“Time to brush your teeth.”

“Can I get some water?”

I sighed. It was always something.

“Yes, but it has to be quick, okay? It’s time to get ready for bed.”

She nodded. We traipsed back downstairs. Ella helicoptered around me as I went to get her cup, and then turn on the tap. When the cup was about 2/3rds full, I stopped it and put the plastic sippy on top. Making sure it was on tight, I handed the cup down to her. Those big brown eyes stared up at me as she drank. Sluuuuuurp. Sluuuuuuurp. She occasionally came up for air: inhaling in a big way for such a small girl, she quickly returned to sucking on the square tip.

“Ahhh. All done!”

“Are you sure?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Positive?”

She nodded. I put the cup in the sink to deal with later and scooted her back upstairs. Bathroom.

Ella pulled out the stool and stood up on it. I forget how small I was, once. She reaches her whole arm out to get her toothbrush, and I help her get toothpaste on it. It’s hard to really call it “brushing,” but it’s better than nothing.

“I need to go potty.”

“Okay. I’ll be right outside, okay?”

The door closes awkwardly. I give it a few minutes, pace up and down the hall, check her room, get some matching pajamas out and lay them on her bed.

“Um, Sarah?” I hear from the door.

“Yes, Ella?”

“I need help.”

This was, I admit, one of the stranger parts of babysitting. I realize parents put the life of their child into my 14-year-old hands, but going to the bathroom feels too personal. What could she need help with? Then again, I’ve been successfully doing it on my own for years.

When the bathroom chores are out of the way, she carefully washes her hands and walks to her bedroom.

“Can I wear the stripe ones?”

“Why don’t you just wear these?”

“I want the stripe ones.”

“Okay,” I say, picking up the polka-dot pajama set off her bed. Stripes, tonight. I rummage in her top drawer to get them out. Finding both, I help her out of the rest of her clothes and into her pajamas. The head always makes me most nervous; it seems to always be the hardest hole for Ella to get through, and every other kid I’ve babysat. I toss her clothes into the laundry basket in the corner and help her into bed. Here comes the part I love and dread at the same time.

“Will you read?”

“Of course, Ella. What do you want?”

“The alligator one!”

“Get under the covers, okay?”

“You come too.”

“What?”

“Mommy always lies with me.”

“Oh. Yeah, let me get the book first, okay?”

She smiles. And how can you resist that? Still, this is why I dread it. It’s not the sleeping next to her, which I won’t actually do if I can help it, but it makes it awfully hard to sneak out without waking her. I settle in and she leans her head on my shoulder to see the pictures.

“Al the Alligator was an unusual alligator. He stood on two feet, and walked around, just like you and me. One day, he decided to visit his friend, Ollie the Ostrich…”

You know. One of those. I got through it, and closed the book.  “And that’s the end,” I whispered.

“Mm.” She nodded sleepily. A few seconds passed. “Can you read another one?” her tiny little voice said to me.

“Just one. I’ll be right back.”

A story about an alphabet family. Cute – and relatively easy to read. I’m always afraid I’ll get the beat wrong or not rhyme the right way. Silence. I slowly look to my left. Eyes: closed. She shifts down so her head can be totally on the pillow. But now, after a few times babysitting Ella, I know: it’s make or break time. One false move can change everything. And so, I wait. She breathes so peacefully, and I wish my sleep was so innocent. That nightmares involved green monsters and not friends or family. Also, that she’d wake up with boundless energy, again, ready for another fun day. Homework was increasingly leaving me sleep-deprived. I bounce these thoughts around, watching the small alarm clock. Sitting in absolute silence like this feels like an eternity. Finally, when I deem it’s been long enough, and her breathing pattern is a touch slower, a touch steadier, I prepare for my exit. This is a process.

An inch at a time, I roll down the covers on me, taking care not to move anything near her. I slide my knees up, gently slipping one foot dangerously close to the floor. It always creaks. I pause here, thinking it has been nearly too much. I wait another 30 seconds, and grip her nightstand for support. Cringing, I let my foot take most of my body. The other comes down, I slide the covers back on the bed, and pause again. I forget to breathe. I glance at Ella. Nothing yet. Tiptoeing, I pick up my shoes on the floor and get to the hallway. Gingerly, I close the door.

Exhale. The stairs are a little work, too, since they creak a lot, but I manage to dance down them and enter the living room. I pick up a random book and wait.

“Sarah?”

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