Never had a walkway looked so honest and virtuous before: swept clean, steps gleaming. Even Dead Lawn seemed to have put in some effort: It was trimmed at least, and less muddy and brown than Delilah had ever seen it. If the front yard could make a noise, Delilah sensed it would be whistling innocently.
Come on in, Delilah.
Nothing strange to see here.
The effort it seemed to have put in for the dinner date did nothing to quell the nervous twist in her stomach as she stood in front of the door and knocked.
Delilah knew she should have shared her suspicions about the sweater with Gavin, that somehow part of the house had attached itself to it and followed her home. But she couldn’t bring herself to do it. She hadn’t been sleeping enough lately and had just woken from a dream.. . . She was groggy, not thinking straight. Concluding the sweater was possessed was no doubt a result of her wild imagination, because the alternative was too terrifying to even consider.
Gavin answered with his trademark half smile, motioning her inside. “Hey, Lilah.”
Her palms felt sweaty and she couldn’t shake the unease that crawled up and down her spine, but she put on her best smile—fake as it may be—and beamed up at him. “It smells amazing in here,” she said, slipping off her shoes and shrugging out of her jacket as Gavin slid his hands to her shoulders to help her.
“Thanks,” he said, and turned to hand it to the coatrack. “I, uh. . . I cooked.”
She turned to look up at his blushing cheeks, feeling relief wash through her. It wasn’t that she didn’t think the house could cook; she knew it could. But if it cooked dinner tonight, there would be a part of her thinking, with every bite, that the house somehow slipped rat poison into her portion.
“Good,” she said stupidly, and then added in a rush, “I mean, it’s good practice for you. But not that you need practice, because the house will always be here to cook for you, always. I just mean—”
Gavin put a warm hand on her arm, whispering, “I get what you’re trying to say. It’s okay. Calm down, crazy.”
Delilah blew out a nervous breath and looked around the foyer while Gavin stood patiently just behind her left shoulder, clearly letting her calm down. Back inside these walls, the comfort they shared on their walks around town or alone in the music room at school melted away, and even Delilah’s natural confidence couldn’t press away the jitters.
“House,” he said into the room. “Delilah came back to see us. And like I told you”—he paused and leaned in close to her, meaningfully—“and you,” he added, “she’s very important to me. I’m happy she came.”
There was a small rustle in a plant near the front door—a wave? she wondered—and a lampshade tilted in her direction.
Delilah waved back, lamely, into the room and up toward the stairs. “Hi. Thank you for having me. Um, back,” she added, wincing.
It felt like they were performing for an audience of dissatisfied customers, an audience made up only of overprotective parents. The night was just so loaded.
She looked up at him, wanting to say this out loud, to somehow contrast this moment with every other they’d spent together in the past weeks, walking in easy silence or admitting everything crazy and scary and secretive to each other. But the words died on her lips when he smiled the smile that showed his sharp teeth, which she’d never seen him give anyone but her. Gavin bent and, starting at the corner of her mouth, drew his lips across hers in a slow, soft line. They were parted a little and just a tiny bit wet from his tongue.
“You look so pretty tonight,” he whispered once he reached the other side.
Delilah’s insides melted, and she felt warm and heavy in her relief. She nodded when he tilted his head, silently asking if she was ready to come fully inside.
But the sense of relief evaporated as soon as Gavin’s hand let go of hers and he moved purposefully toward the kitchen. More than she ever had before, Delilah understood the term “walking on eggshells.” Of course, there weren’t literal eggshells beneath her feet, but every time she took a step, the placement of her foot seemed to be a critical decision. One floorboard groaned when she stepped on it—low and splintery and the exact sound wood would make if it was displeased—and she very quickly skipped to the board beside it, which, thankfully, remained silent and sturdy. Another board pushed the wood nail up as she stepped down, poking her on the bottom of her foot through her wool sock. Delilah bit back a sharp cry and limped quietly behind Gavin. She felt as though the hallway was shrinking in on her, inspecting, expecting to be disappointed in whatever action she took. She was surrounded by hundreds of parts of the house every moment she was inside, and some seemed to have forgiven her while others clearly held a grudge.
In the kitchen, Gavin dished spaghetti into two bowls, handed one to Delilah and then grabbed a basket of garlic bread. With food in hand, they walked to the dining room. Delilah found herself glancing at everything on the floor, everything on the wall, every fixture hanging from the ceiling. Everything—even the paintings—remained suspiciously still, but the dining room was absolutely freezing when they sat at the table to eat.
Looking around the room, Gavin asked, “Is it cold in here?”
She shrugged. “Maybe a little. It’s okay.” But her shiver revealed the lie.
Gavin looked up at the ceiling. “Are you trying to kick us out of here?” Beneath their plates, the table shook, and a wintery gust blew through the room. Delilah interpreted it as a clear yes.
With an irritated little growl, Gavin grabbed his bowl and the basket of bread and stood, saying, “Fine. Let’s go,” to Delilah, and led her into the living room.
It was much warmer here, and as soon as they settled down on the floor and set their plates on the coffee table, the fire roared to life in the fireplace.
Gavin seemed to be starving and, with this clear welcome from the room, immediately dug into his dinner. Unfortunately, Delilah’s appetite was nonexistent. The fire popped enthusiastically in the fireplace and a few pillows slid across the floor to rest behind her, but Delilah couldn’t take it as a sign to let her guard down.
She scoured her mind for a safe topic. Clearly anything having to do with the future was off-limits, even though most kids in their class would begin to hear back from college admissions offices soon. No doubt any discussion of their relationship was off-limits, too. School was an easy topic but also the last thing Delilah wanted to think about at the moment. She wanted to escape into the space they created together and lean in to him while he ate his dinner and run her hand over his thigh. She wanted to hear him tell her stories about junior year and his first kiss and what was his most fervent wish for life.
Studying her as he chewed, Gavin swallowed before saying, “You’re so quiet.”
He gave her a playfully exasperated look.
“I’m just. . .” She trailed off.
“Nervous?” he offered.
“Yeah, a little.” Glancing up at the ceiling—always as if the heart of each room was hovering above her—she whispered, “I don’t want to do anything wrong.”
“Tell me how it would go if you invited me to dinner at your place.”
She smiled, pushed some noodles around on her plate, and said, “My father would be mute and weird.”
“Like Dining Room,” Gavin said with a small little tilt of his head.
Delilah laughed. “And my mother would natter on and on about the neighbors and groceries and her book club and the quilt she’s making for the new baby on the block.”
Gavin blinked over to the boisterous, popping fire and the pile of pillows behind her. “It’s not really that different,” he said, eyes wide with earnest pleading. “I think the protective parent is universal, you know?”
She wanted him to be right.
• • •
Gavin stood, stretching a mile above where she remained on the floor. His arms reached over his head, shirt riding up and exposing a slice of his torso: skin and muscle and the tiniest glimpse of hair.
She’d never seen a man shirtless before whom she so fiercely wanted to touch. And despite the fact that now was most certainly not the time to run her hands up and under his shirt, Delilah could almost feel the warmth of his skin she wanted it so much.
“Hey, Delilah, my face is up here,” he said with a laugh. Delilah didn’t bother to look away until he’d lowered his arms and waved his hand in front of his stomach. “Want to go for a walk?”
Delilah nearly burst into song. The oppressive weight of the house’s attention had started to feel like individual pinpricks all along her skin, a steady pressure pushing in at her temples. On a walk they could speak in hushed voices, could pause on the corner of each block and touch and laugh and kiss. Unfortunately, she had to use the restroom and didn’t think she could wait until they got to the park.
“Can I use the bathroom?” she asked as Gavin was nearly out of the room, their plates in his hand.
He paused, blinking down the hall in the direction of the closest downstairs bathroom before looking at her over his shoulder. “Yeah, but maybe use mine, upstairs?”
It was exactly the confidence killer she didn’t need.
The stairs beneath her feet felt odd, like they were made of only the thinnest layer of wood surrounding frigid water. They were ice-cold and creaked beneath her feet; she kept expecting her foot to crack through, to fall up to her knee through sharp wood and splinters digging into her leg. At the top of the stairs she stopped, searching for a light switch for a breath before remembering she wouldn’t find one.
With a wince, she called down to Gavin, “Hey, Gav? How do I get the lights on?”
She heard his feet stomp from the kitchen and the irritation in his voice when he yelled, “Hallway!”
Lights flickered on halfheartedly around her, buzzing and dim.
“Thanks,” she mumbled. Her anxiety was slowly transitioning into irritation. She was here, wasn’t she? Trying? Why was the house insisting on being so difficult?
Once she closed the bathroom door, she exhaled, remembering what Gavin had said about this room. She could see what he meant: It just felt like a bathroom. No sense that if she were quiet enough she could hear a heartbeat. No sense of invisible eyes watching her every move. It was amazing how blissful it could feel to be inside an ordinary room.
Moving to wash her hands, she stilled, catching sight of something behind her in the mirror. Delilah turned. On the windowsill was a tiny porcelain fawn, with golden dots on its beige fur, and with the same chip in its left hoof that her mother’s had. That sensation was back, of phantom fingers pressing against her forehead, her temples. She blinked and the statue was gone, blinked again and it was back.
Her mind grappled to find the obvious explanation—Gavin had liked it, had taken it when he was at her house, wanting something of her home here.
But Delilah knew without having to dive too deep into the rationalization that it wasn’t true. Mom kept the collection in the dining room.. . . Gavin had never even been in there.
This wasn’t just the action of an overprotective parent. This was something far, far more sinister. Delilah would have never noticed the fawn missing from her home, so why bother?
Her mind bent away from the possibility that House put it right here, for her to see.
I can reach you anywhere, it was saying. Even in this safe room.
In the middle of the night even, her own fear echoed back. When you think you’re alone, it reminded her.
No, she thought in rebellion. Maybe the House did take it, but surely Gavin saw it somewhere—maybe on the piano, maybe in the kitchen—and knew it belonged to Belinda Blue. He brought it in here, into his sanctuary, to keep it safe. House wasn’t above being threatening like that—Delilah wasn’t lying to herself about that anymore—but this was Gavin’s safe space at home.
Taking a step closer, Delilah pulled up short just before reaching for the fawn, distracted by a small bubble in the paint. A trick of the light or a hiccup in her mind made her think for a beat that it had moved from lower on the wall to just below her line of sight. Blinking, she looked back up at the fawn, reaching for it on the windowsill. Just beneath her hand, the bubble moved again, a tiny ripple skirting sideways barely a centimeter.
The bubble definitely moved, Delilah thought, heart punching her breastbone, blood rushing so fast in her veins that she felt dizzy, nearly manic.
Reaching forward, she touched the small blister with barely a fingertip to quiet her suspicions. It felt odd beneath her skin, more like stone than plaster or paint, and with a relieved exhale, she pushed a little harder, just to be sure.
But with the added pressure, the bubble gave, indenting the tiniest bit before it cracked open with a sickeningly wet squelch, and before Delilah had a chance to process what she was seeing, her hand was covered in scores of tiny, glossy black roaches. They spilled over her hand, between her fingers, and into her palm, thousands of feet making a tiny scratching noise on her skin, exploding up her arms and over her shoulders in a wave that sounded like a roar, scurrying into her hair.
Delilah screamed, throwing her arms, shoving her fingers in her hair to tear at the bugs, but there were so many. They were so small; she could feel their feet, could hear them on her skin. She felt the cold stream of them down her forehead, over her closed eyes, and slammed her mouth shut just before they began pushing, pushing, pushing at her lips.
In her shirt. Down her legs. She was covered, her skin pulsing from the outside in with their frantic scurrying. Finally, unable to take it a second more—they were still coming out of the wall, an endless stream; were they going to eat her?—Delilah opened her mouth, crying out in terror, running to the door and throwing her shoulder against it, hurtling herself out into the hallway.
But. . . she wasn’t in the hallway at all. She’d left the bathroom only to enter a room she’d never seen before, with walls lined floor to ceiling with dusty books, a desk. It smelled old and stale with damp paper and the cloying scent of decay. Delilah could barely see past the creatures covering her face, but in the corner she caught a flash of a figure, hunched and dark, and she screamed, sprinting to the far end of the room to open another door that led her only into the nursery. Door after door she tried, wailing for Gavin, trying in vain to push the roaches from her skin. Where was he? What was she seeing? She tore open a door that opened to a brick wall. A door beside it opened to a mirror, revealing the horror of her body, covered head to toe in inky, slithering black.
She whipped around, running back into the strange library and feeling along the wall until she found another doorknob. It turned easily, flying open in the wind to a forty-foot drop directly onto the concrete below. Wind roared around her, pulling her off balance as the cold night air hit her face. Delilah jumped back from the ledge, gasping in terror.
“Gavin!” she screamed. “Oh my God, help me!”
She burst through a new door, falling forward onto her knees in the bathroom again, and crawled frantically into the shower, turning on the water, tearing at her clothes and hurling them across the room. Her jeans landed with a heavy splat, still crawling with roaches. Her top hit the blue wallpaper and slid into the sink, the pale yellow cotton turned black with insects. The spray was freezing, but she didn’t care. She stared in horror as the roaches fled the clothes and, like an army, began moving in a river along the floor to the tub. They scaled the porcelain wall and spilled in an oily black wave over the lip, onto her feet again, this time crawling up her body instead of down. She stood in only her underwear, frozen in horror as she screamed.
The stiff shower curtain slid up her legs, over the bugs, inching up the fingers of her left hand and curling around her wrist, trapping it at her side. Delilah clawed at the plastic sheet with her free hand, pulling and pulling as the pressure tightened in stiff, biting straps around her arm. She cried out at the pain as it dug into her skin.
Gavin burst into the room, eyes wild and wide at the scene in front of him. “What are you doing?” he yelled, reaching to turn off the water. He leaped into the shower, gripping her shoulders and staring at her with black, terrified eyes. “Delilah, what did you do?”
“Gavin! I. . . It. . .” Delilah pointed down to the shower curtain, but there was nothing there, only her own hand wrapped around her arm and covered in blood where it looked as if she’d torn away the skin.
“I came up when I heard you turn on the shower,” he said. “Why are you in the shower? Delilah, what happened to your arm?”
“No,” she said, shaking her head wildly. “No, Gavin, there were roaches. They came out of the wall. And my mom’s porcelain—” She stopped, staring wide-eyed up at the windowsill. There was no porcelain statue there. No bubble in the paint that had burst. No person or doors. No roaches scurrying back into the wall. But they had been there; she knew it. She knew it.
Now there was nothing but Delilah, in the shower in her underwear, with a handprint-shaped burn on her arm.