I spend the next seven hours cleaning.
Nina could not have made this house dirtier if she tried. Every room of the house is filthy. The pizza box on the coffee table still has two slices of pizza in it, and there is something sticky and foul-smelling spilled in the bottom of the box. It has leaked through and the box is fused to the coffee table. It takes an hour of soaking and thirty minutes of intense scrubbing to get it all clean.
The kitchen is the worst of it. In addition to whatever is in the garbage bin itself, there are two garbage bags in the kitchen, spilling over with their contents. One of the two bags has a rip in the bottom, and when I lift it to take it outside, all the garbage goes everywhere. And it smells beyond terrible. I gag but don’t lose my lunch.
Dishes are piled high in the sink, and I wonder why Nina didn’t just put them in their state-of-the-art dishwasher, until I open the dishwasher and notice that it is also packed to the brim with filthy dishes. That woman does not believe in scraping plates before putting them in the dishwasher. Or, apparently, running the dishwasher. Before I am done, I run three loads of dishes. I wash all the pans separately, most of which have food caked on them from days earlier.
By mid-afternoon, I’ve gotten the kitchen at least somewhat habitable again. I’m proud of myself. It’s the first
hard day’s work I’ve done since I got fired from the bar (completely unfairly, but that’s my life these days), and I feel great about it. All I want is to keep working here. And maybe to have a window in my room that opens.
“Who are you?”
A little voice startles me in the middle of putting away the last load of dishes. I whirl around—Cecelia is standing behind me, her pale blue eyes boring into me, wearing a white frilly dress that makes her look like a little doll. And by doll, I’m of course talking about that creepy talking doll in The Twilight Zone that murders people.
I didn’t even see her come inside. And Nina is nowhere to be seen. Where did she even come from? If this is the part of the job where I find out Cecelia has actually been dead for ten years and is a ghost, I’m quitting.
Well, maybe not. But I might ask for a raise.
“Hi, Cecelia!” I say cheerfully. “I’m Millie. I’m going to be working around your house from now on—cleaning things up and watching you when your mom asks me to. I hope we can have fun together.”
Cecelia blinks her pale eyes at me. “I’m hungry.”
I have to remember that she is just a normal little girl who gets hungry and thirsty and cranky and uses the bathroom. “What would you like to eat?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, what sorts of things do you like?” “I don’t know.”
I grit my teeth. Cecelia has morphed from a creepy little girl to an annoying little girl. But we just met each other. I’m sure after a few weeks, we’ll be best friends. “Okay, I’ll just fix you a snack then.”
She nods and climbs up on one of the stools set up around the kitchen island. Her eyes still feel like they’re boring through me—like they can read all my secrets. I wish she would go in the living room and watch cartoons on her giant TV instead of just… watching me.
“So what do you like to watch on television?” I ask, hoping she’ll take the hint.
She frowns like I offended her. “I prefer to read.” “That’s great! What do you like to read?”
“What kind of books?” “The kind with words.”
Oh, so that’s how it’s going to be, Cecelia. Fine, if she doesn’t want to talk about books, I can change the subject. “Did you just come back from school?” I ask her.
She blinks at me. “Where else would I have come from?” “But… how did you get home then?”
Cecelia lets out an exasperated huff. “Lucy’s mom picked me up from ballet and brought me home.”
I heard Nina upstairs about fifteen minutes ago, so I assume she’s in the house. I wonder if I should let her know that Cecelia is home. Then again, I don’t want to disturb her, and one of my jobs is to look after Cecelia.
Thank God, Cecelia seems to have lost interest in me and is now rifling around in her pale pink backpack. I find some Ritz crackers in the pantry as well as a jar of peanut butter. I spread the peanut butter over the crackers like my mother used to do. Repeating the same act that my mother used to do for me so many times makes me feel a little nostalgic. And sad. I never thought she would abandon me the way she did. This is it, Millie. The last straw.
After I’ve spread peanut butter on the crackers, I slice up a banana and put one slice on each. I love the combination of peanut butter and bananas.
“Ta-da!” I slide the plate onto the kitchen counter to present it to Cecelia. “Peanut butter and banana crackers!”
Her eyes widen. “Peanut butter and banana?” “Trust me. It’s really good.”
“I’m allergic to peanut butter!” Cecelia’s cheeks turn bright pink. “Peanut butter could kill me! Are you trying to kill me?”
My heart sinks. Nina never said anything about a peanut butter allergy. And they have peanut butter right in their pantry! If her daughter has a deadly peanut allergy, why would she keep it in the house?
“Mommy!” Cecelia shrieks as she runs toward the staircase. “The maid tried to hurt me with peanut butter! Help, Mommy!”
“Cecelia!” I hiss at her. “It was an accident! I didn’t know you were allergic and—”
But Nina is already racing down the stairs. Despite the disarray of her house, she looks flawless right now in another one of her gleaming white skirt-and-blouse combinations. White is her color. Cecelia’s too, apparently. They match the house.
“What’s going on?” Nina cries when she reaches the bottom of the stairs.
I wince as Cecelia propels herself at her mother, wrapping her arms around Nina’s bosom. “She tried to make me eat peanut butter, Mommy! I told her I was allergic, but she didn’t listen.”
Nina’s pale skin flushes. “Millie, is this true?”
“I…” My throat feels completely dry. “I didn’t know she was allergic. I swear.”
Nina frowns. “I told you about her allergies, Millie. This is unacceptable.”
She never told me. She never said a word about Cecelia being allergic to peanuts. I would bet my life on it. And even if she had, why would she leave a jar of peanut butter right in the pantry? It was right in front!
But she won’t believe any of my excuses. In her head, I nearly killed her daughter. I see this job slipping out from under my fingers.
“I’m truly sorry.” I speak around a lump in my throat. “I must’ve forgotten. I promise I’ll never let it happen again.”
Cecelia is sobbing now while Nina holds her close and gently strokes her blond hair. Eventually, the sobs subside, but Cecelia still clings to her mother. I feel a terrible stab of guilt. Deep down, I know you aren’t supposed to feed kids before checking with the parents. I’m in the wrong here, and if Cecelia hadn’t been so vigilant, something terrible could’ve happened.
Nina takes a deep breath. She shuts her eyes for a moment and opens them again. “Fine. But please be sure you don’t forget anything so important ever again.”
“I won’t. I swear.” I wring my fists together. “Do you want me to throw out the jar of peanut butter that was in the pantry?”
She’s quiet for a moment. “No, better not. We might need it.”
I want to throw up my hands. But it’s her decision if she wants to keep life-threatening peanut butter in her home. All I know is that I will definitely never use it again.
“Also,” Nina adds, “when will dinner be ready?”
Dinner? Was I supposed to be making dinner? Did Nina imagine another conversation between the two of us that we never had? But I’m not about to make excuses again after the debacle with the peanut butter. I’ll find something in the fridge to prepare.
“Seven o’clock?” I say. Three hours should give me more than enough time.
She nods. “And you won’t put any peanut butter in the dinner, right?”
“No, of course not.”
“Please don’t forget again, Millie.”
“I won’t. And does anybody have any other allergies or… intolerances?”
Is she allergic to eggs? Bee stings? Too much homework? I need to know. I can’t risk being caught out again.
Nina shakes her head, just as Cecelia lifts her tear-streaked face off her mother’s chest long enough to glare at me. The two of us have not gotten off on the right foot. But I’ll find a way to fix it. I’ll make her brownies or something. Kids are easy. Adults are trickier, but I’m determined to win over Nina and Andrew as well.