Tam’s first impulse was to smack her alarm so that she could snooze for another five minutes. That impulse evaporated as bits of consciousness collected together and she noticed that it wasn’t the alarm on her night stand that had woken her. It was one of the alarm spells she had set to let her know that her protective wards had trapped an unexpected visitor.
Gazing carefully over her shoulder, Tam made certain that Cynthia hadn’t been woken up too, and slipped away as quietly as she could to deal with the interruption.
The truth was, they both needed several nights of decent sleep in a row, but Tam was willing to settle for at least one of them being well rested for a change.
Rather than walk down the stairs to the kitchen and living room level of their townhouse, Tam took the unusual step of conjuring a silent zephyr to allow her to float over the railing and directly down to the spot where her snare had trapped a new intruder.
“You have very nice restraint wards here,” a woman said. If she’d been living she would have been pale and almost silver haired. As it was the translucent quality of her body was a pretty clear give away as to her post-mortem state. Far from a terrifying presence though, the ghost looked downright cheerful.
“Thank you?” Tam said, keeping her voice calm and quiet to avoid disturbing Cynthia’s slumber. “Why are you here?”
“That’s an excellent question,” the ghost said, matching Tam’s hushed tones. “At the moment, the answer ‘getting a moment to relax at last’, thanks you I think.”
The capture spell hadn’t been intended to cause any pain or discomfort, so in a sense it was relief to see that it was working properly even against a target Tam hadn’t thought to specifically calibrate it for. On the other hand she was a bit concerned that she’d cast the mystical equivalent of ghost catnip, given how unperturbed the ghost seemed to be at finding herself stuck in the spell’s lattice work.
“Who are you?” Tam asked.
“I’m the Ghost of Christmas Present. Or one of them. You can call me Lily though if you like. It’s what I went by before I took this role.”
“If I free you, will you leave here?” Tam asked. Being in bed seemed like such a nice thing. Her floating spell meant she didn’t have to walk on the cold floor, but hovering in midair was still chillier than being tucked under the covers and wrapped up in warm, loving arms.
“I suppose,” Lily said. “If it’s all the same to you though, I’d prefer to just stay here for a bit.”
“Is someone chasing you?” she asked, knowing the sort of troubles that could plague ghosts who attracted the wrong person’s attention. As a seasonal spirit, Lily would have been protected from a lot of that, but also a more valuable prize for those who could threaten her.
“Oh, it’s nothing like that,” Lily said, reacting to the concern she could see in Tam’s eyes. “I’m not in trouble, just overworked.”
“Gee, what could that ever be like?” Tam asked, more bitterness coming through in her sarcasm than she intended.
“I’m sorry,” Lily said. “I’m not here to drop my problems on you. I know a lot of people have it worse than I do.”
“Well, you’re dead, so that gives you a leg up in the misery sweepstakes than a lot of them,” Tam said, softening a bit towards her uninvited guest.
“Oh, I can’t complain about that,” Lily said. “I had a great run. A lot of special experiences and special people. I got more out my life than most, I think, and when I passed on, well, I had some wonderful options there too.”
“One of them being to become a Christmas ghost?” Tam asked. Part of her wanted to get back to bed, but she knew she was too awake to slip back into the embrace of dreams easily. If she left now, she’d be tossing and turning, thinking about Lily’s story anyways.
“It was always my favorite holiday,” Lily said. “Giving gifts and watching people’s faces light up when they saw the things I made for them would give me as big a rush of happiness as they felt. When I had the chance to give people the gift of a new perspective for Christmas? That sounded close enough to heaven for me.”
“It sounds like the job turned out to be a bit more than you’d signed up for though?” Tam floated a cup, some water and a tea bag over to her hands. As the water streamed through the air, it heated up, joining the tea bad in the cup at just below a solid boil.
“I thought I’d be inspiring people to remember the same magic of giving to people that I’d felt,” Lily said. “It turns out, that’s not what most of my cases wind up being though.”
“More like a Christmas Carol?” Tam asked. “If I remember right, Christmas Present showed Scrooge the kind of hardships the people around him were laboring under right then. And what they really thought of him? It’s been awhile since I read it though.”
“That’s fine,” Lily said. “It’s a good story, but it’s not exactly our operating procedures manual or anything.”
“You have manuals for your seasonal spirit duties?” Tam asked. It wouldn’t have been the most surprising thing. Different spirits followed all different sorts of organizational schemes, including, frequently, none at all.
“I think we did once upon a time,” Lily said. “Now it’s more a matter of just knowing thanks to mantle of the role we wear. More importantly though, you’re right. A lot of the people I get sent to help don’t need to be reminded of how good it can feel to give to others. They would only understand that as a plea to their greed, and it would wind up feeding the wrong side of their souls.”
“I can see how that would get tiring,” Tam said, enjoying a sip of her tea. “What do you do for those people? The Christmas Carol treatment? Or does that not work either because they lack the empathy to absorb that lesson too?
“Each case is a bit different,” Lily said. “That’s the official answer I’m supposed to give. Honestly though, it feels like I haven’t had any successes in a long time. Nobody wants to see Christmas as the time of sharing and connection that its supposed to be.”
“Maybe it’s hard for some of them to have that connection?” Tam asked. “There’s a lot of people who are alone, or who have family that they may not be able to be close with.”
“That’s what’s got me down,” Lily said. “What if my whole role is to talk people into a version of a holiday that worked for me because of all the wonderful things I had in my life, but can never work for them?”
“That would be a pretty lousy afterlife,” Tam agreed. “Which is why I’ve got to believe there’s more options open to you than you might think.”
Lily brightened at that suggestion, leaning forward in the small area she was trapped in.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to let you out of there?” Tam asked.
“Not yet! Please!” Lily asked. “As long as I can’t work, I don’t feel the compulsion to seek out the next person who needs my help.”
“So the job comes with a geas?” Tam asked, thinking of the various magical compulsions she knew that could work on a ghost.
“Not precisely,” Lily said. “I can resist the pull of the next job if I need to. There’s no pain, or loss of autonomy. I just always have a sense of someone needing my help and where I can find them. It gets distracting sometimes and I feel bad for making people wait. In here though, that’s all on the other side of the barrier you’ve got me in, so I think the calls are going to some other Ghost of Christmas Present.”
“Have you tried talking with any of them?” Tam asked. “They might have run into the same things you have.”
“We never get called to the same person,” Lily said. “No one wants to see the present, and another, alternate, present I guess.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s not true,” Tam said. “Leaving that aside though I think there’s one simple thing you can do that might make your cases turn out better.”
Lily manifested at the side of Jacque’s bed and saw the shimmering haze of dreamlight that surrounded him dissipate as her presence brought him slowly back to consciousness.
“Hi,” she said and remained sitting calmly in the chair at his desk. Living people reacted poorly when they found ghosts hovering over them in the night. They reacted poorly to ghosts in most circumstances, but a friendly expression and a lack of sudden movements did a lot to provide reassurance that no one’s life was in mortal peril.
“You’re a ghost,” Jacque said, blinking as though to clear the dreams from his eyes.
“Of Christmas Present,” Lily said. “Yes.”
“I…I don’t do Christmas,” Jacque said, inching away on his bed as his fight or flight response went for the sensible option.
“I know,” Lily said. “It’s why I’m here.”
“Is this what Santa’s naughty list looks like?” Jacque asked.
“Separate department,” Lily said, allowing a smile to grace her lips.
“So I’m not in trouble then?” Jacque asked, his terror held at bay through the sheer power of disbelief he’d summoned.
“Not with me,” Lily said. “I’m not here to punish you. Just the opposite in fact.”
“What? I get presents for saying ‘No’ to Christmas?” Jacque asked, relaxing more due to disorientation than any actual sense of relief.
“Would you come with me?” Lily asked, not answering Jacque’s question. “There are some things we need to see.”
She stood and offered Jacque her hand. Still as confused as he had been, Jacque rose and took Lily’s ghostly hand in his own. She saw his eyebrows twitch up when he felt the warmth of her touch.
Most ghosts are frost cold, but then most ghosts aren’t filled with love and good cheer.
“Where are we going?” Jacque asked, his gaze darting around the room as though a secret passage was going to open through the walls.
“Wherever you need to show me,” Lily said. “I need to see what Christmas looks like to you, I need to listen to what you’re bringing to Christmas already, and who you would want to celebrate it.”
“Why?” Jacque asked.
“So that I can show you what Christmas could really look like for you.”
Jacque was sure he’d just been through the weirdest dream in his life. He couldn’t really have talked with the Ghost of Christmas present? Could he?
If not though, how else could he explain all the things he’d seen. From living memories of his childhood rendered in more detail than he could ever have possibly remembered to the scene’s from Lily’s life that they’d walked through, pausing and rewinding each piece of them to review at least one path a loving family could follow.
Lily’s family hadn’t been all related by blood. What bound them together went far deeper than that.
“Hi,” a woman said, her voice holding traces of uncertainty in it. “If this sounds weird, I’ll just go, but I had the strangest…dream I guess? I was talking to the Ghost of Christmas Present and long story short, she said to come here because there was someone else who needed a friend to spend the holidays with?”
“You saw Lily too?” Jacque asked.
“Oh my god! It was real!” the woman, Gillain, said.
“Are you guys talking about a ghost? A Christmas ghost? That asked us to meet here?” Thalia, a young black woman asked, with the same surprised look on her face that Jacque and Gillain wore.
“I think your idea worked,” Lily said, watching from a nearby rooftop with Tam floating beside her.
“Listening to people can make a big different when you want to help them out,” Tam said.
“They might have found each other on their own though,” Lily said.
“Yeah, but probably not tonight, and probably not at a point when they’d all be as open to seeing each other as the kind of friend they really need,” Tam said. “Unless I miss my guess, I think their little group is going to draw in a bunch of other who need the same thing, and I think that’s the best second chance, or Christmas present anyone could ask for.”