As only made sense, Past came first. Carol had been mislead to believe Past was distinguished by predominantly feminine qualities, but instead, the spirit had seemed to her like a candle. It was a vague, angelic creature with a crown of fire dripping down its perpetually melting body, geometry in constant question. Carol took fondly to Past, for it had been gentle and quiet, if not a little bit garish in its respect towards her feelings.
Present had been a cruel phantom, though Carol suspected he’d truly meant well. Of the three, Carol missed Present the most after his passing, for he’d revealed intimate things about the world of men and it was good to know that, in spite of all the horrors saturating the news, pockets of hope still yet lived.
But of course, Yet to Come was of the greatest interest, if not the most terrible of the three. Terrible only because of how determined the demon had been to draw their session to a close. Carol could not figure any way her future might somehow be filled with any greater dread than she’d already endured, so she eagerly awaited the third phantom. But he came and went with such fantastic haste that Carol barely had a moment’s time to process what she’d seen. It was all fearfully anticlimactic. Or at least, it would have been, if Yet to Come had been the final apparition.
But stories change. Carol knew deep inside herself, something else was coming. The spirits were no longer three parts of eternity, but four.
Past. Preset. Yet to Come.
Carol breathed out, a whisper of snow pawing at her apartment window.
Christmas Eve smelled like pine needles that year. Perhaps this was not unusual to most people, but it was the first time in a while where Carol could say it about her home. She’d gotten a real Christmas tree for once, as per her husband’s suggestion, as he believed it would marshall some ‘much needed festivity’ to their one-bedroom apartment.
Charlie was flying in from Los Angeles, where he’d extended his holiday cheer to family in a home away from home. The spirits had seen fit to make the most of his absence, and plague Carol with all their devices, just as they had with the miser from the classic tale. However, her history was not like that old penny-pincher, and so their lessons consisted of a different caricature. If Carol were being frank, she’d admit that even after the providential visitation, she still was not sure exactly what they were trying to do.
Past had pounced without warning only a few hours earlier, after Carol finished decorating the tree to the white noise of Tim Allen’s The Santa Clause. Carol had counted twenty-four ornaments on the pine, while eager shadows played hide-and-seek behind windowsill candles. One ornament had proven quite difficult to place. It was not enrapturing, with a glistening red bulb, professionally laden silver glitter, or a fanciful design across its face, but it was special. A quaint, little frame with a name in the middle, hugged by two angels on either side.
It read, in penned blue, “Isaac.”
Carol ran a tender thumb over the name, barely touching it for fear any damage might somehow annihilate all memories of a child she’d never had.
It was right then, when the spike of regret was most bountiful, Past had appeared. Carol was given no warning or pretense of the spirit’s arrival, but could not find it in herself to panic. There was something immediately nostalgic about its presence, kindling feelings of benign memories. Like being a child, cradled in the warm arms of a grandmother.
But the memories did come of course, as that was Past’s pleasure. The spirit, bright and imperial in its majesty, stole Carol from her apartment, where it unleashed a gallery of history upon her contrite soul. They cut through noise, through years of guilt and innocence, back to the beginning. Past revealed scenes of joy and of sadness. A rope swing over a lake, campfires, and the company of friends. Christmas’s gone and faded, both warm and cold. Boys and men, with their affections through each season of life. Love, hope, kindness in all their colorful forms.
Still among them, she witnessed a young girl suffering through a night alone, wrapped around her pillow, incubating it with the hurt of a broken heart. That same girl, hardly a woman in the next memory, laced fingers with her mother as the figurehead of love in her life lay helplessly in a hospital bed, dragged slowly into a pit of unconsciousness from which she would never wake. Christmas’s better left forgotten.
But there was one more flashback of distinguished significance. An austere, white room. The white room where she’d given up the hope in having a son. A place where the walls had only heard goodbyes.
Carol only noticed she’d been crying when Past wiped away one of the tears.
“It’s sadness,” the spirit said, “that helps us appreciate the nature of joy. Pain, so that we may be meek towards others. A lesson of the most difficult nature, rarely conquered. Yet, you learned well. Better than many.”
‘Conquered’ seemed to Carol a much exaggerated term. She’d never much conquered anything in her life.
But the spirit, it was kind. Not condescending or pontifical. No, it had a contrition of the greatest sort, an open-faced love and atonement which understood its importance in the scheme of helping others sort out their hearts. So, Past seemed to stay the longest of the three. It was the first to regard Carol’s feelings with conscious respect, and so allowed her to spend a little more time in the good memories. When Carol finally found herself back at home, The Santa Clause was finished and the T.V. worked only to entertain itself.
Carol sat quietly, hands idly folding over themselves in an admixture of fond remembrance. Scents of pine, clover, and warm barley were sharp in the apartment and held to the dried tear trails against her cheeks.
“Long night already, hm?”
Carol looked up to find a great bull of a man sitting on her living room sofa. Unlike Past, this creature was evident in his human likeness. This was Present, Carol knew, for he looked much as she’d imagined in the old tale. Curls of brown flowed from his head and face, over a coat outfitted with two different kinds of fur. Carol recoiled for a moment when she caught sight of a sword scabbard in his lap.
“Don’t worry,” he chuckled in a smooth, baritone thunder, “There is no blade.” He lifted the scabbard and true as it was, Carol saw no weapon within.
Still, Carol remained content with her quiet anticipation.
He smiled knowingly. “You can’t much expect the world to change if your only means of doing so is through employing fear, I think. Weapons may serve a purpose, but I have no need of them.” He took to his feet, great robe swaying. With one monstrous hand, he reached out to Carol. “Come now, so you may know me better.”
While Present did not exude the same comforting presence as Past, Carol still felt he was trustworthy and so took his hand.
With a great suddenness, Carol found herself in the airspace above her home. A moment later, Present was whisking her across the city. Snow fell against and through them, as though Carol had become part of the spirits’ incorporeal company. On the other side of town, they found rest outside of an old bar. The neon in its window was burned out, but light still shone behind the glass. They stepped inside.
“Why are we here?” Carol asked.
“For one of the best reasons, I think,” Present said, “To watch and, if we should be lucky, to find.”
The hulk raised a single, bushy brow. “First we watch.”
Only four souls occupied the pub. A stringy, middle-aged barkeep with the countenance of one who had been so long without family that he’d started to forget what the word might have meant. Two people sat at stools of the bar, a jovial blush in their cheeks to accentuate the winter cold and tickling bourbon in their bellies. Still there was one more, a completely inebriated man with little more than rags for clothing.
“Here you find the great contrast,” Present said loudly, though nobody seemed to address his existence at all. “Christmas is not a wonderful time for all men, I’m afraid. To many, this season is the worst of them, for it is coldest on the streets and coldest in the hearts. Some are not welcome at home, others have no home at all.”
“And what of them?” Carol pointed at the two at the bar. “They seem to have happiness enough.”
Present rolled his head in a half-shrug. “I suppose. It depends on whether or not you believe the spirits in a bottle are enough to fill the hole where Christmas spirit is supposed to lie. Those two, they have things which bring them joy, yes. But notice, they are still alone, even in the company of others. They do not even talk to one another. Each of them is lost in fond memories of time that is spent, with no attention towards making tonight a fond memory as well.”
Carol watched, as the spirit had said, and saw that once again he was right.
“There are different kinds of loneliness, as I’m sure you know, dear girl. These are scarce few of them.”
Carol nodded slowly. “Yeah.”
“Still,” the giant took her hand and carried her slowly through the ceiling, “It is not all bad, I think.”
Together, they entered an apartment above the bar. Festive lights armored a tree with red and gold. In the bedroom, a father knelt at the bedside with his two sons, each barely reaching the plateau of the mattress.
“…and God, please thank Mama for me,” one boy said, “For convincing Papa to buy a guinea pig for my birthday last year.”
“…and thank you, Mama,” the other boy added, “For making good food when I’m hungry.”
“…and God, please take care of my Amanda,” the father said, “For helping me raise two wonderful children. You and I both know I couldn’t have done it on my own.” His voice hitched slightly. “We miss her very much, and I promise I’ll try my best to keep it up without her.”
“Amen.” They said in harmony. The father began to stand up.
“And merry Christmas, Mama.” One of the boys tacked on to the end.
Carol warmed her hands against her hips and looked away.
“See?” Present rocked slightly to himself, eyes closed. “Loneliness is not all bad, I think. Ironically, it might be one of the best devices for bringing people together. The beginning is always so dreadful, a chasm bleak and utterly without hope. But it must not stay that way.”
Attention on the floor, Carol stepped back. “Can we go now?”
“Hmm?” Present turned to her. “Has something upset you?”
Carol shook her head, but still would not meet the spirit’s gaze, soft though it might have been.
“Oh.” Present looked over the father as he tucked in his sons. A single tear pinched free of the father’s eye. “Forgive my indiscretion. I’m sure that was not easy for you.”
Snow was still falling outside, Carol knew, because the blue-black dark was all she could bare to look at.
Present rested one hand gingerly on Carol’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry, dear. I suspect you’ve dreamed of hearing those words for some time now, hm?” He squeezed and then spoke kindly, as if to himself. “Merry Christmas, Mama.”
Carol found it was impossible to swallow when your chest was full with a clenched heart. She bore her teeth like a cage, spittle gathering on her bottom lip. Her fingers curled into fists.
“Anger too, you must learn,” the great spirit began to lift Carol out of the home, “is not all bad. It might be man’s greatest weapon for changing himself, I think. If first he can come to understand the benefit of experiencing loneliness.”
On the return ride, Carol and Present flew past an airliner as it descended into the city. Somewhere inside, Carol knew it was her husband’s flight. Charlie would be home soon.
When she landed in her living room, it was as if Carol had left for only a moment. The wax of the candles on her windowsill had not gone down at all, and Present was nowhere to be found.
She assessed her environment, not certain what she would find. Not certain what there was to find, if anything. The third apparition had not yet arrived.
Carol moved to her television set and turned it off. The sudden silence captured her, allowed her to hear the sound of her own heart and feel the weight of her own body.
Merry Christmas, Mama.
Carol wasn’t sure which came first, wrapping her hand over her mouth or collapsing to her knees. Either way, the heat of sorrow came and crushed her from the outside-in. She felt tightly coiled, the body’s natural response to resisting pain that has been long dormant in the core of us.
Yet to Come must not have been interested in Carol’s forlorn waywardness, as it appeared in the midst of her grief and without so much as the tracest concern for timing.
Through bleary eyes, Carol saw the specter. Fear immediately took her primal mind and she backed into the corner, brushing through and almost knocking over her Christmas tree. It was not out of good sense that she didn’t scream, but a sheer, overpowering awe.
As expected, Yet to Come was darkness incarnate. The wraith was without consistent form, much like that of Past, but not entirely. Past gave a human sensation, which Yet to Come had lacked. The spirit was far taller, its hooded crown brushing the ceiling, and the folds of its gown spread along the floor, consuming all.
If she remembered correctly, Carol believed that Yet to Come was without voice. Still, she could faintly hear something coming from the creature, a deep, far-reaching noise. It was the sound of an eternal vacuum, like the ocean draining through the bottom of the world.
Yet to Come pointed at Carol with one skeletal hand.
“What could you possibly have to show me?” Carol said with a confidence made of patchwork fury. It was juvenile and weak in its anger, but it was enough.
With a sweeping gesture, Yet to Come threw its arms. The world went black. In this pitch, Carol could see further into the angel’s hood, at the flashing eyes on the other side of their universe.
The darkness decayed into grey light, revealing a stoic, night-worn avenue littered with ashen snow, salt, and the grime of untended winter. The wind there was hollow and dry as metal, and carried with it no smell beyond the cold itself.
“What is this?” Carol said, somewhat indignant on the coattails of her anger. It was at this point she realized that, unlike in her recollection of the phantom, Yet to Come wielded no life-slaying weapon. No scythe or hell-wrought instrument to suggest any agenda of bringing pain or ending life.
A sob broke her concentration and Carol turned around just in time for a man to phase through her. Carol knew she was the one who was immaterial, that this was a future-to-be and so lacked solid form. Nevertheless, a stroke of shivers touched on every inch of her spine, her instincts suggesting it was unnatural for such a thing to happen.
Carol judged the man to be some sort of vagabond in spite of his military uniform. He was not ragged, though had hair suggesting it’d been at least a few days without a hygienic touch-up. There was no way he’d been on the streets for long. It didn’t reflect in his gait. There was pride upon his shoulders, though even now Carol could see that pride beginning to crack.
Carol looked up and down the street, only realizing for the first time that there were staggeringly few people to be found. None at all, actually. What’s more, the windows on the nearby establishments, they were barred or boarded. Carol’s eyes narrowed in suspicion, uncertain of her location.
Then Carol saw the girl. Carol did not know this girl, though her face seemed awfully familiar, as she came out of one of the buildings at their right. The girl chased after the soldier, spoke softly at him, too softly for Carol to hear, and grabbed the man’s arm to draw him inside her home. The vision ended.
“What?” Carol blinked. “That’s it?”
Still, she waited. Yet to Come sat with her in a surreal darkness, his existence a natural abomination to the state of things.
But no other scene came. In an instant, they were back in the apartment, prismatic frost reflecting candlelight on the windowsill. The demon was gone and Carol was alone again.
Somehow, Carol knew Yet to Come would not be the last. Unlike the story she’d been familiar with, there was no friendly phantasm to warn her of the spirit’s trials. No Marley and his unbearable, horrific chains dragging across her floor. But still, she knew in her heart of utmost hearts that a fourth spirit was approaching, for a word rang in the back of her mind. Though it was not just a word, it was also a name, just as Past had been a name, and Present, too. There was a fourth phantom beyond the original tale, unnecessary for what the old miser needed to understand. His problem only mandated that he encounter three of the principalities.
But Carol would have to face a fourth, the word and name which rounded over and again in her skull. A creature of temporal defiance.
Never, Never, Never.
So Carol prepared for the spirit to appear as all the rest. She bunkered against the couch, leaning only slightly into its cushion. Her apartment, what with its modest trappings and faint idyllicism, was lit now only by christmas lights, dying candles, and moonlight refracted off the deployed snowfall. Carol waited, her eyes feeling the burden of being without sleep, her waking mind shutting down despite her longing to unravel Yet to Come’s enigmatic vision.
It was right there, on the precipice of slumber, where Never moved into her living room. Carol did not start suddenly awake, but found her liveliness stirring as she looked at the child, sitting cross-legged on the living room floor. He shuffled a Christmas ornament back and forth like a cat, not watching Carol as she gaped.
“You,” Carol felt moisture in her eyes and pain rising through the back of her throat, “Why are you…”
The Ghost of Christmas Never looked up at his mother, eyes shining with a polish of tenderness and good will. He smiled, brushing a strand of hair from his face. “Good morning, ma.”
Carol’s chest was a cave, gently collapsing. “That’s not fair.” She whispered, not to her son, but perhaps to God himself. “That’s not fair. How can you be here? Who are you?”
“Ma?” Isaac said, his boyish face full of concern and knowledge, “Why are you sad?”
“You shouldn’t be here!” Carol took to her feet so quickly she nearly fell over. Red swam through her face, through her eyes beginning to burn. “You shouldn’t. I…You should be…”
“Dead?” Isaac said.
Carol nodded violently, using both hands to stifle the silent screams coming from deep inside. Salt bit into her cheeks.
Isaac nodded slowly, knowingly. “Yeah, I know. I’m sorry.”
Nodding turned into shaking. Carol turned away, unable to contain herself or form any semblance of composure.
“I guess,” Isaac unwrapped and re-wrapped himself, no longer crossing his legs, but now hugging his knees to his chest, “The others must have been harder on you than I’d thought.”
“It’s not that.” Carol said through a hitched throat, a tang of salt on her lips. “It’s not that.”
Isaac just rocked himself, watching his mother.
When finally Carol managed to turn to him, she was still unable to generate a complete thought. Everything was backwards. Everything was wrong. How dare they make the final ghost, the all-powerful spirit of Never, into a manifestation of her unborn child. Whose sick idea was that?
Still, Isaac, the phantom Never, was there, and Carol found him watching her with both sympathy and understanding. They were things that did not befit his physical shape. He appeared to be only six or seven years old, about the age he’d have been if she hadn’t given up on him.
“So,” Carol flung out an exploratory wave when she’d finally gained an inch of control. “Go on with whatever you’re supposed to be helping me with.”
“Well?” The whine in Carol’s voice started to spiral out of control again. “Hurry up.” She shifted her weight once, twice, folding and unfolding her arms. “Please.”
Isaac lowered his head into his knees, breathing out.
“Why,” Carol screamed, her emotions boiling over once more. She dropped to her knees in front of her son.
“You still don’t know what the spirits are trying to do.” Isaac said softly into his knees, and then into the open. “Ma, we know life has been hard. We know Dad is trying his best to be a strong support, but even he can’t carry what you’ve got. It’s slowly killing you both.”
Carol studied the boy in front of her. His gaze was reticent, but did not waver.
“Why do you think you’ve been visited by the spirits this eve?”
Carol shook her head helplessly, shrugging.
Breathing out, Isaac began to rock himself again. “In a time that’s reserved for peace and good cheer, your heart brings you back to nothing but your own failures. In a season of love and thanksgiving, you are reminded how impossible it is to forgive your transgressions. To forgive your decision to give up on me before I’d even had a chance to prove I could make it in this world.” Isaac paused, when Carol fell in on herself, a mourning shambles. “Because when you should be feeling grace, you feel only loathing. That is why we have come.”
Isaac moved over to his mother and rested his head on top of hers. “And that’s why I’m here, to tell you this. If you won’t forgive what you’ve done, then I will. I forgive you, ma. I forgive you.”
“I watched you die,” Carol wept through a stuffed nose and exhausted soul. “I was afraid you might be born born sick, or that I wouldn’t have been able to protect you, wouldn’t have been able to provide for you. I just didn’t want you to hurt like they said you would.”
“I know.” Isaac leaned back again, nodding. “Making that call couldn’t have been easy. I have no idea.”
Carol finally began to work through the conclusive stages of that particular grieving session, her tears and tight throat finally loosing enough to allow the poor girl a moment’s breath.
“Christmas must have been lonely these last few years.”
“It was.” Carol sniffed.
“It doesn’t have to be.”
Carol shook her head again. “No.” She swallowed. “It’s not that simple. Everything reminds me of you. Regardless of how I spend my day, who comforts me, or how much love I see in people, when I go to bed at night I can only see your face. I spend every waking moment remembering that you are not here.”
Isaac sat still, watching.
“I didn’t think it was possible,” she said, “To so deeply miss somebody I’d never met.”
Carol felt weight on her shoulders and looked up to find her son kneeling there in front of her. He pulled her up until she no longer faced the ground, and then, as she should have expected, but did not, he hugged her. The shock of it was only matched by the flood of kindness which jabbed through her core, stripping each wall within of the rotted guilt which had made its home there over the years.
“Ma,” Isaac spoke into her shoulder, “Please love yourself again.”
It was surprisingly frightening, Carol thought, to try and forgive herself. It didn’t really seem fair. Sorrow seemed like something she deserved. Was that not the natural course of those who decided their own children were not worth having? She’d always believed that was the punishment for stupid decisions. You needed to live with them, suffer them.
“No,” Isaac contested, as if his mother’s mind were an open book, “That is not the only option. That’s the thing about grace. It gives us what we don’t deserve, and all it asks for is a little honesty. The beauty of grace is that it makes life unfair in our favor.”
Carol continued to shake her head, though with less resolve than before. Isaac released his mother and stepped back, letting her hands fall to her sides. He turned away and his form began to glow slightly. Then he began to dissolve.
“No!” Carol protested, all of her fears and insecurities redoubling on her. Agony filled her bones once more. “Please don’t leave again. Tell me. Tell me about you.” Carol clenched her fists as only the helpless knew how. “Please.”
Isaac shook his head numbly. “You aren’t losing me, please understand that. Learn to forgive yourself, so you may have a future unburdened by sadness.”
“Future?” Carol said. “What about that? What was the vision supposed to mean, the one from Yet to Come? I still don’t understand.”
Isaac did not turn back to look at her. “You must learn to forgive yourself,” he said slowly, “So my sister may grow up knowing how to love and forgive others in a cruel world.”
Carol blinked. Sister? Isaac did not have a sister. At least, not one that had yet come.
“Tell dad I said hi,” Isaac walked to the apartment’s front door and took hold of the handle. He stopped. “And mama,” he turned back to Carol and smiled, “Merry Christmas.”
He opened the door and hurried out, shutting it behind him. Carol bolted for the handle, threw the door wide, and found Charlie fumbling with his keys on the other side. He gasped and receded at the suddenness of her approach.
“Woah, Carol. Hi.” He grinned. “Didn’t think you’d be waiting for-” He paused. “Hon, have you been crying?”
Carol barreled into his chest, wrapping her arms around him and tightening. It was something she did often, but it had never been so liberating as when she did it now. Charlie must have noticed a difference, for he dropped his keys to return the gesture and kissed the top of her head. It was pleasant. It held no question, just the simplicity of being perfect.
“Thank you,” Carol said, “For being patient with me.”
He kissed her head again, knowing not to ask questions at a time not meant for questions. “And thank you,” he said, “for having a wonderful heart.”
For all Carol minded, dawn could wait. Everything could wait. They entered the warmth of their home together, where a touch of hope met the comfort of a new day. A candle dripped, a heart left its burdens to die, and, as could only be hoped for, snow gently covered the ground Christmas Eve.