A map blinking in deep purple occupied the screen.
Henry started wailing the second the television cut away from his favorite show, and I crept back to the living room to calm him down. Not the programing I’d choose for a six-year-old, but the medical drama seemingly lulled him to sleep, giving me a much-needed break and the chance to explore this maze of a house. I barely glimpsed the first hallway before the weatherman brought up blizzard advisories and Henry shot up like a siren.
I swear, I’ve never seen a kid flip a switch so easily before. Clearly the parents let him get away with murder.
This wasn’t the normal nannying gig for me. Trying to make ends meet for years, I accepted basically any offer I could find that helped keep a roof over my head. The Darling’s position came through a friend of a friend, fuzzy on information besides the pay and address. The fact I would be working in the biggest house within four counties at triple my normal rate was all I needed to know.
When I finally spoke to Mrs. Darling on the phone, the excitement in her voice surprised me.
Thank you thank you THANK you Lisa! I’m sure you’ll be PERFECT.
She let me know this was usually not like them to reach out last minute, but their usual nanny had to quit after a family emergency and Mr. and Mrs. Darling had a day trip they “absolutely could not postpone”.
Rich people stuff, I got it.
I could hang in a freaking mansion for one day and get paid for it. The thought of turning this into my actual career, spoon feeding a spoiled child and getting invited to resorts abroad to do the same, had my heart racing at the opportunity.
Mrs. Darling had a few strict rules, as any overprotective mother would. One, stay out of the bedrooms and basement, and two, don’t let Henry out of my sight. Both reasonable and easy enough to manage. At first curious if Henry had a health condition causing the need for such heavy surveillance, Mrs. Darling assured me he had no issues to worry about and that they’d be home by nightfall.
He’s just an imaginative boy. Sometimes, it gets the best of him.
I pictured him trying to fly off the upstairs balcony or coloring all over the walls when she said that. One time I had a kid try to shove popcorn kernels up his nose during movie night, and I had to take him to the emergency room when he succeeded. Kids would be kids. Anything it took to keep this one alive and happy would be worth it.
“BRING BACK MY SHOW BRING BACK MY SHOW!!” Henry bellowed. His auburn curls bounced as he shook with anger. Henry’s voice had a shrillness to it, probably from years of commanding poor young women like me to do what he wanted. In his rage, he practically strangled his stuffed animal, a patched up teddy bear with years of wear and tear.
Touching my temples, I could feel the headache through my fingertips. Six hours into my dream nanny job and I was questioning my life choices. Ughh. One deep breath, and back to work.
“—We expect the heavy accumulation to continue through the night and into tomorrow—,” the television warned through Henry’s outburst.
Anyone within range of the news could plainly see it dumping outside. The last time I checked, the snow already covered most of my wheel well in the driveway. I’d have to wait for the plow to clear my way home later. Fantastic.
Henry’s crying persisted as I tried to channel surf to freedom. All of them were devoted to Winter Storm Bertha except the Spanish channels. The Darlings spent a pretty penny on language lessons, though surely not enough for a Spanish soap to calm him down. I wanted to laugh at the dark humor of my situation, when I noticed Henry wasn’t crying anymore.
He was staring at me.
“Lisa, we could play hide and seek,” he said, that internal switch flipping to an uncomfortable calmness. This was the fourth time he asked to play since I arrived that morning.
“Sorry Henry, but you know we can’t do that. Plus, I’d never find you! I’ve never been in this place before and there must be a thousand rooms. You’d win too easily.”
He giggled to himself softly. “Yeah, I’d definitely win. But it would be so fun…”
“Why don’t we go outside and play in the—THUNK!”
A noise at the window broke my thought, a tree branch bouncing against the glass. Blizzard winds were causing a whiteout beyond. Going outside was clearly out of the question. We had to make our own fun inside.
“Henry, what board games do you ha—HEY!” I said, turning to find him backing out of the room, eyes stuck on me. “Get back in here! We aren’t playing hide and seek!”
“Ugh, fine,” he said, giving up and stomping back to the couch. “You’re just like the last one. She didn’t want to play with me either…,” he mumbled, growing quieter, “…but she didn’t have a choice…”
I strained to hear the last thing he said, but the house phone screaming on the side table cut him off. I winced in surprise and took a moment to focus in the commotion. I checked to see if Henry was startled too. He stared back unfazed.
“You better answer it.”
Unsettled, I picked up the phone and put it to my ear, never looking away from Henry. I started to wonder about the purpose behind Mrs. Darling’s rules, when her voice rang out in my head.
“LISA! So sorry, we’ve had terrible serv—zzzhzhzwwhzhwwzhzz—but the storm changed our plans. We’ll be returning lat—zhhwwhzhzhzhzwwwzhzhzhh—okay?—zhzhzwh—aying you double, just watch him close! See you tomorr—hhzzwzhzwhzhh—CLICK.”
Setting the phone down, I found it hard to hide the shock in my face. I didn’t even get the chance to say a word back over the static, and now I’m stuck caring for this kid through the night. Hopefully the last nanny left some pajamas behind. Extra pay couldn’t solve everything.
“What did she say?” Henry said, that same tone of emptiness in his voice.
“She said they can’t come back because of the storm. They’ll be here tomorrow. Looks like it’s a sleepover.”
Henry smiled at the news, and I felt my eyebrows cinch up involuntarily before I made them relax. Any kid would be excited to have a sleepover with their babysitter, right? I was letting myself get flustered because he was just a tougher one to manage. No wonder the Darlings paid top dollar and valued reliable care. I decided I was up for the challenge, at least for a night. Tomorrow I could be resentful with a wad of cash in my pocket.
The bright white of the storm was dulling quickly, and my stomach growled after the rollercoaster of adrenaline. “Alright bud, now that we’re in it for the long haul, we should order dinner.”
Henry just turned to me with no response, his face faintly aglow from the twilight looming outside.
This kid loved to play games. Manipulative, creepy ones, but games all the same. If I could channel that into Candyland or Clue, I might make it out of here alive.
I pulled out my phone to look at menus and found more bad news. No bars. Trying the home phone just rang back a dead dial tone. The pounding in my head from before made a well-timed return, and I wondered how this could possibly get worse.
Then the power went out.
“SHIT. Henry, stay there for a sec, I’ll find the light,” I said, reaching across the couch. Fumbling in the dark, my hands rubber on the leather. “Henry? Henry!”
My eyes still adjusting to the last layers of light from outside, I heard Henry’s giggle moving farther away down the hallway and into the rooms of the house. A ping of worry and irrational fear hit me in the gut. Using the flashlight on my phone to illuminate my surroundings, I set out to find him.
The phone cast a fuzzy glow at best. I spread my other hand out in front to avoid stubbing my toes. The hallways looked even more massive than the brief glimpse earlier, the dimensions now shrouded in shadows. I shuffled down them slowly, calling out Henry’s name.
“Henry! Hey bud, come on out! I’ll have to tell your mother you weren’t behaving when she gets home!”
At the last line, I thought I heard his signature giggle from somewhere behind me, and spun to find a single stuffed animal lying on the floor.
The teddy bear.
A shiver skipped down my back, though my mind attempted to keep control. Always playing games. Kids aren’t supposed to be scary, and they aren’t supposed to be dangerous. Accidents can happen, but I was beginning to worry more about myself than my job. I felt ridiculous.
Pushing through the wave of panic, I began checking every door I came across. Room after room, locked. The Darlings never gave me a key, thinking I would only be here part of the day. Each locked door became a shameful relief, until I came to the final door. The cold of the powerless house closed in on me as I twisted the knob and slid the door ajar.
A girl’s room. Currently in use apparently, given the mess. Clothes everywhere, an open suitcase on the bed halfway packed. Someone trying to leave in a hurry, but didn’t get that far. Alarm bells were beginning to ring out in my head.
Two doors stood waiting on the far wall. Probably a bathroom and a closet.
Henry had to be behind one.
Suddenly, I didn’t want to continue my search. Picturing Henry’s blank face spiked my irrational dread. He would probably just jump out with a squirt gun or something, but I felt like any new shock would send me through the roof.
I tried to sigh and calm my nerves.
The left door first.
Trying to be brave, I rushed through and frantically waved my light around. An empty bathroom, besides the shuffled clutter. I’m not sure what my plan had been for the alternative. Flipping around, I squeaked at my reflection, only to be outdone by the sound of the other door flying open. My eyes bulged and I threw the light toward the door in anticipation. After a few moments of silence, the patter of little feet raced toward the hallway and disappeared.
Ready for this to be over on multiple levels, I gave chase with cautious speed. Passing by doors and windows, the soft whine of the wind outside made me tense. Goosebumps sprang as the house let in the cold.
“HENRY! THIS is RIDICULOUS!! Stop already or you are in BIG trouble!!”
Rounding a corner, I caught a flash of movement at the opposite end of the hallway. A silhouette barely visible next to the open basement door, the farthest stretch of my light reflecting in Henry’s eyes. Laughter erupted from a face I couldn’t see, and his outline vanished through the dim door frame.
I wanted to leave.
I wanted to stop this charade and forfeit whatever money I had coming. Exhausted and over it, I nearly did. But who knew what the wrath of an angry, well-connected family would be if something happened to Henry. He was just a kid, for god’s sake. And at least there were no more places for him to hide. I just had to accept the inevitable childish “BOO” I had coming.
The planks creaked doubtfully under each step, but the staircase held my weight.
“Henry? Come back up bud, o-okay? Not supposed to play in the basement, dude…”
Hearing my own voice was comforting when no part of this house had been. My light cut through the stairwell slats and turned the view below into a moving fan of shadows. I stopped halfway down to focus. Boxes, shelves, random junk you find in a basement.
“You have to find me still LISA,” Henry beckoned from within the mess.
I stomped down the rest of the flight, trying to scare him into revealing himself. Standing on the concrete floor, I should’ve known better. I wove through cobwebbed stacks and chairs. Shelves of dusty bottles and jars clinked against my passing. Something waist high blocked my way to the back wall.
An old operating table.
I flushed, and my phone buzzed to tell me it was nearly out of battery.
“You never found me. But I found you.”
Henry, from behind me.
I rolled on my heels. My light finally found the boy, standing ten feet away with a syringe in his hand.
“Henry! What the hell is that? We need to go upstairs, alright? Go and I’ll follow…Henry?” I couldn’t mask the dread in my voice.
“I found you. And now we play a different game.”
“What do you mean Hen—bzzzbzzzzzz.”
The light sputtered and went out as my phone lost power. Boxes fell and quick footsteps stepped toward me. I put my arms out to block him.
“Henry stay ba—OUCH!!”
A hard stab hit me in the thigh through my jeans and I fell over onto the table. My head felt heavy, and little hands touched my neck. Following my slowing pulse.
“…eehhhennrreee…?” I heard myself mutter.
The only muscle working was my heartbeat coming back to life, pounding hard enough to raise the strap on my chest.
The power was back on in the house, an overhead light warming the still freezing basement. A step stool stood next to me. A tray of instruments at my feet.
The basement door groaned, and two sets of legs appeared through the slats. My chest seized in anxiety. Mrs. Darling took shape, still wearing her coat with fresh snow in her hair.
Henry followed, climbing the step stool and looking me over clinically.
“I’m afraid this is what comes when you break the rules, my dear,” Mrs. Darling said.
Tears leaked from the corner of my eyes.
“It’s really a shame. We would have liked to have avoided the mess this time. And good help is so hard to come by…ah, well. Henry! Do let us know when you’re finished down here with your new toy, if there’s anything left.”
Mrs. Darling winked at me and retreated upstairs. Henry tracked her with his gaze until the door shut, and then slowly brought his attention back to me.
“Told ya you would play with me.”