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For a Short Time Only

The summer I babysat the Brady twins, their parents were on the brink of divorce. My parents were on the brink of divorce too, but at least I knew about it. Nobody had told the Brady twins that their world was about to splinter into a before and an after, but they were only six, with gappy smiles and saucer eyes, and so I couldn’t bring myself to do it either, even when Mrs. Brady called me on a Friday morning and asked me to stay the weekend so she could take a girls’ trip to Martha’s Vineyard. I agreed because she’d pay me double, but when a Jeep pulled up ten minutes after I arrived and there was a man at the wheel who wasn’t Mr. Brady, I knew she wasn’t going to Martha’s Vineyard, or at least she wasn’t going to Martha’s Vineyard with any girls.

“My chariot awaits!” she trilled, whirling into the foyer in a macrame dress, slapping a wad of cash onto the table. “Take them to Blockbuster, Sasha. Or ice cream! You guys want ice cream?”

“Sasha doesn’t like ice cream,” said Caroline, and Mrs. Brady laughed.

“Who doesn’t like ice cream?” she said, but her eyes were on her reflection as she re-tied her halterneck in the mirror, licked lipstick off her teeth. “Donuts then,” she said, reaching for the doorknob, gold bracelets jangling on sinewy Pilates arms.

In the Jeep, she rolled the window down, blew showy kisses, called “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!” Caroline waved from the doorway, long after the car, and her mother and the man who was driving her mother rounded the corner onto the main road.


That night, we lay together in Mr. and Mrs. Brady’s bed. Cam fell asleep immediately, but Caroline lay stiffly next to me, doing the sort of deep, intentional breathing I associated with women in labor on TV.

“What’s that you’re doing?” I asked.

“Yoga breathing,” she said. “My mom taught me. It’s for anxiety.”

I woke before them, the sun streaming in over their pretzeled bodies, limbs tangled in limbs. In a week, I’d be leaving for college; perhaps the next time I shared a bed with someone I barely knew, it wouldn’t be a person in Pull-Ups. I tickled Caroline’s shoulder, ruffled Cam’s hair, meaning to rouse them gently so we could call Mrs. Brady to say good morning, remembering, as they stirred, that she hadn’t left a number for where she’d be.


It was barely nine when we left for the donut place, and the day was a scorcher already, the heat pressing down on us like a living thing. The Brady twins were grumpy, un-sunscreened, and taciturn, their flip-flops squeaking irritatingly with every step. Halfway there, I let them rest outside the library, and Caroline peered idly up at the bulletin board. The weekend stretched before us, bloated and humid, and I thought of taking them to the beach, letting them float on their backs in our tiny crescent of tide and stream. But a plane had crashed into the Sound a few weeks earlier, and there were rumors of bathers bumping into chunks of wreckage. Besides, I didn’t even know if they could swim.

“Trampoline!” cried Caroline, suddenly. “For sale! Can we get it? Please?”

I squinted at the ad. The twins looked up at me imploringly, hands clasped in supplication, more animated than I’d seen them in weeks. Yesterday, when Mrs. Brady had answered the door, she’d leaned into me giddily and whispered, “I’m an eensy-weensy little bit high right now,” as though this were a normal thing to confess to the teenage babysitter whose parents you often waved at in the aisles of Stop N’ Shop. I thought of her rolling the window back up as she made her escape, sealing herself off from the scabbed pan of mac and cheese in the sink, the constant blaring of Caillou, thought of Caroline in bed, breathing in for four, holding for four, breathing out. Anyway, in a week, I’d be gone. It wasn’t my back yard.

“Sure,” I shrugged. “Let’s go get a trampoline.”


The transaction was swift, half of Mrs. Brady’s money handed to a white-haired man who offered to drive the trampoline over and set it up. It looked new, and when I asked why he was selling it, he put his fingers to the pouchy half-moons under his eyes like they hurt.

“Grandson died,” he said. Caroline’s head whipped towards me in alarm.

The man pressed on the half-moons. “Still can’t believe it,” he said. “He was here last summer, and he was fine. Bouncing all over. He was fine.”


Once the man left, the Brady twins climbed up onto the trampoline and started jumping. I climbed up too, tentative and then less tentative, soaring, breathless, the Brady twins whooping with laughter as they ricocheted in my wake.

Caroline did it first, slumping abruptly onto her back, hands splayed on the springy canvas.

“I’m dead!” she yelled, and I stopped bouncing, worried I’d hurt her, but a second later, she bolted up, unscathed.

“I’m alive!” she shouted. “For a short time only!”

Cam, copying, flung himself supine, tongue lolling, eyes to the sky.

“I’m dead!” he roared and hurled his body upwards. “I’m alive for a short time only!”

“Now you, Sasha,” said Caroline, and I let myself crumple backward, easy as anything, easy as breaking a vow and driving to Martha’s Vineyard, or maybe not Martha’s Vineyard at all, easy as buying a trampoline as misguided revenge.

“I’m dead!” I yelled, but I didn’t feel dead, I felt alive and capable, a kid in charge of other kids. The heat shimmered on the manicured lawn, our shoes akimbo in the grass. Caroline watched me warily, awaiting my resurrection, and I lay still for a second, tracing the clouds overhead. “I’m alive for a short time only!” I shouted, springing up, as the Brady twins scattered and shrieked.

Holly Burns is a writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, and her work has also appeared in The Washington PostThe GuardianTIME, and Oprah Daily. She is a 2023 alum of the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop in Fiction.

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