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Past and present

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: A hooded phantom on a quest to help Marley warn Scrooge of his fate summons an angelic looking girl.

The girl made of seeming glass hovers on an invisible airborne perch. A thunderclap snarls in the church and echoes until the stones swallow the sound.

The stained glass mural is absent one Heavenly Choir member, one that seemed to orbit the Christmas star.

She's here, it seems, breathing hard and fast. Her head snaps to the left. She looks at the phantom, a good five feet taller than her and casting a shadow so black it seems to swallow the ground. The darkness beneath its hood stares back. It bows to her and says nothing.

She hurtles toward the wraith, gingerly reaches out a tiny finger to touch its garments. The robes respond to her touch, her fingers stopping on the surface.

“How long?” she asks.

The phantom shakes its head. The girl closes her eyes and falls into the phantom’s robes, hugging it tightly.

“It felt like an eternity,” she murmurs. "Is it time, then?"

The phantom points at me. She whirls round and takes me in. Her stare is intolerable. I’m quite sure I would be able to hear my heart thud against my ribs were I among the living.

But her discretionary eyebrows ease. She places her hand against her mouth, looks back at the wraith as though to confirm the many thoughts that have just entered her mind. It nods. The girl drifts to me. Her hands find my face, fingers combing. They do not pass through. Sensation erupts through me. I’ve not felt a gentle touch this night, let alone these seven years. Her hands feel like silk, delicate enough to tear with a calm breeze.

Her eyes pass over my face, taking in every sad angle. I see my distorted reflection in her nose, eyes and hair.

“I feel the pain on you,” she whispers. “It’s never left, has it? Even as you walked among the living.”

I say nothing, but she’s right.

“It nourishes them,” she says, gesturing to the chains. “They feed on what you’ve taken with you to the grave, the secrets you’ve kept, the lies you’ve told.”

“I know this, spirit.”

“You may yet, but not the true extent."

She knows me. This silent phantom seems to know me. But how? What part will they play this night? Why have I joined their ghostly throng? Questions upon questions, with only a seeming mute and a child to provide answers.

The phantom glides across the floor to us and taps the girl. It points to the doors, to the clock tower’s peals beyond them that haunt the night air.

“Soon?”

The specter nods. I feel an urgency coming off it, sense a mild panic blooming beneath its hood. The girl turns back to me, crystalline freckles glittering.

“Jacob,” the girl says. “You must not speak for the next few minutes. Your questions tally somewhere in the hundreds, I’m sure. I will answer them for you. I will tell you everything, but you must know, first and foremost, that we have come for your sake, for Ebenezer’s sake.”

She pauses, smiles.

“We will help you save him."

My mouth opens but I silence my cloud of inquiries begging to leap into the dusty church air. I nod instead, trusting and full of faith that answers are coming. What else can I be? What else do I have? Given a choice between chance and certain doom, I select the former.

The girl smiles. I think, perhaps, the phantom does, too, a small one somewhere beneath that wretched hood.

Small, tinsel-dipped fingers extend, find my face a second time.

"The past awaits," the child whispers.

As with the phantom, the room fades away. Only this time, an uncertain future is not our destination.

The past is written differently, the ink long-dried, permanent as death.

Read part 15 here.

Past and present