The holiday have come early and we’re bringing you an extra festive gift—a sneak peek at THE AFTERLIFE OF HOLLY CHASE by Cynthia Hand!
On Christmas Eve five years ago, seventeen-year-old Holly Chase was visited by three Ghosts who showed her how selfish and spoiled she’d become. They tried to convince her to mend her ways. She didn’t… and then she died.
Now she’s stuck working for the top-secret company Project Scrooge—as their latest Ghost of Christmas Past! So far, Holly’s afterlife has been miserable. But this year’s Scrooge is different. This year’s Scrooge might change everything…
If you like audio, you can start listening to an excerpt right here:
The first thing you should probably know is that Yvonne Worthington Chase was dead. It was all over the news when it happened, the entertainment shows, the newspapers and magazines, even the trashy tabloids. A sudden tragedy—that’s how the media described it, because she was only fortysomething when it happened, plus Yvonne was famous, so her death was considered a much bigger deal than an ordinary person’s.
Yvonne was a fashion stylist. Anybody who was, like, anybody in Hollywood hired her to make sure they were always looking fabulous. She had an uncanny ability to match the right item to the right person and situation, a way of finding that perfect gown to wear on the red carpet of the Golden Globes, or the correct shoes for that Vogue photo shoot on Zuma Beach, or the most infallible bag to take to lunch in Beverly Hills. Her obituary claimed that she died after complications from foot surgery, because her feet were screwed up from all the years she spent in stilettos. A believable story. But the truth is, Yvonne died getting your run-of-the-mill plastic surgery, which involved a breast lift, neck lift, and butt lift. It was during the neck lift that things went horribly wrong.
The obituary went on to state that Yvonne was survived by her husband, the well-respected film director Gideon Chase, and her sixteen-year-old stepdaughter, Holly.
That’s me. Holly Chase.
I didn’t cry at Yvonne’s funeral. She wouldn’t have wanted an emotional display. The whole time, I wore a pair of Bulgari Flora sunglasses, which hid my eyes and took up most of my face (these had belonged to Yvonne, actually—a huge perk out of Yvonne dying was that I finally got to raid her closet), and when it was all over, I took my phone out of my purse and snapped a selfie in the graveyard with my amazing new sunglasses. And posted it for all my followers to see.
I was a bad person back then. Seriously, I was. I would have backstabbed even my supposed best friends if I thought I could squeeze any attention out of it. I mocked everyone who I perceived as having even the slightest imperfection—that geeky girl in second period who clearly had no idea what the word antiperspirant meant, that boy in the cafeteria with the disgusting mole on his cheek, that cheerleader who really needed to do something about the hideous fat roll poking out from under her bra. I gossiped and spread rumors like it was going out of style. I knew I was being mean. I didn’t care. All I wanted was to be like Yvonne. Rich. Fashionable. Famous. I already had fifty thousand followers, and that was only the beginning. Eventually, I just knew it, everyone was going to know my name.
So that was me. Holly Evangeline Chase. Sixteen—almost seventeen—years old, five foot seven, 115 pounds, brown eyes, blond hair, killer fashion sense, and a perfectly horrible human being. That’s all you need to know about me for now, outside of the fact that, like I mentioned, Yvonne was dead. And she’d been dead almost exactly seven months the night this story truly begins. The night everything changed.
I hated Christmas back then. Like, really hated it. I had my reasons, but I won’t go into those just yet. That particular Christmas Eve, I’d spent the afternoon at a holiday runway show for Calvin Klein, which had given me a mega headache from all of the bright lights and the fake snow and the cheerful exclamations of “Merry Christmas!” that seemed to be coming at me from every direction. I’d worn this amazing pair of lipstick-red Charlotte Olympia shoes, but by five o’clock they felt like they were like two sizes too tight. So when I got home that night, I was in a mood. And I did what I usually did.
I took it out on the housekeeper.
“Why is it so hot in here?” I complained as she served me dinner.
“Hot?” she repeated in that voice she used when she was trying to act like she didn’t understand my English. She put a plate in front of me—risotto or something. It smelled amazing. One thing I will say for Elena—the woman could cook.
“I just got home, and it’s, like, over seventy in here,” I said. “It’s practically balmy.”
“I turned on the heat today. It was chilly.”
“But I haven’t been here all day,” I pointed out. “So why would you turn the heat on?”
We stared at each other for a few long seconds.
“It was chilly,” she said again.
I had her right where I wanted her. “Oh, so you turned on the heat for you,” I said crisply. “You think my dad wants to pay an astronomical heating bill to keep you all cozy and warm?”
I knew perfectly well that my dad would have no problem paying any amount of heating bill. But for me that wasn’t the point. The point was that while my dad was out of town—and he was, like, always out of town—I was in charge, and Elena was not. In my opinion she took far too many liberties around the house. She needed to be put in her place.
“It’s like you’re basically stealing from us,” I said.
“I’m very sorry, miss.” She looked down at where her hands were clasped together in front of her. She had the worst hands—small and red and chapped. Maybe I should require her to wear gloves, I thought. Then she’d be warmer, too, and I wouldn’t have to look at those hands every day.
“Whatevs,” I said with a roll of my eyes. I took a tentative bite of the risotto, and it was delicious, so I took three more quick bites and then pushed my plate away. “And what is this stuff, anyway? This isn’t low cal. Obviously. Do you want me to get fat? Is that it?”
“No,” Elena said steadily. “I know. But I thought, this is a special meal for a special night.”
“A special night?” I repeated. “What special night?”
“Christmas Eve. And I made plenty for you to warm up for yourself tomorrow.”
I stared at her, my mouth opening in disbelief. “Wait, tomorrow? I’m supposed to eat this tomorrow? Where are you going to be?”
“I was going to spend the day with my daughter.”
“And who gave you the day off?”
“It’s Christmas.” She was looking at her hands again.
“So what if it’s Christmas?” I gasped, completely outraged. “I’m all alone here, and my dad pays you to attend to me. We didn’t discuss you having Christmas off.”
“But your father said—”
“I’m going to expect you to be here tomorrow.” My headache pounded more fiercely than ever—I hated having to deal with the hired help. “And if you’re not here, in the morning, on time, then maybe I’ll have to find someone else to fill your position. Someone who will take this job seriously.”
She glanced up, her jaw tightening, her eyes bright with all that she wanted to say to me, but of course she wouldn’t dare. I almost wished she would—it’d been a while since I’d gotten someone fired. But then who would make my dinner tomorrow? It’d be too much of a pain to get someone else on such short notice, on Christmas Day no less.
“Tomorrow I want salmon for dinner. With lemon. Maybe some asparagus,” I informed her like the matter was settled. “And pancakes for breakfast. And freshly squeezed orange juice.”
She nodded stiffly. “All right.” She took the plate of risotto. “Can I get you anything else?”
“No,” I said. “I’m going to bed.”
She scurried back to the kitchen. I’d been hard on her, I knew I had, but I didn’t feel bad about it. If you push people, Yvonne always used to say, then sooner or later they’ll start to push themselves. She’d be better for it, I thought. She’d work harder.
That took care of that, I thought with some satisfaction, and then I took a sleeping pill and went to bed. I was completely out, like, dead to the world, until a noise woke me in the middle of the night. It was loud, like a giant fist pounding against a door.
And then silence.
“Dad?” I called, although I knew he was still on location in New Zealand or New York or somewhere. “Dad? Elena?”
I checked my phone. The time was exactly midnight. No texts or emails. No other sounds in the house. I was, as usual, alone. I was about to slide my sleep mask back into place when something in the corner of the dark room caught my eye.
A shadow. A shadow that became my stepmother, standing at the foot of my bed. My stepmother, who, as I mentioned, had been dead for seven months.
Yvonne was still wearing the black Diane von Furstenberg dress she’d been buried in. Her face was a nasty yellow, covered in a heavy layer of funeral-home makeup. Her ice-blue eyes had clouded to a dull gray. Weirdest of all, she was wearing pearls, string after string of perfect white pearls, around her neck, her wrists, wrapping around her always-dieting-skinny waist, snaking down her legs to her ankles and her Jimmy Choos like strings on a deranged marionette.
I squeezed my eyes closed, then opened them again, but Dead Yvonne didn’t disappear. Instead she sat down at the edge of my bed and took my hand. Her fingers were cold. There was a jagged incision in the side of her neck, crudely stitched closed with black thread. As she leaned closer, I got a powerful whiff of formaldehyde and rot mixed with her 24, Faubourg perfume.
“Hello, darling girl,” she rasped, the caked powder around her lips cracking as she spoke. “I’ve come to warn you.”
I opened my mouth then, and screamed, and screamed, and screamed.
You know how the story goes, right? There’s this old banker type named Ebenezer Scrooge, who shuffles around saying, “Bah, humbug.” One Christmas Eve he’s visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. In the morning he wakes up, like, completely terrified, and says to himself, This is my chance. I can change my future, and starts handing out all of his money and buying a Christmas goose for a crippled kid and shouting, “Merry Christmas!” from the rooftops. Then he supposedly lives happily ever after. It’s a nice story. I guess. But that’s not how it happened for me. My version’s a little more complicated.
I’m going to skip ahead now to the part with the Ghosts. The first Ghost, specifically. Because that’s what this story is really all about. The Ghost of Christmas Past.
My Ghost was just a girl. It was hard to tell, what with the glowing robes and the whole human-lamp effect, but even then, I noticed there was something weirdly normal about her. Something about the way she stood with her head tilted to one side and her hands clasped behind her back, as if she were listening to someone talking, only there wasn’t anyone else there. You could almost believe, looking at her, that she was your average twelve-year-old, like this was just her job—playing the Ghost of Christmas Past—and the rest of the year she was playing with dolls. She kept bringing me to different memories from my past—this time I got left alone at school, a sad conversation I had with my dad, a Christmas party I’d actually enjoyed once from before my mom died—and every time she brought me to these scenes she kept staring at me with these huge, dead-serious blue eyes. Like she knew me.
“We can rest for a while, if you need to.” The Ghost turned to look at me and smiled. Her teeth were oversized and a little crooked. “Are you okay?”
I wasn’t even a little bit okay. Seeing my mom again, even if I knew it was just a memory, felt like having the wind knocked out of me. But I shook my head.
“Let’s just get this over with,” I said, and the Ghost grabbed my hand again to take me to the next place. The fog around us thickened, and the air took on a chill. There was something else in it, too, tiny particles of white swirling past. Snow. Which wasn’t something I was used to seeing in California.
“Come on,” the Ghost said, leading me forward through the flurry. We walked for a while—I couldn’t have said how long—until the Ghost finally stopped and parted the fog like a curtain, and on the other side I saw Rosie Alvarez. Ro, I’d always called her.
We were standing in my bedroom from before I had it redecorated, back when it was still robin’s-egg blue and still had posters up on the walls and pictures of Ro and me taped to my mirror. I knew before the Ghost even said anything that she’d brought me back to the night Ro told me she didn’t want to be friends anymore. I remembered that night perfectly. It’d only been last year.
“I don’t want to be here,” I told the Ghost.
“But you have to,” the Ghost said. “You have to see it with new eyes.”
Whatever that meant. I yanked away from her, but in spite of my intention to act cool and uninterested, I found myself taking a step toward Ro, then another and another, until I was standing next to the younger version of myself: the clueless Holly who was about to get dumped by her best friend.
I’d told everybody at school that I’d dumped her, of course, not the other way around. I outgrew her is how I’d spun it, like Ro was last year’s designer jacket in the bin at the Salvation Army—not that I ever gave anything to charity. I outgrew Ro a long time ago.
In a way, this was true. That’s what Ro herself was saying at that very moment, but I wasn’t actually listening to her talk. I was staring at that splattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose. I’d forgotten that Ro even had freckles, or that her hair had been so long, when sometime last year she got this pixie cut that I wished I could say looked terrible on her, but actually it made her look streamlined and more put together, somehow.
“I don’t even know why you still want to be friends with me,” she was saying to the old Holly, the one who’d been staring at her phone during this entire conversation. Who was wearing the most gorgeous pair of silk Olivia von Halle pajamas, by the way.
The old Holly glanced up, surprised. “I never said I didn’t want to be friends.”
“You never said that,” Ro agreed, “but let’s be honest. If we met today—if I bumped into you at school—would you even let me sit with you at lunch?”
No, I thought. Of course I wouldn’t.
But the old Holly didn’t answer right away. She smoothed her hair over her shoulder and said, “Maybe. You don’t know.”
Ro frowned. “Come on, Holly. I know you think I’m not good enough to hang out with you. You’ve got your designer bags and your expensive clothes, your ‘fifty thousand followers,’ and I’m just a regular T-shirt and sneakers sort of girl.”
Old Holly was still looking at her phone. “Well, I mean, not everyone can be fabulous, right?” she said distractedly. We’d had versions of this fight before, where Ro whined about how materialistic I was becoming and how everything shouldn’t be about a person’s wealth or social status. Of course Ro had to think that way, because she was poor. “But seriously,” Old Me said, “why am I supposed to feel guilty about having money? The world runs on money. That’s just how it is.”
“It doesn’t have to be like that,” Ro argued. “Do you remember what it was like before, Holly? When we used to watch TV with the sound turned off and make up the dialogue? Or we’d go to the pet store and name all the fish. We’d hang out on the beach and build weird sand creatures. We’d write songs. None of that was about money, remember? It was about us. What happened to that Holly?”
I remembered that Holly well. The one with the mousy hair and the braces who nobody noticed in a crowd. I’d been glad to get rid of her.
“I liked that girl.” Rosie reached and took the phone out of Old Holly’s hand. “I need you to hear this. Please.”
Old Holly sighed. “I get it, Ro. I’ve changed, but so what? I haven’t changed toward you.”
“It’s not the same. You’re not the same.” She bent her head and laughed, but it wasn’t a happy sound. “Last week, I watched you making fun of a girl in the hall just because she was wearing leggings as pants. And her face when she saw you laughing at her, her face—” Her eyebrows pinched together. “We can’t be friends anymore, Holly. I can’t.”
That hurt, even a year later. I still felt that tightness in my chest, that jolt when I realized she was serious. Ro and I had been, like, joined at the hip since we were three years old, inseparable, so much that I hardly had a memory that didn’t include her. But with one little sentence our entire relationship was over.
I didn’t want to watch what happened next. I knew exactly how this scene ended. She walked out of my life and never came back. She just dumped me.
“Why are you showing me this?” I asked the Ghost.
“I told you, these are just the shadows of things that have been,” said the Ghost. “If you don’t like them, don’t blame me.”
There was something so familiar about those words. The entire night felt like the worst case of déjà vu ever, all the way back to when Dead Yvonne had showed up in my room. Even then, after I finished screaming long enough to hear her warn me about the visit from the three spirits—even then, I thought, I know this. I’ve seen this movie before.
But I didn’t know I was a Scrooge.
Still, one thing was perfectly clear: I was the villain here. They thought I was a bad person. They—and who was they, anyway, who was orchestrating this?—thought I needed to change who I was.
The room had gone foggy again. The Ghost was talking—something about Ro and what the future had in store for her, something amazing, no doubt, since Ro could obviously do no wrong. But again, I wasn’t listening. I was thinking, Hey, there’s nothing wrong with me. I may not be nice, exactly; I may not be all sunshine and rainbows all the time, but I’m not a bad person.
I’m not that bad, I thought. I’m just a realist.
That’s what Yvonne used to call herself: a realist. Since she’d died I’d always listened to what I thought of as my Inner Yvonne, the voice in the back of my mind that told me how Yvonne Worthington Chase would have reacted to any given situation, as if my stepmother were still there grooming me. It’s about survival of the fittest, my darling, the Inner Yvonne said, so you have to be the fittest. That’s life.
And then I started thinking about tonight’s Yvonne, Yvonne-back-from-the-dead, moaning about how she should have been nicer, she should have been kinder to her fellow man. But the real Yvonne didn’t apologize to anyone. She didn’t compromise. She didn’t look back.
So there was no way that tonight’s Yvonne had been real.
The Ghost pulled at my sleeve. “Holly?”
None of this was real, I decided. It was all a dream, and when I woke up I would totally laugh at myself for how freaked out I’d been.
Take control of the dream, whispered the Inner Yvonne from the back room of my brain. That’s what we do in any uncertain situation. We take control.
Right. Take control. Starting with how I was apparently supposed to be feeling guilty about Ro. I pulled my shoulders back and stood up straighter.
“Ro wasn’t anything special,” I said, turning to face the Ghost. “I was only friends with her because her mom was friends with my mom, and she wanted us to be besties. We clearly didn’t have anything in common. I don’t care that we’re not friends anymore. I’m glad, even.”
I was so good, I was almost believable.
The Ghost cocked her head again and stared at me. “She was like a sister to you. You loved her.”
I scoffed. “Did not.”
“Did so,” the Ghost shot back, like this disagreement was about whose turn it was on the swings. “You loved Rosie, but you let her go because she didn’t fit in with the image you’d built of yourself.”
“I did not love Ro,” I insisted. “But that doesn’t matter. We’re not friends anymore. It’s in the past, and there’s nothing we can do to change that. So big freaking deal. Take me home. I am so done with playing this stupid game.”
“But—” For the first time the Ghost looked hurt.
I didn’t care. “Also, can you turn down your light thing? It’s giving me a migraine.”
“It matters,” argued the Ghost, but she didn’t look at me. Her light dimmed a few degrees. She reached for my hand again. “It matters,” she said softly. “We should go.”
I was different after that. I stopped taking it seriously. I mean, I laughed at the Ghost of Christmas Present—just point-blank laughed at his silly green robe and the wreath on his head. I even made fun of his beard. Then I stood there mocking everybody when he tried to show me what the other students at Malibu High School were saying about me behind my back. I sort of knew all that stuff anyway. Deep down, I always knew the truth—people despised me. It was because they were jealous, I told myself. They didn’t matter, because I was the real deal.
Next the Ghost tried to show me how I was messing up Elena’s life. Like I could really be responsible for someone else’s total lame factor. It was all so Hallmark Channel: Elena trying so hard to do what I asked of her, making my meals, ironing my clothes, keeping the house spotless, and then her sweet little daughter, Nika, having a terrible accident. All supposedly my fault. It was only a dream, I reminded myself again and again. A stupid dream based on a stupid Christmas movie I’d seen as a kid. So I kept laughing, snickering, rolling my eyes.
Eventually the next Ghost showed up. He wore a hood so I couldn’t see his face, and he didn’t talk. He pointed with his long, skeletal fingers. I didn’t laugh at him, because he was, like, mildly terrifying, but I also didn’t believe him when he tried to show me the future: that I was going to die soon, apparently. Even when he brought me to Westwood Cemetery and presented me with the white marble slab with my name on it, I refused to take him seriously.
“Is this the best you can do?” I said with only the tiniest quiver in my voice. “Because this is such B-movie material. I’m practically Hollywood royalty, you know—my mother was a famous TV star, and my dad is a director, so I know the business. And this whole thing is obviously fake.”
The Ghost opened his cloak. Inside it I saw only blackness, like he was made up of nothing but an empty void, and without warning, the void swallowed me. I lost the feeling in my feet. Then the numbness moved to my legs. My fingers. My arms. My face. All at once I felt a terrible pressure in my chest, like my lungs were being pressed flat by some tremendous weight. I could feel my heart struggling to pump, slower and slower, slower and slower, until . . .
This is what it’s like to die, I thought. This . . . nothingness.
I couldn’t move. I couldn’t call for help. I couldn’t even blink. The Ghost put his bony arms around me, and I felt something like cold and burning at the same time, like dry ice, and then everything went dark.
But the dark only lasted a few seconds. Then I woke with a jolt, choking for air, clutching at the bedpost. It was my bedpost, I realized. My room. Light streamed through the filmy curtains, and beyond them, a familiar palm tree swayed gently in the breeze.
I was home.
Somewhere in the house Elena was whistling a Christmas song.
I groped on the bedside table for my phone. It was 9:00 a.m., on the dot, December 25. Sixty-eight degrees in Malibu, and sunny. I laid a hand on my chest and felt my heart beating, fast but steady.
“Oh. My. God,” I laughed. “That was the most psycho dream ever.”
I stretched my arms over my head. My stomach rumbled.
“Elena!” I screamed. “Where are my pancakes?”
That day I didn’t wish anyone a merry Christmas. I lounged around the house in my pajamas and watched TV and had Elena paint my toenails. When my dad called I barely said two words to him. I posted some photos, I texted my so-called friends, and I did some online shopping. For myself. I tried to put the whole troubling dream about Yvonne and the Ghosts of Christmas Whatever out of my mind.
So, to summarize: I didn’t rethink my life choices. I didn’t change.
Six days later LA experienced a freak cold snap. It sleeted one night—not exactly snow, but colder and more solid than rain. Which formed a small icicle on the eaves of the Hot 8 building on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, which is where on the morning of December 31, I was engaged in my Tuesday morning yoga class.
At precisely 8:58, the icicle fell. It caught the sun as it plummeted to the sidewalk, a gleam that temporarily blinded a bicyclist, who suddenly deviated into traffic, which caused a Hollywood Tours double-decker bus to swerve into the next lane, the people inside yelling and cursing, which caused a silver Bentley Continental GT, driven by a famous actress my dad had directed on three separate occasions, who was just slightly hungover and also talking on her cell phone, to veer toward the sidewalk at the exact moment that I, Holly Chase, stepped out of the yoga studio.
At 8:59, as I was lying on the sidewalk with a crowd gathering around me, I thought, I know this. I’ve felt it before. I remembered the ghosts. And finally, I believed that all of it might have been real. But by then it was too late.
By then it was 9:00, and I was dead.
This time when I woke up, I didn’t recognize where I was. Not a hospital, I quickly figured out. I was lying on a weirdly shaped green velvet sofa with a crocheted blanket tucked around my legs. I sat up. I wasn’t injured, which was weird. The horrible pain I’d felt on the sidewalk was gone. The bones that had been broken were whole, and all of my blood seemed to be back inside my body where it belonged. I was still wearing yoga pants and a tank top, but not the ones I’d been wearing in the accident—these were bright, just-bleached white.
I stood up carefully and looked around. It was an office, clearly, although the interior design of the place was horrible. One wall was lined with glassed-in bookshelves packed with rows of faded books. The floor was covered in a busy black carpet patterned with red, pink, and blue flowers, the kind of design you might find in an old hotel. A water cooler burbled in the corner. On the far wall was a huge, obviously antique mahogany desk with a slanted top, which held, along with a computer, several stacks of papers and folders and a mug full of freshly sharpened pencils. In the other corner sat a worn leather armchair and a little table with an old-fashioned record player. I walked over and read the label off the gleaming black vinyl record that was resting there quietly.
From Them to You, it read. The Beatles Christmas Album. 1970. Free of charge to members of the Beatles Fan Club.
Ugh, Christmas, I thought. I’m so sick of Christmas I could puke.
The office had a window, and I went over to it. I struggled for a minute with the curtains, but I finally managed to draw them back. Then—quite understandably, I think—I gasped. Because there were no palm trees. No endless blue sky. No ocean. No sunbaked stucco houses or gleaming swimming pools.
I wasn’t in California anymore.
The window looked out onto the side of another tall building. All I could see were windows. I stepped closer to the glass. The sky overhead was a pale, yellowish gray, even though it was the middle of the night. It was snowing lightly. There was a layer of grungy snow on the window ledge. Hundreds of feet below, rows of red and white lights—cars—were moving slowly along the streets.
I recognized where I was immediately. New York City. I’d been there twice for Fashion Week, and I’d hated it both times, even though I knew as a fashion junkie I was supposed to love it. But back then I thought New York was like the opposite of LA. Dirty. Crowded. Gross.
The door behind me made a beeping sound—a lock being engaged. A man came into the room. He was old, like my dad’s age, with floppy brown hair and a goatee, wearing a brown suit jacket with patches on the elbows. God.
“Havisham,” he greeted me warmly in an English accent. “Delighted to meet you in person. Well, maybe not delighted. But glad.”
“That’s not my name,” I started. “My name is—”
“I know. But it’s tradition here to rename people after Dickens characters. A bit of an inside joke. I picked Havisham for you. It’s catchy, right? Holly Havisham.”
O-kay. I blinked a few times. “Who—who are you?”
“Oh, I’m Mr. Sikes,” he said, as if that explained everything. “But people around here call me Boz.”
He was holding a manila folder, and he tucked it under his arm so he could shake my hand. I noticed that the word HAVISHAM was printed in big black letters on the edge of the folder. I did not love the name Havisham. Plus I was beginning to feel a little woozy. Something unpleasant had just occurred to me.
“Am I . . . dead?” I whispered.
“Yes.” He didn’t sound too broken up about it. “And no.”
I stared at him. “What does that mean?”
“It means,” he said matter-of-factly, “that while you are working for us, for however long that may be, you are flesh, and not spirit. You are alive. But to everyone outside of this company, you are very much dead. Dead as a doornail, as they say.”
“I think I need to sit down,” I said.
He guided me back to the sofa, then fetched me a paper cup of water from the cooler. I sipped at it.
“Am I dreaming?” I asked him hopefully.
“No. There’s no waking up from it all this time, I’m afraid.”
“Did you say that . . . I’m going to be working for you?”
He smiled. “Yes, you are, my dear. Welcome to Project Scrooge.”
FIVE YEARS LATER
“Twenty bucks says the kid actually speaks the words,” said Marty.
“No way,” said Grant.
“Why don’t you put your money where your mouth is, big shot?”
Grant pulled out his wallet. “You’re on. But it has to be the exact words.”
“Or the modern equivalent of the exact words,” Marty clarified. “I mean, of course he’s not going to say ‘God bless us, every one.’ This is the twenty-first century.”
I’m surrounded by morons, I thought. They were like twins, those two, even though Grant was black and Marty was Korean—they were both completely dorky and determined to mess up my day. Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber. God.
“Cheater,” Grant said. “You didn’t say anything about the ‘modern equivalent’ before.”
Marty crossed his arms over his beanpole chest. “I win if he says the word ‘God’ or the word ‘bless’—how about that?”
“Fine.” Grant grinned. “But I’ll bet you twenty dollars that she buys the family a big turkey.”
“She’s a vegetarian,” Marty pointed out.
“Are you going to take the bet or what?” Grant tapped the face of his watch. “Time’s running out.”
“She won’t buy a turkey. She thinks that’s murder.”
I turned my attention back to the set of monitors that covered the wall at the front of the Go Room. The current Scrooge, number 172, had just woken up to find herself back in her own bedroom, alive and well.
Everybody leaned forward to see what she would do next.
For a few seconds the old lady just stood there in her silk nightgown (people that age should not wear silk, I thought) and looked around.
Then: “It’s not too late,” she whispered, tears in her eyes and everything. “It’s not too late. I can still make things right.”
“Bingo!” some idiot near the front of the room shouted. “We have reformation, people.”
The Go Room exploded in applause. The receiver buzzed in my ear, reverb from all of the commotion going on, and I pulled it out and let it dangle on my shoulder. The mood was instantly lifted—if this Scrooge was truly changing her ways (which remained to be seen, I guess, but hey—this was the critical first step), then the operation could be counted as a success. People were already passing around champagne.
“No, thanks,” I said as a newbie from accounting tried to offer me a glass. I didn’t even bother trying to sneak any booze this year—according to Boz I was still technically a teenager, and therefore not old enough to partake in that part of the celebrations. “It’s true that some of aging is about life experience,” he always said whenever I tried to argue. “But a great deal of it is physiology, and in that way, you are still very much seventeen years old.”
I was apparently going to be seventeen forever.
“Great job tonight, by the way,” said the noob from accounting.
“Thanks,” I answered, but the girl had already moved on to somebody else.
I always felt self-conscious at this stage. Everyone in the room knew me as the Ghost of Christmas Past—the Lamp, they called me—but I didn’t know how many people here also knew that, not so long ago, it’d been me up on the monitors.
A failed Scrooge.
The current Scrooge was now dancing around her room like a schoolgirl, gleeful in the knowledge that she wasn’t dead. The excitement transformed her into someone that I, even after spending months inside this woman’s head, wouldn’t have recognized if I’d met her on the street. Already she looked like a completely different person.
Nonsense. People don’t change, the Inner Yvonne said matter-of-factly from the back of my brain. They are who they are. What changes is only the way they allow us to see them.
My feet hurt. I wished I could escape to my dressing room, get my makeup off and pack up my costume for the dry cleaner’s, but Boz always insisted that everybody, from the lowliest analyst at the company to the tech guys (like Grant and Marty) to the major players (me and the rest of the Ghosts), stay for the big ending. I found this wildly hypocritical, because he was, in essence, forcing his staff to work on Christmas. But nobody argued with Boz.
Speaking of the illustrious Mr. Sikes, Boz had finally caught on that there was gambling taking place on the floor. Which was against another one of his rules.
“We don’t wager on them,” he was saying to Marty firmly. “This is not a game, young man.”
Marty looked put out. “I wasn’t betting on the big stuff—just the details. You know, to keep it lively.”
“No wagers,” Boz repeated.
On the monitors, Scrooge 172 (whose real name was Elizabeth Charles, CEO of one of the largest and most corrupt health insurance companies in the country) was making a few phone calls. “Merry Christmas!” she kept exclaiming. “Merrrrrrrrrrry Christmas!”
Then she called and ordered the Brown family (this year’s equivalent of the Cratchits) a giant Christmas turkey.
Marty covertly passed Grant a twenty.
We kept watching throughout the morning, until Scrooge 172 ended up visiting the Brown home personally to tell Mrs. Brown that her son Todd’s medical expenses were going to be covered after all. Everybody started sniffling at that point. Everyone, that is, except me. I never did the crying thing. It would have ruined my makeup.
“Thank you, ma’am,” whispered the little boy on the monitors. “God bless you, Mrs. Charles.”
Grant passed the twenty back to Marty.
The screens went black.
“Good work, everyone.” Boz came up to the front of the room. “We were a well-oiled machine tonight. Which means that the world is a better place, thanks to us. And, of course, merry Christmas!”
The room filled with a chorus of Merry Christmases. Even I found myself mouthing the words.
“Go home. Rest up. Enjoy your holidays,” he continued, “and I will see you all back here next year, ready to start on Scrooge 173.”
The team began to disperse. I hurried toward the door.
“Oh, Havisham,” Boz called. “Before you go, I’d like to see you in my office, please.”
“You can get cleaned up first,” Boz said charitably. “Just see me before you leave.”
Double sigh. “Okay.” I turned and trudged off toward my dressing room.
I ran into Dave—the Ghost of Christmas Present—in the hall. He’d taken off his robe and his wreath, but he still reminded me of the Jolly Green Giant. Dave was, like, six foot four and bearded and had probably died in his late thirties, and all I could really think when I looked at him was how I probably should have been nicer to him the night I was the Scrooge. He knew exactly who I was, but in five years he’d never acted like I was anything but a vital part of this company. Dave was the very definition of a nice guy. Which made me wonder how he’d ended up working here. What was he being punished for?
“It’s a good thing,” he said.
At first I wasn’t sure he was even talking to me. “What?”
He stopped outside of his dressing room door—the one marked Copperfield—and gave me a goofy smile. “Working here. It’s a good thing.”
FYI: Dave could read minds. It was part of his job description. Most of the time he kept that ability turned off, to be polite, I guess, but on Christmas it always kind of overrode his system.
“We help people,” he said. “We change the world.”
“Yeah. I know.” Cue the company motto.
“For the record, I like working with you, Holly.”
“I’m going to miss it.”
Okay, so that was a strange thing to say. But before I could ask what he meant, he went into his dressing room and closed the door.
I changed into my regular clothes and reported back to Boz. When I got to his office, I found him standing at the window looking out at the city while big, fluffy flakes of snow danced past the glass. Boz just loved New York. He loved the lights of Times Square and the bustle of Broadway. He loved the subways and the hot dog stands, the honking cars and the brush of shoulders on the street. He even loved the cold. He was always going on about it.
I tapped on the door nervously.
“Oh, Havisham, come in,” he said. “There’s someone here I’d like you to meet.”
I wasn’t even two steps inside his office when a girl jumped out at me. For a second I thought she was going to attack me or hug me. Either way, I stepped back fast.
“Oh, wow,” the girl breathed. “You’re the Ghost of Christmas Past.”
“Yeah, that’s me,” I admitted.
“Havisham, meet Dorrit,” Boz said. “She’s a sophomore at NYU—isn’t that fantastic?”
The girl didn’t look a day over fifteen, in my opinion. I mean, she was wearing a green sweater with a polar bear on it, her
platinum-colored hair was in one of those messy half-falling-out ponytails, and her purple glasses were much too big for her face, but not in the cool hipster sort of way.
“Wow,” she chirped. “You’re the biggest celebrity I’ve ever met. Well, I did see Taylor Swift in Central Park once, but I didn’t actually meet her.”
Boz cleared his throat. Project Scrooge wasn’t a place for
fangirls—Boz never let people from the outside see what went on inside the Project, never ever. “Well, Dorrit,” he said awkwardly, avoiding my questioning stare, “it’s Havisham’s job—not Havisham herself—who’s famous. Holly’s only been with us for a short while.”
Oh, thanks, Boz, I thought. Thank you so much.
“What’s it been now, Holly? Four years?” he asked.
“Yes, that’s right. Five.”
“Wow,” the girl said again. “Five years as the Ghost of Christmas Past. That’s so—wow.”
I didn’t know how many more wows I could take.
“I’ve wanted to meet the Ghost of Christmas Past ever since I found out about this project,” the girl said. “So cool, by the way, so totally noble, what you’re doing here. You’re changing the world.”
“How did you find out about the Project?” I asked carefully.
“Oh, Dorrit is our new intern,” Boz answered for her.
I frowned. We didn’t use interns. PS wasn’t the kind of company that did its headhunting through the normal channels. For obvious reasons. Not all of the people who worked there were dead—that was just me and the other Ghosts, I thought, and possibly Boz, but he never talked about it—but there was enough top-secret stuff going on that Boz was super careful about who we hired. People around the office joked that it was harder to get a position at Project Scrooge than it was to get recruited for the FBI. The process apparently involved Blackpool’s power to see the future and rigorous tests and interviews and layers and layers of confidentiality agreements.
“I’ve decided that she’s going to be your assistant,” Boz continued.
The girl gave a suppressed squeal of excitement.
My mouth dropped open.
“But . . . I’ve never had an assistant.”
“You’ve never had an assistant until now,” Boz corrected cheerfully.
Dorrit’s smile was almost a supernova.
“But I don’t need an assistant,” I protested.
“I know you don’t need an assistant,” Boz said. “But I thought it might be nice to have someone else around. A fresh pair of eyes. Someone to help you, someone to bounce ideas off of, someone to look after you and give you more personalized attention.”
This set off a bunch of alarm bells, obviously, but Boz had that freakishly stubborn glint in his eye. I’d seen that look on his face a few times before, and it had never turned out well for me.
I decided to go with it.
“Um . . . awesome.” I extended my hand for the girl to shake. “I guess this means welcome aboard, Dorrit,” I said in my very best Boz impression.
The girl simply exploded into a puddle of goo. “Thank you, Miss Havisham,” she said, pumping my hand up and down. “I won’t let you down, Miss Havisham. I promise. Thank you. Thanks.”
Suddenly I got a flash from when she was a kid, which happened sometimes when I touched people—the way Dave could hear the present and Blackpool could see the future, I felt the past. In that moment I could feel what this girl had been like as a toddler, snuggled up in her bed in a dark room, awake and waiting.
A light went on. A man’s voice said softly, Come on, sweetie. It’s morning.
Is it Christmas yet? she asked.
Freaking Christmas. I gritted my teeth and firmly pushed this girl’s past out of my mind. I walked her to the door. “All righty,” I said. “I guess I’ll see you later?” Then I pried my hand away from hers and closed the door right on her cute little button nose. I turned to Boz. “Are you trying to kill me?”
“You forgot to wish her a merry Christmas,” he said from where he was sitting at his desk. He straightened a stack of papers and gazed longingly at the record player.
“Or maybe you’re trying to kill her,” I concluded. “You think after a week with Little Mary Sunshine I’ll go crazy and rip her tiny blond head off. Because I will do it. I swear, Boz, I don’t deal well with her type.”
“I think she may surprise you,” he said, smiling in an annoyingly mysterious way. “All I ask is that you give her a chance.”
“Fine. Can I go now?”
“Just one more thing.” He opened his desk drawer and took out a small wrapped gift, about the size and shape of a ring box. “Merry Christmas, Havisham.”
I stared at him. We’d never exchanged gifts before, not once in five years. “I didn’t . . . I don’t have anything for . . .”
He shook his head and pushed the box into my hand. “It’s all right. Take it. Open it when you get home.”
“Uh, thank you?” I didn’t know what else to say.
“You’re welcome,” he said. “And I’ll expect you at eleven sharp on your start date—what is it this year?”
“April first,” I answered. Boz always gave the entire company the month of January as vacation. Then Blackpool spent February and March deciding on who would be the new Scrooge. And then we were all back in business. The Scrooge business.
“Of course, April first,” Boz agreed. “Don’t be late.”
I never was. Even though I didn’t know why it would make a difference if I showed up on time.
The subway was almost empty on the way back to my place, apart from the few disgusting Christmas-morning types: lovers who couldn’t help their PDAs, smiling families on their way to their grandmother’s house, the odd guy in a Santa suit. I picked a seat at the end of the car and slumped there in my Hoodie the whole ride.
The Hoodie was one of the big perks that came with the Ghost of Christmas Past job. To the outside observer, it appeared to be a normal black hoodie, but when you zipped it up and pulled the hood over your head, you became completely invisible. It had saved my butt lots of times while I was sneaking around a Scrooge’s house. I wasn’t supposed to use the Hoodie for anything but company business, of course, but I wore it all the time. It was comfortable.
It was four stops between 195 Broadway, where Project Scrooge’s headquarters was located, and my stop downtown. Then down three blocks to my apartment. Then up four flights of stairs, because, of course, it was a walk-up. Then home.
I was legally deceased, which made regular things like credit checks impossible, so the company paid the rent for this place, plus the utilities and the furnishings: a twin bed and a lamp and an ugly-but-comfortable plaid sofa, a tiny kitchen table that could seat two (but never did, because I never had anyone over), the basic refrigerator and stove and all the necessary pots, pans, and dishes (but no dishwasher), a chipped pedestal sink in the bathroom, and an old claw-foot tub with a shower attachment. I also received a hundred dollars a month for food and miscellaneous expenses. That was it. One hundred dollars. No money for decent clothes. No internet. No smartphone. No frills of any kind. I had to get by with less money each month than what the Old Holly had spent on manicures.
I’d worked at PS for almost a year before I got over the sense of total outrage that flooded me every single time I opened the door to my closet-sized apartment—like I was stepping into a horror flick, complete with the occasional cockroach. I’d even tried to run away once, but I hadn’t gotten very far before my arms and legs went numb and I passed out in the middle of the airport. I’d woken up right back on the green sofa in the PS building, where Boz had gently explained to me (again) that I didn’t have a life outside of the company. I was there because they wanted me to be there, until they’d decided I’d been there long enough. In other words, I was stuck.
When I got home I flung myself down on the couch and sighed. I hated this part. There was nothing to do now for three whole months. It was supposed to be a nice thing for the employees of Project Scrooge—time to spend with your family and friends after months of hard, unrelenting work—but I didn’t have family. I didn’t have friends. I didn’t have money to shop or do anything cool. I couldn’t go anywhere.
Ten minutes into vacation, and I was already bored.
Next door, through the paper-thin wall, I could hear the neighbor lady watching It’s a Wonderful Life. My dad and I always used to watch that movie together, before Mom died and Yvonne came along to take her place. Dad loved it, for some reason. I always told him I thought it was the cheesiest cheese.
“What is it you want, Mary?” Jimmy Stewart was asking Donna Reed through the wall. “You want the moon? Just say the word, and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down.”
Dad was such an incurable romantic.
I’d told Dad that the movie was lame, but I’d secretly loved it, especially the romantic parts, the parts where it’s like George and Mary can’t help but fall in love with each other. That’s how it felt like love should be—inevitable. Irresistible. Written in the stars.
Not that I would know.
I sneaked into the hall with my Hoodie to “borrow” the neighbor lady’s newspaper. To check the movies section. To see if one of Dad’s movies was playing.
He didn’t make a film for two years after I died. Then he did a couple of big blockbusters, one about robots and one about aliens. That wasn’t his style at all, but it paid the bills, I suppose.
I saw those movies, like, fifteen times each. They were both pretty good if you like that kind of thing, grand adventures, full of bright colors and sweeping music and all the feels in the key moments. Of course they both had happy endings, too. The hero wins. The villain loses. The end.
Anyway, so I checked to see if there was a new movie from Gideon Chase. There wasn’t. I returned the paper to the spot outside my neighbor’s door and went inside. I was about to hang up my Hoodie when I felt something stashed in the pocket.
The present. From Boz.
I opened it. Inside was a pocket watch—silver and a little tarnished. It was pretty, in an antique sort of way. Vintage. It was still going, but the time it showed was three hours behind.
An old watch. Weird, I thought. Why would Boz give me a watch?
Why, for that matter, would Boz give me an assistant?
What was he up to?
It probably wasn’t anything good. But maybe I didn’t care. After five long years, five Scrooges, five Christmas Eves performing the same old show, I was just so tired of it all—the same people, the same tasks, the same script, the same paperwork afterward—and what did it get me, I thought, what did this crap job ever do for me?
It was just a job. A job that—if I was lucky, right?—I was probably going to be doing for decades, if not centuries. Over and over and over again. Lather, rinse, repeat.
I’d figured out a long time ago that Project Scrooge was my own personal version of hell.
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