The specter, floating upon the billowing foam, came to Stinge silently, gravely.
Overcome, Stinge, fell to his knees, trembling below the spirit’s gloom.
The ghost wore a voluminous dark brown robe of heavy, homespun wool sashed at the waist by a simple cord of rope. A large cowl was drawn up over its head, so deep and shadowed that no features of the face could be seen within. The vision before him was so reminiscent of an old monk, it seemed there had to be a tonsured head in there somewhere.
The ghost said nothing, but pointed with a skeletal hand – the only part of it visible outside the robe – to an empty space beside it on the cloud of foam. The air around it smelled both musty, like doom and decay, and yet bready at the same time.
“You are the Ghost of Craft Brew Christmas Yet To Come?” Stinge asked.
The apparition continued pointing to the vacant spot, but made no reply.
Stinge attempted to rise from his knees, but still trembling, nearly fell.
“Spirit, you terrify me so much I can barely stand. But Merrill said you had a lesson to teach, and the lessons of the previous ghosts have given me a great deal to think about. So I will follow where you lead gladly.”
Finally regaining control of himself, Stinge stood and stepped onto the foam where directed. It looked to him very much like the cloud of yeast lying above fermenting ale, and he expected to sink through it to the pavement. But to Stinge’s surprise, it held him fast.
“Time has become precious, spirit, lead on.”
The foam below him became especially agitated. The tiny bubbles under his feet popped and were replaced with others. This peculiar action had the effect of moving them forward along the street, sliding without moving, into the city.
The motion started slow, but then the world zipped past them in streaks. In seconds, the foam settled, and they came to a stop.
Stinge gasped. “It’s our brewery!”
And it was, except it wasn’t. Standing beside the place where the mash tun should have been, there was only empty space and a lighter-colored spot on the floor marking its absence. Grain should have been stacked throughout the room as well, but none could be seen.
Two men stood nearby, beside many stacks of crates. One of them was Kolsher, the other, one of his many assistants.
“Go ahead and take these out to the truck,” Kolsher said, marking a check on the clipboard in his hands.
The assistant levered a stack onto a two-wheel dolly and pushed them toward an open garage door. Kolsher turned his attention back to another heap of boxes, topped with a still-open crate.
“What’s happening here?” Stinge asked the spirit, but, as always, it gave no reply.
Stinge stepped forward and inspected the crate. His brow drew down in confusion as he noticed a large MegaBrew logo stamped upon its side.
“Why are they shipping all the brewer’s notes and recipes to MegaBrew? That wasn’t part of the contract.” He rubbed his chin.
With alarming suddenness, Kolsher turned away from the crate to another nearby pile, causing Stinge to fling himself backward, forgetting he would be neither felt nor heard.
Kolsher’s foot, meanwhile, kicked a bottle by accident, previously hidden under the wooden skid the boxes were piled on. With the ring of hollow glass, it skidded a few feet and then rolled across the floor.
The brewer retrieved it, picked it up off the concrete, and blew dust off its label with a heavy puff of breath. He frowned, and a grim look covered his face. He then glanced at a trash can nearby and back at the bottle. Reaching a decision, he strode past Stinge, on his way to the garbage.
Stinge could distinctly make out a triangular green tree on the label, being decorated by an illustration of a small boy with dirty blond hair sticking out from beneath a cap.
Stopping at the waste can, Kolsher looked sadly at the bottle again, as if by staring at it long enough or wishing hard enough, it might magically become full. With a sigh, he stretched his hand out over the open receptacle, ready to drop it, but clung to it, yet.
“Just throw it away, Bob,” he whispered to himself. “They’ll never be needed again.”
Finally, looking over his shoulder, he slipped the bottle into a large pocket in his jacket.
Stinge looked back at the spirit, his face long, his color ashen. He shuffled back to his place beside the ghost. The yeasty bubbles popped and foamed again, and they sped away from the brewery.
His last sight of it was the old “Stinge and Merrill’s Barrell’s” sign that once hung outside the shipping paddock by the street now leaning on the ground against the building, forgotten.
The foaming surge subsided, bringing them inside a pub where a pair of working men sat side by side at the bar in front of empty glasses.
“Another round, fellas?” the bartender asked, wiping out a pint glass with a rag.
“Nah, not of that crap, Dane,” one of them replied. “I’d been hopin’, but one pint was enough to prove it to me, old Stinge and Merrill ain’t the same no more now that it’s Stinge and Merrill by MegaBrew. Was bad ‘nuff when they was just doing the brewing, but now that they got control of all the beers, they ain’t worth drinkin’ anymore. Dunno what they changed, but it’s awful.”
“Yeah,” Dane replied, “pretty much everyone is saying the same thing. Once this keg is gone, we’re not ordering more.”
“A shame, too,” the second man said, “I still miss their Christmas Ale. Woulda been the perfect thing to wet my whistle today. Hasn’t been Christmas proper since we could get it.”
“I hear good things about this new Paren Holiday Memorial Ale, though,” Dane added. “Can I pull you a couple of those?”
The men nodded. “Yeah, I had one o’ those, well, maybe more than one, t’other night,” the first man replied. “It’s good. Not as good as ole Stinge’s was, but I b’lieve I can make a tradition of it.”
As he said it, the bubbles agitated below Stinge again, and they glided away, coming to an altogether different bar uptown. A quartet of businessmen was sitting in a booth, glasses of wine or whiskey in hand. They all laughed contentedly.
One of them sipped his wine and said, “All the years we schemed to get to add that brand to our profile, and it just falls into our lap. Merry Christmas, indeed!”
“I know,” another replied, “I always thought the old man would give us what we wanted, eventually, but he’d demand such a price that it would cut into our end of year bonuses. And instead, all we had to do was wait!”
“No, gentlemen, I knew the die was cast as soon as he signed the contract and then consented to give up the Christmas Ale. After that, it was easy to see a drop in profits for them. Once the quarterlies started to falter, I knew he’d let us cut whatever corners we could find. Of course, after we started tampering with the brewing, it was only a matter of time until he alienated enough of his customer for it to all snowball our way.”
“Right!” the third man said. “Burying those bad quality reports and canceling the taste panels was brilliant. To quality!” Raising his glass, the man laughed uproariously.
“To quality!” the others echoed.
“Still,” the fourth interjected, “it was quite a stroke of luck that the company’s poor performance killed him. We got it from the estate for a song!”
“A song, indeed. To the company, then, and to MegaBrew!” the first one cheered. They all threw back their drinks and ordered another round.
Stinge and the ghost slid away again on the curious layer of foam, coming to rest in the middle of a street, between a decrepit old church and a tiny cemetery.
“Why do you bring me here?” Stinge asked. He’d become somber and quite pale throughout their visits. By this point, he seemed ready to collapse. “What could I possibly need to see at this little church?”
The gloomy phantom pointed, not toward the church, but to the cemetery standing near it.
“My old partner is buried here,” Stinge said, almost to himself. “But I don’t guess that’s what we’ve come here to see on this Christmas, is it?”
The spirit said nothing, again, but continued pointing.
“I don’t want to go look, spirit, I fear I can’t take what lies beyond that gate.”
The ghost stood, impassive.
“Before I go, tell me, are these visions of things that will be, unchangeably, or things that merely could be, depending on the course of events from the present day?”
The skeletal finger pointed at Stinge and then back toward the cemetery.
“Fine,” he said, “I’ll go.”
Stinge crept ahead, shaking in fear, through the wrought-iron gate and into the cemetery. Following the specter’s finger, there, beside the grave of Jackson Merrill that he visited last at the man’s interment, was an overgrown grave without flower or tribute and only a simple stone. Upon it was inscribed the name “EDWIN STINGE”.
Falling to his knees, he wept into his hands, moaning.
The scent of bready yeast filled his nose, and he knew the ghost had come to him. Looking up, he whispered urgently, “No, spirit, say this isn’t so. Tell me it does not have to be this way. I swear I will honor Christmas and my craft for the rest of my days if I can be given another chance. I will mark each day with the lessons you ghosts have taught. Please, kind spirit, tell me it must not come to this!”
The spirit reached forward and Stinge grasped the bony hand. “Please, ghostly apparition, please!” he exclaimed. With another skeletal hand, the spirit tapped him on his shoulder and he fell backward, snapping the bones he held.
It came away in his hand, and grew into his tap handle. Alive and well, he knelt before the runoff sink in his own apartment, tap broken off from his beer faucet.