A Cripple Carol: Yet Another Christmas Short Story.

Happy Holidays in gold, glowing letters on a deep red background. Surrounded by golden swirls and snowflakes.

Disclaimer: this story is a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is purely coincidental.

Rob Morley was dead to begin with.

A shame really, Eb thought as he looked at the still-empty desk; Rob had only retired the month before.

Eb cast an eye over the report he had just finished typing, ready to send to his boss after Christmas. He felt he had done an excellent job of finding every flaw in the substantial medical evidence before him, which he could exploit to decline another benefit application, his 17th that week. That could wait, however; the Pensions and Occupation Office would still be around in a few days. After checking his emails one last time, Eb logged off and made his way to the bus stop.

Outside, darkness was already falling as the clouded sky promised but didn’t quite deliver on some festive snow. By the time Eb arrived home, a few half-hearted flakes were drifting through the cold air.

As Eb settled on the sofa with his evening meal, his gas fire flickered once, twice, before going out altogether. Annoyed, he placed his tray on the coffee table and got up to see what the issue was, but even turning the fire off and on again didn’t seem to work. He was just about to go to the boiler and turn the central heating on, an unnecessary expense in Eb’s opinion, when the flames reappeared in the grate. To his surprise, however, the flames were a ghoulishly pale silver and seemed to give off no heat at all.

As he stared, a face seemed to appear in the flames, which bore a striking to resemblance to his deceased colleague. Eb blinked; surely he hadn’t had that much Bailey’s already?

“It’s me, Eb,” the fire said.

“What the fu-,” Eb started to say, before being interrupted by the flames.

“Do you remember the week we had a competition to see how many appeals we could turn down?”

That was something only Rob would know about; management frowned heavily on such things.

“I’ll take your stunned silence as a yes. Well, as it transpires, the afterlife does not take kindly to that sort of behaviour,” the flames continued.

“What?” Eb finally found his tongue.

“The afterlife is real, you know. Not so much heaven and hell, but the powers that be still frown heavily on our lack of compassion, among other things.”

Eb opened his mouth to interrupt but was cut short.

“Listen, I don’t have much time and I need to tell you something important. You’re going to be… visited. Tonight. By three different spirits. And they’re going to show you the error of your ways. Our ways.”

“What?” Eb repeated.

A hint of yellow flickered into the base of the fire.

“Crap. Look, it’s for your own good, I promise. Listen to what they have to say. There are three of them, on the hour, starting when the clock reads 1,” Rob rushed as his face was consumed by orange flames. Eb felt warmth rush out of the fireplace.

Eb blinked, shrugged and went back to his meal. He was obviously just tired.

Despite his resolute belief that ghost stories were indeed nothing but stories, he found himself unplugging his bedside clock and turning off his phone. Perhaps if the clock never read 1, no ghosts could disturb his sleep. Feeling unusually smug, Eb pulled up the covers and drifted off to sleep.

***

Eb awoke with a start. The room was pitch black without the glow of the digital clock, but despite not being able to see, Eb had an innate sense of being watched. He fumbled for the bedside lamp in the darkness and felt relief as light flooded the room. That relief faded rather quickly, however, when he turned back around to see the pale shape of a child sitting on the end of his bed.

“Hello Eb,” the child said.

“Um… hello?” Eb managed the stammer.

“I’m Miranda,” the ghost said, “and I’m the spirit of disability past.”

“What?” Eb said incredulously.

“I’m the spirit of disability past,” the girl repeated matter-of-factly, as if she was used to delivering this news, “Grab my hand, we’re going on a trip.”

“Now? It must be 1 am!” Eb protested, but the ghost was already gliding towards him. Fingers like blocks of ice intertwined with his own, and everything turned bright white. Eb covered his eyes with his free hand, squinting as the light faded to a comfortable level.

It was daytime, and Eb was sat on a bench by the side of a busy road. After a moment of confusion, he recognised his childhood home across the street.

“You should recognise this place,” Miranda said.

Eb turned to get a better look at Miranda, and noticed that she wasn’t floating as he had initially presumed, but was in fact sat in a ghostly wheelchair. Miranda saw him looking.

“Turns out the afterlife doesn’t cure disability,” she said when she saw him looking, “but that isn’t important right now. Watch.”

Miranda pointed across the street to Eb’s childhood home as the front door opened, and a young boy of about twelve years old appeared, an oversized rucksack slung over one shoulder. The boy shouted something into the home before closing the door behind him, putting in headphones, and vaulting the garden gate. Eb got his first good look at the young boy; with a start, he realised it was a mirage of his younger self.

Somewhere around the corner, an engine revved. Eb’s face drained of colour.

The boy approached the edge of the road and stepped off after a cursory glance as a speeding car rounded the corner. Eb raised his arms, waving and yelling, to no avail. A car rushed past him as the boy emerged from between parked cars, looking in the opposite direction. There was the screech of brakes and the smell of burning rubber before a sickening thump. The car came to a halt as Eb’s mother darted out of the house.

Eb ran down the road and looked down at his childhood-self regaining conscious on the tarmac. He was reminded of how lucky he had been that day, somehow only coming away with a broken arm and a concussion.

Miranda wheeled herself towards Eb.

“They can’t see or hear us, this is just a reflection of the past. You almost became disabled that day, you know” she said. The images faded until they were surrounded by pure white.

 “I know,” Eb responded, gazing around.

“Do you remember me?” Miranda said after a moment’s silence.

Eb focussed on her face and after a moment’s silence admitted defeat.

“I can only presume I presided over your disability assessment,” he replied.

“Yes,” Miranda answered, “you presided over our case and were the reason we were denied financial support. My dad couldn’t afford to pay the bills.”

“I…,” Eb drifted off, still shaken from what he had just witnessed.

“When dad couldn’t pay the bills, the bailiffs came and one of them had a cold, which they kindly shared with me. My immune system was weak, and my body couldn’t fight both the actual cold and the virus,” Miranda continued.

“You died,” Eb realised, growing defensive, “and you think it was because of me? How was I supposed to know that would happen? Surely your dad could have got another job, or cut costs. If you want to blame someone, blame the guy who gave you the cold.”

“Oh I did, I visited him last year,” Miranda responded matter-of-factly.

“What?”

“Never mind, time’s running out and we need to get you home,” Miranda took hold of Eb’s hand and moments later he was standing in his bedroom. He looked around, but there was neither sight nor sound of the ghostly child.

Eb sighed and crawled back under the covers, convinced he had somehow started sleep-walking and having extremely vivid dreams for the first time in his life. Once under the covers fatigue soon washed over him despite his jangling nerves, and he sank back to sleep.

***

Eb awoke with a start as something warm and wet snuffled into the palm of his hand. Golden light filled the room as he pushed himself upright. Next to him, a ghostly dog wagged it’s tail, and behind him a man wearing dark glasses leant back casually against the wardrobe.

“Good, you’re awake. I’m the ghost of disability present. And that’s Benny,” the man nodded in the direction of the dog, “Up you get. It’s time to attend your first benefit hearing.”

The room around Eb transformed rapidly into a small courtroom, his bed morphing into a chair and desk. He looked up at a row of people in generic office clothing reading through papers. The strange man was now sat next to Eb in a similar, smart suit while Benny sat patiently at his side, tail occasionally thumping the thin carpet tiles.

“Well, Ebeneezer,” one of the other people said, “I must say I find your tardiness and your choice of clothing extremely telling. Perhaps you cannot work because no one is willing to employ someone with your attitude.”

Eb blinked, predominantly because he was not used to being called Ebeneezer.

“With all due respect,” Benny’s owner spoke up, “Had Eb dressed appropriately you would have accused him of not being as disabled as his medical papers say he is.”

“That sort of comment is irrelevant here, Mr Harrison, we are here to assess Ebeneezer’s capacity to work, not speculate on what I would say in another situation.”

Benny grumbled before stretching out on the floor.

“Now Ebeneezer, you are clearly able to read and write if your application form is anything to go by, I really don’t see any reason why you couldn’t work part time at the very least. Perhaps you could explain how, what was it… C F S impacts your ability to sit at a desk like you are now.”

“Um… I don’t-“ Eb began.

“Ill prepared, I see,” the person continued in an accusatory tone.

“Why am I here?” Eb turned Mr Harrison.

“Why indeed,” the stranger continued.

“This is a tribunal to decide if you can continue receiving financial support or whether you are in fact, well enough to work,” Mr Harrison responded, “And you aren’t doing yourself any favours.”

“But I already have a job,” Eb hissed.

“So did I, before cancer took my eyes,” Mr Harrison returned coldly, “and it was on that basis that you insisted I could return to work immediately when it went into remission.”

“What?” Eb looked incredulous.

“Oh yes, there was no allowing me time to adapt. If one blind person can work then we can all work, isn’t that right? At least I had Benny here to get me through.”

Benny’s tail thumped on the floor twice at the mention of his name.

“Gentlemen, you will address the panel,” the stranger said.

“Did… do you think you died because of me?” Eb ignored them.

“Oh no, the cancer coming back did that. But I did receive a lovely letter from you determining that I was well enough to work, received on Christmas Eve of all days. I died last week.”

With a pang, Eb looked at Benny.

“Dogs can astral travel, if you’re wondering,” Mr Harrison said.

“In light of the lack of evidence and your poor attitude, I hereby determine Ebeneezer well enough to work. Next!” the stranger’s voice broke through their conversation.

Before Eb could protest, the room shifted around him and he was back in bed, alone. It took several minutes to steady his breathing as thoughts whirled through his head. He felt strangely humiliated, and a sensation approaching shame even crossed his mind when he could not identify a single person who would have received a letter about being fit to work, having sent so many.

***

Eb didn’t know how long he had sat in his darkened room before he sensed another presence. Looking up, he saw a woman of about forty staring at him silently, arthritis-riddled hands clasped on a walking stick. He noticed an engagement and a wedding ring on her left hand.

“The ghost of disability future,” Eb said. She nodded silently.

“Right, let’s have it,” Eb sighed.

The woman turned with a rustle of fabric and walked slowly away, a tunnel of swirling grey fog appearing where Eb’s wardrobe had been. Tentatively, he followed her through.

They emerged into a generic-looking bedroom, so generic that it could only belong in a nursing home. The corporeal form of the ghostly woman who had appeared to him lay in a bed under heavy teal blankets, and a man of similar age, presumably the husband, sat silently at her bedside facing away from Eb.

A woman in what Eb assumed was a futuristic nurse’s uniform bustled into the room.

“Mrs Scrooge?” she said.

Eb gave a start.

“Did she say Scrooge? Not many people have that name,” he asked the ghost.

The ghost once again nodded silently.

“My mother?” he asked, before realising that made no sense. If this was the future, his mother would be far older than the woman lying in the bed, and he wouldn’t be the same age as said woman either.

“Mrs Scrooge,” the nurse picked up the elderly woman’s wrists, trying to take a pulse.

“She’s already gone,” the old man said softly, “and it’s your fault.”

“Excuse me?” the nurse responded.

“Five years ago, nine from where you are now, you chastised your own wife for buying a mobility aid for her arthritis. You told her she didn’t need it.”

“Sir?” the nurse tried to interrupt.

“But she did. She fell without it, hit her head, got a brain bleed. You were denied carers and so you had to choose between paying the bills or caring for your wife. Not much of a choice when you were faced with it. And now, after five years in generic care homes, she’s dead.”

The man turned around and pressed something in Eb’s hand before looking up at him, and with horror, Eb found he was looking at himself.

***

Eb woke up with a sudden, deep gasp, disoriented and confused. He was on the floor of his bedroom, feeling the cold, and morning light crept through the curtains. When he closed his eyes, the bitter and regretful hatred in his elder counter-parts’ eyes was seared into his mind.

“It was just a dream,” he whispered to himself, “just one extremely vivid dream.”

He noticed something on the carpet next to him, and picked it up. It was a coin of some kind, but not one he recognised. It’s shiny appearance suggested it was fairly new, and curious as to exactly how new, Eb tried to find the date. The year 2036 was emblazoned onto the coin.

Eb blinked and rubbed his eyes, but it didn’t make a difference. The coin still said 2036.

It had been real.

The doorbell rang, causing Eb to jump. He buried the coin in a drawer and threw on a dressing gown, reaching for his phone to switch it on as he padded down the hallway. At the door were his parents.

“Did you forget it was Christmas?” his dad said jovially.

“Uh… sorry, I slept through my alarm,” Eb stammered half-heartedly, allowing them in.

Christmas and Boxing Day passed in a blur. All Eb could think about was the three visitations he had encountered, and every time he found himself doubting their being genuine, he snuck the coin out of its drawer to have another look.

When he returned to his desk a few days later, he made sure to hide the coin in his drawers, and upon logging on made his first task a complete re-write of the report he had been so proud of when he logged off.

From that day on, any time he felt his resolve to ensure that every disabled client received fair treatment falter, he would take a look at the coin and remind himself of the future he wished to avoid not just for himself, but for everyone under his care.

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