With all due apologies to Charles Dickens.
Marley was dead: to begin with. There was no doubt ever about that. Marley and Scrooge had been buddies ever since basic training. They’d shared a bunk together. But now, Marley was dead. As dead as a door-nail.
Okay, not actually dead-dead, just dead on social media, where every one of his accounts had been suspended. Specialist Eb Scrooge and Sergeant Jake Marley were well-known for their Facebook rants and angry TikTok screeds. But now Marley was nothing more than vacant pages. Scrooge remained.
Oh, but he was an angry online veteran was old Scrooge! A shrewish, callow, bearded, bro who berated anyone for words of thanks on Memorial Day, with a tirade of “lmao u don’t even know what day it is, civilians just dont get it, amirite,” that left him estranged from all his friends and family. Even people he deployed with checked out of his life, not even sending him drunken texts at 2 AM anymore.
But what did Scrooge care! He enjoyed his VetBro shirts, his memes, his single-minded way of letting the four years that he served in the Army define every aspect of his existence. To see people type “dude, that’s a bit much” and “you’re too extra, bro” on the videos of him ranting about women in the military from his truck were really just balm to his soul. Every time someone told him to stop being an idiot for saying that women couldn’t have graduated Ranger School without the standards being made more lax, he felt like he was really making a difference.
Once upon a time – of all the good days in the year, on Veterans Day eve – Scrooge sat busy over his laptop. It was a bleak and cold evening, and Scrooge could hear the wind whistling through the coal-dark trees outside his apartment window. His phone buzzed and made him start. It was a text from his nephew: “Happy Veterans Day, uncle, thanks for your service!”
“Bah!” said Scrooge. “Humbug.”
“Don’t thank me, thank my recruiter lols,” he texted back, fingers flying over the screen as he moved his wad of dip into the other cheek.
“Vets day isn’t a humbug,” texted back his nephew.
“It is if you’ve seen what I’ve seen, don’t talk down to me,” Scrooge texted back, chugging his IPA. “u didnt serve,” he added. No response came from his nephew. Scrooge grunted contentedly. That would teach him.
Scrooge got up from his chair and walked over to the kitchen, passing a picture of his platoon that he had on his wall, right next to a giant Molon Labe poster. He didn’t give it a second thought as he went to go use his microwave. A perfectly normal microwave, innocuous, nothing remarkable about it, except that Scrooge saw in the window of the microwave, not a glass door, but Marley’s face.
Marley’s face. There it was, staring back at him, the same face that had once asked him if he wanted to trade the cheese spread in his MRE for Skittles. And then it was gone. Just a microwave door again.
“Bah!” said Scroogle, after he caught his breath. The fright of seeing Marley’s face had made him swallow his dip. “Humbug,” he added, to really seal the deal. He grabbed another IPA from the fridge and headed back to the living room. Then he heard it. The high-pitched beeps, growing more and more incessant, and louder in tone, as if the microwave was a bell, pealing out a dire warning through the night that the hot pockets were, in fact, burning. But Scrooge knew that he had nothing in the microwave. That it was vacant. That he had not pressed any buttons.
And now he heard the fridge door open and close, then feet, heavy, as if wearing Danner combat boots, hard on the floor, even though he knew he’d locked the door as soon as he’d gotten home from the gym where he’d been ogling women and then making excuses when they lifted more than he did.
The clank, as of chains, sounded in his ears, and there, standing in the doorway, rounded about with reflective belts, was the ghost of Marley.
“Dude!” was all that Scrooge could say.
“I want much with you,” said Marley, pointing a ghostly, gloved hand at him, his translucent eyes staring back at Scrooge through his eye protection. “Because you cut me off, I am left to walk the earth as a digital ghost, appearing in this phantasmagoric form to tell you of my sins, bro.”
“But Jake, why the PT belts, man?” asked Scrooge. Marley raised his fists into the air and shook them.
“I lived my life online as an angry veteran,” wailed Marley, in the shrill tone of an incoming alarm. “I am doomed to walk the earth thus girded about for my own safety. I failed to see the perils of the civilian-military divide, and am now accursed to wander in search of healthy relationships where I find mutual respect, but they’re just always out of reach.” He spread wan fingers in a sorrowful gesture.
“Dude, why you coming here though?” demanded Scrooge. “I never did you wrong!”
“Wrong!” screeched the spirit, and drew Scrooge off the couch and to the window, which opened as he grew close. He gestured to the street below, where bearded vetbros with beer bellies that protruded from their tank tops wandered feebly back and forth, wailing, bound with reflective belts all the colors of the rainbow.
“Eb Scrooge,” said Marley’s ghost, somberly, “this night you will be visited by three spirits.”
“Can I not be?” asked Scrooge, backing away from the window, eyes wide.
“It is for your own good,” intoned the Ghost. “You will be offered the chance to be saved.” And he faded away. Scrooge was going to say, “Humbug,” thought better of it, closed the window, and fled to bed.
He was awakened by the sound of reveille blowing, the clarion call of trumpets, and he observed that coming through his darkened window was a brilliant figure, clad all in sparkling new ACUs, gird about with the brightest PT belt that Scrooge had ever seen.
“Are you one of the spirits?” asked Scrooge. “Who are you?”
“I am the ghost of Veterans Day past,” said the figure. “More specifically, your past, and we’re already late for first formation, we must go.” He extended a hand to Scrooge who took it reluctantly. They sped through time and space, arriving in a small house to see a kind old man, in uniform, sitting by the fire, with a boy on his knee.
“Oh damn, that’s grandpa,” said Scrooge, breathlessly.
“And the boy?” asked the spirit.
“That’s me,” said Scrooge. “Grandpa was telling me all about World War II…he didn’t like to brag too much or talk it up, but he was my hero. Most people didn’t know what he did. He was such a humble man.”
“Did you learn anything from him?” asked the spirit.
“I guess I decided to join because of him,” said Scrooge. “But I think I could’ve learned more.”
“Let us see a different scene,” said the spirit. Suddenly everything shifted, and there was young Scrooge, just graduated from basic training, giving high fives to his friends and listening intently to the older veterans give him pointers.
“This Scrooge,” said the Spirit, “seems to have listened more than he talked. He even has empathy.”
“I did seem to have more friends,” said Scrooge, peering around. “Man, I miss all of them, haven’t seen them for years.”
“Here’s another you may miss,” said the Spirit, and there the scene changed again, and a young Scrooge was sitting with a beautiful young woman.
“You’ve changed,” she was saying. “You’re not fun to be with anymore, you’re just angry about the ‘libs’ all the time. Do you even know any democrats or are you just listening to Fox News all the time?”
“You don’t even get it,” said young Scrooge. “No one gets it, just us vets.”
“Eb, how can you!” she said, tears sparkling in her eyes.
“Spirit, enough!” implored Scrooge. “Show me no more of this, I beg you. She…she left me. She was the best thing in my life. Please, stop this.” He was on his knees, and the Spirit’s reflective belt glowed until it was almost a living fire, and Scrooge passed out faster than if he’d locked his knees standing at attention.
He awoke from his own snores. Checking his phone, he found that it was 1 AM. He heard music coming from the other room, and…was that someone drunkenly singing the Army Song? He clambered out of bed, and even as he put his hand on the doorknob, a hearty voice called out, “Enter! Enter and know me better!” Scrooge emerged into his living room. It was his room, all right, but what a difference. It was clean and bright, filled not with the detritus of his anger, but instead with mementos of his service, photos of his friends and family, elements of his old life left behind. There, in the middle was a well-adjusted looking woman who was wearing sensible clothing unadorned with slogans like “Bury me in a pile of brass.” Without saying a word, she reached out her hand to him. As if in a dream, he took it, and they winged their way off again.
Now they were on the street, and the Spirit showed Scrooge a pile of cardboard, where the feet of two people could be seen sticking out.
“These are veterans,” said the Spirit. Scrooge pursed his lips.
“Couldn’t they have worked harder?” he said. “Couldn’t they have been tougher? They shouldn’t be on the street like this.”
“They’ve done everything they could,” said the Spirit, quietly. “Their service comes with a price. A hefty one. Did you ever think about these while you were filming your speeches about worthless homeless people who live off government handouts? Did you ever contemplate the cost of your words on others?” Scrooge bit his lip.
“It was all a joke,” he muttered. The Spirit glared at him.
“Come with me,” she said. The scene changed once again. And here, a man and a woman were sitting in their kitchen.
“Happy Vet’s Day, dear,” the man said.
“Right back atcha,” said the woman. “Shall we go down the list of our vet friends who are alone today?” They began texting and calling.
“No answer from Scrooge again,” said the man. “He never answers my calls. I keep seeing him on Twitter and he’s usually attacking women for their service.”
“Forget that guy,” said the woman. “He’s beyond saving.” Scrooge looked at the spirit, sadly.
“I can be better,” he whispered. The Spirit stared back at him.
“Let’s see something else, shall we?” she asked. Now there was a bar, with people laughing and having a good time. Right in the middle, Scrooge spotted his nephew.
“Hey, happy Veteran’s Day!” his nephew told one of his friends. “Really, thanks for your service!”
“Hey, thanks for your support,” said the friend, laughing and clapping him on the shoulder. “And thanks for your service, too! Being a teacher is roughhhhh! Yo, isn’t your uncle a vet? Why isn’t he here?”
“Old Scrooge?” asked the nephew. “That dude is so angry and bitter, he’s alienated just about everyone in his life. I texted him earlier and he just blew me off. He can’t seem to see anything outside his own service.”
“I mean, I might get it if he had some rough deployments,” said his friend, “but he’s only gotten good stuff from the military. So many benefits and opportunities.”
“Hey, hey,” said a slight figure, coming over to them, only showing a slight limp because of his prosthetic leg. “We never know what someone else is carrying.”
“Tim’s right,” said the nephew. “Uncle Scrooge is just too caught up in himself to see that what he needs are some actual friends in his life.”
“Hell, we’ll go check on him later,” said Tim. “In the meantime” – he raised his glass – “Here’s to you all, every one! Thanks for sticking with me!”
“You got it, man,” said Scrooge’s nephew, and Scrooge felt his heart warm for the kid. He turned.
“Spirit, I think I understand.”
“Do you?” she asked. She showed him veterans who shivered in alleyways, who reached for the bottle or the pill to try to numb the pain of what they had seen, of what they had done. She showed him veterans who wept silently in their living rooms, fearing to wake their families lest they see what they felt.
“Have they no resources?” he asked, quietly, tears filling his eyes. “Won’t anyone give them just a little help?” The spirit raised an eyebrow.
“Couldn’t they have worked harder?” she said, quoting his own words to him. “Couldn’t they have been tougher?” Darkness blanketed him and he fell to the ground.
It grew lighter and he opened his eyes. A dark shape rose in the night. It was clad in a flight suit with a dark helmet. No light emitted from the visor, and Scrooge winced.
“Are you the ghost of Veterans Day yet to come?” he asked. The spirit merely pointed. And Scrooge saw that he was in a cemetery. And there was a coffin, with a flag on it. And mourners. And a 21-gun salute. And there was his nephew, weeping.
“Spirit, is that…me?” he asked. The Spirit only pointed. And Scrooge saw that it was Tim.
“But how?” he asked, tears filling his eyes.
“It was horrible,” said a mourner, filing out of the cemetery. “He wouldn’t have died if they hadn’t cut money for veterans’ health care, or made it so difficult for veterans to get help from the VA. But all those politicians who just paid lip service to veterans ended up pocketing the money and installing people in the VA who didn’t know what they were doing. Tim’s infection got bad and then worse. And then he died. This never would have happened if there had been healthcare reform.” Scrooge looked at the Spirit in terror.
“I did this,” he gasped. “I campaigned for those politicians, I said that we should only take care of veterans who deserved it…I…I have been horrible. Spirit, what can I do?” The Spirit merely stared at him, and then stepped aside to reveal an uncared for headstone, overgrown and tumbled over.
“Oh, Spirit, I know what you will show me,” wailed Scrooge. “I know, I would live alone and unhappy, I would alienate my friends, I would only keep company with my own echo chamber! No one would mourn me, I’d have no salute over my grave – but I can change!” He grabbed at the legs of the Spirit, who remained impassive.
“I will honor Veterans Day in my heart! I will keep all three Spirits close, I will live in the past, present, and the future! I will build others up, I will bridge the civilian-military divide! I will not denigrate others, I will honor non-military service! I will check on my fellow veterans, I will teach others how to be empathetic, and I will help those who are struggling and in need! I will not brag about being a warrior, I will see us as professionals! Oh please, Spirit!”
But the Spirit was gone.
The lamp that he was hugging was his own. He was in his own room and in his own apartment. Light flooded through the window. He looked at his phone.
“It’s Veterans Day!” he said with a shout, and scarcely bothering to put his shoes on, he was down the stairs and running through the street.
“Happy Veterans Day!” he yelled into the American Legion Post.
“Happy Veterans Day!” he yelled at the Team Red, White, and Blue runners who jogged past. Continuing on, he saw a homeless veteran on the side of the road, a can out in front of him. Without even thinking, as he would have once done, if the man were in fact a veteran or what he’d do with the money, Scrooge emptied all his cash into the can and gave the man his card – “Call me,” said Scrooge, “I’ve got some friends who work in a non-profit helping veterans – well, I did, till I became a super douche, but maybe they’ll help me out!” And he ran off down the street.
He ran into his nephew, who was out to brunch with friends.
“Uncle, will you join us?” asked the nephew, uncertainly. And Scrooge did, with a laugh. And ordered mimosas for the table, with a laugh. And laughed as he apologized for being such a self-centered person. And laughed as he texted all his old friends, and laughed as they responded with more graciousness than he deserved. And as they looked on in wonder, Scrooge echoed Tim’s toast, as he tweeted out, “Happy Veterans Day, to one and to all!”
This has been a very silly adaptation of the classic Charles Dickens’ story “A Christmas Carol.” I hope you’ve enjoyed it.