Lytell's Christmas Carol
Chapter 1: Frayne's Ghost
Christmas Eve started off all right. The usual flurry of last minute shoppers, but Mr. Lytell prided himself on his ability to predict what Glen Road shoppers might need and keep it on hand. As the only store handy to the rural Sleepyside-on-Hudson neighborhood, he'd gradually added items to his stock until his little market had become part grocery, part drug store, part five and dime. From packaged hot rolls and bakery-fresh pecan pies to wrapping paper and sundry small gift items, Lytell could usually bail out the harried and hurried.
Things started to go wrong when that Belden tomboy came roaring up to his store at 3:20 p.m. He had closed at 3:00 p.m. - he'd posted his holiday hours on the door a few weeks before - and was outside loading the trunk of his car for some home deliveries he had scheduled. The day was so foggy that he didn't see Trixie until she was almost upon him, hollering at the top of her lungs.
"Mr. Lytell, Mr. Lytell! I'm so glad you're still here! I've got to get the toy train caboose for Bobby!" Trixie was gasping for breath, her cheeks red, her blonde curls tumbling around her face.
For just a moment Lytell thought of how much Trixie was coming to look like her pretty mother as she grew up. She also reminded him of another pretty young girl he'd known once
He pushed that thought away and glared at Trixie. She was nothing like those sweet young ladies, she was a loud no-account who didn't know her place or how to act.
"See here, you don't come running out of nowhere yelling at me," Lytell said, glaring over his glasses. "The store's closed and I'm scheduled to make these deliveries to Mrs. Vanderpoel, Mrs. Elliot and some other folks. They've had their orders in for a few days now."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Lytell, but it's so important. I'm supposed to pick up one of those toy cabooses you sell for the Lionel Little Chief series," Trixie said.
"I've already taken inventory and locked those items away in the back" Lytell slammed the trunk shut. "Now, folks are expecting me and I've got to be on my way."
Trixie shook her head in disbelief. "Oh, no, I've just got to buy that caboose! For the last four years we've been getting Bobby a toy train car as his special gift from Santa Claus. Now he'll have a complete set and probably next year he won't believe in Santa, but this year he still sorta does and - oh! -- you've just got to sell me that caboose!"
"I don't have to do any such thing, Trixie Belden," Lytell said airily. "You shouldn't have left it until the last minute. It's dark and getting darker. I'm not going to risk my neck because you can't get here during business hours."
"But it's just one thing!" the Belden girl's mouth was almost hanging open. "Mr. Lytell, I'll pay you double." She pulled some money out of her jeans pocket, frowned down at it and then said, "Well, I'll pay you extra, anyway. You don't have to give me any change. You know how much this means to Bobby's Christmas. If I don't come home with that train Moms and Dad'll just kill me!"
Mr. Lytell sniffed. "Your parents will do no such thing - I know they spoil you rotten. Well, it's high time you learned that you don't just waltz in at the last minute and tell a hard-working man what he has to do with his own store! Now, my shop is closed for the day! C-L-O-S-E-D!" Mr. Lytell got in his car and slammed the door shut.
Trixie continued to protest, banging on the car window. "No, please! It's so important to Bobby! It'll only take a minute!"
looking up, Mr. Lytell waved his hand dismissively and put the car in
motion. Trixie stood there stunned, then clinched her fist and yelled
something. Lytell paid her no mind but pulled onto Glen Road and headed
into town. Once on the road he glanced in the rear view mirror and saw
the girl trudging the opposite direction on Glen Road toward her family's
home, Crabapple Farm.
Mr. Lytell felt a peculiar mix of shame and satisfaction. He'd known Peter and Helen Belden all of his adult life. He liked and respected them and they were good customers. He regretted having to deal sternly with their child. But that girl always seemed to rattle him. Always running in yelling, or coming up with some cockamamie idea, some emergency that threw his orderly world into chaos.
"Got to teach the kids responsibility and manners," Lytell grumbled to himself as he drove toward his deliveries.
The day was so foggy that Lytell had to proceed at a snail's pace and the deliveries took every bit as long as he had feared. By the time he left Mrs. Vanderpoel's and headed home it was nearly 5:00 p.m. and, except for the foggy mist, pitch black.
About the time he thought he was nearing his store, Lytell realized he'd missed his turn. To his right was the turn that led up the hill to the remains of the Ten Acres mansion that had burned to the ground a few years before. He decided to pull in there, turn around and head back to his store. He turned cautiously off to the right. As he did his headlight caught a thin figure, what looked like, at first glance, a scarecrow. But as Lytell stared through the fog he saw that an old man in raggedy clothes was standing in the middle of Ten Acres road staring straight back at him. Lytell was so astonished he slammed on the brakes and the car coughed to a stop.
"What in tarnation?" Lytell ripped off his spectacles, wiped them and put them back on. The man was gone. Lytell looked around suspiciously, started his car again and inched back to his store.
Except that he was dead, the figure had looked like James Winthrop Frayne. Old Man Frayne, that was, the old recluse who'd lived alone at Ten Acres all those years. Lytell had been one of the pall bearers at his funeral, along with Trixie's father, Peter Belden. Except for Mrs. Peter Belden, Helen, there'd been no other mourners. Sad that a man who'd lived for so long in these parts had no one to mourn him
Dead and Gone
When he reached his store, Lytell parked and looked out in the direction of the little lean-to where he kept his old mare, Belle. "Too late and too dangerous to exercise Belle tonight," he decided. Too spooky too, but Lytell wouldn't admit that to himself.
He headed to his store's entrance where a tall wooden statue of an Indian Chief stood like a sentinel. Looking around nervously through the fog, Lytell fumbled and dropped his keys at the door. He stooped over to pick them up and somehow as he bent over he knew he was not alone.
He rose slowly, reluctantly, his eyes traveling up the carved wooden statue. When he got to the face, he cringed and moaned softly. Frayne's face was super-imposed on the statue's face like a milky mask. Lytell sucked in a breath and his eyes opened wide.
Just as suddenly, the face disappeared. Lytell took another deep breath, thrust his keys in the door and scurried inside, double checking the lock. He stood for a moment with his back toward the door, then whipped around suddenly and peered out into the night.
Lytell gathered his thoughts and picked up a flashlight he kept under the counter. Then he headed toward the stairs that led to his living quarters above the store. The point was, James Winthrop Frayne was dead. Dead and gone, he told himself.
Many years before he and Frayne had been friends who shared a game of checkers or a glass of lemonade. Mrs. Frayne had been a real lady and Lytell knew James Frayne had been a happy man. Then there had been that horrible death by the road, Mrs. Frayne snakebit and their car stranded. From then on, the man was haunted
Lytell stopped in his tracks midway up the stairs. Haunted. Had there been a creaking sound? He couldn't help himself, he turned around shining the flashlight toward the stairs below. Nothing. He shook his head, disgusted with himself and his fear.
A Haunted Man
Resolutely he continued his train of thought James Frayne had been a haunted man after he'd lost his wife. He'd holed up in Ten Acres and hardly ventured out again. When he stopped by Lytell's store in his torn shirts and scraggly beard, he'd scoop up some cans and do no more than grunt or nod in response to Lytell or anyone else.
At the stair's landing Lytell paused once more and glanced back before opening the door to his living quarters. He carefully locked the door and then lit the old gas heater that stood against the wall. He went to the kitchenette to brew some coffee and heat up some of Maypenny's venison stew.
Now that he thought of it, Lytell recalled that Frayne's birthday had been on Christmas Eve. This must be about 75 years since Frayne's birth as he'd died just a year and a half before at the relatively young age of 73.
Christmas Eve. Well, what if it was Christmas Eve and James Frayne's birthday? "Happens every year this time of year," Lytell said to himself.
He put his meal on a tray and sat down by the little gas heater. He took a bite of the stew, savoring its thick warmth. But the next instant, he dropped his spoon into the bowl.
Someone was moving downstairs. Lytell listened with growing alarm. He stared fixedly at the door to his living quarters. In his confused state of mind he thought that the footsteps were accompanied by the sound of heavy chains being dragged, like heavy furniture, up the stairs. Lytell wanted to run, but couldn't even move.
Outside his door, the steps came to a stop and, with a clatter, so did the chains. Then what looked like wisps of smoke filtered through the wooden door. The smoke thickened rapidly and, as Lytell watched in terror, formed into the face and physique of James Winthrop Frayne. The ragged clothes, the matchstick thin body, the haunted eyes - all stood in ghostly form in Lytell's living quarters.
"Bartholomew Lytell!" the Ghost roared out.
Lytell was quivering. He did not want to talk with such a thing - to give it the hold in reality that a conversation would signify.
"Bartholomew Lytell!" the Ghost roared even louder, insisting on an answer.
"Wha - a - a t?" Lytell got out in a pathetic whisper.
"Do you know who I am?" Frayne's Ghost seemed somewhat mollified by Lytell's answer.
"I know who you appear to be," Lytell said cautiously.
Lytell's visitor regarded him narrowly. "Indeed, Bartholomew, I am only an appearance now. Once I was a man like you. I walked in the woods, visited my neighbors, kept up my property."
Frayne's Ghost held his arms upward and shook them in despair, the clattering of the chains causing Lytell to shrink into his chair. "Now, I am doomed!" the voice rose in agony. "I am doomed to wander the world, the world that I rejected and despised for the last years of my life."
"Doomed?" Lytell echoed dumbly.
"Doomed because I did not understand that it is the job of the human spirit, whatever our circumstances, to be about the business of building up and supporting of others. When my wife died, I allowed myself to sink into bitterness. I rejected the life that had taken her from me. I made no effort to involve myself in the life that was left to me, for my good or the good of others. Now, in death I am condemned to roam the world wanting to give to others, but unable and, worst of all, still separated from her, whom I loved most."
"But, what does that have to do with me?" Lytell asked.
The Ghost fixed its terrible gaze on Lytell and the ghostly form gestured menacingly toward him. "I am here to warn you so that you may escape the fate that has befallen me."
"That's neighborly of you," Lytell said uncertainly.
"Neighborly, bah!" the Ghost nodded its head. "Tell me, what kind of a neighbor are you, Lytell?"
"Why, I - I know everybody!" Lytell stuttered. "I know everybody around here and everyone knows me. I'm not at all isolated!"
"Is that so?" Frayne's ghost asked. "Is that so?" it roared again.
Lytell shrank back into his chair. "I think so," he was whispering again.
Paying him no mind, the Ghost continued speaking, "But how are you involved with your neighbors? On what terms? Do you promote their welfare?"
Now Lytell was starting to get a little angry. "I'm an upstanding member of this community," he said, somewhat stuffily.
"I was a member of this community once," Frayne's Ghost said. "Then my wife died and I lost everything. I became the butt of jokes, the fool on the hill."
"I always felt bad for you, James," Lytell said.
"Did you?" the Ghost roared in an accusatory voice. "Did you? The rumors and gossip started before we had laid my wife to rest. Ugly stories - maybe I hadn't done everything I could, maybe I lost my head, and some even whispered, that maybe I'd done nothing and watched my wife die - on purpose! Ugly innuendo. Do you recall that, Bartholomew?"
"I - I - I," Lytell stammered.
"I'd lost the one person that gave my life meaning and the whisperers said it might have been my fault! Do you recall that?" the Ghost was glaring at him.
Lytell started to protest, then hung his head. "I'm sorry, James. I'm so sorry. It was my careless tongue. I really didn't mean it."
"But I'm not the only victim of your gossiping and backbiting, am I, Bartholomew? Finding fault and tearing down your neighbors is a long-standing occupation of yours. Well, tonight, it will be your faults that will be examined. You will be haunted tonight by Three Spirits," Frayne's Ghost declared.
"Three!?" Lytell cried in alarm.
"Three!" the Ghost insisted. "This is the only way for you to avoid the horrible fate that's befallen me. Expect the first tonight when the clock strikes one. You'll see me no more. But if you are wise, you'll remember this conversation the rest of your days."
that, Frayne's Ghost turned toward the door. He strode decidedly, dragging
the chains behind. He disappeared through the door and Lytell listened
as the sound faded off down the stairs.
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