A Kindle Carol, Part 1
This story, inspired by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, originally appeared in ILMK on December 1, 2009.
It was a cold night in the publishing house. Every night was cold, and the days weren’t much better. The employees (well, the ones that were left after the latest round of layoffs) had been told it was a cost-cutting measure. Samir in Accounting had gotten quite a laugh when he suggested it was to match the CEO’s reptilian heart. Michel had disagreed…he said Scrooge had no heart.
Bob Cratchit would have disagreed for a different reason, if anyone had shared the joke with him. He’d been Mr. Scrooge’s Executive Assistant for nearly twenty years. He believed that there was some humanity left in the Old Man, although it had been diminished by years of declining sales. It had been ten years since his last raise…before any of his children had been born. Company policy prohibited raises based purely on longevity, and Scrooge had given him a perfect review ten years ago. Nine years ago, his boss had said there wouldn’t be any point in doing another review…unless Bob’s performance declined. Bob was proud of the fact that it hadn’t.
Tonight was going to be a particularly difficult test. It was time for the annual holiday marketing strategy meeting. J. Marley Publishing hadn’t turned a profit in three years, and was rapidly depleting its cash reserves. It had accepted an offer of twenty-five cents on the dollar for its audiobook business in exchange for a considerable loan that would see them through the spring. If something didn’t change, there would be no Jay-Em romances on the beaches that summer.
Scrooge’s voice carried into Bob’s little cell of a cubicle. He didn’t shout: he saw no reason to spend the extra energy that would take. The phones would only accept incoming calls…even salespeople had to use their own phones to call their clients. There was no way to call someone’s extension from inside the building, and Scrooge wasn’t going to waste the valuable time it would take to walk the ten steps from his inner office. Time was money: although when Scrooge saw his own face in the mirror, he knew he might soon have very little of either left.
“Yes, Mr. Scrooge?”
“How many are going to be in the meeting?”
“Just three of us, sir. You, your nephew, and myself.”
“Don’t bother printing out any agendas, then. We can’t afford the paper. No coffee, no donuts. Don’t bring the garbage can: we won’t need it.”
“Yes, sir. Anything else?”
“No. Don’t be late…I can’t abide tardiness.”
“Yes, sir.” Bob Cratchit had never been late for anything in his life, much less a meeting. He wondered what had made Scrooge forgetful, and hoped the Old Man wasn’t ill.
Scrooge wasn’t sick, or not especially sick. When you get as old as he was, you were always sick with something. You outlived most of the viruses…it was your own failing systems that would probably get you. That’s why they call it natural causes…only fools were surprised when the end came.
Marley had been no fool. Everything was in order, and Scrooge had found it all laid out in minute detail. He had followed his old partner’s plans for three years. Marley had always been the face of the organization, and his name could still open a few doors. Lately, though, there had been fewer and fewer of those doors…open or otherwise.
He could almost picture Marley now. They would strategize before these meetings. But strategies suggest choices. Nobody in the book industry had a lot of choices left. “People just don’t read any more”, thought Scrooge, “unless it’s under 141 characters”. Books were going to go the way of newsreels and LPs. Even if the electronic cancer didn’t kill them, the rising cost of paper would…the expense of natural resources bringing on natural causes.
Scrooge’s nephew burst into the room.
“Seven minutes early.”
“I figured that would be okay. Why not get the meeting done, and we can get out of here early…it’s the night before Thanksgiving, after all.”
“Hmph. That doesn’t mean today has to be any shorter. Why not two hours…or half the day? Why not take the whole week off?”
“Why not? A lot of people do.”
“Idiots. You can’t run a business by taking off time. If it was up to me, we’d work through Thanksgiving.”
“You don’t mean that, Unca.”
“I do…and if you had any sense, you’d agree with me.”
“Oh, I have plenty of sense, Unca…runs in the family, right? So, you want to have Bob join us in the Conference Room?”
“You’re already here. Cratchit! Cancel the lights and turn off the heat for the rest of the building. We’ll meet here now.”
“Yes, sir. Right away, sir.”
“You mean the heat’s on? It’s like a refrigerator in here.”
“Mr. Scrooge, would you like to begin with old business?”
“Let’s dispense with that, Unca. I wanted to let you know…I met with some guys from Amazon.”
“They were talking to me about the Kindle–”
“Hear me out, Unc. They were telling me that they thought the Jay-Em line would be a good bet. Romances do well…all those Harlequin imprints…Kimani, Silhouette, Steeple Hill…Samhain’s moving titles, too.”
“We’re not in the software business. We sell books.”
“These are books, Unc…they’re just a different format.”
“Paperbacks and hardbacks, those are different formats. E-books are nothing. What do they charge for those things?”
“Well, actually, they suggested we offer a couple of them for free–”
“FREE? That’s not a business, it’s a charity. Call Bill Gates…he can give them away in South America or something.”
“If those e-books were worth anything, they wouldn’t be giving them away. Books are paper, period. Nobody’s going to pay any real money for fake books.”
“They really open up the market, though, Unca. People who have difficulty reading the paper books can really use the increasing text size and the text-to-speech. It’s easier for people with arthritis and you should understand about the aging population.”
“Our market’s dying off, you don’t need to remind me. As to the blind, they can already get books for free. That’s no help.”
“But this is more convenient, and they can share with the family. They don’t have to prove any kind of disability to buy books from the Kindle store.”
“We’re not here to make their lives easier…we’re here to make money.”
“But Unca, I’ve got some numbers here…oh, my cell! It’s my wife…excuse me while I take this.”
“Cratchit, go work on those end of year calculations. No point in wasting the time while my nephew conducts his personal business.”
Left alone in his office, Scrooge’s gaze fell on the J. Marley Publishing logo on the wall. It was a stylized silhouette of old Marley himself. As he stared at it, he fancied he saw the portrait turn and look at him.
“These old eyes of mine are playing tricks on me,” Scrooge thought.
“Audio hallucinations as well. It was only a matter of time.”
“I am no hallucination.”
“Nonsense. My mind is starting to go…I haven’t been getting enough sleep lately. After the holidays, I’ll catch up and then I won’t have to worry about mind slips like you.”
“You know who I was.”
“I know you appear to be Jacob Marley, but you could have been a two-headed giraffe. It’s just a normal consequence of sleep deprivation. See that stack of bills? That’s real.”
At this, the figure of Marley let out a wail that shook Scrooge to his toes. He was sure that Cratchit and his nephew must have heard it, and would rush in at any moment. When that didn’t happen, he knew that only he could hear and see it.
“It seems it’s just the two of us. Alright, I’ll play along. ”
“We do not play games in this office…you of all people should know that.”
“What do you want of me?”
“Good luck with that. There is very little of me left…I’ve already given everything to this company.”
“You do not know what you have to give. But you will. If you can still learn, you will.”
These last words chilled Scrooge. He was unsure that he could learn anything new…and if he couldn’t, what would be the consequences? He frantically looked at the ghost, looked for anything there that might give him a way to avoid the lesson. He noticed the spectral ruins of buildings at the feet of the phantom.
“What…what are those crumbled walls?”
“Those are the chains to which we sold when I was alive…Crown Books, B. Dalton, Waldenbooks…I am tied to them in death as I was in life. I stumble over them, wander their empty halls…I can not leave them, can not move on to more fertile markets. If you can not change, you will join me here in death.”
“Tell me, spirit…tell me what I have to do!”
“That is not for me to do. When you see me, you see our lives together. The echoes of the past will overwhelm any truth I might tell you now. That will be for the others.”
Scrooge’s heart beat faster than it had in years. Seeing your dead business partner was one thing…he could manage Marley. But other people…other ghosts…Scrooge had always been better with numbers than people. That had been Marley’s area.
“Three others. Listen openly to what they tell you, Ebenezer. You will not be given another chance.”
At this, the figure faded back into the logo on the wall.
The ruins crumbled into dust, and the dust to lesser dust, until there was no sign that anything had ever been there.
“Delusions,” said Scrooge, “brought on by stress and lack of sleep. Where is that nephew of mine? Work…that’s what I need. Back to work, and I won’t be bothered by these ridiculous visions any more.”
He noticed the old-fashioned Rolodex that sat on a corner of his desk. He flipped backwards, precisely one letter at time. “Just the thing,” thought Scrooge. “I’ve been meaning to get this organized.”
He began with the letter A. He looked at the first card. “Dead.” He put it in a large envelope he used to take shredding to the bank…JMP wasn’t going to pay a shredding service while he was in charge. He looked at the second card. “Out of business.” The third: “Merged.”
Soon, his envelope was filled to overflowing. He decided he would need something bigger. He took a dusty plaque honoring the company on its first million seller out of a box. He tried to shake the cards into the box, but they wouldn’t come out of the envelope.
“Out, you lazy garbage! Staying together isn’t going to save you!”
He shook harder, and the cards came out in a lump. Scrooge was stunned, though, to see that they didn’t fall. They hung in the air above the box. Slowly, the cards began to spread out…first in one direction, then another. Two long flows spread towards the floor, and two more towards the walls. A fifth formed a lump at about Scrooge’s chest level. It took on the shape of a child.
“Neezy,” it said in a soft and gentle voice.
“Neezy?!” No one had called Scrooge that since he was a child himself. Scrooge had almost no memories of his own childhood…they had long ago been crushed under the weight of corporate responsibility.
The figure, who ruffled and shuffled as its card body constantly flowed and changed, held out a “hand” to the Old Man.
“No, no! What is it? Where do you want to take me?”
“Only where you have already been. You will see nothing new…nothing you haven’t already lived.”
Scrooge thought about that…if there was damage to be done by the past, it had already hurt him…and he had beaten it. He had forgotten the worst of it before…he could do it again.
“Spirit, you do not frighten me.”
“It is your past we will see…do you frighten yourself?”
The hand began to withdraw, but Scrooge snatched it before it could merge back into the card cloud. He had never been afraid to seize an opportunity.
The rustling became an overwhelming sound, like being swept up in a tornado! The sprite grabbed Scrooge’s other hand, and they whirled in a mad game of ring-around-the-rosy, spinning faster and faster, until it seemed to Scrooge he was in danger of exploding outwards into a million pieces!
The spinning stopped, the sound subsided…and Scrooge saw something he would never have expected…
To be continued…
This story continues in Part 2.
This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.