"You might be a bit young for that one still, maybe next year." I dismiss and continue to walk, thinking I spot a magnetic pumpkin fishing game up ahead. I'm really good at those.
"No, look that. It says 5+," Soren pulls my arm backwards as I try to continue walking by and points to the sign by the makeshift ticket desk. "And I'm 7, which is 2 more than 5."
I cursed in my head. When did he become numerate? "Are you, are you sure bud?" I can't say that I'm exactly scared of the haunted house itself, but Soren tends to be a little more delicate than he can remember himself.
"Yeah!" Soren walked confidently towards the line without even glancing back so I follow reassured with the idea that at least they might take it easy on a little kid.
I spoke to the guy selling tickets just to double check the age recommendation and he assured me it was nothing too scary inside, "Just a few good kids from the high school drama club and props from Home Depot," he said. "And none of the doors are actually locked."
I reluctantly handed over $5 each and we joined the short line waiting to go in. Soren began to chatter on about how he was sure I was going to be more scared than him, and I thought that was highly likely.
As I suspected we were forced into a one-way system upon entering. The house wasn't too dissimilar from our house on the outside, but inside it had been poorly maintained and probably last decorated in 60s or 70s. The woodwork was chipping and the wallpapers were all intensely floral. We passed through the entrance hall and followed the only open door. As we passed by the display of jack-o-lanterns blocking the two other doors they lit up and a chorus of ghostly, yet comical, cries struck up.
Soren laughed hysterically and peered into the lanterns. "They should ask us to carve these lanterns dad, we'd do a real spooky job!"
"I reckon we could do the spookiest job!" We had become quite the pumpkin carving team. It had always been my favourite part of Halloween and I was glad to discover that Soren had the patience for it. This was the first year I had actually let him do some of the carving. Usually he just drew his design and I would carve it out for him, but this year he drew a skull shape by himself and I let him cut away with his own knife. I helped where he needed it, but he was surprisingly adept at it.
The first room was a hall of mirrors. They created a sort of maze that led to the other side of the room. Some were tall, some were wide and they all seemed to have a little distortion about them.
"Look daddy, I'm so fat!" Soren calls. He had immediately found the mirror that distorted his image outwards to make it seem like his skinny little body filled the whole mirror.
"Oh no! You'll have to lay off all those pretzels!" I tease and then jumped when a dark figure appeared behind Soren in the mirror. It cackled loudly and Soren squeaked and darted to my knee.
"What was that?" He asked as the figure concealed itself behind another mirror.
"Oh, I don't know," I tease. "Something very spooky," I pull out the 'oo' in spooky so far that it has Soren rolling his eyes.
"Let's go to the next room," he tugs on my hand heading for the only open door yet again. Now we are clearly in what used to be the kitchen. There is fake blood splattered everywhere and an audio of squeaking wheels is playing from one of the cabinets.
On closer inspection we see that there is red pulp all over the place. I suspect it might just be dyed pumpkin guts but it seems to be making Soren a little uneasy as he continues to move through the room without stopping to inspect anything too closely. As he reaches the centre of the room the fridge door swings open from behind him and the audio suddenly changes to that of clanking chains and groaning. There is a bloody figure covered in chains trying to break out of the fridge.
"Dad!" Soren squeals and I rush to him immediately.
"He can't move sweetie," I say reassuringly and debate whether to rush him out of the room or let him stay to see that nothing can actually happen to him. "Do you want to look?"
Soren shakes his head vigorously but resists as I try to guide him towards the next door and instead stays transfixed staring at the ghoul in the fridge. "He's stuck?" He asks with a little question in his voice.
"Yup," I try to say in a light voice. "He's tied up with all those chains you see," I point them out and Soren gives a little laugh.
"But why is he in the fridge?"
I feel a little relief as Soren's mood seems to lighten, but my anxiety rises immediately when Soren takes a few steps towards the wailing, bloody, fridge-trapped ghoul.
"Do you know my name?" The ghoul from the fridge howls.
Soren shuffles closer and shakes his head.
"Casp-burr," the ghoul wails back and Soren laughs and I find myself also laughing at this terrible joke. Soren had recently got into jokes. Madget had bought him a joke book for his birthday and he had taken great delight in reading, then memorising and performing all sorts of terrible jokes for kids. Something made me sure this would slot nicely into his repertoire.
After the kitchen we find ourselves in a short hallway that leads to the staircase. It is full of fog from a smoke machine and poorly lit. It enchants Soren and he tries catching it in his hands and enjoys the sensation of swirling through it to change its direction. He is so absorbed in his witchcraft that he is not prepared when he stands on the bottom step and a cackling animatronic witch on a broom swoops from the top of the stairs to the bottom, right above his head.
"Woah!" He shrieks, "That was close!"
He proceeds a little more cautiously up the rest of the stairs. It's the sort of staircase in two parts and when we reach the midway landing we find our way up entirely blocked by a string spider web. Soren begins to crawl through it and I do my best to stretch my legs over, but with the prosthetic it's a bit of a bind and I end up following Soren through by shuffling on my butt.
"Come on dad," Soren whines. "You're so slow!"
"You'd be this slow too if you only had one leg," I gripe but I don't think he hears me.
"I think I see ghosts! Come on!"
"Alright, I'm here," I struggle to my feet using the end of the banister to pull me up. I sincerely hope there is a different staircase to exit through because I can't see myself getting down that way.
Soren slips his hand into mine again and we duck under some hanging bats to enter the next room. The lights are on when we enter but begin to flicker unnervingly. I can hear the distant wailing of a child looking for its mother playing over a very convincing audio track in the adjacent room.
"I just saw something in here," Soren complains. "Where have they gone?"
With that the lights switch off and he grips my hand a little tighter. Suddenly they begin to flicker again and I realise there are about 10 other people in the room with us all wearing white sheets from head to toe and muttering eerily.
Their muttering gets slowly louder and I'm a little uneasy because I can't actually see Soren's face to gauge how he's finding this. I really hope his new-found bravery is holding up. I give his hand a little squeeze and he squeezes back. The muttering and murmuring crescendos with a high-pitched scream and a blackout, which is accompanied by a chorus of loud screams from all angles. Suddenly something grabs at my free hand and I panic, trying to shake it off. The harder I shake the tighter it holds. The screaming has stopped and there is only wailing now and it's not coming from Soren as I immediately worry, it's coming from my hand, the other hand that is not holding Soren. I keep shaking, but it won't let go.
The lights come up and I'm horror struck to see a screaming pumpkin clutching to my hand. No, not a pumpkin. A child dressed as a pumpkin.
"Mommy!" The little pumpkin howls. Her face is as red as a fire truck and her voice is raw from the screaming.
"Hey," I bend down, "hey, it's ok." She looks a little younger than Soren and seems beyond distraught. She's wearing a pumpkin onesie that probably makes her look even younger and her dark hair which might have been neatly braided earlier is a tangled mess. She looks at me and as if only just realising I'm not her mother wails louder and tries to flee, but I stop her. "We'll find her, ok?"
"Mommy?" She sobs again.
"Yeah, I'm sure we can find her. Was she in the house with you?" I rub her back gently and her sobbing softens a little.
"I can't see her!" The girl sniffles and wipes her nose on the sleeve of her pumpkin onesie.
"We'll find her. I'm sure she's looking for you too," I try to reassure her. "What's your name?"
"Ivy," Tears continue to race down her cheeks and she looks up at me with pleading eyes. "I want to go home." She takes my hand again and starts pulling me back towards the staircase to leave.
I let her lead us over but once we get back to the top of the stairs we hear the shrieking and laughter of a group of middle schoolers making their way through the spider's web and the little girls whines and turns, her little feet stamping in fear. "I want out!" She wails.
"Let's go this way," I suggest and holding Soren in one hand and the little dark-haired girl in the other I turn our party around and head back into the ghost room. "We're just passing through," I announce loudly as the lights begin their flickering again and hope the drama club ghosts get the message. They do because the lights go back to normal and we pass through without incident.
"I don't like those ghosts!" Ivy complains loudly. "They lost me my mommy."
I pause wondering if the mother had gone backwards to look for her but decide that our best bet is just to get out of the house as quick as we can because Ivy seems so distressed.
We find ourselves on an upstairs landing. There are two doors aside from ours leading off the hall and what must be the house's main staircase leading down. Our way to the staircase is blocked by a fake coffin diverting us through the room to the left.
I let go of Soren's hand and try to twist the coffin towards the wall. It shifts quite easily, "OK, we'll just go through here and then down the stairs. Can you follow me?" I pull Ivy along with me and Soren follows obediently. I'll have to make it up to him for skipping half the house. Maybe the nice guy at the front would let us go around again once we explain what happened.
"It's too dark," Ivy sobs and stops walking right at the top of the stairs. "I don't want to!" She points her finger down the stairs; her feet resolutely glued to the ground. A couple of teenagers come out of the room at the top of the stairs and push past us on the staircase. As they descend arms begin to poke out of the walls lining the staircase and they shriek in excitement and fear. In the split second before the wailing starts again; I hope to myself that Ivy didn't see, but the blood curdling scream lets me know that she definitely saw.
"Dad, I don't like it," Soren pipes up and goes back the couple of steps he has taken to the top of the staircase again too.
"It's ok," I say loudly more to the concealed actors than to Soren, "I'm sure those spooky arms will keep themselves to themselves while two little kids go down the stairs." I emphasise hoping that they get the idea and let them pass without fright.
"Oh, right," Soren seems to catch my drift. "Come on Ivy," and in a remarkably grown up fashion takes her hand and begins to coax her down the stairs. She has one fist in her mouth, biting furiously, and takes the stairs two feet to each step as Soren leads her down. She still weeps, but the screaming is over and slowly we make our way down. I walk down sideways with my back to the wall just in case any dumb theatre kid gets any stupid ideas.
We make it down and into what I sincerely hope is the last room as I can see the backdoor to the house on the other side. The room is lit with purple lights and has an array of potion bottles around the walls with a great big cauldron in the middle. A 'witch' is standing by it stirring.
"Ah, you've made it through the house of horrors," she rasps. "Why not come take a little treat from my cauldron, eh?"
Soren's face lights up in delight, but Ivy's hand has found me again and she's pulling on it hard.
"Ah, thank you," I say, "But we really have to get going. This one has lost her mom."
"But dad-" Soren begins to whine.
"We'll come back later bud," I end his protest and we all three head for the door.
Outside the air is fresh and the night is clear. We circle back to the front of the house and find a considerable commotion developing there. I see groups of actors from the house congregating outside on the lawn and couple of vendors from other stalls at the fair have wound their way over.
"Do you see your mommy," I ask Ivy.
She shakes her head. "Where is she?"
"We'll find out what's going on," I say and we make our way over to where the guy who had sold us our tickets had been. He's been replaced by a kid who I can only assume is one the drama kids.
"Sorry Sir, the house is closed at the moment. You'll have to come back later." The boy pre-empts my request politely.
"Oh sorry, uh, this little girl lost her mom in the house," I say. "We met up inside." Ivy suddenly takes on a fit of shyness and hides herself behind my knee.
"Oh, you found her?" The kid looks relieved. "We found her!" He calls out to the gathering crowd.
There are shouts across the crowd and a few people run towards the house. After a few moments the guy who had sold us our tickets and a woman with a long black braid come running from the entrance to the house.
"Mommy!" Ivy squeals and rushes to meet her.
The woman scoops Ivy up in her arms as if she were made of air.
"You found her?" The ticket salesman asks.
"Yeah, my daddy helped her to get out," Soren says proudly.
"She ran into us in the room with the ghosts," I explain.
Ivy's mother still has not let go of her and I think Ivy's tears may have ceased but have been replaced by her mother's.
"Thanks for getting her out safe," the man says. "Free entry, anytime," he promises and Soren grins.
"Can we go back in now dad?" He asks eagerly.
"Sure," I scruff his little head. I'd really rather go home but Soren and I wind our way back through the haunted house. We discover a room full of pool noodles hanging from the ceiling and wade our way through a ball pit filled with skulls. The witch we had had to leave the last time had a cauldron full of goop that she let Soren stick his arm in to pull out a candy bar in exchange for a song or joke. Soren thought deeply for a while about his joke but finally settled on one of his best.
"Where do ghosts buy candy?
"Hmm? Trader Joe's?" The witch guesses.
"At the ghost-ery store!" Soren doubles over in laughter and the witch and I laugh politely.
We head out, candy bar in hand and Soren seems entirely content and continues to debate the merits of different jokes he knows. As we start to leave, I notice that Ivy and are mum are still standing on the lawn. The crowd that had clearly gathered when the words missing child got pass around the fair ground had now dispersed. I recognise the way she held Ivy closer to her than seemed humanly possible. Her shoulders seem to be shaking and I notice that nobody seems to have noticed. People have drifted back to their own stalls and the haunted house people all seemed to be back at work.
"Soren, let's go check on Ivy and her mom before we go," I interrupt his joke telling and he sighs.
"But dad, what do you think the witch had in her hair?"
"Oh, um… I don't know," I say indulging the joke that I know is coming while also getting to my feet and taking Soren's hand.
I laugh on cue and look down at Soren as we head over. He's a good kid.
"Hi Ivy," Soren announces our arrival and inserts himself right in the middle of the crying fest. Ivy's mom somehow loosens their hug a little and looks down at Soren as she shifts Ivy onto her hip, where she is a little too big to be situated comfortably. "I told you we could find your mom!"
Ivy is still chewing on the fist she has shoved in her mouth but she nods.
"Oh, you found her?" Her mother asks and she looks up at me and I feel a flip in my stomach when her sparkling grey eyes meet mine.
"I- uh-," I stammer, but Soren takes over.
"Yeah, she was so scared but my daddy knew a short cut," Soren boasted.
"I was not scared," Ivy griped finally removing her fist from her mouth. "I want to go home."
"Yeah," her mother soothes and strokes some of the dark hair that has fallen loose away from her face. "We are going, don't worry." She looks at me again and bite my lip to stop my mouth from hanging open in awe. "Thank you for getting her out. She just got a bit spooked in that room with all the ghosts and we got separated. I thought she had run ahead," the woman's voice quavered as she spoke and she started to blink rapidly.
"I think I've had my fill of haunted houses for this year," I try to joke and the woman nods along.
"Yes," she swallows. "No more haunted houses."
"That's right," echoes Ivy. "Just candy for Halloween."
"My favourite part," I half-joke.
"Thank you so much…" she trails off. "Sorry, I didn't get your name."
"Peeta, and this is Soren," I hold Soren by his shoulders and he beams up at her.
"Katniss… and you know Ivy." She tilts her head at the little pumpkin on her hip.
"It's nice to meet you but I'm sorry about the circumstances. Are you going to be alright getting home?"
"We just live a couple of blocks down towards the river," she shrugs.
"We live on the other side of the river," Soren butts in.
"Would you like some company on the walk?" I offer and I see her hesitate and suddenly worry that she thinks I'm a creep who has someone got a kid in tow. "Just…" I flounder. "I've lost Soren a couple of times myself and it always takes me a bit of time for the shaky feeling to pass."
She nods. "Yeah, that would be nice."
We set off in the direction of Katniss and Ivy's house together. Katniss still carries Ivy who has made a remarkable recovery and begins to give her mother a blow by blow account of what happened while they were separated.
She puts her down on the ground once we are a street away from the fair and the crowd has thinned out considerably. She still holds her hand tight though and I can see that it will take a few days for these feelings to pass. I had been there myself the first time Soren had left my sight.
We had been at my parents' house. My brothers, their wives, all of Soren's cousins were there and the kids had been playing out in the yard for most of the afternoon. They were called in for dinner and everyone reappeared except Soren. There was sudden panic and the meal my father had cooked for 12 lay forgotten on the dining room table while we all headed out to hunt for Soren. We found him stuck on the tire swing at the bottom of the garden behind the shed. Rye and Mander had been furious with their kids for leaving their youngest cousin behind and not even noticing. I was just relieved to have him back but had kept him extra close for weeks, tailing him relentlessly in the park, and, Christ, I even took a week off work to stay home with him.
"Have you ever lost her before?" I say to Katniss in a low voice hoping not to interrupt the conversation Soren had struck up with Ivy about his Halloween jokes.
"No," she shakes her head a little without meeting my eyes. Some hair is falling loose from her braid and it swirls around her face in the October breeze. It catches the light and the shine mesmerises me.
"I've lost Soren more times than I can count," I try to joke. In reality I could remember every time in vividly horrific detail but something about Katniss just made me want to cheer her up.
She gave me a small smile. "I'm glad to see you have found him again every time."
"Yeah, he's quite the little boomerang." She smiles again and I have an overwhelming urge to make her smile again and again and again. "So, did you guys have a good Halloween before the haunted house?"
"Pretty good," she agrees. "She went trick or treating with her dad earlier, so we only just met up at the fair. Guess she'll have to wait a week to dig into her haul." I fight the smile trying to wiggle its way onto my face and scold myself again, but I can't ignore it. Was that one of those little hints single parents give to other single parents to let them know they are one of us? I scold myself again. I am just walking her home because she was so shaken up.
My resolve crumbles immediately when she says, "I tried to get some of those caramel apples from Mellarks this afternoon when her dad said she couldn't spend the night but they were all sold out." My heart beats faster. Definitely a single parent and a fan of my caramel apples.
"Well, this is us," Katniss says as we arrive outside their home. "Thank you for walking us back. I do feel much better." She gives me another one of those smiles and I don't want her to leave because I don't ever want to stop looking at that smile.
"You know," I say a little hesitantly. "I think Mellarks might have more of those caramel apples on sale in the morning."
"Oh really?" She seems surprised. "They said they were sold out?"
"Oh, just a little insider knowledge," I joke. "I make them. Do you want to stop by tomorrow?"
"Oh wow, you make them?" She says in disbelief. "What do you think Ivy? Would you like to get caramel apples tomorrow?"
"Yay!" Ivy cheers at the mention of sugar.
"Can I get one too?" Soren looks up at me.
"Sure," I nod. "Maybe you could come by before closing? 4pm?"
"See you there," she agrees. Ivy is already kangaroo hopping towards their front door and so Katniss makes to follow. "Thank you again Peeta."
"Happy Halloween," I call from the sidewalk. Soren and I watch them go inside and then I smile down at him and take his hand heading towards our place.
Thank you for reading. I have not written for a while so any feedback would be appreciated.
I wrote this as a stand alone story for Halloween, but I kind of like the world. If you would like more please let me know. Also if you would like to beta it that would be amazing, because as I said I have not written in ages!
Find me on tumblr: mellowasinyellow