(A/N): This is the novel I wrote last year for NaNoWriMo. It's almost finished, I'm just trying to get some feedback on it so that it can be improved. Any comments are appreciated.


The People in the Rickety House

Chapter 1

1

As Leah slept, she dreamed a familiar dream.

Darkness and fog were thick around her as she trudged up the drive to the rickety house. She took slow steps along the path, one foot before the other. The gravel shifted beneath her feet. She knew she had to reach the porch. That was her focus.

Though the path to the front steps was closing, she felt distant from her goal. Panic resonated within her stomach at the thought of not gaining ground – that she would never reach the sanctity of the porch – but time brings all things, and somewhere within that time, she arrived. Ounces of Leah's fear melted when she felt the solidity of the wooden rail beneath her hand. She helped herself up the steps, onto the planks that would lead her to the door.

The doorknob was neither cold nor warm, but she felt it in her grasp. Without turning the knob, she was able to push the door open by the simple weight of her hand. The creak of the hinges was long and loud, like a cat's yowl of warning. She could not heed to any possible danger, however. She stepped inside, onto the scarred wooden floor.

The interior of the house was as dim and sparse as she remembered. The wide, open room beyond the door held only a couch, a chair, and an old TV on the far end. The furniture was like a group of outcasts communing around a fire, sorrowfully recollecting better days.

I'll bet dead soldiers don't care for TV, Leah thought, but soon lost that musing as she recalled why she had come to the house – why she had come so far in the pouring rain that had just started up outside.

"Mom?" She called out into the bowels of the house. The silence was so deep here that her voice was enough to send a shock through it, even startling her own ears when it looped through the hallways and returned to her. The lingering amount of her voice was absorbed by the distant walls and rooms of the house, where monsters devoured it. Leah waited patiently, but no answer returned from her mother, or anyone at all. Why had her mother come to this place, and did Leah herself even know where she found herself now? Of course; how could she forget the house she had feared when she was young, which was either too cold or too hot despite the season? Gulping cool air and warm saliva forcefully down her dry throat, Leah raised her voice once again.

"Mom? Are you here?" The rain snickered behind her. "I came here to find you."

There was only silence stirring in the house, twisting and curling until it nearly hissed against itself. The girl pushed back her damp hair and pressed further, leaving wet footprints on the hardwood from the bottom of her sneakers. She did not close the door to shut out the rain. Somehow, the sound of it consoled her against the deep nothingness she was headed into.

She did not search the bedroom to the right, but passed across the entrance room to a doorway at the far end, where the living room set was huddled together like exiled lepers. The square space beyond was small and cramped, with boxes piled about, stacked to the ceiling. Leah had the sensation that she had shrunken suddenly. She was Alice after sipping on tonic. Everything was oversized. The boxes would soon fall down on her if she did not leave this room. In fact, they were already beginning to teeter just from the force of her breath. The kitchen was in front of her; there was a hallway to her right and she did not know which way she wanted to go. Leah did not have time to make her own choice.

"Leah! Over here!"

The high-pitched voice propelled downward, rattling the crooked chandelier above, making the crystals tap together musically. The boxes were jolted until they seemed ready to tumble, and though Leah feared that they would fall, they did not. The call had come from down the hallway where, around the corner, the stairs led upward. The voice that had called her was familiar, but it was not her mother.

Leah moved herself down the hallway, burdened with heavy feet. When she reached the stairs, she saw the one who had called to her. Standing upright on the banister, with her bare feet curved like talons that held her steady, was Tabitha. The younger girl peered down at her sibling triumphantly, holding a crutch in front of her like a balancing rod. She was a tightrope walker in a playtime circus.

"Look at me!" Tabitha beamed, her short black hair hanging across her forehead wildly – like in former days when she was an active daredevil.

"Tabitha, you're going to get hurt," Leah warned, though she heard no emotion in her own voice. She knew too many of her sister's ways to have hope of changing her now. She was a risk-taker – fearless. The younger girl shifted from one foot to the other, the braces that supported her knees rattling and clanging as they smacked together.

"Come play with me, Leah!" Tabitha insisted, doing a strange dance. Certainly, it looked fun, but Leah wasn't a child anymore. She had to be strict, because she was the one in charge today.

"No, Tabby. I'm looking for mom. You should too."

"You won't find her," the child sulked, but quickly let the matter go. She spread her arms and began to wave them as a bird in flight.

"Get down from there," Leah scolded. "You know you can't fly."

"You can't tell me what to do!" cried Tabitha, her face twisted with indignation. "You're not my mother!"

An instant after the harsh shout had come from her mouth, Tabitha began to twist and teeter. The girl had lost her balance. Her weak legs with their helpful braces would no longer hold her up on the banister, and her flapping arms could not muster flight. She was a baby bird about to plummet from the branch.

She's going to fall, Leah realized. It will be my fault. I can't disappoint dad again.

"Tabitha!" Leah tried to move her legs and feet in an effort to catch her unsteady sister, but she could not move. Tabitha fell forward through the musty air and Leah stretched out her arms in a last desperate attempt, but could do nothing. At the moment before the cracking of bones was expected, the younger girl gasped and disappeared into the floor like dust through the cracks. She was gone, and there was nothing left of her.

Leah stood still, struggling to control her breath after her sister's abrupt vanishing act – but was able to forget the entire ordeal when a noise from the second floor drew her attention.

"Mom?" The next sound in Leah's ears was that of her own feet pounding against the stairs as she carried herself up.

Three sections of steps led her to the top of the enclosed stairwell and onto the second floor. She looked around anxiously, but there was no one she could see. The landing was a large open space, but there were several rooms around her. She was sure her mother was in one of them. Pausing, she listened for the sound she had heard to repeat itself. It was like an unnatural buzz from some otherworldly creature, a repetitive and steady mating call.

"Where are you, mom? I'm here to bring you home."

Leah rushed to the first door in her sight and wrapped her hands around the knob. The strange sound she'd heard was coming from behind this door, growing louder, this angry buzzing noise.

There's someone inside.

"Mom!" Twisting the knob did no good, and pressing her weight into the solid old wood was of little help.

"Let me in!" the girl cried frantically, feeling much like the child she'd claim she no longer was. "Why are you hiding? Why did you run away from me? Why did you leave us, mom?"

Her fists pounded on the door, exerting all the rage and confusion that had been pent up inside her for so long. She had to get inside – to confront this! Beneath her ferocious effort, she heard a small click as the door was unlocked from the inside, and she did not waste a single moment in putting her hand to the knob again.

Leah opened the door as the sound grew louder and more insistent to her ears.

There was no one there.

2

The sharp, jabbing buzz of the alarm clock stung Leah until she came out of her dream, but did not stop until she became fully aware of where she had been. Her hand drifted along the tabletop to halt the torture, and when she had stopped the alarm, her head was free to rest back on the pillow in soothing silence. She sighed, safe in her own bed with the sheets of blue and white and began to breathe easily.

A dream. Just a dream.

She wiped her matted eyes and stretched out her legs beneath the sheets, but though she had come back to her reality, things were not all well in Leah's world.

What day is it? After some thought, she recalled that it was Tuesday – which would make it the 154th Tuesday since her mother had been gone, and nothing had been the same since. It had been another night of terrible dreams – she'd had variations of this particular dream several times – and yet it had revealed nothing to her.

Rising up, Leah pushed back the blankets and put her legs over the side of the bed. Faint sunlight was shining in from the translucent drapes over the window and a gentle breeze was rustling the leaves outside. It was another summer day. There was no reason for her to have set her alarm, no reason to rise so early, but she'd decided weeks ago that she wasn't going to waste her break by sleeping all day.

Giving her body a little push, she rose up from her sunken mattress and crossed over to her dresser, where she recovered a pair of shorts and a white tee to cover the underwear she'd slept in. That done, she went into the adjoining bathroom that she shared with her sister. Tabitha would not be awake yet. The younger girl liked to stay up until early morning and then sleep the day away, which didn't bother Leah much. Tabitha was easily bored and desperate for company, but the older sister did not mind being alone. Solitude was quiet. It was not judgmental.

The tiles of the bathroom were cold to her feet. In fact, everything was cold – the toilet seat, the faucet handle, and the water she used to wash her hands – despite the heights of temperature outside the house. That had always amazed her about the little white room. There had been times when she'd felt sick or anxious that she'd only to press her cheek against the cool floor to feel relief.

Leah dried her hands with a purple hand towel and looked up once again, catching herself in the mirror. She was glad to see that the little pimple on her chin was starting to vanish. She fluffed her wavy hair, examined the shape of her lips and brown eyes. People had always told her that she looked like her mother, and on some days – like today as she was still under the influence of the dream – she would notice the resemblance herself, and it never failed to upset her.

Though Leah felt she was quite old enough to know the circumstances of her mother's departure, her father had only been vague concerning it. She'd been told that her parents had gotten into a terrible fight – about what was still unclear – and in the night, while her father was asleep on the couch, her mother had walked out of their lives. The woman had only taken a few things with her when she'd fled so suddenly, which had led them to assume that she would return. After a few days had passed, when Leah's father had tried to contact her to talk things over, her cell phone had been dead. No one else had heard from her or seemed to know where she had gone. Janet West had fled, and she had not tried to contact them since. It had been nearly three years. Leah was troubled by the situation – and there were the dreams – but she had learned, not to cope, but to simply exist in this world of broken family.

"Okay, it's time to move," she told herself quietly with a sigh. "Time to face the day."

The girl turned away from her own reflection. She was determined not to depress herself. Instead, she tried to focus on planning the day. She'd check her email; maybe she'd try to work on that short story she'd been writing. Perhaps she'd go for a run before it got too hot out. Her room could use a bit of organizing. Later she'd read, or even call her friend, Miranda, and go to a movie. A constructive summer: that's what she wanted and, for that to happen, there could be no prolonged periods of depression.

Those things decided, Leah went back to her room and sat down at her computer. She checked her messages, but there was nothing interesting. After that, she opened her story file, read over about half a paragraph of what she'd already written – Drops of rain pecked lightly at the window – tappity tap – unable to understand why, after being so gentle, they weren't invited inside. The dim light of day didn't do much to illuminate the room through the thick curtains, and so it was nearly impossible… – and then closed it out again. She wasn't in the mood to write at the moment.

Maybe I'll go for that run, she decided. She'd told herself that she would exercise this summer, but hadn't even gone any further than the deck out back where the smooth, blue surface of the pool twinkled at her. Leah wasn't much of a runner, and in fact the run would probably turn out to be a walk, or at best a sporadic jog. She wasn't a heavy girl, but any effort helped to alleviate the guilt of cookies and chips.

Pulling her sneakers out from under the edge of her bed, she slid them on and began to lace them up. Scenes from her dream kept playing through her mind, completely defying her as she tried to keep them back, and she began to wonder if she would make it through the day without upsetting herself.

Get over it, Leah, she coached. She tied her shoe a bit too tight and had to start again. You've had three years to get over it. She's not coming back. You may as well forget her.

If Janet West had wanted to stay with her family, she would have. If she had wanted to be here in this house, she would have been. But she obviously did not. For unknown reasons, she had stopped caring about them, and it may have been her father's fault, but it was not Leah's own. She had to tell herself that, though she had often wondered if her mother had left them for another family – a man who didn't work so much, with kids of his own – that Leah's mother had decided to take on instead. Perhaps another daughter who hadn't refused to take piano lessons, who did a better job of looking after her younger siblings…

Shaking her head shortly to disrupt the thoughts as if they were a collection of flies on a rotten fruit, Leah stood up and grabbed her iPod. Some exercise would do her good and something upbeat in her ears was sure to keep the terrible thoughts away.

Guess I'll go say hi to dad first. I wonder if he'll respond today.

Leah could not deny that she missed her mother, but even though her father was only a few doorways down, she missed him too. The woman had disappeared like vapor, but it may as well have been her father's soul that had escaped. He had been increasingly low ever since. Someone said that time heals all wounds, but Leah didn't believe that anymore. The wounds in this house had only festered over time, but perhaps that was because none of them could stop picking at the scabs. This was definitely true for Leah's father. He'd been a fairly successful writer once, but hadn't turned out anything new in what seemed like ages. He spent his days shut up in his office in front of his laptop, but Leah didn't think he ever wrote a word. Or perhaps he produced stories of angry or sorrow-filled thoughts all day long. She couldn't say. All she knew for certain was that if it was not for Mrs. Lowery, their housekeeper, she and Tabitha would have lived the neglected lives of orphans.

Moving down the hallway past her sister's room, Leah approached the door on the end, where her father had made his study. It was a small space compared to other rooms in the house, but Dave West had always liked it for that. He'd always joked that he could write faster when he felt the walls were closing in on him. He used to make a lot of observations before – some witty, some philosophical. Now he hardly said anything at all.

I had a weird dream last night, dad. I dreamed I was in Aunt Claire's house and I was looking for mom. It was terrible. I couldn't find her. Please tell me that it's okay now.

But Leah would not say those things that were on her mind, because she would not receive the comfort she sought from the man who was hardly there.

Leah tapped lightly on the door, but didn't wait for a response before gripping the knob. Her knock wasn't a request for entry, but a polite warning. Unlocked, the door came open according to her guidance.

"Morning, dad," she said, leaning in against the doorframe lazily.

But she quickly forgot how to breathe.

Inside her chest, her lungs collapsed, for they too were so horrified that those membranous sacs did not remind her that they needed oxygen. Later, Leah would remember the feel of the doorknob more than anything else, and the way that her hand was frozen to it, hot but yet damp with cold sweat.

Her father's body hung suspended before her from the light fixture, now torn from the ceiling and hanging by wires and ripped screws. The bulbs strained to blink, dying as well as they were not receiving the proper flow from their wire guts.

Leah stared wide-eyed for what seemed like hours. Her father's eyes were open, watching her reaction, and she could not break her stare into his dead eyes. She saw the way his tongue was hanging out from his sagging lips. The blue hue of his face made him look like a different man, and then Leah decided that he was. Yes, this was not her father. Some depressed stranger had hung himself in their house.

Finally she breathed again, though shallowly, and she did the only thing she knew to do. She backed up out of the room and pulled the door shut once again. It was absently that she went back to her room, lifted her cell phone and called 911. Then she simply sat on the edge of the bed with the blue and white sheets, and waited. She did not think of Tabitha snoozing away in the next room. She did not think of anything, but through her head was running the words of a common rhyme that she had learned when she was very young. Her brain focused on that as her fists gripped the mattress and she stared forward at the wall.

London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down. London Bridge is falling down…

Even as the paramedics rushed through the house, calling out for her and for each other, she was not disturbed. Even as she heard Tabitha's voice demanding to know what was happening, she did not move. Leah's world had crumbled, collapsing in a personal apocalypse. But how could it be a surprise? This destruction had been set on course long ago.

That bridge had already fallen.