The last thing Val had expected when she at last tumbled into her bed after several weeks away from home was that she would spend the night entertaining a ghost.
“It’s dark o’clock,” she grumbled, clutching a pillow over her head.
“Tell me about dearie,” the heavyset ghost said as she plopped down onto a chair at the side of Val’s bed without any weight or impact at all.
Val grumbled louder and peered out from under the pillow. She’d been dealing with all sorts of metaphysical wackiness for weeks without a break. The Winter Solstice had passed with her and Aranea literally visiting the sun. As in the cosmic ball of fire in the sky.
She wasn’t a diplomat but it had still been her job to convince the source of nearly all warmth and light on Earth that putting in another year of lighting up the sky was a worthwhile effort. Forget about physics. Forget about the fact that luminescent gases heated to the point of nuclear fusion weren’t sentient and couldn’t be reasoned with. The spirit of the season demanded someone go harangue the sun into doing it’s job and Val had drawn the short straw.
“If the problem is urgent, please press one and our operators will get back to you during waking hours,” Val said and beeped like an answering machine.
Ghosts didn’t show up in Val’s life casually, especially not since she’d started dating a spider goddess. That Aranea was off taking care of an incursion into her domain was probably coincidental with the ghost’s appearance, but Val was all too ready to believe that fate was conspiring against her personally.
“No message to leave here,” the ghost said. “Just taking a load off.”
Val looked out from under the pillow.
The ghost had pulled over another chair and had propped her feet up.
She wasn’t sleeping but the slump in her posture as she sagged into the chair suggested an identical level of weariness to what Val was feeling.
“Seriously? You just need a place to crash for the night?” Val asked, emerging from under her pillow.
“Nah, I’m supposed to be spreading all kinds of Seasonal Reminders,” the ghost said. Val could hear the capital letters and groaned. The last thing she wanted was any more mystically significant trash to clean up.
“Why are you here?” she asked. “Am I lacking in Christmas Spirit or something?”
She felt a pang of guilt over the notion that she’d only picked out half the gifts she intended to give and for Aranea, her hardest subject, she was completely without a clue in temrs of what she could get that would be appropriate.
“You?” The ghost huffed out a disbelieving chuckle. “You spend all year giving people the things they need to turn their lives around. I’m surprised you don’t poop candy canes with all the Spirit of Giving you’ve got in you.”
“Why the haunting then?” Val asked. She needed sleep. Her body knew that. Her mind though was rapidly burying that desire under a landfill of questions and curiosity.
“I don’t know,” the ghost said as she massaged her temples. “This spot seemed open. Probably a reason for that, but I’m past caring what it might be. Heh. Past caring. Aren’t I funny?”
“You’re the Ghost of Christmas Past?” Val asked.
“Something like that. You can call me Karen though. Being a ghost gets old after a while.”
“I thought ghosts were supposed to be eternal? And how do you get aches and pains after you’re dead?”
“Same as the living do I guess,” Karen said. “One step at a time.”
“For the Ghost of Christmas Past you’re painting a pretty bleak picture of the afterlife there Karen,” Val said.
“Oh the afterlife isn’t that bad,” Karen said. “Strictly speaking though I’m not in the afterlife.”
“You’re looking a bit see through to me. Are you only ‘mostly dead’ or something?”
Karen stirred a bit, dropping her hands from her head and turning to look at Val.
“Nope. I’m a good and dead as you get,” she said. “Passed in 19 hundred and eighteen.”
“Happy Centennial?” Val asked.
“It’s funny,” Karen said. “I don’t feel a day over 66.”
“That’s not a bad run,” Val said.
“It’s a long run. Or it at least it was in my day.”
“What did you do? When you were alive I mean?” Val asked.
“A bit of everything,” Karen said. “Hard to remember it all at this point to be honest.”
“Oh, yeah. Plenty of those.”
Val did the math in her head.
“I’m guessing they’ve all passed on too?”
“Yeah. Most of the grand kids too. I don’t get to keep track of them like I’d want to, but every once in a while I can pop in and see how they’re doing.”
“How did you get stuck being a Spirit of the Season?” Val asked. “I’m guessing it’s kind of a rough gig?”
“My own fault,” Karen said. “I always loved the holidays. Especially Christmas time. Then I went and got hit by a sleigh on the solstice and my kids and everyone else spent the next twelve Christmases memorializing me.”
“So they stuck you as the Ghost of Christmas Past?” Val asked.
“Not my family, no,” Karen said. “It’s just a role some of the departed can take and it gave me chance to interact with some of them, so I jumped at it.”
“Wait, did you actually Christmas Carol them into turning their life around?” Val asked.
“Oh heavens, no. That’s not how this works at all,” Karen said. “You can’t really convince people to change by showing them how great the past was. Or at least I can’t.”
“A hundred years sounds like a long time to go without a win. You had to have some impact right?”
“Oh I made people feel better,” Karen said. “For a while anyways. Pleasant memories only take you so far though. Especially when they’re lies.”
“What do you mean by lies?” Val asked.
“I’m supposed to remind people of how good things used to be,” Karen said. “I can show you how much simpler life was long ago, and how everything was a bit brighter, and a bit more joyful.”
“That sounds like some ugly mind control stuff there,” Val said.
Karen laughed again.
“It’s not like that. Here let me show you.”
She held out her hand but Val back away on the bed.
“No thank you! First rule of magic stuff; no letting it get to your head.”
“Probably a wise move,” Karen said, drawing her hand back. “I can’t show you things that aren’t real though.”
“Didn’t you just say the things you show are lies though?” Val asked.
“There’s lies and then there are lies,” Karen said. “My job is to remind people of how good everything was. The problem is if I show you all the times when you were truly happy, and the times when other people were happy, even if all of those memories are real, I’m not showing you the whole picture am I?”
“So it’s a lie of omission?” Val asked. “And that’s what’s got you down?”
“Maybe?” Karen said. “I know I’m pretty tired of pretending like yesterday was this great golden paradise that we all left behind. The truth is, yesterday had some terrible problems. I never had the right to vote. People with my color skin had laws passed against them. Nobody could get divorces, so you had people stuck in miserable, hate-filled marriages that bent up and twisted whole families.”
“Some of that’s gotten better, but a lot’s still the same. At least in terms of what really goes on,” Val said.
“That’s exactly my point,” Karen said. “I’m tired of telling people how great everything was only to leave them looking around at the world they’re in and leaving them to think that it’s gotten so much worse.”
“It sounds like you want to give up the Holiday Spirit act?” Val asked.
“I probably should,” Karen said. “The problem is I know some of poor ghost will just get roped into it if I do pass on.”
“Would that be so bad?” Val asked.
“I’d feel like I’d left the problem here unfinished,” Karen said. “I don’t know what that would do, but I’ve never heard of unfinished business being good for a ghost.
“What’s the problem. In your view I mean,” Val asked. “Is it that your job misleads people? Or that it doesn’t give them lasting help?”
“A bit of both,” Karen said. “It’s just so hard to try to help people all the time and know you can’t fix them.”
“You don’t really have a problem then,” Val said.
Karen narrowed her eyes and sat up in the chain.
“Excuse me?” she said.
“You don’t have a problem,” Val said. “You’re just tired and need a rest. Basically like everyone else I know.”
“Oh child, I need a lot more than a nap to make up for this,” Karen said.
“Let’s break it down then,” Val said. “You’re worn out because you think you’re not peddling the truth to people right?”
“Yeah. That’s part of it.”
“Do you think your voice is the only one they can hear?” Val asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean do you think you show them these visions of yesterday and that’s all they can think about? Do you think it erases everything they already know.”
“I get what you’re saying. Clinging to the past, especially some candy colored vision of it doesn’t help anybody,” Val said. “I talk to my Mom, and my Grandmother, even my Great Grandpa and they had rough times. Some of the worst. Turning back the clock wouldn’t make things better for them at all. My grandmother though? Those aren’t the things she tells me when I ask her to tell me what it was like when she was a kid. She remembers the good things too. All the wild times she had. The people she loved. That’s what’s given her the strength to hang in there through it all.”
“She’s a special lady then,” Karen said. “Most people can’t change their whole lives on a few good memories.”
“She is pretty special,” Val agreed. “But I never said it was a few good memories that made everything ok for her. Let me ask you this; do you work alone?”
“There are other Seasonal Spirits, other Ghosts of Christmas Past,” Karen said. “Usually for someone who needs my help I’m the only Christmas Past that shows up for them.”
“What about Present and Future?” Val asked.
“They probably come after me,” Karen said. “I don’t know how they’re handled. Seems like it would be weird to use a ghost for Christmas Future. Maybe even for Christmas Present too. Ghosts can be a little shaky at first.”
“However they’re setup, the point is, you’re not alone,” Val said. “Yeah, you can’t solve someone’s troubles all by yourself, but you don’t have to either. There’s probably at least two other spirits out there backing you up. I know that might not seem like much, but if the last couple of years have shown me anything it’s that if you put the right three people together they can do a whole lot more than any one of them could do on their own.”
Karen tipped her head, considering Val’s words. She didn’t leap out of the chair, or start glowing but the weight of fatigue that was dragging down her incorporeal bones seemed to lift.
“If you need to move on, that’s your decision to make,” Val said. “I think one hundred years of service is a lot to ask of anyone. All I’m saying is, if you help remind people who are down what it feels like to be ok, if you remind them that being okay is real when they’re losing the ability to believe it can be? That’s a priceless gift to give someone. Sure it’s not everything, but it’s something, and sometimes that’s all people need to take a second chance at life.”