Once she reached the porch, Delilah realized there were about a million things she hadn’t considered until she stood here, in almost total blackness. Namely, would the front door even be unlocked? Or would she need to break through a window? She eyed the ax in her hand with a mixture of relief and dread. Were the windows even made of glass, or were they some poltergeist-filled medium that wouldn’t crack or snap or shatter?
A sound built from behind the heavy wood door, a deep groan, like wind coming up from underground, rattling the frame of the house, vibrating through the shingles outside, the shuttered windows. It knew she was here. She closed her eyes, taking a steadying breath.
This is it.
Delilah drew strength from every heroine she’d ever worshipped: Buffy standing with a fist curled around a stake. Michonne wielding her gleaming katana. Kirsty Cotton against Pinhead, Ginny versus Jason. Clarice Starling as she faced Hannibal Lecter, Alice Johnson versus Freddy Krueger—twice.
This house expects you to fail.
But the knowledge that Gavin would have answered the door if he were able, that he wasn’t able and was trapped in here—alive, please let him be alive—propelled her forward. She lifted her hand to the knob, biting back a terrified cry and jumping away as something pressed out from the wood grain of the door, impressions of screaming beasts with horrible tortured faces, teeth dripping blood and claws that could slice her in half. They took their shape in the wood, swirling in front of her and pressing and retreating, reaching for her, and all at once Delilah had a sickening thought: What if one of them breaks free?
From the sidewalk, Vani yelled, “You must go in, Delilah!”
She looked over her shoulder to see Dhaval and Vani sprint from the car and around the side of the house. With a deep, shaking breath, Delilah quickly reached through the gnashing demons, crying out when one slashed at her forearm. Teeth sank into her flesh, and she smacked at it with her free hand, grabbing the knob.
The door shook against her, but the knob turned easily and she stumbled inside, falling onto the wooden floor as the door slammed shut behind her. With a tight popping in her ears, all outdoor sound evaporated—sealing her in—and as she looked up at the decrepit house in front of her, she wondered in a fevered heartbeat if the opposite was true: Would anyone outside be able to hear her scream?
The house looked abandoned: The furniture was crumbling, the walls were sagging and water-stained. Cobwebs hung in thick, dusty tendrils from the ceilings and in every corner. Piles of charred wood tumbled from the fireplace, ash littering the floor like dirty snow. Whatever had kept this place looking new and cared for had vacated the downstairs entirely. Delilah had a flashing fantasy that she was in the wrong house. That Gavin had simply moved down the road, and the past four months in this monster had been nothing but a figment of her wild imagination.
But a droning creak from the floorboards overhead told her that everything was above her, lying in wait upstairs.
Delilah shook from the cold. The cold bothered her more than the creaking, because at least the creaking came from some distance. The cold wasn’t natural; it drifted down from the ceiling, frosty and thick, and spread all along her skin, icy fingers slipping under the collar of her shirt, sliding its hands down over her breasts, her ribs. She crossed her arms over her chest, gripping her elbows so tight she could feel the knobby, rigid shape of her bones. She called out in a shaking voice, “Gavin?”
The creaking stopped, and silence hollowed out her thoughts. So strange, she thought, that silence can feel so enormous, so consuming.
In this sort of moment Delilah had always assumed she would be either brave or mute with terror, but she felt neither of those extremes. She was alert in her fear and listening more intently than she ever had before for any single human sound.
But the next sound that came wasn’t human at all. It was a mad little growl that slid from beneath an unknown doorway to her left and felt cold when it reached her. Cold and broken and evil.
The sound of wood cracking, of plaster splitting, echoed in its wake.
Delilah swallowed a surge of panic, her heart throbbing, and pushed off the banister to keep moving. Her momentum propelled her toward the stairs, and she fought the terror of the emptiness, how no furniture was visible, as if it had all gathered in one room to ambush her.
“Gavin?” she called, jumping in surprise when the television flickered to life only feet from where she stood. How had she not seen it before? Had it slid into view so quietly?
“Gavin?” her own voice echoed from the dark box, a crackly, hollow copy of herself. “Gavin, your house is going to kill me and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
“No,” Delilah said, stumbling forward and pressing her body flat to the hallway wall to shimmy past the television. The ax clanged loudly against the plaster, startling her more. “Tell me where he is.”
Her own voice laughed back at her, sickly sweet and mocking. “You can dream, Delilah.”
As the television spoke, Delilah felt tiny, hysterical sobs form in her chest and begin to push up her throat and out into the air in front of her. The voice coming from the television warped from something recognizable to a high-pitched, terrifying squeal: “Don’t cry, don’t cry, crybaby, don’t cry, don’t cry, crybaby, cry, baby, cry.”
She could get stuck here, terrified by the television come to life and inching toward her. She could be swallowed by this moment, heart beating so hard she worried she could die from it, the fear of what she would find upstairs making her sweat, making her throat tight, making tears stream wet down her cheeks.
Or, she thought with a deep breath, she could get her ass upstairs and put the ax to use.
Shaking herself into motion, Delilah pushed past, swinging her foot as hard as she could and cracking it against the side of the television, sending it sliding into the opposite wall. A crunch of glass sounded and filled the hall. Tendrils of wallpaper rolled down from above her, crinkling at her ears, tickling at her collar and growing sharper and more savage until they pierced at the flesh of her neck.
She shoved them away, ripping at them with her hands and kicking the television hard again, as she lunged for the banister, propelling herself up the stairs.
The house will try to swallow you, she told herself. It will try, but you are faster. You are smarter. Find him.
Beneath the wind and the creaking, the mad little cackles and the freezing chill in the hall, Delilah could start to make out a faint, hollow noise. Something repeatedly hitting a wall, a
thunk. . . thunk, thunk.
The sound wasn’t immediately threatening like everything else all around her. It had real weight, real effort. Delilah flushed, struck with understanding.
“Gavin!” she screamed, taking the slick stairs two at a time, tripping over the runner rug and the edges of wood that appeared beneath her shoes. She fell, cracking her kneecap on the table at the top of the stairs and shoving it violently away. “Gavin! Gavin!”
The sound stopped and then picked up again, rapid now, louder and more urgent. Rubber hit plaster over and over again, and then two sounds reverberated in tandem. His feet kicking a wall? Was he unable to speak? Terror clawed up her throat, cutting off her breath until she felt like she was choking, running down the hall. But what was once a short length with five rooms coming off it now stretched and loomed, growing and turning in front of her, as Delilah doubled back, lost in an unending maze of turns and dead ends. The carpet slid beneath her feet, pulling her back, and she kicked at it, running along the edge of the wood floor, ducking the paintings that fell, the doors that opened in her path.
She cracked her shoulder on the bathroom door and shoved it so hard it slammed closed and cracked. Dark, thick blood poured from the gash and slid down into the hall, lapping at her heels.
No matter how far Delilah ran, how many times she circled back in the hall and opened doors and ran deeper into the maze the house built all around her, the sound of Gavin kicking the wall never diminished. It always stayed just to her left. Delilah pulled up short, catching her breath and wiping the sweat from her face.
She closed her eyes, ignoring the rising tide of blood at her heels, the cackle so close to her ear she feared whatever made the sound could touch her.
The house could build whatever illusions it wanted, but Gavin hadn’t moved.
The floor shook beneath her feet when she turned and faced the wall, the air growing violently frigid as walls seemed to close in on her.
“Go,” the house hissed. “Go.”
“It’s not real,” she gasped, reaching in her pocket for her flashlight. “He’s right there, this whole time. It’s not real, Delilah. It’s not real.”
When the blood failed to divert her attention, a trickle of insects teased at the edge of her boots and streamed from the baseboards up under her jeans, along her skin, inner thighs to hips. She could feel them swarming up her torso, pushing her back and away from the wall that separated her from Gavin.
“It’s not real!” she screamed, pointing the flashlight at the wall ahead of her to gauge where she needed to bury her ax. The entire expanse was blank, starkly white. She shoved the flashlight back in her pocket and hefted the ax. Paintings rattled and flew at her from behind, cracking into her legs, her back, and barely missing her ducked head before falling dully to the floor.
Delilah could feel the spirits, the poltergeists—the terrors, whatever they were—swarming her, trying to find purchase on her clothing, her flesh. It felt like flashes of heat and cold, ineffectual fingertips tugging at her, and for the first time since she entered the house, Delilah was triumphant: They were weak, physically. If they remained in the house, they would have to collapse the structure to hurt her, and they’d hurt Gavin at the same time. But without the solid shape of the house, they were nothing but a haunting.
“Gavin, back up!” she cried. “I’m coming through for you!”
A muffled cry came in response, and Delilah’s hatred for the house doubled, tripled, grew so enormous it became a hot, violent thing in her blood. He was gagged in there; muted and trapped by something he’d believed all his life had loved him.
“You monster.” She pulled the ax back and swung as hard as she could, straight at the wall.
The house screamed, a thousand voices, as if in pain and wild anger, and wind whipped so violently down the hall that Delilah nearly fell over, but she widened her stance and narrowed her focus, hissing through her teeth as she swung again, wrenching her shoulder painfully as the blade cracked into plaster and wood. Blood poured from the walls and something thicker—an illusion of organs, of hearts and intestines slopped onto the floor.
With a strangled cry, Delilah jumped back and gave herself three seconds to get over it.
It wasn’t real.
The insects crawled up her neck, over her face, but she closed her mouth and inhaled through her nose—it’s not real; it’s not real—and took a savage, determined chop at the wall.
Swinging the ax was so different from carrying it. It was top heavy and imbalanced with the enormous blade at the top, but the momentum she got with every slice chipped into the structure bit by bit until a stream of warm air blew into the freezing hallway.
Gavin’s face appeared at the gash, his mouth tied and covered with fabric, and the part of his face visible was covered in dust and dried blood, cheeks, nose, and chin scraped in a hundred tiny places, but when his wild, terrified eyes met hers, Delilah choked out a sob, desperate to get to him.
“Back up, Gav. I’m almost there. Hold on. I’m coming. I’m coming.”
He nodded, eyes pleading, and disappeared from her sight.
The gash in the wall grew with every swing until Delilah’s arms felt like they might fall off and the space was just large enough for her to shove her way in—around stabbing boards and scraps of carpet wrapping around her legs, her feet, her arms. She tumbled in, headfirst, and landed on top of him.
Her first instinct was to kiss his face, all over, hands tugging away the gagging, rank cloth from over his mouth, frantically untying rope that was wrapped up and down his body.
Gavin cried out when he was free, stretching his arms and arching his back as if he’d been glued like this for hours—and maybe he had. His cry was a horrible sound—hoarse and low—more tortured than anything she’d heard on her way up to get to him. It was loss and anger and the deepest, most profound terror. Had he been tied up like this the entire time they’d been apart? He looked dehydrated and weak. He looked pale and broken.
“Lilah,” he groaned. “We have to get out of here.”
She nodded, turning to hack at the hole in the wall from this side, widening it and shoving away wet scraps of tissue, of unknown, sticky gore. She felt as though she were carving through a chest, through bone and cartilage, through muscle and organ. Her hands were covered in something dark and wet; what she’d thought was wood in the walls squelched under her blade.
“Gav, take my hand.”
He reached for her, shaking and stunned, and she began to guide him back through the wall. The house rocked around them, storms of dust and debris clouding around their faces. Gavin pushed Delilah through first and then crawled through the hole after her, but an enormous tremor rocked the entire structure, and with a sickening crack, Gavin’s arm snapped beneath a fallen wooden plank.
He yelled in pain, eyes squeezed shut and hands wildly shoving at the board. Delilah tripped over picture frames and torn carpet to get back to where he was trapped, helping him messily free an arm that hung all wrong, that had a sick, limp twist to it. His face had gone pale, eyes glassy.
“Gavin,” she gasped. Fear created a nausea inside her so intense it folded her in half. Clutching her sides, she looked up at his face. “Gavin look at me.” His eyes searched the area near her forehead, her cheeks, and then lit up when he caught her gaze. “We just have to get out, okay? We just have to get out of here, and then we can go, and it will be what we wanted. I’m not leaving you. You have to stand up and walk with me down the stairs, through the kitchen, and out to the backyard.”
He nodded, mute and clearly in profound shock. She didn’t know how long he would stand the pain—it had to be unfathomable, and from the way his face twisted in agony, she knew they had to move fast. Delilah had never had this sick, anxious feeling before, and the only thing she could think was that they needed to escape. The step after that didn’t matter. They just had to get out before the house collapsed all around them. Delilah looked up at the cracked hallway ceiling, at the floor with a long, jagged crease all down the center. The house had been blocking their escape, but so far she’d managed it. She had no idea how they were going to actually get to the backyard.
When he stood, Gavin swayed against the wall, grunting in pain. His eyes screwed shut, and with his good hand, he reached for her, grappling for support. His right arm swung loosely at his side, as if the bone inside had simply turned to dust.
“Look what you did!” she screamed at the house as she tore her vest from her body and helped Gavin use it to wrap his arm. “Look what you did to him! He loved you! He needed you! You’ve trapped him and scared him and broken him!”
Dust settled and the walls ceased their groaning. On the floor, the carpet lay still, and it was so quiet, not the calm before the storm, but the calm after—when, at last, there’s a comparison to make: the chaos before and the quiet that follows.
But Delilah didn’t trust the silence that trailed behind them as she helped Gavin stand and they stumbled back down the hall. It was the same hall as always, leading to solid steps, which led to the foyer, to the dining room, to the kitchen. Delilah could feel every one of the phantoms behind her, pressing into the air at her back as they walked through the cold, silent kitchen and out the door.
Just like that.
Except the quiet dissolved into a horrible, black storm above them when the spirits of the house noticed Dhaval, kneeling on the grass and beckoning to them with eyes so full of courage and confidence that Delilah let her legs give out, tumbling with Gavin onto the grass and wrapping her arms around his wildly jerking shoulders.
“Stay with me,” she whispered into his ear. “Stay with me, okay?”
He nodded, wordless still, and pressed his face to the damp skin of her neck, taking these huge, gulping breaths. Delilah had no idea what happened now. The lawn was dead and brittle beneath their knees. The trees were cracking in the wind. There was no fruit, no sense of family here. And none of this might work in the end. Delilah, Vani, Dhaval, and Gavin could anger these specters, bring them all out here into a furious storm of evil in the yard, and still they could fail.
Looking at Gavin, Delilah knew it was likely for all of them to die out here.
It was such a profoundly calm thought: We could die right now. The phantoms seemed torn—did they stay near Gavin or go to Dhaval?—but they could easily uproot a tree, crash down the house, open up the lawn into a yawning, jagged chasm and swallow them all.
The ground shook beneath them, and inside the house was an unending series of crashes: walls falling, furniture hurling, windows shattering inward as the spirits left and pooled in the air outside.
It was impossible to focus on only one of the hundreds of blurry spots in the sky, the ripples of glassy heat. But she could feel them, not just swirling but churning, screaming above her in a terrifying roar.
Not twenty feet from where she bent over Gavin’s huddled body, Vani and Dhaval kneeled, arms around each other as they yelled and pleaded for these spirits to be taken back.
It was impossibly loud. Their urgent prayers. The poltergeists screaming and drumming above them in trees. The crumbling frame of the house.
Movement caught her eye, behind the swarm of terrors around her and inside the house: arms frantic, hands slamming to glass, mouth open in a silent scream.
A woman. It was a woman standing at the window, screaming.
Delilah cried out, pushing up onto her knees. Beside her Gavin let out a low groan.
It was a trap.
It wasn’t real.
But if it was
if it was
if it was
Gavin would never forgive himself for leaving without her.
Stumbling to her feet, Delilah laid Gavin down on the grass.
“Lilah,” he gasped. “Don’t go back in there—”
But she was already charging back inside, holding her arms in front of her face to block the assault of debris and dust and dark, rotting earth. The kitchen had begun to cave, and she leaped over a wide crack in the floor, barreling down the hall toward the foyer. The stairs were a crumbling, slanting mess, and Delilah had to use the ax to grip at the rubble. Wood and glass tore at her clothes, her skin, her hair, and once she reached the top of the pile, Delilah gulped down a huge lungful of chalky air to stave off the panic at having no idea where she was inside the house.
“Hilary! Call out to me!” she screamed.
A thud sounded from the back of the house, deep at the end of the hallway. It could have been someone throwing something against a wall. Or, from the looks of the deteriorating house, it could just as easily have been something falling from a wall or through the attic floor. It could have been a room falling to pieces. But only seconds later, Delilah heard a thin, terrified wail. Without listening for more, Delilah sprinted over shattered wood and plaster, slamming against a wall and pounding at it with the ax.
The walls were dry, splintery wood, and with a lurch in her stomach, she registered she wasn’t battling a house possessed as much as an ancient house on the verge of crumbling beneath her feet.
Chopping through the wall with exhausted, rubbery arms, Delilah began to sob, feeling the leaded weight of insanity pushing in on her. She sucked in giant, gulping breaths, released shrill, hysterical wails. Was there even anyone there? Had she lost her mind? Would she die in this falling-down house after all?
But then she sliced through, creating a hole only inches wide, and her heart stopped beating.
A woman stood inside.
She was tiny. Withered. Her wild, dark hair had gone mostly gray; her back had grown bent and arms turned skinny and weak.
Delilah’s mouth opened, and her tear-soaked eyes went wide. “Hilary?”
“I’m awake,” the woman croaked. “Get me out of here.”
There wasn’t time to think about how long she’d been here, how she knew Delilah’s name, or whether she was even real at all. Delilah hacked at the wall savagely, making the hole big enough for Hilary to climb through, and grabbed her hand. She yanked her out, ignoring the sound of fabric ripping, the cry when something sharp stabbed into Hilary’s leg. Delilah fell backward, pulling her out, and then stood, tripping down the hall with Gavin’s mother in tow as the house fell to pieces in their wake: ceilings crumbling into dust, floors disintegrating, walls bursting into fire. They fell down the pile of stairs, and Delilah had to nearly carry the woman down the hall to the kitchen and out the back door as fire chased them and singed the back of Delilah’s shirt, the bottom of her braid.
Delilah fell onto the grass beside Gavin, curling her body over his and sobbing harder as it all seemed to hit her: She could have died in there, and then who would have looked after Gavin?
Hilary collapsed beside them, and Gavin turned, staring in shock. He shook, quaking violently in Delilah’s arms.
“I think so.”
He reached out with his good arm, taking Hilary’s hand. She was unconscious, a tiny lump of dark clothing on the lawn.
The fire in the kitchen grew, crackling into a thunder, and Delilah knew with absolute certainly now was either when they triumphed or it all ended. Shadows dug into her clothes, cold fingers sliding across skin. Her ears rang with the tortured screeches of the wordless poltergeists, and for tiny flashes she could see their gaping mouths, rank and putrid, so close to her face until they dissolved back into shadow. Pulsing at her, storming around her. Closer and away on an endless loop, their breath smelled like a century of rot and despair; the lash of their shapeless bodies felt like ice slashing her cheeks.
She’d never known such sound, such terror. It was impossible to cover Gavin with her body, but she tried, her shoulders shaking under the strain as she curled over him, arms wrapped around his head as if to shield him.
He’d gone still. Completely motionless in her arms, and if she couldn’t feel the tiny warmth of his exhales on her neck, she would have feared he’d stopped breathing. He could barely take another minute of it—she knew—and she couldn’t begin to comprehend his grief and horror and loss. His cheeks were wet with tears, face pressed into her neck so tight she knew she would feel the imprint forever.
The wind whipped through her hair. A million points of pressure leaned in on her, on them from all sides, trying to peel her away from him. Delilah held on, screaming back at them in the dark-as-night sky.
Dhaval and Vani crawled over to them, wrapping their arms around Gavin and yelling reassurances over the chaotic screams:
“We won’t let you have him.”
“You can’t have him.”
After all of it, the cold and screeching, the sight of their terrible, mangled not-faces, a clarity hit Delilah like a warm gust: They can’t hurt me like this, not really. Her scratches were from the things they hurled, not the terrors themselves. Without the house they were nothing.
The sky rippled and cleared, and with a slight pull in her chest and a popping in her ears, the world trembled and then fell completely silent.
It was so silent, in fact, that it felt pressurized, as if they’d been sealed inside a jar. It pushed at her ears, pulling, pulling, pulling away until the world seemed to snap and the breeze returned, coursing through the brittle branches of the cherry tree. The smell of spring in the mud and grass beneath their knees mingled with the burned wood and crumbled concrete. Gavin looked up at the house, and her gaze followed his.
It was barely standing: nails hung loosely from shingles, paint curled in long strips, bowing to the ground. Windows were shattered, the porch nearly collapsed. It looked like it had been lifted in a tornado and dropped in the yard.
It looked completely lifeless.
And then he turned and stared at his mother, his face crumpling.
Delilah closed her eyes, collapsing into Gavin, and didn’t open them again until the sun shone through a window and a gentle hand shook her awake.