“Well, Nicolas, love, if were expecting someone else, I’m sorry to disappoint… but you’re stuck with me now…”, the elderly lady said, her voice slightly wheezy and light in tone, and Nick rolled his eyes.
“Well, someone a little easier on the eyes would’ve been nice, for one…”, he spoke, actually more frustrated at being woken up than at the ghost itself, and even then it was hard to label the feeling as ‘frustration’ instead of ‘utter confusion’ with the warmth permeating his being. It was as if someone had given him a big mug of mulled wine: a heat spreading from the inside out, and a feeling of contentment that came along with it, as if he’d eaten a copious meal instead of some leftovers he still had in the fridge, not wanting to confront Ellis again.
“…Is this a bit better then, darling?”, she spoke again. He looked up at her again in surprise as the sound of her voice was completely different – suave, pleasant, filled with energy – only to see that the woman had changed in appearance as well. Gone was the elderly lady – in her stead stood a woman that looked like she could’ve modeled for Victoria’s Secret that very second, all perfect sized, lightly tanned skin, almond-shaped eyes and soft, full lips. The dress had taken a youth treatment as well, as it was strapless and the heavy fabric had turned to light, shimmering silk, with the fur being fake. Nick actually had to blink and shifted in his bed slightly to hide his sudden unease. She gave a bright smile and nodded, her long black hair swaying slightly as she did so. “…I’ll take that as a ‘yes’. Good, glad that’s out of the way. Now, shall we?”, she said, offering her arm to him. Nick got out of bed and put on his housecoat again, but he didn’t move to hold her offered arm yet. Instead, he looked at her in slightly wary apprehension and spoke the question on his mind softly.
“…Where are you taking me? I mean, my mom came before you, and-“
“Your mother’s spirit showed you what you needed to see, and so will I. Only she showed you the past and what it meant to the person you became. I will show you no scars of days long gone, Nick, darling... instead, I’ll show you today, and what your cold and callous actions cause… Now take my arm, Nick, the sooner we leave, the better.” Nick still felt apprehensive, but he did place his hand gently on the woman’s offered arm, and the world blurred around them. When the surroundings became clear again, Nick was surprised to see himself stand in an unfamiliar neighborhood. It was a downtown home – a house in a housing project, clearly, one of many just like it, small and simple, with just enough room on the driveway to place a small car. Like the others, it was happily decorated with cheap lights and some holly hanging over the door, a Christmas wreath hanging over the mailbox jauntily. Nick blinked and turned to his ghostly companion.
“…Where is this? And how could this possibly-“, he started, only to be cut off by the woman standing beside him.
“This house belongs to Ellen Tanner.”, she said, smiling at him. “But it’s not her we’re here to see…”
“Then why?”, Nick asked, only to stop talking as she motioned for one of the cars that turned into the driveway. He recognized the car instantly, since it’d been parked on his own curb for too long: a rusty, battered white pick-up truck with an engine that roared like a lion as it fired up. The rear of it was stowed full with various items – Nick could discern a lampshade, a rolled-up carpet and a rocking chair – and when it stopped in front of the house, Ellis got out. “…Hey, what’s…”, Nick said, looking surprised by the way his former employee moved, and his ghostly companion gave a sad sigh.
“You’ve hurt this young man, Nick, with your cold behavior.”
“Well, I’m sure he can take an argument, I mean-“, Nick started, but the woman shook her head.
“You don’t understand. You see his sadness but you don’t understand it – which, of course, is a bit understandable. If you understood his sadness, if you knew why he was looking so pained, then we wouldn’t be here. Then there would be no need for you to be here at all. …No, just watch. Just see how deep his pain goes. Just see how much of an effect you have on this young man’s life.”, she said finally, as Ellis took out one last box from his pick-up and took it into the house. Nick and the ghostly Miss Santa followed, passing through the door just as it closed and entering the cozily decorated home of Ellis’ mother, the hallway of which was stowed full of boxes. The scent of something being roasted slowly hung heavy in the air, accompanying the warmth of the place nicely.
“…Ellis, dahlin’, ‘s this the last’a yer stuff then?” Ellis’ mom was just as Nick expected her to be: slightly younger than his own mother had been at the time of her death ten years before, with warm eyes and a warm voice, and with a smile that instantly made the hick smile too. Yet the smile, Nick was somewhat surprised to see, was distant and watery, not at all like the smiles Ellis had usually displayed whenever he noticed Nick coming in.
“Yeah, momma. ‘S the last. …Ah can’’ b’lieve Nick ac’shully threw me outta mah ‘partment. Ah can’t believe Nick fired me… all over somethin’ so stupid…”
“Oh, now come on, Ellis, it’s Nick Masters we’re talking about…”, came a voice from further inside the small, quaint home, and that voice, too, was familiar to Nick. And sure enough, the next moment his tenant, Bob Tanner, came in. “He’s got no heart. I mean, he’s probably typing up and signing a termination of contract notice as we speak for me being late with the rent for the garage…”
“Naw, uncle Bobby, y’ain’t right. Nick ain’t heartless, he’s jus’… Ah dunno, he’s a businessman ah s’pose. He needs his money. Yeh can’’ say he didn’t give yeh no chances – if’n he didn’t have no heart, he would’a chucked yeh out when yer rent was due f’r jus’ one day…”, Ellis said, standing tall as Bob – his uncle, Nick now knew – looked at him in surprise.
“Ell, really? The man fired you over telling him Christmas is important-“, the man said, and again Ellis responded, this time cutting his uncle off.
“Nick fired me ‘cause he wanted tuh. He prob’ly was tired’a me for a long time ‘fore yestehday too – he jus’ used tha’ Christmas thing as kinduh ‘the las’ straw’. A-an’ ah’m kind’f glad fer tha’ – ‘s a lot nicer tuh think he fired me ‘cause ah was invadin’ his personal space than it is tuh think he fired me ‘cause ah got on ‘is nerves constantly. But even if’n tha’ was the case… Ah’ve gotta ‘cept his reasons fer firin’ me even if’n ah don’’ like ‘em.” Ellis turned to his mother with a sigh and meant to speak up when another, less familiar, voice issued from the basement.
“Misses Tanner, misteh Tanner, y’all sure ‘bout tha’ fuse blowin’? ‘Cause ah’ve checked ev’ry damn fusebox down ‘ere an’ there ain’t no fuses blown.” It was the hick mechanic that had come up to Nick’s office that day – Keith, he remembered vaguely – his red hair and face covered with smears of thick grime and his loose plaid shirt and torn jeans covered in a layer of dust and something that Nick was sure did not belong in a healthy basement. When he noticed the tension in the room, he blinked and rubbed his nose, spreading more grime over his face in the process, and turned to Ellis. “Ell, bro, wha’’s goin’ on? Y’all look like yeh’ve seen a ghost…” Ellis just sighed and shrugged, and Nick recognized that gesture – he’d seen it too often before, mostly when he asked Ellis (impatiently, mind, and never without that tone of exasperation) what was wrong. However, the other hick didn’t let the clear dismissal stop him, and he turned his gaze on Ellis’ mother and uncle next, and of course Bob Tanner supplied the reason for Ellis’ unease eagerly.
“We were just talking about Nick-“, he said, and instantly the other mechanic cut him off, frowning deeply.
“Tha’ man’s a damn disgrace. He ain’t got no heart – not only’s he not givin’ yew more time tuh git tha’ money, Bob, but he’s turned out Ellis jus’ like that.” The final word was accentuated with a snap of his fingers, and Ellis sighed, this time more exasperatedly.
“Look, Keith, uncle Bob, ‘s real nice tha’ yeh wanna defend me an’ that yeh wan’ make me feel better ‘bout all this, but… ‘s not gon’ work, okay? ‘Specially not if’n yeh go ‘round insultin’ Nick. He didn’t do nothin’ wrong. He maybe ain’t done things right, yeah, but he ain’t doin’ nothin’ wrong either. He fired me – he’s got ev’ry right to do tha’. He kicked me outta mah apartment in his home – ‘s still his home, an’ the apartment came with the job, so he’s allowed tuh turn me out. …Naw, y’all wanna make me feel better, then yeh’d better help me find some place else tuh live an’ work… ah don’’ wanna bother my momma none-“
“Ellis, dahlin’, how many times do ah gotta tell yeh, y’ain’t botherin’ me…”, Ellis’ mom said, and suddenly Nick had a foreboding feeling. The way she reached out to her son was… different somehow. It wasn’t like his own mother had reached to him. The understanding between a mother and a grown child was absent, it was… more clingy, more dependent. And Ellis’ next words explained it for a part.
“Momma, yew say tha’, but yeh need tuh find someone tuh share yer life with ‘gain after poppa’s death. A-an’ ‘s long as ah’m livin’ with yeh, yew can’t. So…” Keith and Bob looked a bit uncomfortable, but the hick’s next words were chosen carefully to lift that awkwardness from the room. “…But ‘s not the righ’ time or place tuh be talkin’ ‘bout things like that! Momma, how’s yer Christmas roast ham comin’ ‘long?”
“Oh, Ellis, dahlin’…”, his mother said softly, complete with exhale and soft shake of her head. “Yew had t’go an’ get the ham… ah jus’ knew yeh’d forget…” Ellis’ soft curse made Nick smile softly and shake his head as well – it reminded him of the times when he’d had to remind the hick that he needed to fix something when the hick had been overly enthusiastic about dinner, or that the hick had to make him dinner when he’d spent his day doing meaningless chores for him. Ellis was just like that. However, when he looked at the ghostly woman standing next to him, her knowing smile didn’t make him feel any good, so he carefully turned his expression neutral again.
“Oh gawd, momma, ah completely forgot what with me movin’ outta Nick’s apartments… ah… shit, ah… How can ah-“
“Don’t yew worry, Ellis, yer mom figured yew’d be distracted ‘n all, an’ she sent me tuh Cole’s butcher shot tuh git it for her.”, Keith said with a broad grin, and the hick sighed in relief.
“Man, thanks, Keith… if’n ah didn’t have friends like yew, ah’d be lost…” Keith nodded, and then nodded his head towards the kitchen.
“Misses Tanner, ah think y’all c’n continue cookin’. Ah didn’t found no blown fuse nowhere, ‘s maybe jus’ the light in yer oven tha’ blew out… Mind if’n ah go an’ wash up now?”, he asked – Nick blinked, because the hick couldn’t possibly mean using Ellis’ mother’s bathroom, but then she nodded and the hick moved upstairs, and Nick suppressed a shudder.
“Nick, stay focused… it’s not about you right now, it’s about Ellis and the way you affect him...”, the woman standing next to him said softly, and Nick looked at her as he spoke up again, his voice and his entire body language showing confusion.
“Yeah, you say that, but… but there’s nothing wrong, clearly. Ellis defended me, so how is he upset over what happened? He said he understands, he said I’m not in the wrong… I’m sorry, but I fail to see what I could’ve possibly done to impact the hick’s life apart from the obvious. And yeah, I forced him to live with his mom again, who apparently doesn’t really have a healthy relationship with her adult son, but how is that my fault?”
“Oh, Nicolas… how you fail to see that there’s more to cause and effect, to action and reaction, than just the effects and the reactions you see…”, the young woman said, shaking her head and smiling amusedly before nudging her head to the living room again – and Nick was surprised to see that while they talked, time had fast-forwarded in the vision, clearly – the table had been set and dinner had come and gone, the four present in the house having already moved on to the dessert and the after-dinner drinks – Bob had a large brandy in front of him, while Keith and Ellis both indulged in a cold Christmas beer.
“…So, Ellis…”, Keith said – and from the sound of his voice, slurring so obviously that only a deaf man wouldn’t notice, it was clear that the beer in front of him on the table certainly wasn’t his first – “…y-yew an’ tha’ Nick feller… yeh lived in the same house… a-an’ yew didn’’ turn cold an’ heartless? S-so it ain’t, like, infish-… i-infesk…”
“Aw, hell, Keith, yeh had too much tuh drink ‘gain…”, Ellis said, though his words were soft and spoken with the kind of reverence between the closest of friends, which he then testamented by clinking his beer with Keith’s again. “An’ naw, it ain’t infec’shus. It ain’t even no disease. An’ Nick ain’t heartless or cold if’n yew get tuh know ‘im…”
“Sure he isn’t…”, Bob said softly, and Ellis’ mom rolled her eyes.
“Ellis, dahlin’… Nick turnin’ yew out on Christmas Eve… ain’t tha’ a li’l bit heartless or cold tuh yew?” Ellis sighed – and suddenly Nick felt a heaviness in his chest, a kind of anticipation for the worst. But why would it feel bad to think Ellis’d finally stop defending him? It wasn’t like the hick had to rush to his rescue… However, to Nick’s infinite surprise, he did. Ellis’ words were soft, his tone no longer warm and reverent, but he still defended him.
“Not even a tiny bit. ‘s Jus’… that’s how Nick is. He’s ruthless an’ sometimes a bit rough on th’edges, but he also has a quick mind in tha’ head’a his, an’ those green eyes ain’t just fer lookin’ intuh. Nick notices things. He sees things no one else sees: opportunities, ways tuh make the best outta bad situations… So he prob’ly had a reason fer firin’ me when he did an’ fer settin’ the terms of me leavin’ the way he did. Maybe he found someone else tuh work cheaper fer him, or he doesn’t need no handyman no more… or he jus’ wants his privacy ‘cause he found ‘imself a lady... Point is, he’s prob’ly got a real good reason tuh turn me out. Ah jus’ maybe don’’ know it or see it, an’ neither d’yew… but that don’t mean it ain’t there…” Ellis sighed and grew quiet again, which gave Keith the opportunity to speak up again drunkenly.
“B-but, Ellis, bro, he a-ain’t really… ah m-mean, ‘s not real nice’a him tuh jus’… l-like… ‘spect yew tuh… g-git up an’ leave… ah mean… y’a-ain’t had no notice… he jus’ said ‘go’ a-an’ expected yeh t-tuh leave…”
“…Yeah, well, ah won’t say Nick weren’t a bit upset when he asked me tuh leave… but he had ev’ry right tuh be.”, Ellis said, looking at his folded hands on the table.
“But still, ‘s no way tuh be treatin’ the feller tha’ lived in yer house with yew fer damn near two years…”, Keith said softly, and finally Ellis’ shoulders sagged and he spoke.
“Yeah, well, Nick weren’t doin’ me no favors, yeah, ‘cause he ain’t mah friend.” It was said so plainly, with such rock-hard conviction, that Nick blinked and looked at the hick in surprise. Not even twelve hours before, he’d called Nick his friend, multiple times, and refused to believe Nick when he said it wasn’t the case. Had he…?
“Yes, Nick. You impacted him. You made him cry, you made him rage, but most of all you made him see that you and him were just never meant to connect. And more than your words or your anger, your final denial of liking him wounded him. Deeply. …You understand his pain, because it’s just like your own. Hurt by the one person that you put your trust in. Betrayed for opening your heart. But to understand just how deeply you hurt him, or how your pain and his pain are more alike than you ever considered, or why, you need to wait just a little longer…”, the ghostly appearance next to him said, and Nick turned to Ellis again, catching the shiver running through the hick.
‘God, Ellis, I… I wanted a lot, but never to make you… like this… you look like someone took your heart and smashed it with a hammer…’, Nick caught himself musing as the hick seemingly mulled things over in his head. He got up and sighed, looking around before saying softly: “…ah jus’ need tuh clear mah head a bit, ah’m goin’ fer a walk… be back in five minutes…” Ellis walked out into the hallway, and Nick looked at his ghostly companion, already knowing that they had to follow the hick out again. The cold obviously was biting, from the way Ellis pulled his scarf up higher around his mouth and nose – Nick didn’t feel a thing, and he was pretty sure the attractive miss Claus didn’t either. However, what Ellis had told his mother, uncle and friend clearly had been meant as an excuse, because Ellis didn’t venture further out into the street than his pick-up truck. He opened the battered passenger-side door and pulled something from the glove compartment, straightening it in his hands and looking at it.
Nick almost looked away as thick tears, giving off a small trace of vapor due to the heat they held, streamed from the hick’s eyes into his scarf. Ellis gave a soft, muffled sob and then spoke in a whisper that Nick still heard clearly as if Ellis was speaking right into his ear.
“W-why… why’d yeh… h-ha-have tuh… r-refuse meh… W-why co-couldn’t yeh l-let me… why… y-yeh never even knew…” A shaky breath, and Ellis continued a bit less softly, and infinitely more steady. “…A-ah mean, shit, ‘s not like… ah know ah’m a fool fer… fer thi-thinkin’… fer h-ho-hopin’ yew’d see me… re-really see me… But ‘s jus’… y-yestehday… ah guess… ah guess ah finally saw… h-how things are ‘tween yew an’ me… y’ain’t never liked me… y’ain’t… n-never… yeh would’a never lo-loved me back the way ah love yew… th-the way ah still love yew… the way ah’ll always love yew… s-see, tha’’s the s-sa-saddest part… yew c’n kick me out, b-but yew’ll never g-git mah stubborn heart – heh, ‘that stubborn Southern hick heart’, r’member? – tuh kick yew out…” Nick’s heart froze – his chest went cold and still, his breath caught in his lungs, his blood swirling in his veins, and every inch of his body prickling unpleasantly.
“N-no…”, he said, turning to the ghostly woman next to him, and she just smiled and nodded, motioning toward Ellis. Nick looked over the hick’s shoulder to see the photograph, but he already knew who he’d see. He already knew who’d shunted the hick aside so roughly, denied him so painfully. Because Ellis had sighed out the culprit’s name softly. His name. Spoken with such reverence, such love, such longing… such undeniable pain… “H-how… when… how did this… How did I never…?”, Nick stammered, and the female ghost accompanying him rolled her almond-shaped eyes.
“Your heart was so closed to others, you never saw the signs for what they really were… like when Ellis, out of the blue, started to cook for you even though that wasn’t why you’d hired him at all. Or when Ellis said the insurance paid for your car crash when in fact he pooled all of his month’s earnings into getting your car fixed for you AND paying the other man for the damage you’d caused to his car. Don’t deny you didn’t know that…”, she added when Nick made to speak up, giving him a stern glance that had the words die away on his tongue.
“…A-and you’re showing this to me why?”, Nick said, still looking at Ellis, who just cried silently over his photo now. However, the woman didn’t answer him again, leaving Nick to turn back to his former employee, speaking to him even if he knew that Ellis couldn’t see him, couldn’t hear him. “…Ellis… S-shit, I never wanted you to get… like this… like me… I never would’ve thought I’d turn into goddamn Katie… But… I don’t hate you… I…” Nick mused on all the times that he’d come home to Ellis’ cooking, on all the times that he’d lay in bed at night unable to sleep and listening along to Ellis’ music and slowly drifting off in the end… all the times he’d had a crappy day and Ellis had listened to him, all the times he’d had a good day and Ellis had smiled and told him ‘good’ or ‘you really know your stuff’… And, musing like that, he figured that he hadn’t once stopped Ellis from going above and beyond his job because he’d liked the attention. It had made him feel… better. “…I like you, Ellis…”, he said. “…And I’ve been a damn fool for turning you away the way I did… because… damn it, because I…”, Nick continued, his breathing heavy and his chest feeling like it was being squeezed together, making him hurt. “Because I can’t come home to not have you there, god damn it. I can’t not have you there. I need you there… I need you…” It was then that realization hit Nick like a freight train at full speed. The sinking feeling he’d gotten that night, the pain he’d felt at seeing Ellis hurt, the happy memories… “…Ellis, shit, I love you…”
“And that, Nicolas, love, is what I wanted to hear you say tonight…”, his ghostly companion said – when Nick turned to her again, he noticed she once again looked like her elderly, grandmother-esque self, and he didn’t mind that one bit. It suited the tone of her voice, at any rate: chastising, yet warm, like a grandmother berating a grandchild for eating too many cookies before dinner. “You see now why he’s hurting just like you were and are. You see now how deep his love ran and thus how deep the pain goes…” Ellis, next to him, looked up, looked right at him – Nick’s heart ground to a painful halt seeing those reddened eyes and the emotional upheaval reflected in them – and then sighed, stretched, put the picture back into his pick-up truck and walked back to the door, leaving Nick and Misses Claus behind. The dark street began to blur around Nick and his ghostly companion – but Nick reached out to him.
“Wait!! Ellis! …Wait, can’t I…?”
“I can only show you, Nick. You knew it was just a mirror image of the present, not…”, she said. Nick stood in his bedroom again, and his ghostly companion started to fade away again, but Nick spoke up one last time.
“…Wait, how’ll he… will he turn out like me?”, he asked, fearing the answer – after all, he’d turned out as shitty as he had, a man unable to even see love for what it was anymore, a man that needed his face pressed onto the facts before he realized them – but she just gave him a sad smile and turned to him again, no longer fading.
“…You know that’s not how it works, Nicolas, love… I can’t see the future, that’s reserved for your next guest. But what I can tell you is that, though you cannot change the past, you can at least learn from it and use the present to change the future…” When Nick nodded, she faded away again, and her voice sounded just once more. “…In one hour, your last visitor will come to take you to the future you’ve set yourself out to fulfill. But remember, the future is yet to come. It’s not fixed like the past. You can still change it. You can still make changes…”
“I will…”, Nick sighed, the feeling of warmth in his bed contrasting to the cold he felt at the thought that Ellis was now maybe crying, feeling like shit because of him, and his last resolve before he fell asleep was to get Ellis to see that he didn’t hate him, that he loved him, that he needed him.
His sleep was restless and his dreams were tumultuous now, filled with Ellis crying, Ellis leaving, Ellis gone. When he was, at last, roused again from his slumber, it was by a permeating sense of cold, in which he felt something like a trickle of water running down his cheek only to open his eyes and find a hooded figure standing next to him, its face hidden by the shadows of the large hood and its features distorted by the heavy cloth falling around it. It didn’t speak, instead beckoning to Nick with a hand of which the fingers were thin and greyish. Nick just knew that it’d been the touch of those fingers that had felt like water trickling down his cheek, and he shivered.
“…Uh, you want me to come out?”, Nick asked, and the hooded figure nodded. And for the first time since he’d woken up that night in a room cold as ice, Nick felt anxious.