“I feel like a bag of smashed assholes,” I mumble to myself as I pile through the front door of my apartment, haphazardly shedding my coat, shoes, and backpack into a pile behind the door. My phone starts vibrating in my pocket, I clumsily fish it out.

— Can you come tonight? – Karen – 6:43PM

Karen? The woman who wants me to watch her dogs? Karen had messaged me last week and never replied after I gave her a quote of $60.00 per day; an exorbitant sum I thought no one would accept, especially considering my usual rate is $25.00 a day. She had posted on varsity hire asking for someone to take care of three cats, a dog, and three Chinese exchange students staying in her house. I didn’t want the job and figured that quoting $60.00 a day would warn her off, seems like I was wrong.

— What time? – Josh – 6:44PM

With a balance of 8 cents in my bank account, this one job will keep me fed until the semester ends, no more peanut butter and day-old co-op bread for me. Besides, all the moving around I’ve been doing for three-day jobs is such a bother, it’ll be nice to live in the home I rent for longer than four days in a row.

— As soon as you can, my sister wants to leave. – Karen – 6:49PM

That’s weird, she doesn’t want to ask me anything? I’ve never taken a new job without a signed contract and 50% deposit, the idea of running across town with no guarantee that I’ll get paid makes this job lose much of its luster.

— I usually take a 50% deposit, and I’ll require a signed contract before I start. – Josh – 6:50PM

I sit down at my desk, switch on my laptop, and browse Reddit while waiting for Karen’s reply.

— I’m in Australia taking care of my son, he’s very ill. Can we deal with this tomorrow? – Karen – 6:55PM

This is too weird, she’s in Australia?

— I’m not really comfortable with that. – Josh – 6:55PM

She wants me to take care of her home, her dog, her cats, and three 16-year-old exchange students without a contract? This is getting really weird. Maybe I should tell her I’m busy.

— I’ll get my husband to email you the deposit. I’m in the hospital with my sick son and my husband is on the other side of Australia taking care of funeral arrangements for his father. – Karen – 7:00PM

— I need someone to take over for my sister, if you send me a contract I’ll sign it right away. – Karen – 7:01PM

— But my husband is unavailable until tomorrow, he’ll email you the money as soon as I can get in touch with him. – Karen – 7:01PM

The women’s son is sick, her husband’s dad just died, and to top it all off they’re both in Australia? You can’t make this shit up, if this is a con it’s the worst con I’ve ever heard of.

— I’ll be there by 7:30. – Josh – 7:03PM

— We can deal with the arrangements tomorrow. – Josh – 7:03PM

— What’s the address? – Josh – 7:03PM

I slip my phone into my pocket, pick up my backpack and head into my bedroom to pack up the suitcase I’ve spent too much of this semester living out of. I have the art of packing down to a fine science, in two minutes I pack enough clothes to get me through three days, my toiletries, and my precious laptop. My phone vibrates:

— 17 Smith ST. – Karen – 7:05PM

— Can I tell my sister you’re coming? – Karen – 7:05PM

Didn’t I just tell her I’ll be there by 7:30?

— Yeah, I’ll be there by 7:30, I’m just calling an Uber now. – Josh – 7:06PM

I request an Uber on my phone.

— Great, the three people before you haven’t showed. – Karen – 7:09PM

What? She’s already hired three other people for this job? That’s definitely weird, but I really need some cash.

— I’ll be there. – Josh – 7:10PM

I zip up my small black suitcase and make sure everything in my apartment is turned off. I check under the kitchen sink to make sure the garbage is empty; I had once made the mistake of leaving a couple apple cores in the trash and by the time I returned home three days later, a full-scale fruit-fly invasion had occurred. I recover my coat from the floor, shrug it on, and drag my suitcase behind me as I bundle out the door. 7:13PM, I’ve only been home for half an hour, I slip my phone back into my pocket, fumble my key into the deadbolt, and clumsily drag my suitcase down the hallway to the elevator.

When I arrive in the lobby my Uber is already waiting outside. I guess living downtown has its benefits.

“Hey, can you open the trunk?” I ask the driver through his barely cracked open window. He nods and the trunk pops open, I guess he’s not going to help. I put my suitcase in the trunk, pull open the rear passenger door, and cram my six-foot-tall self into the backseat of the cramped car.

“Where to?”

“17 Smith ST.”

The driver nods, puts the car into gear, and pulls away from the curb.

I awkwardly fish my phone out of my pocket and browse Reddit, hoping the driver will remain silent throughout the trip, I hate forced conversation.

We pull up to the house at 7:32PM and my first impressions are not good. The house looks like a drug den, there are rusty lawn chairs in the yard, a broken-down Chevy in the drive, and all the windows are blacked out with tin foil. Am I walking into a murder scene? I get out of the car and for a long moment consider getting back in and going home. Is $60.00 a day worth it? The ridiculously steep quote of 15 minutes ago is quickly turning in to the bargain of the century.

I recover my suitcase from the trunk, haul my suitcase over the broken paving stones and up to the crooked screen door. I pull my sweater sleeve down to avoid touching anything, ring the doorbell with a sweater-covered finger, and hold my breath.

A very large, bottle blond, middle aged woman answers the door. “Who are you?” She asks brusquely.

“Karen sent me to take over.” I peek around the woman and see two small – noticeably not Chinese – children and a teen-aged boy siting around a table in a house that I can only describe as no more than one health inspection away from being declared unfit for human habitation.

“Are you the sitter?”

“Yeah,” I’m still trying to take in the house. I cannot believe there are children living in a place like this. Peering in from the front door, I can see books and VHS tape boxes scattered amongst all sorts of other random garbage completely covering the floor. I decide I need to GTFO before this turns into a Lifetime special, “I’m not sure-”

“You’re not supposed to be here until tomorrow, but now that you’re here you may as well stay. The other three didn’t even show up.”

Maybe they were smart and decided to leave before ringing the doorbell. “Um-” is all I manage to say before the large woman physically herds me into the house.

“This is Mark,” she indicates the small — I can only assume between 6 and 8 — child, “that’s Chris” she points at the slightly larger child, “and that’s Thomas.”

Thomas, the teenager, stands up and offers me his hand.

“Hi,” I say, continuing to take in the various hazards of the house. The smell is unbelievable, as though cats have been kept in the house for years without anyone ever changing their litter. The table the kids are sitting at is covered in dirt and the walls- is that shit? Are the walls covered in cat shit? Where am I?

“We’re not leaving until tomorrow; can you sleep on the couch?”

Does she mean that couch? The couch with actual animal vomit on it? “No. Absolutely not.” I say, finally gaining my bearings enough to form complete sentences.

The woman looks at me like I had pulled a gun. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, I’m not sleeping on the couch. I’m going home to sleep in my own bed.” I turn just in time to see my Uber pulling away, “wait!” I yell.

“If you leave you wont come back.” This woman really knows her shit, she turns to the kids, “pack up, we’re leaving.”

Wait. What? “There’s no need, I’ll come back tomorrow.” I lie.

“No. We’re leaving.” She starts herding the kids to their various tasks.

Okay, what do I do now? This place is a total disaster. “What about the dog?” I’m grasping at straws, hoping for another way out.

“The dog?” The woman asks, clearly perplexed.

“Yeah, you know, I’m a dog sitter.”

“There is no dog.”

“What?” Now I’m certain: I need to get the fuck out of here.

“The dog’s not here, someone took it.”

Is it even possible for this to get stranger? “What about the cats?”

“I haven’t seen them.”

“You haven’t seen them?” Okay, that’s it, I’m pulling the ripcord on this insanity. “Listen, I’m going home, I can’t stay here.”

“No.”

“what do you mean ‘no,’ I’ve got to go, I’m a dog sitter, not-” I swing my arms wide, “whatever this is.”

“I have to go back to Red Deer. If you leave they’re going to deport the students.

What. The. Fuck. I had forgotten about the students. “Okay,” I remember Karen, her Australian issues, and the fact that I’m broke. I can clean up, it can’t be that dirty, “what do I need to do?”

“You need to stay here, cook them breakfast, make lunches, and cook dinner.”

“What do they eat?”

“Whatever you make them.”

“Like, anything?”

“Yeah, I’ve been making them boiled eggs and store-bought lasagna for two weeks.”

Wait, weeks? “How long has this been going on?”

“Karen lives in Australia, her husband is the one who takes care of the house. He left for a couple of weeks to take care of his father’s funeral arrangements and Karen was supposed to take over. But, her son got sick and she had to stay.”

I move further into the house, stepping out of the doorway for the first time since my arrival. “Where do I sleep?”

She points at a room directly opposite the front door, “where we’ve been sleeping.”

She’s been sleeping in a single bed with two small children and a teenager for two weeks? I look into the room, “there’s a litter box right next to the bed.”

“Yeah, there’s a cat in there that doesn’t come out.”

There’s a cat that doesn’t come out? Okay, didn’t she just tell me she hasn’t seen the cat?

“Is everyone ready?”

In my moments of baffled horror I hadn’t noticed the kids had finished their packing. “So, what do I feed the cats? Where is their litter?” I grasp at anything that could make sense of this situation.

“Ask Jun, he’s in his room.” She herds the kids out the door, “good luck!”

And that’s how I spent two weeks taking care of three Chinese teenagers. There is more to this story, but that’s a story for another time. The fact that I survived must suffice, at least for now.