Mrs. Weasley: Promise me you’ll look after yourself . . . stay out of trouble . . .
Harry Potter: I always do, Mrs. Weasley. I like a quiet life, you know me.
— J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
It was Gabi’s thirteenth birthday. She had invited all of her closest friends to her party, but being that it was Memorial Day weekend, only three out of the twenty girls actually showed up (and they were her best best friends, anyway).
Bree arrived a bit early, never having been to a sleepover before, and was a little nervous. She didn’t know how to paint nails, braid hair, or the proper technique for pillow fights (all of which seemed necessary in all the parties she’d read about in books). But then she saw that the Wii U was set up, popcorn was spilling out of multiple bowls, and Gabi was already wearing her favorite Transformers pajamas, and she relaxed.
Lena knocked on the door next, followed by Kay. Realizing how small the party actually was, Gabi’s parents decided it was safe to go out for the evening, leaving Gabi’s older brother, Bryan, in charge. He ordered pizza for them, then disappeared into his basement room, telling his sister to holler if she needed anything.
The girls all chatted for a bit about school and admired each other’s sleepwear (Kay: sweatpants with one of her old basketball jerseys; Lena: a matching pink top-bottom set with blue flowers and green lace; Bree: a brand-new Harry Potter shirt and baggy Ravenclaw leggings). Then they got down to the serious business of Mario Kart. Lena didn’t know how to play, so some time was taken up in showing her the ropes (or in Kay’s case, showing her where the cliffs were), but she caught on quickly, and then they were all racing in earnest. Bree was the best player out of the four, but this was Gabi’s party, so sometimes she let her friend win. But sometimes she didn’t. (It was hard to not get competitive, especially when Kay seemed bent on blasting everyone with red shells and then using Bowser’s weight to shove them off the road.)
Then, the pizza came (“BRYAN!! THE PIZZA GUY IS HERE! HE NEEDS YOUR MONEY!”), and Gabi refused to let anyone touch the Wii controllers with greasy fingers, so they had to pick a movie to watch instead. Everyone had been instructed to bring one, and given that there were only four people (“And we’re gonna stay up all night long,” commanded Gabi), they decided to watch them all. Gabi was to go first, it being her birthday, and she happily held up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Bree then shyly pulled her choice out of her backpack: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. (“No way!” Kay said, waving Deathly Hallows, Part 2 around delightedly.) Lena looked as if she was on the verge of rolling her eyes and denouncing them all as nerds, but then she showed her movie: Half-Blood Prince. They all had a good laugh about this, and so a Harry Potter marathon began (Gabi had all eight films, and on Blu-ray, no less.)
After Chamber of Secrets started, Gabi kept it running in the background as she got Bryan to help make an ice cream bar, complete with tubs of vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry and a host of toppings: sprinkles, nuts, cherries, whipped cream, chocolate syrup, caramel, and so on. Bree piled her vanilla scoops high with everything and carried it to the TV in time to see Harry and Ron enter the Forbidden Forest. Kay and Lena apparently took their sundaes very seriously, because they didn’t come back to the room until well after the spider scene was over.
By the time they were on to the third film, the girls were full of pizza and ice cream, and were lazily playing The Game of Life. Bree had to be shaken a couple times to pay attention (“The dementors, though!” she protested), and even so, she had the most money at the end of the game. Kay somehow wound up bankrupt.
They were at the beginning of Goblet of Fire and in the middle of an appropriately Harry Potter-themed game of Clue (Bree was sure it was Umbridge in the Divination Classroom with the Sleeping Draught), when something SMACKED against the living room window. It was loud and jarring, and they all screamed.
Bryan was instantly in the room. “What happened?”
“Something banged on the window!” Gabi said, holding up a pillow as a shield when she pointed. Bree edged a bit closer to Kay. So did Lena.
With a raised eyebrow, Bryan went over to the window, pulling aside the curtain as he looked outside at the backyard.
“Don’t see anything,” he said. “Probably just the wind.” He looked back at the girls. “You okay? Do I need to call Mom and Dad?”
“Yeah, it just scared us, that’s all,” Gabi said, defiantly tossing aside her shield-pillow. “Right, guys?”
The other three nodded, nobody wanting to break up the party despite the fright.
“Right . . . Well, let me know if you need anything. Try not to scream anymore,” Bryan said, and went back to his room.
Gabi frowned at the window and jumped up to get a closer look. Lena gave a little gasp.
“Well, he’s right, I don’t see anything . . . ” Gabi said, peering out at all angles and even jumping up and down to see better.
The curtain was still pushed off to the side, so everybody saw the small shadow that streaked past the window. Gabi stumbled back and fell in shock, and Bree clasped her hands to her mouth. Lena looked stunned, and Kay was immediately on her feet, fists clenched. But no one screamed.
“. . . You guys saw that, right?” Gabi said in a hushed voice.
“It was a ghost,” said Lena, eyes wide.
“Ghosts don’t have shadows,” Bree whispered, still staring at the window.
“It wasn’t a ghost, but it wasn’t nothing either,” said Kay, scowling. She moved past Gabi, still on the floor, to check for herself. “It’s probably in the backyard.” She grinned at her friends. “We should check it out.”
The other girls exchanged glances.
Next thing Bree knew, she was clasping a big flashlight and tiptoeing into the kitchen, where the back door was. Gabi was holding a smaller flashlight, Lena had two pillows (with all the stuffing up at the ends), and Kay had found a plastic baseball bat from somewhere. (Gabi had eyed it critically. “Don’t break anything,” she’d said. “Monster, ghost, or alien baby, my parents will still be mad if we smash something.”)
Bree stopped at the edge of the counter. They hadn’t turned the light on, and the drying ice cream bowls looked ominous in the gloom.
Lena hissed between her teeth. “Dog door.” They all stared at it. Perhaps it was just a trick of the not-light, but it looked like there was a shadowy figure on the other side of the semi-translucent flap, just sitting there.
“Unlocked,” Kay huffed.
(Gabi’s dog was very old, and it took him ages to go in and out of the house, so the family just left the dog door’s latch open all the time rather than deal with waiting for Bonesy to hobble through the door. He was currently snoring in Gabi’s room and obviously hadn’t heard the commotion.)
Kay moved ahead of the group and motioned for Gabi to follow. She stationed herself on one side of the door and pointed for Gabi to do the same on the other side. She then made a series of complicated gestures that Bree didn’t totally understand but took to mean she should shine her flashlight on the dog door, which she did.
Gabi reached out a hand against the dog door flap, her flashlight in her other hand raised as if to strike. Kay looked ready to bat a home run, and Lena, now next to Bree, lifted her pillows in preparation.
But there was no way to prepare for the pandemonium that took place when Gabi flipped the door flap open. Something small and hairy rushed into the kitchen, and everyone either screamed (Bree), squealed (Lena), shouted (Gabi), or swung their baseball bat (Kay). A pillow smacked Bree upside her head, a flashlight went skidding across the tile, and the whatever-it-was was gone by the time the girls gathered their composure and looked around. Surprisingly, Bryan hadn’t seemed to have heard the racket.
“Sorry,” Lena said, fixing a thankful Bree’s braids, which had gone all askew from the impromptu pillow attack.
Kay examined the baseball bat, which now had a big dent in it from the floor (which was fine). “Useless,” she said, shaking her head.
Gathering up her fallen flashlight, Gabi went and peered out of the kitchen. “It was some sort of animal! We have to get it out of the house!”
“Do we?” Lena muttered.
Gabi glared at her. “Yes. What if it’s something gross, like a rat or a possum?”
“I think it was too small to be an opossum,” said Bree.
Gabi threw up her hands. “Whatever! A rat, then. C’mon!”
There was little choice but to follow, so Bree went after Kay, followed by Lena. They searched around the living room (Goblet of Fire was still playing), and then the hallways. The basement room door was closed and so was Gabi’s parent’s bedroom, and despite Kay pointing out that the thing could’ve gone underneath, Gabi refused to let them go inside. The bathroom was clear, and they were going along in a line toward Gabi’s room, when Bree stopped.
“Has this hole always been here?” she asked, pointing to an air vent that was low on the wall, near the ground.
A ragged piece of the metal covering seemed to have rusted away, making a rather neat entryway for a small but enterprising interloper. Gabi frowned and knelt down to examine the hole. As if on cue, a scrambling, scratching noise came from above their heads, like something was crawling around in the ceiling.
“The vents!” they all said in unison. (“Ew!” said Lena immediately after.)
“It’s moving!” Kay cried.
They chased the scratching down the hallway, toward —
“My room!” Gabi shrieked, racing inside, the others following. Bree barely had time to appreciate Gabi’s nicely organized bookshelves before she was being yanked by the arm over to the wall by the bed.
“The vent’s up there — and listen!”
Something was definitely moving around. Lena looked like she was regretting ever stepping foot in this house.
Gabi jumped up and down, but she wasn’t nearly tall enough to reach the vent. “Hoist me up!”
“I got this,” Kay said. She spread her hands against the wall. “Get up on my back.”
It took a bit of trial and error (the room’s ceiling was very high), but with Lena on top of Kay’s back and Bree on top of Lena’s, Gabi (on top of Bree) was able to reach the vent and slowly open it.
Bree braced herself for the screaming.
But instead, she heard an, “Aww . . . ”
“Aw?!” said Kay from below, her voice sounding a bit strained. “We chased this thing all over the house, it scared us half to death, and all you say is ‘aww‘?!”
Gabi leaned away from the vent, and Bree could see that she was grinning. “It was a squirrel! And she has babies.”
“Aww! I want to see!”
They were just about to work out how to switch places with each other, when Bryan walked into the room.
He looked at the four girls stacked on top of each other, staring at him — and then he promptly walked back out.
A brief moment of silence followed this. Then Bree said, “So, doesn’t this mean a squirrel’s been living in your room for like, months?”
It was awhile before Lena would calm down enough to look at the baby squirrels (and even Gabi seemed less enamored with them after Bree’s announcement). They decided it was best to leave them there, and Gabi would tell her parents when the party was over tomorrow. Trooping back to the living room (Goblet of Fire, amazingly, was still going), the girls collapsed onto the couch, drained from all the excitement.
“More popcorn?” Gabi asked, vaguely gesturing at the empty bowl.
“Maybe later,” Kay said, closing her eyes.
They were all passed out by the time Gabi’s parents came home, and so didn’t get to hear Bryan trying to explain why there were pillows and flashlights scattered across the house — nor why he had seen the girls apparently climbing up the wall of Gabi’s room.
And Harry Potter played on.
I told myself I was going to finish this today, and though it’s past 10 p.m. as I’m posting this, IT STILL COUNTS! Hooray for me!
This story was inspired by a prompt found in this book: Write the Story