It’s not easy being a nurse. Particularly when your work never ends. My days consisted of doing the rounds for Stanwyck Hospice by day. And tending to my father by night.
My dad lived with me, and as much as I loved him… well, he could be a real pain in the ass. Don’t get me wrong, I was a dearly devoted daughter. I always had been. A real daddy’s girl if you will. But at seventy-eight years old, my father had become overbearing. Not just from having to care for him. But his Alzheimer’s had made him difficult to interact with at times. He could be belligerent. Or get out-of-line. You know, like a kid.
I know what you’re thinking. And trust me, I’d heard it before. Put him in a nursing home, Janet. There’s no shame in that! But I couldn’t do it. This was my father we’re talking about. Not the family dog. I still loved him, and no one could take better care of him than his own damn daughter.
Five years earlier, my mother passed away. She was the same age as my dad, but unlike him, wasn’t lucky enough to avoid terminal cancer. Her death devastated me. And honestly, I’m surprised it didn’t devastate dad to the point where it killed him. But I knew it hurt him far more than it had even ravaged me. He wasn’t the same afterward. His Alzheimer’s only got worse from there. He remembered me, sure. But he couldn’t recall much else from the recent past. To him, I was still thirty. Not thirty-eight. Hell, sometimes he’d still ask me about my ex-husband Max. Talking about awkward.
The stress of caring for him only grew from there. Particularly around Christmas. You see, three years ago, my younger brother’s dark secrets were unearthed before us.
Me and Tod were close growing up. But over the years, our relationship became more strained as he became more troubled. With mom’s death and dad’s declining health, I couldn’t deal with the stress. I couldn’t take care of Tod and dad. Tod had dropped out of school so many times and was constantly broke. He had an okay office job, but the guy couldn’t save money for shit. I mean yeah, I’d help him make ends meet when I could. But I still had to take care of dad. I didn’t have time for another patient. Dad was my life. And when I cut my hours at hospice, he became my full-time job. Besides, I had no idea how deeply disturbed Tod was. I could’ve never known he was a serial killer.
Bloody Rudolph. That’s what the press dubbed him. Tod had been killing countless people across the state over the past few years. But he earned his nickname the night he came home. The Christmas Eve he arrived at my front doorstep. I was up
with dad when Tod demanded I let him in from the freezing cold. It was dark out, and I could barely even tell it was him except for his glowing reflection from the Christmas lights. I was hesitant at first. Tod was so loud and boisterous. Maybe he was drunk or high, I couldn’t tell. But dad wanted to see him. He was persistent. Dad hadn’t seen him in months, and he just wanted to see his son for the holidays.
I opened the door and let the monster inside. Tod revealed a long hatchet in his gloved hand. His nose was painted red. I couldn’t tell if it was a joke, but when he started swinging the blade, I knew he’d lost it. He was gonna kill us. I remembered the room spinning as I dodged the many thrusts of the blood-stained hatchet. During the horror, I realized that that wasn’t red paint on his nose. It was fucking blood.
Dad was frozen in fear. Like the sheer sight of his son trying to hack up the family had put sent daddy into a catatonic state.
And as he attacked me, Tod kept singing Christmas songs at the top of his lungs. His voice was piercing and raspy. Like a chorus of the living dead. The fucker knew my favorites too. John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” Burl Ives’s “Holly Jolly Christmas.” Tod’s voice wasn’t good enough for them to sound like soothing holiday classics. They came off like threats spoken by an obsessed lunatic.
I stumbled over Christmas presents, dodging each and every one of those wild swings. I could see blood flying off the hatchet. The drops got everywhere. They gave all those wrapped Christmas presents a vivid red tint.
“Merry Christmas, Janet!” Tod shouted with unbridled aggression.
Jesus, he was fucking nuts! When I fell back against a shelf, I grabbed the first thing I could find. A huge Coca-Cola Polar Bear snow globe.
Once Tod went in for a kill shot, I pushed myself away from the shelf.
He went crashing into it like a slapstick goof. And then I managed to hit him upside the head with the snow globe, smashing it into a million pieces.
Tod hit the wet ground. Fake snow and blood swirled all around him. I had subdued my kid brother. I’d outwitted him.
Once me and dad called 911, the police came quickly. Bloody Rudolph had been caught. It turned out my brother had killed his girlfriend and their kids just an hour before he came here to spread holiday cheer. I didn’t even know he had a girlfriend. Much less children. Or the fact that he’d killed over fifteen people in the last five years. Ever since mama died. I guess we really had grown apart.
That was three years ago. I took medicine for the nerves. For the trauma. I drank heavier. I did everything I could to block my mind from the horror. Even with Tod being locked in a padded cell out in Chattahoochee, I still didn’t feel safe. And I never went to see him either.
However, I did feel guilt. Maybe I could’ve done more for Tod than feed him useless rent money like an indifferent lost friend. Instead, I could’ve comforted him like the supportive sister I used to be. I could’ve shown him more love and welcomed him back home. But I didn’t. And he became what he became. Bloody Rudolph. Nothing more than a fixture for all those holiday crime shows.
Needless to say, Christmas got tougher each year. If I had my way, I’d have just ignored the holiday altogether. But it wasn’t just me in that house. There was dad. About the only great thing about Alzheimer’s is that you only remember the past through nostalgia-tinted glasses. You don’t remember the bad memories. And you don’t remember the recent past either. Dad had completely forgotten about Tod’s reign of terror. He’d forgotten how Tod had tried to kill us right there by the Christmas tree.
Thankfully, by the time, Christmas Day had arrived, dad had forgotten all his delusions about Tod joining us for Christmas. Over the past few weeks, he’d helped me hang decorations like always. He’d helped me put up the snow globes. The Christmas posters. And the stockings, of course. We even got a real tree this year. And there were so many ornaments. Every year, I’d wonder how dad could help me hang up all those damn ornaments. But he always had it in him. He’d always hang the ornaments with our old pictures inside them. Our family photos. The pictures of me and Tod as children.
We’d line up all of mom’s old figurines in our front yard. The big, smiling snowman was her favorite and mine as well. Overall, the scene was set for a wonderful Gausman family Christmas. And to top it all off, snow had arrived in Stanwyck, Georgia for the first time in over a decade. It truly was a Christmas Eve miracle.
With the snow aiding the atmosphere, we had a great Christmas Eve. TCM’s holiday movie marathon played in the living room. And the kitchen radio played the local Christmas station. We baked cookies together. I roasted a turkey. We opened one gift each for our Christmas Eve ritual. And then it was time for our late night showcase: It’s A Wonderful Life.
We’d watch the classic upstairs in dad’s bedroom. He’d lie in bed, and I’d sit in a chair right beside him. I was wearing an extra-cozy bathrobe, the latest gift he’d gotten me. From my spot, I’d also gotten a great view of both the T.V. screen and the large windows showcasing the pristine snow outside.
The movie was two hours of bliss. We’ve watched this every year since I was a little girl. And yet to this day, the bittersweet ending still made me cry.
As midnight arrived, dad and I conversed for awhile while Christmas music played on the T.V. Our father daughter time.
“I can never get tired of Clarence,” dad said, talking about his favorite character from the holiday classic. “He’s funny as Hell.”
“I know,” I’d responded. “It’s such a great movie.”
“Maybe tomorrow we can watch A Christmas Carol.”
“Yeah, for sure, dad.” I got up, ready to head downstairs and let daddy get some rest.
I felt his cold hand grab my arm. “Janet.”
I faced him. “Yeah, dad.”
“Is he gonna be here tomorrow?” dad asked me, his voice full of as much hope as a kid asking for Santa Claus.
I flashed a smile. “We’ll see.” I got ready to leave the room when dad squeezed my arm harder. Not a tight squeeze. It was still a gentle touch.
“You said he would,” dad said to me.
“I hope so,” I told him.
Dad gave me a smile. “We need Tod here. Just like he used to.”
“Maybe he’ll come,” I’d responded. With tat, I gave dad a kiss on the forehead. “I’ll call him tomorrow,” I told him.
Then, I got ready to leave the room.
“Sweetie, don’t go,” dad pleaded.
Dad’s soft voice held me hostage. I couldn’t leave him now, I thought. It was Christmas Eve after all. Why should I be in a rush?
I faced dad with a sly smile. “A Christmas Carol?” I asked him.
“You got it,” he responded.
So that night we watched another holiday classic. 1951’s A Christmas Carol. The essential version according to dad. I didn’t mind. It was a great movie after all. And another one of our traditions. We were spending time together anyway.
And just like I figured, I heard daddy’s soft snoring about halfway through the movie. Right before the Ghost Of Christmas Present appeared.
Grinning, I pulled the blankets up tighter over my father. He was sleeping well for the night.
As discreet as possible, I changed the T.V. back to the soothing Christmas music. Back to the pre-70s standards. You know like Sinatra, Bing, and Brenda Lee. Nothing that’d wake daddy from his gentle slumber.
I stole a glance out the window. This Christmas was gorgeous. It’d been awhile since we’d had a white Christmas in Georgia.
I left the room, and as gently as I could, I shut the bedroom door behind me. Then I went downstairs.
In the quiet living room, I looked around at all the presents. The decorations. The ornaments. Our family photos. Sure, Christmas wasn’t the same without mom or Tod. But we were still having fun. It was me and dad against the world.
I yawned, but wasn’t really tired. I supposed having some peace and quiet downstairs wasn’t the worst thing in the world. I loved the serenity after all. Especially with all the snow contributing to this holiday atmosphere.
In the kitchen, I made myself a cup of hot chocolate. I turned on the radio to hear some holiday tunes. Holly Jolly Christmas cut on immediately. Much to my delight.
Humming to the beat, I sat down at the table. I took a sip of
that comforting hot chocolate. Yeah, these Christmases weren’t too bad after all. They were quiet. But at least they weren’t lonely. Not as long as I had daddy with me.
I sat there in the room for a few minutes. Alone with my Christmas jams and hot chocolate. I placed my empty snowman mug on the table when this shrill beep interrupted Stevie Wonder’s “Someday At Christmas.”
Caught off-guard, I cringed. The beep blared through the room and my skull. What a way to break the silent night, I thought.
Then a frantic reporter burst through the airwaves. Their voice was full of panic and fear. All of a sudden, Christmas Eve felt like Halloween. It felt like Orson Welles’s War Of The Worlds.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the reporter cried. “I’m afraid we have some disturbing breaking news! Convicted killer Tod Gausman has just escaped the Chattahoochee Mental Hospital. Gausman is better known as Bloody Rudolph and is believed to have escaped during a power outage.”
The news sliced through me like a knife. All of tonight’s Christmas cheer came hurtling down with this horrifying holiday surprise. My little brother was on the loose.
“Repeat,” the reporter went on. “Tod Gausman has just escaped the Chattahoochee Mental Hospital. It’s believed he’s very armed and dangerous and was last seen in a white van heading down Highway 77.” The reporter’s voice trembled. “I’m sorry to say it on this holy night, but please, lock your doors and windows. Don’t answer the door for anyone and don’t go outside! Repeat, this is a local emergency.”
Even in my state of petrified fear, I knew the report may as well have been written for me. Tod wasn’t going anywhere else. He was heading home for the holidays.
The reporter went on. “Please lock your doors and-”
The power went out without warning. Silence conquered the room. No more Christmas music. No heat. No Christmas lights. No nothing. Just me in the dark with my empty mug. I wanted to believe it was just a Christmas coincidence, but there’s no point in deluding myself. I freaked the fuck out.
Acting on primal instinct, I stood up and grabbed a long knife. My eyes scurried throughout the darkness, but I saw nothing. I heard nothing. Had Tod cut the power? Had he
gotten here this fast? Chattahoochee was forty miles away! The fucker must’ve came here on Santa’s sleigh!
Nervous, I raised my cell phone. Before I could call the police, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” startled me. I’d never been so scared to hear my ringtone. Uneasy, I silenced Bing. And then I saw it. A voice message notification. From an unsaved number.
I should’ve called the police right then and there. But I didn’t. I played the mysterious Christmas message.
A soft singing greeted me. “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” Even after three years, Tod’s voice hadn’t changed a bit. Especially his singing. He never had talent. Not in the traditional sense anyway. But his voice was sincere and haunting. Like a madman whispering a prayer. In this case, Tod was whispering a Christmas anthem just for me. I’d call it a serenade… but it was too menacing. It was just a sly threat.
Before Tod could get to the chorus, the voice message cut off. And I was back in kitchen. Back in the unnerving silence. All I could do was stare at my phone, unsettled.
I looked on at my home screen’s background. A picture of me and dad standing in the snow earlier. I thought at the time, the snow was just a welcome addition to this year’s Christmas. Now I realized it was the catalyst to my current imprisonment. I couldn’t even drive in this weather. I couldn’t escape.
Conflicted on what to do, I looked toward the living room. The Christmas tree stared back at me like a hulking monster. I could make out our old family photos in those ornaments. The pictures of me and Tod as kids. Back when we were close. Back when the whole family was together.
In my mind, all I could hear were Tod’s eerie vocals. That unnerving whisper. He could make even the jolliest Christmas song sound like a funeral hymn. He sang from hatred, not from the heart.
“White Christmas” shattered through the silence once more. I jumped back in fear. “Jesus,” I muttered out of frustration and fright. I muted my ringtone and saw a text message from that same unsaved number. A picture message.
I opened it. And there on my screen was Mom’s snowman figurine smiling right at me. Its narrow eyes piercing into my soul. The picture was taken right there in my dark yard. I
could see my house lurking behind Mr. Frosty. Then to my horror, I realized the Christmas lights were all out. The lights were out inside my home. The picture had just been taken.
“Fuck!” I yelled. Terrified, I gripped the knife handle tighter as a shiver ran up my spine. The house was getting fucking cold.
A new text message from Tod appeared: Merry Christmas, Sis.
I looked through the kitchen windows, but saw nothing out there. Just white snow in the staunch darkness.
I looked back at my phone and contemplated responding to him. For the first time in three years, I could talk to my brother.
Before I could make a decision, another text message popped up on my screen: We’ll be together like we used to, Janet. All three of us.
I knew Tod was crazy. I know he’s dangerous. But I was still struck by his message. All this time, he’d been thinking of us. Me and dad.
I closed my eyes. I tried to suppress my tears but couldn’t. The last few years, I knew I had left Tod behind. And now he was back home. Back where he should’ve been all along.
Charged up on heightened emotions, I called the unsaved number. I listened to it ring and waited with anticipation for that familiar, unsettling voice to answer. Even in this freezing house, I could feel sweat slide down my fingertips.
And then through the silence, I heard Bing Crosby. “White Christmas.” The haunting chorus drifted toward my ears.
Uneasy, I followed Bing’s croon to the living room. All the while, the call kept ringing and ringing. I traced “White Christmas” to my front door. Bing was at his loudest right behind it.
I lowered my phone in stunned horror. Tod’s ring tone had been set to “White Christmas” as well.
Through the tears, I hung up the phone. And just like that, Bing’s voice ended as if someone had pulled the curtains on the Holiday Inn stage.
I waited there in silence. I waited for a knock. Tod’s
singing. A text. Anything. Instead, all I got was cold silence.
Right before I lifted my phone to call Tod again, I saw a man stagger by my window. A man dressed in all white except for a large overcoat. I knew it had to be Tod. His hospital garbs practically helped him blend in with the snow. He was like a slender snowman. A white blur. And he was still pretty quick.
Shit, I thought. I turned on my phone’s flashlight and shined it toward the window.
Letters were drawn on the window in crude fashion. Red letters. Tod had left me a message: I’ll Be Home 4 Xmas
I shuddered at the creepy message. It didn’t seem like so much a threat as a promise. I just hoped Tod hadn’t scribbled it in blood.
Panicking, I double checked the front door. To my relief, it was locked. Thank God, I’d done something right… Now to do something real logical, Janet. Call the Goddamn police!
I raised my phone, and as if on cue, Bing Crosby hit my ears. At least this time I hadn’t jumped back in fright or screamed at the top of my lungs. I was prepared. And I answered the incoming call.
“Hello,” I mustered out. A few tense seconds passed.
“Merry Christmas,” Tod’s harsh whisper emerged from the other end.
Regardless of how prepared I was to hear his voice, I froze. He wasn’t singing, but his voice was still deep and guttural. Goddamn, it sounded raspier than ever. More malevolent. But I persevered.
“Tod,” I finally said.
“I made it home, sis,” he said. “Now we can celebrate Christmas. Me. You. And dad.”
His voice was like a vicious taunt. But bitterness not confidence fueled his tone. I could tell Tod had only gotten angrier over the years… and I guess I couldn’t blame him.
“We can celebrate like always,” Tod went on. His harsh whisper began to explode into an outburst. “Like you promised we always would, Janet! Just like you told dad we would!”
“I’m sorry, Tod,” I struggled to say. “I’m sorry!”
“Sorry doesn’t make up for it!” he yelled, his voice still low and raspy.
I staggered back toward the tree. “Tod. I’m sorry…”
“I know you told him we’d get together for the holidays! You fucking lied to him!”
“I didn’t mean to, Tod,” I pleaded. I turned and saw all the photos lined up like tombstones on the Christmas tree. I guess they may as well have been a graveyard. Memorials for our better memories. The glorious Christmases of old. When we were young and innocent. When we were close. When we were a family.
“I was never good enough for you!” Tod said, his voice cracking with raw emotion. The kind of vulnerability I didn’t know he still had.
My eyes stayed glued to our old photos. I couldn’t turn away from them… or the memories they elicited.
“I just wanted to come home, Janet!” Tod hurled at me. “That’s all I fucking wanted!”
Tears slid down my face. I couldn’t hold back the waterfall. Guilt swept over me amidst all the horror. I knew Tod was right. I had kept us apart. Whether I was responsible for his violence, I’ll never know. But I certainly hadn’t helped. I’d pushed Tod away when he needed me most. When he needed us most.
“You couldn’t even let me over for Christmas!” Tod yelled. He started whimpering. I didn’t know if it was from weeping or just from him breaking down into a landslide of wounded emotions. It should’ve sounded pathetic on an adult. But it didn’t. Not when the adult was my kid brother.
More guilt overwhelmed me. I brushed away my tears, but they just kept falling like an assembly line. I saw a picture of me and him smiling under a Christmas tree. We held big cookies in our hands. There were huge presents all around us. The whole world was ahead of us back in that winter of 1990. What a beautiful Christmas it was…
“Tod,” I began through the tears. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Tod. I was wrong. I should have been there for you. I should have done more! I shouldn’t have left you!”
I said more than I thought I was capable of in this state. Judging by the silence and heavy breathing on the other end, I don’t think Tod expected it either.
“But I can’t do anything anymore,” I told him. “I feel terrible, but there’s nothing I can do now, Tod. There’s nothing dad can do. Things will never be like it was. It’s all in the past. Those Christmases are over.”
I heard him release a painful cry. A cry of anguish.
“Tod, please!” I continued. “I love you. I always will. Dad will always love you. We’ll do what we can, but you can’t go on like this. You can’t stay here! You need help!” I did my best to keep my tone firm and strong yet still sympathetic. He needed to hear the truth. Bloody Rudolph shouldn’t be here anymore. At this point, Tod needed the kind of help I could never give him.
“We’ll visit you, Tod,” I reassured him. “I promise.”
“That’s what you always say!” he yelled in that guttural, unpleasant tone. His anger had returned.
“But I mean it–” I started.
“Merry Christmas, sis,” he interrupted.
And with that, Tod hung up. A hollow dial tone blared at me. I lowered the phone, morose. Our reunion was brief. But what else could I have done?
I stared at that same Christmas photo of me and Tod as children. I knew we could never go back to that. Even if I had been more welcoming to him over the years, what would it have changed? Would Tod really have not evolved into the monster he’d become? Would those few December days where siblings and relatives gather around and pretend to be inseparable really had moved Tod off the path to becoming a serial killer?
My thoughts were shattered by Bing Crosby. The Goddamn ring tone had scared me again! There was a voice message from Tod’s number. I mashed play.
He’d left me another performance. “Holly Jolly Christmas.” This one wasn’t done in his Bloody Rudolph voice. The harsh raspy whisper was gone. Instead, Tod had put some emotion into this performance. Human emotion. He was trying to sound good even if that was impossible. And yet, his version was charming. Reminiscent of the singing we did together when we
were kids. Back when we rode in the backseat of dad’s car on those cold nights looking at Christmas lights. Back to simpler times. Back to the Gausman family’s glory days.
I got to admit the singing got to me. I teared up. I even felt a weak smile cross my face. Tod was no Burl Ives, but I had to respect him for trying. Maybe it would be the last Christmas present I ever got from him.
The message faded away, and I stood there in silence. Still in tears. Still with that smile.
Off in the distance, I thought I heard a car engine start. The white van, I realized. Like Santa, Tod was about to ride off into the cold December night. And like Santa, his appearance had been quick but memorable.
I started to make my way toward a window. Amidst the silence, I thought I heard more car-like noises. Even a loud clang. I figured one last glance at Tod as he made his getaway wouldn’t be a bad thing. A little closure never hurt anyone.
Flying out of nowhere, a large object shattered through the window. I jolted back. My foot banged into one of the presents and I fell straight on my ass. I saw the knife slip from my grasp before sliding under the tree. Now the blade looked like yet another gift from Santa Claus.
My eyes shot back to whatever the Hell had flown through the window. I recognized the narrow eyes staring back at me. The permanent smile. Mr. Frosty was lying just a few feet away from me.
“What the Hell!” I shouted. I heard faint thumps up above. Slow, lumbering thumps.
Nervous, I jumped on my feet and ran up to the busted window.
I used my cell phone for light to see through the darkness. I saw no one out there aside from all the holiday figurines. Their tall, cryptic shadows. And then I looked toward the snow. Deep footprints formed a trail away from the window.
More chills ran through me. I pulled my bathrobe in tighter to keep warm. All the while, my vision stayed honed on those footprints. I followed them as far as I could. And then saw they came to a stop about twenty feet away. Right where a wooden ladder had been placed up against my house.
Holy fuck, that was the clang! And those weren’t a reindeer’s hooves on the roof either…
“Janet!” an excited voice hollered from the staircase.
I whirled around. And then terrified shock set in. I wanted to scream but couldn’t. The cold weather and outright fear froze me in place. Chills coursed through my body.
At the bottom of the stairs stood my beaming father. A huge smile was on his face that was bigger than Mr. Frosty’s. Like a giddy kid, he held the hand of his idol. Not the hand of Saint Nicholas. My brother Tod.
A splash of red blood covered Tod’s nose. I saw he held a blood-stained hatchet. His “present.”
“He came right to my window!” Dad told me. “Our little Tod’s home!”
A cryptic smile formed on Tod’s face, the smile marking me like the hatchet’s vicious blade.
“It’s a Christmas miracle!” Dad shouted.
And he was right. We were all together again. One final family Christmas.