It started when Leda lifted her head from her pillow and a dead fly tumbled onto her pillowcase.
Disgusted, she didn’t think much of it, quickly scooping it up and tossing it into the bin. A gross coincidence, surely: it must have gotten caught in her hair the night before and died. Just the same, she soaped and rinsed her scalp extra hard in the shower.
Except later, as she ran a comb through her hair, another dead fly fell to the floor. Followed by another.
Three in a row? Leda took another shower, working her hair with vinegar and green tea (which she’d read somewhere was healthy). In the mirror she parted section after section of her hair and examined the scalp underneath.
Then, as she leaned over the counter at work, three more dead flies dropped out.
She had horrific ideas. Maybe she wasn’t as clean as she thought she was. Maybe some food had gotten stuck in her hair and it was rotting—oh god, what if the flies were coming from her head? Did she smell?
“Do I smell?” she asked strangers in the grocery store, who quickly moved to the next aisle.
The doctor couldn’t explain it. Leda’s skin was poked and prodded, every inch examined for the existence of internal parasites and the like. Her head scan revealed that everything was perfectly normal. But the flies kept falling out of her hair, bug-eyed, grotesque, legs rigid.
“Is this something that happens to people?” Leda asked hopefully.
“No,” the doctor said, and then, as many doctors have done to many women, declared her condition not terminal, and suggested she should get used to it.
Leda started wearing hoodies more often, but even then dead flies would pour out from behind her ears, piles at a time, all stiff wings and plump bodies.
Though she was showering three times a day and using dry shampoo in between, she still felt dirty. She sprayed her clothes with lemon odor protection and coughed from the spray.
Nothing seemed to curtail the flies; they only showed up in greater numbers. Bent legs frozen in the air, wings down, bulging eyes making them look as though something had shocked them.
In desperation Leda shaved her head. Surely that would—
She hadn’t even collected all the clumps of hair out of the sink before a half-dozen dead flies dropped on top, materializing out of her skull fully formed. She set it all on fire, thinking purification, thinking cleanse, thinking purge, but it only resulted in the bathroom ceiling turning black, all the smoke detectors going off and a strong singed smell that lingered for days after.
She started wearing a shower cap from the drugstore. When she removed it from her head every couple of hours it looked like a cigarette ashtray in the 1960s, except instead of ash it was full of dead flies.
She got desperate, pulling at the half-inch of regrown hair on her scalp. Could it be something in her environment? Could there be mold in the walls or something that first laid the eggs in her?
She lay her hands on different parts of the wall palm-down, feeling the porous texture under her fingers. Here—or maybe, there?
She lifted the sledgehammer she’d dragged in from the garage and started striking. With a flashlight, she peered inside the walls. Nothing, except for braids of wires that looked fairly important.
Since every rational explanation had failed her, Leda turned to the spiritual. By then she’d started wearing gloves and carrying a plastic bag with her—like a doggie bag, except for dead flies.
She consulted every spiritualist in Massachusetts (and there were a lot of them). Surely those who could summon and see and conjure things from this world and the others could help her? Offer advice?
“I think you should wash your hair,” the old witch said gently, as though Leda surely hadn’t thought of that and she didn’t want to embarrass her.
“Uh,” the hoary medium scratched his head. “The spirits are opting to keep their distance.”
“I can’t really…” a psychic sputtered after twelve dead flies skittered across her tarot spread. Desperate: “Would you like to hear about a man in your future?”
“Keep him,” said Leda dismissively, grabbing her bag.
She confided her situation to her neighbor, who couldn’t help but notice all the cleaning Leda had done and the banging she heard when Leda opened the walls. “Please keep this between us,” Leda begged.
“Of course,” said her neighbor, nodding vigorously.
The next day two children Leda sometimes glimpsed around the neighborhood showed up on her doorstep, their bikes discarded in her driveway.
“You’re the woman with dead flies coming out of her head,” said the girl.
“Oh,” said Leda, and before she knew it they were in her living room, pointing to the dead flies that had fallen onto the foyer floor and asking if they could look under her hoodie. “Pare—your parents?”
“I bet we could fix you,” the boy said confidently.
At that point Leda would pray to anyone who listened and hear anyone out who offered. “How?”
“We have the internet,” said the girl, heaving herself onto the couch.
Leda got them all glasses of water—they were allergic to nuts, so nothing in her house was suitable—as they—twins, as it turned out—questioned her mercilessly. When had it started? How many flies had fallen out of her head so far? They combed through her medical printouts, looked inside her ears with a magnifying glass.
“I feel like I should call your parents,” said Leda. She wrung her hands, itchy from not taking action.
“Flies show up when something’s dead,” said the girl.
“Decomposing,” agreed the boy.
“I’m…not dead,” said Leda, but she couldn’t keep a questioning lilt out of her voice. She’d been waking up next to piles of dead flies for weeks and frankly reality seemed negotiable.
“There’s more than one way to die,” said the girl with an unnerving degree of sagacity.
The boy held out his hand and asked for Leda’s wrist. When she obeyed he set his ear against it as though it were a conch shell, and after a tense minute he declared that he could hear her pulse.
So that was something.
“Have you been depressed?” the boy asked. “Were you sad about something, before this started?”
“Not about anything legitimate,” Leda said. To their skeptical looks: “There was this man, at work. He’s the chief of a different department.” She couldn’t stop the smile from blooming on her face. “Really brilliant, really smart and funny, and I —
“You liked him,” said the boy.
For years. “And I thought maybe…but I found out he’d been seeing someone. They’re engaged now.”
“You were never together?”
“No, we hardly saw each other outside of work, but…” Leda felt ridiculous. She’d never been bold enough to go past friendly work-related exchanges, yet in her mind she had seen it all: him poking his head into his cubicle on his break, walking to their car together, dressing up and attending fundraisers, him introducing her as the woman behind the man.
The bravest thing she’d done was ask him periodically about his dog—although everyone in the company knew how attached he was to his husky, so that wasn’t unique. But when he had showed her pictures and laughed at her reactions, she really thought maybe…
“It’s stupid,” she said dismissively, not wanting them to see how seriously she’d taken her crush. “I don’t know why I feel so—”
“Why didn’t you ask him out?” asked the boy. “He sounds nice.”
“I hate dogs,” the girl said to no one.
“He just seemed…too special to talk to.” The admission made Leda squirm; she hadn’t even gotten to know him, not really, just plopped her hopes and dreams on him without asking.
“But if you weren’t together, then why are you sad?” pressed the boy.
How could she explain it? It was more a loss of never-having.
They wanted more from her, so she tried again: “I’m getting to be—” the thought of her age made her cringe. “Well, older. I thought I would be more by now. I thought I would be smarter. I thought I’d be making more money. I thought I’d be with the guy of my dreams.
“I look around and there’s just…a lot that I thought I’d be that I’m not. You’re young,” she said. “This must all sound like ragtime to you.”
“No,” said the girl.
“You can change things,” pointed out the boy. “People change their lives all the time.”
“But that’s just it,” said Leda. Two flies tumbled out from under her cap and landed on her jeans. “Other people, they move on to something better. I haven’t got something better.”
“Why does it have to be better?” asked the girl.
“Well…” Leda made a limp gesture toward her smartphone. Thought of Facebook announcements, thought of Instagram filters. “You have to be better, your life has to move up. Because otherwise what are you?”
“What are you?” asked the boy.
“That’s what must be dead,” said the girl. “The never-having. The stuff that could have been. It makes sense.”
“Does it?” Leda asked, bewildered.
“Our mom died before we could have her,” said the girl. “All the things she would have done with us died too.”
Their mother. On the heels of Leda’s heart breaking she felt a deep flush of embarrassment. How could she think that her sadness had any merit at all, when she hadn’t lost anything real?
But the children were surprisingly understanding, opening the circle of grief-having to her without marking the difference of degree. “Something gone is something gone,” said the boy.
Still, Leda wondered. How do you mourn the things you’ll never be?
“We had a mouse or something in the wall once that died and we couldn’t get it out,” said the girl. “It smelled horrible. Eventually though, it went away. Because there wasn’t anything left to make a smell.”
“That’s awful,” Leda said.
“It stunk,” agreed the boy.
“Maybe you’ve got to do that,” said the girl.
“Stop trying to break into everything,” said the boy, furrowing his brow at the haphazard holes Leda had gouged between the kitchen and living room. “Stop saying it’s stupid.”
“Yeah,” agreed the girl. “Sometimes when things happen you’ve got to do stuff hard as you can, but sometimes you need to let it,” she waved her palm around her ear, “do what it needs to do. Let all the skin and blood go.”
“Just…” Leda gestured to her head, mirroring the girl’s motion. “Just let it rot?”
“Not all rot is ruin,” said the boy.
“Not all ruin is rot,” said the girl.
Cold prickled the back of Leda’s shoulders. She’d never met children like this; wouldn’t their living parent be looking for them? Should she ask for their adult’s number?
“Enough for today,” said the boy, rising. “We’ll come back and check on you.”
“Oh…okay,” said Leda, wavering a bit as she lifted herself from the couch.
She watched them pick their bikes up out of her driveway and thought, I’ll never see them again. They’d gotten what they wanted, witnessed the pathetic lovelorn freak with the flies falling out of her head. What children had the attention span to visit a middle-aged woman?
Leda touched her head in front of her bathroom mirror, watched five more flies materialize and fall into the scorched basin. “I guess I should let you do your thing.”
Surprisingly, the children checked in on her once a week. She stopped fighting the flies, other than disposing of them. She washed her scalp normally, didn’t scrub the floors more than necessary, and filled in the holes she’d made in the walls.
Once she let an entire rainy weekend go by without picking up the flies at all, just let them stack around her in pointy starchy piles.
She also cried a lot, buckets, which surprised her—but there too, she didn’t try to stop herself. It felt awful. The next week she swept up all the flies and moved her furniture back to the positions she liked rather than the ones that made it easiest to scrub.
The boy deemed Leda ready for an assignment. “Go to the garden shop and get a succulent,” he commanded in the way that the young think nothing of commanding. “Even you can’t kill that. Start with one thing. A small thing.”
“Am I getting a plant to represent growth?” asked Leda hopefully. “New life?”
“Just don’t kill it,” said the boy, rolling his eyes.
She didn’t kill it. The little plant in its little pot reached green and healthy toward the sun. Leda learned to make allergy-free cookies, which the twins declared satisfactory. It felt as though something in her had turned, spade into earth. Aerated.
She applied for a new job within the company, one she’d dreamed about for years but never put herself up for.
She got it. In her new department she and Ana, one of her new colleagues, became fast friends, grabbing lunch together in the cafeteria and sipping gimlets at the local bar after close of business.
But within the three-month probation period Leda came to a realization: she hated the work. Hated it. Every task and assignment she had been so enamored with from a distance proved to be a nightmare.
“How many years did I waste thinking this was my dream job?” she asked the twins, dismayed. She shook her head out over a wastebasket while they sat in their usual places, munching on successful cookies. The amount of flies had doubled in the weeks since she’d started in her new position. “It’s what’s-his-face all over again. I built it up in my head.”
“Yes,” said the girl, brushing her crumbs onto the floor. “You need to stop doing that.”
“But isn’t it better that you know now?” asked the boy.
“I…” Leda considered, plucked a last rigid body from her blouse. “Yes, it is.”
The next day she visited Hannah, the HR rep, to put in her two weeks’ notice for her new position. “Your previous department hasn’t been able to find a suitable replacement,” Hannah said, all silver linings. “So this works out quite well for everyone. You can fill out the paperwork for your return transfer with me.” She handed Leda a stylus and tablet with the forms loaded up.
“Alright,” said Leda. She wouldn’t be out of work doing nothing, thank god. She started to move the stylus point over the checkbox that would indicate her interest in returning to her old department. Stopped.
Hannah smiled at her, patronizingly expectant. “Do you need help with that?”
“Uh,” Leda said. The framed poster on the wall—one of a series that lined the hallways and common areas—featured a rear shot of a mountain climber at the top of a summit, taking in an endless horizon. The company’s mission statement—which seemed completely divorced from what Leda and the other employees actually did—blazed across the bottom in cursive.
As she imagined going back to the department where she’d spent so many years dreaming, it struck Leda how absurd it was, to have photos like this all over the place. In her whole time working for the company she’d never even had a window.
“Actually,” she said, putting her stylus down. “I think…I think I’m going to exit the company. Entirely.”
“Entirely?” the HR rep was stunned. She shifted behind her desk into a more defensive position, set back, clearly thinking Leda was pulling a negotiation tactic. “This has been your employment home for years, and we’ve been very accommodating for your,” she gestured to the fly-catching wrap around Leda’s head, “condition.”
“You have,” Leda said quickly, mentally back-pedaling. Was she being ungrateful? Hadn’t her workplace treated her well?
Leda losing her footing seemed to help Hannah find hers. “Let’s talk this through. Do you have a plan for your next step?”
“Oh, no,” Leda said. What was she thinking, jumping out of the airplane without a parachute? Instinctively she put her hand to her head, and yelped when her head covering came off. Awkwardly she picked up a few dead flies from the floor under Hannah’s concerned gaze.
“Tough to pull off leaving without a plan,” said Hannah. “Are you sure you want to quit?”
“I don’t…” said Leda. She felt the twins inside her throat, eager to speak for her and answer the question for her.
Let me, Leda mentally said to herself. This is me. It felt as though her whole being took a breath.
When the other voices quieted Leda raised her head to Hannah with a smile so genuine she could tell Hannah had to catch herself from smiling back. “I’m not quitting. I’m starting something new.”
“Well. It’s your decision,” said Hannah, her lips pursed with disapproval as Leda handed the tablet back to her. “You’ve got such a strong resume. Seems a shame to ruin it over an impulse.”
Leda laughed, and here was happy to let them all speak at once: “Not all ruin is rot.”
“Who’s going to hire me now?” she asked the twins later, pacing the living room, the box of her belongings from her desk between them. The twins were experimenting with sitting on the couch upside down. “What have I done?”
“Sounds like you did the right thing,” said the boy.
“Still,” Leda said, thinking of gimlets at the neighborhood bar. “The friend I made, Ana. I’ll miss having her in my life.”
“Then text her and say so,” said the girl, rolling her eyes toward the floor. “You complicate things.”
Leda’s next job—which proved to not be nearly so difficult to get as Hannah indicated—was in an adult learning center, and she got to take a free class every month. Any time the temptation came to raise a skill, instructor, or her own self-story above her head, shiny-bubble perfect and bubble thin, she imagined the twins shaking their head at her, and refocused on what was rather than what sounded best in her head. Shockingly, a lack of expectations made trying new things a lot less stressful.
Her friend Ana—now her best friend Ana—joined her. She helped Ana move house. They made each other laugh. They made more friends through the classes.
Leda went on a date, and it was a disaster but it was worth it to curl up with her best friend on the couch and laugh about it after. Then she went on another date and it actually went pretty well.
The man wouldn’t make her whole life, the way she had wanted what’s-his-face to, but by then the thought had occurred to Leda that a good conversation with an interesting person was like sunlight, and a little could brighten a long way.
The flies tapered off.
“You haven’t had one in a week,” said the girl, looking a little disappointed.
“That’s great,” said the boy.
Eventually they stopped entirely. “Ta-da!” said Leda, shaking her short wavy hair over her coffee table for the twins. Not a single fly tumbled out. She raised her head, beaming, but stopped as she saw them exchange a glance. “What?”
“Time for us to go home,” they said in unison.
“Sure,” said Leda, and all at once the strangeness hit her. It had been months—why didn’t she know her visitors’ names by now? She could have sworn they’d talked about school, about their hobbies…but she couldn’t remember the specifics; how could that be? “What…what are your names again?”
“Don’t you recognize us?” asked the girl, slipping her shoes on in the foyer. “We’re the kids you would have had with that guy.”
“That’s not funny,” said Leda, dread cracking through her like lightning. She stared at their faces, studying every line and curve. “No.”
But of course, of course they were: twins with her nose, her unrequited love’s eyes, god, even his nut allergy. Smart, tenacious, unfailingly—if quirkily—kind: the sort of children Leda had imagined raising.
That was why she could never quite remember the particulars of where the twins lived, of how their days went at school. They didn’t exist in the real world.
Imaginary friends. Children created by the sheer force of her broken heart. Who did that kind of thing?
Crazy people. She must be crazy. Leda swayed, hands to her temples.
“Calm down,” said the girl. The boy hovered over Leda as she leaned against the couch.
“Was anything real?”
“The flies sure were,” said the boy.
“And we were real to you,” said the girl, looking for the first time insecure. “Isn’t that real enough?”
A phone chime dinged through the air. When Leda glanced at her screen she saw one of her new friends inviting her to dinner. Maybe the twins were all in her head, all a product of her imagination. But she’d started getting better at her own life thanks to them. “Yes,” said Leda warmly. “Real enough.”
The girl nodded and straightened, as though reset.
“But—” an icicle dripped down Leda’s shoulders. “You’re leaving. Does that mean I’ve killed you? Am I a murderer?”
“Course not,” scoffed the boy, pushing the succulent in the window into a different slant of light.
“I don’t know if I want you to go,” said Leda. Would she be alright, on her own?
“You could keep us here,” said the girl, meeting Leda’s eyes meaningfully. “But do you need us?”
Leda shut her mouth, and was kneeling down before she knew she was, the vibration of their footsteps shivering up her knees as they ran into her open arms. Closing her eyes, she breathed in the outside smell from their clothes, felt the softness of their hair.
“You make good cookies now,” said the girl. “No one can stop you.”
“Don’t worry,” said the boy, placing his hand over Leda’s heart. “We’re not really leaving.”
“We’re just ready to be something else,” said the girl.
“Remember what we said,” they told her as they headed down the drive.
“Not all ruin is rot,” recited Leda.
“Not all rot is ruin,” they answered, pleased. They waved.
Leda watched them pedal down the street until they disappeared down the street, dissolving to some elsewhere. She stood in her open doorway, listening to the shift of branches and the rumble of passing cars until the sound of her phone, of her real friends from the other life she was making, called her back inside.