Stranger at the Door

By Susanne Shaphren

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    Elizabeth wanted to be the best baby-sitter in the world. She knew how important it was to be reliable and responsible. A file box, just like her big sister’s, helped her keep track of important information. Each family she baby-sat for had a card. There weren’t many cards in the bright blue box yet, but there would be soon.

    Early Saturday morning, Elizabeth took out the Burroughs’s card and scanned the information. “Two children—Billy and Kristi. Kristi likes picture books,” she read. Elizabeth remembered the little girl’s favorite book and put it and some other books in her box before leaving her house. She briskly walked the three blocks to the familiar yellow house and rang the doorbell.

    “Good morning,” Mrs. Burroughs greeted her. “You’re right on time as usual. Billy’s spending the day at the zoo with John and some of his other friends. He’ll be home by five. You remember John’s mother, don’t you?”

    “Sure. She brought Billy home when I baby-sat before.”

    “She’s going to drive him home today too. If she invites him to spend the night with John, it’s fine. Just remind Billy to pack his toothbrush.”

    “Did you leave me a note about Kristi’s lunch and dinner?” asked Elizabeth.

    “It’s on the kitchen table. We should be back by seven if the traffic isn’t too bad. We’ll try to call you this afternoon to be sure everything’s OK.”

    Elizabeth knew Mr. and Mrs. Burroughs were fixing up a mountain cabin. The cabin didn’t have a phone, so they usually called from a nearby store to check on things. She wasn’t worried.

    After carefully locking the door when Mr. and Mrs. Burroughs left, Elizabeth slid the safety chain into position. She put the file card right by the phone. The card was an easy way to keep track of important details. It had the Burroughs’s address printed on it just in case Elizabeth couldn’t remember it if there was an emergency. Billy and Kristi’s pediatrician’s phone number was there too. Mrs. Burroughs had explained to Elizabeth that the doctor had a special permission form on file in case Billy or Kristi needed treatment and their parents couldn’t be reached.

    Police and fire department numbers were printed in red so Elizabeth could find them in a hurry. She’d even made notes about what Mrs. Burroughs liked the children to have for snacks. “NO VISITORS” was printed at the bottom of the card.

    There was one other thing Elizabeth wanted to do to prepare for an emergency. She and Kristi played the “creeping, crawling game.” Kristi loved it. She was much too young to realize that this was Elizabeth’s way of making sure she would be able to get the toddler safely out of the house if there was a fire.

    “Hungry,” Kristi said later, when Elizabeth finished reading the last page of the picture book.

    “How about some banana wheels?”

    “Yes! Yes!”

    Elizabeth peeled a banana and carefully sliced it into little wheels. Since Kristi liked to do things by herself, Elizabeth reached for a plastic plate. If the toddler dropped it, there wouldn’t be any sharp pieces to worry about.

    “Yummy ’nana,” Kristi said.

    Suddenly the doorbell rang.

    “Who is it?” Elizabeth asked as she looked through the peephole. She didn’t recognize the long-haired man. Something about the bulge in his scruffy jacket made her shiver. Maybe he has a gun! she thought.

    “I’m Ted Burroughs.”

    Was he really Ted Burroughs? The last name was printed bold and black on the mailbox where anybody could read it. Elizabeth didn’t know if Mr. Burroughs had a relative named Ted.

    Kristi was at the stage where any man she saw was “Daddy,” so she wouldn’t be any help. If only Billy were home …

    Looking through the peephole again, Elizabeth couldn’t help staring at that bulge.

    “Come on, honey. I’m much too tired to play games. Open the door.”

    Instead of reaching for the chain, Elizabeth hurried toward the phone. She took a deep breath, forcing herself to calm down. Those bright red digits on the card made it easy to dial the right numbers quickly.

    Elizabeth told the police dispatcher the exact address where she was baby-sitting. “There’s a stranger at the door. I’m not positive, but I think he may have a gun.”

    “We’ll send an officer over immediately. Just keep the door locked. Give me the phone number there; I’ll call you right back on a nonemergency line.”

    Elizabeth hung up and gathered Kristi in a big bear hug. “Everything’s going to be fine,” she promised.

    Grabbing the phone before it rang a second time, Elizabeth felt better just hearing the familiar voice. The police dispatcher sounded so friendly, so calm. There couldn’t be anything to be afraid of—not really. Help was on the way.

    The dispatcher kept talking until Elizabeth heard a car stop out front. “I think the officer is here,” Elizabeth told the dispatcher.

    “Yes. We’re in radio contact. Just talk to me for a few more minutes until I get a report from the officer on the scene.”

    Those few minutes seemed to crawl. Even though Elizabeth knew she was old enough to handle things the right way, she suddenly wished she were Kristi. It would be nice to have somebody hug you and whisper that everything was OK.

    “Elizabeth, you can open the door now. Officer Jenkins just reported in.”

    “Thanks for talking to me so I didn’t have a chance to get really scared.”

    “You’re welcome. That’s part of our job. If you ever have trouble again, be sure to call us.”

    Carrying Kristi to the door, Elizabeth slid the chain off the lock and unbolted the door. She couldn’t help shivering when she saw that the stranger was still there. At least there was a police officer right next to him.

    “Elizabeth, this is Ted Burroughs. He’s the brother of the man who lives here.”

    “I’m sorry—”

    “Don’t you dare apologize!” Ted Burroughs interrupted. “You did exactly the right thing. I’m a night watchman. When I got off my shift, I decided to drop by for a visit. I’m sure my brother and sister-in-law will be pleased to know they have such a responsible baby-sitter.”

    The stranger didn’t look nearly as scary when he smiled. Kristi smiled right back at him, extended her tiny arms, and yelled, “Daddy!”

    Illustrated by Julie F. Young