One Week Ago
"Was it not worth the 45 minute ride?" Trip asked with his usual cocky grin. His friend Conner just smiled back at him from the passenger seat. "Am I complaining?" Conner replied. "Well, you sure seemed to be on the way out there. I told you the waves would be more than worth it. We fucking shredded all morning. Fucking badass!" Trip said as he pumped his fist. He began to slow the speed of the pale yellow Volkswagen van as they approached a four way stop sign. A white Chevy van was approaching to his left. Trip stopped his Volkswagen well behind the marked white line, continuing to watch the white van, which now seemed to speed up to catch the stop sign at the same time as Trip's van. "Fuck no you're not," Trip yelled. He knew the Chevy was trying to pull out in front of his van first, after having rolled through the stop sign. Trip clearly had the right of way, but the white Chevy was already through the stop sign. Quickly, Trip punched the gas pushing the Volkswagen through the intersection. The white Chevy van didn't stop or try to avoid Trip's gutless Volkswagen. The left side of the white Chevy van caught Trip's left fender causing a long deep gash. Both cars screeched to a halt. "What the fuck?" Connor said, looking up, stunned. He looked over at his friend. "That fucking spic thought he could get ahead of me, when I clearly had the right of way. I'm tired of people doing that shit," Trip said, unbuckling his seat belt. "Why didn't you just let him go? This is how you want to end a perfect day bro?" Connor asked. "It's bullshit. These guys always try to pull that shit at four way stops. Fucking rolling stop. Maybe in Tijuana, but not here. It's his fault anyways. This baby can use a touch up." "He probably doesn't even have insurance," Conner replied. "Great," Trip answered, slamming his door shut.
The two Latino men in the white Chevy van were already around the side of their car, inspecting the scratch mark and dent that went half way the length of the van. Trip and Connor came around the side to meet them. "I hope you have fucking insurance amigo," Trip said. The two men from the van walked over, one towards Trip, the other stood in front of Connor. Without saying a word, each threw a right hook, knocking down the two surfers simultaneously. The driver of the white Chevy van, who was the shorter of the two, stood above Trip and began to kick him in the side right where his rib cage was. There was a loud crack as Trip rolled over into a fetal position. The passenger and taller of the two Latino men, moved just as quickly on Connor, who managed to grab the man's legs. "mother fucker," Connor yelled, then was knocked out cold by another right hook that caught him square on the jaw line.
As Trip and Connor lay there withering in pain, the two men walked back towards their van. "There's your fucking insurance cabron," the shorter one yelled as they jumped into the van and sped off, smoke billowing out from the rear tires. Trip and Connor were still rolling about in pain, not sure what just happened. The Chevy van didn't have a rear license plate either, but that really didn't matter much, since not many by-standers cared to get involved in what they had just witnessed.
Present Day - Monday
Just one more week of junior high, then it was off to the safe haven of Glendora High School. Randall Baxter could tolerate five more days of abuse, compared to the past three years of pummeling and fist fights that took place behind the school cafeteria and other popular schoolyard locations. He couldn't even really refer to them as fights, since they were always a one sided battle, that being the one side of his face hitting the ground. Furthermore, Randall thought to himself, he never instigated the fights. They always came to him. Randall considered himself a fight magnet, punching bag practice for other kids to help improve their self-esteem, while continually lowering his.
Randall traced this pubic downfall back to the fifth grade when he was about 11 years old. It started with a kid named Paulie Franks. Randall was well aware of his own unusually big ears, especially compared to the rest of his head. Since no one else in his family exhibited this trait, Randall figured it was just a matter of time before he grew into them proportionally. Unfortunately, that didn't stop some of his classmates at Mission Elementary from teasing him, especially Paulie Franks.
Randall and the few friends he had despised Paulie Franks as did many of Mrs. Cellantano's fifth grade class, but it didn't stop Paulie from blurting out Randall Bigears or Randy Box My Ears from time to time. Randall shrugged it off, but Paulie was the type of kid who always had to take things one step further. Couldn't let it go.
It happened in the hallway between their classroom and Mr. Ledbetter's third grade classroom. Paulie raced up behind Randall and with his thumb and index finger flicked the back of Randall's right ear. It stung at first and later turned red which lasted almost an hour. Luckily, only a couple other kids noticed, but that was enough for word to spread. Paulie bellowed with laughter as Randall bent over cupping his right ear. He wanted to get his revenge on Paulie right then, but hesitated too long and the opportunity was lost.
At dinner that night, Randall brought up the ear flicking incident as a casual topic. Everyone had an opinion, which he knew would spark debate. His older sister Hallie shrugged it off saying, "that stuff happens in school. Don't worry about it. You're only in the fifth grade." His older brother Brad said to give him a name and address and he'd make sure it didn't happen again. Randall's mother Joanie took the pacifist approach telling Randall to "let it go, and be the bigger man." She always told him, "you're the sensitive one of the family," which he hated to hear. However, it was his father's advice he really took to heart. It was old school thinking, but practical. "Randall, if he hit you, you hit him back, just harder." Everyone laughed except for Randall's mother, as she coldly eyed her husband.
Later that evening, Randall went to his room and planned his strategy. He mapped and strategized his attack, every move down to the detail, even over thinking it as usual. Randall had the time, place and method all figured out. It just needed to be executed.
The next day, just as planned, Randall sidled up behind Paulie Franks and landed a stinging whack behind his nemesis' left ear. Up until that point, Randall was a fifth grader who was usually out of focus to most of his other classmates at Mission. He was there, but didn't really make himself noticed much by others. Kept mostly to himself without letting on about his opinions, likes or dislikes. Randall was the type of person who was comfortable being just under the radar of everyone else's attention. Unfortunately, it all changed that fateful moment. It wasn't only Paulie's ear that turned red. Paulie was so peeved that he delivered a fifth grade ass whooping of epic proportions. Randall didn't block any of Paulie's incoming shots, put up a defense of any kind, or return one single punch. Not even a slap. It lasted barely five minutes, but it had a ripple effect that lasted longer than Randall cared to remember.
Soon after, there was the fight with Paulie's cousin Nicky Blank, who happened to be visiting from Brooklyn NY. Paulie and Nicky made up some reason why Randall needed to fight Nicky, and Randall just went along with it. He figured Paulie probably told Nicky how easy it was, which made Nicky curious to find out for himself. This was Randall's second public beating with many more to follow.
In between all of the fights there was the constant ear flicking that Randall had to endure, usually by older and bigger kids. Randall swatted them away like flies, which was all he could do. It felt like open season on his ears and shattered what was left of his self-confidence.
Then there was Dennis Klapp. Dennis didn't like the fact that anyone made fun of his last name. When he heard that someone had, everyone pointed the finger at Randall. Next thing Randall heard was "Baxter", then the air rushing past Dennis's right fist as it slammed against Randall's nose. Luckily it was only one punch, because Dennis stopped as soon as he saw blood flowing out of Randall's nose. That was more or less how the fifth grade ended that year.
Sixth grade wasn't too bad, at least by Randall's standards. Randall was at the receiving end of only a few fights that year, although the social implications as a result of them were much more damaging than the actual fights. One took place outside the Rainbow Skating Rink early in the year. Randall asked Katy Cox to skate along with him when the DJ announced 'couples only' over the PA system. Gary Wright's "Dream Weaver" was blasting through the overhead speakers. Unfortunately for Randall, he had no idea that Bobby Spindale had asked Katy Cox to go steady 20 minutes earlier, as they were all in line waiting to get into the skating rink. Two of Bobby's friends held Randall, one on each side, as they stood in the back of the dimly lit arcade room. Bobby took several swings at Randall, mostly in the stomach. He shouted some meaningless warning which Randall didn't hear between the bleeps and buzzes of the video games. Also, he was distracted, wondering who else was watching and how long he was going to be on the ground trying to catch his breath and scraping gum off his skates.
Later that evening, Katy apologized to Randall for not saying anything about Bobby asking her to go steady. Unfortunately, the damage was already done.
The worst fight that year though was by Chris Galvin. Not because of the physical damage, but rather because the fact that Chris was a she and only fought Randall because someone bet her she couldn't beat up a boy. Randall's reputation preceded him so he was the likely choice. As the punches landed on Randall's face, which were actually more like slaps, he could hear his mother's voice in his head, "Gentleman don't hit girls, there are other ways to get back at them." It didn't matter very much, since Randall wasn't going to fight back any way. He knew that this particular fight would take a while to recover from, and that didn't mean physically. It was an all time personal low. Probably a record low for any sixth grader at Mission Elementary, ever.
Randall began to run out of excuses for his parents as to why he had a cut, black eye, fat lip or any other facial abrasion. He tried his hardest to avoid direct contact with his family on fight days, but that became impossible. His older sister, Hallie, eventually took pity on him and helped apply makeup to hide any signs that he was in another losing fight. She showed him the finer points of applying base and how to match his skin color. "Here, take this," Hallie said, tossing Randall a small metallic can of mace after his most recent fight. It was something that her father gave her, "just in case," he would tell her. It had never been open. "You can use this more than me right now." Randall rolled it in his hands, studying it carefully. "It's mace dummy. Just spray it in someone's face if they try to pick another fight." Randall thanked her and tossed it into his backpack. All he could think about was his parents. Keeping all of this from them was imperative, since he wanted to avoid the confrontation and questions as to why anyone would want to hit such a nice friendly boy like Randall. And to think that it all started with his oversized ears. That much his parents could probably understand. Either way, Randall didn't want them involved. Even Randall knew, that for all of their good intentions, the minute they said something to Principal Mays or one of the other parents, his reputation, or what was left of it, would sink to new depths and the pummeling would intensify. It was best just to ride it out, which is exactly what he did through seventh and eighth grade. Fortunately, he grew a few inches during those years, but that didn't alter things too much. He still had only a few friends and avoided confrontations as much as possible.
There was one bright spot in his junior high year, which was a special gift that his parents got for him. It was supposed to be the family dog, but they bestowed upon Randall the responsibility of taking care of a new puppy, which meant everything from walking, feeding and cleaning up after him. Even more important than that was house breaking the dog. Randall was a bit skeptical at first, but none the less hooked as soon as the tan Labrador puppy ran up to him and licked his face. It was the first time in a while that he'd been licked in the face instead of punched. His parents were hoping it would instill some sense of responsibility in Randall and possibly help him become more social. The line of thinking was, if he walked the dog or took him to a dog park on a regular basis, he would eventually meet people with other dogs, or just those who loved dogs. The social interaction would be enough, and maybe he would even meet a nice girl his age. Brad and Hallie were fine with the arrangement for the dog as well, especially since they both had busy social schedules, being as popular as they were.
Randall bonded quickly with the new puppy, which he eventually named Tanner. The dog became his constant companion when he wasn't at school getting knocked around like an out of shape prizefighter in the 11th round. Randall learned to house break Tanner early on, rising each morning at 6am to let the dog out to pee, then walking him around the neighborhood. It was hard at first to get up that early, but he eventually conditioned himself. His brother Brad told him that doing a routine over and over again consistently would train your mind and condition your body to accept it as a normal everyday routine. He called it a form of muscle memory. Just like training a dog.
As Tanner began to grow, which wasn't soon after puppyhood, Randall started teaching him tricks such as fetching a tennis ball and staying put on command. Soon the two became inseparable and it was normal for neighbors to always see Randall with a leash in his hand. Randall loved the constant attention the dog bestowed upon him. He knew it was the dog that people were interested and not him, but he was happy just to be a part of the dog's life. His brother also made a good point when he said, "no one ever picked a fight with someone that had a dog on a leash.
Tanner's walks were usually longer in the afternoon than in the mornings. Randall tended to take the same route through the neighborhood, unless he had to detour occasionally to avoid Johnny Best, the neighborhood roughneck. It wasn't that he had to avoid Johnny, but rather that he wanted to. Johnny had that tough guy 'don't mess with me' look about him, even though he was only 13. He had one pierced ear, his hair was always slicked back, and he usually wore black jeans or Dickies brand pants with a t-shirt that had the sleeves cut off. To round out his outfit was a pair of black steel toed Doc Martins. Johnny picked on just about every kid in the neighborhood who was smaller in stature than him, constantly bossing them around. Most just tried to avoid him and any kind of eye contact, including Randall. However, unlike most other kids, Randall had a harassment free pass from Johnny. Regardless, Randall still chose to avoid any kind of contact with him. Whereas, Johnny would push most other kids around or toss out a verbal threat towards them, he left Randall Baxter alone. This was all the result of Randall's being in the right place at the right time, for once.
It happened about a year ago. Late one evening, Randall happened to be passing by the Best home when he heard an unusually loud conversation taking place in the back yard. Out of sheer curiously, Randall snuck around the side of the house to peek through the fence to see what was going on. What he heard was Johnny's father, Terence Best, yelling at his youngest son. Randall thought that he heard Johnny whimpering. Mr. Best was on one of his drunken tirades that he was known for in the neighborhood gossip circles. Since there wasn't a Mrs. Best, Johnny was practically defenseless. Not even his two older brothers could do anything. Not that they would, since they had always been a bit conflicted about blaming Johnny for the beatings they had to endure from their father as well. Johnny's mother, Sally Best, died giving birth to the last of the Best boys. The delivery had been particularly difficult due to the fact that Johnny was in a breach position. Terrence Best's deep feeling of sorrow soon turned to rage with the aid of his trusted friend Jack Daniels.
Randall heard Mr. Best slurring as he struggled to get the words out. In between shouts of "you puny fuck," "learn a little more god damn respect," and "worthless," Randall heard one piece of coherent advice. "If you're going to show me what kind of person you really are than do it. Don't be a fucking wuss. I'm tired of you talking about it. Do something dammit. Problem is that you can't. Just admit it." Randall had to see this going down for himself. Just as he was pulling himself up past the top of the first fence post, both Johnny and Mr. Best looked in his direction. Randall instantly let go of both hands and dropped to the ground. He was there long enough to glimpse Johnny with tears streaming down his face. Mr. Best ignored the interruption and continued his verbal rampage, however Johnny and Randall had made eye contact long enough to communicate a whole conversation. Randall realized that Johnny's bark was bigger than his bite. They were very much alike except for the hard exterior shell and the tough guy act Johnny convinced everyone was real. All the other kids his age in the neighborhood bought it. Randall wasn't one of them anymore. He glimpsed the real Johnny Best. Even though he felt sorry for Johnny, having to accept the abuse his father was laying on him, Randall respected how he mastered his persona, and therefore agreed to buy into it with everyone else, keeping what he knew to himself. Randall remembered his brother Brad always telling him that it was okay to have attitude, whether it was real or not because "it conveyed confidence, and people were more likely to buy what you're were selling, when you coat it with a little confidence". Johnny had the attitude, but was anyone buying it. Brad loved to tell Randall about his friend Lou, who was so opinionated and confident in those opinions that they referred to them as Lou's views. Whether he was right about something or not, he always had an opinion, but it was the confidence and attitude in the way he presented it that made you listen and pay attention. Brad also loved to imparted on Randall how it was important to keep your friend close, and your enemies even closer. Randall figured his brother probably picked that line up from a movie, but he understood its important regardless.
After what Randall had witnessed between Johnny Best and his father, he now had the upper hand. Randall had agreed to keep what he saw to himself in exchange for a free pass from any harassment from Johnny. They discussed it once, but tt had become an unspoken agreement between the two boys. Randall still preferred to avoid Johnny whenever possible. For outward appearances, Johnny still taunted Randall around other kids, but nothing like he used to or ever would in the future.
It was Monday morning and Randall was in one of the best moods he'd been in a while, as he walked Tanner through the neighborhood, avoiding the Best home on the way. It was the last week of Junior High School. He'd have all summer to relax at home, and avoid contact with a majority of his classmates, except for the few friends he had. Now with Johnny Best out of the way, Randall imagined how the next three summer months would be spent, free of any fights, bullying, ear flicking, spit wads, name calling, accidental chest bumps and so on. Just lots of time with Tanner and his family. When September rolled around, Randall would be a freshman at Glendora High along with his popular cheerleading sister Hallie and all star athlete brother Brad. Nobody would pick on the brother of Brad Baxter, Randall thought to himself. Sure, there would be a few attempts. Old habits die hard and kids couldn't resist, however, they would think twice this time. Especially, when Randall reminded them of his older brother, which of course he wouldn't have to. Randall never wanted his brother to fight his battles before, even though it was offered numerous times. This time was different though. Randall wouldn't have to ask. It would just be assumed that if you messed with Randall Baxter you messed with his older brother Brad. At least that was how Randall imagined the scenario. It didn't hurt that his sister Hallie dated either football players, or guys with a criminal record, or a combination of both. Randall also factored in a potential growth spurt during his first two years of high school, which would help fend off any might be protagonists. He only had one year to cement his reputation as someone not to pick on, since his brother was a senior and would be graduating at the end of the year. Plenty could happen in a year. It would be an uneventful and blissful summer with very few obstacles. Unfortunately, such was Randall's life that that was not to be the case.
"Randall, keep your dog out of my room. He started chewing on one of my Steve Madden shoe. Do you know how much those cost?" Randall had no idea what a Steve Madden was, but was secretly happy about the dogs foray into his sister's room. "His name is Tanner, Hallie," Randall replied. "Whatever. Keep him out. Okay!" Hallie yelled back loudly. "Must be that time of month," Brad said as he leaned into Randall's ear, with his hand partially covering his mouth. He said it loud enough for everyone in the kitchen to hear. "Bradley, stop it," their mother said, waving her hand at them while flipping fried eggs with a spatula in the other. Randall and Brad looked at each other and laughed. "Where's the sports page?" Brad asked, shuffling through the morning edition of the Glendora Star News. "You looking for this son?" Randall's father asked with a sly grin, holding up the sports page with both hands.
Walter Baxter was a career accountant, but had a life long hobby as a magician. He practiced whenever he could, which meant mostly trying out new and old tricks on his three children and tolerant wife, Joanie. It was usually the same slate of three or four tricks, with the same delivery. Card and coin tricks were his specialty, and occasionally he would throw in a very small illusion, always performed at a distance.
There was a point in time when Walter Baxter dreamed of being a professional magician, having started off performing at local parties, bar mitzvahs and weddings. His goal was to have a traveling show, which would eventually turn into a residency at the famed Magic Castle in Los Angeles. He figured after that it would be the gravy train with a resident show in Las Vegas like David Copperfield. In his spare time, Walter studied how the great illusionists and magicians performed and the secrets behind their tricks. Unfortunately, it was just a dream for Walter Baxter. He had a family, which came first, and a career as an accountant for a law firm, but it didn't stop him from hovering around magicians when they performed at any event he happened to be at. He also found his way into the famed Magic Castle and would catch a Vegas magic show whenever they were passing through Sin City. Nor did it stop him from subjecting his family, unannounced, to his magical whims, much like today. "Observe," Randall's father continued as he held open the local sports page, turning it around so Randall and Brad could see the front and back. He then began to tear the paper in half. He repeatedly tore in half the remaining pieces, eventually tearing it down to small strips of paper that he folded up tight into a small square that fit into the palm of his hand. He then folded that square in half and held it up for his sons to see. Brad and Randall looked at each other with blank expressions. They had seen this trick before. "Sorry about the sports page Brad," Mr. Baxter said smiling at his eldest son. "But wait! A quick wave of the hand and…." Mr. Baxter began to unfold the square he still had in his hand. "And we have the sports page, all back together." "Yeah, but now it has a lot more crease marks dad," Brad said, taking the paper from his father. "Good times dad. I like that one. Next time you should pretend the trick didn't work and just unfold the square so the paper is still ripped up, and hand it back to Brad that way," Randall said. "Thanks for the suggestion Randall," Brad replied, loud enough for everyone to hear, his head buried deep within the sports section. "Oh Bradley, he's just kidding," Mrs. Baxter said. "I want you all home by dinner time tonight to meet our new guest." "Guest?" Brad and Randall said in unison. "Really," Hallie said, closing the refrigerator door. "Don't be surprised. You all know about Sam Ting, our foreign exchange student from China," Mrs. Baxter replied. She continued wiping down the kitchen table. They all did know, but tried to forget, since it meant having to share. Sharing their time, their house, even their bathrooms. "He's only staying with us for a month. He'll be in the summer exchange program at Glendora High, but we'll all need to help entertain him the rest of the time." "How old is he again?" Brad asked, a look of disdain on his face. "He's thirteen," Mrs. Baxter replied, arms folded across her chest. "Oh great, we have two of them now," Hallie said, rolling her eyes. Randall knew she was referring to him, already making assumptions that Sam Ting and Randall would be hanging out together like they were best friends.
Randall knew that his parents had agreed with the school to host a foreign exchange student, but had tried hard not to think much about it, hoping maybe it wouldn't happen at all. He also knew that they were getting some type of subsidy in return and also were probably secretly hoping Sam Ting would impart some culture and international friendship on Randall within that one month time frame.
All the Baxter kids and even Mr. Baxter had a bit of a pre-conceived notion of what a month with a 13 year old Chinese exchange student would be like. For Mr. Baxter it would be another audience member for his impromptu magic. The others saw it as being forced into a dinner conversation with a soft spoken, shy Chinese boy who probably liked to use chop sticks and avoid eye contact while staring eerily at Tanner. Randall figured he would probably have to spend the most time with Sam Ting due to their closeness in age. Randall wouldn't make a fuss about it like his brother and sister would, which of course he knew that his parents were aware of that fact as well, making him the Baxter family ambassador by default. There were more pressing matters for him to worry about at the moment, specifically trying to make it through one more week of junior high school without any embarrassing incidents or fist fights. Then he had the summer free and it was off to the green zone known as high school.
That afternoon Mr. & Mrs. Baxter went to the airport to pick up Sam Ting. When they arrived home it was like a police lineup, with the Brad, Hallie and Randall on one side, facing the diminutive Sam Ting, who stood solemnly in front of Mr. & Mrs. Baxter. Everyone eyed each other suspiciously until Tanner trotted in and walked right up to Sam Ting, licking his hands. Sam Ting flinched and pulled his hands away from the dog. "Tanner. Sit. Sit Tanner!" Randall yelled, reaching out to grab the dog's studded collar. "Sorry about that," Randall said. Sam Ting didn't say a word, nor did he look up at Randall. "Kids. This is Sam Ting, our foreign exchange guest from China," Mrs. Baxter said a bit nervously putting her hand on Sam Ting's shoulder. "Welcome to America," Hallie said sounding almost exasperated. She clearly had more pressing matters to attend to. "What city are you from?" Brad asked, trying to break the ice. "Shanghai," Sam Ting replied barely loud enough for anyone to hear besides the dog. "Shanghai? Like Shanghai Nights. Jackie Chan," Brad said making karate motions with his hands and legs. Sam Ting nodded, keeping his hands clasped together in front of him. It looked more like a bow. "Bradley. Not everyone in China is born with a black belt in karate," Mrs. Baxter said sternly staring at her son with a look of exasperation. Everyone shook hands, then Sam Ting gave everyone a gift, each one wrapped in plain brown construction paper. Mrs. Baxter opened a small felt purse to reveal a silver necklace with a small piece of carved jade stone. For the three men it was silk shirts, each with a different design. Hallie's gift was a small stuffed Panda bear and there was a box of fruit and candies for everyone. "We're glad to have you staying with us Sam Ting," Mr. Baxter said, eyeing her children so they would agree. "Randall, why don't you take Sam Ting up stairs and show him your room since he'll be staying in there with you." Randall rolled his eyes. He tried to fight the living arrangements, but the conversation with his mother over the issue lasted all of five minutes, after which he promptly gave up.
As Randall walked upstairs to his room with Sam Ting, he started to have dreadful thoughts of what the next four weeks were going to be like. Forced to make conversation with someone he had nothing in common with. Did the Chinese even like pets Randall wondered. Fortunately, all that would change within minutes of entering his room.
"Shanghi Nights. Is that best your brother do? Big let down bro," Sam Ting said, tossing his bag on the futon bed that Randall set up for him. "What's that?" Randall asked surprised at how well Sam Ting spoke English, but also by the sudden change in demeanor. He went from shy and diminutive downstairs, to cocky and somewhat abrasive now. "I could have dropped him like a hot potato with all fixings," Sam Ting said. "Shit Randy. I just fuck with you." Randall was silent, shocked at what he was hearing. "What happened to the quiet, shy Chinese boy down stairs?" Randall asked. "That just a show. For the parents. Me and you going to be homies. What up?" Sam Ting said, as he put his hand up to high five Randall, who decided to just go along with it and high fived him back. It was only four weeks he told himself. "What kind of stuff are you into Sam?" Randall asked reclining onto the bed. "Sam Ting." Sam Ting replied. "Sorry. I forgot. My mom mentioned that we were supposed to call you by your full name. Why is that anyway?" "You call Bill Gates just Bill?" Sam Ting asked rhetorically. "Because he's Bill Gates," Randall said. "Yeah, and I'm Sam Ting." Randall could see where he was going and wasn't in the mood to argue the point. "So what kind of stuff are you into Sam Ting?" Randall asked again. "Same shit as you bro. You know, babes, bustin ass and computers," Sam Ting replied with an ear to ear smile, jumping onto the futon. "I don't like any of that stuff." "What. You gay? Ah mother fuck." "No. No. I'm not gay. I just don't like bustin ass and computers. Of course I like girls." "That my man. You keep it that way. Boo Ya!" Sam Ting said.
Randall found Sam Ting to be oddly interesting. The ice had been broken and for the next two hours Randall got to know all about his new roommate from China. When Sam Ting mentioned his fascination with computers, he meant everything that was involved with making computers operate, the software. In layman's terms he was a hacker, and apparently a very good one. Randall listened to Sam Ting talk about how he grew up in a small town called Hangzhou outside of Shanghai. His father left when Sam Ting was only five years old and his sister three, and never came back. The reasons are still unknown to Sam Ting. His mother was forced to move the three of them into the city to find decent work, which is where Sam Ting discovered computers.
Sam Ting first learned how to take computers apart, then reassemble them, soldering the circuit boards and adding more memory and storage space. Eventually, Sam Ting taught himself to program in languages such as Basic, Pascal, C, PhP, Ruby on Rails, Java Script and any other language he discovered. Learning to program came naturally to Sam Ting as did learning to speak other languages. He joined popular hacker chat rooms and the exchange of information came in floods. Cracking system security codes and passwords was as easy as a locksmith picking a lock. First, it was his school's mainframe system, then the local power company's security grid and eventually a regional bank, accessing the assets of high net worth individuals. It wasn't about stealing, but rather the ability to get past their security firewalls, as fast as possible, without getting caught. Sam Ting went by the moniker 'Yellow Snowman'. He always placed in the top ten in the programming competitions he entered, once taking 2nd place in the OpenHack III competition. Sam Ting also engaged in a lot of peer to peer file sharing of movies and music. He was fascinated by American gangster movies as well as Hip Hop and Rap music. Sam Ting immersed himself in movies like The Godfather, Mean Streets and Pulp Fiction, and listened to songs like Straight Outta Compton by N.W.A, and Fight the Power by Public Enemy, over and over. Aided by help from the VHS tapes he rented from the library, Sam Ting taught himself to speak English. It was his ultimate goal to travel to the US and meet his idol, Bill Gates. To do so, he knew he would have to learn English and enroll in a study abroad program. He had applied for the abroad program in Seattle where Microsoft was located as his first choice, but instead ended up in Glendora. Sam Ting was able to play out the role of the studious Chinese exchange student whenever he wanted, or turn on the tough talking attitude, spewing out one liners with his broken English, which most of the time just made those around him laugh. He would say things like, "Go head. You want make my day? I'll make yours and you won't like it." It was endearing, Randall thought, and even though he wasn't always being serious, you couldn't help but like Sam Ting. What Randall soon discovered and liked the most about him was that he had a great sense of humor. That was evident during Sam Ting's first day at breakfast with the Baxters.
"Why do we have to call him by his full name all the time? I don't get it," Hallie asked, picking through a half peeled orange. "That's how he wants to be called. Don't question it. He's a guest Hallie," Mrs. Baxter replied. "Funny little dude, but I like him. It shows he has a little attitude," Brad added.
Randall had just finished walking Tanner, while Sam Ting was in the shower, having been able to squeeze a shower in between Hallie and Brad. He came down for breakfast wearing baggy jeans and a black hoodie sweatshirt with the word FUBU written across the chest. He also had a new pair of black and red Air Jordan's. Everyone looked up at Sam Ting as he approached the kitchen table. "Good morning Sam Ting," Mr. Baxter said. Sam Ting politely bowed toward each person in the kitchen. "Good Morning," Sam Ting replied. "What would you like for breakfast?" Mrs. Baxter asked. "What ever you make I eat and like." "Nice kicks Sam Ting," Brad said patting him on the back. Everyone waited for a response from Sam Ting, who had a confused look on his face. "Shoes, nice shoes. Sorry Sam Ting. I forgot you probably don't know American slang too well." Brad said. Sam Ting nodded and smiled. The truth was that Sam Ting did know American slang and references such as kicks, but chose not to reveal that yet. "I order these off internet. Deliver right to my door in Shanghai. They make them right down the street from my house. Beautiful thing." Sam Ting said, pointing down at his shoes. "Just kidding," Sam Ting said. Everyone burst out laughing getting the made in China reference.
Sam Ting figured he would let his host family ask questions and initiate most of the conversation. Unfortunately, there were pockets of silences until one of the Baxter's spoke. First it was Mrs. Baxter. "So, is Sam Ting a family name?" Another moment of silence, as everyone tried to asses whether this was an appropriate question or not. Sam Ting took it all in stride before breaking the ice and revealing his sense of humor. "Actually it is. Many many year ago, a great great uncle of mine come to America to live. He go to Ellis Island and wait in line long time. The man in front of him named John Smith. When John Smith come to the window, the lady ask, "name please," and he say John Smith. So they write John Smith on ID card for him. My great great uncle next and the lady ask, "name please?" and he says "Sam Ting," so the lady write "John Smith" on his ID card. Sam Ting waited a second until everyone got the joke and laughed. He was no longer the shy little exchange student from China.
Mr. Baxter now felt it an opportune time to try out his magic on their guest. Sam Ting was the perfect audience, especially since he had never seen any of Mr. Baxter's magic like the rest of the family. "Hey Sam Ting. I want to show you something," Mr. Baxter said holding open the front two pages of the newspaper. He proceeded with the same newspaper trick he performed for Brad and Randall just days before. "Dad. We just saw this trick. At least try out something new," Brad said interrupting his father's performance. "This is new for Sam Ting. I'll show you something new tomorrow." Sam Ting watched attentively as Mr. Baxter ripped the paper then folded it into a small square. With a wave of his hand, he unfolded the square to reveal the paper whole again. Sam Ting smiled. "Good trick Mr. Baxter," Sam Ting said. "Randall. Let's go, or your going to be late for school," Mrs. Baxter yelled up at Randall who had just finished dressing. "Dad's going to drop you off Randall. I'm taking Sam Ting to get what he needs for his orientation tomorrow," Mrs. Baxter said as everyone dispersed from the kitchen table.
Four more days Randall thought. It was good that he didn't have to ride with Sam Ting to school and risk the chance of being seen with a small Chinese boy, allowing an opportunity for someone to potentially find reason to pick a fight. One last ass kicking for the year would likely be their reasoning. Keeping a low profile was imperative right now. Oddly, Randall had taken an instant liking to his new house guest and he was certain they would be able to spend more time together once Randall finished the week out and said goodbye to Junior High School. There was still a lot to do for his new house guest. Randall needed to brief Sam Ting on who to avoid in the neighborhood, especially Johnny Best, and teach him about the dynamics of being in school here in America.
Tanner goes missing
When Randall returned home from school that afternoon, the house was unusually quiet and still. Hallie had gone to her job at the Gap, Brad was most likely warming up for one of his last high school baseball games of the season and his high school career. Mr. Baxter still had several hours left before finishing up his work day. Randall had to assume that his mom was off with Sam Ting somewhere, probably driving him around town to show him the local points of interest.
Making his way into the house, Randall's first order of business was to say hello to Tanner, find himself a snack and take his dog for a walk through the neighborhood. Randall was feeling particularly upbeat and pondered the idea of taking his furry friend to the dog park. He had thought about Tanner all day while at school. Something he often did when he was bored. This was one of his favorite times of the day. Randall raced out back to the yard, calling for Tanner. "Tanner. Tanner come here. Who wants to go for a walk?" Randall walked further out into the yard, figuring Tanner may be in the middle of the yard doing some business behind a bush. "Yo Tanner. Come here buddy," Randall yelled while clapping his hands several times. His heart rate began to quicken as he jogged around the yard looking behind several bushes and trees. "Tanner!" Randall yelled again, now a little more panicked. It wasn't until he ran around the side of the house when the floor of his stomach fell out. The side gate leading out to the front of the house had been left open. It was open wide enough for Tanner to have just slipped through. Randall ran passed the gate out towards the front of the house as fast as he could, looking every direction and yelling for his dog at the top of his lungs. Maybe it just happened and Tanner hadn't gone very far. He grabbed his bike and started riding down towards the direction of the dog park, carefully scanning each house that he rode past.
Randall spent the next four hours looking for Tanner, kicking anything in sight and cursing the person who had left the gate open. He thought about the many times he told his family how important it was to keep the gate closed. There wasn't a chance that Tanner could have pushed it open himself. Most of Randall's anger was now directed at Sam Ting. Randall started to convince himself that the Chinese exchange student must have purposefully left the back gate open. Maybe Ira was right about the Chinese and their attitude towards dogs.
Randall's emotions swung from rage to extreme moods of sadness and sense of loss. This was his best friend. Randall had envisioned the entire summer spent hassle free, with his dog at his side. No one ever bothered him when Tanner was with him either. His brother Brad was right when he said nobody would pick a fight when you had a dog by your side. Randall began to panic. What would his parents think. They had trusted him to care for the dog, which is why it soon became his dog by default. Before he knew it the time had raced well passed 6pm and the sun was starting to set. Randall worried that Tanner would be wandering in the dark, not able to find his way back home.
One by one, the Baxter clan arrived home, first his brother Brad, who offered to drive him around to search for the dog, then his sister Hallie who blamed him for losing the dog. Randall frantically interrogated each family member, almost to the point of being manic. It was as though he was trying to point the blame as much as he was trying to find leads to how the dog escaped in the first place. Mrs. Baxter then arrived with Sam Ting, who was carrying several brand name shopping bags. "Randy, what up?" Sam Ting asked. "Why'd you let Tanner out?" Randall asked brushing past his mother to stand right in front of Sam Ting. "What?" Sam Ting asked with a confused look. "What are you talking about honey?" his mother asked. "Someone left the back gate open this morning and Tanner was able to get out. I came home from school and he was gone. I've spent the last four hours looking for him." Randall was almost in tears. "Not me," Sam Ting said raising both hands in the air, with a bag in each hand. "Honey, it was an accident. If Sam Ting did, he didn't mean to." "I didn't." Sam Ting exclaimed. Right then Mr. Baxter's car pulled up into the driveway as he waved to everyone. "Ask your father to drive you around to look for Tanner," Mrs. Baxter instructed her son. "Forget it. I'm just going to keep looking," Randall said emphatically, rushing off. He brushed by his father who had just closed the car door. "Randall, where you going?" "To look for Tanner," Randall replied without looking back. He just kept walking. Everyone was watching Randall as he walked down the street calling out Tanner's name, including his neighbor four houses down, Gerald Fowler, who watched from his bedroom window.
Gerald Fowler was known as the neighborhood 'weirdo loner.' Even Randall thought so, but could certainly empathize with him to some degree. Gerald was a typical latch key kid, whose parents worked late, leaving him to care for himself once he returned home from school, of which most of the time he spent in his bedroom. He was an only child and grew up being accustomed to playing by himself. People often associated his soft spoken manner and quiet demeanor as an indication that he was weird, withdrawn and probably liked to torture small animals. In reality, Gerald was just quiet and a bit of an introvert, but also had many similar interests and hobbies as any other kid his age had. He particularly liked taking things apart, understanding how they worked, then re-assembly them. He started with puzzles, lego's and his Thomas the Train set, then moved up to door locks, small kitchen appliances and his father's power tools. That eventually led to bigger mechanical devices like motorcycles and cars, where he spent hours hovering over a five inch thick manual trying to re-assemble what he had taken apart, and then making it run. Having eventually mastered those, Gerald took to learning electronics. He assembled a computer from parts he ordered online and bought from Radio Shack. Like everything else, he spent hours by himself until he felt he had mastered it and everything worked as it was supposed to. As often as possible, he would try to improve upon what he had disassembled, or at least add a new feature to it that the original designers hadn't thought of.
Gerald's interest in how things worked extended beyond objects to that of people. His approach in trying to understand people wasn't by talking with them, but instead by watching and observing them in order to try and piece together their character traits and habits. It could be something as simple as the expression on a person's face, or reaction to certain situations, or even the way someone walked. Gerald saw these as clues about a person's character. Whether it was spending hours in his bedroom watching the same people walk past his house or watching people at the mall walk from shop to shop, Gerald could pick out a least one character trait with pin point accuracy. So when anyone caught a glimpse of Gerald watching them from his bedroom, their first impression was that he was a little strange. Even Gerald knew, first impressions were hard to shake.
Gerald had seen Randall Baxter walk past his house earlier in the day, and could tell by the urgency in his steps and constant nail biting, that something wasn't right. Many times he would notice Randall's slow loping walk as he dragged his feet with his head slung downward, which usually indicated he'd been humiliated in some way. Randall usually never bit his nails, except right before he was about to get beat up. Only Gerald noticed something like that and made the connection.
"Looking for your dog?" Gerald asked sitting on the top of his front porch. Randall stopped as soon as he heard the word dog. "Have you seen him?" Randall asked running up the porch steps toward Gerald, who started to get up, but sat back down when Randall reached the top of the stairs. "I haven't seen your dog, but I might have seen something," Gerald said, playing it safe with his neighbor. Maybe it was best to stay out of it Gerald had thought to himself, but he had already stepped over the line. "What the hell does that mean?" Randall asked stepping closer toward Gerald. "Is there some kind of reward?" Gerald asked. "No. I just want my dog back," Randall said raising his voice. Gerald never had an issue with Randall. They didn't speak much to each other, but that was mainly because they didn't come in contact very often. Gerald figured he might as well ask for a reward even though he never expected it. "I saw a white van stop near your house earlier today. The side door opened, then closed, then it sped off." "Did you get a plate #? Did you see them take my dog? Did you see who it was?"Randall asked, spitting out the questions rapidly. "Well, I saw your dog running around out front, then noticed the van, then didn't see your dog, so yeah, I guess you could assume they took him. However, no, I didn't actually see them grab the dog," Gerald replied sarcastically. "That's it?" Randall asked. "That's it. The only other thing I noticed was a large scratch and dent along the side of the van." "Okay. Thanks Gerald. I'm sorry I snapped. Don't take it personally. I appreciate your help." "No worries Randall," Gerald said as he watched Randall turn to walk back towards the Baxter house, with his head hunched low between his shoulders. It was a look of defeat and Gerald had seen Randall this way before. Gerald saw it many times when Randall would return home after he was beat up, only Gerald would find out what had happened the following day. Randall was already turning left onto the sidewalk from Gerald's house when Gerald shouted to him, "let me know if I can help. I liked your dog. I'll help you put some signs up if you want." Randall looked back at Gerald waving with his left hand as he continued on toward home.
Randall's heart sank, knowing that if what Gerald had told him was true, there was a good chance he wouldn't see Tanner again. This was supposed to be Randall's summer of hope. A new school in the fall with his older brother Brad there to keep others at arms length. It was to be a new start for Randall. He was going to spend the whole summer with his dog Tanner, but now all of that was in jeopardy. He still had to spend four weeks with a strange Chinese exchange student who was sharing his room. Randall focused on everything he would have to do in order to try and find his dog. "Turn lemons into lemonade" his father loved to quote. "Don't walk around looking like you just sucked on one." At this point, Randall had no choice. His mind raced through a checklist of action items. He'd have to start making posters with Tanners picture and begin posting them around the neighborhood, on light poles, street signs, the library and by passing them out by hand. He would canvas the entire area asking everyone if they had seen his dog. He would have to check with all of the pet stores, vet clinics and area dog shelters. Maybe the white van picked up Tanner by mistake and dropped him off somewhere else. Randall would have to then check all the parks, dog parks, and areas with water. This would mean eliciting help from his parents to have one of them drive him around as he searched every corner of the city. The one thought that weighed heavily on his mind was at what point would he have to call off the search. Randall vowed to always continue looking, but deep down he knew that would fade with time, which saddened him the most.
When Randall walked into his house, everything seemed quiet and still. Brad was in the living room practicing Krav Magra, trying to perfect the roundhouse knee kick. Randall knew it well since his brother was always practicing it on him. Hallie was upstairs in her room while Randall's parents were in the kitchen huddled around their cups of fresh brewed coffee. They had been waiting for Randall to come home. "Any luck out there?" Randall's father asked. Randall nodded no. "Hallie and Brad helped make some signs with Tanner's picture. I'll help you post them tonight or we can go first thing in the morning," Mr. Baxter said holding up the 8.5 x 11 sheets of paper that said reward in bold letter at the top, with 'missing dog' right below it. In the middle of the page was a big picture of Tanner, mouth open wide with his tongue hanging out to the side. To Randall it looked like Tanner was smiling. "Thanks mom. We can go tomorrow morning. I'm beat," Randall said, his voice so low it was almost inaudible to his parents. They didn't say anything else as they watched Randall make his way upstairs.
The last thing Randall wanted was to have to walk into his bedroom that he was sharing with Sam Ting whom he suspected had left the back gate open on purpose. Pushing the bedroom door open, Randall dropped his backpack on the floor and flopped onto his bed without saying a word. He didn't even bother to notice Sam Ting who had been sitting at the desk with his computer. "You find your dog?" Sam Ting asked swiveling around in the chair. "No. And I don't really want to talk about it either." Randall replied. "It wasn't me who left gate open bro," Sam Ting said. "It was your old man homes." Randall shot straight up from the bed. "What? Bullshit. Just admit it was you and I won't be so mad. My dad wouldn't do something like that." "I wouldn't either my man." Sam Ting replied. "I like dogs." Randall gave Sam Ting a quizzical look. "as pets bro. Look, I saw you dad leave gate open. That magic trick your dad show me yesterday. Easy trick. Good, but easy. All you need is same paper, folded up and taped to other paper. When you rip up first one and fold, it taped to other paper. I'll show you later. When I get out of shower this morning, I see your dad coming back through gate with two paper for trick. He had to buy same paper to do trick. He left gate open when he came back bro." "why didn't you say something?" Randall pleaded. "How I know dog going to scram." Sam Ting replied. "Scram?" Randall asked. He knew what Sam Ting meant, but just never heard it used in this context. "Yeah Scram," Randall fell back into his green bean bag, feeling defeated. "Doesn't matter at this point. Looks like someone picked up Tanner and drove off." "What. That shit bogus," Sam Ting said, jumping out of his chair. "I know. Gerald, this kid who lives down the street said he saw a white van with a scratch or dent on the side, stop in front of Tanner, then drive off yesterday." "What? That good news. I think we can find these fuckers," Sam Ting said, except fuckers sounded like fockers.
Sam Ting sat back down and swiveled the chair around to face his laptop computer. Randall stood up and peered over Sam Ting's shoulder as he began to type furiously on his keypad. "Serious? How?" Randall asked. "Sam Ting show you bro." As Sam Ting typed away, Randall excitedly stood on his toes, making sure to stay out of Sam's light. He felt a sense of hope again, even though he had no idea what Sam Ting was doing or intended to do. "I first tap into city mainframe. Firewall easy to get past." Randall felt like he was in his own version of the film War Games, watching Sam Ting hack into restricted city mainframes. "You didn't know that Sam Ting was underground hacker. Best in Shanghai, maybe China." Sam Ting said smiling as he continued to speed type on the keypad. "You're a hacker?" Randall asked. "You bet sweet tits I am," Sam replied. "What time you friend say white van stop in front of Tanner?" "Gerald's my neighbor, not my friend. He said around 3:00pm yesterday. The van didn't have any windows either, except for two small ones in the back." As Sam Ting continued to type, the screen filled up with four panes of live camera feeds from the streets of Glendora. Randall recognized the intersection of Meridian and York blvds. He could see people milling about, unaware of the camera's perched above the stop lights. Sam Ting opened another tab on the browser and brought up the Google maps page. He entered the zip code of the Baxter's house that he memorized from his exchange program letter. Studying the map of Glendora, he zoomed in on a 5 block area near Randall's house. Randall stood behind Sam Ting in awe of how quickly he was piecing everything together. The time code on two of the windowpanes he had opened said 3:00pm, with the date. "Check it bro," Sam Ting said turning to look at Randall. He then pressed the return key and the two panes came to life, steaming recorded video from yesterday. "This live feed from cameras at two intersection. White Van had to pass through one of these according to maps." Sam Ting said, as the two closely watched the screen, waiting for a white van to pass by. Sam Ting sped up the playback on the cameras until they hit the 3:17 mark. That's when Randall shrieked, having spotted a white van passing through the intersection at Meridian and York. "There it is! Go back. GO BACK!" Randall yelled again. "Chill bro!" Sam Ting replied, as he rewound the footage and slowed it down to 1/8 of its normal speed. Just as the van was in the middle of the intersection, Sam stopped the footage, zoomed in on the license plate with a red square and printed the license plate on a 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper. "What are you doing?" Randall asked. "That printout for you to put on wall. Our first clue, maybe our last! Right bro?" "That's it?" Randall asked. "Say what? Course that not it homie! Now I tap into vehicle registry." "The DMV?" Randall asked. "Sure. DMV," Sam Ting replied, obviously not familiar with the acronym. As his agile fingertips glided over the keys on the keypad, the dark blue DMV log appeared on the screen, then quickly disappeared. Sam Ting was moving so quickly through each screen that popped up, Randall couldn't really keep up with him. Sam Ting then turned to look up at Randall with a big grin on his face, his finger still on the return key. He then punched the return key and swung back around at the monitor. 'Juanita Navarette Sanchez' flashed on the screen with a file containing all of her information she supplied to the DMV. "Boo Ya!! Juanita Navrett Sinchiz," Sam Ting said, mispronouncing the name with his accent. "Address there and everything. Look I Google it." "Awesome. Great job Sam Ting. I'll get my dad to drive me over there tomorrow." "Hold horses bro. You can't just drive over." Sam Ting said. "Why not?" "You need to do drive by. Check it out first. You don't want to spook. You don't know who she is. She might be crazy. Might even be wrong person. You and me go tomorrow and scout out house. See if we find dog, then we make our move. Cool?" Sam Ting thrust out his hand, fist clenched, waiting for a fist bump from Randall. It took a minute, but it soon made sense to Randall, who slowly bumped Sam back.
Both Randall and Sam Ting had school the following day, but made a plan to meet at the house at 4:00pm. From there they would ride over to 2025 Nolan Street. The home of Juanita Navarette Sanchez. Randall only had one bike, so he had to spend some time with Sam Ting, showing him how to properly sit on the handlebars while Randall rode. Luckily, Sam Ting was fairly small in size and fit onto the metal cross bar of Randall's Schwinn easily enough. It was more about keeping his balance so they both wouldn't tip over.
The address was about four miles from the Baxter house, which wasn't a bad ride on a bicycle. Mostly flat the entire way. Sam Ting brought his headphones and iPod shuffle, which was blasting a selection of gangster rap and metal music. Randall didn't mind, since it gave him some time to think about what he would say to Mrs. Sanchez, whom he thought of as probably a sweet grandmotherly type woman who probably thought Tanner was her dog or a lost pet when she pulled up to him. Maybe she had bad cataracts in both eyes, saw Tanner and told her driver that that was her dog. Either way, Randall figured it was just a simple mistake and could be cleared up once they discovered Tanners dog tags.
Randall stopped the bike abruptly on the corner of Nolan and Avenue 50 just like Sam Ting had instructed. It almost flipped Sam Ting from the handlebars, who had been deeply engaged in the music. He quickly jumped off, glad to be standing on solid ground. "Here's Nolan Street," Randall said. "Okay. Chain bike to fence," Sam Ting said, pointing to a chain link fence that was directly behind them. "We walk to house and check it out first." "Okay, I'm following you," Randall replied. They walked along the far side of the street, casually glancing at each house until they came to 2025. It was a modest looking Spanish style house, with two stor