The stage was set for Evan to have a life-changing epiphany. Smoke drifted across the graveyard, tangling itself around the crumbling tombstones. Most of the markers had faded through the years. Evan could make out the occasional Smith, or maybe that was only his mind filling in the blanks by putting common names over eroded canvases.
He bent next to the nearest one and wiped his hand across the bumpy surface. A coat of fine, almost silky, white powder clung to his fingers afterward. He’d known he’d get that result with no clear answers to show for the mess. Still, he was annoyed when he stood and cleaned off the dust using the untucked side of his shirt. Life was mostly like that for him. He knew what was going to happen before it did, but it didn’t stop him from feeling disappointed.
“Okay, get on with it, Johnny Bones for Fingers,” he told the newest ghost to visit him that night. There’d been two before him: the Ghost of Christmas Past and the Ghost of Christmas Present. Fed up with their nagging criticisms, and going on very little sleep, he snapped, “Make your bloody point. I need to shit and this place fucking sucks.”
There was a long pause before the Ghost of Christmas Past said, “And this lonely grave is yours, Evan,” in his deepest, scariest voice. His bony fingers wiggled above the exposed plot.
“Smooth recovery,” Evan said and shrugged.
“You died alone. No one to mourn you.”
Evan shrugged again. “Sounds about right.”
“You were unloved.”
“It’s a cruel world.”
“Even your family scorned you.”
“Right back at them.” Except for his mom, Evan amended silently. At one point, he would have put his sister on that list, but she’d shown herself to be as materialistic and heartless as their other siblings after their mother died.
“This is your last warning!” Past’s ominous voice boomed. The echo of it reverberated in Evan’s stomach, morphing his bowels into an uncomfortable churning sludge. No matter how ridiculous, the future was always scary. But it didn’t change his mind or heart.
“Tell you what, I’ll get cremated,” Evan said. “Putting that in my living will as soon as you dump me back off at my bedroom.”
Puffs of black smoke coiled around the robed figure. The ghost vanished along with the archetypical cemetery. The familiar surroundings of his bedroom and the musky scent of himself greeted Evan when he blinked open his eyes.
Evan got up from the bed. Although he was only in his early twenties, he had old bones. He swore he felt his back creak in protest. A slit of sunlight peeked through the curtains, cutting a peephole into his life. Evan drew them tightly together until he and the rest of the world felt like two separate things.
He didn’t need anyone. Not in the past, not in the present, not in the future.
“That guy is an irredeemable wanker,” The Ghost of Christmas Present griped.
“I’ve met serial-killing clowns I’d like to spend more time with,” The Ghost of Christmas Past agreed.
“The world is a darker, desolate place with him dwelling in its recesses. He festers like a tooth with an abscess, rotted beneath the glossy enamel.”
“Cut the emo shit, Future. Just say he’s a damn wanker,” Past said.
Future sniffled at Past’s slight and drew a dark hood up around his face to sulk. Through it, he mumbled, “Philistines. No talent for drama.”
The Ghost of Imaginary Time listened to the other ghosts quibble about the human, some delightful sounding chap named Evan Ezear. They’d been tasked to cure him of his misanthropy. Imaginary had been on the bench since he could remember, waiting for his turn to charm someone into re-embracing humanity. It sounded like this fellow might be his ticket back into the big game.
“Guys, maybe I can give it a crack?”
Present scoffed. “What are you going to do, Imaginary? You don’t understand people and people don’t understand you. Perhaps you could confuse him until he reforms?”
The Ghost of Imaginary Time loved the absurdity of the statement and embraced it close to his chest, holding it dear. Grinning, he cocked his eyebrow and said, “Maybe.”
“Well, you’ve never worked,” Present said. “No one has ever understood your gimmick. What is it, anyway?”
Imaginary wanted to say, I teach them to live with you three assholes, but he wanted to get his way more, so he plastered a smile on his face. “Embrace who you are. Understand that you know nothing!”
“Don’t you remember what happened to the last poor chap?” Future asked.
Imaginary did remember. “The last guy had a meltdown. Which was sort of like an epiphany…” Imaginary stuck one finger up in the air as if to hold up his tenuous argument.
“He ended up in an asylum,” Past reminded him. Not meanly, only matter-of-fact.
“Where he had several more epiphanies,” Imaginary said.
“Because you blew his mind to shit,” Past retorted. “To utter fucking shit. Ka-blooey.”
Behind Past, the other two ghosts nodded in agreement. Always an asshole, Present went the additional step of giving Imaginary’s supposed stupidity a slow blink and a pointed lip smack.
“Well, he talks funny,” Imaginary said, jabbing his thumb toward Future. “Like the Ghost of Christmas Thesaurus, amiright? What human can even figure out what he’s getting at? He always ends up pointing at their sad-looking grave in some hackneyed cemetery he conjured from a Dicken’s novel. The world is more modern now, Future. There are automatic sprinklers. The guy with the overgrown weeds and open graves isn’t in business anymore.”
“Scurrilous!” Future bellowed and banged his bony hands on the table. The result was more of a clatter, but Imaginary reacted as though the gesture had its intended effect and recoiled. Future loved to grandstand and playing along could grease the wheels.
“Don’t be a wanker,” Past said. “We’re all the same here.”
“My bad. You’re right,” Imaginary said. To Future, he added, “Hey, I’m sorry, buddy. You run a good game.”
Future sniffled in his practiced dignified way. “I say there’s no harm in giving it a shot. We can at least let Imaginary endeavor to transform this cur’s heart into something unblemished.”
Imaginary beamed. “Thanks!” He turned to Present and said, “Come on, buddy, give me a shot.”
Present flipped a dismissive hand in the air and said, “Fine. Whatever. Tell you what, I’ll even give you until Christmas. Just don’t send him to the loony bin.”
Imaginary tried to conceal his excitement. After several moments of flapping his hands and screaming, “Oh my god, Oh my god, finally, oh my god,” he took a deep breath and said, “Okay, what’s his deal, Past?”
“He just hates people.”
“That’s it? He doesn’t have some tragic backstory?”
“Well, his mother died of cancer.”
“That’s something!” Imaginary said, making a mental note.
“Everyone’s mother dies,” Past said. “Most people don’t become bitter pricks about it.”
“True. Anything else?”
Past thought for a moment, then held up his index finger when something came to him. “He had a lot of crazy friends who always had strange issues that needed solving. For example, some guy once put three weasels into Evan’s bathtub.”
“You know, I couldn’t really figure it out. I think his friend just might have been an asshole.”
Sometimes the past wasn’t as complex as people wanted to make it, so Imaginary accepted the answer without pause.
In that space of time, Present asked, “What are you going to call yourself? Your name immediately invites a ‘what’ and a confused head tilt.”
“Well, I’m not going to use my work name. I’m going to call myself…” Imaginary thought really hard and came up with an answer. Cheerily, he said, “Phil.”
“Good luck!” Past said with a salute and tilted smile. Phil could always count on Past to be hopeful about the future.
“Brush up on your acting skills and read the human manual. Last time, when you blew that guy’s mind to shit, you didn’t understand people. I doubt your skills have gotten better since you’ve been on the bench for, you know, centuries. Also, be mindful that the more human you act, the more human you’ll become, so don’t get too far off task. Okay?”
Imaginary didn’t plan on doing either of those things. “Sure.”
“Cheers, my good man,” Future said. No matter what had happened earlier, he always looked forward. “Make us overflow with the waters of your success!”
Present couldn’t let things go even though that was mostly his job, so he said, “See you real soon.”