BY EVE FORBES
As soon as I was out of elementary school, I was given more responsibility. I cooked dinner one night a week. It was nothing, a simple task. Then I had to weed the garden. Also easy, a form of meditation. The summer was slipping by, its green free days full of the droning of locusts and lawnmowers. It smelled fresh outside, and it was warm. Most of the time, I wandered. I dreamed, lost in vague futures somewhere else. I drew and wrote poems and practiced being invisible. It seemed to work. As long as I showed up in time for chores and dinner, no one saw me during the day. In the evening, the neighborhood kids gathered for kick the can. John and I were allowed to join them. I loved hiding in the shadows, then bursting out for a headlong charge to get the can.
One hot noon, my Mom remembered me and came looking. She found me laying in the shade of a big maple down the block. “What are you doing, Sylvia?” she asked.
“Nothing.” I answered.
“What do you mean nothing? A person just can’t do ‘nothing,’” she demanded.
“Okay, I was thinking,” I said.
“What were you thinking about?” she started. But instead of pursuing the interrogation, something in her face changed. It became her good mommy P.T.A. face. “Come on home and wash up, Honey. We’ll have some lunch and a nice chat.” I figured that meant I was in trouble. Had I forgotten something I was supposed to do?
Mom’s baloney sandwich tasted exactly like the one I would have made for myself, but I sat politely eating it and waiting to see what the big deal was. I even tried to drink the milk, although it was something I had given up the year before. Mom failed utterly at chitchat with me. She went on filling space with comments about the weather and the neighbor’s new car. Somewhere in the last year we had stopped paying enough attention to each other to really know what might interest the other.
Finally, Mom drew a breath and came to the point. She told me I was old enough to babysit. Babysit? We had no baby. What she meant was that my parents would no longer hire some surly teenage girl to eat ice cream and talk on the phone to her boyfriend while, supposedly, watching me and my brother. Mom pointed out the list of phone numbers on the refrigerator to be used in case of emergency. She talked about the seriousness of the responsibility. I was told in no uncertain terms that I would be in charge. That meant John would have to do what I said. Mom was trying to convince me, but I needed no convincing. It sounded like a fine idea to me. My parents would be out. There would be peace. I couldn’t wait until Friday, my first official babysitting night. She even said they would pay me.
When Friday came, my father called me aside. “I need to show you something,” he said in a serious tone. In his best suit and a fresh shirt, he looked dashing, at least as Dads go. He took me upstairs to their bedroom and closed the door behind us. He walked over to the bed and sat down and patted the place next to him where I was to sit. I knew something wasn’t right, but sat down anyway. I could not begin to think of an alternative.
My muscles seemed to all tighten simultaneously. It’s okay; he’s not drunk. Still, he was too close. His freshly applied cologne enveloped me. I began to have trouble breathing. Concentrate, Sylvia. In out, slowly. In. Out. My breath seemed incredibly loud to me. I wondered if he noticed. “You have a big responsibility tonight,” he said. I began to feel the edges of The Nothing. My vision blurred. With the back of his hand he stroked my cheek slowly. I clenched my teeth to keep from flinching. The fog rolled in, white and thick. People are awake. You have to go. Not now. I could still see his face, although the room behind him had become indistinct. This is my babysitting night. Not now. He looked at me with a very odd expression. He was scrutinizing me. Measuring and judging. I willed myself to breath steadily. Maybe if I don’t move, nothing will happen.
Apparently I passed muster. He leaned over me then and reached for his bedside table. He pulled the drawer open. I didn’t understand the motion. It wouldn’t register. I stared straight ahead, dreading whatever would happen next. Seconds ticked by as the fog obscured the floor, the corners of the room. I almost welcomed the disappearing. I dreaded The Nothing, but also knew it saved me.
Dad didn’t move for so long that I finally peered over to the drawer, through the mist. There, inside the drawer, cold and sleek, lay a pistol. The fog cleared instantly. I tried to make sense of what was happening. Was he going to shoot me? No, that’s absurd. Every detail around me was precise and vivid, more real than other days. The weapon was nickel colored, with a matte sheen. It was a modern gun, not a cowboy pistol. It looked like something James Bond would carry. He took it out and held it fondly.
“I am showing you this in case of emergency. If anyone breaks into the house,” he said, “I want you to know where it is, and how to use it.”
“When you get it out, you put the clip in. Like this.” He demonstrated the procedure. It was not difficult. All you had to do was slide it into the bottom of the handle until it clicked. He took it back out and handed both parts to me. The gun was surprisingly heavy. The parts slid together effortlessly. “Good. Now pick it up and aim it. Close one eye and sight down the barrel. No, you want to hold your arms straight and together.” He repositioned me. “That’s it. Now one more thing, you have to undo the safety. It’s right here.” He pushed the small lever. “Now you are ready to shoot someone. You have six shots.”
Mom’s voice came from below in the house. “Honey, come on. We’re going to be late.”
Dad shot me a look that showed his irritation. “Just a minute, I’m almost done,” he called towards the closed door. Then his attention was back on me. “Show me again how to get it ready.” I slid the cartridge in again. Felt the click of completion, pulled back the safety. “Good, you’ve got it. Put it away now, Sylvia, and remember, this is our secret.”
Great, more secrets.
“Now one more thing. If you ever pull a gun, you need to intend to use it. Do you understand? I mean, if you pull a gun, then you plan to kill someone. Aim for the head or the heart, not the arms or legs.” I nodded my head. “Okay then. We’re off.”
I walked downstairs in a daze and sat down on the couch. Hard as I tried, it seemed I was just couldn’t get a grip on my world. Just when I thought I pretty much understood, it all changed again. It had never occurred to me that someone might try to break into our suburban home, that there was danger outside. I scanned the living room and saw it with new eyes. Could someone hide behind the couch? In the closet? Who would it be, and what would they want? Did Dad know something he wasn’t saying? Some of the men he brought to the house had made me feel nervous. I had heard him coach Mom to be “very careful” with them. Were they bad guys? Could I shoot them if I had to? When the air conditioner clicked on, I jumped.
“What’s wrong with you tonight?” John asked. I had not even been aware that he was in the room. “You’re not afraid to babysit, are you? Come on. Make dinner already, I’m hungry.
John’s whiny voice snapped me out of my fears. I remembered who I was. I knew I wasn’t the weakling. “No, John, I’m not afraid. And you. Be quiet. Remember, I’m the boss. Mom said.” And I have a gun, you little twerp. I’m powerful. I could shoot the bad guys. I know I could.
I went to the kitchen and started to get dinner ready. Bisquick crust pizza, John’s favorite. I wanted him to tell Mom I was a great babysitter. When we were finished, we cleaned up together, then sat down to play cards. John wanted to play War. It was an utterly pointless game, as far as I was concerned. You pulled out your cards and whoever had the higher number won. It went on and on forever. Usually, he pestered me to play War, and I wouldn’t. This time it was fine with me. It left my mind free to consider the gun upstairs in the drawer.
We played until it was time for The Partridge Family, John’s favorite show. After he settled in front of the TV, I told him I was going upstairs to read for a while. He barely noticed that I had spoken. I went upstairs, and into my parents’ room. I opened the drawer and sat gazing at the gun. I lost track of time. When I returned to myself, I closed the drawer quietly, and rushed downstairs. John’s show was nearly over. The last song was playing. A close call. When it ended, I told John to take his bath and go to bed. He went without complaint, a surprise to me. Did he know something? Could he see that I was different? I sat down in front of the TV with a book. I didn’t take in either form of entertainment. The gun held all of my imagination. I forced myself to stay there another hour, to make sure he was sleeping.
When the hour ended, I crept back up to my parents’ bedroom. I closed the door softly behind me and flicked on the light. I opened the drawer and lifted out the gun. It felt good in my hand. I slid in the clip and heard the satisfying click. I took it in and out several times. I sat down on the bed. For a long time I simply held it. It was seductive. Just feeling the weight of it. Feeling the weight of myself. Suddenly I was bigger. I was dangerous. The steel in my hand became my steel. Cold. Clean and lethal. My heart could be hard. I could have power. My mind expanded to take in the possibility of a deadly me. I raised the weapon and sighted down the barrel as I had been shown. The door, the window, the mirror became targets. I flicked the safety on and off.
I realized that the light in that room was visible from the driveway. I couldn’t risk being caught. Reluctantly, I disassembled the weapon and put it away. After smoothing the coverlet on the bed, I stepped quietly out of the room, turned off the light, and went downstairs.
I let The Tonight Show yack at me while I waited for my parents. When they arrived, I appeared totally calm, even bored. “Everything went fine,” I told them. Mom walked through the kitchen to determine whether my job was adequate. I already knew very well that the place was in better order than our previous babysitters had left it. She could have no cause for complaint.
As I headed up the stairs I heard Mom call to Dad. “I’m turning in, Hon. Don’t forget to pay Sylvia for babysitting.”
Dad replied, “I won’t. Be there in a little bit. I’m just getting another drink.”