Marley was dead to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that. Why Scrooge had decided to name the roach he had just killed after his late partner, he could not say, but Marley he had named it and dead it was, dead as a doornail underneath the thunderously-descended fireplace shovel. Scrooge replaced the shovel in the tool rack and slumped down in his armchair.
For a while he sat brooding over the miserly coal fire, in his cold, gloomy rooms, scowling. But as time went by, the most curious unease overtook him. He thought he heard noises from the cellar. The cellar door burst open and a great sound filled the house, as if a host of phantoms were riding amok. The noise so distracted Scrooge that he did not notice the three-foot long cockroach crawling over the far side of the armchair until its antennae tickled his cheek.
Scrooge yelped. “By Jove! Art thou the ghost of my partner Jacob Marley, gone these seven years?”
“No, I’m a cockroach. Bob the Cockroach, to be exact.” The insect turned quizzical. “Did your old partner look like me? Enough to be mistaken, I mean?”
“Never mind that now! Why do you torment me, oh cockroach?”
“Ebenezer Scrooge, this night you shall be visited by three insects! Well, three additional insects. Four insects counting me, I suppose. One to show you Christmas as it has been, one to show you Christmas as it is, one to show you Christmas as it will be.”
“To what end, oh cockroach?”
“Your soul is in grave danger, Ebenezer. You need to be taught a lesson on the meaning of Christmas.”
“Or I shall be turned into the likes of you?”
“Whaddya mean, the likes of me? What are you implying?”
“Well—nothing–certainly your carapace is most handsome—it’s just–”
“Pay attention, Scrooge! The first insect shall arrive at the toll of midnight.”
Bob scuttled off and disappeared instantly, in that perplexing way roaches have. Unsure if he had hallucinated the entire incident, Scrooge crept to his bed. He pulled the curtains shut, the blankets over his head, and waited.
The distant bell struck twelve, a dolorous sound indeed. Scrooge deduced he must have fallen asleep at some point. He peeked out from under the blankets.Something was moving the bed-curtains. With his heart rising in his throat, Scrooge saw a shape emerge onto the bed next to him, a great beetle, about the size of a terrier, its shell an iridescent eau de nil.
“Are you the insect whose coming was foretold to me?” asked Scrooge.
“I am! My name is Bob, and I am the Insect of Christmas Past.”
“Your past. Or close enough, anyway.”
Scrooge wrapped himself around the beetle and closed his eyes. There came a peculiar jumping sensation, he was lifted off the ground, and next thing he knew he was standing on earth.When he opened his eyes, he found himself beside a beast, a round beast, a beast the size of a haystack staring at him with mean beady eyes.
“What is that?”
“It’s a glyptodont,” said Bob. “A much larger ancestor of the creature you know as the armadillo. We stand in a pleasant countryside of the Neogene Epoch, 25 million years before your birth.”
“I thought we were going to see Christmases of the past.”
“We are. This day is December 25th—or would be, if there were any human beings to track the time on a human calendar. But there aren’t. Yet Christmas it is.”
Far over the rolling hills, tiny horses gamboled. At a nearby watering hole drank a animal like a rhinoceros on stilts. A gentle breeze wafted over the scene.
“What are those things over there?” Scrooge asked.
“Oh, those are Phorusrhacidae, colloquially known as terror birds. They must be a good ten feet tall. Perhaps these are the ancestors of your own Christmas turkeys!”
“They certainly are well-named. And they seemed to have noticed us. Er—what do they eat?”
“They’re famous carnivores. Strip a mammalian carcass to bone in minutes. Is it just me or are they headed this way?”
Scrooge and Bob dashed across the prehistoric plain. “At no point in the Yule celebrations of my childhood was I ever pursued by ravenous monsters!” Scrooge yelped.
“Well, Christmas insecting is an inexact science…”
“Get me back home!”
The huge horrible beak swooped down where Scrooge’s head had been moments before, but it closed on mere air.
Scrooge awoke in a bed.
“Was it all, but a dream?” he asked the darkness. Then he realized this was not his bed.
As his eyes adjusted, he found an eerie glow some distance away. Scrooge left the bed and crept toward it. As he grew closer, he saw it was coming from the front of an odd box, a box being watched by a hovering dragonfly a yard long. Occasionally the dragonfly chuckled.
“Excuse me—are you one of my insects?”
“Oh, there you are, Scrooge! Yes, I certainly am. My name is Bob, Bob the Dragonfly, the Insect of Christmas Present. Come in and know me better!”
“Certainly. What are you doing?”
“Just watching a little TV.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“TV—er, television. Television is an invention of the 20th century.”
“The 20th century? But I inhabit the year 1843.”
The dragonfly buzzed angrily about his head. “Well, ooh la la! I think that considering your first insect was off by a scale of 25 million years, I’ve done pretty well to get you within a hundred.”
Scrooge heard one of the little men in the box address another as “Scrooge.”
“What is going on?”
“It’s a sort of pantomime. This particular story is an episode of a programme titled Love Boat, in which Henry Kissenger learns the true meaning of International Cooperation at Christmas from three spirits played by Erik Von Daniken, Carl Sagan, and Alvin Toffler.”
Scrooge watched the performance to its end, fascinated. Then the Insect produced further “videotapes,” bearing variations of the same tale in different programmes: Barney Miller, What’s Happening, The Jeffersons, CHiPs, Supertrain…
Scrooge was astonished to see his very life played out before him, as if on a stage.
“Why, there’s my nephew, Fred—and my clerk, Bob Cratchit—and–and–who is it being played by that amusing Mr. Villechaize?”
“Tiny Tim! Yes, we’re all here. But why?”
“You see, Ebenezer, by the Nineteen-Seventies television had grown immensely popular, even more popular than the kinetoscope in your time. The medium required scripts. By then, your story was in the ‘public domain.’ So whenever a struggling young screenwriter needed a little more Yuletide cocaine money, he simply adapted it to whoever his characters might be.”
Scrooge watched tape after tape, and grew thoughtful.
“I can’t help, but notice that, whereas I have been visited by insects, all these stories have the Scrooge character being visited by spirits, and—you know—it does make more sense–”
“You gotta problem with insects?” buzzed Bob angrily.
“No! No! Not at all! Insects are much better. Wouldn’t trade it for the world!”
As they watched, the characters walked out of the televisor screen. A party began. The tall woman they called Maude danced with Scrooge; The Bugaloos with Bob. The Waltons brought Grandpa’s moonshine, and the trio from Three’s Company danced on their floor.
“This scene is DY-NO-MITE!” declared JJ Evans.
“Shazbot!” agreed Mork.
“Yes, shazbot!” Scrooge hefted a brimming bumper of port in a toast. “Shazbot indeed, everyone!”
But then a cold wind blew. His new televised friends dissolved like mist, and Scrooge found himself on a desolate plain under a blood-red sun.
Before Scrooge stood an immense green mantis, taller than he was, dressed in a black hooded shroud that hid its face. It crouched beside a monument of polished porphyry.
“Am I take it you are Bob the Mantis, the Insect of Christmas Yet To Come?”
“That’s ‘Robert’ to you, thankyouverymuch,” said a bass voice from inside the hood, “And yes, I am. See what lies before you!”
Scrooge knew from the television programmes what was coming, and his scrawny body shook with fear. The mantis pointed one immense foreleg at the cold dark stone, on which could be read the words EBENEZER SCROOGE.
“Spirit!” he cried, tight clutching at its robe, “hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Insects of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”
“You can’t,” said the Insect. “You are indeed dead.”
Scrooge near to fainted.
Then the mantis gestured all about, and Scrooge saw that there was not only his grave, but a myriad of graves, an infinity of identical gravestones filling a vast plain.
“You see, Scrooge, everyone’s dead. This is Earth, one billion years in your future. You observe how the sun fills the sky? It’s about to explode and engulf the planet. Everyone who has ever lived is dead. This is the end, and it cannot be done away.”
“But—but–then what is that music?”
The pair followed the sound of the tune over a nearby ridge. Not far away an large group of metallic men frolicked around a Christmas tree, laughing and gamboling, singing carols.
“There’s music because it’s Christmas!” said Robert.
“That’s right. December 25th, one billion years in the future. This is the last Christmas ever. Let us join in!”
Around a giant hot pink aluminum Christmas tree, Scrooge found a ro-bot with his nephew Fred’s face visible in a hologram upon its chest.
“Uncle Ebenezer! What a pleasure to see you!”
“And you, Fred! But how is it you can still be alive?”
“We are all alive. We have uploaded our brains unto these metal men—called robots—and now live eternally. Every day is Christmas now. We enjoy the last December 25th before the sun explodes, then teleport to one of the infinity of parallel dimensions where the same thing is about to happen. And so on, and so on. It’s Christmas forever.”
To his astonishment, Scrooge saw metal forms of his nephew’s wife, and his clerk Bob Cratchit, and all of Cratchit’s numerous family—including the youngest, Tiny Tim, who now inhabited a spider-form of eight articulated limbs surrounding a central node.
Scrooge lifted Robot Tiny Tim into an embrace.
“Teacher says every time the sun explodes, an insect gets its wings,” said the spider-robot-boy.
“That’s right. That’s right!”
The solar disk began to swell and fill the sky, the most glorious fireworks display ever. The assembled robots watched until the heat wave was almost upon them, then shifted to the next universe.
From that day on, Scrooge was a changed man. For one thing, his consciousness was installed in a robot, that he might cheat death. And for another, he became quite a merry fellow indeed, always the first to celebrate Christmas. Tiny Tim did not die, but also enjoyed metallic immortality.
“Merry Christmas!” said Robot Tiny Tim, clacking his tungsten mandibles with joy. “God bless us, every one!”