"Can we go on a walk?"
"Not right now, Cammie," said Michelle, concentrating on the TV screen and twisting the Wii remote in her hands. "Come on, come on... No!" The little car with Yoshi inside had just driven directly off the side of the mountain. "Why can I not play this game?"
"We're gonna win anyway," said Jimmy, Cammie's older brother, angling his own remote left and right. Onscreen, his car, with Donkey Kong inside, negotiated the corners perfectly, hardly leaving the center of the track.
Clearly he'd been playing the game a lot more lately than his babysitters Michelle and Caitey had.
"But I want to go outside now!"
"Ssh, Cammie," said Lindsey. She was older than Cammie but younger than Jimmy, and it showed in the way she played the game. Michelle's car had barely reappeared on the track when it crashed into Lindsey's from just behind, and, because Lindsey didn't dodge, the car and Peach tumbled off the cliff edge.
"Arg!" Lindsey wailed, trying not to grin. "I hate you!"
"Don't hate, Lindsey," Caitey said. "It's not nice."
"Don't overdo it," Michelle muttered at her older sister. "You're the babysitter, not the mom."
"Can we go on a walk?" Cammie asked again.
"Not now, Cammie!" said Jimmy, who was violently shaking his remote. "Ha, missed me!" he yelled triumphantly as the POW on the screen vanished without affecting his car.
Lindsey, Caitey and Michelle weren't so lucky. "Dang!" yelled Lindsey.
"Don't say that, remember?" Jimmy said to her. To Caitey and Michelle he explained, "Mommy yelled at her for that yesterday. She dropped her ice cream and said it."
"Uh-oh," said Caitey. After she was sure her car was safely past the cliff part of the course, she went on, "You didn't get in big trouble, did you?"
"No," Lindsey said, too busy trying to pass the cliffs herself to say more.
Jimmy was only too glad to take over and finish enlightening the babysitters. "She just said she heard it off of you, Caitey."
Caitey and Michelle exchanged looks. Michelle's said, How could you? Caitey's said, How was I supposed to know she was listening?
Cammie looked at both of them, then at her brother and sister. "I want to go for a walk!" she announced for the third time.
"Not right now," said two or three voices at the same time.
"Yes right now!" Cammie yelled back. "Won't let me play Wii... I want to go walk! Now!"
If she had been a little older, she might have thought of going over and turning off the Wii and the TV, and who knew what that would have led to. Luckily, she was at the age where the best course of action that popped into her head was to sit down and cry. Which she did.
Suddenly the gamers, especially Michelle, couldn't wait to get the game finished. Thankfully, they were on the third lap by now, and it didn't take very long to get down the cliffs again and across the finish line. Even with Michelle and Lindsey's not-so-good showing, the team the four had been playing on had won. Jimmy clicked through the screen that showed that, then punched off the Wii and TV. "Okay," he informed the others. "Now we're going on a walk!"
"Jimmy," started Caitey.
"No," said Jimmy, suddenly his sister's biggest fan. "Cammie wants to go on a walk. We're going on a walk."
"Okay, okay," said Michelle. "We'll just get your shoes-"
Caitey, who had fallen backwards and was now laying on her back on the couch, eyes closed, sighed. "We don't have to go on a walk. We can just stay here. I have to leave in maybe ten minutes anyhow."
"We can do a walk in that time," Michelle argued, already heading for the front door.
Jimmy and Cammie followed her. Lindsey put down her remote, started for the door, and then stopped and poked her head back around the corner. "Aren't you coming?"
Caitey groaned under her breath, pulled herself to her feet, and dizzily crossed the room. "Yes, I'm coming. Let me get my shoes; we'll go out through the garage."
"Okay," Lindsey said, perky again, and disappeared back around the corner.
Michelle shoved Caitey's shoes at her as she came around the corner, led the group to the cellar door, opened it, herded everyone (including Caitey, who gave her a nasty look) through, and pulled it shut behind her as she jogged downstairs. Once the three kids and two babysitters were in their shoes, Michelle was also the first one to tiptoe the door to the garage- "Ssh, Mommy and Daddy are working, guys..."- and the one to hit the button to open the garage door, explain to Jimmy that no, they couldn't take Squirt for a walk too because they didn't know where his leash was, and herd the group out the door into the driveway.
"Shouldn't we shut the door?" Jimmy asked.
Michelle shook her head. "Your parents are home. It'll be fine."
"Who died and left you in charge here?" Caitey asked her. Then, realizing what that implied, she quickly added, "Wasn't me, that's for sure."
"Well, in ten minutes you're leaving and leaving me in charge."
"At the moment, however, I'm still here."
"You could have answered the question," Michelle pointed out. "But you didn't."
Apparently Caitey didn't deign to answer that. "Whatever," she said. "Let's walk, okay?"
The group of five wandered in a fairly leisurely walk down to the road. Caitey grabbed Cammie's hand just in time to keep her from going out into it, and Lindsey noticed and slipped her hand into Michelle's. Michelle was just about to start across the street when Caitey finally got her return shot. "Don't. You walk on the same side of the road as the traffic coming at you, remember?"
"Oh," said Michelle, mentally kicking herself. "Yeah."
"Mom's only said that how many times," Caitey pushed.
"I know, I know, I know." Michelle guided Lindsey into a walk straight down the side of the road.
"Okay," Caitey said to Cammie, gently pulling her into following their sisters. "Just walk right over here..."
"I can do it by myself!" Cammie yelled, jerking free of Caitey and running ahead of everyone.
Lindsey, trying to be helpful, started yelling too. "It's okay, I'm holding hands too. See! I'm holding hands too, look!" Unfortunately, trying to pull Michelle forward so their joined hands were in front of Cammie, she jerked her hand free of Michelle's.
"Hey, wait!" said Michelle.
Jimmy, already about ten feet ahead, turned over his shoulder to call back, "Race you!"
Caitey planted her feet, put her hands on her hips, and bellowed, "Everybody hold up!"
Obediently, everyone held up.
"Let's just walk, okay?" Caitey said. "Cammie, you have to walk on the side of the road. If you go out in the middle, then you'll have to hold someone's hand, got it?"
Cammie turned back to face the group, but it was only to yell, "No holding hands!"
Caitey nodded calmly and agreed, "As long as you stay on the side of the road."
"Side of the road," said Cammie, looking quite pleased with herself.
"Good," said Caitey. "Good girl."
"Arf, arf," said Michelle.
"Shut up," said Caitey.
Lindsey must have heard the noise behind her first. "Car!" she yelled helpfully from the back of the group.
"Everyone out of the way!" Caitey said, pulling Cammie, who was by now quite willingly holding her hand, farther off to the side of the road.
Michelle put a hand on Lindsey's shoulder and called up to Jimmy. "Stop!"
"I'm not going in the road!" Jimmy called back, still running ahead of the other four along the side of the road.
"I said, stop!"
Jimmy didn't even bother to answer this time, but just sped up his running.
Caitey's voice rang out. "James Alan Carlisle, you are to put your hands in the air and freeze like a Popsicle!"
Jimmy promptly burst out laughing so hard he had to stop just to catch his breath.
By then the car had pulled up beside them and stopped. It was Caitey and Michelle's mom, who leaned across the passenger seat, pulled the door handle, and shoved the door open. "Caitey, I've been calling your phone for the last five minutes. It's a good thing I came this way to get you, or I'd be waiting at the house now with no way to get in."
"Oh, okay," said Caitey. "Sorry."
Her mother sighed. "Get in! We have to go!"
"Oh! Oh, yeah, right. Jimmy," Caitey called up, "come back here."
Jimmy remained totally still. "I am frozen," he said through half-clenched teeth, "like a Popsicle."
"It's sunny," Caitey told him. "Melt and come here and hold your sister's hand, please. Thank you," she said when he came back to her, reaching for his hand and slipping Cammie's into it. "I'll see you tomorrow, guys. Gotta go."
For a minute Cammie looked like she would burst into tears, but Jimmy stepped in. Pulling on her hand, he yelled, "Race you back to the house!"
"Okay!" said Michelle, running after them, "Let's race! Come on, Lindsey."
Lindsey didn't speed up right away. "Caitey said no running."
"Caitey isn't here," Michelle called back, "and I say running is okay. Come on, we need to catch up."
Shrugging, Lindsey joined in the race.
Michelle decided to let her charges win, so she kept a pace slow enough that they reached the bottom of the driveway a few steps ahead. They stopped there and stared down it, and it wasn't until she pulled herself to a stop behind them that she noticed what they were looking at- the closed garage door.
And she didn't have a key. Maybe Caitey had thought to grab the spare from its spot on the top of the bookshelf, but if she had, it was on its way to the doctor's office twenty minutes away. Even if Michelle had had a cell phone, coming back would make Caitey late for the appointment. Maybe she'd known that, and she'd taken the key on purpose.
Nah. Michelle didn't really believe that, it was just a convenient thing to think because it would mean this wasn't her fault. Probably Caitey had either grabbed the key and then forgotten about it when their mom had surprised them, or also forgotten the key. That was probably the best option. That way even though it was still her fault, someone else had been equally stupid.
The kids were now staring at her, instead of the door. Michelle tried to think.
"Hey, guys," she said. "I don't really want to go inside right now, do you?" Hopefully they would say no. Somebody please say no. Luckily it was a nice day, sunny but not too warm, a not-too-chilly breeze just enough to pick up the girls' hair off their necks every so often. Also, she had loaded the question on purpose. If the big babysitter said she didn't want to do something, Cammie would probably decide she didn't want to do it either, and at least one of the older kids would probably go along with it.
The only surprise was that it wasn't Cammie who said it first. "We can stay out here some," said Lindsay. "It's pretty."
"Whatcha say, Cammie?" Michelle was already starting for the backyard gate. "We can go play tag or...something..."
"We can play Names!" said Jimmy.
Ow. To play Names they'd need a ball, and the ball was in the garage. Michelle wasn't quite sure if Jimmy really didn't know what was going on, or if he'd figured it out and that was a test. "Nah, I want to see you climb the tree again," she said. "Come help me with the gate, Jimmy."
To open the gate, you had to reach over the top of it and release the catch from the inside. Jimmy could do it if he stood on tiptoe, and of course he loved to be the one to let the others in. This time Michelle walked up beside him, rested a hand on his shoulder, and said in a low voice, "Hang on a sec. Pretend you can't get it. I don't want the girls to hear."
Jimmy threw himself into the acting. He leaned over the top, groaned loudly, and then dropped back to flatfooted. "Just missed it!" he said loudly. Then he lowered his voice and said, in not quite an accusing tone, "You don't have the key, do you?"
"Nope," said Michelle as Jimmy raised himself onto his tiptoes again. "But I don't want the girls to know that. Especially Cammie. They might get scared. So we need to keep them busy until your parents get home, okay? And no talking about going into the house, no matter what. Lindsay might figure it out if she thinks about it."
"Got it," said Jimmy. He flipped the catch and said again, loudly now, "Got it!" as he pulled the gate open and held it proudly as the others walked into the backyard.
"See," said Cammie as Jimmy was shutting it behind them. "There was a ball back here anyhow."
Oh, good. Michelle didn't say that out loud. All she said was, "Great, then we can play Names."
It was only called Names because that was the way it had started. Caitey had stolen the idea from The Sound of Music, but she hadn't thought Cammie would be able to remember what number everyone was, so she had decided they would just say the name of the person they were throwing to. Now it had turned into a kind of version of Concentration, where they had to say something in the category, whatever that was, as they threw the ball.
"Names," said Cammie.
"That's too easy," said Jimmy.
So much for him being helpful. "Got any better ideas?" Michelle asked him.
"I don't know. States, maybe."
"Cammie knows some states," said Lindsay, who had the ball and was tossing it into the air and catching it. When she dropped it, Michelle scooped it up and said, "Hey, that reminds me of this other game." Maybe she could get out of this argument the easy way. She tossed the ball and caught it, then tossed it again, clapping her hands once before it reached them to be caught. "See, you clap your hands one extra time every time you throw it." Toss, clap-clap, catch.
"But there's only one ball," said Jimmy.
Well. That made sense. Toss, clap-clap-clap, catch. Toss- "We can take turns-" clap-clap-clap-clap "-though." Catch. "Like, everyone does no claps, then everyone does one clap-" Toss, clap-clap-clap-clap... She hadn't thrown it high enough this time and had to lunge for it before she finished five claps. Even then she missed. "You start," she said, tossing the ball to Jimmy.
"We want to play Names, though." Uh-oh, now he was speaking for his siblings. "Except names is way too easy, because there are like a million names in the world, so you can always think of something."
"Not always," said Lindsey, "but states is too hard. There's only fifty of them anyhow."
"I thought you were on my side," said Jimmy, tossing the ball at her. "Indiana."
Lindsay caught it. "I was not. I just said Cammie knows some states. New York." She tossed it to Michelle.
This was going to get really bad really fast. Cammie might know a few states, but probably not on short notice, and by now two of the ones she might have gotten were gone. She tried to think of something really out there. "Louisiana," she said, tossing to Jimmy again.
Maybe he wasn't too sure of Cammie either. He tossed back to her. "California."
Well, they had to do this sometime. "Massachussetts," said Michelle, throwing to Cammie.
"States," said Lindsey, at least trying to be helpful. "Come on, you know, like Indiana?"
"Indiana," said Cammie, throwing it to Michelle.
"No, I already said that!"
"Jimmy, relax. Let her have it. Pennsylvania." She threw it to him.
"Texas." Lindsay, for whatever reason, decided to throw it back to Cammie.
Cammie thought a minute, then tossed the ball down. "I need to get a drink!" she said- her usual excuse when she was tired of something, because unlike 'I don't want to play anymore,' it was pretty hard to argue with- and ran for the back door.
"No you don't!" yelled Jimmy quickly. Then he realized that wasn't going to work, shot Michelle a worried look, and started running in the opposite direction. "I have to show Michelle my tree-climbing."
It worked. Cammie reversed direction and reached the bottom of the tree as Jimmy was pulling himself up to the second branch. "Me too!" she said to Michelle.
Michelle shot Jimmy a quick thank-you look before she grabbed Cammie and hoisted her into the tree. "No higher, Jimmy," she said to him, craning her neck as Cammie got her feet set.
"You said I was allowed to climb to the V."
"You didn't? Caitey, maybe."
Now that he mentioned it, Michelle did vaguely remember him standing up in that high V the last time they climbed this tree.
"He is," said Lindsay next to her. "I like sitting on that one he's on right now."
Michelle eyed the branches. "You can do it in one more step?"
"Okay. Be careful." She didn't get to watch because by then Lindsay was swinging herself up onto the first branch he had used- lower and across the tree from Cammie's- and edging her way across to the second. By the time she tilted her head back again to look for Jimmy, he was carefully planted in the V, one foot behind the other, with one arm wrapped around one of the branches. "You can come up too, if you want," he called down.
It took a couple of tries, but Michelle managed to swing herself onto the first branch. She edged her way up it backwards until she thought she felt it bend under her weight, and then quickly slid forward again a foot or so. "Don't fall, Jimmy."
"I won't. It's more fun up here anyway."
"Suit yourself." Michelle had her legs wrapped around the branch so she could pull her hair up off her neck. The back door of the house opened. "It does kind of look like fun," she said, pretending she hadn't noticed.
"I'm home!" Mrs. Carlisle called.
"Mommy!" Cammie yelled back, and then told Michelle firmly, "I want down."
"Hey, Mom!" called Jimmy from his perch as Michelle swung down.
"Mom, watch this," said Lindsay, and she swung herself down by her hands and dropped to the ground. Mrs. Carlisle applauded.
"Come on, Cammie," said Michelle, standing under her branch.
"I'm going to jump," said Cammie, just as firmly as before.
"Oh no, you're not," said Michelle, reaching up and plucking her down before she got a chance to argue. Setting Cammie down, she called up, "All right, Mr. King of the Forest. Unless your mom's going to come out here, maybe you better get down."
"No, that's all right," Mrs. Carlisle called back, but by that time her young show-off was already on the ground and running for the door with his sisters behind him. Michelle took off running too- a light jog, anyway- and reached it just behind them. She slipped into the kitchen and shut the door behind her.
Mrs. Carlisle held out her pay, neatly folded, a thick stack- she must have run out of twenties again. "How did you get outside, by the way?" she said as Michelle took it. "The door was locked."
"Oh, by the garage."
"The garage was shut, though."
"We went out before you left," Michelle said, heading for the door.
"And didn't use the back door?"
"I wanted to open the gate," said Jimmy, flashing a look in Michelle's direction.
Michelle nodded and threw Mrs. Carlisle a "kids!" shrug.
Mrs. Carlisle shrugged back. "Well. Thank you. See you tomorrow?"
"Uh-huh. Caitey will be back then."
"Tell her not to forget to bring back my spare key, please."
Michelle stopped halfway to the door. "Sure," she called over her shoulder, hoping it sounded reasonably casual, "no problem."
Jimmy looked between them, then checked behind him to see if his sisters were listening before he said, "Wait...Caitey has the key?"
"...yeah," said Michelle, with a look at Mrs. Carlisle.
Jimmy turned to his mom too. "But how did you know that?"
Michelle recognized that look on Mrs. Carlisle's face. She took the line for herself as she headed for the door. "Jimmy... sometimes moms just know everything."