Stacey hopped from foot to foot, trying to keep warm. She wished Mr. Chou would hurry up and answer the door. She’d been standing on his porch for nearly five minutes. The damp night air bit through her jacket and sweater. Fortunately, just as she was cursing herself for not taking her mother’s advice to bring a heavier coat, Lee Chou opened the door and exclaimed, “Stacey, come in! You must be freezing.”
Stacey diplomatically did not reply.
Mr. Chou showed the girl into the living room, tastefully decorated with a blend of reproduction prints from the Tang and Song dynasties and oversized lamps and antique Victorian-era furniture.He had bought the prints for his late wife, thinking perhaps it would help her feel better about living in Middleton, if there was a bit of China in their home, but she had been mostly indifferent to them. Instead, she’d preferred late nineteenth-century English decor, for its grandiosity and luxury and what to her had been its subtle hint of royalty.
That’s what he’d loved most about her—her ability to constantly surprise him, as well as her fierce refusal to be anything but herself. Her old music collection sat gathering dust in the hall closet, and it was mostly comprised of alt-country and heavy metal bands unknown outside of two or three specific towns in Norway. The pastor at their old church (the one before Faith Baptist and Reverend Hickory) had raised an eyebrow over Jianmei’s music preferences a time or two, but Jianmei had just scoffed. With near infinite disdain she’d declared, “If Lord Jesus did not want us to have this music, then He would not have invented the guitar.”
But all that was long past. In the present,Stacey was sitting down on the very edge of the plush, velvet couch. Jianmei had loved that couch. Lee had hated it—still hated it, truth be told—as sitting on it felt like being sucked down into a soft but unforgiving whirlpool.
Stacey, of course, was unaware of all these things, unaware of the fraught meaning of each little knicknack or bit of decor. She just sat on the couch and felt it was a bit softer and squishier than the couch her mother had.
“You’re sure you’ll be okay here?” he asked perfunctorily. “You remember the emergency numbers? Good, good. Suyin’s already eaten dinner, but she can have a snack later if she wants one. Oh, and here’s the number of the center’s main line.”
Fumbling with his overcoat, he muttered under his breath while his daughter bounded into the room with a teary face. He knew Suyin was about to plead with him to stay.
“Please, Daddy. Please?” she moaned. Her little lips puckered. “You don’t have to leave!”
Tonight was the night of the monthly grief support group at the mental health center two towns over, and he felt his resolve waver as he looked down at his tiny daughter. He wasn’t convinced that the group was doing much for him anyway, and it was tempting to agree with Suyin. It was tempting, so tempting on a cold and dreary night, to just agree to stay.
“Now, sweetheart. You’ll be fine. You remember your friend, Miss Stacey? I’m sure she brought all kinds of fun things for you.” Chou looked to the girl, who obligingly held up what she called her babysitter’s backpack. It was certain to be filled with stuffed animals and coloring books. “You’ll be good for her, won’t you? That’s a good girl. Give me a kiss. I’ll be back about nine.” This comment he tossed at Stacey, before he headed out the door.
He didn’t look back as he walked out to the car and got inside. He didn’t dare. His hands, as they gripped the steering wheel, felt like ice. The hands of a dead man.
Back inside the house, Suyin gazed at the door in despondency for a full three seconds before turning to her temporary guardian and chirping, “So, what are we doing tonight?”
“I’ve got a movie. It’s Mickey Mouse.”
“I like Mickey Mouse!”
Stacey grinned. “Yep, I know. That’s why I brought it.”
She sat the little girl down in the living room and popped in the disc. Then she sat back, pulled her history book from her bag, and with a reluctant sigh began reading. She’d managed to get halfway through the chapter on the Holy Roman Empire before Suyin’s little voice piped up again.
“Why do Mickey and Minnie Mouse have the same last name?”
“Because they’re married,” Stacey replied, without looking up.
“Then why don’t they have kids?”
“They do. What do you think Pluto is?”
“But Pluto is a doggie!”
Stacey turned and looked at her young charge. “Pluto,” she said in triumph, “was adopted.”
“Oh.” The little girl seemed satisfied by this answer.
Stacey had just reached the end of the Holy Roman Empire’s reign when Suyin next spoke up: “Why don’t Mickey and Minnie go to church?”
“I don’t know.” Stacey shrugged and set her book aside. “Maybe they do go to church, but we just don’t know it. Maybe that’s what Mickey and Minnie do when we’re not watching them.”
Suyin squinted back at Stacey and furrowed her brow. “Reverend Hickory says you have to go to church to be good,” she said in a tentative tone.
“Well, that sounds like something Reverend Hickory would say.”
“Is it true?”
Stacey bit her tongue. She was treading on dangerous ground and she knew it. “I guess some people believe it’s true.”
“Do you go to church?”
“I don’t know. I just don’t.”
“Are you going to go to hell?” Suyin’s bright dark eyes, filled with a vague fright, fixed upon Stacey’s face. “I don’t want you to go to hell.”
“I’m not going to hell.” She scooted over on the couch, closer to Suyin. Awkwardly she patted the girl on the back. “I’m fine. Everything’s fine. You don’t have to worry.”
“Daddy doesn’t go to church. Mommy did, and I did, but Daddy doesn’t go.”
“You don’t have to worry about your dad either. I’m sure he’s going to go to heaven. God doesn’t let good people go to hell.”
Suyin thought about that for a minute. “I like you a lot, Stacey.”
“I like you too.”
“You’re like my mommy.”
Stacey flinched. It made her uncomfortable when Suyin said things like that, and it wasn’t the first time Suyin had said something like that. But Stacey was saved from having to reply—Suyin had already returned her attention back to the television screen. Stacey picked up her history book again, looked at the little brightly-colored globe on the cover, then set the book down on the floor. She began watching the Mickey Mouse video, too.
At a quarter after eight, Stacey carried the sleeping Suyin upstairs to her bedroom. She took off her shoes and tucked her into bed, then returned downstairs to retrieve Mickey Mouse and turn off the television. She considered calling Robbie. Mr. Chou allowed phone calls after Suyin was safely in bed, but he didn’t particularly encourage them. So far, she had never exercised this privilege.
Reaching into her bag, she took out her cell phone.
“Hello, Banks residence.”
Stacey smiled, even though she knew Robbie couldn’t see her. He always answered the phone so formally. “Robert! It’s the girl of your dreams.”
“No, it isn’t. It’s just you.”
She blew a raspberry into the phone.
“So, are you still sick? You don’t sound like you’re still sick.”
“Yeah, no, I started feeling better last night.” She settled into the smothering embrace of the velvet couch. “I woke up feeling fine this morning, so now I’m babysitting tonight.”
“Over at the Chou house or somewhere else?”
“At Mr. Chou’s house, yeah.” She snorted. “Middleton’s not that huge a place. Where else would I be?”
“Sometimes—sometimes, you do the Weaver house.”
She sucked in a breath. He didn’t say anything further, but he didn’t have to.
“Not anymore,” she said. “Bill’s too old for that, and I only watched Chris a couple times anyway. Bill watches him now, when their parents go out.”
“Oh, God. The blind watching the blind.”
“The saying is ‘the blind leading the blind.’”
“My version sounds better.”
Stacey did not deign to reply. She waited a few beats, just long enough for Robbie to feel the weight of her disdain, then said, “So, yeah, I’m babysitting tonight. What are you up to?”
“I’m, um, working on an essay.”
“No, not for class.” A pause, brief yet brimming over with awkwardness and indecision. “I decided that I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna do that essay contest Mayor Dell told us about.”
“Oh, hey, yeah! I’d forgotten all about that. Well, good luck, Robert. I hope you win.”
“I don’t think I really have a chance,” he replied in a morose tone that was not altogether convincing.
“You might, though.”
He didn’t answer.
Stacey heard a car pull into the driveway, and she made a face. “Mr. Chou just pulled into the driveway. I gotta go—sorry.”
“Oh.” Robbie sounded embarrassed. “Sure, of course you have to go. I guess I’ll see you in school, then, probably.”
“Don’t be stupid, Robert. Of course you will.”
Lee Chou walked into the house, with his coat draped heavily over his arm, just as Stacey was stashing her phone back in her bag. He looked tired and thin and pale, but he smiled politely at Stacey all the same.
Dropping his coat onto a chair, he asked Stacey if his daughter had behaved for her, although they both already knew the answer would be yes. He was simply going through the motions. Sometimes, it seemed his whole life consisted of going through the motions. Stacey led him upstairs to his sleeping child. Suyin’s head was nestled peacefully on the pillow, her mouth hung open a little, and she snored ever so softly. Chou rested his hand on the girl’s long hair that fanned out against the pillow like a beautiful, dark sun.
Behind him, the sitter was mumbling something about her pay. He reached into his pocket and pulled out some bills. Handing her the money, his hand still on Suyin’s head, he thanked her for taking care of his little girl. He meant it.
Stacey told him that she was happy to do it, and if she didn’t quite mean it, still she observed the spirit while neglecting the law.