Amber’s Christmas Carol

A short story written for the Webook Christmas Challenge.  The brief was to take an existing Christmas Story and rewrite it using the same characters but giving it a new twist. I’ve used the characters from Diary of a Hunter but written this episode more as a stand alone.  Although Scrooge doesn’t directly appear and there is no mention of Tiny Tim, the ghosts are all present and, hopefully, I’ve stayed within the remit by mentioning the Scrooge legacy…

The eagle eyed reader will notice some of the words are, in fact, not my own.  I’ve taken some liberties by using Dickens’ own descriptions of the ghost of Marley, I’m crediting his work here to allay any accusatios of plaigiarism.  Yes I have plagiarised but only minimally and purely by  way of influence.

*****

The first ghost arrived as Amber was doing her morning crunches. Seth was out running and Duncan was, presumably, still sleeping the sleep of the just.

Generally Christmas was a quiet time for the hunters. Christmas cheer and goodwill-to-all-men cast a strong enough spell on the world to keep most beasties at bay. Other than a couple of years previous, when they were contacted by a guy who suffered a terrible triple haunting every Christmas, part of a family curse dating back to the mid-1800s apparently, they’d never had much on over the holiday period. Consequently it was the one time Amber and the boys would actually make it home rather than being called away on yet another hunt, as per usual.

The months running up to Christmas were another matter entirely. Following the Halloween free-for-all, it seemed that spooks and monsters hung around to make the most of things before peace and love shut things down, temporarily. Hauntings and dismemberings and weird occurrences increased dramatically in November and early December and, by the time things had quietened down, the three of them were run ragged. A quiet Christmas at home was therefore welcomed by all.

Amber was mulling over the strange dream she’d had the night before. She often mulled while working out.  Mostly it was the one part of the day she was guaranteed peace, Duncan slept rather than worked out and Seth was still nervous enough around her to clear out whenever it looked like they’d be alone for a while.  Thus, time to mull. Although Amber often suffered prophetic dreams, (I say suffered because they were always dreams of impending horror and possible death. Prophetic dreams never seemed to show you when someone was about to do something nice like buy you a kitten or take you for ice cream.) this hadn’t been one of them. It had had a sense of foretelling, almost like a mental tang that dreams of the future-to-come all have. Hence the mulling.

In between huffs and grunts as Amber strained with crunches, and bicycle crunches and other torturous moves designed to keep her muscles tight, she replayed the dream. She’d been out hunting – not surprisingly a lot of Amber’s dreams started that way – and on returning home was visited by an apparition. In real life, anywhere Amber and the boys stayed was warded against Supes of pretty much any variety but, in dreamland, rules change and anything can happen. True to form dream-Amber didn’t question the apparent lack of spiritual protection and instead surveyed the translucent form before her.

His face had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar, and he wore a handkerchief around his jaws like a bandage. His entire body was captive, bound and double-ironed with long chains wound about him like a tail. The spirit seemed to have an infernal atmosphere of its own, as he moved the ‘tail’ clanked and clashed behind him and his hair and skirts, and tassels, were agitated as by the hot vapour from an oven.

Amber rolled over and started counting out press ups while she considered the conversation dream-Amber had held with the dream-apparition. He had despaired at his inability to ever find happiness in the mortal world or the next. He explained, in suitably ghostly tones that, as he’d spent his life on this earth obsessing over money and mistreating the poor and wretched to fill his pocket, he was condemned as part of his penance to walk the earth for eternity, never to find rest or peace, experiencing an incessant torture of remorse. He warned dream-Amber to change her ways lest she suffered the same fate.  Dream-Amber  pointed out that, to her knowledge, she had never mistreated the poor and had certainly never obsessed over money so, therefore, was probably not actually in need of changing her ways in order to save her immortal soul. The spirit roared in frustration, seemingly angered by Amber’s literal mindedness, and tore the bandage free revealing a gaping maw. Unearthly screams issued from the spirit’s abysmal mouth as the ghost loomed nearer. A booming voice echoed from the cavern “THE SUBJECTS MAY CHANGE BUT THE CRUELTY, NEGLECT AND OBSESSION REMAINS THE SAME.”

Stretching, Amber considered how the voice had sounded like great stone slabs crashing and grinding together. It was an ancient voice, a voice of a doomed soul torn apart by aeons of torment. It had further intoned a sombre warning, “AMBER THESSAILY, CHANGE YOUR WAYS LEST YOU SUFFER THE SAME FATE!!!”  With a spine-chilling howl that brought dream-Amber to her knees, the spirit departed.

As Amber finished stretching she dismissed the whole dream as a slight disorder of the stomach, an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. To dispel the chill which had settled upon her she exclaimed, in her best Michael Caine voice, “there’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

A polite ahem caught her attention. Slowly, Amber turned to face a figure sat neatly at one end of the sofa.

“I’m awfully sorry.” The figure stated, “you were so absorbed in your…” It gestured towards Amber and the floor before continuing, “that I thought it appropriate to wait until you were done.”

Frowning, Amber stepped closer to the figure; a trick of the light seemed to have caused it to be shrouded in shadow, therefore making it hard for her to determine exactly what the figure was.

“How the hell did you get in here?  Was it Seth? SETH!!!” She called; assuming she’d not heard him return and that he had encountered the person(?) and given it ingress. A quiet chuckle drew her attention.

“Silly goose, I’m here only for you, you should have been expecting me.”  The figure slipped off the couch and stood. At full height it reached Amber’s waist. She glanced down, surprised to realise, once the shadows had retreated, that the figure was a child, clothed in old-fashioned dress. “Come,” she said, reaching out a dainty white hand to Amber.

Now as far as I can assume, at this point Amber figured she was, in fact, still dreaming being as she seemed to be in the company of a small apparition, something which could not get through the wards placed all around the house. Therefore, she thought nothing of taking the offered hand. As soon as she did a wind swept around both Amber and the child, the lounge they stood in blurred as the wind whirled faster and faster before dying out as suddenly as it had begun. Instead of the familiar whitewashed walls and worn furnishings of Amber’s home they were stood in the street outside an imposing building, at night. The walls were clapboarded and, although hard to tell in the street lighting, appeared to be pale blue. The windows, veranda columns and railings, doorsills and steps were all painted white. Although Amber had never been here personally she knew the house. It was the very same house Brighid; Amber’s mother had been burnt alive in. Being as the house was standing and not a burnt-out shell and this was clearly a continuation of the weird dream, it was a pretty obvious assumption that this was probably the night it happened.

“Right, kiddo, care to explain?”  Amber glared down at the child. Ideally she did not want to witness the moment, certainly not again, although she spared a second to be grateful the ghost-child hadn’t chosen to drop them off inside. That part she had seen before.

“I am the ghost of Christmas past,” the child spoke in a musical voice, reminiscent of Christmas bells.

“Oohkay? So showing me this part of my past does?..”  They were cut off as a blinding white light flashed from one of the upstairs windows, a crackle of blue energy lanced out and then, with a whoosh, the top half of the house seemed to simultaneously explode and implode. Amber squinted her eyes against the light and raised her arm, as if to ward off the heat. Flames flickered over the remains of the building and sparks rose twinkling into the air. She felt pain lance through her as, once again, she lost her mother. Angry at the child for subjecting her to this she wrenched her hand from its dainty grip.

“Jesus kid what is your fucking prob…” the words dried up in Amber’s mouth as she glared at the child and came face to face with the immense torso of, what seemed to be, a giant. A deep resounding chuckle boomed over Amber’s head as she was swept up in trunk-like arms. Suffocating, face first into the beard and belly of the new apparition, Amber struggled, making urk sounds until she managed to free her face just enough to breathe. Her stomach lurched as she felt the ground drop out from under her feet. A sickening, swaying motion indicated they were moving although, to where she had little idea. After an incredibly long time the motion stopped and Amber felt ground once again beneath her feet. The ghost-giant released its hold on her, stepped aside and intoned, “Observe.”

They appeared to be standing in a disused drive-in movie theatre, flickering shadows all around them. It took a moment for Amber to realise the screen was on and showing fight scene after fight scene. Occasionally the ‘camera’ focussed on one of the participants long enough for her to realise she was watching what seemed to be a montage of various fights they’d gotten themselves involved in. She turned to the giant, giving his elbow a puzzled glare.

“I am the ghost of Christmas Present” he boomed, sounding enough like Brian Blessed for Amber to be certain this was one of her more creative dreams. Definitely an undigested bit of beef or a crumb of cheese she thought to herself.

“Riiight, and by showing me my present you hope to achieve what?” she challenged.

“I show you a life of neglect and cruelty.” The spirit rejoined.

“Uhm, right, I see. Thing is, pal, I see nothing but countless successes. I’m really not getting your point.”

With a creak and a pop of ancient bones, the giant crouched so that one eye was level with Amber.

“Your life is one of cruelty for the pain you visit on others. The neglect is what you do to yourself.” He boomed.

Amber’s mouth hung open, more because she was torn between requesting the ghost repeated “Gordon’s alive?!” for her amusement or challenging the statement for further clarity, rather than out of fear or shock. Before she had a chance to settle on the appropriate choice the eye, and giant, faded out of existence entirely, leaving Amber stranded.

“OI! Hey!” she yelled. “Ah c’mon really? For shit’s sake McClane!”

“Yippee-ki-yay motherfucker.” Droned the kind of voice that set your skin crawling and made your stomach clench really tight with inexplicable fear. Amber spun round, eyes frantically scanning the vacant lot. Ice flooded her veins as her skin felt like it was about to crawl right off her body. Her breath formed vapour clouds and the air temperature dropped, moving rapidly through ‘chill of a crypt’ to a much deeper, darker chill. The kind of chill that settles deep within your bones, turning your very limbs to lead.

Something touched Amber’s forehead and the drive-in receded into darkness. Within the darkness was a tiny pinprick of light. Amber felt something steer her towards that light and, with nothing better to do and still safe in the assumption that she was dreaming, she allowed herself to be propelled towards it.

Eventually it brightened into a scene, well, to be accurate some sort of triptych. The first panel was dominated by a headstone. Carved into it was Amber’s full name and date of birth followed by a second date, presumably, the date of her ‘death’. The middle panel showed Duncan doing pretty much exactly what he’d always done, eating cereal at odd times of the day, watching sports, surfing for porn, kicking uglies’ butts, only this time with a different girl by his side. Presumably, Amber’s replacement following her ‘death’. The final panel showed Seth, doing pretty much what Seth always does, also, sans Amber.

“So, Ghost of Christmas Future, this is proving what exactly?  That if I continue to live my live as a hunter I leave nothing behind but a headstone as my legacy and that the people I love and that love me move on without too much pain?  How is this supposed to be a bad thing?”

“Human beings need companions, Amber; they connect with each other’s lives. You connect with no lives and your passing will be as unremarked upon by your loved ones, as that of a stranger.”

“But in my life I have saved lives, the fact I have loved ones to not remark upon my death suggests I’ve played a hand in their continued existence. Certainly Duncan and Seth would have died countless times if it weren’t for me. Dude,” Amber turned to face, well, actually nothing, the spirit remained invisible, and continued, “I’m a hunter, it’s not even about sacrificing a normal life to do what I do. It is a normal life. My mother was a witch, she was burned alive, my father is Godsknows where and last year a fucking angel killed my dog. Now, if you are done trying to scare me off I’d like to wake up.”

The images before Amber vanished; becoming the paintings on the walls of her lounge. The rough ground beneath her feet became the wooden boards of her lounge floor. The door to the street opened causing Amber to whirl round, startled.

“Hey,” panted Seth, returning from his run. One look at Amber’s face and he faltered, “you okay? Amber?”

She focussed properly on Seth, “yeah, just, er, indigestion. Good run?”

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