This story is by Francesca Michels and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Rejection in any form cracks me open these days. ‘Tonight’s babysitter has canceled. Would you like to repost this job?’ It was embarrassing how much the app alert stung. The astounding shock of learning this summer that my husband had been cheating for most of our marriage had stripped me down to a rice paper thin barrier against all of the regular frictions of life.
I performed the parting ceremony of “Goodbye- Have fun – Mama loves you” at the preschool door and deftly handed over a bag containing Lamb-Lamb, water bottle, snack, clean clothes, and four very important lego ninjas. Then with the September sun glaring down, I sat in the driver’s seat of my minivan and reposted the job on the Poppins app. I added two dollars to the hourly rate to tempt more sitters. I needed this night to not cook dinner, to not bathe Luke, and supervise the girl’s homework, then read three stories, sing two songs, clean the kitchen, and face the busy loneliness of being the only adult. Beyond that, I desperately needed the diversion of my studio drawing class to interrupt the rotating thoughts of ‘why’ and ‘how’ and ‘what if’. Why had I not seen something? Why had I ignored what I had seen? My mind presented me with everyday moments from the last ten years to comb through. Moments that I would have never considered to be memories, were now concealed clues. Reed pouring mimosas. Reed parallel parking. How dirty his bathroom would get. The people he disliked. The people he liked a lot. The music he prescribed to me while dating and then later quietly abandoned. My mind was a carousel, bringing the same scenes around at intervals. Nothing was benign. Nothing was unpoisoned. I had lived in intimacy with lies and degradation and had been unable to open my eyes.
The Poppins app alerted me before I got home. ‘Hanna is available to sit tonight. Would you like to book her?’ I looked at her profile. A selfie of a grinning college girl in a plaid button up. Her photo and all the rest was so much like every other sitter profile. She loved kids and pets, she volunteered in her hometown. Booked.
The kids had been home for hours after school and their clutter extended across the house. Hanna rang the doorbell and they vanished upstairs. This was the routine, not because they were shy, but because they enjoyed the effect of being called forth and presented to new people. Hanna was on time. Her extra long sweatshirt, yoga pants, and sneakers without socks was standard college girl uniform. In addition, she wore a floppy, beige hat that wouldn’t be out of place on a man operating a riding lawn mower. It looked like it could survive being scrunched into a pocket and flipped back out to function when needed. Maybe it was her boyfriend’s.
Hanna came in with a friendly hello and the kids emerged with faux solemnity when called. I walked her through the bedtime routine, showed her the pasta water already beginning to boil. I hovered around the house slowly packing my art supplies, putting in a load of laundry, quietly observing while Hanna asked questions of the kids.
“Yes, I have a cat, too. Her name is Coconut. Do you like fifth grade?”
My kids gathered close to her. She sliced open the bag of pasta. She did not remove her hat.
Once in the drawing studio I left my planet of betrayal and focused on light source, specular reflection, cast shadows, foreshortening, and rendering of flesh. The model basked before a ring light and my whole mind became my eyes. When my whole mind was looking out, it was unable to project reels of questions, it could only observe the proportions, the light absorbed and the light reflected.
“You should be looking at your paper only occasionally, drawing happens in the eyes,” the instructor stated with significance as he strolled behind our easels. Charcoal dust sifted softly from my pencil.
I drove home enjoying the adjusted perspective that comes from approaching Tiepolo and Prud’hon even if only in a community art class.
Hanna was downstairs. The house was quiet. The cats came out to greet me. She still wore her hat. Perhaps she was eager to leave. Hanna said everyone had eaten, had fun, and gotten to bed on time. I thanked her for coming at the last minute and turned on the porch light. She bounced down the steps. Her hat appeared all the more odd now that it was dark. I went to the kitchen sink and poured a glass of water, distractedly watching Hanna start her car out of the kitchen window. The car’s interior lights were on. She took off her hat and put it on the passenger seat. My body went cold. The top of her head was a large, raw wound. Pink folds of flesh, glistening wet beneath peeled back skin, light reflected and light absorbed. In the space of a second, the interior light went out and the car quickly slipped behind the rock retaining wall and out into the night. I dropped the glass into the sink and tore up the stairs to the girl’s room and slammed their door wide open. Crunching on toys, I stumbled my way to their twin beds, desperately feeling for their breathing bodies. “Mom! What happened?!” came a quavering voice, annoyance mixed with sleep and fear.
“Are you ok!? What happened with Hanna? Are you hurt?”
I tried to articulate words, tried to steady my voice, but my true question was being asked with my hands as I felt their slim shoulders, held their heads, kissed their foreheads, proving to my mother body that their child bodies were not hurt. Leaving them bewildered, I dashed to Luke’s room and repeated the toy crunching and the bed searching. He was sound asleep, damp with sweat, smelling faintly like play-doh. I held him for several seconds, my face on his face. I tucked everyone back in like an actress on stage; overdone and insincere.
I paced around the house. My heart pounded. I inspected the leftover pasta and threw it out. I opened the Poppins app over and over again. The only possible way to contact Hanna, would be to book her through the app again or email their support address. But what would that sound like? Had I been confused? Was it some type of optical illusion between my kitchen window and her windshield? But still, why the hat? Inside? At 9:30 pm? I checked all of the locks and made some herbal tea. I folded clothes, fed the cats, ran the dishwasher, while tiptoeing, listening, chasing thought spirals that looped and relooped around my consciousness. I occasionally chanted, “The kids are ok. The kids are fine.”
I watched them carefully the next day as we all executed our school morning chores. They were completely at ease, oblivious, happy even. They liked Hanna. She was nice.
“Will she come back to babysit?”
“Oh, maybe. Hey, did Hanna take her hat off when she was here?”
“No, she wore her hat. She likes it a lot, I think.”
I had no sense of how to interpret what I had seen and no plan for what to do if I trusted what I saw in that one second of light. I picked broken glass out of the sink from my dropped water glass – a crystalized version of the horror of that moment. A moment where I believed what I saw and I feared it. In the morning sunshine, with my arguing kids and the familiar school traffic forming at the end of our street, I began to doubt. The hope that it wasn’t true slowly turned into the conviction that it wasn’t true. By the following day, my head filled again exclusively with thoughts of Reed and I began to follow those orbits, hoping to land on some rule or standard, some type of sense. It all continued to equal absurd cruelty and nonsense.
I booked our regular sitter, Katie for the next week’s studio drawing class. I had considered using another service, but I chided myself for being too sensitive, for overreacting, for believing my eyes. Arriving home after class, I reminded myself how ridiculous I had been last week. I decided I would google whether hallucinations were a symptom of emotional trauma. I watched Katie pull out of the dark driveway. I had the impulse to go check on the kids. I found everyone quietly sleeping the sleep of school night weariness.
The next morning I was buttering toast and shouting out a checklist of items that might possibly be relevant for the day. “Do you have your flute? Do you need your test signed? Wear socks with your shoes.” I turned to see the girls enter the kitchen. My entire body stiffened. They each wore a hat.