WHEN HE WAS GONE

(Week One)

He didn't pick up Veronica's voice mail message; he couldn't bring himself to talk to her. On the phone, Veronica was apologizing, saying she couldn't lose another friend. Yet again, it was all about her. Wallace didn't let the call affect him, because he knew if he did would just fall apart. His father looked at him with concern – Wallace guessed that was a good sign.

"You okay?" Nathan asked in measured, even tones. Wallace still couldn't reconcile this man – who seemed a calm, reasonable, and lonely man – with the deranged junkie his mother had told him about. Then again, why should he have trusted her?

"If I was okay," Wallace said. "Why would I be running away to Chicago with a guy I barely know, who may or may not be a psycho drug addict?" he asked. Nathan didn't reply to that, and Wallace stared out the window. On a purely intellectual level, he was aware that what he was doing was ridiculously stupid. He didn't really care, however. He and Nathan spent the rest of the drive in silence.

Nathan's apartment was small, but Wallace thought it was okay. "How long are you going to be saying?" asked Nathan – his father – and Wallace just shrugged.

"A while," he responded noncommittally, and Nathan looked unsure.

"Does your mother-"

Don't," Wallace cut off. He wasn't going to hear about his mother. He had come all this way to get away from his mother (well, her and everyone else), he wasn't going to answer questions on her. "Don't talk about her."

Nathan nodded and left; telling Wallace if he needed anything, he just had to ask. Wallace shrugged and checked his phone again; seeing he had a massive backlog of calls – tons from Veronica and his mother, a couple from Jackie and even one from Mr. Mars – where did he get Wallace's number?

He just shrugged it off, and deleted every single concerned phone call as casually as he had gotten in that car.


(Week Two)

The phone calls died after a week or two, about the time Nathan had insisted on putting Wallace in school. Neither of them knew how long he was going to be there, but they were starting to guess it might be a while. So Wallace was considered in need of education.

Wallace still wouldn't contact Neptune; even though Veronica kept writing him emails. She was avoiding what had happened as neatly as he was, even if she was giving words – she summarized events in Neptune, and he only cared a little.

The school was okay, and he wasted no time singing up for the basketball team. He didn't meet anyone he just clicked with, like he had with Veronica, but people were nice, seemed to think he was cool. He talked to the guys on the basketball team, and one who was really good had hung out with Wallace. The guy seemed familiar, somehow.

"Rashard Rucker," he introduced himself. He further went on to explain about his basketball skill, career; his manager uncle. Wallace avoided telling the guy about his life – mostly because he was pretty sure anything he would say could turn out to be a lie at some point – but Rashard didn't seem to mind. They talked and shot hoops and things were pretty good. Wallace didn't have to think about Neptune for a bit; that was cool.


(Week Three)

He thought he saw Jackie the third week he was in Chicago; hanging out with a few of the guys after basketball practice. He saw mocha skin and curly black hair, and froze.

"Man, you okay?" Rashard asked him. The girl turned her head and Wallace quickly saw it wasn't Jackie; she had a thinner face and more pointed nose, for two things. They really looked nothing alike, unless you were buying into that racist bullshit: "Blacks all look alike." What Jackie would have been doing in Chicago anyway?

The girl wasn't Jackie, but somehow his mistake made it all come flooding back. His mom lying to him all his life, how his best friend and girlfriend had chosen that time to start a war. Jackie playing the total bitch and humiliating V on TV, using the memory of her dead best friend against her. How Veronica had been too selfish and pissed off to even listen to him about letting it go, ripping into Jackie at the dance anyway. Shows how much she cared about what he wanted, huh?

"Yeah, man, I'm fine," he told Rashard casually. He wasn't really – it still all hurt.

Later, he finally replied to one of Veronica's emails; telling her he needed time to think.


(Week Four)

Wallace found the whole professional basketball scene he got into with Rashard... kind of confusing, really. He wasn't a star recruit like his friend was, but Rashard tended to drag him and a few of the other guys along for the ride. This met with the disapproval of Monte Rucker, but then again, everything met with the disapproval of Monte Rucker.

Wallace didn't like him. All he seemed to care about was getting Rashard to the professional league, fuck anything to do with him as an actual person. Wallace found the guy slimy, and the distaste seemed to be mutual.

"Man," he asked Rashard once. "Does he ever leave you alone?"

Rashard shrugged uncomfortably. "I don't know, he's like my dad or something man. He only wants the best for me, you know?"

Wallace nodded and accepted that. Yeah, parental figures only wanted the best – then they lied to you your whole fucking life to "protect" you, and you finally find out once the guy she's meant to be "protecting" you from shows up and finally tells you the truth. Fun, fun, fun.

That night, he had wondered Nathan's tiny apartment, and found himself checking the bathroom cabinet. Nathan had seen him, of course.

"I know what you're looking for," he said. Wallace shrugged – was he really looking for drugs or something? He wasn't sure – and Nathan continued. "It's alright. I don't mind; you don't have to trust me. Of everything Alicia could have told you... none of it was good, I remember that much."

"Yeah," Wallace replied. "But I also really don't trust her. Must be that whole 'lying to me my entire life' thing."

Nathan looked pained. "She only wanted the best for you, you know?" he said, and Wallace considered how one half of a broken marriage could be so angry and fearful, and one be all respectful. It didn't really matter in the end, though.

"I know."


(Week Five)

He was shaking when he arrived home that night. He had to walk there, so it took forever – but he couldn't let Rashard drive him home like had been the plan. In the car, he had let Rashard drive a few more miles, then he had thrown himself out of the car, and stumbled away to throw up on the sidewalk. Rashard had sped away from him, clearly in as much of a panic as Wallace was.

The sound of the door to Nathan's apartment slamming seemed obscenely loud; Wallace couldn't think. He had voices stuck in his head; the sight of what had happened.

"Man, look out!" he had called to Rashard. Too late.

Skid. Crash. "Aargh!"

"Wallace?" he heard, and for a second he was terrified that Nathan knew somehow. He was a cop, right, shouldn't they be called in with a hit and run? "You're home early," he said casually, an it didn't relax Wallace as much as it should have.

It was situations like this that he always wished his dad – his real dad; Hank Fennel – was there to help him. Dad was always smart about things and Wallace trusted him absolutely – although, logically, Dad was a big a liar as Mom. But he could be asked for advice, you know, if he wasn't dead.

Wallace went with the next best thing. "Nathan, something... something's happened. I need help."

"Come on, turn around!"

"No way, man, we need to get out of here!"

He had explained the whole situation; the wino and the car. Nathan nodded and talked about reporting it, until Wallace named Rashard – things changed then.

"Wallace, Rashard Rucker's just about to break into professional league basketball. You do this? You're going to get yourself killed son; Monte Rucker isn't going to let anyone get in the way of this."

Wallace nodded quietly and knew it was all true. "I'm going back to Neptune," he said. It still all hurt; he was bitter and didn't trust the people who loved him – but for the first time in five weeks, he tried beating those feelings down. Neptune was still better than this. Anything was better than this.

Nathan had driven him back in silence, both ashamed in how they bowed to the power of the wealthy and famous. Went Wallace arrived home, Mom had screamed and railed at him for almost an hour; How could you do that? Why didn't you call me back? Why would you let that man anywhere near you? Etcetera. Then she broke down and hugged him; crying and begging for forgiveness. He had apologized too, and they sat there for a few hours.

Veronica, he thought. It was New Years Eve and near midnight; he explained to his mother, where he was going. Veronica would be so happy to see him.

As he waited on the Mars family porch, he thought briefly of the way Veronica had looked at Jackie the night of that dance – far too angry to care about him. Then Wallace buried that bitterness as far as he could; as far as they had buried Hank Fennel – it was as inaccessible as 2005 would soon be.