Natalie sat on the edge of the bed and covered her burning face with her fingers. “This is so crazy. I never expected this.”
Mikhail remained standing in front of her with his arms crossed, appearing mainly engaged with the carpet. But what most people regarded as a face without any meaningful expression, Natalie could interpret.
She tucked her hair behind her ear and continued. “I go to school. It’s no big deal, it’s just community college, not a university or anything…”
A metallic grinding noise prompted Mikhail to speak. “You still have the mouse.”
“Yes, good old Mr. Squeaks…” They both watched Mr. Squeaks grasping the bars and chewing them with his long yellow teeth. She got up to unlock the cage and reached in to grasp the wriggling mouse. “Here. Why don’t you hold him for a minute?”
He shrugged and she held the mouse out with both hands and placed him on Mikhail’s palm. Mikhail petted his back with one finger and the mouse stayed still. For the first time, he met Natalie’s eyes with his own, so dark as to be almost black, and narrowed by the first smile.
She took the mouse back and gently released him into the cage and secured it, idly fingering the lock while a few dark spots swirled across her vision. She rubbed the inner corners of her eyes. “This is the first time I’ve ever lived away from home and I’ve already screwed up royally.”
“Well, at least you’re familiar with your favorite roommate. Not vice versa though.” He sat down on the bed opposite hers. “But no one ever claimed he had any brain cells.”
“Oh, gosh,” she said and covered her eyes again. “How embarrassing. But he’s not my favorite here.”
Each question in her painful brain was punctuated by a lightning strike. What had he been doing—and did he finish school after he moved away— and was he on good terms with his family— and how long did he plan to stay? She settled on the last one: “Are you talking to your father?”
“Why would you ask me that?”
She sat down next to him on the bed. After a few moments, she said, “I’ve been having a hard time. I’ve been having these headaches” she put her head down and drew her finger across her forehead “and I don’t know what to do about them. I’m worried about my grandma. I’m worried about school. I’m worried about being here. I’m worried about everything.” He sat stiffly with his face tilted towards her, but kept his eyes averted. She pressed her palms together against her chest. “All I can say is, I’m glad we’ve run into each other.”
He pulled out a loose thread from the cuff of his shirt sleeve. “I haven’t talked to my father in four years,” Mikhail said. He lifted his eyes back to hers.
“And your mother?”
He raked his hair back and shook his head. “Logistics make it impossible to talk to one and not the other. She hates secrets. She’s like you—she—”
They both jumped when the front door banged open and then the bedroom door. Chad was in a panic. “They just took Vanessa to the hospital. Did Brad come up here?”
“Wait what? Someone still talks to her?”
“Mikhail!” Natalie said. She turned back to Chad. “Are you going there now? Can I please come?”
He wrinkled his face. “Why? You don’t even know—”
“Yes, I do! Come on, we have to go.” She grabbed her backpack and pulled up Mikhail by his sleeve.
“Hold on!” Chad ran after them. “You never said if Brad came up here!”