by Aaron Li
“The situation is actually quite good. You’ll be tried as a minor and likely will only be facing probation and a fine.” The attorney spoke as if he were supposed to be cheered up by this. The average acceptance rate for Ivy League universities was 8.7%. The acceptance rate for students with a criminal history was 0.0%. The state attorney, his suit worn and wrinkled, continued mumbling about numbers and details, but Jason wasn’t listening. He may as well have been facing life in prison. It didn’t matter. It was all over.
The thing was, he had never even needed the money. He had just loved the feeling of getting away with it, of getting around the system. It had been a blessed escape from the constant pressure that consumed every fiber of his being. But it hadn’t started that way. At first, he was just helping a friend.
“I hate it. I hate it. Why do I have to be so stupid?” Kevin’s voice sliced through the comfortable quietness. The room was lit only by the flickering glow of the screen in front of them. The three-day weekend was a brief reprieve from the all-encompassing pressure cooker environment of Palo Alto. “You know what I got on the practice test? 2030. Ivy admissions officers won’t even fucking look at the rest of my application.” Jason let the silence heal, filled up by the soft clicking of joysticks on their controllers. Anything he said would be tainted with a patronizing undertone.
“What did you get?” Kevin asked him. Both of them knew he wouldn’t like the answer, but Jason didn’t blame him for asking.
“2400.” The number squeezed itself out from Jason’s lips. It sat in the middle of the room, glaring accusingly at Kevin. They stared at the grotesque shape of it, marred by bitter jealousy and unconcealed pride. Jason hated it. He hated the ludicrous perfection of it and he hated the obscene arrogance that rose within himself. The silence was suffocating.
“It doesn’t have to be like this,” Kevin said after a while. “You could help me.” Jason could see the pleading in his eyes and beneath it, the self-loathing.
“Take it for me.” Kevin stared at the ground. “We look similar enough. We could get away with it.” Jason savored the sound of the words. They exhilarated him.
Jason slid his finger down the edge of the photo ID in his pocket. He ran over everything in his mind, double-checking every detail. He saw some other students, shrouded in sweatpants and hoodies, silently mouthing facts and figures to themselves. He was doing the same, but the information he was memorizing wasn’t going to be on the reading, writing, or math sections. He was memorizing who he was. They had planned everything meticulously, but in truth, it was laughably easy. He and Kevin had hated it when teachers mixed them up in school, but now they were glad for the resemblance. Jason had taken the test in September as himself first. When the results came, the 2400 didn’t fill him with unease, it only excited him.
He had gotten up early, earlier than he had to. He was taking it downtown this time, forty minutes away from the first venue to reduce the chance of a proctor remembering him. With a jolt, he realized he was standing in the L – R line. He glanced over his shoulder and tried to move to the A – K line as inconspicuously as possible. He cursed his carelessness, wiping his palms on his sweater.
Eventually, he made his way to the front of the line. “Chen, Kevin.” He told the proctor, a weary-looking middle-aged woman with sagging jowls, and handed her his ID and registration papers. He wondered if she saw him switch lines. She flipped through the pages, scanning for his name. She frowned as she reached the end of her stack of papers and glanced at his registration. Jason clenched his fist inside the pocket of his basketball shorts, his fingernails leaving four faint white crescents on his palm.
“Could you wait here for a second? I need to check something.”
“Yeah of course.” His voice cracked as he failed to feign nonchalance. The woman took his papers and walked over to confer with a balding man with feminine hips who was manning the S – Z line. Jason tried to contain the overwhelming despair and panic that was welling up inside him. He wanted to bolt, to run away and never see Franklin High School again.
The woman seemed to have reached a consensus with the other proctor and walked back over to the table.
“Sorry about that, we’ve been having some computer issues. It should be all cleared up now. You can head down to room 104 on the left.”
“Thank you.” Jason felt the waves of relief crash over him as he headed down the hall.
Sitting at the tiny desk with the familiar rows of the scantron answer sheet in front of him, Jason immediately relaxed. He admired the tidy rows of perfect empty bubbles. This was his territory. He began neatly filling in the bubbles. The first page with name, date of birth, address, etc. was going to be harder than any part of the test. But even then, he had memorized Kevin YiWei Chen, 1190 SW Tracen Court, and 12/15/1996, by heart without any trouble. He put down the pencil and closed his eyes. The proctor wore skinny jeans and squared glasses with dark rims in a futile attempt to convince the world and himself that he wasn’t in his late thirties. Jason groaned inwardly as the proctor ran through the list of inane instructions that came with every standardized test.
“What happens if I need to sharpen my pencil?” An acne-ridden boy with an unruly mop of hair asked. Kevin fought the urge to scream. Why didn’t anyone have any common sense whatsoever? Eventually, the test began and he pieced together an essay as lifeless and contrived as the prompt:
Eminent figures in every field reach their positions through hard work and dedication. Many argue that mastery is attained only through hours of practice. On the other hand, some of history’s greatest minds have had amazing natural talent. Some would say that monumental achievements come from an inherent ability. Would you argue that hard work or talent is more important?
Jason’s essay was unimaginative, but carefully tailored to check all of the boxes of the graders to guarantee a perfect 12. Next, he systematically and mechanically dispatched section by section. He cruised through the test, displaying his proficiency in math, reading, and writing. Four hours and fifty-two minutes after walking into the building that morning, Jason filled in the final bubble of the test. Bouncing his knee, he looked around the room as he waited for the remaining thirteen minutes of the section to run out. He never double-checked his work. He didn’t have to.
A shrill electronic beep signaled the end of the final section. The proctor walked through the aisles, collecting each packet. Jason packed up his things and left the room. It felt too easy. He wanted to grab the proctor and shake him, screaming: “How can you not see this? I’m fucking cheating! You’re all so damn oblivious!” He walked out the front doors of Franklin High with a skip in his step. He had never felt so alive.
“Are you seriously considering this? This isn’t who you are, Jason,” Kevin pleaded. Jason had gone to Kevin’s house after school with his news, thinking that Kevin would share his delight. The fear he saw in Kevin’s eyes felt strange, alien, to Jason.
“Isn’t this what you want, Kev? You hate these people, this system. Remember how bad they made you feel. Remember how good it felt to get one over them. I can keep doing it; I can do it for you. Don’t you want to be part of this?”
“Look, Jace. What are you trying to be, some sort of test-taking mercenary?”
“That’s pretty goddamn condescending coming from a kid who’ll be sending in my 2400. I told you about this as a favor, Kevin. I don’t need you.”
“Jason, I’m sorry I asked you to do that. I should’ve just taken it myself. I don’t care if you hate me, I just don’t think you’re thinking clearly.”
“You’re a coward.”
Jason spoke very little with Kevin in the ensuing months. Jason took the SAT four more times, each time as a different student. He charged a dollar per point on the SAT, $2400 for a 2400. For his clients, it was a fairly steep price, but one that fit the girth of their trust funds and the leanness of their intellects. To be completely honest, he would have done it for free. Although the money was a nice bonus, what Jason really savored was the escape from the frenzied scrum of students vying for spots at the top colleges. Before, seeing that Anna Cho had scored better than him on a Calculus exam would have caused him to burn with jealousy. However, knowing that he had one over the system, that his life wasn’t dictated by a perpetual competition, he never had to endure the same humiliation ever again. The process became routine, each time he spent less effort checking over the details. In February, Kevin messaged him for the first time in months.
—Jason I know you don’t care what I have to say but just hear me out please. —
—Taking it for Alex and Jung and them is one thing, but Mike?? Don’t you think Mike Kinato and his 2.1 GPA is going to look pretty damn fishy with a 2400?! —
—I know you won’t listen to me but if you do still take it with him please at least just give him a 2100 or something at least plausible—
Jason deleted the texts.
He arrived at Franklin High School at 8:10. The ticket advised arriving no later than 7:45. Before, he would’ve made sure to be through the doors by 7:35, but he knew it would take them forever to get through the instructions anyway. He knew he should not have returned to take the test again, but it had been over four months since he had been here. He saw, standing off to the side of the registration tables, the woman who had checked him in his first time here. He glanced at the ground as he walked by, but he almost wanted her to see his face. During the test, he considered interspersing the incorrect answers to be subtler, but decided against it; instead, he just left the last couple questions wrong for each section.
When Officer Bradshaw knocked on his door two weeks later, Jason was unsurprised. He had been too careless, too arrogant. The image of the officer’s crisp blue uniform brought the harsh reality of Jason’s situation crashing down upon him. He had flown too close to the sun, and was now plummeting into the sea. He felt a cold panic permeating his bones, paralyzing him. He barely registered the officer’s words as he listed off Jason’s rights. He numbly followed as the officer led him into the patrol car. Jason stared out the windshield through the reinforced divider. His parents wouldn’t be home until six. He couldn’t bear to think about them yet. Instead, he focused on the winding path of the street. He watched as the patrol car left his familiar suburbs and entered the city. For the thousands of others that shared the street, the palm trees lining the road gave a sense of carefree paradise, but to Jason they seemed to tower oppressively over him. Eventually, the officer pulled to a stop in front of a nondescript building with a red brick facade. The officer stepped out of the car and walked around the front, over to Jason’s side and opened the door. Jason felt a coldness in the pit of his stomach despite the California heat that greeted him. The officer wordlessly led him inside and directed him to a sparse room near the back. The officer closed the door behind him and the soft murmur of the office was cut off completely. He motioned for Jason to take a seat at the small table before sitting down opposite him.
“Is your name Jason Park?”
Jason stared silently at the scratched surface of the aluminum table.
“Were you at Franklin High School on Saturday, May tenth?”
Jason remained stone-faced, rubbing his thumb along the side of his fist. The officer observed him for a moment before letting out a sigh and leaving the room. Jason sat there, dazed, and listened to the loud ticking of the clock behind him.
Eventually, a man with a rat-like face and an ill-fitting suit entered.
“Hi, Jason. My name is Mel Sullivan and I’ll be your attorney.” He removed his tweed jacket and sat down, revealing two damp patches below his arms. The whole situation felt surreal to Jason as the lawyer explained the situation and outlined his options. Apparently no one at Franklin High School had recognized him after all. Michael Kinato had made a post on social media boasting of the transaction.
“Now Jason, the way I see it, you have two options. You can either take a plea deal and likely only face probation or you can maintain innocence and risk up to two years of jail time. Now, I would strongly recommend taking the plea deal, but if you really want to fight this, I’ll do it with you, ‘cause we’re a team.” He flashed Jason a nervous grin.
“At the moment, there are three other students that have been named as suspects. Jung Lee, Alex Ha, and Daniel Yang. And, of course, Michael Kinato. Are all those names familiar to you?”
“Did you take the test for anyone else outside of those four?
Jason thought of Kevin and his justified worry.
“No, I didn’t.” His voice sounded hoarse, and strained.
“Well, thank you Jason. That’s all I have for now; I’ll be in touch with you again soon. You should receive notice of the trial date within the next five to seven business days. Do you have any questions for me?”
Jason didn’t answer and the lawyer left. Sitting there alone, Jason felt his eyes fill with tears. Under the fluorescent lights, the nondescript gray walls seemed to pulsate, closing in on him. He kicked the leg of the table and howled with pain and frustration as the bolted-down table remained immobile. He screwed his eyes shut and covered his face with his hands as he tried to shut it all out, but the deluge of shame and powerlessness refused to be stemmed. He sat alone for a long time before Officer Bradshaw returned and brought him to the waiting area of the bureau, where his father was waiting. He was sitting on one of the benches, his posture uncomfortably stiff. He was still in his work clothes, a tidy sweater vest and button-down shirt. He looked old. Jason saw an unfamiliar look in his father’s eyes. His father stared straight ahead as he lead Jason to their car. On the ride home, he saw his father’s lips move as he started to say something, but no sound came out.
Jason locked the door to his room. He had expected his parents to scream at him, but they hardly said a word. It didn’t matter anyway. He rolled his desk chair over to the closet. He unfurled his leather belt that he had worn to countless Math Olympiads. Almost as an afterthought, he tore a page out of his notebook and wrote three short words. Forgive me, Kevin. He stepped onto the chair, reaching towards the pull-up bar that he had installed in eighth grade. The chair shifted and he crashed to the ground. Tears of humiliation filled his eyes. His knee was bleeding. Jason stepped onto the chair again and looped the belt over the bar. He fastened the buckle around his neck and closed his eyes. The chair tipped over.