A fiery red Pinto Roundabout maneuvers into the driveway across the street. The gleam from its rail bumper refracts the sunlight like the North Star. You watch this new arrival and mentally compare it to Sebastian Stewart’s invitation to show you his penis behind the Prentiss High basketball bleachers. Intriguing? Sure. But in the end, nothing to see here.
As the car comes to a stop, the hatchback window reveals the silhouette of a full dome of hair haloing the driver’s seat headrest. A shadow of movement flits from the passenger side.
Peeking through a sliver in the curtains, you observe a slender woman slink out of the driver’s seat. Her ebony frame is swathed in a paisley halter dress, her thick, jet-black hair styled with voluminous curls that only pink cushiony rollers could create.
The passenger door swings open with flare and a little girl barrels out. Her hair is parted into two afro puffs, a staple of most little girls in this neighborhood. The patches on her bell bottoms are placed strategically to cover the telltale signs of roughhousing.
This tiny but mighty storm in a teacup runs across the unkempt lawn, zigzagging under the late afternoon sun, then stops on a dime. Your grasp on the curtains tightens, your eyes squint in disbelief. Is that cheeky little kid staring at you? Her body squarely faces in your direction, eyes lock. She raises her right index finger towards you with a slow, come closer, wag. You swish the fabric panels shut.
Your mother calls you to dinner and mentions that Mrs. Brownstone and her daughter Lyla just moved in across the street. She states you should go over and inquire about babysitting before that Carla Rayford down the street beats you to it. You’re intrigued by the pint-sized finger pointer, so you promise to stop by tomorrow.
You approach the Brownstone house. You better secure this babysitting gig, or your mother will trip a fit and you’ll never be able to get that new Jackson 5 album with your current piggybank savings.
Lyla is jumping rope. The soft thump of her patent leather shoes as they hit the cement driveway is like a metronome. You say hello and introduce yourself. Her charcoal eyes grab you, (thump, THUMP), mesmerize you. Without warning, on such a clear breezy day, a sour tang bubbles from your stomach and fills the back of your throat. You didn’t feel nauseous until this very moment. “Is your mother home,” you squeak out.
Lyla declares Penny is inside.
You aren’t sure which is more disconcerting. The fading sensation you were on the cusp of vomiting or a child using their mother’s first name.
Lyla’s lanky legs bip and bop as she lingers on you. Her shadow elongates and you find it strange that Lyla’s jump rope handles cast a shadow that morphs her little hands into claws. You shake your head as the door opens and turn to greet Mrs. Brownstone.
Lyla scrapes past as you complete your due diligence on the babysitting front. Mrs. Brownstone desperately needs after-school care, and she was not at all impressed with the Rayford girl’s attitude. You negotiate $3 an hour. Just as you are counting your babysitting chickens before they hatch, you hear the commotion of movement in the background. With one hand, Lyla is moving a kitchen chair and with the other you see furry feet and a plump midsection dangling under the other arm. A greyish brown bunny squirms as she sets it down on the floor. Oh, great. Pets.
As you turn to leave, Mrs. Brownstone stops you and asks you if you are free to take Lyla trick or treating later that week (“I know a pretty girl like you has all sorts of trouble to get up to, but it would be a big help”). You wonder if Sebastian will be out trolling with his skateboarder friends that night. Maybe you’ll run into him, the bleachers weren’t so bad, and Lyla would be a good cover story, so you say yes.
As you turn to leave, you hear Mrs. Brownstone gasp. Lyla stands in the hallway, a mint green Tupperware bowl cradled by her small hands. Whatever is in the bowl sloshes around in a dark ruby liquid. As Lyla moves closer, a stench percolates to the front porch. You reel from the odor, a mix of spoiled chicken and cough syrup, burying your face in the armpit of your tie dye tee shirt. Mild cramps jumble in your stomach. Not this again.
Mrs. Brownstone shrugs her shoulders in embarrassment, the universal gesture of kids get up to the darndest things, then sternly rebukes her daughter (“Lyla Dorothea! Put that back in the kitchen!”). She apologizes for the outburst and offers you an extra $2 an hour for Halloween. You say absolutely. Embarrassment can be lucrative and who were you to turn it down.
Lost in thoughts of money, money, mon-nay, you cross the peculiar neighbors’ lawn which has browned quite a bit since yesterday. As you step off the curb, you hear the squeal before you see the thick smoke from burning rubber. Mr. Cochrane’s wood paneled station wagon rocks to a standstill, his cursing continuing after the car stops. You nearly walk straight into his front bumper and an early grave.
“You better take care of yourself so you can take care of me,” Lyla murmurs seemingly in your ear.
You heave in a gush of air, the shock widening your eyes. You whip around to see the little girl skip across the parched grass to Mrs. Brownstone, erect like a centurion at the front door.
You try not to judge. What do you know about kids. Teenager or not, you’re still too young to cast aspersions but you sense Mrs. Brownstone must have her hands full, especially with a strange child, like Lyla.
In fact, on your first day of childminding, Lyla begs you to watch a magic trick she’d been working on for years. Years? Hmm. Her soft cool hands take yours. In her cotton candy pink bedroom filled with porcelain dolls that sport an eternal scream in their eyes, she murmurs indistinct syllables and vowels, a secret language presumably shared by first graders and their clans. Lyla demands you close your eyes as she tugs your hand forward.
A sudden rush of wind swirls and encompasses your palm, prickling your skin. No other part of your body is subjected to the tactile gust. “What are you doing?” Your eyelids flutter but remain clamped shut like a superglued blindfold. Panic explodes in every nerve, nourishing your body with spiraling alarm.
Your eyes finally open just as a saucer-sized black portal sucks Lyla’s Madame Alexander Little Red Riding Hood doll straight into it then closes like a shutter of an old camera. Your panic goes next level.
“You’re stronger than I thought,” Lyla says with a satisfied yet blank stare.
You run from the house but as you cross the weedy, tangling lawn, and reach the street, (no Mr. Cochrane in sight) your pace slows to a strut. By the time you walk through your front door, the afterbirth of recent events is expunged, and you can’t quite remember what it is you are supposed to forget.
You’re afraid of Lyla but you’re not sure why.
You can feel her psychic thumbprints milling around in the card catalog of your brain – curating, rearranging, erasing – while you push her tiny rump higher and higher on the swings in the backyard.
The two afternoons you’ve spent guarding (that’s what it is, right?) six-year-old Lyla, she confirmed her age using finger arithmetic, has bundled your nerves like a nightmare origami.
An idea flashes through your head (Hang yourself before it’s too late) as you see the rabbit near the fence. Lyla jumps from the swing, arms waving in a wild and choppy motion. If her shoulders unhinge from her body, you will call it a day without one glimmer of shock because this is starting to seem normal (no it’s not).
Lyla abruptly stops and stares at you, eyes vacant to the core but dancing around the edges. Her face is placid, except for the slight crescent smile.
The look dares you to comment. But what can you say? Lyla just made that rabbit disappear into a warping hole. Then she made it reappear but now the feet are where the ears should be, and the ears are coming out of its mouth like tonsils (OH MY GODDD!). The atrocity screeches with an otherworldly fervor. You join in.
Your mother won’t entertain any “crazy talk” about that sweet, little girl. Her fear washes over you. She knows more than she’s telling you.
You reflect on what love means and when love means absolutely nothing. Somehow you know love won’t be enough to save your mother not when Lyla needs you unincumbered and beholden only to her. Lyla housed that in your head yesterday. That and the blurred image of your mother (Mama!!!) in that dark portal.
This is okay with you. The knowing part. Can’t stop a Lyla train that’s already left the station. It gives you time for extra hugs, a few I’m sorry’s that make your mother question your non-moody disposition (“Are you okay?”). Lyla terrifies you so much, but you know, somehow, that even though Lyla is going to banish your mother to that grim place, she has grace somewhere inside her because you will barely remember her or recollect what happens to her when she’s gone.
Love isn’t enough to save Mrs. Brownstone, not that Lyla ever really liked or loved the woman. Lyla’s mother isn’t her real mother but more like a caretaker. And things are not working out to Lyla’s satisfaction so… In today’s very special episode of “Svengoolie – Lyla’s edition” the little tike combusts her substitute mother in a horrific blaze in the barrel can in the backyard. Even made her climb right into the can and douse herself good and plenty with the gasoline.
Lyla disappears the charred wriggling mass to the same plane your hand must have dipped in that first day you sat with her, the place where the rabbit most definitely went, the place where your mother will eventually…
For some reason, no one else in the neighborhood notices the piercing cries, the vines becoming one with the Brownstone house, and the utter darkness and despair starting to coat this street. You suspect Lyla has been working her magic from the day her patten leather shoes touched the ground.
You consider killing Lyla while you both cross over Prentiss Avenue, a nice shove in front of the midtown express, but you’re not sure she can be killed. You try to veil this thought from Lyla but wonder if it matters. She’s probably wise to every machination you have.
Your memory is not Mr. Cleaned as diligently as it had been days before. But why? Why would Lyla allow the breadcrumbs of terror to linger swimming around in your head? Lyla is planning something. But what?
Choices. Such a funny word. It implies that you have agency in this world. Lyla’s world. You stand at the curb, your thoughts mired in the quicksand of what’s to come and wait for Lyla (and death and destruction) to appear at the front door. When it swings open, you see Mrs. Brownstone standing there, cloaked in woolen darkness. You could have sworn she had gone somewhere (burn, baby, burn). The inkiness shimmers in the background.
Mrs. Brownstone, or whoever she was before Lyla crossed her path, stares at you, a hole where her right eye should be, her left eye milky and seeping. She gives you a faint sneer and tells you not to let Lyla eat any candy along the way (“Those fun-size packages of nougat will need a safety check, young lady!”). You think this is absurd since nothing can hurt a monster. (“Have her home by 9 pm, would ya?”) The interloper, Mrs. Brownstone, whom you realize you will never see again, practically shoves Lyla across the threshold and recedes into the darkness.
So, you head out amongst the ghouls and goblins, real and imagined, resigning yourself to walk hand in hand with Lyla and a jack-o-lantern bucket into the valley of darkness.
You don’t know what the neighbors see (yes, you do). They back away from you and Lyla. You see the O shape form, first in their wide eyes, then in their shrieks (What’s the matter? Isn’t it wonderful in hell?).
You catch a glimpse of Sebastian. His limp penis flopping where his ear should be. You did run into him after all!
When you see the shadow (Lyla, beautiful, Lyla) gliding down Prentiss Avenue, taking and inflicting, you want to dance with it, twirl with it, and cry with it because…
You are the new caretaker.
P.M. Raymond is a project consultant living in North Carolina with 27 cookbooks and an imaginary dog named Walter. As a native of New Orleans, mystical undertones are the roux in her crime and horror writing. Her main writing goal is to bring Black characters to life that preserve their humanity and dignity. Most days you can find P.M. enjoying a café au lait and indulging in the short story mastery of Shirley Jackson, M.R. James, and Joe Hill, the mesmerizing storytelling of Tananarive Due, and the manga mastery of Junji Ito. Her work has appeared in Dark Fire Fiction, Pyre Magazine, Kings River Life Magazine, and Flash Fiction Magazine. She also appears in Rock, Roll, and Ruin: A Triangle Sisters in Crime Anthology from Down & Out Books. Find her nightmares and noirs on pmraymond.com and follow her on Twitter.