The House

Chapter 21

Him

Delilah was in shock; that was it. Or maybe she was having some sort of episode. Gavin could hear her screaming down the hall, but he wasn’t prepared for the sight of her standing there, half naked and soaked, scratching at her skin like it was covered in acid.

She was saying something about roaches, but Gavin bent to look under the sink and behind the toilet and he didn’t see anything. Water swirled down the shower drain, and his shoes squelched against the porcelain surface. His socks were soaked clear through, the bottoms of his jeans, his T-shirt wet from trying to reach around her to turn off the shower and. . . wait, Delilah was practically naked. And shivering. And standing in his bathtub.

Gavin had hoped to maybe get Delilah in some stage of nakedness tonight, but in his imagination, it hadn’t looked anything like this.

And shit, she was. . . Delilah was bleeding?

Blood ran between her fingers where they gripped her arm. It plunked to the bottom of the tub, one drop after another, forming a pink rivulet that disappeared down the drain.

Gavin stuttered out the beginnings of a few sentences, finally giving up and reaching for a nearby towel.

“G-g-g—” she tried to say, shaking violently now.

“Can I see?” he asked, motioning to her arm.

She shook her head wildly and pointed toward the window. “It was there; it was.”

“I know. I know,” he said, in a soft, placating tone. He tried to see where she was hurt, but she jerked away, cringing and shaking like she might crawl out of her skin.

Gavin tried to remember back to when they’d studied first aid in health class, specifically, the best way to respond to someone who’d just experienced an accident.

Pale skin, ragged breathing, disorientation. Delilah was definitely in shock. Her lips weren’t blue and she seemed to be standing okay, so he guessed that was a positive. But it was freezing in here—colder than it had been downstairs, which. . . made no sense. This was his bathroom. House didn’t come into this room.

Did it?

Delilah swayed on her feet, and he reached out to steady her. “Let’s get you out of here,” he said gently, placing a towel over her arm and wrapping another around her. He placed a hand on her shoulder and tried to lead her toward the edge of the tub. Delilah wasn’t moving.

With no other choice, Gavin scooped her up in his arms, navigating the slippery floor and carrying her to his room. “Lights!” he shouted, at the end of his patience with all of them.

Bedroom Door flew open, and he stepped easily inside, hesitating a moment before placing Delilah on Bed. All he needed was for it to decide to prove a point and toss her to the floor, or for Headboard to rise up, towering over her like something out of a nightmare.

No.

He gave it a warning look and mumbled, “Be good,” under his breath before he moved to the dresser, careful to stay close to her.

There wasn’t much to pick from, being that Gavin was so much taller than Delilah, but he managed to find a pair of sweatpants he’d worn two summers ago and a T-shirt he suspected was the closest to her size he would find.

With the clothes and a pair of boxers he wasn’t even sure he should offer, he turned back, approaching her a lot like he would an injured animal: keeping his steps light and making sure she knew he was there. “Here’s some. . . if you want.”

She nodded numbly, and he set everything down.

“Can we clean this up first? Can I at least see?” he asked.

When she nodded again, he pulled her arm away from her body. Gavin knew Delilah was hurt and that he’d seen blood, but that in no way prepared him for the bleeding, oozing wound that greeted him when she lifted the towel.

A chill moved up his spine, and he snapped his mouth closed, intent on not saying anything that might alarm her. It was angry and red, jagged and singed around the edges in the shape of what looked like a handprint. It was as if the first layer of skin was just gone. Like someone had torn her open as they would a Christmas present, a single ribbon of skin at a time.

Gavin pushed the image to the back of his mind. Right now Delilah needed a doctor. He would try to figure out how this had happened later.

• • •

There was an old car in the garage behind House, a 1967 Buick Riviera. Gavin didn’t drive it often. He preferred to walk or ride his bike when he needed something. Taking the car out of the garage meant the possibility of being pulled over, or maybe an accident, and he had absolutely no idea if the car was even legal to drive. He certainly wasn’t.

It had faded blue paint and a bit of rust marring the finish, but Gavin loved that car and spent hours reading the owner’s manual and researching how to fix things himself. He’d learned that gas would go bad after sitting for too long, so on a few occasions he’d had to remove the fuel tank and drain it. He’d changed spark plugs and wires that had deteriorated. He’d rebuilt the carburetor and replaced gaskets and vacuum hoses, and he liked to imagine that it was as mechanically sound now as it had been the last day it was driven.

But Gavin didn’t even want to think of when that had been.

“You have a car?” Delilah asked, lifting her head from where it rested on his shoulder. “And you don’t have to carry me. I can walk.”

“Maybe I like carrying you.”

She was dry and dressed in his clothes now, and Gavin struggled to focus on getting her into the car and to the doctor without anyone seeing them.

“This house is chock-full of mysterious things,” she slurred hoarsely. “A car seems so. . . normal.”

Gavin studied her for a beat. At least some color had returned to her face. The bandage he’d wrapped around her arm seemed to have stopped most of the bleeding, but she winced when he lowered her into her seat.

“I don’t drive it much,” he admitted, slipping in next to her and fishing the keys from his pocket. “It’s not really a good idea with the whole no license or parents thing, but I figured this was kind of an emergency.”

When Delilah only nodded but didn’t argue or needle him for more details about when he’d found it, how often he drove it, and whom he thought it might belong to, Gavin knew she must really be hurting.

The keys jangled in his hands as he fit the longest of them into the ignition, and he did the mental calculation, trying to remember the last time he’d started the car. He was pretty sure it’d been a few months, and so he held his breath as he turned the key, finally breathing again when the engine roared to life all around them.

The old Buick crept slowly out of the garage, the tires crunching over gravel and fallen leaves as he started it down the narrow drive. His palms sweated where they gripped the steering wheel, and he blinked up to the rearview mirror, wondering if he would see House rise up from the ground, roots pulled from the soil as it chased after them.

The car had never been more than a hobby before, but now—since Delilah—it meant more. It meant a freedom he hadn’t known he needed.

Delilah’s voice at his side drew his eyes from the mirror, and he turned to look at her, small and fragile, legs folded and arm cradled to her chest. “My parents will find out.”

It struck Gavin that she didn’t seem particularly bothered by this, more resigned to a fact she was just saying out loud.

“Do you have your phone?” he asked as a thought suddenly occurred to him.

Delilah nodded and pulled it from the front pocket of her borrowed sweatpants.

“Can you. . . ,” he said, hesitating. He pushed his hair from his forehead and narrowed his eyes, watching the leaves that scurried across the empty street. “Can you send Dhaval a text? Ask him to meet us at Urgent Care?”

Confusion flittered across her expression. “Why?

“Because everyone will think I did this to you.” He heard her tiny gasp and the start of her rebuttal, but he stopped her. “You know they will, Lilah. Just. . . Maybe he’ll be on my side.”

“Nobody will think that. Are you kidding?”

“Just text him? Please?”

She was silent in the seat next to him, clearly unhappy with the idea of bringing Dhaval into any of this. But Gavin could see the moment she realized he might be right, and did what he asked, typing out a text for Dhaval to meet them there anyway.

Everyone would want to know what happened, and what would he say? That his house had attacked her? Because oh, by the way, it’s alive? Or would they do what he most feared and assume it was him?

But another thought in Gavin’s head seemed to be gaining weight and overshadowing everything else. Delilah had been alone in that bathroom. He was sure of it. There were no roaches and there was definitely no statue in the window, because that part of the House was his. It was.

Could Delilah. . . have done it to herself?

• • •

Gavin was sure whoever designed the Urgent Care at their small town’s only medical center had intended for it to be calming. From the portraits of smiling children, with their pink cheeks and bright smiles, to the pastel-patterned chairs and bubbling fish tank, it looked like some deranged living room from a department-store catalogue.

He searched his thoughts and tried to remember if he’d ever been in a place like this before. The only memories he had of seeing a doctor involved one showing up on his front porch in the middle of the night, and now that he thought about it, wearing the same, dazed expression as Dave when he delivered the groceries every week. Gavin couldn’t even think about what that meant. Not with the way everyone was looking at him, like he might leap at them at any minute.

Nothing about this place made Gavin want to stop pacing and sit down. Nothing made him comfortable. The chairs looked sticky, the carpet worn down to the plastic underside in some places and stained with random dark splotches in others. He was pretty sure he didn’t want to know what those stains might be.

And the concerned, dare he say, accusing looks being aimed at him from the nurses’ station weren’t helping.

The staff had rushed Delilah off almost as soon as they’d arrived. One look at her tangled, damp hair, the clothes that were too big and clearly not hers, and the way she held her injured arm to her body—protectively—and they hadn’t wasted a minute. Delilah looked like a battered woman, and Gavin, of course, looked like the culprit.

But she hadn’t wanted to go alone, arguing with them and refusing to let go of his hand.

“I’ll be back with you in a few minutes,” Gavin had told her, brushing the hair from her face. He nodded to the front desk. “I just have to answer a few questions up here and fill out your paperwork, and then they’ll let me come back.”

He’d kissed the corners of her mouth, knowing it was a lie. Gavin knew, and maybe Delilah did, too, that they had no intention of letting him anywhere near Delilah as long as she was here.

Worn-out and still in pain, she had finally relented, turning to hug him a final time before pressing her cell phone into his hand. “Dhaval said he’ll be here,” she whispered. “Give this to him for me? My parents will take it.”

He’d nodded and kissed her temple, watching as she was led out of the room, and the doors to the back of the facility closed behind her. Away from him.

“Maybe you can tell us what happened?” A nurse in her thirties spoke next to him. She looked pleasant enough, he supposed, but there was something about her—a pinched expression and almost gleeful look in her eyes at the prospect of possibly catching him at something—that made him dislike her almost immediately.

“Sure.”

He took a seat at the front counter, his eyes flickering back and forth from the woman typing in front of him to the doors that led to the treatment area.

“Your name?”

“Gavin Timothy,” he said.

“And you’re the boyfriend.”

He blinked back to the nurse, at the pointed way she’d said “the boyfriend,” like there was accusation in it. “Yes.”

“Can you tell me a little about what happened tonight?”

“I don’t know,” he said, and dropped his head into his hands. This was pathetic. Who would possibly believe him? “She went upstairs and closed the door. I heard her scream and followed. That’s all.”

“That’s all?”

“Yeah.”

“And you’re sure nobody else was in there, Gavin?”

She was talking slower than she needed to, speaking as if he needed her to dumb it down for him. Her smile was pained and condescending, and when he didn’t elaborate or tell her anything she wanted to hear, she tucked a strand of faded red hair behind her ear and made a note.

“We’re going to need you to sit over there,” she said, pointing the chewed end of a pencil to the waiting area. “We may need to talk to you again, so please don’t leave.” She gave him a glance that said I’ll be watching you and Stay where you’re told, before she picked up her papers and disappeared into the back.

And that’s when Dhaval rushed in the door, in his soccer uniform and drenched in sweat. Gavin couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so happy to see anyone other than Delilah.

“Is she okay?” Dhaval asked, panicked.

“They’re cleaning her up now,” Gavin told him.

“Cleaning her up? She said she’d had a little accident!”

Holding out his hands to calm Dhaval down, Gavin whispered, “It was, and she’s fine. I promise.”

“She’s completely fine—you’re sure?”

“I’m sure.” Gavin led them over to a hallway just off the main waiting room and, apparently satisfied that Delilah wasn’t moments from death, Dhaval followed.

“Can you tell me what the hell is going on?”

Gavin wasn’t sure how to start.

“You know my house isn’t. . .” He struggled to find the right word. Sane? Safe? Inanimate? “Normal.” There, that was clear enough.

Dhaval narrowed his eyes. “You’re saying your house did this?”

“Delilah’s saying that,” Gavin hedged.

Dhaval looked at him harder now. “But you don’t believe her.”

“I do, but. . .”

“But what? What exactly is wrong with her?”

Gavin told him everything he knew: how Delilah was wary of the house, how he’d invited her over for dinner, thinking maybe they needed to allow House to give them its blessing in a way. And then he explained what Delilah had said about the roaches and her mother’s statue being in the bathroom, about getting lost in all the rooms and attacked in the shower. He admitted he hadn’t seen any of it. He described how it looked like someone had branded a handprint into her arm.

Dhaval stared at Gavin for several breaths before leading them over to a vending machine. “I didn’t eat after soccer practice. I came straight here, and this has me really freaked and I feel like I might pass out. You mind if I. . . ?” With a shaking hand, he motioned to the rows of colorfully packaged snacks.

Gavin shook his head. “You’re sure Delilah wouldn’t. . . ?” he asked, and immediately regretted it.

Dhaval stilled from where he’d been digging for money in his pocket. “Are you serious?”

Gavin winced, rubbing a hand over his face. “No. No. I know Delilah wouldn’t hurt herself. It’s just that, that bathroom is the only room where I ever felt like I was totally alone. If that’s not true, it’s a little hard for me to take.. . .”

“Where was your mom in all this?”

Gavin paused, blinking. Dhaval was obviously starting to believe what they’d been saying about House, but Gavin realized he also thought Gavin’s mom was still around.

Everyone thought his mom was still around.

Deflecting, he asked, “Have you ever met her? My mom?”

Gavin watched as Dhaval pulled two crumpled bills from his pocket and tried to straighten them against the corner of the machine. “Well, no,” Dhaval started. “I mean no one sees her.” He looked up at Gavin’s puzzled expression and added in a slow, patient voice, “Because she never leaves?”

“Right. Yeah,” he said, suddenly light-headed. Gavin was starting to realize how much easier it was for people to believe his mom was so freaked out by strangers that she’d essentially lock herself up in her own house than to believe she could have abandoned her small child or that something terrible could have happened to her right in the middle of their nice, safe neighborhood.

Gavin knew this was insane. He should be horrified that everyone had essentially let him fend for himself, but it almost. . . made him feel better. Like he hadn’t been abandoned by the entire town, after all.

The question was, where was his mom? All he had was a picture of her, but no memories. His stomach turned, and he closed his eyes, trying to breathe deeply enough to stave off the wave of nausea.

“But my mom knew her,” Dhaval said. “Mom was friends with Hilary when we first moved here and I was a baby.”

Hilary. His mother’s name was Hilary.

Gavin took a step back, grateful that the wall was there to catch him.

Dhaval began to feed the bills into the machine, distracted. “Actually, I know my mom answered some questions she had about blessing a house. She’s even been to your place.”

Gavin’s attention snapped to him, eyes wide. “The what now?”

“The blessing,” Dhaval said, looking over his shoulder at Gavin. “I only know about this stuff because Grandma is always talking about it, but Vastu Shastra says all places are home to souls or spirits or whatever, and you have to pray and cleanse a space before you can live or even move stuff in. I know you guys were already living there before the blessing. If you ask my mom, she’ll say that’s bad juju.”

Dhaval typed in the number of his selection and bent to retrieve a granola bar. Holding it up, he used it to point to his chest. “I have no idea what’s going on here. I feel like this. . .” He looked to the side, breath coming out choppy and uneven. “Honestly? I feel like none of this can be real. But. . . I trust Delilah. I saw her that night after she thought it was following you guys everywhere. I saw her wake up thinking her sweater was possessed.”

“Her. . . what?”

As if he hadn’t heard this, Dhaval continued. “I mean, I don’t know you that well, but we’ve been in school together since kindergarten and you seem weird but not insane. So maybe that is what happened. Maybe your mom did some crazy half-assed blessing in this super-old house and it all went haywire. Maybe your mom brought your house to life.”

Dhaval didn’t look entirely convinced, but Gavin’s blood ran like ice in his veins. He hoped he was imagining the way the floor seemed to shift beneath his feet. He wanted to look outside and see if the trees had turned their leaves toward the windows, if the air had grown still, quieter so House could hear what Dhaval was saying.

Everything started to click into place, and Gavin was pretty sure he’d never been more afraid in his life. The memory he hated to revisit came flooding back to him, of the day he’d first found the car in the garage.

He could still hear the birds, smell the scent of dust and old gasoline when he’d finally been tall enough and strong enough to lift open the garage door. He could still see the car, feel the satin of the paint under his fingers, the softness of the leather.

And if he closed his eyes, he could remember the feeling of excitement, the thundering beat of his heart when he’d opened the door and sat inside. He would drive this someday, he’d thought, stretching his arms to wrap his hands around the steering wheel. Gavin had adjusted the seat and, of course, the knobs on the radio. He’d wiped a layer of dust from the dash and then looked up, tilting the rearview mirror low enough that he could see through the grimy back window.

But that’s when his heart had halted in his chest, his pulse tripping in his throat. For a few moments it was as if the birds had stopped chirping outside; the leaves had quit shaking. It was so quiet he could hear the frantic thump of his pulse in his ears; and he’d had to close his eyes tight, shake his head to clear it before he could look again. Because there in the backseat was a car seat—his car seat; he was sure of it. It was dusty and forgotten, and an old bunny sat lopsided as it waited for someone to come back and retrieve it.

Because his mom had disappeared.

Gavin hadn’t thought about that car seat and what it meant for years, and as he looked up, past Dhaval’s worried expression and out into the waiting room, Gavin realized he wouldn’t get a chance to think about what it meant now, either.

Delilah’s parents were here.

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