“Knock, knock,” I said under my breath as I rang the bell. Nobody came to the door immediately, and I peeked in the tiny side window. My ears picked up the sound of shoes coming toward me, so I backed away before they could see me peeping.
A woman opened the door, and I looked up in surprise. I was surprised because I was looking up. This woman was at least four inches taller than I was.
“Are you the baby-sitter?” she prompted, since I was just standing there dumbly.
“Yes, I’m Ivy,” I said, making sure I didn’t stumble over the words. I stuck out my hand to shake in a friendly gesture, doing the first thing I thought of to restore my lost composure. The lady shook my hand back, her red-lipsticked mouth smiling slightly.
“I’m Betty,” she said. “Thanks for coming out on such short notice.”
“Come on in.”
I obeyed, following the woman. Her shoes made click-clack noises as she strode across the foyer. I noticed they were about three-inch heels. No wonder she looked so tall. I trailed her into the kitchen, where a man was hunched over a table, changing a baby.
“Honey?” said the lady, and the man looked up from his task. “The baby-sitter’s here. Are you about ready?”
“I just have to get my shoes,” the man said in a rumbly voice.
He scooped the baby up with a practiced motion and crossed the floor to his wife. I felt a bit alienated, as if I’d just stepped into a sitcom. The man handed the baby to Betty and left the room without ever looking at me.
“Please excuse my husband, he’s a bit gruff sometimes,” she said.
“It’s perfectly all right,” I said, trying not to look her in the eyes so I wouldn’t scare her. I wanted her to trust me, and I knew my eyes were not exactly the world’s most relaxing sight.
“I’ll introduce you to the children,” said Betty. I hadn’t realized there’d be more than one. “This is Tracy,” she said, turning the baby around on her hip. Tracy gurgled at me and gave me a curious blue-eyed gaze, then promptly and happily spit up. I grabbed a washcloth out of the sink automatically and caught the drip from the baby’s mouth. Betty looked impressed.
“So you are good with young children,” she commented, smiling. I nodded and washed the cloth in the sink. What she didn’t know, though, was that I’d never even seen a human child that young. The only reason I’d caught the baby’s spit-up so quickly was that Tab had done the same thing well into her childhood, up until she was around five years old. I’d always thought it was because she had a hard time learning not to eat leaves and sand, and I was surprised to find that human children spit up too.
Betty carried Tracy down the hall, and I followed dutifully because it seemed like I was supposed to. She stopped in the doorway of another room.
“The baby-sitter’s here,” she said. I could hear muffled sounds that indicated children at play. Betty’s expression changed. “Don’t be rude, kids,” she barked. “Come out and meet her!”
“It’s a girl this time?” asked a young boy’s voice. Betty looked over at me as if to check.
“Yes. Come on, I don’t want to be late.” I heard a scuffling sound as whatever toy the boy was playing with was abandoned, and then a musical sound like chimes. Immediately following, the boy I’d heard came into view and stood beside his mother. A much smaller girl followed, slowly. Both of them looked at me solemnly.
“Okay, you guys, this is Ivy, the baby-sitter. You don’t give her any trouble, hear that?” They didn’t respond. “I said, you hear that?” She prodded the little girl with the arm that wasn’t busy holding Tracy.
“Yes Mama,” they said in unison, like it embarrassed them. The boy wouldn’t even look at me now and the girl kept looking at me, then looking away. I wished there was some way I could show them I was friendly without meeting their eyes.
“This is Cheryl and this is CJ,” she explained, touching the girl’s curly hair and tugging a knot out of it automatically. Before I could say anything, she started to walk into the kitchen. I followed, and my ears told me that the kids were behind us.
On a big white dry-erase board, Betty scrawled some instructions, speaking as she wrote them down.
“Cheryl goes to bed at eight-thirty. CJ goes to bed at nine-thirty. And go ahead and put Tracy to bed whenever she gets a little fussy. She gets a bottle of water in the crib with her.” Tracy made bubbly sounds with her lips, as if she recognized that she was being talked about. “The kids can have whatever they want for snacks, but dinner for these two is all ready in the fridge—just warm it up. Tracy’s been fed. Make sure she’s still in a dry diaper when she goes to sleep.” Betty capped the marker and turned to me. “You can play with any of the games in the closet, any of the toys in the toy box, and they can watch any movies in the collection. They are not allowed to jump on the couch or make forts with the cushions, and there will be no making paste or getting into my makeup.” Betty literally glared at her daughter as she said the last bit. Cheryl seemed to shrink, but instead of running away, she clung to her mother’s sequined dress. CJ looked bored and depressed.
Betty looked up from her children and gave me a little smile.
“Other than those guidelines, you can do pretty much anything you want. We should be home around midnight, all right, Ivy?”
“Anything’s fine,” I replied. I looked at the kids. Cheryl was still clinging to her mother, CJ was staring at his sneakers, and Tracy was busy drooling. Her wet chin was within a centimeter of Betty’s shoulder.
“The number where we’ll be is right here on the board for you . . . ” she began.
“The baby is about to slobber on your dress,” I pointed out.
“Oh. . . . ” Betty handed the baby to me. She was heavy but I held her fine once I managed to get my energy around her. “Thanks for noticing that. I really didn’t want to add anything to this outfit.” We both chuckled, and CJ sighed and rolled his eyes. I could see a kind of indignant exasperation on his face, as if his mother and I were pissing him off. I wondered what was up the little rugrat’s butt.
“We’ve really got to get going,” Betty said apologetically, grabbing her pocketbook off the counter. She click-clacked back out of the room. “If you need to call us, you have the number.” I turned around and watched her bustle down the hall into a room. Then I felt something cold and wet against my neck. It was Tracy’s spit-covered fingers exploring my shoulder. I turned and she rewarded me by pressing all five of her wet fingers against my cheek. I switched her to my other hip and wiped my face.
“Okay, we’re off!” Betty’s voice carried like a siren through the house. She emerged from the room with her husband following almost obediently.
“All right, have fun,” I said, hoping it didn’t sound strange in the situation. Betty laughed.
“We will.” She opened the door and glanced out into the driveway. Then she stopped and looked puzzled, and scanned the street, and finally looked back at me.
“Where’d you park?” she asked.
I almost asked what she meant before I realized she was talking about parking a car. “Oh, I just got dropped off,” I said.
“Well, we’ll be glad to drop you off at your place when we get back, if you like.”
I thought about just saying yes and choosing a random house, then flying away once they’d driven off, but then they might think I lived in whatever house I picked and start looking for me there if they needed a baby-sitter.
“I’d better not. A friend is picking me up close by, don’t worry.”
She looked at me like I was weird, but then glanced at her watch and stopped thinking about me.
“We really better go!” She grabbed her husband’s sleeve and stepped out the door.
“See you around midnight,” I called.
They walked out the door, calling “’Bye!” and “Be good!” The door slammed.
In the second of stillness, I half-expected the kids to start tearing up the place. Instead, they just stood there. The silence was broken by an absolutely ear-splitting shriek from the baby. She smiled and drool ran down her face. I wondered what she was howling about.
“Oh, shut up, Tracy,” mumbled the boy sullenly. He scuffled out of the room. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. The little girl, Cheryl, was still standing beside me.
“Don’t worry about Tracy,” she said, reading my expression somehow. “She’s just talking. She likes to hear her own voice I think.”
I laughed. “Didn’t sound much like talking to me.”
“Well, one day she’ll learn.”
“Um, is your brother okay?” I walked to the sink for that washcloth to mop up Tracy’s drool.
“He’s always like that. He’s a jerk.” Cheryl made a face. “What’s your name again?”
Tracy made more slobber as soon as I’d finished wiping the old up. I wondered if it was a lost cause.
“That’s a really nice name. And you have really nice hair.”
I turned around.
“Thank you, Cheryl,” I said. I was glad that she seemed to be on my side. Tracy let out another big shriek, accompanied by the biggest grin I’d ever seen.
“My, my, what a happy baby,” I exclaimed.
“Yeah, you should hear her when you put her in the swing. She’s so loud you can’t hear the TV.” Cheryl grinned. “Come on, I’ll show you.” She took my hand familiarly, dispelling all my initial impressions of her being shy. I let her tug me to a tiny swing in what appeared to be the baby’s room.
“Go ’head and put her in,” Cheryl suggested, and I did. She turned a crank on the side of the contraption, and the swing started to move. And Cheryl hadn’t been kidding. Tracy made practically supersonic noises as she flew back and forth, and for some reason it stirred a very funny feeling of elation in my chest. I wanted to scream too. Looking at Tracy’s absolutely mirthful face, I doubted such pure joy had ever existed anywhere. I wondered if I’d ever screamed like that as a baby.
Freed of the burden of Tracy’s weight, I peeled back my hair from my neck and wiped some of Tracy’s moist gifts off with my fingers. Cheryl giggled at me.
“You’re not used to being drooled on, huh?”
“Not really.” Tab had been a little slobbery, but I hadn’t normally held her anywhere near my body for fear that she’d scratch me. If Thursday had drooled I hadn’t noticed it.
“You’ll get used to it,” she said. I smoothed my hair again. Cheryl, at about the height of my waist, touched the ends of my hair delicately. “You really do have beautiful hair,” she said again. “Just like a princess.”
“I wouldn’t say that, but thanks.” I was pleased with the little girl’s compliments. I’d worn my hair completely loose in order to better hide my pointed ears, but it appeared that it was serving as a conversation piece as well.
“Can I style it for you later?”
“Sure, if you want.”
“I do it real good. I’ll show you the hairstyle I gave my dolly.” Cheryl grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the door.
“Wait,” I protested. “What about Tracy? I need to watch her.”
“She’ll be fine,” she said. “We leave her in there all the time, it’s safe, and she loves it. Just wind her up real good.”
“Okay,” I said dubiously, turning the crank. Then I followed Cheryl to what I presumed was her room. I could hear the same shrieks of happiness following me, issued at full volume by Tracy. I hoped my ears could stand the whole night with her.
Cheryl picked up a doll off her bed and showed it to me.
“This is Priscilla,” she said proudly. “See how I did her hair?” The doll had two ponytails and some trailing hair in the back. I pretended to be impressed. Then Cheryl went around her room, showing me all her toys and telling me stories about them.
I heard that Tracy had stopped making sounds, and at the same time I wondered what CJ was up to. I really should be watching him, I told myself.
“Come on, Cheryl,” I said. “Let’s go find your brother.”
“I’ll find him,” she offered, scampering out of the room.
I was in the middle of taking Tracy out of the swing when I heard a childish scream of outrage from the kitchen.
“CJ! Mama told you you weren’t allowed to do that anymore!”
Forgetting to breathe, I practically flew into the kitchen with Tracy.
“Well, I was bored,” said CJ.
“You’re gonna be in trouble,” taunted Cheryl. “Ooooh. . . . ” She began to tease him by pointing at him and making a siren-like noise.
“Shut up!” he cried. When she didn’t listen, he stuck his fingers in his ears and began singing, “la, la, I can’t hear you. . . . ” They struggled to out-noise each other.
“Hey!” I burst. They stopped and looked at me. In the silence, Tracy made a sweet cooing sound. I figured she’d be a great conversationalist when she was verbal.
“All right, what’s going on?” I asked, trying to sound like I meant business while not sounding too harsh. I blinked as I noticed a sudden inconsistency in the look of the kitchen. “Where are all the knobs?” All of the knobs to the drawers and cabinets were missing. Only little holes remained.
Neither kid spoke, but Cheryl pointed angrily at CJ. He scowled at me.
“Did you take all the knobs off?” I asked gently.
“Of course he did,” snapped Cheryl. “He’s always doing stuff like this.”
He poked his tongue out at her.
“All right, then, where are they?” I asked agreeably. CJ smiled insidiously. I felt a moment of panic as I realized there was really no way I could make him tell me, but then I spotted them. The knobs were all on top of the refrigerator. Judging from CJ’s height, he’d climbed on the counter to get them up there.
Invisibly, I tapped one of the little brown knobs so that it fell off the fridge. It landed with a clacking noise right next to CJ, who jumped.
“They’re on the ’frigerator!” cried Cheryl, who’d seen where it had fallen from. She turned around to climb onto the counter.
“No, no more climbing,” I ordered, striding over. “I’ll get them, I’m tall enough.” I gathered the knobs and put them down on the counter.
“How about you put these back on?” I asked CJ, looking at him like it wasn’t a question.
“Why should I? You’re not the boss.”
Blinking innocently, I took another route. “Well, I would do it myself, but I don’t think I know how.”
“Well, I do,” he boasted.
“Then why don’t you? Since I can’t, I mean.”
“Girls can’t do anything for themselves, can they?” he said scornfully. He picked up one of the little balls and carefully screwed it back on.
“Oh, so that’s how you do it,” I said in mock wonder.
“I’m good at it, too,” he bragged, fastening another one. I bit my tongue before I told him that knob-screwing was a very useful job skill.
“So, how about you finish that up, and then we’ll eat dinner?” CJ looked interested at the mention of food despite himself. He began screwing the knobs on as I opened the fridge. To my surprise, there were three covered plates in there, not just two.
“Cheryl,” I said, calling her over. “Do you suppose your mom left one extra dinner for me?”
“Prob’ly,” she said, shrugging. “She usually does that for Brice.”
“He’s the guy who usually baby-sits us.”
“He’s a jerk,” said CJ. I wondered if he thought I was a jerk too. If so, it was mutual.
I took the dinners out and uncovered them, then looked at the microwave in puzzlement.
“Um . . . which button do I push?” I asked, after I’d placed one meal inside. I’d tried pressing “start,” but nothing had happened.
“You have to set the time,” CJ said, then did it for me.
“Thanks,” I said. I was glad he wasn’t as grumpy.
After the dinners were all warmed up, I realized I was very hungry.
“What should I do with the baby while we’re eating?” I asked the kids.
“Just put her in the high chair and give her her bells,” suggested Cheryl.
“What are her bells?”
“I’ll get them,” she shouted, and scrambled out of the chair like someone was trying to beat her to it. She ran out of the room and down the hall.
As I set Tracy in the high chair, I noticed movement behind me and glanced backwards. CJ had made a sudden quick motion that attracted my eye, and I surreptitiously watched him. He grabbed Cheryl’s fork and put it in the empty chair next to him. I frowned. Then Cheryl came running back in with a ring of jingly plastic.
“This is her bells,” she explained, plunking them on the tray in front of Tracy. The baby shrieked in glee and put the plastic-covered bells in her mouth. I grinned.
“Hey, where’s my fork?” asked Cheryl. “I was just eating with it.”
“I dunno,” said CJ, a little too nonchalantly.
“CJ!” she howled. “Wha’d you do with it?”
“Nothing!” he replied with a rather good shocked expression.
“I want it back now,” she demanded, holding out her hand to her brother.
“I don’t got it,” he mumbled. “You prob’ly lost it. Just get another one.”
“Give it back, CJ,” she growled. “I know you have it.”
“Do not!” he replied indignantly.
“I bet you’re sitting on it or something. Get up.”
“Fine,” he smirked, standing up.
“It’s behind your back!” she accused.
Rather than spoil the fun at this point, I decided to just turn the prank around. I put the fork into CJ’s back pocket using my energy, laughing to myself. Maybe now he’d quit playing tricks and behave like a civilized little boy. He turned in a circle to prove he wasn’t lying.
Cheryl snatched the fork out of his pocket.
“See! You lied, you big liar!” she shrieked, shaking the fork at him.
“Huh?” He stared at the fork as she happily began eating again. “Where’d that come from?”
“Oh, like you didn’t know,” Cheryl barked through a gooey mouthful of macaroni and cheese.
“No, really, where’d you get it?”
“From your back pocket, dummy. Right where you hid it.”
“Hey, wait a minute.” CJ sat down. “How’d it get in my pocket? That’s not where I put it.”
“Well, that’s where I found it,” retorted Cheryl.
“I mean it, Cheryl. I didn’t put it there, I put it in this chair.” He pointed.
“I don’t care. Quit stealing my stuff.”
“But how did it get into my pocket?” he exploded.
“You must of put it there and forgot ’cause you’re so dumb!”
“But . . . what if . . . maybe if a ghost did it?” Or a bitch of a telekinetic baby-sitter, my brain joked. “What if our house is haunted?”
“Quit trying to scare me, CJ. Just be quiet and eat.”
CJ fell silent, staring at his food. Tracy punctuated the conversation with a few muffled high notes.
I sat down and ate some of the food, and it was pretty good. I had a piece of chicken, some macaroni, and a helping of beans. I didn’t much care for the beans, but everything else was good.
At this point I was at a loss for words, and I felt like I should be saying something to the kids. I didn’t know what was appropriate, though, so I was elated when Cheryl started talking to me.
“Want to play twenty questions?” she asked brightly.
“Sure, if you tell me how.”
“Well, I ask you ten questions, and you answer all of them, and then you ask me.”
“That’s not how you play twenty questions, stupid,” burst CJ. “You’re supposed to—”
“This is just as fun,” she snapped. Then she turned back to me. “Want to play?”
“Sure,” I said, glad that this would fill the emptiness.
“Okay, I go first and ask you.” She looked at me. “How long did it take to grow your hair that long?”
“I don’t know,” I answered promptly.
“You have to answer,” she replied. “It’s the rules.”
“I guess maybe seven years?” I estimated. I had never cut it, but for some reason it seemed to have stopped growing.
“How old are you?” she fired happily, holding up a second finger to indicate that she was counting.
“Eighteen,” I guessed.
“When’s your birthday?”
She knew how to pick the questions I couldn’t answer. “September twenty-fifth,” I lied. It was Nina’s birthday, the day I unofficially shared with her.
“What’s your favorite color?”
“How many people in your family?”
Cheryl frowned. “I mean right in your house.”
She raised her little eyebrows. For some reason she didn’t ask any more about it, even though it was obvious that my answer surprised her. After asking for my favorite food, my lucky number, my favorite day of the week, and my favorite animal, Cheryl told me it was my turn.
“How old are you?” I asked agreeably.
“Five,” she replied. That seemed young to me; she was both older-looking and older-sounding than five, but CJ didn’t challenge, so I decided she must be telling the truth. As I counted the question as “one” with my thumb, Cheryl caught sight of my hands.
“Hey, weird, what’s wrong with your fingers?” she asked. She reached over and touched the side of my hand.
“Nothing’s wrong. And I thought I was asking the questions.” I smiled, but for some reason she was making me nervous, even though I’d been through this same scenario a hundred times at least.
“But . . . how are you gonna count to ten?” she asked, her face filled with disbelief that was, in my opinion, totally out of place.
“Maybe I’ll just take my shoes off,” I replied, trying not to let my irritation show.
“I bet your toes are like that too, huh? Like, you only have four of them?”
“Actually, you’re right. Don’t you want me to ask you more questions?”
“Okay, then,” I said. I asked Cheryl simple questions, the last one being why they didn’t have a Christmas tree in their house.
“’Cause we don’t celebrate Christmas,” barked CJ.
“Hey, it was my question,” protested Cheryl. She turned to me as if I hadn’t heard CJ’s answer. “It’s because we don’t celebrate Christmas.”
“We’re Jewish. We have Chanukah instead.”
“Yeah, we don’t have to have a stupid old tree in our house,” added CJ.
“Hey, hey, I don’t have one in my house either,” I defended, feeling attacked.
“Are you Jewish too?” butted CJ.
“Not as far as I know,” I replied, smiling.
“How come you keep interrupting my questions?” accused Cheryl.
“Well, maybe if you let me play, I’d leave your questions alone,” CJ spat.
“You can play!” I assured him.
“Well, what if I don’t want to?” he argued, dropping his fork.
“Do you want to?” I asked nicely. He looked surprised that I hadn’t reprimanded him.
“I guess so.”
“Okay,” I said, “how about you tell me what CJ stands for?”
“Cedric Joseph,” he admitted, “it’s my dad’s name too and they call me CJ so we won’t get mixed up.”
“All right, CJ,” I said, holding up one finger to count “one.” Both kids tried to look at my hand without looking like they were looking. I knew that look well. Strangely enough, Ami had told me she experienced the same thing when she was on crutches in public. I sighed.
“Hey, you can look, I don’t care,” I confronted them, and they both became seriously enthralled with the beauty of their macaroni. I put my hands down and decided not to make an ass out of myself.
“Question two, CJ,” I announced. “What do you want to do the rest of tonight?”
“I don’t know,” he said slowly.
“You have to answer,” Cheryl reminded him cheerfully.
“I know,” he grumbled. I figured he couldn’t think of what he wanted to do because making mischief for the baby-sitter was probably his main concern.
“Maybe I could play with my trains,” said CJ. His eyes looked brighter, and all of a sudden he looked more like a little boy than a gloomy brat.
“What’s your trains?” I asked.
“I have train tracks, and I hook ’em together for the little train that goes around. But I never play with ’em anymore ’cause my room’s too small to build anything good, and Mama never lets me build ’em out into the living room.” He gave me a sudden pleading look. “Can I build where I want, just tonight? I never get to anymore.”
“Um, well. . . . ”
“How about this? As long as you put it all away before you go to bed, you can. That way your mom won’t mind . . . ’cause she’ll never know.”
“But what if Cheryl tells on me?” he asked, glaring at his sister.
“I won’t tell if you let me do something Mama never lets me do.”
“What?” I asked, hoping this wouldn’t be getting out of hand.
“Make brownies,” she said. “She lets me lick the bowl, but she doesn’t let me do the eggs or stir them or anything ’cause she says it takes too long.” The little girl scowled. “Mama’s always in a rush.”
“Well, do you know how to make brownies?” I asked. I didn’t have the first idea about cooking.
“Ya just follow the directions on the package,” she explained.
“Well, I guess so. We can do both things, as long as you don’t let your mom and dad find out.” Harmless fun, in my book, was never a big deal.
At that moment, Tracy let out a horrendous sound as if her soul was being pulled from her body. I jerked my head around and saw she’d dropped her ring of bells and was now crying earnestly. After a beat I realized that dropping things on the floor out of reach was a problem for most people.
I got up and gave the ring back to her, and she seemed momentarily placated. When I returned to my chair, however, she began to cry again, and this time she hadn’t dropped the ring. She was clutching it in her wet fist and getting all red in the face.
When she saw she had my attention, she cheered up a little, but kept whimpering.
“She’s getting fussy,” warned CJ. The word “fussy” triggered Betty’s instructions in my mind: “Put Tracy to bed whenever she gets a little fussy.”
“Where are the bottles at?” I asked, getting up. Cheryl pointed everything out to me and made sure I did it right. As I filled the bottle, Tracy became agitated and started banging her tray and making my ears hurt. The speed of the transition from ridiculously happy baby to drumming diapered terror almost scared me. I wondered if all babies had temperaments like that.
I carried Tracy into the room with the crib. On the way, she managed to wipe some of her drool on me, ensnaring her wet fingers in my hair. Wincing, I disentangled her little fist and placed her in the crib with her water bottle. I felt her butt with my hand to see if she was wet, but her diaper seemed dry, so I decided not to worry about it.
When I left and Tracy didn’t cry, I began to relax. I got back to the kitchen to find Cheryl rooting in the fridge and CJ missing. All three plates still sat where we’d left them.
“Where’s CJ?” I asked.
“He’s building his trains, like he said,” she explained seriously. She emerged from the refrigerator with a carton of eggs. “Let’s start making the brownies!”
“Okay. What do we need?”
“The mix, and oil and water and a measuring cup. I think that’s it.”
According to Cheryl’s directions, we made brownies. It was a lot easier than making them at home; Robin knew how to make them from scratch, and I hadn’t known there was any other way. I supposed in a human civilization, there was an easy way to do anything.
“Oh, no!” shrieked Cheryl at one point when she knocked the bowl off the counter while reaching for a spoon. I was watching, though, and though the bowl fell to the ground, it didn’t spill anything and landed “miraculously” right-side-up.
“Wow. That was lucky,” I mused.
“Yeah. It really was.” I laughed to myself and let Cheryl do everything she wanted to with the brownies. As we waited for them to finish baking, Cheryl did my hair. She knew how to braid and managed to complete two fat braids in the time it took for the brownies to be done. I could hear CJ being vaguely noisy with what I assumed were his train tracks.
Cheryl and I ate a brownie each, and they were good, but they didn’t have Robin’s homemade taste. I didn’t tell her that, of course; I told her they were the best brownies I’d ever tasted in my life.
We went to offer CJ a brownie, and upon entering the living room, we saw what he’d been doing. I could also see why his mother didn’t want him doing it.
Long loops of miniature train track traversed the entire living room. The tracks curved under and around the tables, behind the couch, and over each other. And CJ was still going.
“Next comes the tunnels,” he said breathlessly.
“Wow,” I said under my breath. Cheryl shrugged, unimpressed.
“He does stuff like that all the time,” she informed me. “You should see what he built in his room.”
“CJ, I’m gonna show Ivy what’s in your room, ’kay?”
“Don’t care,” he mumbled, working feverishly on joining a plastic tunnel to the tracks. I followed Cheryl to the back room. There was a huge castle built in one whole corner of the room, made entirely of tiny interlocking blocks. It looked like a city, but it had turrets and flags. I marveled.
“He’s pretty good,” I commented.
“I guess,” she said. “He’s just a boy. Boys build things.” She turned, somewhat uninterested, and went back to the brownies.
Cheryl and I did puzzles as far away from CJ’s project as possible, right up until her bedtime. She got into her pajamas without any trouble at all, and then she asked me to read her a story, which I did. She asked me if I would be their baby-sitter again.
“Tell ya what. If your parents need a sitter, just tell ’em to call me, and I’ll see what I can do.”
“Okay,” she said happily. “Thanks for letting me make brownies.”
“They were great,” I complimented. I turned off her light, left the door open exactly “a crack,” and turned on the hall light. She didn’t make a peep.
When I came out, CJ was in front of the TV, watching some program as his train ran around him and back to his room, then out again. It looked like it delighted him to be in the middle of the tracks.
“What’cha watchin’?” I asked, plopping into a chair.
“Can I watch with ya?”
I watched whatever he was watching and found it extremely distasteful, but I didn’t want to say anything. He seemed enthralled, and I wasn’t in the mood to insult him by saying the show he liked sucked. It wasn’t over until nine-thirty, which was when he was supposed to be in bed.
“Time to clean up the trains,” I said.
“Do I have to?”
“Well, I’ll help you,” I offered.
“No. I don’t want anyone else touching them. I’m the only one who knows where all the pieces go.” A little engine ran up to him and he switched it off, depriving it of its movement. Then, sighing as if doing a despicable chore, he began unlatching the pieces of track. Soon enough the room was bare of travel apparatus, and CJ went to bed without complaint or help. I supposed he didn’t want me to bother him.
After CJ was in bed, I got up and threw the paper plates from our dinner away, then washed and dried the silverware and our baking cookware without using my hands. After I was done and had made sure the kitchen looked fine, I relaxed in front of the television. I had two hours of my own to kill, and I liked it that way.
I glanced around for the remote for the TV and didn’t see it. That was strange; I knew CJ had been using it earlier to flip stations annoyingly during the commercials. Maybe the little brat had hidden it. I scowled. But what did I care whether I could find the remote? I was telekinetic, after all; who needed a remote control? Feeling like some kind of liberated rebel, I rearranged my body so I could see the cable box with ease and flipped the stations to my liking.
Just about everything I found on the television began to bore me almost immediately. I would think something looked interesting, then the novelty would wear off, and I would change the station. I realized I might be doing it subconsciously because I enjoyed being able to change the channel. I never watched TV alone, so consequently, I was never in total control of what I watched. I let myself revel a little bit in the freedom to channel-flip.
Finally I hit something that intrigued me: Cartoons. I laughed out loud as I caught the end of a normal slapstick routine. I became engaged in the program immediately.
Then something odd happened: The channel changed by itself. I gasped faintly as I felt my eyebrows practically hit my hairline. I sat still for a moment.
Maybe I’d just leaned on the remote or something. I picked up the pillows on either side of me and looked; no remote. So I stood up and looked under my butt. Nothing there either. As soon as I flopped back into the chair, it happened again. The channel flipped. I leaped up.
It had happened as soon as I sat down, I knew. Maybe the remote was under the cushion. I lifted it up and looked. Nothing. I started feeling a little bit strange. There had to be an explanation. Maybe it was just a problem with the cable company. I relaxed slowly and sat back in the chair.
I flipped the cable box back to station 22, then realized I’d remembered it wrong. Frowning, I changed the station rapidly, searching for brief flashes of animation and only getting false alarms in commercials.
“How are you doing that?” said an incredulous voice right next to me. I practically jumped out of my seat, then turned and saw CJ there.
“Um, doing what?” I feigned total innocence.
“You’re changing the channel without even getting up.”
“No, it’s been changing by itself. It’s really weird.” That wasn’t a lie.
“Nope, before it was me. I have the remote.” CJ pulled it out of the back of his pajama bottoms, setting it on the table like a confession.
“You little. . . . ” I trailed off. “CJ, what are you doing out of bed?”
“I was just gonna play a little trick on my way to the bathroom,” he explained, not looking sorry at all. “Do you have another remote or something?”
“Yeah,” I lied.
“Well, where is it? Can I see it?”
I sighed. “Because it’s in my head.”
“What?” CJ’s face screwed up.
“I said, ‘because it’s in my head.’”
“You have a remote control in your head?”
“How’d it get there?”
“Couldn’t tell ya.”
“’Cause I don’t know.”
“But . . . how could you have a remote control in your head? And . . . and. . . . ” He frowned at me like he was just now noticing how strangely my face was put together. I supposed he hadn’t perceived that before since he hadn’t given me a second glance all night. His unabashed stare made me uncomfortable. I returned the discomfort by meeting his gaze, raising my eyebrows in a silent challenge.
“CJ, you belong in bed,” I reminded him with a little bit of iron in my voice.
“I want to know how you got a remote control,” he insisted, “and I want to know why your eyes are so funny.”
I blinked. “Are we playing twenty questions again?” I prodded.
“Well . . . well, why?” he demanded.
“How about this? CJ, why are your eyes blue?”
He looked taken aback. “Um, well, I was born this way, I guess. It just happened.”
“Great. I got the same deal,” I replied.
“That’s not what I meant,” he spat.
“Well, that’s what I meant,” I countered.
“Tell me about the remote control,” he demanded. “Who put it there? Was it like a mad scientist? Did they cut open your head to do it? Did they take out any of your brain? Are you a robot?”
“CJ,” I whined, exasperated.
“Well . . . it’s not that kind of remote control, nobody had to put it there. I was just born with it.”
“Huh?” His face screwed up again.
“Just don’t worry about it. Go back to bed.” I looked back at the TV as though I was through discussing it. CJ took the hint and crept back to the bedroom.
In five minutes he was out again.
“I can’t sleep,” he said. “I keep thinking about you.”
“I’m thinking about you too. Thinking about you getting back in your bed right now.” I didn’t mean it to come out that nastily, but I was afraid his parents would walk in any minute. Maybe they would be early.
“Ivy,” he whined, finally using my name, “I just want to know how you do it. Are you . . . lying to me about the remote control, or what?”
“No, I wasn’t.”
“Does it work on any TV?”
“Yeah, if I want it to.”
“How about DVD players?”
I groaned. “CJ . . . it’s not really a remote control.”
“But you said it was!”
“Well, it sort of is, but I don’t call it that.”
“What do you call it then?”
I shrugged. “I think of it as an energy field. Scientists would call it telekinesis.”
“Whoa,” he said, “can you spell that?”
“No,” I said, irritated both at him for asking and at myself because I probably couldn’t spell it any better than he could.
“So could you use it on a radio too? Our stereo has a remote control. . . . ”
“CJ!” I exploded. He looked astonished. “CJ,” I said again, more quietly, “I’m not going to talk about it anymore. Go back to bed before your parents get home, or you’ll be in deep trouble.”
“Well what if I don’t want to?”
I gave him an evil look in response. He didn’t seem to care.
“If I’m still up when they get home, you’ll be in trouble for letting me stay up, ya know. I’m only goin’ to bed if you tell me about the remote control.”
“All right,” I said, as if agreeing. “You know what else I can use it on?”
“What?” he said eagerly.
“Little boys,” I replied gleefully. “My remote control is really an amazing little gizmo. It can make you go to bed and stay there, if I want it to.”
“I don’t believe you,” he said, crossing his arms.
“Pretty big thing not to believe in,” I said slyly. He still looked mad and stubborn, so I changed his expression by hanging him temporarily in the air.
“Your room’s that way, right?” I said, as if I didn’t know. I started floating him in that direction, then pretended to reconsider and dropped him. “You gonna go yourself, or do we do this the hard way?”
“Do that again!” he shrieked.
“Shh!” I stressed. “You’ll wake up your sisters!”
“I don’t care,” he squawked. “You just made me fly! How’d you do that?”
I sighed. Why had I sacrificed my secrecy anyway?
“Okay, CJ,” I relented. “Here’s how it is. Some people can just do things. Some people are good at swimming, or dancing, or making clothes. I’m good at making things move without touching them.”
“But . . . but, this is different, this is like magic, how does it work and stuff? Can I have a remote control too?”
I tossed the TV remote into his hands and said no more.
“No, not this! I want one for my head too!”
“How’d you get one?”
“I told you, CJ, I was born like that. I don’t think you can just go out and get one.”
“But. . . . ”
“Listen, if I tell you about it, will you go to bed? I really want to be nice.”
“Yeah, I’ll go to sleep if you tell me.”
“All right.” A quick glance shut off the TV, which left CJ open-mouthed for a minute. Meanwhile, I opened one of the magazines on the table and tore out a junk ad. CJ watched me make the paper float in the air.
“Wow,” he murmured.
“Check this out,” I said, feeling the same mix of embarrassment and pride I usually did when I showed someone my teekay for the first time. I put on one of my best tricks: Telekinetic paper-folding. The advertisement was a paper airplane in seconds.
“Jeez,” he said. “Is it okay to touch it?”
“Of course.” I let him pluck it out of the air.
“I bet it flies real good, too,” he said in awe.
“If I wanted it to, a rock could fly well.”
“Can you make anything do anything?”
“Really?” He looked like he didn’t trust me.
“Why would I start fibbing now?”
“What about if I just throw this plane at the wall? Can you make it like come back to me?”
“Sure. You can try it if you want.”
CJ let the paper plane fly. I made it do a couple loop-de-loops before landing it in his hand again. He screeched.
“Shh! Your sisters!” I reminded him.
“Tell me what else you can do,” he ordered.
I told him plenty.
“I wish I had those powers!” he said wistfully after I’d finished my little spiel. “Then I could be just like a superhero and fly all over the place!” I rolled my eyes. He was already referring to my ability as “powers,” which certainly didn’t bother me since I did it myself, but it added a sound of comic-book cheese to a real-life thing.
“It’s not always great,” I reported.
“How could it not be?” He seemed genuinely puzzled.
“Sometimes it doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to.” I decided that was plenty of information. He didn’t need to know about my involuntary storms and my ability to rearrange a room for the worse if someone pissed me off at the wrong time. I supposed there really was no “right” time to piss me off; it was always dangerous.
“If you’ve got such cool powers, how come you’re just a baby-sitter?” he asked. “Can’t you do something cooler?”
“Uh. I guess I just don’t want to.” I frowned. “And besides, I do stuff besides baby-sit. This isn’t my life or anything.”
“You should go be a superhero, then.”
“I don’t think I would get paid for that.”
A car pulled in close, and I saw headlights.
“Quick!” I began, but CJ was down the hall and in his bed in seconds. I flicked the TV on as though that was what I’d been doing for the past two hours.
The front door opened and the parents ambled in.
“Hi, Ivy, how’d everything go?” asked Betty.
“Perfectly fine,” I replied.
“Did the kids behave themselves?”
“Oh, yes. Did you have a good time?”
The couple exchanged a look.
“It was all right,” said Betty. “And did you guys have fun? What did you do?”
“Just the usual hanging out. Your kids are great.”
They beamed, overlooking my avoidance of their question. I was glad, since I didn’t really want to recount what we’d done. I supposed compliments were a good distraction, and decided to remember that in case I needed to use it to get out of answering another slippery question.
They stuck a large bill in my pocket, and I stuck my name in their heads for future reference. Maybe baby-sitting wasn’t so bad.
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