My sister’s arrest was the biggest scandal to hit our town since the high school principal, Dr. Krauss, was given a DUI during my senior year and had his mugshot printed on the cover of the Sunwood High Class of 1993 yearbook.
It started with a phone call.
“Sahna-ya! Phone!” Umma called from the kitchen.
I never thought I’d be one of those kids who returned to the empty nest after college, but after almost a year, I had to admit I was no longer “in between leases” and officially moved back in.
“Just hang up!” I called back from my room. I’d finally gotten around to clearing out my childhood closet to make room for my current wardrobe. Usually when Umma passed me a phone call, it was a telemarketer trying to sell insurance or a scammer congratulating us for having won tickets to a luxury cruise in the Carribean.
Umma was at my door now, a trembling hand covering her mouth. “Sahna, it’s the school.”
“Are you sure?” I’d played amateur interpreter for my parents enough times to know that scammers claimed all sorts of identities—but the school was a new one. Maybe it was one of those calls from the alumni association that harassed former students for donations.
She nodded, focusing on the mess of clothes on my floor. “Something happened to Mina.”
It was as if a giant rock had lodged itself in my diaphragm. I couldn’t think of a single situation, aside from an emergency, where a college would phone home. I took my time folding one last T-shirt before rising. I dragged my feet, attempting to stretch out the ten paces it normally took to get from my bedroom door to the kitchen phone. Somehow, I knew that this was the phone call that everyone talked about, the one that separated two eras of one’s life into before and after.
The pot of seaweed soup on the stove was at a roiling boil. I switched off the gas. “Hello? This is Sahna Shin.”
“This is Laura Berger, calling from the dean’s office at Taft University. What is your relation to Mina Shin?”
“I’m her sister.”
“Before I continue, I have to ask if you’re over the age of eighteen.”
“Yes. I am.” I’d be turning twenty-three next month. I held my breath, bracing myself for the news. This was it—this was the moment.
“We have received notice that Ms. Shin has been taken into the custody of—”
I exhaled, so distracted by the relief of hearing that Mina was alive that I missed the rest of the statement.
“I’m sorry. Can you repeat that?”
“Ms. Shin has been taken into the custody of the Fender County Jail.”
I choked out a laugh. “What?” Had she been caught drinking? Smoking pot, maybe? During my freshman year at Taft, I’d been slapped with a two hundred dollar underage drinking ticket for drinking in my dorm—but I hadn’t been arrested, and I’m positive if the school had notified my parents, I’d never have heard the end of it.
“There was an… incident… in the dorms. I suggest you try to make contact with the police as soon as possible.”
“But what happened?”
“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid that’s all the information I’m able to disclose.” She rattled off a phone number before ending the call.
“What is it? Is Mina okay?” Umma was still planted outside my bedroom door, as if coming any closer would trigger the worst-case scenario. I nodded and dialed the police station.
“Sahna-ya, tell me what’s going on.”
I put a finger to my lips and listened carefully to the voice on the other line.
“Sahna? What is it? Tell me now.”
The line went silent, yet I couldn’t bring myself to replace the receiver. After a few moments, the grating off-hook warning screeched from the phone and snapped me out of my shock.
“She was arrested. For murder.”
Appa closed up early, something he’d done only once before in the fifteen years since we opened up the stationary store at the local strip. He plowed through the front door and kicked off his shoes. “What happened?”
“I don’t know. The lady from school said something happened in the dorm. The police say she’s suspected of murder.”
“This must be a mistake. She’s just a girl!”
I bit down on my thumb, a habit that had replaced my chronic nail biting.
“Call them back,” he demanded. “Tell them that her father wants to speak to her.”
“Appa, it doesn’t work like that.”
“Then how does it work?”
“I don’t know.”
“Call Mr. Chung,” Umma said, referring to a fellow church member who was a lawyer. “Or Pastor Lee.”
Appa shook his head. “Absolutely not. This is a family matter. No need to get anyone involved.”
“Appa, are you serious?” He threw me a sharp glare, as he often did when I contradicted him. “This is going to be all over the news.” I was right. Dr. K’s DUI had nothing on Mina.
The only other time my parents closed the shop early was during my junior year of highschool. “Sahna Shin, your parents are here to excuse you from class,” Ms. Haggerty’s voice crackled over the intercom. Now that was a sentence I never thought I’d hear. Something extraordinary must have happened, considering they’d never let me miss out on school for anything. One time, in fifth grade, Umma chastised me for ruining my perfect attendance when the school nurse sent me home with a 102 degree fever.
“What’s going on? Is everything okay?” I asked from the backseat. Neither of them spoke for the entire drive, though the fact that they seemed more annoyed than panicked alleviated my worry. It wasn’t until we pulled into the parking lot of Sunwood Middle School that I gathered that Mina must have gotten into some kind of trouble, and I was being dragged along to play interpreter.
Ms. Nelson, who’d also worked the front desk when I was a student here, walked us to the school counselor’s office. A surprisingly young woman sat behind the desk. Her plastic nameplate read Ms. Grabowski. On the wall beside her, there was a poster that had the words Today I’m Feeling… with a couple dozen pictures of cartoon faces the size of hockey pucks, each labeled with a corresponding emotion. Today I’m Feeling… I scanned the options on the poster but couldn’t find one that quite fit.
“Hi. I’m Wendy,” she said. “Please have a seat.”
Appa grunted a hello, introduced himself as “Mr. Shin.” He never introduced himself by his first name. Umma gave a nervous smile and nodded her head in greeting.
“I wanted to meet with you to discuss some concerns I have regarding Mina.”
Umma and Appa both nodded.
“It was brought to my attention that Mina has been engaging in self-harm behavior. She’s been observed aggressively scratching the same area of skin, often to the point of drawing blood.”
Appa did nothing to hide his annoyance after I explained what Wendy had said. I could almost hear his thoughts. I closed the shop for this?
“She’s always done that,” Umma said, “since she was a little girl. Picks her scabs, too. It makes her skin look so unsightly…” Wendy eyed me expectantly.
“She says that Mina’s been doing that since she was little.”
“It’s not uncommon for youth who are suffering from feelings of depression and anxiety to engage in these behaviors to escape or alleviate these feelings.”
She used words that were definitely not in my Korean vocabulary. “Umm.. seul-puh dae.” She’s sad.
“Sad? What does she have to be sad about?” Appa looked incredulous. Wendy turned towards me, her pencil-thin eyebrows furrowed.
“He wants to know why she’s sad—I mean, depressed.”
Wendy gave my parents a sympathetic smile. “I met with Mina the other day, and she seems to be getting along fine at school. I was wondering if there might be something going on at home.”
Umma squeezed her purse to her chest and hissed, “Why is she asking us this?”
“I’m always available if Mina needs someone to talk to during the school day, but I highly recommend she see a therapist. It also wouldn’t hurt to look into family therapy. I’ve seen it do wonders in these types of situations.” My parents met her with a blank stare. Wendy’s smile faltered. “I’m happy to give you a referral.”
She selected a business card from a book on her desk and handed it to Appa. He studied it for a moment and shook his head. He handed the card back. “No English.”
“Oh! Of course. And your preferred language is…?”
“Ah, yes. I see. Oh! I know just the person.” She flipped through her collection of business cards. “Ah ha!” she said, handing Appa another card with a triumphant grin. She smiled expectantly, like a puppy waiting for a pat on the head for a job well done.
“Aish,” he said, looking at the card. “It’s Mrs. Cho.” Mrs. Cho was one of the many gossip queens at their church. I wondered if all her juicy material came from these therapy sessions.
Appa ranted the entire drive back to the high school. “What does a little scratching have anything to do with her schoolwork?”
I eyed the digital clock at the front of the car. 1:00 PM. I’d be leaving lunch and heading to study hall right now. “Do I have to go back to school? There’s only two periods left anyway, and one of them’s study hall. And I missed lunch.” Appa gave a sharp sigh, and I didn’t push any further.
“Sahna-ya, stop biting your nails. It’s filthy.” Umma eyed me through the rearview mirror.
I closed my eyes, and instinctively found myself playing a game Mina and I made up when we were kids. We’d shut our eyes for the duration of the car ride and try to guess its location, using our mental map of the neighborhood as our guide. “We’re passing the playground!” “Library!” “Kimi’s house?” My parents’ role in the game was to confirm whether we guessed right.
Gas station. Libby’s Bakery. The park district. Sunwood High. The car came to a stop. I opened my eyes, dreading the return to class at the end of the school day. Outside the window, I was met with the colorful images of a drive-thru menu. “What do you want?” Appa asked.
During dinner that night, Umma said, “Mina-ya, you are so beautiful. Now, if only you’d stop doing that to your skin, you could be Miss Korea!” I cringed, thinking of all the times the prospect of becoming “Miss Korea” was used to inspire us to become a more attractive and smarter version of ourselves. It wasn’t uncommon for one of my aunties or uncles to pull me aside at Thanksgiving and say, “Sahna-ya, you have such a pretty face! If you just started to exercise a bit, you could be Miss Korea!” or “You have grown so beautiful! Now if you study hard and get into a good college, you could be Miss Korea!”
Mina rolled her eyes, which she had lined with thick black eyeliner, a battle Umma had recently given up on fighting. “I don’t care.”
“Why, you don’t care?” Umma responded in English, mimicking Mina’s annoyed tone. “I care.”
“Umma, stop. Can we not do this?”
Umma began muttering under her breath, as she often did when we said or did something that bothered her. “…carried you for nine months, endured a horrible labor, slaving away everyday to make sure you have everything… and you don’t care?”
It was on every news station by that evening. Excited news anchors announced various headlines as I flipped through the channels.
—“College co-ed murders newborn.”
—“Body of newborn found in women’s dorm at Taft University. Student in custody.”
—“From straight-A’s to straight jacket. What made her snap?”
Umma’s eyes were glued to the Korean subtitles that rapidly scrolled across the screen. A teenage girl wearing a yellow hoodie with TAFT emblazoned on the front began to speak. “I mean, of course we noticed, but we just thought it was like the freshman fifteen, you know?” The camera panned across the familiar grassy quad of my college campus, and a voiceover started: “The suspect was identified as 18-year-old Mina Shin—”
“No. No no no…” Umma’s face crumpled in horror.
“—a freshman resident of the dorm where the body of a newborn was found—”
“Baby? Whose baby?”
I didn’t bother to point out the obvious.
“Sahna-ya, do you think it could be—” Umma clasped her hand to her mouth.
“Mina is a good Christian girl. It wasn’t her baby—she’s not even married!” Appa reasoned, as if killing someone else’s baby was preferable to killing one’s own.
The phone calls started almost immediately. Appa raised the receiver to his ear, only to hang up a moment later. After the third call from a reporter, Appa slammed the receiver and tore the landline from the wall. The faint ringing of the cordless phone in their bedroom continued to wail.
Mina’s high school senior photo took over the screen. Jet-black hair parted down the middle, that lazy smirk she always had in photos, each earlobe dotted with a yin yang stud she’d taken from my old jewelry box. I walked to the TV, reached around the back and yanked the plug from the wall. Umma continued to stare at the screen, despite it showing nothing.
I thought back to the last time I’d seen Mina. She’d come home for winter break—that was what, three months ago? Was it possible she’d been pregnant that whole time and nobody noticed?
I flinched at the sound of the doorbell. Appa looked through the peephole and cautiously opened the front door just a crack. “Is this the Shin household? Are you Mina Shin’s father? Mr. Shin, can I get a statement regarding—” Appa slammed the door shut and locked the deadbolt.
“How do they know where we live?”
The doorbell rang repeatedly, muffled voices filtering through the walls.“Mr. and Mrs. Shin! I’m with the Sunwood Press. How do you feel about—” Appa pounded on the door from the inside and there was a precious moment of silence before the frenzy started up again.
Umma dropped her head into her hands. “How can this be happening? How? How?”
“We need to call a lawyer. Call Mr. Chung or… somebody,” I said. Appa narrowed his eyes and crossed his arms, the defiant look of a child refusing to clean up his mess.
“Why didn’t she tell us?” Umma continued. “How could she have kept this to herself?”
I recalled the countless times I’d overheard Umma’s one-sided phone conversations with someone from her church:
—“Living together? And they’re not married?”
—“Did you hear Mrs. Bae’s eldest dropped out of school? All that work raising a child for nothing.”
—“Did you see? The youngest Jang girl came home from college with a nose piercing!”
I imagined the phone conversations that were surely happening at that moment. “Did you hear about the younger Shin girl? Murdering her child—that she had out of wedlock, no less. My Yumi would never find herself in that situation…”
As the knocks continued, Appa brought his hands to his face and covered his eyes with the heel of his palms as if he were counting down for a game of hide-and-seek. I was frozen in place, uncertain as to whether I should brace myself for an explosion.
When he revealed himself again, he resembled an old photo from his mandatory military service days—shoulders back, face set with an impenetrable stoicism.
“Sahna. Bring me the yellow pages.”
His proud demeanor faltered after I went down the list of attorneys, calling each one (except Chung & Associates, of course). Who knew there were so many different kinds of lawyers? Only two of the listings took on felony criminal cases.
“Two hundred an hour?”
“And a five thousand dollar retainer,” I added.
“What about the other one?”
I’d purposely given him the cheaper of the two options first. “Two fifty an hour. Five thousand for the retainer.”
Appa shook his head in disbelief.
I didn’t mention what else the man on the last call had told me. “Between you and me, no one in this area is going to touch this case with a ten foot pole. Your sister is better off taking a plea deal—trust me on this one. She can apply for a public defender if money’s an issue. Good luck.”
“There’s the money we’ve been saving for her tuition,” Umma said.
“No. She still needs that.”
“Appa, I really don’t think school should be the top priority right now.”
He shot me a look that said we would not be touching the tuition money. “What about the wedding fund?”
“What wedding fund?” I asked.
Umma looked down to her lap. “We have five grand saved for when each of you get married.”
“What?” I asked, my grip tightening around the cordless receiver. My hands shook as I suppressed the urge to toss it across the room. “Neither of us are getting married anytime soon. Let’s use it for a lawyer!”
“No no no…” Umma said, waving a dismissive hand. “It’s only for your wedding.”
“I don’t even have a boyfriend! And how is Mina going to marry if she’s in prison?”
Umma refused to meet my gaze, but didn’t waver.
“What if I asked for more hours at work?” I’d been working part-time at the same daycare I’d worked during my summers in highschool. I was sure Darcy would let me take on extra shifts.
“Sahna-ya, isn’t it about time you apply for a real job? Appa and I didn’t put you through college so you could watch other people’s kids.”
Her words stung like a slap in the face. I tossed the phone on the sofa and walked out of the room before my frustration could switch from a leak to an outburst.
“Is there a family history of depression?”
I shrugged. “Maybe. Probably.” It was my senior year of college, and I had finally managed to make an appointment with the student counseling center after months of deliberation.
The therapist, Patrick, had one of those baby faces that could’ve allowed him to pass for a seventeen-year-old if it weren’t for the perfectly trimmed beard he kept. He repeatedly tapped a pen on his notepad in even intervals, like a human metronome.
He lifted an eyebrow, prompting me to elaborate. Tap tap tap tap.
“We don’t really talk about that kind of stuff. I don’t know. My parents aren’t going to find out I came here, are they?”
“Not unless you tell them. As I said before, anything you say in these sessions will remain confidential unless I have reason to believe you are a danger to yourself or others.”
I told him about sleeping past my alarm and missing lectures, and not just the ones in the morning, and how I couldn’t bring myself to respond to messages my friends left me, even if it was to decline an invitation out.
Patrick determined that I was experiencing a major depressive episode. His nonchalance about the diagnosis was oddly touching. Hot tears began to sting my eyes.
“I recommend we continue to meet at least weekly for starters. How do you feel about going on medication?” he asked.
“I’m not sure.”
“Give it a thought. We can discuss it next week.”
There was a letter waiting for me when I returned home.
Dear Ms. Shin,
This letter is to inform you of your dismissal from Taft University. Your student enrollment will be terminated at the end of the current academic quarter. This decision was made due to your failure to meet the terms of your academic probation, which required you to maintain at least a 2.0 GPA.
I told Patrick about the letter at our next meeting.
For once, his pen-tapping ceased. He clutched his chin, as if trying to keep his jaw from dropping open. “Oh, wow. I’m sorry to hear that. How do you feel about it?”
My mind went to the Today I Feel… poster from Mina’s guidance counselor’s room. Indifferent? Exhausted? Relieved? Panicked? “I don’t know. Not great.”
“Unfortunately, I won’t be able to keep working with you if you’re no longer enrolled as a student. I can give you some referrals to therapists in the area who are not affiliated with the university—are you planning on relocating?”
I rode the lease out at my apartment through the rest of the school year, spending my days watching talk show marathons and evenings watching whatever else was on, cashing the check my parents sent for school expenses to pay for rent and late-night delivery. At the end of May, instead of celebrating with the Class of 1997, I packed my things and drove back to Sunwood, where my parents met me with icy stares and a barrage of grievances for having skipped out on my graduation ceremony. Thankfully, things began to simmer down as they prepared to see Mina off to college.
There was one other time, aside from the awkward meeting with Wendy the guidance counselor, when Appa picked me up early from school. I was in kindergarten, though, which didn’t really count. As Appa strapped me into my booster seat, I spied the empty car seat beside me.
“Where’s baby?” I asked.
“Still at the hospital. We’re going to see her now.”
She was lying in a clear plastic bassinet, which looked oddly similar to the sand table in my classroom. The fine ends of her black hair peeked out from the white beanie she sported on her head, and the rest of her was bundled up in a way that made her look like a cocoon. Umma was dozing in the hospital bed beside her.
I crouched to peer through the transparent wall of the bassinet, the baby at eye level.
“My dong-seng?” I asked. My little sister?
Appa nodded. “Her name is Mina. Say, ‘Hi, Mina.’”
“Hi, Mina!” I bellowed. Mina scrunched up her face and smacked her mouth, then settled back to stillness, eyes shut. “Why won’t she talk to me?”
“She’s just a baby,” Appa said with a Shhhh. “Don’t worry, pretty soon you’re going to be begging her to leave you alone.”
When we brought Mina home, I quickly learned to tiptoe around her like a ticking time bomb. “Shhh, Mina’s sleeping,” Umma would say, turning down the volume on my cartoon so low that it might as well have been on mute. Then we’d pause and listen carefully for the sound of her wailing, as if even the silence might cause her to detonate.
We each had our own room, with our beds pushed up against the opposite sides of the same wall. Where there was once a crib was now a twin bed with a moon-patterned comforter, fenced in by the floral wallpapered walls Mina had once begged to paint over in blue. A dozen teddy bears of various sizes and colors were piled on top, childhood relics she had chosen to leave behind.
The house was quiet now. The reporters had packed up and gone; the landline was still left dangling from the wall, the TV remained unplugged, and the cordless was due for a charge. I waited to hear any sound at all—the hiss of the gas stove as Umma reheated the seaweed soup, Appa’s restless pacing as he considered what to do next—hell, I’d even welcome anguished cries or heated bickering about who was to blame. But in the aftermath of the final breath of one of our own, there was only silence.
Dhaea Kang is the daughter of Korean immigrants and was born and raised in the Chicago area. Her stories have appeared in Lunch Ticket and The Grief Diaries.
1 thought on “Nuclear”
A touching story, make us laugh and cry at the same moment. Rotating past and present is a wonderful effort to put across a solid point. Well done Dhea Kang. I read if completely postponing my personal chores.