This story is by Wila Cather and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
‘Twas the night before Christmas. The air was frigid, and the streets of San Francisco were snow-capped. Snow was rare, even at this time of year. Max Price left his office suite after closing up for the holidays. For a second, he could not remember where he had left his car keys. As he rummaged in his briefcase, he noticed a young boy standing on the sidewalk. The boy was quivering in the cold, clothed in a worn-out school uniform.
“Hey there, buddy, have a kind heart. Spare any change?” begged the boy.
“Bah! Humbug. Go away before I call the cops!” Max hollered as he got into his 911 Porsche and zoomed away.
The California real estate market and crypto banking investments had yielded Max a lucrative career. He lived the California Dream in a large mansion in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill and never fretted about cold or hunger. He did not believe in donating a single penny to the poor.
Why should he? They were undeserving, lazy, or plain stupid. He completely disdained those who considered them “the less fortunate.” What a bunch of bull. In this life, you make your own destiny. He knew this was the Gospel Truth! Not that he believed in God or kidded himself about an afterlife. Religion was for little old ladies.
Once, he had played a prank on the city of San Francisco and hired professional graffiti artists to spray paint on the side of his new Market Street Condos.
“Screw the poor!”
The police blamed local street gangs and high school kids. No one realized that it was a publicity stunt.
When Max reached home that evening, he was shocked to see the small boy standing by the door.
“Hey Buddy, have a heart. It’s almost Christmas. Remember me?” asked the wretched boy.
Max brushed the youngster aside and walked inside.
He sat down and turned on the television in his living room. His young wife entered the room with a plate and set his food in front of him and a bottle of ‘71 Macallan single malt Scotch Whisky. He had met her when she was caught shoplifting and had talked the manager into letting her go. It impressed her that he had such clout in a luxury store. She might be an airhead interested only in the designer dresses and shoes he bought for her, but she had a great body. And, at least, she treats me well, he thought. He took a sip of his million-dollar Holy Grail whisky when he glanced out the window. The boy was standing there, hugging himself, trying to stay warm in the cold winter.
Max stood up and closed the drapes with an irritated grunt.
The boy was there again on Christmas morning.
“Hey buddy, Merry Christmas, have a heart!” said the youngster.
He ignored him. As he drove away in anger, the wheels of the Porsche pirouetted on the snow and sleet-covered road, but he swore he got a glimpse of the annoying boy. He looked back. Nothing was there but black tire marks in the snow.
When he came back that evening, the boy was waiting for him. Max had enough and could not take it anymore. It was time to get rid of the brat. He drew a few dollars from his pocket and hurled them fiercely at the boy.
“Don’t come around anymore. Take this. Go get a hotel in the Tenderloin.”
The boy took the money and walked away without saying anything.
After the big Christmas supper, Max came out of his house, expecting to meet the boy, but the driveway was deserted. His idea had worked. Better to pay the bastard to get lost than watch him beg for change outside his home and office. Either that or he would make good on his word and call the police to arrest him.
Later that Christmas night, Max was fast asleep in bed with his wife when he felt chilly little fingers on his chest.
“Hey buddy, don’t forget about people like me,” a childlike voice whispered in his ear.
Max sprang from his bed and switched on the lights, but there was no one else in the room except his wife, who soothed him, telling him he was probably dreaming. He laid back down but could not sleep the rest of the night.
Then, he sat up, remembering something … the Christmas nightmare from his past.
A long time ago, there was a terrible accident. He and his buddies were the school bullies, and all the kids hated them. Every day he harassed a particular kid. The child’s parents were poor and couldn’t buy him new clothes. Max recalled how he had beaten him up and taken his pocket change. Nine dollars was all the boy had left. They had seen him by himself alone on Christmas Eve at the store by Pier 39. But Max’s memory was blurred. He ran up into the loft and searched for his old school yearbooks. He found the image of the boy he had mercilessly beaten up as he flipped through the pages. He was trembling in fear, and his yearbook dropped from his hands. The small kid who went missing, Timmy, looked exactly like the boy haunting him outside his office and driveway. His dreadful memories started to become more lucid. He flashed back to that Christmas Eve and recalled when he and two of his friends had dragged Timmy down to the nearby river. They dumped Timmy in the freezing waters after kicking him and left him to sink or swim. After Christmas break, Timmy failed to show up for class. Max and his friends convinced themselves that he was a case of a missing child that nobody would ever care to solve. Occasionally, through the years, he would spot Timmy’s picture on the back of milk cartons and billboards, asking for information on his whereabouts.
Suddenly, the lights in the loft went out. What the hell? He heard the door lock. Looking around in the dark, he could barely make out a tiny figure hiding in a corner.
“Give me my money back. I need it for Christmas dinner,” Timmy said.
Max gasped for air as he felt Timmy’s eyes penetrating his soul.
He knelt and pleaded with Timmy, “I am sorry, Timmy. It was such a long time ago. We were kids, and what we did was stupid.”
Timmy stood there staring at him, “Max, you stole my pocket change, and that was our Christmas dinner. My parents never saw me again and do not know what happened to me.”
Max looked around, confused. He heard faint footsteps. They came to a complete halt next to him. He got goosebumps as the hair on the back of his neck stood up, and a cold breeze blew behind him. He turned around and saw Timmy floating above him.
“Are you a ghost then?”
“Yes, the ghost of Christmas past.”
“So you mean to tell me I am surrounded by a bunch of ghosts? Impossible!” shouted Max. “Ghosts are not real. But what happened to you is my fault. Timmy, I will give you anything you want. I have plenty of money!” begged Max.
“Nah, buddy, I don’t need money anymore,” Timmy grinned. “The moment I entered heaven, I pardoned you.”
“I’m so sorry, Timmy. You should have had the rich life I’ve also had.”
Timmy paused and smiled, “Max, do you not recall what happened here on Christmas night in 2019?”
Max shook his head. “Sorry, lately I’ve been losing my memory. I do not seem to remember much.”
Timmy nodded, “Well, buddy, it was many years ago…”
“What are you talking about … many years ago? Tonight’s Christmas. December 25, 2019?”
“No, it’s not Max. You lack remorse. You’re caught here on earth in your horrid loop. Imprisoned by a hellish memory. You were murdered.”
“You’re wrong! I’m alive!” Max yelled.
“No, Max, you’re no longer alive. She staged the whole thing and cashed out on your estate.”
Max covered his ears, “No, that can’t be. Not alive? I’m … Who are you talking about?”
“You are no longer alive. Your evil, crazy wife lured you up to this loft and killed you that night. She framed it as a break-in from a psychotic burglar terrorizing San Francisco then and got away with it! Max! She ripped your heart out with a meat cleaver.”
Upon hearing this revelation, Max froze in terror. He wept and wailed as darkness encompassed him. Hellfire burned rapidly through his whole being, turning his soul to ashes. Max Price disappeared forever, never to be seen or heard again.
His ghost was no more.