Fiction: The Sixth Stave, By: Erin L. Snyder

London, 1894

There was a breeze through the door as Timothy slammed it shut and made his way through the foyer. He walked slowly, with intent, never letting his weak leg drag behind, but forcing it in a natural arc. He was old but was no cripple, nor had he a stomach for pity. A man once called Timothy lame, thinking him out of earshot, and received a kick to his shin so hard he limped for a week. Timothy fared worse: the kick left him off his feet three days, and it had been a month before he could move naturally once more, but the message had been sent.

Timothy sneered at his wife’s portrait, hung over the fireplace. She’d commissioned the painting herself, a gift from some long-ago Christmas. That she’d commissioned it with his money would have meant nothing to her. Never had a woman more accustomed to comfort and wealth walked the Earth. She’d never known a cold winter’s night, a barren stove, an empty plate. She’d never known disease that went untreated, never a Christmas morning without gifts.

And yet she appealed for his money on behalf of the poor. The poor! Ha! What did she know of poverty? What did any of them know? The men in suits who’d come begging on Christmas Eve, the ones on street corners, even those who called Timothy “friends.” Those born to comfort always pled on the poor’s behalf. He’d little interest in any of them, this day or any other.

They were from a different world, these men and women of privilege. Who were they to lecture him on poverty? Timothy, who’d spent the first years of his life in its grip before finding a benefactor, who’d worked and fought and made his way through life, until he had the means to pull himself up. Who lived through illness and pain, and a leg that seemed intent to drag him to an early grave.

He could not stomach it, any of it. So he threw out the charity workers and, as for his wife, he’d sent her to her father’s house in the country to save himself the trouble of her company this Christmas. Let her pester him for gifts. Let her demand a goose from his wallet, cooked by his servants.

If it’d been up to Timothy, he’d be working through the next day, anyway. And why wasn’t it up to him? What right had his employees – those whose feasts he was benefactor of – to demand this day off? What made Christmas different than other days?

He made his way to a cabinet against the wall, where he kept a bottle of fine whiskey, the best he dealt in, and poured himself a glass. “To Christmas,” he toasted.

No sooner had he returned the bottle to its shelf than a chill fell over the room. He sipped his whiskey, dismissing the cold as a change in the weather. What did he care for a little cold? When he’d been a boy, he’d known real cold, real want. This was nothing.

At first, he questioned his own hearing. Then he began to think that there were carolers outside, perhaps shaking bells. But no, the noise was real and it was close. It was the sound of metal grating against metal, and it was coming from inside his own house.

As fast as he could, Timothy began moving towards the door, towards the sound. Someone had broken in for his money or silver. They’d not get it without a fight. He reached for the door handle, but stopped when he saw it reaching back. Or rather, there was a hand like moonlit mist reaching through the wood toward him. He moved away, frightened now, as the hand became an arm, weighed down with chains. Still it came, lurching forward, pulling a great weight behind it.

By the time the apparition was through, Timothy had fallen into his chair. He pushed himself back, but couldn’t find the strength to stand.

The apparition spoke. “Tim. Tim Cratchit.”

There was no animosity in the specter’s voice. If anything, Timothy felt a swell of pity in his stomach. It had been years since he’d felt such compassion, and he was overtaken with a sense of nostalgia. Now, as the specter came into focus, Timothy squinted and recognized the form before him.

“Ebenezer? Is that you, old man?”

The specter nodded. “Aye. It is I. Or part of me, perhaps. The worms took the better half, I’d wager, but the rest… yes, I am Ebenezer Scrooge.” He stood there, tired, fighting against the weight of his chains as they pinched and tore at his spectral body.

Timothy looked at his glass and squinted, and this amused the spirit. “No, Tim. I’m not some drop of wine or piece of undigested meat. I am real, and I’ve come to warn you. Do you remember when you were a boy, Tim, do you remember the Christmas I changed?”

“Yes,” Timothy answered. “They still tell stories of it. Of the Christmas morning you….”

“The day old Scrooge lost his sense, you mean. Do not parse words, Tim. The dead hear the living prattle. I know what they say of me. I know… what you’ve said, Tim Cratchit.” He seemed sad for an instant, but raised his hand as Timothy tried to speak. “No, it is all right. I haven’t crossed the boundary between the lands of life and death for an apology. As I said, I’m here to warn you, so that you may avoid my fate. Remember what happened.”

“You gave my father a raise and gave to charity. You paid my medical bills and my way through school. There were… questions… about your sanity.”

The spirit snickered. “I was not mad, I think, but close. What you don’t know – but I fear soon will – is what occurred that Christmas Eve. I was visited, Tim, as I visit you now, by a man I’d known. Old Jacob Marley. Do you remember the name?” Timothy shook his head, and Scrooge continued. “No, I suppose you wouldn’t. In life, he’d been a partner to me. He came before me draped in chains. Chains like these.” He rattled the links, and they shook around him. “He told me they were coming, the three spirits, of Christmas past, present, and future. He told me they were coming to help me change my ways, before it was too late. That if I continued down the path I was on, I’d be shackled in chains forever. But he said there was still time. Time to change, to save myself, if only I’d learn to love my fellow man and keep Christmas with me.”

The spirit of Ebenezer sneered. “He lied to me. Aye, they all did. These chains are forged over a lifetime of ill deeds. They wanted me to think a few years of good would balance the scales, that my soul could be reclaimed. But it was too late for that; far too late, and they weren’t there for me. They came to trick me into helping others. The poor. The sick. Yes, you, as well. But I don’t regret that. I’ve always liked you, Tim. I regret the rest of it, but not what I did for you.”

Timothy stood at last and finished off the rest of his drink. “I deal in whiskey these days,” he said. “If you like, if you’re able, I mean....”

“No. I wish I could, but that part of me, the part that could eat and drink, is the part that isn’t before you. Don’t abstain on my account, though.”

Timothy returned to his desk and poured another glass. “Am I to understand these spirits, these Christmas ghosts, will come for me, then?”

“Always shrewd, Tim, even as a boy. Yes, I fear it is so. They want your money, as they wanted mine. They’d have you die in poverty, as I did, removed from the comforts you’ve earned.”

“And your part in all this?”

Scrooge grinned. “I was to play their Marley, to convince you that you need only hear them out and avoid my fate. But I fooled them, Tim. Aye, I fooled them good. Whatever they show you, whatever you see this night, it’s all a lie. They may show you those you’ve loved, those you care for. They may show you gravestones and shadows. Do not heed them: it is a trick. They come on behalf of the dregs of mankind, for those in gutters and those who belong in prisons, not for your own good."

Timothy nodded. “Thank you. But I have to ask. Is there a way to avoid your fate?”

“No, Tim. Twenty years past, perhaps there was time. But they don’t come for us when there’s time, when we’ve nothing they can use. They wait until we’ve sold our souls for money and property. Then they come to swindle us of those earnings. I’m sorry, but I learned the hard way a soul can’t be reclaimed. You can pawn it for gold, but it can’t be bought back. The only comfort I can offer is this: cling tightly to that gold while you can and take what pleasure you can in its use. Don’t be fooled as I was.”

His business concluded, the ghost left as he'd arrived, passing effortlessly through the closed door. Timothy shuddered at the sight. In life, Scrooge had been as a second father to him, and it pained him to see the man's spirit brought so low. He grew angry. Let these spirits come, he sneered, recovering his old walking stick from the corner. He rapped it against his palm and delighted in the force of its bite. Let them come and try to take what was rightly his.