A. K. McCutcheon lives in sunny Southern California with her husband, in a house stacked with too many books to read in one lifetime. Her short stories have appeared in Elegant Literature e-zine. In 2023, her short story “The Offerings” received the First Place award in the Friends of San Diego Central Library Short Story Contest.

House Sitting by Betty

by A. K. McCutcheon

Fred was in a bad mood today. Betty could always tell. It might be the miserable San Francisco weather that made him out of sorts. All morning long, a torrent of warm spring rain streamed down the windows. Dripping like Karo syrup over hotcakes, Betty thought. She hadn’t eaten today. Couldn’t remember what she ate yesterday. Did she eat yesterday?

Her cell phone jangled rudely, interrupting her recollections.

“Hello, is this Miss Betty, with the house sitting?” The woman’s accent trilled like birdsong. Before Betty could answer, the ear-splitting wail of an emergency vehicle siren pierced the background. The caller didn’t wait for a reply. “I am Graciela Perez, housekeeper for the Mister and Missus Hansen. I need someone right away. The house sitter who was here went to the hospital. The neighbors, the Patels, they give me your number. They say you did very good house sitting for them last year.”

Betty remembered the Patels. They paid her in cash, with a generous tip too. Mrs. Patel wore beautiful Indian saris. Their home—in an affluent community south of the city—wafted a delicious sandalwood scent. Oh, the woman with the musical accent is still talking.

“…and there is a dog, a little one. If you can come today, I give the address. It is for three weeks. Can you stay the nights? They pay two hundred dollars for every day.”

The raucous din of the congested Walmart parking lot almost swallowed those last few words, but not quite. Inside her ancient Volvo, crammed with everything she owned, Betty muted her phone, let out a joyful shriek, and jiggled both feet on the floor mat in a happy dance. “Hear that, Fred? A job. A place to stay. Two hundred a day! Now, be a sweetheart and get me there.”

She took her phone off mute and chirped, “Yes, I can clear my schedule for three weeks. Give me the address, dear.”


Betty Markham wriggled onto the high-backed leather chair behind the hardwood desk in the office of the Hansen’s elegant residence, her feet dangling inches above the Turkish carpet. She wore her favorite floral blouse untucked, hiding the button she couldn’t close on the matching pink capri pants. Despite frantic efforts to tame her bobbed gray curls, they corkscrewed in every direction.

At least the skies had brightened for their road trip. Fred’s mood improved, and Betty had enjoyed the pleasant drive down the peninsula highway to the house. Mansion, more like. During their tour of the stately home and grounds, the cheerful, chubby housekeeper called it “French Colonial.”

Across the room, a small brown dog—scrunched face and ears like a bat—lounged in a plush daybed, blinking at her with large round eyes. Betty frowned. That dog has a nicer bed than some people.

She swiveled the chair for a better view of the framed photos adorning the walls: portraits of a smiling couple in snow gear against backdrops of soaring white peaks. She squinted to read the engravings on the frames: Mt. Whitney 2012, Kilimanjaro 2014, Mont Blanc 2017, Denali 2020.

Betty shook her head. This beautiful home, and they’re off climbing mountains. If I had a house like this, I’d never leave.

Graciela switched on the desktop printer, made a copy of Betty’s driver’s license, and handed her a Taxpayer ID Form. Under the housekeeper’s watchful gaze, Betty fidgeted with the silver-tipped pen before deciding on a business name for the form: House Sitting by Betty.

A car horn blared twice from outside the kitchen entrance near the detached six-car garage. Graciela shouldered her handbag and sweater. “Okay, Miss Betty, I see you next week.” Betty followed her through the chandeliered foyer, past the formal living and dining rooms, and into the Food Network-style kitchen, with the dog scurrying behind. The housekeeper stopped at the kitchen door. “The Hansens are good people. I am with them five years. Take care of this house, okay?”

Betty nodded. “I promise—” she began, before a swell of gratitude and excitement constricted her throat. She managed to rasp, “I promise, I will treat this house as if it were my own.” Amazing, how life can change in a day, in an hour, in a heartbeat.

She stood in the doorway and waved as Graciela pulled open the passenger door of a white Ford pickup. A man sat behind the wheel, trim mustache, sunglasses, wearing what looked like white overalls. Beside him sat a young girl, pony-tailed black hair, about twelve years old. Betty remembered her own Sarah at that age, when they were still a family, she and Doug and Sarah, in their tiny home in the East Bay. She smiled faintly at the memories.

Uh-oh, what’s going on?

Graciela had dropped her sweater and bag inside the truck and was walking back toward the house. She pointed to Betty’s old silver Volvo hatchback, parked in front of the pickup near the kitchen entrance. “Miss Betty, you can park your car in the garage. The remote control is there for you in the kitchen.”

“Thank you, Graciela. Please call me Betty, just Betty. And… I’d like to have Fred nearby, where I can see him. So, if it’s all right, he’ll just spend the night there, outside the kitchen window.”

The housekeeper’s face froze. “Fred? There is a pet, or… someone is in the car?”

Betty struggled not to laugh. “Gracious, no. That’s Fred, right there. My faithful old car. We’ve been through a lot together, Fred and I. He’s a friend. My best friend.”

Graciela’s mouth formed a silent “oh.” She studied Betty’s face intently, then looked at the Volvo, then back at Betty. The mustached man in the truck tapped the horn and raised his hands in a questioning gesture.

Graciela lifted her chin. “Miss… ah, Betty,” her tone was firm, “I will see you tomorrow.” She trotted back to the pickup and climbed in, glancing back at Betty as they drove away.

Betty didn’t need to ask why the housekeeper decided to return sooner than expected. People didn’t understand about Fred. She’d grown accustomed to the indulgent nodding and clucking, and often, snickering. Let them laugh. She didn’t need their pity or their charity.

She hovered at the kitchen window until the white truck disappeared around the first bend of the oak-lined driveway. Then, targeting a bowl of fruit atop the kitchen counter, she pounced on a banana, ripped off the peel, and stuffed the soft sweet fruit into her mouth. Chewing furiously, she made her way to the double-wide refrigerator and threw open the door. She almost cried when she spied the delights within. Minutes later, perched on a barstool at the kitchen island, she gulped a Diet Coke and savored every crumb of an overstuffed turkey sandwich.

Betty tidied the kitchen after her meal, reveling in the pleasingly uncomfortable sensation of a full stomach. She cracked open the kitchen door to a rush of cool evening air, lifted the dog’s leash from a hook near the door, and whistled a trio of shrill notes. The dog came running and hopped around her feet. She scooped him into her arms and clipped the leash to his collar. “Time for a walk and a pee-pee, little guy. Let’s go see Fred.”

The dog pulled at the leash, sniffing excitedly around the boxwood shrubbery and lifting his leg every few feet. Finally, he settled, and they walked along the edge of the sloping manicured lawn toward the garage before heading back to the house. When they approached the parked Volvo, Betty stopped, marveling at the quiet. No traffic sounds, no neighbor activity, even the birds observed the hush. The ebbing twilight lingered at the treetops. A gentle breeze tickled her cheek. She stood still and inhaled deeply: moist leaves, nearby chimney smoke, the distant Bay.

For the first time—in how long?—she felt relaxed, at peace, even hopeful.

She peered inside the vehicle, the beige rear seat barely visible beneath bags of clothing, folded blankets, stacked pillows. “What do you think of this place, Fred? I think it’s nice.”

No, people didn’t understand about Fred. With her husband gone, the house gone, the money gone, even basic needs were often unattainable, unaffordable. As long as she could rely on Fred to keep her and her scant possessions off the streets, and take her where she needed to go, she was secure in her world. When she allocated spare change to pay for a meal or buy fuel for Fred’s tank, the money would go to Fred first, every time. That’s what you do for your best friend, especially when he’s all the home you have left.


Betty woke at dawn the next morning. Shivering, she sat up, stretched her stiff legs, and gazed out the Volvo’s windshield at a pinking sky, dewy hedges, and the stone façade of the house looming overhead. She mumbled, “Morning, Fred,” then wrapped her warmest blanket around her shoulders, pushed open the car door, and made her way gingerly across the gravel toward the kitchen door.


Late that afternoon, as she stacked the day’s mail in the office, Betty’s throat fluttered, a trembling sensation in her chest. She hugged her upper arms, massaging up and down. The familiar craving sensations were back. She called them her “jitters”: the restless shaking, tingling fingers, parched mouth. Determined to distract herself, she grabbed a Diet Coke from the fridge and headed for the TV room. When she passed the formal living room, she stopped. How did she not notice it yesterday? A Steinway grand piano, resplendent at the far end of the room. Satin ebony finish. Gleaming brass hardware beneath the open lid.

Betty set her Coke can on the hardwood floor and slid onto the piano bench, adjusting the seat height with the pneumatic control knob. She rubbed her hands briskly to warm them, touched the keys, and began to play. Debussy’s Arabesque No.1. A short piece, one of her favorites. After the last tinkling notes, she dropped her hands in her lap and sighed.

“Betty, that was very beautiful.” Graciela stood in the doorway, smiling.

Betty jerked, startled. “Oh, Graciela, I didn’t hear you come in. Thank you… It’s been a long time since I’ve played. I used to teach piano. Years ago.” She stroked the keys tenderly. “I’ve never played an instrument as fine as this one.”

The housekeeper nodded as she crossed the room. “The Mister Hansen, he plays. The piano belonged to his mother.” Her eyebrows creased. “Ah, Betty, I was upstairs right now. You didn’t sleep in your bed last night? Is everything all right with the room?”

Yes, yes, of course. Everything’s fine.” Betty hoped her tone was reassuring. “Will I see you again tomorrow?”

Graciela shook her head slowly. “I will see you next week on Friday.” She reached across the piano and patted Betty’s hand. “Take care of yourself, Betty.” Her eyes glinted; not unkindly, Betty thought.

Moments after the housekeeper left the room, Betty’s phone vibrated and rang. Sarah. Her voice urgent, alarmed. “Mom, where are you? The manager at Glen Terrace called. She said you owe this month’s rent and last month’s too. What’s going on?”

“Honey, everything’s fine. I moved out, that’s all. I have a new house sitting job. Three weeks. Good money too.”

“House sitting? I thought you gave that up after you moved to Glen Terrace. You said your bills were paid up and—”

Betty tensed, biting her lip.

Sarah’s voice dropped, low and breathy. “Mom, are you going online again?”

The jitters bubbled in Betty’s chest.

“Oh, Mom.” A heavy sigh. “I can’t help you anymore. Josh asked about the money. I told him I needed things for the kids. Are you… are you still going to meetings?”

Betty wished she hadn’t answered the phone.

“Mom, please call the number. Promise me, please.”

The anguish in her daughter’s voice tightened the knot in Betty’s throat. She tugged at her collar. “Honey, it’s okay. I’m okay. I’ll call. I promise.”

Betty moved to the TV room, flopped onto the pillowy couch, and keyed the number into her phone. A male voice answered. “This is the Gambling Helpline. How can I help—”

She ended the call.

“I called,” Betty muttered to the empty room. “Promise made, promise kept.”

Sarah’s voice flickered across her memory, despondent, insistent. Flickering… fading… gone. The jitters consumed the familiar pangs of guilt and shame, growling with a beastly hunger, demanding to be fed.

What was the Wi-Fi password Graciela mentioned? I remember now, it’s the dog’s name: B-U-S-T-E-R. Betty grimaced. People are so predictable.

She opened the app on her phone. Vegas Slots, her favorite online casino. Cash still available in her account. She spotted a new game: “Anchors Aweigh.” My Doug was in the Navy when we met. It’s a sign!

Her momentary excitement gave way to an avalanche of melancholy. Memories of Doug. Life with him wasn’t perfect, far from it. But it was simpler then. And when you love someone, you love them, right? Even in the hard times, she felt… grounded, centered, needed. That was before. Before she lost him to lung cancer, before she lost everything. Her lips quivered. These thoughts always came up on her unexpectedly. She couldn’t bear to think sad thoughts anymore.

The phone heated the skin of her palm. The screen glowed and vibrated with alluring shapes, whirling colors. Lock in a bet, and… swipe. Ka-ching! Ka-ching! Ka-ching! A winner! Lock in, and swipe. Ka-ching! Five free plays!

Betty kicked off her shoes and gave herself to the game: the warm flush cascading over her body after every win; the bitter aftertaste of every loss; the fevered heat of expectation before each new roll. As long as her luck held out, there would be no sleep tonight.

She hoped Fred wouldn’t miss her too much.


Betty sat slumped on the floor in the TV room, surrounded by two empty boxes of Italian cookies and six drained Diet Coke cans. Gone. The money was gone. Kneading her tingling hands, she practiced the self-talk recommended in therapy: Just hold on until this job pays out and you can go home to Glen Terrace. Now you need to sleep. Maybe, in a real bed tonight?

Bleary-eyed, she trudged up the sweeping marble staircase in the dark, took a wrong turn at the top, and flung open the door to an unfamiliar room. A room she hadn’t toured with Graciela. Peeking inside—Wow, this place is huge. Must be the master bedroom. She hesitated, her hand lingering near the door knob. I guess it wouldn’t hurt to look around…

A stone fireplace. A canopied four-poster bed. Two bathrooms. A walk-in closet more spacious than her last studio apartment, soft lighting, a dazzling wardrobe, and—Is that one of those fainting couches? Betty wondered if Melanie Hansen ever fainted. Recalling the photos of the athletic-looking woman wielding an ice ax, she thought: probably not a fainter. Unable to resist, she stretched out on the button-tufted gold fabric.

From her reclined position, she detected subtle movement overhead; the mirror on the wall above the couch wobbled slightly. Will that thing fall on me? She leaned forward, gripped the frame, and yelped— “Whoa!”—as the mirror swung out, revealing a concealed wall safe.

Betty gawked at the safe, openmouthed, then shook her head and closed the mirror. Not a good hiding place. I hope she doesn’t keep many valuables inside. Smiling wearily, she settled back on the couch… eyelids heavy, head drooping, arms numb.


Betty awoke to shrill ringing. The house phone. She stumbled groggily downstairs to the speaker phone in the kitchen and keyed in the voicemail code.

“Hello, Mrs. Yamashita,” the message began. That must be the house sitter who went to the hospital. “Evelyn Sutterfield calling, the Hansen’s attorney. I have difficult news. There was a disaster in Nepal. An avalanche. The Hansens did not survive.” Betty swayed backward, one hand over her mouth. “Please arrange to vacate the home today. An associate from the firm will arrive this afternoon to reset the security alarm and convey the pet to a kennel. Please remit an invoice for your services to be paid as the estate is settled—”

Betty registered that the lawyer’s message was still playing, but her brain refused to process the words. She dropped to the floor and hugged her knees, rocking back and forth.

Vacate today? Where will I go? I can’t wait to be paid. I need the money now.

Minutes later, she stood before the hidden safe in the walk-in closet. A keypad lock. She tried B-U-S-T-E-R, the voicemail code, the house alarm code. None worked. People are predictable. Think, Betty, think.

She collapsed onto the armchair near the bed, rubbing her eyes. An object on the fireplace mantel came into focus: a metal jar inscribed “Cookie” in block lettering. A cookie jar in a bedroom? She moved closer to the fireplace. The jar was embossed with tiny pawprints. An urn. The ashes of a beloved pet. Could it be so simple? She returned to the closet and keyed in the letters: C-O-O-K-I-E. The safe clicked and popped open. Inside, five stacked sliding drawers displayed glittering ornaments on white velvet: necklaces, bracelets, earrings, watches, rings. Her heartbeat pulsing in her ears, she hesitated… and gripped the door to relock the safe. Then—her mind made up—she opened it wide.

Betty made her way downstairs, her canvas duffel bag brushing the top of each step. Inside the bag, a sock concealed diamond earrings and a Rolex watch. No need for greed. The earrings and watch will do fine. The nice folks at the Oakland Jewelry Exchange will give me a fair price. With luck, they’ll still have my wedding ring.

As she passed the office, she spotted Buster napping on his chaise. “Did you hear the lawyer? You’re going to a kennel. I’m sorry, buddy.” The dog hopped onto the rug and scampered over to her, yipping expectantly. Betty considered the tiny animal circling her feet. “Why should you end up all alone in a strange place? My grandkids would love a cute little guy like you.”

She sat at the desk and reached for a notepad. Dear Lawyers, she wrote, Buster ran away. I looked everywhere. I’m so sorry.

The letter done, she spotted the manila folder on the desk. Aha! She opened the folder, removed her driver’s license copy and tax form, crumpled the pages, and stuffed them into the pocket of her cardigan. Satisfied, she rose from the desk, smiling. “Hey, Buster, wanna go for a ride? Fred’s waiting.”

Betty coaxed the sputtering Volvo toward the main road, heading for the bridge to Oakland. Pulling the dog onto her lap, she mused dreamily about her tiny furnished apartment at Glen Terrace. “Yunno, Fred, it will be so good to be home.”


Ten days later, a black Mercedes eased along the tree-lined drive to the Hansen home and parked beneath the porte-cochère. The driver turned to the lone passenger: a slender woman, her left leg encased in a heavy brace. “Let’s get you inside so you can rest that leg.” Her face softened with compassion. “George was a treasured client and a good friend. Please let me know if there is anything the firm can do for you. Call me any time.”

Melanie Hansen gazed at the house, eyes glistening. “Thank you, Evelyn.” She sighed. “You know, in the middle of… everything… all I kept thinking was: It will be so good to be home.”


Betty shifted uneasily on the cushions of the pearl-white couch in the formal living room, tapping her foot on the eggshell-white carpet. She balanced the delicate tea cup in both hands, terrified of sloshing a drop of Oolong on the spotless surroundings. Her focus darted around the room, then returned to the face of the woman seated in the creamy-white armchair opposite the couch. The conversation had settled into an uncomfortable lull following the initial polite small talk. Buster snored softly on the rug near Betty’s feet, his ears twitching.

Melanie winced and shifted her braced leg to a more centered position on the white footstool. She sipped from her cup, then continued tearfully, “I never imagined I’d come home without George.” Regaining her composure, she shook her head. “I’m sorry about that first phone call from Evelyn, about the confusion, asking you to leave so suddenly. Conditions on the mountain were… awful, chaotic. It was another woman who was found, poor thing.” She lowered her eyes, then looked up. “There is one thing I’d like to know.” She caught Betty’s gaze with a direct look. “I know why you left in such a hurry. I want to know why you turned around and came back.”

Betty’s foot stopped tapping; her body stilled.

Melanie placed her teacup on the tray table near her chair. “The security cameras at the front driveway recorded you leaving. But you turned your car around before you reached the road. Before the attorney arrived to tell you that I’d be coming home.” She leaned forward, her head tilted.

“There are motion-detector cameras in the bedroom closet. The cameras are activated when the safe is opened. Everything was recorded. So, why did you come back that day? Why did you return my jewelry to the safe?”

“Because I’m not a thief.” Betty’s voice wobbled, but the words flowed out in a rush. “I was sad, I was scared, I had nowhere to go, I needed money. But I… I’m not a thief.” This is it, she thought, I’m going to jail.

Melanie’s face was impassive, unreadable. “After I saw the recording, I asked Evelyn’s firm to look into your background. I spoke to your daughter. I know it’s been difficult for you since your husband’s death. And earlier, with his gambling problems, the bankruptcy. Is he the reason you started gambling?”

Betty didn’t answer. Her face flushed with heat. My Doug is none of your business. Her stomach twisted with the mortifying realization: This woman talked to Sarah. How could she do that?

Melanie’s expression softened, her eyes warming. “Let me tell you something about me, Betty. All this—” she waved a hand to indicate the room, the walls, the furnishings— “is George’s legacy, not mine. We met late in life. He was an adventurer. So we set out together to live his dreams.” Her voice quavered. “And now, I’m alone in the house he built before he met me… the house he loved.”

Betty wondered where all this talk was leading. Is she going to call the police, or not?

Melanie propped her arms on her knees and folded her hands as if in prayer. “Betty, you and I have something in common. We’re both survivors. I know that George would want me to go on, to find peace and happiness without him, if I can. I think your husband would want the same for you. I’ve been given a second chance at life. I’d like to offer you another chance too.”

Betty’s thoughts swirled; the effect was dizzying.

“I’m leaving soon, to stay with my sister on the east coast. I don’t know when I’ll be back.” She exhaled a shuddering breath. “There are just too many memories here.”

Melanie sat back in her chair and smiled softly. “Betty, I’d like you to stay on. I know you’re not a thief. You made a mistake, and you made it right. I believe I can trust you to take care of the house, and Buster too. He was George’s dog, and he seems to love you. Graciela mentioned you play piano. That’s wonderful. The Steinway should be played to keep it in good order. If you agree to stay, we’ll talk about a monthly salary and benefits.

“There is one condition.” Her tone deepened. “You must complete an addiction treatment program. There are several excellent outpatient programs within driving distance. I would receive reports on your progress.”

Betty’s hands began to tremble. I don’t need this rich woman’s pity. Or her charity.

Then it happened. Her fingers slipped on the cup, ever so slightly… just enough to tip a splash of tea onto the eggshell carpet. Betty recoiled in dismay at the dark stain expanding at her feet. She grabbed a handful of napkins from the tray table, dropped to her knees, and began blotting the carpet frantically. Buster, startled from his nap, flipped onto his belly and scooted behind the couch.

Melanie reached out and touched Betty’s arm gently. “Betty, it’s fine, it’s fine. Please stop, it’s not necessary.”

Betty clutched the soggy napkins in her fist and rose shakily to her feet. “I’m sorry about the rug. I think I’ll—” She looked around the elegantly furnished room, at the magnificent grand piano, at the view of the trees through the bay window overlooking the front drive. “I think I’ll go upstairs and get my bag now,” she said, careful to avoid Melanie’s eyes. “I appreciate your offer, I just… I just don’t think it’s right for me.”

Betty backed out of the room slowly, then turned and headed for the stairs.

Melanie shifted in her chair and called after her: “Betty, I hope I didn’t offend you. I really wish you’d reconsider.” She grabbed Buster’s collar as the dog whimpered and struggled to follow Betty from the room.

Ten minutes later, Betty steered the creaky Volvo down the curving driveway. She glanced at the reflection of the house in the rearview mirror: Melanie and Graciela standing side by side at the bay window, watching her departure. Tightening her grip on the wheel, she whispered, “I’m scared, Fred. I’m so scared.”

She jolted at the sound of her phone’s ringtone. A familiar number lit up the screen: Graciela calling. Betty stopped the car; the Volvo’s red brake lights reflected in the smooth glass of the bay window.

“Hello, Betty. The Missus Hansen wants to tell you the garage is heated. She says Fred will be comfortable there when the weather is cold.”

Betty dabbed her wet cheeks and muted the phone. “What do you think about that, Fred?”

The reflection of the Volvo’s tail lights in the bay window changed from bright red to brilliant white, as the car executed a perfect three-point turn and headed back up the driveway toward the house.

Copyright 2024 by A. K. McCutcheon