by Janet Kagan

---for David and Susan Ashmore. They know why.

Molly Rose Hawkins was angry at Christmas. Imagine! Only twenty-three and already angry at Christmas, at the whole damn dog-and-pony show of it. Her anger, kindled in mid-November, was slow and smoldering. It reddened her cheeks, made her eyes seem as blue as the burning of a gas flame and pursed her mouth.

Perhaps she thought she pursed her mouth in disapproval, but you might have thought differently had you been a young man of the same age. What Molly Rose thought disapproving looked to those around her much like an invitation to a kiss.

With much effort, she had kept her temper throughout the Christmas shopping season and had been courteous even to customers who were whiney, mean-spirited, and (all too often) nasty. Christmas was especially hard on younger children these days, and she had no desire to add to their woes. For them, she conjured smiles and conjured smiles from them in return.

Perhaps it was the invited kiss that caused the young man (of the same age) to hand her an engraved card and say, smiling, "I know Christmas is an odd day for an art opening, but it's odd art. I suspect you've got someone special you'll be spending the time with, but maybe you'll both drop by. Heather even found us a recipe for smoking bishop---that's hot red wine poured over bitter oranges, with spices and sugar to suit---and it's guaranteed to raise the spirits...."

"A DICKENS OF A CHRISTMAS," read the card, in quite lovely Old English type, "Being an Exhibition of the Fine Art of Raising Ghosts at Christmas-Tyde." The address was a loft-gallery in a run-down district of town (the very district in which Molly Rose lived) and the card would admit two to the private Christmas Day opening.

Any other day, Molly Rose might have taken the young man's card as the sort of shy pass it was. Any other day, she might have found a way to say she had no date for Christmas Day, nor any prospects. But the store was crowded. Behind the young man, an exasperated mother said, to the two-year-old at her feet, "Stop that whining, Lizzie," all too sharply.

The young man stepped aside and gestured the mother to the counter. "I'm in no rush," he said, either to the mother or to Molly Rose.

Lizzie wailed again; Lizzie's mom seemed about to wail as well. Molly Rose leaned over the counter and gave Lizzie a genuine smile. "Hey, Lizzie," she said, patting the countertop. "Come up here and see all the pretty things." To Lizzie's mom, she said, "Down there, there's nothing to see but knees and feet. When the store's this crowded, that's not just boring---it's more than a little scary."

The mother's expression softened just a little; she lifted the child onto the counter. "Hi!" said Molly Rose. "What can I do for you and your mom?"

Lizzie took in Molly Rose, took in the young man. (He smiled at her too.) She sniveled. She might have wailed again but for the rack of silk scarves beside the register. In the face of so much color, Lizzie smiled, all wide eyes and reaching hands, her grief forgotten.

Mama sighed and spit-cleaned Lizzie's face. Her voice darkened. "I need a scarf for somebody who will hate whatever I choose."

"Oh, my," said Molly Rose, as if to say she knew the type. "Maybe you'd do better to get a gift certificate---"

The woman shook her head. "It would be from the wrong store." She looked close to tears. Lizzie crowed, tipped herself onto hands and knees and crawled toward all that color. Mama's hands shot out to stop her.

"I have an idea," said Molly Rose. "Is the scarf for a relative of Lizzie's?"

Grappling with the two-year-old, the mother nodded. "My-sister-the-bitch." It was all one word the way she said it.

"Then let Lizzie pick the gift." She pulled a handful of scarves from the rack and fluttered them through the air before the child's avid eyes. "What do you say, Lizzie? What color for your aunt?"

Before they were done, they'd chosen three: a shocking orange and gold for Lizzie's aunt, pale green for Lizzie's mama, and a small scarf of swirling coral-and-cream for Lizzie, who approved the flavor quite as much as the color.

As Molly Rose made change, Lizzie's mama glared suddenly at the invitation propped beside the register. She snapped, "Do you like Dickens?"

The question was so at odds with the tone that all Molly Rose could say was, "Yes, ma'am, very much," as she handed the woman her receipt.

"Here then. They're for tomorrow; the show sold out two months ago. Every show sold out two months ago." The woman slapped a ticket envelope onto the counter and shoved it at Molly Rose. "My-sister-the-bitch said she hated Dickens and I should take the tickets back and pick another play and I'll be damned if I'll play that game again this year."

With that, she gathered Lizzie and her packages and stalked through the crowd toward the exit doors before Molly Rose had so much as a chance to call out a "Merry Christmas!" Lizzie smiled and waggled fingers at Molly Rose over mama's hunched and angry shoulder.

"Thanks for waiting," she said to the young man. She might have said more (he was a singularly nice young man, with singularly dreamy eyes) but there were more customers to be helped. So instead of asking him where he'd been all her life, she said, "Now, how can I help you?"

She helped him choose an inexpensive but very lovely oblong scarf of white lace. Given the crowd at her counter, she was grateful he hadn't asked her to wrap it for him. Between the next two customers, she wondered if he'd done it as a kindness to her or if he was simply the sort who preferred to wrap his own. Between the two customers after that, she decided he'd want to make his wrapping personal. As inexpensive as it was, that scarf was one of the most beautiful she'd seen....

Some two hours later, on her ten-minute break, Molly Rose found Lizzie's mama had given her two tickets to the new staging of A Christmas Carol she'd been wild to see. Standing room was sold out and she hadn't dared risk the expense of a seat. She paused for a moment: if she went to the play, she probably wouldn't make it to the young man's art opening. She remembered his eyes.

A Christmas Carol or an actual cup of smoking bishop---such a choice should have been enough to pluck up her anger and root it out---but the day was not yet over. Before it was, she'd seen two more children slapped (for being exhausted, as far as she could make out), and another even dozen surly adults (she'd been snarled at, but so had everybody else working in the store).

But when a customer had threatened to have Elise, at the counter next to hers, fired (because the color he wanted was no longer in stock), she was angry at Christmas all over again: angry enough to desert her post. She found Elise in the lady's room sobbing her heart out.

"They won't fire you, honey, I promise." Molly Rose laid her hands on Elise's shoulders. The shakes from her sobs ran up Molly Rose's arms and across her shoulders, transmuted there to shaking anger. "I saw what happened between you and that Christmas goblin and if Helmut gets on your case, you send him to me. Come on now...." She hugged and patted and when the shaking stilled, she said, "Now dry your eyes and let's get out there and face down the rest of the goblins."

Elise giggled; the giggle had a left-over hiccup from the sob in it, but it was a giggle nonetheless. "Goblins?"

"Sure. You look: they're always little pasty-faced things, been working in the mines, get let out at Christmas just to torment the rest of us. Skrinched up faces, beady eyes that never see daylight but once a year. Either that or something about Christmas goblinates some people. There's nothing to be done about it and, if we're lucky, they'll un-goblinate after New Years'."

"Oh, dear," said Elise. "He did look like a goblin, didn't he?" This time the giggle was soft and warm.

"Yup, and the only thing that scares a goblin is a smile."

Elise smiled.

"That'll get 'em, girl," said Molly Rose, and on impulse offered her the spare ticket to Dickens' performance.

"That's family night," Elise said. "I can't make it."

There was something in the way she looked at the ticket. "But," said Molly Rose, knowing she was right, "but you know somebody who'd love to see this." Yes, she was right.

Elise made one shot, obligatory, at returning the ticket, but Molly Rose held up her hands. "Honey," she said, "the author is a friend of mine---has been since I was a kid. Think of this as me doing my bit to promote his work. You see that ticket gets into the right hands, and a Merry Christmas to you."

"God bless," said Elise and, seeming genuinely cheered, she went out to face the goblinated.

Molly Rose sighed and, from force of habit, pulled a scrap of paper from her pocket and jotted down the word "goblinated." She looked at her own face in the grimy mirror. "Smile," she commanded. "Even your editor knows you're 'relentlessly upbeat.'" Her image stared balefully out at her, goblinated as the worst of them, and she knew in her heart of hearts there'd be no Christmas story this year.

The last few years she'd made enough with her writing that she hadn't had to part-time at Christmas; and, by staying out of the stores when folks seemed at their most frantic, she'd avoided the worst aspects of the holiday. Come March, she'd have recovered from the few really nasty encounters she'd been a witness to (after all, one could hardly avoid nastiness---it was simply that it seemed nastier because of the time of year) and then she'd play her favorite Christmas music for a few weeks and sit down and, thus restored to the genuine spirit of Christmas, she'd write her Christmas story for the next year's magazines.

This year it wasn't going to happen. It'd been a lousy year all along and none of her writing had gone well. She had an umpteen dozen half-stories and she'd failed to finish a novel and now she wouldn't even be able to write her Christmas story come March. "And, if you can't write, you might as well put on a happy face and get out there and do your job," she told her image, "because you're gonna need this job reference."

With that parting shot, she pursed her lips, grabbed hold and dragged herself back into the tinsel and raucousness of the Christmas Village. The evening wore on, the crowd got thicker and Molly Rose's smile wore thinner but she kept it as best she could.

And then the day was over at last and she fought the subways where folks seemed surlier and breathed with relief the bitter chill of the air as she emerged from under the ground. She jammed on her gloves, noticing once more how tattered the cuffs of her coat had become. Well, it'd last two more years, at least. Shabby it might be, but it was proof against the cold.

She peeled back the cuff to read her watch---ten-thirty on the dot---she hurried her steps, pushing against the wind. Yes, there was Mrs. Eleanor, checking out the trash can on the corner of 2nd and 83rd, right on schedule.

Molly Rose had been curious enough to watch a few evenings and knew Mrs. Eleanor did the rounds as reliably as a neighborhood cat might. She'd once made the mistake of offering Mrs. Eleanor a container of Chinese food and had been soundly and haughtily chastised. How dare Molly Rose presume! Mrs. Eleanor, it seemed, was only out walking her dog, Susie.

There was no dog. Molly Rose wondered if once there had been.

At any rate, Molly Rose had gotten stubborn and prideful in her own way. Now she ducked into the space between the two buildings at this end of the street and set the shopping bag she carried in the only ray of streetlamp-light that penetrated the gloom. Since they'd given Molly Rose the job of cleaning the employees' fridge, she'd damn well see the leftovers went to good use. (Well, maybe, she had no real way of knowing if Mrs. Eleanor would take them. But if Mrs. Eleanor didn't, somebody else who needed them might.)

She nipped out of the alleyway just in time and zipped back the way she'd come, around the corner of 82nd to her own building. The blast of icy air almost knocked her over when she hit the patch of ice from the broken hydrant in front of Harry's Barbershop (now closed forever), but she worked her way up the four steps and rummaged her pocket for her keys.

As she pulled off her glove, cursing the icy keys and the icy lock and the icy wind and Christmas, Mrs. Eleanor rounded the corner. She was carrying the shopping bag. "Thank you," Molly Rose whispered to nobody in particular. Aloud, she said, "Good evening, Mrs. Eleanor. 'Evening, Susie. You've been shopping, I see."

Mrs. Eleanor smiled and lifted the bag an inch. "Christmas is so rushed," she said. "You know how it is. Stay, Susie."

She stood in the lamplight and Molly Rose, watching Mrs. Eleanor, could almost see the little dog tug with excitement at the end of her leash. Mrs. Eleanor wore a dozen or so ratty old sweaters---not enough for a night like this. Pinned to the outermost of these was a bright red ribbon.

"I see you're all gussied up tonight," Molly Rose said. If Mrs. Eleanor could be "brave in ribbons," she could damn well be brave too. Mrs. Eleanor would have her head otherwise.

"'Tis the season,'" said Mrs. Eleanor. "Merry Christmas, dear."

"And God bless us every one," Molly Rose said. Then she added sternly, "You'd better get Susie out of this wind before she takes a chill. Merry Christmas to you too, Susie," she called as afterthought. As she turned back to the door, she was suddenly blinded by her own tears. She found the lock by the sheer cold of it, and when she closed herself inside, she could just make out Mrs. Eleanor, gone across the street to check the garbage cans beside Bemeli's Grocery. She held the wriggling Suzie in her arms now, and Molly Rose was bone-sure that Suzie sniffed out the good containers for her.

Then Molly Rose did at last burst into tears. Damn the little ghoul in the back of her head for making stories out of other peoples' tragedies. She fumbled with the interior lock, got it open against all odds, and went sprawling over a package laid dead-center of the long entryway. The shock of falling startled her from her tears and she grabbed up the package hoping she hadn't broken somebody's Christmas gift.

She hadn't. Or at least she hadn't broken somebody else's Christmas gift---it was addressed to her. Scribbled on the package was a note from the man in 1A, "I didn't want to you pass it by: you always assume the packages are for somebody else. Your Uncle Oscar sends hugs and he's sorry he missed you."

Molly Rose climbed the two long flights of stairs to her apartment to be welcomed home by Mary and JayCee. She fed them first.

Exactly one year ago to the day, a lovely little gray tabby had come up to her on the street and inquired, Had she need of a cat?

Until that moment Molly Rose hadn't known she had. "Come on," she'd said, and the cat had followed her down the block to her building, in, up the stairs. The cat had checked the apartment, nook and cranny, then plumped herself in front of the fridge and Molly Rose had fed her the left-over half can of tuna. She'd given the cat water, devised a make-shift cat-pan, and gone over to Tomi Esposito's Christmas party.

When she returned (with a formal cat-pan and supplies), she'd found the little gray tabby nested on her laundry bag, no longer plump and nursing a single new-born kitten. Since it was Christmas Eve, there was nothing she could do but call them Mary and JayCee.

As things had turned out, JayCee was also a female, but that was fine by Molly Rose, who thought them both the nicest Christmas present she'd received in many a year.

When they'd all eaten left-over stew from the fridge and when Molly Rose had described her day (and told them wistfully about the young man and angrily about the slapped children) and been well and truly soothed by purrs and stroppings, Molly Rose remembered the package. With luck, there'd be ribbon for Mary and tissue paper for JayCee. No luck needed invoking---the package was from Uncle Oscar, after all, who worked in the rag trade and loved effects and knew the cats' tastes as well as hers.

"Dear Molly Rose," read the note (in Uncle Oscar's lovely copperplate hand), "A few years ago, one of your characters said wistfully that there were colors she'd never seen the dye-makers capture. She wanted 'a coat the color of snow-sky, that clear pale blue with silver shimmers hidden in it....'"

God, that line was over-written. Molly Rose cringed and hunched her shoulders because she hadn't found the words to describe the color she meant. Odd that Uncle Oscar had remembered the words, but then Uncle Oscar was a sweetheart.

JayCee was growing impatient, so she read on. "You tell me if I got it right. Love, Uncle Oscar. P.S. This is from our sample run but it should fit you just fine. The coats won't be on the market until next year, so you'll be predicting the future, as usual. More love."

With considerable help from Mary and JayCee, she opened the inside package and unfolded the tissue paper. "Oh!" she said. Nestled within the tissue paper was a down coat the color of snow-sky. She drew it from the box (JayCee immediately dived into the tissue to dance in noisy joy) and shook it out. The fabric shimmered with silver highlights. "Oh," she said again, and to Mary, she added, "He got the color---he really got the color! Will you just look!"

Mary was, truth be told, more interested in the ribbons, and she and JayCee held tug-of-war while Molly Rose tried on the coat. The fit was perfect (of course).

When she'd had enough of admiring the snow-sky coat in the mirror over the bathroom sink, she reluctantly hung it away in the closet. As she did, she caught up the cuff of her old coat. Good for maybe two more years, she thought again, and it should fit Mrs. Eleanor. How late did the play run? If she took the coat to the theater with her and left during curtain calls, she might just catch Mrs. Eleanor at her rounds. Her head full of frantic plans and the rustle of tissue paper in her ears, she fell asleep the moment her head touched her pillow.


The cats woke her early, which was just as well. With great joy, they helped her trim the tree. Putting on her new coat, Molly Rose dashed out to the store for a few last-minute goodies. Everybody else in the world had had the same thought, of course, so that took an hour. The supermarket had a small section devoted to pet toys, where she got the cats their traditional Christmas catnip mice...and where she paused a long moment and, on impulse, also bought a small dog's chew-bone.

She and the cats sat down to a formal Christmas dinner of roast chicken, after which she pulled the plug on the Christmas tree lights, dressed and rushed off to the theater, leaving the cats to fling their mice about in wild abandon. She did not forget to shove her old coat into a spare shopping bag.

This she settled under her seat in the theater. She'd made it with time to spare and, as her feet brushed the bag, she wished there were something more she could do for Mrs. Eleanor. After a moment, she had it. She fished in her purse for the pretty little Chinese silk pouch she kept her change in. She took out two tokens, one to get her home, the other to get her to work, and tucked the pouch into an inside pocket of the coat. On second thought, she checked her wallet: two twenties left. She could make one more meal of the stew and dole out the remainder of the chicken to the cats...that'd last till she could cash her paycheck. She tucked one of the twenties into the silk pouch and zipped it into her old coat pocket.

Then she settled back and let anticipation have its way with her. Dickens had believed Scrooge could change...maybe all those goblinated customers would too.

"Excuse me, ma'am," said a voice. She rose to let the young man ease past and into the seat beyond hers. He was maybe fifteen, dark-skinned, with even darker freckles, and a wild mop of jet-black hair. He settled himself (then re-settled himself, all gawk and long arms and longer legs) and then fixed his bright dark eyes on the stage with such anticipation that Molly Rose smiled at him and said, "Yeah, I can't wait, either."

"You're Molly Rose, then," he said.

Startled, it took her a minute to get it: this was Elise's friend.

"Elise said, 'Look for the only smile in the place, and that's Molly Rose.' Thank you. I wanted to see this, but I could never afford...."

"Me neither. A customer gave me the tickets because I said I liked Dickens." (And his joy at once made up for the spirit in which they'd been given.)

He nodded enthusiastically, as if to say he liked Dickens quite as much. "Merry Christmas, then," she said, and he smiled a beautiful bashful smile and said, "Merry Christmas," and the house lights went down.

Three lines into the performance, Molly Rose was appalled. This version was not simply bad; it was insulting. Someone (someone who didn't trust his audience) had excised all the "difficult" words and replaced all the unfamiliar phrases with modern phrases and, in so doing, had lost the beautiful rhythms of sentences that Dickens had worked so hard to achieve. Even with a free ticket, Elise's friend had been purely ripped off. (My-sister-the-bitch probably would have loved it.) Molly Rose's anger at Christmas was back, hotter than ever.

At the end of the first act, as the lights came up, she saw to her amazement that the kid next to her was still glowing. "This is wonderful," he said. "Hey, I didn't introduce myself, I'm sorry. I'm Tim White, and if ever there's anything I can do to thank you---like maybe you need some bookshelves hung or something...."

"I'll remember," she said. Not wishing to bring him down with her foul mood, she found a smile somewhere. "And there is something you can do for me."

"Name it!"

"Read the original story. You've got to hear him---Charles Dickens, I mean---tell it in his own words." She jerked her thumb in the general direction of the stage. "They won't tell you about the game of Blindman's-buff the way he does, and how Topper goes after the plump sister in the lace tucket." Remembrance made her smile genuine; she met his eyes. "The plump sister's one of my favorites; she's such a joy. ---If you've got younger kids in the family, read it aloud to them. That's how it was meant to be heard; A Christmas Carol is music."

"O-kay!" he said. "I've got two little sisters"---the shy smiled turned mischievous---"and one of 'em's plump."

As he followed her to the lobby to stretch those gawky teenage limbs, she realized she couldn't bear to sit through the second act. She couldn't even hang out with him through the intermission: he'd want to talk about the performance. He loved it and she didn't and there was no need to ruin the rest of it for him.

She looked down at the shopping bag in her hands. "I can't stay for the second act," she said, "I've got one last present to deliver and it's now or never."

She'd disappointed him. She couldn't leave him with such saddened eyes. "Hey, I know," she said. "All those folks in standing room?"---she handed him her ticket stub---"Make one of them the Christmas present of a seat." Yeah, his eyes brightened. "Pick a date or a seat-mate, just so long as it's somebody who can share your joy in this."


Leaving him shining in new anticipation, Molly Rose rushed away. Her smile vanished; it had been only a reflection of his. She tried to cheer herself with the thought that she'd make Mrs. Eleanor's rounds in good time, but that wasn't enough. The fact was, Scrooge wasn't reformed: they hadn't heard Dickens. If they couldn't hear Charles Dickens, what good could any tale of hers do?

She left the coat in the usual alleyway and wandered glumly down the street instead of going home. A bowl of smoking bishop, she thought; better that than sit home and fume all evening. Besides, she'd always wanted to taste smoking bishop. (Perhaps she'd see that lovely lace scarf at the neck of the young man's lovely young woman....)

She turned a corner and found Mrs. Eleanor walking Suzie. (Mrs. Eleanor was early tonight, or perhaps she made two rounds of the same area, but Molly Rose was very glad circumstance had brought her home in time.) "Mrs. Eleanor," she said. "Good evening to you and Suzie."

"Good evening. A lovely Christmas day eve, isn't it? Down, Suzie." The little invisible dog was obviously jumping at Molly Rose; Mrs. Eleanor bent down and picked her up.

"A lovely Christmas day," Molly Rose said. "You smell my cats, don't you, Suzie. And maybe this as well." She reached into her pocket. "I hope you won't mind, Mrs. Eleanor. But I got a little present for her...."

She found she didn't quite know what to do with the chew-bone, but Mrs. Eleanor had it covered. "Why, thank you," she said, taking the dog-toy. She leaned closer. "If I give it to her now, she'll be too excited to mind. I'll see she gets it the moment we get home."

"Thanks, and Merry Christmas!"

"Merry Christmas to you, too." Mrs. Eleanor put the dog down where Susie bounded enthusiastically about her ankles, wrapping her in the leash. "Suzie says Merry Christmas to the cats, too."

She went her way and Molly Rose went hers. The gallery-loft was only ten blocks away and, warm in Uncle Oscar's snow-sky coat, if not in heart, Molly Rose walked. Better that than run the subway gauntlet of the goblinated a second time this evening.

The gallery-loft was chilly but welcoming, and so were the art works. Christmas ghosts, all---running the gamut from the jaunty and cheerful to the truly nightmarish. She liked one Ghost of Christmas Present enormously and stood before it to let it warm her.

Behind her, a young man said, "Too much. I loathe Dickens---he's so manipulative, always wringing your heart."

Molly Rose swung on him. He was the very nice young man who'd given her the invitation but she was suddenly furious. Loathe Dickens? How---? All too sharply, she said, "Do you write?"

He looked at her, even seemed to recognize her, then shook his head. "No, why do you ask?"

"You think Dickens was dishonest---that's what you're actually saying." Hands on hips, she glared at him and spoke from all the banked heat of her anger. "I don't. I write and I think Dickens got just as manipulated by his characters as his readers do. I think they wrung his heart, and I think he wouldn't have spent the ink on them if he hadn't cared for each and every one as much as he wants you to."

The young man drew back as if she'd struck him, and Molly Rose stood aghast at her own goblination. She tried to form an apology but before she could get it out, someone yelled, "Mintern---give us a hand with the punch bowl, will you?"

"'Xcuse me," he said---and fled.

Now that he was gone she saw him in her mind's eye, and now she saw that he'd dressed for Dickens' period, in a frock coat and stiff collar. At his throat, he wore that lovely white lace scarf, loosely bowed. Dressed like one of old Fezziwig's lively young 'prentices for the Christmas party.

His invitation yesterday had been his shy version of a pass. Today, he'd tried to strike up a conversation, and she.... Tomorrow, Molly Rose was never going to forgive herself.

Feeling like my-sister-the-bitch, Molly Rose edged from the room, looking for a place to hide, the deeper and darker the better. She didn't look where she was going, only for shadows, and she found a library. (A library much like her own: a long narrow hallway made narrower by being lined on either side with bookshelves.) The books were beautiful and lovingly read, and Molly Rose couldn't help but read the titles, to see what sort of lover they had. Not the young man she just yelled at (he wouldn't have called it yelling, but Molly Rose considered it such and hunched her shoulders again) for there was a full collection of Dickens. Her hand went out to touch the spine of the well-worn copy of A Christmas Carol.

"May I offer you a cup of smoking bishop?"

The voice, so close, startled her hand away from the shelves. At her elbow stood a young man with flyaway sideburns and long wavy hair brushed and cut as if to keep his ears warm. Like the young man with the lace scarf, he too was dressed in frock coat and stiffened collar, a soft bow at his throat.

"Oh. Thank you." She took the cup and, with it, a close look at the fellow. His face was familiar; his name wouldn't come to mind.

"Thank you, my dear, for your passionate defense. I am much obliged." He made a slight bow. "Tiny Tim was quite as real to me as you are."

"Oh," she said, recognizing him then. What a lovely idea to have a re-enactor present at the festivities. She'd once spoken to 'Mark Twain' and still remembered him with delight. "Mr. Dickens," she said. "Forgive me for not recognizing you from the first. I admire your work, sir." She held up the cup in offer. "May I drink your continued good health?"

"And I yours," he said, clinking his cup to hers. They drank and the smoking bishop went down warm and soothing. Molly Rose held the cup in both hands, letting more warmth seep into her, and smiled. "I always wanted to taste a smoking bishop, because of Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit. I never dreamed I'd have the honor of having that taste with the fellow who introduced me to them. I wish I were half the writer you are."

"You must only believe," he said.

Something cracked inside Molly Rose. "That's just it. I don't, not this year, and I can't lie about it."

He replenished her cup from the steaming cut-glass bowl at his elbow. "Please," he said. "Be seated and tell me why you don't believe."

The cup burned her tongue and the spices stung her eyes, and Molly Rose sat down and told him everything. All about the goblinated people who, being tired themselves, slapped tireder children, about the fearful people who bullied and threatened, about the hatred she saw around her in the world that seemed all the stronger for its being Christmas.

Finally, she told him about the butchered production of his tale she'd seen earlier that evening, which seemed to sum up everything that was wrong with Christmas these days. "It's as if the world has taken Scrooge---the unreformed Scrooge---as the genius of the age. This age doesn't deserve your carol," she finished bitterly.

She stared into her cup, having found it grown cold. When she finally raised her eyes to meet his, she found them cold and hollow and so deep the hair at the nape of her neck rose in fear.

From his writing desk, he gathered up a sheaf of papers. Stacking them (the way she always stacked her manuscript pages: absently, out of habit), he held them toward the fire. "Shall I take it from them, then? I've only to throw this in the fire, and the odious Ebenezer Scrooge need never have been."

The fire leapt high, as if in anticipation.

"No!" said Molly Rose. She rose to her feet. "Oh, no, you mustn't!" In her sudden terror, she snatched the manuscript from his hands. (Though, truth be told, he gave it into her hands.) Hugging it to her, she sat down, well away from the roaring of the fire. "You mustn't," she said again.

"And why not? If, as you say, the story was not the sledgehammer against poverty I intended, why not burn it and have done?"

Why not, indeed, thought Molly Rose. What use if your readers didn't hear what you said to them? "Because"---she faltered, trying to put it into words---"because the world would be so much poorer without the hope that Ebenezer Scrooge might reform, the hope that Tiny Tim might live because of something we might do if only we understood what Christmas meant. Because you mustn't take that hope from us. Without hope, people won't try."

She riffled the papers, squinting to decipher his scrawled words, looking for that last lovely hope in the unfamiliar sprawl of ink, amid his crammed-in corrections and coiling deletions.

It wasn't there! Disbelieving, she fought her way through his handwriting a second time. Then she stared at him through the smoky light of the oil lamp in shock. "You didn't write it," she said. Her voice sounded dead to her; as dead as Dickens.

"Didn't write what?" He came to the settle and leaned over her shoulder.

"Here, at the very last minute, it should say---" Her fingertip on the next to last paragraph, tears welling as they always did, Molly Rose recited the missing line from memory: "'And to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father.'"

He bent over her. As his finger traced the paragraph, he laughed and shook his head in wonder. "Why, bless my soul!" he cried. "And bless you, my dear. I've rehearsed the words so many times in my imagination and before my glass that I thought I had written them down." He laughed again. "Never fear, I've ample time to correct the omission before the book goes to print."

"You will go to print then." She held the manuscript fiercely, protectively.

"I will," he said. "I promise."

"And Tiny Tim will live?"

He smiled at her fondly. "Could I do less for him than Ebenezer?"

Thus reassured she allowed him to take back the manuscript. He laid it on his writing desk and offered her another cup of smoking bishop.

She took it gladly, still shivering from the cold draft that blew through her heart. "Perhaps," she said, "perhaps the world did listen, does listen. Someone somewhere read your carol and took it to heart...."

"Oh," he said, "I know that for fact. Had not Ebenezer Scrooge reformed, Mrs. Eleanor would have died of the cold tonight. I have some small evidence of my success---as do you of yours...."

She raised her eyes to him quizzically.

"You have a coat the color of snow-sky." She did indeed; Uncle Oscar had heard her. Maybe others had too.

Suddenly startled, she rose from the settle. "How---" How did you know, she had meant to say.

But he had taken her hand, raised it and kissed it. When he straightened, he once again caught her in his regard and she could not speak.

"I beg of you, don't be too hard on the young man," he said. "I did, albeit innocently, complicate his childhood." He patted her hand. "You have lightened my day, my dear. It's rare to meet a colleague of such similar philosophy."

Then, just for a moment, his eyes turned deep again. This time, they did not chill her. He leaned closer and whispered, "If ever a dog were wild with joy, it's Suzie with her chew-bone. If ever Mrs. Eleanor were wild with warmth and joy---why, it's this very Christmas day."

He smiled at her wordlessness. "I'm glad you like the plump sister; so do I." He winked and added, "And now I'll leave the two of you alone."

Someone jostled Molly Rose, spilling hot wine steaming onto the floor. She jumped and turned and, when she looked back, Charles Dickens was gone. In his place was the young man who loathed Dickens, the young man in the lovely lace scarf....

"Thank heaven you're still here," he said. "I wanted to apologize for my earlier behavior. I really put my foot in it...."

Molly Rose shook her head to clear it. The study was gone; so was the fireplace. Once again, she stood in a narrow book-lined hallway, one hand clasped about a cup of bishop and the fingertips of the other poised atop a copy of A Christmas Carol on the shelves.

She'd zoned out...lack of sleep often brought her flashes of vivid daydream. Usually, though, the flashes were bits of whatever story she was working on at the time.

There was no Dickens' re-enactor, let alone the ghost of Charles Dickens himself; there was only her overwrought imagination. 'An undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard,' she thought. (That was Scrooge's explanation for Marley's ghost.)

"---The smoking bishop," she added, aloud. (That was hers.) "What on earth went into it? That's much stronger than I expected." She set the cup atop a hissing radiator.

"No such excuse for me, I'm afraid, Ms. Hawkins," he said. "I've been tasting it all week while we adjusted the recipe." He held out his hand. "My name's Eben Mintern."

"Molly Rose," she said. His hand enclosed hers, warm and tingling. "I'm sorry. I'm so exhausted I'm acting like my-sister-the-bitch." The book tipped from the shelf into her other hand. "I'd better go home before I fall over."

He nodded and released her hand. Not meeting her eyes, he looked instead at the book she was holding. "Do you know, I've never actually read that? I've always assumed from the films...." He shook his head ruefully. "I can be a such an ass sometimes. I am sorry. If I promise to give Dickens himself a try, may I walk you to the bus or the subway or wherever it is you're going?"

"I'm going ten blocks to my apartment and it's cold out there," she said with a smile.

"The offer still goes. And the promise."

"I'd like that, Evan."

"Eben," he corrected, still not meeting her eyes. "E. B as in 'braindead'. E. N." He spelled his last name as well, and the change in manner between the spelling of the first and the spelling of the last required Molly Rose's full attention.

"Eben," she said, at last, "Would that be your full first name or...?" When he tinged with color, she knew all too well how Dickens had complicated his childhood. "Ah," she said softly, "your grudge against Charles Dickens is personal. All I can say in our defense is: we've got call our characters something."

He laughed, then, and shook his head. "In Dickens' defense, he was hardly to blame for my mom's taste in names."

Very shyly, Molly Rose said, "I love your mom's taste in names. 'Ebenezer' is full of hope and generosity and old Fezziwig's Christmas party and---'to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father.' It suits you, right down to the white lace scarf."

"Then you," he said, in all solemnity, "may call me Ebenezer." Again, he smiled, and Molly couldn't have been more warmed beside a roaring fire. She knew for certain that no one else had ever been granted the privilege.

"I'll get your coat," he said. When he had (and had admired the color of hers and she'd thanked him on Uncle Oscar's behalf), she took his arm and they stepped into the cold.

A light snow was falling, and the city air swirled with the reflected colors of Christmas lights. As cold as the night was, Molly Rose felt warmer than she had for days, and she paused on the steps to watch the play of snow.

When she remembered at last that she was not alone, she found Eben gazing down at her. His (very beautiful) eyes held that same dreamy look she remembered from their first meeting. "Forgive me," he said. "I was sketching you in my head, the way you watched the snow."

Embarrassed (but pleased), she went down the steps watching her feet.

"Josie," he said, in a change-the-subject tone, "asked me to ask you your friend's real name. She'd like to thank him; he really made the evening."

"My friend?"

"That Charles Dickens guy. He was really very good, she says, and Josie should know: she's a Dickens' fan to end all Dickens' fans. That's why she chose Christmas Spirits as a subject for the show."

Molly Rose stopped in her tracks and drew away to stare at him. The wind was chillier now. "He wasn't mine---I mean, I didn't bring him." (Then who did? she thought, and the study, and the fireplace?)

Molly Rose played fair when she wrote (or that's how she'd have put it); she wouldn't ask a reader to believe a thing she couldn't. The ghost of Charles Dickens? Was he asking her to beli---

("You must only believe," Charles Dickens had told her.)

"I thought I'd imagined him."

Eben held up one hand, boy-scout fashion, and said, "No, you didn't: he was there, and he knew you. He must have, from the way he spoke." A flush spread across his face, or perhaps the coloring was only reflected light. "He said your name was Molly Rose Hawkins and you were angry at Christmas and, if I knew what was in my own best interest, I'd offer to see you home like a proper gentleman."

And if Molly Rose couldn't believe in the ghost of Charles Dickens, she could believe in Ebenezer---

She couldn't help but laugh. (If she had seen a ghost on Christmas Day, what better ghost to see?) "In those words?" she asked.

"Well, no, but I've never been good at remembering exact words---pictures, yes, words no. I'm sure of the 'angry at Christmas' though; I could sketch it for you. In fact, I will sketch it for you. Are you angry at Christmas?"

"No, not quite that. I was angry that I couldn't make people feel Christmas the way he could make me feel Christmas."

"He said I might doubt his sincerity all I liked, but if I read your stories, I'd never doubt yours. He said you believed and you wrote from the heart." Eben smiled again and added, "He said if I happened to need a Christmas inspiration of my own I'd best apply to you."

They'd almost walked past her corner. Molly Rose pointed and led the way to her steps.

"He was right about that: I'd like to sketch the way you watched the snow. I'd like---may I have your number? And did he give me your real name? I faithfully promise I'll read A Christmas Carol before I call...and something of yours, as well." He brought out a sketch pad and pencil and held them out to her.

"Come in," she said, "and warm yourself by a roaring radiator."

As she fumbled the key into the lock, he bent and said, "What's this?" As they stepped into the shelter of the lobby, he held out a package, "Here, it's addressed to you."

The package was wrapped in pink foil that had been used once before. Affixed to it was Mrs. Eleanor's Christmas ribbon and Molly Rose's name was written in a large, awkward hand.

Wildly curious, Molly Rose opened the package, taking care not to dislodge the ribbon or the printing. Inside she found a worn copy of A Christmas Carol and a note.

"Miss Hawkins," read the note (part of a brown paper bag, the edges neatly torn), in the same hand. "This has been in my family for many generations. I thought you would treasure it as I have. Suzie loved her present. Merry Christmas from the two of us." The note was signed, "(Mrs.) Eleanor Roosevelt."

"Eleanor Roosevelt?" said Eben.

"Mrs. Eleanor is a friend of mine. I met her one night when she was walking her dog, Suzie."

"There's more to the story than that," Eben said. "I can see it in your face. Eleanor Roosevelt? In the family for generations? That edition was remaindered all over the stores just this year. I know; I bought one for the Rackham illustrations." He suddenly threw up his hands, as if in surrender. "I'll read it!"

Molly Rose cocked her head at Eben. "Come up. You can meet Mary and JayCee and I'll tell you the story and maybe you'll understand."

Together they sat in the warmth of her kitchen and ate leftover stew. JayCee curled herself in Eben's lap, Mary in Molly Rose's, and Molly Rose told him all about Mrs. Eleanor. As she did, she cradled Mrs. Eleanor's gift. The book had been read almost to tatters and the weight was cozy in her hands.

As she finished telling Eben about Mrs. Eleanor, she let the book fall to a natural opening. Mary purred and stretched a paw and claws onto the page, as if to snag to her favorite line:

"The curtains of his bed were drawn aside; and Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them: as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow."

The phrase had been twice underscored---rough, uneven underscoring born of cold ink and worn nib.

Scratched in the margin, by the same pen and in the same sprawled hand she'd earlier struggled to decipher in the pages of his manuscript, were the words: "And so I am. ---Boz."

Eben rose, setting JayCee carefully back in the warm spot he'd left in the chair. "Now I've got to read that book," he said. "He caught you up; he made you stop to reread a passage." He put on his jacket. "May I call you tomorrow?"

Still caught in the book's pages, Molly Rose nodded. "Please do," she said. "I'd like that very much."

"If I see Mrs. Eleanor, I'll say hello. I'll know her when I see her now, even if I can't see Suzie the way you can. He was right about you, you know."

"He?" She paused, with her hand on the door.

"Charles Dickens," Eben said. "Whoever he was."

"Boz," she said, glancing at the little book in her hand. "Tell you friend Josie, he went by the name of Boz when he wrote this."

Eben got the reference; his smile was brilliant. "Yes," he said, "oh, yes! Josie will love that." He touched her cheek, very lightly, with the very tips of his fingers. "So do I. That would be something to tell the children, wouldn't it?" His voice and eyes were full of mischief.


"Why, that on a certain Christmas Day, many years ago, the ghost of Charles Dickens introduced an Ebenezer to their mother...." He kissed her startled mouth, then, quickly, warmly. "Merry Christmas."

He bolted. Half-way down the flight of stairs, he added, "---and I'll call you tomorrow."

Laughing, Molly Rose closed the door and leaned against it. (Her lips still tingled. That would be something to tell the children---how like Boz to toss love and laughter into the midst of her anger.) Her finger still marked the passage he'd underlined. Once again, she opened the book and reread his message. Ebenezer's kiss was still on her lips, and Dickens' voice was warm and clear and strong in her ear.

"All right, Boz," she said. She sat once more at the kitchen table. "I'll write my Christmas story. If we've got to reform Ebenezer Scrooge every damn year, we might as well get to it. Between the two of us, maybe we can get it to take." Laying aside the book, she drew paper to her and picked up her pen.

With Mary in her lap, JayCee draped across her toes, and Charles Dickens standing in the spirit at her elbow, she began to put her hope to paper.


"Standing in the Spirit" © 1997 by Janet Kagan. First published in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, December 1997. Reprinted by permission of the author, Janet Kagan, which was not significantly hard to obtain, this being the Christmas season <g>.

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Standing in the Spirit



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all text and photos © 1992-2005 by Janet Kagan