Timothy McFarrell walked briskly down an alley north of Broadway in Vancouver. It was his custom on Christmas Eve – bordering on a tradition – to do last minute shopping. The lane provided a quicker way to London Drugs than the crowded street. He hoped to find some favourable “stinky stuff” for his mother in the cosmetics section of the all-purpose drug store.
A back door to a bank burst open and two men with ski masks emerged; one literally bumped into Timothy. His Irish mother’s hot temper mixed with his anglo-Canadian father’s moral rectitude helped Timothy feel violently appalled that these men had the gall to rob a bank on Christmas Eve. This foolishly moved him to action and Timothy pushed one of the robbers over. He could hear his mother’s voice in his mind. “You’re a friggin’ ijit, Timmy.”
The other robber shot him.
The bullet passed through Timothy’s chest.
He slid down the wall of the building and landed on his butt with a thump. Timothy was suitably amazed that not only he had been shot, but he was also in incredible pain.
The world became a blurry place.
“Let me help you.”
Timothy looked at the man, who wore a business suit and seemed to be in his late forties. The man held out his hand and pulled Timothy up.
He inspected himself and noticed that there was no wound on his chest. Seeing his confusion, his helper pointed downward. Timothy saw his own body sitting by the wall, breathing very slightly, in a pool of his own blood.
“What the f-“
“You are having a near death experience. My name is Chuck. I’m a ghost.”
“What do I do? We should call someone.”
“We can’t; we aren’t substantial enough. I’m here to ask a favour.”
“A favour….” Timothy couldn’t stop looking at his wounded body.
“But we shouldn’t talk here.”
“I can’t just leave … myself there.”
“You can hear the sirens can’t you? Won’t be more than two minutes before help arrives.”
“Um, where do you want to go?”
Chuck waved an arm and they were suddenly on Kits Beach. “Let’s sit on a log and look at the ocean.”
They sat down and Timothy felt calmed by the water and the mountains.
“Can anyone see us?”
“No. See the people on those logs over there who have shimmering light around them?”
“Ghosts. We all have to watch out that the living don’t try to sit on us.”
“Do you talk to the other ghosts?”
“Not often. They are usually sitting beside loved ones hoping their presence will help. Which kind of relates to why I’m asking for your help.”
“What do you want?”
“Well, you see, I have no loved ones. This is because in life I was a total bastard. I died seven years ago and it has taken me this long to realize that I can help my former business partner, a guy who is now such a prick it would have made me look good when I was alive.”
“This sounds familiar,” said Timothy.
“It should. Charles Dickens somehow learned about this post mortem spiritual activity – while he was alive – and wrote down a variation on what we dead folks can do. No one knows how old Charles did it and he’s not telling, even now.”
“So how do I fit into your plan?”
“I need you to be the Ghost of Christmas Past.”
“I am recruiting three spirits. I picked you because having one foot in the real world and one in the spirit world is very helpful. You can travel in time more easily than other spirits. And you aren’t as, well, bummed out as so many ghosts I meet.”
“You want me to show some guy highlights of his life and try to make him see the light?”
“I don’t even know who you’re talking about. How would I do this? Why would I do this? This is crazy.”
“Hold your horses!” said Chuck. “I’ll explain. Besides, trust me, this is going to be more fun that sitting in your body as they try to patch you up.”
“Am I going to die?”
“Obviously, eventually, but I can’t tell you if you survive your gunshot wound. Try not to dwell on it. Do you want to know about Miles?”
“Your business partner?”
“Yes. Miles Coulson was my business partner.”
“Miles Coulson of Global Tech?”
“You read the business section. Yes, that’s him.”
“A little wealthy isn’t he? That company has components in almost every computer in the world.”
“Yep. I helped him get that rich but don’t worry, he’s not enjoying his wealth. Get this: this morning he was sitting on the can reading the newspaper and overheard two guys in the washroom. They were talking about another co-worker (someone named Parsons) who they had seen the night before leaving a gay bar with a totally flaming man. Neither they nor Miles knew the guy played net for the other league.
“So, Miles – when he’s finished and the other guys have left the washroom – goes up to his HR director and tells her to fire the guy. She asks ‘Why Parsons?’ Miles says he’s learned something unpleasant about the employee; she knows the code and reminds Miles that the severance package will have to be really good. Miles says, ‘I don’t care; I don’t want people like that in the building.’ By noon on Christmas Eve, this poor guy has a cheque and has been shown the door by Security.”
“Miles’ management style might as well have been conceived after reading the biographies of Hitler and Stalin and declaring them wimps.”
“I have no idea how to take this guy on that trip down memory lane, though.”
“Here, take this.”
From nowhere, Chuck produced a photo of Miles Coulson. Timothy didn’t quite realize it at first, but it wasn’t a physical photograph. As soon as he touched it, all of Miles’ memories flooded into his head. By the time Timothy’s vision cleared, the photo was gone.
“I have far more detail about this guy than a third party should.”
“Sorry about that, but you’ll need it all,” said Chuck. “Better yet, you have knowledge of events that happened involving Miles when he wasn’t present in the room.”
“I mean, really,” said Timothy, “this is just too much detail.”
“Don’t worry; you’ll get used to it. As for taking Miles wherever and whenever you want, all you have to do is have him touch you once and then think about exactly where you want to be. I have to recruit a couple more spirits, so I’d better get a move on. You can jump Miles to five different scenes in his life. Think about what would be best. I’ll be back to show you where you come in.”
And Chuck vanished.
With so much information about Miles Coulson in his head, Timothy couldn’t help but think about the man scheduled for attempted redemption. But Timothy was curious … was he really a spirit? Was this some kind of gunshot wound hallucination?
He began strolling around the beach and the adjacent park. He tried talking to people but to no avail. While looking at some kids on the swings he saw a child that shimmered in the way Chuck had pointed out. Maybe this little boy would talk to him.
“Hi. I’m Timothy. Who are you?”
The child, who had been intently looking at a family as they played in the park said, “Go away; you aren’t really dead and you shouldn’t be talking to me.” And the child vanished.
Timothy decided that he was indeed in some odd state and it would be best to just try to focus on the job Chuck had given him. There was so much in Miles’ life that it was going to be tough to pick only five events.
Before Timothy knew it, it was dark and Chuck was standing by his side.
“As I’ll ever be. Any tips?”
“His problem is obvious, but not to him. I’d say show, don’t tell. You can change your own outward appearance to be pretty much anything you want. And create props like I did with his photograph.”
“Wow. Have you warmed him up for me already?”
“I scared the shit out him – he’s about as ready for three more hauntings as he’s going to be. To practise your time and space manoeuvres, imagine that you’re in his apartment and take us there.”
Timothy closed his eyes and when he opened them, he and Chuck were in Miles’ living room.
“Good work. I have to go now. I want to thank you in advance. I’d say knock him dead, but that’s just too bad a pun.”
And Timothy was alone in the room. Because of his recently acquired in-depth knowledge of Miles, he felt quite familiar with the apartment. It was a penthouse with a huge view of Coal Harbour. The apartment was expensive, but unlived in. The only piece of furniture with any character was an overstuffed chair from the 50s. Otherwise the place was emotionally barren – too tidy, neatness produced by maids, not by pride in one’s home.
It was coming onto midnight and he moved into Miles’ bedroom, where he found the forty-eight year old man asleep in bed with a distinct frown on his face. When the alarm clock in the room struck midnight, Timothy touched it and the alarm went off.
Miles sat bolt upright and swore. He struck the clock to shut off the alarm and stared at Timothy.
“You’re the ghost.”
“I prefer the term ‘spirit’,” replied Timothy.
“Is there a way out of this?”
“Do you mean to avoid me taking you on a trip through your own memories? Hmm. If you suddenly killed yourself, that would make the matter moot.”
“Put on a robe or something. This is a parental guidance rated haunting.”
Miles quickly made his way from his bed to the closet and put on a bathrobe. He was fitter than many men twenty years younger. Timothy speculated that when you have no friends, you must have a lot of time to go to the gym. Despite having all of Miles’ memories in his head, Timothy had to fight a feeling of being looked down upon. Timothy was twenty-six years old and had worked for men like Miles. Older. Stern. A full head of hair. An air of generally being pissed off. Timothy made himself feel better by remembering what power he held over Miles at this moment.
“Let’s get this over with,” ordered Miles.
“This isn’t a dental appointment.”
“Christ. Chuck didn’t say I had to deal with attitude on top of being haunted.”
“Attitude? You’re in no position to talk. Here, take this.” Timothy handed Miles a photograph of him and his brother Stan when they were children. They were playing in the snow. Timothy didn’t let go of the photograph.
Both Timothy and Miles were now standing in a playground in snow up to their knees, but neither man felt cold or wet. Miles found it odd that he was aware that it was cold, but he was not actually cold. He was trying to remember exactly when and where this was.
“Christmas Eve 1964,” said Timothy.
They watched the ten-year-old Miles play with his brother Stan, who was eight. They were having a friendly snowball fight. This was the first snowfall of the year and it was very exciting for the young boys. But soon they tired and walked the few short blocks home. They lived in Scarborough, Ontario, in a new subdivision. In the distance you could see the partly built homes of their subdivision looking like wintry skeletons. But these boys had no interest in them. Their house was brightly lit and festive and soon it would be dinner time!
Wordlessly, Miles and Timothy watched the entire evening’s festivities from the opening of one present each, to eating ham and scalloped potatoes, to being read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ and then being tucked into bed.
Afterwards, Miles’ parents sat in the living room and opened up the scotch.
“Do you remember being that young and full of energy?” asked Mother.
“No,” replied Dad. “I was born over the hill and slow.”
“Jesus Dad, you’re thirty-two.” Miles had spoken aloud for the first time and was irrationally worried the past would hear him.
“Not even hockey players are over the hill at that age anymore,” said Timothy.
“Why are we listening to this?”
“Just you wait.”
“I still worry about Stan,” said Dad. Miles suddenly focused.
“What about?” asked Mother.
“Well … face it honey, he likes stuffed animals a lot more than trucks.”
“So?” said Mother. “He’s sensitive.”
“It’s not that. I’m afraid he’d be happier if I gave him a damn Barbie doll for Christmas rather than the building blocks we got.”
“Heavens! What a thing to say. Let the boy be.”
“They fucking knew,” said Miles.
“I wasted my time protecting Stan from Dad when he knew all along. I thought for sure he’d have thrashed Stan for it.”
“But you didn’t protect Stan all the time.”
Abruptly they were leaving a schoolyard. Miles was walking home from high school with a friend. The route home took them past Stan’s junior high school. They could see the doors to the junior high about half a block distant. The spectres and the boys saw Stan running out of the school, being chased by two other boys. They quickly caught up with the slower, younger boy and started hitting him with their satchels of books. Stan covered his head and started to cry.
“Miles, isn’t that your brother?” asked the friend.
Miles at age sixteen looked over as if it were a huge inconvenience. “Yeah.”
“C’mon. Let’s go help.”
“No. Stan has to learn to fend for himself.”
And they walked on.
“I did not say that.” Miles at forty-eight screamed and ran toward his brother Stan. But it was futile. All he could do was watch and see his helpless little brother take a pummelling from the bigger boys. And be incessantly called ‘fag boy’. As Stan cried, Miles cried. A teacher eventually saw what was going on and chased the boys off. Stan thanked the teacher but refused the offer to have the other boys disciplined. In the school office he’d have to explain why they were attacking him and when his attackers found out he’d gone to the principal, they’d increase their harassment.
Timothy manufactured a facial tissue out of nothing and handed it to Miles. “So, why the tears?”
“What do you mean? Didn’t you see what happened?”
“Apart from the fact you didn’t beat that Parsons guy you fired today with a bag full of textbooks, how does what you did differ from what happened to Stan?”
“How dare you compare me to those shitheads!”
“Gosh Miles, just because you wear a suit when you apply prejudice doesn’t mean it’s any different.”
“You lousy son of a …”
“Hey,” said Timothy. “Don’t shoot the messenger. It’s futile in my case. Someone already did.”
“Why are we in a doctor’s office?”
“Ah, this isn’t just any doctor’s office. It’s your doctor’s office. You see one of my theories about you is that you never got enough of the right sex. You know the type – where people doing it actually care about each other.”
“Mr. Coulson, the doctor will see you now.”
Miles the elder hadn’t seen his nineteen-year-old self in the corner. “Oh crap. Oh please. Not this.”
“C’mon Miles, let’s see what the doctor has to say.”
Miles’ doctor was an older man, a couple years from retirement, who had been a medic in World War II. This meant that some young idiot contracting the clap did not worry him much, regardless of how big a deal it was to the young idiot in question.
As Miles and Miles were entering the room, the doctor said, “Non-specific Urethritis.”
“What?” said Miles Jr.
“You have either gonorrhoea or chlamydia but the lab can’t grow either in a petrie dish. So we call it non-specific.”
“But it’s still VD.”
“Oh yes. Not to worry. I’ve got a prescription for you. Make sure to drink about a gallon of water a day and take lots of hot baths.”
“This is a disaster.”
“Look, Mr. Coulson, in my day most men thought of getting a dose as a badge of honour or the cost of doing business. The only reason the army didn’t like it is that it got in the way of being good soldiers. If you are worried about your family, don’t tell ’em. Your girlfriend on the other hand … you need to tell her. With this type, women often don’t know they have it.”
“Tell her.” Miles Jr. was neither asking a question nor making a statement. “She’s not my girlfriend. Not anymore.”
Even Miles Sr. was taken aback by the anguish on the young man’s face.
Timothy hoped that he could slide around this time period without using up another jump. And it worked. They were in Miles’ room in college where he was writing a letter to Jenny – his one and only true love. It wasn’t a nice letter.
“Nice penmanship,” said Timothy.
“No, no,” said Miles.
Then Timothy slid them forward two days to the house that Jenny shared with a couple of other girls.
“Wow. These chicks were real hippies.” Timothy was admiring the beads, the incense, the Beatles posters, the prints of the Maharishi and all the other hippie accoutrements. It was 1973 and the 60s were alive and well.
Jenny was twenty-two and, although older than Miles, much more young at heart. After she had picked up the day’s post and read the mail, she did not look so young. Miles had wanted to look away as she read the letter, but Timothy wouldn’t let him. Jenny ran upstairs to her room and would not come out for days.
“I hate to tell you this, but it’s not advisable to use Canada Post to break up with someone and tell them she gave you an STD. You were chicken-shit not to do that face-to-face.”
“I was nineteen; she was the first girl I ever loved. What do you want?”
“I’m glad you asked. I’d like you to make some connections. Between your brother being gay and your lover putting you off sex, don’t you see that you may have overreacted in past years? You have not come even close to loving someone since. You’ve had sex on one-night stands only – or with escorts – ever since. And don’t give me the ‘it’s safer’ excuse. It’s not physically safer; it’s emotionally safer. Sex became a chemical requirement for you, not something to enjoy. You let these experiences harden your heart.”
“Look, even if all this is true, so what? What’s wrong with being the way I am? I don’t hurt people. I fired Parsons this morning with something like a year’s pay. It’s my company; I get to do what I like as long as it’s legal.”
“You mean so long as you don’t get caught. You could have given him seven years pay and it would still be wrongful dismissal.”
“What am I supposed to do? Suddenly see the light and say ‘jaysus ahm saved!’ Start giving money to charities run by looney hippies like Jenny who are so naïve that they don’t know they’re infected with VD?”
“I’m not here to tell you what to do.”
They were in a corridor of a hospital. It wasn’t evident that they were no longer in Ontario until a hospital worker walked by with VGH written on her coveralls.
“No. No. I won’t.”
“Sure you will. His room is right this way.”
They walked into a private room, which was being paid for by Miles, aged thirty. A last generous act for his brother. The younger Miles was sitting in a chair looking morose. A gay friend of Stan’s was holding the withered man’s hand. Stan was on a respirator.
“1984,” said Timothy. “Echo and the Bunnymen, Prince – lots of silly music and AIDS, your brand new disease.”
“This is torture. Why do I have to see him die again?”
“Ah, but you didn’t, did you?”
The younger Miles stood up and moved over to the bed. He stared down at his brother with a cold, calculating look. He then looked at the friend and said, “I have to get to work. Call me if there is any change. You have my pager?” The friend nodded.
Just after the younger Miles left, Stan stirred. “Miles?” a tiny voice uttered. “Miles? Are you there? Do you forgive me?” Stan spoke no further and after a couple of minutes the heart monitor alarms sounded.
If he could have puked, Miles would have. He sat on the floor and curled up in a foetal position. Timothy kneeled down beside him and whispered, “I’m sure your charitable donations budget has room for an AIDS hospice or two, eh?”
Miles was still on the floor dry-heaving.
“Pull yourself together, Miles. We have one more stop.”
Boxing Day, 1995, found Miles Coulson in his office. Chuck had been in hospital for a number of weeks and Miles was starting to get used to the idea that he’d be running the company by himself. It was a statutory holiday, but that never stopped Miles from working. It was nice to do some work with the office totally quiet and relatively free of interruption.
His cell phone went off. Miles looked at it and sighed.
“Yes? Can’t wait until later?” Miles sighed. “OK, I’m on my way.”
Timothy and Miles watched 1995 Miles grab his jacket and leave the office.
“Chuck was your only friend. Did you see how you felt personally inconvenienced by his illness?”
Miles said nothing.
Timothy took them to the hospital. He wondered how Miles was going to cope with another deathbed scene so soon after the last one.
In the room was Chuck, who looked ashen and thin. By his side was his ex-wife. When Miles came into the room, she was working hard, and unsuccessfully, to hide her dislike of him. But he didn’t notice and if he had, he wouldn’t have cared. 1995 Miles thought that Chuck’s wife was a bitch and was only there to make sure she didn’t get cut out of the will.
“Chuck, how are you?”
“Nice of you to come by Miles. How the fuck do you think I am?”
“Dying, according to those overpaid doctors.”
“Yes. That’s what they say. Unlikely to live the night.”
“They’ve given you something for the pain?”
“Too much. I’ve been thinking. Do you think we should have been such total pricks all these years?”
Miles was caught off guard by the question. “This is no time to second guess yourself. If we hadn’t been the pricks we were, we’d have had to work for some.”
Chuck tried to laugh, but couldn’t. When his voice came back, he said, “Miles, with testicular cancer, they cut your balls off.”
“And …” 1995 Miles didn’t like the sound of this question.
“Make sure you get me buried with them. I want all of me in one place.”
“I’ll make sure. I’m going to go now Chuck; hospitals aren’t my thing. I’ll see you later.”
“I guarantee it,” said Chuck.
Miles and Timothy lingered in the room and watched Chuck slowly fade away in a cloud of painkillers.
“I’m out of tears,” said Miles.
“No problem. You never got his real parts, did you?”
“No of course not. They had disposed of them months before. But Chuck does have with him in the coffin a nice set of brass balls I bought for cheap in Chinatown.”
“And they say you have no sense of humour,” said Timothy.
They were in the hallway of the hospital now and for the first time, Miles took time to actually look at Timothy. “You don’t look so well.”
“My time is ending.” Timothy was becoming afraid. He waved his arm and took them back to Miles’ apartment. Timothy’s ghostly self was becoming pale and slowly fading.
“Who are you really?” asked Miles. “I can tell that you aren’t an old ghost; you’re contemporary.”
The bullet wound appeared on Timothy; Miles stepped back and Timothy said with a rasp in his voice, “Check out the bank on Broadway that had the robbery.”
“I hope you saw new things in your past. Good luck.”
Timothy felt like he was falling over, but Chuck’s ghost was there to catch him. They were back at the site of the shooting. Chuck helped Timothy sit back in his wounded body.
“You were wonderful. See you later.”
Timothy’s last clear vision was that of a paramedic running toward him.
On December 28, Timothy woke up. His mother was by his side, crying. “Mum.” There was more he wanted to say like, “Am I dead?” but there wasn’t enough strength in his body. With incredible difficulty he turned his head toward the sound of laughter. Miles Coulson was sitting in front of him with a shit-eating grin and a light in his eyes that had certainly not been there on Christmas Eve.
“Don’t try to talk, Timothy; you gave us all a scare.”
“Mr Coulson has been … well Timmy … embarrassingly generous.”
“Nonsense. Mrs McFarrell, if you want to have the pleasure of telling the doctors your son is awake, please carry on. I can keep him company.”
Timothy’s mother left the room, still weeping.
“How?” whispered Timothy.
“I think I made it through Chuck’s little hauntings. Did you ever meet the other two ghosts?”
Timothy shook his head.
“Good. You don’t want to. Particularly the last one. Anyway, on Christmas Day, I remembered what you said about the shooting. And when I saw your picture I knew. I knew it hadn’t all been a dream. But you were dying, so I took the liberty of bringing in a gunshot specialist from the States. Man, were the local doctors ticked off, but once I gave a sensible sized donation to one of their favourite foundations, things loosened up.”
Timothy just stared at Miles.
“Look,” continued Miles, “when you are on your feet and can talk, we’ll compare notes. For now just accept that, given how you helped me, it seemed only reasonable to bring in an American doctor who by himself has more gunshot wound experience than all the doctors in Canada combined.”
“Parsons,” whispered Timothy.
“Oh yeah. I didn’t hire him back, but I did force a management recruiter to place him at a new job with a big promotion.” Miles started laughing again and if it hadn’t hurt so much, Timothy would have too.