[As another Christmas gift to you, our wonderful readers, we present a reprise of last year's Christmas series written by our own Puddin'. We'll release new parts throughout the day today. Merry Christmas! Tom & Carla]
Jackson Merrill was dead. There could be no doubt about it. The certificate of death had been signed, the estate settled, and the corporeal remains tucked into the Earth for eternity, or at least until they ceased to be.
Merrill was as dead as yeast pitched into the boil.
His partner, Edwin Stinge, continued their brewing business for years following his death. The signs and logos of Stinge and Merrill’s Barrels remained unchanged thereafter, which observers assumed was intended as an homage to the deceased co-founder. In truth, Stinge cared little for the name on his business, nor the general appearances of his brand, so long as the bottom line looked fitter and healthier each year.
On the seventh Christmas Eve since the death of Merrill, Stinge sat in his office managing a baker’s dozen of spreadsheets on an aging hulk of a computer monitor that tended to flicker between too green or too brown. Before him on his desk lay an ancient ledger, being addressed by hand by the lean man with a sharp nose and perpetual scowl.
Stinge and Merrill’s head brewer, Bob Kolsher, sat in an aging frayed chair opposite the man’s desk, bolt upright and wearing the haunted look of a rabbit in the weeds, sensing a hawk’s descent.
“I said before, and I will say one last time, Kolsher, no more malt orders this year,” Stinge barked, frowning at his ledger.
“I know sir,” Kolsher said, “but demand for the Christmas Ale is up. We can’t meet the orders. I thought maybe one last batch.”
“Bah,” Stinge croaked. “Did I not explain as of the first of the new year we will not be actively brewing for Stinge and Merrill’s Barrels? How is it that although we have talked of nothing for the past month but converting to contract brewing, you’re still filing purchase orders requisitions for malt?”
“I just thought…”
“No, Kolsher, you didn’t. The point of converting to production on a contract basis, to relinquish the actual brewing of our own beers, is to avoid exactly these types of expenses. Our contractor has promised to brew our beers more cheaply than we can ourselves, which will allow us to focus on selling more beer via an increased marketing presence and better distribution channels. None of which is possible if we don’t stop wasting our time, energy, and precious capital on brewing.”
“I see, sir. I was just hoping to provide the boys on the line a pick me up, since many of them are expecting pink slips soon. Morale is low. They’d love to see another batch of…um…the Christmas Ale in the fermenter, especially since MegaBrew won’t be brewing it at all in coming years because they can’t replicate the recipe with those flavor extracts they use.”
“Bah,” Stinge said again, “I’m sure you’ll think of something next year to make with MegaBrew. And I’m glad to see the line workers are embracing the changes here with such a sense of maturity and rationality. Good for…”
A beige speaker on Stinge’s desk buzzed loudly, interrupting him.
“Mr. Stinge,” a woman’s nasally voice floated through it, “Mr. Paren Jr. is on line 2.”
“That will do, Kolsher. No more purchase orders. Start getting to know the MegaBrew fellows. As of next week, you’re no longer Brewmaster, but Executive Brewing Liason.”
Kolsher sighed heavily and shuffled out of the Stinge’s tiny office, looking glum.
Stinge reached the coffee brown rotary phone on his desk, thirty years old if it was a day.
“Good day, Mr. Paren,” he said evenly into the speaker.
“A good day and a merry Christmas to you, too, Mr. Stinge,” said the excited voice on the other end.
“Yes, Christmas. Indeed.” Sting rolled his eyes. “If you will excuse me, Mr. Paren, I have a good deal to see to before the end of the year, as I imagine you know. Could we perhaps dispense with the trivialities?”
“Trivialities? Christmas?” replied Mr. Paren. “I would never say so. In fact, we look forward to the season all year here at Paren’s Ales. We keep a festive outlook throughout, especially as our winter brews are some of our most popular all year. It brightens our days to know we bring such cheer to others, even in the face of all the extra work that means for us. No sir, I could never agree that Christmas was trivial.”
“Humbug,” Stinge replied, dismissive. “Did you call for a reason?”
“Indeed I did,” Paren replied, voice full of cheer. “I wanted to invite you to join our Christmas project.”
“Ah. Well, no, thank you. We’re not in a position to consider collaboration. Now, good…”
“Do excuse me,” Paren interjected, “but I know you and my father, years ago, discussed a special holiday brew. I’ve contacted a number of the other brewers in the region, and we’ll be meeting to tomorrow to plan a collaborative release for next year, in his honor. I do wish you would join us? It would have meant a great deal to him.”
“At this moment, Mr. Paren, I have neither the time nor the inclination to participate in such a venture. We are phasing out our brewing, which necessitates the limited release of our own Christmas Ale, so we certain cannot afford to work on a second one. Therefore, no, I will not be joining you. Good day, sir.”
“I am sorry to hear that, Mr. Stinge. Perhaps you will reconsider your position as time draw on.”
“I will not, Mr. Paren. Now, if you would please allow me to continue my work uninterrupted. Good day.”
“I see. Well, Merry Christmas, nonetheless, Mr. Stinge!” Paren cheered through the receiver.
“Bah. Humbug.” Stinge growled, dropping the ancient handset onto its base with a chiming clang.
As day became night, the staff left for the holiday, grumbling there was no Christmas Ale to share with their families at home. At last, shadows casting Stinge in an unpleasant gloom, he turned off the single lamp on his desk and left his cramped office.
Stinge took his supper in his usual pub, in the shabby corner booth by the kitchen, alone save for his Wall Street Journal. When finished, he stumbled back to his brewery, where he descended to the musty apartment he kept below the grain storage basement.
Merrill’s old apartment sat empty opposite his own, the pair of them having lived in efficiencies in the sub-basement in the lean years when the brewery first got its start. And even after Merrill’s premature demise, Stinge never had the two small units converted into one livable space for fear it might tax the company’s operating funds.
The single luxury Stinge had added was the installation of a tap for his personal use.
Stinge entered the apartment and turned on the room’s one overhead light. Setting his newspaper and ledger in their customary position on his desk, he procured a glass from the drainer by the small sink and made his way to the tap.
Placing the glass below the faucet, he reached to pour when at once realized the handle had become a miniature form of Merrill, looking up at him.
Stinge blinked several times to clear his vision and wondered at the alcohol content of the pint he’d had with supper. But there stood Merrill, to be sure, or a perfect little replica of him, right down to the fine tufts of grey hair and the pharmacy reading glasses worn on that old-fashioned chain. He was motionless, but seemed not a statue or other graven figure. No, it was Merrill, staring at him with flat dull eyes.
Moving in closer to peer at the tiny face of the apparition, it again became a simple wooden tap handle.
He poured himself a pint quickly and downed it in a three gulps, and then refilled the empty glass.
Heart beating fast, Stinge strode back to the door and checked its many bolts. All were firmly fastened. Looking around, he confirmed he was alone in his dim apartment. Content, he muttered, “Humbug,” for good measure and retired to his recliner.
Picking up his remote, he pressed the POWER button to watch the early evening news, but instead the room erupted in the ear-splitting screech of speaker feedback. Stinge grimaced and held hands to his hears to block out the vile noise.
In time, seconds or minutes, likely, that seemed wholly like hours, the sharp squeal cut off. The silence that followed was then replaced with the sounds of metal clanking and something being dragged across the floor.
The noise crept closer and closer.
“I don’t know what’s going on out there, but leave me be!” Stinge yelled, more sternly than he felt.
At last, when the clanks and clangs were just outside his door, each of his bolts was thrown open one by one, by some unseen hand. The door flew open and banged against the inside wall.
Through the doorway a spectral vision staggered, dragging around it a huge metal chain, beset with full- and half-kegs, small fermenters, boiling kettles, growlers, mash tuns, and every device ever concocted by man for the brewing or distribution of beer.
The vision was of Stinge’s old partner, Jackson Merrill.
“Jackson, by God, man, why do you trouble me?” was all Stinge could think to say.
“Because you trouble us, Edwin Stinge,” the apparition replied.
“But I haven’t troubled you in years, Jack. Certainly not since the day you left us.”
“I have not left you a day, even in all the time I have been among the dead.”
“Why do you come to me now, then? All the time you say you have been with me, I have neither seen nor felt you. Why darken my life at this hour on this night?”
“Do you believe me?”
“You must admit it sounds a little…”
Jaw gaping, the apparition moaned, so loud and deep that it could only be the groan of the dead.
“Jack, spare me!” Stinge exclaimed, huddling in his chair.
“Do you believe me?”
“Yes, yes! Please, now, tell me what you want and go.”
“Every living soul is meant to spread itself among its fellow man and bring to them whatever joy and comfort he or she can offer. And if a soul does not, or will not, in life, it is condemned to spend the afterlife roaming the world, watching all the wonder and delight it can no longer share.”
“So, then, you don’t spend each day with me?”
“Indeed, my days are wasted within our brewery, watching you squeeze each penny of profit from it, and with it the joy from the hearts of those who work there. At night, as you sleep, I wander the Earth, dragging the chain of my failure, witnessing the small wonders of life among others, and the sad regrets that I am too late to fix.”
“But Jack, you did exceptional work planning the future of Stinge and Merrill’s Barrels. In fact, everything is still on the track we set together. We’ve contracted out to a cheaper brewing operation and soon, after a few quarters of increased profits, we’ll begin preparing for an IPO. You were an excellent accountant of our business.”
“Business!” the spirit shouted. “Mankind was my business! But I was blind beyond our bottom line and could not see that what we made brought people together in joy. That making quality beer, something others loved and welcomed into their homes, enriched their lives. No, making my fellow brothers and sisters happier with the product of my labors should have been my business!”
Shielding half his face behind his hand, Stringe trembled. “How can I help you, Jack?”
“You cannot,” the ghost stated matter-of-factly. “I have not come for myself, but for you.”
“Listen, Edwin Stinge! I must go. You have been given this one night as the only chance to escape my fate. You will be haunted, then, by three spirits. The first will come with at the stroke of the midnight and will take the time of mashing out the sweet wort. The second will follow soon after, and will finish as the wort is finished boiling. The third will follow then, but as with fermentation, will begin at his own hour, and will take what time he needs to finish.”
“You won’t see me again, but do not forgot what I have said. Mind the spirits, Stinge, mind them well!”
Having left his message, the spirit stood and shambled, chains and accessories clanking in his wake, to Stinge’s tiny sink. To the man’s horror, his former partner then bent and flowed, hands first, then head, followed by shoulders, torso, etc, into the drain as if he were a liquid.
When the room had grown completely silent again, Stinge tip-toed over and checked the drain, eyes wide with shock. He found no remnants of Merrill swirling about. Stinge then examined his door, finding it tightly shut and all his bolts securely locked.
He felt his own forehead, wondering if perhaps he didn’t have a fever. Not feeling overly warm, though, he removed his shoes and climbed into his bed fully clothed.
In moments, he snored away, sleeping like the dead.