Samantha is steadfast in her determination to tempt, as she holds a spoonful of peanut butter in front of Brutus’ face. Brutus looks at the spoon but knows he must not lick it. He has learned this the hard way from hours of practice with a dog trainer Samantha’s mother hired. He puts his paw in front of his eyes to block the sight of the delectable yet dangerous treat. When Brutus looks away, she scoops some peanut butter off of the spoon and traces it onto his nose. “How about now, Brutus?” she asks. The basset hound whimpers. “Samantha! Please, dear, put that peanut butter away, Meredith will be here any minute,” her mother says, rushing to find her purse. She scans the table for a moment, as if there were bills and tissues and food all scattered about, but it is spotless, with only her black, leather Coach bag sitting on the edge. Vanessa must have come and cleaned earlier this morning. Or was it Lupe? Her mother exits the kitchen and Samantha sucks on the spoon, happy that her mother did not notice her teasing the dog. Brutus brushes against Samantha’s side, still with a glob of peanut butter hanging on his nose. “Pig.” She laughs and kicks him so he scampers away. “Mom!” she calls. “Mom! Mom, where are you?” She pulls herself up on the table next to the purse. “Just one moment, honey!” her mother calls from upstairs. Samantha shrugs. She rifles through the purse. Keys, wallet, gum wrapper, gum wrapper, gum wrapper and a little pink box with…beads? No, those are not beads. They have no holes in them to put strings through. Samantha examines the box and sees all these little balls of white, like mints. She holds her hand a few inches away from her face and exhales harshly, the backlash of peanut butter breath hitting her nostrils. She must have a mint. “Samantha, no!” her mother yells, finishing her descent down the staircase and throwing a hand up in protest. “No, sweetie, those aren’t for you. They’re for mommy.” She takes the little pink box and her purse. “Well what are they?” Samantha asks, rubbing between her fingers the one little ball she plucked away. “It’s a little helper pill, for mommy,” she replies. Samantha holds out her tiny palm with the little white circle innocently placed in the center, as if her hand was an oyster and the pill a pearl. “What does it help with?” Her mother is facing away from her as she again checks all of the counters to make sure she isn’t missing anything. Everything is sparkling and empty. “It helps make sure mommy doesn’t have any surprises.” Samantha doesn’t like surprises either. Like the time her mother surprised her with a new chandelier for her room. It had pink ceramic roses and each golden stem to the rose ended with a loop and a pink light bulb hooked to the end of it. It wasn’t for her birthday or Christmas. Samantha wasn’t even quite sure if it was for her. She had seen her mother gazing at it in a catalogue, a couple weeks prior, her finger tracing the loops and swirls. Samantha thinks her mother wants it, but daddy wouldn’t allow such a girly thing in their bedroom. “Really?” Samantha asks. “Yes, really—” Her mother turns to see the pill in her hand. “Samantha, give that to me. Now.” “But I don’t like surprises!” she yells. “It doesn’t stop those kinds of surprises,” her mother replies, taking a step closer to Samantha. “Then what kinds of surprises does it stop?” Her mother tilts her head as if it is a full bucket of water balanced on a needle, about to tip over. She smiles and Samantha meets her eyes for a second; she wants the contact to remain, for her mother to stare into her eyes just a little bit longer. Mommy snatches the pill. “They stop surprises like you,” her mother says, placing the pill under her tongue and swallows it dry. Samantha looks down, furious at her empty-handedness. Her mother looks once more at her and smiles, but Samantha refuses to look at her. “Okay, dear. I’m going to go over the plan one more time. I will only be gone until tomorrow evening; I’m just visiting daddy overnight in San Francisco while he’s doing business—” “Why can’t I come?” “It’s a grown-up trip. And he’ll be back next week, you’ll see him sooner than you think.” Samantha still does not understand why she can’t go with her mother. “Anyways, the information is all up on the fridge.” She looks behind her to see there is only one post-it with the airlines and departure times: LAX @ 6pm. SFO@ 7:45pm. “Samantha, where are all your drawings?” “Lupe took them down and put them in my school folder.” Ah, so it was Lupe. Her mother looks back at the fridge and touches the handle. She smells her fingers. The citrus Windex scent nauseates her. “Okay, any questions?” Samantha shakes her head and the doorbell rings. “Oh, that must be Meredith!” her mother exclaims rushing to the door. Samantha hops off the table and trails behind her mother. “Has she watched me before?” “I don’t know,” she replies as she opens the door, “Hi! You must be Meredith, right?” A girl, 19, stands in front of them. She has thin, straight brown hair that travels down to nearly her waist. A little bit of acne decorates her lower cheeks and chin, like dimly lit Christmas lights. Her brown eyes are covered by thick, uneven black eye liner, as if a friend used her as a make-up dummy. She wears a blue flannel, jeans, and Keds. Samantha hates her. “Oh, it’s actually Mary Beth, but you can call me Mary,” she says. Samantha looks up to her mother whose cheeks flush at hearing her mistake. “And you must be Sammy, right?” Mary Beth bends down to be eye level with Samantha, a difficult task with such a long, lanky body. Samantha finds it awkward and appalling. “It’s Samantha,” she replies. Her mother laughs at her curtness. “Yes, indeed! This is my sweet Samantha. I actually named her after the lead from Bewitched.” She ruffles her daughter’s blonde hair and Samantha shoves her hand away. “Oh, I love that movie!” Mary exclaims. The mother rolls her eyes. “Well I must get going then.” She reaches for her suitcase next to the staircase. “Be good, Samantha! “Can I stay up late?” Samantha shouts. “Nine pm bedtime!” her mother yells back and closes the door. Mary Beth steps further into the foyer and is taken aback by the ostentatious home, teeming with signs of wealth: the grand staircase, mahogany floors, and crystal chandeliers. She pictures herself skating around the smooth wood floors in nothing but socks. She imagines drinking red wine in the sunken patio next to the pool. She imagines making out with Tommy on their plush, brown four-sectional couch. She looks down at Samantha. She wishes her boyfriend was here and the little girl wasn’t. “So, what do you want to do this evening? Have you had any dinner yet?” “Have you babysat me before?” “No, I haven’t actually. My friend, Sarah, has though. Do you remember Sarah?” “Yes.” “Isn’t she just the best?” "No.” “Oh, well, I’m sure you don’t mean that…” she gazes over to the kitchen. “You know, I make a really killer grilled cheese. Would you like one?” “What’s on your face?” Samantha asks and points. “You mean my nose ring?” she smiles and wiggles it. “No, I mean the stuff all over your skin. What’s that?” Mary Beth’s smile vanishes. She brushes her fingers against her skin. Samantha watches her finger slow down every time she runs it over a pimple. “Bug bites,” Mary Beth replies, biting the inside of her cheek. She heads to the kitchen. Samantha feels bored already. “Oh, I see you have a dog. What’s their name?” “Brutus.” “That’s cool, pretty tough name. Is he a scary—” she stops dead in front of Brutus who lies defeated on the ground. “Um, what’s on his nose?” “Peanut butter.” “Can you clean it off?” Mary Beth hisses. Samantha sees a film of glistening sweat arise on Mary Beth’s face. She walks in front of her and pets Brutus. “Why? He likes it,” she says, suddenly feeling affectionate toward the dog. Mary Beth rushes to the glass patio doors. “Out boy! Out!” Brutus responds to the summons and walks out the door. Mary Beth slams the glass door shut and takes a deep breath. “Okay,” she breathes, “He’s going to have to stay out there for a while until he licks that off.” “He won’t lick it off! He’s trained not to eat human food!” Samantha wails, throwing herself against the fridge and sliding down it. “Oh, sweetie!” Mary Beth says, picking up Samantha underneath her armpits and wrapping her in her arms. “I promise, he’ll be okay.” “Why can’t he be in here with us?” Samantha sobs into Mary Beth’s shoulder. She pulls back and looks her straight in the eyes, “Why can’t I be with my Brutus?” Mary Beth sighs a deep sad sigh. Samantha is no longer bored. “I’m sorry sweetie, I can’t be around peanut butter. I’m pretty allergic.” Samantha sniffles and wipes her eyes. “How allergic?” she asks. Mary Beth seats her down on the island counter and pets her hair. Samantha wants to bite her hand, but refrains. Mary Beth now feels a deep need to compensate for what she’s done. She knows how bad she must already look; kicking out the dog this little girl loves. She decides to put on a show for Samantha. “Do you really want to know how allergic I am?” Samantha nods eagerly. Mary Beth wraps both her hands around her neck and waves her body around as if she were an earthquake. Samantha laughs and laughs. Mary Beth falls to floor and shakes and convulses, crossing her eyes back and forth and sticking out her tongue in all sorts of funny ways. Samantha is now laughing so hard that her hand wraps around her stomach, bent over herself, howling. Mary Beth stops moving, gives one pitiful cough and dies. A single tear slides down Samantha’s cheek after she finishes her fit of laughter. Mary Beth jumps up and brushes herself off. “You’re that allergic?” “I am,” she replies, “Now, how does a grilled cheese sandwich sound?” “Yes, please!” Samantha shouts into Mary Beth’s face. The babysiiter smiles a faint, crooked sort of smile and heats a pan.
After dinner, Samantha sprawls herself out on the couch while Mary Beth cozies up into a ball on their reclining chair. Samantha’s mother permits one hour of television before bed, so Mary Beth is allowing two. Something about the way in which Samantha laughed when she was pretending to die made her feel uneasy. Then again, they were ridiculous theatrics. And the whole point was to make her laugh. Still, an extra hour of television seems like the right thing to give. “Okay, that’s the two hours. Why don’t we get ready for bed?” “No, one more hour.” Mary Beth pushes herself up and out of the chair. “No, Samantha. I already gave you an extra hour. It’s ten o’clock. It’s really time for bed.” She reaches for the little girl’s hand. “No!” Samantha screams, “I’m not tired!” Mary Beth’s grip tightens around Samantha’s hand. “Come on, Samantha. I mean it. Or else I’m calling your mom.” Samantha smirks. “You can’t do that.” “And why not?” “Because, it’s already past my bedtime. I’m supposed to be asleep. But you let me stay up.” Mary Beth starts to say something then stops. Her grip on Samantha’s hand loosens. “Samantha,” she begins, “just go put on your pajamas and brush your teeth and get into your bed. Then maybe we can stay up and paint our nails. How does that sound?” Samantha sighs, but then rushes up the stairs to get ready for bed. As Mary Beth waits for Samantha she lies down on the couch and closes her eyes. It so plush and the fabric is so soft. She closes her eyes and thinks of Tommy on top of her, kissing her neck, feeling up her thighs, squeezing her— “I can’t find my toothpaste!” Samantha yells from upstairs. “You can borrow mine!” Mary Beth hollers back. She gets up and rifles through her overnight bag. Samantha runs down the stairs and Mary Beth hands her the toothpaste. “Thank you,” Samantha says, like a cherub, and rushes back upstairs. “My ass,” Mary Beth huffs under her breath. She seats herself back on the couch and looks out the glass doors. Brutus is lying by the edge of the pool, so close that his one long, black ear droops into the water. Just go into the pool, Mary Beth thinks to herself, that way you’ll be clean of the peanut butter and I can let you back inside. Brutus and her make eye contact and he walks toward the glass doors. Mary Beth shakes her head no. The dog howls. Mary Beth walks upstairs now, motivated more by evading Brutus’ gaze than wanting to see Samantha. “I’m coming in now” Mary Beth says, opening the door to Samantha’s bedroom. The little girl is in pajamas and tucked under her blankets. “Can you just turn off my lights, Mary? I’m sleepy.” Mary Beth is befuddled. “Are you sure, not even a bedtime story?” “I’m sure.” “Okay,” she flicks the light off, “Goodnight.” She closes the door, shocked at how sudden Samantha’s entire disposition has changed. She rushes downstairs and calls Tommy. As soon as Mary Beth is down the stairs, Samantha flings off her blankets. She’s had other babysitters before; she knows how entertaining it can be to watch them. She sits in the middle of the stairs watching and listening to Mary Beth. “Yeah, the house is beautiful, they’re super rich,” Samantha smiles, pleased with herself, “which is exactly no wonder why the kid is such a brat. Yes! She said that Sarah wasn’t a good babysitter, she wouldn’t clean up her dog, she wouldn’t even say I love you to her mother.” Samantha freezes. She wishes that Mary Beth would look at her right now, right this instant! She wants to burn holes into Mary Beth with her stare. She could hurt anyone with watery eyes. Make them feel bad. Worse than her. “What are you suggesting? Yeah, I think she’s asleep.” Mary Beth laughs. “Okay.” Samantha sits and watches as Mary Beth sighs, hands disappearing underneath the waistline of her jeans. Samantha watches from the stairs and Brutus, longingly, from outside.
Mary Beth is asleep on the couch and Samantha is still stuck frozen to the middle of the staircase, both nervous and intrigued by what she has witnessed. She jumps at the sound of little taps on the glass and sees Brutus sniffing the door. She tiptoes down the stairs and around the couch to open it. Brutus shakes his furry body free of the evening condensation that has fallen upon him but remains outside. Samantha grabs some treats from the cabinet to draw him in when she remembers why Brutus was outside in the first place. Mary Beth’s allergic! But Mary Beth is the one who is ugly. Mary Beth is the one who called her a brat. Mary Beth is the one who moaned and moaned and just wouldn’t shut up! She looks to Mary Beth who sleeps on the couch. The left corner of her mouth tilted up in a mocking smirk. Both hands now folded on top of her belly, hidden underneath her flannel. She whispers Brutus’ name. He walks inside. Samantha scoops a handful of treats from the bag and leaves a trail from the kitchen to the couch, ending with three little treats right next to Mary Beth’s cheek. Brutus, hungry from his exile, consumes the treats like a mad man, eyes wide with heavy huffs of breath, his oblong body moving faster and faster. Samantha runs back up to her spot on the middle of the staircase to watch what will happen. Brutus hoists himself up onto the couch to eat the last few treats next to Mary Beth’s face, trying to taste every bit of flavor. Brutus licks Mary Beth’s face, just to be sure. The little glob of peanut butter from his nose brushes her cheek. Mary Beth’s mouth curves into a slight smile. Brutus, excited to see her so happy, brushes his nose to her. She sputters. Her eyes open and she gasps with very little air. She coughs and coughs and can’t stop! This is not like how it was earlier. Samantha is not laughing. She is not crying. She grips the bars of the staircase and watches. Brutus rubs his head against Mary Beth’s side. Brutus has never felt so loved.
Julia Gerhardt is a writer living in Baltimore. She was nominated for the Best Microfiction Anthology 2020 and Best Small Fictions Anthology 2020. She has previously been published in Queen Mob’s Teahouse, The Umbrella Factory, The Airgonaut, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Cease, Cows, Literary Orphans, Rogue Agent, Flash Fiction Magazine, Monkeybicycle, and others. Her work is forthcoming in the Eastern Iowa Review, fresh.ink, Moonpark Review, Okay Donkey, Club Plum, Feminist Space Camp, and Rat’s Ass Review. She is currently working on her first novel. You can find her at https://juliagerhardtwriter.wordpress.com/