Gavin opened the heavy door and stepped through, looking around as if making sure everything was as it should be. With a small smile, he waved her in, nodding to let her know it was okay.
The entire walk there, Delilah had been high on anticipation and the thrill of seeing inside Gavin’s secret world. But on the porch, she was suddenly terrified of being gripped by the arms of a chair or tripped by the leg of a table. Was everything inside. . . wild? She imagined for a panicked heartbeat the feeling she’d had as a child, staring at the illustrations in Jumanji: vines growing on the ceilings, rhinos storming through the house, enormous bees dive-bombing from overhead.
“Come on,” he murmured, smiling in reassurance.
One tentative look past Gavin at the inside of the house showed her that it was actually very houselike.
She walked through the rooms, trailing her fingertips along each surface until it occurred to her that she might be molesting everything she touched. The furniture was pristine and beautiful, the floors—whether wood, or tile, or soft carpet—lacked any trace of dust or grime. Thick wall-papered walls were decorated with the occasional painting with life inside them—seaside scenes with gulls calling out from behind the frames, the smell of oranges as she passed a painting of a fruit tree. But other than these sounds and smells, the house was completely silent.
Gavin watched with a mixture of apprehension and amusement, his eyes wide and bottom lip snared between his teeth. He followed, studying her as she took it all in.
“That’s where I sit and read,” he said as she ran her hand over a leather couch in the living room.
“I wouldn’t sit there.” He laughed as she eyed a particularly severe-looking chair at the head of the table in the dining room. “This room has a bit of attitude.”
She expected some reaction from the space, something like a hum or a shiver, but everything was well and truly still, except for the paintings, which she’d actually forgotten. Now standing in the quiet calm of the kitchen, Delilah wondered if this house was anything special after all.
“I can’t tell that the house is. . . different.”
Gavin smiled as he turned and opened the refrigerator, grabbing two bottles of juice. “If you say so.”
“Do you think it will be weird to live somewhere else? Like when you go to college?”
She’d said these things innocently, but the house jerked to life, shaking once so violently and with a terrible groan that Delilah screamed and instinctively sprinted for the door.
The handle was locked, and she stood there, madly rattling the knob until Gavin came up behind her, wrapped his hand around hers, and gently pried her fingers away.
“It’s okay, Delilah.” He curled his hand around her shaking fist and pressed their hands to her stomach. “It’s okay.”
The house had gone still, the rooms no longer shaking or cold. Delilah could feel Gavin’s breath against her ear. She slumped back against him, calming. “It just surprised me.”
“I’m sorry,” he whispered in her hair. Somehow, though, it felt like he was speaking to the house as well as her.
When Delilah turned to look at him, her attention was drawn over his shoulder, at the light that continued to swing over the kitchen table, at the walls that now seemed to pulse and breathe as if before everything had been holding its breath, suspended.
“It was just behaving before,” he said with a small smile. “I’ve been talking about you for a long time, so everyone is excited. I think we’re all a little unsure how to act.”
“No, I’m sorry,” she said, her voice cracking. “I didn’t mean to upset anyone by asking that.”
She was shaking and wild-eyed when Gavin pulled her in to his chest, wrapping his endless arms around her. She pressed her face against his breastbone, listened to the steady pound of his heartbeat, and for a moment she felt like she was being held by him inside another body, a bigger and much more powerful one. She felt an odd tickling at her thoughts, like shadow fingers pressing in from her temples.
Blinking hard, Delilah shook her head and felt a wild pulse of anger over the violating sensation. In a tiny gust, the feeling was gone.
Gavin ran a long finger up her spine, bringing her immediately back into the moment with him. She’d been spooked by the shaking of the house. That was all.
“Let’s go outside, to the shed,” he said, and Delilah felt his lips move against her hair as he spoke. She wondered what stories his mouth might write across her skin and where he would put them.
“Are you scared?” he asked, very quietly.
Delilah shook her head. She wasn’t scared, exactly. But it was strange to reconcile always wanting the weird and strange and having it groan and shake all around you. It was wonderful to finally see something like this with her own eyes, but she hated to admit that it was also a little frightening to feel the presence of the house press up against her, so close, nearly in her own thoughts. The house was huge and real, and Gavin lived inside it. There must be slivers of her boringly normal parents inside her somewhere, but Delilah wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to wrap her brain around that.
“I just don’t want to do anything wrong,” she said.
The quiet rumble of his laugh rose up from where her cheek rested against him and came out in an exhale over the top of her head. “You couldn’t. I think the house is worried about the same thing. Haven’t you ever heard the phrase ‘it’s more scared of you than you are of it?’ Come on.”
Gavin led her into the backyard, which was huge and green and ripe with lush trees. Ruby apples hung from heavy branches. Tangerine, cherry, plum, and peach trees were thick with fruit and planted to create a small, delicious forest beside a shed.
Here the lawn was also perfect, soft and springy under her shoes. “What’s wrong with the front lawn?” she asked, remembering.
Gavin laughed. “The twins. I think Dead Lawn does it to piss off Alive. But that’s just a guess.”
Of course it was, Delilah thought. There wasn’t exactly any way for him to ask, or for them to answer.
“I have about a million questions.”
“I’m surprised you only have that many.” He led her farther back, into one of the small sheds, saying, “Come in here. She’s cool.”
She wanted to ask how on earth he knew the shed was a she or the lawns were twins or the house was worried for Delilah’s reaction, but when she saw the shed, she understood. The walls were softly curved, the wood smelling faintly of fruit tree blossoms. Gavin stepped aside after opening the door, letting her walk in ahead of him.
Delilah wasn’t sure what she expected, but it certainly wasn’t this. A shed, to her mind, was meant to be dusty and a place where old garden tools go to be forgotten and grow crusty with spiderwebs. This shed was nothing like that. The floors were shiny and pristine, the two small windows crystal-gleaming. Two walls were lined with shelves stacked high with jarred fruit, vegetables, and sauces. Another wall had a sink, a small stove, and several drawers with polished brass knobs. A blue sofa was tucked beneath the larger window and a stack of books rested nearby on the floor. Without having to ask, Delilah knew that Gavin spent a lot of time out here.
“Who made the jars of food?”
“Shed,” he answered, confused.
Delilah looked up in time to catch his curious smile. “How is that even possible?”
He opened one of the drawers near the stove and pulled out a couple of random utensils: a peeler, a slotted spoon, a beautiful knife with an ivory handle. “She uses utensils.” Delilah wanted to know how, but before she could ask, he said, “Do you want to take some fruit home?”
The space grew noticeably warmer, and Delilah felt her eyes widen, looking instinctively to the window in search of an aggressive ray of sun.
“It’s warm because she wants you to take some.”
Nodding politely, Delilah took the jars of peaches and plums when Gavin handed them over.
“These, too,” he said, tucking a jar of tiny pickles between her forearm and ribs. Delilah looked down at them, half expecting them to wiggle a little hello from behind the glass, but they were as still as any other collection of pickles. “They’re my favorites.”
“Is this place your favorite place to be?”
“It’s one of them.”
“What are some others?”
“Kitchen. My room.” He shrugged and then added, “I love playing Piano, but Dining Room is a nightmare sometimes.”
She lifted her eyebrows in silent question.
“He’s a bit of a hermit and keeps it really cold so that I don’t like being in there.”
He led her back outside, and Delilah felt as if she’d stepped off a boat: a little wobbly, her stomach flipping at the sturdiness of the earth beneath her feet.
“You okay?” Gavin’s hand came around her upper arm, warm, long fingers curling deliciously over her skin. The sensation of falling heightened until she swayed, leaning in to him and wondering if a part of her did it intentionally, because once his arms were fully around her, she felt perfect. Cocooned and stable, but—unfortunately—desperate for a kiss.
They lay down on a patch of grass beneath a cherry tree. The sun shone through in tiny bursts, and Delilah managed to position her head to avoid getting a sunbeam in the eye. It also meant that her head rested against Gavin’s shoulder.
“You can ask me more questions,” he said. “I’m sure you’re a little overwhelmed.”
She nodded, and she knew he felt it because he leaned a little closer to her. The feeling that took over was how Delilah imagined it would be if someone flushed hot water through her veins.
“Does the house possess things? Is that how everything works?”
“I’m not sure what it does, really, but that’s probably as good a description as any. The utensils move. The stove turns on. I feel like it’s the shed making it all, but maybe it’s more than one thing in there. The house sort of feels like one. . . thing, with just a lot of moving parts.”
She reached down, tugged at his elbow so he’d move his hand closer and let her hold it. “Are you happy here?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I mean, it’s all I’ve really known. I know that my home life is different, to say the least.”
She knew she should ask about the yard, or the house, or how he learned to walk, talk, or interact with other humans. Instead, she asked, “Have you ever had a girlfriend over before?”
He laughed. “No. You’re the first.”
“Have you ever had your heart broken?”
His voice was wary. “That’s not a question about the house.”
“Answer it anyway.” She looked up at him, admired his sharp jaw and the dark stubble forming just beneath his skin. She wondered if he would ever let her draw something on him. Bloodred swirls and jagged, slate-gray lines, or words, like he did. Some runes, maybe, to scare anyone else away from ever touching him the way she wanted to. “If I’m your girlfriend, I get to ask things like that.”
“Fair enough,” he said with a little smile. “And no, I haven’t. Not the way you mean. I had it broken a lot when I was little, just from being ignored or rejected or teased. I don’t think it could be broken now.”
Her heart broke a little at that. “That’s pretty terrible.”
“It’s not.” His fingers squeezed her, and inside her chest, her ribs seemed to mimic the gesture, coming together tightly. “I haven’t been lonely. House is very affectionate. Objects as family is my reality, and I’m a pretty happy person. Like I said, I have people I chat with online who just know me as a username and don’t have any clue that I’m the Monster House version of raised-by-wolves. Of course, now I have you.”
She grinned. “Yes. You do.”
“But I’m just saying that a person probably couldn’t break my heart. But maybe House could.”
The branches from the tree had started stretching down, and now they touched his other arm, the one she didn’t feel pressed along the length of hers. He whispered a “thanks” as he pulled a cherry off with a careful tug, popped it in his mouth, and turned to throw the pit across the yard. The branch smacked him lightly on the shoulder.
“What? You wanted to take it?” The tree ran a leaf across his cheek and then retreated. An obvious “yes.” It was then that Delilah realized how Gavin must have learned to walk and talk and all the other things he would have needed: House had taught him. If it could do something as delicate as feed him a cherry, reprimand him for tossing a pit into the grass, and then caress his cheek, it could certainly care for and nurture him.
Gavin was loved.
From where she lay, Delilah watched the interaction with wide-eyed fascination.
“I don’t know what to ask,” she said finally. “I think it’s amazing.”
A warm breeze blew through the yard and carried with it the smell of spring and warmth and the best kind of summer day, in the middle of the winter.
• • •
They left not too much later. Delilah was absorbed with everything around them, but still so self-conscious in front of it, wondering how much it could hear, or see. Wondering, too, if it saw through her directly to her not-so-innocent intentions where Gavin was concerned. She’d spent a good fraction of the time they were there imagining where they would kiss when they spent time together at his house.
He didn’t say anything when they left; he gave a small pat to the trunk of the cherry tree before leading Delilah out the back gate and onto the street. Back on the ordinary sidewalk, she didn’t think she would ever see the world the same way again. How many homes were like this? How many trees had the same consciousness as the ones in Gavin’s yard?
Just as she pondered this, his pocket buzzed. She looked up at his face in surprise as he seemed to hesitate for a moment before digging into his pocket.
“You have a cell phone?”
“Yeah. Of course.” The way he looked at her, she felt as though she’d grown an eyeball on her forehead.
“Did you buy it?”
Gavin held up a finger, asking her to wait as he answered. He didn’t answer like she would, with a “hello,” or a “hi,” or a “This is Gavin.” He just said, “I’ll be back by nine.” And then hung up.
“You have a curfew?”
“Of course I do,” he said, laughing.
“But if the house knows where you are all the time, why would you need to tell it when you’ll be back?”
“It can’t always see me unless I’ve taken something with me that’s. . . possessed.” He laughed when he said this, giving her a little apologetic smile. “Or unless it follows me in the grass, or in a wire, which. . .” He paused. “I’m not sure it’s ever done that. It’s weird to find the language for all of this. I mean, sometimes I know when House is worried, and it leaves a small object at the door for me to carry. Like on days I have a big exam. Or when I had my job interview and it knew I was nervous.” He smiled down at her. “But usually when I leave, I’m just. . . by myself.”
Delilah nodded, thinking about what he’d said and how much freedom he really had, in a weird way.
And nine o’clock felt like an eternity. Delilah looked at her watch. Did she really have five more hours with him? A blur of images flew through her thoughts like a stack of photos being flipped through his long, knobby fingers. Hands held, lips to palm, mouth moving up her wrist, kissing her chin, her lips, her eyelids. The smooth glide of his tongue on hers and a quiet exhale from her mouth into his.
But no, she didn’t have five hours. She was lucky if she had two, because her own curfew was sunset, and the sky was already sagging: the dim gray-blue of abbreviated winter days.
Gavin slipped the phone back in his pocket and gazed at her. His eyes were so dark and shiny, like her favorite black marbles when she was little. She used to pretend she found them while on safari in Africa, hunting for magical roots and fruit.
“I work because it’s nice to have some independence, but also there’s always money in the jar.”
Delilah blinked into focus. “What?”
He smiled, as if catching her daydreaming about his eyes and the adventures he saw for them behind the dark, dark irises. “In the pantry. There’s a jar of money; it’s always full. I don’t know how, but I never run out.” When she still didn’t respond, he reminded her with a patient smile, “It’s how I got a cell phone.”
“Is the jar alive?”
“I assume so.” He shrugged, shoulders pointing to the clouds and then relaxing again. “I don’t have much of a relationship with it other than to get some money when I need it.”
“Sounds pretty typically teenager,” she said, and grinned.
His smile stuttered and then twisted into a full curve, lighting up his entire face. Delilah thought she’d lose her mind or melt into the sidewalk if he smiled at her like that much longer.
“I haven’t been called ‘typical’ before.”
“I guess you’re not, except with the money jar.”
“Have you?” he asked.
“Sure, lots of times. Maybe not with that word, but with others—like sweet, or quiet, or well behaved.”
“Well, you’re not.”
“I’m not well behaved?” She fought another smile. Delilah liked the idea that he thought she had something wild in her, trapped in a steel box beneath her heart. If he would only kiss her, maybe it would all come tearing out and claw at him.
“I suspect you’re not that, either, but I meant you’re not typical,” he said. He reached forward, took a strand of her hair and wrapped it around his finger, sliding to the end and tugging gently. “Not even a little. And when you look at me like that, I want to lick your lips until the sun is gone.”
A thousand horses galloped in her chest. “You could, you know.”
He ignored this, saying very quietly, “No one has ever looked at me the way you do.”
She believed him. She’d never seen anyone the way she saw him, either. “Why won’t you kiss me?”
“I’m afraid I won’t be able to stop, and you’ll miss your curfew.”
She thought of her father’s angry face and her mother’s worried one as they both hovered in the kitchen, as close to the clock as they could get. “It might be worth it.”
He pulled his bottom lip between his teeth as he seemed to consider a kiss. Soft red flesh turned white where he pressed down with a sharp canine. He was too much for her. He was the most sensual person she had ever met. Delilah closed her eyes.
“I think about kissing you a lot,” he whispered.
She inhaled sharply, squeezing her eyes shut more firmly. Wanting him to stop and hoping he never would.
“And other things. Like how it would feel if you bit my shoulder. Or whether I could bite you back and if you’d like it.”
Delilah thought she would, knew she would. That unknown dark and dangerous thing about him was what pulled her in, but what kept her feeling more and more and more infatuated with Gavin was the reality: He would say every thought he had and wasn’t embarrassed that he was different and a little dark.
She considered opening her eyes and seeing what he looked like when he said these things to her, but before she had a chance, she felt the brush of his lips across hers, fingers wrapping around her waist, and a small, sharp bite to her bottom lip. The pain made her gasp and then immediately want another taste.
“Tell me tomorrow if you liked that.”
When she finally managed to open her eyes, Gavin was a small black dot in the distance as he disappeared down the sidewalk.