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"Have you seen Walter?"
"No, I just got in. Shouldn't he be in his room."
"He's not. I was just upstairs."
"That's odd. He should be back from school already."
"I don't know honey. It's fairly late, I'm going to look for him."
"I'm going to drive to the school. Maybe he just got in a fight after school or went to one of the other boy's homes.”
“Do you want me to reheat the pizza or the lasagna?”
Wen keyed the ignition and reversed the blue Honda Accord off the driveway. The school was a mile away and ever since Jill started working again last month, they allowed Walter to walk to school. “He's thirteen now, we can't keep babying him,” Wen had said.
Jill resisted at first, but it was impossible for her to make the drive anyway. Not with her working in downtown now.
Two years ago, Walter was expelled from the middle school around the corner of their home for carrying a cherry bomb, according to the school board, in his back-pack. It was a glass honey jar filled with WD40 and stuffed with a dish rag. Walter's group of friends had a formed an Asian pride gang and had trouble with a rival gang from another school near Valley High. They were supposed to have a fight in the parking lot after school and Walter got mixed up in it.
With the bomb threats and all the recent school shootings, it caused a stir in the school board and they rushed to action. A month suspension, hearings, and finally expulsion. Wen took a few days off from work and went with Jill to the main district office for hearings. After she broke down at the first hearing in front of the accusations, he didn't think it was a good idea to let her go by herself. “We have to be stronger.”
The school board tried to pin Walter as a gang leader. According to them, the fight was all instigated by Walter. He was the one who planned it and brought the other boys with him.
As evidence, they brought in a student's planner filled with racist graffiti and gang related insignia. Even with his 3.8 GPA and perfect attendance, the school prosecutors referred to Walter as a deviant student and antisocial because of his few friends and his preserved reticence in during class and school activies. Except for Mr. Labass, the science teacher who came to his defense, his teachers rallied against him to get him expelled. To Wen, all of it was so irresponsible. This was not justice or punishment. This was a crusade against something beyond his son.
The truth was, the class planner did not even belong to Walter. It was another student's. The name was written clearly in the pages. Walter was no gangster. He was one of those boys who came home right away after school, spent his nights working on homework and reading chemistry books for fun. He was a smart and skipped fifth grade because of grades. He went to Yu-Gi-Oh club during lunch and had never been in any kind of trouble. He went to bed at ten o'clock every night. The only time he stayed past that was on Fridays when Wen and Jill let him watch X-Files on TV.
The only person Walter knew in the gang was another boy named Marcus. And on the day the police came and took Walter to juvenile hall, Marcus was not even at school.
Jill and Wen never imagined that they would see him cuffed in the backseat of a police car.
The community paper ran a side column about the incident on the front page and the families who we were friendly with Wen and Jill, after they moved into the neighborhood, stopped bringing their kids over. When they talked about their kids, the conversation became tense and Jill and Wen would try to talk about other things. Allison Tsai, the piano teacher, told Jill and Wen that she wasn't comfortable with having Walter in her home and around the other kids. They canceled the lessons; Jill and Wen had to ask her to return the money for the remaining four months.
The costs were great.
$10,000 for a team of star lawyers specializing in juvenile cases was hired to keep Walter off a formal probation and an ankle monitor. They brought in an explosives specialist who constructed a similar bomb and tested it. The specialist revealed that even if the rag had been lit, it would have not produced the explosion that the school prosecutors said it would; it would not have produced an explosion at all since the amount of WD40 was nowhere close to enough.
A felony was trumped down to a misdemeanor, two years of informal probation, and two months of community service, washing cars on weekends out in Rancho Americano. Walter was asked to report a judge at the end of every month. When they left for trips, Wen had to call and inform them ahead of time.
The school board's decision was final though. Walter was expelled from the school district and could not return until high school started a year and a half later.
Wen and Jill asked their son why he would do something like that during the quieter moments in the months and days after the hearings. So many times. Always, Walter said, “I don't know” or “I wanted to help my friends.”
Wen took out a $20,000 loan and enrolled him at a private school in Green Haven, in a suburb where all the kids were mostly white and from affluent families. Even when Jill and Wen offered to pay the entire year in cash the principal resisted allowing Walter into the school. “He has to go to school. He needs this. Please,” Wen pleaded.
After speaking with Jill and Wen's lawyer, the principal relented on the condition that Walter see a child therapist for two months and undergo a psychological evaluation before each school quarter in addition to the continued meetings with the judge. “I cannot stress how important it is that you, and Walter, do not talk about this with any of the other parents or students,” the principal said. “How can we possibly afford it?” Jill said.
“We have no choice; he has to. It's a private school and they can do whatever they want but he has to go. We can't risk sending him to other district. What do you think would happen?”
“The bills! The house!”
“We have to be stronger.”
Another $10,000 because Wen's insurance plan would not cover the therapy sessions. According to the therapist, the price was a discount. “As a father, I understand completely what you're going through,” the therapist said while Wen signed the paperwork and check for the first three sessions.
“Will he have to be on any pills?” Jill asked
“From talking to him, I highly doubt it. But I'll have to spend more time with him. I seriously doubt it at this point though,” the therapist said.
Jill cried in the car on the way home.
“I'm sorry mom,” Walter said from the backseat.
Jill quit her job at Macy's after they would not let her change her work schedule. Wen thought it was best that she drive him to and back from school. Because she quit, she could not qualify for unemployment. She had worked there for years there.
“We have to be stronger.”
When summer arrived and Walter's informal probation ended, they went on family trip to Universal Studios Hollywood and Disneyland in Los Angeles for a few days. They stopped talking about it after they came back.
It was December already and the street lights came on at only five. Wen paced the car at 15 miles an hour, glancing from the road to the sidewalk; the neighborhood streets were narrow when cars parked along the curbs.
Besides the basketball team practicing on the black top, the school was empty and void of people. Wen
drove through adjacent neighborhoods where he knew where some of Walter's new friends lived. He recognized a a skinny Asian kid coming out to get the mail.
His name was Dominic and Walter had invited him over a few times to play Street Fighter on the Sega Dreamcast in the living room. Wen stopped the car in the middle of the street and turned the window down.
The boy didn't answer.
"Dom!" Wen said, leaning his face out of the window this time.
The boy stopped in front of the mail box, pulled his headphones off and turned towards the car.
"Have you seen Walter?" Wen said.
The boy looked nervous, "No. I haven't seen him since fifth period."
"Do you know where he might have went? It's very important."
"He didn't say anything."
"Okay. Well, if you see him, tell him that he needs to go home. Right away.”
Wen continued down the street. Though the heater was off, Wen's became aware that his palm was uncomfortably warm. An intense itch crawled underneath his shirt and neck. He loosened his tie and undid the top button underneath his collar. His mouth and lips felt dry when he stopped at the stop sign and he wiped the back of his hand over them.
A car behind honked its horn on the next block. Wen pulled over to let it pass. The neighborhood ended at the end of the block where the street would lead into the main road. Wen turned the car onto Stockton Blvd with great reluctance.
He thought about stopping at the Shell on the other side of the street and calling Jill or even the the police. The idea of the police made him feel uneasy and he held off the thought. He didn't want to worry Jill either. She was sensitive about these things, especially Walter, since the incident. She had become increasingly irritable and he never knew when he would have to withstand a sudden outburst or breakdown from her. The financial weight caused a strain between them.
Wen checked his pager. He knew it hadn't rang but he wanted to make sure. Then, while looking staring at its screen, it went off in his hand. It startled Wen and he dropped it onto the floorboard where it landed underneath his seat. “Fuck!”
He slammed one hand on top of the dash in frustration. When the light turned green, he made a u-turn and pulled into the gas station. He got out of the car so that he could retrieve the pager. It was an unknown number. He looked through the ashy tray for any quarters. There weren't any. “Fuckin' shit.”
He was felt angry. It arrived suddenly and he wanted to lash out at someone. He took a breath and pushed it back down inside himself.
He went up the attendant and bought five dollars worth of gas. He paid with a ten dollar bill. When the attendant handed him a five, Wen returned it. “Can I get four ones and quarters pleaes?”
The attendant sighed, put the five dollar bill back into the register, snapped the clip back loudly and began pulling out four single dollar bills. He took his time in tearing the brown paper off the roll of quarters.
Wen watched without saying anything and went to the payphone at the side of the store.
"Hi. I got a phone call from this number about five minutes ago. I'd like to know who this is."
"This Nolan Alvarez calling for Wing Wa security. Are you the father of Walter Chan."
"This is him.
“We have you son right now. He was caught shop lifting and we need you to come to the store.”
Wen wanted to slam the phone against its handle but resisted. He slammed his hand against the side of the phone booth's coin box. “I understand.”
“Do you know where it is?”
“I know exactly where it is, I'll be there in five minutes.”
The grocery store was just down the street from where he was standing.
He hung up the phone, put in another quarter and called Jill at home.
"Have you found him?" She sounded as if she was exhausted from something.
"Yeah. I'm calling from the Shell on Stockton.”
"Is he okay? Put him on the line."
"He's not with me. I got a page from security at Wing Wa. He was caught shoplifting."
The line was silent. “I'll come too.”
“No. I'll take care of it. Just wait at home for us.”
“No. I want to come. Come pick me up, I'll get ready.”
“Jill. I think it's better you stay home. Please trust me. We can talk about this when we get back home.”
Wen heard the phone click. “Jill?”
She had hung up.