That night, when Mrs. Chamberlain called, Emira could only piece together the words “...take Briar somewhere...” and “...pay you double.”
In a crowded apartment and across from someone screaming “That’s my song!,” Emira stood next to her girlfriends Zara, Josefa, and Shaunie. It was a Saturday night in September, and there was a little over an hour left of Shaunie’s 26th birthday. Emira turned the volume up on her phone and asked Mrs. Chamberlain to say it again.
“Is there any way you can take Briar to the grocery store for a bit?” Mrs. Chamberlain said. “I’m so sorry to call. I know it’s late.”
It was almost astonishing that Emira’s daily babysitting job (a place of pricey onesies, colorful stacking toys, baby wipes, and sectioned dinner plates) could interrupt her current nighttime state (loud music, bodycon dresses, lip liner, and red Solo cups). But here was Mrs. Chamberlain, at 10:51 p.m., waiting for Emira to say yes. Under the veil of two strong mixed drinks, the intersection of these spaces almost seemed funny, but what wasn’t funny was Emira’s current bank balance: a total of 79 dollars and 16 cents. After a night of $20 entrées, birthday shots, and collective gifts for the birthday girl, Emira Tucker could really use the cash.
“Hang on,” she said. She set her drink down on a low coffee table and stuck her middle finger into her other ear. “You want me to take Briar right now?”
On the other side of the table, Shaunie placed her head on Josefa’s shoulder and slurred, “Does this mean I’m old now? Is 26 old?” Josefa pushed her off and said, “Shaunie, don’t start.” Next to Emira, Zara untwisted her bra strap. She made a disgusted face in Emira’s direction and mouthed, Eww, is that your boss?
“Peter accidentally — we had an incident with a broken window and... I just need to get Briar out of the house.” Mrs. Chamberlain’s voice was calm and strangely articulate, as if she were delivering a baby and saying, Okay, mom, it’s time to push. “I’m so sorry to call you this late,” she said. “I just don’t want her to see the police.”
“Oh wow. Okay, but, Mrs. Chamberlain?” Emira sat down at the edge of a couch. Two girls started dancing on the other side of the armrest. The front door of Shaunie’s apartment opened to Emira’s left, and four guys came in yelling, “Ayyeee!”
“Jesus,” Zara said. “All these niggas tryna stunt.”
“I don’t exactly look like a babysitter right now,” Emira warned. “I’m at a friend’s birthday.”
“Oh God. I’m so sorry. You should stay—”
“No no, it’s not like that,” Emira said louder. “I can leave. I’m just letting you know that I’m in heels and I’ve like... had a drink or two. Is that okay?”
Baby Catherine, the youngest Chamberlain at five months old, wailed in the receiver. Mrs. Chamberlain said, “Peter, can you please take her?” and then, up close, “Emira, I don’t care what you look like. I’ll pay for your cab here and your cab home.”
Emira slipped her phone into the pouch of her crossbody bag, making sure all of her other belongings were present. When she stood and relayed the news of her early departure to her girlfriends, Josefa said, “You’re leaving to babysit? Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Guys . . . listen. No one needs to babysit me,” Shaunie informed the group. One of her eyes was open and the other was trying very hard to match.
Josefa wasn’t through asking questions. “What kind of mom asks you to babysit this late?”
Emira didn’t feel like getting into specifics. “I need the cash,” she said. She knew it was highly unlikely, but she added, “I’ll come back if I get done, though.”
Zara nudged her and said, “Imma roll witchyou.”
Emira thought, Oh, thank God. Out loud, she said, “Okay, cool.”
Market Depot sold bone broths, truffle butters, smoothies from a station that was currently dark, and several types of nuts in bulk. The store was bright and empty, and the only open checkout lane was the one for ten items or fewer. Next to a dried-fruit section, Zara bent in her heels and held her dress down to retrieve a box of yogurt-covered raisins. “Umm... eight dollars?” She quickly placed them back on the shelf and stood up. “Gotdamn. This is a rich people grocery store.”
Well, Emira mouthed with the toddler in her arms, this is a rich-people baby.
“I want dis.” Briar reached out with both hands for the copper-colored hoops that hung in Zara’s ears.
Emira inched closer. “How do you ask?”
“Peas I want dis now Mira peas.”
Zara’s mouth dropped open. “Why is her voice always so raspy and cute?”
“Move your braids,” Emira said. “I don’t want her to yank them.”
Zara tossed her long braids — a dozen of them were a whitish blond — over one shoulder and held her earring out to Briar. “Next weekend Imma get twists from that girl my cousin knows. Hi, Miss Briar, you can touch.” Zara’s phone buzzed. She pulled it out of her bag and started typing, leaning into Briar’s little tugs.
Emira asked, “Are they all still there?”
“Ha!” Zara tipped her head back. “Shaunie just threw up in a plant and Josefa is pissed. How long do you have to stay?”
“I don’t know.” Emira set Briar back on the ground. “But homegirl can look at the nuts for hours so it’s whatever.”
“Mira’s makin’ money, Mira’s makin money...” Zara danced her way into the frozen-food aisle. Emira and Briar walked behind her as she put her hands on her knees and bounced in the faint reflection in the freezer doors, pastel ice cream logos mirrored on her thighs. Her phone buzzed again. “Ohmygod, I gave my number to that guy at Shaunie’s?” she said, looking at her screen. “He is so thirsty for me, it’s stupid.”
“You dancing.” Briar pointed up at Zara. She put two fingers into her mouth and said, “You... you dancing and no music.”
“You want music?” Zara’s thumb began to scroll. “I’ll play something but you gotta dance too.”
“No explicit content, please,” Emira said. “I’ll get fired if she repeats it.”
Zara waved three fingers in Emira’s direction. “I got this I got this.”
Seconds later, Zara’s phone exploded with sound. She flinched, said, “Whoops,” and turned the volume down. Synth filled the aisle, and as Whitney Houston began to sing, Zara began to twist her hips. Briar started to hop, holding her soft white elbows in her hands, and Emira leaned back on a freezer door, boxes of frozen breakfast sausages and waffles shining in waxy cardboard behind her.
Emira joined them as Zara sang the chorus, that she wanted to feel the heat with somebody. She spun Briar around and crisscrossed her chest as another body began to come down the aisle. Emira felt relieved to see a middle-aged woman with short gray hair in sporty leggings and a T-shirt reading St. Paul’s Pumpkinfest 5K. She looked like she had definitely danced with a child or two at some point in her life, so Emira kept going. The woman put a pint of ice cream into her basket and grinned at the dancing trio. Briar screamed, “You dance like Mama!”
As the last key change of the song started to play, a cart came into the aisle pushed by someone much taller. His shirt read Penn State and his eyes were sleepy and cute, but Emira was too far into the choreography to stop without seeming completely affected. She did the Dougie as she caught bananas in his moving cart. She dusted off her shoulders as he reached for a frozen vegetable medley. When Zara told Briar to take a bow, the man silently clapped four times in their direction before he left the aisle. Emira centered her skirt back onto her hips.
“Dang, you got me sweatin’.” Zara leaned down. “Gimme high five. Yes, girl. That’s it for me.”
Emira said, “You out?”
Zara was back on her phone, typing manically. “Someone just might get it tonight.”
Emira placed her long black hair over one shoulder. “Girl, you do you but that boy is real white.”
Zara shoved her. “It’s 2015, Emira! Yes we can!”
“Thanks for the cab ride, though. Bye, sister.”
Zara tickled the top of Briar’s head before turning to leave. As her heels ticked toward the front of the store, Market Depot suddenly seemed very white and very still.
“Excuse me, ma’am.” Footsteps followed and when Emira turned around, a gold security badge blinked and glittered in her face. On top it read Public Safety and the bottom curve read Philadelphia.
Briar pointed up at his face. “That,” she said, “is not the mailman.”
Emira swallowed and heard herself say, “Oh, hi.” The man stood in front of her and placed his thumbs in his belt loops, but he did not say hello back.
Emira touched her hair and said, “Are you guys closing or something?” She knew this store would stay open for another 45 minutes — it stayed open, clean, and stocked until midnight on weekends — but she wanted him to hear the way she could talk. From behind the security guard’s dark sideburns, at the other end of the aisle, Emira saw another face. The gray-haired, athletic-looking woman, who had appeared to be touched by Briar’s dancing, folded her arms over her chest. She’d set her grocery basket down by her feet.
“Ma’am,” the guard said. Emira looked up at his large mouth and small eyes. He looked like the type of person to have a big family, the kind that spends holidays together for the entire day from start to finish, and not the type of person to use ma’am in passing. “It’s very late for someone this small,” he said. “Is this your child?”
“No.” Emira laughed. “I’m her babysitter.”
“Alright, well...” he said, “with all due respect, you don’t look like you’ve been babysitting tonight.”
From Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, published Dec. 31 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Kiley Reid.
An Arizona native, Kiley Reid is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was the recipient of the Truman Capote fellowship. Her short stories have been featured and are forthcoming in Ploughshares, December, New South, and Lumina, where her short story was the first-place winner in the 2017 Flash Prose Contest. In summer 2018, she attended the Cuttyhunk Island Residency as the recipient of the Paul Cuffee Scholarship. Such a Fun Age is her first novel, currently in development by Lena Waithe’s Hillman Grad Productions and Sight Unseen Pictures. Reid lives in Philadelphia.