Michaelmorser Scrooge returned to quarters, the fog heavy in the Providence air, horns from the bay warning the ships still working Christmas Eve to steer clear of the rocky outcroppings. He climbed the stairs at the old firehouse and entered the dayroom. The members of Engine 13 gathered around a game of Monopoly, eating cookies and drinking homemade eggnog.
“Scrooge! A Merry Christmas to you, sir!” said Ryan, his cheeks ruddy with Christmas cheer.
“Merry? Humbug!” said Scrooge. “Loungeabouts call 9-1-1 for free rides to overflowing emergency rooms for medicines for which my taxes pay, and fools like you spend this cursed day at work in a dingy old fire station playing silly games with the rest of your ilk!”
“Surely you do not mean those words!” said Ryan. “Come, sit and join us. It’s only a game, and with each turn of the board, we put a dollar into the helmet to donate to the poor.”
“The poor?” said Scrooge. “Are there no workhouses? No homeless shelters? No orphanages?”
“There are,” said Ryan sadly, “curses upon this once great nation. But for a little generosity and less greed, those wretched places could be closed.”
“The poor will always be amongst us,” said Michaelmorser. “Let them die now and decrease the surplus population!”
He took his gruel from the icebox and walked toward his office. He turned the doorknob, and the traces of a familiar face appeared in the wood. He rubbed his eyes, and then the door, and found it to be sound and firm.
“Humbug!” said Scrooge, entering his office and closing the door, quieting the merrymaking behind him.
He dozed, sitting on an old recliner next to a drafty window. A dirty supper dish fell from the armrest, clattering to the floor, startling him awake. The clamor continued unabated. Scrooge looked about his surroundings but found nothing amiss.
A loud bell rang throughout the station, a clang that had not been heard in this or any firehouse in the city for decades. Vibrations rattled his cranky old body, and a mist appeared through his door, turning into the apparition he had seen in his office door.
“Okie?” said Scrooge. “How…why…what are you doing here?”
“How I am here is of no importance! Why I am here is what matters!” Okie moaned.
“But you retired! You are in Florida—I heard it just yesterday!”
“You fo-o-o-l!!” cried Okie. “I spent years that should have been filled helping those less fortunate by complaining about my misery and dodging runs and looking after nobody but myself!”
“That is not true! You and I are rescue men of the highest order! We take care of ourselves first and get these fools who call us to the hospital by doing as little as possible! We work excessive overtime so as not to be the dregs of society we are destined to treat!”
“Idiot!” moaned Okie. “This chain I wear? I forged it, link by link, callback by callback! It is the weight of a career of missed opportunities. I could have kept my skills up to date and learned new things. Instead I chose to simply exist, sleepwalking through most calls, never looking at patients, never lessening their suffering, never giving them even a little of the happiness they so needed!”
The apparition then rose from the floor of the tiny office and floated to the ceiling. Okie made his way to the window, his giant chain clanging after him. When he reached it he spun back toward Michaelmorser, underlining his words with shakes of a bony finger.
“You will be visited by three spirits tonight! One as the clock strikes 1. The next at 2. The third at the hour of 3! Heed me well, Scrooge: Listen to these spirits, and you just may avoid an eternity of misery forged from a lifetime of cynicism and gloom.”
“I’d rather not,” said Scrooge.
Okie moaned a most disheartening moan, filling Michaelmorser with dread. He watched as his old captain floated along the ceiling then disappeared out the window, the trail of chain clanging behind him.
Scrooge crossed his arms, pulled the curtains back and returned to his chair, “Humbug!” he said, and fell fast asleep.
Okie had come and gone, warning Michaelmorser Scrooge that three spirits would visit him this night, the Eve of Christmas, his most hated day of all.
“Only three?” Scrooge reflected to himself. “Good, then, I’ll have a quiet night. Three after midnight. Humbug!”
The clock struck 1, and the tones remained silent. “Bah!” Scrooge turned in his bunk, closed his eyes and rested. Seconds later blinding light filled the office, and standing by the window was a man dressed in khaki pants and shirt, his eyeglasses nearly the size of his head and a belly the size of that loathsome Saint Nicholas.
“Who are you?” Scrooge asked the apparition.
“I am the Ghost of Christmas Past,” the specter said in a quiet voice.
“No. Your past! You may recall my name. It’s Bub, and you were all little Bubsters once.”
“What do you want with me?”
“Come, you miserable little man. I have something to show you.”
“I’d rather not.”
Bub approached, and though Scrooge knew his appearance was probably no more than a vision conjured from a bad sausage, he was compelled to listen.
“Come with me!” the spirit intoned. Bub extended his arm, and Michaelmorser took his sleeve, and they flew through the night toward the Division of Training. They landed on the ramp, and though a light snow fell and a wind rustled the leaves and tossed litter along the sidewalk, they felt no cold. Scrooge rubbed the frost from the overhead door windows and looked upon the apparatus floor.
“I know these people! They were friends of mine! There are Chris Brown and Joe Brethana! That’s Joe Paiva dressed in the hazmat suit, acting like a chicken!”
“They appear to be having fun,” observed the spirit. “Who is that young man laughing along with them?”
Scrooge gazed at the scene. “That,” he said at length, “is the man I used to be.”
“Come,” said Bub. “To another Christmas.”
They whisked through the streets of Providence, dressed in nightclothes but not feeling the chill. The Branch Avenue Fire Station appeared in the distance, and they floated to the upper level and peered through the window. There, among a dozen firefighters, sat Scrooge, a few years older, opening a gift.
Michaelmorser started at the sight of more old comrades. “Those are Heidi and Al!” he exclaimed. “And Kenny and Arthur and Wayne and Roger! There are Steve Rocchio and Danny Brodeur! And Chief Moura! Look at us, opening Secret Santa gifts! I remember, I drew Heidi’s name and bought her a book—a mystery, if I recall.” He paused, and his voice became quieter. “Those were some good times. I do miss them.”
“Are not similar times being played out at your very station tonight, Scrooge?” asked Bub. “If I recall, a rather vigorous game of Monopoly was underway, and you chose to ignore it.”
“I didn’t want to, Bub,” said Scrooge. “It’s just so many runs, and all the paperwork and all the nonsense, then the shootings and overdoses—I can’t stand it!”
“Stand it you must, Michaelmorser,” the spirit replied. “You are needed, and needed to be well. Now come, I have one more Christmas to show you, and my time here is through.”
“I don’t want to leave.”
“You left a long time ago. Come, Michaelmorser, before it is too late.”
And they flew, leaving Scrooge’s friends behind. Again.
Now Scrooge Past sat alone in Rescue 1’s quarters, staring blankly at a computer screen.
“It’s so quiet,” Michaelmorser said to the spirit accompanying him.
“You came to the Rescue Division to make some extra money and never left,” said Bub. “But you found you enjoyed it and reveled in the opportunity to help your fellowman. You did well for a time. Then, as quickly as it began, the joy left you. You were alone, dreading the next call. Look at you, Scrooge! Your face is full of tension, your body is stiff. You are the very picture of misery!”
“It doesn’t have to be this way!”
“Right you are, little Bubster. You will be visited by two more spirits tonight. Listen well.”
The office was dark, cold and empty. And Scrooge was alone. The clock was nearly at 2. He rolled over in his bunk, and mumbled, “Humbug.”
The blinding light was nothing new, thought Michaelmorser Scrooge; every night spent in this wretched building gave rise to the cursed things, most nights hourly, accompanied by the PA.
Chest pains? More likely heartburn from eating too much stew!
Abdominal pain? Ha! Gas is more like it. A fart does wonders for normal men, but not these fools who inhabit the city of Providence!
Unconscious? Hardly! Fat, drunk and stupid is more like it.
Seizure? Seizure shmeizure, I’m about to have a seizure if these lights don’t go off!
“You are a weird little man!” boomed a voice from the center of the blinding light.
“What? Who goes there?! And what are you doing in my office?!”
“I am the Ghost of Christmas Present!”
“A good Christmas present would be to make the lights disappear.”
“Not a Christmas present, you odd creature. The Christmas Present!”
The blinding light subsided, and Scrooge was able to get a better look at the originator of the voice.
“Zack! What are you doing dressed in velvet and wearing that crown? Fur belongs on animals, not on people’s heads! And what’s in that goblet you drink from? I’m parched!”
“This is the milk of human kindness, and I am most certainly not Zack,” the apparition boomed, then drank heartily. “This is the year 2012. I have 2011 brothers, and Zack is but one of them.”
“Save some for me!” Scrooge pleaded.
“When there’s a lot, I drink a lot. When there’s a little, I drink it all!” The ghost tilted the golden goblet to his lips and guzzled, then wiped his beard clean of the frothy brew and handed the mug to Scrooge.
“Too late,” said Scrooge, peering into the empty goblet. “It’s gone.”
“You are a pathetic creature, Michaelmorser Scrooge! The cup of human kindness is never empty. You need only look within!”
Scrooge looked again. The cup was full. He drank. The room spun, and it was delightful! He drank some more. Music filled the office, and the lights once more grew bright.
“This is fabulous,” said Scrooge to the giant, bearded Zack. “Can I have some more?”
“Perhaps. For now we have work to do, and I don’t have much time.”
“If I must,” Scrooge giggled and took hold of the specter’s sleeve.
Though the city seemed deserted, the Ghost of Christmas Present knew just where to lead them. In a blink they were outside a familiar place.
“Why have you taken me to this place?” Scrooge asked. “I just left.”
“Look inside, you pathetic man, and listen!”
“I hope he is well,” said Mrs. Michaelmorser. “Every year the weight of responsibility grows heavier, and he brings his sadness home.”
“Remember when he would spend days decorating the house?” asked young Brittany. “It was the grandest in the entire neighborhood!”
“I miss the baked stuffed shrimp,” added Danielle. “It’s just not the same these years past. Something is missing.”
“I fear he has lost his soul,” said Mrs. Scrooge. “And without soul, it might as well be simply boiled shrimp!”
Scrooge’s family went about their tasks, wrapping gifts, stirring the gravy and putting neat rows of manicotti into shallow baking dishes.
“At least he didn’t forget the manicotti this year!”
“Or the wine,” said Brittany, pausing to uncork a bottle of Pinot noir. She filled glasses for all, then hoisted hers.
“To Michaelmorser,” she proclaimed. “May he find the spirit of Christmas!”
“To Michaelmorser!” the others repeated, and toasted.
Scrooge spun to the ghost in distress. “What is this madness?” he implored. “I’m the Christmasmeister! Do I not make the girls watch The Grinch every year?”
“The Grinch, Scrooge?” asked Zack as they flew back to the city. “How appropriate. Drink—you are returning to your miserable self!” He handed Scrooge the goblet, and Scrooge gulped.
“I know this place! The Cabbage Patch! Why have you brought me here? There is nothing here but misery!”
“Is there, Scrooge? Look around you!”
Children with birth defects of every kind imaginable filled the rooms of the pediatric nursing home. Some were on respirators, some lay in states of unconsciousness, others were barely aware that they even lived. Yet the people who worked here on this Christmas Eve had decorated the depressing place, and the cheer of Christmas could not be missed. Lights adorned dismal hallways, and Christmas trees sat in each room, topped with stars that shimmered. Their lights grew, then flickered, then grew again. Scrooge looked for the power source, but there was none.
“What powers the stars?” he asked Zack, sipping from the goblet and feeling the comfortable fire in his belly.
“The love that emanates from the people who believe in a greater good and spend their Christmases here, with these unfortunate souls,” Zack told him. “They have planned for weeks to get these children ready for a day at home, with their families, or for those who can never leave. They have spent their meager earnings decorating this place and throwing a party here, in what you so lovingly call ‘the Cabbage Patch.’”
From his crib a child stared at Scrooge. Their eyes met, and he smiled. The boy’s heart grew outside his body. It was the size of a grapefruit and covered his chest. It was hideous and horrifying and completely out of place on such an otherwise beautiful boy.
“I thought they couldn’t see us,” said Scrooge, smiling back at the boy.
“Those who will be leaving this earth soon have special gifts.”
“Is there nothing that can be done for him?”
“Why? Better he dies and decreases the surplus population!”
“You use my words against me, spirit!” Scrooge protested. “He never had a chance, this boy who wears his heart outside of his body. It’s not fair!”
“Is it fair that you wear your own heart so deeply embedded in your chest that even your own wife cannot get through?!” Zack exclaimed, poking Scrooge’s chest.
“Ow! That hurts! Cut it out! Stop it! Stop it! Stop it…”
Scrooge looked around his office and saw that he was alone. The clock showed nearly 3.
At precisely 0300 the tones went off, and Michaelmorser Scrooge slipped from his bunk. The station was quiet—not a peep could be heard once the tones quieted down. The rescue waited, and Brian sat in it.
“A Merry Christmas to you, sir,” he said. Scrooge ignored him.
“Where are we going now?” Michaelmorser asked, quite miserably.
“To the children’s nursing home,” Brian replied nervously, “for difficulty breathing.” He stepped on the gas.
Quiet filled the cab as they rode toward their destination. Scrooge had little to say and much to think about. The three ghosts that haunted his nightmares were just that, he decided.
Nightmares. Apparitions born from too many rescue runs, too much overtime and not enough peace and quiet!
They arrived at the nursing home. The freezing rain had turned to snow; it tickled Scrooge’s skin for a moment, then melted and annoyed him. He wiped it away. Brian lagged behind.
“What are you doing?” Scrooge snapped at him. “I’m freezing, and you’re wasting time fiddling about with some nonsense!”
“I’m getting the equipment.”
“Don’t bother. We’ve been here dozens of times,” said Scrooge. “The kid probably has the sniffles!”
The elevator rose slowly toward the third floor and the patient. It groaned to a stop, and the doors opened. The floor was empty—nothing stirred.
“Hello!” Scrooge cried, and his voice echoed back. At the end of the long hallway was a shadow coming toward him. The elevator doors closed, taking Brian away. The shadow continued to approach, growing larger. A man took shape. He wore nothing but a black cape, his face hidden in darkness.
“Where is the patient?” Michaelmorser demanded. The apparition said nothing, but pointed a bony finger at Scrooge and beckoned him to follow.
Respirators worked, hissing and gurgling, the machines that filled the lungs of the barely living doing their ungodly task without mercy or feeling. The sound comforted Michaelmorser. Children’s eyes peered from each room they passed. Some roamed the hallways, apparitions of their former selves, little ghosts whose lives had ended right in the very space he now occupied.
Scrooge grew impatient. “You!” he shouted to the shadowy figure that led him down the endless corridor. “You are the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come! Admit it and identify yourself! I demand it!”
The figure slowed and turned, and in his arms held the boy whose heart lived outside his body. The specter held a body that did not breathe, did not move and did not live. The heart did not beat, and Scrooge, having let his skills lapse, having now spent so many years but going through the motions, had no idea what to do.
“I fear you more than all the others, spirit!” Scrooge beseeched. “I implore you, make him breathe! Do something! Start CPR! It’s only a heart outside a body; surely you can make it beat once again! Look into his eyes, you monster, they still flicker with life! You have the power to save him and give him a chance, another day—Christmas day! Perhaps this day will be the day they find the miracle needed to restore his heart and let him live a normal life! Do you not care? Does his life have no meaning to you at all?”
The Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come extended his arms and held the child toward Scrooge. As Scrooge reached to take him, the monster’s hood slipped back, exposing his face. It was Scrooge’s own.
“No! Please, it cannot be! Please, spirit, tell me, is this the future that will be, or is it the future that might be?”
The boy now rested in Scrooge’s arms, and his eyes, their light quickly dimming, met Scrooge’s. He stood there, the ghost gone, Brian gone, the nurses and other patients gone, and did not know what to do, and he stood alone in the Cabbage Patch and watched the beautiful boy’s lights go out.
The bell tipped.
“Rescue 1, respond to 342 Broad St. for an intoxicated male.”
Michaelmorser Scrooge was instantly awake and ready to roll. An intoxicated male on Broad Street! Fantastic!
His office was just as he remembered before the spirits had visited, but make no mistake, they had visited, and the lessons they offered echoed in his head and filled his empty soul with hope.
He opened the office door and strode toward the dayroom. “I’m as light as a feather!” he giggled as he walked. “I’m as giddy as the drunken man on Broad Street!”
The firefighters sat in the dayroom, putting last night’s Monopoly game away, and the upside-down helmet full of dollars with it.
“Ryan! What day is this?” Scrooge asked his good friend.
“Today? Why, it’s Christmas day,” said Ryan hesitantly.
“An intelligent boy, a remarkable boy!” said Scrooge. “Here’s $20 for the poor.” He dropped a bill in the helmet. “And there will be $20 more every year until I’m gone!”
“Are you serious?” said Ryan, nearly dropping the loot.
“Quite. I’ve got a drunken man who needs our assistance and have to go, but in the meantime, do you know the prize bird, the one at the poulterer’s the next street over but one?”
“The one twice as big as me?” asked Ryan, incredulous.
Scrooge looked at Ryan’s girth, scrunched his face into its familiar prunish countenance and replied, “Now that would truly be a Christmas miracle! But yes, that’s the bird. Go there when you are relieved and buy it. Bring it here before I get back, and I’ll give you half a crown!”
“What are you going to do with it?”
“Cook it, my fine fellow, and all that goes with it, and when we come back to work tonight a feast like I haven’t prepared in a decade will be shared by us all!”
Rescue 1 waited on the apparatus floor, and Brian with it. Scrooge sat in the officer’s seat and growled at Brian, but chuckled to himself.
“Took you long enough to get down here!”
“But I was waiting for you!” Brian replied.
“And you shall never have to wait again, my good man! From this day forward I will be on the truck and ready to roll every time the bell tips! We have work to do—let’s roll!”
The drunken man was indeed on Broad Street, quite inebriated. He slept on a cold sidewalk in all he clothes he possessed.
“Ignorance and want, all in one untidy bundle,” said Scrooge as he and Brian scraped their patient off the sidewalk and brought him to the ER.
Before they could return to the station, Scrooge took his partner’s sleeve. “A small detour, Brian,” he said. “To the children’s nursing home, and step on it!”
Old Michaelmorser Scrooge spent the next hour visiting the workers and children at the heartbreaking place, making a special visit to Room 324, where an angelic boy slept peacefully, a lump on his chest covered by a blanket. A nurse stayed with the boy, and looked up from her chart as Michaelmorser entered the room.
“How is he?” Scrooge asked.
“Good as gold,” the nurse replied.
“If the boy were to go into cardiac arrest, is there anything I should know were I to be dispatched here in the dead of night?”
“Of course. Treat him delicately, and caress his heart, and do compressions carefully, but no differently than you would on an otherwise-healthy boy.”
“I’ll do that,” said Scrooge, “and learn all I can about him and what ails him. And I’ll visit and see that he gets proper care should the need arise. And I also promise to keep Christmas in my heart all the year long, and remember the lessons the spirits taught me!”
Scrooge was as good as his word, and from then on treated the drunks with kindness and began learning anew the protocols and procedures necessary to keep fresh in the field but that he’d let go stale. Ultimately people would come to say that if anybody in the village knew how best to keep Christmas, it was Michaelmorser Scrooge.
He drove home, turning off the talk radio and tuning in to Christmas carols. He parked his car and stepped out, feeling like a man reborn, and looked to the sky and smiled. He opened the door, and it was warm, and the house reeked of Christmas, and the people that mattered to him most welcomed him home.
Michael Morse, EMT-C, is currently captain of Rescue 5 in Providence, RI, and has served on the city's busiest engine, ladder and rescue squads as a firefighter, rescue technician and lieutenant during his 21-year career. He is the author of the books Rescuing Providence and Responding.