[size=2]Jenny and Chloe took turns shoveling handfuls of Orville Redenbacher’s into their faces as the Stranger Things credits rolled. Binge watching had enabled them to devour the entire first season in one weekend, a new record for team couch potato.
“Wait, there’s no more?” Chloe whined.
“I told you, that’s it until next year,” the lounging high schooler said, launching a piece of popcorn at her little sister’s mouth. Close, but no cigar.
“Well, crap. This stuff really is addictive.”
“The show or the popcorn?”
“Both,” Chloe said, grabbing the Roku remote.
The relationship had blossomed in ways Jennifer never expected when she made her fateful Halloween decision about four months ago. At the time, she’d harbored vague hopes that the new arrangement might somehow soften Chloe’s hard shell and make life less fraught for the introverted freshman. It was a gamble, no doubt, considering her daughter’s shyness and padlocked personal life. The trade could easily have backfired, leaving Jennifer a lonely 16-year-old butting heads with her moody, death-obsessed sibling. But encouraging signs appeared within just hours. Just as Christine foretold, at midnight that night the world reordered itself like a computer updating its operating system. When the clock struck 12:00, Jennifer no longer held the position of mom and Dan became a doting father to two loving, if decidedly unique, daughters. Walking around town the following day, with reality showing no evidence of the slightest hiccup, was surreal to say the least.
After that day, it was as if she and Chloe had always been a team — growing up in tandem, through birthdays, holidays, graduations, sharing intimate sisterly moments and diary secrets. While Chloe had maintained her fascination with the macabre, often dragging Jenny to gory horror movies on Friday nights, her nihilistic bent had vanished. It seemed their bond satisfied some unmet need Jennifer could never fill in her old role.
The doorbell sounded. Probably their first customer of the month.
“I’ll get it,” Chloe said, rousing from the Netflix trance.
Marking time at the door was an overly friendly 40-year-old woman bundled up inside layers of scarves and winter gear, rubbing her gloves together for warmth.
“Hi, this is the Matthews house?” she inquired with a poorly lipsticked smile.
“Good, good,” she said, turning to pull a stroller onto the porch. “I thought I recognized you from your picture on Craigslist. I read your listing and checked your references. You and your sister came highly recommended. So wonderful to have available babysitters so close.”
“Oh, thanks,” Chloe hated chitchat with strangers but it came with the job. “Can I help you with that?”
“Yes, please do. They make these things so bulky these days.”
Chloe slid her way past the talkative patron and angled the stroller up and into the entrance with astronaut-like skill.
“Thank you,” the effusive woman repeated, heaving a bulging overnight bag onto the living room floor. “These are just a few things you’ll need for tonight. She’s very picky about which disposable diapers she wants. Last week, I bought a new brand and she threw a tantrum, so you have to keep an eye on her.”
“No problem,” Chloe guaranteed. “It won’t be our first crying fit, trust me.”
The leather-jacketed teen knelt down to greet their newest charge.
“Hi there. Scared about leaving mom? That’s ok. We won’t bite,” she cooed at the frowning tot. “How old is she again?”
“Oy,” the woman sighed. “Just turned two a few months ago. You know what they say about the twos.”
“They’re not so terrible,” Jenny responded, finally making an appearance — only to suddenly pause halfway down the hall when she recognized Mrs. Westenberg. Chloe had organized this particular babysitting gig, neglecting to tell her the name. Oh my god, is that… She set her steaming hot chocolate down on the bannister and slowly moved toward the stroller, taking up residence next to Chloe.
“We call her Ally most of the time,” her mom noted.
This would explain the cocky teenager’s abrupt disappearance from Markland High following their little encounter in October. The nagging question had eaten at Jennifer in the ensuing months, until she gave up and assumed Alyssa had swapped with a college student somewhere and landed at some second-rate party school for five years of keggers and undecided majors. But no, this was definitely her. The features were there, arched eyebrows and those sloping cheeks, if hidden under stores of babyfat. Does she remember? Jenny wondered, almost certain she detected a twinkle of dread in the toddler’s summer blue eyes. She could hardly stifle a laugh, admiring karma’s handiwork.
“And how did you manage to wind up like this, huh?” she whispered, as Chloe ironed out the details and jotted down emergency numbers. The stoic stroller occupant crossed her arms and stared holes into the floor, in the closest thing to a “screw you” she’d ever seen from a two-year-old. Jenny responded by tickling her tummy.
“Dinner is around six. I typically give her a bath before bedtime around 8:30, then she sleeps for maybe six hours,” her mother explained. “You might have to change her early in the morning if she fusses.”
“Oh, don’t worry, we’ll take good care of her,” Jenny said, grabbing the unsuspecting toddler under the arms and hoisting her up to her chest. “I wouldn’t trade this for the world.”
To be continued next year?[/size]