With 2100 writers in Round One, Round Two of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge saw 300 advance, myself included. We were given three prompts and three days to create a synopsis and 2000-word short. Below is the ghost that haunted me until I told its story.
Nelson Thomas isn’t your ordinary billionaire philanthropist, and when an old beggar offers him the chance to give to a charitable cause, Nelson chooses poorly.
By all appearances, Nelson Thomas lived the American Dream: the CEO of a flourishing dotcom, a handsome, eligible bachelor and, according to the latest issue of Forbes, one of the top 50 philanthropists in the country.
But the old beggar outside Starbucks would tell a different story. For weeks, he’d watched Nelson stride up from his morning walk, iPod strapped to his arm, Fitbit on his wrist, lost in a world of gadgetry and money. And each day, as Nelson left with a Venti Mocha and blueberry scone, the geezer would hold out his hand and ask, “A dollar to lift an old man’s soul?”
“I give plenty to charity,” Nelson would mutter, then hurry away, never making eye-contact.
Truth is, Nelson didn’t give plenty at all. Out of his net worth of $23.4 billion, he’d only donated 0.3%. Of course, $70.2 million made him seem benevolent, but he suffered no real hardship. As a matter of fact, if it weren’t for the tax exemptions and positive publicity, he wouldn’t give a dime.
No, Nelson was a miser, and the old beggar recognized it. He remembered the greediness from his earlier life and smelled it all over him. Nelson was the perfect person to settle his debt, all he had to do was wait. He had nothing but time. And it just so happened that Nelson was in the café ordering his usual at that very moment.
When he came out, Nelson grabbed a table away from the crowd, near the alley. Before he could sip, though, the old man appeared, his breath replacing the silky aroma of Nelson’s coffee with that of dusty smoke. “A hundred dollars to lift an old man’s soul?” he asked, stretching his bony hand forward.
Surprised by the increase in his panhandling, Nelson turned and scrutinized the man. His face was shockingly gray, ashen and weathered, as if it had petrified into a gnarly knot over a thousand lifetimes. His clothes, as tattered as his body, draped to the ground off twisted shoulders. If Nelson didn’t know any better, he’d swear the man was floating. His body drifted with each breath he took, and the cane he carried stayed a good inch above the pavement.
“A hundred dollars! You’re out of your mind, you old coot.” Nelson bit his scone and swigged his coffee, then made a horrible face as they went down. “Gah! What the fuck are you burning over there? My stuff tastes like rotten eggs.” He peered beyond the man, but there was no fire anywhere.
“That’s the smell of your future if you don’t change your ways.” The beggar lifted his cane and pointed it at Nelson, who was suddenly frozen in his chair.
“I’ve told you – I – I give plenty.” The lie lodged in Nelson’s throat like burning coal, sending him coughing and choking, gasping for breath as his face turned blue. After what seemed an eternity, his breath and color returned and he was able to speak again. “What did you do? Leave me alone!” With all the strength he could muster, he rose and dragged one foot, then the other, but it was as if he were running in quicksand. He felt the beggar’s grip on his arm.
“It is better to give now than to pay later. Won’t you reconsider?”
“I told you to leave me alone!” Nelson pulled loose, then swung back to hit him, only to find himself punching a puff of smoke. “What the—?” The man had simply vanished.
Nelson could move freely again, and scanned the alley. Nothing, not even a rat. He shook his head and left.
The morning sun had disappeared behind darkened skies and a chilly wind blustered around the buildings. He needed something warmer than a t-shirt. A nearby J. Crew had windbreakers on display.
As he approached the door, he caught his reflection in the window and saw that he wasn’t alone; the beggar lurked a step behind. “Quit following me!” he yelled, startling an elderly couple. He looked to the left, then the right. The beggar was gone.
“Honey, we’re not following you, we’re just buying socks,” an elderly woman said.
He grabbed her by the arms. “Where’d he go? Where’s he hiding?”
“Who, dear? There’s nobody here except my husband and me.”
He loosened his grip on the woman. “He’s been following me…wants money…”
“Why don’t you give him the hundred dollars?” her husband asked – only, it wasn’t her husband anymore. There, where the elderly man once stood, was the beggar. “It’s better to give now than to pay later.” Nelson shrieked and took off running down the sidewalk.
“Oh, my. I hope he’s alright. He seemed…distressed,” said the woman.
“Drugs, I’m sure,” said her husband, patting her hand. “Let’s get those socks.”
Nelson ran until his legs were jelly and his lungs, ablaze. Too breathless to hail a cab, he stepped off the curb to flag one down. Horns blared and cars swerved to miss him until finally, a taxi screeched to a halt with inches to spare.
“Are you crazy?” the Pakistani driver yelled. “You could have killed yourself.”
Nelson jumped into the back seat. “24th and Main – and step on it.” He checked behind them. The beggar was nowhere in sight. His panting relaxed. “It’s the house on the corner.” The driver slowed and pulled to the curb. The meter read $17. Nelson pulled out a twenty and handed it across the seatback.
“No, that will be…$100.” The cabbie’s thick Middle Eastern accent had disappeared and Nelson saw the beggar’s sunken eyes in the rearview mirror. He dropped the twenty and scrambled for the door, almost shaking too violently to pull the handle, then flung it open and dashed up the stairs.
The keyhole eluded his trembling hands, but he kept fumbling until the key found its mate, then tumbled into the foyer, slamming the door behind him. He jumped up and locked the triple dead-bolt, the titanium latch, and door chain. Nothing was getting in.
Even still, that wasn’t good enough. Running to the mirror on the opposite wall, he randomly tapped on the frame’s scrollwork until it popped open, revealing a secret panic room. He flicked on the lights and entered, then vaulted himself in. “Alone, at last.”
The room was a 900 square-foot fully functional studio, furnished and stocked, with walls of reinforced lead. He could live there for months without leaving. He walked over to the security monitors and snarled, “Get me now, you fuckhead.” The overhead lights flickered, then went out, and an odor of sulfur filled the room. “I’m n-not s-scared of you.”
Candles on the coffee table lit by themselves, revealing the old beggar standing by the armchair. “Come. Sit.” He patted the chair. “Don’t be frightened. I’m giving you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“And if I d-don’t accept?”
Rather than answer the question, the beggar said, “In his given lifetime, a man only needs shelter, food, and the care of a loving family, anything more should be given freely to those less fortunate – anything more.” He drew a labored breath. “But men like us, we let our desires make our decisions, don’t we?”
“Yes. You see, many centuries ago, I was also a rich, successful, and materialistic young man, only seeking possessions and power. My family died of starvation while I threw scraps to the pigs and I never blinked twice. And whenever I gave, which was rare, it was for the prestige, the acclamation, never the right reason – the love of your earthly brothers and sisters. That’s true philanthropy.” Nelson started to protest, but the beggar continued, “Then one day, an old man approached me with the same offer I’m giving you.”
“And what was that?”
“Take a hundred-dollar bill from your wallet. I know you have one. We misers don’t feel comfortable without an excess of money on us at all times.” Nelson hesitated, then pulled out a crisp hundred. “Now, write ‘hell money’ on it.” The beggar handed him an ancient quill. “No, take it…it won’t bite.” As Nelson reached for the pen, the beggar pricked his finger, drawing blood. “That’s all the ink you’ll need.”
“What the fuck?!”
The beggar pointed to the money. “Write.” Nelson snatched the pen and scribbled while the old man made his offer. “You have a choice: you can either give me the money and I’ll leave you alone, content in the knowledge that you’ve seen the error of your ways and will continue giving to anyone in need,” he slid the candle to the table’s edge, “or you can burn it as a symbol of your greed, sacrificing the money and sealing your fate.”
Nelson thought about it. “Why do you want my money? You’re a g-ghost, right? You don’t eat, drink, or need shelter…d-do you? If I gave it to you, you’d probably conjure some hoodoo and I’d end up giving it all away.”
The old beggar laughed. “Interesting! And what do you suppose would happen if you burned it?”
“I believe that’s the real way to get rid of you. Send you to hell, not the money. I can certainly spark up a C-note for that.”
Yet, Nelson’s hand trembled as he contemplated his final decision: the old beggar, or the candle to hell? He thrust the bill toward the beggar, then moved it over to the flame and caught the corner on fire. He watched the flame slowly eat away the green, then dropped it in the trash can. He looked up at the ghost and smiled, expecting him to disappear with the money.
“You made the same choice as I did.” The ghost spoke in a deeper timbre, his ashen skin regaining normal color. His back straightened and the wisps of gray hair grew fuller and darker. “During our time here, we accrue a mystical debt that can never be paid while alive. The less compassionate you live, the greater your debt.”
Nelson coughed, and the taste of sulfur filled his mouth. He felt tired and grew weaker. The money had nearly finished burning.
“In some traditions, families and descendants pay their loved ones’ debts with hell money and afterward, the spirit obtains a new body and fate to continue its karmic journey. You and I didn’t have friends and family. We chose a life of greed and solitude. When the old beggar gave me this chance, I made the same choice as you. I’d rather have burned my money than give it away, and in doing that, I repaid the last of the man’s debt, just as you’ve done for me.”
The lights flickered on and standing before Nelson was…Nelson.
“Thank you for giving me a new life, one that won’t be squandered this time. For centuries, I’ve had to beg for my hell money. When people gave with a happy heart – in the spirit of true philanthropy – I could burn it and apply it to my celestial arrears, but it was a debt so great, it took almost a thousand years to pay off. I knew you’d never give freely, but I offered you the same chance I was given.”
Nelson raised from the chair, then turned to the mirror and gasped in horror. Staring back at him was the old beggar’s reflection.
“When you burned the hell money, you embarked us on a new karmic course. Yours is to learn the lesson of humility. You will exist between worlds, begging for scraps, until your debt is paid.”
The old man – or Nelson, as he had now become – pulled out another $100. “As for me, I’ve learned the lesson of true giving, and my first act of benevolence in this life – your old life – will be toward your spiritual debt.” He lit the money and dropped it into the can. “In your travels, may you find people kinder than yourself.” As it burned, old Nelson faded away, disappearing into a puff of smoke.
M.L. Swift is a lover of words who squanders away his afternoons arranging them into sentences which, when combined, resemble fiction. He has written articles for Writer Unboxed and The Alzheimer’s Reading Room, and as a caregiver for ten years, plans a novel on his experience. He lives in the Florida panhandle with his two dogs, Rameses and Buster, and spends his nights fighting a losing battle to reclaim his side of the bed.