Editor's note: This serial, which explores the days leading up to that fateful night in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," continues through Christmas Day. The story thus far: Marley's friend, the old man, dies while stopping a thief who stole a billfold from a well-to-do gentleman. All previous installments available at www.mailtribune.com/marley.
Rage was a masterful puppeteer. It pulled at my strings, balled my hands into fists.
In an instant, I was on the thief. My arms swung with demonic frenzy. My senses dulled, condensed my reality into a series of minimalist flashes: red everywhere, speckling the cobblestones; my knuckles, saturated with wet warmth; the thief, screaming, begging. This scrapper, this heathen given a wide berth by everyone in Queen's Row, suddenly reduced to a milksop, a menacing rat that finally met a cat.
The sudden sensation of hands on my shoulders pulled me out of the altered reality. A whisper accompanied them, barely discernible through a high-pitched white noise that hissed in my ears. I looked at my hands. I looked at the thief's bloodied face.
The old man lay nearby, quite still.
I knelt at his side, not wanting to move him but wanting to hold him just as fiercely. There were no breaths or strong thuds from his chest, mouth only slacked in a silent scream. Rage sold me to Devastation. My heart became a charred, unrecognizable thing, my sobs almost gags as I clutched the old man's lifeless body.
I made out barks from onlookers, shouts for police. Then I heard another voice.
"Come with me."
I looked up. The man in the top hat, now reunited with his billfold, stared intently at me.
"I can help you. But we're not to run. I will stay and give my statement to detectives. I'll tell them you acted in self-defense."
"You'll return home with me. I've a bed, food, a warm fire," the man said.
"Your home? Why?"
"Does it matter?"
"I can't just...I can't leave him like this."
"We won't. As I said, lad: We will stay. I will give my statement. The undertaker will haul your father off, prepare him for a proper burial."
"He wasn't...." I stopped myself, bit my tongue. Like it or not, he had been my father. My life had been a broken, wounded bird before him, absent of love and purpose. He gave me both. If not a father, then what?
"Beg your pardon?" the man asked.
"Nothing," I said, then agreed to his terms.
We spoke to the police, watched them clap irons on the pummeled thief and haul him away. A detective ruffled my hair, praised my bravery for stopping the thief cold and helping this gentleman I did not know.
My bravery. Again, I said nothing, only watched as this man and these officers formed their own narrative.
The undertakers arrived a short time later. It made me sick to watch them pick up the old man's lifeless form, to watch it disappear into a dark carriage and roll away forever. I felt myself give a small wave, blinked a bumper crop of tears from my eyes.
"Are you ready?" the gentleman asked.
Numb and shattered, I followed him from Queen's Row: a place that burned with death and sadness but was the only home I'd ever known.
The screams and vulgarities I’d grown accustomed to faded to the clatter of carriage wheels, blacksmith hammers and voices that cackled in my ears. The gentleman peppered me with questions, eager to talk and perhaps mask the discomfort we both felt. It was the first time I realized how truly young he was, no more than 25 by the looks of it.
“How long had you been living in that ghastly place?” he asked.
"My whole life."
“How you’ve managed to stay alive without proper lodging, hygiene or nutrition is beyond me."
Because I'm a miracle, I wanted to say. That's what the old man had told me, that I was a miracle. I said nothing, only shrugged.
“My name is Ebenezer,” the man said. “Ebenezer Scrooge.”
“Jacob Marley,” I said quietly.
Scrooge's home was a mansion off a small, quiet side street. An iron gate with twin lions loomed in front, swinging into a small yard with trimmed hedges, roses and a stone fountain, all extravagance such as I’d never seen. We pushed through the front door to the inside, the iron knocker in the center swinging back and slamming into the center with a stiff clack.
I bathed upstairs in private, used soap and watched stains appear in the water of the metal tub as so many years of filth and grime slid off me. I used tooth powder and dressed in finery a trifle large on me. The old man plagued my thoughts, his listless eyes and unmoving mouth and the vile gasping sound he’d made as he died. Fear, guilt, shame, fascination and the disarming comfort I now enjoyed dueled within me.
A dining hall furnished with a long table of dark wood greeted me downstairs. Candles adorned it. Steaming platters of meat, bread and vegetables were spread across in neat patterns. Scrooge sat at the head, sipping wine.
"You look well," he said. “Please, sit.”
I did. A woman in a simple dress and apron entered and spooned the food onto my plate. Turkey. Potatoes. Rolls with real butter. I started off with reluctant nibbles. Those turned to voracious bites. Nothing had ever tasted so fine. Scrooge watched me, candles flickering against his face while he took restrained bites with a fork and dabbed at the corners of his mouth with a cloth napkin. I said nothing and grabbed another roll, tore a fluffy morsel and stuffed it into my mouth.
“I am sorry about your friend,” Scrooge said. “After the inquest, we can pay for a burial if you’d like.”
I kept silent. The woman who’d served us re-entered the room.
“Anything else, Mr. Scrooge?”
“No, Maggie. Just the dishes, thank you.”
I said nothing as Ebenezer lit his pipe and exhaled a gray-blue cloud that drifted toward the ceiling. I fidgeted and stared at the floor.
"I know you've lost much today," Ebenezer said. "I'm sure no words of mine can even begin to offer comfort, so I won't try. Just know you've a home here now. Stay as long as you wish."
It is interesting, now, to recall those words, to remember Ebenezer as he was before greed and darkness stole him away and left a monstrous likeness in his place.
I slept in a bed that night and watched the shadows drift across the ceiling. Everything smelled clean, safe. Rain sounded against the roof, a steady, soothing drone. I pulled back the blankets and walked to the window, peeked around the curtains and stared out at the street.
The rain refracted against the gas lamps and wet the streets below. I thought about the small bridge and the feel of hard cobblestone digging into my back while we tried to sleep and keep a fire going without attracting too many prigs to our spot.
I went to my old garments on the floor and pulled the coin the old man had given me out of the right front pocket, held it to a nearby candle and twirled it in the meager light. I fell asleep clutching it in my fist and dreamed of the old man’s shadow hovering in the window, lit only by the moon and occasional flashes of lightning as he watched me sleep with terrible, unblinking eyes.
Tomorrow: Marley's ghost visits The Council, keepers of the ethereal realm, with an unusual request.