“I am the ghost of Christmas past,” she said.
Her head was on my shoulder at the time. She was resting it there after telling me, if she didn’t, it would fall off. Who was I to argue? Who was I to risk the potential decapitation of someone such as she? Besides, there are plenty here who seem to run around as if headless...
I asked her what she meant, and she didn’t answer for a long moment.
I could smell her hair. The scent of coconut drifted up to make me think of chocolate and paradise islands. I could imagine her laying there on the sand, counting the grains that ran through her fingers. She be gazing at the sky, waiting for the stars to come out when the sun was setting. She’d imagine seeing the birth of each one, rather than them being burning balls of fire, millions of light years away.
She was like that. Whimsical. A wisp of a woman. Slight and slender.
Gabrielle. She believed herself to be ‘not from around here’. By that, she didn’t mean she’d arrived on the train from Kings Cross or flown in on the early plane from Schipol Airport. She meant she was not... of this plane. This existence. This reality. No one called her Gabby or Gabs or any other too informal abbreviation. She seemed to deserve her full name. Gabrielle. It suited her.
“I mean, I’m the ghost of Christmas past,” she said.
Of course she did.
“OK,” I said. I left it at that. What could I say? How’s Scrooge doing? What the Dickens do you mean?
Besides, when she rested her head on me like that, something which happened at least a couple of times a week (she seemed to have a wobbly head), it was somehow comforting. Perhaps it was the simple closeness of another person – a woman, indeed. Perhaps I craved contact with someone who wasn’t on the verge of having a schizophrenic episode or who might take the opportunity to urinate on my feet. Perhaps I just wanted to sit and not even talk.
“Christmas is coming, isn’t it,” she said. It was a statement rather than a question.
“It is,” I answered. I used to love Christmas. I watched Christmas films, enjoyed giving (and receiving) presents, stuffed myself silly with the meal. That was a long time ago. I didn’t really enjoy anything anymore. Well, apart from a head on my shoulder.
Don’t get me wrong, there was nothing untoward in my enjoyment of her proximity. No mischievous thoughts (or anything else) were aroused. It was purely platonic. It felt nice to be just there.
“They’ll haunt you, you know.”
My breath stopped as it entered my mouth, deciding whether it wanted to hear what else she had to say before it chose to exit the way it had come or to continue down to my lungs.
“Those who have died.”
I made a great effort to ensure no one knew of my particular problem. I was a sufferer of extreme paranoia. The asylum was the best place to be because those who were out to get me couldn’t in here. Deaths? I knew nothing of such things.
“You do,” she said quietly, interrupting me. I did. “And I know they haunt you. I am the ghost...”
“Of Christmas past,” I interrupted in turn.
“Yes,” she said. Her voice was little more than a whisper - a murmur carried to my ears more by vibration than by sound.
“They already do,” I told her. I heard their screams every night and could feel their anger and despair every day.
“I know,” she said, briefly touching my leg. “But you won’t stop it.”
I didn’t expect to. I put myself in here to try and prevent any more deaths, but I figured I’d be forever haunted by the ghosts of those that have already died. It was only right. I’d snatched them from their lives. I’d ripped their souls out and cast them aside like flotsam on the shore. I was their Reaper. I should be permanently reminded of that.
Still, to be told that. To be slapped in the face with the fact. Whatever I did wouldn’t be enough. No amount of self-deprecation would suffice. Leaving myself to the whims of Connors and his staff would, in no way, make up for what I’d done. And, fair enough. My torment was also my friend. I gained solace in the knowledge I’d always be surrounded by the shades of my crimes. That may not have been right – why should I benefit from such things? But no. There was no benefit, not really. It was simply that I deserved my fate.
“You don’t,” Gabrielle whispered. I hadn’t realised I’d spoken aloud. “But they have nothing else to do except haunt the one who stole their lives. Whether you were at fault or not, you were the flame that started the fire and they are like spectral moths, with their screams the beat of their wings.”
She lifted her head and looked at me. I found myself unable to look away from her pale grey eyes.
“They will haunt you, always. Don’t haunt yourself.”
Don’t...? At first I didn’t understand. Haunt myself? I wasn’t dead. Maybe dead inside, but... Unless that’s what she meant? Don’t haunt myself. Be alive? Don’t dwell on the past but look to the future?
I asked her. She nodded.
“What future?” I asked. “I don’t have one, not anymore.”
“We all have a future,” she assured me. “Even thirty seconds from now is the future.”
Somehow this wasn’t comforting. It didn’t exactly imply longevity.
A thought occurred to me.
“What does this have to do with Christmas past?”
Gabrielle didn’t answer. Her head was back on my shoulder and her eyes were closed.
She didn’t open them again for a long time.