This is the third finalist in Young Post's 2015 Summer Story competition in which some marvellous books are up for grabs. Each week, we will publish one of the finalists' stories, with the winning entry appearing in Young Post on August 29.
BOOM! Lightning slashed the dark sky and thunder rumbled as Alana and Tony stood outside the wrought iron gate. In the brief flashes of light from the storm they could see an imposing manor, that might have once been a very posh home. But now it seemed dark and somehow unsettling. A rusty sign that proclaimed "The Tree Factory" swung in the gale and hammered against the fence.
"I'm not so sure about this," said Caleb.
"We have no choice," said Alana, and squeezed his hand and opened the gate. Caleb followed her through. No matter how scared he was, he wouldn't hang back. Alana might not be his blood sister, but she was all he had. Since old Mrs Richardson had died they had been turned out of her cottage, and now, all they had between them lay in a battered old school suitcase that wasn't doing well in the torrential downpour.
The stone steps were covered in some sort of algae, and Alana was glad they were too wet to care about hurrying out of the rain. She pulled Caleb on to the grass and the pair scrambled up a set of dark grey stone stairs to the door.
"Hmm," said Alana, wiping her eyes and then frowning at Caleb as he shook himself like a dog to get rid of the raindrops.
"Sorry," Caleb mumbled, when he saw her look, and then laughed because he couldn't have possibly made her any wetter.
Alana smiled, suppressed a shiver and rapped loudly on the door. "Ow!" she flicked her hand and sucked on the knuckles.
The door opened a crack, spilling light onto their faces. Then it opened a little further and a pale girl stood before them.
"Alana and Caleb?"
Alana nodded. The girl stepped aside and they entered a musty hallway.
"Nice to meet you," the girl said.
Alana shot her a look, wondering if she was being sarcastic, but her expression was deadpan.
"Thanks," Alana said.
Caleb craned his neck to look up at the tall ceiling. "It's huge!" he whispered so loudly that people in the next room could have heard him. Alana shushed him, and smiled at the girl, but the smile was not returned.
"Follow me," the girl ordered, and walked through an arched doorway, to a set of stairs. As they climbed Alana wondered who she was, and why she seemed so robotic.
"Euw!" Caleb pulled a face and wiped his dirty palm on the front of his sodden shirt. "Spiders," he offered by way of explanation.
Alana shot him a warning look. He sighed dramatically.
At the top of the stairs was a corridor that seemed to go on forever. The girl opened the nearest door and they followed into a vast room that was empty save for a few bare mattresses on the floor.
"You'll sleep in here," the girl said.
"Thank you," Alana said, determined to be polite.
"Caleb can sleep in the next room."
"Oh no," Alana interrupted. "We ... we need to stay together."
"It's not like he's actually your brother," the girl said.
"He is like a brother. We might come from different families, but we've been together for years." Alana could feel the tension in her throat and a rush of emotion that threatened to turn into tears. She swallowed. Crying was the last thing she wanted to do.
The girl shrugged. "Whatever," she said. "Put your case over there."
Caleb hauled the case over to where the girl had pointed, where two mattresses lay close together.
"Uh, I didn't catch your name," said Alana.
"Takeya," the girl said, still no smile lifted her mouth or lit her eyes. "Follow me."
The next room was filled with rows of sewing machines. At each sat a girl, squinting in the poor light to feed what seemed like reams of cloth through the busy needles. "You'll be working here," she said to Alana.
"I ... uh ... I don't know how to sew," Alana said.
"You'll learn," Takeya replied, and then continued down the passage. At the end a window looked out on to what seemed to be a lush, green forest. "You," she said to Caleb, "will be working down there, chopping wood."
"Cool!" Caleb leaned his forehead against the glass, looking at the garden.
"So," Takeya's brisk voice brought their attention to her. "You'll both start out as what we call 'seedlings'. Then, if you work well, you'll become a 'leaf'. You want to be a leaf because you'll get better food and clothes and even better work. Then you can become a branch, and if you're really, really excellent, you'll be named a flower."
Caleb wrinkled his nose. "A what?"
"Oh, never mind, boys hardly ever get to be branches," Takeya said. "Come on now, it's dinner time. I expect you'll want to get into some dry clothes. Hurry up."
They followed her back to their room and scrambled through the suitcase, but all their clothing was wet. Eventually Alana faced Takeya, "We'll just have to go like this," she said.
"As you wish," Takeya swung around and headed out the door, so fast that they stumbled as they followed her. Downstairs and further back in the seemingly endless house they found the dining room. Rows of long tables stretched across. A few of them were occupied by silent children who were mechanically spooning food into their mouths. Down the far side a long queue snaked back up between the tables. Takeya pushed them towards it. "Go on," she said.
Alana turned to ask her where they should sit, but she had gone.
Caleb shrugged and walked over to join the queue. Alana followed him, and he let her stand in front of him, while he reached for a pair of the wooden bowls everyone was using.
"What do you think it is?" he asked her, hoping to lighten her mood a bit.
"Mac 'n' Cheese," she said, playing along.
"Oooh ... that made me so hungry."
The queue inched forwards towards a plump cook who stood behind a huge steaming pot. When Alana held up her bowl the cook wordlessly ladled some thick, grey, soupy stuff into it. Alana glanced at it and forced a smile to thank the woman.
Caleb got his and they found a spot at a table nearby.
Caleb was the first to try it. He dipped his spoon in and only took a smidgen. He stuck his tongue out and wiped the spoon on it.
"Bleaugh!" he shuddered. "It's ... awful!"
Alana sighed, and quickly shovelled a spoonful into her mouth, swallowing before she had even had a chance to taste it. If she breathed gently through her nose, she wouldn't gag ... she wouldn't ... she coughed. "You're right," she gasped. With more resolve, she took a second spoonful and ate it.
"Euw!" Caleb shook his head.
"Listen to me," Alana put her hand on his arm to show him she was serious. "You have to eat this. This is all there is, and if we don't eat, we'll starve."
Their long wooden bench creaked as a boy sat down next to them. "Hi," he said cheerfully. "I'm Tony."
Alana smiled at him, relieved that someone at least seemed normal. She introduced herself and Caleb.
"And that's my brother, Tommy."
Tommy sat opposite, and got stuck into his porridge.
"My sister is in the sewing room, too," Tommy said.
Alana smiled. "Oh, what's her name?"
"Shiela," said Tommy. "She's about your age, but she's quite slow, so she won't get any dinner tonight."
Even though they both wanted to spend more time with Tommy, Alana decided it was really best for them to get out of their wet clothes, find a bathroom and then get to bed.
"I'm sure we'll have a busy day tomorrow," she said, far more brightly than she felt.
Caleb nodded. They bade goodbye to the brothers, and soon were warm and dry and snuggled up to each other in their huge bedroom. Caleb was so soundly asleep that he only surfaced when someone yanked his shoulder. Before he could draw breath a hand clamped over his mouth.
"It's Tommy," a voice whispered. "Follow me and don't make a sound."
Caleb nodded slightly to show he understood and his mouth was freed. He could vaguely make out the boys' shadows while he scrabbled out of the bedding, careful not to wake Alana. Their shadows passed the window, and he followed, thinking that at every moment he would step on some sleeping body. But it was surprisingly easy to make it to the door. Someone took his hand and silently they hurried down the passage, going in the opposite direction they had travelled earlier with Takeya.
A door creaked open and Caleb was dragged into even greater darkness. A moment later, someone switched on a torch.
"Sssh," someone said. And in silence they seemed to march for minutes. Eventually a door opened and they blinked at the bright light, stepping in to the clean, tiled room.
"What?" Caleb looked around him. Only Tommy and Tony were with him. The bright light made a slight buzzing sound in the silence. While the floor was tiled in white, there were giant wooden cabinets against the walls, filled with all sorts of medicine.
"This," said Tommy, "is the 'pharmacy'." He made little air quotes with his fingers.
"A what?" Caleb had forgotten to shut his mouth.
Tony sighed and rolled his eyes. "A place where they keep medicine, dufus."
"Oh," said Caleb.
"Yeah," said Tony, "and it's our job to protect it."
"Uh?" Caleb looked at him in disbelief.
"Yeah," said Tommy. "I bet you Takeya told you all about seedlings and leaves and flowers and stuff ..."
"Yeah," said Caleb. "Are you a flower then?"
Tommy scowled. "No!"
"What are you then?" Caleb asked.
"We're 'wolves'," said Tony proudly, although he didn't seem to notice that Tommy didn't want to let Caleb know that right now.
"Do you get good food?" Caleb asked.
"The best," said Tommy. "We even had pizza once."
"Cool!" said Caleb, his mouth watering.
"You want pizza?" Tony asked.
"Yeah, sure," Caleb said.
"Then you need to be a wolf, too," said Tommy.
"Sure, okay," said Caleb. Suddenly he had a feeling this place wasn't going to be so bad after all.