Editor's note: This serial, which explores the days leading up to that fateful night of ghostly visits in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," continues through Christmas Day. The story thus far: Destitute and shivering in London's slums, a young Jacob Marley is given a shilling by an old man.
The hook-nosed man readies himself for the day by a single candle.
His lamps remain unlit and cold. The semidarkness is not troubling to him. He thrives in the shadows. Darkness is economical, coin in the bank.
Not to say it doesn’t come with a price. He thrashes about in his wardrobe, fingers probing murky vacancies while he searches for trousers, shirt, waistcoat. A splinter stabs his thumb. He curses and pulls it out, sucks on the dot of blood that blooms on the tip.
The search resumes, and he settles on a pair of black boots. A top hat covers his head, a scarf wraps about his neck noose-tight, fingers grip a cane as he kicks the wardrobe door closed.
His mutters echo in the stairway as he descends.
I follow, past plain, uncovered walls to the front parlor where a lifeless, unlit chandelier gathers dust and spider webs and the cold floorboards creak in agony beneath the man’s angry steps.
Ebenezer Scrooge leaves what used to be my home and paces briskly down a snow-packed street, air steaming from his nose and mouth and evaporating in the white light of morning. His cold eyes dart about, assessing the dancing flakes that turn dizzily through the air. I can all but hear his thoughts, how much he detests this scene, the cold, the ache in his bones that’s rendered a mild limp.
He turns the corner and disappears. The street is empty again but for occasional echoes.
“His walk’s getting slower,” a shy voice says behind me.
“I know. Good morning, Edward.”
Edward steps forward, his transparent body turning the buildings behind him into misshapen twists, like a moving pane of stained glass. He’s frowning, his youthful and handsome face looking quite a bit older because of it.
“You’re looking at my feet again,” Edward says.
I realize I am and avert my gaze. It’s something I haven’t been able to shake in my seven years here, the notion that we all float about like driftwood in lieu of consistent footsteps.
“Sorry,” I say.
Edward chuckles. “The whole ‘no-footprints’ thing?”
“Yes. It still strikes me as queer.”
“Bad day?” Edward asks after a slight uncomfortable pause.
Edward’s an easy one to talk to. A former chemistry professor at Oxford, he was murdered on this spot, cutting short a nighttime walk home from a lover’s rendezvous with a student. A knife stabbed through the dark and slipped neatly into his back like a quill into ink. He fell without a word, dead before he hit the stones. A hired assassin stole back into the shadows, crisp pound notes awarded by Edward’s very-aware wife crumpled in his jacket pocket.
Now he’s stuck here, can never leave this particular block of the city. It’s like that for some of us, taking root in this invisible river we live in while others float freely. No explanation.
“You’re following him again?” Edward asks.
“Eerie, even for a ghost.”
Ebenezer's form has shrunken to a pinprick during this delay. I bid Edward good day and resume my pursuit, placing my feet in Ebenezer's footprints, wishing I could make my own.
Each step is agony, labored by so many thick strands of chain I can’t remove. The links are the size of fists stained an ethereal green. They are a study in contrasts, burning with sudden light that goes dull as quarry rock in an instant. The variation remains a mystery.
I turn the corner onto the thoroughfare. The street bustles with activity. Flocks of children hurl snowballs at each other, laughing, stopping occasionally to breathe warmth back into their icy hands. Gentlemen and ladies stroll both sides of the block, peering in lamp-lit shop windows at the goods inside: Fowl. Boas of sausage links. Stacks of fist-sized potatoes. Cakes, cookies and pies.
Streams of holly freckled by bright red berries frame the windows. Wreaths don most doorways. People drift into stores empty-handed and come out with their arms full. Men tip their hats.
“Merry Christmas” is on everyone’s lips. The very air is different.
Ebenezer marches through the scene with his head down, gripping the head of his cherry cane tightly, shoulders bunched up to his ears. He passes a choir and scoffs at the overturned hat in front of the singers. Every greeting from strangers draws a sneer. The man takes in air and exhales poison.
His journey ends at a small corner building, just past the neighborhood church. The lock clicks with a turn of his key. A sign — “Scrooge and Marley” — swings nimbly on the awning overhead when he slams the door.
“Well, if it ain't the ol' ball and chain."
Daniel, a lanky lad with snow-colored eyes, floats up to me. He died down the street from here. Cholera. Now, he makes a regular pastime of annoying me. He crosses his arms and grins, shakes his head at the now-shut door and still-swinging sign.
“What can I do for you, Daniel?”
“Not a fing,” he says. “Been watching him a lot lately, ‘aven’t you?”
“Let’s just say I prefer the sight of him to you.”
Daniel laughs and attempts to slap his knee. I watch, amused, as his hand passes through. The lad stumbles but stays upright. He grins back.
“Still not used to that,” he says.
“Sometimes I fear we’ll never adjust fully.”
“Speak for ya’self,” he says.
I resume my walk. Daniel stays put.
“I seen the way you been lookin' at 'im,” he yells. “Were the pair of ya more than friends when you was alive? Eh?”
I ignore him and keep walking, my chains fanning out behind me in a cloak of cold splendor.
We could have continued our discussion — our repartee of his pesky inquiries and my calm, barbed responses — but remaining mobile is a must. Something happens whenever I stand still for too long. Couldn’t set a watch to it, but anytime I’m dormant for more than a minute, it starts.
Sinking. Like the world is suddenly made of quicksand.
Tomorrow: Marley recounts the day icy hands nearly pulled him into the ground.