Callum made me carry the pumpkin the whole way to the den. I held it cradled in my arms like a fat, orange doll and stroked it as if it were a child and I was soothing it to sleep. I wasn’t sure how you could be soothed to sleep because I’d never had it done to me, but I imagined it was nice.
Callum dashed ahead when we reached the woods. “Come on, Izzy!” he called, summoning me beneath the canopy of trees with one finger. I grumbled, my cold hands fumbling with the pumpkin. It smelled musty, right under my chin and rubbing against my jacket. I hoped it wouldn’t mark my coat, my mother would notice within a millisecond if I came home grubby.
“You have a turn with the pumpkin,” I whined. “You’re the one that wanted it.”
“Stop moaning and hurry up!” Callum jeered. He was older so I had to do as I was told. “It’ll look great on our doorstep.”
“It’s not even carved,” I sniffed. My hands were slipping again and I struggled to pull the pumpkin into a better position. I was secretly happy it wasn’t carved. I didn’t like the way those huge, pointed teeth leered from every other doorstep at the end of October.
“It’ll look better plain, more rustic.”
My brother and I liked words, he would always use the ones I didn’t really understand. I made a mental note to find out what rustic meant. Perhaps it was something like ‘rusty’, in which case he was right, it was almost the right colour for rust. In fact, if that’s what the word meant, everything looked pretty rustic at the moment. The leaves were deep red and orange, most of them were on the floor, just leaving the bare bones of the trees to poke at the sky.
I kicked at the carpet of leaves as I followed Callum. He was well ahead by now, scooping them up and throwing them over his head. He stopped when a particularly large stick got caught up in his armful and landed on his head. I shrieked with laughter and he turned to scowl at me. He picked the stick up and threw it, it landed a few feet away but it had done its intended damage.
I unlinked my hands and let the pumpkin tumble to the floor. It landed with a dullish thud, like it was half empty or filled with cotton wool.
“Oh, don’t sulk, Izzy!” Callum shouted. He hadn’t moved towards me and I wasn’t going closer to him. I aimed a clumsy kick at the pumpkin and folded my arms across my chest.
“I’m not carrying the stupid thing any farther,” I said shrilly, my voice carried across the dead leaves and Callum sighed.
“Fine, I’ll carry it the rest of the way.”
We set off again. This time I skipped ahead, darting between the trees. Callum brought up the rear, grumbling and fumbling with the pumpkin. Anyone nearby would be able to hear his irritated footfalls. He sounded like my mother when she arrived home and worked her way up the stairs, every footstep was deliberate and hard. The whole house seemed to shudder beneath her feet; my legs would tremble with every thud.
“Over the brook!” Callum shouted his commands from somewhere behind me and I aimed my feet in the right direction. “Watch out for the sludge dweller!”
I paused at the edge of the brook. There was a narrow bridge that would carry me safely across but I peered underneath, searching for green glowing eyes and dirty grasping fingers. I saw neither and began to tiptoe across.
I shrieked and ran to the other side, then braved a look behind me and saw Callum standing on the bridge cackling with laughter.
“Idiot!” I spat. I turned and stalked away, shoving my hands in my pockets. After a few seconds of kicking the leaves and sticks and mud beneath my feet a little too hard, I realised Callum wasn’t behind me. I couldn’t hear his footsteps, or the way he breathed through his mouth when it was chilly because he didn’t like the cold air in his nose.
I turned back and scanned the trees. Callum had vanished.
I spotted the pumpkin right by the brook. It was on its side, lying in a solitary heap of leaves like an abandoned child. “Callum?” A tinge of fear crept into my voice. I didn’t like to be alone anywhere, not at home, not in my bedroom or the bathroom, and especially not in the woods.
I inched towards the pumpkin and the brook. The growls of the sludge dweller seemed to echo in my head but I shook myself firmly. “Nothing there, nothing there, nothing there…” I whispered under my breath. “Callum, please!”
There was a terrible shriek. It sliced through the silent woods and I scrambled to my right and hid behind a tree. I panted, my hands curled around the cuffs of my coat and my teeth biting painfully into my bottom lip. I peered around the mottled trunk. My fingertips found the grooves in the bark and I clung to it.
Callum was lying beside the pumpkin, his body was limp and his eyes closed.
“Callum?” I whispered. He stirred.
“Izzy?” he moaned.
I rushed over to him.
“It got me,” he breathed, pointing to his wrist and screwing his eyes tight shut. I followed his finger and saw three black marks on his wrist. Like ink that hadn’t been washed off properly, they were the perfect marks for fingers.
“It didn’t…” I said, glaring so hard at the marks that I wished I could burn them off with my eyes. There were three, half-moon grooves above each bruise, they matched our mother’s long fingernails and I started to feel sick.
“It did,” he snapped, he snatched his wrist away from my fingers. He pulled his sleeve down over the marks but I could still see them, as if they were burned into my mind.
“Alright, it did,” I said hastily.
He picked up the pumpkin and started to walk away. I ran after him.
We had found the den a few months before. There was a lonely streetlamp that didn’t light up and underneath it someone had started to build a tepee.
“It’s the scouts,” Callum had said, nodding appraisingly at the den. “We’d better get to work, assert our position so they don’t come back.”
“What, our position?”
“We need to make it ours, make it look inhabited so they stay away.”
And so we had. Callum had stolen an old roll of lino from Mr Wilson’s back garden. It was going mouldy around the edges anyway, so he wouldn’t mind. We cut the worst of it away and laid it out on the floor. Mr Wilson’s shed had produced a rusty hurricane lamp that we had taken weeks to work out. It was full of a dirty looking yellow liquid that made my nose tingle when I sniffed it, but it lit up our little den with a warm glow.
The plastic sheeting was mine, I found it covering an old motorbike in the block of garages and we borrowed it for the winter. We stapled it to the walls and Callum painted a large sign saying, ‘KEEP OUT OR DIE’, which we nailed to the opening.
“They say that the streetlamp was put here to guide the spirits of the monks through the woods so they wouldn’t haunt the town.”
“The monks!” Callum breathed. “There was an old monastery deep in the woods, you can only see the old foundations when it snows. Their spirits walk through the woods searching for the remains of their home. That’s why the lamp is here.”
“Rubbish,” I said nervously, hoping it was another of his stories.
I liked the streetlamp, like a spear through the middle of our den. It reminded me of a book my grandmother used to read me before she went to heaven. It was about children that found a lamppost in the woods and they found themselves in another world. Try as I might, I never found the way in around our lamppost. It was apparently completely ordinary, to my ever growing disappointment.
“Mum’s made us dinner,” Callum said happily, gesturing to the empty den and smiling at the wall.
“Thanks, Mum!” I said enthusiastically, grinning at the same spot and sitting down opposite Callum. He handed me a twix and I started to unwrap it.
“She’s made us a cake too.”
“What kind of cake?” I asked eagerly.
This story was originally published by Bandit Fiction as part of the Bandit Fiction Presents… series of digital issues. These issues remain freely available, and by purchasing one, you’ll be supporting us to continue doing what we love doing: bringing the best works from new and emerging writers to the masses.
“See for yourself.” Callum gestured to a tin foil package and I picked it up, unwrapping it with the utmost care. Inside was a cherry Bakewell, battered from the journey, its foil case was puckered and dented.
“Yummy,” I said, sniffing it slightly. We ate our chocolate quickly, rubbing our stomachs and groaning with delight.
Our mother always sat at the back of the tepee, invisible from the doorway because the lamppost obscured her. She had clean brown hair, pulled up at the back with a pretty hair slide. Her jumpers were always soft and warm and when she hugged us we would squash the fabric in our hands and let the warmth and softness envelop us.
Callum broke the cherry Bakewell into two and handed me the bigger half. I picked off the cherry and gave it to him. We ate in silence, taking tiny bites of the cake and making satisfying humming noises.
When the ritual was finished we tidied up, stuffing the wrappers back into Callum’s bag because our mother in the tepee was house-proud. She kept everything clean and would wipe at our mouths after we’d eaten and ruffle our hair. I loved it when she ruffled my hair. Her nails were never long, they were short and shiny and she never, ever dug them in.
Callum uncrossed his legs beside me and muttered, “It’s time to go.”
It was then that our mother started to fade like mist in the sunshine, I tried to focus on her, keep her there but the harder I tried the faster she vanished. The illusion was ending, it always did.
“Five more minutes,” I cried. I reached out for my mother’s hand and only found the cold lino beneath my fingers. I kicked my feet against the floor, shrieking. “Why did you do that?”
“Izzy, enough!” Callum shouted, grabbing my hand between his cold fingers. His nails were dirty, our mother in the tepee would never have dirty nails.
“Bring her back!” I yelled, hot tears dribbled down my cheeks. “Bring her back, now!”
“You promised!” Callum pulled his hand away from mine, his face was red, his eyes too. I stopped, he was going to cry.
“It’s not fair!” My voice cracked around the trees outside. The lamp’s flame bounced on the wick, like it was shrinking from my shouts.
“I told you, if you do this again we’re not coming back. You’re too young.”
“You are. Too young, too stupid.”
“I’m not stupid!” I screamed. I jumped to my feet and kicked my way out of the tepee.
“Izzy,” Callum called, following me outside. “Please, Izzy.”
“I hate her,” I screamed, letting my voice fly up to the top of the trees. “There’s no mother here!”
I was crying. The emotions inside my chest were swarming round and round like leaves caught in the wind.
“She’s ours, just ours,” Callum’s voice was desperate. “She’s always here when we need her.”
“She’s not.” The pumpkin was in my hands and I didn’t remember picking it up. “Because she always vanishes again, then we have to go home and I hate it!” I threw the pumpkin at our den, our little home in the woods.
“Izzy!” Callum screamed as the pumpkin crashed through the doorway and into the gently glowing hurricane lamp.
The base of the lamp disintegrated as the pumpkin thudded into it, the rusty metal split apart and the yellow liquid burst out. Callum whimpered as the liquid crept across the lino and under the flame.
“It won’t catch,” I prayed.
It did catch. It licked its way along the lino and up to the back wall where our mother would sit, following a dot to dot of the puddles of the horrible yellow liquid, making them glow as it went. Callum ran inside and started to stamp on it. His foot came down in the centre of the flames and he stamped and stamped and stamped, just like the time my mother found a mouse in the kitchen. She’d had to throw her slippers away after that.
I scurried over to Callum and grabbed his hand. His whole body shook with every stomp of his foot and he started to cry. The flames weren’t disappearing, they bloomed up around his trainer, growing longer and longer like fingers trying to clutch Callum’s ankle.
Our safe haven had become a monster.
I dragged Callum by the hand and we fell through the doorway. I became tangled in the curtain that had once been a makeshift door and I wrestled with it until Callum tore it over my head. We took a step back, still clutching hands and staring at the glowing flames within. The curtain caught fire and the flames dragged themselves higher and higher, grappling with every inch of our den.
“Mother’s still in there,” I said softly.
“No, she isn’t.”
I glanced at Callum. He was staring hard at the flames, glaring into them. They danced about in his eyes and for a moment I was frightened that he was the monster, it was inside him. Then he looked up at the sky and the flames vanished and were replaced with the stars. I followed his gaze, watching the smoke weave up into the sky like meandering rivers, dancing higher and higher.
There was a clicking noise. A ticking. Like something was getting too hot and was about to explode. I looked at Callum and he looked at me and the lamppost burst into light above our heads.
“It’s working!” I yelled, jumping up and down and dancing like the earth beneath my feet was on fire. “It’s working, it’s working!”
“So?” Callum said, dragging me back to earth with a tug of my hand.
I hadn’t told him about my dreams of another world beyond the lamppost. I filled him in quickly and excitably, tripping over the words as they tumbled out of my mouth.
“That’s silly,” he said, but his eyes were already working over the den, now completely engulfed in flames. I tried not to look at it, instead I looked past the den and at the surrounding woods.
“It’s nearly all gone, already.” I could feel tears on my cheeks again and brushed them away angrily. The sign above the den had turned black, all that was left was, ‘OR DIE’ but the blackness was slowly worming its way across the last few letters.
We waited, hand in hand staring into the smouldering wreckage of the den we had lovingly created, and within a few hot minutes it was black and grey dust on the ground.
Callum started to pick through the ruins, kicking aside slow burning logs with the toe of his shoe. Ash still burned on the makeshift walls, like little glowing ants forming constellations on the wood, crawling this way and that. He searched every inch of it, his eyes devouring every log and piece of charred lino.
“There’s nothing here, Izzy.”
“There must be, it’s never lit up before!” The lamp was whirring above our heads, glowing so bright it blocked out the stars.
“It’s not a sign,” he sighed. “It’s just a coincidence.”
It was a sign, I knew it was a sign. I started to stroll around the trees, searching for myself. It was getting darker, dusk creeping in and pushing daylight over the horizon. The shadows looked like holes in the earth, I wondered if I pushed them hard enough if I would find some way out. Somewhere better.
I made it back to the den and stood beside Callum again. My chest was heaving, my breaths caught at the back of my throat. Callum grabbed my hand and squeezed but it didn’t keep out the feeling of dark despair.
The lamp started to tick again and I glared up at it. The beam of light surrounded us and the den, like we were all that mattered, standing in the light together framed by the darkness.
“It was never really ours in the first place,” Callum mused, staring at the dying embers.
The lamp was ticking faster and faster, the light flickered. I tightened my fingers around Callum’s hand and watched. There was a pop and the light died, the glass shattered and fell to the floor in shimmering shards. They thudded into the ash below and we were plunged into the gloomy darkness.
We didn’t move for a while. We could just make out the red heat of the den and the soft smoke against the black night.
“We should go home,” Callum said, but there was no force behind his words.
“I don’t want to.”
“We have to.”
“She won’t be there yet anyway.”
I stared at the ashes, half expecting our dreamed up mother to rise from them like a phoenix, hair tinged red and flying about her face. Bare feet pressed into the scalding ground and clothed in the flames. There was no movement, though. Just the gentle glowing in the dust and the logs that once made up the sanctuary walls falling in on one another and crackling with the heat.
About The Author
Lily Hawkes is based in Hertfordshire. She graduates in September with first class honours in Media and Creative Writing and received a prize for the highest mark in her programme. Lily writes young adult fiction and is currently seeking representation for a coming of age novel. When she isn’t writing, Lily runs her own business selling handmade gifts and cakes, she also has a small but noisy dog who always manages to get up to mischief. She used to work in a bookshop and envied every single name on each spine, and hopes one day her own can join the ranks!
We release new stories multiple times every week, and the easiest to stay up to date with our new content is by subscribing to our content.