"MERRY CHRISTMAS, FRIENDS"

Written by Mason McDonald

You’ve known Carrie and Red for a long time now. You went to school with Red, from kindergarten to college, which is where he met Carrie. Remember when he first told you about her? He came back to your dorm rambling about the “chick in his American Poetry class”. Of course, you didn’t pay him any mind. When was Red not going nuts over a girl in those days? While you took your time with your studies, and sure you partied some but mostly you kept to yourself and powered through, Red was out every night “pounding beers and ass”, as he so eloquently put it. You hated Red a tiny bit because he was, and is, objectively smarter than you. He would recite Walt Whitman to girls who wore thick-rimmed glasses and cardigans and have them acting up with him in a matter of minutes. He’d fly through every course, every test, every exam, and you never saw him pick up a book. Not one. Red was the smartest guy in the room, end of story. Yet he never gave a shit about any of that. He was smart enough to know he could float down the lazy river of life and would never so much as snag a rock on the way. When you’re that intelligent, life isn’t much of a challenge. At least, in your own mind. So yeah, he focused all of his intellect on getting laid. So when he suddenly became stuck on a girl, when his focus shifted from collecting STD tests like baseball cards to making sure every poem he wrote was directed at the same person, when every stanza only described this one girl, when every single solitary word was written as carefully as possible to make sure she understood exactly how he felt about her, you knew something was different. And you were right. They were married before graduation. They had their first kid shortly after. Your buddy went from party animal to hopelessly in love with his wife and family in less than three years and you know what?

You’d never been so happy for someone in your life.

Sure, there was jealousy. Envy. There had to be. Red never struggled and when he brought random girls back to the dorm and you had to study for your upcoming exam in the hallway outside your room listening to the sounds they were making inside, you were envious then because you wished you could just party and get laid too. But then he changes, life changes, and he finds his dream girl and gets married and still graduates at the top of the class, and you’re envious of that too because life keeps cutting that guy breaks, doesn’t it?

Envious, but not sour. You can’t be. You love Red like a brother and have you ever seen him smile as much as he does when he’s with Carrie? You have, but not that smile.

Life moved on. You met someone, you had kids of your own. You work an office job that pays extraordinarily well (it better—you fucking well worked for it) and Red owns a tech company that does something with servers and “processing chips” that goes so far above your head, you stopped asking a long time ago. He still writes poetry, and it’s still always about Carrie, even the pieces he doesn’t think are. He’ll send them to you sometimes and say something about how he jotted it down on a napkin at Denny’s and that it’s supposed to be about coming to terms with loss and growth, but you know it’s about her. He could write a poem about muscle cars in 1970’s New York, and it’d still always be about her. Because even when it isn’t, it is.

Time and distance has separated the two of you, unfortunately. It’s normal, but it sucks. You email back and forth sometimes, and you like each other's posts on Facebook (although that is extremely rare, Red hates social media and from his view on the inside of the industry, “you should too”). Mostly, though, you don’t really talk anymore. Sometimes one of you will mention how all of you need to pack up the families and go on a trip together. To the lake, maybe, or down south for a week. That never comes to fruition. Which is okay. It’s just sad to think about.

Something that has never changed is the tradition of Red and Carrie’s Christmas cards. The tradition started shortly after they bought their first house after college and they’ve never missed a year. Every December they send out cards with photos taken by a professional photographer. One year early on had just the two of them wearing matching pajama sets, and another had them and the kids dressed in matching white shirts and blue jeans as a throwback to the ’90s. Your favourite is the year they had their youngest, a daughter named Julie, dressed as an elf, their boy Zachary as Rudolf, and Red and Carrie as Mr. and Mrs. Claus, respectively. That stayed on your fridge for weeks. You’d drink your morning coffee and look at it and laugh.

While the photos and the designs of the cards changed over the years, one thing never has: the lettering on the front.

Emblazoned on the front in red and silver sparkles, written in beautiful flowing script, they read:

merry christmas friends card

It is the only constant. Which matters greatly. Very much so.

Because starting last year, you noticed something you didn’t like about the card. You sat down on your sofa and looked it over for a very long time. It took you a few moments to place it, but when you did, you wondered why it took so long in the first place. It was so blatant.

Julie, seven that year, wasn’t smiling. Her lips were a straight line as she stared into the camera. They all wore matching red and green ugly Christmas sweaters and Red, Carrie, and Zachary smiled away, their usual cheery selves, except Julie. And while that was weird enough, you knew Red. You knew how he smiled with Carrie and the kids. It was a smile that had all the love in the world in it.

This was not that smile. This smile was put on for the camera. His eyes didn’t squint, there were no lines in his cheeks. It was fake.

Which, okay, no family is perfect. Maybe he and Julie had a little spat in the moments before the photo and they weren’t at their happiest. But that was so unlike them, wasn’t it? That family didn’t fight and if they did, they surely would have waited and retaken the photo when they were feeling more themselves.

Things happen. It wasn’t too big of a deal and you told yourself if it keeps bothering you, you’ll give him a call and ask if everything is okay. You brush it off and put it aside.

Then this year’s card comes. The one in your hand right now. As usual, in red and silver sparkles, it reads:

merry christmas friends card

The photo isn’t right. Julie isn’t smiling again and neither is Red. In fact, no one in the photo is smiling. All four are wearing ugly Christmas sweaters and staring at the camera, their faces blank. Carrie looks as if she’s been crying.

The sweaters. You squint, you examine them, and you’re sure they’re the same as the sweaters from last year. You’re downright positive.

So you run to the kitchen. Beside the stove, the junk drawer. You were supposed to clean it out ages ago, but you never got around to it. Pushing aside cards from every holiday, a pile of old batteries, and a pack of thumbtacks, you find last year’s card stuffed in the back.

Sure enough. Same sweaters. The boys in red, the girls in green. Carrie and Zachary are smiling. It makes you feel better for some reason.

It’s probably nothing. Most likely nothing. However, you can’t escape that awful feeling in the pit of your stomach. There’s a weight and it’s telling you there is something wrong with your friend and his family. Those photos are more than uncanny. For some reason, they scare you.

Something is wrong.

Cursing at yourself for falling out of touch as you have, you dial Red up. First time there is no answer. So you text him. Tell him to answer his damn phone. Then you call again. And again. You leave voice messages where, let’s be honest, you probably sound a little hysteric, but that’s okay. As long as it gets him to call you back.

He doesn’t, and that’s okay too because eventually he answers your call.

“Hello?”

“Red, thank God.”

“How many times did you—”

“Doesn’t matter. I know I’m probably crazy, I know I am. But I just got your Christmas card. I thought something was up last year and I didn’t say anything, and I shouldn’t say anything now because it’s nothing and I’m just crazy, but I know you. There’s something wrong with this picture. I’m looking right at it now. You all look…scared. Is everything okay? Is this some joke that’s going way over my head?”

Silence on the other end.

“Red?”

“You shouldn’t have called.”

“What?”

“We had to.” Red sighs. His voice is so monotone you begin to wonder if he is on something. “Nothing was going to get better. We tried. Just ignore the cards, okay? Please.”

“Red, what the fuck are you talking about? Are Carrie and the kids okay?”

“My family is fine.”

Click. The noise fades away.

You call him back. Of course you do. Eventually your calls start going straight to voicemail and it dawns on you that he’s blocked your number. This next part kills you, like actually ravages your soul, but you call the authorities. You tell them your friend and his family may be in danger. That Red didn’t sound like himself and you’re worried.

Worried about what, they ask.

You have to say it.

Fucking fuck you have to say it.

“I’m worried he’s going to hurt them.”

They tell you they’re on the way over. They’re doing a “wellness check”. You hang up the phone and you’re acutely aware your friendship, a relationship that has outlived any other in your existence, is most likely over. Either you’re correct and everything has to end with Red, or you're wrong and delusional and you just accused him of abusing his family and called the cops on him.

Across the country is a long way away, so it’s a couple hours before an officer calls you back. Everything is fine, she says. A-OK. Red was slightly aggravated at their being there, but he told them he understood. Said they’ve been having a tough go of it lately and he expected it after their last cards went out.

“‘Someone in the family was bound to call. I think I know who, too. We couldn’t miss our appointment with the photographer, we’d already pushed it off as long as we could, and it was a particularly bad day for us. We looked awful.’ That’s what he said. I wrote it all down verbatim. Your friend is fine. Maybe you should call him?”

You tell her you’ll do just that although you know it would prove pointless. “I think I know who,” is what Red said. He knows it was you. That’s it. All over, then.

You had to call. Because if you didn’t, and Red had snapped or something, you’d never forgive yourself. Luckily nothing had happened.

Only your friendship died.

***

A year passes.

Red and Carrie removed you from their Facebook a while back. You’re not mad. You understand. You haven’t spoken to either of them since the incident with the cops. Most days you keep it in the past, don’t think about it at all. It stings, but all relationships have to end eventually. You’re just bummed about how it went down.

Some days you can’t stop thinking about it, though. Some days it’s all that’s on your mind. You hear a joke or read a poem and you pick up your phone to text him and it crashes into you like a truck that you can’t do that. It wouldn’t go through.

Sometimes you cry. You’re not ashamed of it but you keep it to yourself all the same.

It’s a surprise then when you check the mail this Christmas and find another card from Red and Family. You slip it from its off-pink envelope. Again, red and silver sparkles on the front.

merry christmas friends card

Julie’s gone. It’s the first thing you notice. There’s no searching the photo for what’s wrong. No examining the faces, although that comes next. Red and Carrie are wearing the exact same sweaters, only they’re filthy and threadbare. Instead of a neatly decorated white and gold studio, this is their living room and the photo is grainy, as if it were taken with one of their phones propped on a bookshelf. Zachary is in front of them. His face is white. So are his parents’. Their eyes are dark and baggy and they look as if they haven’t slept in days.

Thoughts beat the shit out of your head. Has Julie been sick? Is that what has been going on? Oh Jesus, not Julie. She’s the sweetest little girl. Her mother’s beautiful features, her father’s brains and creative soul. Words you know but barely understand fly through your head. Not due to their complexity but more so their horrible cruelness. Words like leukemia, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia.

You can’t call Red. You can’t call Carrie. You can’t text them or message them or “creep” them. Most certainly, you can’t call the police again.

This is hell. You talk to your family. You debate flying down there right fucking now and seeing what the hell is going on. But you don’t, of course. Because that’s what a crazy person would do. If Red wanted to conversate with you about Julie or anything else, he would have.

“He sent the card for Christ’s sake!”

“Hon, he just forgot to take you off his mailing list. This stuff is all automated these days. He probably just clicks a button on an app. Hell, he probably designed the damn thing himself.”

You’re quiet for a minute. “He’s my friend.”

Was, hon. He was your friend.”

“No. He’ll never be past tense to me.”

They’re right. It sucks, but friends come and go all the time. Sometimes you just have to let them go. So you do. You don’t hop on a plane and go to him. You put the card in the drawer with the rest of them and you try your best to forget about it.

Every day for the next few weeks, you check the obits from Red’s city.

***

Another year. Another card.

merry christmas friends card

You lose your breath when you see the photo. If you weren’t white-knuckling the flimsy card stock, you’d have dropped it.

It’s just Red. Their house is in disrepair. An absolute mess. Something is on fire beside him just off screen, the flames licking into frame. Red is wearing his dirty Christmas sweater, but it is soaked through with something dark and viscous. He hasn’t shaved and his eyes are so baggy and black he looks undead. If he has slept in the past month, you’d be surprised. He’s wrapped himself up in old-timey coloured Christmas lights. There is a tree behind him but the lights are off and you can’t make out the star atop it. If it even is a star.

He’s holding something. A white square of paper. Written on the front is your name. Underneath it, simply:

I’M SORRY.

You’re on your phone in a second. First call, the local cops. After that, the travel app. Your flight is booked before you even pull out of the drive. You’ve one last call to make on the way to the airport.

“I’ve got to do this.”

“Do you? What can you do? Let the cops handle it.”

“He’s my friend.”

“No, he’s not. And he might be crazy. Dangerous.”

“He’s not dangerous. He’s my friend.”

The cops made it there well before you, obviously, and they found Hell.

They fill you in as you approach the drive, but they stop you at the yellow tape. You can’t go any further, but they tell you everything you’re allowed to know.

Not much was left of Red and Family when they got there. Zachary was in his bed, tucked in. Their running theory is suffocation. A Buzz Lightyear pillow. A woman’s body was found burnt down to nothing in what remained of the living room. Everything is black and smokey and covered in a thick layer of grime, but someone had extinguished the fire before it spread. Red was found hanging in the garage. He’d used the Christmas lights.

They never found Julie’s body.

“It happened a few weeks ago, at least. The state of the bodies…the smell.”

The next day you’re in your hotel room. You never slept a wink. You called home and told your family what had happened. When you said you were going to stay a while and see how you could help, you weren’t met with an argument. They understood.

He was your friend.

Your phone rings. The detective you spoke to yesterday speaks quickly and clearly. They’ve found a note.

It’s addressed to you.

***

I had to try. I fix things. I’m smart. She was sick. Oh, she was so sick. My baby girl. Nobody could help her. We tried every doctor. Every specialist. Carrie even tried some holistic bullshit with gems and fucking flower-scented oils. She got worse. Our Julie. My pumpkin. She got so bad. So fucking bad. And they told us nothing was wrong. That nothing was wrong with her and that she was faking it or she was mentally ill. A little girl! Can a little girl fake breaking her legs and fake putting them back together again?

And what about what she did with the cheese grater? Was that fake too?

You’ll find the book. Or it will find you. I thought it would save her. You got to believe me. If I’d known…

It said I had to pick someone. It needed somewhere to go. After. I didn’t know what that meant then, but I do now.

I’m so fucking sorry. Please trust me. I. Didn’t. Fucking. Know.

It didn’t make her better. It was a trick. It released it. It made it stronger.

It got into Zachary. Carrie.

Oh. My Carrie.

“We loved with a love that was more than love.” Poe. Her favourite.

I had to do it. I couldn’t leave them like that. I couldn’t. So I did it. I made sure they didn’t suffer, I promise.

You won’t find Julie. I had to make sure of it.

Please forgive me.

Your friend,

Red

***

You don’t understand the note. It’s written on flimsy card stock and you know what it is going to say on the back so you don’t bother flipping it over. You’re alone in an interrogation room. You read it again. And again. And again.

Finally, the detective returns with a cardboard evidence box in her arms. She asks if you understand any of it. You tell her you don’t. Not really. She sighs.

“Okay. Well, how about this? We found it in the garage.”

She pulls something out wrapped in a labeled plastic bag. She places it in front of you. It’s bound in hard, black leather the colour of fingernail dirt. The front is bubbled and misshapen. There is smudged red and white Christmas glitter on the edges in the shape of a child’s fingers.

It’s a book.

It’s found you.

Merry Christmas, friend.

mason mcdonald 01Mason McDonald is the author of A Time For Monsters. When not inventing yuletide boogeymen, he can be found drinking booze and fist fighting his own personal Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come. He currently lives in Port Morien, NS with his wife Jenna and their collection of animals.

You can pick up his collection by clicking one of the links below!

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