It wasn't even quite 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve when the knock came on Dr. Terrence Thirteen's door. He opened it as far as the chain would allow. "Oh, it's you," he said, with a note of distaste.
A familiar face, wearing the same dark clothing, the same hat that always kept his eyes in shadow, the same bizarre medallion, the same everything. He never changed.
"May I come in?", said the Stranger.
From the kitchen, Marie Thirteen's voice was heard. "Who is it, dear?"
"It's him," called Dr. Thirteen. To the Phantom Stranger, he said, "Why did you come here? Why today, of all days? We're just planning on a quiet time at home tonight."
"Because I was called, and because we know each other," the Stranger said. "And I am not alone. May we come in?"
"Who's with you?"
The Stranger moved aside, and another face was seen in the space between door and jamb. This time, it was the face of a beautiful blond woman in winter clothing. Her eyes were not directed towards Dr. Thirteen. That was understandable, as she was blind.
"Hello, Dr. Thirteen," said Cassandra Craft. "My friend came and brought me here. He said you might like to see us."
Thirteen sighed. As one of the great debunkers of supernatural fraud, he had endured too many encounters with the so-called Phantom Stranger for his liking. All the phony tricks, all the hugger-mugger, and all the charlatanry that he'd never been able to disprove. Mainly because the Stranger never stayed put long enough to be fully investigated. Thirteen half-suspected the man had a criminal record in his past. In that, he was more right than he could realize.
But he had met Miss Craft before, and knew her for a good woman.
Besides, it was Christmas Eve.
"None of your tricks here?"
"None," said the Stranger.
Thirteen unlatched the chain. "Come in, then."
"Thanks very much," said Cassandra, feeling for the doorframe and stepping through gingerly. "It's cold outside."
Marie Thirteen came in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron, and did a double-take. "Why, it's...I knew it was you from the way he talked, Stranger. But I didn't know Miss Craft was along. It's good to see you both. Uh, that is...I'm sorry."
"Don't be," the blind girl said, unbuttoning her coat. "You don't have to be so sensitive around me, Mrs. Thirteen. I'm glad to be with you both again. Especially tonight."
"Yes," said the Stranger. "Especially tonight." He guided
Cassandra to the coat rack in the corner and helped her hang up her garment.
Thirteen looked on, disgusted at how much the
Stranger was making himself at home.
"Don't tell me there's another bunch of phony spooks you want me to help catch," said Thirteen, hands in his pockets. "I'm taking the night off, and that's that."
"So am I," said the Stranger, taking the white muffler from his throat and hanging it on the coat tree. "This is not a night to be out of doors, nor a night to be among anyone but friends."
Thirteen's mouth was open, but Marie spoke first, stepping across to touch both the Stranger and Cassandra on the arm. "And you are among friends, Mr. Stranger. You too, Cassandra. Terry and I may disagree about your way of working, but you're welcome to stay awhile with us."
"Thanks very much, Mrs. Thirteen," said Cass. "For a long time there, I thought I'd never meet my friend again, much less you. I think your turkey needs a bit of basting."
Marie looked surprised, then caught herself again. "You can smell that well?"
Cassandra smiled. "Doesn't take a psychic to know how to cook. Can I help?"
"Have you cooked turkey before?"
"Every Thanksgiving and Christmas at the House For the Blind. And afterwards, for myself." Cassandra held out her hand, and Marie took it, leading her into the kitchen.
The men were left alone. They stood and regarded each other for awhile. The Stranger's expression did not change.
"Who are you, really?" asked Thirteen.
"A stranger," said his guest.
Thirteen waved his hand, angrily. "The stock response. Always the same, from you. ‘A stranger.' ‘A stranger.' Do you have to keep your act up, every day of the year? Even today?"
Terry Thirteen sat in his lounger and fumbled for the pipe that lay beside it in a bowl on a folding table. He filled it with Sir Walter Raleigh, not looking at the Stranger. Before he could strike a match, the man with the shaded eyes came near and put his forefinger over the pipe. A fire sprang into life within the tobacco.
Thirteen gave it a couple of good puffs. Then he took the pipe out of his mouth and said, "An act. Just like you're pulling now."
"Does every act of kindness dealt you have to be answered by suspicion, Terrence Thirteen?" The Stranger's face still did not change.
"Only if it's tendered by you," said his host. "Go on. Sit down."
The Stranger pulled up a chair before Thirteen, sat down, crossed his legs, and seemed to regard the brown-haired, bespectacled scholar with thoughtfulness. Then he said, "Is it not possible for you to regard me as a friend, Terrence Thirteen?"
Dr. Thirteen said, "I don't regard you as an enemy, if that's what you're thinking. I just can't say that I like you all that well."
"I'm sorry," said the Stranger. "I would have thought, after all these years, that you would have put aside at least some of our differences."
"You show up where you're not invited," said Thirteen, pointing at the Stranger with the end of his pipe. "You stick your nose into a thing, pull some fake mumbo-jumbo, impress the locals, and then bang off to wherever you go when you're not wearing that phoney getup. I don't like that."
"That is my way," said the Stranger. "I go where I am called. If it makes you feel perturbed--"
"--then, once again: I am sorry. But such is my way. The way of my kind." He paused. "At least, of those who were my kind."
"What about Miss Craft?" asked Thirteen. "You show up in her life, you leave, you show up again years later. Why is that?"
The Stranger's mien changed a bit. Thirteen was almost sorry he had spoken. The man's face turned slightly away from his host's. In a lower voice, the Stranger said, "That is one thing I would change myself, if I could."
"Uh, look," fumbled Dr. Thirteen. "I'm sorry. Maybe that was below the belt."
"No," the Stranger said, with something of a sigh. "It is just...the condition of things as they are."
The man looked lonely, Thirteen thought. Then he thought: Oh, crap. I simply will not go Frank Capraesque all over the place, just because it is Christmas. This man is a charlatan and a fraud. The biggest I've ever known.
But perhaps...well, just perhaps the Stranger didn't have a place to go tonight. He had never considered that the Stranger might be, of all things, a homeless person. He didn't dress like such a man, nor, thank God, smell like one. Still, maybe, after all, he was something of a hobo. A hobo who successfully concealed his nature. Out of vanity, perhaps? Or embarrassment at having fallen from a higher station?
Terry Thirteen remembered his grandfather talking about hoboes during the Depression, how his grandmother had managed to find something for the itchyfooted men to eat, in trade for chores, and how she wouldn't let her man scrub the hobo sign off her mailbox post when he found it.
"You can stay tonight, if you'd like," he said.
The Stranger actually smiled.
"Thank you, Dr. Thirteen."
"But I'd like something in return," said the ghostbreaker.
The Stranger looked at him, with those eyes that never seemed to have discernible pupils.
"I want you to tell me who you really are," said Thirteen. "And the reason you keep flitting in and out of my life like a gypsy moth."
A long pause. "You ask much, Dr. Thirteen."
Thirteen gestured with his empty hand. "It's my house. I have a right to ask questions."
"Some of which have answers you would not understand," the Stranger replied.
"Are you a Christian, Dr. Thirteen?"
Annoyed, Thirteen sat up straighter. "What's that got to do with anything?"
The Stranger waited.
Thirteen sighed and said, "Well, yes. Yes, I am. Or at least I consider myself such. Why did you ask?"
"Do you believe in Jesus?"
"I--well, yes, I suppose I--" Thirteen fumbled and wished he could light his pipe again to give himself more time to think. "What is this, thirty questions night?"
"Then how is it that you do not believe in the supernatural?"
Thirteen's hands fell to his lap and hung like landed fishes from hooks.
After a long wait, he muttered, "That's different."
"How?" The Stranger looked on, impassive.
"It just is."
The Stranger said nothing.
Thirteen angrily slapped his pipe into the bowl. "Belief in Christ is not the same as belief in your, your..."
"I did not imply it was, Dr. Thirteen," said the Stranger, quietly.
"I will not be treated in such a manner in my own home!"
"How have I mistreated you?"
Thirteen almost jumped up from his chair. "By those impertinent questions! Don't you think a man's faith is his own business? Do you think I'm not entitled to some privacy? I don't have to tell you ev--"
He stopped for a long moment. Dr. Thirteen looked on his guest with a bit of malice. "Clever," he said. "Very, very clever."
The Stranger said, "If it were my right, Dr. Thirteen, I would tell you much. But you are only allowed to know a certain degree, before crossing. You are only a little lower than us, but the difference does make a difference."
Thirteen settled back. "Now you're trying to say that you're an angel. Oh, yes."
"I am what I have become," the Stranger said. "I walk. I am called. I battle. I do penance. This has been my lot for many years. Many, many years."
Give him enough time, thought Thirteen, and he'll hang himself with inconsistencies. They always do.
"There was a revolution, in a foreign realm, in the past," the Stranger continued. "I took one side, then I took the other. For my treason to one side, I suffered in one fashion. For my treason to the other, I suffered elsewise."
"So," said Thirteen. "You don't look old enough to have been around in Lenin's time. Fidel Castro?"
"For my treason to the realm, I was forbidden to return," said the guest. "Yet, I would not align myself with the side of rebellion anew. I was made to walk...or perhaps I simply chose to walk. It is not clear, even to me, at this time. I was drawn to certain things, tasks that were set before me. With what abilities I still possessed, I undertook them. There were many more things in which I was not allowed to intervene."
The Stranger shook his head, and, to Thirteen, appeared somewhat sad. "More than I can name or number. Tyrants who should rightly have been overthrown before they were, but who were allowed to bathe their hands in blood. Perhaps to show Man his folly, perhaps for some other reason. I am not privy to absolutes of that sort, now. Occurrences that cost many mortal lives. Even small sadnesses that, could I have prevented, I would. For reasons which are clear or unclear, I am often blocked. But, because I am blocked, when I may freely act, I do so with all the more will. And perhaps that is the reason for my being held back, indeed."
A pause. Thirteen heard himself asking, "You want something to drink?"
"No, thank you," the Stranger replied. "And there were...certain events...that I would have participated in, would have given all my years hereafter to have been entwined in, but I was blocked in those areas, as well."
The Stranger sat with his hands clasped in front of his lap and was not looking at Thirteen as he spoke. In a voice almost too loud to be heard, he said, "The birth."
"The birth?" asked Thirteen. "Of who? Or...now, wait just a minute."
The Stranger said nothing.
"You don't expect me to believe that," snapped the doctor. "That...good Lord! That's totally blasphemous."
"I know all too much of blasphemy," said the Stranger, in hardly a louder voice. "All too much, indeed."
"You can't expect me to believe you were present when--"
"I cannot expect you to believe anything whatever," the Stranger noted. "Is not disbelief, Dr. Thirteen, your stock in trade?"
"You disgust me," Thirteen said, wishing he had never opened the door earlier.
"I often disgust myself," the Stranger answered. "I have done much by which to be disgusted. That is why I walk. That is why I labor."
"I knew what was occurring," the Stranger said, overriding him. "But I was not allowed near the site of its occurrence. I had not earned that. I heard the Host sing its song, of peace on Earth to men of good will. But I was not allowed to sing. That night, when Hope itself was born, I was stranded in the darkness. In the cold. With none to open a door to me. It was my lot. It was my deservation."
Thirteen was of mixed mind. The man was a liar, that had to be a given. But he, God help him, seemed to actually believe his lie. Perhaps he was insane. But he was not harmful.
"Uh, don't worry," said Thirteen. "We can put you and Miss Craft up for the night. In fact, I insist on it."
"Thank you again, Dr. Thirteen."
What the devil was keeping those women with the blasted bird, anyway? It couldn't take that long to turn and baste it. Did they think the two of them were talking football out here?
The Stranger spoke again. "It is said that, sometimes, a wish is honored when it is wished on Christmas," the Stranger said, wistfully. "But I have wished so many times. And it has not been answered yet. Still..."
Dr. Thirteen said, "Would it make you feel better if I wished for you?"
The man in the shadowing hat lifted his head. "It would make me feel...quite honored, Dr. Thirteen."
"Okay, then let's wish for it," said Thirteen, already starting to feel like a fool. "Do I close my eyes and click my heels?"
The Stranger looked at him. "Do not mock, Doctor. One must believe, for a wish to have any effect."
Thirteen said, "All right. What is it you want me to wish for?"
"That I..." The Stranger paused a long time. Dr. Thirteen finally said, "Well?"
"That I might return to that night," said the Stranger, very softly. "And that I might not spend it at a distance."
This time, it was Thirteen who paused a long time. "You're asking for a lot."
"Sometimes, one has to," said the Stranger, his eyes cast downward.
The ghostbreaker felt a twinge of sympathy. He stepped forward and held the Stranger by the shoulders. "If it'll make you feel better, I'll wish with you. I wish you could go back to that night. I wish you could do what you want to do."
"And I wish it as well," said the Stranger, placing his own hands on Thirteen's shoulders.
They stood in that position for at least ten seconds.
Thirteen was the first to speak. "I'm sorry, Stranger. Really, I am."
"It is...all right, Dr. Thirteen," said the Stranger in a hushed voice. "I have walked the line between for so long. I could hardly expect that my petition would be answered. At least..."
"Isn't there...isn't there something else we could do?" Thirteen knew himself for a fool. There was no way this man before him could have been present at the Nativity. Maybe at a church play pretending to recreate the scene. But he looked so damnably sad.
"I thank you again, Doctor," said the Stranger, removing his gloved hands from Thirteen's shoulders. "Perhaps we should see how the ladies are doing with the feast."
"The ladies?" Thirteen's face showed his surprise. "Wait a minute. Isn't there...isn't there a line about ‘When two or more of you are gathered in His name'?"
The Stranger almost looked uplifted. "There is, Doctor. There is, indeed. True, there was already two of us, but if the ‘more' is required..." He smiled. "Ironic that you should recall the Scripture, rather than me."
"Actually, I was remembering an old Paul Stookey song," said Thirteen. "Hold on, I'll be back." He went to the kitchen and returned, leading Marie and Cassandra by the hands. Both women were wearing aprons by now.
"We want the both of you to join hands with us and wish a Christmas wish," said Thirteen. "For the Stranger here."
"If you please," said the Stranger. "I wish to return to a night long ago."
Cassandra smiled. "I already know what you want, darling. Give me your hand."
Marie looked at her husband with misgiving. "I hope you know what the hell you're doing, Terry."
"Honey, believe me," said Terry Thirteen. "There has never been a time I knew less what I was doing than right now."
The four of them joined hands, and the Stranger looked upward, at the ceiling. "I wish," he said. "I wish--"
Then he collapsed.
Dr. Thirteen was almost pulled down with him. He noticed, absurdly, that the Stranger's hat was still on. Cassandra, somehow, had known when to let go of the Stranger's hand.
"What do I do now? Call an ambulance?" asked Thirteen, trying to take the Stranger's pulse.
"No," said Cassandra Craft. "We wait."
The Stranger had crossed over to this realm before. Both voluntarily and, as mortals do, when they take their required eight hours of sleep per night, though his sleep was hardly required. This time, it was manifest as mists and rocky ground. The backdrop of the Dreaming.
"All hail," he said, raising his voice.
Another voice greeted him. "Hello, grey walker," it said.
He looked towards its source. A figure in the middle-distant mist, becoming more distinct. And familiar. "Lord Shaper," he said. "It has been awhile."
"You have wished a wish," said the Dream Lord. "I have been given a duty. An imposition."
"By whom?" said the Stranger, curiously.
Morpheus's face planed out of the colorlessness. "You have no right to ask questions," he said.
"Just so," agreed the Stranger. "Only to dream dreams?"
The Sandman reached out his hand and touched the Stranger's forehead. "Only to dream this," he said.
If the Stranger dreamed further, he dreamed standing up. This is what he dreamed:
Standing amongst a group of men at night. No, not precisely standing. Walking. No more than ten men, all told. All dressed in the robish clothing of...the Middle East. Most of them holding canes with which to walk.
No, not canes. Staffs. To be used in the gathering of sheep flocks.
He looked down at himself. His raiment was dark, the burnoose that shrouded his head giving his eyes as much shadow as his usual hat. His medallion was nowhere in view. His hands. Were they the same, or had he been shunted into someone else's body?
It did not matter. He knew not precisely who he was. But he did know (and forced himself to admit it) when he was.
One of the group looked back at him. "You there," he said. "Keep up with us, if you want to come."
Without a word, he increased his stride. The sky was clear above, the night was well upon them, and the stars shone down. One of them had to be the Star. But which? Even he was not privy to that knowledge. Perhaps it was only seen by the astrologers...the three who had been called...
His mouth felt dry and he felt sure his legs were on automatic pilot, for they were walking straight ahead and his heart held great terror.
Would he be allowed to see what he wished?
Would he exist afterward, were he allowed to see it?
A small town was in evidence, no more than a mile away. One of the men passed him part of a loaf of coarsely-baked bread. He thanked the other and ate several bites of it, passing it on to another in the group.
He walked on, speaking not a word.
Within an hour, they were at the outskirts of the city, at an establishment for travellers. He kept in the back, letting the leader of the men ask the questions. A young couple had arrived recently, yes? No, he and his men were not spies of the government. They merely wished to see the couple...and their baby, if possible.
The manager went away and then returned, to lead them to another room. It was one where, at times, animals were kept, but it was quite clean at the moment.
A man and woman were there. The woman was holding a child to her breast.
The leader of the shepherds explained, haltingly, who they were and what they desired. The husband of the woman looked questioningly at his wife. She gave consent, and leaned forward from her bed to show them the babe.
A perfectly ordinary baby.
At least, in appearance.
The Stranger's hands, his own or borrowed, began to shake.
He did not know how, but he found himself at the forefront of the group, and suspected he had shoved aside those before him without realizing it. "May I," he said, and could not complete the sentence.
Miriam looked into his eyes, and said, "You wish to hold him," she said.
Yusuf lay a hand on his shoulder. "Be careful with him. Very careful."
"Yes," the Stranger breathed. He steadied his hands as well as he could.
The woman passed the babe to him.
He expected that his hands would shake so that he would drop the child back in her lap. But such was not the case.
Instead, a great calm settled over his body and, for the most part, his spirit. His back straightened, and he held the child, a perfectly formed, perfectly normal-in-appearance, child, looking into the child's eyes.
The Child looked back at him.
He could not be sure that the child smiled at him. But he could not be sure that it didn't.
For a long moment, he looked up. Of all there, unless some of the Unseen Host were also there, he knew best what lie ahead for the child. A fate that none could forestall for him, not even his Father. A terrible fate...and a great victory afterward.
But that was far in the future. Thirty years and more. The most important thirty years in this world's existence.
For now, the child was only a babe. And that was enough.
Yusuf was about to reach for the child when the Stranger gave him gently back to Miriam. "Take good care of him," he said. "For as long as you can."
"We will," said Miriam.
Tears were running down the Stranger's cheeks from his shadowed eyes, and he was unashamed of them. He was walking through the group of men. Some were looking quizzically at him, and some were not.
He walked out of the room and was gone. A couple of the men went after him, to ask what he needed. But when they went through the doorway, they saw him not.
After a moment, the two of them went back inside.
"Was your wish fulfilled, Stranger?"
It was the voice of Morpheus. The Stranger opened his eyes. His cheeks were still wet. It was all he could do, but he did it when he said, "Thank you."
"Do not thank me," said the Shaper, as, with another touch of his hand, he sent the Stranger away from his realm.
"Stranger? Stranger, you hear me?"
Light from a doorway. A soft surface underneath. Hesitantly, he felt it with his gloved hands. They had laid him on a bed. Quite courteous of them, really. He looked down and noted they had removed his shoes.
Cassandra was first to touch him, cradling his head and kissing him. "You're back," she said, simply. "Are you all right?"
He shook his head, focusing his vision. He was in the guest bedroom, and Dr. Thirteen, Marie, and Cassandra were looking down upon him. He tried to speak, but it took a long time to do so. So long, that Terry Thirteen made for the phone. "I'm calling a doctor," he said.
"No," said the Stranger, gesturing with one hand. "No doctor. It...will not be necessary."
Marie Thirteen joined Cassandra in helping him up from the bed. "You gave us a great scare there, Stranger," she said. "I mean, you just fell down on the floor like you'd had a stroke. Are you sure you're all right?"
He looked at her. "I dreamed a dream," he said. "At least...I believe it was a dream."
Terry Thirteen, the phone still in his hand, said, "Well? Was it a good one?"
The Stranger smiled at his old friend. "The kind of dream one wishes for. More than any other dream in the world." Cassandra, hearing it, smiled.
He looked at his hands, and saw that they did not shake. Then he looked upward, past the ceiling and what lay beyond it, and said, in a whisper, "Thank you."
Marie coughed and said, "Well, ahem, I guess we'd better see what we can manage to make of turkey interruptus, Cassandra. After all, we weren't half done when we...that is, when he..."
The Stranger got up from the bed. "There is nothing to worry about. Come." With that, he strode to the opened bedroom door, led the three others to the kitchen, and flung the door open wide.
The Thirteens and Cassandra looked over his shoulders.
There, sitting on the kitchen table, was a perfectly roasted and basted turkey, a bowlful of dressing that Marie had only hoped to be able to make someday, another bowl of mashed potatoes, a couple of pumpkin pies that they had barely started to bake beforehand, a plate of cranberry sauce which Terry could have sworn had still been in the can when the Stranger collapsed, several other sorts of foodstuffs, and four immaculate place sittings, with the forks and knives neatly arranged on the napkins beside the plates.
And Marie and Cassandra both knew that they hadn't yet set out the silverware.
Terry Thirteen had to nod his head, finally. "You do know how to showboat, don't you, Stranger?"
The Stranger smiled again. "It is only fitting that I help out with the meal, after all of you helped in granting my wish."
"Your wish?" Thirteen paused. "You got your wish?"
"Indeed," said the Stranger. "That is all that needs be said." Cassandra Craft was beaming at her man, as if she could see the affirmation on his features. And even Marie felt that he looked like a man who had finally completed a journey he had been planning on for all his life, however long that was.
"Stranger?" Terry Thirteen regarded him, with a new appraisal, and took his hand. "Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas," agreed the Stranger, shaking his hand, and, glancing upward, added, "To all."
And the four of them sat down to dinner, as one thought crossed Terry Thirteen's mind. A line of half-remembered Bible prose, something about being careful to show hospitality to strangers, because...some had thus entertained angels, unawares...
Nah. Couldn't be.
He picked up the serving fork and knife and began to carve the turkey.
The Stranger got the first piece.
The Phantom Stranger, Dr. Thirteen, Marie Thirteen, the Sandman, and Cassandra Craft are all property of DC Comics. No money is being made from this story, no infringement is intended.
And a Merry Christmas to everyone from me, too.