Two weeks had passed since Francine had posted the sign offering her services as a babysitter on the bulletin board at Forton’s Foods. She had not received one call. She knew why. It was because of her family’s reputation. Her dad was a drunk and a thief, her mom had been a well-known nutcase before she disappeared, and her older brother Carson was a high-school dropout drug-dealer who, though he claimed he wasn’t a white supremacist, did have a prominent white supremacist tattoo on his neck. Francine knew she’d be good at babysitting, but she understood why people who didn’t know her might feel uneasy leaving their children in her care.
Francine had worked at a video store called Talkies in Color since she’d graduated from Multioak High School five years ago, so she’d had a front-row seat for the store’s long slide into financial ruin that eventually resulted in Mr. Kiff, who had owned Talkies in Color since the late 80s, closing the store for “remodeling” and then secretly moving away without telling anyone where he was going. That had been three months ago. Francine had been looking for a job ever since, but she refused to work in food service and as far as she could tell, there was nothing else available. The babysitting idea had been her father’s, so of course it was doomed. Even his non-ridiculous ideas tended to fizzle.
One afternoon while Francine was at the hardware store trying to find a cleaning agent strong enough to handle the tile in the basement bathroom, her cell phone rang. Her ringtone was a snippet of the theme from a cartoon she used to watch at daycare when she was little. Francine had liked daycare. She’d liked how the ladies who worked there had done their best to make sure everything was as fair as possible. Everyone got equal time on the swings, everyone got equal portions of the snacks, everyone got an equal number of turns to pick which videos the group watched together before nap time. She hadn’t realized then how uncommon that kind of rigorous fairness really was.
Francine answered her phone. The voice on the other end was high-pitched and male. “I’m calling about the babysitting service? I saw your flyer at Forton’s Foods? On the bulletin board? You’re the babysitter?”
“Yes,” said Francine. “I’m the babysitter.”
“Oh, good,” said the man. “My name is Grant Olakso. Do you also babysit pets or old people or other non-babies?”
“I suppose I could,” said Francine. “Is that what you need?”
“Not a pet,” said Mr. Olakso. “But I do have an old person I’d like you to keep an eye on for a few hours. The old person is my wife’s mother. We call her ‘Meemaw.’ She’s just come out of the hospital and she sleeps in a chair in the living room all day. All you’d need to do is make sure she keeps breathing.”
“What do you mean?” asked Francine.
“She just sleeps in the chair,” said Mr. Olakso. “And we’d like you to sit there in the living room watching TV or whatever, and if you notice that she stops breathing, you’d call 911. But she probably won’t stop breathing. We’ll pay you 15 dollars an hour. And I should have mentioned that this is for tonight. My wife and I have to go somewhere on very short notice, so I apologize for that.”
“How long will you be gone?” asked Francine.
“Four or five hours,” said Grant. “From 8 until a little after midnight, I think. If you do the math, that works out to somewhere between 60 and 75 dollars for sitting on a couch and watching any of our 200-plus high definition channels of television or a movie, of which we have dozens.”
The job sounded simple. It would be scary if the old woman stopped breathing, but if she did, it sounded as if the Olaksos didn’t expect Francine to do anything beyond calling 911, which she was sure she could handle. She’d had to call 911 three other times in her life and those had all been frantic, blood-soaked situations fraught with drama and danger. This job didn’t sound like it had much potential for that kind of thing. “I’ll be there a little before 8,” said Francine.
“Very good,” said Mr. Olakso. “We look forward to meeting you.”
The Olaksos lived on a county road a few miles outside of Multioak. Their property was surrounded on all sides by their distant neighbors’ corn, bean, and wheat fields. At 7:59, Mr. Olakso and his wife, who hadn’t introduced herself, backed their car down their long driveway and drove off as Francine stood watching in the front window of their large, heavily-furnished home. Meemaw slept in her chair, just breathing away. Francine turned from the window and sat down on the end of the couch nearest Meemaw’s chair. The living room was large with high ceilings and numerous lamps, half of which remained unlit. The TV, hanging on the far wall, was flat and black and silent. Francine wanted to take a few moments to savor the feeling of being unsupervised in a stranger’s home. It made the little hairs on the back of her neck stand upright.
Mr. Olakso hadn’t had much new information for Francine when she’d arrived. He’d pointed out the bathroom nearest the living room, given her his cell phone number in case of an emergency that didn’t necessitate the involvement of medical professionals, and told her she was welcome to the bottles of iced tea in the fridge. Mrs. Olakso had stayed seated on the couch the entire time Mr. Olakso had spoken to Francine, monitoring Meemaw’s breathing, which made Francine wonder if Mr. Olakso had downplayed the likelihood of Meemaw ceasing to breathe in order to convince her to take the job.
Meemaw was gaunt and had thin white hair which was still somewhat curly from whenever she’d last had it permed. She wore a pale yellow sweatshirt and was wrapped in a new-looking quilt from the legs down. Francine didn’t know much about breathing, but except for how loud it was, Meemaw’s breathing didn’t sound too bad. It sounded steady, at least, and that seemed like a good sign. “Meemaw,” said Francine, her voice just above a whisper. Meemaw didn’t respond. Francine picked up the remote and turned on the TV.
Twenty minutes later, as the credits of a made-for-TV-movie (of which she had only seen the final, weeping-filled minutes) rolled by on the screen, Francine heard the sound of something thumping down the stairs from the second story. She sprang to her feet and stood facing the doorway leading from the living room into the front hall, her pulse spiking. After a long moment, a young man strode into the living room looking groggy and impassive. He wore gray sweatpants and a backwards orange t-shirt. His light hair stuck up in odd places.
“What’s up?” he said to Francine as he walked past her. His voice was low and gravelly.
Francine still couldn’t move. “Who are you?” she asked as the young man walked around the corner and into the kitchen.
“Reg,” came the reply. Then Francine heard a horrible hacking noise, the sound of Reg spitting into the sink, and the sound of the refrigerator door opening and closing. Reg reappeared with a bottle of iced tea in his hand. As Francine gaped at him, Reg nudged her out of the way to get between her and the coffee table, snagged the TV remote out of her hand on the way past, and flopped down on the far end of the couch. He changed the channel to a show about times when animals almost attacked but didn’t.
“But who are you?” asked Francine, finally finding her voice again. “How did you get in the house?”
“I live here,” said Reg. “I was napping in my room.”
“The Olaksos are your parents?”
“Yup,” said Reg, scratching a noticeable welt on his ankle.
“But,” said Francine. “How old are you?”
“Nineteen,” said Reg. “Why? How old are you?”
“I’m not that much older than you,” said Francine. “Are you going out soon?”
Reg shrugged. “Probably not.”
“Then why am I here?” asked Francine. “Why aren’t you watching Meemaw for your parents?”
Reg frowned. “I’m not doing that. I’m not spending all night watching Meemaw breathe.” He turned up the volume on the TV so that the sound of a braying donkey that looked like it was about to kick someone filled the room, drowning out the sound of Meemaw’s breathing.
“Hey,” said Francine. Reg didn’t look at her. “Hey,” she said again, louder. “Would you mind keeping the volume down? I have to be able to hear your grandma’s breathing.”
“It’s my house,” said Reg. “Go watch quiet TV at your own house.” The donkey on the TV didn’t kick anyone and the show cut to a commercial where a man was screaming because he had really wanted the last chip in the bag and a different man had eaten it.
“Your parents hired me to watch your grandma,” said Francine. “And really it’s their house.”
Reg sat in silence for a few seconds, the TV blaring at him, and then without warning, he hurled the remote across the room where it crashed against the wall and fell to the floor. The power button on the remote must have struck the wall because the TV blinked off. The living room was quiet again except for Meemaw’s steady breathing. Francine felt the prickle on her skin that she always felt when her older brother was on the verge of losing control. Carson was bigger and scarier than Reg, but he was also her brother and Francine had years of experience handling his flare-ups. She didn’t know Reg at all.
“I’m sorry,” said Francine, her voice meek and conciliatory. “I didn’t mean to upset you. It’s just…your parents hired me to make sure your grandma keeps breathing and they didn’t tell me that you’d be here. I just want to be able to do the job they hired me to do so that nothing bad happens to your grandma.”
Reg stood up and sneered at Meemaw in her chair, his eyes hard. “She’s faking,” he said. “She’s not even asleep.” He walked around the coffee table and stood in front of Meemaw, looming over her. “I know you’re awake, Meemaw. Open your eyes.” He paused. Then, his face turning red as fast as if someone had flipped a switch, he screamed, “Open your eyes, Meemaw! Stop faking! Open your eyes!” He bent over so that his face was inches away from Meemaw’s and kept screaming. “I know what you’re doing! I know your tricks! This isn’t my fault! Everyone always takes your side!” Reg stopped screaming, his chest heaving as he tried to catch his breath. Meemaw didn’t open her eyes, didn’t flinch. Her breathing didn’t falter or change pace.
Francine looked at her purse sitting on the coffee table. She wondered how Reg would react if she reached for it. Her phone was inside the purse and the emergency number that Mr. Olakso had left for her was in her pocket. It probably wouldn’t work to call Mr. Olakso in front of Reg, but maybe she could text him. Or maybe she could excuse herself to the bathroom just for a minute. Meemaw could probably be left unsupervised for a minute.
Reg turned to Francine. His backwards shirt did little to lighten the mood. “This is what she does,” said Reg. “She provokes me. She gets everyone to feel bad for her and give her all their attention and then when I call her on it, I’m the one who looks bad.”
“But she’s just sitting there,” said Francine.
“She’s listening,” said Reg. “You don’t know Meemaw. You don’t know how she works. She hates me!” He slapped himself twice on the chest.
“I just need to use the bathroom real quick,” said Francine. She stepped forward and reached for her purse, but Reg was faster. He snatched the purse off of the coffee table before Francine could even touch it. Reg held the purse in his left hand, clutching it against his body. “Why do you need your purse to go to the bathroom?”
“There’s something in there I need,” said Francine. “Something private.”
Reg unzipped the purse and looked inside. “Wallet, phone, keys, gum, chap stick, pepper spray. Which one’s the private item you need to go to the bathroom?” He looked at Francine with his eyebrows arched, clearly pleased with himself.
“Give me my purse,” said Francine. “This may be your house, but that purse is mine.”
“I know it is,” said Reg. “But why do you need it so bad right now? Is it ‘cause you want to call my parents and tell them how bad I’m being? How mean I’m being to Meemaw? Or maybe you want to call your brother and have him come beat me bloody like he did to that DNR officer over in Dalcette? Or maybe you wanted to give me a little squirt of pepper spray?”
“I wouldn’t waste that pepper spray on you,” said Francine. “And you don’t know anything about Carson. But you are right to be afraid of him, I’ll give you that much.”
Reg’s face went still. Behind him, Meemaw breathed on. “Leave,” said Reg. “Get out.”
“I’m not leaving,” said Francine. “If you’re not going to watch your grandma, someone has to.”
“Get out!” Reg screamed, and he flung Francine’s purse behind him. The purse sailed over Meemaw’s head, its contents scattering across the carpet.
Francine started to protest, but Reg lunged towards her and grabbed her upper arm, dragging her into the front hall. Reg wasn’t an imposing physical specimen, but he was still bigger than Francine, and with his rage pumping his body full of adrenaline, it was all Francine could do to keep her feet under her as he hustled her to the front door. “I can’t leave without my purse,” said Francine, trying to pry Reg’s fingers off of her arm with her other hand. “I need my car keys!”
Reg said nothing. He yanked the front door open and shoved Francine out onto the porch where she managed to grab the handrail and stop herself just short of toppling down the steps to the cement front walk. Before she could turn around, Francine heard the front door slam shut and the lock click into place. Then the only sound was her own breathing, which, at the moment, was admittedly worse than Meemaw’s.
The evening air was chilly and Francine’s jacket was inside with her purse. She went over to her car, which she had fortunately left unlocked, and got in, closing the door behind her. She sat in the driver’s seat and considered her options. Without her phone or car keys, Francine couldn’t call or drive for help. She had to either get Reg to return her things, which seemed very unlikely, or find a way to sneak into the house. Francine pressed the trunk release button on her dashboard and got out of the car to look for a jacket or a sweatshirt in the trunk. All she found was an old Multioak High Cross-Country long-sleeved t-shirt that smelled musty and oily, but it was better than nothing. She pulled it on over her short-sleeved shirt and immediately felt better. Then she closed the trunk and looked again at the Olaskos’ house. Even if she managed to get inside, she’d have to hope that Reg had left her stuff where he’d thrown it and that he wasn’t still parked in front of the TV in the living room.
If she could get to her stuff, Francine could check on Meemaw’s breathing once more and then call for help. The Olaksos, the police, somebody. Not her brother, though. Reg had been dead wrong about that. Even when he was on the right side, it was amazing how fast Carson would overreact and surrender the moral high ground. He was on probation and the last thing he needed was another person to punch.
Francine walked around the side of the house, the grass dampening her cheap canvas shoes. She found a door on the side of the garage and another door around back leading into the house from a furnished deck, but they were both locked. She walked all the way around the house examining a few of the lower windows, but it seemed like the only way in would be to break one, and that would surely bring Reg running. Francine returned to the back yard and stood on the lawn facing the house, trying to decide if she would be better off running across a field to a neighbor’s house or trying to plead with Reg to let her back inside. While she stood there fretting about how much time she was wasting by being indecisive, a light came on in a second story window. Francine caught a glimpse of Reg’s silhouette through the blinds, which meant that he’d definitely left Meemaw unsupervised in the living room where no one would notice if she’d stopped breathing until she was found dead in her chair.
Francine was angry at being shut out in the cold, but she was outraged at Reg’s lack of concern for his own grandmother. Francine’s family was messed up in a lot of ways, but at least they looked out for each other. Well, her mom had taken off, but she was also crazy, so that wasn’t really her fault. Francine wondered if maybe Reg was crazy. Based on what she’d seen, she wouldn’t be surprised if he was. Throwing things. Screaming at his unconscious grandmother. All that paranoia about his unconscious grandmother trying to make him look bad.
Francine shuddered, hunching her shoulders against the chilly night breeze. The long-sleeved shirt was still a bit thin for the weather. She didn’t know how long it would take to run to a neighbor’s house, but Francine knew it would take much longer than Meemaw should be left unwatched. She had to try to reason with Reg again.
The deck had been built over a bed of gravel that extended a foot past the support posts on all sides. Francine picked up a handful of gravel and stepped onto the deck, standing beneath Reg’s illuminated window. She threw a rock at the window. It bounced off of the glass with a sharp tap and clattered back down onto the deck. “Reg!” shouted Francine. She threw another rock. “Reg, open your window! We need to talk!” She threw another rock.
Reg’s silhouette appeared behind the blinds. Then the blinds went up and Reg squinted down at Francine through the window. “Open the window,” Francine shouted again.
Reg slid the window all the way open and stuck his head out. Francine noticed that his shirt was no longer on backwards. “I told you to get out of here,” said Reg.
“I can’t leave without my car keys,” said Francine. “I already told you that. I need my purse and all my stuff.”
“You have legs,” said Reg. “You can walk.”
“I’m not walking home,” said Francine. “I live in town. If you don’t give me my stuff, I’m going to run to your neighbors and call the cops on you.”
“It’s my house,” Reg said again, his voice rising. “I don’t have to let you in! The cops won’t do anything! I’ll call the cops on you!”
“Good!” shouted Francine. “Do it! We’ll see what they say when they get here and I tell them about your sick grandmother who you refuse to help!”
“She’s faking!” screamed Reg. “How many times do I have to tell you?” He slammed the window closed and after a few ineffectual yanks on the cord, managed to compose himself enough to close the blinds.
Francine felt a not wholly unfamiliar fury swelling inside of her. It wasn’t like she’d managed to completely dodge her family’s disruptive genes. She was just better at not letting her inclinations ruin her life than the rest of them were. Francine sat down in one of the stiff, plastic chairs on the deck and rested her forehead against the cold glass tabletop, her eyes closed. She really, really wanted to smash her way into the house through a window, get her stuff, sit down to watch Meemaw breathe, and just wait for Reg to try something so she could go wild with fingernails and teeth and kicks to the groin and whatever else. But that was a bad idea. She knew it was. Reg was bigger than her, he was certainly capable of matching her rage, and she couldn’t be sure that he’d definitely stop short of killing her if his temper really had him in its clutches. She was going to have to run to the neighbors. There was nothing else to do. Francine stood up and stepped down off of the deck, peering at the distant lights of the Olaskos’ nearest neighbors, trying to gauge the size of the bean field between her and them.
Then, from the front of the house, she heard the rumble of an engine. The engine stopped and a moment later a car door slammed. The Olaskos must have come home early! Filled with relief, Francine ran around the side of the house, already formulating an account of the evening that would portray Reg in the worst possible light. But when she rounded the corner and saw not the Olaskos, but rather her brother, Francine’s relief turned instantly to dread. “Carson? What are you doing here?”
Carson stood in front of his truck in a dark fleece and long denim shorts. He wore a baseball cap backwards on his thick head and he looked confused and irritated. “Someone called and told me you were in trouble here,” said Carson. “Said some guy was giving you a hard time.”
“No, no,” said Francine. “Listen, Carson, it isn’t a big deal. I just need to borrow your phone real quick so I can call the homeowners and we can get this all straightened out.”
“We can straighten it out,” said Carson. “Right now.”
“It’s just a misunderstanding,” said Francine. “What do you think is going on? Who called you?”
“Someone called me from your phone. Otherwise I wouldn’t have picked up. It sounded like an old lady and she said you were in trouble. She said some guy had screamed at you and stolen your stuff and pushed you around and locked you out in the cold.”
“An old lady?” asked Francine. She tried to make sense of what Carson was saying. If Meemaw had woken up, why hadn’t she just unlocked the doors? Or called the Olaksos? Why would she use Francine’s phone to call Carson, of all people? “Listen, Carson, if the old lady’s OK, then let’s just leave. I’ll get my stuff back tomorrow when Mr. and Mrs. Olakso are home.”
“So he really stole your stuff? He really pushed you around?”
“I don’t care, though,” said Francine, trying not to sound like she was pleading. “He’s just a jerk. Don’t waste your time, Carson.”
“I already drove all the way out here,” said Carson, heading up the front walk, leaning slightly forward, leading with his chin. “We’re not leaving without your stuff.”
Francine tried to grab Carson by the shoulder, but he shrugged her off as he stomped up the porch steps. He didn’t even try the doorknob. He just kicked the door open with one powerful blow, the wooden doorframe splintering. Then Carson stopped, listening as if expecting some kind of ambush. Francine squeezed past him into the hall and said, “OK, thank you, that’s all I needed from you. Now I’ll just go get my stuff and then we can leave. Just stay right here. Uh, guard the door.”
“I’m coming with you,” said Carson.
Francine said nothing. She turned and hurried down the hall with Carson following. Francine hoped the sound of Carson kicking the door open had frightened Reg and that he’d just stay in his room upstairs until they were gone. It would be so much better if he never let Carson see him.
In the living room, everything was the same as Francine had last seen it. Meemaw sat in her chair, eyes closed, inhaling and exhaling, her wrinkled face slack. Francine’s purse was still lying on the carpet and its contents were still scattered across the floor. She didn’t remember exactly where each item had landed when Reg had thrown the purse, but if her phone had been used, it had been returned more or less to the spot where it had been picked up. Francine dropped to the floor and started stuffing her things back into her purse, scooting on her knees from item to item.
“Is this the old lady that called me?” asked Carson. He stood over Meemaw, looking skeptically down at her.
“I don’t know,” said Francine. “I don’t know who else it could have been.”
“Hello,” said Carson, waving his hand in front of Meemaw’s face. “Hello-o-o. Hello? Hello!” Meemaw didn’t respond.
“OK,” said Francine, zipping her purse and rising to her feet. “That’s everything. Let’s get out of here.”She turned to leave and stopped. There, standing in the doorway looking at her, was Reg. His shirt was on backwards again, which made no sense. Carson saw Francine’s face change and turned to see what she was looking at. When he and Reg made eye contact, Reg’s face went deathly white. He hesitated for one more moment, and then turned and ran down the hall. Francine screamed “No,” but Carson was already moving, vaulting the couch as he rushed after Reg. Francine heard the sound of Reg’s footsteps pounding up the stairs and then the sound of Carson’s footsteps in hot pursuit. Somewhere upstairs, a door slammed. A half second later, Francine heard a shuddering thump that seemed to vibrate through the whole house. Then she heard another, and again the sound of splintering wood. Then came the crashing, the shouting, the cursing, the pounding, and just under it all, Meemaw’s steady breathing, which never changed. As Carson dramatically and thoroughly violated his probation upstairs, Francine looked at Meemaw and saw the faintest of smiles on her thin, old lips.