A Christmas Caroline by Camilla Isley


Christmases Yet to Come

Once again, Melodie takes my hand and guides me toward the open window. Before jumping out, she stops briefly and throws me a side glance.

“A word of advice, as sad and dismal as our destination might be, keep in mind that you can change everything we’re about to see.” Then she jokingly punches her cheek. “Gosh, I’m such a wonderful spirit, you’ve been so lucky I got assigned to you.”

I look down at her. “Really?”

“Oh, yes, you wouldn’t have wanted a ghost of future Christmases as your permanent spirit guide. They’re such a scary bunch. No matter how many times P.R. has told them to lose the black cloaks and liven up a little, they insist on traditions, creeping on their charges like mist. Plus, they explain nothing. Always pointing with their spectral hands. No wonder they get the worst results.”

“What’s P.R.?” I ask.

“Phantasm Resources, same as HR for humans. Anyway, this winter all ghosts of future Christmases have been suspended since their performance last year came in so abysmal. And while I’m stuck working with you, they’re in London attending a social skills seminar.” Melodie shrugs. “Or maybe that was their evil plan all along to skip work.”

“Y-you have ghost retreats in London?

“Yeah, the buggers are staying at The Langham Hotel—very spirit-friendly institution, let me tell you—getting the five-star treatment, while the rest of us suckers are stuck working all night.”

My head spins with the notions of phantasm resources and spirit seminars overseas. Let’s hope this is just a bad dream and that my medically sedated brain is only playing tricks on me.

Instead of concentrating on the absurdity of everything Melodie just said, I humor her and call her out on her bullshit.

“That doesn’t seem like such a poor deal since you work only at Christmas.”

“Eeeeh.” Melodie grimaces. “That depends.”

Depends on what? I want to ask. I hope she isn’t planning to haunt me even once this dreadful festivity is over.

But she doesn’t leave me time to voice my doubts as she squeezes my hand and drags me out the window. Just before we step into the void, she turns to me and says, “And, Caroline?”


“Not a dream.”

From the high window of my hospital room, we land in a suburban neighborhood of orderly townhomes dressed up for the holiday season. If I had to guess where we are, I’d say not New Jersey. In my spirit form, I can’t feel whether the temperature is warm or cold, but no snow covers the front yards, and no icicles dangle from the tree branches—which incidentally are mostly palms, and the grass is green and lush. Not a wintery look. We could be in California or Florida or Nevada—one of the southern states.

Melodie guides me to a pretty house painted in a deep burgundy with white lining. Inside, a couple in their mid-fifties is having lunch.

“Are you sure you don’t want to go to the funeral?” the husband asks.

The woman stabs the chicken breast on her plate with aggressive slashes. “Jerry, I’ve already told you, I don’t want to take a six-hour flight to be in New York for just a day.”

Ah, California, then.

“It wouldn’t have to be a one-day trip, we could make a holiday of it. You always tell me you miss Christmas in the snow, and New York is fabulous this time of the year.”

The wife takes a bite of the chicken and finishes chewing before replying, “That would be in even poorer taste than not going to the funeral. If you want to see New York at Christmas, we can go next year, darling.” She reaches for his hand across the table and squeezes it. “When it’ll be just a vacation.”

“I’d love that, honey. But are you really sure? She was your aunt after all.”

The woman lets go of his hand with the excuse to grab a loaf of bread, which she proceeds to tear to pieces. “So? She didn’t come to Mom’s funeral, did she? And she always refused to visit us for Christmas. She never called. Not for a birthday, or when our kids were born, or when their kids were born.”

“She sent cards.”

Her secretaries sent cards. I’m telling you, Jerry, she came to our wedding only because Mom was still alive and she was too ashamed not to show up.” The wife shreds the bread loaf in even smaller pieces, eating none. “I’m not wasting a trip to New York for that woman. I’ve arranged with the funeral house to cremate her, and she already has a spot at the cemetery in the family plot next to Mom and Dad. They’ll bury her the day after tomorrow, and if no one shows up to her wake, that’s her doing not mine.”

The husband’s eyes widen. “Your brothers and sister aren’t going either?”

“Not that I know of. They’re younger and knew her even less than I did.”

“What about the—” the husband coughs and his neck and ears turn red. “…err the inheritance. Did she leave a will?”

“Her lawyer hasn’t contacted me, and even if she’d left it all to us, I’m not sure I’d want that woman’s money.” The wife dries a tear from her eyes. “She tore Mom’s heart away little by little and didn’t even bother to visit her sister before she died. I don’t want to talk about her anymore. I don’t want to spare that witch a thought ever again.”

The husband pauses. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you. I won’t bring her up again.”

“Thank you.” Eyes still glistening, the woman goes back to cutting chicken that definitely doesn’t need more slicing.

Once the conversation between husband and wife is over, the house dissolves, and Melodie and I jump right into the heart of New York City, or better, the city seems to spring on us, encompassing us of its own will.

We arrive at the corner of Fifth and 57th, amongst the shops and the usual New York varied crowds: tourists, students, nouveau riche, old wealth, models, professionals, and artists.

Melodie stops near a knot of businesswomen, evidently meaning for me to listen in to their conversation.

“No,” a woman in a black power suit and stylish black coat says, “I know little about it either way. I only know she’s dead.”

“When did she die?” another one asks.

“Last night, I think.”

“Why, what was the matter with her? Was she sick?” a third says, taking a sip out of a bottle of Kombucha tea. “I thought she’d bury us all.”

“Who knows,” the first woman replies, peeking at her watch.

“What has she done with all her money?” a red-lipped woman asks. Judging from the level of swelling of her lips, she must’ve come fresh out of a filler appointment.

“I haven’t heard,” the woman in the black suit says, checking her watch again. “She hasn’t left it to me for sure. That’s all I know.”

The joke is in poor taste, but is received with a general laugh.

“No, seriously, I don’t even know if she had any surviving relatives.” The woman now lowers her voice. “It’s likely to be a very cheap funeral,” she adds. “I think her attorney is organizing it, and for the life of me, I don’t know anybody who’d want to go. Should we form a delegation and volunteer?”

“Will there be favors?” a young woman in a stylish fur jacket asks.

“It’s a funeral, Freya,” the first woman replies. “Not a wedding. Anyway, I’ll go if anyone wants to come with me. I’ll shoot you a group message with the time and place, all right? But now I have to go.” She air-kisses her audience goodbye, and both speakers and listeners stroll away.

I don’t know any of those women, so I raise my eyebrows at Melodie searching for enlightenment. She just points at a two-person meeting happening a few paces away. I listen in again, thinking the explanation might lie there.

I don’t know these women either. But their fashionable-while-professional clothes mark them once again as part of the business crowd. Magazine executives, art gallery directors; they could be anything.

“How are you?” one says.

“In a hurry, like always,” the other replies in a thick British accent. “Heard the news?”

“About the old hag?”

“She finally got her own, hey?”

“So I’m told,” the first woman says, shuddering. “Cold, isn’t it?”

“Seasonable for Christmastime. You’re not a skater, I suppose?”

“No, no. I leave that to the tourists. Well, it was good seeing you.”

“And you.”

Not another word. That’s their meeting, their conversation, and their parting.

I’m again surprised Melodie should attach importance to conversations apparently so trivial; she must have some hidden purpose.

Are they supposed to lead me to my future self? I can’t deny I’m curious to see myself in my golden age. Have I aged well? Or should I book a Botox appointment the moment I wake up from the coma?

I search the surrounding faces for my image but can’t find myself anywhere. We leave the busy avenues of the Upper East Side and move into an obscure part of town, a dangerous neighborhood, a place respectable people shouldn’t wander into. The streets turn to alleys, foul and narrow; the shops and houses become wretched; and the people ugly. Drug dealers on every corner, drunkards stumbling off the curb, and prostitutes soliciting clients. The roads are dirty and like so many cesspools, they disgorge their offenses of smell and dirt and life upon the straggling concrete. The whole neighborhood reeks with crime and filth and misery. Far in this infamous den of thieves and lost souls, sits a low-browed, beetling pawn shop, below a penthouse roof, where jewelry, watches, trinkets, and heirlooms are sold.

An old man appears behind the rusty glass door. He takes a suspicious glare at both sides of the road and swings the open sign to closed. He then locks the deadbolt and with one last wary look at the empty street, retreats inside.

Melodie gestures at me to follow him. And despite the locked door, we seep through the glass and rusty iron right into the obscure shop.

The man is not alone, we find. A woman with a heavy bag slung over her shoulder is looking at him, as if waiting for instructions. She keeps shifting her weight from one foot to the other while turning her gaze gingerly from side to side. And if there ever was a prize for a shady pair, these two would win it.

“Come into the parlor,” the man says. “It’s better if we discuss this deal in the back.”

He pulls aside a frowzy curtain of miscellaneous tatters, revealing a space behind. The old man turns on the lights with a flick of his finger. Then, he grabs an ancient stair-rod and rakes the dying fire. Once a small flame burns from the ashes, he drops the rod and leans against the antique desk placed at the back of the room. He opens a leather box and pulls out a cigar, lighting it with a match, never taking his eyes off the woman.

As he sucks in the first dregs of smoke, the woman throws her duffle bag on the threadbare rug covering almost the entire room, and sits on a stool in a flaunting manner, crossing her elbows on her knees and looking at the old man with bold defiance.

“Mrs. Dilber, please,” the old man says. “The suspense is killing me, what’s the loot?”

With the top of her shoe, the mysterious Mrs. Dilber pushes the still-closed bag toward the man. “See for yourself, old Joe, and let me know the value of it. Speak out plainly.”

Keeping the cigar nestled between his thin lips, old Joe kneels on the carpet. With greedy fingers, he unzips the bag and lays the treasures within in an orderly line onto the rug. He takes out one designer bag after the other. Prada, Fendi, Gucci, Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton, Hermes…

Old Joe stands up again, drops his half-smoked cigar in an ashtray, and begins inputting sums into an old calculator.

When he’s reached the total, he turns the calculator toward Mrs. Dilbert, saying, “I always give too much to ladies. It’s a weakness of mine, and that’s the way I ruin myself.”

The woman gives a stiff nod, as if she disagreed on the over-generosity of the offer, prompting old Joe to round the desk and count bills out of a drawer.

Mrs. Dilber approaches him, eager to get her paws on the sum, but old Joe snatches the wad away and casts a sidelong glance at the woman.

“Any chance someone will come looking for them bags?”

Mrs. Dilber shakes her head. “They belonged to a dead woman with no close family; she won’t need them where she’s gone. They’d have been wasted if it hadn’t been for me.”

“What a good soul you are, Mrs. Dilber.”

“What can I say, it’s not my fault if the old crone scared everyone away while she was alive, and I won’t be ashamed to profit when she’s dead! Ha, ha, ha.”

I listen to this dialog in horror and watch with equal detestation as the shadows of the fire dance on their evil grins transforming the two crooks into obscene demons who might’ve been marketing the corpse itself.

“Melodie!” I say. “Can we leave this place now? I might become sick.”

I recoil in terror as the scene changes once again, and I wind up almost touching a bed on which, beneath a ragged sheet, lays a corpse.

The room is very dark, too dark for me to distinguish any details. But a pale ray of light falls straight on the bed, allowing me to see the plundered and bereft, unwatched, unwept, uncared for, body of a woman. A secret impulse makes me anxious to discover whose room it is, whose body.

I glance at Melodie, her gaze fixated on the woman’s head. The cover was so carelessly adjusted that the slightest rising of it, the motion of a finger on my part, would disclose the face. I think about it, feel how easy it would be to do, and long to do it; but I have no more power to withdraw the veil than to dismiss the specter at my side.

A cat tears at the door, restless and disturbed. And before the scene turns into the urban legend of the crazy cat lady who died alone and had her cat eat half her face before she was found, I step away and walk straight on frozen grass.

Melodie and I reach an iron gate, and I look around before entering. We’re in a cemetery, walled in by houses; overrun by weeds, the growth of vegetation’s death not life; choked up with too much burying.

Melodie moves expertly among the graves, leading me to one. Ah, are we to learn the identity of the dead woman?

I creep toward her final resting place and read upon the headstone of the neglected grave, a solitary name with no epigraph. Caroline Wilkins.