Michaelmorser Scrooge returned to quarters, the fog heavy in the Providence air, horns from the bay warning the ships that still worked this Christmas Eve to steer clear of the rocky outcroppings. He climbed the stairs at the old firehouse, reluctantly entering the dayroom where the members of Engine 13 sat gathered around a game of Monopoly, eating cookies and drinking homemade eggnog.
"Scrooge! A Merry Christmas to you sir!" said Ryan, his cheeks ruddy with Christmas cheer.
"What have you to be merry about? The world is mad, people shoot each other for the money addicts spend on vehicles of intoxication they use to escape their misery for a few fleeting moments, loungabouts call 911 for free rides to overflowing emergency rooms for medicines that MY taxes pay for, and fools like you spend this cursed day at work in a dingy old fire station playing silly games with the rest of your ilk!"
"Surely you do not mean those words!" said Ryan. "Come, sit and join us, it's only a game, and with each turn of the board we put a dollar into the helmet. We've already got eighty dollars to give to the poor!"
"The poor?" said Scrooge. "Are there no workhouses? Are there no homeless shelters and soup kitchens? No orphanages?"
"There are," said Ryan sadly, "a curse upon this once great nation. But for a little generosity and less greed those wretched places could be closed, and flourishing businesses put in their place!"
"The poor and needy will always be with us," said Michaelmorser, " let them die now and decrease the surplus population! Good night!"
With that, he took his gruel from the icebox and retreated down the hall to his office. The door was closed, and as he turned the knob, the middle of the door softened, and shimmered, and the traces of a familiar face appeared. He rubbed his eyes, then the door where the image had appeared, and found it to be sound and firm.
"Humbug!" said Scrooge, and entered his office and closed the door, and the noises of the merrymaking behind him.
He dozed then, sitting on an old recliner perched in the office next to a drafty window. The dirty dish that once held his gruel fell from the armrest, and clattered on the floor, startling him awake. The clamor from the breaking glass continued unabated long after it should have, and old Scrooge stood, and looked about his surroundings but found nothing amiss.
Suddenly, a loud bell rang throughout the station, the sound of which had hitherto not been heard in this or any other fire station in the city for decades. As the vibrations coursed through his cranky old body, a mist appeared through his door, and took the shape of an ancient Rescue Captain.
"Okie?" said Scrooge. "How…why…what are you doing here?"
"How I am here is of no importance, why I am here is all you need worry about!" the apparition of Okie moaned.
"But, you retired years ago! You are in Florida, I heard it just yesterday! You are enjoying the warm air and sunshine!"
"You foooool!!" said the Ghost of Okie. "I spent my years which should have been filled with helping those less fortunate by complaining about my misery, and dodging runs, and looking after nobody but myself!"
"That is not true! You and I are rescue men of the most impeccable kind! We take care of ourselves first and foremost, and get these fools who call us to the hospital by doing as little as possible! We work all the overtime we can so as not to be the dregs of society we are destined to treat!"
"Idiot!" said The Ghost of Okie. "See this chain that weighs me down? I forged it, link by link, callback by callback, year by year! It it the weight of a career of missed opportunities, the weight of a lifetime of chances missed! I could have studied the Protocols, and kept my skills up to date, and learned new things, but instead chose to exist in limbo, and sleep through most calls, never looking at the patients who called me for help, never trying to lessen their suffering, or give them just a little of the happiness they so needed!"
The apparition then rose from the floor of the tiny office, and floated to the ceiling, and made his way to the window, the giant chain clanging after him.
"You will be visited by three spirits tonight! One as the clock strikes one. The next at two. The third at the hour of three! Heed me well, old Scrooge, and listen to what they say, and you just might avoid an eternity of misery forged from a lifetime of cynicism and gloom."
"I'd rather not," said Scrooge.
Old Okie moaned a most disheartening moan, one that filled Michaelmorser with gloom. He watched as his old Captain floated along the ceiling, then disappeared out the window, the trail of chain clanging behind him. Scrooge crossed his arms, pulled the curtains back and returned to his chair, and covered himself with a tattered Redboy.
"Humbug!" he said, and fell fast asleep.
Okie had come and gone, warning Scrooge that three spirits would visit him this night, the Eve of Christmas, his most hated day of all.
"Only three? Good then, I'll have a quiet night! Three after midnight. Humbug!"
The clock struck midnight and no tones went off. "Bah!" He turned in his bunk, closed his eyes and tried to get some rest. Alas, no rest would visit him this night. A blinding light filled the office, and standing by the window was a wisp of a man, dressed in khaki pants and shirt, his eyeglasses nearly the size of his head and a belly the size of the loathsome Saint Nicholas.
"I am the ghost of Rescue Past," he said in a quiet voice.
"No. Your past! You may recall my name. It's Bub, and you were all little Bubsters once.""
"What do you want with me?"
"Come you miserable little man. I have something to show you."
"I'd rather not."
His voice grew louder. He approached, and though Scrooge knew his appearance was probably no more than a bad sausage from the meal he had taken to his room earlier as the firefighters sat amongst themselves in the dayroom, he was compelled to listen.
"Come with me!"
He extended his arm, and Michaelmorser held onto his sleeve and they disappeared through the little window in the office and flew through the night toward Reservoir Avenue, the Division of Training. They landed on the ramp, and though a light snow fell and a wind rustled the leaves and tossed litter along the sidewalk, they felt no cold, instead were full of warmth. Scrooge rubbed the frost from the overhead door windows and looked into the apparatus floor of Engine 11's quarters.
"I know these people! They were friends of mine! There's Chris Brown, and Joe Brethana! That's Joe Paiva dressed in the Haz-Mat suit acting like a chicken!
"They appear to be having fun. And who is that young man laughing along with them?"
"That is the man I used to be," Scrooge said sadly.
"Come," said Bub, "To another Christmas."
They whisked through the streets of Providence, dressed in nightclothes but not feeling the chill. The Branch Avenue Fire Station appeared in the distance, and they floated to the window and looked into the upper level. There, an older version of Michaelmorse was, but not quite as old as now sitting amongst different friends, opening a gift.
"That's Heidi, and Al! He said. And Kenny, and Arthur and Wayne, and Roger, and there's Steve Rocchio, and Danny Brodeur! and Chief Moura! Look at us, opening Secret Santa Gifts! I remember, I had Heidi and I bought her a book, a mystery If I remember correctly, we would sit in the dorm with our little lights and read when things were quiet. Those were some good times, I do miss them."
"And are not similar times being played out at your very station tonight, Scrooge? If I recall, a rather vigorous game of Monopoly was underway and you chose to ignore it!"
"I did, Bub, and I wish I hadn't. It's just so many runs, and all the paperwork, and the nonsense, then the shootings and overdoses, I can't stand it!"
"But stand it you must! You are needed, and needed to be well. Now come, I have one more Christmas to show you, then my time here is through."
"I don't want to leave."
"You left a long time ago. Come, Michaelmorser, before it is too late."
And they flew, leaving Scrooge's friends behind. Again.
They flew to another fire station in a different part of the city and observed.
"It's so quiet," Scrooge said to the spirit that accompanied him.
"You came to the Rescue Division to make some extra money, and never left," said Bub. "But you found you enjoyed it, and reveled in the opportunity to help your fellow man. You did well for five years or so, then as quickly as it began, the joy left you, alone, sitting in your office dreading the next call. Look at you, Scrooge, your face is full of tension, your body is stiff, you are the very picture of misery!"
"It doesn't have to be this way!"
"Right you are Little Bubster. You will be visited by two more spirits tonight. Listen well.
"I want to feel needed, as though my time were not wasted on people who care for nothing but bettering their position! I want to want to do this! I want it to be like before, when I saw people truly in need of our help! I'm…"
The office was dark, cold and empty. And Scrooge was alone. The clock was nearly at two. He rolled over in his bunk, and mumbled "Humbug."
The blinding light was nothing new, every night spent in this wretched building gave rise to the cursed things, most nights hourly, accompanied by the PA sending us to some godforsaken part of the city for some ridiculous reason or another.
Chest Pains? More likely heartburn from eating too much stew!
Abdominal pain? Ha! Gas is more like it. A little dry pressure valve relief does wonders for normal men, not these fools who inhabit the City of Providence! A simple fart is what they need, not a 911 response!
Unconscious? Hardly! Never, well, maybe never is the unconscious person actually unconscious upon our arrival. Fat, drunk and stupid is more like it.
Seizure? Seizure shmeezure, I'm about to have a seizure if these lights don't go off!
"What? Who goes there! And what are you doing in my office!"
"I am the Ghost of Christmas Present!"
"A good Christmas present would be to make the lights disappear!"
"Not a Christmas present you odd creature,THE Christmas Present!"
The blinding light subsided and I was able to get a better look at the originator of the voice.
"Zack! What are you doing dressed in velvet, and wearing that crown? You know, fur belongs on the animals, not on people's heads! And what's in that goblet you drink from? I'm parched!"
"This is the milk of human kindness, and I am most certainly not Zack," the apparition boomed, then drank heartily. "This is the year 2011. I have 2010 brothers, and Zack is but one of them," he drank again.
"Save some for me!" I pleaded.
"When there's a lot, I drink a lot. When there's a little, I drink it all!" With that he tilted the golden goblet to his lips, tipped it back and guzzled. He wiped his beard clean of the golden brew and handed the mug to me.
"Too late," I said. "It's gone."
"You are a pathetic creature, Michaelmorser Scrooge! The cup of Human Kindness is never empty! You need only look within to find more!"
I took the goblet from him, and some kindness spilled. The cup was overflowing. I drank. The room spun, but not in a dizzying way, rather, it was. well-delightful! I drank some more. Music filled my office, and the lights once more grew bright.
"This is fabulous," I said to the giant, bearded Zack. "Can I have some more?"
"Perhaps, for now, we have work to do. Take hold of my sleeve, we have a journey and I don't have much time."
"If I must," I giggled and took hold of his sleeve.
Though the city seemed deserted, The Ghost of Christmas Present knew just where to lead us. We flew through the dark night, a freezing rain falling through us but somehow leaving us dry. In a blink we were outside a familiar place.
"Why have you taken me to this place?" I asked. "I just left."
"Look inside, you odd creature, and listen!"
"I hope he leaves the job in the city this year," said Mrs. Michaelmorser. "Every year the weight of his responsibility grows heavier, and he brings his sadness home with him."
"Remember when he would spend days decorating the house?" Asked young Brittany. "It was the most grand in all the neighborhood!"
"I miss the baked, stuffed shrimp," added Danielle. "It's just not the same these years past. Something is missing."
"I fear he has lost his soul." said the Mrs. "And without soul, it might as well be simply boiled shrimp on any given day!"
Scrooge's family went about their tasks, wrapping gifts, stirring the gravy and putting neat rows of manicotti into shallow baking dishes.
"At least he didn't forget the manicotti this year!"
"Or the wine," said Brittany, pausing to uncork a bottle of Pinot Noir. "To Michaelmorser, may he find the spirit of Christmas!"
"To Michaelmorser!" the girls chimed in, and sipped their wine.
"What is this madness? I'm the Christmasmeister! Do I not make the girls watch The Grinch every year?"
"The Grinch, Scrooge?" asked Zack as we flew back to the city. "How appropriate. Drink, you are returning to your miserable self!" He handed me the goblet, and I gulped.
"I know this place! The Cabbage Patch! Why have you brought me here, there is nothing here but misery!"
"Is there, Scrooge? Look around you, and see the misery!"
Children filled the rooms of the pediatric nursing home, children with birth defects of every kind imaginable. Some were on respirators, some lay in a state of unconsciousness,others were barely aware that they even lived, yet the people who worked here, on this Christmas Eve had decorated the depressing place, and the cheer of Christmas could not be missed. Lights adorned once dismal hallways, and a Christmas Tree sat in each room, every one topped with a star. Those stars shimmered, and their light grew, then faded, then grew again. I looked for the power source but there was none.
"What powers the stars?" I asked Zack, sipping from the goblet and feeling the comfortable fire grow in my belly.
"The love that emanates from the people who believe in a greater good, and spend their Christmas here, with these unfortunate souls, and have planned for weeks to get the children ready for a day at home, with their families, or for those who can never leave, have spent their meager earnings decorating this place, and throwing a party tomorrow here, in what you so lovingly call, "The Cabbage Patch."
A child sat in his crib staring at me, and smiled as we met eyes. His heart grew outside of his body, I saw it beat in rhythm with my own. It was the size of a grapefruit, and covered his chest, and was hideous, and horrifying, and completely out of place on such an otherwise beautiful boy.
"I thought they couldn't see us?" I said.
""Those that will be leaving this earth soon have special gifts."
"Is there nothing that can be done for him?"
"Why? Better he die, and decrease the surplus population!"
"You use my words against me, Spirit! He never had a chance, this boy, who wears his heart outside of his body. It's not fair!"
"And is it fair that you wear your own heart so deeply embedded in your chest that even your own wife cannot get through!" Zack said, poking my chest.
"Ow! That hurts! Cut it out! Stop it!, stop it! stop it…."
I looked around my office, and saw that I was alone, and the clock showed nearly three.
At precisely 0300 the tones went off, and I slipped from my bunk and hit the floor. The station was quiet, not a peep could be heard once the tones quieted down. The rescue waited and Brian sat in it.
“A Merry Christmas to you sir,” he said. I ignored him.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“To the Children’s Nursing Home for difficulty breathing, “ he replied, and stepped on the gas.
It was quiet as we rode toward our destination; I had little to say and much to think about. The three ghosts that haunted my nightmares were just that, nightmares. Foolish apparitions born from too many rescue runs, too much overtime and not enough peace and quiet! I decided then and there to dodge more runs, and let the out of town rescues bear the burden of the needs of the people of Providence.
We arrived at the nursing home, and stepped out of the truck. The freezing rain had turned to snow, it tickled my skin for a moment, then melted, and annoyed me. I wiped it away. Brian lagged behind.
“What are you doing, I’m freezing and you are wasting time fiddling about with some nonsense!”
“I’m getting the equipment.”
“Don’t bother, we’ve been here dozens of times, kid probably has the sniffles!
The elevator slowly rose toward the third floor and our patient. It groaned to a stop, and the doors opened. The floor was empty, as far as I could tell, nothing stirred.
“Hello!” I cried, and my voice echoing back was all i heard. At the end of the long hallway I saw a shadow, and as it approached, the elevator doors closed behind me, taking Brian away. The shadow continued to approach, growing larger the closer he came. He wore nothing but a black cape, and I could not see his face.
“Where is the patient,” I demanded. He said nothing, but pointed a bony finger at me, and beckoned me to follow.
Sounds of respirators filled the space now, hissing and gurgling, the machines that filled the lungs of the barely living doing their ungodly task without mercy, or feeling, or life, just mechanical movement performed by machines. The sound comforted me. Children’s eyes peered from each room we passed. Some roamed the hallways, apparitions of their former selves, little ghosts whose lives had ended right in the very space I now occupied.
“You! I shouted to the shadowy figure that led me down an endless corridor. You are the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come! Admit it and identify yourself! I demand it!”
The figure slowed, and turned, and in his arms held a small boy whose heart lived outside his body. His eyes were alive, but the specter held a body that did not breathe, did not move, and did not live. The heart did not beat, and I had no idea what to do.
“I fear you more than all the others, Spirit! I implore you, make him breathe! Do something! Start CPR! It’s only a heart outside a body, surely you can make it beat once again! Look at his eyes you monster, they still flicker with life! You have the power to save this unfortunate soul, and give him a chance, another day, Christmas Day! Perhaps this day will be the day that they find the miracle needed to restore his heart and let him live a normal life! Do you not care? Does this life have no meaning to you at all?”
The Spirit of Christmas yet to come held the child to me with outstretched arms, and as I went to take him, his hood slipped back exposing his face…my face.
“No! Please, it cannot be! Please Spirit, tell me, is this the future that will be, or is it the future that might be?”
The boy now rested in my arms, and his eyes, whose light was quickly dimming met mine, and I stood there, the ghost gone, Brian gone, the nurses and other patients gone, and I stood alone in The Cabbage Patch, and watched a beautiful boy’s lights go out.
"Rescue 1, Respond to 342 Broad Street for an intoxicated male."
Scrooge was instantly awake, alive and ready to roll. An intoxicated male on Broad Street! Fantastic! His office was just as he remember before the spirits had visited, but make no mistake, they had visited, and the lessons they offered echoed in his head and filled his empty soul with hope. He opened the office door and stumbled toward the dayroom.
"I'm as light as a feather!" he giggled as he walked.
"I'm as giddy as the drunken man on Broad Street!"
The firefighters sat in the dayroom, putting last night's Monopoly game away, and the upside down helmet full of dollars with it.
"Ryan! What day is this?" He asked his good friend.
"Today, why, it's Christmas Day!"
The spirits did it all in one night!
"An intelligent boy, a remarkable boy!"
"Here's twenty dollars for the poor," Scrooge said, and put a twenty in the helmet. "And there will be twenty more every year until I'm gone!"
"Are you serious," said Ryan, nearly dropping the loot.
"The one twice as big as me?" said Ryan incredulously. Scrooge looked at Ryan's girth, scrunched his face into it's familiar prunish countenance and replied.
"Now that would truly be a Christmas miracle! But yes, that's the bird. Go there when you are relieved and buy it. Bring it here before I get back and I'll give you half a crown!"
"What are you going to do with it?"
"Cook it, my fine fellow, and all that goes with it, and when we come back to work tonight a feast like I haven't prepared in a decade will be shared by all of us!"
Rescue 1 waited on the apparatus floor, and Brian with it. Scrooge sat in the officer's seat and growled at Brian, and chuckled to himself.
"Took you long enough to get down here!"
"But I was waiting for you," he replied.
"And you shall never have to wait again, my good man! From this day forward I will be on the truck and ready to roll every time the bell tips! We have work to do, let's roll!"
The drunken man was indeed on Broad Street, and was quite inebriated. He slept on a cold sidewalk in all he clothes he possessed.
"Ignorance and want, all in one untidy bundle," said Scrooge as he and Brian scraped their patient off the sidewalk and brought him to the ER.
"A small detour, Brian," said Scrooge as the drove toward home. "To the Children's Nursing Home, and step on it."
Old Michaelmorser Scrooge spent the next hour visiting the workers and children at the heartbreaking place, making a special visit to Room 324, where an angelic boy slept peacefully, a lump on his chest covered by a blanket. A nurse stayed with the boy, and looked up from her chart as Michaelmorser entered the room.
"How is he?" Scrooge asked.
"Good as gold," the nurse replied.
"If the boy were to go into cardiac arrest, is there anything I should know were I to be dispatched here in the dead of night?"
"Of course, treat him delicately, and caress his heart, and do compressions carefully, but no different than you would on an otherwise healthy boy.
"I'll do that," said Scrooge, "and learn all I can about him, and what ails him. And I'll visit and see that he gets proper care should the need arise. And I also promise to keep Christmas in my heart all the year long, and not let my tendency toward depression get in the way of what I should be doing for humanity."
Scrooge was as good as his word, and treated the drunks with kindness, and began learning anew the protocols and procedures necessary to keep fresh in a field that he had let go stale. People say that if anybody knew how best to keep Christmas, it was Michaelmorser Scrooge.
"And I have the spirits to thank," he smiled to himself as he hung his troubles on "the trouble tree" that sat outside his doorway. He opened the door, and it was warm, and the house reeked of Christmas, and the people that mattered most welcomed him home.