“Ah, good, you came,” said Scrooge, leaning back in his chair. “I believe you owe me an apology.”
The three Spirits shifted uncomfortably, but Present was the one who ventured: “Apology? Apology for what?”
“Bob Cratchit is missing,” said Scrooge. “And I think you know why.”
Future was playing dumb, but Past truly didn’t know. She elbowed Present for an explanation, which prompted a meek: “Nobody could have foreseen—”
“I could,” said Scrooge. “And I did, six months ago. But you stopped me, and now they’re dead. They’re all dead.” He nodded to Past. “If you please.” And with a wave her hand, they were
standing in the cramped offices of Scrooge and Marley, on a cold winter’s eve. Two solitary candles lit the space: one by Scrooge’s desk, and one over the logbooks of Bob Cratchit, who was blowing warm air into his hands to keep warm.
“Please, Mr Scrooge,” he said, subservient as he could be. “Maybe just a little fire? Me fingers are so cold, I can’t—”
“Bah,” growled the wintertime Scrooge, stooped over his own heavy ledger. “Fires are an extravagance. We don’t need ‘em.” He checked over his shoulder, into the warehouse that made up the bulk of the building. “That chloroform shipment come in?”
“Yes, sir,” said Cratchit. “This morning.”
“Shelved and sorted?”
Cratchit looked away. “I thought I might tackle that the day after—”
“The day after?” said Scrooge. “The day after! Oh, and I suppose none of our clients will come looking for supplies on Christmas Day, will they?”
Cratchit wasn’t sure what to say. “I mean...I shouldn’t think so, Mr Scrooge. It’s—”
“Bah,” said Scrooge. “Humbug. Tomorrow’s like any other day. In at seven, and sort the shelves.”
“What, all the shelves?” gasped Cratchit.
“Idle hands, Mr Cratchit. Idle hands.”
In the corner, Past was still not quite following what was going on. Future-Scrooge glared at Present. “You laid on the guilt nice and thick, you did,” he said. “Made me doubt myself at a critical moment. If I’d just...”
He made a fist, lowered it with regret.
“Show the morning. After the goose.”
Past searched her memory—and the memories of everyone who’d ever lived—and with another wave of her hand, stepped
into the Cratchit hovel, ducking beneath the low-hanging beams that barely kept the walls in place. The family was gathered ‘round the table as the Christmas feast was being served. Scrooge was seated between Mrs Cratchit and Tiny Tim, handing out plates of glorious food as the children chattered away, all around him.
Present-Scrooge’s jaw tightened at the scene. Present noticed it.
“You don’t have to—”
“I need to,” snapped Scrooge. “And you do, too.”
Cratchit was carving the goose with a wide smile on his face, slicing out perfect servings for all. He looked to Scrooge in astonishment, still not quite believing what was happening...and Scrooge smiled back, so convinced was he that this was right, and good, and fair.
“Are you thirsty, Mr Scrooge?” asked Tiny Tim, in a wavering little voice. “I can fetch you some—”
“No, no, my boy, that’s alright,” he replied. “Don’t bother yourself.”
Tiny Tim held out his own glass, with the sincere look of pure goodness on his face. “We can share, if you like.”
Scrooge smiled, took the glass and took a small sip, just to be polite.
But then he paused, tasting the taste upon his lips a little more. He looked into the glass, frowning at the sight of—
They were back in the present, in Scrooge’s bedchamber. The second he realized it, he snarled: “We weren’t done yet!”
“I won’t have you rub our noses in it,” countered Present.
“In what?” asked Past, still so confused. “Rub our noses in what?”
Scrooge laughed. “How can you see so much, but know so little?” he said. “You even brought me there, that night. You made me relive that awful dance.”
Past looked to Present for assistance. He rolled his eyes. “He means Belle. The Christmas Eve with Belle.”
She was trying to understand, trying to make sense of it all...but realized the only way to follow was to lead. She waved her hand and in a flash they were
outside the tavern where a young Scrooge was slip-sliding through the snow, trying not to be late. But when he saw her there—his Belle, looking so beautiful in the flickering streetlights—he skidded to a stop before her, took off his hat and bowed deeply.
“I’m late, I know,” he said.
“Too late,” she said, curtly, fidgeting with her golden seashell locket like it held all her courage. “I’ve been waiting for hours.”
“I know, and I apologize, truly.”
“You always apologize. You always have excuses. But you’re never here, Ebeneezer. You’re never around when I need you.”
Present-Scrooge winced at what was coming next. At the stunning blindness that his young self was about to exhibit.
“I just lost track of time,” he said, too honest for his own good. “We got in a shipment of books on anatomy and psychology and potions and I just—”
“Sometimes I think you love your books more than me,” she said, tears in her eyes.
And poor stupid Scrooge, he didn't think to argue.
“Enough,” said the older version. “This is a pointless distraction. Research on your own time. I need to see the warehouse again. Six months back, but earlier. Before I got in.”
Present and Future both seemed unhappy at this request. “This isn't a taxi service. We don't—”
But Past did. She was curious, and just a little irritated by her companions. They settled into the darkness of the Scrooge and Marley warehouse, between the rows and rows of shelves, stocked full of assorted curiosities.
Present-Scrooge stalked forward, peering around the corner to see Cratchit there, box under his arm, checking inventory.
“There,” said Scrooge. “Just as I thought. He was there early.”
Cratchit took a bottle from the shelf and placed it, carefully, into his box. Past frowned at it, trying to read the label from an angle.
“What's he taking?” she asked.
“Arsenic compound,” said Scrooge, just as Cratchit turned to another shelf and removed a roll of bandages...and three long knives.
Scrooge’s jaw tensed. Past turned to her partners, mouth hanging open in shock. “Wait, but you said—”
“He was making things worse,” said Present. “He was winding them up with no regard for what might—”
“No regard?” laughed Scrooge. “Oh, that’s rich, coming from you. you convinced me that I was wrong.” He pointed an accusing finger at Future. “You showed me that poor boy dead by neglect! Neglect!”
Present made a quick motion and they were
back in Scrooge’s bedchamber, where he was was boiling over with fury. “I built my life around saving the innocent,” he said. “I sacrificed everything to keep those monsters at bay, and you—”
“Don’t blame me for your mistakes,” snapped Present. “You lost sight of what mattered, Scrooge. You were so intent on punishing Cratchit that you didn’t—”
“Punishing? Is that what you think I was—”
“Keeping him away from his family on Christmas Day was cruel!”
“It was for their own protection!” Scrooge boomed, and then waved them all
to the Cratchit house, in the present, where Past and Present were both trying to figure out how a mortal had managed such an incredible feat. Future, as always, tried to go unnoticed.
Scrooge stepped over the pools of blood, careful to avoid the spatter and bodies strewn around him. There, Mrs Cratchit. There, the two younger ones. And there, slumped in the corner, frozen in an awful cower, Tiny Tim.
Scrooge wanted to retch, but couldn’t bear it. “He showed all the signs of a narcissistic compulsive disorder,” he said, forcing himself to see it all. “He was escalating, slowly, over time. His wife never left the house without his permission. He lost his temper if he saw his children playing in the streets. To Cratchit, it was only ever about himself...the others were just bit players in his story. He poisoned his own son to elicit pity from passers-by.”
Past was putting the pieces together. Present couldn’t stand to try.
“I had him under control,” said Scrooge. “I was keeping him under control, like all the others.”
“What others?” asked Past.
Scrooge shot Present a warning glare. “Don't.”
Present turned to Past anyway and said: “Marley,” and Past flicked a finger and they were
standing in the foyer of the Marley Import Company as a younger Scrooge stood with reddened eyes, pleading his case to an older man with an indifferent aura.
“Please, Mr Marley, sir, I promise I can be of use! I've a rich experience in all manner of scientific investigation and—”
“You think your education impresses me?” snapped Marley. “You university chads never last a—”
“No sir, I—”
“Off with ye! Back to Cambridge!”
“I've no education, sir,” said Scrooge, and Marley paused his tirade just a bit. “I've no money, sir, and no friends. My family's all disowned me because I...” He cast his eyes down in shame. “Because of my obsession with the natures of death.”
Marley couldn't hide his curiosity. “Best bone saw for a living specimen.”
“Wilkins Model C,” said Scrooge, without hesitation. “But for efficiency over comfort, the Blackrock Pyre. 1785 or later.”
Marley observed Scrooge carefully. “We serve to a discerning clientele, Mr Scrooge. One that values privacy above all else.”
“Of course, sir,” nodded Scrooge. “As do I.”
Marley betrayed a slight smirk. “No extracurriculars on the premises.”
“No, sir. Never. I’ve my own spot for that.”
Marley’s smile grew wider and wider the more he thought of the possibilities. “You start tomorrow,” he said. “Wear dark clothes that hide stains well. Seven sharp.”
As the door closed, Past turned to Scrooge, mind racing through every recorded utterance between then and now, trying to piece together a reason for why things turned out the way they did.
“I don't understand,” she said. “Why would you—”
“Show her,” said Present.
“No,” said Scrooge, voice tinged with pleading.
“Show me what?” asked Past. “What am I missing?”
“Reap what you sowed,” said Present, then turned to Past and said: “A year later. In the warehouse. Marley’s office,” and before Scrooge could to protest, they were
standing by the thick, heavy doors at the back of the warehouse, as young Scrooge worked furiously at the padlock until—click!—it fell open, and he slipped inside.
A single candle lit the darkness as he took in his surroundings: a series of shelves, much like the rest of the place, but all holding exactly the same thing: dress boxes, row upon row, like a fine womens’ clothier somehow operated from the back of a dank and wretched corner of London. As he approached, he saw little bits of paper carefully tacked to the front of each shelf: Spring 1785, Autumn 1786, Summer 1788...
He skipped ahead, hunting up and down until he found it: Winter 1798. There were three boxes there, but only one made any sense to him at all. He slipped it off the shelf and set it on the floor, trembling hands begging him to stop, but he couldn’t. Not yet.
“Please no,” said Present-Scrooge, tormented but unable to look away. “I beg of you—”
“Shh,” said Present, and watched as young Scrooge opened the lid.
Inside were bones. A skull, and ribs, and both hands, perfectly preserved. No nicks and scratches from the tools that had carefully removed them, no stains or wearing at all. Lovingly arranged, in a kind of artwork. And there, in the middle of the display, was the thing that hurt most: a golden seashell locket, which had held all her courage.
Young Scrooge trembled with grief, horror and fury all at once, unable to make a sound for fear of being caught, yes, but also of losing control. He took a ragged gasp, tears streaming down his face, and
stumbled back into his chair, trying to remember he was home in his bedroom, as distant from that night as he could be...but not quite believing it.
“Your Belle...” whispered Past. “She...”
“She wasn’t mine,” said Scrooge. “I failed her. Twice. But I wasn’t going to fail her again. Once Marley was gone—”
“Tell her how,” teased Present.
“Tell her how, Scrooge.”
“I worked to—”
Present turned to Past: “Petitioner’s Gate, 18—”
“Don’t you dare!” Scrooge boomed, and Past tucked her hands in together, to show her mercy. Scrooge took a shaky breath before continuing. “I wanted to burn the place down. I wanted to erase every shred of evidence that monster Marley had ever lived. But then I realized...the other monsters, the other fiends who came to him for supplies and support and reassurance...they wouldn’t just stop without him. They’d keep hunting, keep killing, keep ruining lives...”
Past finally managed to string together the truth from the chatter. She blinked in surprise. “You helped them...to stop them.”
Scrooge nodded, mournfully. “It was imperfect, but it was working. At least until someone made me doubt myself, and unleashed the greatest evil I’ve ever seen, in all my years of tracking them.”
He turned to Present, face grim and tired, and said: “You owe me this. Show me where he is, so I can stop him.”
Present laughed. “Like I said, we’re not some taxi service, to abuse as you see—”
“Do it,” said Past, like there was no debate to it at all. “I...we did this. We’re responsible. We have to make it right.”
Present turned to Future for support, but got only a shrug in return.
“Fine,” he said. “So be it,” and he waved his hand and they
were in a dark room with thick stone walls, water dripping from above and a half-broken archway leading into a swampy unknown. It took Scrooge a moment to orient himself, but soon he saw, in the weakest of light, Bob Cratchit kneeling over the body of a woman—the one who sold flowers, down near the warehouse—with a long knife perched between two fingers as he searched for the perfect place to begin.
Scrooge realized, in horror, that the woman was still alive: her eyes were watching the blade even as her body stayed still.
“A paralytic,” Scrooge gasped. “He’s going to gut her alive.”
“Oh, ‘gut’ is such a base expression,” said Cratchit—causing Past to gasp. Cratchit looked over his shoulder, straight at Scrooge and grinned. “Finally found your nerve, Mr Scrooge?”
“This...this is impossible...” said Past. “They can’t see us when we—”
“Not without help, no,” said Scrooge, and turned to Present...
...who sighed, and gave a shrug. “We’re found out, Mr Cratchit.”
Cratchit stood, flipping the knife around and around his knuckles as he prowled closer to Scrooge. “You’ve spent so much of your life stopping the inevitable, Mr Scrooge, that you forgot the most important truth of all...the absolute beauty of living in the moment.”
“Enough of your research and planning and projections,” said Present. “It’s time to embrace the here-and-now...”
And in a flash, Cratchit swung the knife around and
Scrooge tumbled back into his chair, falling to the ground. He pushed a hand to his chest, came away with blood from a grazing cut that might’ve been so much worse, if not for...
“What have we done?” gasped Past, reliving the nightmares of her own past for a change. “They...they...”
“Present lied to you,” said Scrooge, getting back to his feet. “He spun a story that made me out to be the monster, to lay down cover for the monster he favoured.”
Past could only see in reverse, so the thought she had next was so terrifying to her: “Can we stop them?”
Scrooge looked to Future. “Well? Can we?” and before he knew it they were
atop a building off Whitechapel road, where a future-Scrooge collapsed to his knees, hand clutched to his gut as blood seeped through and onto the roof. He tried to get back up, to make it to the ledge, but it was all too much, and he crashed forward in a heap.
Past’s trembling hand covered her mouth, struck by the image, but Scrooge had other concerns. He made it to where his future self had been heading, and peered over the edge, down onto the street below.
There, broken on the cobblestone in a splatter of blood, was Bob Cratchit, his reign of misery at an end.
“That’ll do,” said Scrooge under his breath, then nodded to the others, to begin the hunt anew. “God help us, every one.”
Written for Joël, whose topic was: a story that makes Scrooge seem like a good guy, like everything was taken out of context.