Delilah was quiet at lunch the next day. Though quiet might not have been the right description. She said she’d forgotten her lunch, so she dragged him to the cafeteria and then barely spoke, instead spending the majority of their thirty-minute break picking at her Salisbury steak and tearing the individual stems off each floret in her pile of steamed broccoli.
She looked tired, eyes heavy and body slumped forward. Like her eyelids were too heavy to keep open. Each of her blinks seemed to last longer than the last, and Gavin made sure he was close enough in case the elbow propped on the cafeteria table gave out and she went face-first into her tray.
He’d asked her this morning if everything was okay, and she’d waved him off. He’d asked again after third period, when he heard she’d fallen asleep and snored through most of Mr. Burton’s US Government lecture.
On both occasions she’d given him a shake of the head and a small smile, even stifling a yawn. “I’m fine.”
Fine. Gavin was starting to hate that word.
These were the moments he realized how little he knew about girls, about what they thought or felt versus what they said, or how to respond to any of it.
Of course he didn’t know how to respond. He’d “gone out” with girls where it was implied they were together, for however brief a period that might be, but he’d never been in an actual I-am-your-boyfriend-and-you-are-my-girlfriend type of relationship before. There’d been Cornelia, but he’d only kissed her, dry and unfeeling. There was nothing wild about her—about them—and it had ended almost as quickly as it had begun. He hadn’t grown up with parents to watch and model his behavior after. He didn’t have brothers or sisters or even actual not-on-the-Internet friends to learn from, or ask questions. In fact, the only things he knew about male/female relationships he’d learned from TV or books.
But none of those stories was about a boy who had a house that was alive and had tried to scare his girlfriend to death, so he was pretty sure none of them would be any help to him anyway.
And besides, when had Delilah ever done or said what he’d been expecting? Gavin might not talk to a lot of people, but he was always watching, learning from others’ interactions, and Delilah was about as different from other people as he was.
He supposed he should find some sort of comfort in that, but he didn’t.
“Did you not sleep at all last night?” he asked, a pang of guilt gnawing slowly in his gut. He could still remember her face when he’d moved off of her and hear the confusion in her voice when she’d asked why he hadn’t stopped when he knew what was happening. The idea that Delilah was so afraid because of what House had done that she couldn’t sleep. . . well, that made him feel worse than he’d thought possible.
He didn’t want anyone—especially Delilah—to suffer or worry or be hurt because of him. Because they chose to spend their time with someone who was so. . . not normal.
Delilah shook her head, and small wisps of hair that had fallen loose from her braid settled around her face, the ends fluttering in the warmed air pouring from the vents overhead.
“Not much,” she said before pausing. Was she taking a breath? Was she concocting a story? Was she choosing how she would break up with him?
Gavin actually straightened in his chair at that last one, wanting to punch himself. He’d never felt this way about anyone before, and it was turning him into a twisty, emotional mess.
“I was worried,” she continued. “When I didn’t hear from you.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, eyes dropping to the table. “I didn’t know where my phone was and didn’t find it until. . . until later. After House calmed down.”
“I was afraid it would hurt you.”
Gavin blinked up to the window, to the trees visible on the other side of the glass. Lately he felt like every conversation he and Delilah had should take place in the isolation of the music room; the cafeteria felt too exposed—too many students, too many windows. He swallowed before telling her, “House wouldn’t hurt me.” He wondered if she noticed that the words didn’t seem to have as much conviction behind them as they used to.
“Have you ever noticed how often you say that?”
A smile twitched at the corner of his mouth, at that flash of fire he loved about her so much. “I said that it would have to behave itself. That I needed you to feel safe there for me to be happy. And that I needed both of you.” The fluorescent-lit cafeteria felt bright and too full of other students for that kind of admission, but it needed to be said.
He swallowed, trying to ignore the heat seeping into his cheeks. His body felt too long and awkward for the table, and he stretched his legs in front of him, his shoulders relaxing almost instantly as his ankles tangled with Delilah’s.
“And what did it do when you said that?” she asked.
He remembered how the walls had calmed almost instantly, the swinging chandelier slowly coming to a stop overhead. House had grown still and warm again, the chill in the air lessening with every breath. It felt like it was waiting. Or maybe thinking?
“It calmed down eventually.”
“So you think House hid your phone?” she asked carefully.
Although Gavin didn’t want to tell her that his phone had been with him one moment—in his back pocket; he was sure of it—and gone the next, he did. He hadn’t thought much of it at the time—more concerned with calming everyone down than checking for texts—but he had later, when he’d climbed the stairs for bed and found it sitting there, waiting for him in the center of his pillow. Like it had been there all along.
“That’s weird, Gavin. That’s not normal.”
He tried to ignore the way those two words together made him feel, distracting himself with the lid to his water bottle instead.
“Wouldn’t your parents take your phone away if they were upset?” he asked.
Delilah opened her mouth to speak before she stopped, considering. “Well, it’s not the same, is it?”
“Why? House is the closest thing to a family I’ve got, which is why I wonder if we’ve been doing this wrong.”
He reached across the table, taking her hand in his. She had ink on her fingers, orange and blue and smudged black. He wanted to ask what she’d been drawing and if she would show him.
“When you said you were walking me home, it got me thinking. What did couples do in the old days before they started dating?”
“The ‘old days’?” she said, cracking a smile. “Exactly how far back should we go? Should I still be able to vote?”
Gavin rolled his eyes but smiled. “You know what I mean, smart-ass. Like your parents’ age.”
Her brows drew together, and he wanted to lean across the table and kiss her. He frowned. Another time.
“Ugh, I don’t think my parents ever dated. They were just dropped here, fully coupled.”
“Be serious, Lilah.”
“I don’t know,” she said with a shrug. “Meet their parents?”
“But I’ve already been there. It knows who I am.”
“Sort of. Parts of House are new, but its foundation is old, really old. Maybe we should do it the old-fashioned way and introduce you properly.” He squeezed her hand and gave her the most charming smile he could manage. “I can explain how wonderful you are, and my intention to court you.”
“You’re a dork,” she said, but he noticed she was the one blushing now.
“There’s no way it won’t love you if given the chance.” Butterflies exploded in his stomach. “It’s impossible not to,” he added.
“So you want me to come over again?”
“Yeah. Let me make you dinner.”
“Me? At your house? Maybe you missed the way I sprinted from there like I was on fire last time.”
“I barely made it out and you want me to go back?”
He ran his fingers up each of hers, rubbed little circles into her palms. “I think it’s possible you might be exaggerating a bit.”
She chewed on her bottom lip, her eyes watching the way he touched her. “Maybe. . . ,” she acknowledged.
“House is. . . It is what it is. I can’t change that. But it’s part of me. We’re sort of a package deal.”
“It’s just so. . . How did it not creep you out before?” she asked, surprising him.
“It didn’t creep you out at first,” he reminded her.
“Yeah, I guess. It’s just”—she took a deep breath—“odd, is all.”
“Did you miss the last eighteen years where I’m odd?” he asked a little sheepishly. “House is strange and different, but it’s mine. It fits me.”
Delilah laced her fingers with his and squeezed. “Okay,” she said finally. “But I expect dessert.”
He nodded, already grinning. “Dessert, got it. That shouldn’t be too hard.”
Delilah tossed her silverware to her tray and wadded up her napkin. “I’m wearing my running shoes, and if stuff gets weird, I’m out of there. Dhaval’s mom said I looked sizzled around the edges, burned, and I’d like to stay as unsizzled as possible, thank you very much.”
Gavin stood as she did and followed her to the garbage cans. “Dhaval’s mom?” he asked.
He watched as she scraped her tray and placed it on the conveyor belt that led to the kitchen. “Yeah. I was a little freaked out last night. I mean, for obvious reasons, of course, but. . . I don’t know. . . My dad was all weird, sitting in the kitchen drinking and saying all this even weirder stuff. Like Scripture or something. I didn’t want to be alone, so when you didn’t answer, I texted Dhaval.”
Gavin felt himself frown. “Your dad doesn’t usually do those things?”
“Ha!” she said, looping her arm through his and leading them both out the double doors of the cafeteria. “My dad gets self-righteous when the neighbors bring over rum cake, for crying out loud. I’ve never seen him drink. He’s more a piece of furniture in the house than a human.”
“Maybe he had a rough day. Maybe it was that he saw you with me?”
Delilah was already shaking her head. “No. It was more than that, but. . . I can’t explain it. Like he was there but. . . not. Anyway, it was creepy as hell, and so I snuck out and went to Dhaval’s. Though he’s probably going to kill me for it today.”
“So what did his mom mean by saying you were sizzled? Like physically, or metaphorically?” Gavin thought back to what had happened and couldn’t remember any moment where House or the tree had actually burned her. Had it?
“Honestly, I don’t know. It was the middle of the night, and she wasn’t exactly a wealth of words. Maybe she meant I just had a weird vibe about me. After the park and my dad and the walk over there and my sweater—”
Gavin reached out, placing a hand on her arm to stop her. “What happened on the way over?” he asked, concerned. House had promised to be good, and he believed it. So why did it suddenly feel like he had a herd of horses galloping in his chest? “And your sweater?”
“Nothing. Well, it felt like something. But maybe that’s because I was already freaked out and it was late and dark and—”
“If felt like everything was watching me. The trees, the lampposts. Like at the park.”
Gavin nodded, heaviness settling deep into his stomach. “So his mom didn’t tell you anything else?”
“No. I went upstairs with Dhaval and talked his ear off. I’m sure he failed his math test this morning because of me.”
“Did you tell him what happened?” What happened. What a benign and completely inaccurate description of what was going on.
They stopped at her locker, and Delilah hesitated before she spun the lock and began putting in her combination. Gavin felt his brows rise, but he said nothing, waiting. “Not really. What I mean to say is, I told him what House is but. . . not everything.”
“You could have, you know. If you trust Dhaval, then so do I. I don’t want you to keep a secret from him because you think you’re protecting me.”
“It’s not just that. He wouldn’t understand. Besides, I think this is something we should probably keep to ourselves as much as possible. At least for now.”
Gavin nodded again, slow and stiff, like his neck was a heavy weight set on a rusty hinge. He knew she was right. House had disappointed him, and he felt an odd unease, as if he wasn’t entirely sure he could trust House where Delilah was concerned. But his chest ached, too, when he had these disloyal thoughts about his unlikely family. He wouldn’t do anything that might put it in jeopardy.
“But dinner could be awesome,” she said, clearly attempting to change the subject. “Impress me enough and I might let you kiss me again. I mean, I don’t want a piano dropped on me or anything.. . .”
“Okay, bad joke,” she said with a small shrug. “But I’m sure House wouldn’t object to a few kisses?”
And just like that, Gavin’s brain went from doom and gloom to teenage boy and hormones. “How hard could it be?” he teased. “Google a recipe and boom. Dinner for two followed by kissing. My kind of night.”