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
What were they doing? Were they sleeping? Were they
just lying there with their eyes closed? Were they dreaming? Were they
The key to the house dangled from a plastic lanyard,
which she had snapped around her belt loop when she got dressed that
Her fist tightened. Her heart was pounding. The instructions
She shuddered and stepped back from the window.
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, it
was as if she was 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 was lying 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 only
had 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
"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
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 grownup
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 couple 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, dully showing through
She cupped her hands around her face and looked in
at the living room.
First she just saw one, scratching at the sofa, then
it darted out of sight, and then both were there, running around, chasing
each other, paddling at one another's faces with their paws.
Her heart froze. 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 Sakajawea; 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. Her heart was in her throat; 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 plastic bag. 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 had 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 had asked how her job went.
That was when she had walked over to the closet and pulled the bag from
the candy store out of 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 tee 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 happen to show up.
She had a story ready. She would say the science teacher was sick and
she got of school out 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. She took a tiny step backwards. 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 pipe line 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
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 Sakajawea. 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 tee 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
She put her arms around her head and curled forward
into her dark space. She inhaled and wondered how long she could hold
© 2002 Nelly Reifler