There they were.
Through the window, she could see them, one on either arm of the sofa.
They seemed to be asleep.
She had her instructions, written on a piece of lined notebook paper. She had reviewed them earlier. Now the paper was cinched in her fist, blank side out, words hidden. Her hand was sweaty.
She looked at them through the window.
She leaned forward and pressed her free hand against the glass. Her breath made a spot, which disappeared instantly from its edges inward.
What were they doing? Were they sleeping? Were they just lying there with their eyes closed? Were they dreaming? Were they thinking?
The key to the house dangled from a plastic lanyard, which she had snapped around her belt loop when she got dressed that morning.
Her fist tightened. The instructions crinkled.
It was just yesterday that she had been inside the house with her mother. Yesterday the people had shown her the plastic bowls on the kitchen floor. The litter box in the laundry room. The emergency numbers on the refrigerator. She had knelt on the kitchen floor and patted the striped one on its head, and her mother had said to the people, "See? She's a natural. She'll probably be a vet when she grows up." It was yesterday, yes, but it seemed so long ago. In her memory, yesterday's visit was a slow blur, as if her eyelashes had been glued together. Now, again, looking through the window, she felt as if she were peering through a thicket of eyelashes and glue.
She backed away from the window. Slowly, slowly, away from the house. She stumbled on a low green wire fence which guarded a flower bed. She almost fell, but she caught herself. There were no flowers there yet; it was too early. There was just dark brown earth, which had recently been turned over, and a few tiny green sprouts.
At the bottom of the driveway, she looked up and down the street. No one was around. No one saw her.
That evening, she lay on the living room carpet with a stack of chocolate chip cookies on her belly. She ate them slowly, contemplatively. She had started out with six, but somehow she had only one cookie left when she heard her mother's car in the driveway. There was the grinding noise of the garage door. Silence for a moment -- then the click of the car door opening, and a thump when it closed. She shut her eyes and put a placid expression on her face. She rested her arms by her sides and let her legs flop open.
The door between the garage and kitchen opened. She heard keys drop on the table. Water running.
"Teeny?" her mother called.
She lay still.
"I need some help here, Teeny. Where are you?"
She heard her mother's voice come closer. Her legs felt like wobbly gelatin. Her stomach turned over. Her heart started beating faster.
"What are you doing? Are you sleeping?"
She didn't answer. She felt her hands clench into fists, then let go, once again weak and droopy.
There were footsteps. She felt her mother's breath on her forehead.
"Are you okay, hon?"
She didn't answer.
"So, did you go? Did you do it? Was everything okay?"
She opened her eyes and looked at her mother. A pendant with a cameo locket hung around her mother's neck and dangled down, swinging in a small arc. There had been a baby picture inside, but her mother had taken it out. She said she was waiting for the new grown-up school photos to arrive. They were due any day.
"I was thinking today," said her mother, "you could really make this into a regular job. Everyone has pets, and there are no other children the right age on this street. Bill, Heather, Candy, Lakshmi -- they're all too old, when you think about it. They have regular after-school jobs and wouldn't want to take anything else on. Brandon, Jason, those twins at the corner -- they're too little to handle something like this. I'm sure that the Stines will recommend you to everyone once they see what a good job you've done."
She closed her eyes.
The next day, she dawdled on the way home from the bus stop. She walked up and down the aisles of the card shop. She opened a card that sang happy birthday in a whiny electronic voice. She tried out a highlighter pen. Then she sat on the curb outside the grocery store and watched cars come and go. By the time she got to the house, it was late afternoon, almost evening. The windows reflected the white sky, and the sun was the color of a dusty nickel.
She cupped her hands around her face and looked in at the living room.
First she saw just one, scratching at the sofa, then it darted out of sight, and then both were there, running around, chasing each other, paddling at each other's faces with their paws.
She stood there, suddenly frozen. Moving only her eyes, she looked over at the front door.
She reached for the lanyard on her belt loop. It was woven from flat vinyl string. She remembered the long crafts hall of Camp Sacajawea; she remembered the sound of rain pounding on its zinc roof the day they learned to make lanyards. She remembered how some of the girls had made wallets, and burned their names into the leather with a glowing hot tool. But the counselors hadn't offered to teach her how to make a wallet. Why? Why had they only given her the vinyl string? She had lain in her bunk that night, wondering how the counselors decided who was ready to make wallets. Did they know something she didn't know for sure but suspected? -- that she wasn't capable of using that burning tool? How did they know that about her? Could anyone know it just from looking at her? She had wondered if her mother would notice, at the end of the summer, that she had come back with a lanyard and not a wallet. She had wondered: What would she tell her mother if her mother asked about it? That they didn't have enough leather to go around, and she hadn't wanted a wallet anyway. Or that, instead of making a wallet, she had taught a younger camper to braid the colored vinyl.
Now she let go of the lanyard. She wiped her damp hands on her corduroys, and pulled her shirt down over her belly. Looking through the window again, she saw that they were still at it, bouncing around, hiding from each other, pouncing, rolling around under the coffee table. Sweat trickled from her temple, past her ear, down her cheek. She could feel the blood rush into her head, then flow away, then pour into her skull once again.
She turned and hurried to the end of the driveway, pausing to look up and down the street.
That night she sat on the floor, picking red gummy worms out of a waxy paper sack. Her eyes were half closed; she tried to open them all the way, but the lids just dropped back down. A couple of hours earlier, her mother had walked in, throwing her tote bag full of papers and clipboards on a chair, then rolling her knee-highs down to her ankles. "I'm sorry I'm late," her mother had said. "I was training the new agent on the computer." Her mother asked if she had eaten, and she shrugged. Her mother asked if she had done her homework, and she made a gesture toward a textbook open on the table. Then her mother asked how her job went. That was when it had become necessary to walk over to the closet and get the candy bag from her jacket pocket.
Now all the red worms were gone. She sat there with her empty hand in the bag. Her mother was on the phone in the kitchen, and her mother's voice faded in and out like a faraway station on a car radio. From under her lids, she looked down at her torso, the alien bulges and folds of flesh that spilled out around her waistband, her junior bra under her T-shirt. She curled forward, folding her arms around her head, blocking out the electric light. She could smell the new smells of her armpits and crotch in the dark little room formed by her concave body. She wished she could live in a space like that; it would be quiet, and she would be the only inhabitant.
The next day, after school, she sat on one of the benches next to the gazebo in the courtyard of the shopping center. She was rereading her favorite Goosebumps book. Every few minutes, she looked around. She worried that her mother might show up. She had a story ready. She would say the science teacher was sick and she got out of school early, so she had already gone and done the feeding. She would say that she ran into Lakshmi and Mrs. Krivalli, and they had taken her to do some shopping. She would say that Mrs. Krivalli suddenly wasn't feeling well, and she had to go to the doctor. So she was sitting here, waiting to see how Mrs. Krivalli was.
But her mother did not appear. It started to get chilly. She folded down the corner of the page she was on and headed slowly back to her street. She didn't mean to, but on the way home she stopped and looked in through the windows. Inside, they were sitting, pressed up next to each other, eyes wide open. When she shifted forward -- just the littlest bit -- they both noticed her. They stared straight at her. She watched them open their mouths. They hopped off the sofa and ran over near the window. Her heart flooded, then contracted. She took a tiny step backward. They were looking at her, mouths opening and closing. Their eyes were wild and hopeful and pleading. She could only imagine the noises they were making. Looking at their mouths opening and closing, she could almost hear them saying her name. "Teeny," they were saying, "Teeny, Teeny, Teeny...."
She backed away from the window. The sky had turned gray. She felt a raindrop. She was about to leave when she noticed that a pile of newspapers had built up near the front door. She opened the outer screen door, which the people kept unlocked, and she shoved the papers inside the shallow entryway. There was a pair of yellow plastic clogs there, and a green umbrella. She grabbed the umbrella and pulled her jacket close to her body. It used to zip; in fact, last spring it had been loose, but now she had to hold it closed with her hand.
In her room, before bed that night, she unrolled the loose-leaf paper where the couple's instructions were written in the wife's loose, cursive hand. The wife was beautiful, and wore a masculine haircut and glasses which made the curves under her clothing impossible not to stare at. The day she got the job, she had noticed how the wife's flesh had bobbed and undulated under her big shirt. The man was friendly. He had a little beard. They had given her the phone number of their hotel. She could call them, she thought, she could tell them everything. She stared at the slanting letters, the long loops and low bumps. She saw the words "handful dry food"; she saw the word "water." Her stomach clenched. She rolled the paper into a tight ball and threw it under her bed. She took the green umbrella hanging from her chair and shoved it under the bed. Finally, she grabbed the lanyard from her desk and threw it under there, too. She heard the key hit the floor.
She turned off the light. In the dark, she pinched her nipples hard, and they gathered and wrinkled. She kept going until they were sore.
She didn't stop at the house the next day. She walked the long route home from the bus stop, along the gas pipeline where the weeds were soft and pale. She stared at the tips of her tennis shoes, pushing their way through the grass like little animals. She imagined she wasn't moving her feet; they were just snuffling along on their own.
The next day was Saturday. The couple was supposed to come home on Sunday. At breakfast, her mother said, "I just want you to know how proud of you I am. You're a big girl now; you've done your first job. Have you figured out how you're going to spend your money?"
"You can't spend it on candy, remember, that was a condition of taking the job. And you can't spend it on Goosebumps books, it has to be a real book. And you can't spend it on candy."
She pulled her shirt down over her belly.
Later, she stood outside the house, but she didn't look in the windows. She was tempted, but she didn't let herself. She could remember how their voices had sounded in her head, calling her name. She shoved the latest newspapers inside the vestibule. As she was leaving, she stopped at the bottom of the driveway. In just a few days, more sprouts had come up. Some had real leaves on them. She kneeled down and put her fingers around the smallest green stem. It was silky and moist. She pulled. The one hairy white root seemed to quiver in the air. She shuddered and threw the plant down on the dirt. They were going to come home the next afternoon, around one o'clock, they had said. She counted the number of hours between now and then on her fingers. The little hairs under her arms stood up and sweat soaked her shirt.
The next morning, she said she didn't want breakfast. Then, when her mother was in the laundry room, she climbed up onto a chair and got a box of chocolate chip cookies from the cabinet. She tucked the box under her arm and went upstairs to her room to wait. She read, trembling, until twelve-fifty-five, then put her book down.
It was another wet day. She could hear the rain in the aluminum gutter outside her window. She remembered the crafts hall at Camp Sacajawea. She remembered the hair of the other girls, how it seemed to hang just right from their heads. Their limbs had seemed to belong to their bodies. She remembered watching one girl, watching the long straight hair that fanned across the girl's shoulders as she leaned forward to etch her name in brown leather. "Eleanor," the wallet said. "Eleanor" -- a name like a grown-up lady's, a name like a queen from a fairy book. The girl's arms had been slender; they stretched from the short sleeves of her T-shirt, looking like the firm branches of saplings. The girl's flat, golden stomach had shown above the jeans that hung off her hips.
She finished the box of cookies. It was one-oh-five. Five minutes later, she heard car doors down the street. Soon after that, she heard voices below her window. The doorbell rang, several urgent rings in a row. She heard her mother trotting to answer it. The doorbell rang again. And again. And then the sound of the front door opening.
She put her arms around her head and curled forward into her dark space. She inhaled and wondered how long she could hold her breath.
Copyright © 2003 by Nelly Reifler