The House

Chapter 15

Him

Gavin wondered how long it would take for Delilah to find him.

He knew she was probably confused, or worried, or maybe even a little mad, having not found him waiting at their usual spot before school. In truth, he’d felt a bit like a criminal as he’d slipped out the front door, the sky still dark and the school halls still empty, early enough that he could escape into a windowless practice room unnoticed.

The music buildings were essentially a row of temporary trailers lifted from the ground by ugly blocks of cement and connected to an unreliable, rickety generator. The district had always intended to build a more permanent arts building—or so they said—but Gavin liked the hollow sound of his footsteps as he walked up the ramp to the doors, and the way the quiet seemed to seal him in when he closed the aluminum door.

For the past three and a half years the practice rooms had provided an odd sort of sanctuary: soundproofed and separated from the main buildings of the school by a long stretch of grass used for phys ed classes, it was where Gavin would go when he was mad at House for one reason or another, when he’d broken up with a girl or she’d broken up with him, or when he simply found people and their general assholery too much to bear and needed to really feel alone. Even now, when he was starting to suspect he wasn’t ever really by himself, it was quiet enough inside the practice rooms to feel as if he were.

It wasn’t that he was avoiding Delilah exactly, more that he wasn’t sure what to say. He didn’t know what had happened yesterday. He was still reeling himself and couldn’t quite get past the look of terror on her face, the way she’d been so scared she couldn’t even turn the doorknob to get out. Gavin wanted to apologize, and he wanted to explain.

The problem was, he had no idea what to say.

It was only a matter of time before Delilah realized he wasn’t coming to class and would slip out, determined to find him. Which wasn’t a bad thing, really—Gavin couldn’t think of much he’d enjoy more than getting a few moments alone with her, but he was no closer to an answer now than he’d been last night.

Had House ever reacted that way before? Gavin tried to think back but couldn’t recall anything. Neighbors had always steered clear of House; trick-or-treaters walked straight past its gate. Door-to-door salespeople might stand on the sidewalk outside, narrowing their eyes as they peered up through the wrought-iron bars and tangle of vines, but they never came any closer. The only people who came to the door were deliverymen bringing packages, the occasional doctor making a house call, Dave with his grocery delivery, and now Delilah. Gavin’s friends were the kind he would talk to in class occasionally, or stand near during PE. He didn’t have any who would think to come over after school or on the weekend; he didn’t have relatives to speak of. It had been only him and House for most of his life. It had never seemed strange until now.

He’d never imagined when or where he would move someday. At nearly eighteen, he barely thought beyond the next week. But he also never believed House expected him to live there forever, alone.

After last night. . . he wasn’t so sure.

Gavin didn’t know much about religion—it seemed a thing people pulled out when they needed and disregarded when it suited their purpose—but he remembered finding an old Bible wedged under a loose board in his bathroom. A marble had fallen to the floor and rolled beneath the wooden armoire before he could reach it. It was his favorite—an oxblood swirl—and so he’d crawled over to get it, cheek pressed to the cool wood and arm stretched into the dusty shadows. His fingers had stumbled along the groove where two planks had lifted, and he’d felt the worn leather and embossed pages. He’d marveled over his secret find, somehow knowing he wasn’t supposed to have it. The paper was so thin, like flower petals, and he wondered how something could seem so sturdy and also so delicate.

Over the years he’d read a few passages at a time, alone, sitting on the edge of the tub. “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine,” Song of Solomon 6:31. Few passages had stuck with him, but that one had. He had likened it to how House felt about him and how he felt about it in return. They belonged to each other. And so Gavin had sensed the change—the slight shift in the air—long before Delilah had, and had known that something bad was about to happen. He’d felt it in the pit of his stomach, in the way the hairs on the back of his neck had prickled and risen along his skin. Fear inched up his spine, not for himself, but for Delilah. For a flash, he’d been afraid for her. And now he had to face her, wanted to see her, but how could he explain something he didn’t quite understand himself?

Now, hunched over the piano in the music room, he pressed a few keys before erasing a series of notes on the sheet music in front of him. Penciling in a few more, he tried the combination again. It wasn’t exactly what he heard in his mind’s ear, but he was satisfied he was on the right track. Gavin had always had a knack for the arts, and his hobbies—music and sketching—filled most of his free time. Though he had a perfectly good instrument at home, he preferred the quiet solitude of the soundproof room when composing to sitting with Piano, who seemed to anticipate his moods and know what he was going to play before even he did.

Gavin’s hands stilled at the sound of the door opening and closing behind him. Footsteps moved across the carpet and stopped a few feet away. He glanced over his shoulder, meeting Delilah’s eyes.

He’d known that she would be worried about him, but he was unprepared for the wave of guilt as he took in her appearance. She looked tired. Her eyes were heavy, smudged with dark circles beneath. Left out of its usual braid, her light brown hair hung in thick waves that framed her face. His fingers itched to push it back, to feel it wrapped around his fist. He wondered if she had any idea how much older she looked right now—not a teenager but a woman, with passion and fire and a protective streak that rocked him—or how much it made him want to kiss her. And more.

Obviously uncomfortable under his gaze, Delilah gathered her hair over one shoulder and began to braid it. “I was in a hurry this morning,” she explained.

“I like it down. You look pretty.”

Delilah shook her head. “I don’t feel pretty,” she replied. “I feel sick to my stomach.”

Gavin moved over on the bench and motioned for her to sit next to him. “I think that’s my fault.”

“Maybe a little. Were you avoiding me this morning?”

He considered his answer before saying it. He knew enough about girls to know they thought differently from boys and that Delilah might read into what he said. He wasn’t avoiding her exactly, just trying to gather his thoughts.

“Yes,” he said, before quickly adding, “and no. I wasn’t sure what to say to you. How to explain what happened.”

“It was scary.”

“I know.”

“Did it eventually calm down?”

“Yeah.” What Gavin didn’t say was that it had calmed down almost as soon as she’d vaulted out the front door, though it had taken hours before the strangeness had stopped entirely. The floors vibrated gently, and random doors opened and slammed themselves shut again for the rest of the night. It was like watching a parent rumble and grouse about a misbehaving teen. “It didn’t mean to scare you,” he explained, although the words felt a little sour on his tongue. “It’s just how House. . . gets upset.”

Delilah digested his answer, her eyes moving over his scribbled sheet music. He could feel the obvious question bubbling up inside her. “Has that ever happened before?” she asked.

“No. . . ,” he hedged. “But I’ve also never brought a girlfriend home before, remember?”

It was such an odd feeling to be so protective of House and also of his relationship with Delilah. The warring feelings made him faintly nauseous.

“Then how do you know why it was like that?”

Gavin lifted one shoulder in a slow shrug. The casual gesture felt wrong, dishonest somehow. “I just do. House is as much of a parent as I’ve ever had. It got upset when you brought up the idea of me moving away. It would never hurt anyone. It’s not bad, Delilah. Just. . .”

“Just afraid of you leaving,” she finished for him. She said it like it was a fact, as if she’d spent some time with this particular thought before.

“I suppose so. This is all new—this meeting new people. It’s never had to share me before, not really. I’ve never brought up wanting to leave. I guess House isn’t sure how to deal with it yet.”

Delilah ran her finger along the glossy keys, applying just enough pressure to feel the smoothness against her fingertip, not hard enough to play a note. “Don’t you ever wonder what happened to your parents? It’s weird, after what happened yesterday, that we never talk about why it’s just you and that house.”

Gavin plucked at a few keys, absently, the F and G in six slow beats, then the E and G. The subject just sort of made him. . . tired. Delilah couldn’t know how many hours, how many days or weeks or even months of his life he’d spent thinking about parents, about a mother to wrap her arms around him when he was sick or a father to help him build his airplanes, play music, just. . . talk to. “I used to think of them all the time. I went through an obsessive find everything stage when I was about seven, but I only have one picture. She had brown hair. That’s literally the extent of my knowledge.”

Delilah slid her hand over his knee and midway up this thigh. “Maybe you look like her.”

It was only the solid weight of Delilah’s hand on his leg that anchored Gavin to the room and kept him from slipping into that place he rarely let himself go, where he thought—really thought—about his mom. Gavin did have her hair. He had her pale skin and wide, dark eyes. He had the same nose he’d seen mirrored in a faded and crumpled photograph. She had a heart-shaped face—he remembered that much—and a guarded, wary smile. Gavin thought he shared that with her too.

“I found a picture in the bathroom a few years ago,” he said. “The wood in there swells sometimes from the humidity, and I pulled out one of the drawers that had been getting stuck. The photo was taped to the bottom.”

Delilah didn’t comment on how odd it was to find a photograph purposely affixed that way, like someone had deliberately hidden it—a thought Gavin had had enough times for the both of them—instead asking, “But how did you know it was her?”

“There was a baby carriage in the background,” he explained, “this rickety old thing that had to have come from an antique store or a flea market or something. I think she was—well, from the pictures I’ve seen—a little strange? Eccentric maybe? She had this long wavy hair and wore all these drapey things. She was beautiful but sort of a hippie, or something. Anyway, the stroller. It had these things hanging from the hood. An arrowhead, a feather, a wooden bear, some coins, and a few things I couldn’t make out. I recognized some of them. I’ve had the arrowhead as long as I can remember. I’m pretty sure the carriage was mine.”

Gavin wondered if Delilah would think this was too little to draw a conclusion from, but she was already bursting with more questions. Turning to face him, Delilah bent her leg and brought it up to rest on the bench between them, her knee pressed into his hip. And in what seemed like a completely natural move, she reached for his hand, holding it in both of her own.

“Have you ever asked anyone about your parents?”

“I don’t honestly know where to start without making people realize that I’m alone there,” he said, and then swallowed heavily. “I’m cared for. I’m loved. If Social Services or whoever knew that I didn’t have parents, they’d take me away. They’d put me in foster care and take House apart. When I was old enough to realize that. . . I knew enough to know how bad it could be.”

“So where did she go?” she said to herself, looking down at his fingers. “That’s what we have to figure out.”

This is where Gavin usually stopped thinking. It was just too much to imagine she had been in an accident, leaving House to care for him or—worse—that she’d purposefully left him there alone.

But in true Delilah fashion, she would not be deterred.

“There has to be an explanation we can find without letting people know you’ve been alone.. . .” She rubbed his middle finger with the tip of her thumb. “A way to keep you both safe.”

This close it was impossible to miss the way her eyelashes looked resting against her cheeks when she blinked, or how her forehead furrowed in concentration. She twisted her fingers with his, examining them one by one. His hand looked positively massive next to hers, giant palms with long spindly fingers smudged with ink. His mind had started to bend away from the topic, and he was just starting to imagine how his large hands would look on parts of her body he hadn’t seen before, when she spoke, snapping his attention back to her.

“You don’t think,” she began, then paused, chewing on her bottom lip. The parts of Gavin that were distinctly boy took notice; he even licked his own lips in response. “You don’t think the house had anything to do with—”

Ice filled Gavin’s veins, and he leaned forward, placing his fingers over Delilah’s mouth to silence her. “Don’t say that,” he whispered, eyes darting around the room. Even the idea of House doing something malignant made his stomach do a hideous flip. To imagine House hearing them talk about it like that made him dizzy.

Had he just felt a shuffle from under the floor? A slither? The part of Gavin that had grown paranoid in the past twenty-four hours felt certain that something had moved—stretched or uncoiled—beneath his shoes. Carpet covered aluminum, aluminum rested on cement, cement covered dirt, and inside that dirt were rocks and bugs, the roots of trees. He froze, meeting Delilah’s startled gaze.

“What is it?” she mumbled behind his fingertips, but he could only shake his head. Sweat pricked at the back of his neck, and Gavin closed his eyes, counted to ten before he stood and walked to the door, opening it just enough to peek out at the rows of trees that lined the sidewalk clear to Mulberry Street.

To his neighborhood.

Closing the door, he said, “She left me, Delilah. She left, and House didn’t. That’s all I know.”

The walls had ears. The sky had eyes. And Gavin wondered if there were answers somewhere to questions he’d never thought to ask and where he would need to look to find them.

• • •

Gavin wasn’t sure if he was going crazy. How was it possible to feel so warm and secure one day and so paranoid the next? House hadn’t changed; he had. He’d become suspicious and untrusting, and as he made his way around the corner across from home, he felt a wave of guilt. House had protected him through winter storms and lonely days. It had fed him and clothed him and been everything he’d always needed it to be. Until Delilah.

He wondered if this was what every parent and child went through. Growing pains, he reasoned. That was all this was. Despite what House wanted, Gavin wasn’t a little boy anymore, content with model airplanes and boxes of Legos. Things were changing, and they would both have to adjust.

The gate creaked open and the air seemed to warm around him. Vines unfurled and gripped his T-shirt as he passed. Front Door opened as soon as he started his way up the walk. Smoke puffed from Chimney in black, sooty spirals, the clouds heavier and more persistent the closer to House he got. It reminded him of a dog who’d just heard their owner’s keys jiggle in the lock, and he could almost imagine a tail sprouting out of the back door, wagging wildly.

His steps sounded on the porch, and he walked inside, the scent of warm cookies filling the air.

“I’m home,” he said, just like he did every day.

The furniture seemed to angle itself toward him; everything seemed to be listening. But for what? Everything was the same, and yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off. That House was waiting.

“Thanks for the cookies,” he said, crossing the gleaming floor and reaching for a plate already piled with fresh-from-the-oven chocolate-chip cookies. His favorite.

House wouldn’t have made cookies if it had heard Gavin talking about his mother; instinctively, he knew it. But TV didn’t turn on. Piano didn’t play. He found a glass of ice-cold milk on the counter and carried them both to Kitchen Table, taking a seat and trying not to think. His unease didn’t come from a sense of fear, but rather that something had happened the day before, and both he and House were walking on eggshells.

The entire feeling made Gavin think of a housewife who discovers a secret about her husband but doesn’t tell him immediately, instead letting him give himself away slowly, one word at a time, waiting until he makes a mistake. He just wasn’t sure which of them—he or House—was the one with a secret.