Christmas Yet To Come

Christmas Yet To Come

She landed facedown in a snowbank, the breath knocked out of her by the fall.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come lifted her head and sucked in a gasp. Cold prickled in her nose and all the way down. It was like inhaling thistledown ice.

It had never occurred to her that her rebellion would end like this, sprawled in the snow with an unfamiliar solidity filling her shroud. Her senses reeled with a disorientation only heightened by the rasps of someone’s hoarse breathing, with the shivers of the strange body that trapped her. Every inch of skin covering that body cringed away from the snow.

She struggled up, panting, and looked around. The drift was piled high and smooth except for the flattened place where she had landed, and she supposed she was fortunate not to be hurt. She wasn’t afraid of dying—she’d seen so much of that—but her body felt only too human. The thought of lying on a path with broken limbs, wriggling feebly like a worm for hours, was not a pleasant one.

Ahead of her, a wedge of light slanted through the darkness—the only reason she could see the drifts at all now—and the light glowed from one of the windows of a large house. The sight held her like a moth. Until a few moments ago, in all the years of her existence as a ghost, she’d never felt cold, especially not the kind of raw chill that bit deep into her flesh.

Until a few moments ago, she had been the cold.

She got to her feet, clutching the shroud tightly around her. The house was only a few yards away, but she felt as though she was walking across bits of broken glass. She stumbled up broad stone steps and moved an arm away from her body. The hand on the end of that arm slapped against the front door.

After a moment’s thought, she made a fist instead, and banged on the door with that.

There was silence from inside, and she wondered what she would do if no one answered. If she somehow felt genuinely sorry for her moment of rebellion, if she looked up at the stars promising to return to her duties and carry them out faithfully, would she be allowed to return? She hadn’t enjoyed being a merciless wraith who brought people to their knees, but she didn’t want to slowly freeze either.

Or die, because she’d already done that once and had no desire to ever repeat the experience.

Oh please, answer. In the back of her mind, she had the impression something was missing from the door, but she was too chilled to care. She thumped again, her teeth chattering. Damn it, answer!

Gathering her shroud around her, she walked straight ahead into the door.

The impact thudded through her face and sent her staggering back. Her foot turned on a piece of ice and she would have sprawled flat—probably snapping her spine against the steps, with her luck—if she hadn’t caught at a large stone pot that contained an evergreen shrub. The prickly greenery scratched at her, and she closed her eyes, breathing hard and waiting for the stinging in her nose to subside.

She was definitely not a wraith now.

A bolt rattled back with a metallic slide and the door creaked ajar. She couldn’t quite see who had opened it, only that the person carried a branch of candles that made her long to hold her numb hands to the flames. Blinking tears out of her vision, she tugged her shroud free of the spiky evergreen. The greying cloth tore as it came away.

“May I help you?”

It was a man’s voice, courtesy clearly struggling with incredulity. She straightened up.

“Could I come in?” she said. “Please. I’m very cold.”

Her breath puffed out in clouds as she spoke, and the man stepped aside in a wordless invitation. She hurried in before he could change his mind.

The house was dark except for the candles, but anything would have been better than the snowdrifts. A worn carpet felt slightly rough beneath her bare toes, and there was a faint resiny scent in the air, like well-polished wood.

The door swung shut, startling her a little, and she glanced at the man who had let her in. He was dressed far more warmly than she was, in a wine-colored jacket that looked soft enough to be velvet, black trousers and shoes she wished she could have. Tilting his dark head sideways, he studied her as if not quite certain what he was looking at—which she supposed was understandable. His gaze went over her from head to foot, slowly, then traveled up again.

“What were you doing in my garden?” he said.

Oh, damn. She could hardly say she’d finally had enough of showing people misery and death, especially with pressure on her to be the finisher who made them beg for a second chance. If he thought she was crazy, he might tell her to leave the house, and then she’d die on the front steps like a less heartbreaking version of the little match girl.

“I—I don’t remember,” she said.

It wasn’t the most convincing lie anyone had ever come up with, and she could tell he didn’t believe her. Hopefully he was enough of a gentleman not to turn her out, but his brows went up.

“Do you remember your name?” he said.

Name. She needed one of those, because she didn’t think pleading blank-slate memory to everything would work. Besides, if he thought of her as a person, he’d be less likely to make her leave, and a name might help in that regard.

She’d had a name originally, but she’d forgotten it as she’d forgotten most of her life, because once she’d lost that life—or thrown it away—those memories could only hurt her with their existence. Even if she remembered her name, it would be best not to use it, because that girl had been laid to rest a long time ago. The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come wasn’t the same person, not by any means.

Yet the only other names she knew were those of all the people she’d targeted through the years, and she didn’t want to use any of those.

Instead, she recalled a gravestone—she’d seen a lot of those—engraved with the name Laura. It had made an impression on her because she was always aware of how much time people had, and the date and the hour when that time would run out.

Except the dates of birth and death on Laura’s headstone had been the same. Her time had begun and run out on the same day, like an hourglass with a single grain of sand in it. And yet she’d been important enough to be remembered, her name carved in stone. The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come had no idea who Laura was, only that she had once existed, and that she had mattered to someone.

“Laura.” She remembered she needed another name, and the first thing she had touched as a human came to mind. “Laura Snow.”

The man still looked skeptical, but he inclined his head as if making a mental note of that. “Justin Welland.”

A hollow echoing clang sounded in the distance, as if it rang out over miles of night and falling snow. Her hands tightened on the edges of her shroud, but Justin Welland didn’t react at all to the sound. Which meant only she had heard it.

Which meant his name had tolled a bell.

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