Becky Gardner had another dirty, rotten game to play with Christy and Timmy when she came to babysit. It seemed to ten-year-old Christy that all Becky did was sit around eating and thinking up these bad games that she could play with the Eastman children.
Becky said, “Tonight, I’m going to be the mother and you two are going to be the babies.” The seventeen-year-old babysitter had a body the shape of an over-filled, lumpy pillow.
At first, this sounded not as bad as the other games, but every time Becky wanted to play a game Christy’s little brother cried. Timmy’s eyes were the same washed blue as the sky, and he had fair skin that easily burned. Christy worried about him endlessly. He was wiry and quick but as fragile as the first ice in November.
Timmy, with his wet face, said that he didn’t want to play any games! then fled to his bedroom, slamming the door. Christy shuddered. Mother didn’t allow loud noises: not slamming doors, not screeching children, not even the sound of the Krazy Kars’ giant plastic wheels rushing along on the concrete sidewalk. Mother would walk to the front door, her fingertips pressed into her temples, and shout at the neighborhood children to get away from her house.
Becky lumbered down the short hallway in the suburban brick ranch Christy’s father had built after the ’67 riots. The riots had scared her father into moving farther away from the city. Christy poked her head around the corner and tried to listen in, but she couldn’t quite hear what Becky said to Timmy. He came down the hallway, rubbing his eyes, Becky’s hand on the top of his head.
Becky wanted to play the game in Christy’s bedroom, in Christy’s full-size antique brass bed. She made the children undress and then she undressed and then she made them act like they were her very hungry babies. She told the children exactly what to do and she reminded them what would happen to them if they told their parents. She got herself all over Christy’s Pablo Picasso bedding. Picasso’s doves of peace, outlined in light blue, had sprigs of bright green in their beaks. These doves flew all around Christy while she slept, fluttering their soft white wings against her cheeks and cooing softly when she had the nightmares.
After Becky was all done, she made the children stay with her in the bed, her clammy skin sticking against Christy, telling Timmy to stop crying or she’d give him something to really cry about.
“Guess what?” she said, mostly to Christy.
Christy looked at Becky’s pasty, pimply face.
“Tomorrow night, my boyfriend is going to help me babysit you kids. Won’t that be fun?”
The next morning, Mother found Christy’s bedding piled up in a corner of her room. When Christy had turned nine, Mother and Dad pasted Peter Max wallpaper up in her bedroom. There were swirls and circles and stars, splashes of pinks, blues and yellows, faces and flowers, in the metallic paper and Christy loved her mother for being so daring. No other girl had a room like hers.
“Did you have an accident, Christy?” Mother said as she stooped and gathered the large bundle.
Christy was playing with her Sunshine Family dolls. She had a white mother and white father and their baby and a black mother and black father and their baby. Christy called her black family the Midnight Family. She also had the white grandparent dolls but they were Grandma and Grandpa to both babies. In Christy’s world, there wasn’t any screaming or sobbing or the smashing of things in the deepest part of the night. The Sunshine Family and the Midnight Family didn’t have parties with weird drunk grown-ups who smoked nasty cigarettes and hung all over each other. They didn’t go out three nights a week and when they did go out, maybe to a peace rally or to a love-in on Belle Isle, the grandparents were always available to babysit.
Christy spent most of her time inside her head in an invented world of one kind or another and usually, it was difficult for her to return to the outside world. She heard her mother speak to her but it was as if her mother was on a ship, way out on Lake Superior, calling to Christy on the foggy shore, while Christy was busy searching for smooth rounds of colored glass to put in her pockets, the cold water lapping at her toes.
“Hhhhmmm,” she said.
“Christy, I’m speaking to you,” and Mother’s tone sliced through the fog. A glaring light slivered in like the prick of a nurse’s needle on her finger.
“Sorry, Mom.” She looked at her mother. Her mother reminded Christy of the Madame Alexander dolls she kept upon her dresser. Dolls that Christy only gazed at—their fine details a source of endless fascination. The miniature yellow, red, or pink ribbons in their hair, or sewn on their dresses. The stiff, starched petticoats trimmed in lace. Their tiny black velvet shoes with small silver buckles that Christy didn’t dare unsnap. The dolls all wore the same smooth, brittle, plastic faces and tiny polished fingernails. If Christy were careless, tried to play with one, or even hold one like she did a baby doll, the Madame Alexander would get broken.
There was no way she could tell her mother about the boyfriend. The thought of more dirty, rotten games made Christy’s head swim in a soup of murky swamp water.
“Are you not feeling well?” Mother asked.
The pressure of the encounter drained suddenly, and Christy could nod then go back to her dolls. “Why don’t you lay down then?” Her mother said as she took the bedding to wash it.
Christy began to think about what could happen if the boyfriend played games with her and Timmy. At one of her mother’s parties, Christy had accidentally walked-in on a man standing at the toilet. He stood there swaying, barely able to stand, and he shouted at her, fumbling to pull up his pants. Christy had quickly retreated but not before she’d seen the man’s secret pink and gray. Even though nobody had, as of yet, explained to her what men did with their secret, Christy inherently understood that the last thing she wanted to do was play any sort of a game with the boyfriend.
With paper and a pencil, Christy set about creating a questionnaire for the other neighborhood children to see how they had handled the dirty, rotten games. Then she went and got Timmy out of his room. Christy took her survey, clipped it to her Dad’s old clipboard and tied a pen with string to the hole in the metal clip of the clipboard.
She and Timmy walked barefoot down the street to play. It was so hot they had to walk on the grass, and Timmy wore his baseball cap to keep his skin safe.
“What’s that? What are you doing with that? What does that say?” Timmy asked repeatedly as they walked together. She told him, “None of your beeswax.”
Timmy and Christy found the everyday group of neighborhood children at the Duguay family’s house. Timmy joined the boys who were gathered in a pod.
“I don’t wanna be the monster again,” Timmy said. “I’m always the monster. I wanna be Will Robinson.” Christy thought he was going to cry again and then she’d have to get bossy. Sometimes she could make it so Timmy could play Will Robinson’s robot.
“But you’re the best monster,” said Steven Evans. Steven was the oldest and the tallest and one time he’d jabbed a squirt gun in Christy’s eye and she’d had to wear an eye patch for weeks. Steven had hair as white as the Man in the Moon’s skin. “Besides, Robbie is always Will Robinson. Robbie, you gonna be the monster today?”
Robbie shook his head. “That’s what I thought,” said Steven. “If you wanna play, Timmy, you have to be the monster.” He crossed his arms over his chest and threw his shoulders back.
It was true that Timmy was the best monster. He made his face scary and did the best noises and moved his arms and legs so that all the children could sometimes actually feel like he was a monster. Sometimes it seemed like Timmy had nine arms, reaching for Christy to poison her with deadly suction cups. Delicious shivers ran across her then.
The girls were deciding on who would play whom. Christy knew that she’d be the mother. Never could she be the beautiful daughter Judy in love with the dashing Major Don West. Once in a very long while she was allowed to be Penny but being Penny annoyed her. Penny was still a child. She might as well be the mother. But today, Christy had questions to ask.
She cornered Dawn Duguay and produced the clipboard. Dawn was her age, had dirty blond hair and a famous father. He was the lead singer of a doo-wop group with lots of hit records. The kind of music Christy’s Dad still liked but her mother made fun of.
“Do you want to do a survey?” Christy asked, attempting to appear as professional as possible.
“Sure,” said Dawn.
Christy looked down at her clipboard and read the first question. She kept her pen poised to record the answers. “Does Becky Gardner babysit you and Mike?”
“Do you ever play games with Becky Gardner?”
“What kind of games?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Just games.”
“Like, she’s the mother games?”
Dawn crinkled her nose, and Christy checked the “no” box.
“Do you ever take off your clothes to play the games?”
Dawn shook her head then much to Christy’s surprise, ran and got Julie, whispering dramatically in her ear. Julie was Steven’s little sister and was always hogging Dawn.
“What are you doing? Taking a survey?” Julie put her hand on her hip and slung it out.
“Ask me. Ask me some.”
“Does Becky Gardner babysit you?”
“Not anymore. Just Becky Smith.”
“Is that on the survey?”
Christy shook her head no.
“Ask me the survey. Like what you asked Dawn.”
“Did you ever see Becky Gardner take off her clothes?”
“Eeewww. That’s gross! What game is that?”
“See, I told you,” said Dawn to Julie. The girls snickered. Christy’s stomach dropped.
“We don’t play bad games with Becky Gardner.” Julie ran away.
“That’s gross to take off your clothes,” Dawn said. “You’re gross, Christy.” She ran away, catching backward glances at Christy and sneering at her.
Dawn and Julie gathered the children into a huddle and Christy knew they whispered about her and the survey and the gross questions. Christy stood there shocked, watching the other children’s perception of her change. How could she be gross when it was Becky Gardner that was gross? She ran home. When she got inside her bedroom, she tore the survey into tiny bits and hid them in the bottom of the trash can. She had not even asked all of the questions.
Christy got underneath her covers to read with her flashlight, messing her newly-made bed, and waited to get into trouble for slamming her door. When nothing happened, she worried more. She went to see if everything was okay.
Just this past winter, an ambulance had taken her mother away to the hospital when penicillin nearly killed her. She’d stumbled into the kitchen just before bedtime grasping at her throat with her hand, her eyes full of fear and Christy’s father jumped out of his chair and ran to her just as she collapsed. The paramedics lifted Mother onto a stretcher and put a breathing mask on her mouth. Timmy didn’t listen and crying, ran outside in his pajamas and bare feet to go with her. The red lights flashed across their house and in through the storm door and the picture window—into Mother’s sparkling white living room, bouncing off her mirrored wall. A fireman picked Timmy up and carried him back inside. The fireman waited for their Nana to get there. Nana and Timmy and Christy waited by the telephone all night to hear if Shirley was going to be okay.
Mother was painting drooping blue flowers in a flat muddy vase. She sat on a round metal stool with a black cushion beneath a window that the light fell in as the sun descended. Her face was tight with concentration. Mother had taken up painting to see if it helped her to feel better. Macramé had not.
She watched Mother cock her head at her flowers, jab her paintbrush into thick bright paint, dab it here then there on the canvas. Since Mother hadn’t said anything about the door, Christy thought she could say something about the babysitting problem.
“Why can’t Becky Smith babysit us tonight?” Christy asked.
“Becky Smith has never babysat you kids.”
“Then why do you ask?”
“The Evans and the Duguays have Becky Smith babysit.”
Mother put her paintbrush down. “And you think I care what the Evans and the Duguays do?”
“Stop chewing your nails.”
Christy hadn’t realized she was biting her nails again. One of her fingers was bleeding. She sucked on the blood then jammed it into her pocket where she could press the ragged edge against her pants.
“I don’t feel good. I have a headache.” She got a lot of headaches and also she got strep throat every year, but usually in the fall, right around Halloween.
Mother used to be a nurse. She always took Christy’s stitches out instead of driving all the way back to the doctor’s. She liked watching mother snip the little black knots with her surgical scissors then take her tweezers and pluck the itchy bits of thick string out of the scar, one by one. Christy got stitches a lot. She smashed her arm right through the glass of the storm door, slicing her wrist open. She fell off the kitchen counter when only Dad was home and landed on the open cupboard door, the corner piercing her thigh. She rode her tricycle down the stairs, the handlebars gashing her forehead.
Mother sighed, slapped her paintbrush onto the palette. She came and stood next to Christy and put her soft white hand on her scar. “You don’t feel hot.”
“Okay.” Christy headed back to her bedroom. She’d been reading Kildee House and wished she had wild forest creatures for friends. The first movie Christy had ever seen in a movie theater was Snow White and since then she often recalled how Snow White sang to the birds and the deer and the rabbits. They kept her company in the frightening forest.
“I cannot just suddenly call Becky Smith and see if she can babysit when it’s already four in the afternoon.”
“Okay.” She closed her door.
Christy picked up her book. Jerome Kildee lived alone in the woods in a log cabin. He let all the skunks and raccoons live with him too. It didn’t matter that they were dirty and loud. When Christy grew up, she was going to live in the woods all alone and let the animals live in her cabin. She was an extra in the family anyway, they’d never miss her.
After awhile Mother opened her door. “Becky Smith is babysitting for the Duguays tonight. Nana and Papa have the Elks. I don’t know who else I could call this late in the day.”
She thought about telling her mother that Becky Gardner’s boyfriend was coming over tonight. But she didn’t know how to explain the rotten games. And now she knew without a doubt, because of the survey, that what Becky Gardner did to her and Timmy was wrong. The gross games would make Mother very upset. She’d probably have to stay in her darkened bedroom with a cool wet washcloth on her head and a box of Kleenex. Then Christy would have to take care of Timmy again by herself until Dad got home.
“I wish you’d told me sooner.”
Christy couldn’t just lay there with her blood cramping inside her, getting stiffer and stiffer as if she were turning into a Madame Alexander doll. It made her itchy and hot. She hopped out of bed, stood in front of her dresser and began re-arranging her dolls, sliding them around by their plastic white bases and talking to them all the while. Christy had the magical power of being able to converse with her toys.
Maybe Timmy had a good idea. She ran to his bedroom.
Somehow, between the two of them, the rocks idea came up. It worked like that sometimes, thinking together as if one child. They ran outside, holding hands.
Timmy and Christy squatted closely together on the concrete curb, their knees against their chests, their heels in the mowed grass and their toes on the rough warmth of the retained sun. They peered down onto the ell where the curb met their street and picked up only the biggest stones, dropping them into a yellow plastic bucket Timmy had grabbed out of his sand box. The bucket had moistened sand stuck to its insides, softening the sounds of the falling rocks.
“Not enough,” said Timmy when they stood to inspect their horde.
“How many do you think we need?” she asked.
“Enough to each throw a handful.” He spread his small fingers, stretching them apart. He squinted at his sister between the freckles that ran all over his face and stopped to seesaw across his nose.
She stuck her hand in his bucket and grasped the sharp gravel in her fist. He was right that they didn’t have enough rocks. Her hand easily held all of them with room to spare. They raced together to the backyard, without words.
There were some rocks in Timmy’s sand box.
There were no rocks in Dad’s garden. There were rocks in the concrete basin beneath the brown aluminum rainspout on a corner of the house. Dad had built a pergola to shade the concrete patio squares and his picnic table. Near the rainspout, Timmy and Christy kept plastic dish wash pans of water and tadpoles.
Christy brushed Dad’s rocks, smoothing and leveling, so he wouldn’t miss the few they’d taken. Timmy took too many, and she made him put some back. They now each had a good handful.
They ran halfway down the block, staying on their side of the street, the bucket swaying between them. It was supper-time and they didn’t see any of the neighbor children outside playing. They didn’t think anyone would see them. They were so caught up in the excitement of their plan, they never imagined what could happen if they got caught.
“Ready?” Timmy asked his sister.
Christy nodded. She couldn’t speak and a panic simmered in her stomach.
The children looked both ways then bolted into the street, crossing quickly. They stared at Becky Gardner’s house from the sidewalk. It was a red brick colonial with white siding on top and black shutters and the white garage door was closed. They slammed their hands into the bucket, their knuckles crashing, their fingers scraping up a fistful of rocks. Christy stayed at the edge of the Gardner’s property but Timmy ran closer, up the driveway, and he yelled and she knew to throw the rocks at the garage door. The rocks caused two small powerless explosions. Then the children ran. They ran home together, as fast as possible, away from the faceless yelling that erupted amongst the churning sounds of the Gardner’s garage door opener.
Timmy and Christy hid between the evergreen bushes and their house, beside the front concrete porch. They pressed their backs against the cool brick, cowering in the shade. They could hear Becky Gardner’s father coming after them, shouting curses. Christy’s heart beat hard and fast and she clenched her eyes closed. Her mind swirled in black panic. They scrambled into the prickly bushes as the father stomped up their front walk and up the porch steps. Christy couldn’t believe he was at Mother’s house. He banged on their front door, and Christy thought their breathing was too loud. Christy loved playing hide-n-seek at twilight and she was very good at not getting found for she could stay very still. Timmy was the same way. But this time, she was certain they’d be found.
Christy wanted badly to hop out of the bushes and spare her mother, ending the confrontation with Mr. Gardner with an all-out confession but Timmy held tight onto her arm and shook his head violently, glaring at her.
The children stayed in the bushes for a long time after Mr. Gardner stormed away. They listened to their mother yelling their names. The evergreens pricked and scratched them and sweat trickled down their faces. They hadn’t considered the possibility of getting caught, of Mr. Gardner being angry at their mother. Why had they done it in broad daylight? Would she slap the backs of their legs now? Christy was so ashamed.
Mother came back out on the porch and yelled for them again, the blood red in her voice blasting through them, charring as it went. Christy cried and Mother found them. She yanked them out of the bushes and they trembled before her. Christy couldn’t hear what Mother was saying; she was being scorched with Mother’s fire until she confessed. Timmy was profoundly disappointed with Christy and she could barely look at him. Then Mother grabbed them by one arm, whipping them around like rag dolls, slapping them on their legs. Her fury left burning red handprints on the backs of their bare thighs. She sent them to their rooms.
“No supper for you!”
Christy wept in her bedroom. She had thought all along that Mother would say, “Why did you do that?” But she did not. Mother didn’t care why she and Timmy had thrown rocks at Becky Gardner’s garage door.
She sat on her bed and stared at the walls, her arms wrapped around her knees. The burning pain would go away eventually and it didn’t help to think about it.
Christy heard her father come home. She could picture him with his thick black hair and black plastic glasses setting his leather briefcase down by the side door and taking his suit coat and tie off as he walked toward the kitchen. Then he would lean way down and kiss her mother hello as she stood in the kitchen with its dark cabinets, pulling the hot Corning ware casserole pan out of the oven. Christy listened to her father’s footsteps go by and she knew he was hanging up his suit and tie and changing into jeans. He would wear his undershirt until he needed to get dressed to go out.
Then Christy heard something unexpected. She heard her mother talking to Timmy from the doorway of his room. She couldn’t really make out what Mother said but Timmy was sobbing loudly, something he could do at will, and then she heard her mother tell Timmy to go and wash his hands and sit down at the table. And since Timmy’s room was at the end of the hallway and Mother had to walk by Christy’s bedroom to get back to the kitchen, Christy became very hopeful. She was hungry.
But Mother didn’t come to Christy’s door. Christy lay down on her doves of peace. She didn’t pick up one of her books and read. She couldn’t be still. She got up and looked in the mirror. She felt sure she was really Sonny and Cher’s daughter and somehow, her mother had stolen her at the hospital. She hoped that Cher would claim her soon.
The sun was going down and the crickets were chirping and it had, quite simply, become far too late to eat supper. Soon Becky Gardner would get there to babysit. Then a tapping came near her window and she sat up, uncertain. There was more tapping and it became urgent. She dragged a chair to the window, climbed up and looked for the tapping maker.
It was her father. He told her how to open the corner of the screen so her hand could slip out. He had a small white and red, greasy, paperboard container.
“You can’t tell your mother,” he said, “no matter what.” He passed the container to her. “Make sure you put the garbage in the can outside in the morning.”
This could easily be done in secret since Mother didn’t get up with her and Timmy.
Christy nodded at her father, some tears leaked out. A grimace passed over her father’s face.
“You shouldn’t have thrown the rocks, Christy.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
Dad helped her put the screen back and she knew he would soon slip away. She watched him walk alongside the house. “Dad!”
“What is it, Christy?” There were sweat stains on his undershirt.
“Becky Gardner is going to have her boyfriend come over here tonight. She wasn’t going to tell Mother.”
Dad came back toward the window and stood below it, looking up at her. He took his white handkerchief out of his back pocket and wiped his nose from right to left and then back again. He scrunched his nose up and down as if it were itchy. He looked at her for a long time. “How come you don’t like Becky Gardner anymore? Is that what the rocks were about? Timmy said she isn’t a good babysitter.”
Christy shook her head, the white hotness inside her was flaming its way up her throat and into her eyeballs; her tears were as hot as the sidewalk had been. “She’s not a good babysitter, Dad.” Christy’s cheeks burned.
Dad nodded. He folded his handkerchief four times into a small rectangle then slid it into his back pocket.
“Eat your supper, Christy. Your mother doesn’t feel like going out tonight now.” He walked away.
Christy climbed off the chair, the dinner gripped tightly in her hand, and sat on her bed. She ate very slowly, savoring the crispy chicken, the warm biscuit that seemed to melt on her tongue, the coolness of the cole slaw. She drank her milk carton down in a couple of gulps. Then she put all of the dinner trash back into the container, knelt down beside her bed, slipped the container beneath it and climbed into bed. She pulled her doves of peace over her so that she lay shrouded in them. In the morning, she would make sure to put the container out in the trash before Mother got up. But for right now, she was so tired, her eyelids felt as heavy as rocks.
Jennifer Porter lives in metropolitan-Detroit with her long-suffering family and a slew of misfit pets. Her fiction has appeared in The Dos Passos Review, Jet Fuel Review, Hobo Pancakes, Apeiron Review and Sling Magazine. She earned her MFA at the Bennington Writing Seminars and is a Co-Founding Editor of The Tishman Review.