Day 01 21:00
At six o’clock in the morning, the twilight zone slowly traversed across the Pacific Ocean. It would take another half an hour for the first rays of today’s sunlight to hit North America’s west coast.
The small town of Palo Alto was extremely quiet and overcast. The red and green lights at the crossroads alternated one at a time; very few cars passed by.
In the eastern district, light brightened up the window of a single-family home. It pierced through the sheer curtains, faintly revealing the shape of a man wearing a dark grey flannel robe and leaning against the windowsill.
His hair was a little messy, and his chin was scruffy with stubble. His head was lowered, and the corners of his mouth were slightly curved up.
Ten thousand kilometres away across the ocean, the stammering sound of the neighbour he had never met before was transmitted through the cell phone receiver. “… I-I walked over and saw a n-note stuck on your front door saying that Huang Guihua had returned to her hometown…”
The espresso machine on the countertop burbled softly. The dark brown extract percolated, falling into the ceramic cup one drop at a time.
A cool logo was printed on the side of the cup.
Italicised text, azure blue, the S at the start and C at the end forming two sharp curving slashes.
“… I had just cooked sh-shrimp porridge for dinner, and there was both meat and vegetables, so I gave Bubu a bowl to eat, and he thought… thought it was pretty tasty…”
He Zhiyuan smiled. “Thank you.”
“No need, no need! We’re neighbours, aren’t we, so i-it’s only natural.” The youth on the other end of the phone became even more nervous, and his volume jumped up a level. “Bubu is so well-behaved, he doesn’t even need other people to feed him at mealtimes. I only provided a set of dishware, so it wasn’t troublesome at all!”
He Zhiyuan replied, “I still need to thank you.”
The cup was almost filled with coffee. The liquid beneath the filter gathered more and more slowly; each new drop took a long time to fall.
One more drop.
Upon smelling the fragrance of the coffee, He Zhiyuan’s smile became more pronounced. He grasped the cup handle, gently shook it back and forth, then picked up a sugar cube and dropped it in.
Today’s drink can be sweetened a little.
The other party was still stammering with some difficulty, “… After that I-I told him a story, and… and we ate some strawberries, but not too many, since it was already close to nine o’clock, after all…”
He Zhiyuan made a questioning noise as he picked up a spoon and stirred counterclockwise. “So what about nine o’clock?”
“Huh? I-isn’t nine o’clock…” The other party suddenly quieted down, and even paused for a while, as if seriously considering something. After a brief moment, the youth, feeling guilty and anxious, said, “… Isn’t it bedtime?”
In a rare momentary lapse of self-control, He Zhiyuan let out a burst of laughter, but quickly stopped. He cleared his throat and firmly replied, “That’s right, that’s when you’re supposed to sleep, you thought it through very well.”
The other party blankly made a sound in reply, then abruptly quieted.
He thought to himself that this neighbour really was cute. The youth had obviously helped him out a great deal, but was so nervous he could hardly speak, as if he’d been caught in the act of kidnapping instead. The youth seemed afraid that he would travel back to S City via electromagnetic signal and open his bloody maw to devour him in one bite.
From the living room came the notification sound of a new email.
He Zhiyuan carried his coffee out. After putting the cup on the coffee table, he flipped open his laptop. The subject line of the email was very concise; it was a registration confirmation for a data security conference taking place next Tuesday in Los Angeles.
He quickly skimmed to the bottom, then clicked on the red X.
The youth on the other side waited a long while before softly calling out, “Mr He?”
He Zhiyuan shut his laptop and leaned back, closing his eyes as he reclined against the sofa. “I apologize, the responsibility for today’s events lies with me. I was too negligent when looking for a nanny and my standards weren’t strict enough, which led to this situation. If you didn’t come to the rescue, my child probably would really have gone hungry tonight. How about this, tomorrow when the housekeeping company opens for the day, I will contact them immediately and ask them to send over a new auntie as quickly as possible.”
The party on the other side of the phone sank into a strange silence.
He Zhiyuan asked, “What’s wrong?”
“It’s nothing much. I was only thinking, do you have any trusted acquaintances who can look after Bubu?” The youth’s tone was full of concern. “What I’m saying is, Bubu is only four years old, and children of this age are often very sensitive. An auntie is an intimately familiar person, so if they change too frequently, it could easily give rise to feelings of insecurity…”
He Zhiyuan had thought that he was going to say something important, but after hearing up to this point, he smiled faintly. “It’s fine, Bubu is already used to it.”
“Is that so.”
Like before, the youth wavered, his voice gradually softening and slowing down, as if biting his tongue.
He wanted to persuade, but was not in a position to persuade—He Zhiyuan could clearly tell by the sound.
They had really troubled him.
Frankly speaking, a passing stranger being so willing to selflessly look after his child, it could be said that he was kindhearted indeed. He Zhiyuan was moved, but he also thought it was a bit funny. Don’t be like this, kind neighbour. I raised Bubu for four years, surely it couldn’t be that your understanding of his personality is superior to mine?
Bubu was different from other children.
He was independent and sensible, able to eat by himself, read by himself, and even play with building blocks by himself. He was not noisy, as if there was a distinctive tranquil sanctuary in his heart. He was a perfect, practically flawless child, who liked every single auntie, and whom every auntie liked as well.
Thus, while other single-parent families were hard-pressed trying to maintain a work-life balance, only He Zhiyuan could freely leave his child in S City and not need to slow down his career pursuits.
Song Ran held the cell phone, but heard only soft white noise emitting from the receiver—Mr He didn’t open his mouth again, so the conversation awkwardly concluded in this manner.
Perhaps it was an inaccurate impression, but Song Ran felt a hint of impatience in the last sentence from the other side.
He couldn’t help but feel vexed, internally blaming himself for sticking his nose into other people’s business and saying too much. He returned the bright yellow cartoon cell phone to Bubu, then picked up the steel wool ball and continued to scrub at the dishes.
“Dada, it’s Bubu again!”
Bubu rubbed his fair and tender cheek against the cell phone, then started happily dancing around again.
Song Ran turned on the spray faucet, rinsing the dishes with thin streams of water. As the dishes clinked and snow-white bubbles dissolved, he stared dazedly at the whirlpool flowing down the drain.
Just now, he… offended Mr He, didn’t he?
He was really rude.
He was an outsider who hadn’t been acquainted with Bubu for even two hours at this point. He didn’t know the child, and didn’t know the parent, so how could he lightly say such words that seemed almost accusatory? From the other person’s perspective, there’s no parent that would be perfectly willing to leave their child. Mr He was so busy with work. As long as there was a better option, he wouldn’t simply hire a live-in nanny to watch over the child, and Bubu also wouldn’t appear outside the door of 8012A.
As a single otaku with neither children nor a career, how come he doesn’t know how to put himself in others’ shoes and be considerate of them?
Song Ran turned off the faucet and gloomily slapped his own face.
After he dried his hands and walked out of the kitchen, Bubu had already stopped happily dancing. He stood next to the dining table, his two delicate eyebrows drooping down, having changed back to the reserved and obedient appearance from before.
“Sleeping is something you do by yourself, Bubu understands.” The child said into the phone, “Dada, don’t worry, Bubu is very brave. I’m not afraid of the dark, I can sleep by myself!”
Song Ran was immediately stunned.
What did that mean? With not even one adult in the home, how could he sleep by himself?
Bubu ended the call. He sadly hung his head and stood there for a while with pursed lips, sniffling quietly. Song Ran’s heart hurt so much he couldn’t take it. Squatting in front of him, he held his small hands that were gripping the edges of his clothes, enveloping them into his palms.
Right when he was about to say some words of comfort, Bubu raised his head, trying hard to put on a brightly smiling expression. “Big brother, the porridge you cooked was very tasty, and the story you told was very nice, thank you. Bubu is already a big kid and cannot bother you any more than this, so I’m going home to sleep now.”
Song Ran didn’t dare to believe his own ears.
Was this kid being serious?
Just then when he had voluntarily invited Bubu to sleep over, the shifts in Bubu’s expressions from surprise to doubt, and then to joy were still vivid in his mind’s eye. Song Ran was 100 percent convinced that that was the child’s true desire, so… what brought on this reluctant reversal?
Song Ran thought about it, and accurately grasped the important point. “Your dad told you to go home to sleep?”
Song Ran silently cursed on the spot, and his eyes contemptuously rolled skyward. The little bit of remorse he felt immediately before at the idea that he might have caused offence had completely evaporated in an instant—the night was so dark, and the flat was so empty, yet he dared to make a four-year-old child sleep at home alone; this father’s way of thinking was clearly so strange, the wrinkles in his brain must have been totally smoothed out!
If Bubu slept by himself, who would come to comfort him in the middle of the night if he had a nightmare? Who would tuck him back in if he kicked off the covers and became chilled? Who would protect him if a thief broke in?
Song Ran merely thought off the top of his head, but in front of his eyes it was practically like a bomb explosion, with a hundred dangers coming to mind.
He really wanted to print them all out and slap them down onto Papa He’s face from above.
Did he have some kind of sickness?!
Your family’s kid was homeless. This passerby who sought neither fame or reward, according to the dazzling principle of humanitarianism, helped you to coax and feed, and even selflessly volunteered to act as overnight childcare. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t grateful, but you still insist on being a control freak from afar, meddling from across the Pacific Ocean—would it kill you to just focus on your business trip?
Even if you got the kid from a raffle drawing, you can’t raise them however you want!
He was truly… truly misled by that alluring voice.
Song Ran thought of He Zhiyuan’s lazy laughter, and his cheeks reddened again—half bashful, half angry.
This father’s performance, even rating him 0 points would be giving him face.
He squatted there and looked at Bubu, unable to describe the feeling in his heart. Bubu, ah, Bubu, I know you are a good kid, obedient like a little lamb, but you are only four years old. Even if your dad wants you to go home to sleep, you should kick up some kind of fuss.
Kids who know how to fuss get sweets to eat; if you don’t, how is this big brother supposed to help you?
Bubu stuffed the cell phone into his small backpack and clumsily hefted it onto his shoulders. He went to the door and changed into his canvas shoes, spending a minute to thoroughly tie up the shoelaces that would be soon untied again. Then he stood up and waved to Song Ran. “Big Brother, goodnight.”
He stood on tiptoes and twisted open the heavy doorknob.
In the corridor, a row of ceiling lights lit up at the sound, illuminating the scene outside the door. Bellflowers, sunflowers, a closed elevator, cream-coloured marble flooring… On the other side was an ice-cold security door set into the white wall; in contrast, underfoot was a soft chipmunk rug.
Bubu had already heard the chipmunk’s story, and couldn’t help feeling a bit more familiar with the old friend.
He waved at it, saying, “Goodbye.”
After waving, Bubu nimbly jumped out, not stepping on a single hair of the chipmunk’s body. Then he jogged across the corridor, stood on the neatly-aligned, dark-coloured, stiff-fibred doormat, took out a key from his backpack, and opened the lock to 8012B.
Don’t be scared, don’t be scared, brave Bubu has to go home.
But just as he pushed the door open, a big cloud of darkness so thick you couldn’t even see the fingers on your own hand seemed to have materialized in the room and wrapped around the young child.
So dark and so cold.
The flat contained not even a single ray of light; his dad was not home, and neither was Granny. The pervasive darkness of the night concealed countless man-eating demons. They lurked behind the doors, under the bed, and in the cabinets, each one with deep green eyes and razor-sharp fangs.
Bubu shrank back, at a loss. He didn’t dare go in.
He only wanted to flee.
The home behind him was brightly lit. It had a big soft furball, colourful storybooks, and a big brother who smiled kindly and was good at telling stories. As long as he ran back, he wouldn’t have to face all these before him.
Bubu regretted it very much.
But he already promised his dad that he would sleep by himself at home. If he broke his promise, he would no longer be the likeable good child.
He had to be a likeable good child.
Bubu mustered up his courage, and took a small step forward. The thick dark fog immediately wrapped even more tightly around him. His fragile bravado was like a fish’s thin-skinned swim bladder; at the prick of a needle, it would deflate with a ‘poof‘.
His movements were stiff, and his body was also stiff. He couldn’t understand why, despite being a likeable child, his heart would be this uncomfortable. Those rewards for good children, those candies and flower garlands, where were they?
Bubu didn’t dare to step forward, but also didn’t dare to retreat.
He stood at the doorway and dumbly stared at the terrifying darkness before him, feeling increasingly aggrieved—why did the night have to be so endless? If the sky could brighten in the blink of an eye, he would be able to directly bypass this period and happily go to kindergarten.
He blinked innocently, turning his head to gaze expectantly at the window behind the flower stand.
But the sky was still dark, even darker than ink. The glass reflected two withered lilies, and the glare of the reflected light hurt his sensitive eyes.
Once again he slowly and deliberately blinked with all his might.
There was no change whatsoever outside the window; on the contrary, it seemed that the night had paused at this very moment.
Bubu was helpless in the face of this crisis, and he softly choked out, “What should I do?”
Perhaps it was because the twelfth floor corridor was too quiet, so this tiny sound, which was like that of a needle falling to the floor, was unexpectedly caught by Song Ran. With his heart aching, he rushed over and hugged Bubu without thinking.
“Bubu, stay over, stay over with Big Brother.” He said, “Big Brother already promised to tell you a bedtime story. If you go home, who will this big brother tell the story to?”
“But… but I promised Dad, that I’d go home and sleep by myself…”
Bubu sniffled, voice a little wet.
Song Ran played his trump card. “Between Big Brother or your dad, who did Bubu promise first?”
Bubu sniffled again. “… Big Brother.”
“Right, it’s Big Brother.” Song Ran said, “Since you promised Big Brother first, the promise you made to Dad afterwards doesn’t count.”
“Really?” Bubu suddenly turned around, eyes shining with tears. “It doesn’t count?”
Song Ran firmly nodded. “It doesn’t count.”
Bubu bit his lip, tilted his head, and looked at him with scepticism.
Song Ran smiled, reaching out a hand to pinch his little nose bridge. “Relax! If your dad asks, I will tell him that our Bubu is obedient indeed. The whole time he fussed about wanting to be good and go home to sleep, but it was Big Brother that was no good. He was dead set on telling stories to Bubu, and kidnapped Bubu when he was halfway back. If your dad wants to punish someone, then he should just punish this big brother.”
Smiling through his tears, Bubu jumped towards Song Ran and hugged his neck, fiercely planting kisses. “Big Brother, how are you… how are you so nice!”