Finally Read online

“Wow, you really are going to be a great babysitter,” she says, hurrying alongside me.

  “I know.”

  It’s easy to tell when we’ve reached the right room, because ten other girls (and two boys) our age are sitting at big round tables covered with things like first aid kits, fake babies with fake diapers, board games, and boxes of microwavable macaroni and cheese. This is definitely going to be an interesting four and a half hours.

  The teacher, a woman in her forties or fifties with a no-nonsense blunt haircut and a very efficient manner, has us go around the tables and introduce ourselves and say what kind of babysitting experience we’ve had. The last girl to go is the only one I don’t know from school. She looks very young and I wonder if she’s in a lower grade. “My name’s Kira,” she says. Her voice is very soft. “My family just moved here last week. I have two younger brothers. Usually my older sister or brother takes care of them, but it’s going to be my turn soon.”

  I can’t tell if she’s happy about this or not. The teacher checks her name off the list, then hesitates. “You are twelve, right?”

  Kira nods, blushing slightly.

  “Okay, then,” she says, laying her attendance sheet on the counter. “My name is Rosemary, and I’ll be your guide for the afternoon. By the time you leave today, you’ll have learned how to be safe and responsible babysitters who get asked back by your clients. Our class will be divided into three sections.” She holds up one finger. “First, ensuring a safe and healthy environment.” Another finger goes up. “Second, caring for the younger child, newborn through age five. And last, we’ll learn how to handle the older child. Between each section we’ll have a fifteen-minute break.”

  Out of the corner of my eye I can see that Annabelle has already drifted. She’s admiring her nails (each one recently painted a different pastel color). I give her a little kick and she straightens up.

  “But before we begin,” Rosemary says, “we need to talk about something that weighs heavily on the mind of every young babysitter.”

  She lets her words hang in the air. When no one volunteers anything, she takes a deep breath and announces, “Death!”

  Fourteen pairs of eyes widen. Did she just say death?

  She starts pacing. “The leading cause of death for a child under seven is household accidents.” She starts counting on her fingers again. “Bites, stings, burns, choking, strangulation, drowning, falls, fires, poisoning, injuries from toys, blood loss from wounds. And who could forget that silent killer, carbon monoxide!”

  Me! I want to yell. I could forget that. I’d like to forget that now. And all those other things, too! The rest of the class is stunned into silence as well, no doubt also wondering if they were cut out to be babysitters after all. And to think, she didn’t even mention home intruders or ghosts!

  Annabelle raises her hand. Rosemary leans over to check her attendance list. “Yes, Annabelle?”

  “I thought babysitting was supposed to be fun.”

  “It is fun,” Rosemary assures us. “As long as everyone takes the job seriously. And your main job is to ensure the safety and security of the children you are watching.”

  Annabelle is not so easily put off. “But how can I have a good time if I’m worried that any second some kid could fall down the stairs and crack his head open?”

  Rosemary’s lips form a straight line. Then she says, “Well, hopefully you will have put in place the proper safety protocols to prevent that from happening. That’s why you’re all here today.”

  Before Annabelle can interrupt further, Rosemary picks up an armload of paperback books. She walks through the room, placing one in front of each of us. “This is your Babysitter’s Training Handbook. It is your new bible. Read it carefully, cover to cover, before beginning your first assignment. It will teach you how to instantly recognize a hazardous situation and how to defuse it. It will teach you basic first aid skills and how to handle various emergencies. The book goes into more depth than we’ll be able to in these few hours.”

  “When does the fun come in,” Annabelle mutters.

  Rosemary raises her voice. “Of course, it also covers topics like appropriate games to play at each age level, preparing healthy meals and snacks, and how to set up a smooth and easy bath and bedtime routine.”

  By the time the first break comes, I have learned how to dress a wound, wash out an eye, tell the difference between first-, second-, and third-degree burns, and perform CPR without (hopefully) cracking any ribs or causing the child’s lungs to explode. I actually do feel more confident in case something unexpected happens. But considering how many bathroom breaks Annabelle has taken, I think she’s second-guessing the way she’s chosen to spend the day.

  I spend most of the break sipping from the cup of grape juice Rosemary gave each of us, and watching the other kids talking. The only other person not talking to anyone else is the new girl, Kira. She has her face buried in a book, her dark hair streaming over it. I wish I had thought to bring a book. I’m always curious what other people are reading, so I can’t help peering over her shoulder as I cross the room for a juice refill.

  At first glance I see photographs, not words, and assume it’s a photo album of her family, or maybe the friends she left in her old hometown. Her face appears in almost all the pictures. But at second glance, my brain registers another familiar face. JAKE HARRISON is in Kira’s photo album! With her! On a ski slope! In a pool! On the red carpet at a movie premiere!

  I must make some kind of squeal or gasp, because she jerks her head up and then fumbles to close the album. I can’t help it; my eyes are bugging out of their sockets. They simply will not return to their regular size. “How … where …” I fumble for the right words but they don’t come.

  “It’s not what you think,” she whispers. “They’re not real.”

  My brow crinkles and I move to sit down in the empty seat next to her. “Not real? What do you mean?”

  With a glance around to make sure no one’s listening, she creaks the album back open and I eagerly lean closer. Now that I’m a few inches away instead of a few feet, I can see that while it’s Kira’s face all right, it has been carefully cut out of another picture and pasted over some other girl’s body, most likely Madison Waters’s. And the pictures aren’t really photographs, they’re cut out from magazines. Even up close, I can tell a lot of attention and concentration went into making sure everything lined up perfectly. It is very impressive, really.

  “I know it’s really stupid.…” she says, lowering her head so I can’t see her eyes anymore.

  I assure her it’s very cool and not stupid at all. I think she says thanks, but her voice is so soft it’s hard to tell for sure. Rosemary announces break is over, so I push back my chair to go. This time I clearly hear her say, “Don’t tell anyone, okay?”

  I make the lock-my-lips-and-throw-away-the-key gesture and return to my table. Annabelle is busy texting and doesn’t look up right away. This is good since it will allow the shock that’s probably still on my face to fade a little.

  “Sari says hi,” Annabelle reports, slipping her phone into her bag just as Rosemary plops a baby boy doll in front of her. “Thanks,” Annabelle says brightly, picking up the baby by his leg. Rosemary places a girl baby in front of me, which I’m glad about. I know all I ever need to know about a boy baby’s anatomy and the diapering challenges that come with it.

  For the next hour we diaper, dress, undress, swaddle, rock, feed, and sing to our babies. We practice playing LEGOs with imaginary toddlers, read to them, and take turns using the microwave to prepare mac ‘n’ cheese. The two boys in the class were a little uncomfortable at first, but they really got into making LEGO castles. I think if I were a little boy, having an older boy as a babysitter would be cool.

  Halfway through the next break, my cell phone goes off. I hadn’t set it on vibe this morning, figuring only four people can call me now, all of whom know where I am. I pull the phone out of my bag and see our home number