Red credits, accompanied by ominous 80s synths, floated on the television screen and lit up the faces of Carl and Dave. They basked in the glow for a short while, processing the last scenes of the season finale of their favourite Netflix original.
“I can’t wait another year,” Carl said morosely, shaking his head.
Dave shrugged and shook his head. “We could just watch the first two seasons over and over again until next year.”
“Yeah, ‘cos that won’t get old.”
The multicoloured fairy lights, which had been strung haphazardly around the artificial Christmas tree, began to blink. Carl and Dave turned in unison toward them.
“Thought you’d switched them off?” Dave asked.
“I did. Least I thought I did. They haven’t flashed while we’ve been watching telly.”
“They must have done.”
“We’d have noticed. Right?”
Dave shrugged again. The students watched the lights with frowns. There was no noticeable rhythm to the flashes, and the pattern changed far too quickly and erratically for the lights to be on cycle mode. “Might have known they’d be dodgy,” he said eventually. “Dani gave them to us.”
“They worked fine the past couple of days.”
“They were probably always on their last legs. Why else would she give something away for free?”
The lights continued with their manic blinking and Carl felt goosebumps crawl over his arms and creep down his spine. “I think it’s Morse code.”
Dave sighed. Here we go – Carl the conspiracy theorist, at it again. He always got a kick out of giving himself the willies. “I think they’re just dodgy lights, Carl.”
“Just watch them,” Carl insisted.
Dave crossed his arms and watched the lights. It was all just frenzied flashes to him. If there was any method to it, it was the method of nothing more than shoddy wiring.
“Dot, dot, dash. Break. Dot, dash, dot. Break. Dash, dot, dot. Dot. Dot, dash. Dash, dot, dot.”
“It’s nothing, Carl. You could say that about any flashing Christmas lights ever.”
“But don’t you think it’s weird that it’s just started now? That they turned themselves on and started flashing at random?”
Dave refused to buy into whatever madcap theory his housemate was cooking. It was bad enough that he had to spend Christmas with him without the rest of their housemates around to help poke fun. He wouldn’t cope if Carl unleashed his full-blown weirdness on him without any backup. “You think it’s someone from the upside down trying to send us a message?”
Carl hesitated. It sounded ridiculous when it was said aloud.
“You’re a bellend, Carl,” Dave said with a snigger.
“Just hear me out! Where’s your phone? Google Morse code.” Carl got up and disappeared into the hallway.
Dave was tempted to get up and switch the lights off at the plug, but he resisted. Carl was a loon, but at least he’d provide him with a funny story to share with when their friends returned after Christmas. He retrieved his phone from his trouser pocket and tapped away at the screen.
Carl returned, a notebook in one hand and a pen in the other. He sat down on the floor in front of the Christmas tree and gazed at the lights, like a child at story time. He was sure there was a message to be understood; there was a long series of dots, dashes and breaks, followed by a much longer break, as though it was a phrase or sentence repeated over and over again.
He lay the notebook on his knee, held pen to paper, and waited for the long break. Then he transcribed it.
..- / .-. / -.. . .- -.. / … – ..- .–. .. -.. / .-.. ..- …- / -.. .- -. ..
“Right. Got a chart up?”
“Dot, dot, dash.”
Carl scribbled the letter underneath the symbols. “Space. Then dot, dash, dot.”
“Space. Then dash, dot, dot.”
Carl felt his stomach squeeze. “Dash, dot, dot.”
Carl wrote the D slowly, then turned to Dave. Dave’s face was blank. He’d been following the commands without really paying attention. “What?”
“You are dead.”
“What are you on about, Carl?”
“That’s what it says! U. R. Dead.” He waved the notebook at Dave frantically, who snatched it and peered at the letters. He studied it for some time, glancing back and forth between the paper and his phone. Then he eyed the lights warily. He looked to Carl, and they shared a nervous silence.
“If this were a movie,” Carl whispered eventually, “something would pounce on us any… second… NOW!”
Dave jumped and clutched at his chest. Carl doubled over, giggling.
“Piss off, Carl! Why am I the one that’s freaked out now, and you’re just laughing? Are you messing with me? You better not be.”
“I’m not, I swear. Sorry, couldn’t resist. But it’s okay, I’ve watched enough movies to know that we’ve got until the end of translating this message until the Demogorgon strikes.”
Dave took a deep breath and told himself it was just a coincidence, that the lights weren’t trying to send them a message, and that they just happened to flash in a sequence which translated into a creepy message. But doubt gnawed inside him. “Well. I’m going to bed, then.”
“What? We’ve still got –”
“If we finish translating the message, we die, according to your logic. And I hate to admit it but your logic this evening has been right so far. As long as we don’t translate the message, we won’t die, right?”
“Dave, that’s ridiculous.”
“We’ll do it tomorrow, after Christmas dinner. I don’t want to die before I get my turkey, alright? And I need some time to come to terms with my imminent demise.” Dave was careful to keep his tone playful in hopes that Carl would assume he was joking and agree.
“Nope. We’re doing this. If something is coming for us, the next part of the message will probably give us a clue as to how to avoid it. That’s what happens in the movies. But if we ignore it, it might come for us anyway.” Carl spoke like an expert, as though he lived through adventures like this often. “And hey – we’re two peppy young students, everything to live for – if this were a movie and we were the starring roles, they wouldn’t kill us off. People would be rooting for us.”
“There’s usually one starring role and a co-star,” Dave added. “They might not kill off the main guy, but murdering the less important guy offers just the right amount of drama.”
“True, true. So, which of us is the co-star in this?”
The pair thought it over, both having already come to terms with the thought of the other dying.
“You’re the weird nerd guy who figures out the code,” Dave said triumphantly. “You’ll die. They always kill the smart ones.”
“No, they always kill the ugly ones. Which, sorry to say, Dave, is you!”
“Oi! You want me dead, and now you’re calling me ugly?”
“You wanted me dead first.”
Carl sighed. “Let’s just translate the Morse code.”
Dave took a deep breath, then nodded. “Hit me with it.”
Carl proceeded to read out dots and dashes while Dave barked out the letters.
Dot, dot, dot – S.
Dash – T.
Dot, dot, dash – U.
Dot, dash, dash, dot – P.
Dot, dot 0 – I.
Dash, dot, dot – D.
“You’re dead, stupid? What does that mean? Do you think they’re hinting we should be smarter to figure out how to not die?”
“There’s more, Dave, let’s just keep going. Dot, dash, dot, dot…”
Dot, dot, dash – U.
Dot, dot, dot, dash – V.
Dash, dot, dot – D.
Dot, dash – A…
“Oh, for fuck’s sake. It’ll be N.I. Dani. Luv, Dani.” Carl tossed his notepad and pen on the floor. “She got us. She got us good.”
Carl leaned around the back of the Christmas tree and inspected the adaptor of the lights. “Scan QR code to download eTwinkle app. They’re controlled by an app, Dave. Oh, she’s good!”
Dave took a long, deep sigh as relief washed over him. Then he started to laugh. “I’ll kill her.” He opened his messages app and fired off a text.
U R DEAD when I next see you
“I can’t believe we fell for it,” Carl muttered, already wracking his brain for a plot to get revenge on their neighbour.
“You fell for it, Carl. I just played along. I knew it would be nothing.”
“You thought you were gonna die, I just figured out there was a code to crack.”
Dave’s phone whistled.
Serves you right for being boring bastards :p COME TO THE PARTY.
Read more in the Night Before Christmas short story series.