Secret Sick – Kelsey Lepperd
The first time you babysit for the Watson boys, their father sits down at the kitchen table and tells you about the rules. He’s written them down on a sheet of paper and says he’ll stick it to the fridge, just in case you forget, even though they’re the same rules everybody else has: no sugar after six, one PG movie before bed. If the boys say they can set up a tent in the living room for a sleepover, they’re lying. Nick, the older boy, needs a nightlight. Jason sleeps with the door shut.
When Mrs. Watson finally comes down the hallway, she spins in circles in a scratchy silver gown. It looks like she bought it in the Junior’s Prom Dress section at JC Penney’s, a plunging neckline to show off the boob job that your mother’s friends talk about when they get together for Tuesday night Bunco. You’re surprised by how real they look.
“It’s not too much, is it?” she asks, either to you or her husband, maybe both. She squeezes her arms against her chest and you’re afraid the silicone will pop right out of her skin.
“You look great,” you say, shaping your mouth into a smile. You know how to be polite.
Mr. Watson growls and leaves a wet kiss on her weathered neck before yelling for his sons. You hear them clambering up the stairs, in the middle of a fight about video games.
“You be good for Katie,” he tells them. “Bedtime’s at eight, no excuses.” He raises an eyebrow at you and taps The Rules sheet again. “Now give Papa a hug.” He stretches his arms out wide, and when you see Jason dart into the living room, your stomach drops. He huddles himself underneath the coffee table, wraps his arms tight around his legs and hides his face, while Nick wraps his arms around their dad.
You’re a certified babysitter. For five weeks, you sat in the elementary school cafeteria every Saturday morning, learning how to swaddle, diaper, and feed. An EMT came to the class, and taught you the Heimlich maneuver for tiny bodies.
The class instructor was a towering woman with thick shoulders and thicker hair that she clipped to the top of her head with a silver barrette. She reminded you of Miss Trunchbull. She stood at the front of the cafeteria classroom and said babysitters had the opportunity, a responsibility was how she said it, to observe behavior. In the worst circumstances, she said, you can save children. You had rolled your eyes at the girl sitting next to you. You didn’t live in that kind of neighborhood. At the end of the course, you all received official certifications, paper clipped with a business card for Child Protective Services.
You never called CPS on the Watsons. You didn’t have any real proof, just Jason huddled underneath a table, then cuddled up tight against your side on the couch until you put him and Nick to bed.
The Watsons lived close enough that it didn’t matter if they came home drunk. You could walk the five blocks home, on the extra wide sidewalk that doubles as a bike path. Mr. Watson offers to drive you, but he smells like whiskey, and so you smile and decline, slip the forty dollars into your back pocket. You can see a lipstick stain on the collar of his white, wrinkled shirt.
At home, your mother’s asleep on the couch again. Your father’s only back for three days, before he boards another plane, flies halfway across the country for business. If your house had an extra bedroom, she’d probably be sleeping there. Instead, she keeps an extra pillow in the blanket bin. She makes up excuses when your father’s here, says it’s easier to let the dogs out to pee in the middle of the night without going down the stairs. You ease the remote control out from under her stomach and click off the television. You kiss her forehead, whisper I’m home. Downstairs, you can hear your father’s music blasting from the speakers. You linger at the stairwell, a thin sliver of light shining behind the closed basement door.
Two weeks later, you’re standing at the screen door with your mother, watching your father as he stumbles down the sidewalk, dog leashes in hand. He’s home for another weekend. She says I wish he’d never come back. I hope he gets hit by a car, as if you’re not right next to her. At the time, it doesn’t occur to you to ask what happens to the dogs he’s walking after he’s dead. If they run loose, if they ever come back home.
On Tuesday, it’s your mother’s turn to host Bunco night. Word has gotten around that you’re the best babysitter on the block, even though you’re the youngest, almost thirteen. The kids like your Bag of Fun, filled with coloring books and fuzzy pipe cleaners. They like the sprinkles and mini Reese’s Pieces that you hide in the bottom of their ice cream cones for dessert. Their parents like that you load the dishwasher after the kids are put to bed. They like that you don’t have a boyfriend.
“We’re not hiring you to make out on our couch,” they say.
You don’t have a boyfriend, not right now. The last time you invited a boy over to your house, he said the basement smelled like wine.
“Where do you keep the stash?” he asked. You didn’t invite him back, and now you avoid him in the halls at school.
On Tuesday night, the Bunco wives bring their kids along, and you’re to watch them in the basement while their mothers roll dice upstairs. You’ve sat at the top of the stairs long enough before, nibbling on beer bread and Twizzlers, to know that rolling dice is just an excuse. Instead, they sit around fold-up card tables and get drunk enough to talk about how drunk their husbands get. Tonight, when you have all the kids watching Mulan and half-asleep, you sneak up the stairs for a plate of snacks. You hear one of your mother’s friends talking about the Watsons; you hear her call them a swinger couple, and all of the women turn red and laugh. You scribble the words onto a post-it and slip it into your pocket. You want to linger a while longer, to wait for the wives to talk about their husbands again. You want to see if the women talk about their husbands getting hit by cars, getting lost at sea, just up and disappearing. You wonder if that’s where your mother got the idea, but one of the little girls has come up from the basement, and she’s tugging on your sleeve.
“The movie’s skipping,” she says. “You need to fix it.”
After everyone has left, you wait in your room until you’re sure your mother and Alex are asleep. You slide your way to the computer room and open the internet. You search for ‘swinger couple,’ and when the results pop up on the screen, you shield your eyes. You glance back to the doorway, making sure no one has caught you, before deleting the browser’s history. You turn off the computer and sneak back to your bedroom. You’re babysitting Nick and Jason so their parents can go to sex parties, and you fall asleep wondering if that lipstick on Mr. Watson’s collar was from his wife or someone else.
The Bunco women give glowing recommendations, and next Friday you arrive at the Pearson home, your Bag of Fun filled with silly putty and sticker books. Mrs. Pearson only called last night, somewhere in the hour between getting home from band practice and yelling at your father. She offered to pay you an extra dollar per hour for the late notice, and you barely have to work for it. They only have one daughter, five years old, and she falls asleep at the kitchen table, her forehead leaving its wrinkled print in the palm of the silly putty. You carry her up to bed, slide off her Hello Kitty slippers, and tuck the comforter tight under her body.
Last night, after getting home from band practice, after Mrs. Pearson called, your father cracked open the basement door and poked his head out. He just stood there, looking up the stairs, while you spread Miracle Whip on toast. You said what are you looking at? And he said nothing. I’m looking at nothing. Then, a minute later, what do I have to do to make you love me? You called him a drunk. You said maybe if you weren’t so drunk all the time, maybe then, and he shut the basement door. You heard him pop the cork on another bottle of wine, and his music started up again.
At the Pearson’s, you leave the girl’s door cracked open and click on the hallway nightlight. You’re almost to the staircase, but before you go down, you slip into the master bedroom. You make a circle around the room before easing yourself up onto the bed, laying down in exactly the center. Your arms can barely reach the edges. Mrs. Pearson would never have to sleep on the couch, you think. Their bed is so big, they probably don’t even have to touch when they sleep. You sit up and scooch to the side, smoothing out the comforter as you go. You don’t want them to notice, so you also fluff their pillows, swatting at their seams until all traces of you have disappeared.
Downstairs, you root through their freezer until you find the Schwan’s ice cream stash. You binge two chocolate swirl cups on the couch, and turn on a Lifetime TV movie, the volume low enough that it won’t wake the girl. When the Pearsons come back, they rustle you awake, and offer to drive you home.
On Sundays you’re at the Rasmussen’s. For two hours as the sun sets, you wrangle ten kids in a basement while they hold Bible study in their backyard. It’s difficult to sneak away, but you manage. You make a stack of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cut them into quarters, and set them on a coffee table. You press play on an episode of Veggie Tales, and when the children are glued to the teIevision, you back out of the room. You wander the house until you find the Rasmussen’s computer. You have twenty minutes until Veggie Tales ends, and a child will come running for you to hit play on the next one.
You open up the web browser history and scroll, not sure what you’re looking for. Your hand is sweaty, shaking a little, and you remind yourself to wipe the mouse clear of fingerprints when you’re done searching. The history is all recipes for fifteen minute microwave dinners and summer camps. The Rasmussens want to remodel their kitchen, and there are fifteen hits for contractors all over the state. It’s all boring, regular family stuff, so you press the email icon. You’re lucky, Mr. Rasmussen is still signed on. You get caught up reading his emails with a high school teacher, there are so many of them, sometimes with a picture attached: a close-up of the teacher’s thigh, another of Mr. Rasmussen’s chest, his dark hair curled in tight knots, a freckle on his clavicle. You don’t even hear the little feet coming up the stairs, walking down the hallway.
“What are you doing?” the Rasmussen boy asks you. You snap back from the computer, shut off the monitor. “Research for school,” you lie. “Is Veggie Tales over?” The boy shakes his head.
“Give me a minute,” you say. “I’ll be right down.”
When he leaves, you wait, making sure he’s not spying on you from the hallway. When you’re sure he’s gone, you turn the monitor back on, and close out of the web browser, the email account. You take the edge of your shirt and wipe the mouse clean of your sweat. You leave no trace.
On the way downstairs, you stop at the window. You watch the adults circled up for Bible study in the backyard. You see Mr. Rasmussen take his wife’s hand in prayer, and you wonder if his wife can feel the teacher on her husband’s skin, if his sin is seeping out of his pores and into her palms.
With nearly a year under your belt as a certified sitter, you work for so many families you have to turn down jobs. You are collecting their secrets, and you think it serves them right: these families should know what they’re getting into, inviting someone they barely know into their house.
Sometimes, the secrets make you sick. Sometimes, in the mornings, you have to take deep breaths while brushing your teeth, otherwise you might throw up.
At the Peterson home, in the back of their giant closet, you find a stack of love letters.
The handwriting is so bad you think they must be from elementary school, but then you wonder why they’ve been kept. At the Nelsons’, you open their bathroom cabinets. Behind the baby powder and the hairbrushes and first aid kit, you pull out four bottles of mouthwash. You think, why would someone need this many bottles? So you open the first one, take a little swig. Your whole mouth is on fire, your throat filled with a hundred tiny needles. When you spit the liquid out, you know it’s vodka; the sink smells the same as your father’s skin when he’d run out of wine, had switched to the Smirnoff he kept in the cabinet above the microwave.
Everyone in your family ends up with a different story about how your father stops drinking. Your mother says he quit because you were all about to leave him, and you did, once, for a night. Some nights, when you got home late from another job, you’d pass by your brother’s room on the way to yours. With his door left open, you could hear him talking to God. You could hear him saying Jesus, I think something is wrong with my dad. You wondered if your father ever stopped at his door after he’d zig-zagged up the stairs, if he’d heard your brother talking.
You want to think your words are what mattered most. That’s the version of the story you want to tell. Your father wanted your love so badly that every Monday night, when he’s in town, he drives half an hour away to a gray room and sits in a circle with other dads who can’t drink anymore.
You have to get the secrets out of your body, so you begin to write them down on paper. At the Jacob’s house you find a Playboy magazine in the bedside drawer, the pictures of women with their legs splayed open dog-eared and worn. In the Martin’s closet, you find bags and bags of clothing, the tags still on, and you sit on the floor, adding up the totals. Mr. Martin has left a stack of envelopes on the top-most bag, all from credit card companies. On one of the envelopes, in red sharpie, he’s scribbled stop it!!, underlined twice. When you’re digging through Mrs.
Swanson’s makeup drawer, you find a notebook nearly full. On each page, she’s written down every morsel of food, every calorie, and what she weighs at the end of the day.
At home in the backyard, you take your stack of secrets underneath the deck, where no one will see you. You hold a match to each piece of paper, and watch as they catch fire, the flames purple and blue, then gold, curling the page until it’s nothing but gray ash that you smother deep in the grass with your shoe.
You’re all invited to your father’s bronze coin ceremony at the Jackson Center across town. There are meetings closer to home, but your father thought he’d know fewer people the farther away he went. The night before his ceremony, you finally enter the Watson’s bedroom. You can only imagine what you’ll find, the images from that first search still in your mind: underwear with the middle cut out, handcuffs; maybe you’ll find a notebook filled with all the names of the people the Watsons have slept with. You wonder who you might find on their list.
You open dresser drawers, rifle through folded t-shirts and yoga pants. You pull back the shower curtain, and dig through rows of moisturizer and toner and cover up. You crawl onto your hands and knees and lift the bedskirt to look underneath. In the closet, you lift up the bottoms of hanging clothes, looking for a safe. Their bedside drawers are a bust, too, just hand cream and old copies of Better Homes and Gardens. You spend so long in their bedroom, you almost don’t hear the garage door open.
Usually, you pick up after the kids go to bed. You load the dishwasher, wipe down the counters. You organize scattered mail and match up shoes, sliding them into open spaces in the hall closet. Tonight, puzzle pieces are scattered on the carpet. Leftover pizza sits on the island counter, the cheese turning to rubber. You hope the Watsons are too drunk to notice. When they walk into the kitchen, you’re trying to remember if their bedroom door was open or closed.
In the morning, in the car, the three of you are all hollow. You’re supposed to feel the opposite. You and your mother and little brother are supposed to walk into the Jackson Center with big smiles, patting your father on the back, because you’re all so proud of him. What they don’t tell you is that the anger doesn’t go away, even when it’s just diet soda in the fridge.
The group leader asks the families to speak, and when they do, you think they must be faking it. You think they must have been coached into saying thank you, because shouldn’t they be the ones hearing those words? You think all of you should be thanked for sticking around.
When the leader nods in your direction, you wait to see who will speak first. You’re supposed to say we love you, we forgive you, even though you don’t want to be here. You’re still checking the trash for bottles, even as your father thumbs his bronze coin and smiles.
“I think God heard my prayers,” your brother says. He begins to cry, and your mother wraps her arm around his shoulders, shaking her head. In the space before your mother speaks, you cross your fingers for forgiveness. You want her to teach you. Your hope is held in the curve of her lip, how she scratches the inside of her wrist with her wedding ring, until she opens her mouth.
“Look what you’ve done to our family,” she says. “Just look.”
You wonder if your mother still wishes him dead, even if she doesn’t say it anymore.
When you get back home, there’s a message from the Watsons. Your brother and mother are peeling potatoes for dinner when you press play. Your father’s back in the basement, but now he leaves the door cracked open. He just asks that you knock before entering.
“You knew the rules.” Mr. Watson’s voice is big, loud enough for your mother to hear.
She stops peeling. “You knew the bedroom was off limits.” You try to hit stop, hit erase, but your mother’s already standing behind you, pressing rewind, pressing play.
“What’s he talking about, Katie?” she asks.
Maybe you forgot to close their door. Maybe they saw your footprints in the carpet. She listens to the message again, then picks up the phone, dials their number. “You know better than this,” she says to you. “I know I’ve taught you better.”
When Mr. Watson answers, she hands the phone to you. “Apologize,” she says.
Your mother knows you better than you think. After Mr. Watson, she makes you call the other families. She makes you sit at the kitchen table, so she can hear you admit it, so she can hear you say I’m sorry.
Kelsey Lepperd is a writer and editor from Des Moines, Iowa. She received her MA in English from the University of California, Davis, and subsequently served as a publicity and editorial intern for Catapult/Counterpoint Press/Soft Skull. As an editor, she’s worked for The Rumpus and Periphery Arts & Literary Journal, and her fiction is forthcoming from The Normal School.
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