By Christine Lajewski
“Emma gets Christmas stockings,” Charlie told his mother at dinner the last night in November..
“We never had Christmas stockings. Why don’t we get Christmas stockings?” said Callie, his sister.
Celeste, ambushed by her six-year-old twins but hesitant to expand the orgy of commercial Christmas, replied, “We never did Christmas stockings in my family. We’re Polish. People in Poland don’t do Christmas stockings.”
“It’s a French custom, isn’t it?” said Joseph, their father.
The twins shifted accusing stares from parent to parent.
“We open our gifts on Christmas Eve,” said Joseph. “How many of your friends get to do that? They have to wait for Christmas morning.”
Callie and Charlie were too young to formulate arguments fortified with adolescent logic and legal precedent but they knew how to pout.
“Finish your dinner,” said Celeste. The twins pouted some more and Callie’s lower lip trembled for added emphasis. Celeste sighed, “Don’t make me call 1-800-TATTLES.” It was a hot line to the North Pole she had created to keep her children in line during the holidays. She picked up her phone. This motion alone usually worked but this time the threat did not have the desired effect. It gave the pair another line of attack.
“Santa fills the stockings. He doesn’t care if we’re Polish,” they shouted simultaneously.
Celeste began tapping in the numbers. Callie and Charlie retreated from the battlefield.
When Celeste met their school bus two days later, the twins greeted their mother with a new accusation: “Why don’t we have an Advent Calendar?”
“Stevie has one. He opened this little door last night and there was chocolate,” said Charlie.
“Emma has one, too, and Liam and Sasha,” Callie added.
Celeste promised to see if she could find one at the store but by December 3rd she still hadn’t gotten around to it. Later that evening, she found Joseph checking the sofa cushions for his phone.
“Maybe it’s in the study,” said Celeste. As she passed Callie’s bedroom, she spied the twins hunched over the screen, whispering an urgent message to someone.
“What are you two doing with Daddy’s phone?” she asked.
“We had to call someone,” said Callie.
“1-800-TATTLES,” said Charlie.
“Are you telling Santa on me?” Celeste suppressed a smile.
The twins nodded.
“Is this about the Advent Calendar?”
“And the Christmas stockings,” said Callie.
“Well, maybe you can ask Santa to bring you a better mommy. Let’s remember to ask next time you want to call someone.” She took the phone back to her husband. They shared a quiet laugh over the incident.
The following afternoon, Joe brought in the mail, which included a package for the twins. It had no postage or return address. The parents inspected and opened the padded brown envelope to find two Advent Calendars.
They were both the thickness of a book and made of intricately carved and painted wood, reminiscent of ornaments Celeste remembered from her Babcia’s Christmas tree. There were twisted vines and flowers running up the sides, hens and roosters on the roof and smiling foxes with intelligent gazes seated on the ground. Mischievous imps peeked out of the curtains of greenery. An angel with a flaming sword hovered above each child’s name over the front door, which was meant to be opened on Christmas Eve. The other twenty-three doors were cleverly camouflaged as windows, flowers, birds or faces.
Parents and children stood silent before the wonder of these creations. Then Charlie and Callie clamored to open the doors. “How many? How many? How many?” they chorused.
“Its December fourth, so look for numbers one through four,” said their father.
The twins located the tiny brass nails that functioned as door knobs and opened the first gate. Charlie removed a rusted iron nail. Cassie found a splinter of wood.
The next three boxes revealed two lumps of putty that looked like chewed gum, nondescript balls of fur, a small piece of dried meat and a fingernail.
“Oh, my God! Who would send this to a child?” Celeste cried. Joe quickly scooped the trash into his hand and dropped it into a plastic bag. Callie and Charlie looked at the Christmas detritus with puzzled expressions, then at each other and said nothing. They did not seem to share their parents’ revulsion.
“I think we should call the police,” said Celeste. “Some freak is watching our kids and sending them sick gifts. Who knows what they’ll find next?”
The twins shrieked in protest as their father opened the fifth door, then the sixth and the seventh. They were empty. The children wept and glared at their father with black fury. “You ruined it!” they cried.
“This isn’t an Advent Calendar. This is junk,” said Joe.
“Get your coats,” said Celeste. “We’ll go to the country store and you can pick out your own calendars. Real ones, with chocolate.” She hustled her children into the car while Joe tied the wooden abominations and their surprises into a trash bag and dumped them.
The twins ate four days’ worth of chocolate from their new calendars and seemed mollified when they went to bed that night. “Should we report this to the police?” Celeste asked her husband when she knew the children were asleep.
“I don’t want to end up on the news and have this thing blow up on us,” said Joe. “It’s a sick joke and I’m afraid other weirdos could copy it and try to go one better.” They decided in the end to be vigilant but keep the incident to themselves.
Two days later, Joe went out to move the trash barrels to the street for collection and found one of them upended, the plastic bags spilled out on the driveway. Two of them had been torn open, their contents scattered. He cleaned it up, swearing under his breath and muttering, “Damn coyotes.” He finished and was about to go inside when he realized one bag—the one that suggested flat squares and rigid walls—was missing. It insinuated that someone had gone through the trash, specifically looking for the confiscated Advent Calendars.
He told Celeste about this curious development. “Do you think it means anything?” Joe asked but his wife didn’t answer. She was watching the twins watch their parents from the kitchen doorway.
Once Charlie and Callie were on their way to school and Joe off to work, Celeste began turning the house upside down, searching for her phone. She worked from home and her smart phone was an indispensable tool. She finally heard it ringing and found it tucked between the mattress and box spring of Callie’s bed. She finished her conference call with her client, then scrolled through the list of sent calls.
There were three calls placed to 1-800-TATTLES the previous night, well after her children should have gone to sleep. There were also two calls from the same number. In a panic, Celeste redialed. The phone rang and rang. No one answered. She was not kicked over to a voice mail box.
Celeste did enough work to demonstrate she was not blowing off her day, then took a long break to search the twins’ bedrooms. Behind Charlie’s bookcase, she found the Advent Calendars. All the doors that Joe had torn open were expertly repaired. She opened doors for random dates on each calendar but again found nothing within.
She knew she would never be able to quiet the buzzing in her head unless she continued the hunt. She remembered a pink and purple sealed box made of Legos that sat on Callie’s dresser. It seemed no more than a smaller piece intended for a larger structure but when she picked it up and shook it, it rattled. Celeste broke the box apart and found the plastic bag with the bits of trash Joseph had thrown away. There were six new items: two human molars, two incisors and two canines.
Celeste was frightened, not only by the interference of some mysterious stranger but by the secretive behavior of her own children. She paced about the house, talking to herself. “I don’t want a big scene with them. I don’t want a confrontation. What if they get angry? What if everything gets worse?” She halted mid-step as she realized she had never before worried about provoking the twins’ displeasure.
“Makes no sense, makes no sense,” she repeated as she gathered the calendars and the grotesque playthings and carried them out to the fire pit. The teeth were buried under the compost bin. Everything else was burned. She would say nothing to her twins and hope all of it just went away.
Charlie and Callie came home and played a while before dinner. Celeste had worked hard to put their rooms back together. If the twins discovered anything out of place, they made no mention of it. What could they say? If they brought up the subject, they would have to admit they had retrieved and hidden something their parents did not want them to have. That did not, however, prevent them from fixing their fuming gazes on their parents throughout dinner. Celeste pretended not to notice.
“Is something wrong?” asked Joe. Mother and children shook their heads and focused on their plates until the twins asked to be excused.
As soon as the Charlie and Callie were out of the room, Celeste leaned in towards her husband and whispered to him the events of her day. “You said there were two incoming calls from that stupid number you made up?” Joe said. Alarmed, he pulled out his phone but found no new suspicious calls. Then he dialed the number, listened for a few seconds and said, “What the hell. It’s a real number. Someone said, ‘complaints’ and hung up.”
They both decided they would keep their phones close at hand. Celeste went so far as to tuck hers under her pillow when she went to bed that night.
As she slept, she felt the device vibrate through her pillow. “Who’s calling?” she muttered into the pillowcase. “I’m trying to sleep.”
A muffled voice in a deep, rasping whisper, said, “I’m returning your call. You had a complaint?”
“I don’t have any complaints.”
“We don’t like prank calls. We take our business seriously. Why did you call us?” The voice was just a little darker, a bit more guttural.
Outlines of the bedroom furniture emerged from the blackness and Celeste began to suspect she was not dreaming. “I didn’t call you,” she said. “Who is this?”
Celeste bolted out of bed, fully awake. She felt under her pillow. The phone was gone. When she stepped out into the hall, she saw the glow of a nightlight under Callie’s door and heard the sing-song lilt of children’s voices. “We don’t know where to keep it,” she heard Charlie say.
She threw open the door to find her twins hunched over her phone. “What are you doing?” Celeste demanded.
“Getting instructions,” said Callie. She hid the phone behind her back.
Celeste wrestled the phone away from her daughter, whose cries brought her father running. “What is going on?” Joe shouted.
Celeste showed him the phone. A growl issued from the device.
“He was talking to us,” said Charlie. “He doesn’t like being interrupted.”
“Who doesn’t?” Joe demanded. He put the phone to his ear and shouted, “Who the hell is this and why are you calling my children?”
“I take complaints,” said the voice. “Did you have a complaint?”
Joe pulled the phone away from his head. A cacophony of animals sounds, tinny and distant but just loud enough, filled the room. It was a long, reverberating chord of squealing pigs, braying donkeys and bellowing bulls.
Joe and Celeste exchanged looks of horror but the twins registered no reaction. “You interrupted us,” said Charlie.
Callie held out her hand and said, “We need to finish our instructions.”
“No, you don’t,” said Joe, handing the silenced phone back to Celeste. Without a word between them, the parents tore apart the children’s rooms again. Enraged, the twins keened with one piercing wail after another as the parents found the Advent Calendars and the bags of horrid holiday favors.
The children had opened one more door, which had yielded two slivers of bone, but the bags contained twice the material Celeste had destroyed that afternoon. Joe brought his foot down on each of the wooden calendars, splintering them to bits. Then the adults collected every last shaving and dumped all of it in the fire pit. Joe doused the pile with gasoline and lit it up. Both mother and father had to restrain their screaming children to keep them from trying to snatch pieces from the flames.
“They’ll wake the neighbors,” Joe said. “Someone will call the police.” Almost as soon as he spoke, the children settled into a chorus of dismal whimpers and sniffles. The parents tucked the twins back into their beds. They were soon asleep but the adults could not relax.
“I’ll keep the children home today,” said Celeste over coffee she had allowed to grow cold. “I want to see everything they do.”
Joe nodded. “As soon as the ashes are cool, I’ll shovel everything in the ash carrier and dump it in the pond behind the house. I don’t want them finding those teeth.”
The twins slept late. When they woke, the first snow of the season was falling and they begged to go outside and play in it. She dressed them in their winter gear and set up her laptop on the dining room table where she could work but keep a good, panoramic view of the deck, back yard and fire pit. Charlie and Callie made snow angels and played on the swings and slides. When they disappeared into their play house, Celeste made an excuse to go outside. They seemed engaged in a perfectly innocent argument about their favorite movies. Celeste went back to work and was soon so absorbed she forgot to check on her children.
The wind picked up and slapped big wet snowflakes against the windows. It was time to bring the twins indoors but when Celeste stood on the deck it seemed her children had disappeared. She called their names a half-dozen times before the door to the shed swung open. Charlie and Callie peeked around the door frame.
“You need to come in and warm up,” Celeste called. “I’ll make some hot chocolate for you.”
The children happily complied. Their mother said, “We keep a lot of tools in the shed. You know we don’t like you to play there without Daddy or me. What were you doing in there?”
“We’re sorry, Mommy,” said Callie, somewhat too cheerfully. “We were pretending a blizzard came and we had to hide in a spooky house.”
As they drank their cocoa, the twins were animated and excited, as if the chaos of last night had never happened. For the rest of the afternoon, they colored Santa pictures and built a blanket fort in the living room. They engaged in a good deal of make-believe, then their voices dropped to conspiratorial whispers. Celeste moved her chair so she could eavesdrop but could only pick out two sentences.
“She’ll never find it,” said Charlie.
“It’s just like Build-a-Bear,” said Callie.
Something’s in the shed, Celeste thought. When Joe got home, she shared her suspicions. They waited for the twins to go to sleep then took flashlights to the structure to investigate.
All the tools hung neatly from the peg board rack against one wall. The plank shelves resting on milk crates and cinder blocks appeared largely undisturbed. A shoe box with packets of left over seed appeared to have been gnawed by a mouse, who’d left a sizeable puff of nesting material wedged in the corner of a milk crate.
“Oh, here we go,” said Joe as he trained his flashlight on an upended crate of kindling. Most of its contents were sorted into piles: flats of plywood stacked in a tower, sticks and small limbs laid out by length, like the keys on a toy xylophone. Propped against the crate were two small figures, fashioned from kindling and wire. Joe held up one as he handed the other to his wife.
They were y-shaped twigs turned upside-down to represent legs with a cross stick wired in place where the arms would go. Jagged squares were awkwardly wrapped with wire and stuck on the necks to represent heads. Dried leaves had been threaded over the arms and legs to resemble a dress on one figure, pants and a shirt on the other.
“A boy and a girl?” Celeste suggested.
“Or you and me,” said Joe. “Are they toys, presents for us or voodoo dolls?”
“Nice, Joe, real nice.”
They left the wood where it was and returned the figures to their places next to the crate.
Over the next week, mother and father maintained a careful watch over their children as they prattled happily at the dinner table about the approaching holidays and consumed the chocolates from the store-bought Advent Calendars. But there were dozens of moments, briefly seen from the corner of the eye, when Joe or Celeste caught a dark, threatening glower, or overheard unsettling snatches of whispered conversations:
“How does skin fit over bones?”
“His teeth came out—again.”
“We need more instructions.”
“They always seemed so happy, so affectionate,” Celeste confided to her husband during their night out that weekend. “Now, there’s times when I just feel, I don’t know, nervous when they’re around.”
“Ever since they called that number they haven’t been the same,” said Joe. He had placed several more calls to 1-800-TATTLES but no one ever answered. It was as if someone was using caller ID to ignore him. He added, “I still don’t get it. You made up the damned number, so who’s talking to them? Maybe a hacker pervert?”
They decided that Joe would ask the police the next day if they could track the number. By the following evening, however, the parents realized a police investigation might not help. As she passed Charlie’s closed door with a basket of clean laundry, she heard the twins’ voices rising and falling in great excitement. She placed her ear against the door and could hear an animated, three-way conversation. She knew her phone was in her pocket and Joe was talking to his sister. With a bundle of folded clothes in her arms, she eased the door open. She could not see the children anywhere.
“We glued on the skin and hair but the teeth keep falling off,” Callie said. The voice came from the closet.
“Yes, we have tape,” said Charlie. “And when we’re done, we put them behind the last door?” He seemed to be listening to someone. Then both twins giggled as Charlie said, “They’ll be so surprised.”
Teeth? Skin? Those grotesque Advent calendars—returned to the children? Celeste threw open the closet door. Her children were seated on the floor. Each was holding one half of a tin can telephone. A growling voice echoed in stereo from the cans: “Are you still alone?”
The laundry dropped to the floor as she snatched the cans away and shouted “Hello? Who’s there?” into one of the silent cylinders. Suddenly, she realized how stupid she must look. Her face turned red as she dropped the toy to the floor and made a feeble demand: “What are you two doing?”
“Playing,” said Charlie.
“We’re playing customer service,” said Callie. “We’re getting instructions.”
“What kind of instructions?” asked Celeste.
“We can’t tell you,” Charlie replied. “It’s a surprise.”
His mother forced a smile and retreated. Once again, Celeste and Joe mounted a stealthy search of house and grounds after the twins fell asleep. The wooden mannequins were missing from the shed. There was nothing to indicate those obscenities masquerading as Christmas calendars had resurfaced.
The next night, the family took a walk through the light display at the local park and zoo. A light snow wheeled and sparkled through haloes of lamplight along the winding path, exciting cries of wonder from parents and children. As the family neared the end of the tour, Callie was so overcome, she threw her arms around Celeste’s waist and stretched on tip-toe to plant a kiss on Joe’s cheek. “I love you, Mommy. I love you, Daddy,” she cooed.
Charlie hugged his parents, too, insisting, “Don’t worry. We don’t care about the stockings.”
Joe and Celeste hugged their children in return but also exchanged quizzical glances. They had long forgotten the conversation they’d had regarding Christmas stockings at the beginning of December. Clearly, if the twins were now forgiving them this transgression, they had been brooding about it for the past three weeks. When they discussed it later, Joe seemed satisfied the twins were no longer listing quite so heavily towards the weird. Celeste did not share his opinion but the final week before Christmas was just too frenetic to allow the luxury of anxiety.
On December 23rd, Callie and Charlie consumed the chocolate Santas hidden behind the next-to-the-last perforated cardboard door on their printed calendars. “I wonder what’s behind the last door?” Charlie speculated.
“It’s big door,” said Celeste. “It must be special.”
“Not as special as. . .,” Callie blurted before she clapped her hands over her mouth.
“Let’s go play,” Charlie said quickly and tugged his sister’s hand.
Celeste watched them disappear down the hall and debated whether she should follow them or wait to investigate. She decided on the latter and went outside to fill the bird feeders. On the deck stairs, she nearly tripped over a pair of soup cans joined by a tangled length of twine. She had thrown their last telephone into the recycling tote. Her twins had made a new one. Feeling thoroughly foolish, she glanced around, then put one can to her ear as she spoke into the other: “Hello? 1-800-TATTLES?”
There was a crackle of static with undertones of animal grunts and squeals, then a raspy whisper hissed, “Do you have a complaint?”
Celeste’s knees shook and her voice was little more than a squeak but she said, “A complaint? Yeah, I do. Who returned those hideous Advent Calendars to my children? And exactly what are you instructing them to do?”
“Your children asked for a new mommy and daddy for Christmas,” replied the voice. “We are filling their request.”
“How?” The voice did not answer. Now Celeste was angry and shouted into the tin can as she paced the deck. “What’s wrong with you? What kind of hateful game is this? This is a terrible thing to tell a child. This is not what Santa is about.”
“Santa is not affiliated with 1-800-TATTLES.”
The voice snarled, “Madam, the complaint line is your invention. Clearly, you did not think through the repercussions. Good afternoon and have a Merry Christmas.” The hum of animal voices went silent. No one responded to Celeste’s repeated entreaties.
She made coffee and poured in a shot of whiskey. She tried to imagine how the twins would get new parents for Christmas. Maybe someone would plant evidence of horrible, ritualistic abuse. No doubt, that was the intent of the nasty gifts concealed behind those carved wooden doors. Celeste pounded her fists against her head in an attempt to drive away thoughts that were so obviously insane. Two shots of whisky later, she felt calm enough to start dinner. As she rose from the dining room table, she saw her husband standing in the doorway. He held a large black trash bag in his fist. From the angled shapes under the plastic, Celeste knew without asking what was inside.
“This was propped right in front of the garage door,” he said. “Whoever put it there didn’t even try to hide it.”
As Celeste related her phone call, Joe set the wooden calendars on the table. They were perfectly carved and painted, new in every respect. Each box gaped wide except the largest ones, to be opened on Christmas Eve. Without a word, they unfastened the last doors to find the wooden man and woman propped inside. The twigs, however, were no more than skeletal frames for what Joe and Celeste now held in their hands. Each had a perfect little skull and splinters of bone glued to the stick arms and legs. Parchment-like skin was stretched over all, taut enough to allow glimpses of the bone underneath. There were hands and feet, fingers and toes that had previously been missing from the stick men. Every digit had a pearly disc of fingernail. Celeste’s blonde hair was glued to the woman’s head. Joe’s black curly hair topped the man’s skull. The teeth, which had been so troublesome to attach, were held in place by clear packing tape, wrapped several times around each skull.
“Callie! Charlie!” shouted Joe, but the twins were already there. His voice faltered as he demanded, “Is this the new mommy and daddy you asked for?”
The twins shrugged. Neither child looked particularly guilty, nor did they seem distressed by having been discovered.
“Okay, we got your new parents right here,” he said, striding out to the deck and uncovering the fire pit. He poured gasoline over the abominations and set a match to them. “There’s your new parents,” he repeated.
The twins were mysteriously silent as the oily flames flickered and pulsed. The blaze brought a flush of heat to Celeste, who suddenly realized she was drunk and exhausted. She wanted to weep and ask her children how a mysterious, inhuman voice had convinced them to carry out such horrifying rituals. She knew that no matter how revolting these dolls were, they were harmless by themselves. They had to be. But they represented resentment, even hatred, planted in the hearts of her beautiful children and she felt wounded beyond repair.
She brought her hands to her face to wipe away the tears and the sweat. As she lowered her hands, she saw they were smeared with ash and blood and a substance like melted fat. She saw Joe’s face was streaked with the same, his mouth silently opening and closing, his eyes wide with helpless terror. His skin turned bright red before her eyes. Celeste felt as hot as he looked, so painfully hot that she was about to pass out. She wanted to scream but she could no longer work any kind of sound out of her throat. Her mouth filled with hot, salty water. Her children stared with horrified fascination. The dolls in the fire pit collapsed into black heaps of greasy ash, and so did Joe and Celeste.
“What are we supposed to do now?” asked Charlie.
“He said to wait,” Callie said. They pulled lawn chairs near the circle of paving bricks to do just that.
Darkness fell and Christmas lights winked on in yards all over the neighborhood. A gust of wind blew through the yard and ruffled the ashes in the fire pit. In the dim light, one shadowy figure rose from the pit and stepped on to the deck, immediately followed by another.
The creatures were nearly indistinguishable from the twins’ mother and father. New Celeste’s neck and spine seemed slightly bent so she leaned somewhat awkwardly to one side. New Joe had one leg that was almost an inch shorter than the other and a perpetually twisted grin. Their eyes had a silvery-gray cast that glittered with a calculating intelligence as they regarded their children’s expectant faces.
“You’re naked,” said Callie and the siblings giggled. They showed their new parents where their bedroom was. After the adults dressed, Celeste said, “I think we should go out for pizza and then do some shopping.”
The twins cheered and raced to get their coats. The unholy family braved the last-minute crowds at the mall so Callie and Charlie could pick put their own Christmas stockings and the small gifts they wanted to find inside.
On Christmas Eve, the twins ate the last piece of chocolate from their parent-approved Advent Calendars: a candy bas relief of the nativity. Joe and Celeste suggested they might wish to go to sleep so Santa could make his expected visit. Callie and Charlie complied, sleeping peacefully until midnight. They awoke and crept down the hall to inspect the Christmas tree. There they found their refurbished parents filling and hanging their stockings on the faux fireplace mantle. The six-year-olds exchanged happy, knowing smiles. They had been patient and clever and eager to learn. The payoff now stood before them: New Joe and New Celeste were already turning out better than the children had dared to hope.
And as the children snuck back to their beds, Joe and Celeste turned to each other with their own knowing smiles, their silver-gray eyes glittering with cruel anticipation. So many years of interesting surprises lay ahead for their naughty, scheming children.