Light stabs my eyes as the hood come off. My hands are bound, so I cannot shield my face. A figure is silhouetted in the bright light. No, not silhouetted. Some of the light seems to come through the figure, as if it isn't all there. I am already bound, helpless and terrified, yet the sight of this translucent form makes my guts feel like ice.
They have me. Them.
"Name?" the figure says.
"Please," I say. "What have I done?"
"The sooner you answer, the sooner you will be processed. Name?"
"I am Oswick Bozzbaddle."
It raises a clipboard, opaque against the light, and makes a tick. The sound of the pen on paper is hard; precise. "Do you like Christmas, Bozzbaddle?"
"I do, I do. I swear it!"
It's true. Presents and pudding, tinsel and trees, friends and fellowship… I love everything about Christmas. I know I have not always done so, but a man can change, can't he?
Half boasting, half pleading I add "I love Christmas!"
"So you say. And yet you have been denounced, Bozzbaddle."
My eyes can no longer stand the light. I look down. My chair is bolted down to the floor covered with red and green tiles. I can't help noticing that something brown stains their grout, and that they slope downwards towards a drain. The room smells of disinfectant and brandy.
"Denounced? How? Three ghosts already came to me. I gave up my miserly ways. I love Christmas, now! Please, I have my redemption papers, they are all in order. Check them!"
"Check them?" My interrogator says this almost mildly. I should not have told him what to do. He sucks a translucent cigarette, holds it for a moment, and breathes out a blue cloud that smells of nutmeg and pine needles.
"You'll… you'll find them in order," I say. My words are pointless, but I can think of no others.
My interrogator takes a wooden chair, and with great deliberation places it to the left of me. He settles into it, backwards in his seat but facing me. Now I can make out his features. He has a round face and brown hair, severely combed down.
"I am Inspector the Ghost of Last Thursday," he says. "Recidivists Department. You have heard of us, yes?"
I shudder. He takes that as a "yes"—which of course it is.
"You say you have been redeemed," he continues. "That is good. We all like a little redemption story at Christmas, don't we? Of course we do. They warm the heart. They give us hope."
From the pocket of his greatcoat he takes a silver box. It becomes more solid as he brings it closer to me. He snaps it open. "Candy cane?" he says, a false smile on his spectral lips. I do not want one, but I fear to say so. I nod, and he slips a cane into my mouth.
"They give us hope," he repeats. "But if a redemption story is a lie, what does that mean?"
At first, I think it a rhetorical question, but he looks at me expectantly. "Nothing good?" I say, my words muffled by the candy between my teeth.
He smiles that horrible false smile again. "Nothing good," he says, merrily. "Nothing good." With terrible speed, he slaps me across the face. Red and green lights flicker before my eyes. In my shocked state all I can think is, where did my candy cane go?
"A false redemption is not 'nothing good,'" he snarls. "It is the worst. It is a crime against hope, against family, against Christmas itself!"
He takes me by the front of my shirt and shakes me. I had not believed I could feel any more frightened, but now I am in some awful place beyond terror. "A false redemption narrative is like a scorpion under the tree! A rat turd in the pudding! Arsenic in the brandy butter!"
I am breathing harder than ever, yet my lungs feel short of air. He lets me go, ostentatiously calming himself. He smooths back his hair and adjusts the set of his coat. He takes a hipflask from his coat and pours himself an eggnog. He offers me the next glass, but I shake my head. He shrugs and returns the flask to his pocket.
"If you're a recidivist, we'll find you out," he says. "We always do."
"Please," I beg. "Please, I have been redeemed. I am as light as a feather, as giddy as a schoolboy! Ask the Three Ghosts. They'll tell you!"
"The Three come from a simpler time," he says. "We could afford to be lenient, then. No longer. We Time Ghosts are no longer mere spruikers for Christmas. We run it now. The whole holiday. We run it, and we run it efficiently. There can be no leeway, now. No… humbug."
I swallow at the word. Why do I feel so guilty?
The ghost looks at his clipboard again. "Oswick Bozzbaddle," he reads, "The Ghost of Next December 23rd, 10am-11am has denounced you. It seems you will accidentally tear some expensive wrapping paper. You will say, and I quote, "sometimes Christmas blows". Do you confess?"
I blink. "Do I confess? How can I confess to something that hasn't happened yet?"
The ghost smiles coldly. "More to the point," he says, "how can you deny it?"
Ten years later, and the Re-education Camp has spat me back out. I live in tiny chamber, sharing a living room and a toilet with seven other former seasonal dissidents. It is Christmas, and I am flipping through the channels. To my horror, I turn to my confession broadcast. My battered image on the television is reading a prepared statement from typed notes, held in a trembling hand.
One of my neighbours snorts. "Honestly! They repeat this rubbish every bloody year."
We denounce him, of course. We are rewarded with an extra ration of gingerbread.