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'Cold up there. Warm down here'

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: The ghost of Jacob Marley finds he must keep moving or sink into the earth.

My first brush with sinking into the ground happened mere hours after I awoke chained and glowing, back when I first started to realize my predicament wasn’t some eerily lucid nightmare.

I staggered about the unlit, seemingly deserted town struggling to pull off the twists of cold metal that squeezed me. No one came running when I called for help. The night sky seemed to feed on my screams.

My journey ended in a graveyard, rows of silent stone glowing with moonlight and frost that made them twinkle. I slumped to the ground and pulled my knees up to my face, weeping. No tears accompanied my cries. My hand raised to check for sure, passed through where my skin should have been. The surface rippled like a pebble breaking the surface of a once-still pond.

I pulled my hand back and watched the surface ripple again, watched it calm back down and eventually go still. The sensation it left behind tingled, then faded.

My legs buckled when I tried to stand, refused to straighten. I looked down. My lower half was disappearing, the ground swallowing me in slow motion, submerging me up to my waist. With fear coursing through me, I pulled back, began to rise.

Something grabbed me from below the surface.

It clasped my sinking foot, pulled. I sank faster. A second grasp joined it. A third. Laughter and raspy chuckles popped in the cold air. Sentence fragments, spoken in an icy monotone that froze me as darkness and cold never have.

“Cold up there. Warm down here,” a gravelly voice whispered.

More raspy giggles answered and sewed themselves together in a symphony of amusement.

I screamed until whatever substance had replaced my lungs gave out. What species had me in its grip? What breed of imp could latch on to such ethereal matter? My resistance did not seem to matter. Its strength exceeded mine.

“Cold up there. Warm down here."

"Cold up there. Warm down here.”

At long last, my final bit of resistance yielded results. I flew upwards out of the ground, arced, and crashed near a crooked headstone that had just begun to crack. The laughter faded. Its gradual disappearance frightened me more than its initial onset, reminded me of someone dying.

I ran, ignoring the burn from the chains. My form passed through the cemetery gates and drifted across the street to a poorhouse, where windows were shuttered and candles had been snuffed for the night.

Rest beckoned, made the pavement beneath an awning look like a pile of quilts. But I could not heed the call, knowing I would slip below the ground a second time like rainwater slithering into just-tilled soil.

I have not dawdled since.

* * *

I cross a busy street toward the building that was once my second home.

One or two snowballs pass through me, leave me flinching. Instinct, it seems, doesn’t die with the flesh.

Glances in passing shop windows reveal the glistening wares inside. Shop clerks toil toward the back, quills recording transactions in musty ledgers while customers mill about and inspect the available wares.

I walk on, pass a corner preacher wrapped in what looks to be six layers while he recites passages from the book of Matthew from memory. He never opens his Bible, using it as something on which to thump his free fist instead. Walkers pay him little heed, an upward glance or two if he’s lucky.

The choir Ebenezer ignored earlier is still there, tattered songbooks open while frost vents from their mouths with each syllable.

“what was in those ships all three, on Christmas Day, on Christmas Day?”

A short lad with blue eyes and a brown overcoat in front has the best voice, an elegant alto that makes me wish the other booming voices would cease.

I feel my hand reaching to my waistcoat pocket for a shilling. The motion isn’t much, just a quick twitch of the hand. My fingers flex and I remind myself, again, that it’s just one more action I can’t do. The chains seem to respond to this. For a moment they grow heavier. Even after the feeling ceases, whatever otherworldly substance has replaced my muscles still burns from the sudden onset.

I reach our money-changing hovel. The simple plank with unimpressive lettering hanging from the awning looks like the work of a child: “Scrooge and Marley,” scrawled hastily across on both sides. It’s been this way seven years. He never sawed my name off, left it there to rot.

The door muffles crosstalk from a commotion inside. I drift through the door.

In death, there are a variety of factors I’ve come to accept. Others I haven’t. One of them is the sheer mess of this place.

It’s a dusty room filled with oblong columns of books and papers. They form boulevards one must navigate through. I once joked we needed a map. The concourses end at three destinations. The first is in the right corner. A feeble man sits there, scribbling furiously on scraps of paper, occasionally holding his inkpot’s underbelly to the weak candle on his desk. His breath drifts like pipe smoke, and the ends of his fingers are stained a dull purple. His body shakes and his teeth chatter in patterned clicks.

An unlit stove gathers frost seven feet from his workspace, an untouched bucket of coal filled to the brim next to it.

Another stop is Ebenezer’s desk, which occupies the center of the back wall. It’s considerably larger than the frail man’s, neat stacks of torn envelopes, unfolded post and rusty columns of half crowns, shillings and pence spread across it. A candle stub flickers toward the back.

Bins of ancient transaction receipts and records loom behind him, tucked inside black cabinets with swooping handles; 20, maybe 25 years' worth of business within.

Read part 4 here.

'Cold up there. Warm down here'