The House

Chapter 22

Her

Dr. McNeill looked down at her chart, flipping up the top page with her insurance information to reveal the sheet beneath. It was covered with ink: three identical accounts of what happened to Delilah. Each was written in a different handwriting, of course, as each had been collected by a different nurse. One of the nurses—the one with LISA on her name tag—hung back, leaning against the wall.

Without having to ask, Delilah knew Nurse Lisa remained in the room so that Delilah wouldn’t be left alone with a man.

“It says here you got wrapped up in a shower curtain.” When the doctor met her eyes, she felt his concern and knew he was thinking the same thing the nurses were: Your boyfriend beats you.

She took a deep breath and then told him the same thing she’d already said three times before, the stupid, horrible story she was committed to now: “I spilled my dinner on myself. I went upstairs to shower and tripped on the tub and got tangled in the shower curtain.”

“But only your arm got tangled?” he asked as if clarifying, even peeking back down at the accounts of the incident as if to confirm. She could hear the skepticism in his voice; he had to hear it for himself.

“Well, all of me was tangled. But just my arm got hurt.”

“I’m having a hard time picturing this.”

“I fell and it was hanging in the tub. It was plastic and sort of wrapped around me.”

“And it somehow shredded so it looked like fingers?”

“No. It wasn’t shredded.. . .” She trailed off.

He waited for her to say more, but she had no more. Her story was as weak as she felt. She could feel the heavy pressure of tears building behind her eyes, stinging across the surface.

Flipping her chart closed, the doctor sighed and rolled closer to Delilah on the wheeled stool. “Delilah.”

She swallowed, meeting his eyes.

“You aren’t alone, okay? If you need help getting out of this—”

“I know what you’re thinking, but Gavin would never do this to me.”

Dr. McNeill closed his eyes, nodding slowly. When he opened them again, he quietly asked, “Is there anyone you would rather talk to than me right now?”

Without hesitation, Delilah said, “Yeah. Gavin.”

“Your parents might ask him to stay away from you. I’ll be honest, Delilah. It doesn’t look good. If you were my daughter, I’d be questioning Gavin’s role in all of this.”

As if on cue, a voice drifted down the hall from the waiting room to where she sat on a high cot. She couldn’t make out the words, but her father’s anger came across in the volume, in the short bursts of words fired at Gavin like bullets.

“This is awful for him,” Delilah said in a choked whisper, and the tears finally spilled over as she stared at the curtain that was pulled around their small space, hiding the hallway from her view. “This is torture for him, and there’s nothing he can do. It’s killing him not being back here with me right now.”

“But surely you understand why he’s not.”

Laughing without humor, Delilah looked him square in the eye. “I’ll go home with my parents, and my dad will go watch the news and my mom will go read a book. The only person who really cares if my arm is okay is out there in the waiting room being yelled at for something he didn’t do.”

Dr. McNeill glanced back over his shoulder at Nurse Lisa. She shrugged, and he turned back to Delilah. “I want to see you back in here next week so I can make sure it’s healing right.”

• • •

When Delilah emerged from the procedure room, her arm wrapped in gauze and her blood humming with painkillers, she needed to take only one look at her father’s face to know she shouldn’t waste her breath asking what he’d said to Gavin. She realized she didn’t have her phone; Gavin did. She couldn’t even text him to find out where he’d gone or if he’d seen Dhaval.

The waiting room was emptier than she’d expected given the voices and commotion drifting to the back treatment room. When Dr. McNeill beckoned them, her parents followed him into an office adjacent to the waiting room enclosed with glass, through which Delilah could see him explaining the injury. He pointed to his arm, then patted it and spoke emphatically, curling his fingers in a scratching motion. Delilah watched him with wide, scrutinizing eyes, trying to figure out if he was representing her version of events. She doubted it. One look at Gavin in his dark, skinny pants, scuffed shoes, and wild, dark hair, and grown-ups would think he was two steps past odd and just shy of suspicious. Delilah was the only person around who knew for sure that the only rough touch Gavin would ever give her was a biting kiss she begged for.

And then the doctor ticked a list off with his fingers in the same way he had with her before releasing her to walk back to the waiting room. She knew what he was saying:

Don’t expose the wound to water for the next twenty-four hours.

Remove the gauze after two days to let the wound breathe, and apply the antibiotic ointment every six hours.

No swimming, no baths, and don’t let it stay wet or be submerged in water.

If it looks like it’s getting infected, come back immediately.

• • •

The drive home in the backseat was suffocating. There wasn’t enough room in the car for their three bodies, Delilah’s leaden panic, her father’s fury, and her mother’s anxious nattering.

“Gosh, it’s just been forever since we used that clinic. That Dr. McNeill is something—isn’t he, Frankie?” she asked her husband. She went on without waiting for a reply. “He’s been here since, what? The eighties? And before that it was his uncle running that office. Now, what was his name? Edwin something or other. . .”

“Miller,” Delilah’s father added flatly.

“Right! Edwin Miller. Oh, and he was a rake, wasn’t he?” her mother said, voice practically dripping with scandal.

“You’re thinking of his brother, Douglas.”

“Messed around with at least five girls from our class, though. For sure Rosemary. Also Jennifer and Deborah.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Whatever happened to him? I heard he got some young girl in trouble—”

“Never heard that.”

“—moved across the river to Missouri, but that was from Jennifer, and you know she never knows what’s really going on.. . .”

And even with the claustrophobic feeling in the car, Delilah still wanted Gavin to be in there with her. She didn’t even have his borrowed clothes anymore. The nurses had told her parents to bring in a fresh set of her own. His things were probably lying in the Dumpster behind the Urgent Care. And now, away from there, away from the singular priority that she protect Gavin at all costs, the reality of what happened started to descend. The tremor started in her right hand and spread up to her shoulder, the panic burrowing into her chest and settling into a cold block of ice.

It was madness, wasn’t it? That she’d been attacked by his house and he’d been blamed for it, and now she was bandaged and drugged and he was gone. Was he okay? Had he been arrested? Or was he home, back there, trying to reconcile what his house had done to Delilah with everything his house had done for him? This worry bounced around in her head, and even though it was nearly freezing outside, Delilah rolled down her window, simply needing air.

“Delilah Blue,” her mother cried, interrupting herself. “Roll up that window this instant or you’ll catch pneumonia!”

She rolled up her window but squeezed her eyes closed tight, trying to breathe, trying to think, trying to make sense out of any of this.

• • •

There was no family processing when they got home, no together time in the living room, asking what happened or how she was. Both of her parents moved to resume their nightly routine, but she stopped them with a calm, forceful, “Gavin didn’t do this.”

Silence rang back to her.

“I know you think that,” she pressed onward. “I know Dr. McNeill thinks that too. I know you said something to Gavin in the waiting room. I heard you yelling at him. But you’ve seen him now. His hands are huge. If he’d grabbed my arm, he would have done much worse than this burn.”

“They said your arm was. . . torn,” her father hissed, repulsed by her injury. “Pieces of your skin, just gone.”

And with those words, beneath her bandage, beneath the painkiller, her arm ached. “That doesn’t mean he did it.”

“Well, if you would tell someone the truth about what happened—”

“You wouldn’t believe me, Dad.”

Her father gave her a lingering, scandalized look before retiring to his post in the family room to watch the news.

“Try not to sleep on your left side, dear,” her mother chirped as she headed upstairs to read. “And make sure you wash your hands and face before bed. God knows what you’ve been touching all day.”

• • •

The Blue house grew quiet just after eleven. It was quiet in that way Delilah now recognized as normal, as a house sitting truly still. There were the noises of pipes tapping and vents blowing warm air, but no phantom heartbeats, no shifting, settling, or spying. She comforted herself with the explanation that maybe the spirits of the house—the life, the poltergeist, whatever was inside it—could move from object to object, from place to place underground or in wires, but the life itself wasn’t contagious. It couldn’t really spread.

But how does it work? Delilah thought idly. And then, more hysterically, as the pain medication was slowly wearing off and her arm throbbed, on fire with every heartbeat:

How does it hear us?

How does it follow us?

What is it, inside, that brings this crazy, menacing space to life?

She hadn’t yet given the “how” much thought, and in the moment here, so many weeks after she should have considered it, it seemed so stupidly naive to just be thrilled by the miracle of its existence. But with the first inkling—in the private darkness of her thoughts—that she might someday need to destroy the house, she realized she would need to figure out how.

She closed her eyes, considering what she knew:

The house, and everything inside it, was alive.

The house followed them to the park, through some network of grass and roots and trees.

The house could possess objects that Gavin would take with him—the tricycle, little things he could put in his pockets. The sweater she wore to the house had been possessed. It wasn’t a dream.

Something had happened to her father when he’d veered onto the property. Maybe the house possessed Dave the grocer, too. Had it tried to get into her mind that first day? What were those shadow fingertips she’d felt pressing in at her temples? Had they been trying to possess her? Was it angrier that Gavin wanted to be with her, or that it couldn’t control her?

Could the house control anything that came onto its property? How far out of town could it spread?

Her heartbeat thundered a roaring storm in her chest. She had to talk to Gavin.

Delilah was suddenly certain that he wasn’t home, that he wouldn’t have gone back without first making sure she was okay. So when the grandfather clock in the living room struck midnight, Delilah pulled on a skirt and a plain top, opened her bedroom window and climbed out, gripping the rain gutter with her uninjured hand. She slid one leg over the ledge and then took a deep breath before pushing herself from the window, holding her body close to the pipe. Almost immediately, she lost her grip, sliding violently to the ground and landing so hard the wind was propelled from her lungs in a heavy cough. That was truly the last thing she needed tonight: to return to Urgent Care for a broken arm she’d obtained while trying to sneak out to see the boy her parents assumed was beating her.

Her head reverberated with the impact of the fall; her limbs felt heavy and slow under the diminishing effects of the Percocet. On the lawn she paused, looking around as the cold seeped into the sleeves of her shirt and covered her skin, like the air itself was trying to tell her this was a bad idea.

Once again, the trees leaned in close, and the sky seemed to vanish into black. But this time Delilah looked up at the branches high above and hissed, “Touch me again and you’ll lose him forever. Maybe you’ve lost him already.”

• • •

Delilah wasn’t sure how Gavin had learned to break in, but he was exactly where she’d expected he would be, closed in the dark practice room in the trailers behind the school, hunched over a piano. He looked up when she opened the door, eyes wide and full of wild relief. “I’m sorry I left,” he blurted. “I wanted to stay, but—”

“I know,” she said, cutting him off. “My dad was terrible to you, wasn’t he?”

Gavin ran a long, wide-knuckled hand down his face. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. Got some drugs and bandages and I’m all set.”

He nodded, letting his eyes move over every one of her features as if convincing himself that the only injury she’d sustained was on her arm.

“Hey, listen,” Delilah said, taking a step closer. “I need you to do something for me.”

He looked up to her, eyes pleading. “Anything.”

Delilah held up the small pile of clothes she’d taken from his locker. “I need you to put these on,” she said, placing them on top of the piano.

Gavin blinked at her. “You want me to put my gym clothes on?”

“You trust me, right?”

Without a word, Gavin stood and began pulling off his T-shirt. Delilah motioned for him to hold on and searched inside the teacher’s cupboard, coming back with an open garbage sack.

“In here, okay?”

Gavin dropped his shirt inside the bag and reached for his belt, his eyes flickering up to hers, brows lifted as if to say you going to watch? When she met his stare with a determined one of her own, he smiled and continued undressing.

He was down to his underwear, thumbs tucked into the elastic when he looked at her again.

“All of it,” she said.

Gavin had wanted to get naked with her, but again, this wasn’t exactly how or when he’d thought it would happen.

But Delilah wasn’t quite as brave as she looked, because when he slipped his boxers down his legs and stood, dropping them in the bag before reaching for his clean clothes, her eyes were averted and her cheeks were definitely pinker than when she’d come in. He had never been undressed like this in front of someone else—not even close—even though he’d thought about it quite a lot. Gavin liked being naked in front of Delilah. He liked how pretty she was when she blushed and how even though she seemed to be doing everything she could to not look, he thought he saw her peek, maybe just once.

“Delilah Blue,” he said, smug as he watched her walk away. “Are you blushing?”

“Hush,” she called over her shoulder, opening the door just enough to throw the tied bag outside, and quickly shut it again.

The air in the music room was cool on his skin, and Gavin quickly pulled his shorts up his legs. “Are you going to tell me what that was about?” he said.

Delilah crossed the room to stand in front of him. “You’ll think I’m crazy.”

“Is that even possible anymore?” he asked, shrugging into his clean shirt.

“You told me before that whatever’s making the house. . . what it is, can attach itself to something before it’s taken off the property. Like the way it used to with the tricycle or things it would leave for you to take if you had a big exam or needed some comfort?”

“Right,” he murmured.

“Maybe the house has always been doing that with you, or maybe it hasn’t. But since things started with us. . . I get the sense that it’s always nearby, hijacking onto you whenever you leave.”

Gavin nodded as if he had that sense, too.

“The other night at Dhaval’s?” she began. “I fell asleep and had a dream that I was holding a hand. Like I was holding someone’s dead, rotting hand. When I woke up, screaming, it was just my sweater, the one I’d been wearing when I walked you home. But I knew I hadn’t been dreaming. The sweater really did. . . do something.”

“Jesus,” Gavin said, knees feeling weak enough that he had to sit back down. “I can’t believe it would. . . ,” he started, and then glanced down to the new clothes he’d put on. “But these are from my house. I washed them there.” He plucked at the collar of his shirt.

“I think we have to hope it has a purpose when it does it. What would be the point in attaching itself to your gym clothes? It wouldn’t worry about that at the time.”

“But why? Why would it follow me?”

“Why does any parent follow their kid? To watch them. To keep them safe. It’s just. . . It’s gone too far.”

“But you think we’re okay here?” he asked.

Delilah looked around the room. “I think so. I think the house can possess people too—maybe.. . . My dad was acting so weird that night after he pulled into your driveway. And Dave the grocer? You said he comes every week but then didn’t recognize you later?”

“Anyone who comes to the house,” Gavin whispered. “They all get this glazed look.”

“But it can’t do that with me and you. Maybe because we know.”

Gavin seemed to take several quiet minutes to absorb what she was saying.

“I’m so sorry about all this,” he said, carefully pulling her down to sit beside him. “For bringing you into this mess. For this.” He brushed a thumb over the edge of her bandage.

Delilah was tempted to wiggle her arms playfully to show him that she really was fine, but he didn’t look very lighthearted at the moment. She dropped the half smile and lowered her voice. “Honestly, I’m okay. I’m pretty hard to scare off.”

He groaned and rested his head dissonantly against the keys. “I know how it looks. I can’t even fathom hurting you.”

“Of course you can’t. None of this is your fault.”

“Your dad thinks I did that to you. God, Delilah, I could never. I love you.”

Everything else was forgotten—the pulsing pain in her arm, the fear of what would happen to their relationship, the terrifying unknown of the house—as her face exploded in a grin. “I love you, too.”

He lifted his head, realizing what they’d both just said. Allowing a small smile, he said, “I do, you know. I have for, like, forever. And I usually don’t care what anyone thinks, but it’s different with you. I don’t want anyone to think I could be violent with you. Especially your parents.”

“Well, let me assure you that their opinion does not carry the same weight with me. But I’m pretty sure I convinced them you didn’t do it. Look at your giant hands, Gavin. You’d have left a handprint twice this size on my skin.”

He stared down at his fingers propped on the keys and visibly relaxed. “Good argument, if not a little disturbing.”

“Hardly,” she said, grinning. “I spend hours thinking about your big hands.”

He turned so he was straddling the bench and spread his fingers across his bent knees.

“Yeah? Tell me.”

Delilah was so distracted by the sight of his long limbs, his enormous hands, the ends of his dark hair brushing the tips of his impossibly thick black lashes, that she forgot what she’d even said. “Tell you what?”

Swallowing, Gavin reminded her, “What you think about my hands.”

“Right now?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re looking for distraction.”

He smiled a little sadly. “Maybe.”

“Shouldn’t we talk about this?” she asked, taking a step closer to him. “I mean, not my arm. I don’t want to talk about that. But about what happened in that room. . .”

He watched her for several long, silent seconds, his expression sliding from uncomfortable, to guilty, to defeated. “If it’s all right with you. . . can we talk about that later?”

She sucked her bottom lip into her mouth as she studied his slumped posture and his fingers gripping and releasing his thighs. So upset, wound so tight. They never did get that walk after dinner, and Delilah’s hope they could have some time—talking, holding hands, letting the space grow warm and magnetic between them until he couldn’t take it anymore and would press her against a wall or a tree or. . . well.

They were alone now; the school had been dark and full of shadows and echoes when she’d come in, and probably had been for hours. With her heart pounding ferociously beneath her breastbone, Delilah stood and reached under her skirt, wiggling her underwear down her legs. She stepped out of them, careful not to fall over.

Gavin swallowed. “Um. So.” He reached back and scratched his neck. “So, Delilah? What are you doing?”

“Taking off my underwear.”

“I can see that.” He studied the pink cotton on the floor and blinked rapidly. The bravery he’d felt at his own nakedness just minutes before seemed to have abandoned him. “Lilah, I have no idea what to do with you. . .” Without looking up, he waved vaguely at her skirt, still in place, still hiding her most secret parts, adding, “Down there.”

Delilah felt as though her blood had turned into a million fluttering wings in her veins. “So, I’ll tell you.”

She walked over to him, wishing he would just look up at her for a second, to let her know that he was okay with it, with this. And then she knew he was when he reached forward, put his hands on her hips over her skirt to draw her closer. He leaned forward and kissed her ribs, lips pressed just beneath her breast.

Pulling back, Gavin looked up at her and whispered, “I don’t want to have sex for the first time in a practice room at school.”

She worried for a moment that her chest might break open with her heart pounding so hard. “Okay.”

“In case that’s what you were thinking we were going to do.”

“I’m pretty sure I’m not thinking at all right now.”

“I guess that’s what I mean.” He smiled, and this time it crinkled the corners of his eyes. “You were in Urgent Care four hours ago, and now you’re not wearing underwear.”

“There’s a lot of room between this and sex. Just touch me, Gavin.”

He hesitated, but didn’t look away.

“I’m scared,” she admitted then, wanting to be honest with him but hoping he wouldn’t stop.

His expression darkened immediately. “Of this, right now? Or of. . . House?”

She shook her head. “I know the house is all you’ve known. It’s your family. I know it tears you up inside to see how hard it is for House right now, and how hard it is for me, too. The thing is, I’m yours. I don’t belong to anyone but you. I’m scared that you’ll never be mine the same way.”

“Lilah, don’t say that.” He closed his eyes, pressed his face to her stomach.

His hands moved to cup the backs of her knees, and he arched his neck to kiss her. Delilah felt the familiar tumble of butterflies, the warm melting of her limbs. Nothing happened fast, but when she would look back on it later, in her innocent purple room, she would be unable to remember how it went from such a careful kiss to his hands moving up her bare thighs, slipping around to her hips and putting so much pressure there with the tips of his thumbs that she hoped he would leave small indentations she could find later with her own hands.

When he finally grew brave, and impatient, and kissed her with more teeth and growl than lips, he moved one hand between her legs. He’d said he didn’t know what he was doing, but it didn’t matter. Soon she had one hand wrapped around his wrist, showing him, and the other dug deep into his hair, ensuring his mouth never moved far from hers. The room reverberated with the quiet afterward, and he stared up at her for a long minute, unspeaking.

Delilah didn’t think it was possible that anyone, ever before, had felt what she felt when Gavin carefully kissed her top and then her bottom lip and told her, “I am yours already. Completely.”

“Are you sure?” she asked.

He nodded, glancing down at her bandaged arm, and already his eyes clouded over again.

He walked her home, lifted her so he could take his time and made her drunk with kisses, before watching her walk toward the dark quiet of her house.

Delilah had a lot to think about—Gavin’s hands and smile, his confession that he loved her, and the relief in his eyes when she was falling to pieces—and it would have to sustain her for some time, because after he disappeared down the sidewalk, he didn’t reappear for two days.