Humbug: The Unwinding of Ebenezer Scrooge

By Tony Bertauski

Sci-Fi, Fantasy

Paperback, eBook

Embed Sample

  • Tall widget
  • Wide widget
  • Mini widget

PREVIEW

Copy & paste the code below into your site or blog!
Copy & paste the code below into your site or blog!
Copy & paste the code below into your site or blog!
X

Reading Options

Font size

Aa Aa X
Back to book


458
40 mins

 

Change
It does not happen in a single night.

PART I
THE GHOST OF CHRISTMAS EVE

10:32 a.m.

I’m running two minutes behind, so I’ll keep this entry short.
Jacob died this morning.
A massive coronary. Can’t say I’m surprised, the idiot doctors he trusted. A man with money should live to a hundred. To die before seventy?
Ridiculous.
The world does not know what it lost today. Not just a man, but a visionary. A force that could change worlds. A will that could move mountains. A mind that could transform dreams.
Tragic.
Listen, I loved the man. He was my brother in every sense of the word. We didn’t share a mother or father, but we were brothers nonetheless. We didn’t always see eye to eye, but who does?
But he wanted to help the world, period. That was it. That’s not a bad thing. He always said, “Ebenezer, I want to help the world. I want to help you.”
I don’t need help. On that account he was quite wrong. I am rich. But the world needs help, that’s a fact. So I am sad today. Very sad. The world should be, too.
And that’s it. Okay?
Good.

One

Ebenezer Scrooge watched the rain bead on the mahogany lid. A nice coat of wax, he thought. Well done. Fitting.
The rails were platinum, the inside lined with maroon velvet and a luxurious five-star mattress. No expense spared. Eb would’ve preferred something more reasonable—Jacob Marley wasn’t going to see it, after all—but his dead friend’s estate paid for the final resting place, so why sweat the details?
Waste of money, that’s why.
The attendees were crowded beneath the tent, hugging each other for warmth and comfort. Rain pooled on the sagging canvas roof, dripping over the edge.
Outside the tent, a flock of black umbrellas protected the attendees gathered beneath the gray sky. They wiped their cheeks with tissues, holding each other close. Eb had shed one tear that morning. Considering he hadn’t shed one since he was in diapers, a single tear was quite an episode.
If you asked him.
“We gather here today…” the preacher began.
The attendees wore black suits, black dresses. They wore pearls and furs, shiny shoes and sparkling earrings. Black veils and black hats. Eb wore a shiny tracksuit with two white stripes down the sleeves and legs and a round pair of spectacles that slid down the oily slope of his nose.
Very few in attendance were family because Jacob Marley had none. Except Eb. And he wasn’t family, really. Not by blood, anyway.
These people were members of the Southern California community, representatives of charities that had received Jacob’s goodwill; they were business associates and politicians.
Jim Thompson, CEO of Medicine Today, his unnatural tan defiant beneath the pallor of a wet umbrella. Marianne Clark, editor of Wired Brain, looking stylishly gaunt with a touch of gray in her bangs, heels spiking the soft earth. John Pendergrass, director of Body and Technology Research, with his age-appropriate wife touching the corners of her mascara-rich eyes.
They were all there.
They mourned the loss of a man that was “taken from his earthy vehicle too soon,” the preacher preached. The crowd agreed and praised the Lord.
They were phonies.
They stole glances in his direction. He didn’t praise the Lord out loud, oh heavens no. They looked at him because they were curious, judgmental. None of them consoled him for the loss of Jacob, his brother. Well, like his brother, the media corrected, often.
They were curious and unsympathetic because of the unusual figure that stood among them. It stood six feet tall, its skinwrap dull gray. Its trench coat, black and unusual for an android, was cinched at the waist. A top hat covered its head, quite silly. But that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was the face.
It wasn’t the requisite eye holes and bump of a nose; there was no slot for a mouth where someone might insert a coin. That was last year’s model. Eb had the most current servant droid, one that looked almost human.
He’d invented the droid, after all. Well, it was mostly Jacob. Eb helped.
Eb was at the funeral, but not in California. He was in Colorado.
It was absolutely unacceptable, in any culture or social status, to bring a servant droid to the burial. Eb didn’t bring it, he sent the droid in his stead.
The newsfeeds were going to have a fit. They were going to skewer his callousness and question the poor decision-making, but he had his reasons. Not that anyone would understand. He had mourned that morning, shed that tear. They didn’t see that.
In an attempt to appease the inevitable gossip, the dull gray droid projected Eb’s features on its face rather than its own, as if Eb was standing at the foot of the casket, a tanned, square-jawed man. Unshaven. Grief-stricken.
Eb was neither unshaven nor grief-stricken. He didn’t have a square jaw. If he did, it was hidden beneath multiple chins and a blotchy complexion. While the servant droid endured the rainy, cold season, Eb stood quite still in the dry, toasty projection room as the events unfolded around him as if he were actually there. Only dry. And warm.
He wasn’t just there in spirit. He was there in every sense of the word. Just not in the flesh. The newsfeeds could debate all they wanted whether flesh or presence was more important at a funeral.
It was presence.
Eb raised his hands and rubbed his cheeks. The droid, connected to his actions through the sync suit, echoed his movements, patting away tear-streaked cheeks. Eb squeezed his eyes shut and practiced crying. It came so easily that morning, but lasted less than a minute. Now his sobs were dry and rehearsed, thick with sarcasm. He couldn’t remember the last time he cried.
Maybe he forgot how.
Crying was for little kids and weak-minded individuals. Eb was neither. It didn’t matter that his attempts were disingenuous. His projected expression would be altered. The attendees would see a sincere expression of grief on the servant droid’s face, where tears rolled as plump as rain, where he wiped them away and blew his nose in a white, embroidered handkerchief.
Sandy Kaufman, CFO of St. Mary’s Children’s Hospital, was outdoing him with the wailing. Eb brought up the volume of his grief, including sniffling and sudden, “Why, Lord? Why, why, why?”
It only drew more stares.
How do they do it? I’m dying to sit down and they keep standing and standing and the preacher keeps preaching. How many times do we have to praise him? Jacob Marley was my brother, but come on, people. Just because he’s going in the ground doesn’t qualify him for sainthood. He lived quite an unselfish life, okay. Honestly, it was remarkable. But you don’t rise to the top of the technology world without splitting a few lips.
Jacob wasn’t shrewd, but he could be ruthless. Only Eb saw that side of him. But Eb saw a lot of things other people didn’t see.
When the service ended, some of the attendees shook the droid’s hand. Eb reached out. The pressure was simulated inside his glove as they embraced. They were offering condolences to a dull gray droid with his face projected at them. And it wasn’t really his face.
Hilarious.
A door opened twenty feet to Eb’s right. The edges of the doorway curved along the domed projection wall, a squarish space carved from the dreary scene. A dull gray droid—an exact duplicate of the one shaking hands with the preacher now—walked into the room. This androgynoid wore a tracksuit similar to Eb’s, the sleeves pushed up to the elbows.
As far as Eb was concerned, all droids were mindless servants that followed their programming. Tell them what to do and they did it because they were idiots. Jacob had begged to differ, arguing they had a personality that closely mimicked human behavior. They were still morons, simple as that.
Dum-dums.
“Auto,” Eb muttered.
Disconnected from Eb’s sync suit, the mourning droid continued to run the grieving program, freeing Eb to walk around the projection room.
“The news,” Eb said. “Give it to me good.”
“I don’t feel good about this, sir.”
“First of all, you don’t feel. Second, that wasn’t the question. So go, now. Give it to me.”
“This was not Jacob’s wish, sir.”
Eb clawed the air, tendons stretching. “Did you or did you not do what I asked? And let me remind you the wrong answer gets you a one-way trip down the tumbler.”
“But—”
“Zip.” Eb snapped his fingers at him.
He really didn’t want to recycle him. Servant droids were insanely expensive. Eb had more money than half the world, but there was no need to be frivolous. Unless someone deserves it.
“Yes?” Eb said. “Or no?”
“Yes, sir.”
“You’re sure?”
“I am, sir.” The droid cocked his head to the side. “I am here to help you.”
“I won’t turn on the feeds and hear Jacob Marley willed his ownership to the Boy Scouts of Antarctica, will I?”
“No, sir.”
“Complete and total and one hundred percent of Avocado, Incorporated, now rests in the name of Ebenezer Lennox Scrooge?”
The droid paused. “Yes, sir.”
“What? Why’d you just pause?”
“I didn’t use your middle name, sir.”
“Why would you do that?”
“Because you don’t use your middle name, sir.”
Maybe a ride down the tumbler was in order. But then he’d have the same conversation with the same droid personality in a different body. There were seven of them, a hive mind sort of personality that would one day cause all of his hair to fall out.
“Never mind.” Eb propped his elbow on his protruding gut and tapped his spongy chin like he was hammering a finishing nail into place. “Jacob wouldn’t use my middle name, either. The lawyers will make it right.”
A smile dug into the droid’s flexible cheeks.
Eb tapped his jelly chin, never once reaching above the space where a dimple might reside. He rarely touched his face without washing. But in a rare lapse of judgment, he removed his round glasses and rubbed his eyes.
“Are you crying, sir?”
“No.”
But he was, sort of.
Joy gushed from his stomach, a geyser of warm emotions that had reached his face, almost leaking from his eyes. Almost. Avocado, Inc., was his now. He couldn’t remember crying twice in one day.
To be fair, he couldn’t remember much about his childhood.
A line of grieving attendees was still waiting to shake the droid’s hand, a few standing at the coffin with their heads bowed in hopes this unfortunate event wouldn’t change their altruistic relationship with Avocado, Inc., once owned by Jacob Marley and Ebenezer Scrooge but now owned by Eb and Eb only.
A crocodile smile crept over his face.
He twisted the obsidian ring on his right hand, something that could be mistaken for a wedding band. An identical ring was on his left hand. He swiped his hands like a magician.
The funeral scene winked out.
The dome-shaped projection room went to sleep, the generic walls arching overhead. These were the moments Eb felt like a cooked goose beneath a serving dome.
“Avocado!” he shouted. “Come on down!”
The curved wall shimmered. A giant avocado appeared; a thick stem curved at the top, the word avocado—all lowercase letters in off-white—situated in the Buddha belly of the leathery fruit.
Colorful furniture appeared, original designs that conformed to every position the body could imagine. Jacob had insisted the kooky chairs and couches be arranged in an open office environment, a feng shui thingy that promoted progress by failure, thinking outside of the box. Eb was only interested in the progress part. The rest of it was stupid.
And failure was the wrong direction.
“Where is everyone?” Eb said.
“Many are attending Jacob’s funeral, sir.”
“Not all of them.”
“It’s also Christmas Eve, sir.”
Eb glanced at his wrist, pretending to see a watch. “It’s not even lunch!”
“The holiday has begun, sir.”
“Bah!” Eb couldn’t think of a word to express his contempt for such excessive year-end celebration. What could capture the guttural disgust he felt when employees—people he was paying, for crying out loud—flaunted excess in his face?
“Bah, unacceptable!” That’s not it. “Call them back. They’re paid to work till five o’clock.”
“Many have left town, sir.”
“They have laptops, right? It’s kind of what we do; have them log in and work. Text them or message them or call the police, I don’t care. I want every minute accounted for. You think I’m an ATM machine?”
“That’s redundant, sir.”
“What?”
“ATM machine is like saying automated teller machine machine, sir.”
“You think this is a joke? That it’s funny?”
Eb snapped his fingers and pointed in the droid’s face. He walked the perimeter of the room, the spongy floor oozing between his toes. Tap, tap, tap on his chin. He passed projections of pumpkin orange loungers and seaweed green coffee stations and eggplant purple treadmill desks. Empty, all of them.
The avocado logo dimly lit the far wall.
“We’re not an art studio,” Eb muttered.
“Jacob felt this environment fostered innovation, sir.”
“I’ll tell you what it fostered—Peter Pan syndrome. There’s a child-sitting room over there if you don’t have a babysitter. Over there is a coffee bar for lattes and smoothies. And there!” Eb pointed at the back room. “Ping-Pong. I mean, come on! Is this a joke?”
There were times when the projection room wasn’t big enough to contain his rants. The illusion of space seemed endless. He often forgot he wasn’t actually in the Avocado plant and banged his head on the curved wall. But that was the point—to be there without actually being there. To believe he was outside when he was inside. It was all the beauty of living life in the safety of his home.
He adjusted his round spectacles.
“I want it out,” he said. “All of it.”
“Sir?”
“This ridiculous furniture! Burn it, drop it off a bridge, I don’t care. Get it out!”
“But, sir, this work environment has proven effective. Avocado was ranked Fortune 500’s number one innovative technology company.”
“We can be better.”
“What is better than number one, sir?”
“Number one A, just do it. All of this touch-feely weirdness is embarrassing. I look at it and just want to unzip my skin. Don’t even sell it, just throw it out. Wait, scratch that. Put it on eBay, all of it. Use reserve pricing.”
“I suggest we run your requests through predictive modeling, sir. These sweeping changes will greatly affect morale. I would expect widespread defection of some top-shelf talent.”
The droid stepped next to Eb. The musculature writhed in his calves and flexed across his shoulders. His tracksuit was unzipped between the shapely pecs. Tension rippled his forehead as he cocked his head, a bird searching for a worm.
“Gone, Dum-dum. All of it.”
“And replaced with what, sir?”
“Good old-fashioned desks in straight lines, not one of them crooked. I don’t want to hear about freethinking. We run this company like a watch from now on. This is a business now. We do it my way.”
“Why would you make their environment so unpleasant, sir?”
“It’s all about the message.”
Confusion wrinkled the droid’s nose. “The message, sir?”
“Get in line.”
The droid cocked his head, expecting more.
“That’s it, get in line. Gets to the point, doesn’t it? And that is the point. You know, it’s time to rethink the slogan. I see it now, the avocado logo with a label stamped across the midsection. Avocado… Get In Line.” He swiped an open hand across an imaginary banner.
“Jacob would be disappointed, sir.”
“Jacob is dead. Rest his soul, he was a good man, a great man.” Eb sniffed. It was a little easier admitting to Jacob’s altruistic greatness now that he was no more. It still stung, just a little. “He was my brother and I loved him. He also turned over all his shares to me. How nice of him.”
“I did that, sir. Not Jacob.”
“What? I’m sorry, I couldn’t understand… aren’t you supposed to erase that bit of information?”
The droid frowned. Moments later, a slight downturn of his lips indicated he had erased that information from his database and all traces of it.
“Jacob Marley is indeed dead, sir,” he muttered.
“As a doornail,” Eb said. “Now bring on the hammer.”
The droid’s shoulders slumped, the lower lip out and pouting. Eb ignored the tantrum on his way to the open door. When the droid didn’t follow, he turned.
“What now?” Eb said.
“The stockings, sir.”
“What are you talking about?”
Eb knew very well what he meant; he saw them hanging from a cherry-red pipe above the company kitchenette, one for every employee with a name stitched along the white, fuzzy collar.
“The employees, sir. They will be disappointed when they return from holiday.”
“Becaaaaause…?”
“They will be empty, sir.”
“And there should beeeee…?”
“Candy in them, sir. Sometimes little toys for their children or memorabilia.”
“Are you saying Santa won’t visit if I take them down?” A delicious smile licked his lips.
“It was Jacob that filled these stockings, sir. Not Santa.”
Eb narrowed his eyes. The droid’s shoulders slumped further, a loud sigh passing more oxygen than lungs could possibly hold. He didn’t need to breathe, obviously. The sigh was purely a display.
Where did he learn such things?
Eb left the door open. “Remove the stockings. And the tinsel and the garland and all those trees. Christmas is over at Avocado, Inc. It’s dead, just like Jacob. Let hard work reign.”
He pumped his fist.
Bah!
If only there was a better word.

Two

Steam obscured the far side of the shower.
Eb felt his way along the slippery wall. His James Perse micro twill robe was just outside the shower room. He slipped into it and cinched the belt and carefully dried his knees, calves and feet before stepping onto the self-propelled hoverboard.
Electric motors whirred as he leaned forward, grippy rubber wheels gliding past the bidet and squatty potty, the Jacuzzi and sauna, the jet-stream bathtub and massage table. A broad display of sinks and mirrors greeted him. Padded slippers awaited his supple, dry feet.
He twisted the black ring onto his right hand, the second one onto his left, but not before thoroughly drying his splayed fingers beneath a high-capacity vent. His hands tingled; a ticklish sensation travelled across his palms, up his arms and rang his head.
Connected.
He flicked his hands at the mirrors, his thoughts distributed to the house system. Newsfeeds streamed around the mirror, everything from liberal chatfests to conservative outlets, financial reports, world news and technology insider. Gossip, too. Oh, the guilty pleasure of gossip, sitting back and judging whoever stepped into the public crosshairs. He liked to stay current, stay on top of what the kids were doing these days. Follow the kids, find the money.
The revised mission statement.
He propped the round glasses on his nose and dialed the lens tinting to clear. The time was in the upper left lens. 11:40 p.m. He liked to be out of the shower by 11:30 p.m. He could shave ten minutes off his post-shower routine.
Three tiny flashes in the upper right signaled the glasses were fully charged and recording. The life of Ebenezer Scrooge was uploaded to a cloud daily. One day the world would see what he saw, know what motivated him, how he ran his life; they would place his thoughts in some technology hall of fame, displaying them like gems.
He’d be long gone before that happened. Last thing he wanted was someone judging him the way he judged them. Besides, people loved others more when they were dead. Weird.
With twenty-five voices talking over each other, he began his post-shower ritual. Some newsfeeds were reporting on Santa’s progress from the North Pole to deliver all his free stuff to children on the nice list. Not the naughty, though.
They got diddly.
Eb inspected his nose hairs. Next, ear hairs. Stragglers were plucked, long ones trimmed. Then there was lotion for the feet and hands, cream for loose skin on his elbows, jojoba oil beneath his eyes, rosehip oil over all his chins, and tamanu oil behind the ears and across the forehead. He combed a sharp white part on the left side of his scalp; his ink-black hair lay perfectly in place.
Lathered up and fresh, he downed a heaping dose of melatonin.
The Avocado logo appeared in one of the newsfeeds, a black ribbon tied to the stem. Eb dragged it to the center mirror. Palm up, he increased the volume.
“A bit of somber news this Christmas Eve,” the putty-faced reporter said, “Jacob Marley was laid to rest this morning. He was sixty years old and died of an apparent heart defect. Considered a leader in technology, Marley was co-founder of Avocado, Inc., a company that first investigated artificial stem cells. Mired in ethical debates and legal battles, the company struggled to bring its discoveries to the general public, but Marley never lost hope.”
“We will prevail.” Jacob’s face filled the mirror, displaying that casual smile that put enemies and advocates at ease. Eb jumped a tiny bit, seeing the ghost of Jacob in his mirror. He preferred his longtime friend’s eyes closed. The man had a way of looking into your soul.
That was the last thing Eb needed.
“Avocado stayed financially solvent through the development of artificial intelligence and gaming,” the reporter said. “His breakthrough algorithms regarding artificial intelligence spawned an entire generation of computer programmers and subsequently the success of servant droids. However, Marley often stated the mission of Avocado was helping humankind, not entertaining it.”
“Fool,” Eb said.
They never got the story right. So many details of failure swept under the rug of obscurity, dusty tidbits that would otherwise muddle a good story. The artificial intelligence, they got that part right. Eb was there to see it. That was all Jacob. But Avocado’s medical research was financial quicksand.
“A very private man, Marley’s inheritance will be closely watched by the technology sector. The company was preparing to go public at the time of his death. That decision now rests with the surviving co-founder of Avocado, Ebenezer Scrooge, who was a no-show at his late partner’s funeral.”
“Wrong!” Eb shouted. “I was there in spirit. You know I was. You media… always with the story.”
The funeral scene appeared—the tent and the rain, the preacher and the coffin. The dull gray droid stood out among the dour crowd like a clown at a… well, like a clown at a funeral.
“Some speculate Scrooge’s surrogate was a shameless plug for the company’s development of droid technology, while many of the Marley faithful saw it as a sign of respect.”
“There we go,” Eb said. “Respect.”
“Concern for Scrooge’s mental health has been a talking point for years,” the reporter continued. “A well-known introvert, insiders suggest the public-shy genius has been heading toward Howard Hughes infamy for years now.”
A flyover of Colorado replaced the reporter’s smug grin, a white landscape of rolling hills. Perched on the side of a craggy mountain face was a sick mansion, an architectural feat unrivaled anywhere in the world, as if a titan crammed a Frank Lloyd Wright into solid granite.
“How’d you get that shot?” Eb said.
He owned that mountain and the one next to it. Those were no-fly zones, including drones. Someone’s getting sued, Eb thought. But he was soon distracted by the awesomeness that was named by the media as Castle Scrooge, later to be shortened to just the Castle. Anyone that talked about the Castle knew it was Scrooge. And once you got popular with one name, well, that meant you made it to the top. The media made that happen.
They weren’t always bad.
“It’s been several years since the introvert has been seen in public”—smug-face was back—“but his people did release a statement following the funeral.”
My people.
Scrooge had a small army of droids, not people. People were emotional and irrational and had bad breath. He was an introvert by choice. A logical decision. He wasn’t some helpless emotional invalid that couldn’t tie his shoes in public. He was smart. That was why he’d built Castle Scrooge.
The newsfeed showed the released statement. In fact, several of the feeds were covering it. Scrooge’s silky, confident voice overlapped in row, row, row your boat fashion. His masculine, square-jawed image looked nothing like the saggy flesh bag standing in front of the mirror. Except for the eyes, he had the signature eyes.
One green, one blue.
A genetic flaw, some said. Eb considered it an honor to be so unique. He was one of a kind.
His sculpted image spoke words of sorrow and regret concerning his childhood friend; the sudden passing had taken everyone by surprise.
Right on cue, he sniffed back emotion and pinched his nose, his eyes red and glassy. The round spectacles were clear so the public could see his sorrow in hi-def. Scrooge would have to pass along his compliments to the droids. They doctored the emotional display wonderfully before passing the projection along to the media.
Kudos.
Someone was laughing.
There was nothing funny about this. Eb’s statement clearly demonstrated sadness and mourning and everything that was appropriate. He grabbed the laughter in the lower left mirror.
“This is hilarious,” one of three hosts said. “Nothing could be faker. I mean, look at that chin.”
The host, a twentysomething fashionista, piercings all around her ear, grabbed a still frame from Eb’s statement. A bright red line circled his beautifully sculpted chin, dotted the Hollywood dimple and underlined the square powerful jaw.
“Did he pull this from a comic book?” Earrings said.
“I think Hell Boy,” the one in the middle said, this one with a pink stripe down the middle of her face.
“And what about the hair?” She scribbled a mop of red lines over the well-groomed coif. “Did he come from Milan men’s fashion week?”
“Seriously,” Pink Stripe said.
“Seriously,” Eb mimed. “Did a cartoon drive down your face? I’m suing.”
“You know what he is?” the third one, a middle-aged man with a shiny scalp and tiny glasses, said. “Captain America.”
“Oh. My God.” Earrings covered her mouth. “You are so right. Without the shield and the mask and the muscles and brain. And good intentions.”
“Of course,” the other two weirdos said.
“And the green eye and blue eye thing,” Earrings said. “He’s trying too hard to be memorable.”
“Real!” Eb announced. “Real, you idiots. Take a look—”
“I’ll bet he’s fat,” Pink Stripe said. “Not obese, but sort of middling fat, you know the kind of belly that’s hiding a basketball with a toupee of chest hair.”
Eb gasped.
He didn’t need to open his insanely expensive robe to know she was spot-on. His round belly was stretched tight. And indeed there was a patch of thinning chest hair above the top fold.
“And hair plugs, the doll kind,” Pink Stripe continued. “He parts it with a ruler.”
Eb worked his fingers through his beautiful black hair then quickly combed it back into place.
“I bet his teeth are super white,” Bald Tiny Glasses said. “The kind of white that could blind pilots.
They took turns drawing electronic graffiti on the still, scrawling the word LOSER over a fake crown. Eb pulled his robe shut, his reflection grimacing in the holographic newsfeed.
“And toenail fungus,” Pink Stripe added. “I’ll bet he’s got big, thick yellow toenails that could chop wood.”
“Suing! I’m suing, I’m suing. All of you! Dum-dum!”
“He’s going to run that company into the ground,” Bald Tiny Glasses said. “You watch.”
The avocado logo teetered over Eb’s still-frame image like plump mistletoe dancing on the graffiti crown. And then a big bite fell out of it.
“Dum-dum!” He waved off the newsfeeds. “Dum-dum!”
The droid’s gray face appeared in the mirror. “Yes, sir?”
“Get their names, all of them.” Eb’s cheeks were flush and steamy. “And their family names, too.”
“We are not the mafia, sir.”
“Just do what I say.”
“May I suggest not watching the newsfeeds, sir? It only raises your blood pressure.”
“They can’t say things about me, not like that.”
“It is the freedom of the press, sir.”
“I don’t like it and I have a lot of money. Get their names and send them up. I want them sued for slander and bigotry. We’ll give the proceeds to charity.”
“You will, sir?”
“I’ll think about it.” He wouldn’t.
He rested his left arm on his belly and propped his right elbow to tap his chin. All right, so he was fat. That wasn’t slander. But he could still sue.
“Anything else, sir?”
“Maybe we should, I don’t know, tone down the… you know, the projection of me a little bit.”
“You think, sir?”
“Yes, I think. A little less, you know…”
“Greek god, sir?”
“Yes.”
The droid nodded, his eyes snicking closed for a moment. His face began to fade.
“And get the exercise room ready for the morning,” Eb called.
He would get in shape. It was a new year. A new life. Jacob had passed. No more holding back Eb’s vision for what the company could do. Or how much money it could make. Eb would hit the equipment and get super ripped. Next time the public would see him in the flesh, not some projected image of a top-shelf athlete turned Oscar-award-winning actor turned trillionaire. And he’d laugh right in the fashionistas’ faces.
After he sued them.
Eb rode the hoverboard into the bedroom and changed into his silk pajamas. Twisting the black ring off his right hand, he slid it under the cool pillow. The left ring remained on his hand. The next night he would alternate so as not to start a rash.
With a thick, padded blindfold in hand, he lay on his side, with the blankets tucked under his armpit, left arm on top. It was almost midnight. Right on schedule, he was ready to sleep on his side, arm out. Because that was how he did it.
His head sank into the pillow, the scents of his various lotions and oils filling his head. He would fall into a black sleep and wake refreshed in the morning.
He tapped his glasses. The record went off. It was exactly midnight when it did. He would remember that detail for the rest of his life.
“Hello, Eb,” Jacob Marley said.

Three

Jacob was seated across the room, legs crossed. Eb sat up, stripping his glasses off. “Dum-dum,” he muttered. “Come here, Dum-dum.”
“Why do you call him that?” Jacob said.
“Ah!” Eb crawled behind his pillow.
Jacob’s laughter was uproarious, a sound Eb had heard many times during his life, a laugh that others described as infectious and uplifting. For Eb, it was more like fingernails in his ears.
Eb swallowed. “You’re a ghost.”
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
“I do not. But, Jacob.” Eb swallowed again. “You’re dead.”
“Yes, Eb. I know.”
“I had nothing to do with your death.”
Jacob chuckled. “Of course you didn’t, my friend.”
Was Eb sort of happy that his childhood friend had died? Yes and no. He didn’t want Jacob to be dead, that was the truth, scout’s honor. But Avocado was Eb’s now. Not exactly a bummer.
Jacob brushed his thighs. He always had cat hair on his slacks, always brushing it away. His black skin blended into the dark corner, but the knitted beany he insisted on always wearing was evident. He wasn’t see-through, not hovering near the ceiling or wearing chains.
It was Jacob.
“If you’re not a ghost, then what are you?”
Jacob bobbed his head, pensive, searching for words. Before he could find them, the droid burst into the room.
“What is that?” Eb jumped from the bed. “You see it, too. Tell me you see it, too.”
The droid’s eyes widened, gears turning, processor processing. He looked up. “It appears an image of Jacob is projecting into the room, sir.”
“You see?” Jacob pointed. “He’s not so dumb, Ebenezer.”
“I can see the projection,” Eb said, sounding a bit insulted because of course it was a projection, he knew that. “I want to know what it’s doing in my bedroom.”
The droid initiated a silent investigation, connecting with the networked computer system that integrated the Castle with the Avocado plant in California to become an adaptive, intuitive learning program that anticipated Eb’s wants and needs, a network that adjusted the shower to the right temperature, that brewed coffee to the right bitterness, that adjusted the furnace to fit his mood, all without Eb having to ask for it.
Butler superpowers.
“It appears Jacob has uploaded his personality in the network, sir.”
Jacob pointed a finger. Bingo.
“It was part of his alternate reality program, sir. He’s been wearing electrodes along his scalp for the past year to upload thoughts and memories.”
“You mean, like the ones…” Eb stammered.
“Like the ones you wore the year before, sir.”
Eb had considered the wireless upload technology Jacob was proposing, but they already had enough controversial projects in the cooker. First the synthetic stem cells, then the unfettered artificial intelligence, and now memory upload? Too complicated, too risky. They’d run out of money before these innovations saw the light of profit.
That was why Eb opted for the glasses. Simplicity without a drop of risk.
“The extracted memories have been assembled into a comprehensive likeness of Jacob Marley, sir.”
That explains the stupid beany. Eb’s eyes widened, wondering if Jacob could hear his thoughts. Don’t be silly. He’s not magic.
Jacob smiled.
“How’d he get into the Castle?” Eb asked.
“I’m data,” Jacob said.
“Shhh for a second. You’re not real. Dum-dum, how’d he get in the Castle?”
“Um, he’s data, sir.”
Jacob punctuated the zinger with knee-whacking laughter. Eb ground his teeth, turning his back on his former best friend. Eb didn’t dream often—actually, hardly at all—but when he did, it was a doozy.
“I’m dead, Eb. I know that. I died suddenly of a heart defect, and you had nothing to do with it.”
“And how would you know it was a heart attack if the memories were uploaded before you died?”
“Newsfeeds, sir,” the droid interrupted. “His personality is an adaptive program.”
“Okay, all right. Enough,” Eb said.
“I know what you did, Eb.” Jacob’s voice turned very grave. He only did that when he disciplined employees or intimidated bullies. A chill dripped into Eb’s knees.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You changed my will, Eb.”
“I did… whaaat? Dum-dum, do you know what he’s—”
“You had our friend here change it during the funeral.”
Eb tapped his chin. This was serious. And not fair, really. When you died, you were supposed to stay dead, not come back and catch people doing things. Kind of crappy of him. What kind of dead friend did that?
“How do you know that?” Eb asked.
“The same way I knew of my death, simply watching the newsfeeds, monitoring the data. I know you converted my share of the company into your name.”
“Well, you had it going into some trust that would handcuff me, Jacob. What did you expect me to do, sit around and let someone run the company? That’s not what we had in mind.” Eb drew courage from his misplaced outrage and crossed the room. “I only did what’s right, Jacob.”
Jacob hummed.
When the lights came on, his body appeared no less solid than the lounger he was seated upon. His eyes twinkled in narrow, joyful slots, a gentle smile resting in the corners. He watched Eb approach warily, chuckling when he poked at him, his hand passing through the apparition.
Eb yanked his finger back. “You’re going to make me change?”
“No, Eb,” Jacob answered. “Only you can do that.”
“Do what?”
“Change.”
“Change what, Jacob? Be specific.”
“This isn’t a contract, Eb. You need to change. You know what I’m talking about.”
“Okay, good.” That didn’t make a lick of sense. Jacob was projecting into the room, clearly he was in the system. What was stopping him from changing a few ones and zeroes? What if he took all the shares away from Eb and put them all in a trust fund to help starving elephants or something?
“What do mean by ‘only you can do that’?” Eb said slowly.
“You’re going to change.”
Eb went to his bed and slid his feet into soft, velvety slippers, then smoothed the wrinkles from the silk sheets because he needed a moment. Jacob was elbow deep in double-talk and Eb was drowning.
He felt for the ring beneath the pillow, twisted it onto his right hand and looked back; Jacob was bouncing his foot, legs crossed like he did in negotiations when he was waiting for the other party to budge, which meant he’d set a trap and was just waiting for them to walk into it.
And they always did.
“This can’t be happening,” Eb said. “You’re dead, Jacob.”
“I know.”
“Don’t screw this up for me!” Eb shook a stiff finger at the apparition. Then he shook it at the droid. “You’re in on this.”
“I’m here to help you, sir.”
Always with the I’m here to help you, sir. It made Eb crazy, but it was what he wanted. If the droid would just do it and shut up.
Eb swung his wrath back to Jacob, the sly grin spreading out, his eyes disappearing in the narrowing lids, twinkling light still flashing his amusement.
“What happened to us, Eb?” he said. “Our friendship?”
“Friendships go away when you die.”
“You lost your way, my friend.”
“I have a mansion, Jacob. I have twenty-five cars in a subterranean garage. I have a shooting range in the attic. I have a helicopter, for crying out loud! I didn’t lose my way, I’m killing it out here, Jacob.”
“You’re a shut-in.”
“I choose to be alone. Big difference.”
“This wasn’t our dream.” Jacob waved his arms.
“Maybe not our dream, Jacob.”
Jacob groaned when he threw his weight forward. Eb flinched at the realism, edging a step closer to the droid, but his dead friend’s footsteps fell without a sound. He paced to the window and peeked between the heavy curtains without moving them. There was a view of the Rockies from that vantage point.
“Maybe you changed, ever thought of that?” Eb said. “We started this company to have fun, to make money.”
“Are you having fun?” he asked without turning.
“A blast. You wait and see what I do with the gaming division. It’s full speed ahead with virtual gaming and identity reflection. I’m taking us deep into entertainment. No more medical red tape. You can stay and watch if you want with… whatever you are now. Avocado, Inc., is about to hit warp speed.”
Jacob latched his hands behind his back. His favorite Indian hippie shirt bunched over his wrists. His persona was accurate in every creepy detail. He was even humming a Christmas tune.
“What do you want?” Eb asked. When Jacob didn’t answer, Eb turned to the droid. “What does he want?”
“Don’t ask me, sir.”
“Jacob? Did you come to haunt me with your awful version of ‘Silent Night,’ or can I go to sleep now? A lot of headhunting to do tomorrow, employees to sack, housecleaning, that sort of thing. If you don’t mind.”
Eb waved his hands, the rings powering down the lights, the computers, even the clocks. But Jacob was still there.
“How is he doing this?” Eb said.
The droid shrugged.
“Find out.”
This was unacceptable. A virus in the system. Was that what Jacob was, a loose bolt in a finely tuned ship?
“You’re right,” Jacob said. “I can’t change you.”
“Thank you.”
“You’ll have to do it.”
“I promise I will. Scout’s honor. It’s almost one in the morning, Jacob. I’m sure you don’t sleep since you’re… whatever you are, but… if you’re finished—”
“Merry Christmas, Eb.”
“Yep.”
With that, Jacob turned with hands still clasped behind his back, the trademark smile concealing his true intentions.
“Very well, Jacob. Goodnight.”
Eb climbed into bed, ritually taking the ring from his right hand and placing it beneath the pillow before snapping the blindfold over his eyes. His head sinking into the pillow once again, he lay stiffly beneath the down comforter. He waited a minute then lifted the blindfold.
Jacob was still there.
“Oh, for God’s sake, man.” Eb slammed his fist on the mattress. “Have you no mercy?”
His features had darkened. Perhaps he was powering down.
“A gift, old friend,” Jacob said with a slight bow. “I will celebrate Christmas with a gift every Christmas morning.”
The silence dragged out. “You mean like coal?”
“I mean a gift in the true spirit of Christmas, from one friend to another.”
“I’m not getting you anything. Is that it?”
Jacob slow-blinked. Eb sighed. That was his old friend’s signal that the game was over. Although it wasn’t quite clear to Eb who won.
And then Jacob was gone.
Eb hadn’t even blinked. “Did you see that?”
“Yes, sir.”
They stared at each other, the droid’s eyes glowing charcoals, waiting for the encore. One never came. The room remained dark.
The doorbell rang.

Four

“Would you like me to answer it, sir?”
The doorbell rang a second time. Then a third.
Eb stuttered. With both rings on his fingers, he threw his hands out and stretched open an imaginary scroll. A holo screen hovered between his hands, projecting a view from the front porch.
Not one but two gifts were wrapped in shiny bows and thick coats. Eb pulled the holo closer. He still didn’t believe what he was seeing.
The sidewalk was clean, snow piled on both sides. The entry road was carved from the side of the mountain that no one could access without permission. It was dark and icy.
“Stop!” Eb shouted. “Don’t move!”
The droid’s dull gray hand slid from the doorknob. He cocked his head questioningly. “They’re cold, sir.”
Eb pulled his robe on and slid into hard-soled slippers. He pulled the Segway from the wall-mounted loading dock and leaned into it. The engine quietly whirred as he sped toward a ramp that circled along the perimeter wall. From the third floor, he could see another droid through the massive chandelier at the front door.
A wide ramp dumped him into the massive foyer. “Turn down… the lights,” Eb huffed.
Despite not running more than a few steps across the bedroom, he was gassed. It was the adrenaline or the stress or the recent conversation with his dead friend. Or the gifts waiting on the other side of the door.
The droid dimmed the foyer, but light from the front porch beamed through the narrow side windows, the fractured glass casting rainbows on the shiny floor. Eb wanted the porch lights killed, too. The droid pretended not to understand.
“Need a paper bag to breathe into, sir?” the droid droned dully.
“Shhh.”
The droid shook his head, eyebrows drooping in disbelief.
“What is that?” Eb whispered.
“What is what, sir?”
He jabbed at the door. When the droid refused to play along, he pinched his fingers together and pulled them apart like stringing taffy. A tiny holo screen stretched between them, a view of the front porch and the “presents” Jacob promised.
“That,” he said. “What is that?”
“Those are young girls, sir. They appear to be twins.”
“Really?” Eb moaned. “Those are girls? I know it’s girls, you idiot. What are those things doing here?”
“They, sir. Not things.”
“Are you an English teacher now?” Eb stomped a quiet tantrum, fists quivering at his sides. “You know what I mean.”
“They are your inheritance, sir.”
“My what?”
“Your inheritance, sir. The girls were Jacob’s daughters. You are now their legal guardian.”
“You’re joking.”
“I am not, sir.”
“I didn’t consent to this!” Eb hissed. “You can’t just leave children on a doorstep. Ludicrous! Where are the social workers? The nannies? Somebody!”
“It’s all been arranged, sir.”
The doorbell rang a fourth time. The droid turned to answer, and Eb grabbed his arm, his fingers sinking into the flexy skinwrap.
“It’s cold, sir. We need to let them inside.”
“You lied to me. You said you didn’t know anything about Jacob and the projection, and now you’re playing the good butler. You knew they were coming, admit it.”
“All of this information was released to me just before their arrival, sir.”
“Did you know Jacob had a daughter?”
“Daughters, sir.”
“All right, whatever. Did you know?”
“No, sir. Jacob was very private about his personal life. Very few people knew he had family. Look, I insist we let them inside.”
“They’re wearing coats; they’ll be fine another minute.”
“It’s eleven degrees Fahrenheit, sir.”
Eb paced around the Segway, tapping his chin like an overcaffeinated woodpecker. He pushed his round glasses up his nose and stopped in front of the tiny holo.
“Here’s what we do. You talk to them, find out what you can. I’ll be over there.”
“There’s nothing to find out, sir. They—”
“Shhh. Just do what I say, will you?”
A dim light rolled around the droid’s eyes. He turned for the door. Eb sped off on the Segway, the gears whining as he disappeared into the dark hallway. He went so far that he couldn’t see or hear anything. He stretched open a holo, the luminescence turning his porky cheeks bluish gray.
The door opened.
The little girls waited patiently, their hands in their pockets. They had shiny black hair tied back from their ears—one with a red ribbon, the other was green. The opposite was true for their coats. The one with the red ribbon had a green coat, the green ribbon a red coat.
They were each holding something in the crook of their arm.
“Well, hello there.” The droid took a knee. “Would you like to come inside?”
Steam billowed from their nostrils.
The droid ushered them over the threshold and wiped their snowy prints.
“Can I take your coats?” he asked.
They only watched him.
“You must be coooold,” he said loud enough for Eb to hear. “And hungry. Are you hungry?”
They nodded this time.
“Let’s go to the kitchen.”
They each put a hand out, their little fingers quivering. The droid took one in each of his dull gray hands. His hands would be soft and toasty, warming those delicate little fingers.
“What are you doing?” Eb whispered. “I said find out what they’re doing not bake them cookies… bah!”
He eased the scooter down the hall, careful not to squeak the tires. The droid left the kitchen door open. Eb parked on the other end of the dining hall and hid behind a table that could entertain twenty guests, avoiding the light knifing through the dark.
The girls were sitting at the marble island, their shiny black shoes swinging midway down the stools. Their coats were open, revealing festive dresses with frilly trim.
What looked like dolls were sitting next to them.
“Would you like the crusts cut away?” The droid’s voice carried from deep in the kitchen. A few minutes later, he slid sandwiches in front of them.
“Would you like juice?” he asked. “Apple or orange? We have eggnog. Do you like eggnog?”
He was doing it all wrong. Eb didn’t want to know their favorite colors or if they could count to ten. He needed facts, cold hard ones. And why do we have eggnog?
“Get over here,” he half-whispered.
The droid looked up.
“Not you.” Eb waved off the droid. “Keep them busy. Send another one of you up from the basement.”
The droid turned his attention back to the little girls, asking them if they were excited about Christmas and what they wanted. Five minutes later, bare feet softly padded into the dining hall. An exact replica of the droid came up behind him.
“What took so long?” Eb said.
“We’re docked for the night, sir.”
“Shh.” Eb smashed his finger across the droid’s lips. “Keep it down or they’ll hear.”
“Is that bad, sir?”
“Do you swear you didn’t know anything about this?”
“Does it matter that I swear to you, sir? Really?”
“Well, then don’t you find this a little weird?”
“Which part, sir?”
“That part.” His arm locked at the kitchen.
“I don’t know what you mean, sir.”
“Little girls on our doorstep at one in the morning, you don’t find that odd? What are they, like two years old?”
“They’re five, sir.” A dim light rolled in the droid’s eyes.
“Whatever. They’re little girls that got dropped off like a package. You don’t find this just a little out-of-the-world bonkers?”
“They were transported by automated vehicle, sir. The trip was monitored by legal guardians in California and delayed by weather.”
“Is that how vehicles work, really? Really?”
“I was alerted when they arrived at the gate, sir, and was about to let them inside the house when you stopped me. In fact, the car was coming back for them if I delayed any longer.”
Eb tapped his chin. “You’re saying that if we put them on the porch, the car will come back?”
The droid sighed. “You’ll be arrested for endangerment, sir.”
Eb balled his fists. This was why he hated Christmas, all these stupid gifts that were now his responsibility. He didn’t ask for presents. He was an adult. If he wanted presents, he’d buy them.
He stretched out a holo and dimmed the luminescence to avoid revealing his hiding place. The little girls’ faces hovered before him. Eb leaned in, studying their olive complexions, the dark eyes.
“Are they even American?”
“Of course, sir. Jacob adopted them from Guatemala.”
“That’s not American.”
“They are American citizens, sir.”
“Why would he do that?”
“Do what, sir?”
“Adopt them. Why would he do that?”
“I don’t know, sir. Goodwill, a sense of compassion, empathy. Kindheartedness. That sort of thing.”
Eb grunted as he watched their tiny chins move in circles, lips tightly closed after each bite. The droid leaned across the counter, chin propped on his hands, talking about how much he liked their dresses.
“You are their legal guardian, sir,” the droid next to him said.
“Pass.”
“It’s already been arranged, sir.”
“Not with my consent it hasn’t.”
The droid in the kitchen looked up as if he heard the conversation. Of course he did. All these dummies were networked together, a personality with multiple bodies.
“Don’t do that.” Eb waved off the one in the kitchen and turned to the one next to him. “Call the girls’ parents, tell them we want a refund.”
“Jacob is dead, sir.”
“Her reeaaal parents, dummy. The ones in Guatemala.”
“It doesn’t work that way, sir,” he replied flatly.
“Try. All they can say is no.”
“They need a home, sir. Especially now. They lost their father at Christmas.”
“How do you know?”
“Jacob, sir. He was their father.”
“Right.”
“It will be good for them to be here, sir. It will be good for you.”
“I know what’s good for me. It’s not that.”
The droid sighed. “If you fight legal guardianship, it will be a public relations nightmare, sir.”
“What are you talking about?”
“A statement was just released to the media.” The droid stretched a large holo that contained several newsfeeds. Eb’s face—his original face from ten years earlier, not the projected one used for public appearances—was featured in various expressions of bitterness and agitation.
The newsfeeds were absolutely glowing with good cheer about how a cantankerous introvert opened his doors to his best friend’s daughters. How magnanimous of him. Perhaps, many speculated, his heart was not quite as hard and tiny as they believed.
“Shall we send them back to poverty, then, sir?”
“I suppose not.”
“I’ll put them in the guest quarters in the west wing, sir.”
“Good idea. Lock them inside just in case they get a little wandery. Don’t want them getting sticky fingers.”
“Of course, sir.”
Eb remained in the dark. The droid in the kitchen cleared the empty plates then bent over. The little girls climbed onto his back, arms wrapped tightly around his neck, cheeks pressed to the dull gray droid’s shoulder, eyes closed.
“Addy and Natty, sir,” the droid next to him whispered.
“What?”
“Their names are Addy and Natty, sir.”
Eb watched his servant droid piggyback the little girls out of the kitchen. Each with a creepy little doll under her chin.

Five

Christmas morning.
At 7:00 a.m., a shot of espresso pulled Eb from foggy slumber.
He remained just below the surface of waking, rolling in the turbulent riptide of sleep, reaching for the rich aroma of strictly hard bean coffee from Costa Rica delivered to his bedside.
Eb reached blindly for the espresso. When two sips of caffeine were in his system, he lifted the blinders and slid the round spectacles up his nose, dialing the lens tint to black. His head was still swimming with the residue of sleep aids.
The details of what exactly happened the night before were a bit fuzzy.
At 7:15 a.m., he reached for the second espresso on his way to the window. The heavy curtains automatically parted, the window graying out the stark morning.
A white blanket extended all the way to the distant Rockies, the scene ripped right from a Christmas card wishing peace and good tidings. Eb still received cards during the holidays with photos of employees and their ugly sweaters or business associates keeping their networking opportunities alive with preprinted signatures.
They went straight to the dump. All of them. I get it, you have a beautiful family.
Strange tradition, wishing others happiness with a picture of how awesome you are. Like gloating could lift another’s spirits.
This very moment there were millions of selfies circling the globe with peace signs and fish lips and inappropriate shots in the bathroom mirror, all declaring in loud lonely voices, Look at me! Look what I got!
Disgusting.
Never once had Eb penned a letter about his million-dollar acquisitions or posted about it. Sure, he was recording every second of his life, but he wasn’t showing it to the world. He kept it private. It was more of a hobby. If he did put his life out there, he’d make millions. He was sure of it.
One would think Eb was a bigger fan of Christmas. After all, the holiday season drove Avocado’s profits through the stratosphere. That he was a fan of. It was the excessive celebration that dug under his skin, spiked an icicle through his heart.
Bah!
He was almost through the second cup when he noticed the snow below Castle Scrooge. A track had been carved through the drifts and extended out to the horizon. He threw up a holo and aimed it at the tracks, enhancing the view.
It could be a bear. But don’t they hibernate? Maybe a wolf. A lone wolf with big boots and long strides.
The caffeine cleared out the remaining webs of sleep, and the details of the night before emerged.
Jacob.
Eb grabbed the holo and shifted the view into the guest quarters in the west wing. The bed was made, not a wrinkle on the comforter nor a dent in the pillow. The bathroom spotless.
“I was dreaming. That’s it.”
Eb completed his morning ritual, a fifteen-minute routine that included lotions and oils and a slick parting of his hair. At 7:45 a.m., he put on his tracksuit and cruised the outer ramp.
The Castle could be a few degrees warmer, he thought as he slowly eased into the kitchen, a thought command that would be relayed to the thermostat.
The Segway squeaked to a halt.
“Crap.”
The girls were hunched over bowls of Captain Crunch, slurping spoons almost too big for their mouths, splattering milk on the marble countertop. Eb stared for a full minute.
The droid was at the oven, a frilly hemmed apron tied around the small of his back. He was wearing baggy sweatpants and a football jersey, the number zero on the back.
Eb cleared his throat. He wanted to grab a third espresso, but that would mean passing the slurpy kids.
“Good morning, sir.”
“Why are you…?” he started.
“Wearing an apron, sir? Addy and Natty’s cook always wore one, they told me.”
Eb pointed at the girls, his eyes question marks. Addy and Natty.
Neither of them acknowledged him. Their thoughts were drowning in sugar milk. Addy had the red ribbon, but she had a green dress. Natty was the opposite. Both dresses, aside from the colors, were exactly the same.
So were the creepy dolls.
They had bright red hair and button eyes with stitching for a smile. They looked to be a hundred years old. Milk puddles spread from the edges of the bowls and soaked the fabric arms and legs.
“We woke shortly before you, sir.”
“You slept…”
“With them, sir. They were very distraught, you understand. This is all very new to them. Change is never easy.”
“Change?” He seemed to emphasize the word. “What’s that mean?”
“Their father died, sir.”
“You might want to…” Eb pointed at the milk-soaked dolls. The droid cleaned the mess and replaced the weird little things by their sides.
“They are very impressionable at this age, sir. Their lives will be shaped by these events. I believe it will help if we reduce their stress so they can digest all this.”
“Are you a psychologist now?” Eb chuckled. “They’ll get over it. That’s what kids do.”
The droid went back to the oven. Eb watched the girls pour more cereal on the floor than into the bowls. The droid urged him to speak.
“Um. Hello.”
They continued their cereal assault, but the spoons slowed as he spoke. The droid silently encouraged him to continue.
“Do you enjoy cereal?” Eb said. “You sure look like you do.”
Simultaneously, they stared into their bowls.
“You’re spilling it all over, you know. You’ll have to clean it up before you leave.”
The droid shook his head.
Eb squeezed the Segway’s handgrips. Was this what talking to a kid was like? He already hated it. His father never talked about stupid things like eating cereal or grubby dolls. His father treated him like a man, taught him responsibility, that nothing was free. When you spilled milk, you cleaned it up.
“Um. What’s your favorite color, green or red?”
The droid nodded, gesturing to pull more words out of him.
“You must like those colors because your dresses are green and red and your ribbons are red and green. So those are the colors, right? Okay. Do you have other clothes? Um, it’s really cold outside. Do you like weather? And cereal?”
There was a moment they stopped chewing and looked at each other. Then they went back to eating.
“Do they talk?” Eb said.
“Not about the weather, sir,” the droid said drily. “Breakfast is ready.”
It was 8:20 a.m. “I have work to do.”
Eb took his seat facing the window and distant Rockies. This was surreal. His life was already a dream—a billionaire lifestyle envied by everyone with half a brain—but now it felt like it.
Did Jacob really visit? And if he did, why were there tracks in the snow?
The droid carried a plate of eggs, bacon and lightly done toast to a small kitchenette table, where a silent display of newsfeeds was waiting.
“It’s all right, sir.”
“What?”
“Just be here, sir. Don’t worry about last night. It’s over.”
It was like he knew what Eb was thinking. The droid drew a circle around his face.
“It’s written on your expression, sir.”
So he does know. Eb shook it off. The weirdness was crawling under his skin. The morning was getting away from him. He needed to get back to normal. He turned up the newsfeeds.
“It’s Christmas.” The girls were slumped over their bowls, their backs to Eb.
“Which one of you said that?”
“They both did, sir.”
Eb froze with a corner of toast in his mouth. “So.”
“People don’t work on Christmas.” The red ribbon jiggled on Addy’s head. Or is that Natty?
“I do,” Eb said.
“You shouldn’t.” This time the green ribbon said it.
“Well, that’s not how the world works, little girls.” He smacked the crumbs off his hands. “Not everything is free. Not everyone gets to sing ‘Jingle Bells’ and hug scary little dolls and chug eggnog until they bloat like pregnant hogs while last year’s ornaments go to the landfill—”
“Breakfast, sir. You know you don’t like your eggs cold.”
There was nothing worse than a cold breakfast. And what did these little brats know about socialism? Addy started on a third bowl (or was it Natty?) while Eb soaked in the newsfeeds until his plate was wiped clean with the last bite of toast.
The droid came over to clear his table.
“That went well.” Eb gestured to the girls. “A little interaction there at the end, not too bad, huh?”
“You’re a natural, sir.”
There was a full day of work ahead of him, lots of paperwork to square up, reports to read. Avocado, Inc., wasn’t going to change course without a captain fully fueled.
“I’ll be right back, sir. Girls?” He bent close to them. “We’ll bathe this morning, all right?”
Their frayed pigtails bounced. The droid left the kitchen. Eb sipped his third espresso as a recap of the year’s financial report began. The girls began to mutter. He turned down the volume.
“Did you say something?”
A spoon rattled. They leaned toward each other, heads almost touching, those dirty redheaded dolls clutched in the crooks of their arms. When Eb went to boost the volume up, they did it again.
“What?” Eb said.
They leapt from their stools and ran from the kitchen, shiny black shoes clapping on the hard floor. The droid caught them in the next room and declared it was time to bathe.
“No, not yet!” Eb shouted. “They have a mess to clean!”
The droid’s voice faded down the hall.
Eb would leave the bowls and milk slopped all over the counter. He would make sure if the girls were going to stay for any length of time that they would clean up. The droid wasn’t their servant.
He was Eb’s.
After the newsfeeds wrapped up, he rinsed his cup. It was 8:45 a.m. He’d log into the office at exactly 9:00 a.m. Something nagged him on the way to change clothes. It wasn’t so much the girls’ weirdness, it was what they said at the end. He swore they were saying the same thing over and over.
He pushed it to the back of his mind. He needed to concentrate. But it would niggle into his thoughts and wait. And when the time was right, he would remember exactly what they said.

Six

“Where have you been?”
The droid hustled into the projection room, his sweatpants and number zero jersey wet. “We were bathing, sir.”
It was 11:40 a.m. “How long does it take to bathe?”
“You tell me, sir.”
Eb’s bathroom ritual sometimes lasted two hours. “They’re little girls. Throw them in, scrub their backs and dry them off. Ten minutes, tops.”
“You’ve never bathed twins, sir. We have plenty of time.”
Eb fidgeted on the lone chair, crossing and uncrossing his legs, folding his hands on his lap then crossing his arms over his chest.
“Relax, sir.”
The droid opened a box and began patting Eb’s cheeks with concealer. The domed projection room was blank. He flicked his wrist and their reflection hovered over him. He didn’t really need makeup, but his complexion was always so blotchy.
He dialed imaginary knobs, muttering commands until the reflection transformed into his animated self: male supermodel, All-pro quarterback. One eye green, the other blue.
That’s real.
He tinkered with the details, dialing back the square chin and broad shoulders. The fashionistas’ voices were in his head. It was so much more fun when they bagged on someone else.
“Careful, sir. Too many changes to your image will be obvious.”
“Shouldn’t the girls be down here?”
“No, sir.”
“Perhaps they should sit on my knee.”
“Like puppets, sir? It’s too soon for that. We discussed this. The public wants your reaction to Jacob’s passing. Let’s not parade the girls out at the same time.”
“When do we sync?”
“In three minutes, sir.”
It was 11:50 a.m. The droid dabbed his lips with a shade of color, brushed his eyelids and stepped back to examine his work. The avocado logo was projected on the back wall, looming over his head like fat leathery mistletoe.
Eb took short, stabbing breaths, lips tightly circled.
“You’re not giving birth, sir.”
Eb continued breathing. It was the moments before a live appearance that were the worst. The droid closed the makeup box and stepped aside. Numbers began counting down.
“You’ll do just fine, sir. Just be a much, much, much nicer version of yourself and they’ll love you.”
He barely heard him. When the numbers hit five, he felt around his face. Glasses! With a second left, he pulled them onto his nose and dialed the tint all the way black.
The room dimmed. Details flickered.
A man appeared to be leaning into Eb’s face. A small microphone was just off his lips. “Mr. Scrooge, can you hear me?”
Eb nodded stiffly.
The man was a producer. His name was Todd. He stood back and tapped an iPad. There appeared to be studio lights overhead and cameras to the left and right. A Christmas tree twinkled behind Eb. In front of him, a man and woman were sitting on stools with makeup personnel applying finishing touches. Assistants hovered nearby.
“Wow,” Todd said. “This is… impressive.”
Eb relaxed and smiled. “Thank you.”
“First time we’re using a three-dimensional projection in studio, thought it would be appropriate we interview you this way since the technology was perfected by… you know.”
Todd gestured to the hanging avocado. Eb turned around to make sure it was visible. The Christmas tree was below it. Eb pulled his hands apart. The avocado grew larger.
“Could it be a bit smaller like before?” Todd said. “It’s covering the tree.”
“I know.”
“Ten minutes!” someone shouted.
The hosts made their way to stools across from Eb. Final tweaks were made, their shoulders brushed and hair patted. They introduced themselves. Eb already knew them. Everyone that watched Entertainment Nightly did. Michelle offered a short wave. David reached out, chuckling when he drew it back.
“I forgot you’re just a projection,” David said.
“Thank you,” Eb replied.
Everyone laughed.
“It’s very nice to meet you,” David said. “Should we call you Ebenezer?”
“Mr. Scrooge.”
“Thank you for coming here on Christmas.” David peered at the giant avocado over Eb’s shoulder. “We just want ten minutes of your time. I’m sure you’re very busy with the new family, settling down and adjusting.”
“Yes, of course.”
The droid was in Eb’s periphery, giving him the thumbs-up and whispering, “You’re doing great, sir.”
“Before we start,” Michelle said, “I would just like to say how impressed I am with you, Mr. Scrooge. It’s such a tragedy to lose a friend and business partner so suddenly.”
“He was like family, yes.” Eb knew his projected image would appropriately express sorrow.
“Yes. And for you to accept his daughters into your house is just… magnanimous.”
Eb beamed with pride. For real. “And may I say that I’m a big fan of your work, too,” he said. “You will be asking very friendly questions, yes? Something I can jack out of the park. It is Christmas, after all.”
He trusted his alligator smile would be smoothed over on his projection. The hosts laughed agreeably. Bingo.
“This is Entertainment Nightly, not Investigative Tonight,” David said. “Softball questions are the house specialty.”
“And that’s why I love your show.”
“Where are the girls?” Michelle asked.
“Bathing.”
“Well, your whole life is about to change,” she said.
Eb twitched. It was the way she said it, jabbing him with words. It was hard to tell if she was talking about the girls or everything else. Or maybe nothing at all.
It’s been a weird day.
Assistants tended to the hosts’ last minute needs. The droid touched up Eb. It was really unnecessary since his projected image smoothed out the wrinkles and blemishes. Behind the cameras, the crew squared up the mics and lights, rolled teleprompters in place. Several members milled around with clipboards and iPads. Off to the left, a young woman watched the chaos with a small fashionable posse.
Eb pushed the droid away.
“Hey there.” He waved at the posse. “Did they catch him?”
They stopped chatting and looked around, unsure if the crazy projection was talking to them. The young woman in the middle—the one with the bright pink stripe down her face, the one that spent Christmas Eve bashing Eb with two other fashion snobs—sneered.
“Did they catch him?” Eb repeated.
She shook her head, silently saying, “What?”
“The guy that spilled the paint.”
He pointed to his face, pointed at her. It took a moment, then she caught it and answered with a very rude gesture that involved one finger.
“Todd?” Eb said, smiling viciously. “Are all your employees this unprofessional?”
There was a rush to remove Pink Stripe from the set. A formal complaint and a little hustle and she wouldn’t see her cohosts ever again.
A confident smile slithered across his face. Ebenezer is back.
The countdown to air began. Michelle and David sat back, their smiles reassuring him that the questions would be fat as sugar plums. The world would know he was a good man after tonight. They would know he was… how did she say it?
Magnanimous.

***

11:42 p.m.
Pack up the lights, throw away the tinsel and burn the tree. It was almost the day after Christmas.
Eb’s favorite time of year.
He cruised out of the projection room, having just viewed the Entertainment Nightly segment for the twentieth time and giving it two fat thumbs-up. His image was beautifully sculpted, made for television one might say. He emoted the proper amount of regret when asked about his friendship with Jacob (I only wish I could have done more) and beamed with hypersonic joy when asked about the new additions to the family (indeed a gift beyond words). Instant feedback among the younger demographics was dazzling.
They love me. They really do love me.
They were going to gorge themselves on Avocado, Inc.’s new line of entertainment gadgets. Once Eb had the ship sailing in that direction, he’d be bathing in money, fill the Grand Room pool with gold coins. Maybe add another castle or two, one for each girl.
Let’s not get carried away.
Eb hit the ramp at full speed, exited on the second floor to make a pass through the west wing. The girls should be given some credit for the public’s adoration. They didn’t do anything. They were just there, being needy. But people loved that stuff.
There was no light beneath their door, but he heard voices. He slowed down and circled back. Yes, definitely voices.
He put his ear to the door.
“Change is difficult,” someone said. The voice was gruff. Then something about next year and having patience—
Eb turned the knob.
A quick commotion whirled in the room, a dust devil whipping the curtains. The girls weren’t in bed. They were sitting on the window ledge, hands properly folded on their laps. The moonlight outlined their silhouettes, their bows properly tied and shiny. They were still wearing their dresses.
Eb pushed his glasses up. “Who are you talking to?”
They didn’t answer.
The carpet was damp in several places. The room appeared to be in order. No one was in the closet, which took two attempts to confirm and two shaky knees.
He half-expected Jacob to jump out.
“Why are you awake?” he asked. “Are you not sleepy? You hungry? Do you need pajamas? What’s the deal?”
Their eyes followed him around the room.
“Could you nod or something? Blink your eyes once for yes.”
He looked out the window. Snowflakes were soft and large. There was no hint of the tracks he’d seen that morning. The girls remained still, staring across the room.
“You’re creeping me out, girls. This is no joke.”
The droid entered the room, wearing a robe. His dull gray feet sank into the carpet.
“What are they doing up?” Eb asked.
“They’re still adjusting, sir.”
Addy and Natty put their arms up and climbed into the droid’s embrace. He carried them to the bed and tucked them beneath the covers, wedging a wide-eyed doll in each of their arms.
“Why is the carpet wet?” Eb asked.
“They weren’t properly dry after their bath, sir.”
“Their bath was like twelve hours ago.”
“They had another, sir.” He turned to the girls. “Would you like another song?”
They shook their heads. He brushed the hair from their foreheads.
“Goodnight, Jenks,” they whispered.
“Goodnight, princesses.” The droid elbowed Eb on his way to the door and jerked his head toward the bed, eyes growing wide to say something.
“Oh. Goodnight,” Eb said. “Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”
The girls lay on their sides with one arm on the outside and facing each other, their dolls pressed against their cheeks, bright yarn-hair poking out. Weird, that was how Eb slept, on his side, arm out, hand under his cheek.
He followed the droid out of the room.
“Who’s Jenks?” Eb asked.
“The name of their previous servant droids, sir. Jacob employed an identical series, although their skinwrap was a shade darker than mine. It comforts them to use that name.”
The name was familiar. Eb had heard it before. They had named a product Jenks once before. What was it?
“Is that what you want them to call you?” he asked.
“I’m not a fan of Dum-dum, sir.” The droid fetched the Segway for Eb. “If there’s nothing else tonight, sir, I will return to the basement.”
Eb took the handlebars. The droid nodded once and started toward the ramp.
“What’s a humbug?” Eb asked.
“Pardon, sir?”
“I think I heard them say that word this morning… humbug. Out of the blue, they just said it.”
The droid cocked his head. “Sounds like word play to me, sir.”
Eb remained outside their door for quite some time. There were no more voices, no whirlwinds. Just the silence of the house. It was past midnight when he reached his room on the third floor.
Christmas was finally over.



Login
admin

iAuthor

Just now

Make your presence felt. Be the first to post!

    1463861044 social-instagram-new-square1 Io6eZONw-01 Add to footer
Sitemap | Terms & Conditions
Privacy & Data

© 2019 iAuthor Ltd
Design: Splash | Web: MWW
 BAI logo smaller