Babysitter says we aren't to hide her cigarettes again. Because hiding her cigarettes isn't funny, she says, but what we want to know is: why can't we stop laughing? We give one another looks. Isn't it something, our looks seem to say, how we know where Babysitter's cigarettes are, and yet Babysitter does not? And what with Babysitter being so much older than us, and us being two kids who hid Babysitter's cigarettes in our mother's geraniums while Babysitter was in the bathroom. Babysitter says, "I'm giving you to the count of ten."
We clutch our sides, laugh.
"One," Babysitter says. She holds up a finger.
"Smoking is bad for you," we explain.
"Two." Babysitter holds up two fingers, the ones where usually a cigarette rests, the ash sometimes dangerously close to falling, even though it never does, not until the moment Babysitter expertly taps it into her Diet Coke can.
"We're trying to help you quit," we say. Which is the funniest thing we've said yet. The two of us, in our footie pajamas, helping Babysitter, who has streaky gray hair and drives a car with a window that's really a trash bag—imagine that!
"Three," Babysitter says.
We race upstairs. We sit on our beds, facing one another. Will Babysitter find her cigarettes in the geraniums? Maybe, if she thinks to open the front door and check the porch, where the geraniums preside, which she probably won't, because who would? Downstairs, we hear Babysitter opening kitchen cabinets.
"Five," Babysitter says. What happened to four?
"Not in the kitchen," we say.
We hear Babysitter walking heavily to the foyer, the way Babysitter sometimes walks, what with her ankles that are always giving her trouble. Babysitter opens the foyer closet, that familiar creak and sigh. The chime of empty hangers, the faint swish of rifled jackets and winter coats. "Not the closet," we say. Does Babysitter hear?
"Six!" Babysitter says.
By the time Babysitter has opened the dining room breakfront and is reaching her hand inside our mother's porcelain pitcher, she is already at nine, and we are already back downstairs, watching.
"That's where we put them last time," we remind her.
"We wouldn't do the same place twice," we explain, helpfully.
Babysitter's expression is one that says she would just like to know why the world is conspiring against her, even when the world (us!) is just trying to help her quit smoking. "Sometimes I have no idea what you two want from me," she says, which is hilarious, since we already told her and since she will probably thank us one day.
But why does Babysitter tell us to grab our coats? "We're going on a little adventure," she says. But she didn't even count all the way to ten.
A little adventure: we sit in the back of Babysitter's car, which is crammed with plastic bags, crushed boxes, and cleaning supplies. From the back window that is really a trash bag, a nighttime breeze redolent of gardenias and car exhaust. In the passenger seat, an orange cat blinks disapprovingly at us from within a white carrier. The carrier wears a seatbelt. Who knew there was a cat in Babysitter's car this whole time?
"These are mean children," Babysitter says, to the cat. "These are the meanest children in the world."
The cat, as if to agree, yawns, revealing its long, pink tongue.
We do not say a word. We shiver in the breeze. Headlights pass, one after the indifferent other.
At the gas station, Babysitter tells us to sit tight. We stare out the front window at a foreign country: a gas station at night, mosquitoes haloing the entrance, which swallows Babysitter up, then returns her a few minutes later, her labored gait easier now, her hands worrying the cellophane off a pack of cigarettes.
"Lookee what I found," Babysitter says, after she opens the car door and holds the pack to our faces. Babysitter's smile is crooked, embarrassing. Triumphant.
On the drive home, Babysitter lights one cigarette and then another. "When I was a kid," Babysitter says, "my mom would always say that it didn't take the littlest thing to be nice to another person." Babysitter exhales a plume of smoke that hovers over the cat, then dissipates out the window. "A whole lot easier than being mean."
We're not mean, we want to say; we're nice. But are we? The cat gives us a look, impossible to read. This is the latest car ride we've ever taken at night. Our hair acquires the smell of nicotine.
The following morning, we retrieve Babysitter's cigarettes from the gardenias. The pack has grown a skin of moisture overnight, but the cigarettes are dry, unharmed. We sneak them into our bedroom and hide them again, this time in our nightstand, underneath our diaries. We practice smoking, the cigarettes unlit.
"Darling," we say, our voices adopting British accents, "I simply adore your new hairstyle."
"Why, thank you," we say. "I quite adore it myself."
We eye one another, taking puffs from Babysitter's cigarettes, exhaling nothing into the air. This could be us, we think. This could be our lives.
Anthony Varallo writes: I am the author of a novel, The Lines (U of Iowa Press), as well as four short story collections. New work is out or forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Bull, Moon City Review, The Laurel Review, Saint Ann's Review
and elsewhere. Follow me online at @TheLines1979