Ed Squall found himself sinking into his leather recliner. The hot toddies sat heavy on his brain, even heavier than the deep funk of boredom produced by the Christmas specials on TV. But he didn’t care. Christmas Eve was the one day a year he knew that there was no work at all the next day.
“Crappy holiday,” Ed muttered, “Didn’t show one house.”
The room was lit only by the cool glow of the TV that flickered and danced aimlessly. His mind wandered for the first time in weeks, knowing that another year of real estate was pretty much done for. It wasn’t his best year, but these things come and go.
“It could be worse. There’s no need to panic. It’s a …”
With that last thought Ed drifted away. Not asleep so much as away, out of his chair, and into another world. He snapped back with a hard start, a feeling that there was someone else in the room. He shook his head hard, and saw a familiar but ghostly figure next to him.
“Are … are you a ghost?”
“Yes I am, Ed Scrooge. I will be your guide tonight.”
“How did you know my real name?”
“It’s not a great secret. Everyone knows you wanted to be the Terrific Tornado, Ed Squall.”
“Yeah, well it looks better on a bus bench.”
“That’s not the point. I’m your guide for the evening. It’s time to teach you a lesson.”
“How long will this take? It’s my only night off.”
“Relax, we’re all busy. I want to start by showing you how things used to be.”
With that, the specter took Ed’s hand and became strangely solid, pulling him out of his chair and into a cloud of mist and light where the TV used to be. It was another world.
“Whe-where re are we?” Ed asked in a wavering voice.
“This is the past, where the mistakes were made.”
“Is that me? Is that Bob Cratchet?”
“Yes, he just signed on to your office.”
“We were both so young then!
Jim’s ghostly voice wavered a bit. “Yes, Bob was at least.”
“He had so much promise, what happened?”
“You gave him junk to sell, that’s what happened.”
“Oh, like it’s my fault he couldn’t move those townhomes!”
“Let’s just listen a moment, shall we?” the spirit commanded.
Ed felt compelled to listen, quietly. He was almost paralyzed by the sight in front of him, and hated the sound of his own voice. That younger version of him spoke first.
“Now, Bob, if you’re a top performer, you’ll get the Lexus this year. I got last year’s, and let me tell you, if you can’t sell to people as you drive them around in a Lexus, you don’t belong in this business!”
Ed dangled his keys in front of Bob, their shine and flash mesmerizing him for a moment. Bob took a moment to snap back to the scene with a broad smile across his face that looked as if life was almost too good to be true .
“I’ll do it!” Bob finally responded, “I’ll be the best agent this office ever saw!”
“We’re in a major seller’s market, so there’s plenty for everyone,” Ed told him. “Just get out there and sell and you’ll have your own Lexus in no time.”
The sound of Ed’s voice snapped Bob back for a moment. When Ed put the keys away, he suddenly had a sober look on his face that came from a less festive place. He spoke carefully and haltingly.
“But what kind of security do we have? How do we know this will go on?”
“What do you mean?” Ed demanded.
“I … I have a family, a kid with some health issues. I need to know that this … this isn’t just a temporary thing.”
“Relax. We can upsell people every 2-3 years in this market. I got customers who bought townhomes just two years ago looking to move up to single families already. They cash out their equity and they can afford just about anything now. And we get 4% every time.”
Bob Cratchet fumbled for an answer, but the real Ed Squall spoke first. “Crap,” he said, realizing how much he blew on that Lexus. And all the other ones he bought for the top performers. But the figures in front of him didn’t respond. They simply faded back into the mist when the spirit waved his arm in front of the scene.
“Do you see what happened?” The ghost asked Ed.
“Yeah, we over did it. But how were we to know? You can’t blame me for a major market correction!”
“Perhaps you need to see how things are now.”
“What? I know how it is!”
“And how is Bob right now?”
“No, please, don’t make me … please don’t do that!”
The scene in front of them dissolved again, and this time they went to a scene Ed didn’t recognize at all. It was a shabby duplex, and off in the corner was a small Christmas tree. Bob Cratchet was there, just as Ed remembered, with a woman that appeared to be the one he introduced as his wife Helen … was that party a year ago? And in the corner there was a wheelchair that cradled a tiny figure, thin and pale. All that could be seen was a lock of sandy hair. Ed knew it was their son, Tim. Helen spoke first:
“I don’t know what we’ll do, but I know that you’re determined and smart, Bob.”
“Helen, I don’t know either. Everything is so difficult. For everybody.”
“Just forget about real estate, Bob! Just leave it behind!”
“It’s what I know! We have to get something going soon if we’re going to keep this house!”
“We can lose this house, we can go somewhere else. Foreclosure isn’t the end of the world. What matters is keeping going for Tim.”
“Yeah ….” Bob stuttered, “Yeah, I’ll … I’ll get something.”
With that, the spirit pulled a silent and sullen Ed out of the scene and into the mist that shrouded it. He wasn’t home, he wasn’t at the Cratchet’s. He was nowhere.
“What’s this? Where are we? What will happen to Bob and his family?”
“You suddenly care?”
“I … I always cared!”
“Really? I thought Bob was part of the ‘churn and burn’.”
“No! I only hire the best! He was smart and driven and …”
“Well, he didn’t perform! You know how it is!”
“Yes, I do. I’m the Regional Manager. You gave him your worst buyers and a bunch of townhomes as listings.”
“He didn’t sell one of them! And in a buyer’s market only two of those buyers closed anything!”
“Their credit scores were very low. You knew that.”
“It never mattered to the mortgage brokers before!”
“It does now. You know that.”
“It was a bad year, that’s all!”
“What will you do in a bad year? How far will you go?”
Ed cringed, not sure what to say. He searched deep inside himself for a comment that made sense. What came out of his mouth surprised even him.
“What about Tim? The little one who is crippled?”
“Do you want to know what happens to him?” the ghost asked cryptically.
“Yes, I do!” Ed turned to the ghost. “Bob and Helen can take care of themselves, but what about Tim?”
“Um … yes, yes I am. I … I want to know!”
“Then let us go into the future and see!”
With a wave of his arm ,the ghost formed the mist around him. In a burst of light that hit Ed like a fist, a new scene opened up in front of him. It wasn’t familiar to Ed. There was wood paneling and bookshelves festooned with leather spines and gilded letters. Two flags sat in stands behind a massive oak desk with two figures, one in command behind it and the other groveling in front. Slowly, Ed recognized a much older version of himself as the one groveling, begging for mercy.
“I didn’t mean to harm anyone! Please, you can’t take my license!”
“It’s not up to me. It’s the law.”
“It’s been a bad year, and that on top of so many bad years, well, a fellow gets desperate. I have to pay my own mortgage, you know!”
“This isn’t about me or you. This is only about the law. My family has known hard times, too. I’m sure you’ll pull through.”
“But never like this, I’m sure! I’ll lose my house! I’ll be foreclosed on! Please!”
“You’ll survive foreclosure. Your victims did. And I did, too.”
At that the figure behind the desk lurched back. Ed stared at his long face with the sandy hair on top, trying to figure out where he’d seen it before. And then the man behind the desk turned to the side and glided out from behind the desk. It was only then that Ed saw him pass the nameplate reading, “Timothy G. Cratchet, Assistant Attorney General”.
Ed shouted, “Noooooo!” but the scene dissolved in front of him. They passed through a large window and beyond the marble halls of the State Capitol, stopping only long enough to see the bus bench where “Ed Squall, the Townhouse Tornado” could barely be read from under the mounds of pigeon poop that were piled on top of it.
“Is there something wrong with that scene?”
“I’d never do anything illegal, no matter how bad it got!”
“You turned the Cratchets out on the street.”
“That’s just business.”
“What business are you in?”
“Real estate. You know that.”
“What’s that mean to you? Don’t you have a saying?”
“Yes, there on the bench. Under the poop. It says, ‘He’s in the people business!’”
“Oh … that … well, you have to have friends in this business.”
“How are your friends doing?”
Ed knew he was beaten. He was more beaten than he could have possibly realized. As he slumped over away from the spirit, he felt himself sink down, down. He fell hard and fast into the dark void underneath him, falling as if he were dead until a sudden shiver of fear electrified his spine and woke him up.
He was in his leather recliner, just as he remembered. It had all been only a dream, only a strange vivid dream that hit him hard in the guts. But he knew he had something to do. There was one thing that might make Christmas not as dark. He picked up the phone.
“Bob? Bob, it’s Ed. I know, it’s strange to call you like this, but I was thinking about you and I realized it’d be a shame to lose all the skills you’ve built up. Well, yes, I know. I was thinking that … I think that you’d make a great credit and housing counselor, and well … the way things are I think we could use that in house. It’s what our clients really need. Yes, I agree, we can clean up the mess rather than make any more. You will? That’s great! Say, let’s talk about this, well, day after Christmas, shall we? You know where to find me.”
The phone was set down gently, and Ed settled back down into his chair. He felt more comfortable, but he wasn’t as sleepy as he was before. If anything, he hadn’t been this wide awake in a long time.