Compulsively readable domestic suspense, perfect for fans of THE TURN OF THE KEY and THE PERFECT NANNY, about a woman who takes comfort in reconnecting with her childhood nanny after her father’s death, until she starts to uncover dark secrets the nanny has been holding for twenty years.
Set in New York city and upstate New York, NANNY DEAREST is the story of twenty-five year-old Sue Keller, a young woman reeling from the recent death of her father, a particularly painful loss given that Sue’s mother died of cancer when she was only three. At just this moment of vulnerability comes Anneliese Whitaker, Sue’s former nanny from her childhood days in upstate New York.
Sue, craving connection and mothering, is only too eager to welcome Annie back into her life; but as they become inseparable once again, Sue begins to uncover the truth about Annie’s unsettling time in the Keller house all those years ago, particularly the manner of her departure – or dismissal. At the same time, she begins to grow increasingly alarmed for the safety of the two new charges currently in Annie’s care.
Told in alternating points of views, switching between Annie in the mid-90s and Sue in the present day, this is a taut novel of suspense with a shocking ending.
“I WOULD RECOGNIZE THOSE bangs anywhere,” she says, clutching her large faux-leather bag, pink nails pinching the synthetic hide. I can see the laugh lines beneath her glasses’ rims. I swallow, my tongue darting between my back molars, bracing myself.
“They stuck, I guess.” I laugh lightly, a meek trickle that escapes from my lips before I can stop it. She smiles again, this time with teeth, and I see how her front two overlap, barely discernible. But she’s standing so close that it’s hard not to notice.
“You live around here now?” She stopped me in front of a church and behind us the congregation trickles out, chatting among themselves. A child wails for lunch. The sun beats down hard and yellow, speckling the sidewalk. I raise my hand like a visor, even though I feel the weight of my oversized sunglasses, heavy on the bridge of my nose.
“Yep. Moved down to Alphabet City after college,” I answer. She nods, pushing a wisp of red hair behind her ear.
She is letting the sun in, the pupils of her green eyes shrinking with the effort.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” It’s a statement, not a question, one that she says confidently, as if it’s a sign of character that she is easily forgettable, that fading into my brain’s recesses is some kind of compliment.
The church group disperses and I step away to let a family by.
“I’m sorry. I don’t.” And then, even though she is secure in her stance, amused perhaps by my social transgression, I fumble for some excuse. “Forgive me. I-I’m not good with faces.”
She laughs, then—a long, exhilarating sound, like a wind chime. “I don’t blame you. I think you were about three feet tall the last time you saw me.” She reaches out a hand, dainty and freckled. “I’m Anneliese. Anneliese Whittaker. I was your nanny.” Her hand remains in the air for a moment, outstretched, like the bare limb of a winter tree, before I take it.
“Sue. Sue Keller.” But of course she knows who I am. She says she was my nanny.
“I used to babysit you when you lived upstate.” I flinch, unintentionally. She knew my mother. “How’s your dad? He always wanted to move back up there later in life.”
I bite the inside of my cheek, savoring the tenderized spot there, made bloody by my anxious jaw. “He passed last year. Car accident.”
Anneliese puts a hand to her mouth, her eyes widening behind the glasses. “Oh honey, I’m so sorry. You must miss him a lot, don’t you? He was your whole world back when I knew you.”
I offer her a smile. “Yes, well, aren’t most little girls that way with their fathers?”
The child is still screaming for lunch. His mother is speaking to another woman, the three of them the only people left in front of the church.
“Yes, well, I guess that’s true. You and your dad had a special bond, though.” She gazes at me then, her face full of compassion, those green eyes penetrative.
And we’re silent, for a beat too long. So I find myself shuffling, moving around her. “I actually have to meet a friend.” I check my wrist though I’m not wearing a watch. “But it was funny running into you.” I give her what I hope is an apologetic smile, backing away from her, toward the curb.
She stops me, one of those tiny hands on my wrist, almost tugging at my sleeve like a child. “Wait. I’d love to see you again.” She digs around in her purse. I catch sight of a book, earbuds, some capped pens, a grimy-looking ChapStick. She takes out a receipt, uncaps a pen, and leans the paper against the church’s stone masonry, scrawling her number. The figures are dainty, like her hands.
“I’m sorry to keep you waiting. Tell your friend a crazy lady stopped and demanded you spend time with her.” She laughs again, that wind chime chortle, and I pocket the receipt.
“Nice to see you again!” I call, making the traffic light just in time. When I cross the street and turn, she’s gone, consumed by the hordes, no sign of that red hair glinting in the sunlight.
“And you stopped? I would’ve kept on walking. No time for nutso people like that,” Beth says through the phone as I pace my studio, absentmindedly throwing trash away, smoothing out the creases in my bedspread, my phone nestled between my shoulder and ear. I set it down and put her on speaker. I have the urge, suddenly, to rearrange the furniture in this miniscule apartment. To move the bed to the other side of the room, away from the window, from the noise of the street.
“She knew my name, Beth. She called out ‘Sue.’ I wasn’t going to ignore that.” Outside, a siren wails and I pull down the shade.
“That’s why you always wear headphones. So you have an excuse not to deal with those kinds of people.” Beth smacks her gum, the noise ricocheting through the tinny speaker.
“So you really don’t remember if I had a nanny called Anneliese?” I crumple up the wax paper from my bagel, letting it drift to the floor. The old family photo albums from that period are in storage, buried deep inside the disorganized cardboard boxes I hired movers to collect when I cleaned out Dad’s apartment.
“Dude, we met when we were five. I don’t think I knew my own mom’s name back then. I certainly wouldn’t remember who your babysitter was.” I close my eyes and massage my temples, my usual insomnia-inflicted headache edging toward a dull throb. I don’t remember a long-term nanny. I never had any babysitters growing up, just my dad.
I hear Beth say something to her girlfriend, a bark, and I walk away from the phone for a minute with a twinge of annoyance that she’s not giving me her undivided attention.
I think of Anneliese’s face, those teeth, the green eyes. The hair. And.
I am running in a field with her, in the yard behind the house upstate. The garden is giant. Huge sunflowers, hedges high enough to block the sun. Beneath me, the grass is lush, dewy, tickling my bare feet. And the sky is white, hot and blazing. And she is behind me, shrieking, her freckled arm outstretched, a paintbrush in her hand tinged blue.
And I feel its slick bristles on my back and I fall, stumble. But I am laughing. And she is, too, her orange hair like a halo, eclipsing the sun.
I open my eyes.
“Anyway, I’m having some people over next weekend. I know you hate parties these days but you’re so cooped up all the time in that apartment. I swear it’ll be fun…” Beth squawks on, her voice shrill through the speaker.
“I remember her.”
Beth pauses mid-ramble. “What?”
“I remember her. Anneliese. The woman who stopped me today. She’s not nuts. I remember her.”
There’s a heavy silence on the other end. “Are you sure? You just said you didn’t.” Beth’s voice has lowered an octave, as if she’s whispering. Which I know is for my benefit, so her girlfriend won’t hear.
I tighten my hand into a fist. “I’m serious. She was my nanny. We used to play this game with paint.”
Beth sighs. “Still weird to me. You’re not thinking about calling her or anything like that, right?” But I’m already reaching into the garbage bag I use as a hamper, sifting through it for the sweats I wore earlier today. I take out the receipt, smoothing it out against my knee. It’s for shampoo, coconut Herbal Essences, and I can smell it on her, as if it’s 1996 and I am on the floor of my blue-carpeted bedroom and she is swinging her princess hair to and fro as we play Candy Land, the smell even more enticing than how I imagined Queen Frostine’s scent.
Tears prick my eyelids.
“I want to see her.” It comes out sounding infantile, testy even. And I hear Beth breathing, willing herself not to lash out.
“Okay. Okay, Suzy. Just meet in public and bring some pepper spray. Remember, she stopped you in the street. She really could be anyone, even if she did babysit you a thousand years ago.” I hear her put another piece of gum in her mouth, the wrapper like static.
“I know. She’s just a nice middle-aged woman. And maybe she has some cool things to say about my parents.” I know that will get Beth off my back. Any mention of my parents gets anyone off my back.
I hear her breath as she blows a bubble, the snap of the gum sticking to her lip. “I’m just trying to be a good friend. Don’t fault me for it.” Her voice has lowered again. “I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: you’ve been spending way too much time alone. It’s not like you and I can tell it’s getting to you. It would get to me.” But my finger is already hovering over the End Call button, eager to get Beth off the line.
“I appreciate it. But for real, now I have work to do. I’ll text you.” She spends one more minute reminding me to come to her party next weekend and I promise I will, even though we both know I won’t, and I hang up first, still fingering that crumpled receipt, studying the perfectly shaped eights in the handwritten phone number, each the same height, the same size.
Outside, a dog barks. And I bark back, loud and sharp, laughing at myself, my apartment easing into darkness as the sun sets.
Excerpted from Nanny Dearest by Flora Collins, Copyright © 2021 by Flora Collins. Published by MIRA Books.
Flora Collins was born and raised in New York City and has never left, except for a four-year stint at Vassar College. When she's not writing, she can be found watching reality shows that were canceled after one season or attempting to eat soft-serve ice cream in bed (sometimes simultaneously). Nanny Dearest is her first novel, and draws upon personal experiences from her own family history.