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An excerpt from
Christmas Past

Christmas Past

I was in London when I first heard about Sam’s ghost.

God knows I didn’t have time to be following a ghost tale, no matter how intriguing it might sound. My tiny flat was filled to the rafters with books and notebooks full of research I’d gathered but not organized. They needed my attention desperately. The looming piles of research I hadn’t yet begun to plow through were even more daunting. A forest of post-it notes covered every flat surface.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about Sam.

Focus, Jessie girl, I commanded myself with my sternest inner voice. Focus!

It didn’t help.

On the surface, Sam’s ghost seemed to be a variant of the Vanishing Hitchhiker motif. You’ve heard it. Maybe somebody told it to you at an office party, or a pub, or around a campfire. Campfires are the best for stories. Anyway, a friend of a friend swears it’s true. That’s how urban legends work, you know. Someone picks up a hitcher on a dark and stormy night, only to have the passenger disappear before they reach the destination. When the driver asks around, he finds that the hitcher’s description matches that of a daughter or a bride or a girlfriend who died years before. It’s almost always a woman.

Except for Sam.

More, the details of Sam’s story didn’t seem to vary from report to report the way they should, not even subtly; only the dates and location changed. Well, the point where the story began changed. The ending did not. It’s like the folk process hadn’t touched it at all, and the tale was apparently at least sixty years old. That just shouldn’t be. No, more than that. It couldn’t be.

No, no. No.

I was approaching the lip of a rabbit hole again. I didn’t have time. I was scheduled to go to Paris for research in just a few days; it was all arranged. If I came back with new data from the French libraries before I managed to sort what I’d already done, I’d have no hope. My dissertation would be lost forever, buried under an avalanche of unannotated paper and post-it notes. I didn’t have time to eat, sleep, or even breathe, much less get distracted by something new, something that didn’t have anything at all to do with my topic.

No matter that, unlike most urban legends, this one seemed to be a serial story—one that apparently continued, year to year, rather than simply being passed along by a friend of a friend, acquiring slight variations each time it’s retold.

No matter that the latest episode actually seemed fresh, fresh and perhaps even local to London. Fresh enough that I might really be able to track down a genuine original source, at least for the latest variation, anyway.

No. Uh uh. I didn’t have time. No matter that I might become one of the very few cultural anthropologists to actually track an urban legend to its source.

Besides, I wasn’t even a cultural anthropologist yet—and I never would be if I didn’t get a handle on the stupid dissertation. I wanted to be Doctor Jessie Malone. That meant I had to focus. I put a kettle for tea on the stove and, with effort, banished Sam’s ghost from my thoughts. I had to finish my dissertation.

I’d promised David, after all. I’d promised him. A promise to my David is sacred.

My dissertation was supposed to be on variations of the Pleading Ghost story. You’ve probably heard that one, too. It goes rather like this:

A poor priest in London—it’s usually London in the oldest variations; convenient, since that’s where I happened to be researching it—is reading alone in his home one evening when he hears a knock at his door. Pulling on a robe over his dressing gown, he opens the door to find an old woman wearing rather outdated clothing, including a bonnet and shawl. It’s almost always a bonnet and a shawl, even though they’re not always black. But I’m being a scholar instead of a storyteller.


The frantic woman begs the priest to come with her, saying he is needed desperately. The priest resists, citing the cold, the snow, and the late hour. Perhaps he can come ’round tomorrow instead. The woman persists, and eventually the priest agrees. She gives him an address in Regent’s Park, and he goes to dress and get a coat. The priest suffers a cold and miserable walk through the dark streets of the fog-bound city.

Later, he arrives at one of London’s ritziest manors to find an elegant party in full swing. All of London’s elite is present. Our priest knocks on the door, and a butler answers.

“Hello,” says the shivering priest. He then gives his name—sometimes it’s Mulligan, sometimes Gray, sometimes Johnson, or a dozen or more variant Irish, Scottish, Welsh, or English names. “I believe I’m wanted here,” he says.

“Do you have an invitation, Father?” the butler asks curtly.

“No,” says the priest, rather flustered. “But I was told I’m needed.”

The butler escorts him to a small sitting room and presently returns with the master of the house, a very well-known and respected gentleman, usually a lord or a banker or something like that. The priest tells the gentleman what happened.

The gentleman claims that no one sent for a priest but asks our friend to describe his visitor. The priest does so, and a strange look crosses the gentleman’s face. And then, suddenly, the man starts weeping uncontrollably.


As our friend the priest holds the sobbing man, he confesses a life of terrible crime and wickedness. The details always vary, but believe me, they’re never pleasant.

The priest urges the man to confess and make his peace with God. The man does so, and the priest, convinced of the sincerity of his conversion, grants him absolution with a gentle smile and a touch to the bowed head. As he leaves, he admonishes the man to come to Mass in the morning. The man promises to do so, and the priest bids him good night.

The next day, of course, the man doesn’t show. Concerned, the priest goes to visit him again. Once again, the butler answers, telling the priest that the master is dead.

“That can’t be!” exclaims the priest. “I spoke to him just last night!”

“Alas,” insists the butler, “the master died in his sleep.”

Shocked, the priest asks to see the body that he might say a prayer for the man’s soul. The butler agrees. When they reach the master’s bedroom, the priest notices a portrait hanging on the wall and recognizes the woman who came to fetch him the night before.

“Who’s that woman?” he asks.

“Why, that’s the master’s mother, Father,” says the butler. “She died several years ago.”

The tale always ends the same way. It was recorded in Philadelphia as early as 1951. Two different sources there claimed to have heard it in London from an acquaintance of the priest himself. A friend of a friend. Of course, both sources gave conflicting details and locations
in the city.


I’ve found variations of the Pleading Ghost story all over the world, but for the most part, the trails all seem to lead back to London. I say “seem” because some variants were recorded in Paris at about the same time. Here in London, I’d found sources dating back to the 1800s. Some may be even older, but, well, again with the post-it notes and the piles of research I hadn’t plowed through yet. I planned to start the next phase of my research in Paris at the first of the next week. My hope was to pin down a single origin for the tale—I truly wanted to be one of the very few to find and identify an actual original source.

That might not prove possible, of course, but it wouldn’t be for a lack of sources. Seriously, I had piles of material to read through. I’d spent the morning at the British Library going through archived newspapers and magazines and I’d spent the balance of the day tracking down old journals and diaries. Now the fruits of my labor waited in tall, intimidating piles, bushels upon bushels of them, demanding my attention.

I yawned.

The teakettle whistled, startling me with its appropriately ghostly wail, but I turned it off without bothering to pour myself a cup. I couldn’t face the thought of reading or, worse, trying to organize my notes and resources into something more or less manageable. I yawned again, more prodigiously. It would all still be there tomorrow. Still waiting for me. For better or for worse, the workday had vanished, leaving me even further behind. I washed off my makeup, brushed my teeth, and went to bed.

I didn’t let myself think about Sam’s ghost as I lay in my cold bed in the darkness. If I wasn’t going to work, I needed to sleep.

“Go away, Sam,” I said out loud. “Just take your pattern-breaking story and be gone. Leave me alone.” I couldn’t afford to be distracted by a new tale.

No matter how much it intrigued me.

I glanced at David’s picture on my bedside table before I drifted off to sleep. “Goodnight, my love,” I said, just as I said every night before sleep took me. “Miss you.”

I said that to him every night. Goodnight. I always said it. I always said that, because I couldn’t bring myself to say goodbye, not to David. Not ever.

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