There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.
-- Deepak Chopra
Five bucks an hour was big money. It was couples' Bunco night -- I stood to get at least 12 dollars. And for what? Watching a Disney flick, eating some mac and cheese, and telling a few brats to go to bed early, after which I'd have at least an hour to channel surf or read? I loved calling it "work." People respected you when you had to work -- you had an excuse to be tired, to bemoan your "tough" job. At 13, I desired respect almost as much as I craved a steady wad of singles to feed my Slurpee habit. This was a repeat gig. The Rogers, an older couple with two young girls, had found me through the neighborhood wire -- their daughters had been born in Asia and adopted by the Rogers around the same time their two biological sons were entering adulthood. This was before interracial adoptions were made trendy by A-list celebrities, back when a cynical preteen might wonder what, exactly, these people were getting out of the deal. Slave labor? Tax write-offs? I dismissed anything that resembled selflessness, like, "Because we had love to give and money to spare," because such altruistic notions were in direct opposition to what my dad always said was a fact of life: "Nobody does something for nothing."
I felt like such a grown-up as I listened (with what I thought was an intense, adult-y look on my face) to my temporary employer as she rehashed the schedule she'd written on a piece of paper and attached to the fridge. Pizza had been preordered for us. A video of Lady and the Tramp was waiting in the VCR. It wasn't a school night, so bedtime had been extended by half an hour to 9 p.m. I nodded my understanding, smiled like Mary Poppins, and shooed her and her husband out the door, making sure to insist they have fun and not worry about a thing.
Even though I was only three years older than one of my two charges, I had been given the wand of responsibility. I tried not to let the power go to my head. Instead of saying, "You have to because I said so," I'd play middle-manager under Mom and convince them to obey by shrugging my shoulders and saying, "It's not that I want you to brush your teeth, I couldn't care less -- your mom does, though, and she asked me to tell her if you didn't. I'd hate to have to do that." If fear of parental wrath failed, I would employ guilt and coercion techniques I'd learned from my own mother, who has a black belt in manipulation.
It was my idea to drench Neapolitan ice cream in Hershey's chocolate syrup for dessert, my idea to break out Candyland after the movie. I played it off like I was merely indulging the interests of the children, striving to be the "fun" babysitter, a favorite requested back time and again. It's true I wanted to return, to earn myself more money and respect. But I wasn't doing anything differently than what I would have done if I were home alone with a couple of friends.
Bedtime came and went. Calmed by the silence and comforted by the pillows with which I had surrounded myself on the sofa, I nodded off while reading. Even so, it was a superficial sleep; at the sound of keys working at the front door, I sprang to my feet and stood at attention.
"How'd everything go?" asked Mrs. Rogers. Mr. Rogers, ever present and apparently mute, sifted through papers on the kitchen counter.
"Oh, great, really, they're, like, the easiest." I prided myself for taking the time to clean up the mess we'd made of our ice cream.
"Okay, then," she said, negotiating her wallet. "Here's 15 dollars. You have all your stuff?" I held up the book in my hand. "Alright, let's get you home."
I sat in the front seat of the minivan as if I were used to riding shotgun (in my family, the seats were assigned by seniority, so, as second to youngest, I rarely got to sit up front). Mrs. Rogers asked me about school, about my family and friends. I answered matter-of-factly, the way "mature" people talk.
I'd been staring at the mist lit by the headlights when three dogs suddenly appeared in the beams. The brakes were slammed. There was a loud bang. I had the sensation of driving over a speed bump. I shot Mrs. Rogers a puzzled, wide-eyed look. "Wha...? Did you...?"
"Sit tight, I'm going to get out and check," she said.
I stared at the road, still illuminated by the headlights.
"Okay, this is what's happening." I hadn't noticed until she spoke that Mrs. Rogers was back behind the wheel. "The dog is under the back tire. But I think it's dead. I'm going to back up a little so I can check for sure."
"Okay," I whispered.
Mrs. Rogers put the car in reverse and took her foot off the brake. A desperate, piercing howl echoed in the street; my body stiffened. "Oh, my God. Oh, my God," I chanted, closing my eyes, trying to shut out the noise.
Neighbors began to gather outside. This time when Mrs. Rogers exited the car I heard the low murmur of voices as the adults helped brainstorm her next move.
"This is what we're going to do," she said, once back in her seat, her voice unsteady. "I'm pretty sure the dog is dead now, but I can't keep backing up because my front tire might...well, I'm going to go forward and just get the car completely off of it. Then I'm going to take you home and come back while these nice people wait for the owner to show up."
Unable to find any appropriate words and no longer willing to utter an untruthful "okay," I offered a curt nod.