"Please? Just one story before I go to bed?" the little boy pleads, making big doe eyes.
The babysitter sighs, and rolls her eyes. "Dear, it's already past your bedtime. If your parents find out how late you've stayed up – "
"They don't have to know," the boy replies, in what is a very sly tone for a child of only four years. "And I always get a story before bed. I'll go to sleep as soon as you're done, really, I promise!"
"Alright, alright," the babysitter grumbles. The boy beams, and cheerily climbs into bed, pulling the covers close under his chin as he looks up at her with a smile. The babysitter smiles fleetingly at him in return, then turns her head towards the bookshelf. "What book do you want to hear?"
The little boy considers for a moment, cocking his head to one side and furrowing his brow. Then he breaks into another grin, even wider than before. "I don't want you to read me a story. I want you to tell me a story."
"I don't know any stories," the babysitter says flatly.
"You must know some," the boy wheedles.
"Fine, then. Once upon a time – "
"No," says the little boy firmly. "I don't like those stories. I want to hear a good story, one that I haven't heard before. And there should be no kissing in the story," he adds, as though kissing is a serious crime that is too horrendous to even hear about.
"I only know fairy-tales," the babysitter objects. "Anything more complex I can't keep in my brain for too long. Look, if you want to hear about something else, I'm going to have to read one of the books on your shelf."
The boy folds his arms and pouts. "But I want to hear a new story!"
"But I don't know any – "
The babysitter breaks off mid-sentence. A gleam appears in her eye, though it is gone the next second. The little boy does not notice.
"Actually . . . I do know one story. And I know that you haven't heard it before."
The little boy sits up straighter.
"Do you want to hear it?" the babysitter asks, smiling, for she already knows the answer.
The boy hesitates. "Is there kissing?"
"Or anything else that's mushy and stupid? Princes and princesses and – "
"No, there isn't. I promise."
"Okay, then." He settles back comfortably into his pillows, attention completely on her.
The babysitter sits down on the edge of the bed, folding her fingers together in her lap, as she tries to formulate how to tell this story in a simplistic manner that a child would be able to follow. It is a story that is hard enough to explain to an adult.
Taking a deep breath through her nose, the babysitter begins the tale: "Once upon a time – "
"I don't like stories that start like that," the boy complains.
"All stories have to start somewhere, don't they?" the babysitter retaliates. "And since there are no real beginnings or endings, it is usually best to just pick a certain point in time, a certain 'once' in existence that gives everyone a solid frame of reference."
Judging from his perplexed expression, it doesn't seem as though the boy has followed a word of what she's just said, but he is still determined to argue nonetheless. "I don't like stories that start like that," he repeats.
"Well, this one is going to start like that, so you just need to deal with it," the babysitter replies flippantly, demonstrating clearly for all present that she is indeed only a female of eighteen years. "Anyway, let's continue.
"Once upon a time, there were ten individuals."
"Individuals. Like, you know, ten different people."
"Oh. Why didn't you just say people?"
"Because they weren't people."
"What were they? Were they animals? Is this a talking animal story? 'Cause I don't like those either – "
"Shush," the babysitter snaps. "No, they weren't animals, but they weren't people either. You see, they looked like normal people, but they weren't actually people. They were – illusions of people. You know what illusion means, right? It's something that can be seen, but is not actually real."
The boy nods.
"Now, these illusions were all very different from one another. They all came from different places, different territories."
"A territory? You mean like when Mark's cat pees on trees to mark his territory?"
"No, that's another meaning of the word. The meaning I'm using here . . . well, think of these territories like planets. They all coexist to each other, they all live in a delicate balance, but they're all still very far away and different. Does that make sense?"
"Well, these ten illusions, despite their many differences, were also united under a common cause. They called themselves Travelers, and they believed that all of these territories had a certain path that they needed to follow throughout history. They believed that the people of these territories needed to choose their own destinies, and in doing so, they would follow this 'correct' course of history, and everything would be as it should. A motto of theirs was 'this is the way it is meant to be'."
The little boy is looking lost. "So, are these the good guys or the bad guys?"
The babysitter smiles slightly to herself. "They called themselves the good guys," she clarifies, bringing the story back on simplistic terms that the boy can follow.
"Oh, okay," says the boy, the lines of confusion in his face smoothing out again. "You can keep going now."
"Thank you," says the babysitter curtly. "Now, there was another individual – "
"Yes, another illusion, and he too was a Traveler. But he was different from the others, much more different. This illusion didn't agree with the others. He believed that, when taking matters into their own hands, people would never live as they should. They would fight and kill amongst themselves until they were completely destroyed. So this illusion wanted to interfere. He wanted to interfere and create a better united universe for them all."
The little boy's brow furrows, and he blinks several times, as though fighting against sleep. "Okay, so basically, ten people – I mean illusions – want people to do what they want, and this other guy doesn't."
"So, this other man is the bad guy, right?"
The babysitter's lip curls. "Yes, he is the bad guy."
"Okay. Keep going."
"The man and the Travelers constantly combated against each other – both physical battles and mental ones."
"Huh?" says the boy on a yawn.
"Physical and mental battles – as in, some were with weapons, and others were mind games. Think of an intense chess game," the babysitter tries to explain.
For Halla's sake, did children always interrupt and ask as many questions as this one? It grew tiresome very quickly.
"Anyway, with time, the ten Travelers all aged and moved on – "
"Where did they move to?"
"They didn't move like moving houses," the babysitter sighs. "I meant that – they died, honey."
"And so new Travelers replaced them – "
"What about the other guy? Did he die too?"
The boy's mouth drops open. "But he's the bad guy! The bad guys always die, and the heroes always stab them or push them off a cliff or – "
"Do you want me to keep going or not?" the babysitter demands.
The boy clamps his mouth shut, and the babysitter takes that as her cue to continue on.
"As I was saying, the – 'good guys' – passed on – "
"Died," the boy proclaims.
The babysitter shoots him a quelling look, and the little boy silences.
" – and new Travelers replaced them. Eventually these ones died as well, they were replaced, and so the cycle went on for some time, with these ten individuals always constantly butting heads against the man who had a much different vision than theirs."
The boy's head lolls tiredly, then he jerks himself awake. He seems on the brink of sleep, yet also seems quite caught up in the story his babysitter is spinning. But that's all right, she has almost reached the conclusion anyhow.
"Though the man and the Travelers fought each other much, in truth both groups were just bidding their time until the opportune moments. The deciding moments. The moments that it would all come down to, the moments where all that ever was and would be – where all of that would be decided."
The babysitter's eyes are bright with passion now.
"Everyone knew that time was drawing near once the penultimate Travelers – "
"What's a penballtomade?" the little boy interjects sleepily, unable to contain himself, and then quickly flings a tiny hand over his mouth as though wishing to shove the words back in there.
But the babysitter doesn't mind too much, and answers him calmly. "Penultimate means second to last. So everyone knew the time was coming nearer once the penultimate Travelers appeared. All the individuals became more tense. Once this generation of Travelers was gone, there would only be one more after them. The last generation. And during the last generation was when those crucial moments would begin to happen."
With this, she leans over and brushes the boy's hair out of his face. Her eyes glaze over his face, examining, almost drinking in his features, as she continues to absently push the brown tresses to the sides. The boy looks up at her, slowly relaxing under her gentle, hypnotic touch. A long moment passes, and then the babysitter draws her hand away, almost as though waking up from being hypnotized herself.
"Good-night, sweetheart," she says, and stands up from the bed.
"But you didn't finish the story." The boy's voice is drowsy, but there is nothing sleepy about sharp look he gives her.
"I know," she replies simply.
"But this isn't right," the boy gripes. "There was no big final battle, the good guys didn't win, and the bad guy didn't die."
"I know," says the babysitter again, smoothing the bedcovers around the boy's body.
"But there wasn't even an ending at all," says the boy irritably as he suppresses a yawn. "I want to hear the ending."
The babysitter is leaning over to turn off the lamp at the boy's bedside, but as he says this, she turns her head towards him. Having her face so close to the only source of light in the room throws one side of her face in a blinding shimmer, leaving the other half in shadows. She smiles at him oddly, blue eyes coruscating.
"Who said that the ending has happened yet?" she whispers.
She pulls the string on the lamp, plunging the room into near darkness.
The boy shivers, and though he is not normally afraid of the dark, he is suddenly glad that his mother insisted on putting a nightlight in his room.
The babysitter strolls to the bedroom door. "Sleep well, dear."
"'Night," the boy mumbles, and though he feels strange from the story, he is still very tired, and is asleep within minutes.
When he wakes up the next day, he doesn't remember the tale at all.