As told by Fredrick Higgins
It was the dead of winter in South Central Kentucky when the phone rang. Ted Taylor, an old friend, was calling. Ted and I had gone to college together causing trouble with practical jokes we pulled on everyone including each other. He’s an electronics genius and has since made a fortune. In those early days, we fooled around with bugs and mini cams to surprise people we liked and did not like. Especially those we did not like.
He got married, I did not. I grew up, he did not. I warned Teresa when they were still dating that eventually, he was going to pull a joke on her. She laughed, “He already has. But not to worry, I have a few tricks up my sleeve to cool his heels.”
Fifteen years later the only tricks she managed to pull out of her sleeve were five beautiful children who adored their father. Ted, Jr. 15, Sarah 12, Kent 9, Michael 6, and Tina 3. I was always around as they grew up; I was no stranger. They affectionately called me Uncle Freddie. In the south, the title Uncle denotes one of great age compared to everyone else standing around. I was in my early 50’s at the time and took great umbrage to the title … to no avail whatsoever.
“Ted, good to hear your voice. What’s up? Or should I say, what are you up to? The tone of your voice tells me you’re up to something and want my help. Well, you can forget it.”
“Freddie, Freddie, how can you say something like that after everything we’ve been through?” He was greasing the wheels.
“That’s precisely the reason. Now give, or I’m hanging up.” I knew how to push his buttons.
“Okay, it’s true. But Freddie, you’re gonna love this.” He was bubbling with enthusiasm.
“I doubt it, but go ahead.” I was game if only to hear the plot.
“Teresa and I … yes, she’s in on this one hundred percent … want you to come over and babysit some evening while we go Christmas shopping.”
“That’s the practical joke?”
“No, no. Are you kidding? You come over for potluck dinner. Teresa and I will leave on the pretense of doing Christmas shopping in Bowling Green.
“You guys have your food-fest, clean up, and then settle down for a ghost story. I’m going to wire you so I can hear everything you say. Teresa and I will go into Bowling Green, pick up a few things, and we’ll be back by the time you begin reading the story. We won’t come into the house. We’ll be able to listen to the ghost story as you read it and at appropriate moments make noises to hopefully scare the bejesus out of the kids. So, what do you think?”
“I think you should be committed,” I paused. “But I’ll do it. Sounds absolutely delicious. I already know the story I’ll read; A Christmas Carol.”
“Freddie, I love it and you; I take back everything I’ve ever said about you.”
“Hey, what the hell does that mean?”
“Nothing, just kidding. I’ll sing your praises if you help me pull this off.”
“Wait a minute. Just you wait a bloody minute. I’ll do this on one condition,” I figured I may as well get something out of this.
“Teresa has to bake a couple dozen of those chocolate chip cookies I’m crazy about or it’s no deal.”
“Consider it done, my friend. Consider it done. Mucho thanks.”
We decided on December 16th as the execution date. The kids would be on winter break so staying up late would not be a problem. I met with Ted the weekend before to get the electronic equipment I would be wearing.
On the afternoon of the 16th, Teresa and Ted outlined the evening’s program to their brood. Uncle Freddie was to be their babysitter while they were Christmas shopping. They casually mentioned I might read a ghost story after dinner which produced a round of cheers and hand clapping.
Ted and Teresa recently purchased a rambling ranch with an old Victorian house which had been empty for decades and required extensive renovation to be habitable. They managed to rehab the first floor, the basement, the roof, and two of the three bedrooms on the second floor so they could move in with their growing family. All other space, including the entire third floor and the turret, languished, which the kids turned into their playroom when the weather prohibited outdoor activity.
When I found out about their purchase, I called Ted and asked if he knew about the long-standing rumors that the house was haunted. He dismissed it with [his exact words], “Bah Humbug!”
“Well, I hope you’re right. But if you’re wrong…”
“Yeah, I know, ‘I told you so.’”
Here I was, about to spend an evening telling a ghost story in a haunted house no less. I got the creeps thinking about it but did not voice my concern so as to avoid another smartass remark from my host.
It was a dark and stormy night – I think that’s how the purple prose goes, with snow swirling about their Victorian home as I arrived, adding to the ghostly atmosphere about to be launched on the babes. There was much hugging and hoopla upon my entrance as the anticipation and excitement of the evening event grew. Even Clancy and Mavis, their golden retrievers sensed something was about to happen. Peekaboo, their Russian Blue, stood on the kitchen counter and hissed at me. She was happy to see me, as usual.
The food fest, already in motion in the family room, consisted of hot dogs, hamburgers, and all the trimmings. Normally, Teresa was strict about diet. On special occasions, such as this eve, she relinquished her grip on their tummies and permitted them to have at it.
The first words out of my mouth when I entered, “Where are my chocolate chip cookies?” Teresa laughed and pointed to a tin sitting on the kitchen counter. I peeked into the tin, then gave her a big hug. “Thank you my lovely.” T. was such a good hugger, I often thought … well, never mind what I often thought.
Once I was installed, Ted and Teresa gave final instructions to the crew then made their departure winking at me as they left. They were more excited at the prospects of the evening than the kids were.
After dinner, cleanup was quickly accomplished by well-disciplined children and my fatherly supervision. I dawdled in my final inspection keeping an eye on my watch to make sure I did not get ahead of the prearranged time when I was to begin reading the ghost story. The fearsome five stood impatiently while I dilly-dallied. Finally, “Uncle Freddie?” came a cute whine from Tina.
Then, to everyone’s relief, I announced, “Okay! Jammie time.” No story would be forthcoming unless all were in their jammies. The rush was on.
I turned the gas fireplace off in the family room, perused the room to make sure we had cleaned it properly, turned the kitchen lights off except for one under-cabinet light over my tin of chocolate chip cookies, and moved into the living room for the main event.
The two sofas on either side of the fireplace would serve as a cocoon. The coffee table was removed and the sofas were pushed into a V shape, lots of pillows were brought in and piled hither, thither, and yon. I was beginning to get psyched into the spirit of things myself. Everyone brought in blankets and bed pillows after donning their jammies. There were a few moments of wonderful confusion as everyone jockeyed for the best position.
I turned down the lights, made sure everyone was far enough from the fireplace to avoid being toasted, grabbed my book and booklight, settled down in the midst of my eager audience, turned on the book light, surveyed the brood to make sure they were all listening with eager anticipation, and opened the Christmas Carol to Chapter One, Marley’s Ghost.
Tina crept up close and leaned against my side with my arm draped over her. She was a bit of heaven which gave me regrets for not having kids of my own. I was at the hospital the night she was born. I fell in love the moment I laid eyes on her. It’s a romance that has never ended. Even Teresa once mentioned the subtlety of the relationship between her sprout and me.
Ted never suspected I fell in love with his finance the moment he introduced us all those years ago. I think she knew because of her kindness to me ever since. Perhaps, that’s why I never married.
Eager ears finally heard, Marley was dead, to begin with – there’s no doubt about it. He was as dead as a doornail.
Tina whispered, “Oh, goodie,” and snuggled closer. Everyone chuckled in agreement. I read through the first paragraph and had gotten to the first Bah! Humbug, when low-level howling began outside. Ears perked, eyes widened. Michael looked at me.
Sarah whispered, “Did you hear that?”
“Hear what?” I looked surprised, knowing what was really going on outside. Ted and Teresa had evidently placed themselves in different locations outside the house so the howls seemed to come from everywhere. The howls grew louder. Michael looked scared. He moved closer to me. I dispelled their anxiety, “Hey guys, it’s winter. The howling is from the dogs living around here. You must have heard them before.”
Ted, Jr. spoke up, “Yes, but it never sounded like this.”
It was working and I was almost giddy with joy. I continued with the story, Scrooge lived all alone in an old Victorian house. The yard was very dark and scary that night when Scrooge went to unlock the door. A loud bang sounded from outside as if someone took a hammer to the lid of a garbage can. Everyone jumped.
“It was probably a falling branch. Humbug,” Everyone laughed and settled down. I resumed reading until Scrooge heard a noise, deep down below, as if somebody was dragging a heavy chain. I paused when I heard what sounded like a chain being dragged across the attic floor above us. I wondered how Ted managed that sound effect. He was a genius and probably had a recorder up there which he could operate by remote control. Very clever. There was a back porch with an unfinished stairway to the second floor. No, he wouldn’t come near the house for fear of giving himself away. It had to be a recorder. I found it strange he hadn’t mentioned it.
The dragging chain noise continued, accompanied by heavy footsteps. Everyone’s eyes were glued to the ceiling. I pretended I didn’t hear anything and continued to read. I kept my eye on the grandfather clock in the corner of the living room. I wanted to coordinate my reading of the clock striking one in the book when the grandfather clock struck the half hour.
Marley’s ghost disappeared, and the night became quiet again. Scrooge went straight to bed, without undressing, and fell asleep immediately. When Scrooge awoke, it was still very foggy and extremely cold, and there was no noise of people in the streets.
Marley’s ghost bothered him. He didn’t know whether it was a dream or not. Then, he remembered that a spirit would visit him at one o’clock. So, Scrooge decided to lie awake and wait.
Suddenly, the clock struck one. The grandfather clock in the corner of the living room began whirring and then struck the half hour. The children jumped, looked at me, and laughed. I smiled and continued. Light flashed in the room. There was a burst of flames in the fireplace, which caught me off guard. I did not realize Ted was able to do that with propane. It was effective and had the children on edge again.
Calm returned. I am the Ghost of Christmas Past. I read in my deepest voice. Rise and come with me. Knocking and laughter came from somewhere above us, interrupting me and the calm. More sound effects. They were very effective. When a cold breeze swirled around us, the children gasped and moved closer to one another and me.
“Would someone check the back door to see if it came open?”
“I’ll do it,” Ted Jr. ran through the dining room and into the kitchen.
We heard the door slam shut and while we waited for his return, “You know this house is haunted don’t you?”
“No,” murmured, Michael.
“Neither do I,” Kent jumped in.
“Do you mean to tell me your Father never told you the history of this place?” I was on a roll.
Everyone yelled, “No.”
“Well, I’ll be ding-busted. I thought your Daddy told you the history of this ‘ol house, which was built prior to the Civil War. You do know when the Civil War was fought I hope?” I paused and hoped against hope someone knew.
“I think it was in the early part of the 1860’s,” Ted, Jr. hesitantly offered.
“Yes, that’s right. 1861 to 1865. Kentucky was right in the middle of the war. The Union and Confederate armies moved back and forth over this part of the state. And this house was caught in the middle. Bowling Green was the Capital of the Confederates. They had to evacuate when Fort Henry fell to the Union Army.
“This house was used as a prison, a hospital, and an army headquarters depending upon which army was here at the time. Prisoners were tortured in the basement, some were hung outside on those oak trees behind the barn, and there were witches in the old barn down in the lower 40.
“Witches?” Tina sat up, she understood that word.
“Yes, witches. They were powerful and they would cast spells on children who did not behave.” The children began to laugh. “Ok, I made that up. But they weren’t members of the Red Cross by any stretch of the imagination. People feared them and stayed away.
“There were dozens of battles in this area with many hundreds of men killed and buried right here in these fields. They say that on certain nights, when the moon is full, you can see the ghosts of these warriors gather in the meadow yonder and weep for their kin who they will never see again.” I made this up also but it seemed to work. I hoped Ted was recording my conversation. I was eloquent and wanted a record of my achievement.
“And those caves down yonder on Mr. Simpson’s property? Don’t ever go into those caves – alone. You may never return. Evil criminals were barricaded in those caves, they died horrible deaths. Their ghosts are still there, waiting for revenge.
“Oh, that’s a lot of baloney.” Ted, Jr. announced.
He barely finished speaking when moans and screams began coming from the basement. I said nothing, watching their little faces turn ashen.
“I shudder to think of what they are not teaching you in school,” I added in an attempt to break the spell of the moment.
Laughter from above began, and the sound of chains being dragged down the stairway.
Michael yelled, “They’re coming down the stairs. What are we going to do?”
The sound grew louder. Ted certainly had a handle on these sound effects. Then, the lights went out. Screams from the cellar began again. That caught my attention. If the power was out, how could the recorded screams be heard? I was sure there was an explanation. The flickering flames of the fireplace cast eerie shadows on the ceiling and walls. The sound effects suddenly stopped. We sat in silence, waiting.
The power came on, I broke the silence, “Hey, that wind sure is making strange sounds.”
Ted Jr. spoke up. “That was no wind, that was Dad again.” A few yeahs went up from the other unbelievers.
“I think it’s time for cookies and milk. All in favor, say I.” Everyone yelled “I” and we marched into the kitchen and doled out refreshments.
While we sat around the dining table munching, Sarah screamed, “Look!” and pointed out the window. The lights in the barn were going on and off.
When laughter and singing began in the family room I became concerned. Perhaps Ted was overdoing it.
Kent spoke up, “Uncle Freddie, don’t you hear that?”
“Yes, I do hear it. Did someone leave the TV on in the family room?”
Sarah answered, “The TV is out being repaired.”
I put my cookie down as the sound of breaking glass had us standing on our feet. “I better go and investigate. Anyone want to come with me?” No one volunteered. I disappeared into the kitchen alone, grabbed a chocolate chip cookie from the tin and waited a minute before returning. “All clear. Must have been the wind.” We piled back into the living room for more story time.
Ted Jr. was on to his dad, “I’ll bet that’s Dad doing this. He’s always thinking up funny things to do.” Everyone laughed and agreed with him.
I reached into my pocket and pressed the speed dial button for their landline phone which was sitting next to me. The phone rang. I picked it up and pretended I was talking to their parent. “Hi, you guys, where are you? Oh, okay. Yeah, hold on.” I cupped the mouthpiece, “Your mom and dad are going to be a little late. They want to know if you guys are behaving. Now speak up.” I held the handpiece up. They shouted “YES!” I finished my pretend conversation by confirming their good behavior and hung the phone up.
Everyone looked confused and decided Ted, Jr. got it wrong. They settled down as I picked up the book and continued with the story. The wind picked up outside. Evergreens close to the house began rubbing against the gutter downspouts creating a delicious noise. Heads turned, ears perked, I ignored the sounds – let them suffer.
When the lights began to flicker, the brood crept closer. The lights went out. The delicious shadows created by the flames in the fireplace were back, dancing across the ceiling and walls. My book light was battery powered so I was able to continue reading.
The ghost of Christmas past left Scrooge lying awake waiting. I heard the mechanism of the grandfather clock begin to whir. Suddenly, the clock struck two. The grandfather clock in the corner of the living room struck the half hour. My timing was perfect. I continued; Light flashed in the room and a small hand drew back the curtains of his bed. The fire in the fireplace flashed several times. Ted was a genius. He had to show me how he did it.
Scrooge found himself face to face with the visitor. It was a strange figure, like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man. Its hair, which hung about its neck and down its back, was white as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it.
Who, and what are you? Scrooge asked the ghost.
I am the Ghost of Christmas Present. Rise and come with me.
The howling outside began again as the wind whipped around the house causing the evergreens to scratch the downspouts. Kent screamed, “LOOK!” and pointed to the front window. A pair of eyes glowed in the reflection of the fire. Everyone sat up and stared.
It looked like a dog to me, I looked around the room, “Where’s Mavis?” She was nowhere in sight. “That’s Mavis, someone let her in.” Everyone laughed in relief. “You’ve got a doggie door, why didn’t she use it?” Sarah ran into the kitchen, Ted Jr. opened the front door and let a grateful Mavis in out of the cold.
Sarah returned, “The garbage can fell over and blocked the doggie door.” Mavis was pulled into the pile of children and covered with a blanket. Clancy crawled under the blanket and joined her. Peekaboo was sitting on the sofa behind me, purring on my neck. Things were going well.
A door slammed upstairs and a bell began to ring ominously. Sarah informed us, “That’s the bell in the Turret. Someone must be up there.” Everyone sat up and looked at me. The ringing stopped, another door slammed shut, the sound of chains being dragged across the floor startled everyone – except me, of course.
Ted, Jr. stood up, “I’m going up there and find out what’s going on.” Sarah and Kent yelled at him not to do it. Little Tina began to cry.
“Okay, everyone hold on. No one leaves this room. We’re safe as long as we stick together. Ted, sit down.” I pulled Tina into my lap to comfort her. “It’s probably the wind. If the turret windows are open the bell could easily have rung.”
“The windows aren’t open and the bell was on the floor the last time I was up there. Someone is up there,” Ted was adamant.
“Well, you’re not going up there alone. What if you never came back?” I looked at Ted, then began to read. The wind calmed and the sound effects ceased. I glanced at the grandfather clock, it was almost 10 o’clock. I would have to skip some of the paragraphs in the story in order to have it match the striking clock.
Spirit, are they your creatures? Scrooge asked.
They are Man’s creatures, said the spirit. The boy is Ignorance. The girl is Want. Beware them both, but most of all beware this boy. Said the spirit.
Have they no place they can go? Asked Scrooge.
Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses? The spirit turned on Scrooge with his own words.
The bell struck twelve.
The grandfather clock began striking 10 o’clock. I paused and watched the brood. Ted had to be proud of me, keeping on target.
The Ghost of Christmas Present disappeared. And at the last stroke of the bell, Scrooge saw the third ghost coming towards him. I dragged the next sentences out to add drama. Slowly and silently the ghost came nearer. It was very tall and wore a black piece of clothing, which covered its whole body and left nothing of it visible, I lowered my voice further, but one outstretched hand.
Tina was clinging to me like I was a life raft. The other four were practically in my lap. I was having such a good time scaring them. I hope Ted and Teresa were enjoying themselves since they could hear every word. I continued to read.
But Scrooge was early at the office next morning. Oh, If he could only catch Bob Cratchit coming late. And he did; yes, he did. Bob was a full eighteen minutes and a half behind his time. Scrooge sat with his door wide open that he might see him come in.
Hallo! Growled Scrooge, in his usual way. What do you mean by coming here at this time of day?’
Sarah sighed, “Poor Bob.”
I am not going to stand this sort of thing any longer. And therefore, he continued, jumping from his stool, and therefore I am about to raise your salary. A Merry Christmas, Bob.
My audience clapped approval.
Bob Cratchit was very surprised, and so were many people who found Scrooge so changed. Scrooge became a better person. To Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father.
“Oh goodie,” squealed Tina.
Scrooge became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city or town in the good old world.
It was always said of Scrooge, that he knew how to keep Christmas well. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim would say, God bless us, everyone!
The End. I closed the book. “Merry Christmas everyone.”
They smiled and laughed. Automobile lights flashed across the living room windows as Ted and Teresa pulled into the driveway. The children clamored to the front hallway to welcome them home. I went into the kitchen for a richly deserved chocolate chip cookie and chocolate milk.
The brood greeted their parents, singing their praises of a wonderful scary evening, then they began putting the living room back in order. Ted and Teresa joined me.
“Freddie, I really am sorry about this.”
“Sorry about what?” I munched on a cookie.
Teresa spoke up, “Boy genius here forgot to put gas in the car, and forgot to charge the cell phone. We were on our way back when the car stopped. It took us forever to get going again. I hope our absence didn’t spoil the fun.”
“What?” I looked at them slack-jawed. A piece of chocolate chip cookie fell from my lips and hit the floor. I wondered, were Ted and Teresa playing a joke on me? “Are you kidding me?”
Teresa stepped forward and placed her hands on my cheeks, “Does that feel like I’m kidding. I’m frozen.”
I grabbed my coat and looked at Ted, “You better be kidding me. Those sounds from outside, upstairs and in the basement didn’t happen by themselves. Where are my cookies, I’m going home.”
I caught a glimpse of their faces as I closed the back door and wondered if they might have been telling me the truth.