Holiday fever

The Ghost of Christmas Presence teaches one Scrooge how to stay in the moment

Scarlett sure did down a ton of NyQuil, but she thinks there’s an old guy in a green robe poring through her refrigerator this Christmas Eve.

Scarlett sure did down a ton of NyQuil, but she thinks there’s an old guy in a green robe poring through her refrigerator this Christmas Eve.

illustration By Rick Sealock

OK, this has got to be the fever, Scarlett thought. How else to explain the chubby six-and-a-half foot man propped against her refrigerator door, staring at its contents with fascination.

“Are you so poor,” he rumbled from beneath his blond beard, “that you’ve no roasted meats for the holiday?” He glanced at her, one eyebrow raised beneath his lovely holly crown, which boasted red berries like bright jewels.

“We’re vegans,” she explained.

“No meats at all?” He stood up straight, arm still propped on the open refrigerator door, and Scarlett revised her estimate of his height upward. He was easily seven feet tall, wearing a deep-green robe trimmed with some sort of white fur—and it didn’t look even slightly faux. His blond hair was obviously natural, too, as great tufts of it sprouted from his barrel chest where the robe strained to cover it.

“No, none. And no animal products, if we can avoid it,” she said, as if conversing with a strange, huge, robe-wearing man were the most normal thing in the world to do.

“No wonder you’ve got the grippe, then,” he said. “You’re probably undernourished, in addition to forsaking the celebration of Christmas.”

Scarlett winced, too tired to get enraged. She’d already had enough similar arguments during the past two weeks—with friends, co-workers and her own boyfriend, Nick—and she’d been called both “Grinch” and “Scrooge.”

Fortunately, she’d come down with the flu, which meant she could easily get out of flying to Los Angeles for Christmas with her boyfriend’s family. Unfortunately, it also meant she’d been as sick as she could ever remember being, and she was all alone in the Midtown apartment with a fever, a bottle of NyQuil and a refrigerator full of 7 Up.

And a giant, hairy blond man wearing nothing but a robe.

She knew it must be a fever dream, if only because she was really neither alarmed nor surprised at his presence in her kitchen.

“I’m not a Scrooge,” she said defensively. “And I’ve got the flu.”

He wrinkled his brow a bit. “Did you not receive the earlier visitations to prepare you for my arrival?” he asked.

“Visitations? No,” she replied. “But I did take a megadose of NyQuil earlier, so I’d have slept through Ragnarok. And,” she added testily, “you’re blocking the cupboard with the NyQuil.”

I’m in no mood for this, she thought. The whole damn holiday season ought to just die quietly and allow itself a green funeral and a biodegradable box. She poured a shot of NyQuil and downed it, then turned to her visitor.

“Why don’t you make yourself useful and make me some tea?”

He harrumphed. Seriously. A sonorous and hearty harrumph, one worthy of the term.

“Oh, never mind,” she snapped, pulling a mug from the rack and doing it herself.

As she sipped her tea, Scarlett listened to Mr. Spirit of Christmas Present, though she did refrain from pointing out to him the disconnect between his title and his decidedly unstylish robe. His offer was simple: He’d take her to see how Christmas was unfolding for her friends and loved ones, and she’d have her perspective on the holiday altered.

“Dude, I’ve seen the movie,” Scarlett snapped. “It’s better than the movie with the suicidal loan guy and the angel getting his wings, but not nearly as good as the one with the kid and the BB gun.” She took a closer look at the skirt of his robe, which seemed to be, uh, wiggling. “Is there cat in there? Because we’re not supposed to have pets in this apartment.”

“No cat,” he said, pulling the robes apart so that she could see the bitter goblins clustered around his surprisingly spindly legs. He began pointing at each in turn.

“Want and Ignorance are the senior tenants here,” he rumbled. “But over the years, they’ve been joined by Fear, Distraction, and Selfishness. And that one, Apathy, is a fairly recent arrival. I thought he wouldn’t be much trouble, but he rather attracts decay.”

They weren’t quite children and they weren’t quite monsters, but they were oddly familiar to her. In fact, apart from the rags they wore, they rather resembled the shouting faces from political ads and cable news. And they did not look like good guests.

“Can’t you evict them?” It seemed like a logical question.

“Are you going to take them in?” He looked at her closely. “I didn’t think so.” He dropped the edges of his robe so that the creatures were once again hidden away.

“So for whatever reason, you missed the first part of this little holiday seminar,” he said. “Let’s start where we are, then, and take a look at what Christmas is right now, shall we?” He raised one eyebrow. “And don’t give me that ‘I’m not in the habit of arguing with hallucinations brought on by a bit of fever,’ please. I have it on good authority that you, my dear, are in the habit of arguing with everyone.”

Scarlett couldn’t help but chuckle.

Meanwhile, Mr. Green Robed Ghost of Whatever was looking at her with an expression that said he could read her mind. “So, tell me, Scarlett, how do you think your loved ones are doing this Christmas?”

You know, I’m really starting to dislike this smug asshat, she thought. But she wasn’t about to let that keep her from showing him up.

“OK, so Rachel and Leah are probably asleep, like most sane people, and they’re going out for Chinese tomorrow because, duh, they’re Jewish.” Mr. Ghost blinked a bit, but Scarlett didn’t even slow down. “I’m willing to bet that Danny is still up and decorating his apartment with every tacky decoration he can think of and putting presents for his cats under the tree. Hakim and Lucy still aren’t sleeping, mostly because they have that new baby who spits up and poops at an absolutely amazing rate, and they’ve spent waaay too much money buying presents for a baby that won’t even remember them.

“Nick’s in Los Angeles with his family, and they’re all wrapping presents and drinking eggnog and telling stories about all the wonderful Christmases they’ve had, and being so normal that it’s enough to make you choke on your sugar cookies.”

She paused and took a ragged breath. “And they’re no doubt all very relieved that the Grinch here is out with the flu and won’t be a downer for their holiday. So there.”

The ghost took this all in, noting in particular Scarlett’s out-thrust and defiant jaw, and sucked in his lower lip. “Eggnog, eh? You wouldn’t happen to have some eggnog locked up in some hidden hoard, would you?”

Scarlett scowled. “Of course not! No animal products, remember? But there’s wine in the cupboard under the counter. And what kind of ghost drinks, anyway?”

He smiled graciously as he pulled a bottle of Two Buck Chuck from the cupboard. “Only the ghosts with a taste for it,” he said. She passed him a wineglass from the other cupboard and he poured himself a hearty glass, downed it, then poured another.

“So,” he said, “you think you know what Christmas is like, do you? Well, let’s just go see if you’re right.”

“Don’t even think about it, Ghostie,” Scarlett snarled. “Not only am I too sick to be flying around with you, the NyQuil is kicking in and I’m about to go lie down. You’re on your own, Big Green.”

“Now, young lady, don’t be like that. Besides, we can use that machine of yours—the ‘Big Screen Tee-Vee’—to save ourselves some flying about. Let’s go have a seat,” he said, pointing toward the living-room sofa.

Scarlett complied, but she told herself it was only because she already had a blanket thrown across the back. The ghost grabbed the wine bottle and glided behind her to the living room.

“I don’t know where the remote—” she started to tell him, when he snapped his fingers in the direction of the set and it turned on.

There was her friend Danny, as she’d predicted, in his apartment, decorating with what any sane person would call extremely tacky lights and bits of holiday glitz. But he was only alone in the most literal sense, because his laptop was propped open and he had his iPhone out, and he stopped regularly to text and type to his virtual companions. It was a tempo that gave his three cats plenty of opportunity to dismantle his decorations almost as quickly as he put them up.

“Oh, geez,” Scarlett snorted. “He’s probably in one of those boy-talk rooms.”

“Nope,” said the ghost. “His trousers are buttoned.”

“So who’s he chatting with?” she asked. “His family doesn’t have anything to do with him. They’re a bunch of religious homobigots.”

The ghost cleared his throat. “Yes, well, everybody has to face their own Christmas past, present and future, and they’ll see their own at some point. But did you know that his parents threw Danny out of the house on Christmas Eve the year he was 17? He’d come home from the—oh, what do you call it? A place to seek a cure?—”

“Hospital? Treatment center?”

“Treatment center, yes. They’d sent him away to be cured of his—oh, we always called it ‘buggery,’ but that’s not right—”

“Sexual orientation? I didn’t know Danny’d been to one of those pray-away-the-gay places.” Ol’ Big Green here had some good gossip.

“Yes. And when he came home for the holidays, he told them it wasn’t working. So they threw him out on Christmas Eve.”

Intriguing story, but Scarlett had no idea what that had to do with Danny spending Christmas Eve in chat rooms. She must have looked puzzled, because the ghost answered her question before she asked it.

“He’s talking with other young people who have been rejected by their families, mostly for the same reasons he was, but not always,” said the ghost. “He’s using his own pain to help others.”

“Yes, you’re right to be impressed,” he leaned forward as he spoke, and Scarlett was really getting nervous about how intensely his eyes were flashing. There was a rustling coming from beneath his robe, and the thought of those creatures in her apartment increased her anxiety.

“Look, young woman, look at what your friends are doing for the holiday!” The ghost wasn’t really shouting, but his voice seemed to reverberate through the house, or perhaps it was reverberating through Scarlett’s body. “See how they willingly embrace whatever they’ve got, and then give it away!”

Images flashed across the television set and Scarlett watched as her friends’ lives were opened up for her in a way more intimate than she’d ever imagined possible. Rachel and Leah were not asleep; they were helping a crew clean up at a local food bank. A fire had destroyed the building and they’d had to move to a new location and replace all their food in time for the holidays.

Hakim and Lucy were asleep, collapsed onto each other in front of the couch. But baby Alex was wide awake, picking through the pile of presents, pulling off all the bows and tags, and putting them in her slobbery baby mouth.

She appeared to be having an outrageously good time.

Then the picture changed again, and she saw Nick at the ticket counter in LAX, making reservations for his return home. She tried to hear what he was saying to his parents, who stood right next to him, smiling in that smug-loving way they had, but the picture faded away.

“Hey, bring that one back!”

“No, my dear, I can’t do that. There’s one more you’ve got to see.” Big Green thrust his forefinger at the screen, and Scarlett saw the house she’d grown up in, her parents in their worn-out matching recliners, lit by the flickering light of a television. The house was undecorated, as it always was; her parents’ faces in the gray light looked so much older than Scarlett knew they were. Her mother was on the phone.

“No, we’re not doing anything,” she said. There was a pause. “Oh, no, it just never seems like a good time. It’s a lot of effort, and the kids all do their own thing. We’ll do more later on, once we have grandchildren.”

Scarlett felt a gentle nudge from the ghost. “Does it sound familiar, my dear? Always waiting for later to enjoy life?”

She nodded. But thinking about it was becoming so much harder, and the NyQuil seemed to be doing its job well. Scarlett felt her eyelids drooping heavily, and she leaned into the great green robe next to her on the couch as the picture on the TV grew fuzzier and grayer and finally receded.

The last thing she heard was “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid,” and wondered why her parents were watching that movie. They hated Christmas movies.

“Look, Daddy! Teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”

Scarlett woke coughing, just in time to see that George Bailey was the richest man in town. She went to the bathroom and washed her face, then took something for her headache. The fever appeared to have broken, and she decided to take a shower and put on fresh pajamas.

As she was dressing, she heard the buzzer at the door. She wobbled to the door and pushed the intercom. “Yeah,” she croaked.

“Hey, it’s Danny. I bring food,” said her friend, who was altogether too perky for his own good. I wonder if he spent time with Big Green last night, she thought.

Danny whirled in, and he had Rachel and Leah with him, all carrying boxes and bags. “We’ve got food! Tofurky, sweet potatoes, stuffing, green beans, corn bread and a vegan pumpkin cake!”

All Scarlett could do was stand there, fighting back tears. Danny put his arm around her while Rachel and Leah quickly hustled off to the kitchen and started rustling around.

“Oh, poor little sickie!” Danny patted her back. “C’mere, just lie down on the couch and let us take care of everything.” He tucked her in and brought a glass of orange juice, then joined the other two chefs at work. Soon Scarlett was dozing to the smell of good things being well-cooked and her friends chattering in the kitchen.

In the early afternoon, shortly before dinner was ready, Danny took off on an errand—and returned with Nick.

“Hey, this is where I need to be,” he whispered into her ear. It would be hard to decide if Scarlett or Nick was more surprised by her tears.

Dinner was great fun, with a Skype connection set up so that they could see Hakim, Lucy and baby Alex having their first holiday together. They’d wisely decided to keep the baby away from Scarlett’s flu, and who could blame them? But little Alex looked so cute, with the strained squash all over her face.

Nick and Danny handled most of the cleanup. She heard them cracking open a bottle of wine in the kitchen as she lay down on the couch again and wrapped herself up in a blanket.

“It’s all about presence,” said the ghost. Big Green had a chunk of Tofurky in a tight grip, and was inspecting it as if it were an unsightly insect of some sort. “I’m the Ghost of Christmas Presence, Scarlett. And it’s not so much about how you celebrate, or if you celebrate. You’re an educated woman, so you know that all of this has its roots in keeping up spirits and community during the darkest, coldest days of the year. But being present, for yourself and the people around you? That makes every day a holiday.”

He chewed a little bit of the Tofurky, which Scarlett had thought was both a tad overseasoned and slightly overdone, but since she didn’t have to cook it, she’d kept her opinion to herself.

“I don’t know about this, dear lady. The texture is just not right,” he said. “Didn’t anyone bring any meat?”

Scarlett sat up and leaned on her elbows, then shouted to Nick and Danny in kitchen.

“Guys, would you please bring me some NyQuil? I’m pretty sure my fever’s back.”