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EP375: Marley and Cratchit

By David Steffen
Read by Emma Newman
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An Escape Pod original!
All stories by David Steffen
All stories read by Emma Newman
Rated 13 and up

Marley and Cratchit
by David Steffen

STAVE 1: THE MARVELOUS MACHINE

In those days Jacob Marley was full of life and vigor. His smile shone so that anyone who saw him soon smiled widely in return. A moment in his presence would make one’s worst burdens seem lighter. His optimism and generosity brought out the best in others, catching easily as a torch in dry straw.

Those were happy, hopeful times. Ebenezer Scrooge, the pinch-faced and greedy miser, would not weigh on his mind until many years later. In those later years the two men’s appearances matched as twins, and their customers would often confuse one for the other. But in every other manner they were as different as two men could be. I will speak further of Scrooge, but not yet, for this is not his tale. In these days long gone, Jacob Marley was a portly man, neatly dressed and neatly groomed, with hair black as pitch and never a whisker on his face. Marley entered the shop on that momentous day in the manner with which he was accustomed, swinging the door wide and exclaiming “Hallo!” to his business partner in a sonorous voice that any Shakespearian actor would envy. His jowls swung with the force of his entry, and wobbled like a custard for quite some time after. His clothes were not of the finest material, but were fine enough for a man of his young age, a sign of the moderate inheritance left him by his father the year prior. The front office held two desks, one tidy and one covered with heaps of paper and mechanisms.

Behind the cluttered desk Bob Cratchit looked up with a quiet smile. Where Marley was expansive and memorable, Cratchit was small and quiet and utterly forgettable. He was a pleasant man, so pleasant that I have only ever known one man to ever speak crossly of him: Scrooge, that nasty old miser who spoke crossly of everyone, regardless of cause. Look! He has intruded again upon our story where he is not wanted. I will speak of him no more until his presence enters upon the story.

Although Cratchit was a pleasant man, and earnest, he was easily forgotten, apt to leave no lasting impression on the memory. In fact, even I can no longer bring his features clearly to my mind. All I can
say of his appearance is that he was exceedingly ordinary in every respect, and he was of an age with his partner, both old enough to have earned their own reputation, but young enough to hold wild and optimistic musings of their future. Cratchit’s forgettable appearance suited him well enough, because people made him unaccountably nervous, and he found even idle conversation to be terribly taxing. If no one remembered him, then no one would seek him out and he would be left to his alchemy. In those days he did little else, his efforts supported by Marley’s coffers in the hopes of finding something to build a business on.

“I’ve finished it,” Cratchit. “I’ve finished my great work, the one which will make us our fortune.”

“Oh! Why didn’t you say so!” Marley asked, with a slap to Cratchit’s shoulder. “To your feet, Bob. Jump with joy, shout from the rooftops.”

“I am quite excited,” Cratchit admitted, still smiling his quiet little smile. “Would you like to see it work?”

“Of course, of course.”

Cratchit led the way to the workroom in the back where Marley hadn’t ventured for months, not wanting to disturb the alchemical processes. The workroom was but a larger manifestation of the cluttered desk at the front, packed from wall to wall with papers and metalwork, beakers and boilers. Cratchit’s newest and greatest work stood in the center of the room, looking like a shrine within its circle of clear space. It was an upright wooden hoop a pace in diameter, with strange symbols carved around its edges. The wood’s color was more uneven than ordinary wood grain would account for, some patches pale as pine, others dark as ebony.

Cratchit took a fist-sized stone from a workbench and handed it to Marley for inspection. “You see that sparkle?” he asked, pointing.

“I see it.”

“That gold can be extracted through ordinary means, but doing so requires great effort and great skill.” Cratchit took the stone again. “Stay here.” He walked around the hoop to the other side, and tossed the stone through.

What landed at Marley’s feet was not one stone, but two. One, a dull and valueless ball of black rock. The other, a glimmering golden nugget the size of a sparrow’s egg. Marley scooped it up with a nimble hand and peered at it. “This is gold?”

“Pure gold,” Cratchit confirmed. “The exact quantity that was contained in the original, and removed with no more effort than it took to toss the stone. This device separates the pure from the impure of any object which passes through it.”

“This is truly a marvel, my friend. We shall never want for money with this clever machine at hand.”

Marley was wrong, but many years did pass before either had less money to spend than he desired. They advertised themselves as jewelers, and advertised an exchange of stones for jewelry. Not every stone held precious metals, but the unpredictable results of their secret process provided some of the appeal. It became a sort of game for their customers to bring in whatever stones they could find to learn their worth. Marley would explain to them about different kinds of stones, the kind most likely to contain purities. Marley and Cratchit kept a modest portion of the value extracted and gave the rest back to the customer. Cratchit always stayed in the workroom, tinkering and tinkering. Every evening, after they locked their doors, he would adjust the Separator, rubbing the wood with potions and tracing over the symbols with fresh charcoal. The Separator needed adjustments after every use to produce full yields, as the delicate alchemical structures were pulled out of alignment by the metals passing through.

For ten years Marley and Cratchit prospered. For ten years Marley asked nothing about Cratchit’s work during the day and for ten years Cratchit volunteered nothing about it. After those ten years Cratchit finally completed his masterpiece, the Ousía tis Moíras, and changed both of their lives forever.

STAVE 2: TO GLIMPSE THE WEAVE

Cratchit gazed upon the Ousía tis Moíras almost reverently. The blood-red crystal sparkled in the dim workroom as though reflecting bright sunlight. Ten years of work, half a dozen aborted attempts when a step went wrong in the years-long and complicated formula. He felt faint with the potential of this moment, of the revelations he’d once been promised.

Slowly, almost reverently he laid a hand on the crystal. It did not feel cold, as he’d expected. It did not feel like anything. It was solid, but he felt no substance, no texture. As he watched the color drained from it, leaving the crystal clear as glass.

He frowned. Nothing seemed to have changed but the color of the stone. He hadn’t known exactly what he’d see, but he’d been told to expect revelations. The only revelation that seemed forthcoming was the fact that he’d done something wrong, his efforts producing nothing but a parlour trick.

He imagined Dunlop, the alchemist to which he’d been apprenticed, and how disappointed he might be at Cratchit’s failure. The workroom disappeared. Cratchit felt a sensation of sudden motion, and for a moment he glimpsed a thin dark line stretching ahead of him to infinity and then he found himself standing in old Dunlop’s workroom. Dunlop stood before him, just as Cratchit remembered him, with ginger hair and wings of gray hair over his ears. Only when Cratchit opened his mouth to greet Dunlop did he realize that he did not, in fact, possess a mouth with which to speak.

Walking in the door was a younger version of Cratchit himself. Dunlop leaned in close to the young Cratchit and handed him a roll of
parchment, cracked with age. “This, my boy, is my greatest secret, and now yours. Every alchemist has secrets, but this here is the greatest of them all: the formula that every alchemist is trying to achieve, the pinnacle of alchemy.”

Young Cratchit’s eyes widened. “The Philosopher’s Stone?”

“Yes, the Philosopher’s Stone, though it has little resemblance to its myths. Nature’s lone inevitability is death and not even alchemy can change that fact. But what the real Philosopher’s Stone does provide is far better. Instead of merely extending your time on God’s earth, you can turn a leaden life into gold. This, my boy, is the Ousía tis Moíras, my greatest secret, and now yours as well. Guard it wisely.”

“‘Essence of the Fates’?” the young Cratchit asked. “What does it do?”

“It holds the answers,” Dunlop said with a sly smile.

“Answers to what?”

“To everything! The blinders will be lifted from your eyes and you will truly see. You can use it but once. Oh, you can make another, but never again will it work its effect on you.”

Young Cratchit stared at the parchment, and licked his lips nervously. “Have you used it, sir?”

“I have. I have seen the face of God and all of His Almighty plan. But no mere mortal could retain it all. Selfish being that I am, I only remembered tidbits, and only the ones that I held foremost in my mind.”

“Selfish, sir?” young Cratchit asked with genuine surprise. “I have never known you to be selfish.”

“Everyone man is selfish, lad, and every woman in one way or another. I must warn you, lad, that you can’t see the face of God and come away unchanged. You may come, as I did, to see your former self as a stranger.”

How did you change?”

“I was a wealthy man, and greedy, with a pretty young wife and three children. After I touched the stone, I couldn’t pass a beggar without giving him a crown from my own purse. The beggars multiplied like flies on meat, and I’d often pass the same beggar three times in one walk, but I’d keep giving him coins.

“I gave away money faster than I was earning it, and soon my coffers were empty. My wife took the children and returned to her parents, swearing to find herself a respectable man. I gave myself so completely to my charity that I kept no money for the rent, or even for food. Too late I realized that I was no less selfish than before, to deprive my family of sustenance for the aid of strangers. The Bible says it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, but like all things, charity is best practiced in moderation.

“Now, Cratchit my boy, it’s time for you to head out to find your own fortune. Take the formula, and guard it well.”

Young Cratchit shook Dunlop’s hand and soon departed, leaving the older Cratchit with his former teacher. Dunlop wiped a tear from his eye as he looked at the door, and then returned to his work.

“I wonder what ever happened to old Dunlop?” Cratchit asked aloud. Again the room around him changed, and again Cratchit saw the line stretching into the distance. This time he could see more clearly that it was not just a line, but a long brown thread woven intricately in among others but somehow distinct to his eyes.

Abruptly the thread vanished and the complex tapestry vanished, leaving Cratchit in a dimly lit room. A white-haired Dunlop lay in a bed, covered in heavy blankets. A young woman entered and sat on the edge of the bed. Dunlop opened his eyes and smiled weakly at her, and then the light passed from his eyes and he was gone.

Cratchit felt a confusing mix of grief at seeing his old master’s death, warring with excitement at the revelation that the Ousía tis Moíras had truly worked. The aptly named stone was allowing him to see the tapestry of human threads woven by the Fates, able to follow each thread until Atropos severed it from the pattern.

He envisioned the tapestry again, and it appeared. He followed Dunlop’s thread back to the place where it parted from his own, and followed his own thread forward again. Cratchit wondered if his future was already set in place. Would he follow his own thread all the way to its end, and learn how he would die? He followed it, on and on, bodiless in this place but willing himself along the length of the thread.

Cratchit’s thread did not reach a clear end like Dunlop’s. Instead he reached a point where his own blue thread, previously solid and real, suddenly exploded into a multitude of smaller threads as though unraveling. Each of the smaller blue threads grew increasingly faint the farther from the unraveling point he looked. As he watched the individual strands wound themselves together.

Cratchit wondered what happened to him at that momentous point along his life’s path. As the thought entered his mind the scene didn’t change but his view of it did, as if he were watching from a great height. He looked down on himself looking down on himself looking down on himself, an endless stream of Cratchits all examining the great weave. Cratchit’s head felt light from the image, and he nearly swooned until he forced the other Cratchits away. That moment was his own present. He imagined he could almost see Clotho performing her eternal labor.

Of the ephemeral threads extending from the raveling, one seemed much more solid than the rest. He moved along that thread and soon he was seeing flashes of his life yet to come. Along this line of things yet to come Marley’s thread and Cratchit’s thread wound tightly round each other. They never deviated from one another but by a hair’s breadth, and were never joined by the threads of others for long.

Time after time, Cratchit’s thread drew gradually further away from Marley’s, but then Marley’s joined with it again. That pattern continued more times than he could count.

Cratchit touched one of those points, at random. The Cratchit of the vision wore a determined expression and had a rucksack slung over one shoulder, while Marley tugged at his sleeve, pleading with the departing Cratchit. “Please stay!”

“I don’t want to die having never set foot outside of London.”

“We can set up a traveling shop. We can travel, to Paris, to Istanbul, wherever you want.”

“No, Jacob. A traveling alchemist is a worthless alchemist. Making anything worthwhile takes years of work, and that work can’t easily be moved. My alchemy would be of no use to me, nor to you.”

“Please, Bob. Don’t leave. Together we have done great things! Don’t you see? Together we are a powerful force, but apart we are nothing.”

Cratchit saw his own face soften, and he said “I will think on it.” With that said, he left.

Cratchit drew back from the vision of his future. He followed along his thread further, a long way until Marley’s thread ended. Cratchit’s thread continued on and ended alone.

He’d already spent most of his adult life in his workroom, trying to perfect his craft. He had never thought his life so terrible. Adventures were the lot of other people, not for him. But somehow the thought of spending the rest of his life in his workroom made him feel like a prisoner to his own nature, cursed to live alone because he was too afraid to do anything else. As he watched, the nearly-solid thread of his most likely future faded, and others became more bold. Here the future was laid before him like it never would be again. He could follow a few and choose the one he liked the best.

When Cratchit woke up on the floor of his workroom, not a day had passed. He couldn’t remember everything he’d seen in the vision, but he did remember the course he’d chosen for himself. He gathered only the most valuable of his supplies, his rarest ingredients, a mortar and pestle, and left London that very day without a word to his partner. Marley would be fine without him.

STAVE 3: CRATCHIT’S RETURN

“Scrooge and Marley”, the shingle read, hanging over the entry to the office that had once been “Marley and Cratchit.” Cratchit smiled worriedly. Once again his vision of the weave had proven true, and Marley had indeed prospered in his absence. Cratchit needed employment, having sold his alchemical ingredients and drained his finances on his great adventure.

He braced himself for the wind that normally blows between a warm interior and the bitter cold winter. Not a breeze stirred when he pushed the door open, for the interior was scarcely warmer than the street. An old man sat behind the lone desk. The desk itself was kept as tidy as Marley had always kept it, but the man behind the desk was old enough to be Marley’s father, with wispy white hair covering his chin and head. And what odd proportions the man had, with a stout body but withered face and hands. The man’s eyes sank into his skull and the dark circles beneath his eyes spoke of long hours of weary work.

“I’m looking for Jacob Marley.”

“Look no further.” The old man said, without looking up from his papers. “How might I be of service?”

Cratchit’s jaw worked soundlessly. This white-haired man was far too old to be his former partner. He could see some resemblance in the color of the eyes and shape of the ears. Gathering his wits, he said “There must be some mistake. You can’t be the same Jacob Marley I worked with ten years past. Unless you are a relative, the namesake of the Jacob I knew?”

The man finally looked up, and the taciturn features lit with a familiar smile in that unfamiliar face. “Bob?” the man exclaimed. “A lifetime has passed since last I saw you. Tell me; where have you been all these years?”

Cratchit almost told him of the vision, but instead simply said “Seeking adventure.”

“And? Did you find it?”

“All I could ever hope for. I saw the world, met my wife, and now I return to London.”

“A wife? Good for you, my good man! Accompany me to some place warmer to celebrate your good fortune and I will not allow a word of argument.”

Cratchit smiled and allowed himself to be bustled out to a nice warm pub. What Cratchit had first taken for Marley’s odd proportions were only layers and layers of coats, which Marley stripped off and placed in such a heap that a child could have hidden beneath it. The sight was so absurd that Cratchit laughed before he could stop himself.

Marley laughed as well. “Scrooge doesn’t like to keep the fireplace burning. He says we may as well throw our coin out the window.”

Once they had both ordered a pint, Cratchit asked “You’ve done well over these past years? I am glad to see you have continued on in my stead.”

Marley’s smile narrowed a touch at that. “Business is steady. Some renting, some lending. Nothing like the days of Marley and Cratchit. Oh, how I miss those days.” His eyes looked past Cratchit to a time long past. “I don’t suppose…” His eyes focused again on Cratchit. “Are you here to speak of business?”

Cratchit grinned at Marley’s hopeful tone.

“Well, I was hoping you could use my expertise. Your funding and my alchemy, like old times.”

“I’m afraid that alchemy has fallen out of favor in London during the years you’ve been away. We can’t sell your work, but I imagine you could still make something that will help our business.”

“Are you sure you shouldn’t talk to Mr. Scrooge first?”

Marley waved his hands in dismissal. “Bah, Scrooge won’t object!”

“He’s a reasonable man, then?”

“Reasonable? Ha! He has an eye for value and he will see the profit in hiring a man with your skills. Have you found a home for your family? You can rent one from me, no cost for half a year, half rent thereafter.”

“I don’t see how I can turn down an offer like that.”

Marley was true to his word. After spending the evening at the pub, Marley showed him to his new home, a cozy home, but comfortable. Cratchit wrote a letter to Molly, sharing with her the good news, before curling in a blanket in the corner.

Cratchit set to work, retaking Scrooge and Marley’s storage room as his own workroom again, using money given him by Marley to purchase alchemical ingredients and equipment, piece by piece. The Separator had been dismantled and sold in needy times, so Cratchit would truly need to build his workroom anew. He began some simple recipes, the only ones he could create with so few supplies. The old excitement awoke in his mind, the thrill of creation.

A few weeks later Molly arrived with the children and began to settle in. “You’re sure that we can trust Mr. Marley?” she asked. “His offer seems too good to be the truth.”

“He was always a generous man. If it would ease your heart, we can repay him for these first months when we have earned the money.”

Their new house was small but adequate, and soon Molly had truly made the place into a home. At the store Cratchit’s enthusiastic but small efforts to rebuild the old enterprise were interrupted at intervals by Marley lurking in the doorway muttering to himself. He would often watch Cratchit for several minutes at a time, and those visits became more and more frequent. Cratchit noted Marley’s presence with increasing irritation, but said nothing about them for weeks.

Cratchit tried asking what he needed on several occasions, but Marley merely slid out of view as if he hadn’t been spotted. Marley had done him a great favor and Cratchit did not wish to be cross with him. At all other times Marley was his normal jovial self.

Finally Cratchit’s temper rose and he snapped at Marley’s interruption. “Must you watch over me like a prison warden? What do you need?”

Marley jumped, as though startled that his clumsy inspection had been noticed. “My apologies, friend. I was only hoping to learn if you would soon have something that will make money. You know Scrooge.” He smiled apologetically. “He wants to wring the profit from everything. He says you are not fulfilling your potential.”

“You know I need to replenish my equipment and ingredients.”

Marley lifted his hands in placation. “I know.”

“Alchemy is not for the hasty. You know how it was before. It took years for the Separator to work.”

“I know, I know. But Scrooge has grown very impatient.”

Cratchit’s heart pounded, from anger at Marley’s second hand accusation. “When shall I meet your elusive partner? Perhaps he would listen if I talked to him myself?”

Marley shook his head. “Scrooge comes only when he is needed.”

“When is he needed? What precisely does he do?”

Marley shifted uncomfortably. “He does those things of which I am unable.”

“What is that?”

Marley said nothing for a time, but Cratchit just watched him, waiting for answer. Finally Marley said “He’s the collector. Before we met, I was losing money at every turn because I lack the nerve to collect payment from those who claimed they couldn’t afford it.”

“Still, I see no reason why I can’t talk to him directly.”

Marley began to wring his hands nervously. “I wouldn’t want that, Bob. I was happy to hire you and make sure you found a home, but you don’t want to cross Scrooge.”

“So what do you expect me to do?”

“Just work as fast as you can. You will think of something and then all will be well.”

A week or so later a young man approached Cratchit as he left his workroom to return home. The young man’s countenance tickled a memory, broad-jawed and ruddy-faced, with earnest eyes, but Cratchit could not recall where he might have seen it.

“Mr. Cratchit?”

“Yes?”

“I need to talk to you about your employer, Jacob Marley.”

“I am certain I’ve met you before, but I can’t recall exactly where. Could you remind me who you are?”

“I’m his nephew, Fred. I met you when I was a child, when the business was called Marley and Cratchit.”

“Oh!” Cratchit did remember now, round-faced boy always excited to see alchemy at work. Cratchit had hoped to make Fred an apprentice when he was older. “I am glad to see you again, my boy. You are well, I trust? You’ve certainly grown!”

Fred smiled shyly. “Can we talk about this elsewhere? I don’t want Mr. Scrooge to see us.”

“No need to fret about Scrooge. He is away today, as he is away every day.”

“I would still feel safer if we found another place to talk, rather than Scrooge’s front door.”

Cratchit agreed and they retreated to Fred’s home, a tiny apartment a short walk away. Fred brewed a pot of tea and they sat down at the table before he spoke. “Have you met Mr. Scrooge?”

“I have not, though I have tried. Marley seems afraid to introduce him to me.”

“Uncle Jacob is terrified of Mr. Scrooge. He always has been. You have seen how much Uncle Jacob has aged? The worry has taken years from his life. Mr. Scrooge can’t hurt Uncle directly, but he knows how important you are to Uncle Jacob.”

“What can we do?” Cratchit asked, feeling guilty that his departure was what set these events in motion.

“You won’t understand what we are up against until you meet Mr. Scrooge for yourself.”

The next day Cratchit arrived at the office hours late. When he stepped in the door Marley jumped to his feet and rushed over to him. “Bob! I was afraid you’d met your death somehow. It’s not like you to arrive late. Are you well?”

“As well as I can be, Jacob. I appreciate everything you have done for me but I fear I cannot work for you any longer.”

“You need this job to take care of your family!”

“I will see to my family.”

“Please, Bob, don’t leave again. I am sorry. I won’t bother you in your work anymore. I will talk to Scrooge and I will hold him off for a time longer.”

“I do not wish to leave, but I have had quite enough of Mr. Scrooge and I haven’t even met the man. Allow me to speak to him myself and perhaps we can reach an agreement.”

Marley shook his head. “He won’t be happy about this.”

“I know.”

“You don’t know what he’s capable of.”

“Tell me,” Cratchit said quietly.

“I’m afraid.”

“How did you meet him?”

Marley’s hands moved restlessly. “There’s no great story there. We met as any other people meet.”

“Where did he do his business before he came here?”

“Here and there, this and that.”

“Was he raised in London? Does he have any family?”

Marley’s eyes darted wildly across the room, like a rodent looking for a place to hide from an owl.

“Do you know nothing of your own partner?”

Marley whirled away from him and took a large unsteady stride toward the desk. He paused, seeming to struggle for balance, and took another step. One more and he fell, catching himself on the desk with his arms.

“Jacob? Are you well?” Cratchit asked, Fred’s plan entirely forgotten.

Marley snarled, without turning his head.

Paralysis broken, Cratchit dashed to his friend’s side. Marley spun with uncanny speed and grabbed Cratchit by the lapel. His face was so pinched with hate and greed and every other hateful feeling that he looked only like a distant relative of the Jacob Marley of moments before.

“Keep out of my affairs, Cratchit!” Marley snapped. “Shut your mouth and get back to work. I don’t gamble and I am through with losing money on you. If you cross me I will bury you in so much debt that your family will never recover!”

“Jacob?” Cratchit said, now well and truly scared.

“Not Jacob. Ebenezer. Mr. Scrooge, to you.”

STAVE 4: SCROOGE AND MARLEY

Now that Marley had allowed Scrooge to reveal himself, Scrooge had started to appear frequently and without warning, borrowing Marley’s body at intervals, sometimes hours, sometimes minutes. Most times Cratchit’s first sign was a shouted “Cratchit!” from the other room. Believe me, there are few sounds less pleasant than the voice of Scrooge in a temper. And Scrooge was nearly always in a temper.

One morning when Marley was Marley, Cratchit approached him, careful to keep a friendly smile on his face. “I want to help you, Jacob,” he said softly, carefully. Scrooge would most often appear when Marley felt cornered.

Without looking up, Jacob shuffled paper randomly about his desk. “I know you do, Bob, but there is nothing to help.”

“You know that I met Mr. Scrooge?”

Jacob head jerked in a nod.

“I want to help you, Jacob, but you need to tell me what happened to you.”

“I need Ebenezer.”

“He is killing you, Jacob. Have you seen how you’ve aged? You’re an old man before your prime.”

“I need him. He’s an angel from God.” Marley looked up at Cratchit, then back at his desk. “I know how it sounds, but he came to me in my most desperate hour and gave me exactly what I needed.”

“Tell me what happened, Jacob. Please?”

Jacob sighed and sagged, making him appear even older. “When you left, everything went wrong. The Separator worked for a while, but the yield grew a bit lower every day. After a few months, I had to pass even the most valuable stone through twice to get enough purities to be worthwhile. Then three times, then four.”

“And each throw made it worse and worse,” Cratchit said.

“I tried my hand at other ventures, homes rented, money lent, but my nature proved inadequate for the job. I could find renters for each home without fail, but collecting payments was where I lacked. My low rates attracted the poorest renters, and I hadn’t the heart to demand payment when I could see they were struggling.

“My debt overwhelmed. I am afraid I indulged too much in drink, and in a moment of abject despair I threw my body through the Separator, intending to end my life by whatever process it rendered in me.”

“My God!” Cratchit exclaimed. “You survived that!”

Marley nodded sadly. “Survived, but with Scrooge sharing my body. As best I can understand it, your device has taken my essence and divided it in two as it would once divide stones in two. Scrooge was but a part of me, a dark side of my soul I had long suppressed. I can no sooner stop him than I can stop breathing, yet he is a part of me and therefore I am responsible for his every action. He has saved me from debt, but at too great a cost. You must help me, Bob. He won’t know we’ve talked of this. I can keep some things from him yet. But you must hurry! Ever since he revealed himself to you he has grown much stronger. I don’t know how much longer I can last.”

Cratchit’s hands were shaking even harder than Marley’s now, and he clasped them behind his back to arrest their motion. “I will do what I can, Jacob. I will do what I can.”

Cratchit pored over every alchemical reference he could find, consulted alchemists, physicians, and priests, but no one could suggest a remedy for a sundered mind.

Weeks passed and Marley was displaced by Scrooge more and more of the time, until moments with Marley were scattered and few. Scrooge seemed to be unaware of Cratchit’s efforts, but when Marley was in control he looked pleadingly to Cratchit and Cratchit only shook his head.

Cratchit arrived at the workroom one morning and Scrooge was sitting at the desk when he arrived, like he often had been of late. As he walked past, he heard Marley’s soft voice in little more than a whisper. “Please, Bob. Have you found a way to save me?”

Cratchit hesitated, but shook his head sadly. Marley’s face dropped in despair, his eyes downcast and posture hunched. But he seemed to regain his strength in an instant, and he smiled and looked up at Cratchit. His smile was too cruel, his eyes too cold, like glittering diamonds. “Ha! I caught you, Cratchit! Trying to kill me, are you?”

It was all Cratchit could do to keep from yelling in surprise. “Of course not, Mr. Scrooge.”

“Liar! You thieving murderous little cretin, taking my money and plotting to kill me. Well, if you’re not going to do any alchemist’s work for my benefit, then you don’t need your workroom. You can be my clerk from now on. And your rent won’t be so cheap.”

“I can find other work.”

“Just see if you can. Don’t expect Marley to help you anymore. He’s dead now. You’re on your own.”

Cratchit tried to find new funding, but Marley had been right about the recent mistrust of alchemists. He had no choice but to continue working for Scrooge, and he couldn’t help but think that Marley might still be trapped behind Scrooge’s horrible scowl. Marley’s fate rested on Cratchit’s conscience.

STAVE 5: CRATCHIT’S GLIMMER OF HOPE

Finally a new stone was finished after seven years’ long labor. Never, before or since, have I seen a man work as hard as Cratchit worked during those years, to eke out his meager living under the bent old tyrant, only to spend long hours every night in his own workroom manipulating ingredients procured by many a favor. And, to pile misfortune upon misfortune, his son Tiny Tim took ill with an ailment which he could not cure with the resources he could lay hands on. He needed more money to buy those most expensive ingredients, and so he watched as his poverty weakened his poor son until he was certain the boy would soon die. The boy’s state made Cratchit work all the harder, for if his grand plan succeeded the boy’s life might still be saved.

Here it was, the Ousía tis Moíras, a brand new Philosopher’s Stone. Bundled carefully in burlap, to ensure that no one touched it before the appointed time, Cratchit delivered the stone to Fred on his way to the counting house on Christmas Eve. This was his grand plan, his only plan, to bring Marley to the surface again.

“Remember, Fred. It only has to touch his skin for a moment. Barge in, make a scene. Embrace him, do whatever you can.”

Fred nodded. “I’ll find a way. Do you think this will work?”

Cratchit shook his head doubtfully. “If this doesn’t bring him out, I don’t think anything will. Once you touch the stone to him, we can only pray.”

And so Bob Cratchit’s grand plan was set in motion. There is more to tell, of the Essence of the Fates and Ebenezer Scrooge’s revelation. But that is quite a tale in itself, best left for another day.


He reads slush for both Flash Fiction Online and Drabblecast and he edits Diabolical Plots, a nonfiction zine focusing on speculative fiction topics (). For a full list of his publications, visit his bibliography page.

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