It was the week before Christmas; the homestretch. I should have been feeling all holly and jolly, filled with the spirit of the season, but it was hard when I was stuck trekking through a crowded department store filled with other last-minute shoppers, trying to keep up with my two boys as they bounced from display to display, often in opposite directions. Usually I wouldn’t have minded so much; I enjoyed seeing the way my sons’ little faces lit up with excitement every time they saw some reminder that Santa was coming to town, but that night, we were there shopping for the boys’ mother. My ex-wife, Hailey.
“We have to get her something, Daddy!” Nathaniel, my seven year old, had said.
“I’m sure Gus will get her something,” I replied, trying to keep the bitterness out of my voice.
Gus, Mr. Perfect, Hailey’s boss-turned-boyfriend only one short month after we’d finalized our divorce. I still wasn’t sure how I’d missed all the bright red flags raised by her increasingly frequent late nights at office and the way she started being more protective over her phone. It seemed so obvious after the fact!
“But it won’t be something from us,” Nathanial pouted. “We always get her something from us.”
“Yeah,” Dillon, a year and a half younger than his brother and always eager to win his approval, agreed. “Santa doesn’t get grown-ups presents, so we gotta get something for Mommy so she has presents to open, too!”
I was really beginning to regret telling that particular fib about Santa and his kids-only policy. It had seemed like a good idea when I’d come up with it after Nathaniel had caught me wrapping gifts for Hailey a couple years before. Now it meant I was trapped pretending to be happy about spending more money I didn’t have on a wife I didn’t even have before I dropped them off at her house.
Merry Christmas, indeed.
After an hour of scouring each row for the perfect gift, the boys finally settled on a rather gaudy, overly baubled bracelet that was just their mother’s style. We had the saleswoman wrap it without a bow (Dillon was the designated bow man, a job he took very seriously) and I accepted the shiny silver package with a forced smile.
“Alright, guys, let’s hustle! We’ll stop for a burger on the way to your mom’s, ok?” I said, trying to corral them in front of me.
“I don’t want pickles on mine,” Nathaniel made a face over his shoulder.
“Me neither!” Dillon, who loved pickles, matched his brother’s expression.
“You got it.”
We’d just about made it out to the parking lot when my phone went off from my pocket. I told the boys to hang tight while I wrestled it out.
“Daddy, look!” Dillon jerked at my jacket sleeve so hard that I almost dropped my cell. “Carolers! Can we go look?”
“Yeah, fine,” I said, barely glancing towards the small group of singers gathered in front of the store. They had their backs to us, but I got the impression they’d look right at home in a Dickens novel. I couldn’t quite hear what they were singing, but it sounded genetically seasonal. Everyone else seemed to be passing them by without so much as a pause.“Go with him, Nathaniel.”
“But I don’t wanna,” he whined.
“Just do it, ok?” I shooed them off in the direction of the carolers and answered my phone.
Hailey greeted me from the other end with her usual frostiness. It was almost enough to make me remind her that she was the reason for our divorce, but I didn’t want to risk having the boys overhear, so I kept it civil, but clipped.
“What is it?”
“Can you keep the boys tonight? Gus and I are having guests over,” she said.
“What? They were really looking forward to going over. They said you were decorating the tree tonight.”
“We did that yesterday; we needed to so it would be ready for tonight’s party.”
“Damnit, Hailey,” I lowered my voice and made sure the boys still had all of their attention on the carolers. “You can’t do this! They were excited!”
“I’ll make it up to them next year. Just tell them I’m sick, they’ll be fine.” In the background, I heard her doorbell chime faintly. “People are arriving, I’ve got to go. Tell the kids I love them.”
She’d hung up before I could respond.
I flipped my phone shut and shoved it roughly back into my pocket, fuming and furious. If it wouldn’t have upset the boys, I’d have chucked the box with that ugly bracelet into the parking lot and let all the happy Christmas shoppers run it over until it was nothing but dust. Instead, I took a few deep breaths and called over my shoulder.
“Come on, time to go!”
It took another couple attempts before they scurried over.
“They looked weird!” Dillon said with a giggle as he slipped his hand in mine.
“Yeah, their costumes look cool, huh?” I grit my teeth into another fake smile. “Hey, change of plans; Mommy’s not feeling well so you guys are stuck with me for another night.”
“But the tree,” Dillon’s grin started to fade.
“Can we bring her her present? Maybe it’ll help her feel better,” Nathaniel suggested hopefully.
Seeing how much they wanted to go their mom’s broke my heart, especially knowing the real reason they couldn’t.
“Sorry, she was really bad. Maybe tomorrow, ok, buddy? Now, how about those burgers?”
I loaded the boys up and turned the radio on low to help fill the disheartened silence that had fallen over the car. I tried to cheer them up by asking if they’d written to Santa and what they were hoping for on Christmas morning, but their answers were dull and unenthusiastic. I dropped it after a few and we drove a few blocks in almost complete silence other than the radio.
“The song,” Dillon said at last, “it’s the one the carolers were singing.”
I nodded, glad that he was getting distracted by something, and turned the radio up in time to hear the tail end of We Wish You A Merry Christmas.
“Is not,” Nathaniel argued grumpily, “the words are different.”
“It sounded the same,” Dillon grumbled.
“They were dumb anyway,” Nathaniel said. “You dress up for Halloween, not Christmas.”
“Hey, now, don’t be like that,” I said, looking at them briefly in my rear view mirror. “A lot of carolers dress up when they go singing.”
“Not like that!”
“Come on, buddy,” I sighed. “I know you’re disappointed, but let’s not act like a little Grinch, ok?”
He huffed and looked pointedly out his window while Dillon stared down at his lap.
Their moods improved a little when we got to the fast food restaurant and I let them go run around in the play area while I ordered. Nothing like some greasy comfort food to take your mind off of your troubles.
It wasn’t until I was setting our full tray down at our table that I realized the boys weren’t scampering around and shouting after each other. Instead, they were standing side by side at the far end, faces pressed against the chilled window.
“Guys?” I said again and walked over to see what they were looking at.
All I could see was my own reflection in the dark glass.
“We saw them again!” Nathaniel said.
“The carolers!” Dillon breathed, fogging up the window in front of his face.
“I doubt that, guys.”
“For real! I heard them-” Dillon started to say, but Nathaniel cut him off with, “No, I did!”
They went back and forth for a bit until I stepped in and asked what happened next.
“We looked outside and they were there, across the street!” Dillon finished.
“It was probably someone else.”
“Nu uh, they were singing the same song!” He insisted.
“Well, it sounded the same. It was hard to hear ‘cos they were far away,” Nathaniel added.
I decided this was a “pick your battles” moment and conceded that maybe they’d seen another group of carolers before directing them to our table to eat dinner before it got cold. I figured they were still just acting up a bit to cope with not seeing their mom and it made me more lenient.
Throughout the meal, Dillon would hum a rather tuneless rendition of We Wish You A Merry Christmas while chewing.
Once we got home, I had the boys go hang up their coats and change into their pajamas while I built a fire in the fireplace. I seriously thought about using their mom’s gift to feed the flames, but it ended up tossed carelessly under our tree, where it would sit until Hailey decided her sons were more important than some party.
After I had a cozy little fire crackling away, I flipped on the TV and found a Christmas movie for me and the boys to enjoy. They came stampeding back in and jumped on the couch on either side of me. There was some blanket arranging and pillow fluffing that had to happen, but once they’d gotten comfortable, I settled in with a kid under each arm. It wasn’t long before Dillon was dozing with his head against my chest and Nathaniel was completely caught up in the Muppets guiding Scrooge through Christmases past, present, and future.
It was suddenly very hard to remember I’d been angry at anything at all in that moment.
“Hey, Dad, can we have hot chocolate?” Nathaniel asked when the movie went to a commercial.
“I think Dillon’s too tired for a hot chocolate,” I said with a wink.
At the sound of his name, Dillon’s head popped up and he rubbed his eyes. “I’m not!” He said.
I laughed and got up to go to the kitchen, leaving them cheering on the couch.
It was short lived, though, and when I went back into the living room while the water boiled, I found them sitting upright with the TV muted.
“Shhh!” Nathaniel hissed, waving a hand at me.
I waited a moment and then tried again. “What’s up, guys?”
“Don’t you hear it, Daddy?” Dillon whispered.
I frowned a bit, bemused. Our house was on a large piece of wooded property and set away from the road, not exactly the kind of place that Christmas carolers tended to go. At first, I thought they had to be mistaken, but the longer I stood there in the quiet, the more certain I became that I, too, heard faint singing coming from outside.
I crossed the living room and opened the front door just a crack.
From somewhere out in the dark, coming from the direction of the driveway, I heard a mumbled, but distinct chorus of voices. Although I couldn’t quite make out the words of their song, the tune was clear enough.
We Wish You A Merry Christmas.
I shut the front door and slid the deadbolt into place.
“Did you hear them, Daddy?” Dillon asked. He was smiling, delighted.
“I did, buddy,” I said, leaning against the door. It was probably harmless, I thought, probably just some neighbors.
But why that song?
A chill was slowly weaving itself around me.
“Hey, uh, boys, why don’t you guys go upstairs to my room and get comfy on my bed? I’ll bring hot chocolate up and we’ll finish the movie there.”
“But I wanna see the carolers!” Dillon said.
“Is it the same ones from the store?” Nathaniel started for one of the windows. “They were weird.”
“Just do it, come on.”
Dillon whined all the way to the steps and Nathaniel trailed slowly behind him.
“What’s wrong, Dad?” He asked, lingering at the top of the stairs.
“Nothing. Go on, I’ll be up in a minute.”
I waited until they had disappeared into my room before shutting off the living room lights and pulling back the curtain just enough to look outside.
Five figures were outlined against the darkness.
They were closer now, halfway up the drive. One of them had a lantern in their hand and I could just make out bonnets and tophats; the kind of clothes that would have been at home in a Dickens novel. While the words were still too muddied to make out, the tune was the same. They were still singing We Wish You A Merry Christmas.
I let the curtain fall back into place and paced in front of the window for a moment, debating what to do. It didn’t take long to convince myself that a group of carolers following me and my kids all the way home was worth a call to the police.
I grabbed my cell phone off of the end table and flipped it open, but the screen remained blank. It was dead. I tossed it aside with a muttered curse and hurried to the kitchen, where the landline phone was. I picked up the receiver and, instead of a dial tone, heard what sounded like wind whipping through the line, and a cracked, broken up chorus of voices.
“We wish you-” they sang before it became too garbled to understand.
I slammed it down, my heart hammering in my throat, and I bowed my head for a moment, trying to calm and collect my thoughts.
When I looked up and across the kitchen, to the window that overlooked our backyard, I was horrified to see a face looking back at me.
His skin was pale, white as snow, and he was staring at me from beneath the tattered brim of a tall top hat. His eyes, wide and lined with icy lashes, were fixed on me, unblinking.
“We wish you would come and join us,” he sang through thin lips tinged with blue. “We wish you would come and join us!”
I scrambled back a few steps and fell against the wall.
Another face, white and drawn and framed by a threadbare bonnet, appeared in the next window over.
“We wish you would come and join us!” Her voice rose with his.
I yelped, the only sound that I would allow myself to make to keep from scaring the boys, and I ran from the kitchen and straight up the steps. I forced myself not to look out any windows. I didn’t want to see any more of those terrible, frozen faces.
They had looked weird, Nathaniel had said, more like Halloween than Christmas. He’d said they’d been singing We Wish You A Merry Christmas, but the words had been different.
I knew what he meant now.
Even as I reached the second story, I could hear the chorus singing after me.
“We wish you would come and join us, we wish you would come and join us…”
I skid into my bedroom, desperate to get my kids and lock us all into the windowless bathroom.
But my bed was empty.
“Nathaniel!” I shouted. “Dillon! Come out, I’m not playing right now! Boys!”
The only response I got was the carolers singing below in my yard.
My stomach sank and panic, cold and fierce, started to take hold.
I ran back down the steps, through the hall, and into the living room, still hoping, still daring to believe that everything was alright.
The TV, still muted, continued to play its movie. The blankets and pillows were still carefully arranged on the couch. The fire was still casting its warm glow over the room. But the boys weren’t there either.
From outside the front window, blocked off from view by the closed curtain, the carolers sang to the tune of We Wish You A Merry Christmas.
“We wish you would come and join us, we wish you would come and join us, we wish you would come and join us…”
With trembling hands, I reached forward and tore the curtains back.
The five carolers in their ratty Dickens garb were lined up outside the window, completely still except for the movement of their lips, their eyes fixed on me.
“We wish you would come and join us, we wish you would come and join us, we wish you would come and join us…”
Two smaller figures, just as pale, just as wide eyed and frozen, but dressed in pajamas, were standing in front of them.
I pressed my hands and my face to the cold window, and I screamed while they sang.