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REBECCA CHIN DUG her fingernails into her palms, dreading what would happen next. In the darkness, she could hear something creeping down the alley. Heavy, dragging footsteps splashed through the dirty puddles that filled the alley’s potholes, and the streetlight above illuminated a hunched, misshapen silhouette lurching along the wall. A scaly claw scraped across the brick as the shadow turned the corner and loomed larger, filling her vision. Rebecca pressed her hand against her mouth and bit down on her knuckles, stifling a moan. She curled herself into a tight ball and squeezed her eyes shut, praying for the moment to be over. Where was the creature now? Had it reached the end of the alley? Her ears strained for movement, but the air was silent … until something crept up behind her and icy, liquid fingers slithered down her neck.
Whirling around, Rebecca found a snickering Maggie standing behind the couch, her green eyes sparkling with mischief. Maggie’s ruddy, round cheeks broke into a grin and she tucked her hand behind her back, but not before Rebecca noticed the melting ice cubes dripping between her fingers.
“Not funny!” Rebecca mopped at her neck with the collar of her plaid flannel shirt. Her olive skin was pink and blotchy where the ice had chilled it. “Are you trying to give me a heart attack? Watching horror movies is bad enough without your trying to scare me, too! You know how freaked out I get.”
“Of course I know,” Maggie said. “That’s what makes it so fun!”
“I tried to stop her,” Tanya said, picking up the remote, “but she wouldn’t listen. As usual.” She paused the movie and stretched, reaching for the light switch on the wall behind her. Her usually tawny arms were tanned to a darker brown, evidence of a summer spent outside.
Maggie flipped her auburn curls and shrugged a freckled shoulder. “Listening is boring,” she said, “and no one will ever accuse me of being boring.”
“Of course not,” Tanya said. “The list of things we could accuse you of is so long, I don’t think there’s room to add anything else.” Maggie laughed and took a bow.
Rebecca and Tanya exchanged a knowing smile and picked up their glasses of ice water. Before Maggie knew what was happening, her two friends slid several ice cubes down the back of her gold-sequined tank top. She shrieked with laughter, twisting away.
Rebecca wiped her hands on her black leggings. “I see what you mean, Mags. That was the least boring thing I’ve done all day.”
Maggie grimaced and squirmed as she shook out the ice cubes. “Where is Clio when I need her? She would have protected me from you two.”
“Her aunt came yesterday, so she has to do family stuff,” Tanya said. She brushed away the drops of water on her gray NASA T-shirt and ran her fingers over her bangs, smoothing her pixie-short hair back into place.
Rebecca had known Maggie and Tanya since preschool. The Chin family had just moved to the town of Piper then, and Rebecca still remembered nervously standing in the doorway of her new classroom, her yellow umbrella clutched in her hand. Tanya and Maggie had walked right over and asked her if she wanted to come and play Legos with them. Then cool, confident Clio had breezed into fourth grade one day, and the four girls had been inseparable ever since.
Rebecca slipped her feet into a pair of blue suede high-tops. “I actually have to get going. I’m babysitting.”
“No way,” Maggie said. “Friday Films are supposed to be sacred. Clio’s already bailed, and it’s only the third week of school. Now you, too?”
“Come on, Mags,” Tanya said. “You know Clio feels bad, and she’s already promised to bring the movie next week. Apparently her aunt has this huge collection, and she can borrow anything she wants.”
Rebecca grabbed her cropped bomber jacket from the back of the couch. “Do you remember the first time she came over, and she brought that crazy movie about the giant turtle monster?”
“Gammera the Invincible,” Tanya said. “That was the best!”
Maggie folded her arms and smirked. “Fine, okay. Clio’s awesome. She gets a pass for today. So what’s your excuse, Becks?”
“Kyle’s mom asked me to start a little earlier tonight.”
“Wow, Kyle again?” Maggie asked.
Rebecca nodded. “He’s almost a year old now, and he’s cuter every day.”
“Is he still BFFs with his teddy bear?” Tanya asked. “I remember when I filled in for you, he wouldn’t let it out of his sight!”
“He’s finally old enough to bring it into his crib with him, and his parents haven’t been able to wash it since,” Rebecca said.
Maggie wrinkled her nose. “You say that like it’s a good thing. Yuck!”
“Come on, it’s not that bad. Besides, he’s such a sweet baby! If a grungy teddy bear is the worst thing I have to deal with, I’ll take it.” Rebecca zipped up her jacket. “Sorry I have to go so early. Hey, Mags, don’t forget to put the dishes in the sink when you guys finish the movie. Your mom got so mad last time when you forgot.”
Maggie rolled her eyes. “Thanks, Mom Number Two. I think I got it covered.”
Rebecca laughed. She slung on her caramel leather backpack and headed up the basement stairs to the front porch, Tanya and Maggie trailing behind her.
“I haven’t forgiven you for bailing on us yet!” Maggie called as Rebecca strapped on her helmet and climbed onto her bike.
Tanya shook her head and threw her arm around Maggie’s shoulder. “Such a drama queen! Call if you need us, ’kay?”
Rebecca smiled. “With Kyle? I doubt it, but thanks!” She pedaled off toward the Dunmores’ house, her mind already filling with thoughts of the night’s babysitting.
Rebecca and her friends had taken a babysitting course at the library together in fifth grade, and she had received her CPR certification when she started middle school last year. Although she had been looking after her little brother, Isaac, for years, the Dunmores had been her first real clients. She had started out as Mrs. Dunmore’s helper when Kyle was just a few weeks old, assisting her with household chores, changing diapers, and learning to feed the baby with a bottle. Over time Mrs. Dunmore had let Rebecca stay alone with him while she ran short errands, and now Rebecca was the babysitter for the couple’s regular date nights.
* * *
Soon Rebecca parked her bike in the garage of the Dunmores’ brown-shingled house and walked up the steps to the front porch.
A squeal of happiness erupted from inside the house when Rebecca rang the bell. A tall, sandy-haired woman opened the door, holding a chubby baby with bright blue eyes. He reached out for his babysitter. “He got so excited when he saw you through the front window!” Mrs. Dunmore said.
Rebecca lifted him toward her, and he snuggled against her chest. She tilted her face down to catch his eye. “I missed you, too, sunshine.”
Kyle whimpered, and Mrs. Dunmore handed him the well-loved teddy bear she had been holding. “Don’t worry; Bearbear’s right here.” He clutched it tightly against his chest.
“Still inseparable, huh?” Rebecca asked.
“I’ve already resigned myself to Bearbear being in Kyle’s college graduation photos.” Rebecca laughed and followed Mrs. Dunmore into the kitchen.
She opened the refrigerator door and said, “Kyle’s had his dinner, but help yourself to anything.”
Mr. Dunmore ducked his head into the kitchen. “We made the lasagna that you love, so be sure to grab a piece or two.” Kyle broke into a huge smile and reached for his father’s wavy brown hair.
Mr. Dunmore’s blue eyes twinkled as he looked down at his son. “Be good for your favorite sitter.”
Mrs. Dunmore moved closer for a family hug. “I know we’re probably biased, but I’m pretty sure he’s the best baby in the entire world.”
Rebecca grinned. “You may be biased, but yes, he obviously wins the Number One Baby Award. Have a great time tonight.”
* * *
A few hours later, Rebecca put away the last of the plastic blocks and scooped Kyle up from the blanket she had spread over the floor. “I think we’ve done enough building for tonight, sunshine. It’s time for bed.” Holding him in her arms, she bent over to pick up a stray block and tossed it into the toy box with a clatter. Kyle laughed in surprise and gnawed on Bearbear’s ear. They made their way slowly up the stairs to his bedroom.
After they sat in the rocking chair to read his favorite bedtime book about animal families, Rebecca stood and carried Kyle to the window. Dusk had fallen, shading the backyard and forest beyond in soft, deep grays. Kyle waved to something below, his chubby fingertips brushing against the glass. Rebecca squeezed him, smiling. “Are you saying good night to your animal friends?” She peered into the dark space between the trees to see what had caught his eye, but nothing was there. The full moon sat heavy on the horizon, a few pinpoints of stars beginning to dot the deepening sky above.
Rebecca settled Kyle and Bearbear into the crib and began to sing, her off-key voice wavering: “By the light of the silvery moon…” When Rebecca was younger, she would already be tucked in bed by the time her parents came home from work, but they would always come in to kiss her good night and sing the same corny old tune. Now it was Kyle’s favorite lullaby, too. “Your silvery beams will bring love dreams … by the light of the moon.” Her voice cracked on the high note, and Kyle giggled sleepily, his eyelids already closing.
A short time later, Rebecca sat at the kitchen table, leafing through a cookbook and savoring her last bites of lasagna. The baby monitor was on, and she could hear Kyle’s soft, even breathing with that tiny hint of a snuffle he always had.
As she brought her plate to the sink, she was surprised to hear the rumble of thunder—the forecast hadn’t called for rain.
Rebecca jumped as a flash of lightning lit up the sky and a clap of thunder shook the house. Sheets of rain pounded the roof.
Violent storms like this were rare in Oregon; Rebecca still remembered watching one roll through, back before her little brother, Isaac, was born. The power had gone out; her parents had lit candles and the three of them had played cards on the screened porch, smelling the rain and watching the light show in the sky.
She thought back to the emergency section of her babysitting course. Maggie’s constant jokes had made even the instructor laugh and lose track of her lecture, much to Rebecca’s frustration, but all the girls had still done well on the final test to earn their certificates.
Flashlights, she thought, walking to the kitchen’s utility drawer. She pulled out two and clicked them on and off. On the monitor, the baby’s even breathing had changed to a sleepy babbling. Kyle wasn’t scared, but it sounded like the thunder had woken him up.
The lights flickered. She remembered a cool camping trick that Tanya had taught her, something about using a flashlight and a water bottle to make a lantern. Rebecca picked up her phone and sent a quick text:
Rebecca grinned. Classic science-obsessed Tanya, writing H2O instead of just water. The other day she had texted: GTG. NdGT is on. It had taken Rebecca forever to figure out NdGT stood for Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of the TV show Cosmos. Who else but Tanya would have a special shorthand for an astrophysicist?
Rebecca was about to text back when the sky flashed bright white and the electricity went out, shrouding the house in darkness. There was a deafening clap of thunder, and everything fell silent. Rebecca froze and let her eyes adjust. She listened for Kyle’s cries. Had the thunder woken him up? That was when she realized that the baby monitor had fallen silent, too.
Rebecca turned on a flashlight, shoving her phone in her pocket as she raced up the stairs. Kyle’s baby monitor ran on batteries, so the storm shouldn’t affect it. Something was wrong.
Rebecca ran to Kyle’s room. She paused in the doorway and shone the flashlight across the crib. She couldn’t see Kyle. Her breath hitched. She walked carefully over to the crib and slowly raised the flashlight. There was a dark shape in the corner of the crib—Kyle. He was asleep, curled up like an animal in its den. She shook her head, feeling silly for worrying. Of course he’s in his crib. Where else would he be? She glanced at the monitor, noticing that the red indicator light was glowing. That meant that the battery was working up here. But it wasn’t working downstairs. Weird.
She reached in and gently moved Kyle to the center of the mattress, careful not to wake him. Her forehead wrinkled in confusion. Bearbear wasn’t in its usual spot in the crib—Bearbear was always in the crib at night; Kyle refused to sleep unless he could see it at his feet.
Rebecca crouched down and peered under the crib. In her unsteady hand, the light swept wildly against the wall, stretching the shadows of the room. From behind her she heard the soft creak of the rocker, and she turned and pointed the beam at the empty chair. It sat as still as a stone. But on the floor nearby, she noticed a familiar shape: Bearbear. “How did you get all the way over here?” she whispered, picking up the toy. It was damp and clammy, like it had been outside.
That was when she noticed the open window. The hair stood up on her neck. It hadn’t been open earlier; she was sure of it. She remembered how Kyle’s hand had streaked the glass when he had waved to something in the woods below. The window had definitely been closed. And locked. A sharp gust of wind swept through the room, pushing dead leaves against the outside of the screen. Could the wind have blown the window open? Rebecca hugged Bearbear to her chest and looked back at Kyle. Wind can’t blow open a locked window. She swallowed the rising lump of fear in her throat.
Rebecca put Bearbear safely back in Kyle’s crib and closed the window, locking it securely. Her hands grazed the windowsill, brushing against something cold and slimy. Rebecca recoiled. What had earlier been a clean white windowsill now had a layer of moss on it. And the moss was in the shape of a hand.
Text copyright © 2018 by Katrina Knudson
Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Imprint