The Ghosts of Christmas Past, short story by Dawn DeBraal at

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

written by: Dawn DeBraal



Frontier State Prison, Carbon County, Wyoming
December 24,1976

Clifford Sullivan walked the hallway of occupied cells on either side, taking care to remain in the middle so that he would not get grabbed. It had been his lot, drawing the short straw to work on Christmas Eve, guarding the dregs of society in the state prison. At a maximum-security facility, one is always kept on their toes. These men were the kind of people who would shank you, given the opportunity.
He had thought about quitting, but after so many years, he was nearing retirement and a lifetime pension. It was plain stupid to give all that up after ‘doing time.’ It was hard to tell the difference between prisoners and the men who guarded them, as both sides were hardened by the suffocating darkness and the sorrow that permeated the cement tomb. Yes, tonight, he would leave and go home to Gretchen. Clifford’s boys had grown up and moved on to their careers. Luckily, neither of them followed in the footsteps of his chosen occupation.

The state prison was known for hauntings. Many a night, one could hear the desperate screams of men stuck behind bars, shouting that ghosts were pursuing them. Although Clifford didn’t believe in ghosts and such, he felt these men were experiencing the guilt of their crimes, reliving them in nightmares.
Clifford was lost in thought over a Charles Dicken’s book, The Christmas Carol, a story of ghosts from Christmas past, present, and future, and how life-changing the visitations had been for Scrooge. It was a wonderful story that he loved reading to his boys during the holidays. Scrooge’s partner Marley was as dead as a doornail but visits Scrooge on the eve of Christmas to get him to change his ways. He daydreamed the characters and how he saw them.
Cliff shook his head and yawned to bring himself back into the present. Daydreaming in a place like this could get you killed.
He walked along the bars, peeking into each cell while counting heads. God, they treated these men like animals. He was told this abuse made recidivism less of an issue, but Clifford thought it made the men harder. For those who believed or had the second sight of hauntings, it was pure hell, for they saw what no one else could see: the ghosts of the dead come to life.

The hauntings happened more often than he cared to think. In his thirty years here, he’d seen almost as many men killed by fellow prisoners. Nothing was safe in their hands if a prisoner could make an object into a weapon. They were clever, these crooks and murderers, no more than Amos Radley doing life for killing his twin daughters and wife, whom Amos thought was possessed by the Devil. The man admitted to what he’d done to those poor women. Possession was a common theme for this man, whom Clifford suspected of personally talking and walking with the being. Amos put the fear into other prisoners, for he’d killed a few men who cornered him since he’d been locked away. Amos, considered dangerous, seldom got out of the small cell. Clifford felt sorry for the man. Amos had become like a rabid dog locked up twenty-four hours a day, only allowed out once a week for a shower, which was performed with great difficulty. Amos would be escorted, shackled, and manacled down to the common shower area.

It was Christmas Eve. Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward men, and it happened to be Amos’s lucky shower day. Clifford’s job was to take the prisoner down to clean himself in the shower room alone, where he could not harm anyone or they him. The leery guard tapped on the bars with the nightstick, and Amos sat up on the cot.
“Do you want to take a shower?” The huge man was an intimidating specimen. Amos stuck his hands through the food tray opening. Clifford clapped the handcuffs on meaty wrists, placing a second set of cuffs from the prisoner’s restricted hands, connecting those to the bars so that Amos could not run away once the guard opened the door. He placed a shackle on his right foot and slowly opened the door to shackle the other foot. Once the prisoner was secure, he released the cuffs from the bars and put them on a chain around his middle. Extreme caution for this murderer at all times was protocol.
“Prisoner, walk.” Clifford pushed the man ahead, who shuffled in front of the guard, reminding Clifford of Jacob Marley and the chains he was forced to wear in the afterworld, the chains of sin.
Taking Amos out of his cell was the most dangerous part of Clifford’s job. As they walked down the hall, Clifford locked doors behind them.
“This is a wonderful Christmas present, a shower,” Amos said, conversing.
“Keep quiet,” Clifford told him. For extra measure, he gave him a little push making Amos trip.
“Hey, give a man a break. It’s Christmas.” Cliff sighed. He didn’t want to be here anymore than Amos did. Grunting, he moved the behemoth along more gently.
“I am glad to get to shower tonight. My girls are coming soon.”
“Girls?” Okay, now he had Cliff’s attention.
“My wife and daughters will visit me tonight on the anniversary of their deaths.”
“You killed your family on Christmas Eve?” Clifford could not believe the callousness of the man.
“Yes, I couldn’t bear to see them go through it.”
“Through what?”
“The most heinous disease known to man, Huntington’s Chorea.”
“Never heard of it.” It was Christmas, and the man wanted to talk. Let him talk, Clifford decided. Besides, he was curious why a man would kill his family.

“My wife had just turned forty when she started having spasms. After several doctor visits, we discovered her brain was dying, and the doctor confirmed Huntington’s. It begins with depression, tremors, and bursts of uncontrolled spasms. It is very debilitating. We were shocked because Lorna didn’t know anyone in her family who had it. Then we discovered that if one of us carried the gene, we could pass it on to our children. It was expensive, but Lorna had to know if she had passed that torch on to our girls. Unfortunately, she did. Both Nessa and Andrea had the juvenile version of the disease and followed my wife’s symptoms soon after. By the time they turned twenty, my girls would be screaming, flailing, like tortured people filled with the Devil’s spirit. Lorna begged me, but I put her off for months and watched each day as my beloved wife declined into a torturous hell, with my daughters not far behind. About that time, my insurance company dropped me. The maintenance drugs alone could buy a small house every month. I couldn’t keep up. So, I decided to do what my wife begged me daily. I planned to kill my family. Once I had succeeded, I would kill myself. No one wanted to go through that hell, and I couldn’t live without them.
I turned the gas on the stove and blew out the pilot light. They were all in bed sleeping while I stood outside with a gun under my chin, ready to kill myself after the explosion. I wanted to make sure I took care of my girls first. I accidentally pulled the trigger as the house exploded, but the force pushed me over, and the bullet ran up the side of my face.” He pointed to the deep scar from his chin to the top of his head. “I was knocked unconscious, not dead. When the fire department came, they knew I’d done it. And since I hadn’t succeeded in offing myself, I willingly admitted to it. The girls were safe now. At the trial, I was convicted of their murders. I am doing three consecutive life sentences. Funny hey? As if you would outlive one life sentence? Every year on Christmas Eve, my wife and children show themselves to me, a sign that they are grateful for my sacrifice. If only I could find a way to die while they are here with me, I could go with them, and we could be a family again.”

The man was crazy, of that, Clifford was sure. He opened the shower room door, chained Amos inside the locked door, and removed his shackles and handcuffs through the bars.
“You got twenty minutes,” Clifford said. Amos walked to the back of the shower and the guard turned around to give his prisoner privacy. Clifford found himself feeling sorry for Amos. He couldn’t imagine what he would do if it were his wife and children in that situation. He silently thanked the Good Lord for the health of his family.
Amos stood before the shower, soaping up his body, taking his sweet time. Clifford was a little impatient but wouldn’t hurry the man. The shower was the one thing breaking the monotony that had become Amos’s life.
“Ompf!” A bar of soap skittered past his boots, hitting the far wall and bouncing back toward him. Clifford spun around to see Amos lying flat on his back, having slipped and fallen on the tile floor. Amos’s head was bleeding profusely from behind, and he appeared to be unconscious. Clifford couldn’t go to the man. The protocol dictated that there needed to be more than one guard before he could render aid in case it was a trick. Clifford pulled the mike off his chest, asking for assistance, both medical and physical, to help get the fallen man off the floor.
“Send extra help. It’s Amos Radley. He is at least three-hundred-fifty pounds. Clifford stood by helpless, watching the shower water wash Amos’s blood, sending it swirling down the drain. He wrestled with himself because the humanity in him said he should go in, put a towel against Amos’s head to stop the bleeding, and turn the water off, but he wasn’t about to lose his job.

He paced back and forth, wringing his hands and cursing under his breath. It made sense he cared now that he knew the reason Amos had killed his wife and children. The man was crazy but not an evil man. Clifford called on the mike again, this time asking more forcefully for a response.
“Sorry, Cliff, we have a little incident here in the bullpen. I’m sending someone. Hang on. You aren’t in danger, correct?”
“No, but the prisoner is bad. He might even be dead already.” Clifford reported back, no longer able to contain himself. It wasn’t right standing there watching a man die. Clifford pulled the key out from his belt on a retractable chain and placed it in the door, ready to risk getting fired, when a white light appeared in the corner of the shower, his mouth dropped open in shock. It seemed that the brick wall had softened, and a curtain hung in tatters where the bright light emanated from.
His hand went over his eyes as he couldn’t look away from what was happening, but the brilliant light made him tear up. A slender woman and two preteen girls stepped out of the light. Their forms were smudged yet opaque as they moved to Amos’s body on the shower floor.
The woman bent down, touching the man’s head. Amos struggled to rise. As he stood unsteadily, the three led the fully dressed man to the hole in the wall, pulling him into the light.
“Wait!” Clifford shouted, turning to see Amos’s naked body still lying on the floor beneath the running water.
Ghosts of Christmas past, he whispered to himself at what he’d just seen. It was just as Amos had wished would happen. His family came to take him with them.

Clifford picked up the soap bar so the others wouldn’t step on it coming through the door upon hearing them coming down the hall. The gate unlocked behind him. Two guards and a medic came into the room.
“It’s too late, I think,” Clifford said, opening the barred door to admit them inside. The two guards and medical help went in, and one turned off the shower. The other threw a towel across the body, turning it over and allowing the medic to do a quick check for a pulse, confirming Amos Radley was dead.
“He slipped in the shower and hit his head on the floor.” Clifford offered. Three men lifted the prisoner’s body onto the gurney and wheeled Amos off after covering his body with a sheet.

Clifford cleaned up the mess in the shower and grabbed the shackles from the wall to carry them back to the cell area. The clanking of the chains made him think about Jacob Marley and the ghost of Christmas past. He felt he’d seen a Christmas miracle that night. Mercy was shown to a man serving three life sentences by the women he had taken from this world.

Frontier Prison closed its doors to prisoners in 1981. Five years after he witnessed the miracle of Amos Radley, Clifford Sullivan retired on the last day the state prison was open. He never forgot the vision he’d had of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, and his favorite Christmas book by Charles Dickens was never the same.

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