The House of Months and Years
CHAPTER ONE A House but Not a Home
THE HOUSE KNEW. IT KNEW, gazing down at her with its droopy window-eyes, that Amelia hated it. It knew with its wide, crumbling, scowling face that she was scowling right back at it, and she had a tongue she could stick out, which she did, as far as it would go. She was better than the house. It might be big and old and in the middle of a forest, but she was still better. She didn’t only have a tongue; she had shoes for kicking at the driveway and a big dictionary full of insulting words she could hurl at the bricks.
Really, her glower had little to do with the house, which Amelia had to admit looked interesting—and in her opinion interesting was far more of a compliment than nice.
Deep down, she knew it wasn’t the windows or the wood or the slate tiles on the roof. She didn’t want to be there, but it was more, just, well, all of it, and she would get in trouble for sticking her tongue out at her cousins. Especially since another thing she knew deep down was that this whole situation wasn’t her cousins’ fault. What had happened was very sad, and Amelia felt very sad for them, but she could be just as sad in her own room, in her own house.
So this one, in front of her, was a safer target for her annoyance.
You don’t like me now, little girl, but you will learn to. Come inside, the house seemed to say. In her imagination the house sounded like a wheezy, whispering old man. Amelia stretched her tongue out as far as it would go.
“You’ll freeze that way,” said her mother, dragging a bursting suitcase from the car. It had dents in the side from where Amelia had been wedged against it for the whole of the long journey.
Good, thought Amelia, though her mother was wrong. It was much too warm here for anything to freeze. The latticework of leaves surrounding them was lush and green, the trees holding the heat in cupped wooden hands. A month from now, perhaps,
the edges of the leaves would begin to turn gold. Two months and they’d cover the ground on which Amelia Howling stood.
She didn’t want to be here that long. It had already been too long.
She wanted to go home.
Voices came through the open door. Quiet voices. The accident had turned down the volume on Amelia’s life. The ringing phone had been the last loud noise, the call that made her mother go silent and pale. It wasn’t surprising that the silence had fallen here, too. It had started here. Or, to be precise, it had started on the road leading to the town, on a night booming with thunder and crackling with lightning and slick with sheets of rain. A scream of twisting metal, and then a hush that had spread all the way to Amelia’s house.
An old, curly-haired woman stepped out onto the porch, wiping her hands on a cloth before waving at Amelia and her parents. Amelia did not wave back, but Mrs. Howling did. Mrs. Howling had dropped the phone after that awful call and rushed here, stayed here while Amelia finished school and Mr. Howling packed boxes every evening after work. The old woman, a housekeeper of some sort, had agreed to look after Amelia’s cousins these past few days while
Mrs. Howling returned to help with the last bits and pieces.
Amelia ran up the steps and darted past the woman into the entrance hall. A rack there still held coats too large to belong to her cousins, too small for the housekeeper, and none of them were her mother’s. Amelia tiptoed across the floor to peer into the sitting room, ignoring the conversation that started behind her.
“Hello,” said her eldest cousin, Owen. He was ten, just a week older than Amelia herself, and that made her angry. It had never bothered her before, when she’d seen him at Christmases or family holidays, but a lot of things were different now. This house was different; they’d lived somewhere else the last time she’d visited. Owen was different. It had in fact been a few years since she’d seen him; his hair was darker than it had been, darker than hers, and he had more freckles than she remembered. Perhaps he’d always had that many.
“Hello,” answered Amelia, so late it seemed Owen had forgotten he’d said it first. He’d gone back to some silly game on the gadget in his lap. She had one too, and was probably better at the game than he was.
The other two, Matthew and Lavender, were younger. Eight and one. More than once Amelia had overheard her father say that Lavender, at least, probably didn’t
grasp what had happened. Matthew was staring at a spot on the ugly striped wallpaper, and Lavender wore a smile frosted with crumbs.
Amelia did understand what had happened. She was plenty old enough, thank you very much, even if she wasn’t oldest anymore. That was the most excellent thing about being an only child: She got to be the oldest and the youngest, all at the same time. She understood that her aunt and uncle had died, and now her parents had to be Owen, Matthew, and Lavender’s parents too.
Not that they ever would be, of course, not truly. Amelia knew someone had to care for them—she wasn’t stupid—but she didn’t understand why it needed to be like this. She’d offered to share her room at home, but apparently that house still wasn’t big enough for everyone. She’d suggested that the old woman could look after them all the time, and Amelia and her parents would just visit, but that wasn’t all right either. The woman wasn’t even staying. She was only ever meant to be temporary, and wanted to retire. Mrs. Howling said she’d clean the house herself—with help from Amelia’s father and the children, of course. It figured that no matter how far she moved, Amelia couldn’t escape chores.
“We’re sorry, Amie; we know it’s a big change,” her
father had said, taping up a cardboard box in her old living room.
“We really don’t have the space there, but this house is very large,” her mother had said on the phone when she’d called to wish Amelia good night. “It only makes sense. Besides, they’ve already been through so much. We can’t take their home from them too.”
But it was perfectly fine to take Amelia’s home. Her perfect little house on its perfect little hill, with her very best friend right next door, and the pond at the bottom of the garden, and Mrs. Frenkel at school to give her interesting books.
Oh, yes. It was fine to take all that away.
Beyond the sitting room a conservatory filled with underwater light and wicker furniture spread the fresh scent of plants and flowers. And there was Mum’s computer, set up on a little table so she could do her work. Amelia paid no attention to Owen following her as she wandered through the glass room, into a kitchen that took up most of the back of the house. A plate of cakes sat on the enormous table, which explained Lavender’s mess. Through the windows Amelia saw a large garden, bright with even more plants and flowers and, past them, more of the trees that encircled the whole place.
Owen was still watching her, and it was too much. She opened her mouth, but nothing came out. She felt so very sorry for him and just couldn’t find words for it under all the sorry she felt for herself, so it was better to say nothing at all. She ran back the way she’d come, past her parents still talking to the housekeeper in the doorway and up the wide, curved stairs that creaked like an old man’s bones under her. The first thing she felt when she reached the top was stifling heat, and the first thing she saw was a closed door, and being on the other side of it seemed like a very good idea.
“You can’t go in there,” said Owen as she reached for the knob. “You’re not allowed.”
Amelia stopped, turned to face him. “Is that your room?”
Owen shook his head. “No. It’s where my dad does his work.”
Not anymore, thought Amelia, but it was a sad thought, not a mean one.
“Then you can’t tell me what to do,” she said.
“That’s yours,” he answered, pointing at the room beside the office and backing away, descending the stairs again. Someone—the old woman, surely, because Mrs. Howling knew Amelia better than this—had made an effort to decorate Amelia’s room in a way
that would surely be described as jolly, and anything described that way is the exact opposite, always. Little wooden letters, each a different color, spelled out her name on the door.
If Amelia were to be sick on the rug after eating too many sweets, it would be in precisely those colors.
It was tempting to do so. In fact, she did feel slightly ill. It was too warm up here, far warmer than even the summer day outside should allow for.
And being sick might distract her parents from bringing the suitcases into the house.
Instead she swallowed and stepped inside the room. It wasn’t a bad room. Not as nice as her old one, obviously, but it was larger, with a big bay window and its own fireplace. Since it was summer, the hearth was dark, full of sooty shadows that stole what light they could from the rest of the room.
It had a window seat, too, and someone—this time it probably had been Mrs. Howling—had piled one end high with books. Amelia’s own books, sent ahead in the boxes her father had packed in a big van.
Well. They wouldn’t get her to like it here that easily.
You will like it here, insisted the room, the fireplace, the surrounding forest. You will.
A gust of wind blew from somewhere, rattling her
windows, slamming her door. Downstairs, suitcases crashed and bumped into the front hall. Amelia wondered if maybe she should help, if only so as not to get in trouble later, but her cousins weren’t helping either, far as she could hear with the door closed, so that settled that.
The bed was comfortable, which was deeply irritating. Complaining that it was lumpy, that she wouldn’t sleep a wink on it, that she missed her old one . . . that would feel like something. A protest against the strange, welcoming feeling tickling at the back of Amelia’s neck. The house wanted people in it, and even inside her own head that sounded an odd way to put it, but she could think of no other description. The long driveway had drawn them in, through the two wide swathes of trees, to shelter them inside the clearing that held the house.
Shelter. That was the word. Amelia’s large dictionary wasn’t one of the books on the window seat—she’d insisted on keeping it with her, and it was still in the car—but she knew if she checked it, she’d be right. Shelter was definitely the proper word. Beyond the trees there were roads and cars and cities and life, creeping up to the edge of the house’s surrounding land but not daring to infringe upon it. It was so quiet, the house,
so proud. It stood tall in its own gardens and didn’t need any other houses around it to tell it what it was.
Well. Amelia could tell what it wasn’t. It wasn’t home, and it never would be.
• • •
A clock ticked on Amelia’s nightstand, but its rhythmic noise wasn’t what had woken her. She didn’t know what had, until Lavender let loose another screeching wail, which was quickly followed by the sound of Mrs. Howling trying to comfort her. This had happened every night of the two weeks since Amelia arrived, and now she was too annoyed to simply roll over and fall back to sleep.
It was twelve minutes to midnight, a pleasing symmetry, and Amelia had kicked off all her covers, the room still too warm. She felt as if she’d been asleep for only a second, though her father had come in almost three hours before to kiss her good night and turn off the lamp. He’d tried to close the curtains, too, but she’d stopped him, and now the moon shone into the clearing, into Amelia’s room. It chilled the floor with its cold, white light, bleaching the floorboards to more bones that groaned; if the stairs were the house’s spine, these were its ribs.
The hairs on the back of Amelia’s neck rose. The
window seemed even more like an eye from inside than it had when she first saw the house. It stared out through the gaps in the trees to spy on the rooftops of the town. Amelia hadn’t been to the town yet; all she knew of it was what she’d seen when they drove through on their way here, and she’d been too squashed in with the suitcases to pay much attention. The suitcases were empty now, tossed down into the cellar.
She was really staying here.
For fourteen days she’d been trapped in this place. Most of the time had been spent reading on her window seat and avoiding her cousins, though her parents had some very firm rules about mealtimes, especially supper. Three times a day, she slunk sullenly to the kitchen and ate in silence while her mum’s lips got thinner and thinner and her dad’s fork clanged too heavily against his plate. When she was finished, she would disappear back to her room, and at some point one of her parents would come to tuck her into bed, saying little except they hoped she’d sleep well.
Now she was wide awake, kneeling on the window seat, looking out at the trees. The leaves and the spaces between them played with the dark of the night and the light of the moon, making shapes and faces. An eye winked at her and rustled back on the wind to
ordinary treeness. Lavender had stopped crying, and a hush, a real hush, which is a special kind of silence, fell over the house once more. It was disturbed only by the ticktock on the nightstand, the hands neatly sweeping away every last speck of Amelia’s old life.
It was just . . . it was just silly that it could be quite so simple. That everything she’d known could vanish so easily and leave her with nothing but memories. Silly and wrong.
Her bedroom was still too hot; her throat stuck to itself. The house was quiet, and carefully, so as not to start Lavender’s cacophony up again, Amelia crept to her door and opened it, tiptoeing past the sickly colored letters and down the stairs for a glass of water. Voices came from the kitchen, her mother and father talking. Amelia inched up to the door and peered inside. Mrs. Howling had Lavender balanced on one hip.
“She needs time,” said Mr. Howling, messing up his usually very neat hair with his hand.
Lavender needed time to go back to sleep? Amelia couldn’t remember being only a year old. Maybe she’d been the same way.
“I know,” replied Mrs. Howling, “but this isn’t making the situation any easier. I’ve tried to talk to her,
even offered to take her shopping for some new books, just the two of us, but she’s having none of it. I think she’s still angry with me for leaving the two of you and coming here, but what choice was there?”
Amelia’s heart skipped. They weren’t talking about Lavender; they were talking about her. How dare they talk about her behind her back, but that was what parents did, wasn’t it? And it was true she’d told Mum she didn’t want to go to the bookshop.
It was true that she was still angry, too.
“There wasn’t a choice,” said her father, kissing her mother’s cheek. Ew. “Of course you had to come look after these three, and Hugo and Marie would have done the same for Amelia, if something had happened to us. We’re all adjusting. A new house, more kids around, my new job. We’ll make it work, darling.”
Amelia slipped back upstairs, thirsty and thinking. She hated it here, but at least she still had her parents. Her cousins must feel much worse. She could try harder to be friends with them. A few days earlier, Amelia had overheard Matthew telling Owen he wanted their mum and dad back.
Well, Amelia wanted them to have their mum and dad back too.
She was overhearing quite a lot these days, but it wasn’t
her fault. The house was so big and wonky it was impossible not to find herself in a forgotten room or around a corner, on the few occasions she left her window seat. And if she pressed herself a little deeper into the shadows and strain her ears, as she’d done at the kitchen door, well, that was just a very sensible mistake.
There was nothing to overhear now. The hush had fallen once more. The clock ticked and a new noise joined it: a branch tapping at the window. Good grief, how did anyone ever sleep here, where even the silences were loud? And where the trees cast tall, creepy shadows on the walls like skeleton giants, waving their arms around their heads?
She got into bed and closed her eyes. She was going to sleep, and she was going to dream of something pleasant. That time she and her very best friend, Isabelle, had found that cave by the seaside, perhaps, or last Christmas, when Mum and Dad had given her the dictionary she’d wanted, after asking her at least a dozen times beforehand if she was certain.
Of course she’d been certain. Or, according to the thing itself, she’d coveted the dictionary. It was thick enough to make a convenient step when she needed something too. Amelia liked things that were good for more than one job.
She may have dreamed of sand or pine needles, roaring oceans, or glittering, multicolored baubles. She may have dreamed about the time she and her parents had gone on holiday to the desert and ridden actual camels, but when she awoke in the morning she couldn’t quite remember dreaming anything, which was strange, but not. At home Amelia had always remembered her dreams and told her mother about them over breakfast, but here, in the comfortable bed in the too-warm room, they disappeared the moment she opened her eyes. Maybe she would’ve remembered if Owen hadn’t knocked on her door, startling her from sleep. He didn’t even wait for an answer before barging in as if he owned the place. It might be his house, and quite frankly he could keep it, but this was her room.
Yes, it is your room, and you should protect what is yours, the room whispered inside her head, gathering itself around her. The voice chased away any sympathetic thoughts she’d had in the middle of the night.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“I was only wondering if you wanted to come outside with me and Matthew. There’s a frog.”
“There were tons of frogs in the pond at my old house. A million frogs. Frogs are boring.”
“Suit yourself, then.”
stay out of my room. I know you’ve been in here. Yesterday my dictionary was under my bed, and I didn’t put it there.”
He glared at her—an admission of guilt if she’d ever seen one—and shut the door harder than was strictly necessary. She would suit herself. She’d suit herself right after breakfast.
“Good morning, sweetheart,” said her mother. “You slept late; are you feeling well?”
“Yes. My room is still too hot, though,” answered Amelia, taking her seat at the long wooden table and looking at the half-empty butter dish, the bottle of syrup with a sticky drip running down its side. “Are there pancakes?” By daylight, with just her and Mum in the kitchen, it was easy to push aside her anger, and pancakes buy a lot of forgiveness.
“We’ll get you a fan or something. Ours is warm too, and the basement is freezing. We’ll get someone in to look at the heating soon. Old houses can be so odd. There were pancakes,” said her mother, frowning. “We didn’t have as much milk as I thought; I’m not used to shopping for six.”
So there were no pancakes, and it wasn’t even just her and Mum in the kitchen. A grubby-faced Lavender
peeked out from behind a cupboard, fist full of soggy mush that Amelia was sure had once been her breakfast.
“How about toast?” asked her mother.
“I’m not hungry,” said Amelia. Her stomach growled under the table, loud as a begging dog.
“Oh, Amie, I am sorry.” Mrs. Howling put two slices of bread in the toaster anyway. “I’ll make whatever you like for dinner.” But Amelia was already out of the kitchen and, because it was the closest door, clomping down the basement stairs.
She hadn’t been down here yet. It had taken her the first week to learn how not to get lost in the rooms above- ground, if only so she could get lost on purpose, otherwise known as hiding. The basement had seemed too obvious a place to hide, and the discovery of a library near the kitchen had rather answered the question for her, on the occasions she’d wanted to leave her room.
Mum was right; it was freezing down here. Pipes, white with filigreed frost, ran along the walls, and huge icicles hung from the seams where one joined another.
Something rustled in a corner. She whirled around. “Hello? Owen? Matthew?”
No answer came, and she didn’t think they’d be lurking to scare her on the off chance she’d decided
to come down here. Probably a mouse, though why it wouldn’t choose to live upstairs in the warmth was beyond her. Mum should keep the ice cream down here—if her cousins hadn’t already eaten it all—next to the assorted junk that always gathers in basements. This one was no exception: rusted bicycle frames and tins of paint on rickety shelves too ugly to be on display in the rest of the house. Atop an old, shabby dresser sat a broken Christmas bauble, a grubby tobacco pipe, a single child’s shoe. There were boxes, too, but they hadn’t come with Amelia and her parents in the car, or in the hired moving van that had made the journey ahead of them.
Owen, Matthew, and Lavender had only lived here since February, and it was just the beginning of August now. It looked as if their parents hadn’t even had a chance to fully unpack before the accident. She peered into the top of a box that turned out to hold winter coats, unused since they’d arrived. It simply didn’t make sense that Amelia had to live here; it wasn’t as if her cousins had grown up here or anything, not like she had in her house.
Another box held old photographs. Someone should move them upstairs; they were being damaged by the cold. Half the ones she could see had turned
a pale gray, with only the faintest outlines of their original subjects showing. She’d tell Mum later, if she remembered.
It was too cold to stay here. Whatever the basement seemed to think, it was summer outside, and she was only wearing a T-shirt and shorts.
Whatever the basement seemed to think. That was a curious way to phrase it, but it felt like the right way. The right words, and a girl with Amelia’s dictionary would know. That was it.
Since the moment she’d arrived, the house had given her the feeling it could think for itself.