I was beginning to sense a pattern. Not that I knew what the pattern was, just that one was coming into view. It had something to do with the babysitter. I didn’t hire her, and refuse to be blamed. Sharon hired the babysitter; I spotted the pattern.
The babysitter visited many times without incident. Our boys loved her. Nevertheless, Karl and Joseph (after the Archduke), were either too old for a babysitter, or the babysitter was too immature to be entrusted with certain tasks. Sharon insisted she had a high school diploma. As far as the age of the boys: not old enough to drive, too young to put out a fire.
And she was a real fire-breather. She literally supplemented her income via semi-professional fire-breathing gigs. We told her never to breathe fire in the house, and for a time she respected our wishes. Sharon later insisted she detected the smell of lamp oil, kerosene, something like that. Just a whiff, she said. The babysitter smiled when I confronted her, replacing whatever was on my mind with images of her in a red leather demon-suit, some kind of fire-blowing garb, dragon onesie.
The next thing I began to notice was the Netflix viewing history:
A man living alone in a spacious apartment by the sea discovers a corpse in his living room, as fantasy and reality begin to blur.
A fragile, sexually confused film student succumbs to violent paranoia.
A dimwitted widower who moves into a boarding house becomes the target of a coven of devil-worshippers.
A visit to a sixteenth-century castle—containing a portrait eerily resembling the protagonist—turns into a mesmerizing nightmare.
A cuckolded husband plunges into a spiral of self-pity, fear, and violence.
A teen girl sets up a satanic escort service made up of school chums she matches up with bored married men, all under the guise of babysitting.
A painter hired to restore a fresco depicting the slaughter of St. Sebastian discovers a horrifying conspiracy.
Maybe I should have gone to Sharon. Instead I deleted the history as it appeared, keeping a list for my own purposes. After watching the films, my first thought (likely my second or third) was whether the babysitter had watched these alone or with our boys. I began observing them for signs of warpage. One was prepubescent, I suspected, the other was probably in the pubescent range—neither should be exposed to sexualized vampire eviscerations or giallo films. I began picking through the trash after the babysitter left. One evening I found seven banana peels and no banana innards.
I asked Sharon if she thought our children’s attraction to the sitter was unhealthy.
“You think those boys chase after anything that’s shiny,” she said.
“Well,” I said.
Something else was amiss. I made the bed before we left only to later find it rumpled. The state of disarray suggested someone had crawled under the covers on my side. I stroked the bottom sheet, checking for warmth, moisture.
Soon it was my turn to pay the sitter. I asked about her life, and she said she was earning credit locally before leaving for college. She wanted to specialize in splatter films, slasher films, gorno, and splatstick. When I said it sounded gruesome for someone her age, she put her eyes on me and left them there.
Another evening I found a pair of panties balled up under my pillow. They were monogrammed with the words “Buried Alive.” The sitter hadn’t been over for weeks.
When my wife left town to attend a conference, I decided to indulge in a night out, having the sitter watch the boys. Sharon, surprisingly, was in favor of this idea. I told the sitter I’d be home late, and instead of meeting friends I amassed a tab at the nearest Olive Garden. When asked to leave, I crossed the shopping center to a Buffalo Wild Wings, where the staff were far more sympathetic to my cause.
I came home earlier than I had planned, earlier than promised. The neighbors across had gone to sleep. The street was empty except for a car parked in the cul-de-sac at the end of the lane. The backyard was empty, lunar, arranged in shades of gray.
The pool across the way had been left unused for at least a month, uncovered except for a stratum of leaves. I wanted to be like the pool, that is: in the ground. The cold negated all feeling, canceled out everything I had consumed over the past few hours: alcohol had pooled in my feet, risen in my throat, drifted off, somehow dissipated. I thought of the expression “drinking like you have a wooden leg.” It made its own kind of sense. I considered entering the pool, making a splash, breaking the veneer, but went to the window instead.
The living room was on the other side. It might as well have been a one-way mirror. Confusingly, another name for one-way mirror is two-way mirror. Meaning, I supposed, that those special mirrors in interrogation rooms either worked two ways, depending on where you stood, or that the view was of a mirror in only one direction.
I was cold, looking in on warmth, a stranger in my own backyard. The window revealed a living room in black and white, a shadow version of the Cleaver household. (The Cleaver Household.) Three figures sat on the couch, their shadows thrown onto a colorless wall. The glowing screen in front of them was the doppelgänger of the cold window I pressed my nose against. I gave no thought to fogging the glass, as the seated figures were as engrossed in the image before them as I was. My nose was cold against the window, breath leaving a film of condensation on its surface. Whispered rumors of a mirror that allowed for yet a third kind of vision occurred to me.
In front of the seated figures, scenes of confusion unspooled on the massive screen. Two of the figures were my flesh and blood. When the babysitter took them upstairs I kept watching. I could feel the television’s vibration through the window. The screen depicted a slow pan through a nearly empty hotel, a black-and-white vision of objects and people frozen in place. Guests, maids, clerks, waitstaff—all receded down the corridor. Rooms, doors, doors, rooms.
I waited as long as I could bear, moved to the front steps, sat down, listened. Who did this babysitter think she was? A real humdinger. I slid my key into the front door and slowly turned the deadbolt. Inside, the door closed behind me without a sound. The living room—our living room, my living room—was as eerie as the one on the television. A deep hum and a voice speaking in French steadily grew in volume. I stood in front of the screen, enthralled, as frozen as the people depicted in the film. What was happening upstairs, I wondered? At some point, the pattern I had unknowingly been looking for revealed itself. All sound in the room ceased, and I watched the onscreen image transition to a shot of a house in the desert exploding in reverse. A real fire-breather. Shift to footage of white calf slaughtered in white chamber.