Three Months Earlier
After an hour of scrubbing, Amber Degraw’s kitchen is just about spotless.
Considering that, as far as I can tell, Amber seems to eat almost all her meals from restaurants in the area, it feels like the effort isn’t quite necessary. If I had to put down money, I’d bet she doesn’t even know how to turn her fancy oven on. She has a beautiful, enormous kitchen filled with appliances that I’m fairly sure she has never used even once. She has an Instant Pot, a rice cooker, an air fryer, and even something called a dehydrator. It seems somewhat contradictory that somebody who has eight different kinds of moisturizer in her bathroom also owns a dehydrator, but who am I to judge?
Okay, I judge a little.
But I have carefully scrubbed down every single one of these unused appliances, cleaned the refrigerator, put away several dozen dishes, and mopped the floor until it’s shiny enough to almost see my reflection. Now all I have to do is put away the last load of laundry and the Degraws’ penthouse apartment will officially be clean as a whistle.
“Millie!” Amber’s breathless voice floats into the kitchen, and I wipe a bit of sweat off my forehead with the back of my hand. “Millie, where are you?”
“In here!” I call out. Even though it’s fairly obvious where I am. The apartment—which has merged two adjacent apartments into one uber-apartment—is large, but it’s not that large. If I’m not in the living room, I’m almost certainly in the kitchen.
Amber floats into the kitchen, looking her usual impeccably sleek self in one of her many, many designer dresses. This one is zebra printed with a plunging V-neck and sleeves that taper at her slender wrists. She’s paired the dress with matching zebra-printed boots, and while she does look achingly beautiful as always, part of me is not sure if I should compliment her on her outfit or hunt her on safari.
“There you are!” she says with a hint of accusation in her voice, as if I’m not exactly where I’m supposed to be.
“I’m just finishing up,” I tell her. “I’ll just grab the laundry and—” “Actually,” Amber interrupts me, “I’m going to need you to stay.”
I cringe internally. I clean for Amber twice a week, but I also do other errands for her, including babysitting for her nine-month-old daughter, Olive. I try to be flexible because the pay is fantastic, but she’s not great at asking in advance. It feels like all my babysitting jobs here are on a strictly need-to-know basis. And apparently, I don’t need to know until about twenty minutes before.
“I’ve got a pedicure,” she says with all the gravity of somebody informing me that she will be heading to the hospital to perform heart surgery. “I need you to keep an eye on Olive while I’m gone.”
Olive is a sweet little girl. I absolutely don’t mind keeping an eye on her
—usually. In fact, there are times when I would jump at the chance to earn a little cash at the exorbitant per-hour rate Amber gives me, which allows me to keep a roof over my head and eat food that isn’t scavenged from a garbage can. But right now, I can’t do it. “I have class in an hour.”
“Oh.” Amber frowns, then quickly makes her face blank again. She told me the last time I was here that she read an article about how smiling and frowning are the leading causes of wrinkles, so she’s trying to make her expression as neutral as possible at all times. “Can’t you skip it? Don’t they have the lectures recorded? Or some transcript you could get?”
They don’t. Furthermore, I have skipped two classes in the last two weeks because of last-minute babysitting requests from Amber. I’ve been trying to get my college degree, and I need a decent grade in this class. And anyway, I like the course. Social psychology is fun and interesting. And a passing grade is crucial for my degree.
“I wouldn’t ask you,” Amber says, “if it wasn’t important.”
Her definition of “important” may differ from mine. For me, “important” is graduating from college and getting that social work degree. I’m not sure how a pedicure could be that important. I mean, it’s still the tail end of winter. Who’s even going to see her feet?
“Amber,” I start to say.
As if on cue, a high-pitched wail comes from the living room. Even though I’m not officially babysitting Olive right now, I usually keep an eye on her whenever I’m here. Amber takes Olive to a playgroup three times a week with her friends, and the rest of the time, she seems to be scheming ways to get Olive off her hands. She has complained to me that Mr. Degraw will not allow her to hire a full-time nanny because she herself does not work, so she pieces childcare together through a series of babysitters—
mostly me. In any case, Olive was in her playpen when I started cleaning, and I stayed in the living room with her until the vacuum lulled her to sleep.
“Millie,” Amber says pointedly.
I sigh and put down the sponge I’ve been holding; it feels like it has been melded to my hand lately. I wash my hands off in the sink, then I wipe them dry on my blue jeans. “I’m coming, Olive!” I call out.
When I get back into the living room, Olive has pulled herself up on the edge of the playpen, and she is crying so desperately that her little round face has turned bright red. Olive is the sort of baby that you might see on the cover of a baby magazine. She’s so perfectly cherubic and beautiful, right down to the soft blond curls that are now smushed against the left side of her head from her nap. At the moment, she’s not quite so cherubic, but when she sees me, she instantly lifts her arms and her sobs subside.
I reach into the playpen and heft her into my arms. She buries her little wet face in my shoulder, and I don’t feel quite so bad about missing class if I have to. I don’t know what it is, but the second I turned thirty, it was like some switch flipped on inside me that made me think babies are the most adorable thing in the entire universe. I love spending time with Olive, even though she’s not my baby.
“I appreciate this, Millie.” Amber is already tugging on her coat and grabbing her Gucci purse from the coat rack beside the door. “And believe me, my toes thank you.”
Yeah, yeah. “When will you be back?”
“I won’t be gone too long,” she assures me, which we both know is a bald-faced lie. “After all, I know my little princess will miss me!”
“Of course,” I murmur.
As Amber digs around in her purse for her keys or her phone or her compact, Olive nuzzles closer to me. She lifts her little round face and smiles up at me with her four tiny white teeth. “Ma-ma,” she declares.
Amber freezes, her hand still inside her purse. All time seems to stand still. “What did she say?”
Oh no. “She said… Millie?”
Olive, oblivious to the trouble she is causing, grins up at me again and babbles louder this time, “Mama!”
Amber’s face turns pink under her foundation. “Did she just call you
“Mama!” Olive cries gleefully. Oh my God, will you stop it, kid?
Amber throws her purse onto the coffee table, her face twisted in a mask of anger that will almost certainly cause wrinkles. “Are you telling Olive that you’re her mother?”
“No!” I cry. “I tell her I’m Millie. Millie. I’m sure she just gets confused, especially because I’m the one who…”
Her eyes widen. “Because you’re around her more than I am? Is that what you were going to say?”
“No! Of course not!”
“Are you saying that I’m a bad mother?” Amber takes a step toward me, and Olive looks alarmed. “You think you’re more of a mother to my little girl than I am?”
“Then why are you telling her that you are her mother?”
“I’m not!” My exorbitant babysitter pay is circling the drain. “I swear. Millie. That’s all I’m saying. It sounds like mama, that’s all. Same first letter.”
Amber takes a deep, calming breath. Then she takes another step toward me. “Give me my baby.”
But Olive isn’t making it easy. When she sees her mother coming toward her with outstretched arms, she clings to my neck tighter. “Mama!” she sobs into my neck.
“Olive,” I mumble. “I’m not your mama. That’s your mama.” Who is about to fire me if you don’t let go of me.
“This is so unfair!” Amber cries. “I breastfed her for over a week! Isn’t that worth anything?”
“I’m so sorry…”
Amber finally wrenches Olive out of my arms, while Olive bawls her little head off. “Mama!” she screams as she reaches for me with her chubby arms.
“She’s not your mama!” Amber scolds the baby. “I am. Do you want to see the stretch marks? That woman is not your mother.”
“Mama!” she wails.
“Millie,” I correct her. “Millie.”
But what’s the difference? She doesn’t need to know my name. Because after today, I’ll never be allowed in this house ever again. I am so fired.