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It's up to Marley

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: Samuel steals the torch that opens the veil between the living and the dead and uses its power to vanquish the three Christmas spirits.

Samuel's deed reverberates through the years as the torch is now used to destroy its former wielder in a grim reenactment each Christmas. Year after year it guides Samuel and his followers to the Christmas spirit’s place of birth. And year after year, they erase it with wicked fire.

But there is a small, critical moment during the early days of Samuel's dark descent that he is blind to, a moment that changes everything. My child spirit guide to the past shows it to me now.

On the first anniversary of the dead realm's overthrow, the phantom, hunched and frail-looking, has come out of hiding to kneel at the Christmas spirit's side moments after his birth. The phantom's robes are even more tattered than before. Their shredded fragments whip and curl in the snowy winds that pummel a remote hillside.

"My somber companion could not be kept away," the child spirit tells me. "The love we had for this babe consumed us. We felt like new parents, long-departed surrogates. And so, nearly crippled, it meditated in the shadows and searched the future for where the child would reappear."

Her voice quivers. I can only imagine what pain it is to see her friend in this state, brought low and injured by ancient fire, made mute by its most direct strike. But this changes. Snow dancing in the air, the phantom holds the Christmas spirit. I watch the baby's simple touch repair the wraith's robes and soothe its long-festering burns.Its weakened purple aura returns to near-full brightness. It heals almost completely, its voice the only permanent crippling. Some injuries are too deep, it seems, even for the dead. The torch has cursed it with permanent silence.

The sounds of Samuel and his approaching apostles bring the meeting to an abrupt end. Healed, the phantom holds the baby to its robes and begins to run, hoping to protect him from harm. Then the phantom stops, looks at the baby and nods, as though the infant has spoken to it. It sets it down and steals away to the shadows, leaving the tot alone to be erased.

"My friend heard him in its mind," the child spirit says to me. "He said to run, to leave him. To trust him. There was a reason this all was happening. He spoke other tidings as well, that the torch had not destroyed me but only banished me to realms unseen. Samuel had not yet harnessed its power. It is why I only disappeared and why my friend escaped with injury."

She pauses, her face obviously haunted by these images.

"The spirit told the phantom to wait, that in time, it would be the one to free me. He offered instructions on how."

The girl gives a small nod, as if this vision is giving her clarity.

"Saving the Christmas spirit wouldn't be enough to bring down Samuel and his followers after they stole the spirit's fire," she continued. "We needed another. We needed you."

"You waited for me?" I said in disbelief. "Why?"

"We had to wait for the right time, when you needed us as much as we needed you."

"But how? How did you know when to..."

I stop. The answer is right in front of me.

"The phantom. It saw. A vision."

"It saw you, Jacob Marley. With your friend, Ebenezer; the two of you, conversing in a dark bedroom on a particular Christmas night."

I remember the vivid image the phantom showed me when we first met: me, sitting in Ebenezer's bedroom, very dead and very real, conversing with my friend in the dark, my chains spilled about in a mess of cold iron. So desperately wanting to save my friend from a fate such as mine.

And so the phantom waited. It lurked in darkness and ticked down the years, the months, the weeks, the days, the hours until this night, the night that would have been the spirit's 1,843rd appearance; the night of my meeting with The Council, prophesied to fall on a special Christmas night.

The tapestry of past visions begins to fade. It is a network of icicles in sudden sunlight, melting away and falling in a lazy, gradual fade.

***

The child spirit and the phantom stand side by side, their hands lowered, the walls of the church back in place, free from the echoes of the past. I quake with revelation.

The dark council’s head is the old man, the one who raised me, who I saw fit to forget when circumstance and opportunity presented themselves.

“Consequence does not stop with the initial action,” Samuel had said to me during his refusal at my request to save Ebenezer. “It is a series of ripples on a pond that surge outward. Our allowance of this would ignore that entirely. If you crossed this threshold to the other side to tell this man that his fate is written but for an altered life, it would set precedent that cannot be reversed. It would change everything.”

To know that he knew all of this the whole time he listened to my plea is too much. What a fool you are, Jacob Marley. A fool.

“We show you this to reveal what you must take back,” the girl child says. “It was supposed to be Samuel, you see.”

"I don't understand."

“Samuel was to be the first one to reveal himself apart from dreams,” the girl spirit says. “His form would be fully visible, fully audible. It would be more than a visit in a dream or a whisper whose source is never traced. It would be a true face-to-face encounter, the first of many such visitations from our world into theirs."

"Samuel was to visit me during waking hours. To show me the error of my ways with my eyes open."

The phantom nods.

“We had such plans for him, for you. His hatred toward you prevented it and dulled the torch’s power,” the girl says. “The device emulates its owner’s very soul. In Samuel’s hands, it has deformed and distorted into something terrible. Its light has gone clouded. It took my companion’s voice and banished me to dimensions unseen. It destroyed the spirit my companion fashioned it for.”

“Where does that leave me?”

“The veil between our realms has scarred over. Tonight may be our final chance to reopen it before it seals completely. And it must be you, Jacob. You must step into the role Samuel saw fit to vacate.”

“For Ebenezer.”

“Yes. And we must make haste if we’re to do it. They’ll be gathering to destroy our”

Her voice breaks, and her glittering lip quivers. The thought of watching this baby, this force for good, destroyed year after yearI had not speculated on the toll such a vision would take on its self-appointed maternal guardian. She breathes easy, calms.

“our mutual friend soon,” she finishes. “An annual ritual, as you saw.”

“I”

“We’ll discuss the plan on the way, Jacob,” the girl spirit says, and the two ghosts turn to leave me. “Quick now.”

Read part 22 here.

It's up to Marley