The Gift (Inspired by The Ghost of Christmas Past)
Before I started writing my short story, The Gift, I knew the inspiration: The Ghost of Christmas Past from “A Christmas Carol” the genre: western with a touch of steampunk, and I even knew how I wanted it to end. But I was stuck, stalled right at the beginning. So my daughter suggested that I write it backward. So I did. I started with “The End” and wrote the entire rough draft, line by line, in reverse order. I totally recommend this – maybe not for every story – it was a lot of fun and a creative challenge.
by Dorlana Vann
At first Cynthia was afraid to look out the window. She was afraid she would see the ghostly figure out by the horses again, stirring them up, making them run and complain. But she was expecting someone; she had to look.
The speck of hope that the person riding up the path was her husband, immediately died away. The man was hunched over and rode at a steady pace, like he had all the time in the world.
Cynthia moved away from the window and began removing the supper dishes from the table. As soon as she had set them down, a loud knocking erupted. She smoothed her dress and touched her hair, wishing she had put it up instead of the bowls. She opened the door.
The stranger’s head was down, showing the top of his brown hat. He was tall and broad shouldered and dirty. Pistols hung on both sides of his hips. When he raised his head, the smell of whiskey came with each noisy breath. He squinted into the light. “Ma’am, I’m looking for Tommy Two Shot.”
“Thomas isn’t here.”
The man frowned and then spit out the side of his mouth, saliva hitting the porch. “Is that so? Well then, when will he be back?”
The only reason she didn’t reconsider her decision to ask for his help was because she was more frightened of the ghost than she was of the stranger; no one would dare harm Tommy’s wife. “Mr. Stockton? I’m Mrs. Thomas Garrison. I’m the one who sent for you. Please come in.”
He wiped his feet, removed his hat, and walked into the house. He cautiously examined his surroundings, looking to the fireplace, the table and chairs, and then the hallway.
“Daddy! Daddy!” Mary and Annie ran into the room but stopped when they saw the stranger.
A flush of embarrassment raced up Cynthia’s face. “No girls. It’s a friend of your Father’s.”
Mr. Stockton asked, “Where is ol’ Tommy Two—”
“We don’t use that name in our home,” Cynthia said.
He glanced at the girls and nodded. “My mistake ma’am. I mean, where is Mr. Garrison?”
“Girls, go on back to bed now. Annie, help your sister.”
Her daughters did as they were told, and Cynthia was once again alone with the stranger. “Please have a seat.”
When the man sat down, his guns clanked against the chair.
“I’m going to get straight to the point, Mr. Stockton.” She placed a kettle into the fire, moving a stocking out of her way that hung from the mantle, out of her way. “I have a problem. You see, after my husband left on a business trip, I’ve had a visitor that I need to get rid of.”
“Killing ain’t my specialty.”
“I know.” She turned around and peered at the filthy man who sat across from her. She considered her words carefully, but at the last minute decided it wasn’t the time to beat around the bush. “I don’t need a killer. My husband told me what you do. I need someone who can get rid of a ghost.”
“He told you about that, huh?”
“He told me you had a special ability of some kind.”
“Are you sure it’s a ghost and not some coyote or raccoon? That’s happened before.”
“I’ve seen it out by the horses. It ain’t no coyote. It’s shaped like a man, but I can see right through it. It rattles the horses, scares them silly, and just as it turns its head to look at me … I turn away and hide. I’m afraid if it sees me, it’ll come inside. I don’t want it coming inside, Mr. Stockton.” The kettle whistled, and she jumped.
“I’m not sure what your husband told you, ma’am, but I can’t get rid of the devil if that’s what you got. I’ve had a lot of folks wanting me to get rid of the devil.” He laughed and shook his head. “You see, I’m kind of what you call an interpreter. All I can do is listen.”
She poured him a cup of coffee and carried it to him, the coffee spilling a little because of her shaky hands.
“You have a mighty fine home, Mrs. Garrison.” He took a sip of his coffee. “Real clean.”
The compliment made her feel uncomfortable. The way they lived, always on the move, they didn’t have things like other people, so there was nothing to make things untidy. Sometimes they lived in hotels in town, but it was worse was when they had to stay with “friends.” She was grateful that this time they had found an old abandoned house out on the prairie—at least that was what her husband had told her. She didn’t question why it had furniture and a nice fence.
He looked around, nodding. He pointed to the fireplace with his hat. “February is a little late to still have your Christmas up.”
“Shhh.” She slightly shook her hand in front of her mouth. “I’m waiting on Thomas so that we can have Christmas as a family,” she whispered. “The girls don’t know Christmas is over. They shouldn’t have to wait much longer. Thomas will be home soon.”
The stranger nodded, his eyebrow up, and clicked his tongue. “Uh huh.”
She knew he didn’t believe her, and she didn’t really have a choice but be straight with him, anyway. “I don’t know when he’ll be back. I don’t have any money. I swear as soon as he does return…”
“A hot meal would do fine.”
Cynthia cooked. Even though she had to use the remainder of the breakfast food, she wasn’t too worried. Thomas had played it close before but always returned right before all the supplies were depleted. She smiled and thought maybe this was a sign that he would be home soon.
After Cynthia put a plate on the table in front of Mr. Stockton, he dug in like he hadn’t had a meal in a while. She turned away when he started sopping up the eggs with the biscuits, the yellow dripping down his chin as he talked. “I was given this machine by a feller down in San Francisco. Payment for a debt he owed me. I’ve had it for twenty-some-odd years. It’s never failed me. It brings ‘em out all right, and I can hear them. I can’t talk to ‘em, but I can hear ‘em through that machine. Don’t ask me how the dang thing works, cause I don’t know.”
Cynthia wanted to believe that he would be able to help. But what he was saying seemed impossible. Perhaps it had been a mistake. Perhaps Mr. Stockton was crazier than a mad dog and what Thomas had told her about him that night had been a joke; maybe just drunk talk.
But then she shook her head for being such a hypocrite; most folks would probably think she was crazy, too.
After Mr. Stockton finished his meal and after checking on the girls, who slept soundly, Cynthia walked outside and stood on the front porch.
Mr. Stockton walked from his horse, which was hitched to the porch, to the steps carrying a strange apparatus in his hands. It was round and made of a shiny metal. It reminded Cynthia of a compass. He pulled at a thin stick that came out of the top of it, and it seemed to grow. A strange noise resounded out of the thing: a mix of frogs and unknown insects after a heavy rain.
He held the devise in the palm of his hand and put his arm way up high in the air, walking out into the sandy yard. “If there’s a ghost out here, this will detect it.”
She eased her way down the steps and followed him toward the fenced-in horses.
“Over here, right?” Mr. Stockton asked. “You saw it over here?”
The little machine lit up, and Cynthia put her hand over her mouth.
Mr. Stockton nodded, acknowledging her unspoken question.
Like a flash of lightning on a black night, a sudden bright light shook Cynthia to the core. The figure of a man she had watched night after night through her window stood directly in front of her, but this time the ghost was close enough that if she were to reach out, she could have touch him.
And close enough that she couldn’t deny what she saw.
Cynthia whimpered, and her head swooned. It was Thomas, her husband. He hadn’t come home for Christmas because he wasn’t coming home at all. He was dead.
Thomas didn’t seem to notice them. He walked by and through the gate, as if it didn’t exist. The horses began to move about.
The little needle on the machine started twitching and then madly rotating around and around.
Thomas looked over at the house and sighed, and his voice came through the machine. “I hope this will be the last time I gotta leave y’all.” In the next instant, the ghost of Thomas (Tommy Two Shot) Garrison disappeared.
Cynthia’s body shook, her worst fear realized in that second. How many times had she worried he wouldn’t come back home? How many times had she worried he would be killed? However, mourning would have to wait. She was now the only one responsible for her family. She wiped hard at her tears and stood tall. She pressed her lips together before clearing her throat, and through a restrained sob said, “Good bye, Thomas.”
“Are y’all going to be okay?” Mr. Stockton asked.
“We’ll be fine.” Cynthia gave a confident nod, even though she knew living without a husband would be more difficult than living on the run with an outlaw. “Thank you, for your help.”
Mr. Stockton climbed on his horse and tipped his hat. “Ma’am.” He rode away toward the moon, his saddlebags carrying the same as when he arrived and a trail of dust the only thing he left behind.
Cynthia knew she wouldn’t be afraid if she saw her husband’s ghost again. But she had a feeling that was the last time she would ever see him; he’d only come home long enough to give her a Christmas gift: she could stop waiting for him to return. Even though it was after midnight, she went to the room and gently shook Annie and Mary. “Wake up,” she whispered. “It’s Christmas.”
The Gift is one of the short stories from my collection: Supernatural Fairy Tales. It was inspired by The Ghost of Christmas Past from A Christmas Carol. Charles Dickens, London:1843