The House

Chapter 27

Her

I’m coming with you,” she said. She could feel the stubborn set of her jaw. If anyone asked her right at this second, Delilah would swear she was eight feet tall and four feet wide. Nothing was getting between her and Gavin.

Gavin shook his head emphatically, and Delilah felt a rough growl escape her throat. “Lilah, no. I need to go back there, and you need to go to the bank.”

“Don’t you see that’s what House wants? It’s pretending to be your mother!”

“Look,” he said, his long fingers gripping her shoulders. “House has never mimicked a voice before, okay? If my mother. . .” He let the words trail off, closing his eyes. “I can’t leave town without knowing who called Dhaval.”

“It will hurt you. Remember what you said? This, today, is the nuclear option. House just declared war.”

“I know House hurt you. I will never forgive it for that. But House has never hurt me. Ever. All I need to do is get in there.. . .” The rest of the plan seemed to be still out of his mental reach, and Delilah felt a scream build deep in her belly and fill her entire chest as he thought it through. She clenched her jaw to keep it from erupting and frazzling Gavin even more. “I just need to see. Don’t you understand? I never thought she was there, so I never looked.”

“I don’t like it.”

“It’s not even six in the morning. Go home. Get on the couch. Pretend you’ve been there all night. Pack up a few things when your parents leave for the day, and then head to the bank. I’ll meet you there at eleven, just like we planned. I may even get there in time to go with you, but if not, you need to get into the safe-deposit box.”

“It might have nothing,” she reminded him. “Maybe it has some of her hippie books and crystals.”

He took a deep breath, staring her down. “It might have my birth certificate, with the names of both of my parents. It might have money.”

“I really, really don’t like this.”

“I can’t do this if I’m worrying about you,” he told her. “If House was tricking me, I’ll know right away and I’ll get out. I’ve never broken a window out of respect, but that doesn’t mean I won’t throw a table through one if it means the difference between being with you or not. I have to do this.”

• • •

Delilah was beneath the covers on the couch when her father came downstairs to make coffee just after seven. She tried to feign sleep, but her heart was beating so fast it seemed to nearly choke her airway. She felt every minute ticking by, etching like a razor slice into her skin.

Gavin is almost home by now.

Maybe he’s walked inside.

Maybe he’s already trapped.

When her father came in and woke her, she stretched and looked around the room, trying to figure out what she could possibly take with her. There were the clothes that had been in the washer or dryer when the fire happened. There was some cash from her mother’s antique vase on top of the fridge. She would pack a knife. Some food. She would leave her parents a note, telling them she was leaving for college early. In the time it would take them to find her—even if they jumped into action and found her in only two days—she would be eighteen.

They had exactly seventy-three dollars between the two of them. Most of it in fives and ones, rolled into a log and shoved in Delilah’s jacket pocket. She added another two hundred from her mother’s vase. If the house was going to take anything from her now, it would have to light her on fire too.

By eight fifty, Delilah was standing on Mercer and Main, duffel bag slung over her shoulder as she paced, waiting for the bank to open. She felt every shift in the breeze, heard every rustle in the trees overhead. The safe-deposit-box key was clenched so tightly in her fist it might leave an impression in her flesh forever. And if it did, every time she would look at the imprint, it would remind her of this biting, freezing terror: How on earth am I meant to walk in there and open this box without the building crumbling down on me? How does Gavin expect to escape today and meet me out front?

It was the perfect trap. His faith in the house had left him blind.

She couldn’t believe she’d let him go. What if the contents of the box told them nothing? What if instead of money or important papers, it held a few dusty trinkets or old photographs. What then? She was here, wasting time when she could have been with him, fighting.

The stress was too big for her, physically. It seemed to spread past her skin, in a haze of panic she couldn’t seem to shake. Delilah resisted the urge to glance at her phone again. She knew it hadn’t been more than a couple of minutes since she last looked, when she’d calculated the bank would open in ten minutes.

How long do I stand here, she thought, before I decide something has happened and I go to the house? How can he possibly expect me to move forward without him?

She thought back to the night before, in the music room, with Gavin’s hands and body all over her in a fever. She still felt tender from what they’d done, and she let herself remember every bit of it for just a moment, only a heartbeat: his breath warm and fast on her neck, teeth dragging to her collarbone, the sight of his smooth, muscled shoulders moving over her first slowly and then with abandon. How he’d started so carefully but listened to her when she told him she wanted none of that.

And then later: his warm, satisfied mouth pressed to her bare stomach and his promise that he would be here today. But that was before he knew his mother had called.

“Take everything worth anything,” he’d said as he’d backed away toward the door leading out of the music room, “and if I’m not there by eleven, get out of town. I’ll find you.”

Delilah swallowed, looking down at her phone just as the doors to the bank clicked open.

She’d held on to the hope that Gavin would be here now, that he would have gone in and escaped easily, or changed his mind at the gate and managed to dodge all of the trees swiping at him as he ran back to her here, in the middle of town.

It was only nine.

He wasn’t late.

She shouldn’t worry yet.

But her panic was a cold, slithering thing, as if the house had crawled into her this time, finally possessing her. But she knew it hadn’t. She was completely alone on the sidewalk outside the bank, because if Gavin was trapped there, House had everything it needed already.

• • •

The bank was empty but for a few tellers, a manager speaking on the phone in a glass-enclosed office, and a smiling, clean-cut, fair-haired man behind a desk. Taking a deep breath, Delilah walked over to him and sat down with shaking legs.

“I need to access a safe-deposit box.”

The man, whose desk had a name plate with KENNETH engraved into brass, smiled again and turned to his computer. “Well, great. I can help you there. What’s your name?”

“I’m Delilah Blue.” He began to type her name into his computer, but she quickly added, “But it’s not my box.”

Kenneth’s smile faltered as he looked back at her. “Whose box is it?”

“Hilary Timothy.”

He typed in the name and then shook his head, eyes genuinely apologetic when he looked back to her. “You’re not listed as a user on this account.”

“I have a key, though,” she said, hope causing her voice to crack halfway through.

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. You need to be an approved user.”

Was it something in Delilah’s expression that made him so sincerely concerned for her? Something in the way her voice shook and she looked like she’d seen a ghost, maybe a thousand of them? She could see it in Kenneth’s face that if this rule could be bent, he might just do it.

“What if. . . ?” She paused, taking a deep breath before saying, “What if Hilary died?”

Kenneth blinked, surprised. He collected himself quickly enough. “Well, she does have someone else on the access form. Maybe you can contact them?”

Delilah shook her head, not understanding. A key was a key, after all. She only needed to open the box, not take anything with her. “I just need to see what’s in there. There are answers in that box, sir.”

“There are standard security features set up with a safe-deposit box,” Kenneth explained patiently. “You can’t access the box with only the key. Whoever requires access to the box needs to be present with their identification when the box is created, because they have to sign the signature card. Only the individuals that have signed the signature card have access to the safe-deposit box. Everyone who signs is given a key to the box. Does this make sense?”

“Yes,” Delilah said, closing her eyes to think, think, think.

“Although you have a key, you are not on the list of registered users, so I know that key is not yours.”

“Is Gavin Timothy on the list?” she asked, ignoring the gentle admonishment in his words.

Kenneth glanced at the computer screen in front of him. “Sorry, no. It may help to remind you that a signature is required when the account was first established. If Gavin is Ms. Timothy’s son, he likely would have been—”

“Right,” she said, cutting him off. He would have been only a toddler when she opened the box. Delilah bent over, pressing her hands to her face. She could feel tears rising, making her throat feel thick and her face grow tight. Gavin had gone back to the house and she had no way of knowing if he was okay, but she couldn’t imagine a scenario where House welcomed him home with cookies and warmth. She couldn’t get into the box to find out what, if anything, his mother knew, and all of their money was burned to ashes. Her parents were as warm as glaciers; Nonna was lost to dementia. The risk of coming here had been a waste, and Delilah had never felt more defeated in her entire life. “Sorry. I’m leaving. I just need a minute.”

“Delilah.” Kenneth bent closer so she could hear when he whispered, “I’m sure you’re looking for information for a very good reason, but unless you can come back with Hilary Timothy or Vani Reddy, I’m sorry to say I can’t help you.”

“Vani Reddy?” Delilah looked up into Kenneth’s warm, hazel eyes, blood thundering in her ears. Hope. A faint glimmer of hope sparked in her chest.

“Yes,” Kenneth said with a polite smile. “She’s the other person listed on the account.”

• • •

Delilah knocked on the door to the Reddy house with a clammy, shaking fist. Dhaval answered, wearing his soccer uniform and eating a sandwich.

“Oh shit,” he said around a bite. “You look like hell.”

Delilah made a minor attempt to finger comb her hair. “I need to speak to your mom, D.”

Vani appeared from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a linen cloth. “Delilah?”

“Auntie, I’m so sorry to come by like this without calling.”

The other woman hushed her, told her to come inside.

“Vani,” Delilah started, putting her backpack down beside the coatrack. “You knew Gavin’s mother?”

“I know her, yes.”

“I think Gavin’s in trouble. I don’t know who else can help me.”

Vani waved Delilah farther inside, leading her to the living room. “Hilary called looking for him. Is that what this is about?”

Delilah looked at Dhaval, asking, “What have you told her?”

He swallowed his bite, eyes wide, and then said, “Nothing yet.”

“Told me about what?” Vani draped the dish towel over the back of a chair and sat down. “What are you two up to?”

“Have you ever been to the Timothy house?”

She nodded. “Years ago. Hilary and I were once. . . well, we were close acquaintances, if that makes sense. Not really friends, more than strangers. I haven’t seen her in a while.”

“You talk about her as if she’s still alive.”

Vani paused, tilting her head as she let this sink in. “And you speak about her as if she isn’t. The dead don’t usually make phone calls, Delilah.”

“So you did talk to her this morning?”

“I did. What is this about?”

Delilah swallowed, leaning closer. “Vani, I’ve been to Gavin’s house before, but I’ve never met her. I haven’t even seen her.”

“You must understand Hilary is a very private, eccentric—”

“No, Auntie,” Delilah said, interrupting with apology in her eyes. “Gavin has never seen her, either. At least not since he was small. He lives there alone.”

Vani’s hand pressed to her chest, her eyes wide. “That can’t be true, jaanu.”

“I mean, alone with the house,” Delilah explained slowly. “The house is. . . possessed, or haunted. It’s raised Gavin. It’s been good to him, all his life. But when he and I started seeing each other, it didn’t react well.”

“She’s telling the truth, Amma,” Dhaval whispered.

“I think it was the house that called you,” Delilah told her. “It’s a trap. I think the house did something to her.”

To Delilah’s horror—or possibly her relief; could it somehow be both?—Vani seemed to want to believe her. “You knew something was different about the house,” Delilah said.

Vani didn’t answer, instead asking: “Why didn’t Gavin tell anyone?”

“It was all he knew. When he was little he didn’t know anything else, and when he figured out he was different, he was afraid he would be in trouble, or something would happen to the house. That people might take him away.”

“Why didn’t you tell me, Delilah?”

“I’ve been gone for nearly six years!” Delilah cried. “We all thought the house was creepy, but none of us ever got close enough to see more. It wasn’t until I came home and started following him—”

“Stalking, more like,” Dhaval teased, and both females threw him a look.

“—and he took me inside,” Delilah continued. “At first I thought it was amazing. I mean, it seemed like a miracle. I wish you could see what I saw. I didn’t say anything then because I didn’t want it to be dissected or studied. But when Gavin and I became closer, the house. . . It started to resent me.”

Vani’s eyes narrowed, concentrating. “Resent you?”

“It’s horrible, Auntie. It stalked us. It was the house that hurt my arm, not Gavin, not me! It set my room on fire to destroy the money we’d saved so we could go somewhere else together. It can possess objects, like Gavin’s clothes. It can possess people who go onto the property. That’s how no one has ever taken Gavin away: Social workers come to the porch and the house makes them think everything is fine.”

Horror crept into Vani’s voice. “How does it do this?”

“I don’t know,” Delilah admitted in a shaky whisper. “I don’t know if it’s one spirit or a million inside, but it feels like there are a lot. Everything has its own personality. Some things are nice—like things in the living room. Some rooms have never liked me, like the kitchen or the dining room. Or,” she added, feeling her cheeks heat, “Gavin’s bedroom. They just want Gavin. I swear. If he never left the house, it would never bother anyone.”

“And he wants out now?” Vani asked.

“Yes, but even if he didn’t, I would burn it down to get him out of there.”

Vani stood, walking over to the mantel where she had a line of family photographs: a portrait of Dhaval kneeling with a soccer ball, a framed photo from her wedding. “Hilary played around too much with blessings and cleansings, souls and spirits. She came to me hoping I would know more—my mother was a very spiritual woman, you see—but I assured her I simply follow Hindu teachings. There isn’t anything mystical about me.”

Delilah glanced at Dhaval. He’d mentioned a blessing ceremony before, but this was the first time Delilah felt dread trickle like ice into her blood when it was mentioned. “Do you think she might have done this? With the blessing ceremony?”

“Hilary dabbled in a lot of different religions, chose what she liked about each. She talked to me about blessing her house. She had a. . . power about her, but it seemed innocent enough. She was a free spirit, maybe a little flaky, but she had good intentions. She’d left her husband, who I think wasn’t a very good man, and moved here to buy the house. She wanted to grow her own food out there, wanted to live differently from the way most of society does. When she started talking about blessing the house, I told her it wasn’t a good idea. I had family who knew about that stuff, but I didn’t. Not enough.”

“See?” Dhaval whispered to Delilah.

“The last time I saw her,” Vani continued, “she needed someone to help her open a safe-deposit box in town for her documents. She was wary of those places—banks, government offices, anything official, you see. When we were downstairs, she mentioned she thought she’d done the blessing ceremony wrong. I asked what she meant, but she only said the house felt fuller. She was thrilled by it, though. And that was that.”

“You didn’t see her after?”

“No, Delilah. She was always a bit of a hermit; I just assumed it had grown worse. You want to let people have their oddities.”

“We found Hilary’s key to the box,” Delilah explained. “After the fire, that was it. We were going to check the safe-deposit box to see what his mother had left there and try to get away from the house. From town. But then his mother called, and he went there looking for her and told me to go to the bank.”

Dhaval leaned forward, shock all over his face. “You were going to leave?”

Delilah stared at him with wide eyes. “Hell yes, we’re going to leave!”

“Dee, your grades are so go—”

“Dhaval! This thing set my house on fire! I don’t care about my grades right now! I can finish high school somewhere else!”

Vani’s eyes cleared in understanding. “You tried, but couldn’t get into the safe-deposit box.”

“No, I couldn’t.”

“And you knew before you came here that I have access,” Vani said quietly.

“Please, I need your help.”

Vani stood, nodding. “Let me get my things.”

Delilah stopped her with a hand on her arm, eyes already apologetic. “Auntie, I can’t leave town without Gavin.”

“I know, jaanu.”

Delilah’s voice dropped to barely a whisper. “Can you help me get him out? I don’t know what I’m dealing with here.”

“I can try. The bank is on the way. It won’t take more than a few minutes, and then we’ll go to your Gavin. But, Delilah, it’s more than getting him and leaving town. If this is all true, we’ll also need to get rid of the haunting, and I can rely only on very rusty knowledge for that.”

• • •

With Vani at her side, getting access to the safe-deposit box was simple. A flash of identification, a signature on a form, and they all followed Kenneth down into the belly of the building.

“When you’re done,” he said in his quiet, warm voice, “put the box away and come on upstairs. Or, if you prefer, I can help you store it.”

The box itself was long and flat, and it felt too light to hold all of the answers Delilah needed.

And, in fact, the box held only seven pieces of paper: two photos, three handwritten pages that looked as if they’d been hastily torn from a notebook, Gavin’s birth certificate, and the deed to the land beneath the house. They took it all and headed back to the car.

“Do we wait here for him?” Vani asked. “It’s only ten, Delilah. He told you he would be here at eleven.”

“I can’t sit here and do nothing. There’s no way everything is going fine over there.”

With Dhaval driving and the calming hum of the engine all around them, Delilah went through the pages. Hilary was beautiful, in a wild sort of way. In one picture her brown hair was pulled from her face with leather ties and jeweled clips. She wore a flowing, layered blue dress. Her black eyes gleamed in happiness, and she held a baby Gavin in her arms as if she’d won the entire world when she had him.

In the second Gavin was older, clearly barely walking as he tilted—nearly toppling—and Hilary crouched on the sidewalk before him, arms open in welcome. Behind them, the house loomed, the window eyes staring down at them on the street.

Delilah could already feel the life there, and a violent shiver ran down her arms.

“Here,” Vani said, handing Delilah the notes. They were short, written in a giant, looping scrawl. The edges of the first two were jagged as if hastily torn from a notebook. Delilah read them aloud:

Finished the blessing today, and I can feel the love this house has for me, for Gavin. All around us things seem to have come to life and it’s glorious! I sat down with Gavin in the living room and simply breathed in and out and meditated on images of our future here. We have a lifetime ahead of us inside these walls. I’ve never felt so surrounded.

The bottom of the page was missing, as if only this section mattered.

“If I remember. . . there is a part of the ceremony,” Vani said quietly, “where you welcome life to the house. But it’s a subtle difference, okay, where you welcome your life to the house, or you simply welcome life. I fear Hilary has done this wrong. Terribly wrong. I fear she brought life to everything in the house.”

Delilah moved the second note to the front, scanning it.

I’ve met a man, a loved, a beloved. Will we move? Won’t we move? Ron hasn’t been to the house, and I don’t know that I want him here. It’s our safe place, our wonderland. And what would he think? There are so many things in this world that we can’t understand. But tonight at his apartment he asked me to bring Gavin and move in with him. I don’t want to leave our house! But I love him! I said I would think about it. And now I’m home and House is being awful. It’s cold, and I keep getting lost trying to find my room. Gavin was in the nursery and then he was downstairs. I brought him upstairs with me to get some medicine for my headache, and when I turned around he was gone again. I found him in the kitchen walking toward the counter with the knives. I yelled at the house. I told it to keep away from my baby. I hate that I did it. House loves Gavin. I know it does, but it had never scared me like that.

I write these things because I’m afraid to say them out loud. I thought if I saw them on paper I’d realize how silly I’m being. Looking at them. . . they don’t seem silly at all.

“See?” Delilah whispered. “Oh God.” She knew what happened. She knew. She knew.

The last note was a mess, more so than the others. The writing looked hurried and panicked, the words pressed too hard into sterile bank stationery.

Something has changed. My thoughts aren’t my own. My head hurts all the time now. I’m afraid of what I’ve done. I’ve tried to cleanse the air with sage. I’ve tried a frankincense smudge and pickled garlic, put salt all around the house. I’ve done any incantation I can find, and nothing works. The house scares me now. Last night I went to the basement to get a jar of peaches, and I was stuck down there for hours because the door locked. It LOCKED. It’s never locked before, and this time it did, with Gavin upstairs alone! I came out, finally, when the door clicked open, and Gavin was in his room, playing quietly. I feel. . . It sounds crazy, but I feel like this house thinks Gavin belongs to it. Not me.

Delilah glanced up at Dhaval in the rearview mirror, feeling grim. “This is awful,” he whispered.

“I think she’s dead,” Delilah said, with a feeling like a heavy anchor settling in her stomach.

“It was her,” Dhaval said. “I’m sure of it. We’ll get to the house and you’ll see. Everything will be fine.”

Delilah returned to the note:

I don’t know what else to do. It punishes me in odd, terrifying ways. Hiding my things, making me get lost on my way to bed or the kitchen or the bathroom. It’s like it’s playing with me. Like I’m a mouse and it’s batting me around with its paw. It grows quiet, or trembles so subtly while I’m working or cooking. I’m not sure if I’m imagining it. It trips me on the stairs, drops paintings near me when I walk past, and the nightmares. Oh, Gaia, the dreams. It gives me dreams straight from hell and then makes me realize I’m awake.

The photos in the hallway are all of Gavin and the house. There was one of us together, him in his stroller and me at his side. A part of the photograph had been burned, my face nothing more than a scorch mark. I took it down, hid some of the others, and have started to make a plan.

I’m going to take Gavin to Ron’s until I can clear this up. In case something happens, I’m leaving our documents in this box and leaving tonight. If someone finds these. . . help him.

Delilah laid the note back down in the box and gave herself to the count of ten to panic.

1. . . 2. . .

Gavin is in there.

3. . . 4. . . 5. . .

Gavin is alone.

6. . . 7. . .

Hilary was probably killed by the house and this is all a trap. It will never let him out now.

8. . . 9. . . 10.

The house wouldn’t hurt Gavin.

It wouldn’t.

It wouldn’t.

It wouldn’t.

Delilah inhaled sharply, swallowing her fear, her sick, slithering panic. The sound of the tires on pavement filled her head. The house loved Gavin and wanted her gone. It wanted her to leave. It wanted her to run away and leave Gavin behind.

There was no way in hell.

“Dhaval! Take this turn first. Stop by my house!” she said.

• • •

Delilah looked out at the houses as they pulled onto her street. The neighborhood felt deserted in the late-morning sun: The sidewalk was flat, and the street was empty. There wasn’t even much of a breeze. Instead, the brightly colored houses down the blocks looked like innocent toys, or candy, lined up obliviously and vulnerable.

Her mother was gone, but Franklin Blue was home in the family room, watching the news in the middle of the day. He didn’t even call out to her as she dug through her duffel bag in the living room, changed into black jeans, a long-sleeved black T-shirt, and a thin down vest. She strapped on boots and glanced at herself in the dining room mirror.

Dhaval stepped into the room. “You look badass.”

“I need to.”

“The house doesn’t care how you look, does it?” he asked, trying to bring in some of his trademark swagger, but it fell flat.

“No, but I need to feel like someone who can do this. Someone in a little skirt and polo shirt won’t beat down the demons.”

He followed her out through the family room—Franklin complaining only when they blocked his view of the television—and into the backyard.

“Where are you going?” Dhaval hissed, trailing behind her into the shed. His eyes went as wide as saucers when she reached for an ax on the wall. “Delilah, are you out of your damn mind?”

“You think I can get him out with my bare hands?” She sounded braver than she felt, and gripped the weapon in both of her hands. Was it any good to take this along, or was she better off leaving both hands free, simply to defend herself? She imagined shards of wood and plaster; she imagined fire and wind and the enormous tremors of the house shaking all around her. Any weapon she had, would the house simply take it over? Could she control anything?

“An ax?” he yell-hissed. “This isn’t the zombie apocalypse, girl! Your dad doesn’t have a gun?”

“You think a gun is going to work on a possessed house? I don’t need to reload an ax!”

“What’s going on out here?” The gruff, deep voice of Delilah’s father tore through the crisp, bright air, and both teens whipped around to face him, eyes wide.

“We need an ax to take down this diseased tree over at Dhaval’s.” Delilah recovered smoothly.

Franklin leaned against the doorway, looking skeptical as he crossed his arms over his chest. He was so enormous that for a tiny beat Delilah wished he were just a little more crazy, a touch more adventurous; he would make an excellent addition to the team they were putting together. “Ravi doesn’t have one?” he asked.

“No, sir,” Dhaval said. “My dad believes in gardeners to take care of ax-related events.”

Franklin all but ignored Dhaval. “Not sure I want you taking an ax out of the house, Delilah. Seems like a lot of trouble to be had.”

If he only knew.

“You can drive it over there for us,” she said, holding her breath. It was a gamble, but the odds were in her favor. Her father’s physical laziness was nearly as limitless as his antisocial tendencies.

Delilah watched as her dad grumbled something and headed back toward the house. They had everything they needed and were about to leave when something on the workbench caught her eye. The shed was the part of the Blue family home that Delilah’s mother didn’t scour and disinfect within an inch of its life. And there, in the layer of dust covering the neglected workbench was a heart and the words “Gavin loves Delilah” written in Gavin’s handwriting.

• • •

In the backseat, Dhaval sat beside her and reached over to take her hand. “You okay?” he asked.

She wasn’t.

Vani started the car, taking a deep breath. “We’re leaving if anyone gets hurt.”

“Okay,” lied Delilah. She wouldn’t leave until Gavin was with her.

This is all happening too fast. But. . . why didn’t we do this sooner? This is crazy.

“I know you think the house won’t hurt Gavin,” Vani continued, “but we’re calling the police as soon as anything seems off.”

“If the police come, the house will crumble.” Delilah closed her eyes and took as much air into her lungs as she could manage.

“I’m assuming the spirits are more concerned with Gavin and won’t care where we are,” Dhaval said quietly. “I think the first thing we need to do is find him.”

“I’ll find him,” Delilah said. “You two stay just outside the gate until I bring him out.”

Nodding, Vani glanced at them in the rearview mirror, making a left on Sycamore. “Once you bring him out, we’ll need to pull all of the spirits to where he is and then. . .” She shook her head, and for the first time Delilah could see that Vani was trying to seem far braver than she felt. “Maybe then I can banish them? I don’t know! I’ve never done this before! God, if only my mother were here.”

“You can do it,” Delilah said. “We all can. So first we need to gather them all around us, too?”

“Yes, jaanu.”

With a little, terrified laugh, Delilah whispered, “They hate me.” She closed her eyes after she said it and could barely imagine what she would find when she got back to the house.

It would be like trying to cross the gates of hell.

It would be like walking into the ticking heart of a bomb.

When she looked up again, Delilah caught Vani glancing at her in the rearview mirror. “We don’t have any choice, do we?” Vani said.

Delilah sat up straighter and took a moment to check in on Dhaval. Throughout all of this, he was so quiet, so uncharacteristically thoughtful, just taking it all in. But when he met her eyes, he looked determined. . . and fearless. When her eyes caught his, she felt it like a physical shove, like he’d grabbed Delilah’s heart and reminded it how to keep beating.

“Gavin’s in there,” he whispered. “In that crazy-ass house, Dee. It’ll hurt anyone who gets in its way. Nobody’s safe while it stands. We have to do this. I can do this.”

“I’ll get inside and find him,” Delilah said. “It can change things around and confuse us, but at least I’ve been there before. You two stay on the sidewalk out front until you hear me call for you. No matter what, stay outside. There’s a shed in the back. That’s where I’ll take him. It’s small, but it’s probably the safest place for all of us. As soon as we get there, you’ll need to be ready.”

Vani met her eyes once more. “We’ll be ready.”

“And then, Dhaval?” she said, looking at her best friend.

He looked up, dark eyes luminous in the waning sun. “Yeah?”

“You still know how to hot-wire?”

When Dhaval had come home from visiting his cousins in California, he’d e-mailed Delilah, bragging about how one of them had taught him how to hot-wire cars. Judging by her gasp and the way Vani’s eyes widened, her son hadn’t filled her in on that part of his vacation.

“Sure do,” Dhaval said, grinning proudly.

“House has the keys, so you’ll need to get the old car started. Gavin and I are going to get the hell out of town.”

• • •

They parked at the curb, and Delilah stepped out. The damp leaves on the ground looked like bruises, blue-gray against the drab concrete sidewalk. The once-lively yard was silent; there was no breeze, no bobbing, reaching vines; there were no birds in the trees anywhere near it, no sounds of life other than the terrified pounding of her own pulse in her ears.

She looked up at the looming building in front of her. All at once she had the impression of looking at two separate houses: the brilliant structure it might have once been and the crooked, gloomy monstrosity it had become. The house was dark and heavy, and the thick, putrid air outside gave the impression of waterlogged wood, cracked cement, and dried-up grass.

But the details of the house itself were hidden behind a haze of fog, and she had to step closer to get a better look. The house came into focus when she was right there, barely two feet from the iron gate, which opened easily beneath her hands with a piercing groan. Darkness sealed up behind her as she stepped onto the paved walkway, and Delilah’s confidence curdled. As she walked in, the once-thriving yard looked exactly like it would if it had been left untended for two decades. There was no green lawn, no yellow. There were no flowering trees or beds full of blooming tulips. Everything was brown. The house was run-down, dilapidated, as if all of the life—like the birds—had simply vanished.

But Delilah knew better. She knew everything had simply gathered inside, waiting.