by Kurt Fawver
“Will the Carolers come tonight?”
My daughter's question flickers across the room like dying firelight from the hearth. I hand her the noise-canceling ear defenders, sparkly red and green for the holidays, and shrug.
“They might,” I say, too tight. “But they might not. It's better not to take chances.”
She scratches at her ears, already annoyed with the extra obligations of the season.
“Has anyone ever heard them?” she asks, the same as she asks every year.
I dig in the closet for my own defenders and come up with more tinsel, more burned out lights. A bead of sweat pops upon my brow. “The only people that have heard them are the people they take,” I say, “the people who are listening.”
I throw boxes from the closet and rummage beneath the past year's detritus. My daughter finds some bauble rolled free of the mess and begins playing catch with it.
“And where do those people go? Where do the Carolers take them?”
“No one knows,” I mutter, “but they never come back. Now put on those defenders like I told you to.”
She does, then yells, “I think the Carolers take people into the sky and turn them into snow. That's why it snows so much after Christmas.”
I can't find my defenders. They're not here. Oh my god. Oh my god. I shouldn't have waited until the last minute to prepare. I should have planned better. But don't I say the same thing every year? And every year, doesn't it all work out, anyway?
My daughter points to the window and screams, “See? It's starting!”
There, twirling in the wind, are tiny, icy flakes.
I run to the bathroom and consider tissues, consider cotton balls, consider ramming the tweezers deep into my aural canals until blood flows and silence reigns.
But no. No. They might not come tonight. We’ve had plenty of Christmas Eves free from their sinister melodies. My hands tremble, my forehead drips fear, but they might not come.
In the living room, under the multi-hued twinkle of the tree, my daughter shouts, “I wonder what they sound like. I bet it’s so beautiful that it makes people’s hearts beat super fast, and then their hearts get huge and explode and the Carolers suck up all the little bits because it’s like candy canes to them.”
I walk back into the living room and lift two pillows off the couch.
I press them hard against the sides of my head. My daughter regards me with curiosity then breaks into laughter, which, both fortunately and unfortunately, I can still hear.
“You look like a sandwich,” she says. “My dad is a sandwich.”
And she laughs harder.
I toss the pillows back onto the couch and swallow both a curse and the acids that are creeping upward from my stomach. I have to find something to muffle the sound. I have to block it out, somehow.
I leap upstairs to my bedroom, grab my phone and earbuds off the nightstand, and jam them into my ears as far as they’ll go. They’re not noise-canceling, but maybe if I crank the volume of a rock playlist high enough, it will drown out everything else. Maybe. Hopefully.
This is not how I wanted to die.
Downstairs, my daughter is singing the refrain of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” but replacing the words “Santa Claus is” with “the Carolers are.”
I head back down to her. She’s picking up the presents her grandparents left under the tree this afternoon and shaking them to hear the rattles and thuds from the opposite side of their mystery. She wants to know, so desperately she wants to know. But she shouldn’t know. No one should.
I sneak up behind her and lift her into the air. She squeals and drops a box from her hands. I set her down and shake my head “no.”
She laughs and runs off, into the kitchen, probably to smuggle away another cookie. I glance at a clock and wring my hands. There’s too much time left in this night. Too much room for disaster and unhappy endings.
And my daughter returns, her mouth stuffed full of something I can only presume is sweet and buttery.
I set my phone’s volume as high as it will go, select some post-metal albums, and hit “Play.” Bass rumble explodes beneath my skull and I stagger backward, flopping onto the couch. My daughter shouts something, but I can’t hear it – blissfully, graciously, I can’t hear it at all. Though my tympanic membranes are straining under the pressure, though my brain is suffering seismic damage, I smile, because this is Christmas and Christmas is a time of joy and I’ll have my daughter believe nothing else.
I pat the couch cushion beside me and motion for her to sit. She doesn’t. Instead, she prances around the tree, performing faux jetes like an exhausted ballerina. Behind her, through a window, I swear I catch a glimpse of something long, dark, and sinewy slash through the snowfall veil.
My daughter stops in front of me, pirouettes, and bows. Another song, more raw, more jagged, begins playing. I wince, but I also clap and blow a kiss to my tiny dancer, hoping she didn’t notice my pain.
She bows again and yells, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
I can hear her. The music has stopped.
In a rush, I grab my phone and tap the dimmed screen. No response. I mash the icon for the audio player, but nothing happens. It’s all frozen, frozen as the evening sky, frozen as the dead, lying wholly alone and uncelebrated below the wintry ground.
“Damn it,” I whisper, teeth suddenly chattering, pulse pounding at my throat.
I hold the power button until the screen goes black. The phone should restart in a minute. I should be fine. This is just a minor setback, a bump in the road. I’m sure I’ll be fine. We’re simply having a wonderful Christmas time, and terrible things are frightened by the dulcet glow of wonderful Christmases. Aren’t they?
I pound the couch and jiggle the phone, croaking, “Come on, come on.”
My daughter leaps onto my lap and, assuming I’ve muted her along with the rest of the world, screams into my ear, “Why are you on your phone? Why are you not wearing your defenders?”
My hands are too sweaty. Just as I see the screen light up again, I bobble the phone and it falls to the floor, my earbuds popping out, trailing a comet tail behind the reanimated device.
I set my daughter to the side and lunge after the whole tangle of electronics, ending up on the floor, on my knees. And that’s when I hear it, in the seconds between contentment and disaster, in the blink that separates happiness from tragedy.
Though it is hollow, distant, and undercut with something like the sound of a thousand centuries of static, a verse of “Winter Wonderland” hisses into my brain. Outside, the dark, elongated form whips past the window again.
My daughter pats me on the shoulder and offers me a contraband cookie from her pocket, but I don’t notice or care, much though I might want to. The twisted, down-tuned chorus beyond my door replaces the spark between my neurons and the warmth within my blood. It settles in my bones, turns the glitter on the tree to rust and scabs over the wrapping paper on the presents. It moves my soul, but not in the direction of joy.
My little girl was right from the beginning – the melody is beautiful, so beautiful. It is also horrible, so horrible.
I rise to my feet, not of my own accord, but to lift my spirit into the melody of the carol.
“Daddy?” I hear under it all, as though from across the universe. “Dad? Where are you going? Dad?”
I march toward the door, feet shuffling with the rhythm of the song. A tug on my hand. I can only hope she doesn't take off her defenders. Let that be my present this year. Please. Let that be my last present.
I throw open the door and watch a vortex of snowflakes spin and drift in its wake. At its eye flickers a darkness, an oblong darkness, like the slit of a lizard's eye. It colors the falling snow, rendering the world in glittering shades of ash.
My body moves to the music, impels me to take the next step. The final step, perhaps.
I don't want to walk outside.
I must walk outside.
I don't want to leave my daughter.
I must leave my daughter.
I don't want to be whisked away, forgotten amongst the twinkling lights of the season or the twinkling stars in the sky.
But I must, as all things must.
The Carolers are on the stoop, waiting, and this night their chorale is for me.