The House

Chapter 13

Her

Music filled the rooms, bounced off the walls and seemed to fill every dark corner. The piano didn’t stop playing for hours as Gavin spun her around the floor, his hands on her waist, his fingers pressing into the exposed skin just above her skirt.

Delilah liked the way that Gavin held her almost too tightly. He was never really careful with her, not the way her family seemed to be or her friends were, back at her old school, considering every word before they said it, treating one another as if they were made of blown glass.

She wondered if Gavin had ever laughed this much, and she watched as he fell into one of the dining room chairs, eyes bright, cheeks flushed and rosy. His perfect bow of a mouth curved up into a mischievous smile, close enough to kiss whenever she wanted.

“You do know how to dance,” he said, reaching up to push his mess of dark hair from his eyes.

“I’ve never really been allowed to dance before,” she said, breathless. “Not unless you count Saturday square dancing at Saint Benedicts.”

“You didn’t have dances with other schools?” he asked, incredulous.

“Well, okay,” she said after a moment. “We had a few. But the boys at Saint Joseph’s were even worse off than us. Imagine being sixteen and the only real chance you had to interact with girls your age was supervised by a bunch of crotchety old nuns.”

“Sounds like a recipe for a lot of awkward groping,” he agreed. Gavin settled back into the chair, stretching his long legs and black Converses in front of him. A small serving tray rolled along the floor with a pitcher of lemonade and two glasses sitting neatly on top. The ice sloshed noisily inside as the table rolled to a stop at his side.

Delilah was positive she would never get used to this. Outside, snow had begun to fall, dusting everything in white. Every once in a while the trees would quake from the tops of the leaves to the lowest branches, shaking off any flakes that had accumulated there. Delilah laughed when she saw this, thinking of the way Nonna’s old shepherd would do the same thing after a bath.

“How could any other house ever compare?” she asked innocently.

Gavin opened his mouth to speak but was cut off by a sudden and resounding clang from the piano, as if someone had brought their fists down over several keys at once. He jumped as the hinged lid slammed shut over the keys, the force so great it vibrated the strings inside.

Delilah blinked into the ringing silence, her eyes darting between Gavin and the piano.

“I guess it was tired of playing,” he said. He crossed the room and took her hand, lacing his fingers with hers. “Piano has always been a bit temperamental.”

“I didn’t mean—” she began, but he quickly cut her off with two fingers pressed to her lips.

“This is better anyway,” he said with a shrug, pulling her forward and stopping only when his body was pressed all along hers. “I’ve been dying to kiss you.”

• • •

Sunday was long and boring and seemed to stretch on forever. Gavin had to work, and Delilah did her best to stay busy, but her house felt too small, her parents too. . . everywhere. She watched TV and cleaned her room; she arranged all her books by size, then again by color, finally deciding to arrange them by the number and manner of deaths that occurred in each one.

But by late afternoon she was going crazy. She wanted to see him again, wanted to watch him smile in that way that made her stomach do strange things, wanted to run her hands through his wild hair and kiss him again until he looked at her in that savage way that felt positively obscene.

Delilah didn’t normally text Gavin; her thoughts with him were usually too complicated to be contained in a few lines of text. There was also the matter of wanting to hear him speak, in that slow, unhurried way that he had. Gavin didn’t say much, but he rarely seemed to filter the content in person, and Delilah was greedy for his words, preferring the sound of his voice to his stilted, monosyllabic typical-boy-text response. But desperate times called for desperate measures.

Are you home yet?

Thankfully, his response came only a few moments later. Have to stay late.

How late is late?

An hour or two?

Delilah considered this. She craved his company, but she had to admit she also craved the way she felt like she left this world and walked straight into another one when she went to his house. Would it be ok if I went over? I could wait for you.

She held her breath while she waited for Gavin’s reply, the longest minute of her life so far. Uncertainty crawled under her skin as she wondered if her request was strange, or inappropriate. She liked the idea of being alone inside the house for a little while. She liked the idea of experiencing what Gavin had all these years.

You sure?

She smiled as she typed. Definitely.

• • •

Delilah waited until her parents went out for the night. She watched as her mother quietly got ready, applying her practically nonexistent makeup and just a spritz of Jean Naté. Not too much, she’d always said.

Her father puttered around the house, straightening things that didn’t need to be straightened while the evening news droned on in the background. So boring, she thought, and so completely different from where I want to be.

Delilah followed them to the front door and waved as they backed out of the driveway, noting the way neither one looked up at her as they drove away. As soon as their blue sedan turned the corner, Delilah was off like a flash, grabbing the spare keys from the hook in the laundry room and sprinting out into the fading daylight.

• • •

With her father’s car parked safely on the street, Delilah approached the gate.

Nothing looked different in the muted dusk light; the house was still a strange collage of colors and sizes, half the yard just as green as the other half was dead. The walkway leading to the front porch was as unusual as the building it belonged to—a winding path of earth-toned pavers, a sprinkling of colored glass and assorted bottle caps thrown in for good measure. Above the house, pink and purple clouds hung like cotton candy.

This time as she approached, Delilah noticed shutters on the outside of the windows. No one had those anymore. They had fancy plantation shutters on the inside, with thick slats painted white or made of polished wood. These were weathered and thin, cracked in places and polished in others, as if the job of tending to them fell to a hundred different people each assigned a single strip of wood.

The only time Delilah prayed on instinct was just before she got back exam results. But this day she found herself murmuring a prayer as she moved down the path to the house. From this vantage, at the foot of the stairs, she felt like she was about to walk into another world. For a brief pulse she wondered if she would ever come out again.

Or whether she would ever want to.

Delilah gripped the rail and climbed the steps, pushing down the tickle of unease that flared behind her ribs. It was one thing to want to be here with Gavin, to remember the way the euphoric magic of the house seemed to seep into her skin. But it was another thing entirely to be here with the night approaching, without him, knowing the house could feel exactly how close she was.

Outside everything was quiet—unreasonably quiet, she noticed—and with her toes only inches from the front mat, she turned. Though winter seemed suspended in the yard and the trees were lush with leaves and more flowers than she could ever remember seeing in one place before, there were no birds. No bees darted from one blossom to the next. No spiderwebs shook in the evening breeze. In fact, beyond the wind that rustled through the branches overhead, nothing moved inside the vine-covered walls at all.

She reasoned that the yard was creatureless because it was winter and not because organic life had opted to stay away from the house. Delilah reached for the brass knob, surprised when it turned and the door swung open easily.

To look around now, one could almost call the house cozy. Washed in the golden glow of the final throes of sunset, everything looked rosy and warm. But no fire crackled in the fireplace, and a glance at the floor revealed shadows stretching along the carpet and playfully nipping at her heels.

Delilah’s gaze skirted over to the silent piano, and she wondered if Gavin was right and it had simply been tired of playing, or if it had stopped because of what she’d said. She certainly hoped not.

But just in case, she whispered, “Sorry about what I said. If I were him, I’d never want to leave.”

A hollow silence rang through the room.

Not willing to stand around in the dark, Delilah crossed the carpet to where a tall lamp stood near the entryway. She reached out, flipping the switch that would turn it on, but nothing happened. She pulled again; peering up under the wide shade, even tightening the bulb to make sure it was secure. Still nothing.

Delilah bent at the knee, feeling around for the cord. When she found none, she crossed to the television, kneeling to find where it plugged into the wall.

No cord, no outlet to plug it into. Her eyes moved around the room. No light switches, either.

Delilah pulled her phone from her pocket, swiping along the screen to wake it up. She turned it outward, where it cast a small puddle of light in front of her, but not enough for her to see more than a few feet radius around where she stood. She felt the dull thump of her heartbeat as her pulse picked up, and with it came the comforting rush of adrenaline, that feeling she loved from slasher flicks, from gory art. This was her element: the creepy, the unknown. It’s why she wanted to come over in the first place.

“Calm down, Delilah,” she told herself, trying out a laugh that came out breathless and a little tight.

Her footsteps sounded unreasonably loud in the silent house; the soft soles of her shoes against wood were like a siren announcing her presence. All around her the house remained eerily still. Delilah noted that if this were one of the movies she watched late at night while her parents slept, now would be the precise moment when the killer would jump out at the unsuspecting victim, slashing them to pieces. She couldn’t help but glance over her shoulder, half expecting to find someone there.

Delilah had always believed she was more clever than the average girl, but in that moment, with so much space between herself and the front door, she wasn’t so sure. Why was the house so still? Was it nervous? Was it confused? Or was it somehow lying in wait?

Delilah texted Gavin again: I’m here. The house is so quiet. Are you sure this is ok? It doesn’t mind?

Her phone buzzed only seconds later with his reply: Of course I’m sure.

It’s really dark, she told him, wincing in apology as she hit send. She didn’t want to come off as nervous or needy. . . but the lack of lights coming on in the house and the lack of a fire blooming to life in the fireplace was starting to feel a little odd.

Really? he replied, and then immediately after, added, I’ve never needed a flashlight before, but I know there are candles in my nightstand.

At the top of the stairs, a hallway stretched long and shadowed in front of her. Framed photographs of a smiling Gavin—spanning from toothless to the tall, lanky boy she knew today—covered the walls.

She paused at a particularly large grouping of frames. In the first, Gavin stood alone with a much simpler version of the house looming behind him. In the second, both Gavin and the house had changed considerably: both had grown taller, and certain features had become more clearly defined while others had softened. And it continued: Each photo depicted a progressively older boy standing in front of a much larger and more complicated house.

Delilah realized she was standing in front of what could only be considered a series of family portraits.

Against the same wall stood a long, narrow table, a simple bowl of red apples she recognized from the tree out back resting on top. Delilah took a step back, her eyes following the ornate legs to where they ended, carved into what looked like the paws of some wild jungle animal, long claws digging into the wood floor. She wasn’t sure why this particular detail stood out to her as strange, surrounded as she was by a house that lived and breathed and had raised a seventeen-year-old boy, but it sent a chill through her anyway.

She continued on and passed several rooms, doors ajar and filled with the same fading light as the rest of the house. Delilah hadn’t paid much attention to them before—with Gavin nearby, it was hard to concentrate on much else—but now each one seemed to call to her, as if every corner held some new and deliciously dark secret.

Delilah cast the light of her phone into first doorway. It seemed ordinary enough: a large bed draped in fluffy white down, a nightstand, a rocker flanked by gleaming windows. The next held a set of twin beds, identical quilts covering each one. The wallpaper changed abruptly just before the third room, where a sea of hunter green abutted a yellow wall of dandelions.

She stopped in the doorway of a nursery, the space practically bulging with sloppily packed boxes, various toys spilling from beneath the cardboard flaps. Delilah remembered Gavin saying that the house provided whatever was needed, and she couldn’t help wonder who all this was for. Gavin? Someone before him? Someone after?

The sun had all but gone, and the room swam with strange shadows. A doll peered at her from the top of the bookcase, its head lolling to the side, glass eyes dull and—thankfully—lifeless.

She moved down the hall, stopping short at a creak just behind her. She stood still, breath locked in her throat, the hair on the back of her neck standing up straight.

Delilah had always been the kind of girl who let her imagi­nation run wild, and though she was certain that was the case now, it did nothing to stop the pounding of her heart inside her chest.

“Get a grip,” she told herself, certain she would turn and find nothing but an empty hall, nothing more than stairs and darkness behind her.

Her brain buzzed with a memory of Gavin telling her that she was safe here, that the house would never hurt anything he cared about. She did her best to remember those words now, as the floorboards creaked again and an almost imperceptible growl sounded behind her.

With a deep breath she gathered her courage, spinning so quickly her skirt twisted around her legs. She blinked, searching up and down the empty hallway, shining her pathetic excuse for a light into each of the empty rooms.

Nothing.

Delilah narrowed her eyes, taking a shaky step forward. Then another.

She was almost certain the table had been much farther away.

This was the same house in which she’d danced and laughed with Gavin only yesterday, she reasoned, walking into his bedroom and closing the door behind her. This was the house she wanted to know, to trust, whose world she wanted to join. Still, on instinct she moved to set the lock, but of course there wasn’t one.

Gavin’s room overlooked the backyard—far from the only lamppost on the opposite end of the street—so it seemed darker than any of the other rooms. Delilah directed her light in front of her, following the white-blue glow to Gavin’s nightstand. She found the candles right where he said they’d be—tucked near the back of the drawer—a yellow disposable lighter beneath.

Needing both hands, Delilah reluctantly set down her phone, saying yet another prayer as the lighter sparked in the darkness. It took two tries, but the wick eventually caught flame, the room gradually lightening as it grew.

As she placed the candle on the table, a sketchbook caught her eye. She picked it up and settled herself back against Gavin’s pillows, opening it carefully across her lap.

The book was heavy and well used, the pages swollen with ink and charcoal. The leather creaked in the silence, long spine brittle with age and years of use.

The first page held a bird drawn so realistically that Delilah couldn’t help but run a finger along the wing, half expecting to feel the downy softness of feathers. There were a few drawings of her: under the tree at school, at the movie theater with Dhaval, listening to Mr. Harrington in English. She felt a wild, possessive rush at the thought of Gavin sitting on this bed at night, drawing her.

The book was nearly full, and Delilah continued to flip through the pages, her eyes growing heavier with each passing minute. Despite her earlier unease, there was something comforting about being in Gavin’s room, on his bed and surrounded by his things. His smell was everywhere. The room was warm and a little humid, and it was easy enough to close her eyes and pretend that he was there now.

She fell asleep almost peacefully, slipping into the softness of flannel and down, feeling as if the blankets were arms wrapping themselves around her. And maybe they are, she thought, just as everything went dark.

• • •

Something was wrong.

Delilah opened her eyes with a start, wondering what woke her up in the first place. She blinked into the darkness, her eyes slowly focusing on the bleary shapes surrounding her, on the flickering candle next to the bed.

She shifted slightly, meaning to disentangle herself from the blankets now twisted around her legs and across her torso, when a sound came from somewhere in the dark recesses of the house. It started out small, nothing more than a single, muted thump, and was easy enough to ignore. Delilah closed her eyes and settled back in, waiting for sleep to reclaim her.

But it happened again. And again. Growing louder and more insistent. . . like a heartbeat.

“Gavin?”

Delilah waited, head still fuzzy with sleep, straining to hear any movement, wondering if perhaps Gavin had returned home while she slept.

A shiver moved up Delilah’s spine as she continued to listen, her eyes wide and trained, unblinking, on the shadows around the large bed. She thought about the claw-footed table in the hall, the curtains that had closed so forcefully the first time she’d come to the house. She wondered what other kinds of things existed here, and what exactly happened inside these walls while Gavin was away.

The rational side of Delilah’s brain chastised her, reminding her that she had a tendency toward the dramatic and insisting that if she intended to be a part of Gavin’s life she would need to learn to deal with things and not let her imagination run wild at every creaking floorboard or bump in the walls. The house was alive after all; it was only natural that there would be the occasional sound or two.

Delilah peered through the dark and up to the fluffy clouds painted onto the blue ceiling. They floated peacefully across the plaster sky, and she tried to relax, to block out the steady thumping that continued from somewhere below.

The moon rose above the large tree just outside Gavin’s window, its light breaking through the narrow gap in the curtains to stretch across the floor. The clouds were easier to make out now, the shapes mimicking small objects tucked into the fairy-tale sky: a teddy bear, a sailboat bobbing along the choppy waves. But with the added light came the realization that something had changed. The blue sky had turned stormy and dark, and menacing clouds began to roll across an increasingly turbulent sea.

Delilah shrank down into the blankets as she watched the scene above her, how the storm seemed to swallow up the imaginary sailboat, along with whatever calm she had managed to regain. Sweat made her clothes cling to her skin as her gaze traveled down the walls, over paintings and drawings that seemed to stop moving as soon as she looked at them.

Though Delilah could only imagine having slept for a few short minutes, the candle had practically burned itself out. It had been yellow—she was sure of it—but now bloodred wax slid down over the candleholder in smooth rivulets. The flame had dimmed, flickering slowly in the still air, and out of the corner of her eye she could see something moving along the wall.

Delilah strained to make out the shape.

The faint pattern inside the wallpaper seemed to stir, the edges becoming blurry before sharpening again. She blinked several times, certain she had to be seeing something that wasn’t there. The pattern looked like spiders. Only a few at first, but then more and more, so many that the wall seemed to undulate with them. Their legs were thick, covered in coarse hairs, and their bodies were so plump and round that it turned her stomach with an instinctive panic.

“It’s not real,” she whispered, closing her eyes tight and hoping she could wake from whatever nightmare she was having. A flash tore through the room, and Delilah gasped, blinking up to where lightning streaked across the ceiling.

“It’s not real.”

Delilah’s heart raced, the sound of her own pulse roaring in her ears. She tried to push up from the bed, but her limbs seemed locked in place, her mind unable to fire the impulse needed to move.

Spindly legs carried hundreds of black bodies skittering across the wall, so many that she could hear them. They moved in waves, scattering this way and that, finally arranging themselves into what appeared to be words.

BUT

HE’S

OURS

The words formed as if they had been pushed from the wall before seeming to dissolve back into it again. Delilah was frozen, a scream caught in her throat. The blankets constricted around her, pinning her down, trapping her arms at her sides.

The bed vibrated, and she tried to peer over the edge, to see anything. The footboard began to tremble; the sound of groaning metal screeched all around her. For an instant the candle seemed to burn brighter, the flame and her own terrified expression reflected in the brass rails near her feet. Delilah watched in horror as they grew right in front of her, elongating, the ends sharpening like spikes as they reached toward the ceiling.

She began to thrash about, trying to break free, the binds beginning to cut into her skin. And all the while, above the sound of scurrying spiders and the deafening scream of metal, was the thump from downstairs, the recurring beat of a racing heart.

Delilah began to cry, hot tears streaking down her face. A scream tore from her, piercing the darkness just as everything grew silent. Her arms and legs suddenly freed, Delilah scrambled backward, pulling her knees to her chest.

The lights seemed to all come on at once, and the sound of a door opening and slamming shut again rang throughout the house.

Gavin.

Delilah blinked into the sudden brightness, quickly scrubbing the tears from her cheeks just as her name was called from downstairs. Her eyes flew to the ceiling, where fluffy clouds now floated across the most serene blue sky Delilah could ever remember seeing. There were no spiders, nothing more than gray-blue paper covering the walls. The bed looked perfectly ordinary, too. Brass rails with a soft quilt tossed haphazardly across, not a single fingerprint to mar the pristine finish.

Her head hurt.

“Delilah?” Gavin called again, followed by the sound of his feet as he ran up the stairs.

“I’m in here,” she said, surprised by the steadiness of her own voice.

“There you are,” he began, his face falling as he took in her expression. Judging by the panic that quickly overtook his features and the way he raced across the room to sit at her side, she must have looked much less calm than she’d sounded. “What happened?”

Delilah gripped his hand, cool and steady in hers. “Nothing,” she insisted, feeling herself calm as she realized she must have dreamed it all. “I fell asleep.”

“Nightmare?” he asked, smoothing her hair.

“Just a dream. I’m okay, promise.”

Gavin seemed to relax, bending to slide his lips carefully over hers. “Must have been pretty bad,” he said, meeting her eyes.

Delilah shook her head and wrapped her arms around his waist. Gavin’s heart beat strong and steady beneath her ear, chillingly similar to the sound that had woken her in the first place.

“Just a dream,” she repeated, closing her eyes, trying to convince herself, too.