Jessica scurried into her parents’ bedroom, pushing the door shut behind her.
“Mommy,” she said, in a voice that hovered between fear and uncertainty. “There’s a man in my closet.”
Mommy looked at her over the tops of her reading glasses. “Jessica,” she said. “You can’t let your imagination run away with you.”
“I’m not, Mommy!” Jessica protested. “I opened the door to get a toy, and I saw the man, and he saw me, and he tried to grab me, but I ran away!” She stared, breathing a little heavily, at her mother.
Mommy looked at Jessica for a moment, deciding finally that maybe something really was in the closet. “It’s probably a squirrel or something, Jess.” She put her book down, and put her reading glasses on top of the book. I hope it’s not a squirrel or something, she thought. Her husband usually handled things like squirrels, but he was working the night shift this month.
“Mommy,” Jessica said soberly. “It’s not a squirrel.” She walked behind her mother, out of the bedroom and down the hall.
Mommy went into Jessica’s bedroom; the closet door was open just a crack.
“I left it all the way open, Mommy,” Jessica whispered. She grabbed the back of her mother’s pajamas.
Mommy realized that it would make more sense for the door to be open if Jessica had run out of it; it also seemed unlikely that a squirrel (or something) could pull the door closed. “Well,” she said, reaching out for the closet doorknob. “Well.” She pulled the door open, and flipped on the light.
A man in ill-fitting clothes and a dirty baseball cap was standing in the back of the closet. He was trying to hide behind the row of little-girl dresses, but he was actually entirely visible. He stared out at Mommy, and blinked his eyes, and Mommy stared back at him, and blinked her own eyes.
“Well,” she said again. At this, the man suddenly jumped, startling Mommy and Jessica, and tried to run past them out of the closet. He raised his arms, with his hands facing Mommy, as though he would push her in the chest.
Mommy held up her hand, and the man stopped as though he had hit a wall. He stumbled back into the rear of the closet, and goggled at Mommy in disbelief.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mommy advised him. She spoke calmly, but her voice was sharp with anger and disgust. “How dare you come in here?” She took a step toward him. “How dare you threaten my child?” She paused, and glanced down at Jessica, who was watching with wide eyes. “Jess,” she said. “You go wait in Mommy and Daddy’s room.”
Jessica slumped in apparent disappointment. “But Mommy,” she pleaded. “I want to see!”
Mommy considered this. Jessica was the one most affected, after all. It might be important, even, for her to see what happened to this piece of slime that had invaded her room and offered her harm. Why, perhaps it was even time to teach Jessica, so that she could know her own power, and not be afraid to sleep in her own room.
“You’re right,” Mommy said finally. She invited Jessica to stand beside her. “Come and help me, sweetheart.”
Jessica beamed in delight. “Really?” she asked. She stood next to her mother, and tentatively put her hand out the way her mother had. “Like this?” she asked.
“Like that,” Mommy said. She turned back to the man, who, in addition to his growing incredulity, now blanched with abject terror. “It’s already working,” she noted, as the fingers of her upraised hand flexed slowly, like a cat stretching out its claws. Jessica copied what Mommy was doing, and grinned wider and wider as she felt the strange tingling flow through her arm and into her fingertips.
“It is working!” she cried excitedly.
She and Mommy watched as the man began to choke and cough, and to act as though he were being crushed by a great weight. He tried to speak, and to struggle, but he was unable to take even a step away from the back wall of the closet. The veins in his forehead and neck began to pulse, and his lips turned blue.
“What should we pick?” Mommy asked.
“How about …” Jessica blinked, debating her choices. At last she made a selection. “Butterflies!”
Mommy tilted her head to one side, appraising the man who was rigid now, and tremoring. “Butterflies,” she repeated thoughtfully. It would be nice, she supposed, for this useless piece of garbage to become something beautiful. It would not be fitting – she had thought of a dozen fitting punishments as soon as she had opened the closet door – but it would be … useful to the world. “That is a very good choice,” she said.
She and Jessica flexed their fingers, and the man in the back of the closet swelled up like a pulsating balloon. His arms and legs evaporated, and then his head too; in another moment, the balloon he had become split apart, exploding with a strange gurgling pop into a cloud of yellow and red wings.
“Open the window, Jess,” Mommy instructed, and stepped backward away from the closet. Jessica scampered to the window over her nightstand and, her little arms straining, pushed the window open.
With a flick of her wrist, Mommy sent the cloud of butterflies surging out of the closet. They fluttered and swarmed, finding their way through the window into the moonlight.
“Yay!” Jessica shouted, clapping her hands together as she watched the butterflies fly away. “They’re pretty now!” she explained, smiling up at Mommy. “He’s pretty now!”
Mommy nodded. “Indeed,” she said, smiling too. She sighed. “Well, close the window,” she went on. “It’s late and you need to get to bed.”
“But I want to tell Daddy!” Jessica objected. “Can I stay up and tell Daddy?”
Mommy shook her head, and scooped her daughter into her arms. “Daddy won’t be home until morning, sweetheart,” she said. “We’ll tell him in the morning.” She dropped Jessica into bed, and tucked the blankets around her. “You get some sleep now,” she said, kissing Jessica on the forehead. “Tomorrow’s a school day.”
“Okay, Mommy,” Jessica agreed reluctantly. She grabbed her teddy bear and clutched him to her chest. “I can’t wait to tell Daddy!” She glanced out the window, and thought she saw a few of the butterflies dancing around the neighbours’ porch light.
“Me either,” Mommy said. “I’m very proud of you, sweetheart.” She turned then, and shut off the closet light. “Good night, Jess.”
“Good night, Mommy,” Jessica said, still smiling broadly.
Mommy turned off the room light and pulled the door almost all the way closed. She gazed at her daughter for a moment before heading back to her own room. Maybe she could finish her book before her husband got home.