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The Caroller

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I always thought it was one of life's wonderful coincidences that my fiancée was named Noelle and she loved Christmas more than anybody I know.

Every single year, as soon as Halloween was over, she’d be up in the attic fetching lights, baubles, and tinsel, ready to transform our home into a space so festive it would put Santa’s grotto to shame. I can picture her now, hanging bows and ribbons over the fireplace in our cottage, blonde hair tied back, stray specks of glitter on her cheeks and with the sleeves of her latest awfully cheesy Christmas jumper rolled up so she could work even harder.

I even joked that the first dance at our wedding would be to the strains of I’ll Be Home For Christmas and Noelle laughed until tears ran down her cheeks. She used to laugh a lot.

That changed this year, in what was to be our last Christmas as an unmarried couple. The cottage had been decorated since the second week of November. We live on a small rural road and there are only three other houses around us. As such, we didn't have much competition when it came to Christmas decorations and we were always the first to switch on the lights on the front of our house.

I’d spent a long time hanging strand after strand, bulb after bulb, and soon the front of our house was almost entirely covered in twinkling, sparkling lights.

It was a time consuming, fiddly job, and the electricity bill was going to skyrocket, but it was worth it, just to see the child-like joy on Noelle’s face when they were first switched on. I know it sounds corny, but Christmas with Noelle really was the most magical time of year.

And if she was excited at the switching on of the lights, she was practically jumping for joy when, two weeks ago, the heavens opened and a sudden flurry of snow drifted down onto our little lane.

‘Come look!’ she squealed, both hands pressed against the window, her nose a mere inch from the glass, as she beamed at the winter wonderland taking shape before her eyes.

I slipped up behind her, wrapped my arms around her waist, and kissed her rosy cheek as we watched the snow fall together.

Soon everything was blanketed in crisp pristine snow. I lit the log fire, mulled some wine and we had a truly heavenly evening together.

Sometimes, in my darkest moments, I can take comfort from the fact that Noelle and I shared that amazing night. Sometimes.

The snow fell into the following day, and when we rose that morning it was at least five inches thick.

Noelle warmed her hands on her mug of coffee and stood at the window transfixed.

A short distance along the road we could see our neighbours, Sarah and Kevin who held their infant daughter Olivia in a baby carrier strapped to his chest, out in the yard building a snowman. We’d been good friends with them ever since we moved in and it made me smile to see their ruddy cheeks and the small puffs of steam they exhaled that rose around them as they laughed together.

Noelle waved down to Sarah, the diamond and pink sapphire engagement ring I’d agonised over for weeks twinkling in the bright winter sunlight, and the happy family below saw her and waved back. I know this sounds cheesy, but it was an idyllic holiday morning.

By midday it became obvious that we weren’t going to be driving anywhere for the foreseeable future, and my vain attempts to drive my battered old car out of the garage and across the snowbound driveway were very quickly dismissed as futile. Instead I reversed the car back into its home, closing the garage door behind me.

‘It looks like we’re stuck here,’ Noelle had smiled.

I really hadn’t minded, I could think of nowhere I’d rather be.

There was just one blip on our otherwise wonderful day – just after lunch I accidentally brushed against the tree, knocking our star from the top. It hit the floor with a clatter, narrowly missing the assortment of brightly wrapped gifts that were already strewn about and, much to Noelle’s dismay, snapped in two. It had been the same star that Noelle had placed atop her tree for over a decade, and while it looked a little threadbare, it bore some significant sentimental value for her. My attempts to mend the star came to nought and I told a teary-eyed Noelle that I promised I’d take her to buy a brand new one just as soon as the roads cleared. If only that had remained the worst thing we’d have to deal with.

If only he hadn’t come to our home.

Later that evening the fire was crackling away, casting a dancing light about the now darker room, when we heard the voice.

It took a few moments to recognise that it was real, not from one of Noelle’s scratchy old Christmas records.

It was a rich deep voice, slowly and tunefully singing I Saw Three Ships.

Noelle recognised it a moment before I did, a look of unadulterated joy spreading across her beautiful face, as I asked her: ‘Can you hear that?’

‘A caroller!’ she cried, actually clapping her hands as we wandered out into the hallway.

As we moved closer to the door I could see a figure through the misted glass. Even from here I could tell he was a big man – at least 6’5 – broad-shouldered and barrel-chested.

‘I saw three ships come sailing in, on Christmas Day…’

His voice was truly mesmerising. His tone was perfect, not unlike the bassy baritone of a crooner such as Bing Crosby or Dean Martin.

I could never have imagined that a voice such as that could come from somebody like him – somebody capable of the things he did.

I opened the door and stood, my hand on the doorframe, just taking in the sight before me.

For a second I thought we might have been visited by Santa himself.

The Caroller was indeed huge, dressed in a thick, warm red winter coat, the hood pulled up over his head, casting his face in shadow. The coat was padded, lined with insulation, so it added even more mass to the hulking figure before me. He even had a long, unruly beard that spilled down his burly chest, but unlike Santa, his was a fiery ginger rather than white.

However, on closer inspection the similarity ended there. The Caroller wore what looked like combat trousers and battered but sturdy-looking, old, black army surplus boots, which were partially buried in the thick snow.

Illuminated by the glow of our porchlight, snowflakes cascading down around him, hands behind his back while his deep powerful voice continued to boom out the classic carol (‘And what was in those ships all three?’) he truly was an awesome sight.

I turned back to Noelle to watch her reaction to the Caroller. I knew her face would be a picture, and, for a few brief seconds it was. She grinned at him, mesmerised by his song.

Then, abruptly, the rapt smile on her face shattered, her eyes widened in unspeakable terror and she started to scream.

In that moment I heard three distinct and separate sounds — Noelle’s heart-rending cries; a heavy, dull metallic thud; and the Caroller’s deep singing voice, utterly unfazed and smoothly continuing with his song (‘Pray, whither sailed those ships all three, On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day…’).

I was only dimly aware of a hot, aching sensation in my hand as I turned back to see what had caused such a terrified reaction from my fiancée.

It took me a few seconds to make sense of what I saw.

The Caroller was still singing, just his smiling mouth visible in the darkness of his hood, but he was attempting to tug something from the doorframe, like a dentist trying to extract a tooth. Confused, I looked at what he gripped in his massive, paw-like hand.

It was a meat cleaver, slick and gory, buried in the wood of the door frame.

My blood ran cold as I looked down at the red snow by his feet. Scattered about his boots were some small, pink slugs.

‘Why are they out in this weather?’ I thought to myself, as the Caroller wrenched the cleaver free with his powerful arms.

Then it dawned on me — they weren’t slugs. They were my fingers.

The Caroller kept right on grinning and singing as he raised the cleaver for a second strike and I froze, dumbly staring at the useless, bloody stumps that marked where my fingers has once been on my right hand.

Suddenly Noelle was there, slamming the door closed in the Caroller’s face, still screaming.

‘Chris,’ she cried, over and over. She grabbed my scarf from beside the door, the same warm, wooly scarf I had worn while decorating the front of our home with lights, and then took my wounded right hand in hers. Gently she pulled me away from the door, even as she wrapped the scarf around my mutilated hand as a makeshift bandage.

The dull ache was now a roaring pain, white-hot and sending sparks of agony up my arm with every beat of my heart.

‘The police,’ I mumbled, my vision suddenly starting to swim. Maybe it was blood loss, maybe it was shock, but every step I took away from the door was shakier than the last. Noelle pulled my arm over her shoulder and together we staggered into the lounge, to the phone.

Outside, the Caroller continued to sing.

‘On Christmas day in the morning…’

As we reached the sofa I tripped, stumbled, then eventually pitched forward onto the seat. Without thinking I tried to break my fall, putting my hands out before me.

Even wrapped in the scarf, the sudden jarring impact as the ruined stumps on my right hand struck the hard back of the chair was agony, causing me to cry out in pain.

For a moment or two I could only hear the rushing roar of my own blood in my ears, my vision little more than a white haze, as if I’d fallen face first into the deep snow outside.

I don’t know how close I came to passing out, but when I was next aware of my surroundings Noelle was cradling my head in her hands and telling me that I needed to stay with her.

‘Please, Chris,’ she whispered, frantically. ‘Just stay awake. You need to stay awake.’

I nodded dully, knowing that somehow, fortuitously, I’d ridden out the pain.

‘Phone…’ I whispered again. ‘Police.’

Seemingly reassured that I wasn’t going to pass out anytime soon, Noelle nodded grimly, planted a kiss on my forehead, then scrambled across the room to the phone.

She picked up the receiver, quickly punched the buttons, and then… she started to weep.

‘It’s dead,’ she sobbed, dropping the phone to the floor. ‘The line’s dead.’

‘The snow?’ I asked, but even as I said it I heard the voice from outside, echoing under the moonless sky.

‘...All is calm, all is bright…’

Silent Night. He was taunting us, telling Noelle and I that he knew we weren’t able to place the call.

Then I saw that cleaver again in my mind’s eye, its brutish weight and wicked, sharp edge and I knew he’d cut the cable. He’d silenced us.

‘Your cell!’ I hissed and Noelle nodded, before dashing out of the room and up the stairs to our bedroom. There was silence for a few seconds, then I heard her despairing cry.

‘Call failed!’

She ran back to me, dialling the emergency services over and over, each call ending in the same infuriating beep.

‘Sleep in heavenly peace…’

I saw red, blood pounding in my ears. Before I knew what I was doing I was already lunging towards the door. I don’t know if I really thought I could hurt him, but I know that in that moment I was ready to risk it all to try.

I shouted a tirade of expletives, adrenaline coursing through my veins, and lurched across the room.

Then, once again, Noelle was there. She deftly stepped between me and the door, her big green eyes locked on mine.

‘No,’ she said, quietly but firmly. ‘Don't go out there. Please. I need you.’

And with that she placed her left hand on my chest, the jewels in her engagement ring twinkling like lights on the tree just a few feet away. I felt the rage and fury ebb away, seeming to pour out of me as I realised she was right. If I ran out there and tried to fight him, what would happen if I lost? What would he do to her? It wasn’t a risk I could bear to take.

‘Ok,’ I said, calmer, quieter.

She didn’t drop her hand straightaway, frowning at me for a second longer, unsure if I was truly ready to drop the foolhardy charge I’d been prepared to make moments earlier.

‘Seriously,’ I said, taking her hand in mine. ‘It’s ok.’

With that she nodded, then embraced me, holding me close as we both tried to comprehend the horror of what had just happened.

It took me a moment to realise that, once again, the night had fallen quiet.

‘Do you think he’s gone?’ I asked, gently releasing Noelle and moving towards the curtains.

‘I don’t know,’ she whispered back, already trying her phone again. The look on her face was enough to tell me that she still wasn’t getting through. Coverage had always been an issue in our house, especially when we had atmospheric conditions such as rain or snow to contend with.

We used to joke that the fact nobody from the office could ever reach her on a day off was the clincher in our decision to buy this place. We used to joke about a lot of things.

I inched closer to the curtain, preparing to peek outside.

I don’t think I’d ever been more frightened than I was at the moment my hand closed around the material and prepared to pull it aside. I think we’ve all had that fear of peering out of a window into the dark and finding an unfamiliar face staring back. The difference was that this time I knew for a fact that the face would belong to man who wanted us dead.

We both held our breath as I stood there for what felt like ten whole minutes, yet I realise was probably less than twenty seconds, paralysed with fear.

Then I whipped the curtain back.

There was nothing there, just our yard and the dark street beyond.

I stood staring out into the night, trying to spot even the slightest hint of the Caroller’s presence. However, snow changes the familiar into something else. It coats and covers everything, obscuring some things, its bright colour lightening and transforming others.

The weight of the drifts on the trees, hedges and bushes outside caused them to lean and sag under its weight. As the wind caused the branches to bob, each of them looked like a pale, watchful face, peeking out from at me from behind a strange, shapeless white blob that could have been anything from a bike, to a climbing frame, to a rosebush.

Time and again I thought, just for a split second, that I caught sight of the monster in the red coat, but I neither saw nor heard a thing. Finally I exhaled.

‘He’s not there,’ I said.

‘So what do we do?’ Noelle asked me.

The sudden wave of relief I’d been feeling dissipated as I realised that the absence of our tormentor didn’t mean anything — he was still out there, somewhere, and we had no idea if or when he might return.

‘We need to get somewhere safe, quickly,’ I replied.

‘The car?’ Noelle suggested. It was the only course open to us, that or walk out into the dark night where he was waiting for us.

I nodded and then, as fast as we could, we dashed through the house to the kitchen. There was an adjoining door to the garage, so we’d be able to get to the car without needing to venture outside. I told Noelle to wait at the door while I got in the car, started the engine and then opened the sliding garage door to check the path was clear. If that all went without a hitch she was to run straight to the passenger side door and then we would get the hell out of there and not stop until we hit the nearest town a few miles away. If anything else happened, she was to slam the door and lock it.

At first she protested, but I made her promise that she'd do as I asked. I couldn't let him have us both.

It seemed like a good idea, one that could work.

I really thought it could.

With her reassurances that she wouldn't take any risks ringing in my ears, I kissed Noelle goodbye and then stepped into the garage.

As I crept into the shadowy interior I felt the temperature drop drastically. It must have been below freezing outside, yet still I could feel beads of sweat running down the small of my back, perspiration causing my shirt to cling my armpits and sides.

I was terrified, my head snapping back and forth into every corner, expecting the red-clad invader to suddenly bear down on me, cleaver raised, that terrible grin on his face.

It never came but that open space between me and the car left me feeling horribly exposed and vulnerable. I glanced back over my shoulder, once, twice, three times, but each time the only face I saw was Noelle’s staring back at me, tight-lipped and teary eyed.

Finally I reached the vehicle, cursing when I saw that the windows were frosted over. That meant spending even more precious seconds in it with the engine running, even longer that I’d be broadcasting our intentions to the Caroller.

As quickly as I could I awkwardly threw the door open with my left hand, then dived inside, slamming the door closed behind me, a steel barrier between myself and the horrors outside.

I breathed a long sigh of relief, then inserted the key in the ignition. I took a deep breath, turned it, and… it purred to life! I don't think I’d ever been so grateful to hear a noise in my life.

Quickly I flicked the wipers on, hoping to clear my field of vision. I heard the rhythmic squeak as the rubber swept back and forth against the glass, but to my confusion the window didn’t clear.

Frowning, I reached out to the screen and drew my fingers across it. They came away wet, leaving clear streaks that revealed the garage door before me. Condensation, not frost.

I saw the gap beneath the garage door straightaway, the deep mound of snow that had wedged it open when I tried to close the shutter behind me earlier at least two feet deep.

Condensation.

On the inside of the screen…

Then came the voice, deep, melodic, not from outside the car but from the backseat behind me.

‘Do you see what I see?’

I ripped the door open and threw myself out onto the dusty floor. As I did I felt a searing hot pain in my shoulder, down my arm to the elbow.

As I scrambled towards the door to the kitchen Noelle started to scream.

Behind me the door of my car creaked open and the Caroller unfolded himself from its dingy confines.

‘Way up in the sky, little lamb…’

‘Chris, quickly!’ Noelle screamed, beckoning me with her hands, hopping on the spot as she willed me towards the safety of our home.

I don’t know remember regaining my feet or that short dash to the doorway.

Instead my next memory is of bracing the door with my shoulder, leaving an angry crimson smear on the paint from the fresh wound on my arm, while Noelle stood beside me, locking it.

No sooner had she turned the key then came an enormous thump of impact, one that rattled the door in its frame, so powerful that both Noelle and I cried out in alarm.

I honestly believe that the only reason I’m alive now to tell you this story is because we’d placed our refrigerator beside that door when we moved in. Its proximity to the garage door gave us the perfect barricade and, as one and without words, Noelle and I both tugged and pushed it into the corner, causing it topple and wedge against the wall in front of the door.

There came another crash as the Caroller threw his bulky frame against the door again, then again.

Finally, he stopped, seeming to realise the futility of his efforts.

‘With a tail as big as a kite…’ he crooned gently. There was no sound of exertion in his voice, not the slightest hint that seconds earlier he’d been kicking and pounding on the door to kill us. He was like a machine, inhuman, relentless and without weakness.

Noelle and I stood frozen, staring towards the entrance to the garage.

From beyond the door we heard shuffling footsteps heading away from us, his voice fading as he walked back towards the garage door. ‘With a tail as big as a kite.’

We spent the next five minutes pushing bookshelves, tables, sofas, anything and everything bulky that we could lay our hands on against all of the windows and doors on the ground floor. We’d recently had new windows fitted, sturdy, double-locked and double-glazed heavy duty PVC, but we weren’t prepared to take any risks.

‘Upstairs,’ I said, when we’d finished and Noelle nodded and followed me up the stairs.

As I walked towards the bedroom door I heard a sudden crash behind me and nearly jumped out of my skin.

Whirling around I saw the cabinet from our landing now on its side, blocking the top of the stairway, Noelle pushing it into place.

‘Another barrier,’ she whispered. ‘It could buy us time.’

I hadn’t even thought about what we’d do should the Caroller gain access to our home, but Noelle had, adding an extra level of security that could buy us valuable seconds should the worst come to the worst.

I stepped in beside her and shoved the cabinet too, until the entire top of the staircase was obstructed, then I took her hand in mine and we walked into our bedroom.

‘You’re bleeding,’ she said, flatly, her voice dull, numbed by shock.

I glanced down at the floor and saw a steady crimson pitter-patter of my blood raining down onto the old pine floor. Not only had the wounds from my hand started to leak through the scarf, but it was coming from my arm too. Now I had the time to inspect my injury I realised how bad it was. The gash was deep, undoubtedly caused by a wild swing of that damned cleaver, and it would leave an ugly scar. This whole night would.

‘It’ll be fine,’ I lied, knowing full-well that that I’d need medical attention sooner rather than later. ‘What do we do now?’

Noelle blinked, then raised her right hand. Even during the confusion and chaos of the events in the garage and our subsequent reinforcement of the house, she’d kept hold of her phone. We had a lifeline.

She lifted it to her ear and again called for help. Again, the call failed.

As she tried again and again, I moved over to our bedroom window and peered out into the darkness beyond the glow of our Christmas lights. In that moment I was grateful for them, there are no streetlights on our little lane and without the bulbs adorning the front of our home there would have been no source of illumination, just the blackness of the night. Instead they cast a glow that lit to just beyond the edge of our driveway. It wasn’t much, but enough to see if our tormentor was again at our door.

There was no sign of him, but, as if to remind me that we were still under his scrutiny, I heard a deep clear voice ring out from the darkness beyond the halo of light surrounding our home.

‘Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen…'

Another message, another warning that he was watching us and knew exactly what we were doing.

I retreated from the window, terrified that at any moment his cleaver would come arcing out the darkness, circling end over end until it crashed through the glass and into my exposed face.

‘I can’t reach them,’ Noelle said, tears of fury in her eyes. ‘This phone is useless, I can’t reach anybody.’

‘It’s OK, keep trying,’ I said, slipping my arm around her. Even as I said this I knew things were far from OK and that I needed to think of something, anything, to ensure that we made it through the night.

Wracking my brain, I sat heavily on the bed and watched as she walked over to the window, pulling back the edge of the curtain to peek out into the night.

She stood there in silence, her back to me for a long time, and as she did I realised that once again the Caroller’s voice had fallen silent.

‘Do you see anything?’ I asked as I climbed to my feet and walked up behind her to join her vigil at the pane.

‘Nothing.’

I looked over her shoulder at the street below… and saw something that made my heart freeze.

Over the road, just a little down the way, I could see light from the windows of Kevin and Sarah’s home. Our neighbours, with their baby daughter, were at this monster’s mercy.

I gasped in realisation and as I did, Noelle followed my gaze, then clamped a hand to her mouth.

‘Oh no…’ she cried, fresh tears springing to her eyes.

I stared out into the darkness and realised that our friends and their child needed to be warned.

I needed to go out into the night.

'I need to get to them before he does,' I whispered, my voice betraying my terror.

‘Chris, you can’t,’ Noelle cried, her hands gripping onto my shirt, her head shaking back and forth in denial.

‘I can’t leave them to him,’ I said, gently loosening her fingers from my clothes. ‘They have a baby, Noelle. Olivia is just a baby.’

‘But what if you don’t make it there?’ Noelle asked, anger in her voice now. ‘He’ll kill you and you’ll have died for nothing. Then he’ll come here and kill me. Then he’ll kill all of them. All of us – for nothing.’

‘And what if I do make it there?’ I replied gently. ‘Their phone might still be working. Maybe they have coverage in their home. And Kevin drives a 4x4. If anybody’s car is getting out of here, it’s his.’

Noelle stared at me, furious and frightened, and it took every ounce of resolve I had to stick to my guns. More than anything I wanted to just hide with her and hope that somehow, something else – somebody else – would make everything better. I wanted to stay, but I didn’t.

Goddamn me, I didn’t.

‘Keep calling for help,’ I said. ‘Keep watch out of the window. If you see anything you’ll be able to warn me. With you watching my back he won’t be able to sneak up on me. I’ll be safe.’

Noelle glared at me, her lip trembling, then, finally, she shook her head and dropped her gaze to the floor.

‘OK,’ she muttered, her voice barely audible.

‘I will make it,’ I said, lifting her chin up. ‘I promise I will.’

‘OK,’ she said again, then wrapped her arms around me, holding me tight. We stood like that for a long time, neither saying anything. What else was there to be said?

Eventually we clambered over the cabinet at the top of the stairs and crept down them. We went into the kitchen where we each grabbed the biggest carving knives we have, then made our way to the front door. Through the misted glass I could see the snow falling again, heavily, huge flakes the size of quarters.

‘That’s good,’ I thought. ‘It’ll hide me from him.’

I carefully slid the table away from the door, loosing the chain and unlocking it.

‘Lock this behind me,’ I said, then I kissed my fiancée goodbye.

As I flung the door open and darted out into the cold night air I heard her voice behind me: ‘I love you.’

Then the door was closed and I heard the locks clicking into place even as I dashed, crouching, towards the hedge, feeling frighteningly exposed in the glare of the christmas lights on the front of our home.

I dropped into the snow, my back to the hedge, using its bulk to obscure my presence from any watching eyes in the darkness, and peered back up at the bedroom window.

I was breathing hard, the clammy sweat on my brow turning chilly in the night air.

Then, after just a brief pause, she was there. Noelle’s face came into view, the light shining through her golden hair like a halo. I’ll never forget how she looked in that moment. She was beautiful. She was so beautiful.

She scanned the street, eyes darting back and forth, then she looked straight at me and gave me a short, sharp nod.

The way was clear.

I shuffled around the hedge on my hands and knees, the sound of my own breathing deafeningly loud in my ears, frantically looking around me for any sign of the red-coated maniac who had mutilated my hand.

Upon reaching the roadside I suddenly became aware of how heavily the snow was falling. No longer sheltered by the shrubbery the flakes fell fast and relentlessly, blowing into my face and causing me to squint.

Then I was on my feet and I ran.

My feet sank into the snow, causing me to stumble, but I kept my head down and I plunged onward. I ran as if my life depended on it. My life did.

It was just a hundred feet or so to Kevin and Sarah’s house, but the distance seemed to yawn before me. The snow fell heavier and heavier, a blizzard obscuring everything before me.

As I sprinted into the dizzying, shifting, black and white emptiness before me I misjudged the kerb and fell, sprawling into the road, the knife I’d brought for protection skidding away into the night. If it hadn’t have been for the snow I might have split my skull open right there, yet even though the snow cushioned my fall it was still hard enough, packed down by the passage of vehicles during the day. My head slammed into it, my left-cheek taking the brunt of the impact.

I rolled over and over, dizzy, my left eye already closing as my face swelled. I didn’t realise it at the time, but the blow had actually fractured my cheekbone. Instead I lay there, my senses scrambled, my vision swimming.

I tried to regain my equilibrium, rolling onto my front and slowly lifting myself up onto all fours.

Then I heard him.

‘Oh Christmas tree, oh christmas tree,
How lovely are your branches…’

It was like being doused with a bucket of iced water, my head cleared instantly.

The voice was loud. Clear. Close.

I sprang to my feet and forged forward, desperately glancing around me, terrified that the cleaver-wielding monster would suddenly loom out of the darkness, that sick smile on his face as he sang. I was so frantic that I again misjudged the kerb on the other side of the road, tripping stumbling, yet somehow staying upright, even as my foot struck a patch of ice and sent me spinning like a top.

I turned once, twice, arms windmilling, then finally righted myself. Panting, gasping, I looked around me… then saw the figure stood mere feet away.

I screamed and frantically back-pedalled, my foot again landing on the patch of ice. This time I was not to be so lucky, my heel sliding forward as I fell down onto my behind, sitting heavily in the snow. My teeth clacked together hard, snapping shut on my tongue and filling my mouth with the coppery taste of my own blood.

Helpless, I waved my hands in a weak gesture of defence, hoping to somehow fend off my assailant, knowing even as I did that it was hopeless. I was going to die here.

But instead the figure remained motionless, impassive.

A snow man. The same snowman I had seen Kevin and Sarah building that very afternoon. It stared down at me, that silly wide smile on its face and I almost wept with relief.

Beyond it I saw the warm glow from the windows that had set me on my journey through the snow and, finally, I actually thought that things might be OK. I stood again and dashed towards their door, a piece of coal crunching beneath my boot, causing my ankle to roll slightly, but this time I maintained my balance.

I pitched forward and then the door was there. I braced myself, lowered my shoulder and, with a deafening crash of splintering wood, the door burst inward and I slid into the sanctuary of their bright hallway. Gasping, sweating, bleeding, I turned and slammed the door closed behind me, then stood for a moment, trying to catch my breath.

‘I’m dreaming of a white christmas...’

I span around toward the voice desperately, terrified, a surge of adrenaline flooding through me.

My eyes swept around our neighbours’ homely house, towards the stairs, the kitchen, the living room, expecting to see the Caroller at any moment.

But he wasn’t there, nor was anybody else, the house was still.

‘...and children listen to hear sleighbells in the snow…’

Then I realised, that wasn’t his voice. It was the original recording, Bing Crosby’s voice coming from a speaker somewhere within the house.

I actually laughed, a sudden unexpected noise that seemed to bubble up from my chest and out of my mouth without warning. I didn’t like the way it sounded, high-pitched, shrill, hysterical, yet somehow that made it all the funnier and set me off laughing again.

I laughed until tears ran down my now purple, swollen cheek and I dabbed them away with the blood-soaked scarf wrapped around my throbbing hand.

Finally the laughter (or was it sobbing?) subsided and I coughed to clear my throat.

Then I realised that, other than the voice of good old Bing (‘May your days be merry and bright…’) I hadn’t heard a single other noise... not even a mouse.

I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be so… callous. This is hard.

I can’t forget that night, I can still see what I saw in there, what he did to those people.

It makes me scared and sick and sometimes I find myself imagining what they went through and I don’t know if I’ll ever sleep again.

I drink a lot and I take a lot of pills to make those thoughts go away. Sometimes it works. Sometimes.

I found Kevin on the rug in front of their fire. His face looked terrified - empty, bloody, eyeless sockets gazing towards the family’s lopsided tree, broken baubles on the floor around his mutilated torso. Later I learned they weren’t logs crackling away on the fire. They were his legs.

Horrified, I ran through to the kitchen, praying that I wasn’t too late for Sarah and Olivia, even though I already knew the truth.

I found Sarah there. Her limbs had been bound with tinsel and, as I looked at the smears of blood and the bruises on her naked body, I knew that he hadn’t killed her straight away.

Then, when he’d finished with her, in a spidery, childish scrawl, the Caroller had daubed a message on the wall in her blood.

I sAw MoMMy kIssIng SaNta ClaUs

In tears, I stumbled back to the lounge, heading straight for the phone, weeping as I went.

I picked up the receiver and held it to my ear.

Nothing.

‘Goddamn you!’ I screamed, hurling the phone across the room and at the six-foot fir tree in the corner.

It was only then that I remembered the song I’d heard out in the snow.

‘Oh Christmas tree, oh christmas tree…’

Another message.

Sweating, holding my breath, I took a hesitant step towards the tree, then another… and then I saw why it leant in such an ungainly way. That wasn’t an angel at the top. It almost looked like a doll.

She almost looked like a doll.

I threw up, a spray of vomit erupting between my fingers and splattering down onto the blood-stained rug where my friend and neighbour had spent his last agonised moments of life.

That monster had killed them all, butchered them. They’d died in their home, terrified, and I had been too late, too stupid, too scared to do anything about it.

I sank to the floor, head in my hands and cried. What else could I do? I’d failed them and I’d failed…

Noelle.

In my mind’s eye I saw what the Caroller had done to Sarah. Noelle was alone and he was out there.

I set off at a sprint, throwing the door wide open and plunging out into the billowing snow.

I was reckless, not even thinking about the risks to my own safety. I just needed to get back to her now, now, now.

I was so consumed with that thought that I didn’t see the figure until it was right in front of me.

I skidded to a halt, bellowing in alarm, as the shape loomed out of the snow and shadow.

It was that damned snowman again.

I swore loudly, suddenly consumed with fury, and lifted my foot to kick it over in frustration.

Then I saw the raspberry pink streaks on the snowman’s face, clown-like tears of paint (no, not paint…) tracing down to the corners of its stupid grin. Stepping closer I finally looked at its eyes.

Kevin’s eyes.

I took off, sliding on the same patch of ice that I’d fallen afoul of twice before, tumbling forward but breaking my fall with my good hand and quickly regaining my feet. As I dashed back towards my house, legs pumping and heart pounding, I saw something glinting in the road, a flash of silver in the moonlight.

My knife!

I remember thinking that this was finally a stroke of good fortune on a night that had brought us all nothing but ill. I scooped to snatch it from the snow, then straightened back up and continued towards my house, my fiancée, my life.

I’d taken barely two more steps when he slammed into me, the knife again flying from my grip, my unprepared body hitting the hard-packed snow with a thud. I felt his weight on top of me as I lay face down on the floor and quickly, instinctively I swung an elbow back hard, trying to catch my attacker unawares before the cleaver could fall.

It didn’t work, instead a strong grip fastened around my arm and yanked my arm back hard, causing me to cry out in pain. I struggled, shouting furiously but then I felt something cold and hard snap around my wrist.

‘I said freeze!’ shouted the man on my back as he wrenched my wounded hand behind my back and fastened the other cuff around my wrist.

As he lifted me to my feet I became aware of the flashing blue light.

A police car.

A policeman.

He was young, powerfully built, with short, closely cropped hair and the sort of face that suggested there was no room for argument when it came to his demands.

‘Oh thank god…’ I sighed, sagging with relief.

‘I need your name, sir’ the officer said, glancing about just in case the blood-soaked maniac he’d just apprehended in the street had any accomplices lurking nearby.

I blurted out my name, and told him that I lived just over the road, that we’d been trying to reach the police all night, that there was a lunatic on the loose and…

‘Who’s we?’ he interjected, loosening his grip on my collar.

Something I had said had managed to convince him that I was no threat, and he seemed to visibly relax around me, even if he wasn’t going to take any risks.

‘My fiancée Noelle,’ I replied, as my head whipped back and forth, looking for our home through the heavy snow.

‘OK, sir, we received an emergency call from her, can you tell me which house is yours?’

Upon hearing those words my heart soared. At long last somebody up there in the Heavens had smiled down on us and given us the good fortune for which we’d been so desperate all night. Noelle had finally managed to get through to the authorities. We were safe at last.

‘Yes,’ I replied, turning towards our home. ‘Come on I’m going there now it’s the one with all the lights…’

At first I couldn’t see the lights on our house and I couldn’t understand why. Finally I spotted them, but something was wrong.

There weren’t as many, they seemed to be more sparsely distributed than I remembered, and several of them seem to be piled up in a mound at the bottom of the wall, unceremoniously dumped there. It was as if they had been ripped from the wall… or had fallen away under the weight of something bulky – collapsing as something heavy and powerful had climbed them.

I don’t remember much about what happened next. It seems I broke free from the officer and ran towards the house. I can see flashes, snatches of memory.

The door, already open.
Bloody footprints on the stairs.
The cabinet, pushed aside on the landing.
The dark puddle seeping out from under the bedroom door.
Noelle.

The pieces of Noelle.

Then the policeman was on me, bundling me out of the door, screaming into his radio for assistance, even as he dragged me back down the stairs, out of the door, to his car.

I’ve no idea how long it took for the others to arrive, it could have been hours, it could have been seconds.

I remember crying, unable to answer the paramedic’s questions as he examined my battered, swollen face, my mutilated hand, the terrible gash in my arm. Eventually one of the officers swarming in and out of my home told the ambulance crew that I could be taken to hospital. As they closed the ambulance doors I saw one policeman dash out of my house and puke all over the front path, the liquid steaming in the snow.

Later that night they told me that Noelle was gone. Of course I knew that, I’d seen what he’d done to her, seen the blood splattered up the walls, dripping from the ceiling. When I close my eyes now I still see it. Every single time.

So much blood.

A week later I was released, still sore and taking a cocktail of pain medication to get to sleep each night. Despite the bitterly cold afternoon air, so freezing it caused my bones to ache, I spent at least five minutes stood on the doorstep, unable to move into the house that had once been my home but would now only ever be the place I lost Noelle.

I don’t know exactly how long I’d been stood there when I was interrupted by a tall black man with a weary face, wearing a long coat, who walked up the path behind me and introduced himself as Detective Ryder, the senior investigating officer of the case.

Ashamed of the fear that had kept me outside, I let us both into the house and we went through to the lounge. There Ryder told me that over the remaining few hours before dawn after the ambulance had taken me away on the night the Caroller came calling, the police had conducted a thorough sweep of the street. As well as Kevin, Sarah and Olivia, they found the bodies of the Bridges family in the next house along.

Mr Bridges had been a gruff, surly guy yet his wife and teenage son seemed to always be so happy, as if they’d somehow siphoned off his share of festive goodwill. I don’t know what the Caroller did to them. I suppose I should be thankful for that.

Further down the road Mrs Parsons had been out visiting family that evening and had been unable to get back home in the snow. That trip had saved her life – the cleaver was from her kitchen.

They never found the Caroller.

Ryder told me that the crimes were not unlike some that occurred over the Holiday period last year right across the county. The police were treating both cases as related. The murders last year, like those of the night I lost Noelle, remained unsolved.

That should be the part where my story ends… but it hasn’t yet. I know it hasn’t.

Just three days ago, after the cleaners had finished with the house, I finally mustered up the energy to clear away our christmas decorations. I didn’t want any more reminders of that night. I was done with Christmas, for good.

As I took down the tree I saw a tag on one of the gifts on the floor below. Noelle’s curling handwriting, To My Husband-To-Be, With all my love, N x

The tears came suddenly, without warning, and my body was wracked with sobs so powerful that they brought me to my knees. I crouched there, beneath the tree and wailed and howled, as if the only release from my grief would be to scream it out of me. If only it were that simple.

Finally, the pain subsided and I wiped the tears and snot from my face with the gauze on my still bandaged hand. I was alone. I will always be alone.

Kneeling there, I started to rummage through the presents, sorting them into piles, mine and Noelle’s, stopping occasionally to weep once more as I thought about how Noelle would have reacted to each of the gifts I’d bought her, or to sob as I read more of her thoughtful handwritten tags.

I thought I’d finished when I spotted one last parcel way down at the back of the tree. It was small, shoddily wrapped, and seemed out of place there. The pattern on the paper was unfamiliar and seemed a little strange, odd spots dotted about it in a haphazard manner.

Confused, I reached back and pulled it out. There was no tag on it, so I held it up to take a better look.

That was when I realised that the spots on the paper weren’t some avant garde pattern — it was blood, seeping through from within.

I don’t know why I didn’t just throw it across the room and get straight on the phone to Detective Ryder. I don’t know why I had to open it, had to see what he’d left for me, but I did. I had to look.

With a shaking hand I peeled back the paper to reveal a dirty cardboard box, one that had been taken from our own trash.

On top of it was a note, written in that same childlike scrawl that I’d seen on the wall in Kevin and Sarah’s kitchen. I read it, then slowly unfolded the lid of the box.

I saw grey skin, dark red flesh, white knobs of bone.

He’d made a star for the top of the tree. One he’d fashioned from fingers, bound together with his own thick red hair.

At first I thought he’d just scooped up mine from the snow, but I soon realised there were too many. It was only when I recognised the diamond and pink sapphire engagement ring on one that I realised he’d used some of Noelle’s too.

Detective Ryder arrived quickly, his team took the star and the note, searching it for further clues, running it for DNA and fingerprints, seeking some clue as to the identity of the Caroller. They didn’t see what I saw, didn’t understand his message to me.

Today I bought a gun, and tonight I will sit by my door and wait for him to return, and if he doesn’t show I’ll do it again tomorrow night and the next night. I’ll wait, every night until boxing day because I know that between now and then he’s coming back to finish what he started. To finish me.

I’ll sit, the gun in my hand, waiting to hear that voice one more time, and then either I’ll kill him or he will kill me. I’ll return here and update this story if I survive. But if you don’t hear from me, beware.

Should you hear a deep voice singing out loud and clear one cold Christmas evening, lock your door, switch off your lights, phone for help and pray. It might be enough to save you.

It might be.

I suppose you want to know how I came to realise that he’ll be coming back? What the note said that Ryder and his team have yet to decipher.

It was more lyrics, another message through song.

The line was from a track I’d heard hundreds of times during my relationship with Noelle. One that I’d even joked would be the first dance at our wedding.

It was a line from I’ll Be Home For Christmas.

The note simply read: YoU cAN coUnT oN mE.