Ghosts of Christmas
John McBain took a swallow of the amber liquid without a flinch. The first shot of Jack Daniels usually left a strong taste and an even stronger burn. After eighteen shots, JD lost its kick. The constant motion of raising the bottle to his lips soothed him more than the alcohol did. Besides what better way to spend Christmas? A man with his bottle. What more could John ask for?
A door slammed behind him. He didn't balk. He was a man on top of the world. Untouchable.
"John!" Michael's voice was as hard as the grip he applied to John's shoulder. "What the hell are you doing? It's freezing out here!"
John inhaled another swig of whiskey and stared at the view. The position on top of the rooftop was truly unique. From his perch on the ledge, he could see everything. The hominess of Angel Square, the opulence of Buchanan Plaza and the permanence of the Forest Oaks graveyard. The red neon glow of the Rodi's sign caught his eye as he swallowed another hit. He didn't bother to think of who was there, playing pool with her new beau and forgetting about him. Hell yeah, Evangeline deserved a happy life after the shitty way he treated her.
"What are you doing?" His brother questioned again.
"Drinking." John lifted his bottle as evidence. "Want some?"
Michael snatched the JD from him. The power of his frustration rippled with a gush of air. He flung the bottle to the roof's floor. Glass shattered in tiny pieces. The amber liquid flew in several directions. A few drops landed on John's bottom lip. He took his time swiping the moisture from his mouth.
"Just say 'no' next time, Mikey."
"Very funny." His younger brother's voice grated with heavy sarcasm. "What is with you? Oh, wait. Let me guess. You're having your very on solitary, pity party."
"It was until you showed up."
"Well, shoot me for giving a damn about my brother."
John made a show of patting himself down. "I can't. I left my piece in my apartment. Maybe next time."
Michael rolled his eyes. "You're just full of it tonight."
"Yeah, and if you don't mind..."
"I know. You want to be alone." Yet, Michael made no move to leave. "It's Christmas Eve, John. It isn't right to be alone at Christmas."
"There are a lot of things about me that aren't right."
"At least come out of the cold," Michael said. "Let me take you home."
John stretched his arms to show surrender. "Okay, Mikey. Take me home."
He draped his arm around Michael's shoulders, and his brother kept a firm hold around his waist. Together, the two McBains stumbled down the staircase to John's cold, lonely apartment. To his credit, Michael didn't turn on every light in the place. The lamp that flickered beside the sofa brought a sharp enough sting to the backs of John's eyes. Wincing, he dropped to the opposite end of the couch and closed his eyes.
"That's right, bro," Michael said, pulling a blanket over him. "Sleep it off. Call me when you wake up. Marcy and I are having a few friends over. We want you to come."
John grunted in reply. Even in his present state, he knew better than to respond with what he really felt. The sight of the newlyweds enjoying their first Christmas together only reminded him of everything he'd lost. He was a glutton for punishment but there were limits as to what he willingly endured.
"I'll take that as a maybe." Michael released a short, humorless chuckle. "I'll talk to you later."
"Yeah," John mumbled. "Later."
Slumber overtook him. But even in sleep, the demons haunting his life refused to give him a moment's peace. The whiskey dulled his senses during his waking hours. Trapped in oblivion, he had no such hope. Everything came at him in full force. The mistakes of the past returned in vivid detail. The lies and the unspoken words that hurt two women mocked him until he woke in a fit of shouts and drenched in sweat.
Gasping, he struggled into a sitting position. His chest squeezed tightly with every breath he took. Suddenly he felt like a kid again. Back after his father's death. Many nights he awakened to sweat soaked pajamas and an inability to breathe. The despair of being without his father took hold of his sleeping hours. During the day, he had to be the strong one for his mother and his little brother. At night, the rules changed and his own grief took precedence.
God, he thought, I haven't done this in years.
He didn't like the relapse. Being helpless was no longer a part of his daily existence. He spent years ignoring the possibility and then Caitlyn died.
Kicking the blanket off, he swung his legs to the floor and stood. Careful not to knock over any breakable objects, he stumbled to the cabinets along the back wall.
"Whatcha looking for?"
His entire body jerked. Michael left hours ago. Had someone broken in? His right hand went to the holster at his hip and came up empty.
"You're wasting your time, you know. On both counts. Whiskey will only take you so far and a gun won't hurt me."
That voice... Damn, it sounded familiar. John turned. An eerie glow cast a bizarre light near the sofa. He stepped closer and couldn't believe his eyes. Blinking didn't help either.
"Yeah, it's me," the apparition said, draped in chains and an aura of gloom. "Don't tell me you don't remember me. Not after the way you worked so hard to dig me up and find my murderer. Thanks, by the way. Colson came so close to getting away with it."
"Paul?" John's voice sounded raspy and raw to his own ears. "You're dead."
"Man, can't get anything over on you, can I?"
John released a harsh laugh. "This isn't real." He turned back to cabinet and the full bottle of Jack Daniels he kept stowed away for emergencies.
Quick as a streak of lightning, Paul suddenly appeared as one with the cabinet and just inches from John's face. John fell back and landed hard on his rear.
"I told you. Whiskey won't help. Besides, I don't have long and we've wasted enough time so listen and listen good."
John could neither move nor speak. He sat still and hoped the nightmare would end soon.
"You're screwing up your life, John. Normally, I wouldn't give a shit about anyone else, least all of you, but you took care of Natalie. And whether she understood it or not, I loved her...despite how everything went down. I just never learned how to show it."
"So, that's why you beat her up and tried to rape her."
"You don't have all the facts, McBain and I'm not here to explain them to you."
"Then why are you? Get on with it or get out."
"See, it's that attitude. That right there is what's messing you up. You don't listen and you don't pay attention to reality. I'm your wake up call because it's getting late, McBain and you'll be out of time before you know it."
"What? Is my number up or something?"
"I can't tell you that," Paul's ghost said. "All I can say is we were a lot alike. Loners who lived life with a chip on our shoulders. Mine got me killed. You still have a chance. Don't turn your back on what's out there. I'm in chains because I have to be. You imprisoned yourself on purpose—"
A sad, moaning wail stopped him mid-sentence. The spirit shuddered. For a moment, stark fear seemed to register in his translucent eyes. Then, he collected himself and continued.
"My time is up. The other three will tell you more."
The moans became louder. A chill zipped down John's spine. He wrapped his arms around himself. "What other three?"
"Ghosts, spooks, spirits. Whatever you wanna call them. They're coming. Be ready for them and heed their warning. It's never too late to make things right...until it's too late."
* * *
"Rise and shine, Cowboy!"
John bolted from his prone position on the floor. Was that his father's voice? No, it couldn't be. He tugged his earlobes and shook his head.
"Johnny! Get up! We don't have much time, and there's something I much show you."
"I'm the Ghost of Christmas Past, son," the apparition said, "and I'm your guide. Come with me."
"I'm with you, Dad." Sudden tears blurred John’s vision. "I'm right here with you."
In a whirlwind, time, space and energy whisked ghost and man through the cosmos. Emotions long since buried swept through John. They lodged in his throat and made speech difficult. When they landed on a snow-covered sidewalk, John coughed several times to collect his bearings.
The ghost waited until John regained his composure before speaking.
"Do you recognize this place?"
"Of course." Joy swelled inside his chest. He’d always recognize Jersey. "It's our house...where we lived before you...died."
"How was it living here?"
"It was great, Dad. You know that. You and Mom made everything wonderful."
The ghost nodded once and instantly, they were inside. A large, beautiful Christmas tree had a prominent spot in the front window. Presents covered the space beneath the tree. An empty plate except for a few crumbs rested on an end table. The note from Santa read, "Thank you."
Two boys suddenly came tumbling down the staircase. The older one kept a firm hold on the little one's hand. They laughed and loudly expressed their joy. John pressed a hand to his mouth and stepped behind the ghost.
"It's okay," the spirit murmured. "They can't see you. Just watch. Do you remember?"
"Sure," John said softly. "This is the last Christmas before you died."
"How did you feel then?"
"Like nothing bad would ever happen. Kids never have a clue."
"They're smarter than everyone gives them credit for. They have sense enough to enjoy life."
John opened his mouth to respond, but stopped when two figures at the stairs caught his attention. While the two boys ripped into their gifts, their parents stood back in the shadows, watching and loving them. Love filled the McBain house from the basement to the attic. John had forgotten how good it felt.
"Now, another Christmas," the spirit said.
John barely had a moment to catch his breath. The next scene took him straight to a Christmas he vowed never to forget. A small sparsely decorated tree sat on top a little table. What the tree lacked in depth, it made up in brightly colored ornaments and lights. A beautiful woman sat perched on the edge of the chair adjacent to the tree. Her eyes were closed and she held her hands clasped tightly together in her lap. A sense of anticipation vibrated around her. The wide smile on her lips conveyed her happiness at the moment.
"Caitlyn," John murmured under his breath.
"Another Christmas you remember?" the Ghost of his father questioned. "You haven't forgotten?"
"It's not everyday I ask the woman I love to spend the rest of her life with me."
Seconds later, a younger, less jaded John McBain swept through the swinging kitchen door. Grinning like a fool, he strode carefully with a tray laden with chilled champagne and two flute glasses. A singe red rose lay between the glasses. A black velvet jewelry box rested beside it.
"When can I open my eyes?" Caitlyn asked. Laughter rang in her voice. "You know I'm not good with waiting."
"The wait's over," he said in husky tones. "Open your eyes."
Standing back from the two lovers allowed John to truly capture everything. The warmth of the room came from more than the furnace. Their love warded against the chill outside and promised to sustain them through the different seasons. Together, they vowed to weather any storm and make every day of their lives like Christmas. But again, death changed everything.
"Can we get out of here?"
"But we haven't heard the proposal," the Ghost said.
"I know how this one ends. I want to go."
"That's okay. I'll take it from here."
As the Ghost of John's father faded, Caitlyn's ghost took his place. Serenity enveloped her. John felt himself drawn to the sensation of peace.
"Who are you supposed to be?"
"The Ghost of Christmas Present," she said. "You're right. You know how this ends. Let's go see what you're missing."
Flashes of light streaked around them. Hot and cold came at them in blinding succession. Until finally, they reached their destination--Michael's place. John stiffened, instinctively knowing this would be a hard one to watch.
"What's the point?" he asked harshly, wanting desperately to leave.
Michael came in dragging a decent sized tree. Marcy trailed close behind. Her words bounced rapidly while Michael smiled and nodded in return.
"Michael, pick it up. Don't drag it! Would you look at that tree?" she said with a sigh. "It's my fault for waiting until the last minute. Everyone will laugh at it. This tree decorating party will fall flat before it even begins."
"No, it won't," he assured her. He lifted the tree onto its stand and fluffed out its branches. "There's nothing wrong with this tree."
"It's not perfect."
"What in life is?" Michael asked. "Perfect is spending Christmas with the people you love." He pulled her into his arms and covered her cheeks and nose with kisses. "We're together and we're spending tonight with good friends. That's all that matters."
"You're right, Michael."
He laughed. "Now, that's something I don't hear often enough."
"Every time it happens, I'll be sure to let you know."
Their laughter chimed together like jingling bells. John turned away. He didn't begrudge Michael his happiness but bearing witness to it wasn't always easy.
"You can't run away from it," the Ghost of Caitlyn told him. "Turn around. We're not leaving until it's time."
He stood still. His silence spoke volumes.
"John," Caitlyn's voice warned with a haunting echo, "there's no easy way out of this. Face it."
"You're not telling me anything I don't already know."
"But I'm showing you things that you don't."
Slowly, he moved. The scene hadn't changed. It was as if Michael and Marcy had been frozen in time at the same moment he looked away. When he blinked, their action resumed and so did their conversation.
"I can't believe it," Marcy said, "our first Christmas. Did you ever think we'd get our act together?"
"I never gave up hoping," Michael said. "I'm still hoping for John."
"He was pretty out of it when you saw him," she said softly. "Does he know that we invited Evangeline?"
Michael shrugged. "I didn't see any point in telling him. I hope she doesn't change her mind. The last six months have been rough on her. I want her to know we'll always been here for her."
"You like her a lot."
"She was good for John. Maybe too good. But yeah. I like her a lot whether or not my brother ever figures out that she was the best thing to happen to him in a very, very long time."
"But what about that thing with Natalie?" Marcy asked, frowning. "I thought John was smarter than that."
"Let's call it a momentary lapse in judgment or a walk down the path of self-destruction," Michael said. "With her, it was easy. Evangeline encouraged him to be a better man because she deserves the best. That's why he ran away from her."
Marcy gave Michael a long look. "When did you become so wise?"
"I've known my brother for a long time. I know when he's running scared."
"Do you think they'll ever find their way back together?"
"I hope so, but this time, John had better realize how remarkable Evangeline is. He broke her heart once. I'll take care of him myself if he does it again."
A knock sounded at the door. Marcy left to answer it and Michael focused on pulling out the ornaments and lights from the bags. A few moments later, John's new sister-in-law returned with Evangeline. The beautiful lady lawyer came bearing gifts and a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes. John knew he was part of the reason for her melancholy state if not the whole reason.
"I didn't know if I should bring something so I brought something. Don't worry," Evangeline said, handing the covered dish to Marcy, "it's not a fruit cake. I picked up a raspberry and chocolate swirled cheesecake from the Palace. Sounds good?"
"Sounds great!" Michael hugged her and planted a loud kiss on her cheek. "I'm glad you came."
"I'll put this in the kitchen," Marcy said before leaving the two friends alone.
"I almost didn't," Evangeline confessed. "I wasn't sure if John would be here and I wasn't sure if I was ready... Is he coming?"
Michael took her hands. "I invited him. I don't know if he'll accept."
"I hope he does," she said.
"Yes. Christmas is the worst time to be alone. He needs to be around love just like the rest of us. He should be reminded that he's not alone."
Michael smiled. "Neither are you, E. I'll always be here for you. I'll always be your friend."
Tears rolled unchecked down her smooth brown cheeks. "Thanks, Michael. The same here."
"See," the Ghost of Caitlyn said. "I bet you didn't know that."
"I'll take over from here." The voice was booming and loud.
Twinges of fear rippled down John's spine. Caitlyn's ghost vanished. The form of a man John didn't recognize replaced her.
"Who are you?" John asked.
"The Ghost of Christmas Future."
"Who were you?"
"Evangeline and Layla's father. Come. Your time here is done. Your final destination awaits."
John stepped back. "What if I don't want to go?"
The ghost gave him a piercing look. "You don't have a choice."
A gust of cold propelled them forward. All of John's nerve endings stood on end, trembling and vibrating. Upon landing on solid ground, he fell to his knees and huddled low. Even the ground was cold. Then, he realized why. Snow covered it and flurries swirled around him and the Ghost. However, not one flake landed on either of them. It was if they were in a protective bubble.
"Where is this?"
John recognized nothing at first. Only that they were outside. Objects slowly came into focus. A few barren trees stood amid stone statues. On closer inspection, he realized the statues were tombstones. The sensation of desolation shook him; he shuddered.
"Why are we here?"
"It's the future."
"I don't like it," John said with the voice of a petulant child. "I don't want to be here."
"Haven't asked you what you wanted," the Ghost said. "Watch. It's starting to happen."
The scene came alive as two figures trudged across the ice and snow. Their hands were clasped together in a strong grip. The woman slipped on a patch of ice and the man moved quickly to right her steps. As they drew closer, John recognized the pair as Evangeline and Hugh Hughes, the Assistant District Attorney. From Hughes' protective stance, their couple status was obvious.
"What's she doing with him?" John questioned harshly. "I don't trust that guy."
"Watch and you'll see," the Ghost advised.
The couple stopped at a cold stone slab. While the other graves had flowers and wreaths adoring them, this one had none. Its barren state struck John deep within his heart. A chill of certainty swept through him at once.
"I know," he quietly stated. "That's my grave."
Sadness enveloped John. He wanted to run and leave, but he knew better than to ask. Unlike the other spirits, this ghost with his formidable disposition would not adhere to any of John's requests. Begging would undoubtedly anger the apparition. John kept his mouth shut and decided to bide his time.
Evangeline crouched at the grave. Her gloved hand swept snow and wet leaves off the marker. Hugh placed a hand on her shoulder. His frustration at the moment was etched in the tightness of his mouth. His brows darkened into a scowl.
"Why must we come every year?" Hugh asked.
"You don't have to come with me," she said without turning to face him. "I can do this alone."
"It's cold and slippery out here, and with the baby coming... I'm not leaving you alone if I can be with you." Hugh released a loud sigh. "You still love him, don't you?"
"A part of me always will. Deep down, he was a good man."
"Who drank himself to death."
She shook her head. "Alcohol didn't kill him. Fear did. He was afraid. I wish I had understood that while he was alive."
"Then you could have been his wife and not mine."
She extended her hand. He took it and helped her stand. Giving him a soft smile, she removed her glove and gently cupped his face. "I can't say what would have happened, but I want you to finally understand that I'm happy with you."
"I understand. It's just that...I don't get why we have to come to this sad, lonely place every year. Christmas is for the living. He'll never know you came."
"I know," she said. "Somehow, I think he knows it, too. Since Michael and Marcy left, no one else is around to remember him. That makes me sad. Visiting at Christmas helps. I can't explain it any better than that, but if you don't want to come anymore, you don't have to."
"I'll come." He placed a quick kiss on her lips and the sight broke John's heart.
"Can we go?" he asked the Ghost. "I can't take any more. I can't believe she married him. Does she love him? Does he really make her happy? Why does she visit my grave? No one else gives a damn. Why does Evangeline?"
"She loves you. My daughter never stopped giving up on you even after everyone else had," the Ghost said. "When you walked away from her love, your soul gave up."
"What she said about me being afraid, is that true?"
The Ghost turned his shadowy form toward John. Glowing eyes peered through a dark hood. "What do you think?"
John didn't respond. The answer was obvious. "Is it too late?"
"Then, take me back! Take me back right now!"
John didn't have to ask again. The next thing he knew, he was back in his apartment on the sofa right where Paul's ghost found him. John turned on the lamp and looked at his watch. It wasn't too late! He still had time to make things right.
* * *
The party at Michael and Marcy's was just getting started when John arrived. His brother blocked the doorway. His eyes were wide and his face ashen. John laughed and proclaimed his greeting again.
"Merry Christmas, Mikey! I hope I'm not too late. I brought gifts."
"I don't know what's freaking me out more," his brother said, "you or the gifts."
"Want me to leave?" John asked.
"Are you crazy? Get in here!" Michael yanked John inside and slammed the door closed. "Marcy! Look who's here and with gifts! Sweetie, you're not gonna believe this."
Everyone greeted John with smiles. He hadn't felt this connected with people in years if ever. Marcy appreciated his gifts and plied him with chips, dip and punch until he could hardly move. He finally shooed her away. Evangeline slowly walked over. She seemed skittish, but determined to see the moment through.
"Marcy's happy you came," Evangeline said.
"Me, too," he said. "I'm glad you're here, too."
She gave him a half smile. "You don't have to say that."
"I'm saying it because it's true and because saying I'm sorry doesn't cover half of what I owe you."
She shook her head. "John, I don't—"
"Want an apology? You deserve that and so much more." He shoved his hands in his pockets to keep from touching her. They weren't ready for that, yet. "I know I can't possibly make everything up to you, but I'd like to try. I blew it the first time because of fear. I won't let fear control me again. Not like that."
"I don't know what to say."
"Just think about it," he said, "and while you're thinking, keep your distance from Hugh Hughes. I don't trust that guy."
She laughed. "He's nice."
Her laughter brought joy to his soul. He couldn’t remember the last time he brought a smile to her face. The old John never believed it would ever be possible again. Releasing his fear brought a new perspective. Obviously, that point of view was right on target. The lights in her eyes sparkled like diamonds. Air caught in his throat at the pure beauty of her happiness. His mouth parted in a smile and his heart filled with hope.
"Look." He jutted his chin toward his sister-in-law. "Marcy's digging through the CDs. Would you start us off?"
"I'd love to. Have any requests?"
"'Joy to the World.'"
"Okay. 'Joy' it is."
"Yes," he said, "I get it now."
Sudden tears glistened in her eyes, as she smiled.
Oh, yeah. I get it now.46