Gertrude and Dunstan Pendercast’s barrel, decorated in skulls and crossbones and go faster stripes, which Gertrude had stuck on when Dunstan wasn't looking, erupted in a shower of wood chips as it crashed, banged walloped into the trunk of the Old Man. Max, diving to get out of the way as it crashed through trees and bushes, fell – BASH – onto his bottom into a pile of fallen acorns, his arm flinging backwards and with it the planchete flying out of it behind him.
Out from the ruins of the obliterated barrel tumbled Gertrude and Dunstan Pendercast. They had barely had time to recognise where they were before they began to fight.
“What did you do that for?” yelled Gertrude, taking a twig stuck fast onto her dress and poking Dunstan in the stomach with it.
“You were in the way, it’s all your fault“ he replied, throwing a stone at her that had lodged inside the crows-nest of his crazy mass of hair. They grabbed one another, and faced each other nose to nose. Gertrude grabbed Dunstan’s hair and pulled him closer; Dunstan raised his foot to deliver a timely kick to Gertrude’s shin. The forest rustled, as if every leaf was trying to get away from the violence that was coming. Then they turned, slowly, cheeks pressed tight together, both realising at once that they were not alone. They looked at Max, two pairs of eyes moving as one as they looked him up and down, from Max’s long lank hair, to the black around his eyes, to the stuffed raven hanging from his shoulder, to the black t-shirt and the black jeans, as he sat crumpled in the acorn pile. Then they looked at the board that lay beside Max, and all four eyes blinked at once. A moment’s silence passed, and then Gertrude and Dunstan Pendercast said:
“A Ouija board. Cool!”
Dunstan Pendercast walked towards Max and offered him his hand to help him up. Max shook his head and pulled back, trying to burrow into the pile of acorns he had fallen in. The boy seemed unbothered by Max’s silence, and let his rather grubby hand hang limply in the air.
“My name is Dunstan. Sorry about that, we didn’t mean to crash into you.”
He waited for Max to respond, but nothing came.
Pushing past her brother came Gertrude and hand outstretched she grabbed Max and pulled him up with surprising strength for someone so small.
“My name is Gertrude, ignore him – he is as stupid as a stickleback, and couldn’t steer a ladybird, let alone a barrel, and now we’ve lost the race after all of our hard work.”
With that she turned around and ran at her brother head first, screaming, meaning to knock him off his feet. Dunstan dodged her, and she ran past him yelling into the woods. He bent down to retrieve the planchette from where it had fallen.
“I’ve heard of these spirit boards. Our Mother and Father write about things like this. You can contact your ancestors and find out your destiny and where your granddad hid his gold.”
Words poured out of Dunstan’s mouth, a moment free from his fighting with his sister uncorking ten bottles full of conversation which Max refused to share with him. As Dunstan talked he ran his hands over the planchette.
Max realised what Dunstan was doing and snatched the planchette from his hands. He grabbed the board from the ground and closing it with a snap, put it inside the box. Undeterred Dunstan continued, his mouth in a wide grin,
“Never seen a planchette like this before. I’ve seen the round ones and the heart shaped ones.”
“Do shut up Dunstan, can’t you see that you are boring him,” Gertrude, returning, exclaimed.
“We know lots about the spirits in this village – that’s why we moved here, so mother and father could write another one of their dreary books – but I’ve never seen one of those before,” she said pointing at Hector.
“Are you a psychic; is that your spirit guide? Once we lived in Ireland when mum and dad were writing a book about Leprechauns and there was this man, who swore he was a spirit guide and he had one like a dead rat in a box and we all sat in his tent and held hands and had a séance around the board and the planchette started to move and spell out these letters and it was so strange, but wonderful, and … hey, HEY, where are you going?”
As she was speaking, Max had got up and silently begun to walk away.
“HEY!“ Gertrude shouted out of breath trying to keep up with Max, Dunstan following closely behind her. She was not used to being ignored – and when she was she usually responded with a swift karate chop or a well-placed headbutt. There was something about Max though, something in his eyes that meant she did not want to head-butt him, or even pinch his nose until his face went bright red.
“I am just being friendly!” she said and continued talking.
“Anyway then the planchette started to move and spell out the word MURDER and we all were all amazed, and then….” Max started to run. He wanted only to get away from these terrible children and their endless talk, talk, talk.
He heard them running behind him, and Gertrude continuing with her story, but he ignored it. Max had never had people trying to be friendly to him before, and so he wasn’t used to it. Max hated everyone, and he was not sure that he liked the fact that he was curious as to why they would want to talk to him at all.
As Max ran out from the centre of the Screaming Woods, he followed paths he now knew well after one month of exploration. He could recognise the feel of particular roots of the trees under his feet, and knew when to duck or when to expect the crack of birds wings as they flew away in fright when he came round a hidden bend.
Gertrude and Dunstan Pendercast were not so lucky. Until their barrel took them here, quite out of all control, they had never been into the Screaming Woods before. That is because, although they were delighted to hit each other hard around the head, the Pendercast twins were terribly afraid of the dark, and of the monsters that may lie within it. And so they followed Max through the woods, still talking all the time, with fearful steps, looking around with wild eyes from side to side and holding tightly onto one another’s hands.
Sometimes being scared is silly, and sometimes it’s the things that cannot be imagined which are the most dangerous in this world. Gertrude and Dunstan Pendercast, for example, did not imagine that there could be such a thing as a Poacher’s Hole, hidden on the path in front of them. They did not imagine that because they did not know what poachers were, and they did not know that they were large pits dug by people trying to capture pheasants and other edible wildlife, and covered with leaves so that the unsuspecting bird would fall into it. Not knowing all that, when they stepped onto those leaves and fell right down inside it, they had no idea what had happened and why the world had collapsed beneath their feet.
Poachers Holes are pointless because animals are much more clever than most people ever realise. What the poachers hadn’t realised was that animals spoke to one another and taught each other how to live. Pheasants - one of the animals the Poachers’ Hole was designed to catch - were a perfect example of this. A pheasant running across the road, or jumping from out behind a bush, can look foolish. In some ways they are, but not when it comes to Poachers Holes, because the one single phrase that each and every pheasant knows, which has been passed down through many generations of pheasants is: “watch out for that big piles of leaves,” and while that sounded like a simple squawk when said in Pheasantese (for that is the language of pheasants), it meant that this particular poachers hole had been animal free and unused for centuries. Until now, when the Pendercast twins lay rumpled inside it, six feet down and very scared.
Max heard the Pendercast twins crying out from the bottom of the hole. He carried on running, but found himself slowing down to a trot, then to a brisk walk, then to just a stroll, and finally to a dead halt. He turned his head and looked at Hector, and grouchily he knew what it was he had to do.
Max shuffled back to the Poachers Hole, angrier for once with himself than he was with anybody else, and leaning down into the hole held out his hand, first to Gertrude and then to Dunstan. They climbed up out of the deep dark hole and then they both hugged him tight, squealing their thanks as the river of words started to flow again out of both their mouths.
“So when can we play with it?“ Dunstan asked, grinning.
“I promise he won’t break it,“ said Gertrude. They both continued to talk as Max turned around and walked away, but this time much slower so that the twins could keep up.
The three children came out of the Screaming Woods, Max carrying his Ouija board, his stuffed raven Hector on his shoulder, and the Pendercast twins arm in arm and babbling behind him, covered in dirt and scratches from their tumble into the poachers hole. Over the pit pat pit of Witches Crossing’s ever pouring rain, they could hear the sound of Mr. Archibold Scroggs leading his troop of tourists, heading now towards the crossroads towards Max’s house.
Max’s house was very old, one of the oldest in Witches Crossing. It had originally been the house of the Keeper of the Crossroads, an antiquated phrase that meant road tax collector. It barely looked like a house at all. It was shaped like a large head, with windows for eyes and a door whose frame shaped outwards like lips opened wide in a shriek at the Screaming Woods before it. You could not see the walls of the cottage, just a mass of ivy that covered it from the ground all the way to the roof where it wrapped itself around its crooked chimney. The glass in the windows was crisscrossed with black lead, making the windows look like bottomless pits in which the miserable weather was reflected. It was said that the Keeper of the Crossroads had had a daughter who was the most powerful of all the witches … and the last to be burnt at the stake by the Witchfinder General.
Max knew that he was running out of time. He had been caught before in the dumb glare of the tourists as Mr. Archibold Scroggs told his story about the crossroads where Max and his mother now lived. It was embarrassing, particularly for a boy who would not talk, and especially when the tourists wanted to have photos taken with him next to the cottage. He had to get home. He wanted to try and feel again what he had felt when he tried to use the Ouija. He turned and nodded at Gertrude and Dunstan Pendercast, signaling to them to follow him as he went inside before Mr Scroggs and his tourist troop. Max set off, black hair flapping behind him in the wet night air. Gertrude and Dunstan just stared open-mouthed as he set off, for once no sound coming out as they both realised at once what Max’s nod had meant: they were now some kind of friends.
The three friends who disappeared into Max’s house, and Archibold Scroggs and his troop of tourists were not the only people at the crossroads that night. Under the light of the lamppost that flickered outside Max and his mother’s house, the ghost of a man stood watching. He cast a pale blue glow that started in his eyes and shone out of his body. Mouthing unformed words towards the children, he stood and stared. Night was falling, and a thick mist was coming in from the marshes outside of town. Looking down, he sighed, and a low moan came out – more an echo than a sound. Scroggs was too close now, and the ghost turned to leave, floating into the dense dark woods, a pale blue glow inside the dark grey mist over the crossroads.