling for our mother.
“Billy shoved me! Billy made me eat dirt!”
Mom appeared at the door, her eyes flashing.
“I’m at the end of my rope with you, young man,” she yelled. “Now go to your room and don’t come out until I call you.”
“But…” I started.
She pointed a finger toward the house. “Go!”
I knew from the finality in her voice that any attempt at explanation would be fruitless. I heaved a deep sigh in Timmy’s direction and went inside.
That was it, the final straw. Being nice to Timmy was not going to be easy. In fact I despaired that it would even be possible. In the first place it went against every grain in my being. Sincerity was an essential element, I was convinced, and that was not something I could fake.
When I was finally paroled from my room, I found Timmy sitting at the table eating a cookie, a glass of chocolate milk at his elbow. Unfortunately I had no Ex-Lax on my person, so I had to improvise. Pretending to trip, I brushed the glass of chocolate milk, spilling it in Timmy’s lap.
“Oops! Sorry,” I said, running out the door. I shook my fist in the air, hoping my ghostly friend was watching. He had caused me enough trouble. I was taking my life back.
“Bah! Humbug!” I shouted into the wind.
Christmas presents are overrated. There are more important things in life. I had a lifetime to repent, but only a few more years to make life meaningful. What is more important: a silly train that runs around a track in circles or a good laugh while your younger brother dances around in his underwear filled with itching powder? It’s a no-brainer.
I thought of Ebenezer. He had been his own man. A misanthrope? Yes. A curmudgeon? Certainly. But he was perfectly happy in his misery until those meddling ghosts came along and scared him into going straight. He ended up giving his money to his freeloading nephew, his mousy clerk and a bunch of do-gooders who probably skimmed the bulk of it off the top. Old Scrooge wimped out. And he didn’t even have a kid brother. Sad.
You can find more of Herschel’s short stories, and more Christmas short stories, in KRL’s Terrific Tales section.