Gavin was angry. It hummed in his veins, surging white-hot to power his lengthy strides as he walked away, back down the sidewalk and away from House. He was unable to go inside yet, feeling the anger bloom in his cheeks, leaving him flushed and too warm.
He could still feel the gentle scrape of the branches where they’d gripped him at the park, hear the rustle of leaves and see Delilah’s terrified expression when she realized they weren’t alone, when she realized they might never be alone. Rage rushed anew through his system, and his fists clenched and unclenched at his sides. This single thought ricocheted in his head, back and forth, louder and more unacceptable with every moment.
How long could this go on? Until he finished high school? College? Forever? He figured he was being dramatic when he’d told Delilah they’d need to get used to it, but was he really? And why was he only thinking about this now? He was young and the future had been so abstract, filled with unnumbered days and the vague idea of years that would stretch on and on and on, but would he live them all inside House?
Would it ever let him leave?
Gavin stumbled on an uneven piece of sidewalk and felt the bleakness of this idea wash over him. The walls would change, the rooms might shift or shrink or grow, but it would still be the same. He would be the same. He might get older, but he would never grow in that house. He would never learn anything different or know love or lust or hate.. . .
No. He would know hate. Years from now he would know hate and resentment because he could taste the bitterness of them swelling up inside him already. It felt like a cancer, this need to yell and shout and be angry. House had to stop; it had to stop trying to control his time and his life because as much as he loved it—would always love it—it would have to let him go. Not now, but one day. Soon.
He turned around, walking the long block back home. As if sensing his mood, Gate threw itself open, the hinges protesting loudly in the still afternoon. Vines didn’t reach out to greet him this time; no tendrils wrapped themselves around his arms. Nothing breezed gently over the ends of his hair. Instead everything in the yard curled back in on themselves, the leaves trembling as if the wind had rushed in after him.
His footsteps thundered up the walkway, his eyes trained on the open front door. Gavin wondered if the entire house was waiting, on edge, for him to storm inside. It had to know what his reaction would be, that he’d be furious. If anyone else had stumbled on them, he and Delilah would have looked like any other pair of teenagers making out in a park.
But what House had done was crazy. Trees didn’t wrap themselves around people; branches didn’t twist into a person’s clothes like the hands of some jealous girlfriend. Someone could have walked by and seen the branches up his shirt, forming a gloomy cave over them, and then what? How would that look? Someone would have found out.
Things had been fine with House when he’d left this morning—quiet. Just like they had been the last few days. And now that he thought about it, maybe things had been too quiet.
Like it had been waiting. Plotting until he’d left to meet Delilah.
In a rush, he took the steps two at a time, harder than he’d usually walk anywhere in House. Even when angry, he never stomped; it felt disrespectful. He never slammed drawers or dragged chairs across the floor, always careful of his feet or his voice. But right then, he didn’t care. He wanted to be mad. It felt good to be mad. He was going to scream and yell and put a stop to this insanity before something bad really happened. He was suddenly worried that House could hear him in the music room or anywhere and may have been punishing him for more than just having a girlfriend. He knew it was impossible, but his paranoid brain seemed intent on replaying every conversation and thought he’d had over the last few weeks.
He stepped into the foyer and listened; it was his turn to wait now. Gavin kept his gaze on the floor, on the same rug that had covered the entryway for as long as he could remember. He’d raced Matchbox cars here, read countless books, and built Lego skyscrapers so tall he’d needed a chair to stand on. The soft beige and blue pile was normally a comfort—the pattern so familiar he could sketch it by memory—but it felt like a stranger in this moment. Everything did.
Gavin could still remember every one of those times he played by himself while House looked on. He never asked about the voices he could hear outside, the sound of laughter coming from kids who were probably his age. Sometimes he would see them through a window as they rode their bikes past Front Gate, or find a ball that had rolled from a neighboring house and stopped at the curb.
Once he’d seen a group of kids in a yard on his walk home. Over dinner he talked about what they were doing, how they were playing, and the next day after school, a trampoline had appeared in the backyard, already assembled and standing in the dewy grass. He’d stepped outside, blinking into the slanting light, positive he must be imagining it. Was it his birthday? A holiday he’d forgotten? He didn’t think so.
Screen Door had given him a little push, nudging him down the steps and out into the yard, and Gavin realized the trampoline was for him. A gift. House had given him a present for no other reason than it wanted to see him happy.
Gavin had jumped all day. He’d taught himself to do backflips and front flips, turning only at the sound of laughter and applause from the other side of the fence. A group of kids from school were watching him, visible only on the highest point of each bounce. Gavin had smiled at them and waved, making it into a game each time their heads appeared and reappeared as he jumped.
They’d played along from the street, even calling his name at one point and asking if they could come play. Gavin didn’t know what to tell them. Would House mind if friends came over? Nobody had ever asked before, and so Gavin wasn’t even sure if that was allowed. He’d jumped down to the grass, stumbling as he regained his footing, and raced up the stairs and inside. But House had dinner waiting for him and had closed and locked Back Door, pulling down the shades until his new trampoline was hidden from view.
It was gone the next morning.
Gavin had never asked about it, in the same way he’d never really questioned anything House did.
When a book he’d been reading disappeared, Gavin would look for it, only to have another push itself from the shelves of Bookcase. When TV wouldn’t turn on, he figured there had to be a good reason. He’d always assumed House did what was best for him.
But this was different. He was almost eighteen. He was allowed to have a girlfriend and date and even bring a girl home if he wanted. Gavin and Delilah had been making out in a park, not committing a felony. He’d always done what he was supposed to. He’d gotten good grades and stayed out of trouble. So why was House acting like this now? Now that he’d managed to find someone who didn’t look at him like the weirdo he was—someone who accepted House. Didn’t it see that?
And didn’t it see how much he needed someone who was like him, too?
This thought finally pushed his anger from the pit of his stomach out into the room. “Why are you doing this!” he shouted, his voice echoing all the way up the stairs. “You scared her!”
Silence rang around him; only the sounds coming in from the street behind him pierced the eerie quiet. Gavin took another step forward, hesitating over whether or not he wanted to close Front Door. He didn’t.
“Delilah’s nice. She’s good,” he insisted, trying to smooth a layer of calm into his voice that he didn’t feel. “I like her. She’s my girlfriend, and you’re going to have to figure out a way to be okay with it. With her.”
Anger melted away and a trickle of fear slipped along Gavin’s spine, a cold sweat that made him feel both too warm and too cool at once. A breeze wandered up the porch and inside, and he shivered.
Gavin had always lived here by himself—and other than Television or Radio, Delilah’s had been the only other voice he could clearly remember hearing inside these walls—but he’d never actually been alone. House didn’t speak with words, but he knew what it was saying as if it did. Right now it wasn’t saying anything. It was the go-to punishment from House—being closed-off and silent—and Gavin felt a twinge of long-buried panic: What if he truly was alone? After all these years, what if he’d been abandoned? Again?
Fireplace was filled with nothing more than glowing embers. Piano remained quiet and still. Lamp stayed dark even as the sun began to burn itself out, slipping lower and lower in the sky. The image of a skull flittered through Gavin’s thoughts, hollowed out and lifeless.
Don’t go, he felt himself think, the words filling him with a sadness he didn’t quite know how to handle. House knew this was his panic button. When he’d done something he shouldn’t as a child—tiny things like not wanting to go to bed or leaving his toys scattered on the floor—the air would cool, the rooms growing as quiet as a grave. And now, at seventeen years old, it had the same effect as it had had when he was seven.
House knew how to play him; it knew how to get its way.
“It doesn’t mean I don’t love you,” he hedged, and sensed an almost imperceptible flicker to his right, in the burning coals. Relief flickered inside his ribs, too. Until recently, he’d never really argued with House, and Gavin wondered if this was what it meant to fight with your brother or sister, to argue with your parents. “Can’t I love you both?”
He didn’t have time to examine this realization—the possibility that he could love Delilah—because Piano lurched with a huge clang, as if an anvil had been dropped from above, and the boom of every string snapped at once so loud he felt it reverberate through his chest.
“Don’t be like tha—” he started to say, when his sketchbook flipped open on the coffee table. Gavin took a deep breath before walking over.
The book lay open to a drawing of Gavin smiling on a summer day, with House just behind him. He’d copied it from the photo that hung in the hallway and was still proud that he’d managed to duplicate it almost exactly, right down to the ice-cream cone and drips of melting vanilla running down the back of his hand. Silently, the sketchbook flipped to another page, one of Apple Tree in the backyard, his favorite swing suspended from the sturdy branches. Then another and another, all drawings of House and the many parts of it he loved.
Me, it was saying. Pick me.
Fireplace roared to life in the corner, warming the room as the flames grew and receded. Gavin could imagine the black smoke that was billowing from Chimney, the puffs like heaving, impatient breaths.
“I know it’s hard, but I want Delilah in my life too. I don’t want you to run her off. I’d be sad without her.”
A chair pushed up behind him, buckling him at the knees. He dropped into the seat too quickly, and it teetered on two legs.
“Sorry,” he started to say, before he was flung backward, Chair taking off across the room and stopping in Living Room. An old aluminum TV stand stood between Couch and Television, its worn brass finish rubbed down over time to a dull, coppery glow. But that wasn’t what had his attention, because on top of the stand was a plate of food.
His stomach growled almost on instinct.
A tiny voice inside his head told him to slow down and think. Why was there a steaming plate of his favorite dinner—roast chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and hot rolls? He hadn’t known he was hungry until just now, but his mouth watered as the scent of chicken floated up to him.
Pick us! See? Look at what we do for you.
Gavin didn’t want to eat on principle, but the scent of roasted chicken was everywhere. His attention was pulled away anyway to the television screen when it suddenly flickered to life.
The neighborhood on TV looked surprisingly familiar: tall oak trees lined the empty street as a pair of bluebirds few past. Off in the distance, the top of an old church he recognized was visible, a statue perched on the tower looking down on the houses below. It was Gavin’s street, and as the camera panned over, it was House, standing tall and crooked, and made of glass and stone and warm, worn wood, gleaming in the afternoon sun.
The screen zoomed in through the gate and up the walk, to a boy sitting cross-legged in the grass, an entire army of toy trucks surrounding him.
It was a drawing from Gavin’s sketchbook brought to life, of Gavin playing while House looked on. Tree branches pulled in close, protecting him from the heat of the day.
House had gathered a hose, vines and branches, and the long, thin leaves of a tulip to push his trucks through the grass and up the little dirt paths he had made for them. Not once had it occurred to him that his world was different or less somehow because it was House playing with him instead of one of the boys that lived in a house a few blocks down. Gavin had just felt adored.
It had always been only them, so it wasn’t surprising House was having a hard time dealing with the changes happening now.
As if it sensed his softening mood, the lights dimmed to a warm, cozy glow. The edges of a blanket brushed the curve of his cheek and wrapped itself around him in the closest thing to a hug it could offer.
Gavin took the first bite of his dinner and hummed in appreciation. It was perfect.
“Thank you,” he said, tearing off a chunk of roll and running it through a warm pool of gravy. “It’s delicious. I didn’t realize I was so hungry. Thanks for thinking of me.”
Lamp flickered in acknowledgment before brightening again.
Gavin let the feeling of contentment and hope wash over him. No one gets to pick the family they’re given, and as far as families go—and despite what Delilah thought—he actually considered himself pretty lucky. House might be nosy and overprotective, but it was his and he loved it. You don’t divorce your parents because they love you too much. You don’t get a new brother or sister because you don’t like the ones you have.
Somehow, he would make it work. House just needed to see how wonderful Delilah was; that was all. His love was big enough to share. He’d just have to figure out a way to show them both.