The first thing he’d noticed was blue sky. Not that a blue sky this time of year was out of the ordinary—it was spring, after all—but on this corner, looking down the tree-lined street to where House stood, the blue above him stood out.
The sky above House was always dotted with puffs of dark smoke, even in summer. A steady spiral continually emanated from Chimney and dissolved away as soon as it reached the clouds. Today, however, at barely seven in the morning, every inch of the world above House was as black as night, as if something hateful had stained the sky and the morning sun was unable to penetrate the shadow.
The ground was littered with leaves and fallen branches that crunched beneath the rubber of Gavin’s bike tires as he braked to a stop. Even in the strange, early-morning blackness, he could tell there was no smoke billowing from Chimney because there was no fire. There was always a fire. House never did anything without a reason, and Gavin knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was that reason. House was waiting for him.
The sun had just started to filter through the neighbor’s trees, and though he could feel the warmth of it beginning to seep into the back of his dark hoodie and warm the tips of his ears, Gavin shivered in the eerie chill surrounding his home. He had no idea what he would find when he opened that door, but he knew it was time.
He’d been debating not coming back at all, knowing how easy it would be to stay in the music room with Delilah, to ignore all of this and remain lost in her. They could have caught a bus later this morning, left town with very little fanfare. Maybe they would have been able to drive that unknown distance that would put them truly out of reach of House. Delilah would be eighteen in a few days. He would be eighteen in just over two weeks. He wasn’t sure which of the two of them would be less likely to find someone coming after them.
He knew leaving would have been the smart thing. He knew he should have tried. Dhaval’s text had changed everything. But the farther away Gavin was from the music room and his conversation with Dhaval, the more certain he became that House was toying with him, finding a way to mimic a woman’s voice on the phone. But if there was a chance—no matter how small—that his mom was there, inside somewhere, he had to look.
His heart seemed to be trying to claw out of his chest. His pulse was jagged, leaping and unsteady, and it was distracting enough for Gavin to wonder whether he could take the panic of facing this dark beast in front of him.
Closing his eyes, he struggled to steady his breaths as he made a small mental list of tasks:
Get inside. Listen for my mother. Gather what I need and get out. Find Delilah.
He didn’t have much in the way of possessions and had never considered himself to be overly sentimental—he’d never really felt like the things in House belonged to him anyway—but now that he was standing outside, there were a handful of items he couldn’t bear the thought of leaving behind. He wanted the Bible he’d found and he wanted the photograph of his mom. He couldn’t dream of leaving his sketchbooks behind, and if it were possible, he wanted to find the keys to the car. If he could somehow manage to get those, he could have his things and a way for them to leave town, too. Running away would be a lot easier in the Buick than on a bike.
To be safe, he parked the bike outside Iron Gate in case the worst happened and he couldn’t get the car, and he headed for House.
Gate didn’t open on its own the way it usually did, and so he pushed it open with a groan, coming to an abrupt stop when he stepped into the yard. Not only was Chimney silent, but the lawn looked. . . dead. Really dead, both sides. The grass was brown and brittle, and weeds grew in the cracks between the pavers that led to the front door. House looked well and truly abandoned—abandoned for years—as if his entire life had never happened.
The vines that wound themselves around the columns on the front porch were spindly, and the purple petals of the new blossoms as delicate and dry as old paper, dropping one by one into a small pile on the top step. Gavin wasn’t sure what to make of all this, and he briefly wondered if maybe House had. . . left? Maybe his mom had come home and House was gone because he didn’t need it anymore.
He didn’t know how to process that. On the one hand, that was the point of all of this, wasn’t it? To get away? To live his own life? So why did he feel that familiar panic? That tremor in his hands at the thought of being alone?
“I’m home,” he called, standing in the foyer, and clenched his jaw when the urge to shout Mom? became almost too much to bear. He did his best to keep his hands steady while he unzipped his hoodie and hung it on a hook near the door. He kept his shoes on.
Gavin looked down the hall and listened for the sound of footsteps in one of the other rooms, or from someplace upstairs. Nothing.
“Where is everyone?” he asked, careful to keep the quiver from his voice.
Fireplace flickered to life, the low flames sputtering around the ever-present log.
So something was still here, but no mother stepped out of the shadows. He tried to ignore the feeling in his stomach, as if a trapdoor had opened in his diaphragm and his heart had dropped straight through.
“Everyone okay?” He looked up the staircase at the dark hall beyond. “Things are pretty dark outside.”
He kept his steps even as he walked to a table—careful to look like he didn’t understand why anything would be amiss—and went through a stack of mail that was sitting there. His hands shook as he flipped through the flyers and envelopes of coupons. They received junk mail and neighborhood flyers shoved into the box at the curb, but no bills. Nothing personal or that required a response had ever been delivered to House. He assumed since House didn’t really run on metered electricity or gas, and there was no cable TV, there were no bills. He didn’t even know if they paid taxes. House powered everything itself; there was nobody to pay.
But standing here now, clinging to the unreal possibility that his mother had been here in the house, he wondered: Weren’t there some things that required a signature? Who had enrolled him in school? Who had signed off when the doctor arrived, dazed and robotic, at the door? And why had he never thought to question any of this before Delilah came into his life? Gavin always assumed his reality was different from those around him, but beneath that assumption had always been a dark, secret belief that House also made him special.
A single word stabbed at his thoughts: How?
How could a boy be orphaned without people all over town knowing what happened to his mother?
How could he be so lucky that his house happened to step in and raise him?
How could he not immediately wonder, when the house began terrorizing Delilah, if the house had also hurt his mother?
What if House had never been good? What if he’d been here all his life, trusting and blind, and the only family he’d ever known was simply. . . evil?
Struggling to stay calm and choking back the tight swell of tears, Gavin continued to listen for any sound of human life in the house. He dropped the stack of mail on the table and went to Kitchen, pulled down a glass, and filled it with water from the tap.
As he drank, holding the glass with a trembling hand, Gavin tried to ignore the odd darkness outside. The resurgence of a fire in Fireplace had warmed the front rooms. A fresh plate of cookies sat on the counter. Daisies on the windowsill unfurled their petals and faced him.
“Think I might go upstairs and get a bit more sleep,” he said.
He reached for an apple in the crisper drawer and straightened, polishing the tender red skin on the fabric of his shirt. “I fell asleep practicing for the spring concert and have this horrible crick in my neck. A nap might do me a world of good. Maybe we can look at the sprinklers out front when I’m done? The twins aren’t looking so good.”
The daisies nodded their heads but made no movement to reach out for him as he placed his glass in the sink.
Gavin climbed the stairs one at a time, hoping he didn’t look as anxious as he felt. It was so quiet. There had always been an energy about House that he’d grown accustomed to, a tiny vibration, the sense of movement all around him that used to ease him to sleep at night and remind him that he wasn’t alone. He could feel it in the walls and the wood beneath his feet. He could feel it in the air. Today it was still there, but it was different.
It was tighter. Tenser. He felt like he was trapped in the belly of a clenched muscle, knowing House would do anything to keep from hurting him but sensing its pulsing fury.
The lights in the stairway illuminated, but they buzzed dissonantly. The stairs creaked with each step he took, somehow less solid, nearly brittle under his shoes.
“What’s going on?” he asked, swallowing so thickly he could hear it in the eerie silence. “Are you mad at me?”
Dread began to build in Gavin’s stomach, and he climbed the rest of the stairs quickly, his eyes on the bedroom doorway at the end of the hall, ears still straining to hear anything.
There was a duffel bag in his closet, and Gavin thought briefly of filling it with clothes and toiletries and other things before trying to flee, but dismissed the idea just as quickly. The only reason House hadn’t snapped was because Gavin hadn’t tried to run.
He sat on his bed, picked up his sketchbook and a short stick of charcoal, struggling to look calm and relaxed. How did he do this? How did he search House for his mother when it could see every single move he made? He’d never seen House look this way—dark and dead and sinister. Was there really any way to fool it?
Gavin remembered the mornings he’d been grounded, how the doorknobs had vanished from the front doors, the latches had been removed from the windows. Delilah swore House morphed and physically transformed the night she came over for dinner. Was it possible there were parts of House he didn’t even know were there?
Spotting an old box on a shelf in his room, Gavin took down a model airplane he’d never finished and muttered something about finding glue. He was able to rifle through old drawers, peer into cabinets he hadn’t opened in ages, even check under couch cushions and beds. House even seemed happy to help, moving furniture out of his way and opening cupboards for him. He opened every closet, dragged casual fingertips down walls as he passed, feeling for any edges or bumps that shouldn’t be there.
He found a bunch of old bottles of migraine medication that must have belonged to his mother, but no glue and no hidden rooms.
With two hours to go before he was meant to meet Delilah, Gavin had pretty much given up hope of finding anything.
He climbed the stairs again and headed back into his room, stopping dead in his tracks when he crossed to the bed. There, in the center of his perfectly straightened comforter, was the photo of his mom that he kept taped inside the bathroom drawer.
House knew all along what he was looking for.
The air cooled, the room darkening as if the sun had tucked itself behind the clouds, hiding. Pinpricks of sweat broke out along his skin, and he felt gooseflesh rise along his arms, his legs, the back of his neck.
Outside in the distance he could see blue sky and the leaves of trees fluttering in the breeze, but close to House, everything felt dark. The yard was cast beneath a shadow. Wind whipped through the dead branches of his favorite cherry tree.
There was a sound in the hallway behind him. Not footsteps, a growl. It was a sound that could come only from the belly of a beast—low and angry—vibrating along the boards below his bedroom and climbing up the walls. The tremor went higher and higher, like a shiver passing through the entire house.
Gavin closed his eyes, visualized the stairs and how many steps it would take to get there.
If he ran, he knew Bed might move and he would have to jump. Dresser might try to block the doorway. The hallway was clear, but Table was fast and could block any door it wanted. It would try to slow him down, trip him, knock him down the stairs if it had to.
Gavin tried to push the thought of this type of physical battle from his head, but he couldn’t. He closed his eyes again and could see the image of him there, at the bottom of the stairs, limbs bent at grotesque right angles, neck turned oddly, eyes open and glassy. Would House prefer that Gavin died, because then he would never leave? The air left his lungs in a rush, and he moved to cover his mouth, swallowing the rise of bile in his throat. This wasn’t House being frustrated or wounded. For the first time in his life, Gavin knew that House was prepared to do whatever it took to keep him there.
It never had any intention of letting me leave.
He eyed his bedroom windows, covered with heavy curtains that could easily snare and trap him. He looked directly across the hall, into the open bathroom and the window he’d left wedged open with a block of wood.
It was still there.
If he was fast, he might be able to reach it and climb out. If House slammed the frame closed, he would shatter the glass. It was the only clear path. He narrowed his eyes and calculated the distance. Fifteen feet. That was as far as he needed to go. Fifteen feet from where he stood to the bathroom.
He stared out into the hallway, took a deep breath, and then ran.
Hallway Table scraped along the floor and planted itself between his body and the door, and he dove under it, sliding along the icy wood floor and out into the hall. His shoulder collided with the wall and it rippled, changing color and then shape right before his eyes, and suddenly, he had no idea where he was. There was supposed to be a hallway on his right, a door right there that led to the bathroom—to the window—and now there wasn’t. It was wallpaper he’d never seen before, covering walls beside a set of doors he’d never opened.
“Mom!” he screamed. “Are you here? Mom!” The scratchy, hysterical cry was a sound he’d never made before. He pounded on the wall, sliding his hands along the smooth surface as he struggled to make his way down the rippling hallway.
With no other choice, Gavin sprinted in the opposite direction, toward the stairs and the front door. The floor bucked up in front of him, the wooden planks parting with an earsplitting crack, and rose as if standing, melding into a solid wooden wall, forming door after door after door. He reached for one and then another, throwing them open to find a crooked staircase that rose up to nothing, a brick wall, a freezing black abyss.
Behind him, the entire house shook, and it was so cold that Gavin could see his own breath, feel the burn of frost beneath his fingertips. The floor started to tip, and he felt himself slide backward, calling out for his mother the entire time. His fingers scrambled to find purchase on the slick wood, nails digging into the icy surface.
A rope latch swung from the ceiling behind him, the pull for the door to the attic. Although he’d never been inside, he knew from the outside that there were windows up there, and Gavin struggled to roll over and reach for the catch. After three tries he managed to get his footing and caught it, watching as the door swung down, the ladder unfurling and crashing to the floor in front of him. Shrill screams tore through the air, but whose? Gavin had never heard another voice in this house besides Delilah’s and yet. . . they sounded familiar. Were these the voices Delilah had heard? The ones from her nightmare? They were saying his name, sobbing it, screaming it from every direction. The walls bowed, and light shone behind the cracks in the plaster, like a train was barreling down from the sky, zeroed in on the house.
Gavin lunged for the ladder and began climbing, his hands slick with sweat and blood and God only knows what else. His feet slipped on the rungs, and beneath him, his legs felt limp and deadened with fear. Gavin had seen every horror movie played in the last four years at the Morton movie house but had never imagined anything like this. Terror gripped his heart in a solid fist, and his body didn’t seem to be his own. Pain pulsed in every muscle, and his hands wouldn’t steady, his feet missed nearly every rung as he scrambled to climb.
“Stop!” he heard himself beg. “Please, please, stop.”
Sooty dust covered the attic floor, nearly an inch thick, and as Gavin climbed inside, it billowed up, blurring the air like snowflakes in a storm, swirling. He’d tried to get into the attic when he was younger but could never manage to get the door open; the latch had been sealed shut. He wondered if something had dislodged it, if the shaking he felt under his feet had been enough to finally let it open. Or if whatever kept it closed had abandoned post, following the higher-priority order: Get him.
He frantically searched the space, gaze landing on two dormer windows on the far side of the attic. If he could get to them, somehow manage to pry them open, maybe he could get out onto the ledge, slide down the eaves, or at the very least cry for help.
He’d taken only one step when he felt something slither up his leg, cold and rough as if covered in thorns. He looked down to see a vine wrap itself around his calf and pull, knocking his feet out from under him. Pain radiated along the entire front of his body as he landed heavily on the floor. He coughed violently, and his lungs filled with dust, gagging him.
Gavin rolled to his back, trying to catch his breath. He blinked into the darkness, his vision black and fuzzy around the edges. There were shapes above him, vague shadows flitting through the trusses and exposed beams.
She couldn’t have you either.
The vine’s grip tightened, wrapping farther up his leg and around his waist, slowly dragging him back toward the attic door.
“No!” He tried to scream, still choking and gasping for air. His fingers clawed at the floor, nails dragging through the grime, splinters digging into his skin as he searched blindly for something to hold on to.
He felt himself being pulled back toward the ladder, felt the shaking all around him and wondered how the house was even still standing. Voices he’d never heard before—scratchy and thin, thick and wet—filled the hallways and rooms just below him.
Look what we did for you.
Gavin didn’t want to die here, and he knew that if he didn’t fight back, he would. The image he’d seen of his body broken at the bottom of the stairs wasn’t just his imagination; it would happen. If not the stairs, it would be a tangled shower curtain holding him underwater in the bath, cookies made with rat poison, or maybe a fire while he slept. This wasn’t the house he’d grown up in. It wasn’t the same house that had taken care of him when he was sick and that had listened to him talk for hours about airplanes and given him books to answer his questions about the planets and stars.
Like one of Belinda Blue’s little figurines in her hutch, House had kept him here as a toy under glass, and whatever was inside House would kill him before he could ever leave it.
And then it would kill Delilah.
He reached for one of the rungs on the ladder, using the leverage to kick at whatever had him. Gavin slipped part of the way down, slamming his chin against the wood and screaming out in pain. The sound must have distracted House enough that the vine’s hold loosened. Gavin fell to the floor and was able to jerk away, scramble to his feet and stagger down the hall. The sound of a whip cracked through the air, and a sharp breeze snapped by his head only a pulse before the sound came again and something sliced sharply into his face. Crying out, Gavin raised his hand to his cheek and felt liquid running in a hot stream down to his neck. He could taste his blood, smell the dust in the air and the scent of rotting wood and fresh earth everywhere.
“Mom!” Tears stung at his eyes and made it hard to see in the darkness; he didn’t know where he was anymore. He reached out to feel along the wall, but it seemed to undulate under his fingers, wiggling cold and wet.
He jerked away and ran blindly toward a light in front of him, the glow from a window. He could see his yard on the other side, no longer dead but lush and green. There were people out there, tossing a ball back and forth in the sunshine. He didn’t know what he was seeing, if it was real or some kind of game House was playing with him, but he didn’t care. He had to get to them.
“Help!” he yelled. “Help me!”
They didn’t look up. He pulled on the sash with every bit of strength he had, but it wouldn’t budge. “Help!” he screamed again, pounding with bloody fists on the glass.
Gavin looked around for something to break the window. A lamp lay on the floor, as still and lifeless as any other lamp. He reached for it and slammed the base into the glass. It shattered, and the House shook, agonizing and desperate screams sounding from somewhere deep inside it. He kicked at the broken shards, ignoring the way they tore at his pant legs. This was his last hope. He climbed to the ledge and looked back behind him. Darkness swirled there, pulsing. He held his breath and jumped.
• • •
When Gavin opened his eyes again, he wasn’t outside.
He tried to feel whatever was in front of him but couldn’t. Pain shot through the right half of his body, and he realized that something was holding his arms to his sides, wrapping around his chest and waist and all the way down to his feet. It was a crushing pressure that made it hard for him to breathe. Every centimeter of skin ached, throbbing and bruised. He could feel the solid weight of a wall at his back, but darkness swallowed everything. He saw only black, and the weight of it surrounded him, somehow both close and deep.
There were no more voices, only his own ragged breaths as he struggled to find enough air. He would have cried out, screamed, but something covered his mouth, pressing dusty and dank against his tongue. A cloth. A gag. The yard was huge and the fence seemed to insulate the house from even the closest neighbor. Nobody would be able to hear him scream anyway.
He could smell dirt again. He wasn’t sure why, but the phrase “fresh grave” drifted through his head. He wondered where the smell came from, whether House had managed to tear itself open like a wound from the top of the roof straight down to the dirt beneath it. It smelled like rotten meat and worms, and he gagged, struggling to breathe in through his mouth again.
Gavin longed for the oblivion of only a year ago. He wanted his room and his warm bed. But more than that, he wanted Delilah. He wanted her safe. Gavin knew now that even if he somehow managed to get out, he would never escape. Whatever kindness had lived here and watched over him was gone, and only a monster was left in its place. It would follow him here or down the street, or down a hundred streets. It would hunt him down until he was brought back, and then he would be here, forever. Maybe House didn’t know that he wouldn’t stay the same, that if it killed him he wouldn’t be baby Gavin again, or even the Gavin with the ice-cream cone that hung in the upstairs hall. Those Gavins were as good as dead too.
As if House could read his thoughts, he felt something slither around him, tightening. “Shhh,” it hissed. “Shhh.”
Finally, for a minute—only a minute—because he was mourning and terrified and blind in the blackness, Gavin let himself cry. House hadn’t killed him yet. It was waiting. And if they knew each other as well as he thought they did, he knew exactly what it was waiting for.
Delilah would be waiting at the bank at eleven just like they’d planned, and she would know he wasn’t coming. House knew that. And then she’d come looking for him, hoping to save him. House knew that, too.
It hadn’t killed him yet because now he was the bait.