The House

Chapter 23

Her

Strange, or maybe not, that she could focus on her work when he was in class and was a useless mess when he wasn’t. He hadn’t texted to say he wasn’t feeling well, hadn’t called or e-mailed to give her the heads-up that he wouldn’t be at school the next day.

Delilah ate lunch with an anxiously chatty Dhaval beneath the tree. He rambled on and on about math class, about what Kirk Teller said to him at lunch. He talked about his new shoes and his father’s new car. He had a million words, and they all tumbled frantically out in a nonstop torrent.

Delilah felt acutely, painfully hyperaware. When Gavin was at her side, she felt safe, because even if House hated her, it cherished him. Until last night she didn’t think it would ever actually hurt her, and if it did, it certainly wouldn’t do it when he was nearby.

But now Delilah knew there was no safety anywhere. He wasn’t here, and even if he had been, apparently it wouldn’t matter. Was he safe?

Life wasn’t supposed to be like this; it wasn’t supposed to be chronically terrifying. She wasn’t supposed to wonder if the tree was listening to their conversation or if the grass would poison her skin if it could. She wasn’t supposed to wonder what danger awaited her on the walk home, whether the sidewalk would crack suddenly, and just so, snapping her ankle. Or whether she should start trying to stay awake at night.

“Dee, are you listening to anything I’m saying?” Dhaval leaned forward, breaking into her trance.

“Sorry, no.”

He exhaled slowly, looking out at the kids playing basketball in the distance. After several long beats of silence, he asked, “Are you going to tell me what’s going on?”

She remained mute.

“You have to know how it looks,” he said, turning and gesturing to her arm. “It looks like he hurt you, or you look insane.”

Finally, she turned to him, glancing up at the tree branches—they didn’t seem to be moving closer—before whispering, “I already tried to tell you how messed up it is, and you didn’t believe me.”

“So tell me everything again.” After she gave him a skeptical look, he added, “I want to hear more. I think. . . I think I believe you now.”

“Not here.”

Delilah stood, brushing the dried grass and leaves from her skirt before pulling Dhaval toward the trailers and into the empty practice room. She sat him down on the very same piano bench where Gavin had been sitting last night. The very same bench where he’d touched her with such an aching, open tenderness. She could still feel the pressure of his fingers.

“Why are we in here?” Dhaval asked, looking around.

Blinking back into the present, Delilah said, “It just feels safe in here.”

“That is—” He stopped himself just short of saying “crazy” and instead ended awkwardly with, “Really freaky, Dee.”

Taking a deep breath and ignoring the bell signaling the end of lunch, Delilah told him about the day she met the house, about what it looked like, how it felt. She described how it loves Gavin, how it seems impossible that these hard, inanimate objects could be so, well, so animated, but it’s true.

“I’d never seen anything more amazing,” she admitted.

But then she recounted the afternoon she’d spent kissing Gavin in the park, the branches creeping beneath his shirt, trapping her wrists. She told him about the house reacting to her questions about the future, about how it felt like being thrown into a blender when it trembled and lurched beneath her feet.

Dhaval looked less skeptical this time and far more ashen.

“After that happened, Gavin wanted to make me dinner,” she said, sitting down next to him. “I think he wanted me and the house to make up, or something. I could feel how angry it was at me. Some things—like the fireplace or the things in the living room—seemed to want to make nice, and so I thought maybe I just had to hang in there a little.”

“Like, win it over,” Dhaval added.

“Exactly.” She told him about the plan to go for a walk, about washing her hands, and seeing her mother’s figurine. She told him about turning, about her focus snagging on the small, seemingly innocent bubble of paint.

She told him, with growing hysteria, about everything that happened afterward: the roaches, the way the house taunted and played with her as she tried to escape. “I got in the shower, trying to wash them off. I threw my clothes across the room, and the roaches were coming for me and the shower curtain slid up my legs and wrapped around me and—” She hiccupped, squeezing her eyes closed. “It tore at my arm. When I screamed, Gavin burst into the room finally, but when I looked down. . .” She opened her eyes to look at Dhaval, and she could see in his expression that he already knew what she was going to say. “When I looked down, there was nothing there. No bugs, no crazy possessed shower curtain, no statue. Just the skin torn off my arm so it looked like I did it. Or Gavin.”

“Dee, this is. . .” He swiped a shaking hand down his face. “I don’t even know what this is.”

“I know.”

“And his mom?” Dhaval asked.

Delilah stared at him for several thundering heartbeats, finally answering truthfully though vaguely, “I don’t know.” Was there really a mother? If so, where in the hell was she? Scooting a little closer, she asked, “Dhaval, do you know his mom?”

He shook his head. “I told Gavin my mom does, sort of peripherally.”

“He asked you?”

“Yeah. Mom answered some questions about blessing their house, a way long time ago—like when Gavin was tiny—and I only know that because she mentioned it to me the other night after you came over.”

Delilah felt her brows pull close and tight. “What?”

He seemed oblivious to what had tripped her up. “She hasn’t seen Gavin’s mom in years. I get the sense that Mrs. Timothy is. . . a little eccentric. Mom wants to give her privacy, so she didn’t ask you about her.”

“Dhaval? Your mom didn’t even ask why I came over so late. She didn’t let me say a word. Do you remember? She told me to breathe, told me everything was okay.”

“Yeah?” he said, confused. “So?”

“So,” she said slowly, hoping he would understand, “did your mom know that I’m dating Gavin, or did you tell her that later?”

He paused, seeming to consider this for a beat before shaking his head. “Neither, actually.”

“Then why did she bring up Gavin with you at all?”

“She said Hilary’s son always has that same sizzled look you had.” He looked at her with amused, incredulous eyes.

“Dhaval?”

“Mmm?”

“I’ve never met Hilary,” Delilah said. “I’ve been inside his house four times—I even spent an hour in there alone one day—but I’ve never even heard her.”

• • •

Unease tripped through Delilah’s veins and opened up a space inside her chest that felt like it would keep growing and growing until she cracked wide open. I must look like a crazy person, she thought, as she practically ran home—avoiding cracks in the sidewalks, working to stay out of reach of branches, hoses, lampposts. Her temples ached and the entire sensation made her uneasy, as if it wasn’t from thinking too much but from the house, somewhere, trying to press into her mind. She hopped up her front steps, exhaling a tight breath when she opened the front door and her house felt as flat and lifeless as it always had.

“Mom?” she called out.

“In the kitchen!”

Delilah dropped her backpack near the stairs and walked toward the back of the house, looking at things more closely than she ever had before. Nothing seemed to be obviously awry. The shelves were cluttered with hundreds of tiny porcelain figurines—including the fawn.

She closed her eyes, knowing now that it was all in her head. She never wanted to go back there. She would stay the hell away from the house, and the house would stay the hell away from her until she finished school and could get the hell out of Morton.

With Gavin in tow.

She pulled a chair away from the kitchen table and sat down.

“Long day?” her mother asked without looking up from the sink.

“Yeah.”

“Did you keep your arm dry?”

Not How is your arm, or, Are you in much pain, but, Did you keep your arm dry? Delilah paused, looking down at the gauze wrap. “Yes.”

“Good.” Turning, her mother deposited a handful of washed spinach on top of a cutting board on the island. She reached into a drawer and pulled out a knife.

Delilah had seen it before, but it felt out of place here. The handle was ivory, the blade long and so clean it gleamed like a mirror. Dread chilled her hands, and the cold spread up her arms and into her throat.

It was from the shed.

“Mom, is that one of your knives?”

“It must be,” Belinda said, lifting it to turn and inspect it for a beat before bunching some spinach in her hand to begin chopping.

Without thinking, Delilah reached for the knife, yanking it from her mother’s grasp. It flashed hot in her palm, the pearly handle coming to life in a repulsive slither. With a scream, she hurled it at the wall, where it hit and stuck with a horrible, squelching thud. It didn’t sound like a knife going into paint, plaster, or wood. It sounded like a knife hitting a chest and sinking through bone into something wet and vital. She stared, her heart thundering, expecting to see blood—or roaches—spill from the wall.

But instead the knife trembled from the force of the impact and then grew still.

The room was swallowed in shocked silence.

“Delilah Blue,” her mother whispered, voice shaking. “What on earth is wrong with you?”

“That knife isn’t yours, Mom. It’s not yours. It’s—” Her voice withered away into a soft gasp. The knife protruded eerily, the dim kitchen light slashing shadows along the blue paint. But instead of gleaming ivory, there was only wood, the wooden handle of an ordinary chef’s knife.

Belinda threw up her hands, voice hysterical now. “Well, who cares whose knife it is? It works just as well as any other! You don’t throw it at the bleeping wall!”

“But how. . . ?” Delilah said, stepping back, unable to look away from the object embedded in the wall. “I don’t know what’s happening, but. . . just don’t touch it.” Finally, she looked at her mother’s face, her voice flat and hollow: “Don’t even look at it.”

Upstairs, fumbling for her phone, Delilah could hear her mother’s hysterical voice on the house phone with her father. It drifted from the kitchen and up the banister as clear as a bell, sliding beneath Delilah’s closed door.

“That’s right! She threw it! At the wall! Frankie, I’m not sure this is the place for her. I’m not sure we can handle—well, no. First the injury and now throwing knives?” A pause. “I know.” Another pause. “Yes, I’m fine.” And finally a longer, heavier pause and her mother’s relieved, choking exhale. “Okay. Yes, that’s good, darling.”

She closed her eyes and pressed her fingers against her temples, not even a little curious about what her mother had just agreed to do. Her head hurt again, like something was trying to get inside.

Stop, stop, stop, she thought, trying to push whatever it was out. She crawled from her bed, took all of the clothing in her laundry basket—not even bothering to sort through and find what she might have worn to Gavin’s—opened the window, and hurled it out onto the back lawn, slamming the window shut again.

Her mom was still talking, her voice carrying up the stairs and down the hall.

“Send me away again,” Delilah whispered. “Just send me anywhere.”

And for a beat she relished the thought.

Until she remembered Gavin. Her birthday was rapidly approaching, and though that meant she’d legally be able to do whatever the hell she wanted soon enough, she wasn’t sure he would follow.

• • •

She could feel the madness teasing at the edges of her thoughts. It brought back the strange memory of being a little girl at a party her father’s business had thrown at the country club seven miles outside of town. Delilah had fingered the fancy table linen and then slowly lifted it—consumed by an overwhelming curiosity to just get a peek at the table beneath. The white Formica top was covered in an ugly web of scratches and stains.

She closed her eyes, imagining a tablecloth drifting over her thoughts, trying to keep all of her hysteria covered. If I do one thing at a time, she thought, it will be okay.

I’ll text him.

I’ll do my homework.

I’ll sleep, and go to school, and forget that the house ever existed. I’m not crazy.

I’ll talk to Gavin only about nice things, about pleasant things, and until we figure out how to get away, it will be enough.

The house will forget about me.

With shaking fingers, she sent Gavin a message: Missed you at school today. Hope all is well. I feel like I’m losing my mind.

Twenty minutes into her homework and with barely anything completed, Delilah jumped when her phone buzzed on her desk.

That’s not all you’re going to lose, girl.