The House

Chapter 18

Her

Delilah fought sleep that night. Exhaustion weighed down the edges of her mind, making her thoughts syrupy and dense, but until her phone buzzed beneath her pillow to let her know Gavin was safe at home, she didn’t want to close her eyes.

Instead, she climbed back out of bed at one in the morning and went to sit at her desk. Perched on the never-used surface was a shiny silver frame displaying a picture of Delilah with her parents, taken the summer before. It had been her shortest visit back from Massachusetts yet, but even though she’d been home for only a week, her father hadn’t even taken a day off work to spend time with her. The picture was taken on a weekend, at a nearby park, where Delilah’s mother had tried to put together a cheerful picnic of sandwiches and apples. Much of the picnic was decimated by ants, and her father left after only an hour, claiming he was needed at the office.

She pulled the photograph from the frame, staring at her father’s doughy face. In the way that words start to feel misspelled when one stares at them too long, his face started to look unfamiliar the longer she looked at him. Pulling a black marker from her bag, she began drawing thick brows over his pale ones, a black, angry frown over his indifferent mouth. In only a few minutes, her father had become a glowering gargoyle.

Delilah left her mother’s plain, constantly surprised expression alone but drew blue lips over her own mouth, twisted black horns on her head, and crooked orange butterfly lashes over her eyes and reaching almost to her hairline as she thought back on the strange visit home.

“Don’t they want to see more of me?” she’d asked Nonna when she’d returned to the silent stillness of a boarding-school town in the middle of summer.

“Do you want to see more of them?” Nonna had asked in reply. It was one of her more fluent moments, when her eyes cleared and she knew everything she’d always known, wasn’t lost to a vague panic or searching for something she’d misplaced.

Delilah had grown quiet and unsure. She didn’t know that she wanted more time with her parents, only that she’d hoped to feel more wanted whenever she went home.

“Baby, if I’ve learned one thing in the past sixteen years, it’s this: When it comes to your parents, we both need to lower our expectations. Don’t poke at anything you don’t want to face.” Nonna had left the room then, returning a few minutes later with a kiss to the top of Delilah’s head and a giant platter of cookies in her arms.

Two weeks later, Nonna didn’t even remember that conversation. If the Nonna of last summer knew that Delilah would be brought home just after Christmas that year—that she would be back living with her parents and finishing out high school in her hometown—she would have raised hell.

Unfortunately, Nonna didn’t remember Delilah now, either.

Looking back, she was pretty sure she shouldn’t have returned to Nonna’s house at all that summer. Her forgetfulness and moments of blankness had been worsening at an alarming rate, and though her parents might not have put too much thought or effort into what she did on a daily basis, she was fairly certain they wouldn’t have allowed her to return that summer had they known the extent of Nonna’s illness.

But Delilah had loved Nonna and would have jumped at anyone like a wildcat had they tried to separate them even a day before it was absolutely necessary. The moments when Nonna hadn’t remembered herself were terrifying, yes, but she had always been Delilah’s favorite person in the world, the one person who made her feel truly loved.

Maybe that was exactly how Gavin felt.

Back in her own room, no longer near Nonna or the quiet boarding-school town or anything familiar, Delilah dropped the pen and closed her eyes. Was she doing it again? Poking something that was now, unfortunately, facing her? Could she behave herself better and make nice with the house? Away from it she just wanted it to like her, wanted it to let her have as much of Gavin as she wanted to have. But when she was there, it was almost like she couldn’t help pushing. She couldn’t help finding out what the reality of Gavin’s life was, what it would someday be, and why the house couldn’t set him free, even a little.

Unfortunately, the idea of scary things turned out to be so much better than the reality. The prospect of a living house, the potential it had for darkness and eerie moments had seemed perfectly adventuresome. But now her skin rose in gooseflesh and she felt like she was being watched by her own eyes in the photograph, by the windows and walls and carpeting. Did she just imagine a slight rumbling of the chair beneath her? Was she imagining the way the walls seemed to hum slightly now, trapping her inside? If she tried to escape and run downstairs, would her own house let her go?

Delilah shot up from the chair, consumed by a sudden, fluttering panic, and tore down the hall, down the stairs, and burst, panting, into the oddly bright kitchen. She pulled up short at the sight of her father seated at the kitchen table, his left hand wrapped around the neck of a bottle of amber liquid.

“Delilah.” His voice came out thick, as if a balloon were lodged in his windpipe.

Her chest rose and fell as she struggled to catch her breath and take in the image in front of her. Franklin Blue, sitting drunk at his kitchen table in the middle of the night. The house faded into gray in her periphery, the idea that it was alive completely forgotten. She’d never seen her father anything but buttoned up and stern, but here he sat looking like he was almost melting into his chair.

“What are you doing up at this hour?” he asked, his voice bending the word “hour” into something that sounded more like “are.” It took Delilah several beats before she translated in her head. He looked strange, not quite himself. A little dazed.

“I couldn’t sleep,” Delilah said, leaning against the counter behind her. “Then I got scared.”

He laughed, staring at the table. “I know what you mean,” he said, nodding before taking a long pull directly from the bottle. She could hear him swallow, stared at him as he winced a little. Even at a distance, the fumes from the alcohol burned at the surface of her eyes.

“Are you okay, Dad?”

“Sure.”

“I didn’t know you drank.”

“I don’t, usually.” He pushed the bottle away from himself and rubbed his eyes. “I guess that explains why I’m sitting at the table drunk after two swigs. Have the worst headache.”

Delilah thought about this as she eyed the bottle, tempted to point out that more than half the liquid was gone; it didn’t seem like it was only two swigs that he’d taken. In fact, he’d been. . . off?. . . since he’d picked her up in Gavin’s driveway. He’d barely said a word to her, and instead had kept prodding at his head, finally asking her to check the glove box for a bottle of aspirin.

“You seeing that boy?” He was staring at her now, and even with her eyes averted she could feel it. She’d never spoken to her father about boys or even girls. He’d definitely never seen her kiss one. He had always stayed safely in the father zone, discussing what was for dinner or whether she wanted to rethink wearing such a short skirt.

Delilah ran her fingernail along the gap between the aluminum and Formica of the kitchen table. “Gavin?”

“You think I know his name? The tall, skinny kid who looks like he climbed out of bed in the middle of the day. The old hippy lady’s son.”

Delilah froze. She could have sworn something rustled outside. “You know his mom?”

Franklin Blue snorted, shaking his head with contempt. “Hell no, I don’t know her. Nobody really does.”

She closed her eyes, took a deep breath. Her father was drunk, she reasoned. He didn’t even know Gavin’s name. How could he know anything meaningful about him? “His name is Gavin, and yes. I’m seeing him.”

“You keeping yourself pure?”

She looked up at him then, surprised at the sharpness of his tone. Her parents were strict and pious, but they’d rarely been as sanctimonious as he’d been with just those few, drawled words. Her father’s eyes were glassy and unfocused as he stared, unblinking, at the chair across from him. She followed his gaze and then looked around the room. All around her the walls seemed to pulse, first quietly and then as if the sound were penetrating her head. “That depends on whether I’m still pure if I kiss him,” she said finally.

“‘Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave,’” he quoted, words slurring together slightly.

He didn’t sound quite right, and Delilah wasn’t sure if it was the alcohol, the fact that he was quoting Scripture as if reading from a script, or something else entirely. The wind outside dragged a branch across the kitchen window.

“Okay, then, Dad. I think I’ll head back upstairs.” Delilah watched him warily before she pushed away from the counter and walked back toward the door to the living room, and just beyond it, the stairs to the relative sanctuary of her room. To her right, a desk drawer rattled in its track, making her jump, and a gust of wind blew through the living room as if hitting her right in the face. A window had burst open across the room, letting in the frigid night air.

“‘Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.’” Her father’s voice rang hollow from the kitchen, but when she turned to look at him, he was asleep with his head lying in his crossed arms on the table.

Upstairs she pulled her phone out from under her pillow and finally gave in to texting Gavin again. I need to talk to you.

After ten minutes with no reply from him, she felt like her room was contracting in small pulses, breathing in and out. Strangely, unless it was directing its anger at her, she had never minded the idea that Gavin’s house was alive, but the thought that such a thing could spread, that the house that hated her could also somehow take over her own home, was terrifying.

This is not okay, she thought. Even if it was a nice house, a house that is alive is not okay. This isn’t the same as Nonna’s dementia. She closed her eyes hard, squeezing them so tight she saw prisms of light. How was she seeing this only now? She’d wanted so much for the world to be wild and scary and unknown, but this kind of wild, scary, and unknown was not okay.

She texted Dhaval. Are you awake?

Her phone vibrated in her hand a moment later. I am now because my phone buzzed right near my head.

Sorry.

It’s fine. What’s up?

Delilah stared at her phone and then just dialed him, needing to hear a human voice that was familiar and didn’t sound drunk or slightly. . . possessed. Dhaval picked up after barely a full ring. “Princess Delilah, it’s sleepy time.”

“I’m sorry. I’m having a really weird night.”

She heard him rustle on the other end, as if sitting up in bed, and his groggy voice answered. “Okay. Tell me everything.”

“Dhaval, have you ever noticed anything weird in this town?”

There was a moment of silence in which she could practically feel Dhaval’s blank stare. “Are you serious right now? Everything’s weird about Morton. It’s like walking into the town in Edward Scissorhands.”

“Okay, I mean things that feel like a haunting but aren’t?”

“Someone needs to take your Netflix away.”

“This isn’t from a movie. This is from real life. I worry that things in this town are. . . possessed.”

“I should record this conversation and play it for you tomorrow. You’ll be mortified,” he said. “Morton is weird, yes. But it’s like too many people who are too much alike and who never speak to anyone from outside this town and never go anywhere, ever. ”

“I’m serious,” she said, feeling her throat tightening in the unfamiliar rising of tears. It was too much to take in. The tree in the park, and—worse—the way Gavin seemed completely unsurprised. And now her father’s strange behavior downstairs, like something was speaking for him. She felt like the house was infecting everything and everyone around her. “I’m really freaking out.”

The line rang with silence for several beats before he said, “Come over.”

• • •

Delilah hopped over cracks in the sidewalk and skirted every line in the pavement. The shadows of streetlights bent and arched over the path ahead, and she could feel their posts twisting behind her, their lamps turning to watch her like heads on long, curved necks. She was imagining it—she had to be; she was just spooked—but it was all she could do to not cry out and scream Dhaval’s name the four blocks to his house from hers. The dim shade from trees and houses, cars and mailboxes seemed to cling to her own slight shadow until it was enormous in her peripheral vision, looming down the sidewalk beside her. She felt like she was dragging a black hole down the street.

Daytime sounds were absent, and in their place was only the odd buzzing of electrical wires, the occasional barking of a dog that seemed to grow farther and farther away, as if civilization were slowly ebbing away from her. Finally, Delilah gave in to her instinct to run and sprinted the remaining two blocks to Dhaval’s house, feet slapping the pavement, arms pumping, and her heart pounding, a tight wail trapped high in her throat.

She hurled herself up the three steps to his porch, throwing politeness into the wind and banging as hard as she could on the door, looking behind her over her shoulder. She swore the branches of every tree leaned toward her; the sidewalk seemed to ripple in her wake.

But it wasn’t Dhaval who answered the door. It was his mother, Vani, in a deep green robe and holding the door open wide.

“Slow down,” she whispered, pulling Delilah inside and shutting the door behind her with a quiet click. She reached to press her warm palms against Delilah’s cheeks. “Slow down, jaanu. You look frazzled.”

“I am,” Delilah said, gulping in a huge breath of air and glancing shakily over at Dhaval as he appeared at the bottom of the stairs.

But Vani shook her head. “Mmm. That isn’t the right word. I mean sizzled,” she whispered, looking at every inch of Delilah’s face. “Like you’ve been burned with electricity. You’re scorched from the inside out.”

“W-what do you mean?”

Vani closed her eyes, inhaled meditatively. Instead of answering, she said, “Let me make you some tea.”

• • •

They never did get much information out of Dhaval’s mother, who seemed more intent on calming Delilah down than talking about what had brought her there in the first place. While the teakettle whistled behind her, she told Delilah to breathe, told her everything was okay, and then sent them upstairs to Dhaval’s room with a pot of tea and instructions to stay quiet—hinting to Delilah maybe she did know her son was gay after all, or maybe she just knew from the look on Delilah’s face that the last thing on her mind right now was mischief of the sexual variety. She never once seemed surprised to find Delilah standing on her front porch at two in the morning, panicked.

Dhaval closed the door behind them and walked to his bed, sitting down cross-legged. “Do your parents know you’re here?”

She shook her head.

“Your dad will kill you.”

Shrugging, Delilah said, “I’m pretty sure Dad will still be asleep when I get home. He was hammered tonight.”

Her best friend cocked his head. “You don’t mean drunk?”

“I do.”

“Is that what has you freaked out?”

She blinked away and studied the framed drawing of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva on his wall. “No. Not exactly. Well, sort of.”

He waited for ten seconds. For twenty. Finally, Dhaval—never a patient person—exhaled loudly. “You realize I’m not going to be able to go back to sleep tonight and I have a calculus test in the morning?”

“I’m sorry.”

“That isn’t my point. Either tell me why you’re here or just go to sleep and let me study.”

Delilah closed her eyes and took a breath so deep she felt like if her lungs were balloons, she might lift from the bed. She blew out the breath and looked at Dhaval. “The Patchwork House is. . . just about as weird and different as we always thought. It’s—”

His dark eyes went wide. “Is that what you meant by haunted, earlier on the phone?”

“I don’t know, okay? I. Need. You. To. Listen.” She enunciated each word with exaggerated patience. “Maybe help me figure out what the hell is going on.”

“You think because I’m brown I know about magic or voodoo?” he asked, shaking his head. “The only magic I know is the joy of watching Channing Tatum in Magic Mike.”

“Dhaval.”

“Delilah. That place is weird. Why are you even going there?” He leaned back and looked at her from head to foot. “Ohhhh. I see. Delilah Blue is getting some action over at the haunted mansion.”

Shaking her head quickly and glancing out his window, Delilah whispered, “Can you focus, please? I just. . .” She leaned forward, gestured for Dhaval to do the same, and then very quietly whispered everything into his ear. That everything in the house—from the wallpaper to the silverware—was alive. That she’d asked what happens when Gavin leaves someday and how the house reacted. And that she feels the house following her. . . everywhere.

Dhaval pulled back and looked directly into her eyes. She could tell before he said a word that not only did he not believe her, but he thought she might be crazy. It made her think of Gavin and all the years that it was easier to live alone than to try to introduce someone into his world.

“Don’t,” she said, her voice raspy, a thousand prickly pinpoints.

“It just sounds insane, okay? I mean, Gavin is weird. And let’s be honest here. You’re also a little weird.”

She nodded. “I know.”

“You haven’t told anyone else this, have you? About the house? I mean, the way you talk about it makes it sound like he lives there alone or something. His parents wouldn’t just let him live in a haunted house.”

Delilah paused. Didn’t everyone assume he lived there alone? Had anyone ever seen parents? She opened her mouth to confirm, but something stopped her. Some tickling instinct, some agreement, internally, that this could go bad for Gavin if people found out that he was a minor, living without another human for more than a decade. “I haven’t told anyone else, and of course he isn’t alone.”

It wasn’t a complete lie.

“So, I’m just saying, you have this amazing imagination and draw all of these really creepy things and watch way too many movies and maybe, I don’t know.” He looked past her, out the window. “Maybe it’s two thirty in the morning and you should just sleep in my bed while I study.”

With a tight nod, Delilah curled onto her side at the foot of his bed, pulling the comforter over her legs. Dhaval sat quietly near her for a minute before standing and walking over to his desk.

Would she ever be able to sleep again? Wouldn’t she feel the need to be vigilant all the time, like anything in her room could come to life? But with the sound of Dhaval’s pencil scratching across paper and her own even breaths in the otherwise-quiet room, Delilah slowly let herself fall asleep.

• • •

The room was black, pitch-black. Without opening her eyes, Delilah knew Dhaval wasn’t at the desk, but had fallen asleep on the floor. He held her hand while she slept, and she smiled, squeezing it a little in thanks.

Fingers cracked together in her grip.

Fear spiked in her chest; ice filled her lungs. The hand was cold and hard, as if made of bones wrapped in the thinnest layer of brittle, dry skin. Delilah jerked her hand away, scooting back on the bed just as she heard Dhaval shoot up in the chair across the room and turn on his desk lamp.

“What?” he asked, eyes red with sleep and wide with alarm. “What happened?”

Delilah wiped her hand on the blanket, covering her mouth with her other one. A tight sob broke out. She knew she’d been holding a hand when she woke up. She knew it.

“I. . . ,” she started, choking. “There was something in my hand. A hand. Fingers. Something.” She was shaking so violently she could feel her breath fanning wildly across her palm.

“It was this, Dee. It was just your shirt.”

She blinked from a sleepy Dhaval to the steel-gray sweater he held in his grasp. It was hers, the very same one she’d worn at Gavin’s earlier that day.

She could still feel the stiff fingers between hers, hear the soft audible crackling of the brittle bones.

The house had climbed into her sweater and followed her home.