The Occasion of the Morning of That Fateful Day
Something betwixt a growl and a harrumph filtered through the thick door, which Tad understood as a Come in, so he did, uttering his customary, "Good morning, Stephen."
The eyes that lifted up from his desk were pools of darkness, deep and bitter, but Tad could see the sad desperation that escaped before Stephen put up his defences again.
A cough and a growl, "You're here in my sight, so I doubt this morning is indeed good."
Tad shuffled from foot to foot, "Well, if you'll dispense the day's coal, I can be out of your way and back to work."
A key slapped onto the desk and Stephen turned back to his work. Sighing with relief, Tad took the key and unlocked an ante-room door. He scooped up the allowed bucket's worth and locked the door again, pausing to return the key.
"Thank you, Stephen. Meg should be up with your coffee shortly."
Stephen's brow furrowed and he glanced up, "Where's Jay? He brings my morning coffee. Meg does the afternoon."
Tad's mouth opened and closed like a fish, babbling, "Uh, he's a little busy helping someone else with something else down somewhere in the studio."
Stephen was barely listening any more, instead waving a dismissive hand at Tad, who took the chance to quickly leave.
* * *
Jay smiled, too. Sleepy and slow, but full of love.
Tad quickly moved over to fill the boiler, chattering away, "We can have a fine breakfast now that the heating's back on. Killer can make some of his wonderful tea, and we can have toast and marmalade. I, uh, borrowed some from Stephen's cupboard. Told him it had expired and gone all mouldy." He giggled nervously at the deceit.
The warm slowly grew brighter and cheerier with the heat, Meg happily setting up the breakfast things, Killer taking care to set the table, adding a little paper flower centrepiece he'd made.
In the corner, Jay stifled another cough and sat up as Tad sat next to him.
"We'll soon have you feeling chipper and 100%, Jay. I promise you," Tad placed a hand on his shoulder, gently squeezing.
Jay nodded, "I'm sure Stephen will give us health insurance next year. We've worked ever so hard and I just know he'll appreciate all our efforts."
Tad nodded back, masking his pain, "He's a good man, underneath all that bluster."
"Come on boys, breakfast's ready. Let's get this day started!" Meg called out, adding with a chuckle as she picked up the tray for Stephen, "Save me some food!"
With that, she strode out, ready to tame the beast in Stephen's belly with her tasty morsels.
* * *
After a simple meal, he shuffled to sit by the fire, lost in his own musings.
Staring into the fire, he thought he saw shapes of long-forgotten memories, the silence played tricks and brought back voices he thought he'd lost to time. Swallowing his growing feelings of nostalgia, he found himself drawn into the past. Back to the brightness, back to the joy, back to...
Back to him.
Back to Jon.
A sound like an animal dying escaped his parched lips. Quickly, Stephen clamped his hand over his mouth, his stomach tensing up, his eyes misting over.
“No. NO. I. Will. Not.”
A heartbroken sob, a shudder, silence.
Hunched in his armchair, Stephen hardly seemed to breath, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, feeling nothing.
The Night of the Spirits
He folded his arms in annoyance, "Very funny, Tad. You think this will make me give you that end of year bonus? How'd you get in here, anyway?"
The grey-clad figure clanked his chains, dispersing some of the mist surrounding him and pushed back his cowl, revealing an impossibly withered and aged face. It stared at Stephen, before slowly lowering himself into the armchair.
Stephen frowned into the gloomy, dim light of the fire's embers, "Pretty good makeup job, makes you look like The Cryptkeeper. But I'm still annoyed at you. I might have to dock your pay for this."
A voice like cold granite rasped from what was once the creature's lips, "Silence! I am not this Cryptkeeper you speak of, I am known as Sumner Redstone. Not many have known this name and lived to tell the tale. Now, harken to me. You will be visited by three spirits. Pay attention to what they have to show you. Your very life may depend upon it."
Stephen resisted the urge to reel off tequila, absinthe, and whiskey as his preferred spirits. Instead, he felt an ice-cold grip upon his intestines. He was sure there was a worm crawling about the spectre's skull-like visage. Maybe it was the low light, and his own tiredness. He shook his head and stifled a yawn, closing his eyes just for a moment.
Upon opening his eyes, Stephen found himself sitting up in bed again, the room dark and foreboding. Somewhere in the distance, a clock chimed the hour.
"It's nothing. A bad meal, is all," he found himself muttering, drawing the bed clothes tighter to him and hunkering down.
"Stupid," he muttered as he fell asleep again.
Being the Visit From the Ghost of Christmas Past
Quickly realising that the thudding was just his own pounding heart, Stephen exhaled and closed his eyes for a moment. Blinking them open again, he saw the figure standing by the bed. Not the Cryptkeeper, this one was different somehow.
"Stephen. I am the Ghost of Christmas Past," the voice seemed very familiar.
Stephen blinked and replied, "I'm sorry, I really must apologise most sincerely. Wait, why did I get the urge to say that?"
The Ghost shrugged, pushing back her spectral hood, "You usually have to apologise to me, for one reason or another, Stephen."
Stephen gasped and cried out, "Doris Kearns Goodwin! Oh, wait. Is this one of those intervention things? There's nothing wrong with me! Why is everyone ganging up on me? It's not fair!"
Doris gently shushed him, "Stephen, this is a genuine, 100% authentic haunting. The spirit realm doesn't do interventions, okay? But I am here to help you."
A sudden thought hit Stephen, "Oh God, you're not dead, are you? You're one of my best guests!"
"Oh goodness, no. This face is a projection, someone familiar. It tends to help get the message through," Doris patted his hand kindly.
Stephen was nonplussed, "Message? What message?"
"That's up to you," was the cryptic reply.
As a grey-green mist entered the room, Stephen bit his lip and tried to swallow his fear.
Doris nodded, "Time to go back."
* * *
The mist dispersed and the scene shone bright before him. The Daily Show studio, the old couch on the set, the old gang.
It was Jon who'd been laughing, a dolphin-like giggle as Allison and Steve flanked him and tore down his defences with an onslaught of alcohol and devastating humour. Broken and bent, Jon had been easy prey for Stephen.
"What- what the hell is that?" Jon had giggled.
Stephen proudly held up the menorah, "You know your own peoples' religious doo-hickey, Jon! This one I've adapted, so Jews can enjoy Christmas, just like normal people. It's a Christmas Jew Tree!"
Jon bit his lip and pointed to the added extras, "They're not candles!"
"No, Jon, each night you add a tiny, little Christmas tree. They light up, too!" Stephen eagerly demonstrated, eyes filled with wonder.
Jon smiled, "Thank you, Stephen. This is possibly the second best gift one could ever receive."
Stephen's smile slightly deflated, "Second best?"
Jon's kiss gave an indication of the first best.
Stephen stared at his younger self, slimmer, less grey, and ever-smiling. He stepped back, Doris' chains clanking as he stumbled back against her.
A sobbing, choking Stephen moaned, "I can't do this. Don't make me. Please!"
Doris placed a hand on his trembling shoulder, as Stephen stared transfixed at himself and Jon.
Jon's smile, the way he'd caress Stephen, the kiss, it all slammed into Stephen. All of this joy, this tenderness, it had all been torn aside, replaced by coldness and stones.
Stephen's voice found a way out, small and fragile, "Why are you doing this? Why couldn't you just let it be?"
"This is who you are, Stephen. You forgot how to live."
"I am alive. I'm living," Stephen's defiance was more desperation than anything else. "This isn't life, this is the past. You don't live in the past." Stephen had to stop himself from rambling on, so he clenched his fist to his stomach."Take me home."
Doris nodded slightly as the mist enveloped Stephen, the music and lights shimmering all around him. As a sexy groove thundered through the loudspeakers, Stephen caught a glimpse of himself and Jon, bodies entangled, lips locked in the throes of passion. Turning away, he saw Abraham Lincoln, his stove-pipe hat doffed in gentlemanly greeting as Doris rubbed herself against him.
Stephen gibbered indignantly, "Doris, what the hell? This is my dream, can't you wait five minutes to get filthy with your dead presidential boyfriend!"
As the mist dragged him away, Doris could only shrug and mouth, "My apologies, Stephen!"
The light and life faded into the mist. The chill crept into Stephen's bones again as he closed his eyes, exhausted and spent.
Being the Visit From the Ghost of Christmas Present
Stephen swallowed saliva and braced himself for the new ghost, a tremble in his voice betraying his fear, "Okay, you brought fixings for a midnight sandwich, let's see who you are."
The Ghost of Christmas Present shook his hood free and smiled, "Hi Stephen."
"Bobby, the Ghost of the Ghost of Bobby!" Stephen wailed, clutching a pillow to him. He sniffled, "You were delicious, both of you!"
Bobby hefted a sigh, "Both of me, real Bobby and Ghost Bobby? Or both of us, as in me and Ham Rove?"
Stephen gibbered in annoyance, "Does it matter? Can we get this over and done with. I'm having kittens wondering what terrors you have to show me."
A shrug from Bobby as he lifted his hand to draw in the mist again, "Well, it's the present, so your mileage may vary on the terror level."
The flash dissipated and a dim light set in as Stephen looked around him, "Well, this is cosy. Tad and the interns have set up house in the boiler room."
Bobby scowled, "You didn't pay us enough to live anywhere else."
"I might have to start charging rent," Stephen muttered as he inspected the improvised furnishings and decorations, dodging out of Killer's way as he brought the dinner to the table.
Bobby smiled wryly, "We're both spectral forces here, no need to dodge. Although, it can feel a little creepy if someone just walks through you."
Stephen shuddered, turning his attention back to Tad, "He's getting a little touchy-feely with Jay there. Tell him to stop."
Bobby glared back, "No. I can't, anyway. Tad's got a right to have a little happiness back in his life," adding quietly, "especially after I died." He smiled sadly at the little shrine for him Tad had set up in the corner.
Stephen was no longer listening, disturbed by Jay's coughing fit, "What's wrong with Jay? I hope he never coughs in my coffee like that. Meg better bring my food and drink from now on."
Bobby hovered behind Jay, "He's ill. He needs treatment. But without health insurance..."
Stephen pointed an accusing finger, "Wait a minute, is this all a ruse to get extra benefits? Come on, so he's got a cold! MAN UP, JAY!" He jabbed the finger against Jay, eyes widening as it sailed through his shoulder. He recoiled and staggered back. "It's a dream. It's just a dream. Killer's going to turn into a ballet dancing gorilla in a minute."
Bobby could only sigh and bring up the mist again, placing a spectral kiss on Tad's cheek before they left.
Stephen drew his eyes from that rug and lifted them towards the open doorway. A soft scratching could be heard from within the room. With leaden feet, Stephen found he was walking into that room, up to the desk where Jon sat writing in a journal. Even in the soft light, Stephen could see Jon's silvery-grey hair, the lines starting to deepen upon his face. His eyes looked bleary and bloodshot, and they gleamed from a recent bout of weeping.
Stephen stopped himself from reaching out to Jon, from stroking his hair. He knew he couldn't, not here in this spectral form, and not even in the morning when he woke up. He could never go back to Jon. To face having to speak with him. To say the words he'd wished he'd spoken long ago, back when. Back then. No going back.
This one-sided haunting was wrenching enough.
Jon leant back in his chair and refreshed his drink. He let it sit there, staring into nothingness before making a sudden move to tear out the page he'd just written. He stopped and pushed the journal away, turning it so Stephen could read what was written there.
Stephen had assumed Jon had been writing something for the show, but as he tilted his head, he saw the words of regret, of love, and of longing. The words were for Stephen and they leapt off the page, taking flight to nest in Stephen's heart. He jolted back, clutching at his chest, as if to tear out the word-birds.
Crouching on the floor, Stephen uttered a moaning gurgle, which Bobby seemed to understand. He brought up the mist and Stephen was back home. He wrapped himself inside the blankets and whimpered, closing his eyes.
Being the Visit From the Ghost of Christmas Future
Stephen managed to find a squeaky, rasping voice, "So, you're the Ghost of Christmas Furture?"
The Ghost didn't seem to appreciate Stephen's little call-back to his Number 1 best selling book, I Am America (And So Can You!), groaning slightly, and jabbing a finger again.
Stephen sighed and let himself be drawn toward the rising mist, wondering what the future would bring.
Stephen's toes curled with delight at the aroma of the potatoes, wondering how Killer learnt his cooking skills and how soon he could wake up and get that man baking for him.
A cluttering sound drew Stephen's attention to the far corner, where Tad had just dropped something. Muttering oaths, Tad picked up the framed picture he'd been polishing and spoke to it softly, "I'm sorry, Jay. I'm such a butterfingers." He placed the picture down next to Bobby's and lit the candles, "Merry Christmas, guys. I sure wish you could still be here. Love you both so much."
Stephen looked over at the Ghost, "Wait. Jay's...dead?"
The Ghost nodded once.
Stephen rolled the thought about in his head, "He won't be bring my coffee in the afternoons? He won't be there to-", a sob tore from his lips as he pushed his fist into his mouth. "No. Plenty of interns in the sea. Get another one, no problem. Guh!" He pressed his face against the wall, confused at his emotions. Stupid! Stupid! "Okay, you made me look an ass, go ahead, laugh, whatever," a sharp intake of breath. "Damn it, take me home, you son of a bitch!"
The Ghost tilted his head and brought the mist up.
* * *
Then he noticed the pictures, or lack thereof. The ghosts of the frames stood out on the bare paintwork walls. Stephen found himself in the bedroom, empty except for a few boxes of old books with charity written on it in blue marker pen. A small trash can and broom stood in the kitchen, along with a scrunched up cloth where someone had tried to clean up the baked-on cooking grot, then gave up.
Stephen walked all through the apartment, finding only small signs that Jon was ever here. He stormed up to the Ghost, "Where is he? Tell me!"
The Ghost stayed silent.
Trying to fend off a hyperventilation attack, Stephen paced back and forth, "He moved out, must have found a nicer place. Maybe somewhere by the sea. Sure, that's all. It's not like he could suddenly d-" He stopped dead, one hand finding a wall to balance against. What if...
He clenched his eyes shut, his voice deep and dark, he moaned, "Don't. Don't tell me. Just take me home. You can't torture me like this. It's not fair. What'd I ever do to you?" He slipped down the wall, sobbing piteously as the mist rose up and claimed him.
"This is it. You showed me that the future holds nothing but death and despair," Stephen wasn't sure if he'd actually said that out loud, but the Ghost appeared to hear it.
The spectre spoke from deep within its wrapping and chains, a soft, Southern lilt to the voice, "You asked what you had ever done to me? You turned me into a bitter, empty shell of a man, Stephen. You made me into you."
Stephen's jaw dropped as the Ghost pushed back his hood, revealing his own, damned younger self. It was just like that scene in The Empire Strikes Back.
A last trace of stubbornness rose within Stephen, "If I'm the older me, and you're the younger me, then didn't you-me make me-me like I am now? So, isn't it your fault?"
A gravelly sigh emanated from the Ghost, "The point is, you're like this now."
Stephen whined, "But how do I go back in time and not be me?"
"You can't go back, but you can go forward," the Ghost nodded slowly.
"Sounds like socialism," Stephen muttered suspiciously.
The Ghost clanked his chains in exasperation, "What?"
"The whole forward stuff. Obama. Socialism." Stephen nodded.
"So what do you do in your car, drive in reverse?" the Ghost sniped back.
Stephen blinked, "Why am I having an argument with a ghost version of me? SHUT UP!"
The Ghost pressed his palm against his head, "You're me, I'm you. Of course we're arguing. You've given me a splitting headache, Stephen. How about you sleep on it and see how you feel in the morning, okay?"
"Fine by me, GET OUT!" Stephen turned over, pulling the blankets over his head and was asleep in moments.
The Occasion of a Day of Seasonal Cheer!
Sitting up, he wrapped his arm around his legs and rocked back and forth, pain searing through his soul. Moment by moment, his heartache grew until he felt his chest would burst. He leapt from his bed with a cry of anguish, "Jon! What have I done? What have I become?"
He knew he had to do it. There was only one solution.
* * *
Enveloped in a warm embrace with Tad, Jay felt his strength returning and he smiled at his favourite building manager, "I can't wait for the new year! There'll be fireworks, singing, and good cheer."
Tad grinned, "Let's get through Christmas first, okay? Dinner's starting to smell wonderful, isn't it?"
"We truly are blessed. There's many who have it far worse," Jay's spirit gave Tad a chill, but he kept a smile on his face,
"I'm glad I have you, Jay. I love you," Tad gently kissed Jay, his soft lips desperately trying to draw the illness from him.
The door suddenly flew open and Stephen marched in, "Damn it, Tad, get your tongue out of that man and go fetch some coal." He pushed the office keys into Tad's fumbling hands and patted him on the back, "What are you waiting for? Shoo!"
Tad stared at the keys, then at Stephen, before deciding to do as he was told. Meg cautiously approached, "Shall I fetch you some coffee, Stephen? Is there anything you need done? I mean, it's Christmas and all," she trailled off, unsure of what to make of Stephen's broad smile.
He put his hands on her shoulders, "Meg, it's Christmas. Sit yourself down and I'll bring in the dinner."
Jay's eyes nearly popped out as he saw the trolley of food Stephen wheeled in. Stephen smiled, "Oh, you're already cooking. Never mind, make that the first course, then you can all start on the main. Put the leftovers in my fridge, and grab some any time. If there's any left, of course!" He chuckled as he patted Killer's stomach. Killer merely stared back, expressionless.
Jay coughed, then asked nervously, "Stephen, are you feeling okay?"
Stephen gently placed a hand on his shoulder, "I feel wonderful, Jay. But you don't, do you? Take this appointment card, you'll get all the tests and medicine you'll need." He brought up a hand to stop Jay's protest, "Hush, payment'll be taken care of. You need medicine, good meals and a warm place to live. Speaking of which, get over here, Tad!"
Tad smiled uncertainly as he brought the coal in, soon bringing some warmth to the room. He bit his lip, then asked, "You're not mad at us for living here, are you?"
Stephen drew Tad into a hug, "How could I be mad at my finest employees making the best of a bad situation? Listen, I have to go see a Chinaman, but we'll have a staff meeting later in the week to discuss undoing all the bad things, and doing gooder things instead, okay?"
Tad tried to hand back the keys, but Stephen waved him away, "Go. Eat!" With that he swept out of the room, returning before anyone could react, "Oh, and Merry Christmas!"
As he swept away again, a slightly stunned chorus of Merry Christmas to you, too echoed down the corridor. Trotting up the stairs, Stephen smiled as a voice started singing Silent Night. He paused to listen for a moment. Damn, Killer has the voice of an angel, he thought to himself.
* * *
A muffled, cartoonish voice answered, "Me have Chinee food for Mister Jon. You likee, okay?"
Jon sighed, thinking to himself, Pranksters. So original, too. Then something familiar about the voice settled into his mind. He pressed an eye against the peep-hole, stepping back in surprise before tearing open the door.
"Stephen?" Jon hoped his voice didn't sound too desperate, or that Stephen would notice how much he was shaking.
For his part, Stephen dissolved into a puddle of goo once he saw Jon, half his motor control skills lost, "I. Uh. Ooh. Mmph." As if he were a coiled spring, Stephen leapt forward, entwining himself around Jon, food cartons flying as he planted kisses on his grey goose. A picture became tilted at a satisfying angle as their bodies slammed against the wall.
Jon slowly hugged back, sobbing wordlessly into the kisses, not wanting to let go in case this were a joke or a dream.
Stephen's ragged voice came from the depths of the hug, "I had this terrible dream, and it was so real, so terrifying. I couldn't lose you again, so I got some Chinese takeout. Can we go see a movie later? God, I've missed you. So much. So so much."
Jon blinked back tears, "I thought I'd lost you forever. Do I get my Stephen back? The real one, not the creature you became?"
Stephen's voice carried a hint of his old Southern lilt as he sobbed, "I'm so sorry. I'll try, I'm really trying. Tell me if I'm being an ass, okay?"
Jon's smile lit up the room, "Let's make a start on dinner before the cockroaches get to it first, okay?"
"You really should spray for bugs. I'll get Jay to come round and -" Stephen stopped himself. "No, poor guy's sick, I can't make him do it."
Jon nodded, "See, there's the new, improved Stephen talking."
Stephen blushed, "I was going to suggest Tad do it, but that's wrong, too. Best to pay for a professional job." He picked up a carton of noodles and placed it on the table sheepishly.
Jon shrugged and handed over a beer, "Okay, at least you're trying. Merry Christmas, Stephen."
Stephen's return smile was bright enough to power Manhattan, "Merry Christmas, Jon!"
The light of Stephen's love spread out to all around and everyone thrived. Diseases were cured, love bloomed, and Killer's Kristmas Karols album reached number one on iTunes.