"Welcome to Anderson's Outlet. Can I help you find anything today?"
I couldn't believe I was working here tonight. It was Christmas Eve, of all nights, and Mrs. Anderson had called to ask if I could come in for a few hours to man the store, since Nathan was sick. I'd agreed, only because she was offering a little holiday bonus. If it weren't for that incentive, I'd probably be at home in my cozy pajamas, sipping hot chocolate and watching sappy holiday films on TV.
My father had gone to the office to finish up some paperwork, and even though I'd much rather be at home, I was secretly glad that I had to work. I was still nervous about staying home alone, even with the handgun my dad allowed me to keep in my nightstand.
My boyfriend's family, The Millers, had gone to Hawaii to spend the holiday with some friends. I was extremely disappointed, but I hadn't wanted Caleb, my boyfriend, to know, so I managed to disguise how I really felt about him leaving and convinced him to go with his family. I had a feeling he didn't believe I would be all right and he was feeling guilty for leaving me, even for a short amount of time, but he'd gone just the same.
Returning my attention to the customer, who had ignored my first offer to help, I walked over to him and repeated my question, "Can I help you find something?"
The man turned around and glared at me. Probably another city boy thinking he was cool by going camping in the winter. Moron.
"No, I think I can find exactly what I'm looking for all by myself," he snapped, turning away from me.
I rolled my eyes and gave his back the finger before making my way back behind the register. I hated guys like him. They were always cocky and had a superior complex. Just because I was female, it meant I was an incompetent buffoon who didn't know a tent from a turtleneck.
Once behind the register, I sat down on my stool and propped my feet up on the counter, waiting for the guy to finish browsing and pay. I grabbed the book I was reading and flipped to the dog-earred page that marked where I'd left off. I managed to get through two pages before I heard the man clearing his throat. I set the book down and glanced at him with an expectant look on my face.
"Yes?" I asked, taking my feet off the counter and getting up off the stool. "Are you ready to check out? Did you find everything you were looking for?"
The man tossed his items onto the counter and muttered something about sarcasm. I had to hold back the smug smile that wanted to burst from my lips, settling instead on a look of casual boredom. I rang his purchases up and said, "That will be one-oh-two exactly."
The man swiped his credit card and when the transaction was complete, I handed him the bag with his items, wished him a Merry Christmas, even though I didn't think he deserved one, and watched as he walked out of the store.
Glancing at the clock, I saw it was only seven-thirty. I sighed. Another thirty minutes and I could go home. I doubted there would be anymore customers tonight, but if I locked up early and someone came, Mrs. Anderson wouldn't give me my bonus and I wanted it. It was the only good thing about being here tonight.
The half hour passed quickly enough, thanks to my book. When it was time to go home, I did a walkthrough of all the aisles, making sure everything was in its place. Then I switched off all of the lights except for the outside light and the ones behind the register. I dimmed those, grabbed the keys to lock up and started for the door.
It was freezing outside and thick snowflakes drifted lazily from the sky, landing on my nose and cheeks. I shivered slightly as I locked the door and walked to my truck.
I quickly got in, started the truck and cranked the heat to its full power, wanting to get rid of this chill. Once the truck was warmed up, I pulled out of the parking lot carefully and guided it onto the road.
I knew there were patches of ice here and there and I drove slowly, carefully, so as not to cause an accident. That was the last thing I needed. I could picture it now: my truck wrapped around a tree, flakes drifting down onto the crushed remains, bright red blood staining the pristine white snow, and my mangled body lying lifeless in all the wreckage. Gosh, that was morbid. Why I was even thinking like that, I didn't know.
I shook my head, trying to rid myself of the horrible image. Deciding I needed some music, I reached for the radio dial and flicked it on. Just as the soft sounds of Christmas music filled the interior of my truck, it happened.
The truck skidded to the right, startling me. I grabbed the wheel and tried to guide the truck back onto the road, but the snow and hidden patch of ice were too much and I knew this was going to end badly. I jerked the wheel as hard as I could to the left, forgetting everything my dad had ever told me about driving in the snow. The truck's tires squealed and I cringed. In a matter of seconds, I was off the road and careening towards the trees. The morbid image of my dead body rose into my mind just as the truck slammed into the trunk of a thick oak.
I felt my body being thrown forward and heard more than felt the windshield shattering as I went through it. I landed with a heavy thud next to the tree and felt something crack. Then everything went black.
When I came to, I felt my body being lifted into the air. I was still groggy and felt as though I could drift back into the darkness at any moment. Faint voices filtered into my ears, but the words made no sense. I blinked and tried to focus my vision on something, anything. The flashing lights of an ambulance hit my eyes and I groaned softly before blacking out again.
"Sophie?" a voice called softly. "Sophie, can you hear me?"
I moaned softly and struggled to release myself from the grip of unconsciousness. I could feel the veil of darkness lifting slowly and I forced all of my attention on opening my eyes. A minute later, I heard another, very familiar voice. "I think she's coming to."
I moaned again and blinked my eyes, trying to get my vision to clear so I could see who was speaking to me. After another couple of minutes, I managed to open my eyes fully and look around.
The room was still slightly blurry, but it was oddly familiar to me. I wasn't in the hospital, even though I could vaguely remember being put into the back of an ambulance. Or maybe I had dreamed that. I still wasn't sure.
A face loomed over me and I let out a squeak of surprise. I recognized the dark hair and brown eyes. But it couldn't be him. The Millers had gone to Hawaii and weren't due home for another three days.
I blinked at him stupidly and whispered, "Caleb?"
The face nodded and his beautiful voice rang in my ears. "Yes, love, it's really me."
As my vision cleared and I really looked at him, I noticed something seemed off. I figured it was because I'd been in a horrible car accident and was really banged up. Caleb had never been good with blood and the sight of me probably sickened him and made him feel guilty at the same time.
"Wh-where am I?" I mumbled, the words slurring together. "Hospital?"
Caleb shook his head. "No, love, you're at the house. My dad found you and brought you here. He's going to take care of you. Don't you worry."
I detected a hint of...something in Caleb's voice and it made me frown. What was going on here? I knew Charlie was a doctor and all, but after the accident I'd just had, I knew I should have been taken to the hospital, not the Miller house.
Caleb moved out of my line of sight and I sighed, figuring he couldn't stand to look at me anymore. I was probably a hideous disaster. If only I had a mirror. No, scratch that, I didn't want to see what I looked like.
Just then, a strange scent tickled my nose. I sniffed the air and realized what it was: mint. Why was I smelling mint? I turned my head from side to side, wincing as the pain exploded behind my eyes. From what I could tell, this was a bedroom of some sort and I was lying on an elevated bed.
"Caleb?" I called, hoping he could hear me. "Caleb, what is that smell?"
He reappeared at the side of the bed a moment later and brushed some stray strands of hair from my forehead.
"Shh, don't you worry about anything," he whispered, kissing me softly. "Mum's baking cookies. Candy cane cookies. That's what you're smelling."
"Oh," was the only thing I managed to say before Caleb left my side yet again. He was becoming increasingly suspicious and I wanted to know what was going on.
I tried to get up from the bed, even though that was probably a bad idea. I didn't know the extent of my injuries and I wasn't even sure I could walk.
After struggling for a few seconds, I realized something. I was tied to the bed; my wrists and ankles bound with neckties. What the hell? Now I was really confused and a little scared. I wanted to get out of here, get to a hospital and call my father.
"Caleb!" I shouted, tugging at my bonds. "Caleb, you get in here right now!"
*Shut up!" a voice screeched from the doorway. "Just shut your mouth, you stupid bitch."
I turned my head and saw Rosie standing there, an irritated look on her face. She glared at me, and if looks could kill, I would be dead by now. I almost wished I was.
"Rosie, what is going on here?" I demanded, ignoring the pain that was slowly returning to every part of my body. "Tell me! I need to know."
Rosie laughed, a nasty sound if ever there was one, and sneered at me. "I'm not telling you a thing, Sophie. You'll find out soon enough. You're going to get what's coming to you."
I stared at her blankly, the terror washing over me in waves. What was she talking about? What was going to happen to me? And why wasn't Caleb putting a stop to this insanity?
Tears formed in my eyes and began to trail down my cheeks, running into my ears and making them itch. "Please. Please help me. I don't know what's going on."
Rosie just laughed again and strolled out of the room, leaving me alone with my thoughts. I tried to come up with a legitimate reason that would explain why I was tied down, but nothing was coming to mind. Nothing made sense and all I could do now was wait and see what happened.
I must have drifted off to sleep because the next thing I knew, a warm hand was touching my cheek. My eyes flew open and I stared up at the person with wide, frightened eyes.
"Charlie?" I asked when I realized who it was. "Charlie, what's going on?"
He pressed a finger to my lips and whispered, "Shh, Sophie, don't talk. It's better if you're quiet now."
I looked at him, a confused expression on my face. What did that mean? Why did I have to be quiet now? That was the question I kept coming back to - why?
Just then, Anne walked into the room with a tray. I couldn't tell what was on it, but I assumed it was cookies. Caleb had told me she was making cookies.
Caleb followed behind her, then came Rosie. All of the Millers surrounded the bed I was tied to and stared down at me, different expressions on each one's face.
Rosie looked gleeful, Caleb looked saddened, and Charlie and Anne looked determined. What the hell was going on?
"Please," I begged, glancing at each one of them in turn, hoping someone would help me. "Please, what is going on? Why am I tied down? What are you going to do to me?"
"Hush, Sophie, this is for your own good," Anne said in a motherly tone.
Tears continued to leak from my eyes as I began thrashing about, ignoring the pain from the accident. That was nothing to me now. All that mattered was getting away from the suddenly freakish Millers.
"Please!" I screamed, begging them one last time. "Don't do this to me."
Rosie chuckled and I followed her gaze to Charlie. He was holding a syringe in his hand. It was currently empty, but whatever was on that tray was what he planned to fill it with.
"Oh, God!" I cried, continuing to thrash about until a sharp slap stopped me. I blinked rapidly, stunned from the sudden pain, and saw that it had been Caleb who'd delivered the blow.
"Cal-" I began, but was cut off when he slapped me again.
"Don't say my name," he said angrily, a hurt expression on his face. "How dare you take the Lord's name in vain!"
I stared at him blankly, trying to discern what he meant. The Millers weren't religious...were they?
I heard Anne murmuring something softly to herself and from what I could tell, it was a prayer. So maybe they were religious. But what did that have to do with anything? I still couldn't understand.
Just then, Charlie grabbed my arm and began patting his fingers down the length of it. He reminded me of the nurses and doctors who did just that when they were searching for veins to draw blood from. When I realized that was exactly what he was doing, I began to sob hysterically.
"No! Please, don't!" I shouted to deaf ears. "Please, just stop it! Why are you doing this?"
Finally, Charlie stopped and motioned for Anne to come closer. She quickly swabbed the spot on my arm near the crook of my elbow, the coldness chilling my skin. My eyes were glued to that spot, awaiting whatever was coming next. Charlie lifted the syringe and I saw a strange red liquid lurking inside. What the hell was that? What was he injecting me with?
Just then, the minty smell returned full force and my nose wrinkled. I'd never been a fan of anything minty. Before I could open my mouth to say anything, I heard Charlie speaking.
"For by his stripes we are healed."*
I started to protest as the syringe was brought down to my arm. I whimpered as the needle was inserted into my vein and the plunger was depressed.
All of a sudden, I felt a sharp, burning pain and I gasped in shock. My vision began to blur and my body began to shake. I had no idea what was happening. The only thing my mind could focus on was the immense burning pain coursing through my body.
My throat began to fill with a metallic taste and spittle foamed into the corners of my mouth. I tried to scream, but the sound was choked back and all that came out was a strangled gurgle.
I could see every member of the Miller family leaning in closer to me, each of them holding something in their hand. It looked like a broken, sharp-edged candy cane. Why would they have broken candy canes?
I got my answer a moment later. Slowly, each one took turns slicing their candy canes into my arms. I could hear Charlie telling them exactly where to cut. Warm blood began to spurt from my veins, covering them in the sticky redness. I could feel my life draining out of me as the blood left my body and whatever had been injected into me took its toll.
The last thing I heard was Caleb's melodic voice chanting.
"Look at the Candy Cane. What do you see? Stripes that are red like the blood shed for me. White is for my Savior Who's sinless and pure! 'J' is for Jesus, My Lord, that's for sure! Turn it around and a staff you will see. Jesus, my shepherd, was born for Me!"**
Author's Note: The first phrase(*) is from a page on Poofcat.com. It describes the legend of the candy cane.
The second phrase(**) that Caleb chants at the end is from a page on the Chocolate Candy Mall site which also discusses the legend of the candy cane.