This read’s on us: here’s a story from H.B. Hogan’s forthcoming collection of short fiction, This Keeps Happening, to get you through your first back-to-school/work/etc. commute. Enjoy!
Ruth, ten, sat at the kitchen table, chewing on her straw and avoiding Mandy’s eyes. Mandy was her fourteen-year-old neighbour, which made her practically an adult in Ruth’s eyes. The kitchen they were in was not Ruth’s or Mandy’s. They were in the house of the kids Mandy was babysitting. The Cheswicks. Mandy had given Ruth a tall green Tupperware cup filled with flat orange pop. Mandy then poured some Crystal Light into a wine glass for herself and leaned back against the Cheswicks’ kitchen counter with her hips slung forward in a way that made Ruth feel small.
The Cheswick house was cool and dark despite the blinding white heat outside. The air conditioning felt sharp on Ruth’s sweaty skin and raised goosebumps on her arms and legs. The carpet in the hallway was brown, the kitchen linoleum was beige, and the textured wallpaper a deep, mossy green. All of this colour seemed to absorb any sunlight that fought its way through the green curtains that hung heavy with dust over each window.
“So, like,” said Mandy, shifting her weight from one leg to the other with a slow, sideways sweep of her pelvis, “d’you ever babysit?”
Ruth fidgeted. She had a feeling that looking after her kid sister Sara for half an hour after school didn’t really count. She’d already signed up for the St. John’s Ambulance Course being offered over the summer, but she felt as though it was imperative that Mandy not know how badly Ruth wanted to do what Mandy had been doing for ages now.
Mandy didn’t wait for an answer. “I been doin’ it for ages now.”
Ruth tried to look as though she wasn’t interested. She pulled back from her plastic cup and watched as the line of spit between the straw and her lips got thinner and thinner, until it broke and fell across her chin. There were molar marks on her straw. She wiped her chin, put the straw back in her mouth, and resumed chewing.
“I musta babysat practically every kid on this block,” Mandy sighed.
“You never babysat us!” piped up Sara, who stood at the entrance to the kitchen with her pudgy hands on her hips.
“We don’t need a babysitter, Sara!” Ruth snapped.
She turned back to Mandy and declared, “We don’t need a babysitter.”
Mandy shrugged and swirled her wine glass. “I really like babysitting. Except for these shits.” She jutted her chin out towards the hallway leading to the back of the house. “They’re a handful.”
Ruth nodded. Brandon and Wayne Cheswick were the worst kids on their street. They played rough and stole marbles, but Ruth chose not to share this with Mandy. She didn’t want Mandy to know that she still played marbles, because she suspected Mandy never played with kids who needed a babysitter. Ruth could hear the Cheswicks in the backyard, screaming and thumping something heavy against the side of the house. Sara, who was younger than the Cheswicks and was therefore often the first victim in their games of capture the flag or kick the can, looked over her shoulder, down the hall towards the thumping noise, eyes wide, thumb in her mouth.
“I’m so glad we’re friends again, Ruth,” Mandy said, her voice suddenly warm with inexplicable affection. “I really like catching up with you like this.”
Ruth smiled thinly around her straw. Mandy talked like a grown up on TV. Ruth didn’t know whether to be impressed by that or not. Ruth’s mother once said that Mandy was best left alone because she was “trouble.”
It had been six years since the last time Mandy had shown any interest in Ruth. Back then, Ruth and her family had just moved to Dibgate Crescent. Ruth and Sara were in their backyard, playing in the sandbox at the side of their house, under the kitchen window. Sensing they weren’t alone, Ruth had looked up to see Mandy’s face wedged between the boards of their wooden fence, watching as they used their mother’s gardening trowels to dig for treasure.
Mandy, unaware of Ruth’s mother preparing lunch on the other side of the open window above them, had said, “My name’s Mandy. My mom’s got a big bush. Does yours?”
Ruth had thought about it for a moment, and then said, “Yes,” at which point her mother barked Ruth’s name in a tone Ruth had never heard before, and Mandy’s face had disappeared from the fence.
Ruth hadn’t seen much of Mandy in the years following that first interaction at the sandbox, but this afternoon Ruth and Sara had been walking home from school and were caught off guard when Mandy flung open the front door of the Cheswicks’ house and yelled, “Ruth? Hey, Ruth!”
Ruth paused. She was, on the one hand, pleased to be noticed by Mandy, who was now in her first year at high school, but it was a peculiar sort of pleasure, one she didn’t feel she ought to enjoy as much as she did.
“Hey, Ruth!” Mandy persisted.
“Yeah?” Ruth’s voice faltered. She suddenly felt unsure of everything.
Mandy struck a pose in the doorway. Ruth recognized the pose from her father’s magazines. Mandy’s left leg, thrust out at an awkward angle, propped the screen door open, while her right hand reached up to clutch the doorjamb. The rest of Mandy’s body strained to hold an impossibly contorted S shape.
Mandy wore white hot pants and a short, pink, terrycloth tube top, both of which were several sizes too small. Her breasts shimmied when she loosened her grip on the doorjamb to wave at Ruth. Puberty had been generous to Mandy, while it had not yet shown any interest in Ruth.
“Ruth, why don’t you come on in here and have a drink with me!” Mandy hollered. “We ain’t chatted in so long!”
Ruth was wary.
“We’re supposed to go right home after school,” she mumbled weakly, forcing her eyes away from Mandy’s quivering curves and fixing her gaze instead on the line of moss that grew between the cracked slabs of the sidewalk.
“Silly, that doesn’t mean you can’t stop in for a quick hello.” Mandy laughed but she sounded exasperated. “Come have a nice cold soda with me!”
Sara giggled shrilly behind her hand. Ruth had never heard anyone call it soda before. It was pop. Everyone knew that.
“Soda…” repeated Ruth, dubiously.
Mandy smiled and nodded. “Yeah! You know, it’s hot out. C’mon on!”
“Well, okay…” Ruth said, making to walk up the driveway, but Sara pulled at her sleeve and whimpered. Ruth shook off Sara’s hand and hissed, “Go on home if you’re gonna be a baby.” She took a deep breath and headed up the driveway, smiling tightly at Mandy’s ample butt cheeks as she followed her into the house.
“So,” Mandy was saying, “d’you ever babysit for the Parkers?”
Ruth sensed from Mandy’s tone that babysitting for the Parkers was something she should want to do, even though the thought had never before crossed her mind. The Parkers, like the Cheswicks, had only boys who were not that much younger than Ruth. Babysitting them seemed unlikely. She shook her head.
“They’re my favourite people to babysit for,” Mandy said. “Mr. Parker is so nice, don’t ya think?”
Mr. Parker had never struck Ruth as being particularly “nice.” In fact, whenever Ruth saw Mr. Parker out front of his house, she crossed to the other side of the street and tried her best not to look at him. She felt he wanted to be looked at, which made her want to concentrate extra-hard on doing otherwise.
“Mr. Parker always treats me real nice,” Mandy confided. She sat down at the table beside Ruth and flipped slowly through a dog-eared Teen Beat magazine. Mandy continued, “Too bad Mrs. Parker is such a bitch.”
Their chat was interrupted then by a piercing wail from the side of the house where the Cheswick kids had been thumping. Mandy shot out of her chair and flew down the hall to the back door. Ruth heard the front door slam shut behind Sara. Ruth knew Sara was running home in a blind panic. She was afraid of the Cheswicks, and she was afraid of losing her TV privileges for being late after school.
Ruth heard Mandy bash open the aluminum screen door that led to the backyard and shout, “You shits better not try me today or I’ll make you sorry, so help me gawd!” The screaming stopped abruptly, the back door slammed shut, and the thumping resumed. Mandy flounced back into the kitchen and slid into her chair with a sigh.
“Mr. Parker told me to call him Eddie,” she went on. “Mrs. Parker is always riding his tail about one thing or another. She’s such a nag. So poor Eddie likes how I stay after they get home from wherever they go and have a drink with him in the rec room so he can unwind. Has he ever made a drink for you?”
Mandy stared pointedly at Ruth. Ruth wished she had bolted with Sara when she’d had the chance.
“Eddie always likes to relax and have a drink with me in the rec room,” Mandy continued. She adjusted her tube top. Her breasts jiggled a bit and then settled back down on top of her magazine. Corey Haim grinned up at Ruth from beneath a pink terrycloth nipple.
There was a faint buzz in Ruth’s ears. She recognized this feeling. It felt like when she went swimming in the river near her grandmother’s farm. Like when she strayed towards the deep water, where the willow tree fronds rippled slowly in the muddy current. The closer she got to the willows, the more the water temperature dropped, and the harder it was to keep her feet planted on the algae-slick rocks of the river bed. She felt herself go absolutely still.
Mandy kept at it. “If you want, Ruth, you could, like, come with me next time. Eddie says I can bring my girlfriends over anytime I want.” She paused and leaned closer to Ruth. Ruth could smell Cheese Whiz on Mandy’s breath beneath the sweet stink of her Bonne Belle lip-gloss and her Baby Soft perfume.
“I really like the time you and I spend together.” Mandy’s voice had grown syrupy, and she was staring intently at Ruth.
Ruth imagined the tips of her toes were now barely touching the river bed. The murky water was lapping against her face and she had to crane her neck and tilt her chin up towards the sky to keep breathing.
“You and I are such good friends…” Mandy crooned.
Ruth squeezed her eyes shut, as if against the pointy rays of the sun, and water tickled into her ears, turning Mandy’s voice to a low mumble.
“…aren’t we, Ruth?”
Ruth gasped and jumped up from her chair, jarring the table and sloshing some of the pop out of her cup. “I can’t swim here without my mom!” she blurted, bewildered and frantic.
“What?” Mandy wrinkled her nose and yanked her magazine away from the widening spill on the table.
Ruth snapped back into the present, surprised to find herself shivering in the Cheswicks’ kitchen. “I gotta go!” Ruth shouted. She crossed her arms over her chest, clenched her fists under her armpits, and edged away from Mandy’s cloying eyes and body, towards the hallway.
“All right, all right!” Mandy was yelling, a look of disgust pulling her pink lips into a sneer. “Jesus!”
Ruth ran to the front door and pounded on the handle till the latch gave.
“Hey!” hollered Mandy, leaning back in her chair to look down the hall as Ruth disappeared out the door. “Hey, whatever, freak!”
Ruth darted across the cool, shaded porch to the tarred black driveway that amplified the afternoon heat. She felt weak with relief, but also embarrassed. She heard the back door of the house crash open again, heard Mandy yelling at the boys to take off their goddamn shoes if they were coming inside.
Ruth paused on the sidewalk to catch her breath. She shielded her eyes from the glare of the sun with one hand, and squinted up at the Cheswicks’ house, trying to make sense of what had just happened—or not happened—she wasn’t sure. In the front window, the green curtains rippled slowly and then settled back against the screen, revealing nothing.