A Christmas Caroline by Camilla Isley


Christmases That Could’ve Been

The graveyard shrinks, collapses, and dwindles down, transforming into the hospital chamber.

I turn to Melodie and clap my hands. “Bravo! Extra point for that last dramatic flair.”

The spirit pouts. “That didn’t scare you?”

“No, I’m not afraid of dying. Death is the only certainty we have in life. Well, that and taxes,” I say, pretending not even the scene at Harper’s house shocked me. Because that woman we saw living in California and stubbornly refusing to attend her aunt’s funeral must’ve been my oldest niece.

“But aren’t you afraid to die alone?

“We all die alone. And what you showed me isn’t my future,” I reply, dismissing the possibility that I wouldn’t visit Fan on her deathbed. “But one of the million futures that could await me.” If I were to turn into a heartless asshole.

“Well, Caroline, I’m sorry to say, but that will be your future if you continue on your current path.”

“So, what do you expect me to do? Wake up from the coma, give all my money to the poor, and what? Board the merry Christmas wagon? Join a carol choir, perhaps? Please.”

“Actually, Caroline, no. I never expected a single night of introspection to make you see the light. I warned them upstairs”—she points at the ceiling—“you were going to be difficult. But I enjoy a challenge,”—she cracks her knuckles enthusiastically—“and, anyway, I’m more of a show don’t tell kind of gal.” Melodie elbows my upper thigh. “Like my literary puns?”

“How long have you been waiting to drop that line?”

She smiles. “Pretty much all night.”

I give her a thumbs-up. “You have a future in stand-up comedy. But, as much as I’ve enjoyed your company, my dear ghost, you’re just a figment of my imagination and I can’t wait to wake up from this coma to be rid of you forever.”

“Not so fast. I have to make you see my point first.”

“And how do you propose to do that?”

“Anticipating how stubborn you’d be, I devised a little independent study for you.”

I clap my hands in mock excitement. “Oh my gosh, please tell me I’m going to join the five-star ghost retreat in London.”

“Not quite. See, tonight, we’ve visited Christmases past, present, and future, but in my many years on the job, I’ve determined that the most powerful Christmases to show to a lost soul are the Christmases that could’ve been. That’s why I’m sending you on a little field trip.”

I roll my eyes. “Another one? We’ve been bouncing around all night. I thought my brain needed to rest. How am I supposed to recover if you keep dragging me all over?”

“Don’t worry, this time you’ll be flying solo. I mean, I’ll still be nearby, but I won’t be as hands-on as I’ve been so far.”

“You’ll be gone? For real? Tell me where do I have to sign?”

Melodie chuckles. “No contracts, we’re not infernal spirits after all. Christmas ghosts work completely free of charge, you can keep your soul. Just take my hand and we can be on our way.”

Without giving me time to agree or disagree, Melodie grabs my hand, and in a whirlwind of light, I start falling and falling until I land on a soft bed, feeling so drowsy I struggle to keep my lids open.

“Where am I?” I ask.

“At home,” Melodie whispers in my ear, while her annoyingly shiny hair is the only thing that prevents me from falling asleep on the spot. “And keep in mind, you’ve just hit your head pretty hard. If you can’t remember stuff, claim short-term amnesia and you’ll be fine. Goodbye, Caroline, sweet dreams…”

The light dims, and I sink into the pillows and close my eyes.


A high-pitched wail pierces through my sleepy brain. I pull up on my elbows and blink at the surrounding room. I’m not in a hospital chamber, but this isn’t my apartment either. The furniture in this place is run-of-the-mill cheapish and covered in scattered clothes. My housekeeper would never let my house get to this state of disarray. And the clothes themselves are nothing I’d be caught dead in. Half of them because they’re male clothes, and the others because they scream suburban housewife with no sense of style.

I touch the back of my head, and, yep, the bump is there, still tender.

“Merry Christmas, Charlie Bear.” Sam—an older version to that of my nightmare of last night—appears on the threshold, and I blink harder.

He’s as tall and handsome as ever. But his dark hair is longer than when we broke up, and as he smiles at me, his eyes crinkle with more lines. But other than that, he’s my Sam. I stare at the inch of bare skin between his white T-shirt and gray sweatpants and my body goes into overload: my mouth waters, my heart swells, and my belly contracts… not to mention the lower regions, which seem to have suddenly become wide awake and alert.

“Look who’s already up on Christmas morning,” Sam says, cradling a bundle in his arms. “Someone must be hungry.”

He deposits the bundle in my arms—a bundle that turns out to be a brown-eyed baby with a wisp of black hair—and kisses me on the forehead.

Like a total creeper, I inhale his scent, closing my eyes and savoring the familiar fragrance of cardamom, sage, mixed with the dry crispness of vetiver. Armani Acqua di Gió, still, always, his perfume.

In the two seconds I’ve been busy smelling my ex, the baby in my arms has gotten down to business: he’s pushed my unbuttoned night blouse aside with his little hand and has closed his bare gums on my right nipple. I yelp in surprise as he begins suckling on my boob.

I stare up at Sam in a panic, not sure what to say.

He talks first. “I’ll just hop in the shower really quick while you feed him, you can go next.”

Sam disappears behind another door, and I’m too shocked to reply. I stare back down at the baby attached to my breast. My first instinct is to pull him away, but he’s not having it. He’s latched on for dear life.

I expect the nursing to hurt, but it doesn’t. I don’t feel much at all, actually. Until, after about a minute of sucking, my nipples contract, and fluid gets pumped out. In fact, the boob that’s not currently being sucked by the baby spurts milk like a fountain.

I search for something to stifle the flooding and find a stray towel on the nightstand. I push it onto my left breast until the stream stops.

After a while, the baby lets go of my right nipple but doesn’t appear content. I stare down at him and at my bare chest. One breast is soft and somewhat saggy while the other is engorged and seems ready to burst. I swap the baby around and give him the hardened breast, he takes all of a half second to latch on and suckle away happily. The more he sucks, the more the bursting sensation fades, leaving me oddly satisfied.

I’ve just barely sighed in relief when I realize I shouldn’t be at all relieved about successfully breastfeeding an infant, because a) I have no children, b) I’m not married to Sam—no matter the rose-gold wedding band on my ring finger, and c) I don’t live here. Where the hell am I, anyway?

Before I can process all these impossibilities, the baby detaches and looks up at me. I stare into his brown eyes, an exact replica of Sam’s, and when he smiles at me, my chest swells in response—not my breasts, but the beating part behind the rib cage. I’m waiting for a major epiphany to happen, one in which I realize my entire life has been a total waste… Instead, the baby lets out a sonorous burp and regurgitates half the milk on my chest, which promptly shrinks back to a reasonable, babies-are-awful size.

Sam comes out of the bathroom at that exact moment, wearing only a towel around his waist. Droplets of water glisten on marble-like skin and flat muscle. And, oh gosh, where did the six-pack come from? I might not be digging the baby thing, but give the baby daddy to mama.

How on earth is it fair that I’m seeing him for the first time in seven years and he looks like that while I’m covered in baby vomit and spilled breast milk?

Sam sits on the bed next to me. “And how are my two munchies doing?”

“It threw up on me!”

Sam blinks at me. “It?

“Yeah, the baby.”

“Caroline, are you okay?”

“No, I’m a bit confused.” In a flash of memory, I see Melodie’s face hovering next to mine and whispering, “…keep in mind, you’ve just hit your head pretty hard. If you can’t remember stuff, claim short-term amnesia…”

That little minx, she must’ve sent me into a parallel universe or something. “I hit my head, I have amnesia,” I blurt out.

Sam’s forehead creases with worry. “What’s the last thing you remember?”

I’m not sure how to reply, since I don’t know how my life unfolded in this timeline. But, judging from the baby in my arms and the ring on my finger, Sam and I must’ve gotten back together at one point and he must’ve prevailed on me about the kid thing. The only safe answer would be… “You were breaking up with me because I refused to go off the pill.”

“But that was seven years ago!” Sam rubs a hand on his forehead, even more worried. “You don’t remember falling in the driveway?”

“Well, yeah, the ice was slippery and my Jimmy Choos weren’t exactly the best shoes, but—”

“Jimmy Choos? Charlie Bear, you don’t own a single pair of Jimmy Choos.”

I have a baby and no Jimmy Choos?

Please kill me now. In what circle of hell has Melodie sent me?

“Are my Prada gone, too?”

“Honey, you’re delirious. I’m taking you to the emergency room like I should’ve done last night.”

Not another hospital. Last time I went, a ghost haunted me and shipped me here.

I try to rationalize with Sam. “On Christmas Day? It’s going to be total chaos. Sam, I’m fine, really.”

He crosses his muscular arms over his still-wet chest. “Tell me the name of your son and you can stay put.”

I look at the bundle in my arms, who has fallen asleep after his morning snack.

Baby names, uh? What would’ve I named a boy? Surely something after a character from one of my favorite books. Not Laurie, because I’ve always thought of Sam as my Laurie, and if I ever had a daughter, I would’ve wanted to call her Josephine. And I wouldn’t have wanted two siblings named after two star-crossed lovers. The next obvious choice would’ve been Mr. Darcy. But I wouldn’t have named a baby in the modern era Fitzwilliam, which leaves only one possibility…

Chin up, I defy Sam’s scrutiny, and say, “William.”

He winces. “Almost, Caroline, that’s our other son’s name.”

My eyes bulge. “We have more than one kid?”

“We have three. Jo, Will, and little Bram,” he says, pointing at the sleeping baby.

Ah, Bram, yeah, that would’ve been my second-best choice for a boy’s name, after Bram Stoker, the inventor of Vampire Lit and my personal hero.

“Sam, you’re overreacting,” I still try to say. “And we can’t possibly drag three kids to the hospital.”

“No, we’re leaving them with your mother.”

“Please, it’ll take her forever to come here from New Jersey.”

Sam stands up abruptly. “That’s it, Caroline, we’re going right now.

He turns around and drops the towel on a chair, regaling me with an unobstructed view of his round, totally biteable bum. I know I should avert my gaze, that I’m acting like a total creep, but, gosh, if the man isn’t sweet of heart and fine of ass.

The show quickly ends as he pulls up a pair of boxer briefs and jeans and a sweatshirt over his head.

“But why?” I protest.

“Because we are in New Jersey.”

“We don’t live in Manhattan?”

“No, we live right across the street from—”

“Please don’t say right across the street from my parents.” I jolt upright, making the little bundle in my arms protest in his sleep.

I stand up and drop the baby into Sam’s arms, my palms going clammy with cold sweat. I cross the room to the French windows and pull the curtains aside to reveal an unobstructed view of my parents’ house across the street, and on the right, three houses down, is my sister’s two-story.

“And Fan is next door?”

“Yep,” Sam says, eyeing me with an increasingly alarmed expression.

“Oh, I’m so going to kill her,” I hiss under my breath.

“Who? Your sister?”

“No, not Fan. Melodie.”

“Who’s Melodie?”

I wave him off. “It doesn’t matter. You wouldn’t understand.”

I can tell he’s confused but goes along with it. “Are you ready to go?”

“I can’t go covered in baby puke.”

“Then take a shower while I bring the kids over to your mom’s. Charlie Bear, this is serious.” He closes the distance between us and, securing the sleeping baby in a one-arm hold, cups my face with one hand. “I want to make sure you’re alright.”

Sam stares at me, his eyes brimming with worry.

“You don’t find me repulsive,” I say, matter-of-factly. “I’m frazzled, covered in baby puke and spilled breast milk, and you still like me.”

Brown eyes all stormy and intense, Sam kisses me on the nose. “I do a little more than like you. I love you.” He rests his forehead on mine while an explosion goes off in my chest.


I haven’t heard him say these words to me in forever. I’m pretty sure in my universe the real Sam no longer feels that way about me. But here…

Sam withdraws. “But now, chop, chop, I want you showered and ready to go to the hospital when I come back.”


“Caroline, what are you doing?”

Sam’s voice makes me jump and I turn away from the closet, throwing another rag dangling from a hanger on the bed.

“I’m trying to find some of my clothes,” I say, nonplussed. After a quick shower where I skipped washing my hair, I came back into the bedroom to get dressed, but couldn’t find anything to wear.

Sam’s eyes widen and his jaw tenses. “But all your clothes are literally on the bed.”

“These hand-me-downs? I don’t think so. Everything in this closet looks like it came from a consignment store.”

“What’s gotten into you, Caroline? There’s nothing wrong with your clothes.”

I scoff. “Yeah, right, go tell that to someone who doesn’t have a sense of fashion.”

Sam puts a hand on his hips. “Let’s hear it, Miss Fashion Victim. Where do you usually shop?”

“Barneys, Bloomingdales, Saks Fifth Ave,” I pull on the collar of another shapeless black dress to read the label. I’ve never heard of this brand before. “Definitely not wherever this thing came from.”

“I swear you’ve never set foot into any of those luxury stores.”

“And why wouldn’t I?”

“For one, we can’t afford it.”

I gasp, letting the dress I was holding drop to the floor and covering my chest with my hands. “Oh my gosh, are we poor?”

“No, Caroline,” Sam says exasperated. “We’re not poor, but we bought a four-bedroom home in one of the most expensive towns in—”

“New Jersey.” I wrinkle my nose.

“—in an amazing school district, and we have two other mortgages on your shop and on my studio.”

“My shop?”


“I own a bookshop?

Even without my recent stroll into Christmases past, I would’ve remembered my childhood dream, but maybe I wouldn’t have made the connection that quickly.


“You mean a single, physical location.”

“Yep. I mean, after a few more payments.”

“What about my publishing house?”

Sam’s eyebrows furrow together. “What publishing house?”

“The one I founded after leaving Bucknam Publications and taking all their best authors with me?”

“Charlie Bear, I don’t know about taking all their authors, but you left Bucknam after going on maternity leave for Jo and never looked back.”

“But why would I have quit if not to start a company?”

Sam blinks. “You wanted to spend more time with Jo and needed more flexible hours, plus the commute to Manhattan was a bitch.”

“So, I became one of those suburban moms who never go back to work?”

“You went back to work. You bought the shop.”

“Aaargh.” I put my hands in my hair. “What a cliché. I’m so going to kill Melodie.”

“Who is this Melodie?”

“My Christmas ghost.”

Sam presses his lips together and with no further comment rummages among the clothes spread on the bed and hands me a navy-blue potato sack.

“Put this one on, you always liked it.”

I take the sack and eye it dubiously.

“And I don’t care if it doesn’t adhere to your new fashion sense, we have to go now.

“What’s the hurry?”

“You’ve started talking about ghosts, that’s the hurry.”

“I knew you wouldn’t understand if I told you about Melodie. And I don’t care what you say, I’d like to look presentable before we go.”

“We’re going to the emergency room, not the Met gala.”

“But what if I run into a cute doctor?”

Sam crosses his arms over his chest, narrowing his eyes. “What, indeed?”

I’m so used to being single that the words spurted out of my mouth before I could think.

“Sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean it like that. I’ll go get changed.”

I carry the potato sack with me and go hide in the bathroom, away from Sam’s disapproving gaze.

“Melodie,” I hiss to the empty air, trying to summon my tormentor. “Your plan is not working, you know? If anything, it’s proving my point. Can I go back to my life now?”

No one answers me.

“Melodie? You said you’d be around if I needed to—”

“Who are you talking to?” Sam’s voice comes from the other side of the door.

“No one.” I frown at the empty room one last time. “I’ll be right out.”