The House

Chapter 25

Her

Gavin arrived late. He quickly changed into the clothes Delilah had left in a bag in his locker, and his long, loping strides carried him through the door and down the aisle to his seat. Silence fell over the room as Mr. Harrington stopped speaking while he got settled.

“Thanks for joining us, Mr. Timothy.”

Gavin brushed his hair out of his eyes. “Sorry I’m late.”

“By all means, let us run on your schedule.”

With a tiny apologetic smile, Gavin bent to pull his tattered copy of Ivanhoe out of his backpack. He glanced up at Delilah, who unlike the rest of the class, hadn’t yet turned her attention back to the front of the room, and the look in his eyes grew heated. “Hey, you.”

They hadn’t seen each other all weekend, and Delilah wanted to draw up a petition to make that amount of time apart illegal. Had Gavin changed? Had he been hurt? She worried about him being in the house alone and tried to catalogue even the smallest changes, but she couldn’t seem to make it beyond the way he was looking at her.

“Hi.” She shivered, turning back in her seat and sitting ramrod straight.

She knew they were trying not to anger the house further by spending time together, and she didn’t think she’d ever take for granted again having Gavin back in school. But sitting in front of him was a torture. Especially since once Mr. Harrington started lecturing again, Gavin was leaning so far forward in his seat Delilah could practically feel his breath on the back of her neck.

“I need to talk to you.”

“Lunch?”

“No,” he whispered. “Before then.” The words came out as punctuated spots of warm air on her skin.

She waited until Mr. Harrington turned to the board before angling slightly toward him to reply. “Okay. You okay?”

“Music room.”

• • •

They skipped third period entirely.

Safely in the portable, he said, “I found a key.”

“Do you have it with you?”

“Yeah.”

The significance of this hit her slowly, in layers. First she remembered there were no locks in the house. And second, Gavin had left the house holding it.

“Do you think it knew you had it?” she asked, worrying her lip. “Do you think the house hijacked this?”

He shook his head. “If it knew I had this, it wouldn’t have let me out at all.” He handed it over to Delilah. It was only an inch or two long and very thin, with large, flat loops across the head and a row of small, sharp teeth up one side of the stem. While she turned it over in her palm, Gavin used her phone’s Web browser to try to figure out what it might be for.

“It’s not to a locket,” he said. “It’s too big.” He scrolled farther down the page, mumbling, “Not a car, not a house, not a mailbox. . .” But then he sucked in a sharp breath and his head jerked back fractionally. “Oh.”

“Oh?”

“A safe-deposit-box key.”

Delilah took her phone from him and looked at the images he’d found. A few looked nearly identical to the key in her hand.

“Do you think it’s from a local bank?” she asked, glancing up at him.

He lifted a broad shoulder in a shrug.

“Do we know if it’s okay to do this in here?” She held up her phone. “Searching and calling? It can’t hear us in here, but we’re using the Internet. What if House—?”

He winced, but when he looked at her, his jaw was tight with determination. “Then it’s too late now. Whatever you’re thinking of doing, just do it.”

According to the woman who answered the call, safe-deposit-box keys from Kansas National were flat-headed and smooth-toothed. The second bank Delilah called didn’t even have safe-deposit boxes available to customers. But not only did the third bank she called, a Wells Fargo two miles down the highway, have keys that sounded identical to the one in her hand, they also told her—when pressed—they indeed had a box under the last name Timothy.

“Do you happen to have the first name?”

“I. . .” The reed-thin voice on the other end trailed off in an exhale.

“Please,” Delilah insisted, before impulsively pushing the speaker button. “Gavin, tell him why we need to know the name.”

Gavin cleared his throat, eyes locked on Delilah’s. “Please can you tell me the first name on the account? We think it might be my mother’s. I haven’t seen her since I was little. I found this key and need to know if it was hers.”

“Why don’t you tell me her name, and I’ll tell you if you’re right.”

Gavin closed his eyes, swallowing thickly. “Hilary? I think.”

“You think? You aren’t sure of your mother’s first name?”

“Can you just tell me if it belongs to a Hilary Timothy?” Gavin growled, and Delilah looked up into the storm of his eyes. “I have the key. I have school identification with the same last name.”

“Can you verify the address?” the man asked.

Gavin rattled off his address, and after a long pause, the man said, “Yes. It’s registered to a Hilary Timothy. She opened the account in November of 1999 but has not accessed it since February of 2000.”

“Thank you,” Delilah said, robotically hitting the end call button. She looked up at his face. Gray-blue bruises formed half circles beneath his eyes. His lips seemed even redder than they usually did, against the backdrop of his ashen skin. “That was after you were born.”

“I know.”

“Gavin, we have to see what is in there. Everything I’ve heard about your mom tells me she wasn’t a safe-deposit-box kind of gal, more of a ‘keep everything in my magical trunk’ kind of gal.”

“I know,” he said again.

“There are answers in there.”

He closed his eyes, walked over to the piano bench, and sat down. “I know, Lilah.”

Following him, she sat close enough that he could reach her but far enough to not be touching him. If she touched him, she would want to kiss him, and if she kissed him, she would want more. It was daylight outside, though none of it penetrated into the dark, soundproof room, and anyone could walk in here at any time.

“I had a weird thought the other day,” Gavin said, running a long hand down his face. “What if we get out of here? What if we just run?”

“That’s a weird thought? I thought that was the only thought.”

“No,” he said. “I’m not finished. What if we run and move somewhere new? What if we work our asses off to make ends meet? What if we make it through school working three jobs on no sleep? What if we do all that together, and things don’t work out between us?”

Delilah pulled back a little. “So the risk of a failed relationship makes you think it might be better to just stay in the house forever?”

Gavin chewed a fingernail. “No,” he said around it. “That isn’t at all what I’m saying. I know I’ll want to be with you forever.”

She narrowed her eyes and studied his face, trying to figure out what he was saying. Was he saying it was scary that diving into this relationship had to also mean leaving? The house was possessive to the point of violence—possessed, too, with something dark and awful—but at least it would never break up with him. It would never leave.

“You could just as well fall out of love with me,” she reasoned.

A tiny smile tilted his mouth. “I can’t imagine falling out of love with you.”

“I can’t, either,” she said quietly. “But maybe I don’t get it. What are you getting at?”

Reaching forward, he took both of her hands, engulfing them in both of his. “Lilah, I’m saying that this is the nuclear option. That once we look in that safe-deposit box, there’s a good chance we’ll have to leave that day. House followed us to the park. You felt like it followed you to Dhaval’s. We think we’re being smart—changing my clothes every day, making sure we swap out the cash with Dhaval, trying to do everything we can so we aren’t overheard—but we don’t really know how any of this works. I know we have a plan, but I guess I wanted you to know that you don’t have to do it with me. House might do something really terrible if we try to leave, and we may not have any idea what that looks like until it happens.”

“Gavin—”

“I can leave on my own,” he said, urgently trying to finish his thought. “You don’t have to be in danger because of me anymore.”

Her heart tripped into understanding. “I don’t want you to do this without me.”

“It could get messy,” he said, and in his eyes she could see he was giving her one last out. “Doing this isn’t the same as just walking down the street and not looking back. We don’t know how far it can follow us.”

“Do you think the house would hurt us where others can see?”

“I don’t know,” Gavin hedged. “But what if it tries? What if it’s willing to play along until I actually try to leave, and then it fights us? Don’t you get the feeling that at some point we’ll have to break inside and. . . kill it?”

She couldn’t believe he was the one to say it. She couldn’t believe the words had actually come out of that full, kissable mouth. But her relief that they had was so immense, it seemed to expand inside her chest. He was well and truly done with it.

“If it comes down to that, I’ll protect you.”

One half of Gavin’s mouth tilted in a grin. “Then as soon as we have enough money, as soon as we have our diplomas, we’re heading to the bank and opening that box, and then we’re leaving town. For now we’re sitting tight. We’re saving every penny, and we’re pretending like you’re leaving for Massachusetts and acting like everything is fine.”

• • •

“Are you going to walk me home?” She stretched on her very tiptoes and kissed his chin. Outside, a drop of rain caught in the branch overhead, fell and landed on her scalp, and the wind whipped her hair all around their faces. “I mean, I’m leaving for the East Coast soon. You have only so many days left with me.”

“I. . . ,” he started, then shook his head, unable to say the words out loud, out in the open like this. He reached up and smoothed her hair behind her ear. “I can’t.”

“Whisper it,” she said. “So soft, so close only I can hear.”

Bending low, he pressed his lips right up against her ear. His words sounded like static, like air and the vibration of his voice deep in his throat: “I’m meeting with Hinkle today to talk about college.”

Delilah pulled away, looking up at the trees overhead—a new instinct. But the world stayed settled: The earth didn’t split open; the tree branches didn’t thrash out to separate them.

“Really?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

Frowning, she asked, “It’s not too late?”

“It is for some, but he thinks we can swing something. My grades are pretty good.”

“Do you have my list? You’ll find something close?”

He nodded.

• • •

Delilah was so focused on the various scenarios—walking into a brick-and-ivy college building hand in hand with Gavin, setting up a home with him in a tiny apartment building, lying on a wide bed, her head on his chest and his voice rumbling against her as he talked for hours—that she failed to hear the fire.

Or maybe that wasn’t quite right. She heard it, but it sounded like crackling leaves and then a flock of birds and then, finally, a haze of gunshots overtaking the town. This was when Delilah looked up and saw the choking black smoke rising over the Hendersons’ house, which meant either their house was on fire. . . or hers was.

She took off in a sprint, her backpack bouncing heavily on her shoulders, slowing her progress. When she turned the corner, she pulled up short, crying out. It was her house on fire, flames flogging the back wall, looking as if it had started on the second floor and spread lower. The blaze didn’t yet reach the ground; it poured from her window like liquid and was only inches from snaring the broad oak in the backyard.

Sirens screamed behind her, and she was nearly knocked over by the force of the fire engines hurling past.

It was mayhem. Firemen everywhere, water and smoke clogging every inch of air. She could feel the soot on her face as the first blast from the hose lashed the house, could feel the water ricocheting back at her.

“Stand back!” A huge hand grasped her shoulder, guiding her behind the fire engine. She looked up into watery blue eyes, an enormous face with red stubble, a nose red from too much alcohol over the years, and breath smelling of nicotine and mint. “Is this your house?”

Delilah strained to look around him, to the house in the distance. “Yes.”

“Where are your parents?”

“I don’t. . .” She closed her eyes, swallowing to catch her thoughts and line them up into some sort of order. The smallest ones first: It’s Wednesday. Mom is volunteering at the library. Dad had a job interview in Emporia. They weren’t home. They were safe. And then the larger ones: How did the fire start, and why is it only my room? She had nothing in there to spark a fire—no curling iron or candles she could have left lit. Not even a night-light left plugged into the wall.

Delilah slapped a hand to her mouth, but a sob broke free, raw and sharp. “The money. Oh my God. All of the money we’ve saved.”

“Okay, okay,” the fireman said, in a low, soothing voice. “No one’s home—is that what you’re telling me?”

“But the money!” she cried, struggling to push past him. He held her steady, murmuring words he meant to be calming, but the panic had gripped her. It had curled its fingers around her heart and was making it beat and beat and beat until the blood churned in her veins in an agitated frenzy.

Delilah could see it, high in her closet: the shoebox filled with cash. Hundreds of dollars now, and all of it gone. There would be no easy escape. No brick-and-ivy buildings. No apartment just for them, light and white and empty but for their bed and their little dining table and the possibility of anything, anything in the world after this. Gone.

Delilah felt herself sliding down the side of the fire truck, felt the hot rubber of the tire on her back, the cold asphalt of the street beneath her, and buried her face against her bent knees. The fireman halfheartedly reached to pull her back to her feet and then gave up, standing close enough for her to feel the cuff of his heavy, scratchy pants against her calf. She assumed he meant it to be comforting, so she resisted the urge to scoot away. But it wasn’t comforting. The last thing she needed to be reminded of right at that second was how close she was to everything, to everyone.

Heels clicked on the street near her head, and her mother’s hysterical voice rang too sharply in the air, like a knife cutting through glass: screechy and shattering. “I’m Belinda Blue! This is my house! What is happening? What is going on?”

“There’s been a fire, ma’am.” The same fireman pulled Delilah’s mother to the side and explained in a low voice everything he knew. “We got a call only about fifteen minutes ago. Said the back of the house was on fire. Looks like an accident, though we’ll know when we get inside. We think it was started from the wires overhead.. . .”

Delilah stopped listening. She knew it was no accident.

• • •

In the end, the fire was put out in minutes, and the whole process felt wiltingly anticlimactic. A swarm of police and delighted, idle town officials took only a half hour to deem the fire an accident caused by overheated electrical wires stretching in unsightly ropes above the backyard. Delilah stared up at them, sagging as if exhausted and innocuously silent. Shut off for now, most likely. She had no idea how danger could have leaped from such a mild-mannered tangle of wires into her bedroom, but she seemed to be the only one left unconvinced. Her hands remained clenched into nervous fists at her sides. She startled at any small sound behind her.

Pulling out her phone, Delilah texted Gavin a simple, Call me.

She walked around to the front of the house and through the front door. The firemen had closed off her bedroom from the rest of the rooms with a thick plastic tarp. Even so, ­everything smelled like soot and ash and wet, dripping wood. For the time being, Delilah’s new sleeping quarters would be the living room, but nothing could be salvaged from her bedroom to put down here with her, so it looked as it always did: dim, polished, cluttered with hundreds of ceramic statues.

• • •

Belinda looked like a stranger, or a crazy person. Who else but a person who has lost her mind comes home to her house on fire and then two hours later smiles as she emerges from the kitchen with some sliced apple and a pill for her daughter?

“This’ll help you calm down.” She handed Delilah the pill and some water and put the apples down on the coffee table.

Calm down? Delilah hadn’t said a word since her father got home with his surprisingly expansive collection of curse words, since the firemen had stomped back out through the house—“See? Glad I have those plastic mats down!” her mother had chirped as they padded in boots and heavy gear across the virginal cream of the living room floor—since the police had been through and officially deemed it an accident, and since the plastic tarp separated the mess of Delilah’s room from the rest of the house.

“I don’t want it,” she said, taking only the water from her mother’s hand.

“You’ll take the pill or you’ll be grounded.” Her mother smiled, but it did nothing to cover the bite in her voice. “You’ve been through a trauma. I’ve been through a trauma. I want to go lie down up in my room and not worry about what you’re doing down here.”

Delilah’s brows went up in understanding. “I’m fine.” But she took the long white pill anyway, curling it in her palm. “I’ll call Dhaval. I’ll do my homework.” And wait for Gavin to call, she thought.

The sound of the television filtered in from the other room, and it occurred to Delilah that she had no idea whether her father actually got the job today. If his evening routine wasn’t changed by a fire in his house, of course it wouldn’t be altered by good news, either. Belinda blinked away, out the front window, and her brows pulled together in concern. Without having to look, Delilah knew what she saw out there: neighbors still standing in front of the house, pretending to worry but more than anything relishing the chance to gossip. Nothing out of the ordinary ever happened around here. At least not that they knew of. Imagine the slobbering frenzy that would break out if anyone really knew about Gavin’s house. If they knew it wasn’t just an odd feat of architecture but something wicked, possessed, malignant.

“It wasn’t an accident, Mom.”

Delilah wasn’t sure where the words were coming from, but she needed some sign, some nudge that Belinda could be a mother. That maybe she would hear the desperate, hysterical edge that made Delilah’s voice faintly metallic and it would trip some wire in her mother, turning her nurturing and communicative. Instead Belinda drew her eyes back to Delilah slowly, disappointment pulling her features into a sagging frown. On anyone else, the pink cardigan she wore might have looked feminine or soft, but on Belinda Blue it was too pink and too harsh against her pressed-powder skin. She looked like a disapproving piece of salmon. “Don’t start.”

“It wasn’t, Mom. What they’re saying doesn’t even make sense. A spark flew into my closed window and started a fire? Seriously? It rained earlier today.”

“You’re going to tell the firemen how to do their jobs now?”

“Maybe, if it’s obvious they’re wrong.”

Her mother pointed to the fist holding the pill. “Take it or you’re grounded. No phone. No sketchbooks. No time with that weird boy.”

She watched as Delilah placed it on her tongue and took what must have looked like a long gulp of water.

What her mother didn’t see was that Delilah spit it out moments later.