Nobody thinks of the mother, given the babysitter’s ordeal. The mother, still young, is counting on dinner and a movie with her husband. It is the best time of her life—the children aren’t babies anymore, but they still need her. They’re good at school. They have interesting things to say, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant.
They don’t ask her about the darkness, but they see it in her eyes, and she sees them seeing.
No matter. She will put on lipstick and earrings and kiss them goodbye. Her husband is giving the babysitter detailed instructions, exchanging phone numbers, pointing out the friendliest neighbors. The babysitter has a pretty smile and a relaxed manner.
There is no reason to worry.
Still, before the front door closes, before she reaches the passenger seat of the comfortable sedan, the mother turns to lock eyes with the babysitter.
“I’ll see you later. I know you’re going to be great!” she calls, trying not to cry.
The babysitter is a natural. She’s good at reliving the better parts of her childhood, and when she gets down on the floor to play with dolls, she doesn’t have to fake it. She is so convincing that the big sister is a bit suspicious. The little sister, as cute and small as a doll herself, thinks of the babysitter as a new toy to play with.
This playtime could go on all night. It is dark outside. The big sister gets up, puts on her pajamas, and wrangles the little one into bed, all while the babysitter gazes out the window as if she is looking for someone.
With a sharp click the babysitter lowers the blinds. Then she pulls the covers up to the children’s chins. From memory she recites “The Robber Bridegroom” as the girls drift off.
The big sister fights to keep at least one eye open. Her attention keeps returning to what lies beyond the blinds, that sharp slice of moonlight reaching into the bedroom. She barely hears the story, the detail of the severed finger, but knows the heroine is safe.
After both children are asleep, the babysitter turns off the light and leaves the room.
Now her work begins.
The mother is always distracted. She is not truly present at the table in the bustling Italian restaurant. As usual, only her body is there. This is something her husband has grown used to. Out of politeness or habit, he asks her if she wants him to call and check on the children.
“No. They’re fine.”
“How do you know?”
She smiles with all her teeth and covers his hand with hers.
“I’m thinking of all of those times I was the babysitter.”
“When you were a girl?”
“That’s right. When I was a girl.”
There is so much more she could tell him, so much he doesn’t want to know. He has seen her scars but cannot abide the story behind them.
Now that the house is dark and the children are asleep, the babysitter goes out to the kitchen to grab a nine-inch chef’s knife, hidden for her under a folded white dishcloth. This is a gift from the mother.
It feels heavy and reassuring in her hand.
She would be lying if she said she wasn’t scared. Her heart races just thinking about what could happen, what will happen, in this house that is not her own, as she steps into a history she shares with the mother.
It is her big night.
She lets the past, silent and immutable, flow through her bloodstream. Scenes flash before her eyes, too terrifying to be shared with a therapist, so violent her hand shakes if she tries to keep a journal. She knows there is an audience out there waiting for her story. People crave the spectacle of pain; they are endlessly hungry for sensational details. It is so very hard to be original in the landscape of violence.
But this is no time to worry about stories. The mother is counting on her. All that is left is to act.
In the movie theater the mother watches a man chase a girl through a dark house. He is holding a knife.
Her husband does not bother to scold her or ask why she insists on dragging him to these terrible movies. When the mother starts laughing, always while the other patrons are screaming, the husband feels an ice-cold finger climb his spine, vertebra by vertebra. He whirls around in his seat but there is nobody behind him. He gives his wife, the mother of his children, a long look.
She is glowing.
“I want to go home,” he says, under his breath. He knows she cannot hear him. He has said this before.
They reach the long awaited scene. The girl in the movie crouches on one side of a door that does not lock. She can hear the killer breathing. He knocks on the door, politely, as if he were an ordinary person asking to enter.
“I’ve called the police and they’re on their way,” she says, but it sounds like a question.
The man does not respond.
“I have a knife,” she cries, but it is a plea.
In response the killer reaches straight through the door, cheating physics with a dash of the supernatural, and grabs the girl around her neck. The audience gasps.
Knowing all that must happen, feeling relief and hope, the mother applauds.
The babysitter tells herself to be patient. The trick is to wait without speaking, without acting.
She stations herself in a small strip of hallway between the living room and the master bedroom. There is a window with a view of the backyard. This window has been left uncovered, without blinds or curtains, as if the mother knew it would be needed on a special night. The babysitter stands expecting someone to emerge from the darkness of the backyard. In the moonlight she can see the lawn and the trees, the small white roses creeping up the back fence.
She must think outside the box. Perhaps the killer is already inside the house, hiding. There is no basement or attic in this cold, modern structure that passes for a home. Where else could he be? The closets? The bathtub? The husband should have shown her all the hidden storage spaces before he left.
A phone rings somewhere in the house. They have a landline, another vintage detail the mother has preserved especially for the babysitter.
The ringing stops before the babysitter can find the phone. She checks her cell phone, which she has left on the counter, but there is no sign of life.
Someone pounds on the front door three times and she jumps.
The killer has arrived.
The mother knows they cannot return home yet, not when the babysitter is only getting started. She convinces her husband, still shaken from the movie, to take her to a bar. “We have to make the most of date night,” she reminds him. “It’s early.”
They order martinis, bottomless and dry, and soon they relax into each other. They could be on their first or their hundredth date. Everyone in the bar seems to recognize them though they have never been here before.
The mother finishes her drink and can no longer hold back. She dives deep into darkness. “When I was a girl––”
“A man told me to take off my clothes.”
“Made me get in his car.”
“Drove me into the woods.”
The husband gestures for the check.
“He did what he wanted then drove me home. He promised we would meet again, one more time, when I was older.”
Now the other patrons are leaning in, listening.
“The police never found him. I hid in my parents’ house for years. I was babysitting when he appeared again.”
The husband sets a fifty down as he stands, taking his wife by the arm. He pulls her to the door.
“Wait,” a man in his early thirties calls out. “I want to hear the rest of the story.”
The mother turns and opens her shirt to reveal, below her black lace bra, a vertical scar running from her heart to her belly button.
The babysitter was so little when it happened, barely into her adolescence. That’s why they didn’t make her talk about it. Only the bare minimum. Looking at photographs. Answering the lady detective’s questions. Her parents did not want to know the details. They may have honestly believed she would forget.
She does not want to hurt her parents.
A man in a black balaclava took all her clothes, and that part, at that age, was worse than what he did to her. The cut did not finish her despite the great quantity of blood. She needed stitches. She was scarred. He was only just getting started. Where did she hear that phrase? Is it something the police said? Her father? Could the killer himself have said it?
She told everyone she ran away and hid in the woods. This is only partly true. The killer ordered her to run.
“See how far you can get.”
So she ran and hid, dizzy from the sight and sensation of her own blood, paralyzed by fear in the heart of the woods. She remembers becoming so thirsty her lips stuck to her teeth. She remembers stumbling and falling. She remembers the moment of choosing to live, of pushing herself to walk to the highway, called by the sound of cars in the distance, telling herself she would somehow survive the shame of her nakedness.
The memory ends there because she lost consciousness, or at least time. Other people, adult professionals, took over and treated her like a princess, addressing her with pet names, as if she were their long-lost daughter. Sweetheart. Honey. Baby. Those words still make her cringe.
The balaclava had hidden most of him. White, hazel eyes, slim build. Taller than her. And the voice? She can hear it, but nothing she does can make the adults hear it.
See how far you can get.
She dedicated her life to getting away from the incident. Her parents offered to move so that she wouldn’t always be known as the girl who was taken, but she refused, opting instead to become quiet and mysterious.
Everyone gives her a pass because nobody can forget who she is, not when she dons a one-piece swimsuit every summer and gazes out at the sea with those dark eyes.
How far did she get? She doesn’t know. She’s still moving. Each step brings her closer to something dreadful and inevitable. She is traveling an accursed circle, wherein time is meaningless, yet she cannot stop taking steps. She is older now, beautiful, a teenager. A babysitter.
She knows she will meet him again.
The mother and her husband have left the bar and are driving home in silence. She has time to remember how she got here, to this night. She closes her eyes and sees the only car ride that matters, the one that changed her life.
The mother was naked when she got in the killer’s car. He wore a black balaclava, and all she could see were his eyes. He made her undress on the edge of a vast parking lot, in broad daylight, before driving her to the woods. He did not make her lie down in the backseat. She sat there, naked, for all the world to see, as they drove to his cabin.
Nobody believes this part of her story. They say she must be confused. The rest of it they believe because it is consistent with the killer’s modus operandi, a boardgame where he sets the rules.
She lay tied to a mattress long enough for the moon to appear in one high window.
She feared he would do that thing all girls are trained to fear, but then he spoke, in the dead of night.
“Let’s make a date.”
She froze, baffled.
“For when you’re older.”
She did not, could not, speak.
“Don’t you want to date me?”
She nodded, thinking his words implied, at least, that she had a future.
He was so calm when he cut her. And then he drove at breakneck speed and deposited her on the steps of her parents’ house.
The babysitter is qualified for this job because she knows violence firsthand. She believes in it, has felt it, carries its marks on her body.
She tries to stop shaking. This is the moment she has waited for, after all. She is holding the best knife in suburbia. The mother has given her this opportunity, a true gift, and she must make the most of it.
The front door opens, and the babysitter is thrown off. Didn’t she lock it? She must have locked it. Has it been open all this time? No one is there. Is she to believe the wind did this? She raises the knife and walks outside but sees no one. He could be in the bushes, behind a tree, hidden in the blades of grass.
There could be dozens of him, all of them hiding.
The babysitter slams the door, locking it this time. Then she turns to face the house, which has transformed into a place of blood and murder. She didn’t see it when she first walked in, but now she can smell it. She was never safe here. This was never simply a family home.
There are no family homes while the killer lives.
The children are asleep in their bedroom. They are not a part of this, though they could be, some dark night, when they are babysitters.
All at once the babysitter knows where to go. It is so obvious. The master bedroom. The bed itself. She sees herself from above, walking across the house towards the mother’s bed, where the killer is waiting for her.
The mother has already forgiven her husband for trying to silence her. It is not his fault. He is afraid. He is afraid for her, for what she has already survived, but even more he is afraid, devastated, because he was not able to protect her. He blames himself for something that happened before he ever laid eyes on her.
She feels so sorry for him.
When they screech into their driveway, she knows she must stop him from running into the house. She touches his cheek and begs him to slow down.
“Let’s take another minute.”
He apologizes for his behavior in the bar, and she lays one warm hand on his thigh. The slow, upward caress begins. This is his weakness. Her past, her pain, for all its horror, excites him. The fact that she has a story he cannot enter means he is forever captivated by her. She has a power unknown to any other woman in his life.
This will give the babysitter all the time she needs.
Date night is happening at last. They are both able to be fully present, together, in the old sedan. Scenes from the mother’s life play in her head as her body relaxes. These are the scenes, good and bad, that have brought her to this moment. When her husband is finished, he gasps and sits forward, scaring her, his only scare of the night.
“All the lights are out! The house looks abandoned. My god. The girls!”
“The girl,” she corrects him. “And she’ll be fine. You have to trust her.”
“You’ve grown,” the killer tells the babysitter.
He is lying under the covers of the queen size bed, making himself look small, a child in a balaclava.
“I’m the babysitter now.”
“Right on schedule. First I get you in the woods, then I get you at home, when you’re minding the children. Now take off your clothes.”
“Not this time.”
“Aren’t you scared?”
She flashes the knife.
He waits. Clouds cover the moon and the room darkens. They can barely see each other. They are reduced to two voices in dialogue.
“Do you know what happens next?” he asks.
“I kill you. Self-defense.”
“But I haven’t touched you.”
“You’ve never stopped touching me. Everyone is on my side. The mother. Her husband. The girls. The police. In fact––”
“I know. You’ve called the police and they’re on their way. Only they’re not. It’s you against me, and I’m stronger. Older. More experienced.”
“Oh, I’ve got experience.”
She opens her shirt and shows the scar that runs in a straight line from heart to belly button. Then she raises the knife and darts out of the bedroom, into the living room. She crouches behind an armchair and waits, flooded with adrenaline. This is something new. She is in control and she likes it. She wants to do this every night. Is this what happened to the mother?
No. She saw the darkness in the mother’s eyes. She, the babysitter, was hired to finish the killer and vanquish that darkness. If she dies, some other girl will take her place. If the killer evades her, she will one day become a mother who gifts a babysitter a knife before going off with her husband. There will be an endless line of mothers and babysitters. Even the two little girls sleeping in the bedroom will take their place in line. She sighs, audibly, letting him hear her.
“I’m over here. We’re still on. Come and get me.”
The front door opens. It is the husband, whom the mother has finally released, here to disturb the dance between the babysitter and the killer. It buys the babysitter one precious second of time. She charges, surprising both men, driving the blade into the killer’s crotch, exulting in the tearing of fabric and skin. The shock and the pain slow him down so that she can go for the jugular.
It’s not true about everything going into slow motion, as it will in the movie they make of this night. Everything is so fast the babysitter has no time to think. Thought becomes action, seamlessly, as it does in dance.
The big kill. The wet death. It takes both more and less strength than she expected. The jugular is right there, a gift, waiting below the skin. Some extra pressure, only a dull noise, and she has arrived.
The blood flies in a brilliant arc across the room.
Instantly she is a survivor. She scrapes up against the secrets of the dead but does not join their number. She does not acquire a scar on the nape of her neck, like the one the mother hides with her long hair. She knows there are second chances and opportunities to rescue others. She knows all about stories. People love lurid details; they simply must know what happened, no matter how painful. They believe that not knowing will kill them. They believe in the story as much as they believe in the blade.
Each time the babysitter tells this story, her story, she grows taller and stronger. Her fame expands until she is an icon. Her name overshadows the killer’s in all the urban legends and even in the movie.
She will live forever, but first she turns to the mother, who has just crossed the threshold. She wants to ask her how she survived when she was the babysitter. How is it that she is alive, has been alive, all these years while the killer walked the earth?
She wants to know about date night.
The mother was babysitting in her own house when the killer kept their date. It happened in her home because she so rarely left it. She had become nearly agoraphobic, and her parents feared she would never go to college.
She was watching her little sister, who had invited a friend for the night. Her parents went out to a fundraiser. As she watched them leave, she knew she might not see them again. Her mom was wearing her favorite lipstick and a special pair of earrings. The mother, on the night when she was the babysitter, vowed she would steal those earrings if she survived.
But on that night, the profane date night, the mother had nothing special or lucky to protect her. She had a landline and locks on the doors. She had two little girls down the hall. She had her memories.
She knew the killer was on his way.
She went through the bedtime ritual: pajamas, toothpaste, story. She chose “Little Red Riding Hood” and read the tale slowly, giving the wolf his due, but dwelling on the safe exit of the girl and her grandmother from the beast’s belly, an escape made possible by an axe.
When the children were asleep, she went out to the living room and waited. Her anxiety grew and grew, until it was bigger than her parents’ house. What was she waiting for? A knock at the door? The piercing ring of the phone? She checked the phone to find it was dead, which came as no surprise. Should she go out to the front steps and wait? Should she lie down in the backyard in surrender so that the children would not have to witness her inevitable demise?
She grabbed a nine-inch chef’s knife. Her mother’s favorite.
She waited forever on the couch, the waiting itself a form of torture. Maybe he wouldn’t come? She set the knife on the coffee table. The mother-as babysitter fell asleep waiting, and when she opened her eyes, the killer was standing above her in his black balaclava, holding an ice pick. His eyes had not changed at all.
“You’ve grown,” he said.
“I’m the babysitter now.”
That was the end of the conversation. When the mother-as-babysitter slid from the couch and ran, the ice pick grazed her high on the back of the neck, near her hairline. A surface wound. A preamble. She turned and paused; the killer took his time like a man sure of his success.
She can never speak of the rest, not to anyone. How she offered him everything, her money, her clothes, her body. How she searched her mind, like a fairy-tale heroine, for the idea that would save her. No time to pray, scream, or run.
No one would ever believe her. No one would ever understand. It is implausible, intolerable, as are all the terrible things that happen to women. And like all the deals women make, this was a bad one.
What did she have left to bargain with?
“My child,” she said. “My children.”
The killer stared, uncomprehending, his lips curling with malice.
“My babysitter. When I am the mother. Don’t you understand? You can come back. I will leave the door unlocked. Let’s make a date.” He didn’t respond. “Don’t you want to date me? If you come back, when we are both older, everything will be yours. You will be welcomed like a conqueror. A Great Man. I will surrender. You can have all of us: mother, babysitter, daughters.”
“What shall I do while I’m waiting for the years to pass?”
“You know what you’ll do,” she said as tears covered her face.
He took the ice pick and marked her neck again, this time piercing her flesh, to seal the deal.
She stepped back into her life like a girl waking from a spell. She knew, through the years, that the killer would keep the date. She had a great task before her— to find a good babysitter, the best babysitter in the world, a true final girl, a girl just like her. A girl who would be a mother one day.
A girl who might never forgive her.