Here we are. Here it is.
This the house we have come to. This the house we have left to find. Beached up on the side of the North York Moors, only just out of the sea. Our lips puckered and wrinkled from licking crisp salt, limbs heavy, wrought with growing pains. The boiling-hot steering wheel, the glare off the road. It has been hours since we left, buried in the backseat. Mum said, getting into the car, Let's make it before night. And then nothing else for a long time. We imagine what she might say: This is your fault, or, We would never have had to leave if you hadn't done what you did. And what she means, of course, is if we hadn't been born. If we hadn't been born at all.
I squeeze my hands together. Not being able to tell yet what the fear is of, only that it is enormous. The house is here, squatting like a child by the small slate wall, the empty sheep field behind pitted with old excrement, thornbushes tall as a person. The suck of stale air meeting new as I push the door open. The smell of manure. The hedges overgrown, the grass and weeds forcing their way through the concrete, the front garden narrow and gnarled up with odds and ends, ancient spade heads, plastic bags, shattered plant pots and their almost-living root balls. September up on the uneven garden wall, balancing, teeth clenched in what might or might not be a grin. The windows shuttered with the reflection of her body and of my face beyond, eyeholes like caverns and, beyond that, our mum leaning exhausted against the bonnet.
The white walls of the house are streaked with mud handprints and sag from their wrinkled middles, the top floor sunk down onto the bottom like a hand curved over a fist. Scaffolding heaped against one wall, broken tiles from the roof shattered on the road. I reach for September's arm, wondering if I might push my teeth down into the skin to see if I can tell, by the contact, what she is thinking. Sometimes I can. Not with great certainty but with a numb buzz of realization. Like when Mum turns on the radios in different rooms and the timing is off just a little and you can stand in the corridor in between and hear them echoing. But she whirls away out of reach, cackling like a magpie.
I dig for a tissue in the bottom of my pocket, blow my nose. The sun is just starting to drop but still it burns on my bare shoulders. There are cough sweets in my pocket, soft with fuzz. I suck one into my cheek.
On the wall of the house there is a sign, covered in grime. I wipe it with my tissue until I can read the words: the settle house. We have never lived in a house with a name before. Never lived in a house that looks the way this one does: rankled, bentouttashape, dirtyallover. September's body spins. I close my eyes five times quickly so that she won't fall and if she does she will land like a cat.
I look back for Mum. She is heaving herself away from the car; her body looks as if it is too much to carry. She has been this way, taciturn or silent, ever since what happened at school. At night we listened to her moving around above us in the Oxford house. She would speak only stray phrases to us, barely meeting our eyes. She is a different person in a recognizable body and I wish she would come back to us. She knocks the garden gate open with her toe.
Help me, she says, as she passes. Ursa said the key was under the frog.
We look for the frog. The ground is loose with insect activity. I dig for a worm and then panic at the feel of it, soft, giving.
Stop mucking around, Mum says and we look, hunched over, in the grass, searching until I find it with my fingers, a stone frog, fat-lipped, button-eyed, almost hidden beneath the undergrowth. Mum tips it with her boot and then groans; no key. Typical, she says. Typical, and then knocks her fists three times against her thighs.
Down the line of the field the May clouds have turned steely and begun gathering and swelling ominously. I point, say, Look.
OK. Quick. Hunt.
We leave the bags in piles and lift the empty pots, kick through the scrub of grass. I find coins in the dirt. Around the side of the house there is a path and, beyond, a garden with flagstones stacked against the walls, grass torn back to muck, metal rakes abandoned. What might have been a barbecue, with a mound of ash inside the split brick structure. There are shells embedded in the side of the house, set into the concrete, and the ground is grainy with sand, loose with sea-smoothed pebbles. I look through one of the windows. Through the glass: the dusky shape of walls, shelves; a pantry perhaps. I spit on my palm and rub. The lighter square of a doorframe, beyond which there are dim shadows, what might be a sofa or a table, something that could be the first tread of a staircase. Next to me, September presses her face forward, hands curled on the glass, the sweet smell of the perfume we stole from the Boots near our school, the smell of her unbrushed teeth. She goggles at me, rolls her tongue, pinches my arm. My face looks wrong, the perspective all off, my cheeks longer than they should be, my eyes narrow as coin slots in parking meters.
I look like Mum. Or like her mum, she says, our grandmother, in India, where we have never been. September does not look like us. We do not remember our father but she must look like him, smooth-haired, cheeks soft with blond fuzz, pale-eyed like a snow animal.
The information about him comes drip-drip through the years, rarely wrangled without a fight. He met Mum when she was twenty-three and on holiday in Copenhagen, where he lived at the time. He followed her around the city for three days. She told us that he was like that. His English was perfect-he had grown up here-but he liked to speak to her in Danish, enjoyed the fact that she could not understand. He was like that too. He died. How did he die? we asked for four years before she caved. He drowned in the swimming pool of a hotel in Devon. They were not together when he died and the three of us, September barely five, me a little younger, had been living somewhere else. It took nearly a year for his sister to ring and tell her he was dead. We learned not to ask about him. We do not have the words to describe him. We did not know him. September once said to Mum that he was a howlingbanderlootinggrifter and Mum laughed and said it was true but then went quiet for a few hours, got the look we had come to recognize. Every three or four Christmases his sister, Ursa, comes to visit and September and I sometimes try and wring information out of her but she never caves. Ursa drives a convertible car, never comes for more than a day, stays in a hotel rather than at ours. Her hair is short and blond so that, coming upon her from behind and unawares, we would at times be convinced that she was him, long-lost father, the reason for our mother's sadness and our existence. The house on the moors belongs to her, though she rents it out, does not live here, fills it with people like us who do not know where else to go.
Down the side of the house, the wind picking up a bit now, we find another window, not large but loose-looking, opening inward when we press on it.
At the front of the house Mum has a rock out of a nearby field and is about to throw it through the pane of glass beside the door. I lift my hands to cover my ears. The blood goes boom boom boom and the alarm grows in my bone marrow and swans up my throat.
There's an open window, September yells. I think we can fit inside. Mum turns her stony face toward us, mouth drawn down and carved into the skin.
The room the window leads into is a pantry. We are holding hands by the time we get inside. Beneath the window there is a dirty tiled floor, chipped where it meets the damp wall. Wooden shelves. Some cans of soup and beans, a couple of packets of off-color spaghetti. There is a smell, almost sweet, with an undertone that I cannot quite identify. The ceiling is low and the bare bulb bumps off the top of my head.
September is humming the way she does when she is excited and wants me to know it. Her hums can mean all sorts of things. Hello, where are you/Come here/Stop that/I'm annoyed with you. I realize that I am afraid of the house and of Mum being angry and of September being annoyed. We have been here before, only once, but I do not remember it well.
What is that? I say.
I don't know. A dead mouse?
Don't say that.
Through the door of the pantry we can see into the corridor beyond, to the left is the front entrance and, beside it, another closed door leading, perhaps, to a bathroom. Ahead are the stairs and to the right another door and in front of us, opening out, a sitting room. The layout of the house feels wrong, unintuitive, the pantry opening directly onto the sitting room the way it does. It smells like food left out too long. We go out into the sitting room. In the corner of the room there is a hunched shape, formless, folds of material. I squeeze September's hand. It is impossible that we are here and it is impossible to stay. There is a lamp on the table nearest us that I lunge for. Something is knocked from the table and falls. My insides are filled with bees. The light comes on, emitting a high-pitched whine.
There's nothing there, September says. Don't worry, July-bug.
She goes around turning on switches. Everything is a little too bright, as if the bulbs are not quite right for their fixtures. There is the smell of burning, and when I look into one of the deep-bowled lamps, I see the mulch of web, the dead flies in the base. There are mangy blankets on the sofa and the armchair, a coffee table with a couple of mugs on it, a pile of newspapers below. There is a wood-burning stove underneath a wooden mantel with a dirty rug in front. A small window lets in a little light. The ceiling is low and beamed. If we were any taller we would have to bend. Behind the stairs there are empty bookcases. The thing I knocked from the table is on the floor, half under the sofa. When I pick it up there is dirt on my hands. The glass is broken jaggedly. September puts her arms around my middle and her chin on my shoulder.
Don't worry, look, it's an ant farm.
I turn it the other way up. She's right. Two panes of glass welded into a narrow box and filled with dirt. There are tunnels, excavations, runnels set through the earth, falling in on themselves as we move it.
I broke it, I say and feel-thick, cloying, unavoidable-what it would be like to live in the dirt and force your way mouthily through.
We can fix it, she says. There will be tape somewhere. We'll find some ants to put inside.
There is a rapping at the door, Mum reminding us. I go to let her in. Her face looks so tired, as if she hasn't slept in a week. It was a long winter, a bad Christmas already flavored with what would come, a creeping spring. There was the fight at school in March, the sodden surface of the abandoned tennis courts, the mud on our bare feet, and my hands looking as if they belonged to someone else. We stayed in Oxford for two months after what had happened and now it's May, the storms given way to heat. I want to touch Mum's face, have her hold me the way she used to do when we would all pile into the double bed. Except she is already pushing past, jaw rigid, the bags dropping from her hands to the floor. I have felt tired too, since we left school; some days it is as if I am carrying a second body draped over my shoulders. I want to tell her this, have her say she is the same or that she can help me feel better.
We watch her going up the stairs. September whistles between her teeth and says her name-the way she does when she wants to annoy her-quietly, Sheela, and for a moment it looks like she hesitates and might come back, but then she is forging forward, boots on the wooden steps. She's got her duvet under one arm, her work folder under the other. We stand listening to her until there is the sound of a door closing. She has been sad before but it was not the same as this. This is worse.
She's so angry, I say. I can feel September's rising annoyance.
She won't be angry forever, she says.
She might be.
Not at you, September says and pulls my plait, makes my eyes water.
The door farthest from the front of the house leads into a small galley kitchen. There are caked baking trays in the sink, an empty bread bag on the side, more mugs. There is a tiny window. I grapple awkwardly up onto the counter, pull at the catch but it won't open-has, I see, been painted shut, nails forced into the soft wood for good measure. I get down. There are yellow notes stuck to the fridge-I recognize Ursa's handwriting from the birthday cards-the A and J from a set of magnetic letters. It feels intrusive to read the notes but I do, leaning forward, looking for some kind of secret language or information to show September. But there are only details about bin days, a door at the back that sticks, a list of what not to put in the fire. The kitchen around me is so dirty it makes me itch. I let the tap run until it comes cold and then scrub my hands but even the water feels coated, soft with slime. From the doorway September whistles for me, a few notes, drawing me back together.