It’s almost Winter, and a biting chill grips the city. The dancing remains of stained leaves litter the streets and wind their way around socked ankles and rubbish bins. Something in the way they twirl in the harsh winds makes the people of the city smile. A strange warmth spreads from their ribs, flushing their cheeks and soothing their frost-numb fingers. A childlike wonder sweeps the city as they watch the waning Autumn swirl around them.
When they pass the old Avery house, however, cold seeps back into their bones. The grey city closes in, and rainclouds that had seemed so far away begin to spit. The leaves are crushed underfoot and kicked to the trickling gutters as the people hurry past the dark house.
The pavement by the creaking gate darkens in spots that slip through the bumps and gaps, skating around cigarette butts and greying coins of gum. Umbrellas sprout over heads like mushrooms decorating the streets. Splashes of water seem to target those with thin jumpers and fogged glasses. People’s hair quickly turns dark and flat, clinging to foreheads and smudging lipstick. Couples attempt to fit under shelters, tucking hands into pockets as they listen to the offbeat pounding of rain on plastic awnings.
As the city blurs into lights, the windows of the old Avery House turn into a dim kaleidoscope of yellow shopfronts. Drops of rainwater bleed down its glass panes like ink on paper. The world outside fades away, replaced by a warped glass canvas of wet paint.
The house does nothing to prevent the wet chill from seeping in. Rain pours from broken gutters and beats against the old brick. Damp festers deeply in the walls, splattering mould through the plaster and eating into its wooden bones. A flickering draft spits down the blackened chimneys and whistles through the house.
A siren flares somewhere in the distance and blue lights flicker over the grimy curtains. Cars screech and whine through the wet roads. Far away, lightning flashes and thunder rumbles over the city. Inside, all is still. Untouched, undisturbed, unaware of the world beyond its windows.
The dust lies like a thick blanket over the rooms. It has bled into the grain of the timeworn wood and turned everything as grey as an old photograph. Books line the walls: great tomes, cracked crime novels, ancient histories, cookery books, novels from Austen to Zola – all half dust now. Their spines are crammed so tightly that their pages have fused together. It was if they had remembered their roots and morphed into a mangled impression of a forgotten forest.
The sofa is perhaps the only sign of life. It is torn and threadbare with sagging cushions and a crooked leg, but it had been undoubtably well-loved. Once it had held a family who laughed and squashed into the seats together. Children had clambered over its back and perched on its arms. Now it stands as a wreckage.
The house lies stripped; drawers are empty, beds are bare, the kitchen rotting away. The house has withdrawn from the world and was no longer interested in being useful.
As the howling storm beats on, the house is disturbed by an unfamiliar creaking. The front door had been sealed shut for so long that the house had forgotten it had once existed. When it bursts open, the house is furious. The storm disturbs its grim peace in the most violent of ways. Dust bunnies skitter away, rolling like sad clouds into safer corners. Portraits obscured by ancient grime rattle on the walls. Rusted door hinges scream in protest as they are hurled open.
Before the house could shut out the disruption, two boys slip inside. They shut the door against the battering rain, and slump against it in relief. They are drenched and shivering, covered in many thin layers of clothing too large for them, and soaked through to their socks. Their hands grip each other so tightly that their knuckles stand out a stark white against their reddened skin.
The house watches warily as they anxiously poke around its doorframes and trail wet mud through the greying rugs. They pull each other by joined hands from room to room.
“It’s cold in here,” one says.
“It’s colder out there,” replies the other.
They relax once they find the house empty and settle themselves on the old sofa with a thud that disturbs a large cloud of dust. The house becomes angry. These intruders are taunting it, traipsing around with their wide eyes and whispers. They are staining the house like toddlers with sticky fingers. The house will not tolerate it.
It waits for them to sleep. Then the shadows grow taller and darker. They creep over the dirty sleeping bag that covers the boys and twists around them. The spitting fire they’d lit the night before is extinguished with a gust of cold air. Floorboards creak overhead, branches scrape against the rattling windows, the ceiling drips cold rainwater on their sunken faces.
Still, the boys sleep on. They curl closer together and bury their cold noses into each other’s hair. When at last they wake, they laugh at the dripping ceiling, rolling over in their sleeping bag and grinning at each other.
The shadows try to close in, coiling around their hair, and sliding cool hands over their necks. With a shiver, the boys light the fireplace once more. They lean in to each other and watch it crackle in the grate, smiling as the flames dance in their eyes. The shadows watch for a moment, but the fire refuses to dim. So, they skulk back into the dark corners of the house, simmering with resentment.
The next day, one boy leaves in the early hours of the morning. He takes care not to wake the other as he dresses and slips out the front door. The house is glad. It will be easier to disturb the other one alone.
The one left behind is the smaller of the two. He’s nervous and more easily frightened. He had jumped when cupboards flew open, or doors slammed. He had clutched at the other boy when the wind turned into whispers. And he had been careful not to stand on the rug in the hallway after the house had pulled it from under him.
The shadows jostle each other and rush in their excitement to reach the sleeping boy. This is their chance. Chase them out. Make sure they never return. The house smothers the boy in shadows. It fills his head with memories of its past and the darkness that came. He sees the old Avery house, beautiful and full of light, with flower boxes filled with blossoms. Inside, a family lounges by the fire and laughter spills from the open windows as the father reads to them. One arm is around his wife as she pinches the book, another hand ruffles his son’s hair with a grin. The two daughters sit together and stroke the sleeping Greyhound on the rug.
The boy’s smile flickers as the wallpaper peels away and reveals damp black walls. The ceiling cracks above him into a broken cobweb. He looks to the family, but they don’t seem to notice. Their laughter grows louder and louder until it turns pained and desperate. The floorboards twist under them with a sharp crunch, exposing nails that stick out like knives. A howling wind rams through and extinguishes the hissing fire. The room plunges into darkness.
The boy wakes with a shout. He clutches desperately to the cold space beside him only to see that he is alone. The shadows rest a heavy hand on his shoulder and whisper to him.
“This is not your home. This will never be your home. This is nobody’s home,” they say.
The boy curls deeper into his sodden sleeping bag and whimpers.
“You must leave,” they hiss, “You must leave and never come back.”
He calls for the other boy, but no one responds. Scrambling to his feet, he gathers their meagre possessions and darts for the door. The shadows smile and retreat with satisfaction. The house is pleased.
But when the boy flings the door open, he collides into something and stumbles back.
“Were you leaving?”
It is the other boy. He has returned. The dim lamps in the hallway flicker and go out. The house is furious. It was so close to victory.
“You left. I got scared. This house –,”
“I went to find food,” He rustles the plastic bag by his side, “You were sleeping. I didn’t want to wake you.”
“We should leave,” the smaller boy says, “I don’t like this place. We shouldn’t stay.”
The other boy smiles sadly and steps inside, closing the door behind him. He pulls the boy into a hug and rests his head against his.
“We have to stay,” he says softly, “We don’t have anywhere else to go.”
The house watches the two boys settle back by the fire. They unpack the plastic bag, laying everything out carefully in front of them. It contains three crisp packets, four bruised bananas, half a damaged box of capri-suns, and a battered-looking puzzle.
“Where did you find all this?” The smaller boy asks.
“The big bins behind the corner shop,” he replies, “I know it’s not much.”
“Are you kidding?” he smiles, “This is brilliant.”
The house settles into contemplation and for the next few days, it watches the two boys curiously. They start avoiding the rugs that trip them. They don’t acknowledge the broken lights or violent wind. Eventually, the house stops slamming doors and covering the rooms in shadows.
They talk mostly, muttering quietly to each other and sharing their scavenged rations. The puzzle the taller boy found is slowly put together and they hardly seem to care that it’s missing a few pieces when it’s finished. Instead, they move to the bookshelves, taking time to examine row after row of disintegrating stories. They spend their days curling up by the fire, flicking through the brittle pages and stroking the sleeves with a tenderness the house hasn’t seen in a long time.
Once Winter rears its head and slams down on the city, the house has forgotten why it wanted the boys gone in the first place. They keep the fire lit and it spreads an aching warmth through its tired bricks. They clean the windows and open them wide to shift the dust. The sofa is propped upright with an old cookbook. Over time, the warm water runs again, and the boys’ faces grow brighter. The stove turns on after a few tries. The cupboards no longer bite at their fingers. Instead, they hold tins of food and polished crockery. To their confusion, after searching through the house again, they discover that the beds upstairs are freshly made with new mattresses and pillows. The wardrobes are filled with clothes that fit them. The damp vanishes from the walls and the wallpaper looks bright and clear again. The cracks mend steadily, the floorboards no longer creak, and eventually the dirty sleeping bag is forgotten.
The old Avery house relaxes once again into its foundations. For so long it had thought that peace was held in its memories, that disrepair and decay was its inevitable fate. It had forgotten that it was a home. It had forgotten how to care, how to comfort, how to love. But now it watched the two boys and it remembered what it had been waiting for all this time.
The boys sway together in the kitchen to a badly hummed tune. The fire crackles in the grate. The rain pours outside, tapping against the glowing windows. The leaves flutter in the wind over the crowded city. The people outside smile and look up, realising just as the old Avery house did, that the seasons have finally changed.
Queenie Judge is a young queer writer from Manchester, studying English Literature at the University of Bristol and exploring her growing passion for writing. After many years of half-finished drafts and scribbled ideas, her short story, ‘The Changing of Seasons,’ is her first published work and her first step into the world of writing.