The House

Chapter 26

Him

Gavin had never broken into an actual house before, but really, how hard could it be?

From the shadows he watched as the last window of the Blues’ house went dark, and he waited.

The air grew colder near the curb, and from where he sat he could see the final, lingering onlookers shuffle away from the sidewalk and back to their cars or houses. Neighbors took one more glance around their curtains before they gave up for the night, and the windows of their houses went dark too.

There wasn’t much of a moon tonight, just a round slice of silver against the black sky. The air was damp, and Gavin wished he’d thought ahead to bring a heavier jacket, or something warm to sit on while he waited. He wondered how House felt about him not coming home for dinner and whether it had sent its feelers out to look for him.

He’d been in the Blues’ shed since the last fire truck had pulled away from the curb, soot and smoke-stained firemen congratulating one another and already arguing over whose turn it was to make dinner.

There was no way Delilah’s parents would let him anywhere near her, and so he’d snuck into the backyard, hoping the screams of the siren and all the busybody neighbors would distract House long enough for him to hide in the cement outbuilding.

When he’d left school and walked to Delilah’s—intent on telling her Hinkle thought Gavin would be able to get in nearly anywhere Delilah had already applied, only maybe a year after her—he could smell the fire long before he could see the damage. But once he was closer, he saw where pristine white siding met charred wood and the precise distinction between what had been damaged and what hadn’t.

His knees felt weak when he glanced at the intact power lines overhead and back to the tape that had been strung through the Blues’ once-immaculate backyard, cordoning it off to anyone trying to get a better look. From the mumbled conversations he’d listened to since sunset, the firemen blamed fallen power lines, an electrical short, or some freak accident, but Gavin knew better. House had done this, and the key hidden in his pocket suddenly felt like it weighed a thousand pounds. House had set a fire. This wasn’t like a parent getting angry and locking him in. This wasn’t the same as taking his keys or hiding his cell phone or his shoes. This wasn’t the same as it trying to scare Delilah off. House wanted Delilah to know it could get to her at any time.

It knew what time school ended, and if Gavin was right, then Delilah had been in the music room when the fire started, because she’d stayed later than normal to be with him. If she’d gone home when she usually did. . .

He couldn’t even think about that.

He held his breath, quietly placing one foot in front of the other as he slipped out of his hiding spot and crept into the yard.

It was easier than Gavin imagined to move around without being seen. Delilah’s house couldn’t feel his footsteps in the wet grass, or hear the squelch of his sneakers as he moved to the back door. It couldn’t feel his fingers as he searched for a spare key along the top of the doorframe, or his hands as he skimmed the side of the house, where he found a single window that had been left unlocked.

It took some work to get the window to move—the frame was clean but kept getting stuck on the track from lack of use—but it finally gave, sliding open just enough to let him slip inside.

Delilah’s house was eerily quiet, and without a single window cracked or the fan blowing, it felt stuffy to the point of suffocation and smelled of cleaning solvents and artificial flowers.

It was all wrong. Delilah smelled like apples, and whenever they were together—and close—he had to resist the urge to rest his head in the crook of her neck and breathe her in. This place didn’t smell like Delilah at all.

She was right where he thought she’d be: on the couch, blanket wrapped so high around her head there was barely a tuft of tangled honey hair visible at the top. Gavin took a seat on the coffee table next to her and leaned over, pulling the duvet down just enough to see her face.

He was struck again by the realization that Delilah could have died. And even in this house, there was no one here watching over her, no one worrying about the toxic fumes in the room or the heat pressing down from the ceiling.

“Lilah,” he whispered into her ear, so quiet he was sure only she could hear.

He pulled back just in time to see the flutter of her lashes, and the moment she woke and realized he was there.

“Ga—” she started, but he pressed a gentle finger to her mouth and shook his head. Delilah blinked, sitting up carefully and searching the room with wide eyes, almost as if she expected to find someone standing nearby.

Gavin stood and reached out to help her up, taking a step back as she extricated herself from the mountain of blankets. Only now did it occur to him that he didn’t actually know what would happen next or where they would go, only that they couldn’t stay here. He didn’t want her alone in this house. Really, when it came down to it, he didn’t trust House enough to let Delilah be away from him at all anymore.

He shuffled through the small list of options—park, garage, car, school—before settling on the only place they could go where they could really talk.

When Delilah had her shoes on, he took a step toward her, admittedly crowding into her space while he brushed her hands aside and zipped up her jacket for her. She glared at him, but it carried no heat. Her hands were shaking, and her eyes were wide.

“I was so scared,” she admitted, barely a whisper.

He nodded, bending to kiss her forehead. He’d always been tall, and growing up he’d hated how it was just another thing that made him stand out, but standing this close to Delilah and towering at least a foot above, he liked it. He liked feeling like he could lean down and wrap his arms around her body, hiding her from anything that might come looking. Delilah wasn’t small, and she certainly wasn’t helpless, but in this way, he liked that he could protect her, whether she wanted him to or not.

The sound of Gavin’s squeaky old bike cut through the silent neighborhood as they made their way to the school, Gavin pedaling as quietly as he could and Delilah perched carefully on the handlebars. They didn’t speak or even say where they were going out loud, but focused every bit of energy on watching the road ahead of them. . . and listening for any sounds behind.

It was too silent, as if the world all around them held its breath. House had made its point today: I know what you’re doing. I could stop you anytime I want. And now it waited to see what Gavin and Delilah would do. The thought that House might escalate this made Gavin feel queasy.

The school was a little terrifying at night; Gavin was man enough to admit that. It was old, with strange angles and squat, cramped buildings eerily surrounded by streetlights dotting the parking lot with yellowed spots of light. Gavin had broken into this room many times over the years to play music alone, to lie in the quiet and feel the strange stillness that comes with a building without life, and so it didn’t take long for him to pop the screen from the window and jimmy open the latch.

He unlocked the door from the inside before following Delilah into Mr. McMannis’s office. Together they found a couple of gym mats that would work nicely as a bed, some emergency candles, two bags of Doritos, a couple of Capri Suns, and even a chocolate bar. Once they were safely in the music room, they locked the dead bolt and moved bookcases in front of the air-conditioning vents before turning off the flashlight on Delilah’s phone.

Delilah had lit a candle near the center of the room and got to work putting their bed together while Gavin checked everything again. They hadn’t said more than five words to each other since the last time they were here—earlier that day—too concerned with whether they were being watched and getting to safety than anything else. But now the weight of it all seemed to be pressing in on them, and Delilah sank back on the mat, closing her eyes with shaking hands pressed to her face.

“Lilah?” He’d never really seen her melt down. Was it silent, or earsplitting? Wincing, he ran his hand up her forearm, pulling one of her hands away from her face. “Look at me.”

“Just. . . breathing,” she explained. He watched as she took five deep breaths and then dropped her other hand, looking up at him. Calmer now. “This is pretty cozy.” She sat up and looked around before breaking off a chunk of chocolate and settling back into their makeshift camp, surrounded by all their pilfered supplies and the faint glow of the candle. “This is definitely where I’m coming when the zombie apocalypse happens.”

“When it happens?” he asked, grinning.

“It’s inevitable. Gene manipulation, biological weapons, voodoo. Don’t you watch TV at all?”

Gavin shook his head but smiled. “Only about three stations ever seem to come in, and Leave It to Beaver usually seems to be playing on all of them.”

“God, I have so much to teach you,” she said. “Food, water, shelter, a bathroom just next door. We’re all set here.”

Gavin stretched out next to her, hands folded on his stomach as he looked at the drop ceiling overhead. She couldn’t be that far off: There wasn’t much else he’d want right now. He had Delilah, some snacks, and a locked door. What else could there possibly be?

“Hmm,” he said, playing along. “What about guns? A giant baseball bat?”

“Well, yes, of course. But even with just this, we’d be good.” Delilah grew quiet for a moment before she added softly, “We’ll always know this place is here in case we need to come back.”

And there it was: the elephant in the room. This wasn’t just pretend anymore. House wasn’t a secret they could hope to keep from the rest of the world. They were talking about running away, running for their lives, if he wanted to get technical.

Along with that realization came the slow, creeping feeling he’d had earlier, the dread that had clawed at Gavin’s stomach when he’d seen the scorched side of Delilah’s house.

Gavin closed his eyes but nodded anyway. He knew for as much as Delilah hated this town or how uninvolved her parents were, they were still her parents and Morton was still her home. Of course someday she might want to come back.

“We have to leave, Lilah. Tomorrow. It’s not safe here anymore.”

He heard Delilah swallow. “I know.”

“We need to figure out how far away we need to get, and we need to just go. We can’t wait until we have enough money.”

Delilah took a deep breath, like she was readying herself for something big. “All the money’s gone,” she said. “All of it. It was my first thought when I saw the flames.”

Gavin rolled to his side and looked down at her. “I don’t care about the money. I thought I’d lost you. That was my first thought when I saw what happened.”

Delilah’s fingers played at the fabric of his shirt. “Where should we go?”

“I don’t care if we’re living in a box under a bridge somewhere. As long as I’m with you, I don’t care about the rest.”

It was one of the few times they’d been alone like this, without the threat of a bell ringing or having to be home for curfew. Gavin knew there was so much more going on—the need for a plan, the reality that tomorrow they would be running for their lives, for God’s sake—but right now, with her breath on his neck and her hands making fists around the hem of his shirt, the alone part was the only thing he could focus on.

He could kiss her where no one could see them; he could touch her in places he’d never seen before. He wanted to care about the bigger things—the terrifying things—but at that moment, the reality of Delilah beside him was all he could think about: her lips, her hands, her body stretched out on the mat.

As if Delilah was thinking the exact same thing, her grip on his shirt tightened. He bent to kiss her, slow at first. Always some teeth, always some growl, and then he would suck her lips and tongue and her tiny, gasping sounds.

She pulled his shirt up and off, and with a little smile, he returned the favor.

He could kiss her all day, he thought, his eyes closed as her teeth dragged along his jaw. He could get drunk on the taste of chocolate still on her tongue and the heat of her skin along his entire body.

Gavin exhaled against her neck, his brain slanting at the soft smell of her skin. “Where do we stop?” he asked, moving to kiss her slightly swollen bottom lip. His hand slid beneath her, and with only a few fumbling attempts, he managed to unclasp her bra.

It took nearly a minute before she answered—because she arched into him and made a quiet, pleading sound when he pulled the straps down and off her arms—and in that time he continued his gentle assault: lips to neck, to collarbone, fingers spread across her chest.

Finally she asked, voice tight, “You want to stop?”

“No. It’s why I’m asking you to tell me when we do.” He swiped his tongue over her ribs, slid a hand up under the hem of her skirt, over her soft thighs.

“We don’t.”

“I’m not exactly sure what to do,” he whispered, hovering above her. “With you, I mean.”

“With me specifically?” she said, smiling.

Gavin felt himself blush to the tips of his ears, but he refused to look away. “A little. I’ve never done this before.”

“Me either. But. . . I’ve thought about it a lot.”

Gavin groaned and let his head fall to her shoulder. “Delilah.”

“What? Am I not supposed to say that?”

“You’re not if you want me to last at all.”

“I think. . . ,” she said, running her hands down his bare back. “I think it’s okay if you don’t? Like, maybe. . . I like the idea of you losing yourself for a few minutes.”

“Let’s hope it’s longer than a few minutes,” he said, laughing into her skin. It felt so right to laugh with her about something like this, when everything else was so big and dark and looming over them. Delilah was his sun, and he’d smiled more because of her in the last few months than he had in his entire life.

He pushed himself up and looked down at her again as she worked his jeans down his hips. “You’re sure?”

“I’m positive. You have. . . something?”

He gulped. He knew she meant a condom, and the question made this seem more real than anything else could have. “I do.”

Sex was and wasn’t what he expected. Of course he expected it would hurt her, and he expected it to feel unlike anything he’d ever known. But he didn’t expect the calm confidence that took root in his thoughts when he felt her relax beneath him, heard her gasp, “I’m okay; I’m okay,” and beg him to start, to move, to do something because, she said, she felt like she was losing her mind.

He didn’t expect them to move together so easily, as if they shared a heartbeat.

He didn’t expect to be able to slow and stop in the middle of everything just to kiss her and feel her laugh when she said, “I can’t believe we’re doing this.” And then she stretched to kiss him, adding, “Do you like it?”

“Like” was such a strange word. Gavin liked peaches and the color black. This was a bliss he didn’t think he could go a day without now.

Afterward, it felt like he had no bones, like every bit of strength in his nearly eighteen-year-old body had been drained from him.

The room was too hot for them to stay pressed together like this, but Gavin didn’t care. With his head resting on her stomach, Delilah played with his hair and his eyes grew heavier and heavier. He wished they could stay here forever.

“So we’ll go to the bank tomorrow.” It was the first thing she’d said since she made those broken little sounds of relief, and goose bumps broke out along his arms at the memory, only a few minutes old.

Gavin pressed a kiss next to her navel, another just above it. “I’ll go get everything from the safe-deposit box and meet you outside at eleven,” he said. “Get what you need from your house and then walk there, using a route where people can see you.” He pulled away to look up at her.

“I don’t have much left to take with me,” she reminded him.

“Just get whatever you can. And, Lilah, if I’m not at the bank, leave town without me. I’ll find you.”

Delilah balked. “Why wouldn’t you be there? You’re not going back to the house, are you?” she asked.

“I want to get the car, but I don’t think. . .” He hated to say what came next: “I don’t think House would let me out. I’ll go to the safe-deposit box. You’re just going to have to get whatever money you can from your house and meet me at the bank.”

“That sounds way too easy,” Delilah said.

Gavin pulled her on top of him, ignoring the sick dread he felt when she said this. Instead, he slid her legs to either side of his hips and closed his eyes at the warmth of her skin. “It doesn’t matter. We just have to make it through tomorrow and that’s it. The rest will figure itself out.”

• • •

Gavin had kissed Delilah good-bye before the sun was even up. They’d cleaned the music room, stacked the mats back in the gym office, and tied the trash into a tiny bag to take with them. He’d watched her dress, surrendering his casual glances for outright staring as she’d pulled on her skirt and then her bra. He wasn’t embarrassed when she caught him, and he hadn’t looked away when she’d laughed and thrown his shirt in his direction. She’d told him he was hers and she was his; he was allowed to look, encouraged even.

And that’s how they ended up here, Delilah pressed to the wall while he kissed her long and slow, while he tried to make it last. Gavin knew he’d never be the same after what happened in this room, that his life would forever be divided into two separate halves: everything before last night and everything after.

When he finally pulled away to breathe, Gavin pressed a kiss to her nose and the corner of her mouth before resting his forehead against hers. “You remember what I said?” he asked her.

Delilah nodded but kept her eyes closed. “Meet you at eleven.”

“And?” he pressed, lifting her chin gently so she would look at him.

She blew out a shaky breath. “And. . . if you’re not there. . . I’m to leave town by myself.”

“Okay, good.”

“But—”

Her phone chimed in her pocket. “Dhaval,” she said. “That’s his alert.”

Where are you? No idea what’s happening, but Gavin’s mom called. HIS MOM.

Delilah blinked up to Gavin with eyes so wide he thought they might burst.

“What?” he asked. She started typing so fast she almost dropped the phone twice. “Lilah? Did that say. . . ?”

WHAT DO YOU MEAN HIS MOM? she typed back.

His reply came only a moment later. JUST WHAT I SAID. She called and told my mom he didn’t come home last night. That she was worried.

“Your mom called,” she mumbled. “Your. . . momandIdon’tknowhow!”

Gavin felt like his legs might give out from under him. He reached for her phone, not bothering with text, and just pushed Dhaval’s contact picture, closing his eyes while it rang.

“Dee!”

“Dhaval, what happened?” Gavin asked, his voice hoarse and trembling. “She called? Where did she call from?”

Gavin listened as Dhaval explained, his arm slowly falling to his side until the phone fell to the floor. He could still hear Dhaval’s voice shouting through the line, but he didn’t care.

“Gav?” Delilah said. “What did he say?”

“He said she called from my home phone. She’s inside House.”