Todd believed he had hit bottom. The chair in which he sat felt other worldly, despite it being his familiar comfy chair in the living room. His wineglass was real, but he had lost count of the drinks. He noticed his shallow breathing and feared this could get worse – beyond bad health and the crushing guilt.
His daughter was dead and his wife had gone: off to relatives to grieve and Todd had not been invited. It was Christmas Eve, about 10 PM, on a snowy Toronto night. In the past, the snow and festive lights would have made him smile. He had memories of snowball fights and laughter with his family. But his home was utterly devoid of the trappings of the season. His daughter had been dead a month and the weight on Todd’s chest was growing.
“That weight isn’t grief; it’s the start of congestive heart failure.”
Todd lurched slightly in his chair. He was not expecting visitors and he did not recognize the teenaged boy in front of him.
“Who?” gasped Todd.
“I’ll be your ghost transitioning you to the afterlife this evening.”
Todd dropped his wine glass and managed to blurt out, “go ‘way.”
“No can do. But I do have extra thrills for your death this evening. First though, let’s remove your symptoms.”
Todd was abruptly sober and feeling much better.
“It’s magic, Todd.”
“Who are you?”
“My name was John Smythe – when I was alive. Now I’m just ‘that dead kid’ when people see me.”
Even with a clear head, Todd was hesitant. He stood from his chair and circled around John, who seemed substantial enough, but Todd was unwilling to touch.
“If you are supposed to be taking me to the afterlife, why sober me up?”
“Christmas is a special night due to the power of all the celebrations. It gives spirits an extra kick. Of course Jesus wasn’t born in December, but the winter solstice is a powerful time. The first glimmer of hope. The first time the light starts to push back the dark.”
Todd had heard the argument that the early Christians had moved their major celebration closer to the solstice to compete with the pagans, but connecting more daylight and Christ bringing hope to the world hadn’t crossed his mind. But this academic thought was pushed aside by the peculiarity of his situation.
“Assuming this isn’t some extraordinary hallucination, why would you cure me to tell me I’m dying?”
“It’s irony, Todd. However, postponing your death is not all that was behind Door Number 3!”
Suddenly Todd faced a card table that groaned under the weight of a pile of comic books. They were mostly superheroes like Superman and Spider-man.
“Hey. Those are mine. Aren’t they …”
“Yes they are in storage, Todd, still safe in their plastic bags and containers. But I summoned the image of them here for you. I have to admire a man in his mid-forties who has managed to keep his comic book collection.”
Todd passed his hand through the ghostly comics. John nodded and the comics started moving – as if ghostly hands were sorting out the piles – enabling him to see the covers. The X-Men, Avengers, the Justice League of America and more all passed in front of Todd’s eyes.
“And the relevance of this?”
“Superhero for the night, Todd. Well, until sunrise at 7:50 AM.”
Todd laughed; it felt unfamiliar. “Right. I get to be Superman and run around in tights and get arrested or locked in the nuthouse.”
“No, no Todd. You will receive real superpowers; tights are optional. There are of course a few limitations. Funny you should mention Superman. All the faster than the speed of light crap that he does in the comics, I can’t give you. Time travel, I can’t give you. Teleportation, I can’t give you. These are just not possible. Oh, and interstellar space travel is possible, but you won’t get anywhere interesting before morning.”
“No time travel? What kind of Christmas ghost are you?” Todd was using a teasing voice and John new it.
“That’s the spirit, Todd, if you’ll pardon the pun. I am bound by some essential laws of physics. However, depending on the hero, you could be highly manoeuvrable.”
Todd was looking at the comic books and he decided to play along with this fantasy. He knew what he’d do, were he a superhero, but his favourite ones weren’t powerful enough. “John, what if I asked for some specific powers of a couple of heroes?”
“You mean make your own superhero?”
“What did you have in mind?”
“A Green Lantern style power ring, but without the stupid weakness against the colour yellow …”
“They took that silly bit away in later years of the comic,” said John.
“Oh, good,” Todd continued, “and if the ring goes off, or runs out of power or something, I want to have Superman invulnerability, strength and speed.”
“Sounds like a plan, but you can only move up to 1100 km/h, a little under the speed of sound. Here’s the agreement,” said John. “You get to do whatever you want until morning. I accompany you as your spirit guide, at the end of the time, you revert to your drunken state to die.”
“OK, but I don’t see the point of this,” said Todd.
“The point is what you make it.” John made a gesture with his hand and said, “Take a look in the mirror.”
Todd walked into the hallway and looked in the mirrors on the sliding closet door. He inhaled abruptly. He barely recognized himself. He had never been that buff. He lifted up his t-shirt and saw a six pack of muscles on his stomach. On his the ring finger of his right hand was a red glowing ring. It was a simple platinum band without any markings.
“I rigged up the ring so that it takes your verbal or silent commands. Basically it is an ultra compact artificial intelligence computer with pretty much unlimited energy to deploy.” John looked at Todd.
Todd simply stared at the ring.
“Tell it to do something, Todd.” John rolled his eyes as if to say get on with it.
“Ring, can you make me fly?” asked Todd.
The ring’s response was a voice in Todd’s head: Yes.
Todd lived in a large two bedroom condo with a deck looking out at Toronto’s Bloor West Village. He slid the door open and stepped out into the cold air of the snowy night. With an unspoken voice, he asked the ring to erect a force field to keep him warm and to float him slightly above the deck’s surface. “Ring, when I’m flying about, please cloak me or something. I don’t want to be seen.”
Flying was trickier than Todd imagined. It took time to be comfortable sending quick course corrections to the ring as he flew to his destination, namely 22 Division of the Toronto Police on Bloor Street West. With it being Christmas Eve, all the streets he could see were lit with holiday lights. It almost made him feel Christmassy.
He stood, invisible, in front of the police station. “Ring,” Todd whispered, “can you adjust our molecules so that we can slip in unnoticed?”
Todd literally walked through the door, through the reception area and searched for the desk of Officer Russo, who was responsible for Todd’s daughter’s case. The building was nearly empty.
“What are you doing?” John appeared at Todd’s side as he sat down at Officer Russo’s desk.
“I assume you know about my daughter.”
“The thing that has been consuming me is how she got the bad Ecstasy in the first place. Even had I been the most out-to-lunch dad and missed a drug problem, the Ecstasy she took was made with Crystal Meth in it. Even if she hadn’t had the allergic reaction, she’d have been addicted to Meth pretty quickly. I want to know what the cop knows.”
“Batman was the detective superhero you know.”
“When you were alive, and gave people Christmas presents, did you criticize them for how they used them?”
“Ha ha. Ha ha. Get on with it. I was hoping you would do something fun, like interrupt George W. Bush’s Christmas Eve.”
“The night is young. Ring, can you access Officer Russo’s files on the computer?” Of course. “I need all files pertaining to my daughter.”
The ring projected a screen in front of Todd and started showing him files, emails, and database entries. Todd started reading.
“Can you go into the police files and show me all drug related deaths of teens going back ten years?” Proceeding.
Todd started reading case files.
Time passed. John started pacing and shaking his head in exasperation. “Todd. What are you doing? I haven’t been this bored since my funeral. By the way, Merry Christmas.”
Todd looked at the clock on the desk. It was closing in on 1 AM. “Bah, humbug. Somebody has been supplying drugs into the Bloor West neighbourhood and has been doing it surreptitiously. This makes me think it’s someone local and long term.”
Todd had the ring organize information by home address, school attended, age and gender. When divided by neighbourhood, the Bloor West area had a slightly higher rate than North Toronto, Rosedale, Forest Hill and even The Annex.
“Ring, let’s go back another ten years.” Proceeding.
A name in the now long and depressing list of children who’d died from illegal drug use jumped out at Todd. He took an over-the-shoulder glimpse at the ghost and thought, he did say his name was John Smythe, right? The ring responded: yes.
Todd looked closer at the record: 1985. Cocaine overdose. Same school as his daughter. This made Todd think. “Ring, can you do a geographic profile like they do for theft and sexual assaults? An analysis of where the lab the bad guy operates would be?”
Todd had the impression that the ring was feeling under utilized.
The ring displayed a map of the area and Russell Collegiate was the hot spot on the analysis. Same school as his daughter.
Apart from boring a ghost to tears, Todd achieved nothing more than proving the obvious. The drug that had killed his daughter came from her school. A ‘what’ but no ‘who.’ The computer data that the ring had magically accessed and collated was inorganic. He needed a hunch. Which made Todd wonder aloud, “don’t cops keep written notes?”
“They’re locked in his desk,” said John. “Officer Russo didn’t want to take them home on Christmas. If I had a body, Todd, it would be slumped over his desk in boredom.”
Ring? asked Todd. The desk drawer glowed slightly and then opened.
Todd flipped through the bound notebooks. He admired Officer Russo’s neat and deliberate handwriting while skimming, looking for related dates and pages. Suddenly a passage jumped out at him.
“Carl Jenkins, 25 year teacher on staff, was helpful – almost obsequious – and in a way that kind of creeped me out. It was as if he were enjoying the attention. I will have to check his background.”
Mr. Jenkins was a chemistry teacher and had taught Todd’s daughter the year before. There were no further references to him in Officer Russo’s notes. Then, in the way you remember a first kiss – or your first heartbreak – Todd had a blinding memory. About a year and half ago, his daughter was heading out to school saying she would be home late because she had to help Carl with setting up a class project. Todd recalled raising an eyebrow as to say, “Carl who?”
“Oh,” she said, “Mr. Jenkins … my chemistry teacher. See ya Dad.”
Todd didn’t really like the thoughts going through his head. Russell Collegiate was fairly formal and he didn’t remember hearing teachers being called by their first name very often. What had he missed? Chemistry teacher. Drugs.
“You look like you just ate a cat sideways,” said John.
“Let’s you and me go back to school,” Todd said.
Russell Collegiate was over 125 years old and the basement, where Todd and the ring started the search, was eerily quiet and dimly lit in the wee Christmas hours. The ring was using an imaging ray to let Todd see behind the walls. The effect reminded Todd of Superman’s x-ray vision. It didn’t take too long to find a locked door hidden behind a false wall. The ring provided more detail of the lab hidden behind the door. It was an amazing amount of reclaimed space. What once had been a shooting range (long ago it had been part of a lad’s education to learn to shoot a rifle) had been converted into a drug lab. Clever hacks into the school’s furnace, plumbing and ventilation systems made for a very clean disposal of the evidence of illegal drug manufacture. Almost as if to flaunt the chemist’s audacity, everything was neatly labelled and instruction folders, with batch history, were in an old filing cabinet. No direct hint of the identity of the ‘cook’ was apparent.
“You knew this was here, didn’t you?” asked Todd.
John shrugged and smiled.
“What was that?” asked Todd.
It was John’s turn to look like he’d eaten something revolting.
Todd was going to ask what, but the ring said, proximity aler …
And then it hit. Todd caught the movement in the periphery, but by then an orange force field came up around him and he was knocked off his feet and through the basement ceiling.
Todd came to rest in the drama classroom on the far end of the third and topmost floor of Russell Collegiate. He was unhurt, but there was a visible hole in the floor from where he had emerged. Wood, drywall and other building debris surrounded him.
Ring is now powering down for repair cycle.
“What? Ring? Ring?”
John Smythe formed into existence beside Todd. “Hey Todd … yeah man, the ring has to recharge.”
“But you said …”
“I know, but I didn’t think you’d encounter a super bad guy.”
“I have what you’d call a nemesis … another ghost who likes to mess up what I’m doing. The ring just saved you from literally being put into orbit.”
“Yeah. The monster coming up the stairs right now is a drug wholesaler to whom the other ghost gave the powers of The Hulk.”
“Remember, you still have Superman’s invulnerability, strength and speed. Just like you requested.”
As a test, Todd grabbed one of those metal desk-chair combos that everyone hated in school and crushed it barehanded. The creature that broke through the door was not green, but grey, eight feet high and made the comic drawings of The Hulk look like a beautiful woman. The face was contorted and the skin pock-marked, dry and flaking.
“Get ready to die, shit head,” growled the monster.
As fast and as hard as he could, Todd threw thirty desks at the hulk-creature in rapid succession. It made little difference; soon Todd was dodging punches at close quarters. Despite being unable to be hurt, Todd did not want to be knocked half way around the planet. He elbowed the creature in the ear and tried to shift it off balance.
“So, want to tell me what we’re fighting about?” asked Todd.
“Just hold still a minute and I’ll tell you.”
Todd tucked and rolled and toppled the monster.
“You one of Carl’s customers?” Todd decided a shot in the dark was better than nothing.
“You fuckin’ moron … he’s my supplier.” Todd lost a microsecond thinking about this bit of information and was smacked through the wall of the drama classroom, across the hall and through one wall of the physics classroom. The drug lab in the basement belonged to Carl Jenkins and this monster was protecting his drug supply.
The hulk-creature pushed aside more of the wall and entered the classroom. The monster swung and Todd caught his massive hand and held. The other monster arm was raised to strike and Todd grabbed that one by the wrist with his comparatively miniscule hand. They were in a deadlock.
“So you are part of the process of murdering children.”
“The ghost said you were some kind of dipshit.” The monster spoke through gritted teeth. Each of them dug in with their feet; the floor under them groaned with the strain. “A man’s gotta make a livin’. If it weren’t me, someone else would sell it.”
Todd gasped, “I guess if the Waffen-SS set up a recruiting centre, you’d line up to get a job exterminating enemies of the state.”
“Whatever. I’m a part of Darwin. Hopefully the stupid kids who buy Jenkin’s high quality junk won’t reproduce. Besides, I’m the middleman. The moron junkie dealers I sell to pick their clients.”
Their deadlock continued. They were both sweating now, unable to speak, unwilling to give ground.
Todd saw John materialize. Soon another boy materialized, leaning nonchalantly against a lab bench. “John lad, this interesting battle has come to a standstill.”
“Todd,” said John, “this Irish scumbag you see is the other ghost. He gave your opponent his powers. His name was Jimmy Gallagher.”
“You see Todd,” said Jimmy, “when John called on the powers beyond to equip you with your strength, he gave me the chance to do the same. Equal and opposite reactions and all.”
Todd dearly wished he could make them shut up. Maintaining the deadlock required concentration and a means of breaking the deadlock was elusive.
“Jimmy was on the list,” said John.
List? List? Give me a break, thought Todd. But then he remembered. John Smythe was on a drug overdose list from the 80s. So was a James Gallagher. Same date.
Ring is now back. How may I assist?
Two high energy blasts to the eyes of this monster please.
The hulk-creature roared in pain. The deadlock was broken.
Ring, please put a force field around him and contain him.
This will hold for only four minutes.
The monster pounded against the invisible barrier.
“OK, boy-ghosts, it’s time to tell the story. Your story.”
“Screw you,” said Jimmy.
“Todd, we’re ghosts. We’re not supposed to talk much.”
“Could have fooled me.”
Todd was again going to be wrestling with an eight-foot monster if he didn’t do something. He needed time to think. “Ring, can you generate the equivalent of a medical beam that will dissolve tissue?” Yes. “OK, please dissolve the monster’s cartilage and ligaments in his knees and elbows.”
“What?” bellowed the hulk-creature.
In thirty seconds he collapsed in a heap, screaming in pain, with his limbs splayed in awkward and unnatural directions. “Ring, maintain the force field. He’s likely to repair himself. How long?”
The creature will regenerate in approximately fifteen minutes.
“Please have the force field cancel out his yells.”
“Ahhh, that’s better. OK ghosties, I need to know things.”
“Sod off,” said Jimmy.
“John, if I were communicating with you via a medium or something like a Ouija board, you’d be able to answer yes/no questions fairly easily, right?”
“OK, did Carl Jenkins kill you?”
The ghost hesitated.
“He provided the drugs that killed you.”
“Did you and Jimmy die at the same time?”
“Did Jimmy know he was going to die?
Todd was stumped. He just stared at these two teenaged ghosts from the 80s. What would motivate one to protect the man who gave him the drugs that killed him? Why kill both boys at once? Had Carl Jenkins really been cooking and dealing drugs for over twenty years?
“John, were you going to blow the whistle on Carl Jenkins?”
“You fuckin’ ijit,” said Jimmy. “We could have had it all … money, girls, cars. Instead we’re stuck forever and get to watch damn fools like him [Jimmy pointed at the hulk-creature] screw it up.”
“Not forever,” said John.
“Do you think,” asked Todd, “that if Carl is stopped, you two will be set free?”
“Yes,” said John.
Todd started to cry. Twenty years of torture. Watching a teacher you likely once trusted go on to create more drugs, poison more children and kill them. Like his daughter.
“Did you ever meet her … you know … after?”
Todd stiffened his back and resolved not to cry in front of a psycho kid ghost, who has visions of being a rich and sexy drug dealer, and a monster – especially one whose limbs looked like they were getting better.
Sirens in the distance. Russell Collegiate was right in the middle of a residential area. It was not surprising that neighbours were concerned by the ruckus. Todd looked at the clock on the wall. It was just after 4 AM.
“Do hulk-creature’s powers expire when mine do?”
“Ring, can you calculate a decaying orbit around the planet so that a few minutes before the powers wear off, he’ll land somewhere remote … like Easter Island?”
“Let ‘er rip,” said Todd. Wrapped in a force field the hulk-creature shot through the ceiling, through the roof and into the sky. “I hope he takes in the view.”
“Ya dirty bastard.” Jimmy vanished.
“And before the cops get here, we’ve got to do some redecorating downstairs.”
In the basement, Todd used the ring to cut large sections of drywall away to reveal the drug lab. There seemed to be no self destruct mechanism or booby trap. He hoped that the police would find the handwritten notes and make a solid connection to Jenkins.
“Ring, I assume you can send a text message.”
“I think Officer Russo should be told, ‘Drug lab at Russell Collegiate. Extensive damage. Insecure scene.’
Todd sat on the exterior of the observation deck of the CN Tower. The ring protected him from the elements and kept him in place. The view was terrific: snow, festive lights and wonderfully quiet at 5 AM.
He kind of hoped a sleigh with Santa would fly by.
Time was running out. Sunrise was less than three hours away. According to the ghost he would revert to his original condition and die. Todd had a lot of last wishes.
He flew to London, Ontario in ten minutes, normally a two and a half hour drive. He passed through the window of the room in which his wife was sleeping. Her parents had not done much with her room. Old posters from the 80s. Simon Le Bon. Gawd. All Todd did was sit on a chair in the room and look at her sleeping form. It was the only time he’d seen her face without worry in a long time. He carefully leaned over, pushed her hair back and kissed her on the temple. Then he whispered, “Merry Christmas.”
“Todd?” she muttered, but he was gone and she returned to sleep.
Another ten minute flight back to Toronto led to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Carl Jenkins. That appellation was what was on their return address labels for their Christmas cards. Todd continued to snoop around the house. The trappings of normalcy abounded. A Christmas tree, pictures of the almost grown up two boys on the fridge, various cards from friends and relations. Creepy.
Todd moved upstairs to the master bedroom and pulled up a chair. The Jenkinses were asleep. Todd reviewed his options.
1. Kill him. Problems: Bad karma. He didn’t like the sound of ‘Todd the vigilante.’
2. Maim him. See 1.
3. Expose him. Unless the police totally screw up the investigation at the school, that should be done.
4. Force him to confess.
As he looked at the grey-bearded man sleeping in front of him, he felt that talking to him for any reason was a bad idea. What would the bastard say? And Todd worried Jenkins would tell half-truths about Todd’s daughter that would break what was left of his heart.
His impending heart failure was the real worry. For the first time he really wanted to live. He wanted to see the son of a bitch in jail.
Mrs Jenkins startled Todd by waking and sitting up. “Who?”
Ring, put her back to sleep. A power beam knocked her back onto her pillow.
“Who are you?” asked Jenkins, sitting up.
Todd used a raspy voice, asked the ring to put a red glow around him and said, “I’m the Ghost of Christmas Present.”
“Really. And I’ve got one thing to tell you. You are going down. And I recommend that you don’t hold back when you confess. Now go back to sleep.” A quick blast from the ring put him back on his pillow. “No wakey-wakey for you until after the cops do their thing at your school.”
Todd flew out of the house and saw a shed in the back yard. It was big. Todd pivoted in the air and shined an imaging ray on the shed. It had a basement. Odd thing for a shed. He changed course and flew into the twenty foot long building. He found a false floor. Under it was a padlock. He had the ring make his molecules pass through into the cellar. There he was faced with a gallery of laminated newspaper articles. Each one covered a death of a student, dating back to 1980. All drug overdoses. John Smythe and James ‘Jimmy’ Gallagher shared an article. The most recent one was Todd’s daughter. There were cases of amphetamines, which Todd assumed were on their way to the lab. There was also a strongbox full of cash.
“I should have vapourized the bastard.”
The urge to throw up was fairly intense.
“Ring, get me out of here.”
Once Todd had flown high above the house, he said, “Ring, please text message Officer Russo with the message ‘Anonymous tip: Carl Jenkins has a basement hidden in his shed. Drug lab supply and money.’
It was 6:05 AM. Less than two hours left. He had flown to Niagara Falls and had been staring at the water, snow and ice for some time.
“Here you are!” said John.
“Where have you been?”
“Do you know about Jenkins’ shed?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do ghosts always tell the truth?”
“Then I have to go home. Now. By way of Shoppers Drug Mart.”
Todd was invisible while he stole Nitroglycerin and aspirin from the drug shelves.
Back in his condo, Todd asked the ring to remove his Superman style powers.
John Smythe appeared. “What are you doing? You have more than an hour left.”
Todd went into the kitchen and poured a glass of water and started taking pills. He tried to drink as much water as he could stomach.
“I want to live long enough to send hate mail to Jenkins in his jail cell.”
Todd picked up his phone and punched in 911. The automated machine answered. It took a couple of seconds to reach a real person. “I think I’m having a heart attack.” Todd tried to sound as ill as he soon expected to feel.
He sat back in his comfy chair with the portable phone in his hand. If possible, he wanted to be able to buzz the paramedics in. The effect of the ring was masking both his symptoms and the possible effect of his self-prescribed drug cocktail. He waited ten minutes and hoped help would soon arrive.
Todd took the ring off and said, “Ring, please shut off and cease all superpower effects for me.”
Todd felt horrible.
John crouched and looked into Todd’s face. “Trying to cheat death?”