Peace, Hope and Joy


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.

1 - The Incident at Thousand Oaks

“You’re sixteen now, Joy,” her parents had told her. “Don’t you think you should do something more with your summer than just lay around the house?”

She didn’t, but it hadn’t actually been the kind of question they expected an answer to. It was a question not unlike, “Don’t you think it would be good to learn a musical instrument?”, which had been asked of her nearly a decade earlier, after her parents had already signed her up for piano lessons. Or, “Don’t you think public schools are getting too dangerous nowadays?” after they’d already signed her up at a private school.

So Jolene had just mutely nodded her head, trying to hide her annoyance as she waited to hear what her parents had gotten her into this time. There wasn’t much in the way of jobs in the little town they lived in, certainly nothing she would be qualified for that she’d want to do. Would she be stuck in front of the fry vats at McDonald’s all summer, coming home smelling of grease and despair? Would she be at Kroger’s instead, stuffing other peoples’ groceries into bags and carting them out to their cars day in and day out?

The answer, it turned out, was both better and worse than any of the possibilities that ran through her mind - Thousand Oaks Summer Camp. It wasn’t something she really saw herself doing, spending a summer looking after a bunch of twelve year old girls, but it got her away from home, and her parents, and that was always a plus. She felt awkward around the little girls for the first few days, not quite sure how to talk to them - twelve seemed so young, and sometimes they acted that way, but other times they seemed almost more mature than her.

The morning of the fourth day, she’d been unable to sleep, and, not wanting to disturb the still slumbering girls in her cabin, she’d snuck into the bathroom - the light of which was kept on all the time, with the door kept just a bit cracked - and sat down on one of the toilets, propping her feet up on the stall door, and started to read. She was a bit of a bookworm… She’d been hoping to be more of one that summer, as she’d started a particularly long fantasy series as soon as she’d gotten home from the last day of class, planning on making it all the way through before school started back up again, but she was only on the fourth book. To be honest, they were already getting a bit repetitive.

She had made her way through only a few pages when she heard someone else shuffle their way into the bathroom. She didn’t think much of it until she saw a pair of small, flip-flop clad feet make their way past the door in front of her once, and then twice, not going into the stall on either side until they had done so. It was a small bathroom, especially to have three toilets jammed into it - though even after just four days, Jo knew it would have been madness for there to be any less with eight twelve year olds, plus her and the other counselor, there at the same time - so she didn’t have to be paying much attention to hear the lack of noise.

After a minute or two, she heard the shuffling footsteps leave the stall, heading off to one corner of the room, then, after a pause, one of the sinks started up. Curiosity got the better of Jo, and she slowly lowered her feet, leaning a hand forward to keep the door from swinging open too suddenly and surprising whoever was there. She pulled the door open just a crack and peaked through, getting just the tiniest glimpse of a retreating shock of bright red hair that could belong only to Mary before the outer door closed, all but a crack.

Jo gave Mary a little time to make her way across the dark cabin to her bed before making her way out of the stall, over to the garbage can in the corner of the room. She was a little disappointed that there seemed to be nothing but paper towels inside. Disappointed, and suspicious. Not enough to go digging through the garbage, but enough to ask Jeanie, the other counselor, if she couldn’t take the girls swimming on her own the next day, claiming a queasy stomach.

She couldn’t help but feel kind of creepy as she walked over to Mary’s bed, sliding her suitcase out from under it. It was really none of her business, either way, since if it was true, she was obviously taking care of it on her own. But that wasn’t enough to stop her from unzipping the suitcase and carefully sifting through it. And, sure enough, there at the bottom, hidden beneath all of her other clothes, was a stack of Goodnites. She stared down at them for what felt like an eternity, just looking at them, their slight padding, the delicate, cute butterflies decorating the front.

That should have been that. Her hunch confirmed, she should have put everything back, shoved the suitcase back under the bed, went about her day. Yet she found herself picking one up, feeling it with her fingertips. It was stupid, she knew, but some part of her wanted it for herself. She counted the ones remaining in the suitcase - there was enough for the rest of camp, and one extra, other than the one she was still hanging on to - then put everything away.

She stood, picking up the Goodnite and starting for her own suitcase, only to notice that she wasn’t alone. She let out a gasp, barely able to convert the scream that had been building in her throat into that, trying to hide her precious cargo behind her before realizing it was too late. “Th-This isn’t what it looks like,” she said with a blush.

“Really?” Hope raised an eyebrow, putting her hands on her hips in an almost eerie recreation of Jolene’s mother’s stance when she ‘smelled something fishy’. “Because it looks like you’re taking a diaper out to Mary.”

Jolene’s heart stopped. There was a part that was glad, sure, that Hope thought this was all about Mary, but the rest of her felt terrible for having inadvertently revealed Mary’s secret. Obviously, if she was getting up so early to change back into her regular panties, it wasn’t something she wanted advertised. Still, Hope was one of the most mature girls in the cabin, so Jolene tried to reason with her. “Hope, you can’t tell anybody about this, please! It would be humiliating for her…”

Hope nodded slowly, as if she were thinking about something, then stopped. “Wait… She’s sure never looked like she was wearing a swim diaper under her swimsuit… And I’m sure you and Jeanie wouldn’t let her in the pool without one, if she really needed them…”

Jo had to hand it to her, it was an impressive piece of detective work, especially to come up with off the top of her head. She had no counter for it, other than to shrug and let her continue. “Then what -are- you doing? I mean, it’s not like you’d be stealing it for yourself…” She giggled, but just for a moment, until she saw Jo’s blush, heard her silence. “Do you…?”

“What? No!” Jolene managed to break out of her embarrassment with the help of a little anger. How dare this kid accuse her of wetting the bed?! Then again, that was hardly any worse than the reality. She sat down on the edge of Mary’s bed with a sigh, not exactly pleased when Hope sat down on the bed next to her, staring at her curiously.

There was something in the girl’s eyes, some wisdom well beyond her years… Despite herself, Jolene found words tumbling out of her mouth. “I-I just… Well, there’s just times…” She set the Goodnite down on the bed with a sigh. “I’ll put it back,” she said at last.

“No, go on,” Hope encouraged her, leaning forward.

And for some reason, she did. “You and the other girls are cool,” she started, unsure where that had come from, but letting herself go with it, “but taking care of you this summer… It’s not really my thing. I’d rather…”

“Be taken care of?” Jolene looked up at Hope, expecting to see the mocking that was missing from her voice in her eyes, but those were as serious as her tone. She nodded.

“It’s stupid,” Jolene shook her head. “I’m just… I don’t know, acting out, 'cause I didn’t want this job in the first place…” To her horror, she felt a tear start to slide down her cheek, her resentment welling up, mixing with the relief of actually saying as much of this as she could manage out loud, and the embarrassment of saying it to a little kid. It didn’t even make sense - she wanted someone to take care of her, to control her, in a way, but she got mad when her parents did just that?

Hope got up from the bed, gave her a hug. “I don’t think you should put it back,” she said. “She won’t miss it, right?”

Jolene nodded. “She has enough… I’m pretty sure she only wears at night.”

“Then keep it,” Hope told her. “I just came in to grab my towel, so I should probably get going…” Jolene nodded.

“You can’t tell anyone about this, either,” she said as Hope headed for the door again.

“About what?” Hope gave her a sly grin, and Jo couldn’t help but return it.

Three nights later, Jolene died.

That was, at any rate, what Patti was sure had happened. She didn’t know about the conversation at the time, of course - until that night, five years later, out in the snow in the middle of the forest, Jolene didn’t breathe a word of it to any living soul. And yet, there in the cold, she felt it pouring out of her. There wasn’t much more that had happened during her time at the camp, she said, not until three nights later, when, she claimed, she had gotten into her car and drove off while everyone else awake sat huddled in the cafeteria, abandoning everyone she was meant to be looking after, a scaredy-cat through and through.

Patti wasn’t convinced.

Jolene was a chicken, that much was sure - she remembered watching her from across the cafeteria as some of the girls from her cabin snuck up behind her while she was eating, unable to keep from laughing as she let out a blood-curdling shriek, usually spilling her drink across the table, just from a little “Boo!” - and, odd as it was, she couldn’t say that her story had been as much of a surprise as it should have been. But there had been no escape from the camp that night, not so easily.

Other than the occassional glimpse of her at mealtimes, Patti hadn’t gotten to know Jolene much, or, really, at all. They’d both shown up a couple days early for a bit of slap-dash orientation and training - it consisted mostly of, “Don’t let your kids wander off into the woods and get eaten by a bear” - but Patti had mostly steered clear of her. She’d learned to detect stuck up princesses at school, and Jolene gave off every indication of being one. Technically, Patti supposed that would make sense with Jolene’s story of running away, but that still wasn’t enough.

It had started with Mina, Patti’s co-counselor. It was late, past when the kids were all meant to be asleep, but one of them just couldn’t find her way off to slumber-land. Mina volunteered to stay with her, but Patti knew she wanted to go join the rest of the counselors back at the main building, especially Paul, so she’d told her to go ahead. Mina promised Patti she owed her one, then went practically racing out the door.

The camp was hardly the most intuitively set up there could be - it curved like a horseshoe, with the main building at the bottom, along with the parking and cabins going up either side, girls on one half with the swimming pool, boys on the other with a little baseball diamond, with a path making its way throughout in a half-oval. Other than the road leading in, it was surrounded by the trees on all sides, including the inside. Officially, they were supposed to follow the path whenever they wanted to go to the main building, but most of the counselors only did that when they had their kids with them. It was usually at least a little quicker to cut through the forest at the center, especially for her and Mina, since their cabin was at the very end of the path.

That was just what Patti did, once her charge had drifted off to sleep, and she’d made sure all the others were truly asleep as well, and not just pretending to get her out of the cabin for some kind of crazy twelve-year-old party. The moon was full, hanging low over the trees, so she hadn’t bothered to bring her flashlight along. She started to regret it as she made her way through the forest, weaving past the trees, dead leaves from the year before crunching slightly beneath her feet. She knew there wasn’t really anything to worry about there, but that didn’t make her feel any less paranoid. She’d made the trip every night, but every other night, Mina had been there with her.

But that was just her acting silly, she told herself. If there really was something out there, even with two of them, they surely would have seen some sign of it by then. Surely. And yet, no matter how hard she tried to convince herself of that, her heart just kept beating louder and louder in her chest, her eyes cutting over towards the path, and the lampposts outside the cabins. She took a step or two over towards them, then shook her head, resolving to stop acting like an idiot.

When she turned around, she nearly ran straight into Mina. She didn’t recognize her at first, as she was used to staring at the other girl’s face, rather than her pale stomach, almost glowing in the moonlight. Patti took a step back, not sure what was going on for a moment, until she saw Mina’s face, hanging a a few feet from the ground, a pair of red marks stretching across her neck.

Later, she’d remember the relatively small amount of blood pooled below Mina, the jagged quality of the cuts - rips, almost - in her skin, but at the time, she simply found her eyes going wide as she stumbled backwards, tripping over a branch and falling. She scrambled back up to her feet, running out towards the cabins, sure she felt someone there, trailing her, their hot breath right on her neck.

The light from the lamps did little to make her feel safe, so once she was free of the tangle of branches and leaves in the forest, her footsteps only grew quicker. She finally dared to glance behind her after she’d passed a cabin or two, allowing herself to slow slightly when there was no sign of anybody following her. As she reached the pool, she let herself stop completely, leaning against the chain link fence surrounding it and fighting to catch her breath, eyes scanning the forest, jumping as the light above the pool flickered and died with impeccable timing.

What was going on? Was it some kind of a prank? Mina did have a weird sense of humor, but this seemed a little much even for her, not to mention she’d had to have gotten help from someone else equally warped. Maybe it had been one of the boys… She knew that made more sense than Mina actually getting killed and hung from the trees.

No, she was just being silly, falling for the prank like a sucker. She shook her head, laughing quietly as she straightened herself up, stepping away from the fence and starting to head down the path to the main building. If her partners in crime weren’t lurking about, Mina could just stay in the tree the rest of the night - maybe that would teach her a lesson.

Something caught her attention at the corner of her eye, making her turn her head just a touch, just enough for her to see the pool. For a moment, it looked normal, until she noticed a darker patch of water.She turned further, following it, watching the spot get larger and larger, until at last she saw the person there, floating face down, fully dressed, the darker color seeming to eminate from them. The light flickered back to life with a dull hum.

“Shit,” Patti said under her quickening breaths. “Shit shit shit…”

And then she heard a sound behind her. She turned, backing away right as a baseball bat clanged against the fence in front of her, wielded by a wiry middle aged man with thick glasses, whose expression changed from anger to shock as she watched.

“I’m so sorry!” he exclaimed, lowering the bat quickly. “I thought you were…”

Patti kept backing away. “Stay the hell away from me,” she warned, reaching into her pocket, as if there was something there that would help her, rather than just lint. Her eyes darted back towards the pool.
“I don’t know who you are, but…”

And she never found out. She had her ideas, of course, but there had never really been time for a proper introduction.

“He was a psychiatrist,” Jolene interrupted. “H-He was from the asylum. He came to the main building, told us all to be careful, but some of them… Some of the counselors went out to help the kids…”

Patti didn’t need to hear what had happened to them. She’d seen them, strewn across the lawn like confetti. “He was lying,” she told Jolene. “That thing didn’t come from any asylum, and neither did he.”

“I didn’t kill that poor boy,” he said. “I don’t have time to explain, nor to escort you to safety. Take this and go to the main building. Barricade yourself in with the others.” He handed her the baseball bat, though she shied away from his hand at first, then hurried off into the night.

Patti stared down at it for a moment or two, something in her telling her to trust him, to follow him. He had, after all, given away what seemed to be his only weapon. She knew that was hardly enough to actually justify blindly trusting some random guy, when all this weird stuff - and she still wasn’t convinced it wasn’t just an elaborate prank - was going on, but she did anyway.

The man held a finger to his lips as she approached, giving her a hard stare. After a moment, she realized he was telling her to be quiet. Then he pointed back down the path to the main building, a much clearer signal. She shook her head and, a bit reluctantly, handed the bat back to him.

He opened his mouth, then shook his head and nodded, gesturing for her to follow him. He moved quietly, slowly, glancing towards the silent cabins for a few seconds before moving on. It was Patti and Mina’s cabin where he stopped longer, apparently having heard something more.

He made her stay outside, holding her back with one hand before venturing inside.

If she’d stayed in the cabin for a few minutes longer, if the kid hadn’t been able to get to sleep, if she’d decided it was getting late, she was tired, it wasn’t worth it to trek over to the main building, she would’ve still been inside. That was one of the things that haunted her, ever since. But not the main thing.

The man stumbled out, the baseball bat tumbling to the ground, his eyes dazed. He didn’t even seem to see her. “I have to find the other,” he was saying to himself. “There’s always two…” He vanished into the darkness, never to be seen by Patti again, no matter how hard she tried to track him down, to get his help.

The “other” might have reared its head, repeated that night with everything it had learned from its master, but the next morning, after the police had gone, the place was deserted. Patti thought about it sometimes, about the weeds growing up around the cabins, erasing the baseball diamond, about dead leaves filling the pool, soaking up the stagnant water. That haunted her, too, now and then.

But it was the inside of her cabin that showed up in her nightmares most often. If she’d been there just a little longer, sure, she might have died, too, but at least she might have done something before she went, might have made some contribution to save those kids.

He didn’t look like much, the person who had done it. He was older than she had been then - though maybe about the same age as she was now - and small. But she could feel the evil coming from him, saw the work of his hands, saw the blood on his lips, and knew it hadn’t come from within, just knew it. As surely as she knew what he was, what he had been.

The baseball bat was evidence - she knew that, too - but she barely even remembered taking it with her as she slowly made her way to the parking lot, putting it into her trunk as, deep down the dark, twisting road, she saw flashing lights approach, too late, as always.

Some day she would need it. Some dark, snowy day.

2 - Ghosts of Christmas Past

“You’re twenty-one, Joy,” her parents had told her. “Don’t you think it’s time you paid for Christmas presents on your own?”

That was unfair - it wasn’t as if Jolene had asked for them to fund all of her present buying, just a bit of a supplement. But she knew their minds weren’t going to be changed by such logic as that.

Five years had passed quietly, sneaking past Jolene with barely a warning. She’d finished high school, of course, but after that, there had been no big changes. Everything felt as if it were standing still, as if her life had frozen that day at camp. So it was hardly surprising that, even after all that time, she’d recognized Hope in a heartbeat.

Jobs hadn’t exactly become any more plentiful over the years - it had been the opposite, actually, even with her opportunities opening up as she got older. In all honesty, she hadn’t exactly minded. Her friends were all scrambling to find some great career so they could move out, or succeeding in doing so, but she was happy where she was. She felt safe there, stable… She supposed it could be said she was only stable because she was stuck in a rut, but it was a rut she was more than happy with, so she didn’t mind.

“You must be our new elf!” Hope greeted Jolene cheerfully as she anxiously entered the door marked “Employees Only”, walking over to her and shaking her hand boisterously. She must be sixteen or seventeen now, Jolene calculated, and a lot had happened to her over those five years. Much more than had happened to Jolene. She wasn’t a kid anymore, not by a long shot - looking at the two of them side by side, Hope might even have been mistaken as the older, helped by the few inches she had on Jolene. Her costume, a mid-thigh green dress trimmed with fur, tights, and a green Santa hat, looked better on her than it had any right to.

“Y-Yeah,” Jolene replied nervously, searching Hope’s eyes for any sign of recognition. She’d interviewed with someone who worked for the mall, and, with no little siblings or cousins, hadn’t had any reason to look at the elves. She never would have applied if she’d known this specter of her past would be waiting for her, even if the job seemed incredibly easy. “I’m Joy.”

Hope nodded, smiling indecipherably. “I’m Hope. Nice to meet you! Let’s get you all set up!”

Jolene nodded, following the younger girl obediently. There probably should have been a part of her that rankled a bit at working under someone five years her junior, but apparently that part was missing. The woman she’d interviewed with had mentioned the supervisor was pretty young, though never specified, just said she’d worked there the year before and done a great job. Jolene wondered if it was too late to switch, to work during the day, while Hope would be at school, instead of in the evenings, even if that might mean having to wake up earlier.

“There’s not a lot of costumes left,” Hope mused, looking Jolene over. “I hope we can find one that’ll fit you.” She pulled open a box, peering inside and digging through it before pulling out a dress identical to hers, except much smaller. “Why don’t you try this one?” She nodded towards a door, handed the dress over.

The door led to a small bathroom, which Jolene quickly locked, hanging the dress up on a hook on the back of the door and staring at herself in the mirror, a hand on either side of the sink as she bent in closer. Was she as recognizable as she thought? Maybe the years had changed her a bit… Or maybe that memory wasn’t as ingrained in Hope’s mind as deeply as in hers. After all, it hadn’t been a confession for her, just a weird little episode with a camp counselor she’d never seen again after just a few days. Or perhaps she’d tried to forget it, to erase all memories of that camp. She might have been young enough to succeed at it, even though Jolene hadn’t had any luck.

Maybe… Or maybe Hope just didn’t care.

Even with all the possibilities, Jolene found it difficult to re-open the bathroom door, once she’d stripped out of her sweater and pulled on the dress, and only partly because it was too short for her. It was only a bit longer than her sweater had been, prompting her to leave her jeans on as she stepped back out with a blush.

She saw Hope bite her bottom lip, probably trying not to laugh. “Okay, maybe that won’t work,” she said after a moment to regain her composure. But after a minute or two of digging, she looked back up at Jolene, worried. “Umm… That’s the biggest one we have left.” She shrugged, unable to hide the little smile that began to creep across her face. “I’m sure we’ll think of something…”

Patti was uncertain. While it was true Jolene had been a coward in life, all of Patti’s research showed that the life after always seemed to make people stronger, more cocky. It was a big self-esteem boost, with a healthy dose of added evil. Sure, they could act scared, especially in the face of their eminent re-death, but to some little teenager? She couldn’t see it. On the other hand, Jolene was clearly dressed like an elf, and that wasn’t something she’d seen many other vampires stoop to, either.

Was it possible she’d simply stumbled upon the most ineffectual vampire ever? One that she’d be doing a favor - not just to the world, but to it, personally - by killing it? No, not killing, she reminded herself. Slaying was the technical term, the one she’d used to psych herself up for this, to convince herself she could do it.

Things may have gone back to normal for Jolene, but Patti knew things would never be the same before she’d even set foot outside the camp. There were dark things in the world, she now knew, things most people were oblivious to. She could attempt to ignore them - for the first week or so, while she was still trying to figure everything out, she did try - but they kept haunting her from the shadows of her dreams, shapeless, but definitely there, and very, very evil.

The modus operandi for most monsters was rather similar to what she’d seen - luring caretakers out into the night, killing innocents - but it hadn’t taken her long to figure out it had been a vampire. It had a human shape, after all, which narrowed things down a good ways. The moon had been full, so a werewolf was also a possibility, though she didn’t buy that. While they did tend to revert to their human form after death in movies, Patti had a feeling that, in real life, they’d still be wolves until the full moon set. And, besides, werewolves, in their more beastly shapes, didn’t seem smart enough to hang their victims from tree limbs to terrify future prey.

Her parents hadn’t understood, not that she could really blame them. They did their best to be understanding, considering what she’d been through, but even so, they just wouldn’t - or couldn’t - accept the truth. She played along for a while, even went to the psychiatrist for them a couple times, until he started trying to get her to take pills. Her parents agreed with him, of course.

So she left. She couldn’t afford the dullness the drugs would bring, couldn’t let herself chase away the dreams, much as she’d like to be rid of them. They kept her sharp, kept her resolve strong, made her believe that maybe, just maybe, when the time came, she would have a chance to slay at least one of the monsters.

She took the bat. She knew it was just a regular baseball bat, nothing special, even a little beat up, but she felt safe with it. She took her car, too, stopping at a Wal-Mart a few towns over to take a license plate off a car at the edge of the parking lot there, ditching her own after a few more hours of driving, flinging it over the fence at the landfill just outside town.

She’d read somewhere that vampires would likely return to the place they were reborn, but she didn’t dare try to go back to the camp. In her mind, that was the most obvious place to go, which meant there was a chance her parents, or her shrink, would realize she would probably head there. And she couldn’t let herself get caught.

Instead, she pulled her notebook out of the glove compartment. When she’d gotten home, it had been one of the first things she’d done, while everything was still fresh on her mind. She’d written down everything she remembered about her fellow counselors, where they lived, where they went to school, whatever she could think of that she’d spoke with them about, or overheard from other conversations. She’d seen a lot of them the day after, sure, and even some out in direct sunlight. But who knew how long the transformation could take? And there was some lore, including the original Dracula story, that suggested vampires could, in fact, endure a little light.

So, knowing nobody was truly beyond suspicion, she took out her list, read over it once, then again, and then started out on her hunt.

“They’re too big - can’t we just leave it at that?” Jolene called through the door. It seemed rather unlikely, looking back, for half of her costume to only be available in a size too small for her, and the other half too baggy, begging the question of whether they could be called tights if they weren’t.

“Just come on out, Joy,” Hope coaxed her. “Let me see how bad it is, so I can see what we need to do.”

“We need to get a new costume,” Jolene wanted to say, but she didn’t want to sound too demanding, or too whiny. It was her first day, after all, and, whether she wanted to be there or not, she didn’t want to start off on a bad foot. So, with one hand pulling the hem of her skirt down and her tights up in the front, she made her way out of the bathroom.

“Oh, those aren’t that bad,” Hope said, making her way around a nervous Jolene, who kept turning her head to try to see what the other girl was doing, until she pulled out the back of the tights and let them snap back at Jolene’s bottom. Jolene blushed, her eyes going down to the floor. She heard the bathroom door shutting behind her, then Hope giggled. “Sorry, Joy, couldn’t resist. You just remind me so much of my little sister with that cute little penguin.”

Jolene began to open her mouth, to protest that Hope was an only child, before stopping herself. It had been five years - maybe that had changed. If it had, of course, that meant she reminded Hope of a four, or less, year old, which just made her blush more deeply than she already was, knowing someone was looking at her panties, more cutesie than anything most girls her age - or even half her age - would ever be caught in, with their little penguin in a scarf staring out from the back. Either way, there was no reason she should know anything about Hope’s siblings, or lack thereof, if she was sticking with her act of not knowing who Hope was.

“How old did you say you were?” Hope asked, coming back around in front of Jolene at last.

“Umm… Well, I’m turning sixteen near the end of the month,” she lied. “I kinda lied about when my birthday was to get this job… I guess I probably shouldn’t have told you that…”

Hope melted, giving Jolene a quick hug. “Oh, I won’t tell on you, sweetie. Now, you just wait here, and I’ll get this all sorted out.” With that, she was gone, leaving Jolene all alone in the little room, trying to keep her underwear covered. She stood there for a few minutes, dumbly glancing around, before realizing she could just go back in the bathroom and change. Feeling silly, she reached out for the doorknob, turned it…

Or tried to. The knob refused to turn, no matter how many times she jiggled it. She started to feel trapped, as if she were inside the bathroom rather than out, her heart fluttering faster until it spiked at a sudden ‘ding!’ She turned around wildly, feeling slightly better to notice a microwave sitting on the counter on one side of the room. Hope must have been heating something up, she mused. Nothing weird about that.

She did her best to calm herself down, reassure herself that Hope didn’t know anything. She wasn’t acting like she was suspicious, as far as Jolene could tell. Jolene had probably just accidently re-locked the door when she was coming out, and Hope hadn’t realized. She sat down at the edge of the beat-up couch, feeling strange not having anything more substantial than the saggy pair of tights between the furniture and her underwear, making herself as comfortable as she could manage.

It didn’t take long for Hope to reappear, a shopping bag in hand. She paused at the door for a moment, then began to approach. “How old did you say you were, Joy?”

“Fifteen,” she repeated, more confident this time.

“That’s what I thought you said,” Hope nodded. “Which is weird… Because I thought you were more like five.”

Jolene squirmed in her seat. “What?”

“Oh, maybe not on the outside,” Hope continued, walking toward Jolene. “But on the inside… Definitely.” She grabbed something out of the bag, and before Jolene could stop her, had pinned it to the dress. Jolene looked down in confusion, seeing the pacifier now swinging off her costume. “Put it in your mouth.”

“Hope, what are you…?”

Hope lifted the pacifier, popped it into Jolene’s mouth. “Shh, it’s all right…” Hope said. “I’m going to take care of you now.”

Jolene knew she should protest, she should take the pacifier out, should run out of there, should do something… But she couldn’t. She wanted to fight back as Hope pushed her back onto the couch, pulled her tights down, but all she could do was lay there.

“I don’t know if Goodnites would still fit you,” Hope said, “but even if they did, I bet they wouldn’t hold up your tights well enough. These are more fitting, anyway, don’t you think?” Hope smiled, taking a package of adult diapers up, then tugging it open. “I think this is what you really want.”

Hope took ahold of Jolene’s panties. Jolene winced at the ripping sound that came from one side, and then the other. “Those are adorable,” Hope told her, “but you’re not going to need them any more.” Jolene felt something being slid under her, something thick and cushy, that her bottom sank into as her ruined underwear was yanked away. She could only manage a weak wriggle as the diaper was taped securely around her, then followed up with another one, then covered with her tights, which stayed up easily now, with the added bulk.

“Good girl,” Hope cooed, patting the back of the diapers gently, pulling Jolene to her feet. “That’s just about perfect,” she nodded, before heading over to the microwave. Jolene’s eyes darted to the door, to her escape, but it was the only part of her body that she dared to move. There was something soothing about all of this, much as she didn’t want to admit it, something comforting about the feel of the diapers around her, the sensation of sucking on her pacifier, something more comforting than the hundreds of sessions she’d had with her shrink, after that summer, something she’d been too scared to try herself. “Not yet,” she heard Hope say, and then the other girl returned, putting her hands on Jolene’s shoulders and guiding her back to the couch, sitting her down on it and then moving behind her.

Jolene’s eyes closed as she felt a brush being run through her hair, almost forgetting where she was, what was happening. She felt her hair being gently manipulated into a pair of pigtails. “I always knew I’d find you again,” Hope whispered in her ear.

Jolene nodded slowly, in a daze, letting Hope stick a pair of shoes on her feet, a Santa hat on her head. She heard the microwave door open behind her, then stood as Hope tugged at her hand. There was a slight rush of cool air as the back of her diaper was pulled out, only to be replaced with a thick, warm mess that woke her up quickly.

“What are you doing?” she demanded, finally letting her pacifier fall from her mouth, although it didn’t fall far.

“Just adding the finishing touch,” Hope said, letting the diapers and tights snap back into place, patting the rear again and spreading the contents. “You look perfect now!” She set a large measuring cup down on the couch, a bit of thick oatmeal still resting in the bottom, just as the rest of the contents were now resting in the bottom of Jolene’s underwear. “Don’t spit out your paci.”

The pacifier was shoved back between her teeth, and then she was being led by the hand towards that door, the one to the rest of the mall. Jolene began to squirm, to fight against Hope’s grip. She’d almost forgotten where she was, what was going on, but she remembered now, and she knew she couldn’t let it happen. “Stop it!” she said, spitting out her pacifier again.

“Why?” Hope asked. “You’re the little baby elf! You look adorable, sweetie - you’re going to be so popular! And nobody will ever know how much you like it.”

“I-I can’t go out there like this,” Jolene protested.

“But this is what you want,” Hope smiled. “And now, I’m going to give it to you.”

“Uh-huh,” Patti nodded, raising an eyebrow. “So you just ran off then, huh? Finally snapped out of it and realized how crazy it was?”

“Basically,” Jolene shrugged.

“That’s quite a story,” Patti said, leaning against her baseball bat.

“Oh, and yours isn’t?” Jolene asked. “Spending five years hunting fictional monsters because you can’t accept that a human could do something as horrible as what happened at camp? It was just a person! A lunatic, but just a human!”

Patti shook her head. Of course, she’d wondered if that wasn’t the case. When she’d run out of gas in her car, and money to put more in, she’d wondered. When she’d run away from the third straight house of a former counselor because she overheard their parents calling the police to tell them they had a ‘missing person’, she’d wondered. When she’d started having to keep to the shadows as she watched the people from her list, feeling more like a monster herself than the hero she knew she was, she’d wondered.

“There’s always two,” she said again. “He had to know there was a risk he’d be taken down… He would’ve turned someone before going in for the big feast. You.” She lifted the bat, pointing it at Jolene.

“I haven’t killed anyone,” Jolene countered. “Can you say the same?”

“Shut up,” Patti growled. Reminded herself it wasn’t killing, not when they weren’t human.

But was she wrong? Jolene’s story was pretty unbelievable, but, if you thought about it, wasn’t hers as well? Wouldn’t someone have gone public with the fact that vampires were real? In the age of Youtube and Twitter, nothing could stay secret forever.

“He wasn’t a vampire,” Jolene went on quietly. “Just a garden variety psycho… But he did turn someone.”

“Shut up!” Patti yelled, kicking Jolene in the chest, knocking her onto her back in the leaves and snow, poising the sharpened tip of her bat over the other girl’s chest.

But she couldn’t push it down. What was more unlikely, she wondered. Was it someone making up some fanciful quest to deal with what she’d seen? Was it another person drifting blandly through life before allowing herself to find comfort in the loss of control?

She shook her head, raised the bat higher, staring down into Jolene’s eyes, raising it a little too high, enough that it could allow Jolene to roll away, to escape and strike back. Patti’s hands began to sweat, just slightly.

“Do you really have what it takes?” Jolene asked, with the hint of a smile playing across her lips.

Patti’s fists tightened around the bat, raised it again, muscles tensing.

Blood splashed against the white snow, and out in the forest, one girl died.

A tongue darted across a pair of lips instinctively, licking a stray fleck of blood from them before they began to form a slow, small smile.

The End.

Re: Peace, Hope and Joy

Good read.

The ending took me off guard, I was kinda expecting some more playing with/explanation of the characters later on, kinda sad that the story was over when I just got to know them a bit better :). I also didn’t get the hints (if there were any) about the killer being a vampire during the camp-part, but I’m not a native English speaker, and you might have intended to leave it undecided until the end to give us that uneasy feeling at the end :stuck_out_tongue:

I think I haven’t finished reading one or two of your longer stories yet, so please excuse me now so I can stay up way too late to read, again :slight_smile:

Re: Peace, Hope and Joy

eeeps!!! where did that come from???