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Christmas Story: 'In Such Mean Estate, Part 3: 'Wilderness'

Third of five parts. The story so far: Journalist Josh Ransom has just been ejected as editor of a digital news site he founded - and he's struggling to cope.

Illustration by ROB TORNOE
Illustration by ROB TORNOERead more

The tradition continues! Every year from 1997 to 2007, the Inquirer published a fictional Christmas story by Chris Satullo and artist Tony Auth, at that time the Editorial Board editor and cartoonist, respectively. Satullo continued the story at WHYY from 2009 to 2014, and it returned to the Inquirer in 2015. Like last year, Satullo teamed with staff artist Rob Tornoe.

Third of five parts.

The story so far: Journalist Josh Ransom has just been ejected as editor of a digital news site he founded - and he's struggling to cope.


Josh Ransom grunted into his 30th minute on the treadmill in the cluttered basement of his West Mount Airy home.

On the iPad perched in front of him rolled a typically freaky episode from Season Four of Orphan Black.

Josh yanked out his earbuds and hit "Pause" on the screen.

"Good God, people, how many more clones can you make this poor woman play? Even she's confused," Josh barked.

Josh knew the fault lay less with the series' stars, and more with him.

Since being ejected two weeks ago from his job as editor of Benjamin's Key, the digital news site he'd helped start, Josh had found it hard to focus on any of his former pleasures.

Not Scandinavian detective novels, not New Yorker fiction, not Mr. Robot or Orphan Black.

Prone to roaming black thoughts, he'd first lose the thread of plot, then all patience.

Instead, he was watching a lot of sports, numbly. The back and forth of play, the inane patter of the announcers, were like ether to his wounded brain.

Christie was worried but wary of pushing him too hard too soon. "Take your time; you can't rush the process," she'd tell him, her hand stroking his. "This is a chance to really think about who you want to be."

The problem was Josh had loved who he was, before the ax. Feeling great about the Key, he'd viewed his every choice along the way, even the dubious ones, as justified by his happy effectiveness. Now, post-firing, every one of those choices was thrust into shadow, up for reevaluation.

This was strange terrain for Josh and Christie. Type A strivers, neither had ever lost a job before. They'd rarely even missed out on a promotion.

And getting canned right before Christmas - that brought its own delightful twists.

Toweling his face, Josh glanced at his wife's Christmas wrapping table, set up a few strides from the treadmill. A healthy stack of wrapped boxes stood next to the old kitchen table, exiled to the basement when they moved from the townhouse into their dream house of Wissahickon schist.

"Maybe we should dial back on the Santa haul this year?" Josh had proposed one night as, kids finally to bed, each sipped a glass of Shiraz.

"I don't want to, I won't, make the kids miss out on their usual Christmas," his wife declared. Josh, seeking to avoid displays of self-pity or "look at me" gestures, just nodded. After all, it wasn't really his call anymore. Christie's work at a potent Center City law firm still brought them a comfortable income.

While indulging the kids, he and Christie decided to cut back on what they gave each other. Not for this Christmas the usual chest-high tower of boxes filled with gifts silly and sumptuous, each adorned with a clever clue to the contents inside that had to be solved before bows could be removed or wrapping paper torn.

Even as he grieved, Josh knew he was the luckiest of laid-off men. The hammer blow that Fergus McKay had delivered in that Center City office tower a fortnight ago would not be the trapdoor to bankruptcy and chaos that losing a job was for so many Americans.

Still, that reminder didn't spare Josh from feeling by turns baffled, wounded, furious, and anxious. He thought often of a line of poetry that had stuck in his head ever since a literature class at Georgetown:

"O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall

Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed."

Every day, he struggled to skirt those mountains.

Josh checked the time on the iPad. 3:30. He'd have to hurry for a slated beer with Derek Morris. Derek was another of his former charges at the Key seeking a check-in, a taste of the old mentoring. Christie, exasperation cloaked in gentle tones, warned Josh that these meet-ups with his old staff members might be a bad idea, a way of clinging, a refusal to move through Dr. Kübler-Ross' stages.

But to Josh, seeing the Key crew reminded him of his old self, coaxed him to aspire to get back to being that guy again somehow - instead of the sports-besotted, pound-gaining, late-night quaffing, baffled, unemployed loser who stood sweating mightily in his basement.

A half-hour later, Josh was sitting in a bar on Germantown Avenue, waiting for the chronically tardy Derek, a reporter whose writing touch was matched only by his narcissism.

Fifteen minutes past the appointed time, Derek swept up to the bar.

"Wow, what a day," he offered as he sloughed off his North Face jacket. "Good to see you, man. First, I just want you to know . . . I'm OK. Anxious times, scary times for all of us with you gone, but I'm hanging in there."

"Good to know."

Josh had often wondered whether Derek was trying to set some kind of intercontinental record for millennial self-absorption. The next 45 minutes cancelled all doubt.

As Derek rattled on about this awkward moment at the office and that editing sin Josh's successor, Mallory, had committed, Josh at intervals considered interrupting the breathless skein to say, "You are aware that I'm the one who lost his job, right?"

But then he'd realize, Why bother? Derek was just being Derek. Josh chose to wait with as good a grace as he could for the obligatory hour to end.

Walking home, Josh mulled complicated thoughts about Mallory, the young protégé he'd mentored so assiduously, now sitting in his editing chair.

The night he was fired, when the Key gang had gathered, teary and demonstrative, for a drunken wake at an Old City bar, Mallory had hugged him first, her eyes moist, her lips saying, "God, this just sucks so much."

But Josh, shaken and fragile, thought he'd glimpsed something else in the young woman's dark and beautiful eyes: the hungry calculation of possibility. In the days since, Josh had tried but failed to shake a suspicion that Mallory perhaps had known about, had helped inch along, his impending doom.

Sometimes, Josh sought to brush the thought aside as a most unworthy lapse into paranoia; other times, he turned it over and over in his mind as a possible key to an event otherwise inexplicable. Either way, his hardest moments were when Mallory texted or called with a question about how she should handle a situation or where a document was stored.

As he walked, Josh checked his iPhone for messages and emails. His Gmail bulged daily with expressions of shock and support from media colleagues, old sources, and friends made along the way. He wanted to answer them all, but it was a struggle.

It was like standing at the top of a ski slope, staring down at a slalom course. The trick was finding the right line to weave your way down the hill, between the poles of false bravado and self-pity.

His phone pinged. A text. From Mallory: Just sitting here noticing how bad it feels not to have our leader here.

"What's wrong with you, man?" Josh said to himself. "How could you doubt this girl? She's the loyalest thing on the planet. She didn't stab you in the back. She didn't know in advance. Shame on you."

Reaching his front door, Josh's hand paused on the doorknob.

Wait - Somebody else did know something, somehow.

By some strange alchemy, a homeless guy, the one Josh called Charlie Parker, had in fact predicted his doom that awful day as Josh walked into the office, unwitting, to meet it.

Suddenly, a clear sense of purpose flashed across Josh's inner gloom, for the first time since he was banished from the Key:

Got to find Charlie Parker.

He'd thought that before, but detached from the energy to act. This time was different:

Yes, find him and find out what this all means.