Happy House

This wasn’t the first house Ella Finn had broken into. She was twelve years old, but knew enough not to leave any fingerprints behind. She pushed her arms through the gap, squeezing into the window and dropping into the sink. Around her neck was a butterfly chain, a present from her mother a week before her parents had vanished. Ella pressed it between her fingers as her bare feet plopped into the water. A chill ran over her toes and up her legs, rushing through her until it clutched at her heart.

She’d left her favourite socks outside, the yellow and black ones which made her toes look like little bees. Ella’s hair was dark and messy, as brown as her eyes and untouched by a brush for at least four days. She stared across the kitchen, waiting for someone to catch her, even though she knew her aunt and cousins had left without her. But her uncle could be in the house, the mysterious George whom she’d met just the once when arriving north at the home of her only living relatives.

Ella’s hands shook, her fingers shivering not from cold or fear. Two weeks and three days after she’d stopped taking her medication, the anxiety had returned. The pounding in her head matched the thump in her chest. She fought against all of it and thought of her mum and dad and how they’d disappeared six months ago. She needed her phone to find them. That’s why she’d sneaked into the house, even after her Aunt Ida had forbidden her.

The only thing keeping her calm was the fact she’d brought a friend with her. But the tiny rat squirming on her shoulder was nervous. Ratter’s whiskers stood on end as Ella climbed out of the kitchen sink. She crept across the floor, her feet dripping dirty water as the cold kitchen tiles added to the chill in her bones. She pinched her nose at the stink of the boiled cabbage sitting on the cooker. Her aunt had left the food, unwanted and forgotten, and as she stared at it, Ella wondered if she was cabbage in human form.

She stole into the corridor, her hand pressed against the wall and the paper decorated with flowers she didn’t recognise. The sight made her think of her parents again and how her father always brought bright, fragrant blossoms into the house, so their home was one of vivid colours and beautiful smells. She closed her eyes and saw the vibrant reds and purples and smelt the roses and lavender. They returned her to another time, one not so long ago, but which seemed like a different lifetime. Then she opened her eyes to the Twist household’s dull grey and its insipid smell of nothing.

Ella gazed at the frames on the wall, and her three horrible cousins glared at her. They appeared as grumpy in the photo as they did in real life. She had to leave this new family of hers. Finding the phone was a start, but she also needed cash to return to London. Ella had no money of her own, and her aunt wouldn’t give her anything.

I can’t find Mum and Dad if I’m skint.

Ella looked around the kitchen. She could take something from the house to sell.

It wouldn’t be stealing. They’ve given me nothing since I came here, and I know they’re getting money from the council for looking after me.

Ratter licked at her neck.

If they catch me in here, I’m toast.

But she had no choice if she was going to find her mum and dad. Her parents had been scientists working for the government when they’d vanished. She’d wanted to tell her mum’s sister about it, but Ida was colder than ice cream when social services had dropped Ella off at the house.

‘To lose one parent may be a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness,’ Ida had said.

It wasn’t quite the greeting Ella expected, and things hadn’t improved since.

Her hand stopped shaking and she breathed a sigh of relief. Her aunt and the three girls had gone into town, and she hadn’t seen her mysterious uncle in over a week. But he might be anywhere, and Ida and the kids would return soon.

She felt like a scarecrow as she crept up the stairs, the pants and shirt baggy on her bony frame, clothes handed down from her older cousins. Her fingers slid over the railing. Ratter snuggled up to her neck, the animal’s nose twitching as she sniffed at Ella’s hair. Ella couldn’t talk to animals or control them, but she’d always had an unexplainable closeness to them. Her mum had called it an affinity.

She stood outside her oldest cousin’s bedroom. Ratter shivered on her shoulder.

‘It’s okay, girl, Dolly and the others aren’t here. I’ll find the phone she stole from me, and then we’ll leave and search for Mum and Dad.’

The corridor had a smell of old feet and dead fish. Her toes bristled against the shaggy carpet, her shoes abandoned outside after the incident which had led to her punishment. It was only dirt from the cliffs she’d accidentally brought into the kitchen. But Ida had scowled at the sight of it, and the stink. Ella had to admit it did pong. Her eyes darted around the landing.

What if my uncle’s in the house?

The rat jumped off her shoulder and dashed into the shadows as Ella turned to the bedroom door. Smack in the middle of it was a sketch of a grinning skull, and the words KEEP OUT! She held her breath and put her fingers on the handle. As she did so, the floor creaked downstairs.

‘Whooo,’ Ella whispered as the noises inside her head drowned out the sounds of the building.

The creaking came again, louder this time. It made her pause outside the room. If she didn’t do something soon, the trembling would return and she’d never find her phone. She reached out and placed her hand on the door. The metal of the handle turned her fingers cold.

It’s only the house groaning.

The wind whistled between the rafters as she discovered her courage and pushed the door open. She scuttled inside and Ratter followed. The rat vanished under the bed while Ella looked around Dolly’s room. It was as she expected it, the walls full of shiny posters of pop stars and television celebrities, and an enormous bed covered with dark sheets and fluffy pillows. The bedroom carpet was smoother than the one outside, like marshmallows against her feet. A bookcase held tiny porcelain figures of Disney characters, while opposite it was a table draped with teen magazines and a laptop.

She’d better not have taken the phone with her.

The oldest cousin had snatched it from her when Ella was taking photos of the beach and the pier. It was pointless complaining to Ida about it; she had to get it back herself.

Ratter popped her head from under the bed as Ella made for the wardrobe. Ella pulled the doors open and stared at Dolly’s clothes: every single thing – tops, shirts, trousers, skirts, dresses and jackets – lacked colour. It was like gazing into a black hole.

Nothing but darkness, just like her soul.

The phone wasn’t there and she slapped the wall. She strode to the chest of drawers as Ratter climbed up the sheets and on to the bed. Ella scrunched her eyes as she searched through Dolly’s underwear in the top drawer, then the socks in the second one. She sat against the bed in relief when she spotted the mobile in the last drawer.

The joy of finding it made her forgot the time as she checked through the photos. She hardly used the phone for calls or texts, but it contained the most important things in her life: the only images left of her parents. It also had the code to get into their research facility at Artemis labs.

She swiped past the pictures of the beach, of the house, of the Victorian pier, of the surfers, of the countryside and service stations from her journey north, until she found what she’d wanted. Ratter was back on her shoulder as the tears came. She didn’t wipe them away, staring at her mum’s smile, her dad fooling around in their garden, the two of them kissing when they thought she wasn’t there, and then the last photo she’d taken.

Ella held the screen up to the rat.

‘They’re waving at me, saying goodbye before I went to school.’ Ella climbed on to the bed. ‘And then they vanished.’

She buried her head in the pillows.

Her sobbing came fast and loud, like giant waves against her heart. The phone dropped to the carpet and Ratter bounded over the sheets. The rat snuggled up to her face and licked Ella’s cheeks. Her breathing was quick and heavy, noisy enough in her ears she didn’t hear the front door slam shut below. Feet stomped up the stairs as she dragged her head from the bed and jumped to the floor.

‘Oh no,’ she whispered as someone banged into the door.

Ratter fled under the bed as the handle twitched. Ella fell to the carpet, grabbed the phone, and rolled after the rat. She reached the dark as three sets of feet barged into the room. Ratter shivered near her nose as two lumps landed on the bed, pushing into Ella’s back. It was impossible to move as the girls sat right on top of her. Dust swirled around her head and jumped over her face. Bits of dirt stuck to her lips, and she wanted to sneeze. She held her breath and wished the urge away.

‘Let’s see what you’ve got.’ It was Dotty who spoke, the middle of the sisters.

Something small with hairy legs ran over Ella’s hand. She flinched and killed the noise in her throat. As she swallowed something terrible, one cousin dropped a shopping bag on to the floor. Ella stared at the green bits of the plastic before its contents emptied across the carpet.

‘I’m gonna movie it when you give it to her.’ That was Daisy, the youngest at thirteen, a year older than Ella. ‘She won’t expect a pressie from us.’

The girls cackled like witches. A large hand with jumbo sausages for fingers scooped up the guts of the bag.

‘Make sure you put the worst itching powder inside the gloves.’

It was the unmistakable growl of Dolly Twist, fifteen going on thirty-five. Dolly marched everywhere with an invisible sign around her neck which screamed KEEP AWAY.

‘Ya think she’ll ave it from us?’ Daisy said.

The space under the bed shrank as the two younger girls shifted about. The springs under the mattress stuck into Ella’s chin, the weight of her cousins pressing down on her.

‘Of course,’ Dolly said. ‘We’ll tell her it’s a welcome to the family present.’

Ella struggled to breathe as they snorted laughter through their noses.

‘We have to make her life hell, don’t we?’ Dotty asked.

‘Make it a living hell.’ Daisy’s laugh sent a shiver down Ella’s spine.

‘What’s that stink?’ Dolly’s feet were only inches from Ella.

‘It ain’t me.’ Daisy jumped up. ‘I never farted.’

Ella wheezed into the floor, the weight lifting from her as the youngest Twist pranced around the room.

‘It smells like rat shit,’ Dolly said.

Ella gripped her chest and looked for Ratter, but she’d disappeared.

‘There’s summit under the bed,’ Dotty shouted.

Then Ella’s bones turned to ice.