‘Have a good Christmas, Lex,’ Ryan said cheerfully, slinging his pack over one shoulder as he made his way to the bus. ‘See you in a couple of weeks,’ he called back, turning briefly to wave to his friend. Lex raised a hand half-heartedly in return before turning his back on the rest of the chattering students making their way onto the bus or into cars.
‘No, mom, camp’s finished now. Where’s dad?’ He looked over his shoulder once more, scanning all the adults present in search of his father, to no avail, while his mother, on the other end of the telephone, replied.
‘Today is Friday,’ he sighed, sending a stone skittering across the tarmac with the tip of his boot. ‘Look, is dad coming or not?’
The sound of the bus’ engine and the crunch of gravel under its wheels as it made its exit muffled the reply.
‘He’s where? In jail? What’s he done this time? Actually, you know what, I don’t care. Can’t you come and get me?’ He paused, listening. ‘The car’s been towed. For evidence. Great. No I can’t get the bus, it just left. Yeah I could get the next one, in two hours. Well thanks for nothing, mom.’ He shook his head as he hung up and shoved the phone back in his pocket. Something cold and wet touched his nose and he looked up to see snowflakes starting to fall. ‘Oh come on!’ he shouted to the heavens. ‘Seriously?’
The revving of a car engine caught his attention and he waved his arms in the air. ‘Hey, wait up!’ he yelled, running towards the vehicle, a garish yellow convertible. His heart sank as the passenger side window rolled down to reveal a smug-looking Ebony. They hadn’t exactly crossed paths before, but everybody knew Ebony. Few liked her, past her obvious charms at least.
‘Going somewhere?’ she smirked. It was obvious that he wasn’t.
‘You heading back to the city?’ he asked, ignoring the dig.
‘Maybe,’ Ebony replied. ‘Eventually. We were going to drive out into the countryside. Have a bit of…alone time.’
Lex narrowed his eyes angrily, then a voice called from the driver’s side of the vehicle. ‘Yes, we’re going to the city,’ the driver said. ‘Hop in.’ With a triumphant grin, Lex did just that, opening the door and throwing in his rucksack before following himself.
‘What’s your name?’ Ebony’s latest squeeze asked, brushing his mane of dark hair out of his eyes as he swivelled in his seat. Lex vaguely recognised him from the basketball team. Figured.
‘Lex,’ he answered.
‘I’m Bray,’ the other guy replied, offering his hand. ‘Nice to meet you Lex.’
‘Um, thanks for the lift,’ Lex said, shaking Bray’s hand awkwardly, at the same time catching Ebony’s eyes in the mirror. He smirked slightly and fire flashed across her gaze.
Ignorant of what was going on, Bray cleared the snow that had started to settle on the windscreen with the wipers and pulled out of the car park.
‘So Lex,’ Ebony purred as they joined the small country road that would eventually lead back to the city. ‘How come nobody was here to pick you up?’
‘Ebony!’ Bray exclaimed as Lex clenched his fists.
‘What? I’m just making conversation,’ she replied in a way that implied that she wouldn’t have had to if Bray hadn’t invited Lex in.
‘How did you find camp, Lex?’ Bray asked, changing the subject.
‘It was alright,’ Lex shrugged. ‘Better than being in school.’ In truth, this three day excursion to a forest cabin out of the city had also been a welcome break from his family, but that was nobody’s business but his.
The awkward smalltalk came to an end and silence filled the vehicle, except for the swish of the wipers as the snow began to get heavier. Lex was glad he wasn’t still at the cabin, waiting for the next local bus to the city.
As the evening quickly drew on, Bray turned his headlights on, which was how Lex saw her. Up ahead, trudging through the mounting snow on the grass verge alongside the road was a girl in a long winter coat and carrying a backpack. He didn’t recognise her but the girl’s headscarf identified her as being from the same school as the rest of them.
‘What kind of fruitcake walks all the way back to the city from winter camp?’ Lex scoffed.
‘Maybe one whose parents didn’t want to pick them up,’ Ebony joked. Lex scowled.
‘Hey, I know her,’ Bray said as they drove past. ‘She’s in some of my classes.’
Ebony twisted in her seat to look back the way they had come. ‘Oh, not that freak who tried to set all the animals in the science labs free and won’t eat anything in the canteen?’
‘They shouldn’t be caged like that,’ Bray argued. ‘We can learn all we need to know without them.’
‘Look, whatever, she’s still…wait, what are you doing? Don’t stop the car. Bray, do not stop this car.’ The wheels crunched through fresh, powdery snow as they pulled onto the verge and the car came to a halt. Ebony sighed. ‘We’ll never get back to the city if you keep stopping to pick up every waif and stray on the way,’ she complained. There was no reply. ‘Java says she’s a witch, you know,’ she added sulkily, folding her arms.
Bray barked a laugh. ‘Well that’s the pot calling the kettle black right there!’
‘Hey, that’s my sister you’re talking about!’
‘You’ve called her worse yourself!’
‘That’s different, I…’
‘Tai San! You want a lift back to the city?’ Bray called as the girl caught up to where they had parked.
‘Oh no, thank you,’ the girl declined. ‘The walk will do me good.’
‘In this weather?’ Bray questioned. ‘Come on, get in. Please? I’ll worry about you otherwise.’
Ebony scoffed as Bray turned on the charm. Tai San bent slightly to look inside the vehicle, then nodded. ‘Ok,’ she said, smiling. ‘Thank you.’ The door opened and Lex grabbed his bag off the seat, stuffing it carelessly by his feet as she got in beside him. They hit the road again and Lex watched as Tai San removed her wet headscarf and spread it out carefully over her knees before folding it into ever smaller triangles and placing it in her coat pocket.
‘What did you think of camp, Tai San?’ Bray asked. Ebony tutted. Lex rolled his eyes; not this again!
‘It was a little disappointing,’ Tai San answered. ‘For a retreat, I thought there would be more opportunities for personal reflection.’
‘It’s winter camp,’ Ebony said. ‘It’s supposed to be about having fun.’
‘Fun is important,’ Tai San agreed. ‘But so is meditation. And fasting. They help us to appreciate Christmas time and balance out the overindulgence.’
‘Is that why you were walking all the way back to the city?’ Bray asked, interested.
‘Aren’t you cheating sitting in here with us then?’ Lex pointed out.
‘Perhaps it is my fate to be here with the three of you tonight,’ Tai San smiled enigmatically. ‘Perhaps it was yours to be here with me.’ Her eyes twinkled and Lex sunk lower in his seat, turning up his collar so that it hid most of his face. They were starting to see more cars on the road now, and he didn’t want to risk any of his friends who were also coming back from camp seeing him in a car with the school loser. Tai San smiled knowingly and he shivered. Maybe she really was a witch.
‘Hey, Bray,’ he called out. ‘Pull over a second will you? I need to pee.’ That wiped the smile off Tai San’s face.
‘You should have gone before you left,’ Ebony said, as Bray pulled over onto the verge once more. ‘But of course Bray’s going to stop the car. Again.’
Lex hopped out of the car and on to the verge, trudging with difficulty through the deepening snow and into the trees out of view of the road. He needed to get away from the car and its crazy occupants for a minute. And he really did need to pee.
After he had done his business he started making his way back out to the road, and that was when the idea hit him. Instead of coming out where he had entered, he walked a short distance back the way they had come, emerging about a hundred metres behind the car. He crept towards it, trying to keep low and out of sight, then when he was finally up against the vehicle he smacked his hand against the window where Tai San was sitting and screamed. ‘Help! It’s got me! It’s got me!’ he cried, dragging his hand down the window pane. He sank to the ground laughing as he was rewarded with a shriek from inside.
Bray stuck his head out of the window. ‘Cut it out Lex,’ he said, looking unimpressed. ‘Get back in the car.’
He got up, wiping a laughter tear from the corner of his eye, and hopped back in. Tai San glared at him. Ebony remained silent – any comment on his prank would force her to sympathise with either him or Tai San, and she was clearly saving up all her sympathy for Christmas. Bray put his foot down and the party wagon rumbled on into the night once more. Lex chuckled at the miserable faces around him.
If they hoped the rest of their journey would pass more smoothly, they were in for a disappointment. The number of vehicles on the road as they got closer to the city continued to increase, and with the worsening weather they soon found themselves in a traffic jam. If he closed his eyes, Lex could see a perfect copy of the roadsign outside his window burned onto his retina, that’s how long he’d been staring at it. Sticking his head out of the window for a change of scenery, he found a trail of brakelights stretching ahead as far as the eye could see. Some of the drivers were sounding their horns to show their frustration, but it wasn’t getting them anywhere any faster.
He pulled his head inside with a sigh, and his stomach complained loudly. ‘If this goes on any longer, I’m gonna hunt something,’ he said matter-of-factly. ‘I mean, there must be something out in those woods, right? Rabbit? Deer? Hey, anyone fancy Rudolph burgers?’
Bray snorted. ‘You got a shotgun on you then, Lex?’ he teased.
Ebony turned around to look Lex up and down. ‘If he’s packing anything,’ she said. ‘Then it must be very, very small.’ She turned back with a self-satisfied smirk and Lex’s eyes narrowed.
‘I don’t need no gun,’ he said, holding has hands up, palms facing himself. ‘Just these. You don’t need a weapon to strangle something, to squeeze its life out with your bare hands.’ He mimicked doing just that, twisting his hands around an imaginary foe’s neck. It was just a coincidence that Ebony was sitting right in front of him. ‘To feel the heat of their blood pumping beneath your fingers,’ he continued. ‘To hear the snap of their neck…’
‘What’s everybody doing for Christmas?’ Tai San interrupted, looking decidedly pale. Lex settled back into his seat contentedly. He’d made his point.
Bray was happy enough to change the subject. ‘Nothing special,’ he answered. ‘Just spending it with family.’
‘Isn’t your dad overseas at the minute?’ Ebony asked. There was an ominous silence.
‘You’ve been talking to Martin, haven’t you?’ Bray said quietly. ‘I thought you said you were going to stay away from my brother?’
‘I…I have,’ she replied sounding flustered. ‘I just overheard him telling somebody as I passed by. You’ve got to believe me, Bray!’
Lex was quite enjoying seeing Ebony on the back foot. That is until he caught her gaze in the rear view mirror again and realised she was completely in control. No doubt she was deliberately trying to wind Bray up, to make him jealous, for whatever reason. Maybe she was getting her own back after Bray’s charm offensive with Tai San earlier. Lex didn’t know, or care. As she and Bray continued to bicker, he dug out his earphones, drowning them out with the new Rancid Phlegm album. Bliss!
Some time later his peace was disturbed by the jolting of the car. ‘Where are we?’ he asked, realising that the lights of the cars in front had been replaced by the darkness of a dirt road that was most definitely not the road to the city.
‘We finally managed to take a turning off the main road,’ Bray explained. ‘Tai San knows a shortcut.’
‘A shortcut?’ he said with scepticism.
‘When the path around the mountain is blocked,’ Tai San murmured. ‘The high passes seem inviting.’
‘In other words,’ Ebony translated. ‘This might be the long way round but at least we’re moving.’
The undisturbed snow on this road was thick and, though they initially made good progress, it wasn’t long before they started to slow down, eventually coming to a stop altogether as the car refused to budge. Bray tried reversing back the way they had come and was met with the same resistance. They were well and truly stuck.
‘This might be the long way round but at least we’re moving,’ Lex mocked.
‘Can it, will you!’ Ebony snapped. ‘Bray, we have to do something. We can’t sit here and freeze.’
‘We’re going to have to get out and walk,’ Bray decided. ‘Either find somewhere to shelter or someone we can borrow equipment from to dig ourselves out.’ With a sigh, he opened the door and stepped out into the snow. The others followed. Ebony was right, they couldn’t just sit there.
For what seemed like forever they trudged through the snow, hoods up and coats held tightly against themselves. Lights finally started to appear in the distance and they moved towards them like moths to a flame. As they drew closer, they couldn’t believe their eyes.
‘What the hell?’ Lex exclaimed as a building came into view.
‘Is that…’ Ebony began, but was unable to finish.
‘A gingerbread house,’ Bray confirmed. ‘An actual gingerbread house.’
As unbelievable as it seemed, they couldn’t deny their own eyes. There it stood, tall and golden brown, with crafted sugar windows and candy canes lining the path to the door.
‘How has this been here all the time without anybody knowing about it?’ Lex asked incredulously.
‘Maybe it’s a temporary thing,’ Tai San mused. ‘We haven’t seen a paper or news report for three days, remember. Perhaps it’s something that’s been set up for Christmas.’
‘Whatever it is, the lights are on,’ Bray pointed out. ‘And this could be the only place for miles around.’ He started off down the path and the others followed him. Lex pulled up one of the candy canes along the way and started licking it. It tasted real enough.
‘Lex!’ Tai San gave a scandalised whisper at his wanton destruction.
As they reached the door, Bray knocked tentatively. It sounded pleasingly crisp and was obviously baked to perfection, but nobody answered. They waited a while, then Ebony tried the pink marshmallow doorknob. It turned and the door opened.
‘Hello?’ Tai San called out. There was no reply.
‘There’s nobody in,’ Lex said confidently, and stepped through. Inside it was like a perfect little cottage, if cottages were made out of biscuit. One large room with gingerbread walls and gingerbread furniture, with details picked out in marshmallows and other sweet delights. The only normal thing about it was the log fire at one end of the room, making it deliciously warm, quite literally. Tai San held her hands in front of it while the others were drawn to the gingerbread table, where four mugs of hot chocolate stood on cookie coasters.
‘Hey! It’s still warm!’ Lex cried, noticing the steam rising from the cups.
‘Maybe we should be careful,’ Bray warned. ‘Whoever made these could be back any second.’
‘I don’t care, I’m freezing!’ Ebony retorted, draining the mug and then, for good measure, eating that as well, leaving only crumbs. Lex waited to make sure she suffered no ill effects before doing the same.
‘Mm, this is good,’ Bray announced. ‘Why don’t you join us Tai San?’
‘I don’t think so,’ she replied, coming over to the table and eyeing the fourth mug with disdain. ‘I only drink herbal tea.’
‘What a surprise,’ Ebony muttered under her breath. Now that the fireplace was free she went over to it, taking her jacket off and hanging it on a chair nearby to dry. ‘Ah, that’s better,’ she sighed contentedly.
Lex lifted his nose to the air as the smell of Christmas spices wafted through the room. ‘Oh man, is something baking?’ he asked excitedly. His parents weren’t much into Christmas baking, or indeed any kind of baking, and his mouth began to water at the thought.
Bray got up stiffly, rubbing his neck. ‘Wow, I must have really tensed up after all that driving,’ he said, moving awkwardly to the oven. ‘Better not let it burn, whatever it is. I wonder what’s happened to whoever lives here.’ His hand stopped abruptly halfway to the temperature knob.
‘What’s up?’ Lex asked.
‘The oven isn’t switched on,’ Bray replied, bending painfully to open the door. ‘And…it’s empty.’
‘Then where’s the smell coming from?’
‘I think…’ Tai San said softly. ‘I think it’s Ebony.’
The boys turned towards the fireplace, Bray with some difficulty, and paused. Ebony stood with her arms outstretched by the fire, steam rising from her hands, which were turning golden brown. In fact her whole body seemed to be…flattening, her features losing their detail as the colour spread from her arms to her chest and down to her legs. Her face was the last to go, a grimace of useless struggle turning into a fixed, wide smile, and then there she stood, a full-sized gingerbread person with her clothing marked out in red and black icing.
Wide-eyed and mouth agape, Lex found himself gripping onto the candy cane he had taken from outside in terror. Realising this, he loosened his grip, or tried to. He couldn’t let go. Looking down at his hand he found that the candy cane was stuck there by some sort of doughy substance.
‘Bray!’ he yelled across the table. ‘What’s going on?!’ But Bray wore a vacant expression, his features starting to become more elongated and angular as he went through his own transformation.
Lex jumped out of his seat, making a squelching noise as more dough came off him and stuck to the furniture, while each step left doughy footprints on the floor. ‘Tai San! Do something!’ he pleaded.
‘I am doing something,’ she replied calmly. ‘I’m turning you into a gingerbread man.’ She crossed over to Ebony and, to Lex’s horror, took a bite out of her neck. ‘Ugh, far too bitter,’ she complained, tearing off Ebony’s head and casually throwing it into the fire. ‘But you look much tastier, Lex.’
‘You?!’ Lex cried as panic well and truly set in. ‘But why, Tai San?’ He turned to run but was caught by the wooden arms of a giant toy soldier, wearing Bray’s face.
‘Why? Well, I’m a witch, Lex,’ Tai San replied. ‘Or hadn’t you heard? I’m glad you like my house, though I’m very cross about my fencepost.’
Lex struggled against Bray’s hold, but his doughy body was stuck fast. ‘Come on Bray, snap out of it!’ he begged, but it was no use. Soldier Bray marched him over to the fire, where he started to bake. ‘I don’t understand,’ he said to Tai San. ‘You’re supposed to be all “save the animals”, peace and love and all that!’
‘Who we are and who we have to be to survive are two very different things,’ she said simply. ‘Now come on Lex, give me a hand will you?’ And she snapped off his left arm. Lex screamed,…And woke with a start in the back of the car, Rancid Phlegm still playing through his earphones. Ebony snorted with laughter, and even Bray chuckled.
He removed his earphones, looking around with wide, confused eyes. It was still snowing, but they had reached the city, somewhere in Sector 5 if he wasn’t mistaken.
‘Bad dream, Lex?’ Tai San asked, again with that knowing smile. He shivered.
‘Here you go, Tai San,’ Bray said, pulling up outside a house that, Lex was pleased to note, was not made of gingerbread.
‘Thank you Bray,’ she said, opening the door and stepping out. ‘Happy Christmas!’
‘Happy Christmas!’ Bray echoed. Ebony murmured something non-committal.
Lex sighed with relief, then a knock on the window had him practically leaping out of his skin.
‘Have a good Christmas, Lex!’ Tai San’s muffled voice called through the glass. He watched as she walked down the path and into the house.
‘Bit jumpy tonight, aren’t we?’ Ebony teased as they pulled away from the kerb.
‘Don’t worry Lex, she doesn’t bite,’ Bray added.