As he threw his head back, frustrated by his plight, his glance happened to rest on a bell, a bell that hung on the door to let him know that an assistant director required his presence on set, a bell that now began to swing softly, hardly making a sound, but soon it rang out loudly, and so did every bell in the trailer. He was really into bells at the moment, ever since a young costar, who shall remain nameless, said that she was "a big bell fan" and it gave them something to talk about. This might have lasted half a minute, or a minute, but it seemed a billion years. The bells ceased as they had begun, together, and he momentarily thought he might have a fun "bell story" to tell the costar, which could possibly lead into an allegedly spur-of-the-moment private jet trip to the world's largest bell factory, which he would have rented out just for her. The bells were replaced by a clanking sound, as if someone were dragging a heavy chain over the casks in a wine merchant's cellar, not that he was a big drinker, but he could fake it in a pinch. Then Cruise remembered to have heard, possibly while taking a meeting for a haunted house movie he had turned down, that ghosts in haunted houses were described as dragging chains.
The trailer door flew open with a booming sound, and then he heard the noise much louder, coming up the three tiny stairs into his sitting room. He saw it. "I know her! Paula Wagner's ghost!" The same face, the very same, of his former producing partner, with whom he had parted ways four years earlier, after many successful projects and billions of box-office dollars. Paula in her ponytail, usual powerful but feminine pantsuit, and a chain around her middle, which was made of scripts, obsolescent BlackBerrys, the scalps of agents, and heavy Birkin bags wrought in steel.
"Who are you?"
"You know who I am. Can we just get down to business? I don't have time for this small-talk shit. I'm not paid by the word, unlike some people."
Cruise fell upon his knees and clasped his hands before his face. "It's odd that you're a ghost; you're still alive, as far as I know."
"Yeah, this situation's strange for everyone. Let's get this out of the way, shall we? Tonight you will be haunted by Three Spirits, yada yada."
"I think I'd rather not."
"Yeah, no. They're coming, and it's going to suck. Expect the first tomorrow when the bell tolls one."
"Couldn't I take them all at once and have it over with?"
The Ghost of Paula coughed "That's what she said" into a clenched fist, detached a BlackBerry from her chain, and hurled it at his head.
"Don't be an idiot. Expect the second on the next night at the same annoying hour. The third upon the next night, at, like, midnight. Whatever, they'll be here when they'll be here. Enjoy your haunting. I'm done now."
When Cruise looked up, the spectre had vanished, having floated out upon the bleak, dark night.
Cruise followed to the window, desperate in his curiosity. He looked out.
There she was, extending him a defiant, ethereal middle finger. "I told you I'm done."
And then she was gone.
When Cruise awoke, it was so dark that, looking out from the slowly rotating, Aviator-shaped water bed, he could scarcely distinguish the window from the walls of his trailer's master bedroom. He was attempting to pierce the darkness with eyes that sparkled so famously their twinkle alone was insured for a hundred million dollars with Lloyd's of London when the chimes of a distant church struck again and again, counting the hours from six to seven, from seven to eight, and then regularly up to 12. Twelve.
He picked up his gold-plated iPhone, a gift from Will Smith, the one that reliably awoke him at 5 a.m. each day with a ringtone blaring "Boom! Shake the Room," to check the time.
"Why, it isn't possible," said Cruise, "that I can have slept through a whole day and far into another night. It isn't possible that someone blotted out the sun, and that it's 12 noon. This is not happening."
He scrambled out of bed and to the window. It was foggy and cold, and he could see that no Teamsters were sauntering to and fro, as there unquestionably would have been if this were a regular shooting night, which it wasn't, because the film had broken for the holiday.
So he went back to bed, thinking it over, but making nothing of it. The ghost had probably been a dream. Of course it was. He lay in this state until the chimes sounded three-quarters of an hour more, reminding him that the ghost warned him of a guest to arrive at the toll of one.
"Ding dong!" said Cruise, triumphantly, as the bell finally tolled a deep, dull, hollow, melancholy one. "Let's see what you got, ghost."
The curtains surrounding his bed, a tiger print — but a very, very tasteful one, not like the ones Jamie Foxx had bought him as a gag wrap gift on Collateral — were drawn aside by a hand, and Cruise found himself face-to-face with the unearthly visitor who drew them.
It was a strange figure — like a child, but not quite a child, perhaps more of a late high school age. Its hair, which touched the popped collar on a billowing, half-unbuttoned Oxford shirt, was middle-parted, insouciant. Its legs were bare, its feet nestled in well-padded tube socks, its bottom swaddled in snug Fruit of the Looms of the purest white. It clutched an empty candlestick in one hand, into which it seemed to be wordlessly singing an unheard rock-and-roll song.
"Are you one of those Spirits the ghost from last night was telling me about?"
"I am, man!"
The voice was exuberant, alive. Well, perhaps not so alive.
"Who and what are you?"
"I am the Ghost of Cruise Past!"
"Your past, dude."
Cruise had a special desire to see the Spirit in some pants, as all the bopping to and fro in its ghostly underthings was making him uncomfortable, and begged him to be covered.
"Whatever!" exclaimed the Spirit. "This is how I rock out. Isn't it lame enough that I'm here instead of ghost-boning 1983 Rebecca De Mornay on some spectral subway car without you getting all uptight about my party uniform?"
Cruise apologized and asked the Spirit what risky business had brought him there.
"You, man. You. C'mon, let's get out of here."
The Spirit extended a Polo-clad sleeve, leading Cruise toward the window of the trailer.
"I do all of my own stunts, but I can't walk through walls."
"Grab my arm and you're good to go."
As the words were spoken, they passed through the wall and stood upon an empty high school football field, with goalposts at either end.
"Good God!" said Cruise. "I know this place. I was still just getting started here."
The Spirit looked at him, its eyes now obscured behind chunky black Wayfarers. Cruise was conscious of a thousand odors floating in the air, each one bringing back a thousand more thoughts, and hopes, and dreams, all seemingly long fulfilled, but now also maddeningly elusive.
"Your lip's trembling, man. And are you crying? Oh, you are crying!"
"I had all the right moves. All of them."
"You totally did."
They walked along the sideline for a moment, which became, in an instant, the deck of an aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean.
"What happened to the football field?"
"Time to move on; we don't have all night. Even ghosts have places to be."
"The planes are beautiful, aren't they? I learned how to fly one. I had a need —"
"A need for speed!"
They high-fived, and when their hands separated, they were sitting at a tropical bar, stirring a pair of oversize mai tais.
"Hey! Stop doing that! I wanted to hit the locker room and say hi to Iceman."
"You can't do that. These are just shadows of things that have been. They can't see us, dude. How messed up would that be, if this version of yourself saw you hanging out with another you? Shhhh, you're gonna miss it."
Just a few feet away, a cocky young bartender-poet flipped a pair of tequila bottles up into the air, caught them behind his back, and topped off the margaritas of two awestruck tourists in Tommy Bahama shirts. The bar exploded in applause, followed by verse-thirsty chants of "Poem, poem, poem!"
"That was so great."
"And so was this."
Trackside at the Daytona 500, Cruise and the Spirit watched as a roaring Chevrolet, having taken the checkered flag, pulled into victory lane, where a young Nicole Kidman rushed into the triumphant, hot-shot driver's outstretched arms.
"You guys still talk?"
"Not so much," Cruise sighed, trying to recall the last time they had. He could not. "Nic's a busy woman."
"I figured," consoled the Spirit with a tender hand on his back. "Moving on."
They found themselves perched atop the judges' bench in a military courtroom, watching with great interest as a self-assured young Navy lawyer, pushed to the absolute limits of his abilities, coaxed a bruising, tragic confession from the fire-breathing Marine raging against the impossibility of defeat.
"You know who couldn't handle the truth? That guy!"
"It's cheesy to quote back our own lines. And show some respect; that's one of the great performances of all time."
"Pffft," the Spirit tut-tutted to his humble charge, "whatever, you beat him."
"He should have won the Oscar."
"We should have won the Oscar."
"Let's not dwell on it."
"We're sort of here to dwell. And we're running out of time. One more shadow!"
With a wiggle of his Wayfarers, they were in another scene and place. There was a fancy sports agency, the home of a sickly, bespectacled boy with a not-yet-eight-pound head crammed full of adult facts, the end zone at a life-altering Monday Night Football game. They watched, in ghostly silence, as a goldfish was liberated, a searching heart completed, the money shown.
There was a quiet moment between scenes, between on-screen mother and movie-time son. Cruise and Spirit idled by the craft services table, its cold cuts cruelly inaccessible to their spiritual dimension, and eavesdropped on the ad hoc family.
"So being in a real movie is really fun, isn't it?" asked the actress of the child.
"So fun! When I grow up, I want to be just like him!" exclaimed the boy, waving off to an unseen hero.
"Like who? Your new friend Tom?"
"No! He's always doing sit-ups in his trailer while running his lines. He's no fun."
Cruise stiffened. The Spirit draped an arm around his shoulder, bracing him for what was to come.
"Then who could you mean, little guy?"
"Jay Mohr! He's so much cooler than Tom. He's my hero."
"Spirit!" said Cruise in a broken voice. "What the hell are you doing to me? Get me out of here!"
"She told you last night that it was gonna suck. This is what it is, don't blame me!"
"Take me back! I can't handle the truth!"
"That's all I needed to hear."
The Spirit lifted his Wayfarers, exposing a suddenly blinding light from his eyes. Cruise was conscious of being exhausted, and overcome by an irresistible drowsiness, and further, of being in his own bedroom back in the trailer. He barely had time to climb under the covers before he sank into a heavy sleep.
When the bell finally struck and no spirit appeared, he became impatient, because he had made a pretty nice life for himself by always being on time, always being considerate about the schedules of others. Five minutes, 10 minutes, a quarter of an hour went by, yet nothing came. "This is bullshit," he allowed himself to mutter in his anxious anticipation, despite a longtime aversion to the impolite in general and to swearing in particular. But then the bedroom was pierced with ghostly light pouring in from the cracks of the door, the source of which seemed to be in the sitting room. He got up and shuffled toward it.
And the moment his hand was on the lock, a strange voice called him by his name and invited him to enter. He obeyed.
The sitting room had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and ceilings were so hung with diaphanous scarves of various earth tones that it looked like a Marrakech brothel's waiting room. Candles flickered from atop every surface, the sweet burn of incense infused every molecule of breathable air, and lightly narcotized doves flapped gently in cages. Heaped upon the floor, to form some kind of throne, were the bounteous offerings of the well-stocked buffet table that now sat upended in a corner: some roasted chickens, a suckling pig, glistening bunches of grapes, some wet plums, and no fewer than 15 boxes of Lean Pockets. Splayed upon the pile was a jolly spirit, glorious to see, plucking atonally at a zebra-striped Gibson Flying V he quite obviously had no idea how to play.
"Hey! The party's just starting!" exclaimed the ghost. "Come in, and know me better, man."
He entered timidly, hanging his head. He was not the the unflappable, ready-for-anything Cruise he had been just 24 hours ago. It had been a rough day.
"I am the Ghost of Cruise Present," said the Spirit. "Check me out."
Cruise did so. It was clothed in supple, but far too snug, leather pants, a pair of eel-skin cowboy boots, bandannas tied tight around its wrists, and nothing else that wasn't inked into its oddly muscled torso. Its dark brown hair was blow-dried straight, exhibiting an otherworldly sheen, and its eyes glinted with an unmistakable sparkle. And it seemed to be trying 55 percent too hard to be cool.
"You've never seen anything like me before!" exclaimed the Spirit.
"Well, yeah, I have."
"I mean, yeah, you're me. Not me me, but me. I thought everyone forgot that movie, but apparently not."
The Ghost of Cruise Present rose, its guitar clattering to the floor with an atonal jangle of open strings.
"Bullcrap! I have disappeared into this completely unexpected character!"
"Spirit," said Cruise, "let's get this over with. The ghost from last night dragged me all around my past, and I learned a lesson about how great things were. Tonight, you're probably going to show me some stuff I'm not going to like. Let's get going."
"Fine. Touch one of the gun tattoos on my stomach."
"Do I have to?"
"Come on, it's not like they're permanent, I'm a ghost. Don't be like that about it. You're the one with the strange core-strength obsession. Just do it."
Cruise did what he was told, with a slight flinch of disgust, and the carefully art-directed backstage tableau vanished instantly. So did the sitting room, and the luxurious trailer around them, and they stood in the streets of New York City on Christmas morning, where people rushed to and fro carrying out their last-minute holiday errands, tourists gawked at elaborate shop windows, and school-age children hurled tightly packed, if somewhat slush-tainted, snowballs at one another.
"Wait. I thought we'd be doing some more movie sets?"
"Movie sets were last night. It's not like you've done anything good lately, so."
"What are you talking about? How about Ghost Protocol?"
The Spirit shook its head, and the gently falling snow refused to cling to its flowing, ghostly locks. "Pre-existing franchise. C'mon, dude. Impossible to screw up. Making a good fourth one isn't exactly whipping up a new Citizen Kane."
"Hold on: a really good fourth one."
"Levitating magnet vest, man."
"Yeah, well, the next time you choose to throw yourself out of the world's tallest building on the end of a giant rubber band, you can give me grief about a tiny plot hole."
"I'm just saying."
"Jack Reacher's got some buzz going. You can't deny that."
The Spirit regarded him with a skeptical air. "You and I both know you were completely wrong for that — "
"— if this is about the height thing — "
"And you know it's about more than the height thing. I'm your spirit guide. I've seen the damn movie. What about you says 'enormous, ass-kicking, take-no-prisoners ex-military vigilante'?"
"It's a different direction for us!"
"Don't 'us' me. You did that to yourself. And you did this " — the Spirit gestured to itself with a flourish — "to me. Because you heard one Def Leppard song."
"Well, we'll see how the Reacher box office is."
"Yeah, we will."
Cruise and the Spirit both stood with arms crossed against chests, unaware of the hordes of stampeding tourists plowing through their ethereal forms, hurrying along on their way to gape at the big Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center.
"Look, this wasn't supposed to be movie debate day; we have things to do," said the Spirit, finally breaking their chilly silence. It clapped its hands and the Manhattan sidewalk melted away, and in an instant the two were standing in the living room of a lavish but surprisingly homey two-bedroom apartment in Chelsea.
"Oh no," said Cruise, realizing where they were.
"I'm afraid so," answered the Spirit. "She told you it was gonna suck."
A happy family — mother, child, doting grandparents, but, poignantly, no father — buzzed about the festively decorated living room, where two stockings hung from the mantel, and a plump, tinsel-draped fir dominated a corner jammed with still-wrapped presents. They were, of course, completely unaware of the unbidden guests in their midst, and carried on with their holiday merrymaking as if nothing were out of the ordinary.
Cruise looked over at the presents under the tree, frowning with obvious disappointment.
"Any of those look like a giraffe to you?"
"No," answered the Spirit. "How would one wrap a giraffe?"
"I bought her a giraffe. A real giraffe."
"For an apartment in Manhattan?"
"She loves giraffes. The giraffe people said they'd work it out."
"There's no giraffe, man. Let it go," counseled the Spirit.
Indeed, not a single semi-magical, long-necked beast could be seen prowling the apartment, despite the supposed promises of "the giraffe people," as everyone took their seats at the table and prepared to eat.
"Spirit, why am I here? Why do you torture me like this, with visions of the family that looks so happy without me?"
"Hey, the story calls for an idyllic scene of a happy family sitting down to a Christmas dinner, including a thing where an adorable, undersize tot gets to slip in a poignant catchphrase that makes us all appreciate what we have."
"God bless us, every one!" said the little girl, right on cue, before plunging her spoon into a bowl of marshmallow-topped yams.
"Spirit," said Cruise, suddenly overcome with worry, "tell me if she will — "
"I see a vacant seat," replied the Spirit, before noticing the look of paralyzed shock on Cruise's face. "Oh, hey, she's just gonna get up and go to the bathroom in a minute. We're not doing the sad version here. I'm not a monster."
"Why am I here?" Cruise wailed, "I just wanted to spend a quiet night alone, in my trailer, so I wouldn't have to see this! Do you have any idea what it's like to play out a painful divorce in front of a suspicious public? I jumped on a couch for her!"
"You want to talk about the couch? I feel like that's been pretty well covered, but I can call in the Ghost of Cruise Losing His Mind and Nearly Destroying His Career in 2005 for backup."
"It's no trouble — there's a nice couch right over there."
"Then stop whining and pay attention," said the Spirit. "It will all be clear in a moment."
As if manipulated by an invisible hand, the TV in the living room flickered to life. On it, a high-powered sports agent who'd had a sudden change of heart about his heartless business stormed through his office in the throes of a nervous breakdown.
"Daddy's movie!" said the little girl, in obvious delight.
Cruise allowed himself a smile. It was the first moment of happiness he'd felt in days. "That's right, baby. Daddy's movie," he said, knowing she couldn't hear him.
She got up and ran toward the television, arms outstretched. And hugged the face of the smugly handsome blond man on the screen. "I love Bob Sugar!" she squealed. "It's not 'show fwends' it's show bifness!"
"Oh, that is too amazing," said the Spirit, choking down a booming belly laugh, "I swear I didn't plan that."
"Take me away from here! Now!"
"Fine, fine. My time's almost up, anyway. We'll skip the part where I pull off my leather pants and show you the tattoos of Ignorance and Want on my thighs. It was gonna get a little weird."
"Just get me out of here. Please," begged Cruise. "I can't wait until one."
"Your funeral," answered the Spirit, covering Cruise's eyes with its hand.
When he removed it, Cruise was no longer in Manhattan. He lifted up his eyes and beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, toward him.
It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, face, form, and left nothing visible but for a single outstretched hand.
"I think I know where this is going. But let me ask: Are you the Ghost of Cruise Yet to Come?" asked Cruise.
The Spirit declined to answer, and instead pointed downward with its hand.
"You're about to show me things that haven't happened, but will happen, am I right about that?"
Somewhere beneath its billowing hood, the Spirit seemed to nod.
"Future Me-Ghost! You are doing just a terrific job of scaring me right now. Really, some excellent work on your part. And I think you're here to do something good for me. So maybe you want to speak? A couple of words?"
It gave him no reply. The hand beckoned him to follow.
"Wait, then. How about this? How about we skip any parts that might involve, say, a bunch of people I know talking about me like I'm dead, because clearly I'm not dead. I mean, I could be dead, I'm here with you, and you're throwing off a kind of Grim Reaper thing, but I just can't believe I'm actually dead. Power of positive thinking, man."
Still no reply. The Spirit stood, unmoving, before him.
"OK, maybe we're on to something here? Great. I'm also going to guess there's a part where you make me look at my own lonely, lifeless body, and it's going to be a pretty depressing deal. But my family's fine, the guy from last night already kind of spilled the beans on that. So what do you say we hit the fast-forward button on the old ghost remote? It's been a long night, man."
The Spirit did not answer for a long moment. But then, just as it seemed they might stand there in the darkness forever, there was movement underneath its robe. Subtle, but unmistakable: a shrug.
And then they were in a churchyard, walled in by houses, overrun by grass and weeds, dotted with the jagged, decaying markers of the resting places of dozens of unlucky souls.
The Spirit pointed to a gravestone.
"Before I look at that grave, answer me one question. Are these the shadows of things that are definitely happening, or are they shadows of things that only might happen?"
The Spirit pointed again.
"On second thought, how about we skip this part, too? I think we all get it by now."
For the first time the Spirit's hand appeared to shake.
"Look, it's going to be my grave! I know!"
The Spirit, unrelenting, pointed again.
Cruise knew there was no hope in changing its mind. And so he turned to the gravestone, still shrouded in darkness, and used the light of his iPhone to read its face.
THOMAS CRUISE MAPOTHER IV
STAR OF JERRY MAGUIRE 2: SHOW ME MORE MONEY
"Spirit!" Cruise screamed, collapsing atop the grave. "Say it isn't so! I will honor Christmas in my heart, if this is still about Christmas somehow! I will turn down every sequel forever! I will make five Terrence Malick movies I don't understand in a row! With no back-end points! Spirit!"
In his agony, he reached out and grabbed its spectral hand. It freed itself from his grasp, stepped back from the quivering wretch, and pulled back its hood.
"Deal closed today, bro. We're doin' it."
And with that the Spirit shrank, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost.
Cruise leapt from the bed and ran to the window, sliding it open to shout, "Yes! It was all a dream! Just a terrible, terrible dream!" He checked the sitting room; no dissolute rock stars squatting atop mounds of rotting buffet food. He even checked the bathroom to make sure no half-naked, cocky punks in tube-stockinged feet were waiting to waylay him with the faded memories of his glorious past. Nothing. No one.
So he dressed quickly and threw open the door to his trailer, eager to return to the world of the living, but was surprised to find a production assistant waiting there in a golf cart, as he was sure the film was still on holiday hiatus. Thinking nothing of it, as it was entirely possible there was a production meeting to attend, or dailies to watch, he happily rode off with the PA, beaming like a man given a second chance at life.
Another golf cart approached, pulling up beside them. Cruise looked over, at first not recognizing its passenger.
"I can't believe we're here! We're actually doing it, Tommy boy!"
The voice reached his ears, and the face snapped into focus.
"Are you ready, man? Show! Me! The! Money!"
And with that, the golf cart carrying Cuba Gooding Jr. sped off, leaving Cruise and his handler behind.
"He seems pretty psyched, huh?" asked the PA. "You excited?"
"You know what? I think it's gonna be good. Yeah, it's definitely going to be good," answered Cruise, convincing himself as he spoke.
"I can't wait to meet Jay," said the PA. "I love that guy."
"Been hearing that a lot lately," answered Cruise, shaking his head. "God bless us, every one."
"Even Jay Mohr?"
"Even Jay Mohr."