SUMMARY: Past, present and future are mixed together and served up in this loose retelling of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. You can find a longer synopsis of the entire story here. Please note that italics are typically used within the story to indicate what a character is thinking or saying to himself.
WARNING: This story is a work of adult fiction and intended for mature audiences only. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. The story may describe, depict or otherwise include graphic portrayals of relationships between men and/or adolescent boys that are homosexual in nature. If you do not like or approve of such discussions or it is illegal for you to read such material, please take note and consider yourself warned. If you continue to read this story, you are asserting that you are fully capable of understanding and legally consenting to reading a work of adult fiction.
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AUTHOR NOTES: This is my holiday gift to you. It's undoubtedly been done before and better, but every generation of writers has a new take on the tale and this is mine. I hope it will haunt your house as pleasantly as the original. As Dickens noted, I have endeavored not to "put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me." Read, enjoy, and feel free to participate in the creative process, either directly below if you are reading this story at the web site where I post my stories or by sending me an e-mail if reading it elsewhere. You can find my e-mail address at either my web site or my my blog. I would appreciate hearing from you even if only to let me know about any spelling or other errors you find since I would like to correct those wherever possible.
THE PREVIOUS CHAPTER: In Chapter 1, Brian, a congressional staffer who is about to turn 30, takes a break from his hike with Robbie, the 16 year old son of a co-worker. He recalls how the two of them met years ago when Robbie's father, Wade, had invited Brian over to their home for Thanksgiving dinner. Robbie had taken an interest in Brian back then and eventually declared the two of them special best friends. Later, after eating too much, Brian had mentioned his plans to go hiking the next day to work off all the unwanted calories. Robbie had then pleaded with his parents to be allowed to join Brian on the hike. Eventually they had succumbed and that had started a new tradition, their latest hike together six years later being only the latest iteration. When the two finally reach the top of the mountain, Robbie surprises his hiking companion by telling him he knows Brian is gay. Then he reveals he's gay as well. That comes as a surprise to Brian, as does the concern Robbie expresses about Brian's lack of any gay friends. Robbie suggests that Brian seems to be drifting through life without direction or purpose. Brian appreciates the boy's concern, but tries to avoid discussing his issues with Robbie.
WITH APOLOGIES MR. DICKENS
A Tale of Sin and Redemption
Robbie and I spent the rest of the day just talking, mostly about things we had never talked about before. If anything, I came away admiring him even more. He had his head on straight. He had values. And unlike me, he had a pretty good idea what he wanted to do with his life. It was hard for me to admit, but the truth is he was in a better place than I was and he knew it. I knew he was trying to help and I appreciated it very much, but I tried to keep the attention focused on him rather than myself.
I had embraced him awkwardly for a moment before we got into the car and drove back to Burke. I had told him how much I liked and admired him and would be there for him if he ever needed me to be there.
“Will I see you Christmas Day?” he asked when we finally got back to his home. “I know my Dad asks you to come over every year.”
“And you know I never do,” I responded.
“Oh yeah, that’s right,” he said. “In addition to being gay, this is the time of year you let your inner Ebenezer Scrooge come to the fore.”
“Sarcasm doesn’t become you, Robbie,” I replied. “You’re right that Christmas isn’t my favorite holiday, but the reason I decline your Dad’s invitation is because Christmas Day is a time for families to spend together.”
“We consider you family, Brian,” he countered.
“I know you do, Robbie, and I appreciate it. But I’m not family and I believe Christmas is a time for families to spend together alone, not entertaining people like me. But I’ve already ordered tickets for the hockey game at the Capital Centre on New Year’s Eve. So, just like we always do, the two of us and your Dad will welcome the new year in watching the Caps kick some ass.”
“You’re hopeless, Scrooge,” he replied, opening the door to the car.
“That I am,” I responded, grinning at him.
“Before you leave, I have something for you,” he said. “Let me get it. I’ll be back in two shakes of a leg.”
He was up the sidewalk and into the house like a flash, then back to the car almost as quickly.
“Here,” he said, handing his gift to me.
I remember being amused just looking at it. He had wrapped it in the cartoon page from the previous Sunday’s Washington Post and placed a red bow on top of the thing. Whatever else it was, it was colorful.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Call it an early Christmas gift from me to you,” he replied. “It’s a book and I want you to read it before Christmas. You have to promise.”
“Of course,” I replied. “Your wish is my command, master.”
“And don’t you forget it,” he responded, grinning.
Then he turned and started walking back toward the house before I could even thank him.
I found my eyes drifting down to his butt as he disappeared up the stairs; then annoyed with myself for doing that. I had never thought about Robbie like that before in my life. Now suddenly everything had changed and I was mad at myself for letting what he had shared earlier that day affect me the way it did.
But it had for some reason and my eyes feasted on it.
He had a terrific butt.
I turned on the ignition to the car and drove off. I remember feeling good about the time we had shared together that day and I still felt good when I finally got back to my place a little while later. But then I walked through the door and no one was there. There was only the loneliness. It had been my silent companion ever since I had moved into the place years ago and even before that I suppose.
Truth be told, it seemed like I had been lonely most of my life, but somehow I had been able to keep it hidden from everyone most of the time, including myself. Our conversation that day had stirred up a lot I had been doing my best for years to forget. And now here I was alone at my place wondering what I should do before I climbed into bed and summoned the darkness that would provide the relief I was looking for.
I peeked into the refrigerator, trying to find something to have for dinner. I didn’t have very much food in the house, but somehow the thought of dining out alone made me shudder. I managed to find some peanut butter and crackers and quickly devoured them.
When I had finished my little gourmet meal, I took some of the documents I had brought home from work the day before Thanksgiving out of my briefcase and started looking at them. But even though I tried my best, I couldn’t concentrate on work for some reason. Finally I tossed them aside.
I busied myself trying to get a fire going in the living room fireplace. Eventually I succeeded and sat down in my favorite chair.
I picked up the gift Robbie had given me. I admired his handiwork for a moment, then ripped off the bow and the paper in which he had wrapped it. He had told me it was a book, but it came as a surprise nonetheless.
A handwritten note tucked into the book told me it was a reproduction of the 1843 first edition of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It felt old, expensive, and worn; and even though it wasn’t, it looked authentic to me. I remember wondering where Robbie had found it.
Opening the cover, I turned to the parchment-like title page and stared at the illustration of Mr. Fezziwig's ball. It seemed old-fashioned and quaint and, in spite of myself, it made me smile.
I found myself leafing through the book looking at some of the other illustrations as well. Then, turning back to the beginning, I read the opening words.
They were familiar to me. I remembered reading them a long time ago.
Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
What a ridiculous story, I said to myself. Of all the books he could have given me, why this one?
Robbie knew how much I despised Christmas, how I hated the season with a passion. I tossed the book on to the table and turned my eyes back to the fireplace. By now the flames were dancing nicely for me and I sat there just staring at them. As always, the effect was hypnotic.
I remember thinking Christmas was just a few weeks away and I dreaded its approach.
Tired from hiking, I could feel myself beginning to nod off and closed my eyes. There was darkness momentarily and then a light seemed to be beckoning me from somewhere far away.
Suddenly I was home in Maine once again and it was as if I had never left.
I was six years old. It was winter and there was a chill in the air and snow on the ground as far as the eye could see. In the distance, some of my friends were racing away. I could hear voices laughing and the church bell tolling the hour. I could see myself standing there alone momentarily, then opening the door to our home.
I could feel its warmth enticing me in and then holding me in its embrace.
It was the warmth of our home I loved more than just about anything else back then. It protected me from the cold. Oh, how I hated the cold during those long New England winters my mind had now drifted back to!
The strangers who visited our town might like to spend time in front of the fireplace at the ski lodge up the road, the one we couldn't afford to visit. But I knew I had the best of the bargain because the lodge was no match for our home when it came to providing shelter and warmth.
Besides, I was clumsy back then and would almost certainly have broken a leg if we had been able to go. I didn't want to go skiing, not at all! It was dangerous and a waste of money. Everyone knew that.
Like most people, our family could afford skates, at least the cheap ones you bought in the five and dime, and my parents bought them for us. Sadly, I was the youngest and the hand me downs that were my fate in life never seemed to fit quite right.
But I tried. Honestly, I tried very hard. I just never could get the hang of the thing. It was embarrassing seeing some little kid half my age gracefully skating by while I tried to pick myself up off the ice. At some point you just gave up on the thing.
Still, I was a daredevil when it came to sledding down the steep hills at the college two blocks away from our home. I liked that a lot. I was king of the mountain and totally fearless and could soar through the air higher than anyone else. It was like being an eagle! There you were, alone by yourself in the air, staring down at all the people who seemed so distant and far away.
But after an hour or two I would head home because I was cold. Like I said, what I really loved about the season the most was the warmth of our home.
We had radiators in our house and I loved them. They generated real heat, not the phony warmth produced by the electric heat pump installed in the house I lived in now. You could walk around the house in your pajamas back then and still be warm all the time; and being warm seemed to make all the rest of it perfect.
I loved all of the rituals of the season back then; the endless hours spent searching for just the right tree for our home, the careful placement of the plastic candles in each of the windows, the taping of all those brightly colored Christmas cards that arrived in the mail every day along the door sills that separated the rooms of our house.
When the tree was finally chosen and erected in the family room, I would beg my parents to begin decorating it immediately. They would bring out a few ornaments and hand them to me. I would place them on the tree carefully, being sure to take my time so I could stretch the whole thing out; and then at last the day finally settled on for the rest of the decorations arrived.
Everyone in the family participated and yet even with all those hands it seemed to me it took hours and hours before the task was finally finished. Perhaps that was because I insisted on placing every one of the silvery foil icicles on the tree individually; if you did it the other way, just tossing a bunch of them on at a time, it ruined the look of the tree. So one by one I would place them ever so carefully. It took hours and I remember my brothers laughing at me.
Finally my father would hoist me on to his shoulders and I would place the star on the top of the tree and the task would be done at last. And yet all of the time and effort we had invested was worth it because it seemed to me our tree was the most beautiful one in the town and that made me happy.
I loved the excitement as Christmas approached.
It was so hard waiting for the day itself to arrive. Time seemed to move incredibly slowly in December; even the Advent Calendar my Mother loved so much seemed to reveal its hidden treasures ever so slowly.
And then finally it would be Christmas Eve and there was the critical task, the job of figuring out what Santa would want when he finally reached our house that evening. My older brothers were the ones to decide what we would leave out for him. My sister and mother were the ones who put the snack they had agreed upon together.
My job was to write the note.
I tried to make it special for him. One year I told him he was welcome to take the blanket off of my bed and use it to bundle up if the night had been unusually cold and he needed something more to keep warm while he finished the task of delivering the presents worldwide.
On still another occasion I worried that perhaps the reindeer would be cold, hungry, and tired by the time they reached our home. I had left extra food for them in the basement, food my mother and brothers knew nothing about.
I knew Santa had found it and fed it to his reindeer because all of it was gone Christmas morning that year. That was all the proof I needed to know he was real and I remember thinking that perhaps it was that little meal of mine that had helped his reindeer on the final push back to the North Pole.
Finally the evening would arrive.
To me it always seemed difficult falling asleep on Christmas Eve. There was a part of you that wanted to fall asleep right away knowing that morning always came after the sleep and with it morning would bring everything you had been hoping for. At least you hoped that it would.
But there was also a part of you that wanted to stay awake all night to finally catch a glimpse of the man himself. Some of my friends had seen him. They were sure of it. But I never seemed to be able to stay awake long enough to catch him like they had.
The anxiety over Santa’s impending arrival made sleep almost impossible. But eventually the darkness prevailed and you fell asleep.
And then it was Christmas morning and you were finally awake.
It was still dark out and you just lay there quietly, wondering.
Had he already been to our house? And if he had been there, what had he left? Had he left anything at all? You could never be certain about that.
If the stories were true there was always a chance you would wake up to find just some pieces of coal he was rumored to leave for bad boys and girls. All my life I had wanted to be perfect, but you could never be perfect no matter how hard you tried. Your sister would be annoying. Your best friend would stuff snow down your shirt. You had to retaliate, of course; and that didn’t take into account all those snow ball fights with the boys from the other neighborhoods.
You had tried to be good most of the time for most of the year, but you knew you hadn’t been perfect. And because you hadn’t been perfect, you could never be certain exactly on which side of Santa’s ledger you had fallen. He was keeping a list and checking it twice, everyone knew that. And deep down inside, no matter how hard you tried to deny it, you knew you had made a mistake or two during the year; perhaps even more than one or two if you were being totally honest with yourself.
You tried not to think about it too much in December. In December you tried especially hard to be nice to everyone, even that annoying girl at school who kept trying to maneuver you under the mistletoe so she could give you a kiss. Gross!
Like I said, in the end you could never be certain. There was always a hint of doubt about what would happen when morning arrived.
And then you would finally open your eyes as the sun began to creep in and see the stocking at the bottom of the bed. We didn’t have a chimney in our house so Santa would leave the stockings at the bottom of the bed. And there it was -- a full stocking and not a piece of coal to be found!
Seeing all of that you knew he had been there and you had passed the test for another year. You had fallen on the right side of his ledger.
Oh, thank you, Santa. Thank you so much!
The stocking would be full of all of the things you loved. I mean, yeah, sure, maybe the apple and the orange weren’t the greatest. But there would always be at least one bag of M&Ms and a couple of candy canes. I loved candy canes so much back then and the wrapping was off and one of them was in my mouth before you even had time to say boo!
Still, it was hard to be satisfied with just the stocking, especially when you were real little. You knew you were supposed to examine it carefully, to take everything out in turn and thank your lucky stars you had been good and Santa had chosen each of those items especially for you.
But after you had retrieved a couple of items from the stocking you would toss it aside and climb out of bed and start creeping down the stairs; and just when you reached the point on the stairs where the wall ended, you would turn your head and look around the corner and stare into the room.
The tree would be lit and then your eyes would be drawn to all of them, all of the gifts he and his elves had so carefully wrapped and then brought all the way from the North Pole to the house just for you. They were so beautiful, so colorful, and there were so many of them!
It always caused me to gasp; and then, after catching my breath, I would jump down the remaining stairs in one leap and race for the tree. But before you could get all the way there you would hear your Mother’s voice telling you to wait, that she wanted to be there when you opened the presents. It seemed like it took forever for her to get down the stairs. But even though the temptation was great, I had always been good and avoided opening any of them.
Not that I was perfect, of course. By then I had picked most of them up and given them a shake to see what sound they made and to feel just how much they weighed. Then Mom and Dad would arrive along with my brothers and sister and the paper would begin flying in every direction. It was everything you had wanted, everything you had asked for. Well, maybe not everything exactly, but pretty much what you had written in the letter to Santa; although, come to think of it, it was hard at times remembering exactly what you had written.
The whole thing was over quickly, much too quickly, given all the time you had been waiting. Each of the packages would be opened, checked rather summarily, and then set aside. But that was just the initial wave of excitement, of course. There would be a second wave of excitement. While Mom retreated to the kitchen to make breakfast, you would go back and start checking out each gift in more detail.
I was always very calculating that way as a boy. I had made my preliminary judgments as each was unwrapped and I would always start with the least favorite things. But I tried to savor even the least favorite gifts, the socks and the underwear and all of the rest of the stuff that was boring. I mean, my parents could buy those things for me after all. Why did Santa need to bring them all the way from the North Pole? It seemed to me they just took up room in his sled that could have been used for more toys. But then I realized I was being ungrateful and was ashamed of myself for a moment.
To be honest, even some of the toys weren’t that great, but I would try to spend the appropriate amount of time looking them over, thinking about what I would do with them later in the day or the day after that when I finally got around to them. And then I would proceed to the next one and the next until finally I reached my favorite; because no matter how bad things were, the favorite was always enough to make all of the waiting worthwhile.
It was the bike you had been begging your parents to get you since last spring, the shiny red one with lots of silver chrome, or the new baseball glove that was genuine leather and smelled so wonderful. It was whatever you had wanted the most and there it was, yours at last, and you knew you could never be happier than you were right at that moment.
By the time you had reached your favorite, you could smell the bacon cooking in the kitchen. And so, after one final glance to be sure they were still all there, you would go to the kitchen and have your favorite breakfast. For me that was pancakes and bacon. I loved both of them so much back then and my Mom let us have more of the bacon than usual on Christmas morning precisely because it was Christmas.
“Mom,” I remember shouting; “Momma, I have something I want to tell you. I, um, I . . . ”
For a moment I could see her smiling at me and then I was startled by a sound in the distance and the vision was gone and I couldn’t remember what it was I wanted to tell her exactly.
“What the fuck . . .”
I remember being surprised when it cracked really loudly. I looked up to see the dying embers of the log the fire had long since ravaged. Then I looked around in an effort to get my bearings. I wasn’t back home in Maine after all. I was alone in a darkened house in Virginia.
Looking up at the clock I could see it was late, much later than I usually went to bed.
I must have fallen asleep, I thought. I must have been dreaming.
I walked over to the fireplace and stirred the ashes, trying to make sure the fire was completely extinguished. Then I went to the door and made sure it was locked. I remember wondering when I had started locking doors. Back in Maine we had never locked the door to our home.
Finally, satisfied that everything was in its place, I slowly climbed the stairs to the second floor of the house. After brushing my teeth, I walked down to the bedroom, pulled off my clothes, and climbed into bed. It was cold and I remember shivering at the touch of the sheets against my bare skin.
I couldn’t recall exactly when I had started sleeping naked like that and there were times in the winter when I wanted a pair of those flannel pajamas my mother used to buy for me as a boy. And yet for some reason I liked the shock of the cold sheets suddenly touching my body, the initial pain, then the pleasure that followed as the heat from my body slowly warmed the sheets.
I knew the cat would soon find its way to the bed and cuddle up next to me. I knew the warmth and the darkness would eventually bring the sleep I looked forward to.
And yet as much as I wanted to surrender to the warmth and the darkness that evening, sleep eluded me. Perhaps it was my earlier nap in front of the fireplace that was to blame or perhaps it was something else entirely. Whatever the reason, my body refused to cooperate. I just laid there for a long time staring into the darkness, trying not to think. But now it was my mind that wasn’t cooperating.
When had everything fallen apart? I remember asking myself.
Why was I alone?
Why do I hate Christmas with a passion when I use to love it so much as a boy?
I knew a big part of the answer was there in the closet waiting for me. I tossed the blankets that covered me off, climbed out of bed, and slowly walked toward the door. Grasping the handle, I opened it and walked in. I didn’t even bother to turn on the light. I knew where the box was located. Reaching up, I pulled it down from among the rest of the papers I kept stashed up there.
There was nothing special about the box, of course. It was what the box held that was special.
Do I really want to do this?
I hesitated momentarily. Then, without opening it, I returned the box to the shelf from which I had just retrieved it.
I retreated to the bed and pulled the blankets over myself once again.
Not tonight, I said to myself.
I don’t want to go there tonight.