“It’s good, honest work,” I told him.
He gave me a tight squeeze. “I don’t want you to buy me anything for Christmas. If you have some money set aside, buy something for yourself. God knows I can’t get you anything nice.”
I saw the regret wash over his face and slipped my arms around his neck and kissed his cheek. I whispered, “I don’t want anything from you that I don’t already have right here in my arms.”
He squeezed me harder, holding me near. “I don’t know how you put up with me.”
I felt my heart lurch and kissed his cheek again. The skin was freshly shaved and leathery. He was a proud man. A good man. I slowly rose, letting my hands slide from his shoulders. “I don’t either,” I quipped.
I laughed and returned a sloe-eyed glance when he reached out to playfully swat my retreating bottom.
“The school is not quite deserted,” said the Ghost. “A solitary child, neglected by his friends, is left there still.” Scrooge said he knew it. And he sobbed.
—A Christmas Carol
The afternoon was waning, but my hunger wasn’t. For the past several days I’d avoided the family, grabbing food when the coast was clear and bringing it up to my room. I found fewer ghosts lurked in my dreams if I slept in the daytime. I splashed cold water on my face, and lowering the towel, I caught my reflection in the mirror. I hardly recognized myself. My hair was growing back, looking as if a beaver pelt covered my scalp. My jaw, too, was covered with the dark stubble of two days’ growth.
I slipped into my robe, put a pack of cigarettes in the pocket, and made my way downstairs. The scent of pine lingered in the living room where swags hung at the mantel. Signs of Christmas were everywhere—my mother’s collection of Santas on tables, bowls of pinecones and holly were everywhere, a kissing ball hung in the foyer. I could see and smell the cheer of the season, yet none of it reached my heart. As I walked toward the kitchen, I heard a muffled groan coming from the dining room. Curious, I followed the sound to find my little brother hunched over the table, chin in one palm, a pencil in his other. A book and lined paper were strewn over the table.
“I hate this book,” he groaned, and tossed the pencil across the room.
“Need some help, pal?”
Miller swung his head and looked at me with surprise that quickly shifted to uncertainty. I knew I looked like a homeless reprobate. I probably smelled like one, too. I had always been an early riser, early dresser, never letting the sun catch me unready. Seeing repugnance and not the swift shift to joy spark in his eyes that had always been his hallmark when he spotted me, back when I was his hero, hurt me more than anything else had in a long while.
“You’re up,” he said with more sarcasm than I’d expected.
“Yep.” I ignored his tease. “You’re home,” I added as a rejoinder.
“Got out early today.”
I nodded in understanding. Coming closer, I looked over his shoulder at the papers on the table. “What are you doing?”
He rolled his eyes and turned back to the papers in front of him. “A book report,” he said.
“I always hated doing book reports, too. What’s it on?”
“A Christmas Carol.”
“I read that. Good ol’ Charles Dickens. It’s a good story.”
He shrugged. “It’s all right, I guess. I’m only halfway through it.”
I chuckled. “It’s not a long book,” I teased.
“It is to me.”
“Come on. What’s not to like? It’s a classic. It’s got ghosts, great characters, Christmas, and it’s short.”
“It’s not that. It’s the questions.”
“Mind if I look?”
With a loud sigh of resignation, he waved his paper at me in a desultory manner.
I took it and sat beside him.
“You stink.” Miller wrinkled up his nose.
“Yeah, I know.” I looked at the paper. “Questions?” I asked, humor laced with criticism. “You only have to answer one.”
“I don’t get it!” he exclaimed with frustration.
“Take it easy, Bro. Let’s see.” I read aloud, “ ‘Describe what Marley meant in the passage below.’ ” I looked up to make sure I had Miller’s full attention. I continued to read:
“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”
Scrooge trembled more and more.
“Or would you know,” pursued the Ghost, “the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!”
I paused and, like Scrooge, felt the implication of Marley’s heartfelt warning in my own heart. His words, though couched in the jargon of the nineteenth century, rang clear and true. Yet it was no wonder that a boy of ten couldn’t yet understand the depth of meaning in the words. What boy understood the full impact of regret?
Miller waited for my answer.
“What do you think Dickens meant by the chain Marley was dragging?”
“His sins?” Miller asked.
I rubbed my jaw, the stubble tickling my palm. “Yes, his sins,” I began. “But I think he also means his choices. We all have free will, right?”
“So, whenever we make a decision, a choice, we make it freely. Right or wrong, it’s ours to live with. Marley was reminding Scrooge that we have to live with the consequences of our choices. And after death, atone for our bad choices.”
“Like in hell?”
“Yes.” As I said the word, I thought of the hell I was living in as a result of my own decisions. I wore the chain forged of the souls of men I’d lost in the war. It was heavy, indeed. A ponderous chain. I would drag that burdensome chain, crying out in the wind for eternity, like old Marley.
Miller’s voice drew me back from the hell I was slipping back into. I wiped my face with my palm and looked at my brother, forcing myself to deal with the present. Miller’s eyes, blue like my father’s, were guarded, sensing the mercurial shift in my emotions. I thought back to the last time I’d seen him. So trusting and eager to please. When did he learn sarcasm? I wondered. What caused him to be so wary? He was still so young. As yet so innocent. I wished in that moment that I could protect his innocence forever.