Keeper of the Flies
Illustrations by Camille Shurbaji (top) and Sara Wegscheider (bottom)
A putrid smell was oozing from under the door of Josie’s closet. No matter how hard she tried, the young girl could not make it go away. She smeared the door with baby wipes, with dish soap, and with her older sister’s most floral deodorant bars. She would get on hands and knees and squirt at the empty gap with Febreeze, with her dad’s cologne, and with the Poopourri from the bathroom. In spite of - and perhaps because of - its ineffectiveness, it had become a ritual repeated before breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
And before her mother came in to wish her goodnight, too.
How Josie missed singing with her mother before bed. Such a thing was impossible now that the stench cohabited her room. Every night, she had no choice but to kiss the older woman quickly, and then shoo her away.
“Are you sure?” Josie’s mother would ask her each night, gently brushing soft, youthful ringlets away from the girl’s face. Josie could never bring herself to ask again, and so she would nod, her eyes steeled on the window and the tree beyond it with its long, waving arms. She curled onto her side in the shadowed room, lonely and dutiful. She would never, ever dare, however, to face the thing in the closet. For, of course, there was a thing inside.
In the depths of the dark space resided a thing with teeth, and sharp claws, and big, scary eyes. A thing that she had once heard screaming with enough conviction to give her baby brother a run for his money, but now it lay in wait, silent, stinky, and a little bit louder every day.
For the past month, Josie had gotten into the habit of waking up with the sun. Sometimes her mother would be awake, too, because of the baby, but often Josie was the first to be awake in the whole entire house. She loved this. She loved the way the house felt quiet, the way the old floorboards greeted her tiny feet with small squeaks and murmurs.
“Good morning to you, too,” she would whisper to the especially loud ones. By the time she reached the kitchen, she had become so enraptured with greeting the morning that she could almost forget to worry about strange smells, cartoon flies, and buggy eyes. She would climb onto the counter, plug in the toaster, and take anywhere between six and ten pieces of bread from the pantry. She was a firm believer in using food as a punishment or reward system. Her mother, yesterday, had earned two pieces because she spent hours and hours on the phone while Josie had been trying to teach her the fundamentals of the new language she had just made up. However, that call did make her look sad, and so Josie had thrown in a third slice for her anyway, because she also believed in treating difficult emotions with food. Her big sister did it all the time. Apparently high school was a very emotional place.
Balancing three plates of justice in her small arms, she made her way back up the carpeted staircase and made her first stop in her parents’ bedroom. They always slept with the door closed. Carefully, she placed the plates on the floor without spilling any toast at all. She twisted the knob and poked her head into the room. Both mounds lay there sleepily, like bears in hibernation. A part of Josie always felt a little bit shy about waking them up, but these early hours were the only time she really had them all to herself. She squatted down to lift two of the plates and left the third – her sister’s – there on the floor, vulnerable and alone. Without using her hands, she wiggled her way onto the fluffy comforter, barely crawling over anyone’s legs.
“Ouch,” chuckled Josie’s father into his pillow.
“Gooooooood morning!” exclaimed Josie.
Her mother took the plates from her outstretched arms and pulled her in to snuggle. They lay there for what could have been hours or mere minutes – three lumps huddled together on that early December morning.
Down the hall, an alarm clock sounded, and a teenager groaned.
“Mikayla!” shouted Josie. She had almost forgotten all about her sister’s breakfast. She attempted to explain this to her parents as she scrambled out of the restrictive blankets, but her words were having trouble finding each other as half of them collided with her actions, rerouted, and were lost once more.
“Josie,” murmured her mother as the child reached the door. “You’re a good girl, honey.”
Josie paused, smiling, before darting out the door. Her heart pumped proudly, its fists hammering its chest as she went. It made her want to sing. “Shoo,” she whispered to Ghandi, their chubby old cat. He purred and slunk away from the deserted breakfast. She was almost certain he hadn’t gotten around to eating any of it, and so she grabbed it and headed off to Mikayla’s bedroom.
Her sister always slept with the door open just a crack. Josie thought it might be because she was scared of being alone, but her elder sister would never admit to such a thing. Shamelessly, Josie (who was afraid of the dark) would sleep with her door all the way open. If it was open wide enough, she could even pretend that it wasn’t there at all, and she loved that. At least, she used to. She had had to keep it closed ever since she started keeping secrets.
“Josie?” croaked a voice from behind the door. The baby sister pushed it open with her foot, ignoring the rather rude sign that stated No Josies Allowed, and marched inside. Mikayla rolled over, making room for Josie to sit on the bed. “Are you excited for the baptism?” she asked, eyeing her three pieces of mushy toast as though they were the dregs pulled from the depths of the compost bin. It appeared as though Josie had drawn smiley faces and hearts in the peanut butter with her finger.
“Trenton’s baptism,” explained her sister in a not-so-helpful way. “We’ll put on dresses, and go up to the church, and all the family will come to see him be baptized with the holy water.” Josie imagined the priest violently throwing holy water at her baby brother the way she once saw it in an unfortunate glimpse of a scary movie Mikayla had been watching with her friends.
Josie took pleasure in this – she wasn’t a very big fan of the baby. She imagined her and her family sitting together in the pews, looking very fashionable, while little Trenton got sprayed at the front of the church. Padded footsteps approached the girls from down the hall.
“Hey Josie, come here, let’s see if we can find that dress you wore for your birthday,” smiled her mother, “I think we put it somewhere in that jungle of a closet.”
Josie’s stomach dropped. Her heart dropped. Her lungs were probably dropping, too, because her breathing felt funny all of a sudden. She barely heard her mother telling her sister to go take care of the baby until Josie’s dress was found. Josie’s mother turned and began to walk towards Josie’s room. The girl gave one terrified glance at her sister, and then bolted. She ran past the door, past her mother, almost trampling over Ghandi, and then finally made it to her own bedroom door. She stretched her arms and legs to block her mother’s passage more effectively, and stared up at the woman, her large eyes searching for a reason to keep her out.
“You can’t come in!” she exclaimed. “I’m – I’m working on your birthday present!”
“Come on, Josie. We don’t have time to play games.” She removed Josie from the door and opened it. She was headed for the closet. Josie, with legs more speedy than the Road Runner’s, made it first. She whipped open the door, and slammed shut the barrier between the sunlit, butterfly-themed room and the dark closet. The smell crawled across her skin and up her nose. It pushed its way through the fabric of her nightgown as she used it to cover her face with one hand, the other gripping the doorknob tightly.
“What’s going on?” yelled her mother, swinging the door open to reveal a sputtering Josie.
The stink took its freedom, twirling in tendrils away from its prison. Josie couldn’t bear to look at the woman, who was holding her nose and peering into the closet with wide eyes.
“I didn’t mean to!” she wailed as her mother pulled her into her arms, too late to shield the child from the horrors she had come to know on her own.
“Oh, Josie,” whispered her mother while rocking the child. It was uncertain whether she was rocking Josie for her daughter’s sake, or for her own.
Josie buried her face into her mother’s neck and blubbered, “Ihwuzalown”. She shook harder still.
“I didn’t catch that, honey,” said her mother gently, peeling the wet face away from her skin.
“It was – it was all alone! It couldn’t walk, mama, and I thought-” Josie’s mother squeezed her into her chest, rocking the child again. “It was just so little… Am I - am I still a good girl?” wailed the child. Her mother was crying now, too. They clung together as within the dark closet, a dead kitten was comforted with kisses from a thousand greedy flies.