This holiday season, my Casablanca sisters and I thought about presenting stories, some of which may be based on the holiday adventures of characters from our books. Since my own romantic suspense entry is not due to arrive until Spring 2009, I hesitated bringing the characters out to play just yet . . . I admit, I don’t want to give anything away. Therefore for my next three blog dates, I’m submitting this little Christmas story in three parts, with my sincere gratitude to Charles Dickens and his holiday standard, "A Christmas Carol". His tale is endlessly borrowed, but there’s a reason for it: it’s a marvelous story. This is a personal spin on the story of Scrooge, and I hope Mr. Dickens’ own ghost will forgive me for the liberties I’ve taken.
Christmas Present - Part One
By Christina Harlin
“I am the ghost of Christmas Present.”
Blake peered with one half-opened eye at the apparition at the foot of his bed, from which this particularly sultry and provocative voice had emerged. When he got the impression of glowing auburn hair and a breathtaking dip of cleavage visible in the bodice of her shimmering golden gown, he was more inclined to pull his head from under the pillow. “You’re my Christmas Present?”
“That’s very funny, never heard that one before.” She kicked the side of his bed with a gold-slippered foot. “Please get up. Christmas Past’s presentation ran long.”
Blake did as instructed, rising to sit at the edge of his bed in his pajama bottoms. He rubbed a hand over his face to make sure he was clearly seeing this. The ghostly woman was gorgeous. Everything about her looked ripe as a Christmas plum, she sparkled from the rich waves of burning hair to the tips of her angel-spun shoes. She had lovely, evergreen eyes. “Are you really a ghost?”
“Solid enough to you.” She thumped his shoulder a rather painfully with her fist. His voiced displeasure was ignored. “Christmas Past gave me his notes on what you covered.” From an invisible pocket she produced a sheet of parchment and unrolled it. “Lonely childhood, demanding father, shunned by peers because of your intelligence and rather pointed disinterest in social skills,” here she raised one red-gold eyebrow in his direction, “academically successful, lucrative career in real estate, makes loads of money, with which you have done nothing useful whatsoever. One perfectly nice fiancée kicked to the curb. Now age 45, frittering your time away accruing more and more money while your soul curls up and dies.”
She eyed his torso for a few moments; it was lean and tautly defined. “And obviously you spend some time working out.”
“Gotta keep healthy,” said Blake.
“Why don’t you put a shirt on?” asked Christmas Present. “We’ve got a lot of stops to make.”
“Christmas Past didn’t ask me to put a shirt on.” Christmas Past had been an elderly man, unable to see much past his own reach. When Christmas Present pursed her beautiful full lips at him, Blake felt inclined to do whatever she asked. To his bemusement, she seemed extremely familiar to him, as if they had been in close proximity for months now but had never been introduced. “Fine, let me get my robe.”
He rose and went to his closet, which she surveyed from behind him with a snort of derision. The closet was enormous, as was everything in his home, but nearly empty, as was everything in his home. His clothing was of high quality but there wasn’t much of it, barely enough to make it from one laundry pick-up to the next. He owned one velvet robe and he slipped it on. “Something amusing?”
“It’s like you guys all decorate from the same manual,” was her reply.
“So where are we going?” asked Blake.
“You’ve seen the movies, haven’t you?”
“Don’t have a lot of time for movies.”
“Still, you can’t be so culturally ignorant that you don’t know how this story goes. Obviously I’m the one who gets to take you around to see what everyone you know is doing tonight, and how they’re all having quite a bit more fun than you.”
Blake sighed, groaned at the impatience in her face. “Do you have a name, or do I just keep calling you my Christmas Present?”
His lovely ghost grimaced. “Holly.”
“How did you get drafted into this line of work, Holly?”
“I volunteered. My untimely death—an unfortunate incident with a bicycle and a shark—did not extinguish my desire to help others, no matter how thick-headed they may be.”
“You’re wasting your time,” said Blake. “I’m not unhappy.”
“I could check these things off a list. The next thing you’ll say is that you’re too old to change.”
“I’m not old.”
“I admit you are a bit younger than my usual clientele. Anyway, welcome to your wake-up-call, provided by A Christmas Carol, the cultural phenomenon written by Charles Dickens. Thanks to him, thousands have been saved from themselves. You’re next. Let’s go.”
“Christmas Past let me hold his hand,” said Blake.
Archly she waited for him to straighten up. “First we’re going to go have a look at your employees.”
Blake’s bedroom snapped out of focus. There was a beat of blackness, which he had learned to expect from his Christmas-Past visit, and then he was standing in the living room of his secretary, Bonita. Bonita was there with her husband, her two daughters, their husbands, and five grandchildren tumbling wildly around on the floor and begging, insistently, to be allowed to open just one present tonight if they promised to be good until morning. There was not enough space in this cozy living room for the number of people and the enormous Christmas tree, and Blake had to flatten himself against the wall to avoid wheezing with claustrophobia.
“Oh!” cried Holly, throwing herself back against the wall beside him. She smelled like something between powdered sugar and gold dust as her skirts swirled and brushed against him. “What charming little children.”
“You don’t sound convinced,” he shouted over the racket. “So why are we here? I gave Bonita a big bonus and the entire week off. I’m not a Scrooge.”
“Handing out money and paid time off is all well and good,” shouted back Holly as two of the tots skirmished before her in a frenzy of banging Tonka trucks, “but you don’t get any joy from it. Look at her face!”
Blake did. His secretary, though she was nearing retirement age, looked twenty years young tonight, her face alight with pleasure at being surrounded by this substantial racket. While he watched, three different children tumbled onto and then off of her lap again, with declarations that she must look at what they were about to do.
“She looks that happy because she knows they’re going home in three days,” commented Blake dryly.
Holly ignored his comment. “Is there anything in your life that gives you this much pleasure? How many times do you speak to this woman who works fifty hours a week for you? I mean, aside from handing her a stack of filing? You could learn something from her. This is a woman who takes her pleasures seriously.”
“So what am I meant to do, become someone’s granny?”
“If we had time, I’d take you down to their bedroom and show you some of the toys she and her husband play with, you’d see how much of a granny she is.”
“It’s time to go,” said Holly.
“And she takes the money that you pay her and does something with it. Has college funds for these kids. Gives it to her church. Buys herself things that she likes. When was the last time you did something with your money that made you happy?”
The noise in the room had become overwhelming, particularly since now someone had elected to turn on the satellite radio to a station of boisterous Christmas carols. Blake slipped away down the hall of his secretary’s house, glancing room to room as he went. The master bedroom was the last one on the left.
“Hey, this visitation is not an opportunity for you to go snooping,” complained Holly.
“You’re the one who said something about toys.” He saw something glinting under the bed’s lavender dust ruffle and knelt, retrieving what he thought was a vacuum cleaner attachment. “You see, it’s just a . . . oh my god!”
He dropped the device and kicked it under the bed.
“We should probably go,” said Holly quickly. “Let’s review what we’ve learned here. That you are working side-by-side with a woman who has filled her life with things that make her happy. They don’t have to be expensive or extravagant. She is perfectly in tune with what gives her pleasure.” Pointedly Holly did not look at the bed. “Anyway, now we’re going to go see your brother and his family.”
Bonita’s bedroom snapped out of existence and in the rush of darkness, instinctively, Blake put out a hand toward the smell of sugar cookies. His fingers touched the bare smooth skin of his Christmas ghost’s arm. “Hey,” he said, but his word may have been lost in the void.