Peace, Hope and Joy: A Christmas Story - Prologue

The sun had just sunk below the horizon outside the Hillcrest Mall, the lights in the parking lot just starting to flicker on. It wasn’t a big mall - the town it was in wasn’t particularly big, either, so they didn’t really need a big mall - but, as usual for that time of the year, there were a fair few cars in the parking lot, resting, finding themselves slowly covered by the blanket of slow falling gently from the sky.

The front door had a huge wreath hanging above it, a red ribbon wrapped around it like a candy cane. Beneath it stood a young man, bundled up in matching scarf and earmuffs, ringing a little silver bell. Every now and then, someone would bustle by, in or out, either giving a donation or doing their best to avoid looking at him. When they swung the doors open, there was a brief swell of warmth, and of peppermint scent, from inside, both of which had enticed him to edge himself closer and closer as the afternoon had worn on.

There were other entrances and exits as well, of course, each of them decorated with a smaller, wreath, each with only a small red bow at the bottom for decoration. It was through one of these doors that the young woman, Jolene, burst. There were times when she allowed her relatives to call her Joy, but that name hardly fit her at this moment, no matter how merrily the bell atop her red, fur lined, hat was ringing as she rushed away from the mall, hot tears running down her cheeks, angry breath turning to fog in front of her face.

She had clearly also not thought her escape through very carefully. She hadn’t even grabbed her coat, or anything else to cover the short green felt dress she had on, or the thick red and white striped tights beneath that, or, more importantly, as it was the reason for her exodus, the thick, sagging bulge beneath both of those, one any mother could likely recognize, especially when their memories were spurred by the red pacifier clipped to the front of her dress.

A few more steps, and she’d have realized her mistake as she reached for the pocket of her coat to grab her car keys, only for her hands to slide across the smooth, pocket-less side of her dress. She’d stand outside for a minute or two, fuming, building up her resolve, and then stomp back inside to retrieve her coat and, more importantly, change back into her normal clothes. She’d do her best to keep from running into Hope during all of that, or any other living soul, if she could help it. Maybe once she was back in the jeans and sweater she’d arrived in that morning, she’d seek Hope out and slug her. The thought would bring a smile to her face, even if she knew she’d never actually do it, and as she traipsed across the parking lot, she’d find her shivering fingers clamping into a fist.

Instead, she felt a sharp pain blossom across her spine, sending her falling to her knees, cold snow quickly soaking through her tights. Jolene wasn’t a large girl, in any sense of the word, though the blow seemed designed for one. She fought to refill her lungs with air, to gather her wits for a scream for help, but then the pain came again, driving her down onto parking lot, stomach first.

Something sharp jabbed into the base of her spine, but she couldn’t cry out, couldn’t even trying to wriggle free. She felt a hand wrap around her wrist, pulling her to a nearby car. She heard one of the doors open, then allowed herself to be tossed inside, in a heap on the back seat.

As she lay there, staring forward, she saw someone get into the front seat, tossing a baseball bat onto the seat beside them. They ducked down for a moment, then the car’s engine roared to life, and they drove away, off towards the woods at the edge of town.

The forest was much less festive than the mall, having apparently not gotten the memo that it was the time of year to be merry and bright. There was snow, still, but only a light coating, spread over dead leaves, wet and sticky and unpleasant. Bare branches reached into the night sky like skeleton hands, grasping and clawing upwards at the cold, round moon, barely restrained monsters writhing in the wind.

Jolene wasn’t a fan of the forest, in the best of times - now, as she found herself being dragged from the back seat of the car and into it, she couldn’t have said if they were in the heart of it, or just beyond the road. It had felt like an eternity since they’d left the main road, the car bouncing with every little bump, but that didn’t mean much of anything.

She managed to get on her feet when she was taken from the car, although she found herself stumbling and slipping as her captor led her around to the front of the car, finally falling onto her squishy bottom as the figure turned her loose, pushing her forward. Jolene didn’t try to stand, simply scuttled back a foot or two more, staring forward.

The headlights of the car were still on, shining brightly in her eyes, but she could make out the outline of the other person, standing there. It was another young woman, slim but somewhat on the tall side, hair wild and unkempt, one hand wrapped tight around a baseball bat, the end of which had apparently been carved down to a point.

If Jolene could have seen the other girl’s face, perhaps she would have recognized her. It’s hard to tell - it had been a long few years since she had seen her, years that hadn’t been particularly kind to either of them. The other girl - Patti, her relatives had called her, back when she had them, and Pax to her friends, when she’d had those, and carved into the handle of the bat - remembered her, however.

“There’s always two,” said Patti. It had been said to her once, long ago, and she’d never forgotten it. She spoke the words aloud again now to steel her resolve, though it didn’t take much. “Evil births evil.”

Jolene was pretty certain she wasn’t evil, but she knew that wasn’t the sort of thing you could judge in yourself. Of the other thing, however, she was certain, even if she was less sure if it had been directed at her, or just a statement. “There’s only one of me,” she said quietly.

That was not the correct answer. A wordless scream of rage erupted from Patti’s throat, and Jolene found herself doubled over, mouth open as she gasped for air. She’d never broken a rib before, or any other part of her body, but she was pretty sure she now knew just what that felt like as Patti pulled her baseball bat back again.

“Where?” Patti demanded. The word was strong, definite - there was only one thing she was looking for, that was clear. Unfortunately, Jolene had no idea what that was.

“Don’t hit me again,” Jolene begged, breaking down instantly, her only defense. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, I swear!”

Patti knew to watch for this, not to believe it, but still, she couldn’t help it. She knelt down, keeping a firm grip on her weapon, keeping it between her and Jolene. Jolene swallowed, staring up at her, finally managing to see her face.

She remembered, after all. “Thousand Oaks,” she whispered. Jolene nodded slowly, solemnly.

The two girls looked into each others’ eyes. And they remembered.