A/N: Yes, this is a rewrite of Dickens' classic, but I twisted away from the original plot whenever it felt right. Which happened a lot.
Warning: This fic gets pretty sentimental. Come on, it's a Christmas story.
Christmases Long Ago
Professor Membrane had never wanted children. They were all her idea. But the kids were there, and he was obligated to squeeze the minimal requirements of parenthood into his busy schedule. The kids understood how important his career was. They were intelligent and capable of caring for themselves. Yet whenever he was away from home for more than a couple of days, they would always ask when they would get to see him in person. Those kids didn't seem to understand that billions of other people needed him just as much.
Still, as a tradition, Membrane took half a day off every Christmas Eve to personally deliver presents to his son and daughter. There was one Christmas Eve, however, when no children came to greet him when he walked through the door. The entire first floor was silent.
"Son! Daughter!" Membrane called up the stairs. "I have Christmas presents to show how much I love you!"
The lack of response made Membrane frown under his collar. He set the gifts on the coffee table and climbed the stairs. Those kids knew he would be home tonight, so where were they?
As Membrane reached the top of the stairs, the lights flickered off. He sighed in exasperation and turned to go back down, but paused when he heard footsteps behind him.
Membrane turned toward the hallway and saw something that made him real backward and trip over the top step. He caught himself on the railing and stared in utter shock. It was the last person he expected to see. She was glowing and transparent from her violet ponytail to her calf-high boots - but other than that, she was the same as the day he met her.
Enza nodded and spoke in her soft, dry voice. "You're taking this much better than I thought." A hint of a smile played on her pale lips as she stepped toward him.
Membrane screamed, spun around, and ran down the stairs, only to see the Ghost Enza appear at the bottom.
"That's closer to the reaction I expected," she said with a little nod. "I think this will be easier if I tell you this is a dream."
Membrane gaped at her, too stunned for coherent speech. Was it a dream? It was the only thing that made sense. This couldn't be real because ghosts weren't real. But there was nothing dreamlike about his pounding heart and sweaty hands.
"In this particular dream, I'm the Ghost of your Christmas past. I get to show you your memories." The corners of Enza's mouth quirked up, and she reached her gloved hand toward him. "Come on, I only have an hour."
"But REM sleep lasts only fifteen minutes! Is this a dream or not?!"
"Sure. Yes, it's a dream. Dreams don't make sense, right?"
Membrane swallowed, trying to hang onto logical, rational thought. "There is an old method to test this so I can know for sure." He pinched his arm. "That hurt, so I'm not dreaming. The only other scientific explanation is that I've gone insane!" He clutched his head in both hands. "Oh god, what should I do?!"
"Mem, you're not-"
"I know! I'll see a psychiatrist and have him or her prescribe some medication. That will make it all better!"
Turning his back on the apparition, he grabbed his smartphone out of his coat pocket. He gritted his teeth when he saw the dark screen and pressed the power button, hoping the battery hadn't run out. The ghost hand grabbed his wrist, and he jerked away from it.
"You can't medicate your problems, Mem. They have nothing to do with mental illness," said Enza. "Although it couldn't hurt to see a good counselor after Christmas. But for now, I need to show you your memories. It's for the good of our family."
His eyes met hers. "How can hallucinations be good for our family?"
"Come with me and you'll find out." She smiled and took his hand. Although her hand was transparent, it felt solid. He didn't pull away as she led him back up the stairs and into his bedroom, where the lived-in smell of sweat and pizza faded to dust. She pulled up the vinyl blinds on the picture window and pushed the double panes outward, letting in a blast of biting night wind. Membrane yanked his arm, but Enza kept hold of his hand with a steel grip that belied her thin, transparent frame. She climbed onto the sill, and Membrane started to panic.
"What are you doing?! I can't jump out a window, no matter how insane I've become! I'm too important to die!"
Enza placed her other hand on his. If it was meant to be comforting, it failed.
"Two things: One, we're not high enough to kill you, and two, we're not going to jump out the window."
"We're not?" asked Membrane, somewhat relieved.
"No." A smile split her smooth face. "We're going to fly out."
Suddenly Membrane felt weightless, as though he had stepped into his antigravity chamber.
"See? We're floating. You like floating, right?" Then she whisked him out the window, into the freezing air. Too scared to speak or even think straight, Membrane had no choice but to zip along with Enza over the streets, buildings and lights. They flew between the skyscrapers, straight toward Membrane Labs. Then Enza stopped in front of the window on the side of the spherical antigravity chamber at the top of the building.
"Strange, I was just thinking about this," Membrane muttered weakly. He peered into the window and received another metaphorical smack in the gob.
"But…But that's me."
"Of course it's you. Didn't I tell you I would show you your memories?"
Membrane watched himself drift around the chamber, along with an Enza that was very much alive. She laughed as her goggles started to float off her head. Three other scientists also sailed around the room, one of them using a fan to propel himself.
"I must already be locked in a padded room," Membrane said to himself as much as his dead wife. "Trapped inside my poor, insane mind." He shook his head.
Enza sighed. "Stop saying insane. It's not nice." She tapped her finger on the glass. "Let's go inside."
She opened the window - although it was not made to open - and pulled him inside. The air was warm and dry, crackling with static electricity.
"Almost ten already?" said one of the scientists. "I told my kids I'd be home before their bedtime. Goodbye, professors. Happy holidays!" The scientist floated toward the handholds mounted on the wall, then swung to the exit at the base of the sphere. The other two scientists began to excuse themselves, too, and soon Membrane and Enza were left alone, party debris suspended around them like bubbles.
The live Enza turned to past Membrane. "Are we that boring?"
"Boring? We could never be boring! There must be another explanation for their early departure." He tapped his chin through his collar. "Perhaps Christmas Eve isn't the best day to schedule a company party."
"That's a good point. I should have thought of it myself. Most people go home for the holiday. But this place is my home most of the time."
"I feel the same way!"
Enza glanced around the room. "I suppose we should start cleaning up."
"Wait! I must give you your present first!"
She put her hands on her hips. "Why? It doesn't have something to do with cleaning, does it?"
"No, that isn't what I meant." Membrane fished in his pocket. "Here it is!" He produced a tiny black box, and Enza sucked in an appreciative gasp.
"Is this what I think it is?" She accepted the box and opened it, revealing a large diamond set on a simple white gold band.
"Do you like it? I made the stone myself here in the lab."
"Oh, Mem," she whispered. Her large brown eyes sparkled as much as the gem she held. "Does this mean you want to get married?"
"Of course it does, honey!"
"Just as I suspected! I did wonder why you ordered that liquid graphite. Of course I'll marry you!" She tugged off her left glove and slid the ring on her slender finger. Then she tenderly unbuttoned Membrane's collar and kissed him, and he wrapped his arms around her.
Watching the scene, Membrane remembered the sweet taste of that kiss, like the cherry candy she'd been eating. He had never loved anyone the way he loved Enza. He closed his eyes, both to shut out the memory and shut in the tears. If only their lives could have stayed that way forever, just the two of them. But it was foolish to dwell on one of the few things he couldn't change.
"You can have that again," Enza whispered in his ear. Membrane felt no breath, only coldness that sent a tingle down his spine. "Not in the same way, perhaps, but you can love again. There is hope."
She whisked him out of the antigravity chamber and across town, back to where they started. As the Ghost alighted in front of their house, Membrane saw that it was outlined in strings of multicolored lights, and a ten-foot inflatable snowglobe hummed in the front yard.
They stepped into the house, and Membrane saw their younger selves standing in the living room. His wife's tacky Christmas decorations coated the inside of the house as well: aluminum tree, singing mistletoe, and cinnamon scented candles. Their daughter had never shown interest in that sort of superfluous rubbish. In a weird way, Membrane wished she had.
"Let me give you your present first," said live Enza, grabbing his hand and strolling into the kitchen.
"This looks familiar," said present Membrane as Ghost Enza pulled him after them.
"Does this mean I finally get to see what you've been working on in the basement?" asked past Membrane.
"That's right! Close your eyes, dear."
"I am closing them."
"How am I supposed to know that?" She smirked at him.
"Just take my word for it."
"Oh, all right." Both versions of the couples descended the basement stairs.
"Okay, open your eyes."
Membrane gazed at his shiny new lab. There were so many devices and monitors that the concrete walls were completely hidden. "This is exactly what I wanted, Enza! It's an excellent addition to our property."
"I'm glad you like it. I converted the old water heater into chemical separation apparatus, see? It's oversized, but functional." She went on describing the equipment, Membrane prompting her with questions here and there.
"Isn't it wonderful? We'll be able to work full time and stay home with the baby." She rubbed her stomach, although it was still flat.
"That will be quite an adjustment," said Membrane, taking a sudden interest in the counter-sized console in the center of the room. "I must admit I'm still trying to get used to the idea of being a father."
She squeezed his arm. "You have plenty of time to do that. And I'm sure you'll start feeling like a father when we watch the 3-d video of the baby." She grinned. "I can't wait."
Membrane felt the Ghost tightened her grip and sweep him upstairs. They stopped in the living room. Past Membrane stood in front of the twinkling tree with live Enza, who held their infant son. Membrane's throat tightened when he realized this was the last Christmas before the construction accident took Enza's life.
"We have to take our first family Christmas photo before we open presents. Here, Daddy, hold Dibby while I set up the camera."
Past Membrane furrowed his brow as Enza placed his son in his arms. "Will you stop calling me that? I'm not your father."
"No, but you are a father. And Dibby needs to learn what to call you." Enza unfolded the tripod and set the camera on top. "Okay, get ready to smile. Oh, wait, honey, could you unbutton your collar? Just for this picture?"
"Unbutton my collar?" asked a scandalized Membrane. "I've had my collar up for every photo since I was three!"
Enza stuck out her lower jaw. "I just wanted to prove to our co-workers that you have a face. But if that's the way you want it…" She strode back beside Membrane and threw her arms around his shoulders. "I guess I'll be the only one who looks happy." She flashed a fake smile at the camera, and the camera flashed back.
Re-watching the scene, Membrane felt a twinge of regret at his lack of Christmas spirit that year. But before he could voice his thoughts, Ghost Enza tugged his hand again, leading him out to the front yard, where his past self was setting up the posts for the electric fence. It was daytime now, cloudy and mild for December. The scent of rain - or possibly sleet - hung over the bare brown grass. Membrane heard his son shout from the door behind him, and he turned to see his pale face peek out. He appeared to be eight or nine years old.
"Why did we skip to this Christmas?" asked Membrane.
Enza shrugged her narrow shoulders. "Because frankly, most of your Christmases were boring."
"Dad! Hey Dad!"
Past Membrane kept his eyes on his work as he replied, "What is it, son?"
"I think your teleporter still has a few bugs in it."
"What kind of bugs, son?" His head suddenly snapped up. "Wait a minute! Did you try to use my teleporter?"
The boy glanced away. "Yeah. You didn't say I couldn't."
"Oh, it's quite all right, son!" said Membrane, waving his hand. "I think it's wonderful that you're finally showing an interest in real Science!"
His son brightened. "Yeah, real science is cool sometimes."
Membrane set his tools in his case and walked over to the little person who suddenly didn't seem quite so strange. "Tell me, what did you try to teleport?"
"I used a - a toy." The child hesitated, and Membrane realized he was choosing his words carefully, although he couldn't fathom why. "I set it to teleport to Washington, but the fly that's been buzzing around the house flew into the teleporter right when I pressed the go button!"
Membrane chuckled. "My goodness, it really does have some bugs! What happened then?"
"The teleporter made this clacking noise and blue sparks flew out of the top, and the toy's head switched onto the fly's body. I have no idea what happened to the fly's head."
The boy's eyes grew huge, and Membrane peered through the door to see his daughter stalking out of the kitchen, clutching a headless doll.
Membrane pointed. "Is that the-"
"Toy that the neighbors' dog got a hold of?" His son interrupted. "Yes."
The girl shot him a suspicious glare. "I found Bitey on the kitchen table."
"I put it there after I found the dog eating it in the back yard. I pulled part of the doll out of his mouth, and I took him back to the neighbors' house. I told them Dad was putting in an electric fence to keep their dog from digging into our yard." He folded his arms as if that closed the matter.
His sister opened one eye to stare at the doll. "Bitey doesn't look like he's been bitten." She opened her other eye. "He looks…torn."
"Don't worry, daughter." Membrane bent over his son to pat her head. "I'll buy you a new doll."
Gaz shrank down under his hand like a harassed cat. "I don't want another doll, I want Bitey." Her accusing eyes snapped back to her brother. "Are you sure it was the dog?"
He spread his hands. "Hey, I know not to mess with your stuff."
She studied him for a moment. "You're right, you do know better." Then, raising the doll higher, she said, "Bitey will be avenged." She stormed back into the kitchen and slammed the back door.
"So, you were saying about the teleporter?" Membrane asked, his voice absent of irony.
"Oh. Well," Dib faltered, "I already told you pretty much everything that happened."
"Then let's go downstairs and have a look at it."
Dib hesitated, turning his head and grimacing. Then Membrane heard it. A whimper, coming from behind the house. Then there came a disturbing thud and a sharp yelp. Past Membrane walked by his son, ignoring the violent noises.
It was hard for Membrane to decide which was more unsettling: Gaz's apparent animal abuse or his own blind ignorance to what he'd seen and heard. But a big part of him still didn't want to believe it. How could his little girl hurt someone else's pet over something so petty? He would have to get an answer from her. He realized, too, that Dib lied to his sister about the doll. But if he had told her the truth, would she have done to him what she did to the dog?
Membrane turned away from the memory and tried to run toward the driveway, but Enza held him back.
"Let go, Enza!" He brought his free hand up to grab her arm - and gasped as his fingers swiped through it as if it were air, though her hand felt solid around his wrist.
"How are you doing this?"
Enza grinned. "We Spirits can make our-"
"Never mind, I forgot that there is no logical explanation! I will never get used to being insane. I've got to restore my sanity, not just for myself, but for my children!" He raised his arm to the sky in a dramatic gesture.
Enza's face shone, smiling as warmly as possible for a phantom. "Do you really mean that?"
"Of course I do!"
"Great! You understood the lesson much sooner than I guessed. I planned on showing you one more memory after this, but now it seems unnecessary."
Membrane lowered his arm. "Is there something else about the kids that escaped my attention?"
"Yes, a lot of things," said Enza, her smile fading. "But I have time for just one more."
Membrane took a deep breath to steel himself. "I think I'd better take a look."
Enza rose into the air, and as she flew Membrane across town, the sky grew dark, the clouds dimly reflecting the city lights. She whisked him through the icy wind to his lab, where they found his past self in one of the smaller rooms, working on his laser guided electric chainsaw experiment. As he was about to start up the chainsaw, the monitor on his desk lit up with his son's image. Dib looked like he'd seen better days, to put it mildly. His right eye was blackened, his ears had ragged chunks torn out, and his arm was in a sling.
"Ah, son. You're just in time to witness my amazing new experiment! If it works, it could be bigger than Super Toast!"
Dib's shoulders slumped. "Don't you want to know how my battle with Santa turned out?"
"Santa?" Membrane's gloves squeaked as he tightened his grip on the chainsaw. "Of course I want to know! Did you defeat the jolly fat menace?"
"Yeah, but it wasn't easy. I flew your mech to the North Pole and shot him with the plasma cannon, but it just made him grow bigger - as big as the mech!"
"I was afraid of that," Membrane said gravely.
The boy went on to describe how he unleashed all of the mech's missiles, wounding Santa and causing him to shrink somehow. Santa was small enough to fit inside one of the mech's rocket hands, so Dib launched him into space. Both Membranes listened attentively, and when Dib finished, the past Membrane put his fist over his heart.
"Son, you have avenged me. I'm proud of you."
Dib gaped at him as though he'd just reversed his stance on Bigfoot. "You're proud of me?"
"Of course I am. You destroyed my sworn enemy!"
The boy grinned. "Finally! Somebody actually appreciates something I did!" He squeezed his eyes shut as if savoring the moment.
Membrane nodded. "Yes, thanks to you, no child will be ever buried in socks for Christmas again!"
Dib's face darkened. "Yeah, well the crowd up at the North Pole wasn't happy about me shooting Santa into orbit. About ten of them jumped me as soon as I-"
"Professor!" One of the two interns working that holiday burst into the room. "The radioactive cyborg kitten escaped!"
"Not again!" Membrane clutched his head with one hand. "We have to make sure it doesn't leave the lab, or it could bring disaster unlike any the metropolitan area has never seen!"
"We'll talk later, son."
Still gripping the chainsaw, Membrane tore out of the room after the intern, calling, "Get the milk!"
Enza lifted present-day Membrane into the air then, and they zoomed back to the house, which was as dark and empty as it had been when the Ghost first appeared.
"Our son never did tell me about how he…got his injuries that day." Membrane rubbed the back of his neck in a gesture more characteristic of Dib. "To tell the truth, I didn't really listen to the part about him getting jumped until just now."
Enza gave him a sad little smile. "That's why you need to spend more time with him and Gaz. Remember, they're our legacy, whatever they decide to do." She squeezed his hand, and this time Membrane was reassured in spite of her coldness. Then she let go. "Goodbye, Mem. I'll see you someday soon."
Membrane felt a dull, empty ache in his heart. As weird as the circumstances were, he hated for her to leave. But they had to part ways if he wanted his life to return to normal. "Goodbye, Enza." He didn't even want to ask her to clarify her second statement.
Her smile became more cheerful. "By the way, I should mention that two more Spirits will visit you tonight - or this morning, I mean."
Membrane waved his arms in front of him. "One Spirit is enough!"
"You know, I think you're right. You don't need the other two Spirits after all. But they're already set on coming. It's out of my hands. Sorry, honey." She swooped forward and gave him a chilly kiss on the cheek. "Take care." She blinked out of sight, leaving Membrane in darkness.
A/N: Membrane is a difficult character for me to write, so I'd appreciate any feedback on his characterization. Also, what do you think of the way I combined Marley, Belle and the Ghost of Christmas Past?
And for you Zim fans: Zim will be in the next two chapters - er, staves. Rejoice, brothers and sisters!