Emerson Yeung seems to have every reason to be happy-- he gets good marks, has some friends, and has a part time job at his parents' dry cleaning business. But Emerson has been hiding something. The pressure to be the perfect son put on him by his parents that sometimes escalates into abuse from his father. This has led to a depression that leaves him roaming the city in the middle of the night.
When his phone is stolen and used to post racist threats toward the vice principal and a teacher at his school, Emerson gets suspended and is investigated by the police. Not seeing any way out of his situation, he plans to commit suicide. But Emerson manages to find help and to gain the strength he needs to deal with his life.
This novel is a realistic look at how a responsible teen can feel overwhelmed by life's pressures --and how personal and family tragedy can be averted.
About the Author
JOHN CHOI lives in Toronto where he has worked as a child and youth mental health professional for over twenty years. Dark Side is his first novel.
John Choi lives in Toronto where he has worked as a child and youth mental health professional for over twenty years. Dark Side is his first novel.
Read an Excerpt
By John Choi
James Lorimer & Company Ltd.Copyright © 2016 John Choi
All rights reserved.
Within seconds of walking into my parents' dry cleaning store, I'm being yelled at. They're not usually mad if I'm here by 6:00. It's only 6:15 now.
"Emerson — where the hell have you been?!" This is not an exact translation, but it's the gist of what Mom screams at me in Mandarin.
"I was at the library, working on a project," I answer in English. This is my go-to answer to this question — sometimes it's actually true. School is all my parents care about, especially now that I'm in grade twelve and applying to university.
"Why haven't you been answering your phone?" She's not loud, but she's furious. I can tell that something is terribly wrong. I'm afraid to ask what. Earlier today I lost my cell. I'd spent hours searching for it. I retraced all my steps a few times and even looked in a bunch of places it couldn't possibly be. No luck.
"I forgot it at school. It's in my locker," I lie. I lie often — I have to. When I don't have my cell tomorrow, that'll be a problem. But right now, I just need to get through this.
"What are you, stupid? How do you forget your phone at school?" I don't think white parents call their kids stupid. My parents call me stupid on a regular basis. "Your father had to go to the hospital." Her face is beet red.
"What happened?" The words come out quietly but I'm worried.
"His arm swelled up — like a watermelon." She holds her hands out like she is holding a giant invisible fruit. "I tried to call you when it was the size of an orange. And I kept calling. Emerson, you are so irresponsible!" This is usually when she hits me, but she stays seated on the stool behind the counter. "It just kept getting bigger and bigger — we had to close the store so I could go with him."
Everywhere my dad goes, someone has to tag along and translate for him. I've shared this duty with my sister since I was five. Lots of other Chinese parents speak English quite well. Not my father. Even though he went to college, he didn't learn English. He's been in Canada now for over twelve years and can barely put together a sentence. He knows just enough to work at the store. His vocabulary only consists of a few everyday words, but he knows what martinizing and cold spot bleaching mean. Because my sister's away at college, I should've been here to go with him. Then my mom could've kept the store open. I feel like crap. "Is he okay? Is he still at the hospital?"
"No, he's in the back. The doctor said that he's fine, but you know your father." What she means by this is he may look calm, but he's about to erupt, like a pot of boiling oil. He's sitting alone in a pool of shame at his lack of independence. The red on Mom's face means he's been cruel to her. "Go greet him. Go tell him how sorry you are for not coming earlier."
When my father gets mad at me, he yells at Mom. He says that she's a horrible mother. I know he blamed her for not being able to find me, that it was her fault. He thinks of himself as the wise old head of the family, but then he calls us names like some thirteen-year-old girl on Facebook. He can be violent too — more times than I want to remember. My father doesn't handle anger or frustration well. Mom yells a lot, but when Dad yells, he's mean. Mom threatens me too, but when she actually hits me, it doesn't even hurt. It's very different when it's my father. He doesn't hit me often. But the last time he did, I used my arm to shield myself. I couldn't wear a short-sleeved shirt for three weeks. More often, he takes it out on Mom.
"What did the doctor say?" I ask. I'm still worried but I'm also stalling a bit.
"Apparently, your father is allergic to wasp stings. Go talk to him now, before it gets any later." My heart is pounding in my chest. I'm pissed at him for what he's done to Mom, and I'm nervous about facing him too. The last thing I want to do right now is see my father, but I go. The longer he has to wait for me to show up, the crazier he'll get.
The front of the store is small. Once you slip through to the back, it's pretty big, where all the work is done — huge machines, shelves lined with supplies. In one corner, there's a little room with a curtain instead of a wall. Inside it, my dad built a bed out of wood and carpet. My parents take turns napping there in the afternoon, and it's where we eat our meals. My parents open early and close at nine and do all the dry cleaning on-site. It's more work than I think most of our customers imagine.
I take a breath and step in behind the curtain.
"Dad, are you okay?" On top of anger and fear, there's guilt. They wouldn't have fought if I were there to translate. Dad hates to close the store — ever. He'd open 365 days a year if there were any hope of customers. When I was seven, the year they bought the business, I told them we were supposed to close on holidays. My father yelled that we'd starve to death if I ran the store. That Christmas, he was silent coming home from work. He'd had one customer. He opened on New Year's Day and not one person showed up. Since then, he closes the shop exactly ten days each year. The thought of customers showing up to a closed store in the middle of the day would have been painful for him. He must have thought he was going to die.
He's lying on the bed with one arm over his forehead, the other across his stomach. "Do you have any idea how much your mother worried when you didn't answer her calls?" he says in Chinese, without opening his eyes.
He always expects an answer, even to rhetorical questions. "I am sorry," I say, also in Chinese. I've said this a million times before.
He breathes an abrupt sigh and stops himself from saying whatever it was he was going to say. Instead he says, "Go." I stand there, not knowing if I am supposed to try once more to console him. "GO!" He yells this time, his frustration loud and clear. I suppress my own sigh — that would only set him off. I head back to the front.
Despite getting in trouble so often, I still don't know what I'm supposed to do in these situations. If I'd had my phone, I would have rushed to help him. I didn't ignore them on purpose. Still, I feel so bad. I hate this feeling. I hate him for making me feel like this.CHAPTER 2
I head out to the front of the shop and tell my mom to go back and eat. My parents eat all of their meals at the store, except dinner on Sunday, when we close early. They expect me to come to the store every day because it's important for the family to eat together. Usually, Mom and Dad start dinner together in the corner room, while I mind the counter. Dad hurries through his meal, and then I head back and Mom sits and watches me eat. Mom gets up super early every morning and packs all the food for the day. The little room in the back is equipped with a microwave, toaster oven and a tiny plug-in stove.
Two months ago, the owner of the convenience store next to the dry cleaners was stabbed in the thigh with a screwdriver while being robbed. Just over a year ago, the diner at the end of our strip of stores was robbed at gunpoint. We try to have at least two people at the cleaners if it's possible. I doubt having two of us here would make a difference if we were robbed. But my parents think it's somehow a deterrent. They practically live in this place. I do work alone for a few hours early in the day every Saturday and Sunday so they can have a break. They use the time to go grocery shopping and do house work. I'm worried about what they're going to do when I go away for school next year.
Mom mumbles about not having an appetite and that Dad will refuse to eat. I sigh. There's no point in arguing.
I open a textbook, hoping I don't have to talk to her.
About ten minutes later, there are a couple of customers in the store. My mom is counting the shirts a man is dropping off for cleaning. One of our regulars is waiting, and she asks me what I'm studying.
"Grade twelve physics." I have an assignment due tomorrow.
She smiles and says, "I didn't do science beyond grade ten." Joyce is in her late twenties and comes in about twice a month. She's one of a handful of Chinese customers that Dad can actually talk to. My parents don't charge Mandarin-speaking people the tax on their cleaning. Plus they'll do small mending jobs, like fixing loose buttons, for free — just because the customer is Chinese.
I'm about to ask her what she studied in university when my dad emerges from the back. He tells me to go and eat.
"I'm not hungry," I answer. I never have an appetite when I'm in trouble. You'd think he'd know this about me.
"I didn't ask you. You need to eat. Go now."
Joyce says hi to Dad. My father gives her a curt greeting. The other customer is done and leaves the store. Mom calls Joyce up to the counter and in the same breath tells me to do what Dad says. I close my textbook. "You two eat, and I'll look after the customer," I say to my mom. I move to take over for her. I'm really not hungry and I'm trying to be helpful.
"Go quickly," she insists.
Before I can respond, Dad grabs my sweatshirt at the shoulder and drags me to the back. He pushes me. I stumble and recover just before slamming into a machine.
"It is bad enough that you are unreliable. Do not disobey me in front of others." He storms off to the front, not giving me a chance to say anything. Mom rushes back and slaps me on the shoulder.
"Your father has had a rough day. Why do you choose to aggravate him?"
"Aggravate him? I was trying to be nice ..." And what about the day I've had?
"You should know better." She's right. I should've known that he'd react that way. Still, I'm seething. And he's worried about what Joyce might think about the way I treated him. What about her seeing how I was treated? I shake my head. This is my family.
* * *
We get home shortly after nine. I head straight for the basement. My bedroom is on the second floor. It's right next to my parents' room and they have no issues barging into mine whenever they feel like it. The main floor of our townhouse has a kitchen, a small dining room and a tiny living room. My parents set up the TV, a big comfortable couch and a card table down here and call it the family room, but they never come down. It's where I spend all my time when I'm at home.
Losing my cell is a big deal. It took me forever to convince my parents to buy it for me. "What does a sixteen-year-old need with a smartphone?" they asked. Never mind that every one of my friends had one. They also wouldn't let me get a part-time job so that I could buy one for myself. "At this age, you should be studying, not wasting time working," they said. Never mind that they expect me to help at the store. It's no surprise my parents didn't want to buy me a phone. Our family car was bought second-hand, and they still wear all the same clothes they brought with them from China twelve years ago. They share a cell between the two of them — it's a freaking flip phone.
Last year they finally gave in and got me my phone. They will lose their minds when they find out I've lost it. How can I get out of this? I wrack my brain but I've got nothing. I've already looked everywhere. I have enough money saved to replace it. There's about $820 in my bank account. It's money I've saved over the years — gifts from aunts and uncles and money I've earned tutoring through a school program. I'd started saving because I always figured one day I'd run away from home. But the thought of dishing out a whack of cash for a phone when mine was perfectly fine hurts my head. Doesn't matter though — the plan's under Dad's name. I couldn't replace it without them finding out.
I notice my backpack out of the corner of my eye. I have a unit test in math tomorrow. There's no way I can study right now. I didn't finish that physics assignment either. I turn on my laptop and put on my headphones.CHAPTER 3
Hours later, I roll over and check the clock radio — it's 2:23 a.m. This is ridiculous. I've been trying to get to sleep for over an hour. It's going to be hell getting up tomorrow morning. I'm tired, but this is futile. I wish my mind came with an on/off button. When my thoughts keep cycling through in a nonstop loop, I can't sleep. I ended up not even touching a textbook before finally lying down to try to sleep. I'm too tired to start studying now. I don't know how I can feel so exhausted and wired at the same time.
It feels weird not to have my cell. I keep thinking I feel it vibrate. And then I put my hand where my pocket would be and there's nothing there. I have a laptop, but it's not the same. I have all my apps on the phone. I sigh and try to rub the exhaustion from my eyes. My parents are going to kill me.
I get out of bed and pull on a pair of sweatpants. I grab a hoodie off the floor, slip down the stairs and move quietly out the side door. I'm careful not to make too much noise, even though there is no fear of waking up my parents. They're both heavy sleepers and their room is far enough away. I open the garage and I grab my bike. Now I'm wheeling away, pedalling as fast as I can. I must be going a hundred kilometres an hour. It's kind of cold and dark, but there's something about the feeling of my face cutting through the chill in the air that feels really good. I turn down Spruce Road and head for the lake.
There's a boardwalk that runs along the lakeshore that separates the beach from the road. I drop my bike there and walk toward the water. They call this a beach, and I guess it is, technically. But the sand's not soft or powdery, like the beach at Sandbanks or Sauble. I'd been to real beaches that have sand and clean water with friends and their parents when I was younger. The beach here is equal parts sand and pebbles and rocks — and bottle caps and cigarette butts and other litter. It doesn't smell all that great either. But I like it anyway. I like the sound of the water. It's hard to hear it during the day with all the cars passing by and stuff. Right now it's lapping in a rhythm that makes me forget how tired I feel. I try not to think about my dad, but I can't help it. I throw a rock into the lake. It skips four times.
I imagine taking off to somewhere far away. There's no hope of my dad ever changing. And he's so miserable. A pair of seagulls flies over my head. Don't they ever sleep? I imagine my dad being swarmed by wasps and dying. I feel bad for thinking this. I imagine feeling free if that really happened. I feel bad for thinking this too.
I pick up another rock and throw it as far as I can into the lake. The rock makes a splash as it enters the water. I stare out into the lake and picture myself climbing over the side of a boat. I could canoe way out there — it is really deep near the middle of the lake. If I tied some heavy weights around my ankles, I'd sink to the bottom. I could do this in the middle of the night and the canoe would just float away. Then they wouldn't be able to find me. I think about that for a while.
I worry now about what it would be like for my parents if they had to deal with my dying. I don't like that I worry so much. If I was dead, though, I guess I couldn't care. I wonder what happens to people when they die — I mean what really happens.
* * *
I drag myself out of bed after about three hours of sleep. Somehow I didn't oversleep. I open my eyes, thinking about my math test. I have this sense that I'm going to fail. I regret not trying harder to study last night, and not doing my homework more consistently the last couple of weeks. I have a spare right after lunch, before the test. I'll study then.
I feel like I'm missing a limb without my cell. I wonder how many texts from my friends might be sitting out there in cyber world. Probably not that many, but still. It's the worst thing ever when you leave someone hanging. How many people are wondering why I blew them off yesterday, ignoring their messages?
I step into the shower. I linger here for a while. I close my eyes and imagine I'm standing under a waterfall and just let it rain on me — showers always feel good after nights when I've hardly slept.
Mom is banging on the door. She yells, "Hurry up! You're going to be late!"
I take off without eating anything for breakfast. I'll have to skip first period. I head to the library to finish the assignment. I can hand it in at lunch. I'll need a reason for missing class, but I'll worry about that later.
I meet my friend Maheen, who has a spare first period. She's got her math book open.
"Hey, how come you weren't answering messages yesterday?" she asks.
"Lost my cell." I sit down beside her.
"Really? That sucks. You're not going to class?"
"Didn't finish my physics project."
Maheen frowns. "Ms. Rosier doesn't accept assignments late without a doctor's note."
Excerpted from Dark Side by John Choi. Copyright © 2016 John Choi. Excerpted by permission of James Lorimer & Company Ltd..
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