The Ropel house, one of the most expensive in the neighborhood, was on a cul du sac near the woods. Fifteen-year-old Carrie, who lived two doors over, had been babysitting for Mrs. Ropel’s six-year-old daughter Simone, as well as other neighborhood families, for about a year. She’d been sitting since she was twelve, first in Connecticut where she’d spent her first fourteen years and now here in Deerhaven, Illinois, where her family had moved last winter when she’d been a freshman, her sister Evie in kindergarten. Though her shy, nervous sister didn’t make friends easily, Simone and another neighborhood girl, Lisa, befriended her, and much to her mother’s relief they all began playing at each other’s houses. Meanwhile, Carrie had nearly flunked both Spanish and algebra last year, and she’d not made one friend. But neither her mother nor her father had said a word about this, her mother never one to fret over Carrie: Drop her in the ocean and she’d find her way back, Carrie had sometimes overheard her mother say on the phone. And yet, her mother seemed to hold this against her, at times indifferent, if not hostile, toward her; in turn, Carrie often hated her mother, as she did now, because she wouldn’t admit that yanking her and Evie out of school mid-year for a new house in a fancy neighborhood had been a mistake. If her mother only knew. “Daddy has a lady downstairs. Don’t tell Mommy,” the Mulvaney’s little Tabitha, tucked in, ready for bed, had suddenly blurted out one night while Carrie had been babysitting. But the basement door was always locked; then one time it wasn’t. But she didn’t bother telling her mother what was inside. She wouldn’t have believed her anyway.
Tonight was the Ropels again, the first time after a two-month hiatus. It all had to do with what had happened to Evie, all three of the girls playing over at Simone’s and then somehow ending up in the snowy woods at dusk, an hour later the police with their flashlights finding only two small sets of prints coming out. “I don’t care what the police said,” Carrie had told her mother. “They left her there. You have to do something. That’s not right.” And her mother, finally working up the courage, had said, “I’m going to give that woman a piece of my mind. You’re never babysitting there again.” But a week later when Carrie had asked what had happened, her mother slapped her. After that, she and her mother barely spoke, except today when Carrie told her she was sitting for the Mrs. Myers, last year the only neighbor who’d welcomed them on move-in day, leaving a chocolate cake on their doorstep.
At Mrs. Ropels’ front door now, Carrie stomped the snow off her boots and then rang the bell. Little Simone opened up. She was wearing a pink leotard, tights, and ballet slippers. With wavy dark hair and milky-brown eyes, a small mole at the corner of her mouth, she was a miniature of her mother.
“Mom, Carrie’s here!” She ran back down the hallway.
Carrie stepped inside and unzipped her parka. The foyer was just like in her house, one small closet and a slate tile floor.
Mrs. Ropel was rushing down the steps, as always, running late. “I’m so glad you could make it, Carrie. Here, let me take your coat.” In black pants, a billowing silk blouse, hoop earrings, she smelled mildly of perfume and was briefly pretty, almost likable, someone she might want to be. But then she thought of her own mother.
Carrie started pulling off her boots, standing them against the wall as Mrs. Ropel hung up her parka. Then, turning to Carrie, she clapped her hands together and bowed slightly. “Well…”
Carrie almost felt bad for her, how awkward it was, but clearing the air would only make things harder. As is, she wasn’t sure she could go through with it. She looked back at the door, thinking she should just leave.
“Simone’s eating dinner now,” Mrs. Ropel said.
Carrie followed her down the hallway.
“Macaroni and cheese.” She gestured to the stove. “And there’s some there for you too. Simone, Carrie’s here.”
Simone, at the table, spoon poised above the bowl, said, “I know, Mom.”
“Hi, Simone,” Carrie said.
Simone looked back and grinned, showing all her teeth.
“I shouldn’t be any later than 10:00. Simone in bed by 8:00.” Leaning over Simone, Mrs. Ropel kissed her on the cheek. “Be good. Listen to everything Carrie says. I love you.” Then, she went back into the hallway.
Back in the foyer, Mrs. Ropel put on her coat and wrapped a scarf around her neck. It had a kind of hood on it, and she pulled it up over her hair. “Now be sure to turn the deadbolt. Don’t let anyone in. Everything else is locked.” Before, this lock litany had been merely annoying, but now, after what had happened to Evie, it almost made her laugh, and she thought of the Kleins–they had even more locks on their door—one time how the older boy came at his younger brother with a pair of scissors, Mrs. Klein not believing her, and all those Dr. Spock books on the shelves.
Mrs. Ropel opened the front door, letting the chill in. Carrie shut the door after her and turned the deadbolt, knowing Mrs. Ropel wouldn’t leave until she heard it slide into place. Then, she went into the living room and, through the bay window, watched her car disappear down the dark, snow-packed road. Now, the place to herself, she could do whatever she wanted, not that she ever drank, smoked, or had friends over. She actually didn’t have any unless you counted the two dopey sisters next door that once invited her over to smoke marijuana and put on mascara.
Carrie went back to the kitchen.
Simone pushed her bowl away and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “Is my mom gone?”
“Aren’t you supposed to use a napkin?”
She slipped off her chair and got up on the balls of her feet, her arms stretched above her head, and started twirling and then fell down on the floor. “I take ballet now. I’m going to be Clara in the Nutcracker.”
“Doesn’t Clara have to spot if she doesn’t want to get dizzy?”
Simone got up. “My mom says I get to wear pointe shoes when I’m twelve.”
“Is that what you want to be when you grow up—a ballerina?”
“Can I watch TV?”
“Sure. But bowl in the sink first please. Then later we’ll play a game.”
Carrie went over to the stove and lifted the lid, peering at the gooey orange noodles. Milk, butter, powdered cheese, all the kids loved that boxed stuff, including Evie. She took a spoonful and then stuck the pot in the refrigerator, her eyes roving over the usual stuff–milk, orange juice, wine, chocolate syrup, eggs, chicken breasts, frozen French fries, a Sarah Lee apple pie, and in the door salad dressings, ketchup, mustard, relish, jam. No shrinking heads here, though she’d babysat long enough to know that didn’t mean anything, the secret room in the Mulvaney house papered with naked women, and a mannequin in glasses and a wig, two perfect breasts, seated behind a desk. Well, at least her own father used the basement for better things, buying a pinball machine and ping-pong table to ease their move from Connecticut. Evie got a pet hamster too, but it turned out to be pregnant, and she ate some of her babies, so now the table was covered with cages, the mother hamster’s the most elaborate, exercise wheels and a maze of tubes.
“Carrie, can we make popcorn?” Simone yelled from the living room.
“Sure!” Carrie yelled back. She didn’t see any point in not being nice. She pulled some out of a cabinet and stuck it in the microwave watching the bag slowly inflate, and then, after pulling it out, split the bag down the seam, letting the steam out.
Carrie sat down on the couch placing the bowl between them.
Simone, slouched down, dug in, pulling out a handful. “That girl just turned into a blueberry,” she said.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was on, the petulant Violet in a purple jumper and black Maryjane shoes chomping on a wad of gum Mr. Wonka told her not to touch, the oompa loompa men now rolling her out to be juiced. Carrie had seen the movie before.
A commercial came on, and Simone suddenly turned to Carrie, made a pouty face, the corners of her mouth downturned. “Where were you, Carrie?”
“What do you mean?”
“I didn’t like my other babysitter.”
“She was mean. Mrs. Humperdink. That’s a stupid name, isn’t it?”
Carrie chuckled. “Is that really her name?”
Simone shrugged and then turned back to the TV, the spoiled Veruca Salt, another bad egg, getting sucked up a garbage shoot, and then Mike Teavee, shrunk small enough to fit into a TV, had now been eliminated too. Only Charlie and his grandfather left, Mr. Wonka’s face softened as he started explaining how he’d searched the world over for just one sweet, able child to take over the factory.
“Can we watch another movie, Carrie?”
“It’s not over yet though.”
“I don’t like this part. It’s stupid.” Wonka was now escorting Charlie onto his magic elevator. Soon all of Charlie’s family would be rescued from poverty. Simone changed the channel, a bald, muscular man, with bushy white eyebrows on now. Grime-busting Mr. Clean.
“Well then maybe we can play a game,” Carrie said. “Remember how we used to?”
Simone shrugged again. “Can we watch another movie?”
Thinking, Simone rolled her head around in circle—one of her odd quirks—and then slipped off the couch. “Count slowly. No peeking.”
Eyes covered, Carrie started counting “1,2,3 4,” stopping only when she heard Simone heading upstairs. She always hid in the same spot. It seemed odd at first, but Carrie had just assumed that getting caught was the best part of the game for Simone. And in the past, they’d had fun, Carrie in Mrs. Ropel’s bedroom closet pretending to be stumped, Simone jumping out, shouting, “Boo!” But now she wondered. Sneaking out of the house, past her watchful mother, Lisa and Evie in tow, out into the woods at night took stealth.
Carrie pulled her hands away from her eyes and headed upstairs. In her socks, she could move silently. She took her time, though, roaming around the other bedrooms, first Simone’s, cozy pink with a strand of blue lights lining the ceiling, and her very own bathroom with a polka-dotted shower curtain, a furry pink bathmat beside the tub. The other bedroom, blue and smaller, hadn’t changed—wooden crib, rocking chair, a three-drawer dresser with a changing table on top. Carrie pulled each drawer open—all still empty. Then, she headed toward Mrs. Ropel’s bedroom. A small lamp on the bedstand threw off a little light, beside it a magazine—Good Housekeeping—and an alarm clock. The other bedstand was bare, the Ropels separated, Carrie’s mother had told her. All the other sitting jobs, the husband usually drove her home in their dark cars, small-talking her, pulling up to her house, as if they were dropping her off from a date. At school the driver’s ed instructor kept sliding his arm around her shoulders showing her how the dashboard worked. In the Ropel house, she’d always felt safe though.
She walked over to the closet. It was open a crack. She thought she could hear Simone breathing. It wasn’t too late. She could just play the game as they always had. But then Carrie remembered the snow swirling down from the black sky, her feet so cold they burned as she shivered at the edge of the woods while the police searched for Evie, her hysterical mother waiting at home in her sunken living room, her father trying to comfort her.
Carrie opened the closet door and leaned in. “Hello? Anyone in there?” Then she went all the way in. “Anyone here?” Simone, she knew, could only contain herself for so long, but Carrie continued to play along, turning to the right side first, making a fuss of pushing clothes this way and that way, making the hangers jangle. Then she turned to the other side, where there were a lot more clothes, dresses and blouses, and did the same thing, Simone, she assumed, crouched somewhere beneath, watching Carrie’s legs, trying to stay quiet. “Simone? Are you in here?” Carrie let out a loud sigh. “Wherever could she be? Well, I guess she’s not here.” Then, as she stepped out and started closing the door, the hangers suddenly jangled. But Carrie already had the door shut, her hand firmly around the knob as she felt Simone trying to turn it.
“Carrie,” Simone said, “the door’s stuck.”
Carrie thought she could hear a twinge of fear rise up in her voice, what Evie must have felt when she first realized she was alone, lost.
Simone started banging on the door now.
Letting go of the knob, Carrie quickly swung around, pressing her back against the door.
Then Simone started kicking. “Let me out! Let me out! Let me out!”
Carrie could feel the door shuddering.
Then she stopped kicking. “Carrie please,” she pleaded, “it’s dark in here.” She started weeping. “Carrie, I’m scared. Please, let me out. Please, Carrie.” She was trying the knob again, pulling on it, rattling it.
Carrie looked up at the ceiling, at the small ring of light from the lamp. Evie had been found curled up at the base of a tree, unconscious, her shoes missing. After laying her on the stretcher, they’d cocooned her in blankets as they snow kept falling.
The rattling stopped. “If you let me out, I promise I won’t tell on you.” No longer crying, Simone was trying to modulate her voice now, to reason with Carrie. Negotiation it was called, what a victim does trying to survive an attack, something she’d learned in psychology class. But Evie probably didn’t even get that chance, Simone and Lisa running off while she was it, Evie with her eyes covered, counting, afterward the police claiming it was a game of Hide and Seek gone awry.
Simone started beating her fists on the door again. “That’s not fair. Let me out! Let me out!”
So now you know. Maybe you’ll think twice. She’d planned on saying things like that, but now Simone was throwing her body into the door, putting her weight into it, and Carrie, worried she might damage the door or hurt herself, stepped away, and Simone suddenly flew out, landing on her knees. “Oow.” She started crying again, real tears now, her lower lip trembling. She glared up at Carrie. “I’m going to tell my mom. You’re going to get in trouble.” She was breathing heavily, almost gasping. Then she started coughing.
Carrie reached down and pulled Simone to her feet.
Simone wiped away her tears. “I’m going to tell on you. That you tried to kill me. Then you’re going to get in trouble. You’re going to go to jail. Rats are going to eat you. Then they’ll put you in the electric chair, and your hair will fall out.”
Carrie stepped back and sat down on the bed. “Who’s going to believe you?”
“My mom will. She always does.”
“But there’s not a thing wrong with you. I bet you don’t even have a bruise or a cut.”
Simone put her hands out in front of her and spread her fingers. Her knuckles were red, her hands shaking a little.
“See? Not a thing.”
Simone pulled her hands back and started rolling her head around again; this time, though, with her flushed face, watery eyes, snotty nose, she looked ghoulish. Then, after wiping her nose, sniffling a little, she straightened up, lifting her chin, like a proper ballerina, and said, “I’m going to get in my pajamas. It’s almost my bedtime.”
“Do you want me to read you a story?” Carrie was still sitting on the bed.
“I’m too old for that. Besides I’m going to tell on you. You’re never coming back.” Then she scampered out of the room.
The next day Carrie slept late. She always did on the weekends. Then in the afternoon she went down to the basement to feed the hamsters; the babies, now plump and furry, were running around their cages. The mother hamster, though, just sat in her bedding, her dark eyes unblinking, food untouched. Tapping on the plastic walls, Carrie tried to coax her to move. Then, opening the cage, she reached in to pick her up, but she just nipped at her hand.
“Carrie, are you down there?” Her mother was coming down the steps with laundry. In front of the washer now she put the basket down and then looked over at the ping-pong table. “When it gets warm, I’m going to let her go.”
Her mother’s eyes looked puffy, like she’d been crying. She was trying to make up, be friends now. But Carrie, still angry, wasn’t so sure she wanted to relent.
“If you must know her baby was still-born. She had to carry it and then give birth to it and then bury it. Mrs. Ropel. All before we moved here.”
“That doesn’t excuse it,” Carrie said. “Evie could have frozen to death. And then what?” Carrie looked down at the mother hamster and then over at her mother. “What do you mean let her go?”
“Behind the house. Out by the woods. I’ll just open the cage.”
“But what if she doesn’t go? What if she gets eaten? They’re wild animals out there, you know.” She hammered at her mother.
“What’s the point of keeping her? You can’t touch her. She won’t eat. They don’t live very long anyway. Hamsters.” Her mother turned to the machine and started stuffing the laundry in.”
“Upstairs. Playing. You know, making her Barbies talk. By the way, I found your bathing suit. I’m washing it now.” Her mother shut the machine door and turned the dial. “Don’t bother,” Carrie said. “The school won’t let me wear it. You have to wear one of theirs.” She recalled last Friday, the first day of swimming, naked and shivering, how she stood in the locker room, the attendant sizing her up.
Janet Goldberg’s “A Proper Ballerina” comes from a collection titled Every Small Thing. Her novel The Proprietor’s Song will be published by Regal House in the summer of 2023: https://www.regalhousepublishing.com/janet-goldberg/ She also edits fiction for Deep Wild https://deepwildjournal.com/ and teaches writing at a community college in northern California.