357 -The Doorbell

And so came Marley to the residence of one Campfire J. Burning Esquire. Riddled with miseries and other chill affectations of the season this man above–or perhaps below–all others demanded the attentions of famed spirits who once haunted Ebeneezer Scrooge to a long and happy life.

“Happiness!” exclaimed the rascal Burning. “Humbug!”

Beset by loneliness, homesickness and general unfeeling he’d become withdrawn and furious, and now sat alone in the draughty hallways of his New Jersey home.

Not that there weren’t signs of festive cheer daubed about the front room for there were. A tree blazed a[plenty, bedecked with ornaments from ages past, echoes of happier days to which Mr. Burning was sadly not party to. Also in evidence were bows, wreathes and ribbons, trinkets of the season which sat about the place like toads on a log. Curling shards of wrapping paper lay in drifts on the rug, and toys, gifts already opened by children who had since departed lay scattered. There were so many small happinesses in the nooks of the front room it would surely take a beast of a scowl to dampen their spirit; sure enough, Burning’s grimace could cut a man to the bone. His was a countenance that only grew uglier as the minutes ticked on, his back more hunched, his fingers more gnarled, his teeth more uneven and his brow more furrowed, ‘til he looked like some creature stepped forth from a penny dreadful, spreading dourness across the land.

But such was his way, and so he had always been. This, thought Marley, would be a tricky haunting if ever there was one.

Glancing up from his writing, every finger-stroke the banging of a coffin lid, Burning looked about the room. If his eyes took in any of the Christmas glory surrounding him, his look betrayed not a trace of feeling.

Still there was something in the air that night; a shivering stiletto that pierced even the coldness exuded by the misery himself.

Burning looked about the room a second longer as if searching for the source of this sudden chill, then muttered something beneath his breath, pulled his shawl tighter and resumed writing.

It was nine of the clock and the road upon which he lived was otherwise still. Two nights before Christmas, the streets revelers had taken to their automobiles, visiting clubs, friends and loved ones, life’s sundry bounties of which they were only a small cog in a large machine.

Pitifully, Burning span alone except for the dog at his feet, who gazed mournfully at his master as if expecting the crack of a cane across its ribs or back.

Now the dog stirred, sniffing the air as some unearthly scent teased across its nostrils. The clock on the mantel toned the hour sonorously, shaking spiders from their webs and dust from the eves.

While the house trembled still a waterfall of chimes cascaded throughout: the doorbell, ringing.

The dog howled. Burning, grumbling, stood.

“Who?” he spat, shuffling, slipper-clad toward the door. The bell rang apace. “Rousing me from my words–taking me from them! Who, at this hour?”

He fumbled with the lock and then, with one abrupt motion, threw the door open to reveal . . .

Only the night and nothing more.

“Children!” he snarled, casting his gaze to where the toys were piled haphazard, but he knew it couldn’t be these children at horseplay as their aunt had taken them hundreds of miles distant to the annual Christmas family gathering, a party Burning was loathe to attend.

But there are other children, he reasoned, filling the world with their inimitable stink. Sticky fingers on thieving hands; the world would be better off without ‘em.

So he shut the door did Campfire Burning, his putrid mind already returning to the words he’d abandoned like flies to a corpse. But as he turned away, his hand letting go of the doorknob, the doorbell pealed again.

The dog, keening, loped off down the hall to bury its head beneath its paws.

“What goes on?” cried Burning, twisting the knob savagely. “Were you hiding only to return once my back was turned? I’ll cane you–I’ll cane all of you!”

He opened the door again and again there was nothing but the empty street and the distant, joyful sound of a Christmas party in full swing.

Availing himself of a walking stick lodged into the hatstand by the door, Burning thrust it like a rapier into the darkness. “Show yourself!” he said, probing the shadows and finding them bare. “Cowards in hiding–show yourself, lest I beat you to within a hair’s breadth of–”

But to what he might beat them to a hair’s breadth of, he did not say, for neither his eyes nor his cane found any children, hidden or otherwise. He stopped swishing the stick and listened for small footsteps departing his property, but above the wheezy susurrus of his breathing and his deep, laboured heartbeat (for even a man such as he had a heart, albeit a particularly cold and stony one) he heard nothing but those aforementioned sounds: night breezes and faraway parties.

“Pah!” said Burning, his pulse beginning to quicken, for this was not a usual occurrence in his life: not a usual occurrence at all.

Almost as soon as he’d swung the door fully closed the ringing came again, louder and more sonorous than ever.

“Who’s there?” cried Burning, now in the grip of some shuddering, waking nightmare. Opening the door, dreading what might be there, he again saw nothing but the bell’s tolling continued regardless.

He let go of the door and staggered back into the room. Those festive lights wrapped about the tree flickered, then danced in off patterns. The toys sprang to life and danced a jig upon the table. Caught in an unfelt gust, the wrapping papers moved in fits and starts, spinning about the room, catching about Burning’s trembling person. The door to the hall slammed; the dog behind barked, growled, howled and fled upstairs, and all the time the doorbell, the infernal doorbell clapped and rang, rang and clapped until its peals became a voice and the voice spoke to Campfire Burning.

“Beware!” wailed the doorbell. “Beware, Campfire Burning!”

“Wh-who is that?” said Burning, his voice jittering with nerves. “Show yourself, creature! Speak to me, man to–”

“To ghoul?” said the bell in a mocking tone. “To phantom, to spook? To bad casserole not baked far enough? I am not a product of your unsettled stomach, Campfire.”

“Then who?” sobbed Burning, collapsing on his knees amid the skittering paper. “Show yourself to me so I might put a face to this voice, for it’s a voice I recognise!”

“I should hope so,” said the doorbell, its note ringing in clear indignation. “For I am a spirit who once trod the same paths as yourself, who has since moved on to another realm.”

“The afterlife?” asked Burning. clutching one hand to his mouth and crossing himself with the other.

“No!” roared the bell. “To the first floor, up the stairs!”

“You mean . . . “ said Burning.

“Yes!” said the bell. “I am your wife, and I’m not happy with you at all.”

All at once the clock sounded, as did every clock in the house, their ringing echoing in the hallways in contretemps to the sound of every shutter, window and door opening and banging shut.

“But why,” sobbed burning, tears running down his shaking jowls. “What have I done to offend thee oh spirit of the boudoir?”

“Repent!” said the spirit. “Repent your way! You have become miserable, and in your misery you have forgotten the true meaning of Christmas.”

“Which is?” asked Burning.”

“It’s not mine to tell,” said the spirit. “But know this. Before this night is out you will be visited by three more spirits.

“Three?” said Burning to himself.

“Three,” confirmed the spirit. “Each of whom will have a message for you that you will learn lest you end up like me.”

“Like you?” said Burning.

“Neglected! Alone! Abandoned upstairs in a room without socks! Evaded by a cruel, uncaring spouse who speaks only in snappish tones and never lets love into his heart.”

“I . . .” said Burning, and swallowed, his eyes shining with tears still unshed. “I apologise. I didn’t mean to cause you such distress, my love. I can change.”

“You will change,” said the spirit. “Or you will know suffering as you never have before.

“Now abide by me, and listen close:

“The first spirit will come as the clock strikes ten. The second, when the clock strikes eleven, and the third at the stroke of midnight.

“Listen for them, Campfire Burning, or listen not. They will find you all the same.”

“But how will I recognise these spirits?” said Burning. The pealing was subsiding now, falling into echoes, and Burning shuffled on his knees as if toward the unseen source of the sound.

“You will know them,” said the voice as it faded. “And they will know you. Farewell, Campfire, my beloved. May we meet again on happier times.”

“Wait!” cried Burning, standing now. “Come back to me!”

But the doorbell had stilled, the ringing had stopped, and the spirit had returned to whatever fell realm from which it had come.

Once again, the house was very still.

“Heavens,” whispered Burning, his timorous voice suddenly loud in the stillness. There were so many questions he’d wanted to ask the spirit, that bounced among his thoughts like moths.

He noticed he was still wielding the cane and now set it back in the hatstand before making his way uneasily up the stairs. Each creaked as he stepped on it, and each step seemed to speak to him harshly.

Finally he breached the first floor and knocked on his bedroom door. From his wife inside there came no reply.

“I’m sorry,” he called through the keyhole. When this, too, was met with no response he straightened up and dusted himself off.

“Pah!” he said. Hearing the word said aloud made him feel confident, and so “Pah!” he said again–louder this time–and opened the door.

The bedroom was bathed largely in shadow, with only a crack of moonlight visible where the shutters–now stilled–allowed it entrance. Whether or not Burning’s wife had been the voice of the spirit she lay still now, and quiet. A bundle of blankets betrayed her form. Burning regarded it and scowled before heading to the dresser to change into his nightclothes.

Finally, still bothered by the events of the evening but willing to pass them off as–as the ‘spirit’ had suggested–a spate of indigestion, he stole into bed.

“While you were up here dozing I believe I myself fell asleep downstairs,” said Burning, stifling a yawn. “You wouldn’t believe the dream I–”

From the night cabinet on the opposite side of the room came a sound. Burning craned his neck in the darkness to see the source: a digital alarm clock, shining in the gloam.

The clock read:

22:00

Ten o’clock! thought Burning, and as swiftly as it had passed, the chill returned. But that meant . . .

The bundle of blankets next to him writhed and sank, whatever form hidden beneath them now vanished. The shadows–myriad though they were–lengthened even further, curling into claws that pulled back the shutters and threw up the window. From without came a voice that send the marrow crawling in Burning’s bones, a voice he knew well, but that he hadn’t heard for a goodly long time.

“Hello,” said the voice, rich and baritone, scratched at the edges and turning with a West Country burr. “How’re you?”

Like soldiers standing to attention, gooseflesh rose from Burning’s skin. “No!” he murmured, burrowing his head beneath the bedsheets. “Not you! It can’t be!”

“It can be,” said the voice. “And it is.”

An icy breeze pierced the sanctum of the room and tore away the blankets, leaving Burning shaking on the sheets beneath, his eyes screwed shut.

“Come on, lad,” said the voice. “Hop to it. We don’t have all night.” and it laughed, a short, gruff bark that was somehow terrible.

Slowly, unwillingly, Burning opened his eyes and crept along the bed toward the window. “Why?” he moaned, over and over. “Why?”

“You know darned well why, me ‘andsome,” said the voice. Burning could see him now: a proud elderly man with a fine white moustache and bold blue eyes, hovering just beyond the window. He looked slightly amused to see Burning gawping back at him but most of all he looked angry with an anger barely restrained, as if he might fly into a temper at any moment. “Now take my sleeve and come with me.” The spirit held out his arm.

“But what if I don’t want to?” whispered Burning, a frightened longing causing his voice to waver.

“You don’t get a say,” said the spirit of Burning’s dead grandfather. “Because you see, Daniel: I’m the ghost of Christmas past.

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