Who Lives Across the Bay
The nanny arrives at 4p.m. on a Wednesday. She wears a red peacoat and her face is free of makeup. From her resume, I assume she’s in her late forties, just a few years younger than my wife.
“The children are beautiful,” she tells me. We sit outside in the backyard, Auggie and Matilda playing on the swing set in front of us. It’s fall and a cool breeze prickles the leaves on the ground. They’re brown and crinkled, unlike the beautiful reds and orange leaves that linger on the trees. Everything around us is dry and brittle.
“Do they look more like you or the father?”
Auggie looks like me in certain ways. Matilda is all dark – black hair, brown eyes, tanned skin. She is physically more like Bebe. “Their father was a sperm donor. We don’t know much about him.”
“My wife, Bebe, and I.”
I keep my eyes on her, waiting for the realization, the turn in her mouth. But instead, she keeps her face calm. She looks peaceful, unperturbed. “Well, they are beautiful,” she says. “Absolutely glowing.”
Bebe gets home late, after I’ve already offered the nanny a contract. I present it to Bebe in bed, after she slips into a nightgown. She smells like coffee and lavender, her brown curls spooling across the pillow.
The sun has left. The sky is dark. During the day, we can see the bay water from this spot. “Are we sure this is the right thing?”
Bebe pulls my entire body into her so I’m facing the window, her breasts to my back, the heat of her body flush against mine. “It’s right if you think it’s right,” she says.
I stare at the window. It’s black and sheer in the night. Briefly, a shadow flickers across. It looks like a person, but I know it’s most likely an animal. People don’t come around here. Not like that. This neighborhood is safe.
“What?” Bebe asks.
My stomach tightens. “Nothing,” I say. “Just my imagination running again.”
I awaken to a night terror. My muscles are locked - I can’t move. I try to look to my side, to where Bebe is lying quietly, but I can’t move my head.
There’s water pouring into the room from somewhere. It smells of Bay stink, of algae and saltwater. I keep trying to move but can’t. The water splashes louder and louder. It fills up, brushing the bottom of the bed.
I’m really starting to panic when the nanny shows up, sitting on the edge of the bed next to me. She wears a long dress. The hem soaks up the water. “Breathe,” she says. “I’m going to take care of everything.”
The water keeps rising.
I drive home after my first day back at work, racing an approaching rainstorm. Black clouds sit over the Bay. When I step inside, Auggie is sitting with his back to me at the kitchen table and Matilda is watching cartoons. The nanny stands at the sink, washing dishes. “How was it?” she asks.
“I got old.”
Matilda realizes I’m home and comes running into my arms. She smells of peanut butter. I kiss her face as she tangles her small hands in my hair. We hold each other as the nanny finishes cleaning and heads for her car just as the rain starts coming down.
“How was your first day?” I ask.
Matilda nuzzles my neck. “I’m scared of her.”
From the kitchen table, Auggie clears his throat. “She’s strict,” he corrects.
I look between the two of them. Auggie is calm, like he always is. Rooted, like my Bebe. Matilda is more like me. Prone to dramatic fits, to getting lost in her wild imagination. “Keep an eye on her,” I tell Matilda. “Okay?”
She sighs. “Okay, Mommy.”
The rain lasts until the weekend. Instead of hiking, we create a bed out of blankets and pillows on the living room floor and watch a movie. Auggie sits eating popcorn while Matilda curls up on my chest. Bebe scrolls through her phone. “Did you see this?” she asks.
There’s an article in the local news website about a child who recently drowned in the Bay. It’s dated yesterday, but the child was killed a week ago. The police are looking into a possible perpetrator.
“He’s the third one this month.”
My stomach tightens as a boom of thunder shakes the house. Matilda surprises me by staying still, her eyes on the glass sliding doors that lead to the backyard. Normally, she can’t stand the thunder. I look down at her. “What?”
“There’s someone outside.”
I shift her onto the pillow next to us, dread coursing through my body. Then I walk over to the glass doors, peering out into the darkness. “What is it?” Bebe asks.
“She saw someone.”
Behind me, Bebe rises. She approaches, placing her hand on my lower back. We both peer out, but I can hardly see anything. The rain is thick and so is the fog. It creeps in over the Magnolia trees, resting with an eerie quiet.
The following week, Bebe and I return home from work early. The nanny stands at the sink, doing dishes again. A pot of roasted potatoes sits on the countertop, smelling sweetly of garlic. “I didn’t expect to see you both,” she says.
“I keep thinking about those children,” Bebe says.
Auggie makes his way up to her, slipping his arm around her waist. I stay on the opposite side of the room, where Matilda presses her face into my lower back, clutching the hem of my shirt. “I’m not a natural swimmer,” the nanny says. “We’ll keep on dry ground.”
Auggie asks for help with a science project, pulling Bebe into the living room. I send Matilda with them, then step up to the kitchen countertop. “Have you seen anyone outside?” I ask. “Matty saw something on Saturday.”
The nanny wipes up. She is wearing jeans today and a white t-shirt, which accentuates her curves. I feel creepy, but there’s something about her that’s impossible to look away from. “I haven’t seen anything.” She pauses. “Who do you think it is? Perhaps the children’s father?”
“He’s not their father,” I say. “He terminated parental rights when he signed the paperwork. I made sure of it.”
A strange look passes over her face. “I always wondered how that worked,” she says. “I assumed Bebe would be more masculine since you stayed home, but…” she looks me up and down and a whisper of something – electricity mixed with fear – crosses through my body. “You seem to be the one wearing the pants. Aren’t you?”
I don’t even know how to respond.
Matilda comes down with a cold a few days later. I go into the office during the morning to grab what I need for an upcoming exhibition, then return home to work while she rests. I’ve left her in her bedroom and am starting on a suit piece when she sneaks in, wanting to sleep on the chair next to me. I don’t fight her.
She settles in, suckling on her thumb like she did as a baby. “Is it true that families with two mommies go against God?”
I stiffen, pressing my back to the chair. “Who told you that?” She exhales, hard. I turn to her, placing the suit on the table next to the sewing machine. My body is awash with anger. I try hard to bite it back. “Matty, who said that?”
She purses her lips. “Someone at school.”
I look over her. Matilda just started kindergarten. Most of the kids in her class are still too young to have formed prejudices like this. Auggie, at nine, is just now facing that. “God likes kind people,” I tell her. “I had a mommy and daddy. But you know they weren’t kind.”
“You and Mama are kind.”
“We try,” I say. “Just like you do.”
This pacifies her enough to take a nap. I finish the suit within the hour and hang it up in the corner of the room. I’m about to start on a second piece when a knock from the front door startles me. I make my way downstairs and am surprised to find the nanny standing on the stoop, a pot in her hands. I open the door. She’s in a nicer outfit than normal – a dress that cuts off by her knees. “I heard Matilda was not feeling well.”
“The fever’s pretty low.”
“It’s been going around.”
I hesitate. “Have you been talking to her about having gay parents?”
She opens her mouth, surprised. “I would never.”
“You can tell me if you’re uncomfortable for any reason.”
She keeps her gaze on me, her eyes squinting in the afternoon sunlight. We hold there, a deadlock. “I like you,” she finally says. “You’re a good parent. I’m sure Bebe is, too.”
She extends the pot to me. I pause for before taking it. The bottom is warm, uncomfortably so. “I’ll probably stay home with her for a few days. They don’t mind me working from home.”
“It’ll be good to have her mama near.”
She smiles. I keep my face neutral. When she leaves, I lock the front door behind me and dump the soup in the garden.
“There’s something up with the nanny,” I say to Bebe that night as she slips in bed. She rolls so we’re facing one another. The lamp is on, splashing light across her face, illuminating the dips and curve of her jawline.
“Her references were good.”
“I think she’s been saying things to Matty about us being gay.”
Bebe sighs and pulls me into her. Her hand goes to my lower back, smoothing the skin there. I scoot in closer to her. She smells like the bath soap I made for our anniversary. “If you want to let her go, we can.”
I take a strand of her brown hair and curl it around my finger. “Maybe I’m being over-cautious.”
“One of us has to be on top of things.”
I laugh when a sound from downstairs startles me. I pause, my body going stiff. When it comes again, I grab Bebe’s softball bat from next to the bed and head downstairs. She stays at my back, holding onto my night shirt. The house is dark. “Hear anything?” I whisper.
“No,” she replies.
We flip on lights as we go. I keep waiting for someone to pop out, to come at us with a knife. But there are no shadows in the corners, nobody waiting at the door for us. All the windows are shut. Everything is locked.
Still, when I enter the kitchen, I find the sink water is running.
The next day, I take Matilda to the hospital after her temperature spikes. Two hours later, Auggie, Bebe, and I stand at her hospital bed while the doctor tells us she’s been poisoned. Probably through her food. I’m stunned. When I sit down on the edge of the bed next to her, it’s like the world around me turns wavy.
“Who’s been feeding her?” the doctor asks.
“The nanny.” I turn to Bebe, but she’s white as a sheet. Her eyes are to the side of the room, like she’s thinking about something. “What is it?”
She looks like she’s going to be sick. “The boy that drowned had been poisoned first.”
The room falls quiet. I turn to Auggie, who stands there, his complexion clean and clear, no sign of fever or chills. He clutches one of his sister’s dolls, a broken dirty thing from her infancy. “Did she feed you different things?” I ask him. “Or did you eat everything out of one pot?”
He holds the doll tighter. “They were different,” he says. “She said that boys and girls need different foods.”
The cops arrive and I give them all the information we have about the nanny. I tell them about the soup I threw in the garden, and they send someone over to test the soil. Bebe agrees to go home with Auggie. Matilda and I will stay at the hospital overnight. They leave a police officer outside the hospital room just in case she tries to find us here.
The night passes slowly. It’s raining at first, but then the condensation tapers off into a thick mist that hangs over the moon. It casts the entire area in a silver glow. I fight sleep, intermittently jerking awake, adrenaline coursing through my body.
Near one a.m., I get a text from Bebe. The glow of the phone awakens me, and I take her call in the bathroom with the door shut. “Matty’s fine,” I say. “How is Auggie?”
Bebe exhales on the other line. Immediately, I know something is wrong.
“He’s gone.” Her voice is tight. “I called the cops already.”
I stand from the toilet, where I was perched over the lid. My stomach is tight. Sweat pebbles on my top lip. “Gone?”
“I heard something in the house. When I checked on him, his bed was empty.”
Heat splays across my chest. I try to calm my breathing. Without making a sound, I open up the bathroom door and look out at Matilda. She sleeps calmly. The doctors told me earlier that she should be all back to normal in the morning. She’s strong, one of them said. Another child might not be doing as well as she is.
“They’re checking her apartment,” Bene continues.
“We need to go to the Bay.”
She exhales. “Love, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry,” I tell her. “Let’s go find him.”
I get two cops to wait with Matilda and drive out to the Bay alone. It’s encircled by an unpaved dirt road. Sporadic lamplights cast light across the water which looks an inky black. I’m nauseas, swallowing back bitter stomach acid.
The other boy was found near one of the lesser used parks on the south end of the Bay. I drive there first, turning off the car lights so I cruise in almost complete darkness. I search for light, for the reflection of the moon bouncing off metal.
My phone rings. “They’re at the north end,” Bebe says in a whisper through the line. “I think she has a weapon.”
I call the cops, then head there myself. It doesn’t take long for me to spot the reflectiveness of Bebe’s license plate. I pull over next to her car and turn the engine off. There’s no sound around me. Not even the bugs are chirping.
It’s not until I’ve exited the car and have been walking for a while that I hear Bebe’s voice. It’s low and pleading. Bebe doesn’t plead. I move quicker, cold branches clawing as me as I step under trees and across brambleberry bushes. Finally, I catch sight of her. And then the nanny. They stand opposite one another, a good ten or twelve feet apart. The nanny is knee deep in water. A smaller figure rests behind her. “Bebe,” I call.
Both women turn in my direction. I move closer. Auggie’s head is hanging. I can’t see his features clearly, but it’s obvious from his posture that something’s wrong.
“Auggie, what’s wrong?”
He lets out a breath of air. It mists in the coolness of the night. “I don’t feel good.”
I turn to the nanny. “We’ve got you a bit cornered,” I say.
“There’s plenty of water behind me.”
“He’s a strong swimmer,” I tell her. “Me and my wife are, too.”
The nanny is quiet for a long time. Then, “I thought it might be different with you.”
I wait for her to say more, but she doesn’t. The night is heavy all around us. Eventually, the red and blue lights of a cop car break the darkness. The nanny panics. She reaches for Auggie, pressing at his shoulders. I call to her, but it’s too late.
She pushes him into the murky Bay water. I don’t even hesitate, diving in after them. The water is so cold, it hurts. I chase them down under the surface of the algae until I grab hold of Auggie’s striped shirt. I pull and pull, slapping at the hand that reaches for us in the darkness. Her face comes into view, morphed by the water. I pull again and Auggie breaks free of her grasp. We both come bursting up to the surface, gasping in the cold night air.
Auggie recovers in the hospital. The nanny is arrested and brought to the city precinct for arraignment. I follow her case online, receiving notifications of her trial date, the new evidence the cops are finding on her, and just about everything else.
“She used to be a mom,” I say. “Her kid died of cancer.”
“Stop reading about her,” Bebe tells me. “It’s creepy.”
I watch her trial online up in the attic with the door locked. I read the news about her psychiatric evaluation online while picking the kids up from school. Christmas comes and goes. I read through her testimony and look at pictures of her from before her child died. I get an alert from the cops when she escapes during a routine transfer.
That night, we lock all the doors and sleep together in the master bedroom. Around midnight, I awaken to a sound in the house, like footsteps. The night is dark and cold. I can feel the winter air through the floor.
When I check the downstairs, I find the sink water running. I look around, but no one is there.