It was strange the day the flies came, crawling their funny, flat, buzzing bodies out of the vent in the wall. They were the bold kind; the go ahead and swish your hand at me if you want ‘cause I ain’t movin’ kind. It wasn’t strange to have flies in the house, roaming over the fruit and god-damn-it-the-potato-salad! Maybe it was because they didn’t come from outside. Or maybe it was the way they acted as if they had a right to be there. But something about them was unnatural, like the gray gloom that hangs over Southern California suburbia in June. Even more strange, was the way everyone stopped caring after a day. Like they had spent all the time they were ever going to waving their hands around. Like they just gave up.
The flies came on a Wednesday morning, the day after Auntie Rose drove down from Sacramento and just hours before my uncle Albert arrived with his two motherless boys. By the time Auntie Rose held the door open for Uncle Albert and his crew, she didn’t even notice the light flutter of tiny insect legs on her cheek. A black spot that shifted as she smiled her big hello smile, like a dark, roving mole.
“My—” Auntie Rose let the word fall out like flat air. “They’ve grown so—well, so big.” My cousins, the motherless boys, were one and two years younger than me but had grown into gorilla-sized teenagers who could now peer at the top of my head.
“They take after their mother, that fat cow. They breed ‘em like bulls in her family.” Uncle Al waved his hand over his ear. A lazy fly floated to the other side of his head. “But the big somethin’ they got from me is the one that counts!” He let out a full, throaty laugh until Auntie Rose smacked his arm in mock reproach.
“Al! Now, there’s a young lady in the house.” She tilted her head in my direction and I could see that her mole had migrated up to her temple.
“Ah! You’re right, aren’t ya Rosie? Look at this little thing here!” Uncle Al gripped my shoulders and squeezed to show me his love with strength.
“You’ve been taking those pretty pills, haven’t you?”
“Uh…” I looked at Aunt Rosie who just kept on smiling.
Uncle Al made the phlegmy sound that middle-aged men make in between sentences. He reached towards Aunt Rose to chase the mole off of her forehead but at the last minute laid his callused hand on her shoulder.
“Rosie, when do we eat?”
The occasion was my seventeenth birthday, which also happened to be the anniversary of my father’s death—a day my mother could never quite figure out how to celebrate, surrounding herself with her own friends, while I took on the role of hostess with a tray of margaritas in hand. She must have caught on to her own folly the year before when she found one of her bar flings, Roger Maloney, twirling my hair around his finger in the corner of the kitchen. This year Auntie Rose came to relieve me of my tray and brought with her a domesticity that eluded my mother. She occupied herself by cooking, cleaning, and hanging mismatched decorations that my mom bought at the dollar store. In a temporary stroke of selflessness, my mother decided to invite people my own age, Kevin and Jesse, the motherless boys, whom I hadn’t seen since the summer I learned to swim in their pool under Las Vegas lightning.
I watched the flies cling to walls and people and food. I watched them get comfortable on the stump of Jesse’s neck or in the kinks of Kevin’s hair without so much as a flick of a few fingers in their direction. I didn’t get how everyone got used to the tickle of little legs skipping across their skin. Everyone except for me.
My relatives got settled in just as quickly as the flies, planning to stay till the day after my birthday—three whole days. Uncle Albert slept on the couch with Rat the dog and skittering flies that crept in and out of his fuzzy ears all night. Jesse and Kevin slept on the family room floor with the matted rug and dog fur. Auntie Rose took my twin-sized bed and I shared a bed with my mother. I thought it might be a relief to have family in the house instead of tequila for my birthday. Although, my cousins had always been annoying little perverts, I didn’t think that five days would be a big deal until the hovering began.
It started with Kevin.
“So, you’re all grown up now, Cece.” He pulled out the chair across from me with an empty bowl and spoon in his hand and surveyed the selection of cereal boxes set out across the kitchen table. A fly roamed over the top of a Wheaties box. I took another spoonful of Cheerios and watched him without answering. “Yep. All. Grown. Up.” The words flicked off his tongue one at a time, long and sticky. He poured a mound of Frosted Flakes high above the rim of the bowl and added too much milk so that fallen flakes scattered over the placemat in front of him. He dug into his breakfast and gazed at me the way that cocky boys do when they have nothing to say—giving the false impression that a thought’s brewing. A drop of cereal milk dribbled down his chin.
Something fell in the other room, followed by Uncle Al cursing and Jesse moaning. My eyes met Kevin’s and we smiled through full, milky mouths at each other. A fly navigated through long strands of Kevin’s messy, morning hair. He’s all right, I thought. Stupid, but all right. His eyes drifted down. Still chomping and chewing, he bobbed his head with a chuckle muffled by cereal. Eyes down over my collarbone and the silver cross that lay in the cavity at the base of my neck. Eyes down over the white tank I wore to sleep, making me uncomfortably aware that I was not wearing a bra. I stopped smiling and watched him. Chew and bob. Chew and bob.
Jesse sauntered into the kitchen as I was clearing the table. His hands were stocky and short; his stubby fingers reaching out from his palm like they had only just evolved from those of a marine animal to those of a land animal. Thick fingers pressing the milk carton to his lips, wiping his mouth on the dishtowel. I could hardly miss him when he swiped my mother’s wedding ring from the windowsill above the kitchen sink.
“Put it back.” I fought to keep my voice steady.
“Why? She’ll never know it’s gone. Your dad’s dead. She didn’t even remember to put it back on before she left for work.” He buried his fist in the pocket of his flannel pajama bottoms as he left the room, not waiting for my reply. I shoved past him in the hallway and went straight into my room where Aunt Rosie was making my bed.
“Rosie, Jesse stole Mom’s wedding ring. It’s in his pocket.” I struggled to keep my voice casual.
“Mornin’, Auntie Rose!” Jesse saluted coolly as he passed my bedroom door and locked himself in the bathroom.
“Oh, Cece.” She folded the sheet into a triangle at the foot of the bed and tucked it neatly in between the mattress and box spring. “Did you see him take the ring?” She lowered her chin to her chest and pressed her gaze against mine, as if to strain some truth out of me.
“Yeah, I saw him. He picked it up and put it in his pocket—like it was nothing.” I couldn’t believe she even had to ask.
“Alright, I will talk to him about it when he gets out of the shower.” She kept her eyes on me for a long moment, before turning to arrange the pillows.
When the bathroom was finally empty, I found refuge there—free to be alone, away from the motherless boys. Away from Uncle Al and Auntie Rose. Warm shower water rained down on my head. Through swirls of steam, I could see black splotches zigzagging along the ceiling above me. Never totally alone, I thought.
As I smeared shampoo over my wet scalp, cold air slapped the back of my legs and spine. I turned in time to see a fist yank the shower curtain open. I drew the side of the curtain quickly around me.
“Here’s your stupid ring.” Jesse smacked the ring down on the counter then left as swiftly as he had entered.
My mother had left a note on the counter wrapped around a few ten dollars bills. She thought it would be nice if I walked the motherless boys to the arcade to drop quarters for a few hours. Fine, I thought. I’m not an arcade kid, but air hockey is all right. I got dressed, grabbed a magazine, and met Kevin and Jesse at the door.
“Are you sure those jeans aren’t too tight for you, Cece?” Jesse leaned against the inside of the closed front door. I stopped in the hallway directly in front of him. Two flies swooped in the thin space between us. Kevin stood to my left and nodded. “I mean, aren’t there going to be a lot of boys at the arcade? I wouldn’t want them looking at my cousin in those jeans.”
“Yeah,” Kevin added.
“My jeans are fine,” I said. “Let’s go.”
We walked down Sherman to Main Street, where gritty ma and pa shops advertised summer blowout sales in fluorescent painted windows. The motherless boys yapped back and forth in spurts. I interjected only to point out the right direction.
“Ya know Cece, we don’t really know where we’re going. I think you should walk in front. Show us the way.” Jesse elbowed his brother.
“Yeah, let those jeans show us the way.” They both wheezed with wide stretched mouths.
“The arcade is right there.” I pointed across the street and stared ahead.
With the motherless boys distracted by bells and flashing lights, I settled down on a layer of dried chewing gum and parking lot dust and scanned the latest issue of Teen People in front of Jerry Joe’s Pinball and Arcade. Kevin and Jesse had disappeared for a good long while, but the flies stuck around. I read about the season’s hottest shades of nail color and about how to put together a designer look at discount stores. Along the edge of a big outdoor ashtray within spitting distance, flies rubbed their wispy legs together. My body divided between dozens of eyes. One praying over my ear. One studying my temple. One focused on the shirt seam that disappeared under my arm.
Back at home, Auntie Rose called me to the kitchen to help her ice chocolate cupcakes. She set out three mugs filled with homemade white icing and a box of food coloring.
“What color do you want your cupcakes to be?” she asked.
Teal, purple, and blue. I swished my hand above the mugs to make the flies scatter and began mixing the colors.
“I spoke to Jesse about the ring,” she said, pulling a spatula out of a drawer. “He said he took it. But he wasn’t going to keep it.” She paused to dip the spatula and smeared blue over a round chocolate top. “You know Cece, things are hard for those boys, growing up without a mother. You have to understand that sometimes they do things and it’s not really their fault.”
“But Rosie, he said it didn’t matter because my dad’s dead!” I stopped mixing.
“Well, he didn’t mean it, Honey. Sometimes they just don’t know any better. Now, let’s see…do you want rainbow sprinkles or M&M’s on top?”
My birthday celebration was to be an afternoon pool party. My mom had a pool put in our back yard the summer after I learned to swim. She said I was a natural swimmer—like a duck in a lake. But she was always a bit irked that I didn’t use it as often as she thought I would. So, every chance she got she invited people to swim in our pool. Need to get my money’s worth, she said.
Auntie Rose did her best to make the backyard look festive using the supplies my mother gave her: black streamers that read, “Over the Hill,” rainbow colored cups, and paper plates that showed a New Year’s baby in a top hat, blowing a horn. But what made me smile were the balloons she tied to the lawn chairs with the words, HAPPY BIRTHDAY written with a Sharpie.
Some kids from the neighborhood came for the cupcakes and a cool place to soak for the afternoon. Most didn’t even know it was my birthday. The truth was that there weren’t any friends I wanted to invite. The girls at school blamed me for growing too fast and stealing side glances from their boyfriends. The boys ignored me just long enough to disguise their stares.
I sat along the edge of the shallow end, safe from the cannon balls and belly flops cracking the surface of the water. Safe from the flies that dodged flying splashes of water over the diving board. Aunt Rosie kept my mom and Uncle Al busy with bottomless Piña Coladas. I watched Kevin and Jesse practice handstands and back flips and wondered if anyone would notice if I left.
“Marco!” Jesse yelled out suddenly.
“Polo!” Kevin answered, followed by a scattered echo that erupted from both ends of the pool. A group of kids left half eaten desserts on the patio table and dove in to join the impromptu game.
“Marco!” Jesse shouted again. I left my legs dangling in the water and didn’t shout back. He nearly tagged a girl in a striped bikini before she screamed and ducked under the surface. His hands stretched out directly in front of him, groping the air for a shoulder, an arm, or a head. A boy in blue trunks threw a rock into the shallow end. Jesse spun around, facing me with clenched eyes. “Marco?” His broad body cut into the water, striding in my direction.
His enormous paws plunged into the pool around him. His hand swung within inches of my calves. I pulled them out of the water slowly and tucked them under my thighs.
“Fish out of water!” Jesse’s eyes jumped open and caught me in their sight. My bikini felt invisible under his lingering stare.
“I’m not playing.” I said.
“Of course you’re playing. You’re the birthday girl.” He waded closer and grabbed the fleshy part of my thigh. I smacked his hand away. “Ooh, a feisty fish. You’re still it. Fish out of water.”
The neighborhood kids watched me from the safety of the deep end. Their faces derogatory and doubtful. I could put up a fight and add “snobby bitch” to my reputation or I could play along for whatever small bit I could salvage.
“Fine. I’m it.” I plunged into the water and huddled at the bottom of the shallow end to give my opponents a 10 second head start. I raised my fists above the surface of the water to signal the count down as my fingers flicked up toward the sky. When I reached ten, I emerged, throwing my soggy hair back and shaking water from my face.
“Marco,” I said. No enthusiasm.
A shower of Polos rang out from around the pool. The afternoon sun shone orange through my closed eyelids. Something traipsed along my forehead, softer and less certain than a drop of water. A fly.
I felt a pulse in the water along my spine and turned to tag the swimmer behind my back. My hand reached through empty water and touched nothing. A current wrapped around my middle. I stretched open my fists, waving them in the water around me until my fingertips met smooth, cold skin. As sudden as the recognition that I had tagged someone, I felt the thrust of a hand reaching deep under my bikini bottom and into the crease between my legs. I kicked with both legs but the tension of the water slowed the impact to a weak and sluggish push. Kevin’s head rose from the water in front of me.
“You’re it, Asshole!” I threw my fist at his face but he caught my wrist and held it tight in an arc above the water. We stood facing each other, locked along one side of our bodies.
He laughed coolly and wiped the water from his eyes and nose with his free hand. A small pack of flies tripped over his wet skin, tapping drops of water, sending them sliding down his forehead. He watched my face without blinking. I tugged at his wrists but only broke away when he loosed his grip. No one had seen what he had done. Or if they did, they didn’t say anything. Kevin began to count to ten underwater. I swam toward the steps. My time in the pool was over.
The sun had long since tucked itself under the horizon when my mom, Uncle Al, and Auntie Rose decided to continue their drunken barfly stories at the corner tavern. The neighborhood kids had all gone and all that was left of my birthday reverie was Kevin and Jesse laughing and wrestling in the lazy glow of the pool light. Cupcake wrappers and fallen streamers were left scattered across the yard. The few gifts I had received lay untouched, with their festive wrapping and bows intact. I fell asleep in my mother’s bed trying to decide if birthdays were better spent with adults, neighborhood leaches, or no one.
“Don’t move. And don’t make a sound.” It was wet and low and left a print of throaty steam along the curve of my neck. Two dark swarms cut through the air above me, two heavy, shadowy faces. One hand over my mouth, pushing the back of my head into the soft cushion of my mother’s pillow. Something twitched across my cheeks, over my lips, down my neck. I shook my face. Tiny legs fluttered and returned, undaunted.
Their arms and legs seemed to multiply, crawling over every part of my body. I jerked my knee in protest. The skin on my legs peaked in tiny pinpoints, cold and bare and I realized my pajama bottoms and underwear were gone. The air left my chest in one full gust as a realization sank in, a dull knowing of what was to come, what had been coming since the flies had first arrived.
Two dark clouds buzzed above me, dipping under my pinned arms, swooping across my bare belly, lacing my legs apart. Pulsing. The buzz droned on, muffling the sounds of my breath as it huffed against the fat knuckles held tight under my nose. My screams died the instant they were born, unable to penetrate the large hands clasped over me.
Flies broke away and crept down the slopes of my legs, down the curve of my neck, down every crease in between. Unscratchable itches covering the surface of my body with no hands free to scratch them. I fought against the arms gripping my body. I fought against the knees wedging me open. I fought with every ounce of strength I had to stay closed.
Don’t move. And don’t make a sound. My mother’s comforter was tucked around my face and knotted in my fist, blocking out the morning sun and the hushed chatter coming from the hallway. I breathed in the thick smell of sheets and sweaty sleep and kept perfectly still. I don’t remember what frightened the flies away. Someone covered me. Uncle Al’s voice piped in and out of the room, up and down the hall. Auntie Rose brought me a cup of peppermint tea that I left on my mother’s nightstand, full and cold. The noise still vibrated in my ears—my deafening pulse, their buzzing and buzzing and buzzing. I kept my breath shallow and made myself very small, waiting.
A whole day had passed and the sun went down again before I finally left my mother’s bedroom. The noise had stopped and I knew Uncle Al and the motherless boys were gone. Auntie Rose had left the house spotless. No streamers, no half-filled margarita glasses.
Stillness leaked out of the hallway and into each room of the house—quieter than a house empty of guests. It was a house empty of flies. And after a day, when I was alone in the shower again, really alone, it was almost like they had never been there at all.
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