I firmly believe that all “A Christmas Carol” retellings should be judged not just on the quality of the story but on how creepy the ghost of Christmas Future is. Ren, in Black Shades, checks all the boxes for pretty darn creepy. Elisabeth and I just finished rewatching a Muppet’s Christmas carol and it made me want to share the part of Black Shades where Ren shows up for the first time as a ghost. The original excerpt on MLR’s website cut out before Ren showed up. But just to let you know, the text was copied before the manuscript went into galleys, so any mistakes were (hopefully) caught before the final draft.
Excerpt #2: Black Shades. Peter can’t sleep as he can’t let go of the idea that he’s never going to fit into Ren’s life like he does Ren’s shoes.
* * *
Colin rolled over onto his back in his sleep. The wheeze in his breath was going to turn into a snore again. If Peter could exorcise Ren from the house with a wave of his hand, he didn’t know if it would help anymore. Was exorcise a word? There was probably a better term for it. Timber, his cat, bolted upright. His ears and whiskers pointed forward, while Tumble had shifted when Colin moved, and was now flat on her back, oblivious.
Timber glanced over his stripy shoulder at Peter, alert, meeting his gaze with a burning intensity. Peter had somehow become one of those middle-class gays, but he’d never pretended cats could talk until he saw Timber in the rescue center. Tumble was guaranteed to go to the next person who walked through the door. She had a prettier coat. Timber had a notched ear, a bad attitude, and a stupid name. Elvis. Who the hell would adopt a cat named Elvis? Tumble didn’t escape entirely; her name had been Tammy Faye. Either way, the cat formerly known as Elvis continued glaring until Peter got out of bed.
The bedroom door was open. The house was completely dark. As soon as Peter came around the bed, the television turned on in the living room. The silent, mostly blue glow had to come from somewhere. The bed was on a frame high enough to easily fuck off of. The salesclerk hadn’t said anything while he and Colin had tried out the different heights. Timber skittered under the bed. If Peter ever ran like that—out of the room, out of Colin’s life—he would take the cat.
The television was so new the box was still in the entranceway. They must have programmed some stupid sleep program, his rational brain told him. Fuck you, it’s a ghost, the irrational part screamed.
Peter let Colin sleep. He didn’t want to watch Colin see Ren’s ghost for the first time. He didn’t need an active reminder he was only second fiddle. Peter was naked. If he was wearing his garter, it meant if he wasn’t awake by the time Colin got to bed, he wanted to be woken up so they could have sex. Peter had undone his belt after Colin had gotten him off, because Colin had his chance and he’d only blown Peter with it.
Peter had a robe, somewhere in a box in one of three different storage places. He borrowed Colin’s ridiculously short one from the back of the bedroom door. It came up to Peter’s mid-thigh. He smoothed out the terrycloth material. There was no reason to be uncivilized. Timber’s eyes glowed in the darkness. You’re on your own, bud.
Peter walked out of the room to face his demon. Ghost. Whatever.
Ren was sprawled across the length of the sectional, wearing nothing but a silk robe that probably had a fancy name both Ren and Colin would know, and a pair of thousand dollar shoes. They were the prize pair displayed in the prime position of the shoe cabinet in the spare room.
Ren flexed his feet. “I hope you don’t mind. They are mine, after all.”
Even his voice was lovely. He wasn’t wearing any make-up, but other than a jawline that was probably pretty easy to contour, he rocked androgyny like a ’90s punk. His hair was short enough to play butch lesbian, his cheekbones were impossible unless they’d been restructured under the knife. No photo did him justice.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Peter asked. “You win. He’s yours. Tell him to ship my shit to my sister’s.” He turned to go, but bounced against the silky pink pattern on Ren’s chest. He had to step back. There was something fierce about a man over six foot crazy enough to wear six inch heels.
Peter put up his hands. His nails hadn’t been manicured in months. Male substitute teachers who had perfect French tipped nails rarely, if ever, got called back. He’d resorted to chewing off what would have been the hangnail, promising himself that this time, the ugly scab wasn’t going to form. Blood and pain welled the same way through his skin.
Ren grabbed his hands. “Oh, sweetheart. What have you done?”
Peter tried to yank them back, but they might as well have been encased in stone. Ren had no more give than iron did in this world. If Ren lifted his hands above his head, Peter would dangle from them.
Peter strained as hard as he could. “Let me go. You win.”
“Do you think this is a game?” Ren asked. He dropped Peter’s hands. Where Ren had touched, Peter’s skin was so cold the veins flowing in either direction tingled with the chill of it, and Peter experienced his circulatory system in his forearms in three-dimensional space. It wasn’t pain, per se, but it was sensation. Peter didn’t rub his arms to try to heat the blood up. He wondered what would happen if the chilly bits broke away and reached his heart, but the blood heading back to it warmed up in the crook of his elbow. The map in his head vanished. Ren continued, “I’m supposed to tell you that you’re going to be visited by three ghosts tonight, but spoiler alert, it’s going to be me in three fabulous outfits. If I can’t get it through your thick skull you’re wanted here by the end of it, you can go. You don’t know how many ‘strings’ I had to ‘pull’ to make this whole thing happen.”
Ren’s nails were so glossy red the air quotes bled. Ren admired them for a second and then snapped his fingers. Before Peter could blink, they stood in a pretty posh hall in a big house. The fancy rug had been hand knotted in a faraway land. Peter’s bare feet sunk into the lushness of it halfway up his toes. Just down the hall was a table with an old-fashioned brass and ebony phone. It didn’t have a number pad. It was of the era that one simply picked up the phone and asked to be connected. The lay of the hall and the four doors off of it were familiar.
Ren glanced around, no longer in the fancy robe. He now wore the holiday sweater Colin had on in the Christmas photo and a silver miniskirt so short it barely peeked out from underneath it. A whiff of Colin’s aftershave floated over to Peter. Ren was one flounce away from a wardrobe malfunction and owned it. The fishnet stockings had a brick chimney pattern with snowy lace garters on top. His platform shoes had a pilgrim’s buckle. “Oops. Too far.” He snapped his fingers again. Now, they were in the same hall, but in a completely different era. Maybe Ren’s skirt was an inch lower, but still well above the garters. His legs were an hour long and the heels showed his calves and things to the minute.
The rug on the floor was the same one, but Peter felt the squishy mold. The stench from the carpet reached them. Peter had already covered his nose, knowing how bad the hall stank, sadly, as well as he knew Colin’s skin products.
There wasn’t anywhere he could stand that would be better. Garbage bags sat on the floor until whatever inside had turned into a primordial ooze that leached through the plastic. It was best not to try to play name that stain. It was the kind of hall that pissing on the wall made more of a statement about life than Peter’s artistic talent ever could. He was pretty sure he had, in fact. Some girls like to sit down to pee. When Peter wasn’t tucking, he liked whipping out his dick. He had always been fearless in drag. He wondered what had changed.
“So what?” Peter asked. As soon as Diana had dumped the rapist and met Jeremy, Peter had moved back with his cousin as fast as he could. The first night he’d slept in a bed in this house, something had bitten him as painful as a horsefly. The mattress had bed bugs. When he’d moved back out, anything he couldn’t boil he hadn’t taken with him. Most of Lucinda had remained behind.
Ren produced a letter, as full of accusation as any TV lawyer would be at the dramatic moment. “Diana took you back the moment you asked, even when though you stiffed her on two months’ rent.”
“Her boyfriend drugged me,” Peter snapped.
“She paid for it through thirty-seven hours of overtime in the same pay period. What happened wasn’t either of your faults, but excuses don’t pay rent. If she’d been living on the street, you wouldn’t have had anywhere to crash-land.”
Peter looked down the hall. He’d hated every second of living in this place. His boss had told him, just as embarrassed by the conversation as Peter had been, that if he didn’t start smelling better, he’d be out of a job. There was only so much eau de toilette could do. Diana had taken him back and helped him with the fine-tooth comb necessary after the delousing shampoo.
Peter took the copy of the letter. He’d recognised the name of the payday loan’s parent company on the envelope. He’d torn it up into tiny pieces and left it in the garbage bin at the post office when he checked his mail last week, yet here it was, whole and unfolded. The plain logo and stern warning were stronger when the company sending it wasn’t called Get Cash Now.
His cousin’s name was on top, but Peter’s name was listed as a co-signer.
Want more festive drag queen Christmas ghosts? Click on through for links to buy your own copy of Black Shades!