The House

Chapter 3

Her

Heeding Father John’s advice, Delilah always understood that the best way to keep a secret was simply to not tell anyone. And over the years, she had accumulated hundreds of secrets. Like the time Nonna took her to Saks in Manhattan and Delilah walked in on two people having sex in the bathroom. Or the time she snuck Joshua Barker into her dorm room and kissed him for ten minutes before making him slink back out across the dark, dewy lawn.

Those were secrets she planned to eventually share as currency, in the girlfriend version of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” But there were other secrets too—ones she might never share because she knew they made her weird. Secrets like her strange appreciation of gore: depictions of fifteenth-century torture devices, paintings of people dying at the hand of swords or arrows. The idea of reanimation, zombies, exorcism. Books on the Black Plague. It wasn’t that she particularly treasured the idea of dying, or of other people dying; it was the visceral reaction to the creepy, the spectacularly scary, the otherworldliness of horror. Delilah loved the catch of breath when she was afraid, the feel of goose bumps dancing up her arms.

Back at Saint Ben’s, she used to wander the cold stone hallways of the Fine Arts Building at night, barefoot, without a flashlight. With every light extinguished, the halls would be pitch-black, stones heavy and silent. Not even a draft could slip in and ruffle the heavy drapes or rattle a painting on the wall.

Delilah knew every turn by heart. Everything was perfectly still, empty but for the girl slipping between shadows, looking for a sign that things happened in the school after dark. Searching for some long-forgotten history that would come alive only when the students were all safely tucked in their beds.

She’d been caught once, two weeks before she was jerked back home for good. Father John had found her tiptoeing down the hall between Sister Judith’s ceramics classroom and the auditorium. In that small stretch was an old jeweled chest from the eighteenth century, an elaborate work of art and wealth that simply sat, so trusting, in the middle of an ordinary hallway. The chest was big enough to hold a small child or, Delilah preferred, a very patient hellhound.

“Hunting for ghosts?” Father John had asked from behind her, making Delilah jump.

Once her heartbeat slowed, she admitted, “Yes, sir.”

She’d expected a lecture, maybe one of his bits of wisdom. But instead he’d smiled knowingly at her, nodded, and said simply, “Back to your room, then.”

Her parents had no idea of these fascinations; Delilah had worked hard to keep this side hidden. It hadn’t been that hard, living more than a thousand miles away for the past six years, and also given who her parents were: Her mother had cardigans in every shade of pastel and had worn the same brand of sensible penny loafers for as long as Delilah could remember. Her mother’s books all had bare, muscled chests on the covers, and her hobby was collecting tiny ceramic animals, which were a form of creepy that Delilah had never really appreciated.

Her father, before he lost his job, had been a workaholic, and when he was home he was generally planted in front of the television, where he would be grousing about something or another. To Delilah, he was an inanimate object in a dad suit: Since she’d been home, Delilah had the sense that she wouldn’t have known her father better even if she’d lived at home these past six years.

Though Delilah had longed for a sibling, none had ever appeared, and she’d had to settle for her partner-in-single-childom, Dhaval Reddy, whose parents were as obsessive and attentive as her own were disinterested. But while Dhaval’s rebellion would turn out to be his loud and exuberant manner in a gently spiritual household, Delilah’s quirky obsession would always remain silent: She had hundreds and hundreds of drawings of severed heads, fists curled cruelly around still-beating hearts, and dark, endless tunnels squirreled away beneath the loose floorboard in her closet.

It was the same dark fascination that drew her to Gavin Timothy.

Dhaval was with her when the obsession started. They were nine and had been at the theater watching Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Delilah had insisted they sneak into Corpse Bride after and had made him sit through two consecutive shows. Her life in the tiny square mile of Morton felt small and easy, oppressively ordinary. The idea that another world like this could exist—one that wasn’t beige or boring or safe—was like a siren song.

The next day at school was the first time Delilah really noticed Gavin. He was tall and hunched, with hair so dark and shaggy it would have covered his entire face if Miss Claremont hadn’t made him at least tuck it behind his ears. His eyes even then were ringed with darkness below and long black lashes above. He had no blush to his cheeks, but bloodred lips and arms so long and skinny they seemed to be made from string.

Gavin had always been her classmate, but she’d never really noticed him before that day. For as much as he looked other—like he’d stepped straight out of the movie from the day before—he’d mastered the ability to vanish in a crowd.

She was sent away right at the strange, obsessive peak of her fascination—after she’d watched him for two years, after she’d decided to ask him to the first girl-boy dance at school. But at recess, instead of finding him reading under a tree like usual, she’d found him limply ricocheting between two bullies on the playground. Delilah had kicked Ethan Pinorelli in the shin, punched James Towne in the jaw, received a reflexive shove to the face, and promptly been expelled.

Horrified, her parents had sent her to live and attend private school near Delilah’s eccentric grandmother. But far from the strict Catholic school Delilah’s parents had hoped for, Saint Ben’s was the key that had unlocked Delilah’s imagination.

The distance might have also muted her crush over the years, but Delilah found she could hardly stop watching Gavin now.

“What are you staring at?” Dhaval asked, nudging her shoulder and bringing her out of her thoughts.

She swallowed a bite of apple and lifted her chin toward where now-teenage Gavin sat beneath a tree, reading alone.

Dhaval snorted. “You’ve been locked up too long in the school full of girls if you think that’s the best you can do.”

Shaking her head, Delilah insisted, “No, look at him.”

“I’m looking.”

“He’s so tall now. . . and long.” Gavin had always been that way, long and gangly with joints that seemed to be too big for the parts they connected. Now his skyscraper legs fit his huge feet, and his arms were a perfect match for the torso that kept going and going. Gavin was all grown up, and looking like he had a million secrets: He was Delilah’s form of kryptonite.

Beside her, Dhaval hummed in neutral agreement.

“And he’s not that skinny anymore,” she added. “He’s actually kind of muscular.” Even Delilah heard the way her voice shaped that word—“muscular”—like it was a little dirty.

“If you say so.”

“And. . .” Delilah trailed off. What could she say? I’ve been sort of obsessively fascinated with him since we were nine, and I’m shocked to find out he’s even better than I expected?

“Didn’t you slip a note in his locker?” Dhaval asked. “Before you were shipped off to Saint Ben’s?”

Delilah nodded, laughing. Apparently, her fascination with Gavin Timothy wasn’t as secret as she’d thought.

“What did it say again?” he asked.

“It said, ‘I don’t want you to hide. I like you.’”

Beside her, Dhaval burst into laughter. “That’s so cheesy, Dee. Also, it’s still true.”

She chewed her fingernail, unable to look away from the shadow of a boy beneath a tree. “I wonder if he ever got it.”

“He did,” Dhaval said through a bite of sandwich. “Then someone—I don’t remember who—took it from him and made a big deal out of it.”

“What do you mean, ‘made a big deal out of it’?”

Dhaval waved his hand dismissively. “Like, read it in front of a group of kids on the playground, made kissy noises, whatever.”

“What did Gavin do?”

“I think he laughed along for a minute and then asked for the note back.”

Delilah smiled a little. Gavin wanted the note, at least. Sadly, it might be the most romantic thing that had ever happened to her and she was only hearing about it six years later.

She had a thousand questions about life in Morton since she’d left for boarding school. One day Delilah was a sixth grader at Morton Middle School. The next afternoon she was on a plane to Massachusetts. Coming back for a week here, two weeks there was never enough time for her to get back into the rhythm of the small town. Just when she was catching up, it was time to leave. Other than Dhaval, who would have been her friends? Who would have been her first kiss? Who was dating whom?

But now most of her questions were about Gavin. Did he have a girlfriend? Did he still play the piano? And, of course, had Dhaval ever seen a parent, or any grown-up really, near him? It was the biggest mystery of Delilah’s childhood: Gavin had been the one kid without anyone at Back to School Night, or school plays, or even waiting for him at the curb at the end of the day.

Her fascination had always been a mixture of preteen longing and bearlike protectiveness.

“Are you glad to be back?” Dhaval asked, oblivious to her train of thought.

Delilah shrugged. For as nice as it was to see Dhaval and ogle Gavin again, the answer was easily “no.” She’d been unceremoniously shipped away to Saint Benedict’s, but it had become her home far more than the square two-bedroom cookie-cutter stucco house on Sycamore Street ever had. Delilah missed her old school, her friends, and her increasingly senile grandmother, in whose home she spent most of the past several years, as her parents had started to assume that Delilah would rather stay in Massachusetts than come home for a week over spring break, or a week around Thanksgiving or, eventually, for the entire summer. But Nonna was in a nursing home now, entirely lost to dementia, and without Nonna, Delilah’s parents couldn’t afford to keep her in school fifteen hundred miles away.

“Okay, don’t answer that,” Dhaval said, after she had been silent for way too long. “I’m happy to have you back. We need some quirk around here, Dee.”

“I’m happy to see you, too,” she said, leaning into her oldest friend. “And I’m happy to see Gavin all grown up.”

“I bet you are. You little demon.”

Delilah gave Dhaval a wicked grin. But then the bell rang loudly, startling her and signaling the end of the lunch break. When Delilah looked back to the tree, Gavin was already gone. She packed up the remnants of her lunch and followed Dhaval back inside.

By the end of the day, with only tiny glimpses of Gavin after lunch, Delilah’s curiosity got the better of her. What does he do after school? Does he meet up with friends? Does he have a job? The questions grew into a maddening itch inside her mind, and it reminded her of how it felt to lie in bed at Saint Ben’s, trying—but failing—to resist sneaking into the Fine Arts Building.

She followed at a safe distance as he walked away from school, paying the necessary amount of attention to the gardens, her phone, anything to look absorbed in her stroll and definitely not like a stalker, following a boy seventeen blocks home.

It wasn’t that weird, was it? How many times had her girlfriends snuck off grounds to walk past the dorms of the boys at Saint Joseph’s or had Nonna told her about walking past Grandpa’s house when they were kids, just to get a peek inside his living room? It had sounded so innocent when Nonna said it; couldn’t this be the same?

She didn’t even have to follow Gavin, really. She suspected he still lived in the same house, the one they all called the Patchwork House for how it seemed like every part of it came together in a different color and style and shape.

It was on a generous lot, nestled between rows of identical houses but encircled by a tall fence obscuring most of it from view and long since covered in exuberant, violet morning glory that bloomed every day of the year. From the glimpses she’d caught from the sidewalk while trick-or-treating—the only time she’d been allowed to get that close, and the only time the iron gates out front remained open—she knew the front room was all modern glass, the side parlor lined with wood shingles and a cozy bay window. There was a turret on the third floor and a portion with Victorian paint and elaborate embellishments carved out of wood.

Kids used to say the house was haunted, but it never looked that way to Delilah. It was stunning, thriving, like something out of an old story, or an ancient black-and-white movie. Teenagers had always bragged about egging the house on Halloween, but to her knowledge, no one had ever really done it. The house—like most strange things in Morton, including Gavin—was just different enough to make the town residents want to pretend it wasn’t there at all.

He turned a corner in the distance, and Delilah hung back, stepping behind the trunk of a large elm to watch. She waited for him to approach the fence, and she told herself that as soon as he reached for the latch at the gate, she would turn and walk home.

But it never happened.

Gavin crossed from one side of the street to the other, and the iron gate began to move, creaking open without being touched. The doors swung apart just far enough for him to slip through before closing again with a clang. She never saw him turn, never even saw him touch the gate at all.

Delilah didn’t know what to make of this and stood stock-still, frozen in place behind the old tree. Why would anyone need an automatic gate that wasn’t for a driveway? Had there been some sort of remote in his pocket? But Gavin’s hands hadn’t been in his pockets. His thumbs had been causally tucked beneath the straps of his backpack. If there was a remote, he hadn’t used it.

She crossed the road and stood next to the imposing fence that surrounded the Patchwork House. Peeking through the thick vine there, she saw the same thing happen with the front door: It swung open long before Gavin reached it. And here, too, there wasn’t another person on the other side, just empty darkness to greet him.

She’d planned on going home, but now, walking away from what she’d seen felt impossible. Without giving herself time to think on it, she reached out with the toe of her shoe to check the footing, summoning every bit of courage she had before scrambling up the sturdy vines, lifting her body over the edge, and falling hard onto the lawn on the other side.

After she caught her breath, she took in the view. And what a view it was.

The house looming in front of her bore little resemblance to the house in her memories. In fact, it looked as if someone had taken that house and tacked on two or three others, all of varying styles and from different eras. It was all different colors—deep burgundy, goldenrod, forest green, and cornflower blue—and looked as if it had never borne the brunt of any windstorm, rain, or dust. Upstairs, two stained-glass windows gleamed in the late-afternoon sun, looking just like eyes watching over the street below. One half of the front lawn was emerald green, glistening and lush. Oddly, the other was just as dead as the first was alive, yellowed and brittle. Around the back, apples bloomed ruby red on the trees. In fact, every tree in the yard was plump with spring. . . in the middle of January.

Delilah blinked hard into the light, feeling as though she’d been ripped from her own ordinary existence and dropped into another world, one rich and ripe and bursting with color.

She looked back over her shoulder, convinced she must have fallen through some sort of rabbit hole and she would find herself fast asleep and dreaming on the other side. Did things like this house even exist in real life?

She turned to the sound of his voice from inside, yelling hello, and the thunk of his backpack as it hit the floor. Delilah crept to the nearest side window, peering in. A fire burned with gusto in a deep stone fireplace, and she felt a dizzying wave of relief that someone was there to welcome Gavin home. Maybe cook him some soup, bake him some bread for dinner.

But just as his long figure slipped into her view, the curtains in front of her closed with such violence that for a moment Delilah imagined the entire house had shaken.