A/N: This stave contains what is probably the darkest scene I've ever written (not that that's saying much). I don't want to give too much away, but the character death warning should be obvious.
As Membrane stumbled out of Zim's yard, he saw a giant, silent shape moving toward him. It was taller than the houses, its legs thicker than street lamps. He knew this must be the Ghost of Christmas Future. But it looked even less like a ghost than the snowman did. At least Mr. Slushy sort of resembled a human figure. This Spirit was a monster. No, worse than that. There was no mistaking the white beard and red hat.
Fear paralyzed Membrane until Gaz kicked the back of his knee. He started to collapse and caught himself, but he dropped Gaz and Dib. They landed roughly on the concrete, got on their feet and ran toward the main road. The Spirit stood with its six legs arched over the entrance to the cul-de-sac. Membrane yelled for them to stop, but they darted under the candy-striped legs and turned the corner. The Santa creature took no notice of them. It jumped forward with surprising speed and angled its head to stare down at him with its bulging eyes. Membrane was too scared to even scream. His heart hammered as if trying to escape from his frozen body.
Then the Spirit began to shrink until it was ten feet tall instead of forty. It still towered over him, but it was less terrifying, so Membrane worked up the courage to speak.
"Are you the Ghost of Christmas Future?"
The creature nodded.
"Are you the last Spirit? You're going to show me my future Christmases and then you'll go away and there'll be no more Spirits?" His words tumbled out in a nervous ramble. The monster roared. Membrane didn't know if it meant yeas or no, but it sure was ticked off about it. Then the cul-de-sac wavered, and suddenly they were inside a house he'd never seen before.
"How did we - oh, never mind," said Membrane, resigned to this spiritual journey. "Whose house are we in?"
The Santa Ghost pointed its candy cane arm at a small table where a few children were eating ham and turkey. One of the girls had pale lavender hair swept back from her face, and wore a matching striped dress.
"I still don't see what the big deal is," she said to the girl next to her. "Everyone hated him. He was pretty crazy, you know. And annoying. He had it coming."
If it were possible for someone's blood to boil and freeze at the same time, it happened to Membrane. She couldn't be talking about Dib, could she? But why else would the Spirit show him this conversation?
"I know what you mean, Zi," said the other girl, "but the adults are afraid the same thing might happen to a kid they like." She shrugged. "Oh well. Anyone wanna play Apples to Apples?"
Then the room shimmered and disappeared, and Membrane found himself in a familiar cemetery, at the burial plot across from the mausoleum, under the big maple. Moonlight illuminated the headstone that marked Enza's grave. Eight feet in front of it, and a little to the right, was a new, smaller stone. Three engraved letters confirmed his fear.
Shaking from more than the cold, Membrane brushed his fingers over the word. The dates below told him his son would die on December 4th next year.
He swallowed. "This hasn't happened yet. How will this happen? Is there any way to prevent this tragedy?"
Membrane looked up at the Santa creature to see if it would do anything besides point or roar. The Spirit did not move or utter a sound, so Membrane answered the second question on his own.
"There must be a way. Why else would you show me this future?" Feeling somewhat reassured, he added, "Show me what happened, Spirit…Or what will have happened." He clenched his fists in frustration. "See, this is why I hate time travel."
Before he finished his sentence, the graveyard wavered and changed to a deserted city street. Gaz strode past him, and Membrane saw that she was a good three inches taller, and her face had lost some of its baby fat.
He followed her to the door of a run-down Bloaties Carry-Out. When they stepped inside, Membrane immediately knew something was amiss - besides the Santa Spirit standing behind him, that is. The pizza place smelled musty, and it was almost as cold as the air outside. Gaz paused and glanced around, quirking an eyebrow. Then she stepped up to the counter, where a cashier stood with a frozen smile.
"I want a medium pepperoni," said Gaz.
There was no response from the cashier. Gaz ground her teeth and spoke slowly. "The medi-um pepper-oni pizza that is in the commercial. On TV. It's supposed to be two dol-lars."
The cashier continued to smile. Then he blew up.
Gaz threw her arms over her head and dropped to a crouch. Membrane flung himself over her to protect her. But after a few seconds he realized the explosion had been small. It had singed Gaz's hair and filled the room with smoke, but that was the extent of the damage. The cashier - which Membrane knew for certain was a dummy - still stood upright. Membrane straightened, and Gaz ran to the door and pulled at the handle. But it was stuck tight. Laughter pierced the smoke, maniacal and raspy as it rose and fell in pitch.
"Zim," said Gaz. "Let me out of here NOW, or I'll-" her voice broke into coughs.
"Did you like the commercial I made, Gaz-monster?" Zim's shadowy form jumped onto the counter.
She spun around to glower at him. "You made that? Just to bring me here? This isn't even a real Bloaties, is it?"
He cackled. "You're as gullible as your sibling."
"Zim, I swear, if you don't open the door this second, I'll tear off your stupid antennas and hang you with them." She took two steps toward him, fists raised.
He folded his arms. "Over your dead body." The laughter was gone from his voice. He turned his head to the side and shouted, "Robots! Capture the human, but don't kill her yet."
Several robots sprang out from behind the counter, clacking to the floor in front of Gaz. Each was the size of a medium dog, but their build was insectoid. Membrane moved in front of Gaz to shield her, but one of the robots jumped through him as if it or he were a hologram. It seized the back of her collar with its red pincers. She unzipped her coat and slipped out. Her spiked boot kicked the glass, shattering it, but another robot caught her foot in its vice-like grip. As she fought to free her leg, a third robot grabbed her arm. Membrane reached for her arm to help pull it free, but his hand passed through it. He could only watch helplessly as two more robots caught her other arm and leg. They held each of her limbs stretched out.
Zim hopped down from the counter and marched over to Gaz. The girl strained at her mechanical bonds, howling with rage.
"Let me go! I'm NOT Dib, you IDIOT! I'm not going to tell anyone you're an alien! I don't even CARE!"
His antennae twitched. "No. Only Dib cared." He clenched his fists. "Why did you do it?"
"What do you think, stink-beast?!" Zim burst out. "Why did you kill Dib?!"
Membrane's jaw dropped. It couldn't be true. It could never happen. Never.
"It was an accident." Gaz coughed. "What do you care anyway?"
"Hey! ZIM is asking the questions, Gaz-monster! You say it was an accident, but those were YOUR weapons, and YOU were the only one with him when he died."
"They weren't weapons. They were malfunctioning toys."
"TOYS?! Toys with KNIVES?! Those were toys as much as my robots are." He waved his clawed hand around the room. "Eight robots. The number that killed the Dib. Let the punishment fit the crime, isn't that what you humans say?"
Gaz's eyes opened wide, and Membrane realized this was the first time he'd seen her afraid.
"I didn't mean for it to happen. Believe me." There was a hint of a plea in her voice.
"LIAR! You built those weapons to get revenge on the Dib for some petty offense, didn't you? Do not deny it!"
The robots pulled hard at her arms and legs. Gaz gritted her teeth.
"I didn't build them. I ordered them from the kid's room defense website."
Zim narrowed his eyes. "Even if you didn't build them, why did you have these things?"
"To keep Dib out of my room."
"But Dib wasn't in your room when the robots stabbed him, was he?"
Gaz coughed. "He was in the livingroom."
"Aha! Why did your robots leave the room they were programmed to defend? Answer Zim!"
She glanced away, silent for a moment.
"Tell me the whole truth about what happened, stink-beast, and I might let you live."
"Okay," Gaz growled, though she still looked apprehensive. "I really did order the robots to keep Dib out of my room. But later I started using them whenever my normal threats weren't enough to control him." Her eyes revealed no emotion as they resumed their customary squint. "Then on the fourth, we were supposed to have family night. Dad has to work today, so we were going to celebrate Christmas early. But Dib didn't come home when he was supposed to. He was out trying to stop one of your stupid so-called evil plans."
Zim ground his zipper teeth but said nothing.
"Dad waited at home for an hour and then went back to work. Couldn't have family night without Dib. So I decided if Dib was going to miss family night, I'd give him a real excuse. I summoned my robot toys to wait in the livingroom and surprise him when he came in the door. I sat up till one, too pissed off to sleep. When he finally came home, the robots attacked him, and…" her voice trembled "…I programmed them too well. I only wanted to send him to the emergency room, for stitches or something. I didn't…" she broke off, and tears slipped down her cheeks. "I didn't mean to kill him. I called the robots off, but it was too late. The squid had…stabbed his chest…" Gaz fell silent after what was probably the longest speech of her life.
Tears slid down Membrane's face, too, even though he kept telling himself it wasn't happening, it hadn't happened yet, he could change it.
Zim's glare was still accusing. "Stupid, stinking human. So you can't have your precious faaamily night without the Dib? Then let me help you join him."
Her eyes shot open. "Why? You hated him."
"That I did, Gaz-monster. But Dib was the only one who made this filthy planet worthy of conquest. Who wants to conquer a planet whose natives are too stupid and indifferent to defend it? There is nothing worth doing now. After I get my revenge on you, I'll probably just go home and watch TV." His eyes lost their spark, his antennae drooping.
"But…" Gaz began struggling anew. "You said you'd let me live if I told you what happened! Besides, you'll be stooping to my level if you kill me!"
Zim's eyes reignited. "Oh, but you see, Gaz, I have an actually good reason for my revenge, unlike you. The Dib-beast did nothing wrong. You murdered your own sibling, that you supposedly loved, because he was doing his job. No, Gaz, I won't feel bad about this." He pointed a condemning claw. "Robots! ATTACK!"
The four robots that weren't holding Gaz flew at her, stabbing her chest with their sharp legs.
"STOP!" Membrane turned from the horrific scene and fixed his gaze on the Santa creature. "I can't watch anymore! Take me away from here, Spirit!"
The Spirit nodded, and the room shivered and became his front yard.
"Are we back in my own time now? I can change the future, can't I?"
The creature grunted and disappeared.
His heart still pounding, Membrane stepped up the walkway and opened the door. His children were both safe and sound in the livingroom, to Membrane's immense relief. Dib sat on the couch and Gaz paced the floor, baseball bat in hand. They looked up as he came in.
"Hey, how did the door open?" asked Dib.
Membrane was so thrilled that his children were alive that he didn't care if they still couldn't see him. He ran forward to put his hands on their shoulders to make sure they were real. Quick on the draw, Gaz slammed her bat against his arm. For a little girl, she hit hard.
"I got the thing!" she said. "Whatever it is."
Membrane clutched his stinging arm, wondering if the snowman's silly tinsel really was the cause of his invisibility. It was insane, but he just had to go with it. He shook his coat to see if any tinsel was still in it. When nothing fell out, he unbuttoned his collar. A strand glinted on his collar bone, and he picked it up and dropped it on the floor.
Dib and Gaz gasped softly. "Dad!"
"I can't believe that worked!" Membrane stooped to hug his children, snatching the bat out of Gaz's hand as he did. "No more dangerous toys for you, Gaz!"
He pulled back to look at them, but kept his arms around their shoulders. His kids stared at him with huge brown eyes. Gaz's face was round and innocent, as though she hadn't just whacked her father with a bat.
"You're the invisible thing that grabbed us?" she asked.
What could he say? "Yes I am. It's a long story."
"Tell us what happened, Dad," said Dib.
"I don't really know what happened, son. I must admit it can't be explained by Science."
"Really?" A grin spread across Dib's face. "Even better!"
"All right, I'll try to describe it the way I experienced it." Membrane sat on the couch and began telling them about their mother's visit. Naturally Dib kept interrupting with questions. But Membrane did not talk about the future Christmas, even though Dib kept guessing.
"It's Zim's leaders, isn't it? They're coming to wipe out mankind!"
Membrane wrinkled his brow. "I didn't see Zim's leaders, and mankind won't be wiped out. I can promise you that much!"
"Then what happened?"
"I'm sorry, it's just too…" He shook his head. "Well, I just can't tell you. But I'll do everything in my power to make sure you never find out first hand!"
"Dad. I can handle it, really. Maybe I can help prevent it too!"
Membrane was starting to regret telling his son about the visions at all. Dib was already imagining scary possible futures. There was still a lot Membrane had to learn about being a good parent. He turned to Gaz, who had been quiet as a rock for most of his story. He would have to talk to her about those deadly robot toys. But not tonight. He couldn't change everything in one night.
She quirked an eyebrow at him. "Can we open presents now?"
"Oh yes, I almost forgot! Go ahead, kids!" Membrane waved his arm toward the coffee table, grateful for the distraction.
"Hey, don't change the subject!" said Dib, frowning.
She shrugged. "If you don't want presents, I'll take yours. Even though they're probably dumb."
"Now Gaz, you and your brother should take turns opening your gifts!"
Gaz rolled her eyes. "O-kay, but I'm going first."
As she tore into her largest package, the doorbell rang.
"Who on earth could that be?" Membrane walked toward the door. "Not another Ghost, I hope!"
It was not a Ghost, but Zim. The little green person seemed more surprised than the scientist, but it would take a hell of a lot to surprise Membrane after all he'd been through that night. Zim now had black hair and purple eyes with pupils, but he still had an alien appearance: green skin, no nose or ears, and that strange metal backpack. Membrane wondered why he never noticed before.
Zim blinked. "Who are you?"
"I'm Dib's father." He'd never identified himself as his kids' father; it was always Professor Membrane. But now "Dib's father" felt right.
"Oh." Zim scratched his…wig, perhaps? "I didn't recognize you with your collar unbuttoned like that."
Dib joined them at the door. "What, Zim?" he asked flatly.
"Eh, I'm just trying to find out what that thing was that infiltrated my base and removed you and your terrifying sibling." He glanced up at Membrane, then added, "I'm normal."
Membrane and Dib shared a look. What the heck.
"That was me, Zim."
"What?"Zim gaped at him. "HOW? WHY?"
"I don't exactly know," said Membrane, shrugging.
"Don't exactly know?! Pathetic hyooman scientist. I could erase your memory, but it won't matter in a few hours anyway. I'm building a remote control for my black hole cannons. Soon I'll be watching the Earth's implosion from my space station!"
Membrane raised his eyebrows. "Why are you telling us this?"
"He's a moron," Gaz spoke up.
Zim shifted to glare past Membrane. "Dare you insult the superior intellect of ZIM?"
"Could you wrap up this conversation? You're letting in the cold."
This was inaccurate; they were letting the warm air out. But that was beside the point. Membrane stared at Zim, unsure of what to make of him. He'd seen Zim kill his daughter. But he'd also heard his daughter confess to killing his son, and he couldn't disown her.
In the spirit of Christmas and consistency, Membrane said, "Would you like to come in, Zim? I could brew some coffee."
Zim's eyes widened and then narrowed. "What kind of earthstink trickery is this? Zim is not falling off the turnip truck today! No, I have important doomsday work! Sleep peacefully this night, for tomorrow you'll all wake up inside a black hole!"
"Why do you always said that when no one's asleep?" asked Dib.
"You're going to sleep sooner or later, so what's the difference?" He turned on his heel, then said over his shoulder, "Merry Christmas, Dib! Mwahahaha!"
"Oh yeah?!" Dib called as Zim ran down the sidewalk, evidently determined to have the last word. "I'll just sabotage your cannons! And even if I don't, your robot sidekick will probably mess up your plan like he usually does!"
He shut the door and grinned up at Membrane. "This is going to sound corny, but this is the best Christmas ever."
A/N: This chapter was the most fun to write, even the child murder bits. Okay, especially the child murder bits. :p I should probably see a psychiatrist.
I'd like to know if Gaz was believable in the future scene: the manslaughter, confession, and crying. And let me know whether or not the others were in-character.
To my international readers: merry Christmas, feliz Navidad, frohe Weihnachten, and 즐거운 성탄. I hope that's correct Korean; I babel fished it.