The People in the Rickety House

Chapter 4

The morning was slow to come but aggressive in its arrival. The curtains were adjusted randomly, but just perfectly to let a piercing stream of sunlight shine right onto Leah's eyelids. She had no choice but to rise.

Alright, morning, I'm up and greeting you.

Tabitha was still bundled up with the sheet over her head, so Leah would not disturb her. In fact, she would savor the moments of silence. Momentarily, she looked over the leg brace propped against the wall before she rose up and made her bed, then carried herself out of the room.

She trekked across the landing and flipped on the light in the bathroom. One of the bulbs overhead popped and then went dark, causing the girl to gasp, but she scolded herself for being so jumpy.

Just the light, Leah. We'll get another.

This bathroom was of a decent size, fully functioning, but it was very different from the little white room at home. The floor was made of tiny black and white tiles. Lines of black mold could be seen trailing along the caulk at the base of the tub. There was a crack in the ceiling that ran along the edge of the light fixture. Old pipes ran up through the floor from below, extending upward, and there was an old radiator by the door. Though it was merely old and could not have possibly had as many germs as a public facility, Leah could not quite accept that it was clean. She didn't enjoy the thought of a shower in that discolored tub, or even of sitting on the cracked toilet seat, but she didn't have a choice.

She walked over to the sink, remembering then that all her grooming utensils – towels, rags and toothbrush – were still in a little bag at the end of her bed, all bundled up as if she was on vacation. Leah leaned against the sink, hoping that the ancient thing wouldn't come free of the wall, and closed her eyes.

I just don't know if I can handle this.

Opening her eyes, she saw her reflection in the mirror that was clouded by scum. Looking past her wavy locks and into her brown eyes, she remembered the dream of her mother. It had been a terrible nightmare – much more graphic than some of the others she'd had since her mother had left. She wanted to forget it completely, though she guessed the image of the woman holding the meat cleaver with the ghastly smile on her face would not be soon to fade.

Twisting the faucet handle that screeched under her hand, she splashed her face with water before walking back to get her bag. She was undecided as to whether she was comfortable enough to hang her towel on the rack or to mount her toothbrush. Those actions would mean that she had resigned herself to stay here.

In the bedroom, Tabitha was sitting upright with her sheet draped over her head. Her large blue eyes peered out lazily from beneath her messy hair.

"I think I'm hungry," she said.

2

After they had finished washing up – including getting Tabitha strapped properly into her brace – the girls headed downstairs. This was not like a morning at home. Nothing at all was right about it. The feel of the air was off, and there was no scent of Mrs. Lowery's breakfast wafting through the house. Leah had never been much for breakfast, but just knowing that there wasn't any waiting for her if she wanted it was depressing.

Aunt Claire was not in the kitchen. In fact, she was not to be seen anywhere. The house was silent. Leah noticed that no coffee had been started, as she gathered her aunt's diet must consist entirely of caffeine, so Claire must not have come out of her room yet. Could she have still been asleep? The clock on the kitchen wall declared it to be 10:37, but then Leah realized that it wasn't ticking.

"Do you think she has any good cereal?" Tabitha asked, wandering inside. Tabitha could probably live off of cereal if only she was given the choice. Leah didn't feel very comfortable rummaging through her aunt's cabinets, however. She'd never been one to invite herself to other people's things.

"I guess I should go ask her."

Leah rounded the corner and passed down the dark hallway to reach her aunt's door – the room beneath the stairs. The white paint was peeling along some of the edges of the frame, but the wood was old and sturdy. There were framed pictures all around the doorway, but those did not concern Leah now. She tapped on the door and waited for a response, or at least expected to hear some movement. She got neither of those things. When she knocked again, she was greeted with more of the same.

"Aunt Claire?" she called, letting her knuckles rap against the door once more. There was no sound from within – not a whine of a floorboard or the dragging of feet.

"Aunt Claire, I was wondering if you had any cereal. And I need a light bulb for the bathroom upstairs."

Leah imagined that she could hear some movement inside, but still Claire did not appear to aid her. Had she already forgotten that they had moved in with her, so easily going back to her reclusive ways?

"Fine," Leah muttered under her breath. "I guess I'll hunt through the cabinets myself."

When she reached the kitchen again, Tabitha was standing just inside with the door of the pantry wide open, but she had not stepped through to see what was on the shelves.

"This proves it," the younger girl decided as she peered into the closet-sized space. "Aunt Claire just doesn't eat."

Leah looked past her and into the dark pantry lined with shelves. There was a light in the middle of the room but with no switch in sight, controlled only by a pull-string. Leah overcame her concern of cobwebs and went inside to pull the cord, but the bulb was blown.

"Great…" That makes two.

Tabitha stood back in the doorway while Leah examined the shelves, though it would have been a much easier task if she'd had some light. Looking specifically for anything that wasn't in a dust-covered can, eventually she came across a cylindrical cardboard tube that boasted a little Quaker man.

"We have oatmeal," she announced. She turned her head to see Tabitha turn up her nose, which was Leah's own sentiment exactly. Oatmeal could be good, but she didn't have much faith in herself as a chef. Could she tame the goopy oats? They would see.

Making sure that the expiration date wasn't too far past, she set herself to work. She located a pan in one of the cabinets and put it on the stove, smelling an awful burning smell when the eye began to heat up. She hunted down some bowls that didn't match and a couple of spoons. After she'd done everything the carton had instructed, what she ended up with was a thick, lumpy mixture that stuck together like a bead of mercury, but after softening it with some milk, Leah put it in a bowl and set it in front of her sister. Tabitha only stared at it for a few moments, but after noticing Leah's menacing glare that said "Eat it if you want to live", she took a bite.

They ate quietly, neither one of them really interested in the food itself and concentrating too much on the sounds of the spoons hitting the glass bowls to conjure any words. It was after this that Aunt Claire came floating into the kitchen in her ethereal and silent way so that when Leah raised her eyes and saw her, she thought that she might be looking at a ghost. She gulped down a bolus of food so that it hurt all the way down until it reached the pit of her stomach. Claire was dressed in another of her ugly dresses that reminded Leah of something that might have been worn on the prairie. Other than that, she looked just as she did the day before, stringy haired and with bags under her blue eyes. Yet, she did not seem particularly tired.

"I thought I smelled something going on in here," Claire commented, looking over the bowls that the girls were eating from. She didn't say anything else, but made her way over to the coffeepot and began to prepare it to brew.

"Do you have any cereal?" Tabitha asked her, perhaps hoping she wouldn't have to keep eating the crude substance Leah had slaved over.

"No, I don't usually eat cereal, dear," Claire said. "But we can add some to the list if you like."

"List?"

"Yeah, I make a list of things I need and once a week a boy from town brings it out to the house."

Tabitha gave a wide-eyed look to Leah, in which she reproved her aunt and declared her a complete psycho. Leah read that easily, and she was near to thinking the same thing. The woman was serious? She never went into town herself? Of course, that meant that they would never get to go either.

"Do you have any light bulbs?" Leah blurted out, then wondered why she was so concerned about it anyway. Only one bulb had blown in the bathroom; there was still another that would shine well enough. But also the one in the pantry was out. She supposed focusing on the task of finding replacements gave her a sense of purpose in this place.

"Hm, I don't think so," Claire said after a moment of thought. "I'll add those to the list, too."

The smell of coffee began to fill the kitchen as the liquid streamed into the pot, brown and thick. Leah stirred her oatmeal around, not looking up because she could feel her aunt's eyes on her. It was a hard stare that Leah could feel against the side of her face, and she felt that if she looked directly into it, she would be blinded.

"I wanted to tell you girls that it's nice to finally have someone else in the house," Claire said, and Leah finally felt the gaze leave her. "I've always been alone here and the feeling of company is just unexplainable."

The coffeemaker began to gurgle and spit out the last of the brew, and Claire turned to pour it into her mug. She filled it almost to the brim and steam from the liquid floated off into the air. Claire turned and leaned against the counter. She moved the coffee under her nose and took a deep whiff, and at that she seemed to come alive. Her blue eyes came up just a bit brighter though cradled in the bags of careless aging. It was like a commercial.

"Oh, and feel free to cook or do your own laundry, or whatever it is that you need done. You don't have to ask for my permission or anything. Just don't burn the house down," she added with a little giggle. She left them with that and turned to leave. A few footsteps afterward, she had returned to her own room and left them alone.

Just like home, Leah thought. Just like dad. She wondered absently how many days would pass before she would find Aunt Claire swinging from the light fixture and they would have to move off again.

"What are you going to do today?" she asked Tabitha in order to abolish her own horrible thoughts.

"Well," the dark-haired girl said as she poked at the contents of her bowl, teasing it as if it was a dodging slug. "I thought I might get on the internet for a while, text all my friends and then frolic and play in the yard."

Leah stopped eating, though she no longer felt hungry anyway. She knew her sister was just being sarcastic about the state of Aunt Claire's residence, and how they were so far out in the boonies that they didn't have any of the things they were used to, but Leah had taken that last part personally. Tabitha could not go frolic and play in the yard as she used to play soccer, and it was Leah's fault. She couldn't sit here any longer under that accusing gaze.

"I need some fresh air," Leah said, rising up from her chair. She didn't bother to put up her bowl or push her chair back up to the table, but turned immediately toward the back door.

"You're just gonna leave me here?" Tabitha called after her, but her only answer was the bang of the screen door swinging shut.

3

As Claire had mentioned the night before, there was quite a bit of land that belonged to the house property, but the woman had only designated a small portion of that to serve as her yard. Out the back door, there was a stretch of ground that was cut off from the fields beyond by a row of pine trees. The grass was not too tall, probably mowed within the past couple of weeks, though Leah could not imagine her aunt doing such a job. Even in the short time she'd known her, she was able to make that assumption with comfortable accuracy. Leah stepped out into the grass, feeling the sun on her skin and she had to admit that it felt good. It wasn't too hot out yet, and it was the first time that she had been able to appreciate it since…

Since dad.

She stopped walking. She thought she felt some moisture coming into her eyes, but she blinked it away, settling on her adopted anger instead.

How could he do this to us? He must have known what would happen without him around.

Leah took another step, looking out over the land. Though the yard was relatively even, there were places where the weeds had entwined themselves upward, even reaching to a height far above her head. She didn't understand when she had first seen them but, looking closer, she recognized the animal pens.

Ah yes.

Aunt Claire had used to keep a few animals of the barnyard variety. Perhaps she had thought that because she lived in a farmhouse, she had to live that lifestyle. Leah remembered that even three years ago when she had visited, there had been a few goats, a chicken house and a pig pen. The smells had been terrible, but the creatures themselves had been cute and interesting – except the chickens, which had followed her all over the yard. But the pens were empty now, and all the animals had gone away. Why were they gone? Had Aunt Claire decided that they were too much trouble to care for and sold them all? Or had she let them die off? Leah secretly scanned the pens for animal skeletons, but was relieved to see none through the overgrowth. And if animals were such trouble, when exactly had Claire decided that she could take care of children? Leah wondered this – not that she considered herself a child. She was seventeen, and in fact would be eighteen in six months. She could leave here then, and once she graduated high school she could go off to college, granted that Aunt Claire didn't squander her college fund. Or she could spend the money searching for her mother.

Sighing, Leah walked absently around the yard for a while. She could have gone for a run, for there was certainly plenty of road on either side of her, but she didn't feel much like doing that. There was no reason to. She hadn't eaten much in the last few days, after all, which may have been why she didn't have the energy. Leah spent a little while wandering blankly around the pens in an infinity symbol before deciding to go back to the house. The day was starting to get a bit too hot anyway.

Back in the kitchen, Tabitha was no longer at the table but her bowl had been left there. Sensing that the list of Aunt Claire's invitations also included washing their own dishes, Leah decided to take care of that reluctantly. She found a bottle of detergent beneath the sink that was wearing most of its contents on the outside. The pipes groaned and the water burst out to fill the sink. While she washed the few dishes that she had dirtied, Leah wondered what she would do with her day. There were still a few things she could arrange or unpack, but she wasn't sure that was what she wanted to do. There was only so much of that sort of thing to be done before she would run out of work, and then she feared she would become completely bored here and waste away. Aside from that, placing all her belongings meant that she had decided to stay here, and she had certainly not done that.

After putting up the dishes and draining the sink, she heard random blares of sound coming from the living room which could only be one thing: someone was flipping channels on the TV. Leah wandered off into the living room and found as she had suspected. Tabitha was lying on the old couch with the musty cushions, moving rapidly through channels of what appeared to be basic local programming. The girl raised her head when Leah came into the doorway.

"There's nothing on," she complained. "Just soap operas."

"Sorry," Leah said. "Hook up the DVD player and watch a movie."

"This TV is so old that it doesn't even have the right connections! Why couldn't we have brought our own with us?"

Leah didn't know. She didn't answer, but this was just one more annoyance that made her life sink further into the hole it had run into. Feeling that she couldn't deal with her sister's complaining right now, she turned away and began to wander toward the stairs, unsure of what her destination would be.

"But I'm bored," Tabitha whined, pulling herself up from the couch and following behind Leah.

"Go play a game on your laptop. You don't need a connection for that."

Leah started up the stairs and Tabitha followed behind, maneuvering her brace along with her. It thumped loudly against every stair, growing louder and louder in Leah's mind.

"I've already played all those games," Tabitha insisted.

"Well, you probably won't be getting any new ones soon," Leah muttered, turning the bend in the stairs.

"What? What did you say?" Leah didn't respond, so her sister gave up. "Well, you should do something with me."

"Like what?" Leah asked, sighing with agitation.

"Like… Hey, what's this?"

Leah turned to see that Tabitha had stopped near the bend in the stairs, so that she had to step back down to see her sister fully. Tabitha was looking at the dark wooden wall of the stairwell, but Leah could see what she was looking at. Oddly, it was the first time that she had noticed it, but in the crook of the stairs, there was a little door.

"Let's open it," Tabitha said, looking at Leah with eyes flashing excitedly. Leah remembered this look on her sister's face. It had been common once, but it had been a while since she'd seen it.

"I'm sure it's just a closet."

"But I wanna look inside. Aunt Claire said we could do whatever we wanted."

The girl made a reasonable point, and perhaps there wasn't anything better to do than explore the house. The woman herself had said that two of the rooms upstairs were junk rooms. How many ages of other people's junk did this house hold?

Leah looked back toward the small door, seeing that it was latched by a simple bolt lock that was ancient and loose, and with the motion of one finger, the lock had come undone. The door swung open on its own a few inches before stopping. Dust floated out from inside, as if the house had gasped for fresh air. Leah stared at the opening and at the edge of darkness within that seemed to be eating and rebirthing itself. For no reason beyond her own imagination, she was spooked by this dark little room – this house. She could blame it on too many movies, too many books, but she had the sudden image of death behind this door. There was a skeleton in there, of someone who had hidden inside and had been too afraid to come out.

Who could do that though? Who could be so afraid that they hid in a space until they died?

Perhaps sensing Leah's daze, Tabitha reached out her hand and pulled open the door. The hinges creaked as the space opened, and Leah wanted to protest, but when she saw that the small closet was stacked to the top with dusty old boxes, her fear began to subside. Her feelings were unreasonable, and she was just being paranoid.

Tabitha's eyes were wide with wonder, though she did seem a bit disappointed with the discovery of mere boxes. She would probably have been more pleased to have found bones.

"Should we get some of the boxes down and look inside?"

Leah considered, but it looked like an enormous headache to her. The boxes were stacked so haphazardly that if one of them was moved, every one might come tumbling out.

"Maybe not," she decided. "Probably just old Christmas decorations anyway."

Leah heard Tabitha sigh as she pushed the small door shut and latched it once again. She was glad to have closed it. Though there was no real logic behind it, the closet made her feel uneasy.

"I'm still bored," Tabitha said. "Let's go look in the other rooms upstairs."

Tabitha was heading upward before Leah had agreed, but she couldn't do much arguing. She followed the headstrong girl up onto the second floor. The wall directly ahead had three doors, the third of which being their bedroom door, but Tabitha had gone to the second one, as if it was the proper place to start.

"I wonder what's through here. She hadn't said this one was a junk room."

This was right; Claire had only pointed at two of the doors and said they were junk rooms, the first room on the left and the only room aside from the bathroom on the right. Leah had just assumed that this second door was an alternate entry to the one room which was beside theirs, and she was about to tell Tabitha this theory, but the girl had already pulled open the door, leaving them both staring upward toward a second flight of stairs.

These steps were merely wooden and the banisters lining the narrow ascent looked scratchy with splinters. The steps themselves were steep and dark, leading up into further dimness.

Attic, Leah figured. A house's personal museum and archive for the decades. This house had seen Civil War days. There was no knowing what could have been left up there since then.

"I dare you to go up there."

Leah looked toward Tabitha, whose voice was as mischievous as ever it was, even when she could still run and jump and skip and climb the tallest trees. Then Leah turned her gaze up the dark stairs, though it wasn't completely black up there. Light was shining in through an uncovered window. Attics were much more comfortable to visit when they had a window, proving that there was still a world outside. Even so, Leah didn't really want to go up there. It would be dusty and dirty, and she was led to be convinced that the floor might not be sturdy to walk on.

"We don't need to go up there," she said finally. "It'll be hotter up there than it is down here. The sun's shining right on the roof."

Tabitha looked at her knowingly. "You're scared."

Leah confronted her sister's superior little smile, feeling trapped, not by the dare but by the knowledge that if she refused to go up there, Tabitha would decide to go by herself, all the way up those steep steps and onto the weak floor above. If Leah went up there herself, glanced around and then reported that there was nothing to see, perhaps she could suppress her sister's curiosity and convince her to do something else.

"You stay down here," Leah instructed, stepping forward to meet the dare as her sister watched with satisfaction.

The first stair groaned beneath her weight, but she took a breath and continued forward. She touched the railings only slightly for fear she might get wooden bits in the flesh of her palm. She thought that she felt the steps bending beneath her feet, but eventually she made it onto the solid floor of the attic, which was compiled of uneven planks, but she had to admit that it was sturdier than she had imagined. The light from the uncovered window worked wonders toward relieving the gloom, and so Leah took a few steps forward.

She was right about it being hot, and she felt a slight vertigo from being at such a height. The floor beneath her feet was coated with dust, and even though her shoes moved it around where she stepped, there was dust beneath that dust that would not be swayed without water. There wasn't much of a walking path but that could be understood. An attic was meant to put things out of the way that were no longer needed or wanted, and sometimes those things were never touched again. This was a place to discard things that people could not bear to throw out but no longer wanted to look at. Yet here, there were sheets covering precious items that hadn't been meant to collect dust, and had probably not been meant to be forgotten. But they had been.

What a sad idea, Leah mused.

Hearing sounds on the steps behind her, she turned to see Tabitha's head poke up from the opening in the floor.

"Whoa," the younger girl commented, her head turning all around to view the area.

"I thought I told you to stay down there," Leah scolded.

"Yeah, right." Tabitha came up onto the attic floor and looked all around her. "Really creepy," she said. "I dare you to sleep up here tonight."

"I'm not going for that one," Leah said, crossing her arms and stepping around the room as if to keep herself from touching anything.

"Look at all this old stuff." While Tabitha began to poke around nosily through things that weren't hers – though they didn't belong to anyone anymore – Leah moved over to the window and peered out over the land that she could see before her. What she could see was the stretch of overgrown fields that surrounded the house until eventually they were cut off by lines of trees. She wondered how many people had gone crazy just looking out over such a sight day after day and knowing that they were completely alone. She remembered that, in the early days of her father's career, he had taken her mother and gone off to write a book in a tiny cabin on the lake for three months. All he could see out the window was the lake and the hills in the distance. He'd told Leah that when he'd gotten back, he had been so happy to see the city that he'd wanted to plant his lips on the oil stain in the drive.

"Who would need to keep so many old newspapers?" Tabitha asked, bringing Leah back from her thoughts. "I bet they'd make a great fire in the backyard."

Leah breathed out heavily, realizing that she'd been reminiscing, though she'd promised herself that she wasn't going to think about the past. She had to think about the future – but she hadn't decided on one in this house. That depressed her as much as thinking of her dead father. No, she would be positive. In a few days, their mother would come to get them.

It won't be long. She can't possibly leave us here. She–

What was that?

A quick movement to her right caught Leah's attention and she gasped, turning her head toward it. She expected to see a large rat or a raccoon scurrying by, but what she found herself looking at was not alive at all, nor had it ever been. It was an old window with dust-covered panes that was propped up against an old trunk. Perhaps it had been removed from the house at some point and stored up here, but whatever the case, what she'd seen must have been Tabitha's reflection from the other side of the room. Her heart rate began to slow, but she realized what this house was doing to her.

It's only been a day and I'm jumping at shadows. Get a grip. The dreams are one thing, but you can't allow yourself to do this. You can't go crazy.

"Okay, that's enough fun," she said. "It's too hot up here."

"Oh, come on. We've hardly started looking around up here."

"Yeah, well, we're done. Come on."

Tabitha stood her ground with a you-can't-tell-me-what-to-do expression, but Leah's oh-yes-I-can trumped it.

"Fine," Tabitha growled, accepting it reluctantly.

Leah managed to usher her sister toward the steps, even despite the disgusted look on Tabitha's face. Leah waved her down first, watching her grip the railing and limp down slowly. There were just too many stairs in this house for her. Would the doctors want to try surgery again soon? Could they fix it right this time? Watching Tabitha go down, Leah took one last glance behind her, looking once more toward that window that was encrusted with dust.

Hm. How could I have seen a reflection in that glass, since it's so dirty? She didn't have an answer for that.

"Weird… Crazy girl," she muttered at herself and headed down the steps.