(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Although Lewis Winters, the protagonist/narrator, writes fairy tales, he insists that this story is not one of them. He also says that although the one he loves is eighteen-month-old Caroline Mitchell, the only thing padded in his room is the furniture and the only thing barred is the wallpaper. For those who suspect this is a Lolita story, he says he has never read Vladimir Nabokov’s novel.

Hired by Lisa Mitchell to baby-sit her daughter Caroline, Lewis falls in love with the child and wishes they could spend their lives together. He tells her stories, watches her play, and takes her for walks. When people think Caroline is his daughter, he begins to think of her in that way. Much of the story is taken up with descriptions of Lewis’s caring for Caroline. Although one such description is a lovingly detailed account of giving her a bath, Lewis makes no sexual approaches to the child. However, he is so obsessed with her that he makes a list about how many times he has dreamed about her, how many stories he has told her, how many diapers he has changed, and how many songs he has heard on the radio with her name in them.

Lewis’s idyllic relationship with the child ends one day when her mother comes home early, distressed because she has lost her job. Lewis tries to comfort her, allowing her to rest her head on his shoulder and to cry. When he runs his fingers through her hair, she pulls away and tells him he had better go. The next morning when he arrives at the house, the husband, Thomas Mitchell, tells Lewis they will not be needing his services any more. When Lewis asks to say good-bye to “her,” meaning Caroline, his true love, Mr. Mitchell thinks he is talking about his wife.

The story ends with Lewis standing outside Caroline’s window, thinking of her sleeping in her bed and wondering if he should find a way to tell her good-bye. However, he does not and simply leaves. He often dreams of Caroline resting in his lap, running away with him in his car, pulling to the side of a quiet street, lying on the hood and watching white stars and soaring red airplanes, asking which is the more beautiful and the more real.