Gavin had never skipped school a day in his life. He’d been sick before, of course, the occasional cold or stomach bug, that time he had the flu and could think of nothing else but his mom—or any mom, for that matter—to brush the hair from his feverish forehead or just hold him.
He would open his eyes and find medicine on Table, no name on the bottle, just a label with clearly typed instructions. Juice and steaming bowls of chicken soup were there one minute, then gone once they’d been emptied or grown cold. Piano played soft and soothing lullabies as he’d fallen into a restless, sweaty slumber.
And so he would miss a day or two, always returning once the cold had run its course or he was feeling better.
But he wasn’t sick now.
The urge to wake that morning had tickled at the back of his brain, stirred in his sleep-heavy limbs. He’d shuffled into the blankets, restless and uncomfortable. Without looking, he could tell the room was still dark, and so he rolled over, ignoring his bladder and his stirring thoughts, intent on going back to sleep.
Voices in the distance drew his attention—familiar voices—the laughter and shouts of kids he knew, racing down the street near the end of the block toward school. But it wasn’t time yet; he didn’t need to look at the clock to know he had another hour, at least.
There were more shouts, followed by the sound of the garbage truck he passed every week as he left.
Gavin sat up, blankets falling to his waist and his brows drawn in confusion, as he stared at the heavy blue curtains across from him, at the sliver of yellow sun slipping in near the carpet. This time of year the giant tree on the other side of the fence outside his window was bare, all spindly branches and arching limbs. It allowed the light from the slowly brightening sky to fill his room each morning, one pastel shade at a time. It was why he never closed the curtains, why he hadn’t closed them last night.
Pushing the hair from his forehead, he reached for his phone, pulling back at the sight of only the empty plug on Table. He paused and retraced his steps from last night, positive that he’d plugged it in before bed.
Gavin swung his legs from the mattress and crossed to the window. The floor was cold beneath the soles of his feet, the air biting against so much bare skin. With each step the curtains looked brighter, the light on the other side confirming his suspicions: At some point during the night, House had closed his curtains and taken his phone.
He pushed the drapes aside and looked down onto the frostbitten street. Up here in the house, he was high enough to see over the vine-covered fence, high enough to note that the driveways were empty, most of his neighbors having long since gone to work, a few stragglers in the distance on their way to school still hung back on the sidewalks.
It had to be almost eight in the morning and Gavin was late. He’d never been late.
“Why didn’t anyone wake me?” he called out.
He pushed off the wall and went to the closet, swearing into the darkness when a light didn’t turn on. “Light!” he shouted. The bulb overhead popped to life, and he began searching through his clothes, pulling a pair of jeans from a drawer, a hoodie from another. He collected a T-shirt and boxers and shuffled into the bathroom.
The shower didn’t start. Gavin turned the knobs one way and then another, tossing his clothes to the floor before trying again.
“What the—?” he started, taking a step back before fingering the knobs again, watching them turn easily while the faucet stayed as dry as a bone. He couldn’t remember a time anything had stopped working in House before. A leg might wobble on a table, a window frame might squeak, but it was always fixed the next day, and Gavin never really put much thought into it.
He checked Sink, even more confused when water ran from the tap, clear and cold. Toilet worked perfectly, too.
What the hell was happening? He’d been so tired when he got home yesterday. After what he’d done with Delilah—finally touching her—he’d wanted to question House somehow, to know what had really happened with Delilah in the bathroom. But House had been strange from the moment he’d walked in the door. Fireplace had roared to life, blazing hot in the hearth. TV turned on and off, and Chandelier over Dining Room Table swung wildly, silently demanding to know where he’d been.
So Delilah had been right after all: House had hijacked a ride, and taking off his clothes had made him invisible.
“I was just making sure she was okay,” he said aloud. “You hurt her. Do you realize that?”
The fire dimmed; Chandelier stilled.
“Sometimes I want to be alone with her,” he said quietly. “Not to betray you, but just to be with her.”
He’d climbed the stairs slowly, feeling the walls of the hallway bow inward in silent apology. Lights flickered on overhead, anticipating his path down the hall and into his bedroom, back down the hall and into the bathroom. Piano had even played while he fell asleep, and he couldn’t remember the last time that had happened.
In the end, he’d been so exhausted he’d had to ignore, for the time being, the disloyal feeling he got when Blanket curled gently around him and Bedroom seemed to search for the perfect temperature that kept him from growing too restless.
House was trying to make amends, but as hard as it was to admit, Gavin knew that wasn’t possible. After what had happened to Delilah, he wasn’t sure he could stay much longer. He’d fallen asleep with a hollow pit of dread in his stomach, the pattern of “Once I graduate/I need to leave” pulsing with every other heartbeat.
Finally dressed—and unshowered, thanks to House—he walked down the hall and descended the stairs, stopping short when he reached the foyer. Gavin knew—he knew—he’d taken his shoes off when he’d come home last night. He always did. There’d been three pairs: the ones he’d been wearing, the ones he wore for gym, and the dark ones he had for work. Now there was nothing.
This wasn’t just another coincidence, and frustration began a steady climb up his spine, humming in his veins. He tamped it down, reminding himself to hold his temper, to breathe. He didn’t know for a fact that his shoes were gone. Maybe they were on the porch, he thought. Sometimes he’d wake to find the floors gleaming in the morning sun, a fresh coat of wax having been put down sometime during the night. On those days his shoes or backpack, or whatever else he’d happened to leave lying around, would be outside, waiting for him.
Gavin wasn’t sure why he was holding his breath as he crossed the short distance to the door, but he was. His socks slipped easily over the polished wood floor.
There was no knob.
There wasn’t even a place where a knob had been, only smooth, freshly sanded wood, freshly sealed wood. He took a step back like he’d been burned, closed his eyes and counted to ten, before opening them again. This wasn’t an accident. Last night House was apologetic. Today it was punishing.
The smell of breakfast wafted in from the kitchen and over his shoulder. His stomach churned. How was he supposed to eat? Did it expect him to go sit like a good boy and stuff his face? Ignoring the fact that he was locked in? That he was essentially grounded without reason?
Gavin steadied himself, straightened his shoulders and spun on his heel, crossing to the kitchen. He ignored the trays of bacon and pancakes, enough food to feed an entire family, and stopped at the back door, heart slamming in his throat. His fingers fumbled on smooth wood, no trace of a patched hole or shadow of where the knob had been. Next he tried the window; there was no latch. And the next and the next, until he was sprinting from one room to the other. He considered breaking the glass, but some instinct wouldn’t let him do it, the same one that kept him from running too loudly up the stairs or roughhousing inside.
He might hurt it.
Gavin slumped against the wall and slid down to the floor.
He spent the rest of the day in his room, and the next. This might have been House’s ridiculous, over-the-top way of grounding him, but he wasn’t speaking to it or even interacting unless it was absolutely necessary. He didn’t come down for dinner and instead finished off the bag of chips he found in the pocket of one of his jackets, then sketched until he fell asleep, stretched the wrong way across Bed.
The next morning was much of the same—still no way out, no phone or shoes—but he was starving. He cursed his stomach the entire way down the stairs and into the kitchen, more grateful than he wanted to admit at the sight of his favorite breakfast waiting for him on the counter. He ate in silence, brushing off House’s attempts to engage him in conversation or draw him out of his foul mood. But by the end of the day, Gavin was so tired of being inside, was so hungry to see Delilah, he said the only thing he could think—the only thing he knew House wanted to hear: “I won’t go talk to Dhaval. I won’t ask about my mom.”
A huge, metallic pop rang from the front of the house. Gavin shot up, running through the kitchen and down the hall, skidding to a stop in his socked feet at the sight in front of him. The doorknob was back.
He took a step forward, looking back over his shoulder before he took another. Eyes closed, he reached out, his fingertips brushing the smooth metal. It didn’t feel any different; it was cool beneath his touch, glossy even. He wrapped his hand around the knob and turned.. . . It opened.
• • •
“I don’t want you to ever go back there,” Delilah said in front of her locker the next day. It was, in fact, the only thing Delilah had said to him so far that morning, after practically leaping into his arms and knocking him back into the wall with the force of her small body. His hands lingered on her hips a moment longer than was appropriate considering the crowded hall all around them, his fingers brushing the smooth sliver of skin where her shirt met her skirt, teasing. She straightened, taking a step back, and took a moment to smooth her clothes and her hair before she turned and spun through the combination to her locker.
But Gavin didn’t miss the pink remaining in her cheeks as she shoved an armful of clean clothes at him, the way she chewed on her lip as she turned and walked away. He loved that he could affect her that way. Anyone else might have thought she’d been embarrassed by their moment of PDA, but Gavin knew better. Delilah didn’t have a shy bone in her body.
“Is this about me missing school?” he asked, trailing after her.
“We’ll talk about it later,” she said, stopping in front of the boys’ bathroom and nodding to the clothes in his arms. “I bought those at Goodwill. Let’s hope they fit.”
He didn’t want to wait until later. He glanced down at the dark jeans, the black T-shirt, socks, and scuffed sneakers.
Gavin changed quickly, shoving his old clothes in his locker before following a group of other students into the classroom and sliding into his seat behind Delilah. He felt a little like he was in a fishbowl, surrounded by eyes and ears that might hear his secret, that might do something or tell someone and he’d be kept away from her. He realized for a moment that perhaps this was how Delilah always felt now, like someone was watching their every move, looking for a way to keep them apart. Gavin had grown used to the feeling—growing up surrounded by so many things—but to Delilah, it had to be terrifying, especially after the other night.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and that got her attention.
She turned slightly in her seat, whispering, “Why on earth are you sorry?”
Gavin leaned in, kept his voice low. “Because this is our first fight, and it’s my fault. All the shitty stuff happening to you lately is my fault.”
Delilah frowned before her eyes darted to the window and back down to her desk. She tore a piece of lined paper from her binder and bent over it, scribbling something he couldn’t see. A minute later, she reached back and dropped a note into his waiting palm.
He blinked up to the teacher, confident he was distracted enough writing a block of text on the board, and opened it carefully.
Where’s your phone?
I don’t know. I swear I plugged it in, but when I woke up that next morning it was gone.
He passed it forward and watched her shoulders tighten.
Gavin watched as she wrapped her phone in the piece of paper and reached behind her again to hand it off. He read the note first.
House has it. I know it does. Look.
The screen hadn’t locked yet, and his eyes widened at the text in front of him: That’s not all you’re going to lose, girl. It was a text sent from his phone, after he’d fallen asleep. House did have it.
I didn’t write that, Lilah. I swear.
She shook her head.
I know that! But do you see what I see?? We can’t be together here in Morton. House may not hurt you, but clearly it doesn’t have the same rules for me. I want to be with you, but the only way to do that is to leave & go far away. I’m going back East for school, whichever one I get into. I want you to come with me.
Gavin stared at the note, his heart rising to his throat and pounding, pounding, pounding so hard and fast he felt like he was choking. It was April. They would graduate in two months, and Delilah would move with or without him.
He pressed his palms to his eye sockets, pushing until he saw stars. He had to decide whether he would stay here or find a way to go. But now the idea of staying here indefinitely seemed insane. Every second he let himself really think about it, he saw House so differently. It had once been his own magical place, his safe haven when the outside world was terrifying and ostracizing. Now he still believed it loved him, but it did it all wrong. It wasn’t human; it didn’t operate under the same rules. It was willing to hurt the girl he loved in order to keep him.
But he couldn’t just leave. He had nothing.
Lilah, of course I would come with you. But we need some sort of plan. We need money, and I need time to figure out how to deal with House. I still feel like there’s a chance I can help it learn to understand, so that I can go without feeling like I’m escaping.
Delilah twirled her pencil around her long fingers, lost in concentration. He could tell she was frustrated by the way she took several deep breaths and pressed her hands to her face. But then she started to write again. He tried to ignore the sound of her pen moving over the paper, tried to stay calm while he waited for her answer.
He looked around the room, his gaze flicking on instinct to the window again, to the tree on the other side. He wondered if it was his imagination that the branches seemed to be closer to the glass than he remembered or if he’d really become this paranoid.
The note landed on his desk, and he opened it with slightly trembling fingers.
Then you have 2 months until school ends. Take money from the jar. You said it’s always there, so start taking little chunks at a time. You’ll give it to me in the music room and I’ll hide it, so House will never know. If House doesn’t come around before then, at least we’ll have enough to get out of here.
• • •
The decision to actually leave had been easy in the end, because the prospect of being in House forever had started to feel wildly claustrophobic. A new routine began: As soon as he got to school he would change into clothes that had never been at House, and Delilah would take them back after school, to wash at her home. He took money from the jar, five dollars here, twenty dollars there, and would leave it in his desk, where Dhaval would switch it with bills from his own wallet and deposit it into his own account where House could stalk it all it wanted. Each afternoon Gavin would meet Delilah in the music room, and without talking, she would take the money, hiding it somewhere when she got home. Gavin didn’t want to know where, having gotten so distrustful of House he worried if it ever knew what they were up to, it might use him to find out.
The plan was overly complicated, and at times they both questioned their sanity, hiding any clue of their relationship until they were able to escape to the windowless music room. It became a sanctuary of sorts, where they could be alone together and talk about their plans, where he could kiss her and touch her, where she would touch him. He lived for those tiny slips of time.
And it was working. After just a week they had ninety-three dollars. He got paid the next week and added another one hundred and sixty to that. If they could be patient, by the end of the school year they’d have enough that they could leave. House seemed to have calmed down. Delilah seemed less scared. Gavin didn’t know what exactly came after graduation—he hadn’t yet applied to colleges, and it was probably too late to do it anyway—but it was enough to hope.
It was the first time Gavin had let himself hope in a long time.
• • •
It was his first Saturday off in weeks. Gavin was home, cleaning his bathroom upstairs and enjoying the warmer air that fluttered in occasionally through the window. He always left a window wedged open these days with a small block of wood he’d managed to sneak out of Shed. He was fairly certain it wouldn’t stop House if it really wanted it closed, but it made him feel better somehow. It helped him sleep.
The shower was working again and had been since he’d promised House he wouldn’t go to Dhaval’s or ask about his mom. A promise he’d kept so far. But for some reason the sink had been draining slowly. Gavin didn’t know much about plumbing, and so he turned to the same source he had when he’d wanted to fix the car: books.
He had a bucket under the trap to catch any mess. He’d managed to get the rusted slip nut off and was in the process of getting the trap disconnected.
“Gross,” he said, wiping at his nose with the back of his gloved hand; the smell was terrible. Trying not to breathe too deeply, he started pulling things from the curved pipe: a Lego, the tire from a Hot Wheels car, some sort of black gunk, and so much hair he actually considered shaving his head. What he wasn’t expecting was the plunk he heard as something dislodged and dropped into the bucket below. He was almost afraid to look.
A key. Gavin stood and closed the door, looking around the bathroom before tugging off his gloves and starting the shower. With the key tucked protectively in his palm, he started stripping down to nothing. Once inside, and with the dark vinyl curtain pulled closed, he looked at the key under the spray.
It was maybe two inches long and silver, with VICTOR SAFE AND LOCK CO. engraved into the side. It didn’t look like any house or car key he’d ever seen—there were no locks to anything in House—but maybe to a safe? Or some sort of padlock?
He didn’t have time to think about it, though. When Piano began playing downstairs, it was time for lunch.
Gavin rinsed himself off and climbed out, careful to keep the key hidden in his hand while he dried off and dressed. Butterflies raced in his stomach, and he tried to tamp down the jittery feeling he got when he felt the sharp teeth pressed to his palm, the metal as it warmed against his skin. This key was critical. The doors on House never locked, and other than the small set he had for the car, he’d never even needed a key before. More important, he’d never held this key before, so unlike with the Lego or the Hot Wheels tire, if it fell down the drain, it wasn’t because he’d dropped it.
• • •
As much as he hated to admit it, Gavin didn’t believe he was ever really alone anymore, even in his “private” bathroom. He was pretty sure House knew all about his plumbing adventures on Saturday, but whether it had seen the key—or even knew the significance of it—Gavin couldn’t begin to guess. It occurred to him, though, that House might decide to keep him locked up again Monday until he handed over the small treasure.
After he dressed for school, Gavin slipped the key into his pocket. He’d spent Sunday reading, finishing a term paper, and working a half shift at the theater. To play it safe, Delilah hadn’t come to visit him once. Everything seemed fine, so in the back of his mind Gavin began to hope that, in fact, House hadn’t noticed the key after all.
But as soon as he walked down the stairs, he knew it had.
The framed prints of his drawings that hung in the hallway had been replaced with photos of him as a baby. He followed the sounds of laughter coming from the living room and found Television playing old videos of him from when he was a toddler. In the kitchen, Curtain reached out to brush his cheek and Potted Plant ruffled his hair. Breakfast was already waiting for him, and as usual when House was up to something, there was enough food to feed an army.
Gavin’s throat grew tight; his eyes burned with sadness and loss.
Maybe someday, a few years down the road, he’d be able to come home at Christmas and be with this unlikely family again. Maybe with some distance, House would understand what it had done and how it had broken everything that had once been so easy.
It had stalked them at the park.
It had terrorized and hurt Delilah.
It had trapped him inside for two days.
And Gavin suspected, deep down, that House was still hiding the truth about what had happened to his mother.
Gavin knew without hesitation that he would follow Delilah anywhere; she was the love of his life. His heart broke as he stared at the familiar and magical spread in front of him—enormous lemon muffins and fluffy scrambled eggs, plump wild berries and House-made peach jam. He knew once he left, he most likely wouldn’t—and couldn’t—ever come back.
“Thanks for trying to cheer me up,” Gavin said, picking at some fruit. “I know I’ve been sort of off lately, but I got an e-mail from Delilah last night. Before work.” He took a bite and tried to ignore the way the room cooled ever so slightly, bowing at the edges like a breath being held. “She got accepted to a school in Massachusetts. She’s not supposed to leave until August, but she thinks she might go early. I don’t know.. . . I think it might be a good idea.”
House grew still for a moment, the leaves on the tree outside the window unfurling in his direction, like a hand cupped around an ear, waiting. “She even suggested I go with her, but does she not know me at all?” he said, hoping he sounded angry, brokenhearted. “I’m not leaving. This is my home. You’re my family.. . . I couldn’t ever go.” Meaningful pause. “I wouldn’t want to.”
He was actually a little surprised at how easy the lie was and how willing House was to accept it. Even Dining Room grew warm. The lights brightened everywhere, and the hands on Grandfather Clock began to spin wildly.
When Gavin slipped out the door fifteen minutes later, the key was still tucked inside his pocket.