Four high school students encounter an evil spirit. Thoroughly cliched and hopelessly derivative.
When Natalie’s seventy-two hour hold ended, her mother picked her up from the hospital. She handed Natalie her bag and they checked out, not without prescriptions they had no intention of filling. Natalie turned her drained face to the sun and closed her eyes. She wanted only to get home, take a long shower, and climb into bed wearing her own pajamas. She felt a stab—no one waited for her in their empty cage.
Chad had left the day before. If you asked her two weeks ago if she’d like to be locked up with Chad in a mental hospital, she’d have said “yes” before you finished your question.
“So what do you want for lunch?” her mom asked.
“Oh, gosh, I dunno… Junk food. Definitely junk food.”
But life turned upside-down in those two weeks. He never asked how she felt about anything; he was too preoccupied with himself. She could’ve blamed the hospital, but she knew he was like that all the time.
“Your favorite place?”
And if it was like that now that he was smart, what on earth would they have had in common when he still played football?
Mikhail, on the other hand, was the poster-child for being preoccupied with himself. But she got the feeling he didn’t really want to be.
“Car’s the other way, honey.”
She turned and looked up, and there was Mikhail, waiting by their sedan, arms crossed around himself.
“Mikhail! How did you know!” Her surprise brought color back into her face.
“That’s our secret!” her mother cut in.
Natalie looked from him to her mother. “You guys!”
“He called to see how you were doing so I brought him along.”
For a moment she forgot about the preceding three days, the noise, the nausea, the lack of sleep, the fear.
“I’ll never call anyone ‘crazy’ again!” she said, getting in the backseat with Mikhail. “I was scared and sad all at the same time.”
Her mom turned on her music, which usually embarrassed Natalie, though not today.
“Why both?” he asked.
“Well, I was scared because I didn’t want to get hurt. But they can’t help it. They’re sick, and… I guess they just need someone to care for them.” She watched out the open window and the wind blew her hair around her face. Who knew that a window you could open was a big deal?
Had she belonged in that place? She wondered a couple of times, but she knew what she saw at the mall, and Chad had wound up there too for the same reason. And Mikhail believed her.
She pulled a piece of hair out of her mouth and tucked it behind her ear. She looked over at him and his head was leaned back against the headrest, and his eyes were closed.
“You guys wanna stop at the drive-thru for milkshakes? You said you wanted junk food.”
“Yes! I need one!” she cried. “I’m gonna have it with Oreo crumbs and fudge and whipped cream!”
“That’s not a milkshake, honey, that’s a sundae!”
“I don’t care!” she said, laughing. “What about you, Mikhail?”
“Um… I guess so.” His eyes were still closed.
She pulled at his sleeve. “Well, what kind?”
A small smile cracked the corner of his mouth. “Um, vanilla.”
“Ugh! So boring!” She looked over quickly. Okay. Still smiling.
They pulled into the drive-through and her mother was ordering.
“Do you think anyone cares for them?” he asked in a low voice.
“Why, honestly, I don’t know.” She looked down. “I’m afraid not in some cases.”
“Do you think it would’ve helped keep some of them out of there?”
“Um, well… I think for some of them, it might have helped. Some of them. ” She looked out the window again. Pictures absurd and terrifying flashed across her mind’s eye. “But not all of them.”
She looked over at him and he was looking at her now.
“What are you two going on about back there?” her mother called.
“She said I’m crazy because I like vanilla.”
“That’s not true!” she shrieked between the front seats to her mother and then fell back laughing.
“Do you have a picture of—of your mouse?”
Serious now, she nodded and went into her wallet. She handed him a photograph of the mouse peeking his head out of his plastic house with the red roof.
He took it and held it out at a little distance. “So this is—Mr. Squeaks.”
“Yes. That’s him. That’s Mr. Squeaks.”
He looked a little longer and handed it back with an awkward smile. They drank their milkshakes—or rather, Natalie ate hers with a spoon—and her mother dropped him off on their way home.
“Well, that was fun, wasn’t it?” her mom asked when Natalie got into the front seat. “I’m glad you’ve got a friend. Too bad the other kid with you in the hospital didn’t come, too.”
Yeah, the twenty-year-old kid who couldn’t remember her name even though they were in the same class for four years. “Yeah, too bad.” And yet, she felt no pang.
That night, she checked the empty cage, as she did every night. She opened the window a little, breathing in the crisp night air through the curtains, and then got into the freshly-made bed. Her mother had pulled the corners tight and fluffed the pillows. Oh God, her own bed. Her mind felt like it was racing through a thousand channels—the hospital and the ride home and Mr. Squeaks and the hospital and Vanessa and the hospital and the mall and the ride home. Mikhail almost never smiled, but when he did—
She started violently coughing from the smoke which suddenly filled up her nose and mouth and lungs but she couldn’t get up, something gripped her and she couldn’t move or even yell. She knew exactly where she was going like all the other nights but this felt different and here it came—