The House

Chapter 6

Him

Gavin stared at the girl in front of him, processing what she’d just said. A date, with food and maybe milk shakes, hands coming together, palms pressed tightly later. Maybe even lips and teeth touching later, too, and her quiet girl sounds muted by his mouth.

He’d never been very good at the romantic negotiations. The heavy, insinuating looks from girls when they moved to stand close to him. The cloying awkwardness of a girl trying to speak to him and becoming more and more self-conscious as he politely waited for her to finish saying whatever it was she wanted to say. Thankfully, most girls would eventually decide it was easier to pretend he wasn’t even there. But Delilah was a battering ram.

It was partly what drew him to her, but only partly. Her complete fearlessness felt calming and trustworthy, but her lips, and skin, and the hint of her breasts beneath her sweater didn’t hurt either.

“What are you thinking?”

“Nothing,” he lied.

“Liar. I just told you I wanted you to ask me out. Whether you’re intrigued or horrified, you have to be thinking about something.”

He didn’t bother denying it; he just smiled and looked at her face some more. She was so beautiful. Her skin was unreal, tiny freckles but otherwise smooth and clean with just the right amount of color blooming across her cheeks as she watched him. He could draw those eyes, he thought. Charcoal, maybe smudged with the edge of his little finger. Delilah’s eyes were wide-set, almost strangely almond shaped, and a turbulent gray-green like the crashing surf of Hallway Painting, waves pummeling stone and sand.

He would draw her later. He’d take the sketch downstairs, sit with Piano, listen to a song that he imagined would make drawn Delilah come to life, and he would pull her close to him, dance her across the floor. She would feel him, so real with her hands tugging his hair and her teeth pulling at the collar of his shirt like an impatient kitten, purring into his neck.

“Gavin?”

The real Delilah was waiting for an answer. How could they date when they didn’t even inhabit the same world? She, a mystery in her crisp shirt and pleated skirt, so unable to give up the prim uniform of Catholic school. He, with his tangle of hair, black shirt, jeans in the final throes of coherence.

“I’m not sure I’m really your type.”

Her smile curved her mouth into something edible. “I think you are.”

“I think you might be dangerous.” His left eyebrow quirked up, teasing her.

She laughed then, all husky and soft, and the sound burrowed into him, warming him from bones to skin. “I don’t think so, Gavin.”

“What would we do on a date, anyway?”

Her smile straightened, and she looked so earnest he would believe her if she told him the ground had turned invisible. “We could get milk shakes.”

His brows lifted.

“And maybe after we walked around for a while drinking our milk shakes, you’d hold my hand.”

He laughed. “Slow down, now.”

“And we’d talk. You’d talk.”

His expression fell a little.

“I hear it’s required on dates,” Delilah added. “It’s what I do every day with you. It’s your turn soon.”

“Talking really isn’t my strength.”

“I know,” she assured him.

“Then why would you want to go on a date with me where we have milk shakes and eventual hand-holding and awkward conversation?”

“Because,” she said, licking her lips into a sweet, shining red-apple kiss, “I’ve basically been at a convent for six years, and I’ve had a crush on you since we were nine. When I get you to say more than two words at a time, I feel like I’ve won something major.”

“Like a trophy made of chest hair?” he teased.

“Like a war.”

His skin pebbled in gooseflesh when she said that, not because it scared him but because it thrilled him to hear it from this tiny girl who drew pictures of bleeding crosses and eyeless skulls.

“What do you want from me, Delilah?”

“I want to be the only girl you look at.” No pretenses; she always said things like this, as if it cost her nothing to bare herself.

“You already are.”

“I’d like to be your girlfriend, Gavin Timothy.”

“Girlfriend? Or girl friend?” He felt the need to offer her plenty of chances to take it back.

“One word. ‘Girlfriend.’ ‘Sweetheart.’ Whatever you call it. That’s what I want with you.”

“Sweetheart?” he repeated, teasing. “My best gal?”

Shrugging, she whispered, “Yeah.”

He looked to the side, considering what that would mean. “You would have to know about me.”

“Obviously. I haven’t hung out with you under this tree for the last few weeks so I can know you less well.”

Looking back at her, he said, “It’s not like I have a weird kink like a foot fetish. I mean, I’m different.”

“Again,” she said, smiling, “obviously.”

“I live in. . . a house.” His words came out heavy as marble.

Her eyes narrowed as she considered him and he realized with a small laugh what he’d just said. Huffing out a breath, he dug both hands into his hair. “No. Right. Everyone lives in a house of some sort. It’s just that my house is different.”

“You mean because of the patchwork?” she asked, eyebrows lifted hopefully.

“No.” But then he understood her meaning, the way House came together on the outside. He was so used to seeing it that way and knowing each individual part just as that—individual—that he’d stopped noticing how it appeared so heavily seamed, so awkwardly plugged together. “Yes, actually. I mean, the reason it looks like that is the same reason you wear those little skirts and I wear jeans and boots.”

“Like, every room is decorated a different way,” she said, smiling that she seemed to be following. Except she wasn’t. The rooms weren’t decorated a certain way; they were a certain way.

“No, Delilah. The house, and everything inside it, is unique. Everything has its own style, because everything in the house is alive.”

Delilah laughed, clearly disbelieving. “Okay, Gavin. Sure.”

Blinking away, Gavin took a deep breath and considered his options. He could laugh it off, too, pretend that he was making a joke. But that would mean nothing else between him and Delilah could move forward. He wouldn’t really be able to be himself with her the way he suspected he would want to be. . . or maybe already did.

Or, he could try to make her believe.

“I realize how this sounds,” he started. “But I wouldn’t lie to you, or tell you this to mock you somehow.” Gavin looked back at her, his eyes tripping on a strand of hair blown across her face, stuck to her lip. Without thinking, he gently urged it away with a long finger. “I’ve always been a bit of an outsider, you know, but given how I was raised, how could it have gone differently? My first day of kindergarten, there wasn’t a parent walking me there but a tricycle that squeaked down the street next to me. Not with me on it. Next to me. It sat outside my classroom until I was ready to go home and then walked me all the way back. I hadn’t even known what school was until the moment I saw the other kids playing and understood I was supposed to go too. But even then, when I was five, I knew not to tell anyone. I knew to put my hand on the handle so it would look like I was leading it and not the other way around.”

Delilah looked like she might silently blink herself into a faint.

“And when I got home that day,” he continued, “there was a snack on the kitchen table and a new Lego set—a present, okay? For getting through my first day. Until I was in the third grade, something from the house would take me to school. The tricycle or a wagon or even a small toy that grew warm in my hand, like it was reassuring me. The house has a way of slipping into things that are inanimate. It takes care of me. It always has.”

She seemed to try to make a few sounds before anything came out. “Slipping into. . . what?”

“I don’t know what it is, really,” he admitted, and when he looked at her incredulous expression, he wanted to tell her how many times he’d tried to puzzle it out, too. Was it spirits? Some sort of spell? Was it just. . . magic? In any case, it was his reality, his family, his life. “Things inside House can come alive in a way that I don’t think things anywhere else can. When an object is inside House. . . it can be alive.”

Still, Delilah stared blankly at him, repeating, “‘Can be’?”

“I mean, it doesn’t hijack onto my clothes,” he said with a little laugh that wasn’t returned. “Though, I think the energy, or whatever it is, can leave, too, through power lines, or through roots in the soil. I’ve tried to figure it out because obviously nothing there can really explain it to me.”

He realized he’d said too much. Delilah had leaned away a little, eyes wide. Growing slightly panicked, Gavin told her, “I’m telling you this because I really like you. And I trust that you won’t. . . won’t tell me I’m crazy.” He ducked low to meet her eyes, weary. “Say something,” he urged, after at least another half a minute had passed.

“But it sounds crazy,” she whispered.

A part of her had to believe it was true. Had she not felt the vine grasping her ankle? What would the human mind do to deceive itself?

“It’s crazy, yes. But the world is full of things that are crazy and wild and unbelievable.” When she didn’t say more, he added, “You of all people know this, Delilah. It’s why you love the idea of demon possession and things coming back to life. Is it so hard to imagine that objects might have life in them, too?”

Delilah looked as if she had been punched in the chest. “How do you know those things about me?”

He tried not to roll his eyes. “Anyone who pays attention knows that about you.”

“No one knows that.”

Gavin raised an eyebrow. “I’m paying attention in a way others aren’t.”

“So let’s say you’re telling the truth and you aren’t crazy. How does it work?” she asked. “Like, does everything. . . talk?”

He shook his head, his skin tingling faintly with the surrealism of the moment. “The things inside are alive, but nothing can speak because nothing has a mouth. Except the television, I suppose. But every single thing is alive. The rooms, the furniture, the paintings.”

“The curtains,” she breathed, playing with her lip.

“Yes, the curtains.”

“And the vines.” Delilah looked all around and down at her feet as if she expected something to have reached up and ensnared her ankle. “Is this why your parents never leave the house?”

He paused, wondering again whether he should lie. He started to, but the words got stuck in his throat, and instead the bare truth came out in a whisper. “I don’t have parents. I’ve been in the house for as long as I can remember.”

Delilah couldn’t process this, it appeared. She blinked a few more times and stared at him with her lips slightly parted. Gavin focused instead on her eyes.

“Where are they?” she asked, voice tight as if her throat was holding back more emotion.

He licked his lips, unable to look at her when he admitted, “I don’t know.”

“So they. . . just left?”

“Yeah. I don’t have any memories of my dad, but my mom. . . I know she was here at some point—there’s a ­picture—but. . . she left. She left me.”

“But you have food and—”

“I have everything I need,” he told her, because he did. Groceries were delivered each week, the account prepaid by someone—he’d never really thought to check by whom. When he was younger they were left at the front steps, but now Gavin always answered the door. That’s how he’d known Dave from the grocery store. Dave had been stopping by every week for years. How in the hell hadn’t he recognized Gavin? Beyond that, there wasn’t a single physical thing he needed that he didn’t have. Somehow House provided all of it.

“Aren’t you lonely?” she asked.

He shook his head.

“How. . . ?” she started and then stopped. “How is that even possible?”

With a smile, he explained. “It’s all I’ve really known, you know, so it doesn’t seem that impossible to me. I have some friends here at school. I have friends online. Things in the house move.. . . They take care of me. They always have. They would never leave.” He took a moment to look around the school yard. “It’s a bit like having a really big family, but no one speaks.”

Her jaw set, determined, when she said, “Then show me.”

The wind blew around them, picking up leaves and spinning them in the air.

“Okay.” He grinned because he suddenly loved everything about this conversation. It felt like he was exhaling a burning lungful of air after holding it in his entire life. And this girl, this gorgeous, crazy girl wasn’t running away screaming.

She caught his smile, her eyes narrowing in suspicion. “You’re really not messing with me?”

“I swear I’m not.”

“Why are you laughing?”

“Because, Delilah,” he said, running an index finger along his eyebrow, “I never expected the pretty girl who wrote me a note in the sixth grade to ask to be my girlfriend six years later, hear all this, and not run screaming.”

“Did you want to be my boyfriend?” she asked, eyebrows pulled close together. She looked preemptively mad, as if she were preparing for a fight.

For a war.

As if he could have said no. He nodded slowly. It seemed predestined, he realized, that this girl would walk back into this dirty, rumbling school with an unending tangle of words and innocence trailing behind her. And that the first thing she would want was him.

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