Side Hustling, Chapter 2: Men Are From Mars, Kids Are From Hell

In the second installment of this month’s serial, Valerie is tasked with babysitting an unruly kid who has a knack for playing with fire.

After accidentally destroying her roommate’s computer, Valerie must pick up a series of odd jobs in order to rectify the situation.

I try to manifest $800 by imagining the green and the crinkle and the greed. Then, I get to Craigslist scrolling. 

I click on “gigs” and browse. “Makeup artist needed artist needed Sunday, March 1st.” 

I did put on mascara today, so I could try. But I don’t have until Sunday. I have until Emily. Her schedule, her life, is my clock right now.

“Lead singer needed for cover band.” 

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I auditioned for “Kiss Me Kate” in high school. I didn’t get a part, not even chorus, but James Kramer told me I had a “superb voice” because he was trying to get in my pants. So I figure I can handle lead singing.

I zoom out of the purple-circled map. The location is Staten Island. Ha, never mind. I’d rather have Emily set me on fire than go to Staten Island. I keep scrolling. I keep panicking. 

My phone buzzes with a call from Ariana. I hesitate. Ariana asks me for the answer to every question on our calculus homework. Once she asked me what finding the slope meant. I don’t even know how she got into this school.

I pick up anyway. “Hi, Ariana.”

“Valerieeeee! My queen!”

I put my phone down as Ariana talks. Her voice is always on speaker.

“Can you do me a huge favor? Like, the biggest.”

“I haven’t gotten to the homework yet. And I’m sorry but I have to go. I don’t have time, I—”

“No, not the homework!” She assures me. 

“Okay, so, basically, I have to babysit for this guy, Richard. He just called me and asked me for another night, because apparently that was the deal, but I didn’t realize, because that’s not what he said.” 

I can hardly keep up with her, but she’s speaking so fast that there’s no room for me to butt in and ask her to slow down.

“I have plans tonight, big plans, so obviously I can’t, and, anyway, I need a replacement. And you don’t have any plans. Right? He pays a lot!” Now that’s a word that sounds right at any speed — pays!

I look away from Craigslist and pick up the phone. “A lot? How much?”

“$250 for the night. Which is actually so much. I mean the kid is … It’s still really good. It’s a good amount.”

“I’ll take it.” I don’t remember how much she said. What I remember is that I broke Emily’s laptop and I need to fix it and I need the money and I need Emily to like me. So, I say it again. “I’ll take it.”

“You’re the best person I have ever met in my life. You are the best. I’m sending you the info now. When can you get here?”

“I’m putting my shoes on now.” 

“Yay! I’ll see you in, like, 30 minutes!”

In 30 minutes, I am shaking the hand of an eight-year-old boy with John Travolta hair and a Colin Firth voice. “Hello, my name is Miles. It’s very nice to meet you.”

He isn’t English, just pretentious. He turns his back to me and waves his prissy hand behind him. In the sitting room, Miles wiggles his butt between a Steinway Grand Piano and its bench. There are 11 or so candles clustered on the piano — strange, but not alarming. Miles lights each candle with a gilded set of matches, breathes deeply, then bends over and stabs Bach out of the piano keys. I lie on the couch, close my eyes and smile. This will be painless.

The music stops playing and I hear Miles waddle out of the room. Figuring he’s taking a bathroom break, I keep my eyes closed and hum Chopin. I’m bored after a few minutes and I slowly stand, hoping Miles will entertain me some more. 

Instead, he terrorizes me. 

I stroll into the hall and see Miles’ head poking out of the living room. He looks abandoned until he locks eyes with me. He giggles higher than dogs can hear before running back into the living room — which, from where I’m standing, smells delicious and warm. 

I quickly realize Miles isn’t anything like John Travolta or Colin Firth. Instead, I’m chasing a petite demon who’s watched “Thor: Ragnarok” a few too many times through a maze of lit candles that are more evocative of hell than they are of coziness. 

“Stop lighting candles!” I blow out Strawberry Pound Cake and Fresh Orange. I sniff Mahogany Coconut, intrigued, before snuffing it with my wet fingers. The living room looks like a thousand episodes of “Charmed” layered on top of each other. Candles colonize every open space. Miles segregates them, too. Tea lights cover the metal mostly empty bookshelves. He allows scented candles only on the marble end and coffee tables. To the taper candles, he gives the wood floor. I don’t understand how a house, even a penthouse, has the space for so many candles. 

“Ok!” Miles grins at me and drops the lighter from the tip of a tall wicker candle. He lifts the lighter again and he leans against the silk blue curtains. He flicks the lighter on and the curtain is on fire. The sizzle flirts with me and I gasp, fluttering with adrenaline. Then, I begin screaming. 

“OH MY GOD. WHAT THE F-CK. WHAT THE F-CK.” I don’t know what to do. I throw myself on the flames. My entire body. 

I step back and it’s worked, almost. I pat the rest of the hopeful flames with my sleeve. I peer through the crispy hole and I see the Manhattan skyline. 

My heart burns from the stress. I get heartburn a lot, so I’m used to it. I’ll live. Or at least I think I will, I’ve never felt heartburn like this. I glance down, and while the carpet’s not on fire anymore, my cotton shirt is. 

That’s when I turn manic, I’m laughing, then I’m screaming again. “Are you F-CKING kidding me.” 

I grab for water, for anything. With only fire in my eyes, I feel a glass cup. 

But it isn’t a glass of water, it’s another candle. I screech again and drop it. The glass shatters and my feet are cut, but the little flame is out.

The big flame, however, is still growing strong. And meanwhile, I hear Miles’s giggling over my panicked breathing.

I keep my glass embedded foot in the air and hop to the bathroom. Falling into the marble tub, I yank the faucet up and hit my head on each corner as I dunk my chest into the water. I start laughing again, manically, but also a little genuinely.

I hop back into the living room, sopping and sluggish. Glaring at the curtain, I step back, then step forward again. I push the curtain and open it. It folds and hides its secrets. The hole is no longer visible. 

Miles sits cross-legged on the floor, staring at the ground. I turn to him. “Okay. Blow out all these candles. And then put them back. And give me that lighter.”

He blinks. I sit on the couch and pick the glass shards out of my feet as my eyes glaze. Miles blinks more at the window. Then, he takes a deep breath, holds it, and blows out the hundreds of candles, one by one. Shocked, my eyes focus on Miles, watching the spit spewing out of Miles’ mouth as he blows. I stand after a few minutes and help him. We blow our breaths in tandem. 

Miles pauses. “You’re the only babysitter that doesn’t yell at me. The other one’s yell. Like, a lot.”

Damn, really? I wonder why. 

But my heart burns again for him. I can’t help it. I don’t think the hole in the curtain is the only one in the room. I pat Miles’ head. I smile when he slaps my hand away.

My phone buzzes in my denim back pocket. It’s the number Ariana gave me for Miles’ dad. 

I look back at the burnt curtain, hesitate, then pick up.

Email Becca Stevenson at [email protected]

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