After much wavering and second guessing, I finally bit the bullet and returned to graduate school last fall. I'm sure several of you know how difficult it is to juggle a rigorous PhD program and a full-time job. I was going to need a small source of income, but wanted something that would allow school to be my first priority. As luck would have it, a good friend of mine knew a family in desperate need of a quality babysitter. Their current sitter had recently graduated high school, and was heading out of state for college. Initially, I felt a little odd accepting work as a babysitter - after all, I was in my mid twenties, a PhD student, and engaged to be married. But hell, the hours were flexible, the money was fantastic, and I could anticipate a great deal of solid study hours after the toddler was sleeping soundly.
To be quite honest, it was smooth sailing from the start. The family was overwhelmingly generous with their money, and their three-year-old daughter, Alison, was quite well behaved, even in all her mischievous, toddler glory. Over the next few months, I found myself up there several times a week, mostly relieving the mother, Renee, in the afternoons so she could run errands and catch a coffee break. I occasionally sat on Saturdays, so the parents could enjoy a date night to the movies. I wasn't especially fond of the weekend night shifts, especially because the family lived in a large home, high up in the mountains, surrounded by acres and acres of trees. During the day, their heavily wooded property was serene and majestic, but once darkness fell, it was eerie in its silence. I tried not to pay attention to the rustling of small, forest animals brushing past bushes, or the sharp snapping of tree branches as the wind went about its nightly weaving. Mostly, I just tinkered around on my laptop, or buried my nose in a textbook until I was relieved to go home.
Everything changed this past February. It was an especially cold Saturday evening, and I was due to babysit around 7 that night. Renee's husband Eric was out of town on business, and she was excited to share a night out with girlfriends. Armed with a backpack of heavy reading, I had my fiance, Marc, drop me off on his way to the gym. The night was mellow; heated up some frozen pizza, drew a bath with an embarrassing amount of bubbles and Elmo toys, and had the kid in bed by 8. I had an exam the following Tuesday, and admittedly had a lot of studying to conquer. My fiance arrived around 9:50, about 10 minutes before I was expecting Renee back home. Right at 10:00, and I mean on the nose, we heard footsteps on the wrap-around deck, and noticed Renee making her way to the front door. I remember finding it funny that I had been concentrating so hard, I hadn't even heard her suburban drive up.
Marc and I exchanged a knowing glance as Renee made her way into the living room where we sat. It appeared she might have had one glass of wine too many that evening, because she had this intoxicating, frozen grin on her face. At first, I chalked it up to booze, but when the grin remained, I started to feel uncomfortable, the way an unknown stranger staring from across a restaurant can make you feel. Renee was usually very chatty, perhaps even a bit ditzy, but tonight, her answers were short, but still polite enough. I began to gather my things, as my fiance continued a game of solitaire on his phone.
Renee sat at the oak dining table, that bizarre and unsettling grin still plastered to her face, and wrote me out a check. There was something painfully uncanny about her movements - they were rigid, forced, almost animatronic. By the time we got down to the drive-way, my fiance and I both had baffled looks on our faces. Renee stood in the window, smiling down on us, waving her hand back and forth. I gave a short nod and wave, keeping my eyes on the gravel. That discomfort wasn't letting go. We walked past Renee's silver suburban, taking note of how absolutely dusty it was. Especially strange for someone that seemed to take her car in for a wash at least once a week. I traced my finger across the passenger door absent mindedly, leaving a light coat of soot on the pad of my index finger. The car was filthy, like it had been through the elements.
"Where the hell did she go tonight? Through a sand storm?" I joked.
"Seriously..." Marc trailed off.
"I'm not the only person who found that whole thing weird, right?" I asked, attempting to keep my voice to a whisper.
"Oh, relax. She was probably just tipsy. Her smile, though...." he said, closing the driver's door.
We began our trek down the winding roads, towards, after a long night of babysitting out in the boonies, what I always liked to call,"sweet, sweet civilization".
The drive from their house to the freeway was dark, lined with redwoods and deer, which I usually quite enjoyed. Tonight, it seemed endless. I had this overwhelming, new desire to be on that highway, surrounded by other cars, amongst other drivers and passengers, heading into the city. We drove for what seemed like too long - something wasn't right. I reached for my phone and glanced at the time - we were usually passing the first gas station by now. I pawed at the handle of my purse, for the first time noticing the bag's weight. Ugh. I had totally forgotten my text book. Reluctant to turn around when we had already been driving for so long, I made amends with the fact that I absolutely needed that text if I had any chance at rocking my exam. Marc let out a groan as he swung the wheel, turning back the way we came. Climbing the hill to Renee's house, I saw that the suburban was no longer in the drive-way. She must had moved it into the garage for the night already. As we made our way to the deck, I saw the burgundy spine of my text on the couch through the sliding glass door. I continued on to the front door and knocked three times - no answer. I knocked again, and then tried the door handle - unlocked, as I usually left it while Renee and her husband were out. We made our way into the house, making sure to keep our footsteps quiet.
"Sorry, it's just me; I forgot my book," I said, trying to keep my voice down. My fiance was a few steps behind me, peeking around the corner.
"Her bedroom door is open, but the lights are off." Marc said, a confused look spreading across his face.
"Renee? I asked, a little louder this time, "Renee, it's me, you still awake?"
We walked towards the kitchen, and I noticed the answering machine was blinking - I hadn't noticed it before I had left - there hadn't been any phone calls that night.
I'm not exactly sure what compelled me to push 'play' on that recorder, especially when, for all I knew, Renee and Alison were both asleep, and could be rudely awakened. My finger seemed to hover over that button for a mere second, before I pushed it in, rather aggressively. What I heard on that recording has never, ever left me. The time stamp of the message was 10:14 - we had left the house at 5 after 10.
"Hey sweetie, it's Renee. There is some kind of hold up on the highway here; maybe an accident or road work. I'll probably be about a half hour later than expected. I'm so sorry - help yourself to some dessert while you wait. Hope Alison didn't give you too much grief tonight." Her voice sounded cheery, normal...real.
I looked at Marc; my heart sunk, my eyes flooded with tears.
"A....Alison" I managed to sputter.
Marc disappeared up the staircase to Alison's room, taking steps three at a time. After a painfully long minute, he sauntered down the stairs, much slower than he has ascended them.
"She's fine. Sleeping soundly," Marc said, without emotion.
Marc and I found our way to the living room, where we sat without eye contact or conversation until Renee pulled up the drive way. She seemed exhausted, glad to be home and off the congested road. She chattered on about her evening, wrote me a check with a generous tip, thanked me for my patience, and smiled - the kind of smile that seemed absolutely genuine, and slowly faded when socially appropriate.
We stumbled down to our car in a daze, passing Renee's suburban, which still gleamed from a recent trip to the car wash.
I never had the heart to tell Renee what had happened that evening. I also never found the first check from the grinning woman. I ended up canceling my next two shifts, feigning sickness. I finally e-mailed Renee, telling her that my program was getting especially intense, and that I didn't think it best to continuing sitting for them. She bought the story, and now I'm free...free from the darkness that enveloped the home in the mountains, where I once met a woman who wouldn't stop smiling.