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3 Ghosts, 1 Corpse

The Christmas Conundrum by Emily Dickens

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Emily VanDerWerff

Dec 24 2019

17 min read

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“The timeline isn’t fixed,” said Yet to Come, fingers kneading his high, bony forehead, “and you know it.”

“Cripes,” said Present, running a finger through the rapidly cooling blood trail on the floor. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, and they were running out of time. “I thought maybe by dipping into Christmas Future—”

Yet to Come,” said Yet to Come. “And there are too many variables in play.”

“But shouldn’t the culprit be fixed? The murderer has already murdered. Perhaps we could skip ahead to where the killer has been caught and—”

“There is no timeline where that has happened. Not yet, at least.” Yet to Come fetched a small sugarplum from beneath Present’s robe. “I’m already famished.”

They had believed the job was a simple one: Convince some asshole to reform, to revoke his ways. This asshole was rich, too, and uninterested in spreading his cash around. As Past said, “It is ever thus.”

The man who’d contracted them went by the name of Marley. He’d called them from the freezing cold of the wintry dark, insisting that his old friend Ebenezer Scrooge might still be made good, might be able to see how things would proceed if he stayed the course of miserly thoughtlessness.

They had done this many times before, throughout recorded history. Present called it the old 1-2-3. Past slid in to remind the target of what they had lost. Present let them know what they were missing. Yet to Come showed them what it was to lose everything. Truth be told, they were so good at it the thrill had gone out of the process, just a little bit.

That’s why they were so shocked to find Scrooge dead in his bed, a sprig of holly through his heart. The blood was still warm, so it had to have happened very recently. But here it was, just past midnight on Christmas Day, and they had no idea who had done it.

“So some asshole dies,” said Past, filing his fingernails. “Maybe the world is a better place?”

“We were supposed to save him,” said Present. “Hard to do that now.”

“But what’s done is done. Isn’t that what you always say, Past?” Yet to Come loved nothing more than throwing his brother’s words back in his face.

“It’s still Christmas,” said Past. “And there may yet be time.”

“And yet… he must have died a few minutes early. This is a Christmas Eve death. We have no provenance over it,” Present said, with a mighty shake of his head. They could tell he was searching through everything that had already happened that night and also that whatever had happened, it was just before they had arrived, at midnight, like clockwork. When Marley had left, Scrooge was still very awake and very alive. And now, he was dead. To begin with.

“Would be nice to have a year off,” said Past with a shrug. “Wouldn’t mind a family Christmas with my two brothers.”

“He’s dead! Nothing to it! Let’s knock off early,” Present said, already packing up his things.

Yet to Come chewed thoughtfully on the sugarplum, running a finger over the corpse. “We should try at least. Should we not?”

They could never say no to their baby brother. Their mother would never let them hear the end of it.

You may be thinking at this point that it would be a trivial matter for spirits with the ability to see all of time and space to solve a simple murder, but everything you have heard is a misnomer. Yes, the spirits could look to the past, present, and future with laser-sharp precision — though we must bear in mind the timeline was not fixed and could still be changed — but they could see just the one day of the year: Christmas Day. December 25. From midnight to 11:59 pm, the spirits could see all. The other 364 days of the year, they were powerless. They barely existed, locked back in some closet the universe kept closed the rest of the time.

Past could see a quick gloss of every Christmas right back to the first one (which hadn’t actually occurred on December 25, but who was counting?). Yet to Come could see the many possible outcomes of the actions they undertook. Present could see each and every place in the world on Christmas Day. He could count the hairs on your head that morning. If he wanted to.

But none of them could see Scrooge’s death, for it had occurred just a few minutes before midnight. The killer had been careful not to leave any evidence either, except for the open window in the corner, snow gusting in from outside to dust the floor. Whomever the killer had been, he had clearly left via the window, and his exit had been swift enough that Present could not spot him leaping from the building. He rewound and replayed the moments immediately following midnight, but the small crowd bustling past Scrooge’s house contained no obvious suspects.

It was as though the culprit had accidentally found a way to rouse their attention — but also to completely avoid their detection, as though he knew that the ghosts would arrive. And yet who could have known this? Who knew they existed? They were down from the universe’s attic for another year, another day that would sprawl across the globe and then wink out, taking them with it.

Past had been scanning Scrooge’s life to that point to determine who might have a motive to kill the man. The problem was — seemingly everyone had motive. The man had never met someone he hadn’t antagonized, right down to the clerk he employed. Just last year, Scrooge had made the poor man work on Christmas Day, while the old man muttered to himself about coal rations. It was cold enough in the office to make the ink freeze. Scrooge did not seem to care.

At the mention of the clerk, Present blanched. “Cratchit? Bob Cratchit?”

“Yes,” Past said. “And what of it?”

“There’s one person who was outside Scrooge’s home who actually had met the old man. Cratchit’s daughter. Martha.”

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The ghosts lurked in the corner of the Cratchit home, watching the little family gather around its tiny bird. When Bob offered a few words of thanks to the Lord above and to Scrooge himself, his wife, Emily, hissed her anger at the stubborn old miser. Her face was so red and her tongue so sharp that Yet to Come briefly wondered if she might not have done the murder, but Present assured them she had been snugly asleep in her bed.

Watching Martha, however, prompted an altogether different reaction. At the mention of Scrooge’s name, she looked up, bowed head no longer bowed. Past had the distinct sense that she was looking right at him, but he thought perhaps it was a trick of the light. There was simply no way she could have seen him. Still, it gave him the shivers.

“I’m a ghost,” he muttered. “How could she have scared me?”

And yet every so often throughout dinner, he had the feeling that she had spotted him, even though he had quite successfully blended into the wall. (Present, as always, stood hunched over in the corner. If she were to see any of them, it would be the giant.) When the time came for the family to say what they were thankful for, too, the girl looked off toward where Past had been standing (for he had shifted a few feet to the left) to say she was grateful for “Christmases past, present, and future.” (Past had to elbow Yet to Come before he gruffly corrected the girl on that last term.)

It was uncanny, though, the way she seemed to look at them. And then, as twilight fell, the gaslamps in the streets fluttering to life, she stepped out of the house to catch a bit of night air, and she turned to look right at him.

“I know you,” she said. “I thought perhaps you’d come.”

Past felt a momentary thrill. Solving the mystery couldn’t possibly be this easy. Could it? “You killed the old man then?”

“Nah. Was trying to save him.”

Past found this idea preposterous, but he waved over Present, who had been spreading Christmas cheer among a group of drunkards on their way home from the one tavern open in this neighborhood. Their playful jostling turned to carol singing. “Girl says she was trying to save Scrooge.”

“By the time I got there, he was already dead. As God is my witness. I lickety split outta there. Didn’t want you gents catching on to me. Guess my plan wasn’t so foolproof.”

Present blinked. “How can you see us?”

“Oh, we all can see you. How many times have we done this whole song and dance? Some of us are sick of it.”

“How many times have we—” Past began, before sucking in his breath again. “There have been 1,843 Christmases since the first. Roughly. We came into being with the first—”

Yet to Come glided over, cloak full about him now. “—and there will be many more. But the number of them drops a little with every year, and my brother grows stronger.”

Past supposed Yet to Come had been there before any of them, that he had existed in the formless void long before time itself, foreseeing a day that would one day be merry and bright. And then, Past felt a sickening dread at the thought that one day, he would have that position on some other end of history, watching as that day of happiness retreated further into distant history. Yet to Come said they had many years left before any timeline even began to wrap up. But Christmas was never eternal. Christmas was always a shadowed moment, blinking out at midnight on St. Stephen’s Day.

And on the day Christmas ceased to exist, Past would be all alone, bearing witness to what once had been. Perhaps Present had the right idea, always living in the moment. Past could already feel the loneliness of that eternity scratching in the back of his mind.

“No, we’ve done this here maybe a couple dozen thousand times,” said the girl again, stamping her feet against the cold. “I’m right sick of it I am.”

“Excuse me, young miss, but—” Present began.

“Scrooge is a mean old codger. Scrooge is visited by four ghosts — can’t forget Mr. Marley, can we, sirs? Scrooge reforms his ways. Everybody’s happy, and I get a nice big turkey. But it’s a little repetitive, isn’t it?”

Past felt a dread begin to spread over him, but Present butted in. “Now how do you know about the 1-2-3?”

“Like I said. I’ve done this before. Many, many, many times. Can you blame anyone for killin Scrooge? Trying to free us from this catastrophe?”

She stopped for a moment, then frowned. “So I just had the little turkey, and then what? After Scrooge is reformed, time resets? Christmas starts over again to let him renounce his evil ways?”

Yet to Come sighed heavily. “Some say it’s all a dream.”

The girl laughed at that. How could it be a dream? She was living inside of it.

“Yes, so long as it’s Christmas Day, we have magicks that will let us manipulate time as need be. But only when it comes to Christmas. Hence why we can’t see the killer.”

“Well,” she said, “I might know how you could fix it. But I want out. I’m done with this whole mess. 1843 London ain’t so hot for a girl like me. I wanna see the world.”

Past wanted to tell her the world wasn’t so hot for a girl like her, but he supposed that was a lesson she needed to learn herself. And finally he nodded. “Whatever we can do to help you escape this story you believe you belong to, you have our word.”

The girl’s idea was pure balderdash. A few countries over, Christmas began slightly earlier, as the rise and fall of the sun occurred earlier there as well. The ghosts would relocate to Germany shortly after midnight, then cast their eyes westward, where it would still be slightly earlier in London. No one was quite sure if Present’s abilities would work this way, but they had tried taking a stab at seeing what was happening in Japan as Christmas night wound down in London and had a firm glimpse of some boats. It wasn’t clear evidence, but they had little else to go on.

Far more troubling was the girl’s assertion that this was merely a story and that they had parts to play in it as surely as she did. Yes, they might have limited powers, but they did have powers. They would know if a story had entrapped them.

Yet the way she seemed uniquely attuned to what every person in the streets of London would do at any moment suggested that, perhaps, she also got stored away in some attic between Christmases every year, that there was some better, richer life for her. And yet how could they possibly help her find it? If her theory was true, they were as powerless as her.

Yet here they were, in a city square in Hamburg, reaching out to London, trying to see—

“I see,” said Present, “I see a man… yes, he’s a man in a hat. A very tall hat.”

“Fred,” Martha muttered. “Knew it would be him.”

“Now, now, we can’t accuse someone of—”

“Hold fast,” said Present. “I think he senses me.”

And, indeed, in Scrooge’s bedroom, the nephew sniveled. “You there. You’re not supposed to be able to see me yet.” He turned around, looking for them, holly pointed menacingly off-page.

Present’s powers were limited at this range, but he could sprinkle in some Christmas cheer. The small showers of glittering lights crumpled over Fred’s head, and he softened. His uncle, sleeping soundly, was just another man, after all, if one who only existed for a small sliver of time each year, who was forever caught between evil and good and never allowed to find his way beyond that story.

Fred, overcome with emotion, dropped the holly and leaned down to kiss his uncle’s cheek. Turning for the window, he swung back out into the streets, and Present cursed himself for not having recognized the man in the top hat earlier. But, then, how easy was it to forget Fred when Cratchit was right there, serving many similar story functions?

The balance restored, the three ghosts could, thus, awaken Scrooge and begin the long process of reforming him. They could do it all in one night. Of course they could.

And to Martha Cratchit, they were not as good as their word, for they were all living in a world with boundaries, walls that confined them to the page. She would curse them until the day she died, which was never. The ghosts could see all of time and space, and yet it was always 1843.

Present, quite pleased with the way it had all turned out, looked to his brothers as midnight rolled toward them. They would go… somewhere. It wasn’t clear where. He chuckled under his breath. “We should do this more often. Solve Christmas crimes? After all, it’s always Christmas somewhere.”

Past knew that wasn’t right, but he didn’t feel like correcting the galoot. So he smiled tightly. “What would we call ourselves then? Ghosts of Christmas Crime?”

“Oh heavens no,” said Present. “I was thinking Marley’s Angels.”

Yet to Come burst out into laughter, slapping Present on the back. Past rolled his eyes, and then everything went dark. Christmas would come again, but not soon enough.

My thanks to my Arden collaborator Sara Ghaleb for becoming so infuriated with the idea of “The Christmas Ghosts have to solve a mystery but they can only see things that happen on Christmas” that I knew I had to write it to further irritate her. She may be the funniest person I know. Follow her!

Read me: Tired of Christmas Carol? Why not try one of my favorite stories this holiday season, “Dulce Domum,” the Christmas-themed chapter of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, in which Ratty and Mole have a grand adventure in being cozy.

Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging, all one way! Why, it must be quite close by him at that moment, his old home that he had hurriedly forsaken and never sought again, that day when he first found the river! And now it was sending out its scouts and its messengers to capture him and bring him in. Since his escape on that bright morning he had hardly given it a thought, so absorbed had he been in his new life, in all its pleasures, its surprises, its fresh and captivating experiences. Now, with a rush of old memories, how clearly it stood up before him, in the darkness! Shabby indeed, and small and poorly furnished, and yet his, the home he had made for himself, the home he had been so happy to get back to after his day's work. And the home had been happy with him, too, evidently, and was missing him, and wanted him back, and was telling him so, through his nose, sorrowfully, reproachfully, but with no bitterness or anger; only with plaintive reminder that it was there, and wanted him.

The call was clear, the summons was plain. He must obey it instantly, and go. 'Ratty!' he called, full of joyful excitement, 'hold on! Come back! I want you, quick!'

'Oh, COME along, Mole, do!' replied the Rat cheerfully, still plodding along.

'PLEASE stop, Ratty!' pleaded the poor Mole, in anguish of heart. 'You don't understand! It's my home, my old home! I've just come across the smell of it, and it's close by here, really quite close. And I MUST go to it, I must, I must! Oh, come back, Ratty! Please, please come back!'


The whole story is a lovely portrayal of what it is to make one’s way back home at the end of a long year and find a warm welcome and a warmer fire waiting for them.

Watch me: I’ve written many times about how my favorite Christmas Carol adaptation is this 1970s animated version from Richard Williams. It perfectly captures the strange and eerie horror at the center of this ghost story, while also allowing the full range of Scrooge’s joy when the time is right. Williams won an Oscar for this film, and quite justifiably so.

And another thing… Thank you all for reading my work this year! We will have another newsletter on the 30th, but it will be more of a link roundup. So I will properly see you in the New Year.

And if you are struggling this holiday season, please reach out. Reply to this email, or DM me on Twitter. I would love to chat. We’ve gotta look out for each other. I will put up a couple of discussion posts over the week to come to give everybody a space for some non-holiday shenanigans.

This is my favorite time of year, a chance to make some light in the darkness of the year’s bottom (or, I guess, make noise in the midst of the lightest part of the year if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere). I am thankful every day for your readership over these years, especially in this year, in which so much has changed for me.

Merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, and joyful New Year.

This week’s reading music: “Walking in the Air” by Peter Auty

Episodes is published once per week and is about whatever I feel like that particular week. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox

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