“You owe me,” Stacey declared the next morning, as they rode together on the bus.
Robbie didn’t see that he owed her anything. If anything, it seemed to him, the situation was the other way around. But he went ahead and asked, albeit a touch warily, “What is it I owe you?”
“I want to do more research.”
Robbie frowned. “But I already have enough to write my essay.”
Stacey gave him a look. She mouthed the words “you owe me,” very slowly and pointedly.
“All right.” He sighed. He was starting to wonder just whose essay this really was. “Who do you want to research now?”
“Mr. Chou? The guy you babysit for?”
“I’m supposed to sit for his daughter Sunny again this Saturday, which is just a few days away. You can wait to finish up the research for just a few more days, can’t you?”
“Well, yeah, I guess so.” Robbie offered up a lazy, indifferent shrug. “But why? Who really cares about Mr. Chou? It’s not like he’s the mayor or the principal or something.”
The muscles in Stacey’s jaw flexed, and she replied, “I care about Mr. Chou.”
Robbie flinched. Anger and guilt mixed together inside him, creating a sour-sick mixture that sat like heavy iron in his chest.
“Let’s research Mr. Chou next,” he said. He quickly turned to look out the bus windows, silently counting mailboxes as they passed by for the rest of the trip to school.
The following Saturday, at six o’clock sharp, Stacey rang the doorbell at the Chou residence. Tonight, Lee Chou was on time and, as always, admitted Stacey into the living room while running down his eternal checklist—cell phone number, emergency number, poison control hotline, allergies list (still none), Suyin’s bedtime. Stacey provided the rote reassurance and gently escorted Mr. Chou to his own front door.
Five seconds after he’d finally left, Suyin flopped down on the couch and gazed up at Stacey with mercenary eyes. “So, what movie did you bring tonight?” she demanded.
“Yay! I like bunnies.”
“Hey, how about that, huh?”
Stacy knew perfectly well, of course, that Suyin was crazy over bunnies. A very large, and slightly demonic-appearing, pink stuffed rabbit guarded over the little girl’s bedroom, from its place of honor at the head of the bed.
As Suyin laughed at the antics of Bugs Bunny and his Looney Tunes associates, Stacey sat thinking about Robert’s essay. It occurred to her that it might be a bit difficult to research Lee Chou if her interactions with him lasted less than five minutes. Hopefully when he got back she could arrange for them to talk a little longer.
Suyin fell asleep before the very first disc was over, and Stacey smiled at the rather loud snores that originated from the couch. She put a pillow under the girl’s head, covered her with a blanket, and muted the television. Then she picked up her cell phone and dialed the phone numbers to Robbie’s house. As she listened to the line ring, she wished, not for the first time, that Robbie would get his own cell phone already.
While the phone rang at the Banks’ residence, the Banks family was engaged in its usual nightly rituals. In the living room, Alan was sitting in an armchair and Catherine was sitting on the couch, both watching the television in silence. Robbie was in his room, lying on his bed and listening to music through headphones, staring up at the glow-in-the-dark stars that dotted his bedroom ceiling. Later, Alan would either go to the garage to work on one of his projects or visit the Richardsons to discuss fishing lures with Gene. Catherine would retire to the master bedroom with a paperback novel and a glass of wine. Robbie would, generally, stay in his room—listening to music, playing his guitar, reading, perhaps playing a video game—before finally turning off the lights and going to sleep.
It was Catherine who answered the phone when Stacey called.
She took the cordless phone over to Robbie’s bedroom door and knocked sharply. “Open up! You’ve got a phone call, Robbie. A girl.”
“Just a minute!” The door opened, and Robbie peeked out. “Stacey? Was it Stacey?”
“I think that was her name. Yes. Yes, I think it was.” Catherine did not make any motion to hand over the phone. “So, who is this Stacey girl?”
“Mom, Stacey is just a friend. She goes to school with me.”
“I don’t remember you mentioning any Stacey. You never tell me anything about your friends.” Catherine looked at him, still not budging, for a beat or two. Then she handed over the phone with a sigh and said, “And you know I don’t want you dating girls until you’re older.”
Robbie held the phone tight to his chest and fought down the urge to roll his eyes. “We’re not dating,” he said, a bit curtly, and turned his back to his mother. He closed and locked the door behind him. “Stacey?”
“Hi, Robert.” Stacey’s voice sounded strange through the phone. Louder and chummier than it should. “I just thought I’d check in with you. You know, about how the research’s going.”
“Yeah, sure, great.”
Robbie sat on his bed and waited for her to continue, to give him her update. But Stacey didn’t say a word. Robbie began to suspect that possibly all was not well.
He wondered why nothing could be easy or simple in his life. Perhaps it was bad karma. Perhaps it was the will of the gods. Perhaps it was having an incompetent research assistant.
“So,” said Robbie, “how’s the research going?”
“See, the thing is, Mr. Chou never sticks around the house long enough for us to really. So it’s hard to find out anything about him.”
“If you could think up a way to get into the principal’s office, I’m sure you can think of a way to find out stuff about Mr. Chou.”
“Robert! I can’t go rummaging through his stuff!”
“I didn’t mean for you to—”
“Mr. Chou isn’t the principal or the mayor!”
Robbie flopped back against the pillows on his bed, and he closed his eyes. “Look,” he said. “Just do the best you can. Keep your eyes open. Follow your instincts. You got this.”
“Okay. Okay, yeah.” There was a pause, and when Stacey spoke again, she sounded more like herself. “Yeah. I’ve got this. Don’t worry, Robert. I won’t let you down.”
“I know you won’t. And Stacey? Thanks for helping me with the essay.”
After saying good-night and hanging up, Stacey went to check on Suyin, pulled a blanket over the little girl’s shoulders, and tiptoed into the kitchen to get a soda. Sodas were okay. Mr. Chou said she was allowed to have a soda if she wanted. She returned to the living room with her drink and carefully set it down on the coffee table. Although she suspected Mr. Chou wouldn’t be overly thrilled about her having a drink in the living room, he’d never actually told her not to do it. As long as she didn’t spill any and got the empty can back to the kitchen, she figured it would be all right.
She sat on the very edge of the couch cushions, careful to keep her can of soda positioned over the coffee table whenever she wasn’t actively lifting it to her lips. The television, still muted, showed Wile E. Coyote chasing the Road Runner. As a child, she’d always found the Road Runner cartoons frustrating. The coyote tried so hard, for so long, and it felt like he ought to be allowed to catch that stupid bird every now and again.
She supposed, though, that the resulting blood and guts and ripped feathers might not be entirely appropriate for a young audience. Still. That Road Runner was just so smug.
While she was pondering over these weighty matters, she heard the click of the front door lock, followed by the opening and shutting of the door. She turned off the television set and turned around in time to see Lee Chou trudge into the living room. His tie was loosened and, as always, he looked tired and much more like a grandfather than a father.
The first thing he did was walk over to Suyin and kneel beside her. “Was she good?” he whispered, while stroking his daughter’s hair.
“Absolutely. Suyin’s always good.”
“That’s my girl …” He trailed off and stared at nothing at all.
Stacey coughed gently to remind him that she was still in the room. “So,” she said, “how was your night?”
Mr. Chou looked up at Stacey and blinked rapidly. He forced himself to smile. “Thank you, again, for looking after Suyin,” he said, which wasn’t really an answer. ”I’m going to take her upstairs and get her in bed. I’ll be back down in a bit and—your mother is picking you up at the usual time, yes?”
“Yeah. She’s supposed to, anyway, but—” Stacey bit down on whatever she’d been about to say. In a flat tone, she finished, “Yeah, she’s picking me at the usual time.”
“Good. That’s good.”
As Chou picked up Suyin in his arms and carefully carried her up to her bedroom, Stacey turned off the television set.
Helping Robbie with his essay was turning out to be one of the most fun things she’d ever done. First, there had been the surveillance mission to the principal’s and office, now an undercover mission at the Chou house. Too bad she hadn’t decided to write an essay herself. Now it was too late. The essays had to be turned into the principal in just a couple weeks, so that he could choose the one that would represent Middleton Middle School by the state contest deadline, so that in turn the state essay could be chosen by the national contest deadline, so that the final, winning essay could be chosen at the big event sometime in May. (Stacey knew the entire timeline like she knew the entire catalog of Nancy Drew novels, because Robbie had only reminded her about ten thousand times of each deadline.) Since there were only two weeks left, Stacey figured that there wasn’t nearly enough time to write an essay worth anything, not between school and babysitting and everything.
Well. One had to be philosophical about such things. There was always next year. Unless this essay contest was a one-time thing. Was it just a one-time thing? She’d have to ask Robbie. Or maybe Mr. Klein.
Suddenly, Stacey’s thoughts snapped back to the present. Something wasn’t right. She felt it. A lot of time had gone by since Mr. Chou had taken Suyin upstairs. He had never taken this long—nowhere near this long—to come back downstairs.
She took her soda can to the kitchen and placed it in the recycling bin, then walked silently to the base of the stairs. She stopped and listened. The only sound in the entire house was the sound of her own breathing. She began making her way up the staircase, pausing every couple stairs to listen some more, then taking a couple more stairs. Once she reached the top, she peeked into Suyin’s room, which was the first door on the right. The room was dark, save for the greenish glow of the nightlight in the corner. Stacey watched as Suyin gently snored, and the little girl would have seemed peaceful if not for the alien green tinge to her face, thanks to the nightlight. Shutting the door, Stacey looked into the bathroom and the linen closet, even though she felt ridiculous doing so. Both were empty, of course.
That left the master bedroom. It was the only room upstairs that she hadn’t checked—the room she didn’t want to check. She’d always been taught not to enter her parents’ bedroom, and then, even more firmly, not to enter her mother’s bedroom. She wasn’t sure just what the consequences would be, because she’d never dared.
And yet. She couldn’t get rid of the sinking feeling in her stomach. Her heart thudding in her ears, Stacey opened the door to the master bedroom and looked inside.
On the bed, with his back to the door, sat Lee Chou. Only his silhouette was visible in the darkened room. His head hung low, as though it took too much strength for him to lift it. His right hand rested on his thigh, clenched tightly into a fist, and his left hand held a small pistol. As the light from the hallway slipped into the room, he turned around.
“Hi,” she said, not knowing what else to say.
“Oh,” he said, not knowing what else to say.
She noticed that he’d taken his tie off. It rested on the bed beside him. Strange that she couldn’t take her eyes off that tie—deep, regal blue with gold stripes—when there was a shiny gun not two feet away from it. It occurred to her that her eyes ought to be on the gun.
“Mr. Chou, are you going to kill yourself?”
Chou sighed softly. He didn’t move, and he didn’t speak.
Stacey bit her lip. Her mind groped for something to say, but failed to come up with any kind of response that might be appropriate. Instead, she just stood in the doorway and stared.
Finally, Lee Chou whispered, “God forgive me. I forgot you were still here.”
“Mr. Chou,” said Stacey, “why are you going to kill yourself?”
“I’m not going to kill myself,” he told her dully, with a flicker of something that might have been stubbornness if he hadn’t sounded so worn out.Neither of them were sure whether Stacey was meant to believe it.
Stacey entered the room, walking tip-toe, like she might approach an easily startled deer. She slowly got down on her knees and crouched beside the bed. She reached out and placed her hand over his, the hand not holding the pistol.
“Oh, God,” he whispered.
“Give me the gun, Mr. Chou,” she said.
He didn’t move. He didn’t even breathe.
“Give me the gun. Please.”
The necktie still laid there on the bed, in a crumpled little heap. An alarm clock on the nightstand marked the seconds that passed, each tick of the clock as loud as a gunshot. Chou’s eyelids twitched with indecision.
“Please, Mr. Chou.”
Very gently, he put the gun down on the nightstand. “I thought you had left,” he said. “I was just cleaning it. I wouldn’t have cleaned it if I had realized you were still here.”
Stacey nodded dumbly.
Sighing again, he stood up and smoothed down his shirt. “I only bought the gun for protection, you know. Against break-ins, burglars. Jianmei never liked having the thing around. She said it wasn’t safe. I think she was right. She usually was.” He picked up the gun and put it away in the top drawer of his dresser. Turning back to Stacey, he said, in a completely different tone of voice, “How much do I owe you tonight?”
Stacey hesitated. She wasn’t sure what to say. What would be appropriate. If anything could be appropriate.
But then Mr. Chou went ahead and reached into his pants pocket, pulled out a wad of bills, and pressed an absurdly large amount of money into Stacey’s hands. She chose not to comment or to protest.
Together, they both checked in on Suyin, still sound asleep in her bed, before walking downstairs and out to Mrs. McIntire’s waiting car. Stacey told her mother that she was late because Mr. Chou had gotten stuck in a traffic jam on the way back from the restaurant. Mrs. McIntire told her that the next time something like that happened, she should call home to say she’d be late. Stacey promised she would and went to bed.
The next Monday at school, during their usual lunch in Mr. Klein’s room, Robbie asked how the research had gone. Stacey grimaced and shook her head. Unfortunately, she told him, there just wasn’t anything there worth researching.