• New short fiction, every week.
    The words you know and love . . .
    in a totally different order.

  • 10. The Babysitter’s Code

    By Laura Lippman

    Laura Lippman’s new novel, Life Sentences, debuts next week. To mark the occasion, here’s a story from the fresh and surprising collection she published last fall, Hardly Knew Her. “The Babysitter’s Code” is about the misty tension between childhood and adulthood. But, like so many stories, it’s also about what happens in the negative space beyond the periphery of the story—in this case, about what happens after the three characters part ways, leaving one girl troubled yet transformed.

    The rules, the real ones, have seldom been written down, yet every girl knows them. (The boys who babysit don’t, by the way. They eat too much, they leave messes, they break vases while roughhousing with the kids, but the children adore the boys who babysit, so they still get invited back.) The rules are intuitive, as are most things governing the behavior of teenage girls. Your boyfriend may visit unless it’s explicitly forbidden, but the master bedroom is always off-limits, just as it would be in your own house. Eat what you like, but never break the seal on any bag or box. Whatever you do, try to erase any evidence of your presence in the house by evening’s end. The only visible proof of your existence should be a small dent on a sofa cushion, preferably at the far end, as if you were too polite to stretch across its entire length. Finally, be careful about how much food you consume. No parent should come home and peer into the Pringles can—or the Snackwell’s box or the glass jar of the children’s rationed Halloween candy—and marvel at your capacity. There is nothing ruder than a few crumbs of chips at the bottom of a bag, rolled and fastened with one of those plastic clips, or a single Mint Milano resting in the last paper cup.

    Terri Snyder, perhaps the most in-demand babysitter in all of River Run, knew and followed all these rules. Once when she was at the Morrows’ house, she discovered a four-pound can of pistachio nuts and got a little carried away. And while the canister was so large that it provided cover for her gluttony, the shells in the trash can left no doubt as to how much she had eaten. To conceal the grossness of her appetite, she packed those shells in her knapsack and the pockets of her ski jacket. Riding home in the front seat of Ed Morrow’s Jeep Cherokee, she realized she was rattling softly, but Mr. Morrow seemed to think it was the car’s heater. The next time she babysat for the Morrows, she found another canister of pistachios, a sure sign of trust.

    But then, the Morrows were among the most generous clients in Terri’s circle. Most families, even the rich ones, hid what they considered precious—not just liquor, which interested Terri not at all, but also expensive chocolates and macadamia nuts and the asiago cheese dip from Cross Street Wine & Cheese in Baltimore. The last was especially dear, a souvenir from the parents’ hip, carefree lives, when they lived where they wanted, with no worries about school districts, much less backyards and soccer leagues. The asiago dip was like the tiny little treasures that pioneer families kept in their sod houses—a single silver spoon, a pair of diamond earrings, a china-head doll. Almost laughable, yet touching somehow, a symbol of a foreign land from which they had chosen to exile themselves for some vague dream of betterment.

    Terri always found these forbidden snacks but left them undisturbed, obeying another unwritten rule: you may snoop all you like, but you must not move or in any way tamper with the secrets of the houses left in your care. Read the dirty books and magazines by all means, catalog the couple’s birth control (or lack thereof), poke through medicine cabinets and those mother lodes known as nightstands, but make sure everything and everyone is tucked in its respective bed before the parents return home.

    The fathers’ cluelessness is understandable, but why would mothers, most of them former babysitters, leave so many embarrassments to be discovered? Yet Terri never stopped to wonder about this. Like most teenagers, she assumed her generation had invented depravity—and she was not entirely off the mark. Her clients remembered their pasts as one might remember a dream—hazy, incoherent, yet vaguely satisfying. Indulged in their youth, they had little need for rebellion in adulthood, and even less energy for it. Those who know the gin-soaked suburbs described in Cheever and Updike would be disappointed in River Run, where there was so much money and so little imagination. Sure, there was a sex toy here, a prescription for Viagra there, but Terri’s systematic sleuthing did not uncover anything truly shocking—not until the day she found the beautiful little handgun, no bigger than a toy, nestled in Mrs. Delafield’s lingerie drawer.

    Now the Delafields had been considered odd from their arrival in the community two years ago. Mrs. Delafield (“Call me Jakkie, it’s short for Jakarta, can you believe it? My mom was nuts”) was very young, so young that even an incurious teenager such as Terri could see she did not belong in this overdone, overlarge, grown-up house in River Run’s Phase V development. Local gossip put her at no more than twenty-five, which was worth gossiping about because Mr. Delafield was fifty-two. He was divorced, of course, with children in college, and now he had Mrs. Delafield and the baby, a shockingly large child of sixteen months, a child so big that he was having trouble walking. Hugo’s short, chubby legs simply could not propel his mass forward, and he continued to crawl, when he deigned to move at all. It was hard, looking at Mrs. Delafield, to figure out how such a huge child had come out of this lanky size 2, with hips narrower than most of the boys in the River Run freshmen class. No one knew what Mrs. Delafield had been before she was Mrs. Delafield. The one time Terri had dared to ask, Mrs. Delafield must not have understood the question because she said: “Oh, I was at my height when I met Mr. Delafield. You have no idea. I can’t bear to look at the photographs because I’m such a mess now.” Her hands shook, she chewed her nails when she thought no one was looking, and her hair was an odd shade of yellow. She was the most beautiful woman Terri had ever seen outside a magazine.

    No one knew why the Delafields had chosen River Run, not at first. For while River Run was an extremely desirable place to live—great school district, beautiful countryside, and convenient to I-83, that was the locals’ litany—not even its biggest boosters expected billionaires in their midst. The grandest house in Phase V could not compete with the waterfront estates outside Annapolis, or even the rambling mansions on Baltimore’s north side. Plus, Hugo was so young, and the Delafields so very rich, they didn’t have to worry about public schools.

    The mystery was explained when Mr. Delafield’s corporate helicopter landed with a great, ear-shattering roar in a clearing behind his property, acreage dedicated as permanent open space according to the master plan for River Run. The community and the River Run board fought the helicopter, of course. Mr. Delafield insisted he had been promised use of the land, that he would not have purchased the house otherwise. Yet the Delafields decided to stay in the house even after a zoning judge decided Mr. Delafield could not use the land. The corporate headquarters for his pharmaceutical company were in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, no more than an hour’s drive away. His chauffeur-driven Town Car pulled out of the quarter-mile driveway promptly at seven every weekday morning and returned thirteen hours later. Mrs. Delafield, who did not work, was left at home with Hugo and a live-in housekeeper, who apparently terrified her. She hired Terri to come on Tuesdays, the housekeeper’s day off, and spell her for exactly four hours, from three to seven, for $5 an hour. Finding something to do with those four hours was a terrible chore for Mrs. Delafield. She tried tennis, but she wasn’t coordinated. She tried shopping, but she found the nearest stores disappointing, preferring to purchase her clothes on seasonal excursions to New York. She signed up for ceramics class, but she didn’t like what it did to her acrylic nails. Still, she was strict with herself, throwing herself into her Porsche SUV every Tuesday as if it were a grim duty.

    She always returned promptly at seven, sometimes stepping out of her clothes as she crossed the threshold—whatever she had been in her past life, it had left her without modesty. She then handed Terri $25 and fixed a drink. Terri wasn’t sure if the extra five dollars was a tip or a math error, and she didn’t ask Mrs. Delafield for fear of embarrassing her. Mrs. Delafield was shy about her lack of education, to which she made vague, sinister references. “When I had to leave school . . . ,” or “I wish I could have stayed for prom, but there was just no way.” Sometimes she examined Terri’s armload of textbooks, as if just touching them might convey the knowledge she had failed to acquire. “Is algebra hard? When they say European history, do they mean all the countries, even the little-bitty ones? Why would they want to you to study psychics?” The last was a misreading of “physics,” but Terri didn’t have the heart to correct her. Instead, she told Mrs. Delafield that River Run High School had been founded at a time when there were a lot of alternative theories about education—perfectly true—and that it still retained a certain touchy-feely quality. Also true, although parents such as Terri’s, who had known the original River Run, were always complaining it had become a ruthless college factory.

    Given that the Delafields’ house, like the Delafields’ baby, was so huge, it had taken Terri a while to inventory its contents. Still, the wonders of Mrs. Delafield’s underwear drawer were well known to her long before she found the gun. Drawers, really, because Mrs. Delafield had an entire bureau just for underwear and nightgowns.

    The bureau was built into the wall of a walk-in closet, one of two off the master bedroom, both almost as big as Terri’s bedroom, but her family lived in a Phase II house. Terri had been through those drawers several times, so she was certain that the elegant little handgun she found there one March afternoon was a new addition, along with the rather nasty-looking tap pants of transparent blue gauze, with a slit where the crotch should be. Terri did not try on the tap pants, which she considered gross, but she did ease an emerald-green nightgown over her bra and panties. Small and compact, with thin legs and rather large breasts, Terri could not have looked less like Mrs. Delafield. Still, she rather liked the effect.

    It never occurred to her to touch the gun, not at first. In fact, she was petrified just reaching around it to pick out various bits of lingerie. She treated it as if it were an explosive sachet. To Terri’s knowledge, guns were like coiled snakes, always ready to strike. Didn’t everyone know about the Shellenberg brothers, perhaps River Run’s greatest tragedy? Not to mention that scene in Pulp Fiction.

    But as time went by, and Terri kept returning to the lingerie drawers, the gun began to seem integral to the clothes she found there, an accessory, no different than the shoes and purses arrayed on the nearby shelves. It was so . . . pretty, that little silver gun, small and ladylike. Such a gun would never go off heedlessly. One Tuesday afternoon, Terri pulled on a black lace nightgown, one that was probably loose and flowing on Mrs. Delafield. On her, it bunched around the upper part of her body and tangled around her ankles. She slipped on a pair of Mrs. Delafield’s high heels so she wouldn’t trip on the hem, picked up the gun in her right hand, and posed for the full-length mirror at the back of the closet. The gun really made the outfit. She went into all the poses she knew from films—the straight-up-and-down Clint Eastwood glare, the wrist prop, the crouch. Each was better than the last.

    A trio of quick, high beeps sounded, the signal that the front door had been opened and closed. Mrs. Delafield always turned the alarm off when she went out because she didn’t know how to program it. Terri, frozen in front of her reflection, wondered what she should do. Call out to the intruder that someone was home? Announce that she had a gun? But the front door had been locked, she was sure of that. Only someone with a key could have entered. Mrs. Delafield? But she never came back early. The housekeeper? It was her day off. Someone was coming up the stairs with a heavy, tired tread. Wildly, Terri glanced around the walk-in closet. The door was ajar; the soft overhead lights, so kind to her reflection, were on. She could lock herself in, but her clothes were folded on an armchair in the Delafields’ bedroom. She could make a run for them, or array herself in some of Mrs. Delafield’s oversize sweats, shove the gun back in the drawer, or—

    “What the fuck?” asked Mr. Delafield, and, at that moment, Terri hated every adult in River Run who had fought his helicopter, even her own parents. If Mr. Delafield still had his helicopter, she would have heard him coming from a long way off.

    “I’m the babysitter. Terri.” She fought the impulse to cross her arms against her chest, as that would only draw attention to the gun in her hand.

    “Oh,” said the blond man with a ruddy face—it was impossible for him to turn even redder, yet Terri thought he seemed embarrassed. For her or himself? “And—that? Do you bring that to all your babysitting jobs?”

    She glanced down at the sweet silver gun, held at her hip as if it were a small purse. “No. No, that’s not mine. It’s yours.”

    “Not mine. You mean it’s Jakkie’s? Jakkie has a gun? Son of a bitch. Why would Jakkie have a gun?”

    Terri shrugged, not wanting to tell Mr. Delafield that she had always assumed it was because his wife feared him, with his big, shambling body and red, red face. Now she wondered if he feared his wife, if she had overlooked some menace in Mrs. Delafield’s ditziness.

    “Where did you find it?” Terri’s right hand, the one holding the gun, gestured loosely toward the open drawer, and he ducked his head, as if expecting it to go off. “With her pretty little panties, huh? Well, no wonder I never saw it.”

    The situation was so surreal, to use a word of which Terri was particularly fond at the time, that she couldn’t figure out how to behave. She put the gun on top of the built-in bureau and slipped on Mrs. Delafield’s most prosaic robe.

    “I was just looking at it,” she said, as if that explained everything. “No one I know owns a gun.”

    “Well, I didn’t know anyone I knew had a gun, either.” He laughed, and Terri joined him, a little nervously.

    “You looked nice,” he said, as if he didn’t mean it but wanted to be polite. “In the gown, I mean.”

    “It doesn’t really fit right.”

    “Oh. Well, you can get stuff altered, right? Jakkie does it all the time.”

    Did he not know that the gown was his wife’s? Or was he pretending to think otherwise, to spare Terri the humiliation of being caught in violation of almost every rule of good babysitting? Or was it possible that he really liked how Terri looked? Terri was terrified that he might come toward her, or touch her in some way. She was terrified he wouldn’t.

    “Hugo’s asleep,” she offered, reminding him of who she was and why she was here.

    “Hugo,” he said. “You know, I have no idea where she got that name. Maybe from Baby Huey. He has too many chromosomes. Or not enough. If I had married what my daughters call an age-appropriate woman, someone thirty-five or forty, she would have had amnio, and we would have known before he was born. Or we wouldn’t have kids at all. But Jakkie was only twenty-three when she got pregnant, and Hugo’s a freak. He won’t live past the age of five.”

    “He’s just big.”

    “He is. Huge Hugo. But he’s screwed up, too. I don’t know what Jakkie’s going to do when he dies. I wonder if that’s why she bought the gun.” He shook his head, disagreeing with himself. “No, she’ll go in a slow, catatonic decline, refusing to eat, wandering around the house in her robe. In that robe. All these clothes, and she spends most of her time in that robe.”

    “Oh.” Terri had grabbed it because the blue flannel looked so ordinary, the antidote to the expensive lingerie she had probably damaged, stretching it to fit her so-very-different proportions. “I’m sorry, I’ll—”

    “It’s okay.” Waving his hands in front of his face, fanning himself, as if it were a summer’s day instead of a late-winter one. “It’s no big deal. You should keep it. She’ll never miss it. Keep it.”

    She knew, from the River Run Self-Esteem Project, that this was how such things began. Men gave you gifts or money, then asked for favors in return. Teachers, coaches, neighbors—the girls at River Run had been taught to assume they were all potential predators, far more sex-crazed than their male peers.

    “I couldn’t possibly,” she demurred.

    “Suit yourself. Put, um, everything back where you found it.”

    And with that, he was gone. Terri listened to him leave the room and walk downstairs, then waited another minute before going into the bedroom to change. She then returned to the closet and made sure everything was where it belonged. She assumed Mr. Delafield would tell Mrs. Delafield what she had done, and she would lose this weekly gig, an easy $25 by anyone’s standards. But losing her job did not bother her as much as the encounter itself. It was not unlike a dream she had from time to time. A man, an older one—one taller and darker than Mr. Delafield—found her alone somewhere and just . . . took over. It was at once a scary and comforting dream, one that always ended a little too soon. That was what she was feeling now—relieved, yet desirous of knowing what might have happened if Mr. Delafield had kept going. Would he have been more insistent with a different kind of girl—someone truly beautiful, like Katarina Swann, or someone weak and shy, like Bennie Munson? It was Terri’s lot to fall in the middle of that continuum—pretty enough, but not a raving beauty. Nor was she like Bennie, someone who all but begged to be used and abused by the world.

    Mrs. Delafield came home at seven, as always, and seemed indifferent to Terri’s news that Mr. Delafield was in his den, watching television while working out on his elliptical machine. No one, not even Terri, stopped to wonder why he hadn’t sent Terri home and assumed Hugo’s care. For the next six days, Terri waited for Mrs. Delafield to call and say she wouldn’t be needing Terri anymore, but the call never came. She went back at three P.M. the following week and everything was as it always was—the quiet house, the listless baby (who now seemed more precious to Terri because he was doomed), the gun in the lingerie drawer. Caught once, Terri knew she should turn over a new leaf, but she found herself in the walk-in closet within twenty minutes, modeling lingerie and holding the gun. This time she moved on to Mrs. Delafield’s evening dresses, which she had never dared touch before. She listened for the door to beep, refusing to admit to herself that her ears were straining toward that sound because she wanted to hear it. She had started a diet—for senior prom, she assured her mother, who grudgingly allowed it. Terri’s mom hated diets. But it was working already, she could tell. Mrs. Delafield’s things were not so tight in the waist this week.

    Mr. Delafield did not come home early that day, or the next week, or the week after. He never came home early again. In April, he stopped coming home at all. His absence, like most absences, took time to register. First a neighbor realized the Town Car had stopped gliding in and out of the driveway at its usual hours. Then Terri noticed the pile of bundled-up Wall Street Journals in the three-car garage, placed in a basket, as if Mr. Delafield might return and want to work through two weeks, three weeks, an entire month of business news. It was only when Mrs. Delafield put out the whole collection for recycling—on the wrong day, in the wicker basket, and still bundled in their plastic wrappers, in violation of every protocol—that Terri realized Mr. Delafield was never coming back. The following Tuesday, Mrs. Delafield paid her $20 instead of the usual $25 and Terri finally understood that the extra five dollars had always been a tip, one Mrs. Delafield had decided she could no longer afford.

    On the third Tuesday in May, Terri arrived to find the house full of boxes and Mrs. Delafield flitting around with various lists, shouting into her portable phone as if the connection was bad. Yet she looked radiant, more beautiful than Terri had ever seen her, and her conversations seemed to hum with excitement. “I have so much to do,” she told Terri with obvious delight. “Lawyers, Realtors, moving companies—oh, it’s all so complicated! But a week from now, Hugo and I will be gone, and this place will be on the market. We’ll miss you!”

    She headed out, full of true purpose for once, and Terri walked through the house. It was as if some careless, heedless babysitter had been here first, for all the drawers and closets were open, their contents tumbling out helter-skelter. Yet the little silver gun was still in its place of honor, lying on a bed of emerald-green silk. Terri picked it up, intending to do nothing more than hold it one more time. It fit her hand so well, looked so right. It wasn’t her imagination: she was beautiful when she held this gun. Mr. Delafield had said as much. Take it, he had said, and she had assumed he meant the nightgown. Clearly, he meant the gun. He had been asking Terri to save him, to protect him from his crazy wife, who was capable of anything in her grief and anxiety over their damaged child. Terri had been Mr. Delafield’s last hope, and when she failed him, he had no choice but to leave.

    On what she would later claim was an impulse, Terri stuffed the gun in her knapsack, grabbing the emerald-green slip as an afterthought. After all, she needed something to muffle the sound of the metal. She couldn’t afford the possibility that the gun might rattle when Mrs. Delafield took her home later this evening, or assume that Mrs. Delafield, like Mr. Morrow, would be polite enough to pretend that a mysterious sound was nothing more than a faulty car heater. She swaddled the gun with great tenderness, placing it in the outside pocket of her beat-up bag, assuring herself all the while that when something makes you beautiful, it should be yours to keep.

    From the collection Hardly Knew Her by Laura Lippman. (c) 2005 by Laura Lippman.

    And check out Laura’s new novel, Life Sentences!

    Our Friends

  • They Come in Collections, Too

    New and Impending from Harper Perennial: