The House

Chapter 5

Her

Delilah strode across the lawn, ignoring the weight of a dozen pairs of eyes on her back as she bravely walked over to the loner beneath the tree.

I should be so lucky.

Ever since English class and Gavin’s scandalous comment, her mind had been filling with a hundred different interpretations of what he’d said. Her heart rate seemed to accelerate with every step until she felt like, once she reached him, she might crack open and spill everywhere.

Gavin sat on the grass, leaning against his oak tree, reading.

“What did you mean ‘you should be so lucky’?” Delilah blurted, and then cringed. She’d wanted to walk over, start out with something friendly. A greeting, maybe. Hi. Let’s start over again after yesterday. First question: How is it possible you’re even cuter now after all these years?

Instead she’d cracked and spilled after all.

He looked up slowly from his book, as if he couldn’t break his attention away until he’d finished his sentence. And then he smiled. “Hi, Delilah.”

“Hi,” she said, shifting on her feet while she waited for an answer. Finally, she asked again, “What did you mean?”

He patted the grass next to him. “I wasn’t speaking in code. I just think you’re fun to try to puzzle out.”

“I’m the puzzle?”

“To me, you are.”

Reluctantly, she sat down and tried to force her blush back into her veins. “Why didn’t you want me to see your house yesterday?”

He considered his answer for a few breaths before admitting, “Because I know all the rumors. I guess it makes me uncomfortable to imagine you there.”

Delilah felt a heavy wave of defeat. Was it because of how the rest of the town talked? Did he think she was saying those things too? Or was it that he simply didn’t want her there, which was. . . a different thing altogether.

“I’d never talk about your house, you know,” she said.

His long thumb traced the spine of the book he’d been reading, and she shivered, imagining what it would feel like for that same finger to move up and down her spine. “I know, Delilah,” he said, but he didn’t look up.

Was this it, then? This was going to be the extent of their relationship: She stared at him for almost a solid hour her first day back at public school, followed him home, and then humiliated herself again today. She pushed up from the ground, ready to stand.

Gavin wrapped his fingers all the way around her forearm, with plenty of finger left to spare. “Don’t go yet. I still need to hear at least a couple of stories about the horrors of Catholic school.”

“‘Horrors?’” she asked, sitting back down. Nothing horrific came to mind. Only unending detentions in the corner and bored, undersexed teenage girls causing drama where there wasn’t much need for it.

“Exorcisms,” he suggested, pursing his lips thoughtfully. “Abusive nuns. Haunted dorms. Give me something good, Delilah.”

She inhaled and held her breath, staring at him. He was too good to be true, saying just what she needed him to say to show her she wasn’t wrong about him. “How about the wild tangle of lesbian orgies?”

His eyes widened playfully. “I’m all ears.”

“Well, in that case you’re going to be disappointed. No abusive nuns either, or exorcisms, at least none that I witnessed. But everyone was sneaking in booze and drugs and boys.”

“Boys?” His eyebrows inched up slowly.

Delilah laughed, loving that this was the most shocking contraband. In truth, she didn’t have much experience with boys. She’d kissed a few, snuck one into her room to see what making out felt like in a bed, but never more than that.

Holding up his hands, he qualified, “No, I mean obviously boys are much less illegal than drugs, but presumably harder to sneak in?”

“Not necessarily. I mean, you would be hard to dress up as a girl and sneak inside, even in the dark. You’re about seventy feet tall. But most boys our age can pass a little easier for female.”

He snorted. “Now it’s settled. You have to go back to Catholic school just so we can see if you can sneak me in.”

“Sneak you in where?” she asked, voice low and meaningful. “My room?”

But she’d gotten carried away, forgotten herself and how new this delicate friendship was. His smile wilted slightly. “Maybe just into the building to start.”

“Sorry. I seem to always act crazy around you. I’m not usually like this. I swear.”

“What are you usually like, then?”

She considered this. “Bored. Looking for someone to ask me about exorcisms and hauntings.”

He looked past her, contemplating the school in the distance. “I’m not quite sure what to do with you, Delilah Blue. You seem intent on making me your friend.”

“Because I like you,” she said plainly.

“Still?” he asked, smile stuttering back to life.

“I think I like you differently now than when we were eleven. Though not necessarily. Maybe I liked you this way then, too.”

But he didn’t press, didn’t ask what she was hoping he would ask: What way? Tell me how you like me, Delilah. Instead, he shrugged as if it all made sense and told her he was always happy to have another friend.

• • •

“How could I forget that all you ever wanted to do was watch scary movies?” Dhaval groaned. He looked like he was on the verge of an enormous pout. “We could go over to Seneca Park and sip some booze from my flask and talk about boys.”

“I don’t drink,” Delilah reminded him. “And are we openly talking about boys in public now?”

He shrugged. Delilah had always known Dhaval was gay. It may not have been an actual conversation they’d had, but they hadn’t really needed to. Two summers ago, Dhaval told her he’d kissed Aiden Miller on the last day of school, behind the bleachers. Delilah was only mad that his first kiss happened before hers. She cared as much about who Dhaval chose to kiss as she did for what shoes he chose to wear: It mattered only that neither hurt him.

“My parents give me one night out a month,” he told her. “One. I don’t care if you drink. I’ll drink and you can tell me all about the wild Catholic-school parties.”

Delilah snorted. “Why does everyone think it’s like that?”

“Isn’t it?” His face relaxed into a grin. “You had a single room last semester. Don’t break my heart and tell me you never snuck a guy in.”

She gave Dhaval a stern look. “I want to see a movie. I don’t want to head over to the big city and drink in a park.”

“Not all of us were lucky enough to attend boarding school outside of Boston,” Dhaval said, in the worst Boston accent Delilah had ever heard. “Maybe trips to Wichita parks are the highlight of our week around here.”

She slipped her arm through Dhaval’s and led him to his car. “Slasher flick. My treat. I promise you’ll have fun.”

The Morton Theater was run-down and exactly how Delilah remembered it. Had anything changed? Her bedroom was still an almost blinding purple, and she slept on the same, tiny brass daybed. Her parents seemed to be wearing the same clothes, styling their hair just the same. The crack in the sidewalk out in front of the house was still there. It felt as if time had stopped while she was away and the only person who’d kept growing, and growing was Gavin.

Delilah paid for the tickets and dragged a reluctant Dhaval in behind her. “Popcorn?”

“No,” he said sulkily.

“Candy?”

The promise of sweets seemed to penetrate his foul mood. But as they moved closer in line for food, Delilah looked up and saw Gavin just beside the concession stand. Every time she saw him she couldn’t believe that he was real. He didn’t look like anyone she had ever seen. He was so wonderfully, perfectly odd.

“Did you know he worked here?” Dhaval hissed in her ear. “Is that why we’re here, you fiend?”

Gavin looked up and offered a tiny smile, a little wave.

“No!” Delilah hissed back. “These are the details you need to share with a friend who’s been gone for six school years!” She tried to return Gavin’s smile but was sure it came out wobbly. His eyes lit with amusement as he watched the whispered exchange.

“I had no idea,” Dhaval whispered. “I never come to the damn movies, remember? I can’t ogle hot boys in the dark!”

Delilah straightened her shoulders and walked up to where Gavin leaned against the vacuum broom he was holding. He took his time looking her over, from the top of her shoes to her mouth, her cheeks, and finally her eyes. “Hi, Delilah.”

She felt completely naked somehow. “I didn’t know you worked here.”

He shrugged. “We spent most of our last conversation pondering how to break me into your old school. We hadn’t covered my employment status yet.”

“True.” Delilah thought there might be a swarm of sparrows in her chest. Why did he have to look at her so intensely? If he wanted to know her every thought, she would just tell him. “I didn’t realize movie theaters were still using those.” Delilah pointed to the roller vacuum. And then she smiled because he’d smiled, and it was slow and kind of flirtatious.

“Yes. Theaters are still using them.” His smile turned a little secretive, and it added a tiny bite to his words.

“Right. Obviously.” The next words flew from her mouth. “Can you put the vacuum broom away and come watch the movie with us?”

Something clouded his eyes, but it didn’t feel wholly unfriendly. Conflict, maybe, or confusion. “Sorry, I need to stay out here.” He stood straight up and nodded to where Dhaval waited a ways behind her. “But you two enjoy the show.”

“I’m sure we will,” Dhaval drawled, moving to Delilah as soon as Gavin had turned around a corner and hissing, “Girl, you have it bad.”

She groaned, feeling defeated, but it came out sounding a little breathless. “I know. I act so abnormal around him.”

“I’ll admit, he’s not that bad-looking. I guess I just never noticed before,” he said. “There’s something about him.”

“‘Not bad-looking’? Dhaval, that boy is sex on a stick.”

Two nicely groomed dark eyebrows inched upward. “Delilah Blue, what do you know about sex on a stick?”

“Nothing,” she said, grinning. “I don’t need to have ridden a roller coaster to know what one is, do I?”

A laugh burst from Dhaval and filled the nearly empty theater. “That school back East did something to you.”

• • •

Delilah and Dhaval sat in the fourth row, with their feet up on the seats in front of them. Every time someone got stabbed, Dhaval shrieked and Delilah groaned. The gore was overdone. The fake blood too thick, too scarlet. Real blood, in such quantity, was deep and rich, like the heart of a rose.

A dark figure appeared in Delilah’s peripheral vision just before Gavin moved into view. Even though he tried to make himself as small as possible as he made the rounds with a tiny flashlight—presumably checking to ensure that no one was causing trouble or having sex in the theater—he cut a long, crooked silhouette when he passed in front of the screen.

Dhaval immediately dropped his feet from where they rested on the seat in front of him, but Delilah kept hers in place. She hoped Gavin would stop, tell her to put her feet down and give her a playfully stern look. Maybe he would even lean over and touch her leg. Maybe he would sit down with them after all.

“Delilah, please put your feet down,” he said, but he didn’t give her a second glance before he moved on.

She watched him walk back up the aisle on the other side. “Well. That was anticlimactic.”

Dhaval laughed and put his feet back up. “You can only be a flirt if he notices you.”

“He notices me,” she insisted. On-screen the killer was breaking another man’s fingers one by one, and for a moment Delilah was distracted.

But then she broke her attention away and looked at Dhaval. “Have you ever seen Gavin with his parents?”

Dhaval closed one eye, thinking. “Mom used to know his mom. She says she’s kind of a hermit now, never comes out of the house. There was something freshman year, about Social Services coming to the school to talk to him and his teachers. Some random teacher said his parents didn’t come in for a mandatory meeting or something, that they’d never seen them. It was all anyone could talk about—that Gavin Timothy didn’t have parents, that Gavin Timothy had killed his parents and was living alone in that crazy house.” Dhaval shook his head and reached for another handful of popcorn. “Ridiculous. Anyway, after a few days it just went away. I guess she showed up eventually.”

• • •

A new routine grew out of the lunch hour. Dhaval walked Delilah to the edge of the lawn and then thought of some reason or another why he needed to go hang out with his friends near the basketball courts, when there wasn’t a single bone in his body that had any natural inclination for the sport. Delilah would walk the rest of the way over to where Gavin sat, reading beneath the tree.

And over time, Gavin stopped reading during her approach and would instead watch her walk from the lawn’s edge to where his feet rested, practically miles from his smile. Her journey would feel like it was happening in stop-action; with his eyes on her like that, she would turn into the most awkward girl alive.

Looking at Gavin on a hazy Tuesday afternoon, Delilah felt like she was behind in the race to shed her childhood skin. He was tall, with stretching, growing muscles. The hair on his arms was dark. She could see a hint of chest hair beneath the collar of his shirt. Chest hair! She was so scrawny. She barely had boobs.

It seemed like Gavin finally couldn’t take it any longer. “Delilah?”

“Mmm?”

He wiped a hand over his face. “Are you. . . staring at my chest?”

Delilah nodded, moving her eyes up his neck to his face. “Yeah. Why?”

“Well. . . shouldn’t it be the other way around?”

Oh. Delilah almost choked on her tongue.

“I mean—” he started, backtracking.

But Delilah didn’t want him to take it back. “Aren’t girls supposed to mature faster than boys?” she asked, interrupting him. “I feel like I’m sitting next to a man. I’m not even done blossoming.” She considered this and looked down at her own chest. “God, I hope.”

“‘Blossoming’?” Gavin asked, with a slow-growing grin. “I can’t believe you aren’t more embarrassed to say that out loud.”

“And,” she continued, ignoring him, “I think you won the puberty race.”

“The what now?”

“Look at all these high school kids around us; they look tiny compared to you.” Gavin looked away from her face when she said this and out to the distance, where their classmates went about their business of socializing and eating and shooting hoops. “You have chest hair.”

It was his turn to look down at his shirt. He admitted, “Some.”

“And I have demi-boobs.”

Half of a smile flirted with his lips, and when he blinked down to her chest, Delilah thought the skin on her neck and cheeks might ignite. “Your boobs are fine,” he said after a lengthy inspection.

“Fine. Yes. Thank you. Be gone, feeble insecurities. My boobs are fine.”

“More than fine. Stunning. Perfection, even. Better?” He was outright laughing now.

“A little.”

“And puberty race? Really?” He was attempting teasing and skeptical, but he really just looked proud.

Laughing, she mumbled, “Shut up, Gavin.”

He split open a thick collection of short stories, sly eyes slanting a smirk in her direction. “Do I get a trophy?”

“Yes. Made of chest hair.”

• • •

But Wednesday afternoon he didn’t watch her walk to him; instead he watched Dhaval walk away. “Why doesn’t Dhaval ever come over here with you?”

“Because he knows I want to be here with you, alone.”

Gavin swallowed awkwardly, as if this weren’t plainly obvious, as if they hadn’t spent their last lunch together talking about puberty and breasts and his body beneath his shirt. He looked past her to the school building. “Do you think he wants to be your boyfriend?”

“Dhaval?” She laughed. “He’s about as straight as a rainbow.”

Gavin’s face scrunched up slightly with confusion. “Rainbows aren’t. . . Oh.” He looked up to where Dhaval walked in the distance. “I had no idea.”

“Then you have the world’s worst gaydar. He practically comes out every time he opens his mouth.”

Gavin was too lost in contemplating this to smile at Delilah. Instead he sat very still, thinking very hard, for what felt like far too long.

“What are you thinking about?”

“Do his parents know?”

“That Dhaval is gay? I doubt it.”

He pulled his lower lip between his teeth and blinked his eyes to Delilah. “How does that work? You share a house with someone and don’t know something so important.”

Delilah shrugged, feeling like the context of the conversation was eluding her. “I don’t think he wants his parents to know yet. He just wants everyone else to know.”

“What would your parents have done,” he asked, “if you had snuck in drugs or had a wild lesbian orgy at Saint Benedict’s?”

Delilah shivered, unable to stomach the idea of being romantic with any of her former classmates. “Ugh, no.”

Finally, this made him laugh. “I’m not asking you what girl you would have been with. I mean, what would your parents have done?”

“Flipped out. Completely.”

“What does that mean? What do they do when they flip out?”

Delilah wanted to ask him, for about the millionth time, what his parents were like. Didn’t they flip out on him? Wasn’t he keeping at least some secrets from them? She wondered if this was where the game of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” came in. She didn’t particularly like talking about her family—there wasn’t anything interesting to say, really, and it always made her a little sad that her parents were so unaffectionate and awkward, particularly when compared to Nonna’s exuberant love—but if opening up showed Gavin that his family couldn’t possibly be any weirder than hers, she was willing to try.

So with a shrug she said, “My parents are. . . hard to describe.”

“How so?”

“I don’t actually know them very well.”

He seemed to digest this for a few breaths. “Because you were gone a lot, you mean?”

“That, and I think they aren’t very good at talking, or connecting to other people. They have this little marriage bubble, and I’m their kid, but to them it means I’m a joint project. Like building a birdhouse together is the same as raising a daughter and redecorating the kitchen.”

“That’s. . . too bad.”

“Don’t get me wrong. They care that I’m raised right and want me to be safe. They just aren’t very warm. They don’t ever ask whether I’ve done my homework, but they have very strong opinions about boys and dating and sex and even thoughts.”

“You can’t have thoughts?”

“I should try not to, is what my mother says. There’s no use thinking about things I can’t do yet anyway. My dad is just. . . a dad. He works; he eats; he watches TV. He works; he eats; he watches TV.”

“No sleeping in there?” Gavin asked with a small smile.

“Maybe a little. My mom is sort of charm-free. Nonna always called her ‘Belinda Bluenose.’ I finally had to look it up to realize she was calling my mother uptight. And it’s true. I think my mother would fall over dead if she ever thought I masturbated.”

Gavin had been listening intently to all of this, but when Delilah said this last bit, he ran a hand over his face and coughed out a laugh. “Good God, Delilah. You’re going to kill me.”

“What? How?” she asked, suddenly distracted by a line of black words that peeked out from beneath the cuff of Gavin’s sleeve. She wondered what thoughts and ideas he found so important he would draw them in ink across his skin.

He shook his head, and instead of answering, he asked, “Have you never had a boyfriend?”

“Um, no. Were you listening to the flipping-out bit? I’ve kissed a few boys, but each of those stories is in my collection of secrets.”

“Not anymore.”

She deflated, having broken her one cardinal rule. “I didn’t tell you the details.”

“Hey,” he said, touching her arm. “I promise I won’t tell anyone you kissed a boy.”

Her eyes narrowed and she noted the brightness in his eyes. “You’re making fun of me.”

Gavin laughed. “I am. Completely.”

• • •

In Massachusetts, the local Trader Joe’s was a beacon of color, with bright signs suspended out front and fresh produce practically spilling from the shelves. Morton’s only grocery store was beige and as commonplace and average as everything else in town. Economy Grocer was a long rectangular building wedged between a run-down used bookstore and a small Payless ShoeSource.

Engrossed in one of her paperbacks, Belinda had placed the car keys in Delilah’s hand and sent her off to fetch onion powder. Delilah thrilled at any chance to drive on her own. Driving alone meant the chance to listen to loud music of her choosing.

Delilah wasn’t sure which cosmic force to thank when she pulled into the cracked parking lot of Economy Grocer just in time to see Gavin Timothy’s lanky frame disappear between the automatic doors. Keys and purse in hand, she hopped out of the car and made her way into the supermarket.

Standing at least a full head taller than everyone else, Gavin was instantly visible down the middle aisle, where he reached to pluck a box of ice cream from the frozen-food case.

“Hello there, Gavin Timothy,” she said, stopping a few feet away.

He straightened and looked at her over his shoulder. “Delilah Blue.” As usual, Gavin was dressed in black from head to toe, his jeans practically painted on and his T-shirt doing really, really nice things for his arms and the flat lines of his stomach. But it was his smile that had her taking a step back and stumbling into a display of Hershey’s Syrup.

“I’m fine,” she said before he could ask, righting herself almost immediately.

“Good,” he said, his smile widening, approaching indecent levels. Closing the freezer door, he turned to face her, motioning to the box of Drumsticks in his hands. “I was leaving work and craving ice cream.”

Together they turned and walked side by side up the aisle. “I hope you have one in there for me,” Delilah said, bumping his arm with her shoulder.

“I’m not sure what watching you eat one of these would do to me,” he said, and Delilah almost dropped her keys and Gavin shook his head next to her. “I probably shouldn’t have said that.”

“I think we need to figure out which of us is going to be the scandalous one here, because I’m not sure this friendship can handle two.”

Friendship, she reminded herself. Friendship.

“Just giving you a run for your money,” he said, following her around the corner to the spice aisle. A woman of about sixty was reading the back of a box of cake mix and glanced up, frowning in judgment as she inspected the messy-haired shadow at Delilah’s side.

Delilah scanned a row of spice bottles. “That one,” she said, pointing to the top shelf.

“Here?” he said, finding it easily and handing it to her.

“Thank you. Why do they put things so high? I need a stepladder to reach it.”

“Or maybe you need a grocery escort from now on.”

Her heart turned into a thousand fevered bird wings. “So what are you doing with the rest of your night?”

“Eating ice cream and thinking wholesome thoughts,” he said. “And I have a history test to study for. You?”

“Watching my dad watch TV? I don’t know.” She looked up at him. “Not much going on, really.”

Gavin looked like he might say something more, but they’d reached the checkout.

“Hey, Dave,” Gavin said, setting his box on the tiny conveyor belt before shoving both his hands in the pockets of his jeans. A middle-aged man with hair that thinned on top and grayed at the sides looked up at him in confusion.

“Hi,” he said slowly, watching Gavin through narrowed eyes like he was trying to place him. “Do I know you from somewhere, kid?”

Gavin blinked to Delilah and then back to the man. “Never mind,” he said slowly, pulling a five from his jeans and handing it to him.

Dave rang up the onion powder wearing a similar haze of confusion, his gaze repeatedly darting back to Gavin like he was sure there was something there to puzzle out.

With change in hand, Delilah and Gavin headed toward the entrance together. “That was so weird,” Gavin said.

“You do know him, then?” Delilah asked.

“He’s only delivered our groceries every week for, I don’t know, the past seven or eight years? How could he not know who I was?”

Delilah followed his gaze to where the man was ringing up the next customer. There was no way to meet Gavin and not remember him, and there was absolutely no way to forget his house.

• • •

Ten lunches together and two weekends in between interrupted her time with Gavin. Saturday was the most dreaded day of the week. On Fridays, she’d doodle skulls and torches and severed hands discreetly in class just to distract her from the impending doom of the weekend. Two days at home with her parents: torture.

She wasn’t one to snap. Granted, she wasn’t the most patient when it came to Gavin. She had no idea why, but early on she’d decided he was what she wanted. She wanted those lips to be hers and that forever-long torso, too. She was possessive of his quiet, husky laugh and wanted to know that the fingers he used to play the piano or sketch in his notebook were the same he would use to touch her jaw or her lips or her waist. Until he said no, she was going to be near him as much as possible. He seemed comfortable with her, would ask her questions and reply. But he never shared many details about himself.

“You didn’t bring lunch today,” he said, biting into a mottled red-green apple. He reached into his lunch bag and pulled out a second. “Here, I brought you one.”

“How did you know I wasn’t going to bring lunch?”

“I didn’t,” he said, taking another gigantic bite. It pushed his cheek out, and she could see his sharp canine tooth as he moved the bite farther back in his mouth. “But these apples are really good, and I thought you might want one.”

“Is it from your apple tree?”

He froze, swallowing roughly before he’d finished chewing. “Yes.”

“So, it’s January and your apple tree has fruit?”

“It’s not uncommon for apples to bloom in January,” he said robotically.

“It’s uncommon for Pippin apples.” She knew, staring down at the apple. She’d seen his blossoming, fruit-filled tree and she’d looked up what kind it was, and now he knew she had.

She stared down at the apple in her hand and then rubbed it against her shirt, shining it. She could almost feel him struggling to think of some way to change the subject. Giving up and letting him off the hook, she said, “Do you like when I come here at lunch?”

“Of course.” He dropped his ravaged apple core into his empty lunch sack.

“Do you like me the way I like you?”

He scratched his cheek, ducked to meet her eyes, and finally asked, “What way do you like me, Delilah?”

She looked up at him. He knew how she liked him. She’d made herself completely transparent. Why was he so intent on making her say it? When she saw his dark eyes widen slightly, she understood: Gavin didn’t totally believe that she could feel that way.

“I want you to ask me out on a date.”