by Than Pence
Cramp Co-Winner: While babysitting, Barbara makes an unsettling discovery
|“Jimmy, bedtime. What do you wanna read?”
“The Dog Barked Loudly!” they both said in unison.
Barbara smiled; she’d never heard the kid mention another book in months. Pulling her sweatshirt on, she went down the hallway to Jimmy’s room. It was always cold on this end of the house: she’d need it before long.
Prepped and ready, Jimmy was on the bottom bunk sitting crossed-legged. His 6-year old smile was gapped. She asked, “Did you brush your teeth.”
Pursing his lips to hide the evidence, Jimmy nodded his head. Barbara widened her eyes and said, “You did? It must’ve been fast, ‘cause I just don’t remember hearing the water goin’.”
Throwing his head back, Jimmy slid off the bed and darted past Barbara. Pulling her long, brown hair from beneath the sweatshirt’s collar, Barbara looked into the mirror in Jimmy’s room. Smiling wide, she counted the rubber bands binding her braces. “Just a few more months,” she muttered.
Meeting her brown eyes, she was thankful to not need glasses at least: the braces and weight were bad enough. Barbara stared at herself as bathroom water churned and stopped. The tinkling of a lone toothbrush entering its glass rang distinctly and she opened her mouth to ask Jimmy if he’d flossed when she noticed a face behind her.
Spooked, Barbara turned. On the top bunk where she’d seen a face was a stuffed animal: a monkey. She sighed.
“Ready!” came Jimmy, giving her another startle. Her face flush with unease, she guided Jimmy to the bottom bunk.
“In there, mister. Time to learn about why the mutt barked loudly.” She followed, groaning slightly.
“Dog,” squealed the boy. “He’s a dog!”
“A mutt is a dog, Jim.”
Jimmy looked confused. “Dogs have different breeds. You have Golden Retrievers, Pomeranians, German Shepherds, all kinds. When two are mixed, fancy people will make up a new breed name for it. Because they’re full of… stuff.” She smiled when Jimmy’s eyebrows shot up; he knew what she’d meant to say. “But when there are lots of breeds in one dog, it’s a mutt.”
“It’s still a dog. But fancy people call it a mutt.”
“Are you fancy, Barb’a?”
“Not at all.” She hefted the book. “Now let’s get crackin’.” Opening it, something slid from inside of the book. “What’s… this?”
She picked it up. It was a picture, a Polaroid. “It’s a picture,” said Jimmy.
“I know that.” She looked at the figures in the photograph. “But who…” She squinted, absently wondering if she really did need glasses or if bottom bunk was poorly lit. “Is that your parents?”
Barbara faintly recognized the Stinsons: he with the wispy beard and her with the eyeglasses and big, out-of-style black hair. Their eyes were red.
Jimmy pulled Barbara’s arm down, angling the picture his way without needing to touch it. “Yeah, that’s them.”
They were in the Polaroid, wispy and big-haired, red-eyed and holding a baby. It was a moment before she realized that they were each holding a baby. Two infants in their arms, looking up at someone taking a picture with a crummy Polaroid. The room around them was too dark to make anything out, except maybe a Christmas tree just behind Mrs. Stinson. Maybe.
“Jimmy,” she started, but stopped. Was she spilling a secret of some kind?
She realized something else: she’d read this same book to Jimmy just two weekends ago. The photo hadn’t been in the book before. Why was it there now? Who’d put it there?
“What?” replied Jimmy.
“You said my name and I answered.”
Had she? She had. “Oh, um… Jimmy…” She stared at the picture, at the parents, at the babies. “Are you sure you want this book? You know how it ends.”
“But I like it. I like when the dog,… when it barks.”
She looked to Jimmy. “What do you mean?”
He chewed his lip. “The dog, he goes and gets into trouble and stuff and he’s all alone, because no one can hear him. Or see him.” Twisting the sheet around his finger, he continues. “But when he barks, it’s okay. He was told not to and it made a mess. But dogs, mutts, they bark. And he did, and he was fine. And his family… found him.”
Barbara looked again at the picture, at the two infants. They were identical, but she knew most babies looked similar. Had Jimmy lost a sibling? A brother? She quietly let the question fester as she slowly read Jimmy’s favorite book.
Quietly, Jimmy listened. He looked the most serious Barbara had ever seen. When the story was done, when the dog was back with his family, Jimmy sleepily rolled over and was out. Barbara set the book on the floor and picked up the Polaroid.
Scooting off the bed, Barbara stood up, nearly bumping her head. She looked at the picture. With the better light, she saw the Christmas tree clearly, and four sets of stocking hanging behind Mr. Stinson. They were embroidered with names. “Timmy,” she said when she could make out the final stocking. “Timmy,” she repeated.
She felt a cold breath on her neck. The top bunk was beside her. The cold was cool but the face she saw chilled her. In the corner of her eye, where she'd seen it before, Barbara saw the boy’s face. She didn’t meet the gaze. “Timmy?” she whispered.
The face didn’t move. Afraid but determined, Barbara slowly turned.
She was face to face with the stuffed monkey.
It was plainly a stuffed animal but the cold on her neck didn’t subside. She stole one more glance at the mysterious past and put it back. She might never know who put it there. She might never know about Timmy.
Barbara did know she’d still babysit Jimmy for as long as the Stinson’s needed her. And she’d always bring her sweatshirt, because it was cold in this room.
She was beginning to understand why.
Word Count: 1,000