Ghost of Christmas Past

By C.L. Finn

Chris Keller had been trying his best to sleep, but that didn't seem to be in his cards for the near future. The frame on the bunk above him squeaked again as his cellmate tossed and turned.

"What's wrong, Beecher?"

A harsh sigh broke the silence, followed by another squeak. A pair of legs appeared over the side of the top bunk just before Tobias Beecher jumped down.

"Sorry, man. I'm just restless," Toby said, before going to relieve himself in the little toilet in their pod.

"Oh I get it," Chris said with a grin. "You're just too excited to see what Santa's gonna leave under the tree for you."

"Shut up, ya jerk." Toby snorted in laughter and paced over to the glass wall, looking out at the dark cellblock. "I really didn't mean to keep you awake," he said more softly, not turning around to look at his cellmate.

"Yeah, well... I'm awake now." Chris turned over on his side and propped himself up on one elbow, then patted the bunk next to him. "So, come on... sit, tell Santa what's keeping you up?"

Toby turned around and looked at Chris for a few seconds, obviously weighing his options. Finally, with a sigh, he sat down on the floor next to the bed, propping his back against the bunk.

"I don't know what it is. Christmas I guess."

The answer didn't surprise Chris at all. Holidays and birthdays in prison could be sheer hell, torturing you with memories of life on the outside, or fantasies about what those special dates were advertised to be. Inside, they were most often just another day, like all the other days. The only real concession to Christmas in Oz was the special mass given by Father Mukada, the turkey dinner served in the kitchen, and the scores of visitors. Of course, Toby's only visitor had been his grandmother, and that was one more than Chris had.

"Well, this isn't exactly the best way to spend Christmas, that's for sure. The ghost of Christmas's past is a real fucking bitch when you're in here. What was your last Christmas like?"

Toby laughed again, this one his nervous, bitter laugh. "Last Christmas was a real award-winner. I spent it with Schillinger's cock up my ass."

"Jesus, Toby." Chris reached out to touch the back of Toby's neck, but he shrugged him off. "That doesn't count. I meant your last real Christmas... on the outside."

"Oh. Well, that one wasn't much better. I spent most of it drunk. Gen had to do the whole 'Santa' thing on Christmas eve... you know putting together and setting out the toys... because I was passed out by ten o'clock.

"But the Christmas before that... that one was a really good one. The practice was going well and I wasn't drinking so bad yet. It was the first Christmas that the kids could get anything out of it, you know? Old enough to enjoy it, but still young enough that it's all magic, not just a time for getting the newest bullshit toys. Genevieve was beautiful and happy. It was a good one," he finished wistfully.

"You're really missing your kids, huh?"

"Yeah." Toby stood and grabbed something from under his pillow... a large manila envelope. He upended the envelope, dumping its contents on Chris' bunk. "They made cards."

Chris picked up the two folded pieces of construction paper. Both were covered in children's drawings-- Christmas trees, snow, and Santa Claus. One of them, clearly the daughter's, was covered in silver glitter, much of which came off and coated Chris' sheet. Inside the folded cards, each child had put an imprint of their hands in paint, and had scribbled their names.

Besides the note from Beecher's grandmother, there was also a photo of the two kids, both dressed up and sitting on a shopping mall Santa's lap. It might have been a happy scene except for the look of age around the small children's eyes. There was a sadness about them that couldn't be wiped away with Christmas trappings. It was enough to kill any man inside. Chris wondered if Toby's grandmother really thought she was helping by sending him this package.

"They're beautiful kids."

"Thanks," Toby answered sadly and put the cards back into the envelope. He left the picture out, looking at it. "It's not right... not fair for them. This year, they have to go through it without any parents. I had grandmother get presents for them. I don't want them to just forget me. But it's not exactly the same, ya know?"

"It sucks, Toby. For them and for you."

"Yeah, but they shouldn't have to be punished for what I did." Toby sat up straight, his whole body going rigid with pent up anger, and then just as quickly, he seemed to curl in on himself before he whispered harshly, "It was my crime that makes them have to spend Christmas without a father or a mother."

"No. No way, buddy. Listen to me. It might be your fault that you aren't there with them, but your wife killing herself is not your sin to carry. I know you feel guilty about her... and I can understand that. But she's the one who made the choice to leave those kids without a mom. You didn't make that choice... that's on her, not you." Chris reached out again and rubbed the back of Toby's head. This time, he didn't pull away. "Beech, you hear me?"

"Yeah, yeah, I hear you." It was obvious, though, that he didn't believe what he heard. Chris had learned when not to push, and this was definitely one of those times.

Toby set the picture aside and took a deep breath, obviously pulling himself under control. Chris marveled at the way he could run hot and cold, his moods as unpredictable as the appearance of fresh fruit in the cafeteria.

He turned around and propped his chin on his arm on Chris' bed. "So tell me about Christmas's past for Chris Keller."

Chris laughed and made a face. They were obviously done talking about Toby. "What are you fucking kidding? I've always hated this time of year with a passion."

"Come on... there must be a few good memories."

"Well, let's see... when I was 18, I spent my first Christmas in prison, very much like your's was last year."

In fact, it had been exactly like Toby's Christmas-- he'd spent it making sure Vern Schillinger got what he wanted in his stocking. But those were parallels his mind just did not want to draw. If he empathized too much, he'd never be able to do what he had to do.

"No, no..." Toby shook his head. "Like you said, that doesn't fucking count. Come on, man. You had four wives, right? There must have been a good year."

"Nope... not a single one." Chris shook his head and then a flash of memory stopped him. "Actually, yeah... there was one. Back when Bonnie and I were married... the first time. I got a few thousand dollars out of this stupid scam. We had no heat in our apartment, so instead of doing something smart with the money, we hopped on my bike and headed for Florida. It's great. You ever been down there?"

"Florida? Yeah, a few times."

Of course, Toby had been down there. Probably at one of those fancy resorts with golf courses. Sometimes, Chris forgot where Toby came from... the proverbial other side of the tracks. His anger and occasional forays into craziness often obscured the lawyer he'd once been. Toby's experience in Florida was most likely very different from his own.

"Well, we pretty much camped out on the beach most of the time. But we spent two weeks down there, and it was fucking fantastic. Warm and sunny. Everybody's so God damned beautiful, you know what I mean? It was cool. That's about the only Christmas I remember ever really enjoying."

"Well," Toby said with soft smile, "this one hasn't been too terrible after all. Thanks, man."

"Hey," Chris said with a grin and reached out to tug on Toby's beard lightly, "that's what I'm here for right?"

"Yeah," Toby snorted. "A regular Kris Kringle."

Chris wiggled his eyebrows and leered at Toby. "You want I should slide down your chimney and eat your cookies?"

"Fuck you, man," Toby answered, but he laughed and reached over to smash Chris in the face with his pillow. When they both finished laughing, Toby laid his head back down on his arm, which was resting again on the bunk.

"So, tell me about Florida."

"Ah, you know... you been there," Chris shrugged, but laid down on his back and went on. "It's just so blue there. Everything, you know. The water and the sky and all. I really dug the beach at night... cause the stars were so bright. Not like up here, where you can hardly see 'em. And there's this shit that glows on the waves... I can't remember what it's called... Bonnie knew. But it floats on the water, and when the waves break it glows in the dark. And the sound... fuck man, there's nothing like that. I'd love to go back there some day. How bout you?"

Chris looked down at Toby when he got no response. He'd fallen asleep, in what had to be an incredibly uncomfortable position. He thought about waking Toby up to go to bed, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. Toby looked so calm, so innocent in his sleep. Asleep, he was without that edge of madness that he carried around with him most of the time. He wondered briefly what Toby would look like without the beard... probably much younger. Which was also most likely exactly why he had it. As it was, he looked like a kid with the glitter that somehow ended up in his beard and on his cheek.

Chris reached out and touched one of Toby's blond curls. Sometimes, he really hated what he was doing. And he really hated Toby for making it so easy. He'd considered more than once forgetting the whole plot and telling Vern to fuck himself, but he just didn't need that kind of trouble. And he owed a debt. Not much could be said for Chris Keller as a person. But he paid his debts, no matter how painful.

And this one was going to be painful. He could lay odds on that.

Chris ran his hand through Toby's soft hair with a sigh. At least he'd gotten a pleasant Christmas eve out of it. That was something.

"Merry Christmas, Toby," he whispered, and then lay back and closed his eyes, hoping he could fall asleep.

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