“My phone number is on the refrigerator; call me if Jack gives you any trouble. There are chicken nuggets in the freezer that you can give him for dinner, and if he asks for a snack, just give him an apple. That boy eats too much junk food.” Mrs. Jacobs rambles on about her son’s dietary restrictions and gives me a list of activities that might “keep him occupied.” I smile and nod, knowing I will most likely turn on SpongeBob and slump down on the couch all afternoon anyway.
It is twelve o’clock on a Saturday, my family’s second week in the neighborhood. The fact that our neighbors already trust me with their child makes me wonder what kind of “trouble” Jack has stirred up in the past. Most folks just bring a casserole to their new neighbors; the Jacobs brought a job opportunity. However, for suburban Connecticut, there are a surprisingly low number of teenagers around. It’s not like the Jacobs have an unlimited supply of babysitters on call. It looks like business will be pretty good this summer.
As Mrs. Jacobs exits the house and pulls out of the driveway, I exhale deeply. I desperately need this to go well. Earning seven dollars an hour plus free food is definitely a step in the right direction. I have been saving up for my first car since middle school, but I still have a long way to go.
I turn around to flash a nonthreatening grin at the small figure sipping a juice box and pushing a metallic fire truck back and forth across the carpeted living room.
“Hi, you must be Jack. I’m Beth,” I announce as I bend down to his height. I do not know just how old Jack is, but by his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle t-shirt and Superman socks, I can infer he is about six or seven.
“Hi,” he whispers back, keeping his attention focused on the pile of toys sprawled out around him like a protective force field.
“Is there anything special you would like to do today?” I ask.
“Sometimes,” Jack pauses as the smirk on his face grows, “Daddy lets me eat ice cream on the weekends.”
“Well, if you behave all day and eat your dinner, we can walk down to the ice cream shop and get some!”
With this news, Jack stands up and begins running around with his arms extended at his sides like an airplane. He stumbles after a while, getting sufficiently dizzy from flying.
“Now hold on, before we do anything fun, do you have all your school work done?” I inquire, even though it does not affect me either way. On the other hand, I know from experience that getting a kid to do their homework makes parents more willing to ask a babysitter back.
“I’m in the first grade,” he responds, “I don’t have to do anything.”
“Well alright then. How about we play hide-and-seek?” I suggest.
“Ok, but I get to hide first. Count to twenty,” Jack replies, as he starts tiptoeing away. With slight reservations, I begin to shut my eyelids, crossing my arms over my face and leaning against the wall to assure him I am not going to cheat.
“1-2-3-4-5,” I pause every few seconds to make sure he is not breaking anything or rummaging through places he is not supposed to be. “6-7-8-9-10,” The coast is still clear, no clashing sounds of shattered glass or heavy booms of tipped furniture. “11-12-13-14-” That’s when I hear it. The shrill echo of an old door, squeak. My head jerks up like a Rottweiler hearing an intruder, only my fear is not someone breaking in, but rather someone sneaking out. Panicked thoughts race through my head, “I never told him not to go outside. It’s my fault. He is going to get hit by a car or kidnapped and it’s all my fault.” The sound seemed too far away to be the door upstairs. I rush to the basement, tripping over my own feet and using the walls to propel my drunken state of motion. “JAAAAAACK!” I yell, but it’s no use, the back door is already slammed shut. My twitching fingers reach for the doorknob as I am validated by the sticky residue of grape jelly from Jack’s sandwich he ate at lunch. I swing open the door and the scorching sunlight aggravates my already perplexed condition. “JAAAAAACK!” I scream again, twice as loud this time. My head swivels around like a hula-hoop as I pick a random direction to run in.
It is sad to think a first grader has a better perception of direction than I do. Granted, he has been in the neighborhood for roughly six years; whereas, I have been here less than fifteen days. He knows all the hideouts, the nooks and crannies. Frankly, Jack could be anywhere from a tree house at a friend’s house to a trash bin in an alley, and I would have no idea; that is what terrifies me the most.
I go first to their neighbor, Mrs. Baker, a woman nearing her eighties that smells vaguely of butterscotch, mothballs, and apple pie. The perfect hideaway for young Jack. I ring her doorbell, and I instantly remember her from our first day on the block. She brought potato salad for my family, but was adamant about wanting her container back.
“Oh hello sweetie, what can I do for you?” she asks, perplexedly.
“You haven’t seen Jack Jacobs around here lately have you?” I reply.
“Well, not here at my place, but I thought I saw him scurrying past a moment ago. He was probably heading for the toy store,” Mrs. Baker tells me.
“Thank you for your help ma’am,” I respond, remembering my manners even in a crisis. This is enough of a lead to me to my next stop, “Bart’s House of Fun,” the local toy store. I walk in the store and am immediately entranced by the plethora of shiny new toys all around. One shelf selectively dedicated to toy cars and trucks draws my attention. I rush to the area by the fire trucks and ask a mother if she has seen a boy that looks like Jack. She says she has no recollection of anyone like Jack passing by, so I move on. I head to the front of the store to request the manager to make an announcement over the intercom. “Sir, please, it’s an emergency,” I say, “Can you just say ‘Jack, if you are in the store, please come to the front’?” He agrees and makes the announcement. I wait a few minutes, but no luck. Just as I am about to leave the store and head home to call Jack’s parents, something clues me as to where he might be hiding: the wail of a toddler outside the store dropping his fresh scoop of strawberry ice cream on the hot summer pavement, melting on impact.
As I walk to the ice cream shop, my thoughts jumble, and my ignorance becomes clearer and clearer. “I can’t believe I didn’t think of this sooner. I promised the kid ice cream, but how could I have known he’d be so impatient. Well, most kids have the attention span of a worm, and I was the one who put the idea in his head. It’s no doubt he thought of dessert before anything else.” I felt my heartbeat and pulse quicken. I actual care about this kid. Babysitting does not feel like a chore anymore. I finally realize the great responsibility needed to look after a kid. I turn the corner and I see the most glorious sight: Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Jack . . . all smothered in creamy Rocky road. “JAAAACK!” I scream once more, this time out of pure joy. “I was so worried about you!” (A phrase I thought I would never utter) “Don’t ever run away like that again!” I scolded.
“I’m sawy…” Jack whispers, pronouncing his ‘r’s like ‘w’s out of guilt rather than tooth loss or a newly developed speech impediment. Regardless, this little trick melts my heart like the ice cream dripping from his smiling face. I reach out and latch tightly onto his small hand as I walk him home, not loosening my grip one bit.
Sarah Cremin lives in Holland, Michigan and is a senior attending West Ottawa High School. She enjoys writing short stories and playing the trumpet. This is her first online publication.