“I know, it’s just- you know it’s complicated with my family. I don’t always want to hear about where I came from,” she sighed, running her hand over Nicole’s knee. Nicole scoffed.
“Yeah, well, at least you get the chance.”
Michelle chewed the inside of her cheek. She had known Nicole for a long time: they had been friends since childhood and had gone to most of the same schools since their teenage years. Nicole had avoided bringing her to her house at first, and when she finally caved in and let Michelle sleep over, she had, in part, confirmed Nicole’s fears. She had been confused when she met Nicole’s family, not because they acted particularly different or treated one another badly, but because her parents looked nothing like her. They were perfectly pleasant people, but Nicole had been frustrated by her foster parents’ lack of knowledge about her birth parents. When she was seventeen, she’d finally weaseled out what they knew, only to find out it didn’t matter. All Nicole knew about her parents was where they were buried, and that the car accident that killed them had left her alone. She had been too young to remember anything about them, and in some ways, she felt worse because of it: she wasn’t sure what she’d missed out on.
Michelle’s mother had taken an instant liking to Nicole, and they were far closer than Michelle could hope to be with her mother.
“Honey, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean… you know I love my family. They love you, too.”
Nicole looked down at her hands, long eyelashes fluttering on her dark cheeks. Michelle sat next to her and slid up close, kissing her cheek. She didn’t want to see Nicole cry.
“I love you.”
“I know. I love you too.”
They sat together on the black fabric for silence in a moment. Michelle held her hand.
“You know what? Let’s search the house. Maybe they just missed something- there could be a duct, or a little space behind one of those baseboards or something.”
Nicole smiled, running the palm of her hand over her face.
“All right. I’ll grab a flashlight. We can check out the attic some.”
Although the house wasn’t very big, the downstairs portion had more than enough space and storage for the two of them. It had two bedrooms, something that Nicole had pointed out made having friends over easy, although neither one of them was too social and Michelle suspected it was really about being able to invite over her mother. All the time they had spent in the attic was the few minutes it took to put up the two plastic bins in the one corner of the otherwise empty room. There was a wall along one side where the roof slanted, creating a small triangular closet that they had briefly poked their head in, but not investigated thoroughly, and that was where they went now.
Leaning in, Michelle looked around skeptically. She clicked on the flashlight.
“What about that little door?” she asked.
“What little door?”
“It’s at the back here. It cuts off the rest of the little closet thing.”
She crawled down toward the small square door, no more than three or four feet high. It was latched with a hook and eye, and she pulled it out and it swung open, revealing a tiny, dark room.
The space was unfinished, with only loose pieces of plywood across the beams, and curiously devoid of ladybugs.
“There’s a box in there,” Michelle said. “I’m going to check it out.”
“Be careful, Mitch,” Nicole whispered, holding the flashlight as she crouched down, leaning against the door to keep it from slamming shut. Michelle nodded, tucking her hair behind her ear as she leaned in and crept across the plank of plywood.
“Ugh, god. It smells like piss,” she grumbled. “I hope there’s no rats in here.”
She crawled toward the cardboard box and hesitated before touching it, imagining nests of rats, waiting to pour out over her hand once she grabbed it.
“Mitch? Is everything all right?”
She tried to inhale through her nose to calm herself, and ended up kind of sputtering against the smell of ammonia. Frustrated, she grabbed the box, ignoring the thought of rats scurrying around her head.
She pulled the box with her back across the plywood and to Nicole, who turned her flashlight on it.
“What does that writing say?”
Michelle turned the box. On the side, in heavy-handed black marker, was written the name Ashlee and age 9.
“If there’s a kid in here, I’m gonna- I don’t even know,” Nicole cautioned as she shut the door to the small room.
“I don’t think it’s big enough for that.”
“Yeah, well, It’s big enough for a head. I’ve seen Seven.”
“I don’t think it’s a head.”
“It better not be.”
Carefully, Michelle opened the flaps of the box. Blessedly, there was no head inside, but only an old stuffed bear, several magic marker drawings of animals, a tattered copy of a Magic Schoolbus book, and a blue scrapbook so full that its covers splayed outward. She picked it up and it fell open in her hands.
There were hundreds, if not thousands of ladybugs inside the scrapbook pages. They were glued with white glue, glitter glue, even taped over Hello Kitty stickers and cutouts from coloring books. They were everywhere, even crushed after leading off trails of glue toward the edges of the page, clearly having been alive when they were placed there.
“This is like a little kid serial killer,” Michelle whispered. She held the book at arm’s length, horrified.
“Maybe this place has always been infected with bugs.” Nicole said, and took it from her carefully, walking out of the closet and back down the stairs as Michelle trotted after her. From behind her, she heard Nicky talking hopefully.
“It’s disgusting, don’t get me wrong. But maybe that’s why they can’t get rid of them? They could be hiding in that tiny room?”
“Maybe,” Michelle grumbled. “I need a glass of wine. I can’t deal with this right now.”
“The glasses aren’t unpacked, hon.”
“It doesn’t really matter.” She opened the pantry and pulled a pink solo cup off the stack, slapping it onto the counter with a hollow clack before screwing the lid off a bottle of red wine and pouring it into the cup. Across the table, Nicole crossed her arms. She considered rattling off the same line she used at her students, that problem solving has to come from the heart, not from a bottle, but she just rolled her eyes as Michelle downed the cup like an ambitious frat pledge.
As she put the empty cup down on the counter, Michelle watched a ladybug plodding across the counter away from her hand. Angrily, she slapped the solo cup facedown over the bug. She slid a piece of paper beneath the cup. “I’m so tired of this,” Michelle spat. “There has to be a way. I’m sick of it.”
As she lifted it to take it out the door, they both froze. On the table, just where it had been, was the ladybug. Michelle screamed, and the bug took off.
“Mitch, calm down! You probably just dropped it without realizing!”
“No, I didn’t! I didn’t!” but she was already second-guessing herself. She rushed to the wall where the bug had landed and pressed her hands against it, leaning in close and staring upward to where the ladybugs milled around on the wall.
“They’re ghosts,” she whispered.
The clear sound of the doorbell rang through the house.
“I’m going to go get that,” said Nicole slowly. “Please don’t be weird.”
She left Michelle in the kitchen and went down the hall to the front door. She didn’t bother to glance through the window before she opened it and was slightly surprised when she did. There were two smartly-dressed young white men with little black nametags and black backpacks standing nervously in front of her.
“Hello,” said the one on the left, a pale young man with red, wavy hair. “Do you have a moment to talk about our lord Jesus Christ and his gift of salvation?”
Nicole hesitated. She knew Michelle wasn’t fond of inviting strangers in, and neither was she, but she couldn’t just shut it again or pretend she wasn’t home. All the same, she was shaken from their bug related discoveries. Even the prospect of talking with someone else, someone who wasn’t insisting that they were haunted by insects, felt like an appealing and grounding prospect.
“S-sure,” she stammered. “Come on in.”
She brought them into the living room and she sat on the loveseat across from the couch while they introduced themselves to one another, asking her if she had any questions about their faith and told her they would answer them to the best of their ability. They referred to one another formally, brother and their respective last names. The redhead seemed to be a little more at ease with their discussion, whereas his friend, who was broad-shouldered and blond, was more awkward.
Nicole told them that she was living with her cousin (a lie they didn’t seem to detect, although aside from both having brown eyes and not being white, they did not look much alike) and that they had just moved into the area (which was kind of true, almost). She offered them water bottles, which they took politely. They talked about general religious questions, but Nicole grew antsy. She kept catching brief glances of Michelle skulking around in the kitchen with the scrapbook, trying to avoid detection, which didn’t help.
“Are you a woman of faith?” The redhead asked.
“Yeah,” Nicole lied, “I’m a Christian, sure. I just want to know, hypothetically, what you would do if you felt like there was some kind of, uh, weird- well, I mean, some kind of lingering presence somewhere?”
He mulled it over.
“I’ve never encountered it personally, but I’ve heard of it. I think I would pray on it, and maybe try to lift up my mind to holier things.”
Nicole laughed nervously. “Right, yeah, of course. But I just mean, you know- hypothetically.”
He considered it for a moment before his blond friend chimed in.
“You know, according to the plan of salvation, the third of spirits that followed Satan into hell can serve to tempt and torment humans here. A kind of presence like that, well, I would think it was trying to get someone to sin.” The blond one’s face darkened, and he looked very serious. “Are you facing that kind of torment, miss?” His companion looked apologetic.
From the kitchen, Nicole saw Michelle gesturing across her neck, eyes wide and her face drawn into a urging cringe. She looked back at the boys and tried to sound as nonchalant as possible.
“Oh, no! Lord, no. Not me. I was just curious.” She attempted another smile.
The blond one examined her suspiciously.
“Well, if you knew someone who did, there’s always a Melchizedek blessing.”
Michelle’s arms dropped to her sides and she made a face similar to the one Nicole had seen on the news when congressmen were indicted on sexual scandals. Nicole tried not to react and looked back at the missionaries on her couch.
“It just orders spirits to leave. It’s performed by a senior member of the church. It’s nothing dramatic. But I’d probably also pray and examine my things and beliefs to see if I could have been doing anything that would have invited those spirits into my home.”
“Of course,” the redhead added, “we could just pray on it right here. It couldn’t hurt.”
Nicole thought about it. At the very least, it couldn’t hurt. She nodded.
“Sure. Why not? Better safe than sorry and all that.” She forced a laugh.
“That’s wonderful. We can all join hands,” the blond one said, and the young men clasped hands and offered theirs to Nicole, who took them hesitantly as they bowed their heads.
“Heavenly father, we’re here with our sister, Nicole-” the redhead began, voice low and reverent. Nicole opened one eye just a sliver to see Michelle creeping in the hallway, stashing the book as quietly as she could. She saw Mitch mouth the word “Sister?” indignantly as the blond one continued.
“We’re here to ask that you protect her and her household from evil influences and materials that may have been brought into their lives by unholy forces, that any temptations and forces that have been brought to her by the devil be pushed out of her home and out of her life.”
Nicole looked around as the two missionaries continued to pray, heads bowed devotedly, each holding one of her hands. As they continued, they seemed to intensify, and just as she began to worry this may take longer than Michelle was willing to lay low for, they stopped, looking up at her hopefully.
“Thank you for praying with us,” said the redhead.
“We can leave our information with you,” interrupted his friend.
“I tell you what.” Nicole smiled. “I’ll write in and I’ll read about it.”
She stood up, and the missionaries seemed to take the hint that it was their time to leave. Nicole walked them toward the door as the blond one tried to continue talking about possible sources of this corruption- it could be Charmed, he suggested, or maybe some inappropriate music? Had they played any occult based games recently? She insisted that no, of course they hadn’t. That that wasn’t her cup of tea.
“Hey, did you realize you have ladybugs above your door?” Interrupted the redhead, as if it was a fun curiosity that nobody had noticed before. “They’re supposed to be good luck.”
“Yes,” Nicole said happily through clenched teeth as she pulled the front door open. “I saw them. I’ve heard.”
She shook their hands and urged them out of the house.
“Thank you, boys, it’s been a great talk. You take that water and come back anytime, all right?”
“Thank you for your time, ma’am. You and your friend have a blessed day.”
“Yeah, you too,” called Michelle from behind Nicole as she slammed the door. As she did, she rolled her head on her shoulders.
“The Mormons? Really?”
A dark red blush lit up Nicole’s cheekbones and nose.
“Well, it’s not like it did any harm.”
“Didn’t really help, either,” Michelle quipped.
“Stop it. You don’t have to be so caustic. They were perfectly fine people.”
Michelle opened her mouth to respond, but couldn’t justify any of the responses that came to mind.
“Well, the ladybugs are still there,” she managed weakly. “So there wasn’t any point.”
Nicole crossed her arms.
“Not everything has to be about getting some kind of immediate result, Mitch. You can do things just to be nice without worrying it’ll compromise your badass attitude.”
Disheartened, Michelle chewed her lip.
“I know. I’m sorry.” She didn’t want to have another fight with Nicole about something like this. There was no reason, and she didn’t like to argue with someone that she loved.
“I know you were just being nice, all right? Let me make it up to you somehow.”
Nicole put her hands on her hips and raised her eyebrows. “What do you mean?”
“Just… let me make it up to you. I’m sure there’s something you’d want me to do.”
Nicole considered it.
“All right. There is something, but you won’t like it.”
“What is it?”
“I want to go see your mom.”