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"Despite the sad topic, it's refreshing to read a story centered on a boy's love for his mother."
Filled with humor, raw emotion, a strong voice, and a brilliant dog named Sandy Koufax, When You Were Here explores the two most powerful forces known to man-death and love. Daisy Whitney brings her characters to life with a deft touch and resonating authenticity.
Danny's mother lost her five-year battle with cancer three weeks before his graduation-the one day that she was hanging on to see.
Now Danny is left alone, with only his memories, his...
Filled with humor, raw emotion, a strong voice, and a brilliant dog named Sandy Koufax, When You Were Here explores the two most powerful forces known to man-death and love. Daisy Whitney brings her characters to life with a deft touch and resonating authenticity.
Danny's mother lost her five-year battle with cancer three weeks before his graduation-the one day that she was hanging on to see.
Now Danny is left alone, with only his memories, his dog, and his heart-breaking ex-girlfriend for company. He doesn't know how to figure out what to do with her estate, what to say for his Valedictorian speech, let alone how to live or be happy anymore.
When he gets a letter from his mom's property manager in Tokyo, where she had been going for treatment, it shows a side of a side of his mother he never knew. So, with no other sense of direction, Danny travels to Tokyo to connect with his mother's memory and make sense of her final months, which seemed filled with more joy than Danny ever knew. There, among the cherry blossoms, temples, and crowds, and with the help of an almost-but-definitely-not Harajuku girl, he begins to see how it may not have been ancient magic or mystical treatment that kept his mother going. Perhaps, the secret of how to live lies in how she died.
"[An] evocative novel about living life to the fullest...Set against the colorful backdrop of Tokyo's bustling streets, this intricate story vibrantly depicts the stages of Danny's enlightenment and celebrates his mother's sanguine attitude toward life, love, and death."—Publishers Weekly
"Danny's journey to healing is heartbreaking, hopeful, and full of luminescent beauty... This gem of a book will lead readers to ponder life, love, death, and everything in between." —School Library Journal
"Despite the sad topic, it's refreshing to read a story centered on a boy's love for his mother."—Booklist
"The book enticingly combines violin-worthy levels of loss with Danny's vigor and solid testosterone levels..."—BCCB
Praise for The Mockingbirds:
• "First-time author Whitney boldly addresses date rape, vigilantism, and academic politics in an intense and timely novel... Besides showing skill in executing suspense and drama, Whitney masterfully evokes the complexity of her protagonist's emotions, particularly her intense longing to feel 'normal' again."—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
When someone you love has died, there is a certain grace period during which you can get away with murder. Not literal murder, but pretty much anything else.
So I’m leaving the school parking lot on the second to last day of my senior year, and I’m driving down Montana Avenue, and this red Mazda Miata cuts me off.
I ignore the Miata. But a few blocks later, I turn onto my street and notice a silver Nissan. No one’s in it; the car is just parked on the side of the road, hanging maybe a few inches into my driveway, and I have nothing against this car, or against the car’s owner, but I am tired of everyone being gone, and I am tired of everything that has tired me out for the last five years of my life. Besides, when making decisions, my mom always said: At the end of my life, when I’m looking back, will I regret not doing this? Fine, she was usually talking about traveling to Italy or taking me out of school to surf one afternoon. Still, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to regret hitting this car for no reason, so I bang into it one, two, three, four, five, six times, each hit radiating under my skin, jump-starting me like paddles to shock the system.
It works for a few seconds. I feel a spark inside me, like a match has been lit in a darkened cave. But then it’s snuffed out and I’m back to the way I was before.
I shift into reverse, and my car’s fender makes this annoying scratching sound as it drags against the road. I pull into my driveway, and I get out of my car. I walk around to the front, and the fender is dangling down to the ground, and it looks like the engine might be smoking, but I don’t feel like dealing because dealing requires too much energy, and energy is what I lack. I head inside, toss the keys on the table by the door, and flop down onto the couch.
My dog, Sandy Koufax, joins me, curling up with her head on my knee. As I rub Sandy Koufax’s ears, I wonder briefly if they will send me to anger-management class or something, but there’s no they to send me away. Sure, there’s Kate, my mom’s best friend, but she won’t. The other theys are all gone. My mom died two months ago, my dad was killed in an accident six years ago, and my sister, Laini, is in China trying to rediscover her roots, something I don’t get, but then again I don’t get a lot about my sister because we don’t have a lot in common, least of all genes. She is adopted from China, and I am a white boy, as she likes to say when she deigns to speak to me.
I put my arms behind my head and consider—what else can I get away with? Is there a statute of limitations on how long you can have a free pass after your mom dies? Because smashing that car is the only thing that’s made me feel in weeks.
I glance at the empty pizza box on the coffee table and pull it toward me with my foot to see if there might still be a slice in it. I notice Sandy Koufax watching my foot, then the box.
“Sandy Koufax, did you finish the pizza?”
She says nothing. Just tilts her sleek black head to the side.
“Well, can you call and order another one?”
She puts one of her white paws on my chest.
The phone rings. I stretch out my arm over to the coffee table, grab the phone, and answer. Mrs. Callahan from next door wants to know if I am all right. No, I am not all right, I want to say. Have you been to my house? Have you seen how empty it is?
“Yup,” I tell her as I flip through the mail: some notices from UCLA, where I’m going in the fall, a bill from Terra Linda High about the cost of my cap and gown. I have to give the valedictory speech in a few days. I toss that envelope away. It crash-lands on the cool, white tiles on the other side of the coffee table where I can’t see it anymore. Looking at it reminds me of what’s missing from graduation. Because my graduation was the one thing my mom wanted most to see. It was her carrot, the thing she was holding on for. I will be there, and I will take pictures, and I will be cheering and crying, and it’ll be my last hurrah.
Mrs. Callahan asks more questions about the accident, as she calls it. Not once does she say it was my fault. Not once does she ask if I rammed my car into another car.
“Do you need anything?” she asks.
A mom. A dad. Someone. Anyone. Can you arrange for that?
“Nah, I’m good.”
Thirty minutes later Kate comes by. I know it’s her from the repeated banging—her signature lately. Who says the Internet is changing how we communicate? We don’t need the Internet. We have a town crier right here in Santa Monica, and her name is Mrs. Callahan—she must have told Kate.
I open the door for Kate, and she is pissed. I guess my statute of limitations has run out with her.
“I know you hit that car on purpose, Danny,” she says, and her voice is loud. She is supposed to be my surrogate mom now or something. She played that role a few times the last couple years, like when my mom was at one of her treatments. My mom wasn’t down for the count often, though. She was tough; she tried hard to get well. You don’t hang on for five years unless you want to live. She wanted to live so badly, she visited Mexico and Greece and Japan many times, seeking out Western doctors and then Eastern medicine and then anything to try to live. But she came up two months short of her goal. Sixty lousy days. Kate’s her best friend and has been since they went to college together. Kate also happens to be the mother of the girl I lost my virginity to. The girl who was mine for three perfect months last summer, and who then left my life without a reason, with barely a call.
The most incredible and the most vexing person I know. It is unspoken, but deeply understood, that Kate and I don’t discuss her daughter. If we were to talk about Holland, I’d never be able to talk to Kate about anything else.
I shrug. “So?”
“Why did you hit a car on purpose, Danny?”
Kate is a tiny person. She’s maybe five feet tall, but she’s a pit bull, and the muscles on her arms are sick. She works out every day, which is not unusual in Los Angeles, granted, but it’s where she works out that’s telling. She works out at Animal House, which is this very macho, very old, very broken-down gym without air-conditioning. The clientele is mostly Arnold Wannabes and guys just out of jail.
“I don’t know.” I walk to the sliding-glass door and open it. Kate follows me. Sandy Koufax does too, then noses a Frisbee on the grass. I pick it up. It has teeth marks etched along the surface. It’s purple and says FIGHT CANCER. A lot of good that did. I throw it far into the yard, around the edge of the pool. Sandy Koufax is like a rocket—she chases it, catches up to it, leaps and grabs.
This dog might be the definition of perfect.
“So you did hit it on purpose?”
“Define on purpose.”
“With intention,” she says crisply.
“Yes, then. I did.”
“What would your mother think?”
I throw the purple disk to Sandy Koufax again. She executes another excellent catch.
“Hard to say,” I answer. “But let’s be honest. She was never a big car person. She always said walking was healthier, so maybe she’d have been glad.”
Kate narrows her eyes. “Not funny.”
“But true. It is true,” I add, and Kate doesn’t answer because she knows how my mom felt about cars. My mom was one of the few people in LA who walked anywhere. I toss the Frisbee again. Sandy Koufax leaps, easily clearing three feet on the vertical. “Sweet! Did you see that, Kate? That is one fine dog.”
I’ll have to see if UCLA will let me have a dog in my dorm. Maybe I’ll get an orphan exception.
Kate holds out her hands. “What am I supposed to do with you?”
I don’t answer. There is no answer.
“Fine,” Kate says, giving in. Her voice softens. “Just give me the insurance info. Give me the name of the claims adjuster, and I’ll make sure everything is taken care of.”
Kate is kind of like a wizard. Give her a shirt with a grease stain from last year. She’ll get it out. Give her a pair of broken eyeglasses. She’ll come back with a new pair free of charge because she’ll convince the store it was owed to her. I give her my insurance info, and I know, in a day or two, this will all be taken care of. She’s the fixer, and she likes it like that.
Her jaw is no longer set hard; her eyes are no longer narrowed. I’m in the clear. “Hey, Kate. Can you also call UCLA and see if I can bring a dog with me in the fall? If they allow that?”
“Of course. We’ll get that dog on campus, no problem,” she says, the look in her eyes softening as she reaches up to give me a kiss on the forehead. I let her, then I throw the Frisbee again to Sandy Koufax, and then again, and then one more time, and at some point Kate leaves, she may even hug me, she may even tell me she loves me, she may even say she’s sorry that life sucks, but I’m lost in the throwing.
And then I realize I’ve been out here for hours. Because suddenly Sandy Koufax is exhausted. She jumps in the pool and starts paddling. I look up at the sun. When did it get to be so low in the sky? How did it become six in the evening when it was three just a few minutes ago?
I might as well join my dog, so I walk straight into the pool, cargo shorts, gray T-shirt, flip-flops, and all.
It’s something, at least, the feeling of water sloshing all around me. I dunk my head, sinking under it all, then I come up and tell Sandy Koufax all the things I wish were different right now.
Jeremy is shooting aliens, Ethan is trying to convince Piper that an earthquake of 9.0 magnitude will hit Los Angeles in the next 365 days, and half the girls volleyball team is schooling half the guys baseball team in pool volleyball. My former teammates are in the deep end on the other side of the net, getting clobbered by the bikini-clad athletes.
I turn up the volume on the sound system because Retractable Eyes is up next on the playlist, and this band is awesome. But before the opening chords sound, I hear the beginning of “Great Balls of Fire.”
On. The. Piano.
I turn to the living room, and the aliens must have extinguished Jeremy because now he’s leaning over the piano and he’s thinking he’s Jerry Lee Lewis.
“Dude, don’t touch that.” I walk over and stand next to the keys.
He pauses. “Just let me play this one song.”
I shake my head. He knows this is my one rule. “Don’t.”
He pounds on more notes, and he’s about to hit the chorus and to sing it too, belt it out, and I’m so not okay with this on so many levels because this is my mom’s piano. She wasn’t some classical performer or piano teacher or anything. But she liked playing for fun, banging out a show tune now and then or a Cole Porter number. Crossword puzzles, gardening, and a few old standards on the piano—those were her little things in life, the little things she did, the little things that made her happy.
Something in my voice stops him, so he backs off, holds up his hands. “Sorry, bud.”
“Go get one of Laini’s guitars if you want to play something,” I say, easing up a bit on my best friend.
“I wish you’d let me have it. You know you’re never going to use the piano.”
Jeremy’s been on this music kick in the last three years. He’s convinced that learning to play piano, guitar, drums, whatever, is going to help him with the ladies. I’ve seen no evidence of improvement in his scorecard with the opposite sex, but he can play the chorus from pretty much any top-ten most-downloaded tune of the moment. Maybe someday that skill will amount to something. For now, it’s entertainment. And for now, and for forever, the piano’s not for sale. I remind him of that as he takes off for Laini’s mausoleum of a room.
I survey the scene in my yard. Trevor, the lunking first baseman who I threw bunted balls to for the first three years of high school, smacks a volleyball in Cassie’s direction. She tries to spike it back but hits air instead, and the ball skips out of the pool. She jumps out to grab it. She has the smallest bathing suit on, and she’s also the weakest player on the team. Trina comes up behind me and whispers in my ear. “I see you watching her,” Trina says as she runs a finger down my arm. What she doesn’t say is, I see you watching her and I don’t care, because, like me, there is little Trina actually cares about, least of all whether I check out other girls, even though I’m not checking out Cassie. If I were checking out girls, I’d only have eyes for one girl.
The incredible and vexing one who’s not here, even though the lasagna she made me the other day is still in my fridge.
Trina trails her index finger across my palm, then adds, “Kicking in for you?”
Trina brings me goodies too, only hers work better than food. She flashes a knowing grin, and I watch as she disappears into the kitchen, wearing low-rise jean shorts and a tank top that shows off her brown skin.
Jeremy returns with my sister’s most expensive classical guitar. Laini played until eighth grade and was pretty damn good, so good my parents were thinking of sending her to some expert teacher at UCLA for lessons. But as with all things remotely American, Laini decided she wanted nothing to do with it. A guitar, even classical guitar, was the most American of all instruments, so she quit. A few years later she quit us too. Laini was never around when my mom became sick. Fine, Laini was in college already, had been for a year before the diagnosis, but she didn’t even come home for the summer or for breaks, except for maybe one week a year. She was gone at the worst possible time, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s the same as treating our mom like dirt. Suddenly I no longer want to hear her guitar. I want to destroy her guitar. I’m like a zombie, a living, breathing zombie who won’t stop as I clunk toward Jeremy, who’s jamming on my sister’s handmade Tortorici guitar that my parents special-ordered for her twelfth birthday, and I yank it out of his hands right before he slides into a howling riff.
“I was just getting to the chorus.”
“Go get another one and join me,” I say, because Laini has more acoustic guitars in her unused room. “Are you in or out?”
“What are you talking about?”
I tip my head to the yard and mimic smashing a guitar.
He points to the Tortorici. “You know you can get a couple thousand on eBay for that.”
I don’t need the money. My mom saved well and invested well. We don’t even have a mortgage anymore because she bought this house for cash when she sold off her last business a couple months before she was diagnosed. But not everyone is so lucky to have come into his parents’ possessions at the tender age of eighteen. Or to have to figure out what to do with everything, from the property to the personal effects. Like her clothes. Her books. Her wigs.
I relent. “Take this one and do whatever you want with it. But get the others.”
He thanks me, tucks the Tortorici under his arm, and races back up the stairs. Seconds later he’s joining me in the yard, stumbling through the open sliding-glass door with a guitar in each hand, a pair of soon-to-be victims. He’s followed by Ethan, Piper, and Trina, and we’re all at the edge of the grass where a low rock wall hems in my yard.
I lift an ordinary wooden guitar high over my head, then nod at Jeremy. He can play master of ceremonies better than I can.
“It’s not the end of high school until someone smashes a guitar,” he shouts, holding his arms up in a victory sign. “That’s a very famous saying, you know.” Then to me, “The floor is yours.”
I proceed to whack the living daylights out of the guitar to the encouraging cheers of my fellow classmates. Jeremy and Ethan join in, and even Piper bashes an old, cheap acoustic against the rocks. Trina jumps into action, her hazel eyes alive with the prospect of destruction, because Trina was a wild child in high school, and a wilder child in college and medical school too, and an even wilder adult now that she is smack-dab in the middle of her residency.
As I look down at the destruction—wooden shards everywhere, strings popped loose and languishing—I feel a trickle of endorphins, not like I just struck out the side but like I lobbed one good curveball. It’s a lift, a momentary, temporary lift, a rising above this hazy line I’ve been living on.
But the problem is it’s not enough to blot this all out, to quiet the whole wide world. It’s not enough to bring back the sounds of Cole Porter being played, or flowers being planted, or of requests for a five-letter word starting with A or T or C or anything. Nothing is ever enough. Except Holland, who’s tattooed all over me, but who’s not here where I want her. I walk away from the carnage and return to the house. Trina follows, all lithe and pantherlike as she pads across the hardwood floors in her bare feet.
“Let’s go to your room,” she whispers in my ear.
I nod, take her hand, and lead her up the stairs. I hear the noises from outside, the splashing and the laughing, the sounds of cans opening and voices rising in the celebratory din of the end of an era, and then it fades when I close my door, crank up some tunes, and turn off the lights, leaving on a lamp by the side of my bed. Trina already has her top off, and she’s pulling off my T-shirt, and the room’s feeling fuzzy and warm, just the way I like it, because Dr. Trina gave me some new pills to try tonight. They’ve kicked in for me, and maybe for her, and everything, everything, just feels better when you’re doing it on PKs.
She’s already pinned me, my arms stretched above my head, her hands on my wrists, her black hair falling all around my face. I’m never on top with Trina, but that’s okay. She likes it this way, and it’s easier, and she’s never not hot. She’s always ready, she’s always racing, and she’s always got her hands all over, and it’s great, really, it’s great.
Even though she’s not Holland.
I curse silently.
I’d like to not think about Holland when I’m with someone else. I’d like to not picture Holland—her wavy blond hair, her sky-blue eyes, her lips tasting like strawberry, her smell—all girl, all pure, perfect, blond California girl.
But I can’t not picture Holland.
So I close my eyes and go with it, imagining it’s Holland holding me down. And it feels fantastic like that with imaginary Holland. It feels like I’m alive again, like I’m real again, like the earth is rotating around the sun again.
Then we’re done, and Trina conks out in thirty seconds flat. Her face is pressed against my sheet; she doesn’t even make it to a pillow. I watch her doze for a minute. Sometimes I think with every breath her brain is releasing all the X-rays and EKGs and patient reports she had to keep in her head all day. Sometimes I imagine her waking up next to a sea of warped, distorted readouts that have sort of melted out of her.
A strand of her long hair falls over her mouth. Her lips flutter while she’s sleeping, trying to blow the hair away. I adjust her hair for her, tucking the strand behind her ear. Then I nod off too, not thinking about the people outside or the broken guitars. When I wake up in the middle of the night, my dog is wedged against me, and Trina is gone. But the good doctor has left something for me.
A fresh orange bottle of pills on my nightstand.
I’ll need them to get through my graduation tomorrow. My mom was supposed to be in the front row.
I always imagined that the morning before graduation would pass by in a blur of noise and barked orders. Did you remember this? Did you forget that? Fix your hair; it’s a mess.
Like when Laini graduated. My dad grabbing his camera, my mom making sure Laini’s cap was on right, me calculating how long I’d have to wear the striped polo shirt with the collar.
Now, as I pull on shorts and a T-shirt since it doesn’t matter what you wear under the robe—because I refuse to call it a gown—the only sound I hear comes from Sandy Koufax, from her nails clicking against the floor as she switches locations, shifting from her early-morning yard patrol to her late-morning lounge-around-on-the-couch relaxation.
We didn’t even have Sandy Koufax six years ago when we raced out of the house for Laini’s graduation, the last time we were all together—my mom, my dad, my sister, and me. That evening we went out to dinner in Chinatown at a restaurant Laini had researched because it had the best traditional Chinese dumplings, she said. She had already started down the path of reconnecting with her roots, so she ordered for all of us in Chinese too because she’d been studying the language.
“That’s my girl,” my dad said, then planted a kiss on Laini’s forehead. She pretended to be cool and aloof, but she leaned into him, then responded in Chinese, and he laughed, then said something back. He had learned Chinese over the years, had taken classes, listened to Chinese podcasts, and had all the Learn Mandarin CDs in his car. My mom and I didn’t know a word.
When the food arrived, my mom held up her glass and offered a toast. “To my daughter. I couldn’t be more proud.”
Then my dad. “To more education, which is Latin for… more bills.”
“Sorry I didn’t get a scholarship,” Laini said, and my dad immediately corrected himself. He never wanted Laini to feel bad about anything—fight with a friend, crummy grade, crappy haircut. Whatever it was, he’d save the day for her, even if he was the one who’d been sarcastic.
“I’m just kidding,” he said. “Of course we’ve got the money.”
“I’ll go to state school,” I offered, my contribution to the conversation.
“You’re such a suck-up,” Laini said to me.
My mom held out her hands. “Enough. Can we just have a nice dinner out?”
“How about a redo?” my dad said, and held up his glass. “To Laini Kellerman, who we are happily sending to college.”
“Much better,” my mom said, and nodded.
Laini held up her Coke and offered a toast. “To the end of an era.”
Laini turned out to be a fortune-teller. A month later my dad was killed when he was hit by a truck in Kyoto. A year later my mom was diagnosed with cancer. Six years later, Laini doesn’t even send me a graduation card.
My doorbell rings, and Sandy Koufax erupts in a flurry of barks from her post on the couch. When I answer the door, Holland’s there. I tell myself to be stoic, especially since she’s still wearing that star ring I gave her last summer. I hunted it down for her at a funky little clothing store on Melrose Avenue, since I knew that’s where Holland liked to shop, where she loved to pick up cheap, little plastic bracelets and other jewelry.
“What?” She puts her hands on her hips and gives me a playful look as if I should have remembered she was going to be here. Fact is, I’m pretty sure she did tell me she was coming by. Maybe I didn’t want to believe it. Maybe I made myself forget, even though she’s been around the house a few times since she finished up her freshman year at the University of California at San Diego. She stopped by with Kate a week ago and brought me that homemade lasagna that she’d cooked herself, since Holland has a magic touch with pasta. “You didn’t think I was going to let you get ready for graduation all by yourself, did you?”
“Pretty sure I can get ready by myself.”
“Well, it’s not like I brought makeup or five different outfits for you to choose from,” she says, and lets herself in. It’s just us alone in my house. I could shut the door and pull the blinds and watch movies on the couch with her all day. We could hole up here and never leave, just Holland and the dog and me. Order Chinese takeout from Captain Wong’s around the corner for every meal. Yes, this is how I could get through an endless summer on a lonely planet.
Holland peers down the hall. “Where’s you-know-who?”
“Who would that be?”
She waves a hand dismissively. I know she means Trina. I just want her to say it. I want to know she’s bothered by the hot doctor who hangs out at my house.
“Dr. Asvati,” Holland says, drawing out the name, like it’s an insult. Maybe it is to her.
“Trina,” Holland repeats, the word heavy in her mouth. She’s jealous. She has to be jealous. This is excellent. I would like her to be jealous.
“She’s not here.”
“She’s not coming to your graduation?”
I shake my head. Trina and I don’t have that kind of relationship.
Holland walks to the living room and sits down next to my dog. She pets Sandy Koufax’s ears and talks to my dog in a high-pitched voice, telling her she is the cutest dog in the whole wide world. Sandy Koufax rolls over and lets Holland pet her belly. Seeing the two of them like that, the girl who likes the dog, and the dog who likes the girl, makes me want to blurt out the invitation: Let’s shack up here all summer and not leave until August. Maybe she’d feel sorry enough for me to say yes, to stay, to say leaving me last fall was the dumbest thing she ever did and will you please take me back?
Why yes, Holland, I think I would take you back. Even though I don’t have a single clue as to the secret of why you left me in the first place.
Holland points to my cap on the coffee table. “This cap thing. Pretty sure it’s supposed to go on your head.”
“That’s what all the graduation how-to books say.”
She grabs the cap and walks back to me. She hands me the mortarboard and I put it on, far back on my head.
“That’s all wrong.” Holland laughs, shakes her head, as if this is normal, as if she can just slide into the way we used to be good buds before last summer, before everything else. “It’s supposed to sit on your forehead.” She mimics pulling a mortarboard down on her forehead, pointing to this spot right above her eyes where the cap is supposed to rest.
“Fix it,” I say, and it comes out raspy, like a croak. I know I should say please fix it or can you fix it? but this is all I can manage, this two-word admission, as I do everything not to sound hungry for her.
“See! You did need me to get ready,” she says, then looks at me, half-nervous, like she’s waiting for an answer, waiting for me to admit I needed her.
I just point to the cap. She nods, then wiggles the cap farther down my forehead. Her fingers brush against my face. My heart pounds a tick louder at her touch, but I look away, because the ache is too much. She pulls my cap down for a final tug, then stops to consider a strand of my brown hair. “I can’t believe my mom didn’t make you get a haircut for your graduation.”
“Yeah, oddly enough she doesn’t really control my hair.”
“She thinks she controls everything,” Holland says, and rolls her eyes like she’s trying to invite me back into the teasing, to the way we make light of Kate and her tendencies. I say nothing, and Holland absently taps the silver chain on her neck that she wears every day. There’s a small circle hanging from it and the name SARAH is engraved on it. Sarah was Holland’s friend from college who died a few months into their freshman year. Then Holland says softly, “You always look so nice when you get your hair cut.”
“Do you want me to get a haircut?” I want to kick myself the second the words come out.
“Your hair looks great. So does the rest of your ensemble,” she says, gesturing to my cap and robe. “Mom will approve too.” She catches herself. “Sorry. I meant my mom.”
“It’s okay. I know what you mean.”
“Do you miss her today?”
“I miss her every day,” I say instantly, relieved that someone has asked, that someone wants to know.
“Of course. That was stupid to ask.”
“You can ask. You’re the only one who does,” I say, because after two months, the condolences are running out, and it’s as if my mom is being erased from the world again as the memory of her fades and we all start to forget. But Holland’s asking, Holland’s remembering, and I want to grab her and tell her, Everything hurts, and I can’t stand the hurting. Instead my hand lifts a few inches, like it has a mind of its own and wants to touch her, to connect with her through words and skin. But I don’t go that far. I can’t stand the hurting.
“I miss her too. I miss planting flowers with her, and I miss going to the farmers’ market with her, and I miss looking at all those bulb catalogs with her,” Holland says, and my heart rises in my throat because Holland hasn’t forgotten either. She hasn’t forgotten a thing. “And now the cymbidium, the boat orchids in front of your house? The ones I planted with her last summer? They need to be trimmed.”
“She would have done that. She would have trimmed them around now.”
I can see it so clearly. I can picture my mom outside the house, wearing jeans and a T-shirt because she was a jeans-and-a-T-shirt kind of mom, planting the orchids last summer, hoping she’d be here a year later to take care of them. Determined to be here a year later.
“Right. She would have,” I say quietly, then I steer away from all this, from these cracks in my chest that feel too much like feelings. “I don’t see why I have to go to graduation, though. My mom was the one who liked all these ceremonies and crap.”
Holland tilts her head to the side. “Do you want to skip it?”
I scoff. “What? Are you serious?”
“I am serious, Danny. If you want to skip graduation, I’ll cover for you.”
The idea entices me. “What would you say?”
“I don’t know. I’ll come up with something. I’ll pretend I’m you!”
“I mean it, though. If you need to escape or whatever, I’ll go out there right now and I’ll tell my mom you’re on your way, that you want to drive yourself. And we’ll go without you. And when they say your name, I’ll act like I have no idea where you are. Or I’ll get up and say you took the dog for a walk. Do you want me to?”
“You would do that?”
“You would really do that?”
“I would really do that. I would do that for you.”
She is serious. She will do this for me. I hate her for breaking me so many months ago, and I love her for wanting to cover for me today.
But this isn’t about Holland, and this isn’t about me. “I should go. For my mom.”
Holland nods. She knows this is what my mom was holding on for. Kate does too. Kate said it all the other day when I told her I didn’t want to go. Elizabeth loved ceremonies. Elizabeth loved events. This was the thing she was trying to live for. For the last five years, all she wanted was to make it to your graduation before she died. So get up there and give your valedictory speech so your mother, wherever she is, can hear you.
Kate doesn’t believe in heaven or the afterlife. My mom didn’t either. We’re Jews, and Jews don’t subscribe to the typical heaven or hell ideas. Kate does believe my mom is somewhere, maybe in limbo, maybe in spirit, waiting for this moment. Why, then, didn’t she hang on? I wish there were an answer, because I just don’t get why my mom could survive five years of remission and recurrence and come up eight weeks shy of the thing she held on for. But there’s no one here to ask. When my dad died, my mom was there to answer the unanswerable, to make sense of the fault line in our life—and we got through that somehow; we came out on the other side. Now I’m 0 for 2 and I don’t get any more pitches to swing at.
And so it must be time for my friend Vicodin.
I slip into the kitchen to take a pill, and when I return to the hall, Holland gestures to the front door. “My mom and dad are waiting outside,” she says. “We’d better go.”
Then I’m piling into the car with them, driving to the place I’ll never have to step foot in after today, and I’m marching with the rest of the class, I’m sitting down listening to the principal, then he’s calling me to the stage for the final time. My last assignment; then high school will be behind me and college in front. Just one summer in between.
“Daniel Jon Kellerman, our valedictorian.”
I walk to the podium, take out my index cards, and look at my classmates in the first several rows. We all look like otters, just a fat sea of otters, with blond hair or brown hair or red hair, with tanned skin or black skin or white skin. They’re not the ones I want to see. There’s only one person I want to see in the audience. I even begged my mom at one point to hold on. Begged her like a little kid would do. A couple months ago when it was clear she was nearing the end, I pleaded, “June’s not that far away. You can do it, Mom.”
What a shit thing to do. What a shit thing to ask.
I worked my ass off through high school. I had my nose in all the books; I was not going to let valedictorian slip from my grasp. She knew I had a good shot, knew I was in contention. My son, the valedictorian. I pictured her saying it today, bursting with pride, with joy. It was like this thing I could give her, a last gift to her. But she doesn’t even know I pulled it off because I got the news I was top of the class three days after she became ash. And I’m flesh, and I don’t want to be here on this stage. I want to lie down on a raft, close my eyes, and let the little white pill take me away, float me off into the happy land where I feel no pain. It’s kicking in, and so the words I’m saying, sounds and syllables about this moment, about the future, don’t matter to me, and they don’t matter to all these people out here in the audience. My words don’t change how they see me.
The dad was killed in an accident six years ago.
Then the mom died in April.
Remember the sister? She’s gone now; she took off for China years ago. Does anyone even hear from her?
They all think they know me. Because that’s all I am to them—that guy with the shitty luck.
I glance down at my index cards and do the thing they most want me to do. Because I can be that guy now. I can be mercurial. I can be fickle. I can be the guy who gets away with anything, and for the first time in months—years—I am grateful I have carte blanche to say whatever I want.
I stop reading. I rip the index cards in half and fling the severed blue remains up in the air.
“Fuck high school. Fuck everyone. I’m outta here.”
Let me tell you: You’ve never seen a standing ovation like that before.
My mom would have flipped out if she knew what I did. She would have gone ballistic and slapped me upside the head.
Not literally. She never hit me, obviously. But she would have given me all kinds of stern looks and disappointed glares. I did not raise you to tell your peers to fuck off, Daniel Kellerman.
She expected a lot of me. When I was in fourth grade working on a book report, she made me start the whole thing over when she read it and said it was barely even legible.
“What’s wrong with it?” I asked her.
“It’s not good enough yet. You have to try harder,” she said, her voice gentle. “You have to try hard at everything you do. That’s all I ask.”
I rolled my eyes and revised it, and over time her approach wore off on me and I became like her too—wanting to do my best, expecting my best.
That’s why I can’t face Kate. She knew my mom better than anyone, and Kate probably wants to wallop me right now. Because I did the absolute opposite of what my mom would have expected or wanted. I leave Terra Linda before Kate can find me. I walk home, since it’s only a couple miles away, chucking my cap and robe into a trash can on a street corner, then I change into gym shorts when I get home and head to the garage, my dog following close behind as I park myself on the gym bench out here. Yeah, this is my life. Working out on graduation. What could be better than this?
But I don’t want to go to a party, and I don’t want to have some fancy meal at some fancy restaurant with people who are pissed at me, or people who feel sorry for me, or people who feel both, not to mention my own disgust at what the guy on the stage wearing my cap and gown just did.
Excerpted from When You Were Here by Daisy Whitney Copyright © 2013 by Daisy Whitney. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted June 4, 2013
I will have to admit that when I first started reading this book, I really was not sure it was for me. I had to take a moment to pause after a couple of chapters and reflect on why I was feeling this way because it is beautiful writing, and a really interesting story. Then I figured it out, the first thing being it was told from a male perspective, and I have not read a lot of books from this point of view before. The next thing is that the first real basis of the story is a child grieving the loss of his Mother, fortunately, I have not experienced this. I will have to admit though, I think Daisy Whitney hit the emotions pretty dead on in some ways. Danny has a way of trying to deal with this that has made it so that his emotions are pretty numb, so when I thought that he was pretty emotionless, I had to remind myself as to why.
He is also struggling with the fact that he is still madly in love with his ex-girlfriend Holland, but she broke his heart once before, and has suddenly come back in to his life after his Mother passes away, and he does not know how to deal with her being there. He needs her, but he does not want to admit it as he is still angry at her for leaving him with almost no word. We do learn during the novel why she did this, and it is a very serious situation as well, so when Danny finds out finally, I thought for sure he is going to crack, but he does not. We see how Holland has had to deal with it, and find out why she made the decisions that she did, and I was rooting for them to make it through, I could feel their chemistry and knew that they still loved each other very much!
I give Danny a lot of respect for being able to pick up from his life in California to take a trip to Tokyo, where his Mother (now he) owns an apartment, especially with leaving his dog back home, as we all know, sometimes pets can be the best companions in our times of need. One of the main reasons that he goes to Tokyo is to meet the Dr that his Mom had been going to visit once a month during the last few months of her life, and why she felt the need to go there, and find out what this magical cure was that he was helping her with. There is a lot that happens during his trip, and it is not all good. We see Danny grow tremendously through this story, and find out that what may look one way to you, looks and is completely different to someone else, and we really need to calm down, and communicate with those close to us to truly understand where the other one is coming from.
Though he goes on this trip for his Mom, it turns out that it is more a trip for himself to get some closure, and some of it he refuses to believe at first. I cannot tell you enough how much I enjoyed this book, it may not be very long (under 300 pages), but it packs a whopper of a punch as far as story line, and just when I think someone is going to crack from all the pressure, their light bulb goes off, and they start to see things completely differently from what they originally did. I have yet to this day found a book that can make me cry, but this one got my emotions going more than any other in recent history. I highly suggest this novel for anyone looking for a contemporary with a lot of meat to it, also anyone going through the loss of a loved one, I think it would really help with trying to see all sides, and that even though it may feel like the end of the world, it may just be a new beginning to a different kind of world for them.
I also have Daisy Whitney's The Mockingbirds on my shelf, and just have not had the time to read it yet, and after reading this story, it is going to be made a priority on my to be read pile. A wonderful piece of art, it gets a 5/5 from this (now) very emotional reader!
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Posted November 26, 2013
Posted November 22, 2013
After losing her five-year battle with cancer and dying 3 weeks short of her goal of seeing Danny graduate, his mom is gone. I find this so heartbreaking. Danny is Valedictorian, he is trying to deal with his mom’s estate, and he’s an emotional wreck. Danny ends up traveling to Tokyo where his mom was getting treatment, for answers, for closure, for understanding….I don’t know if he really knows himself what he is truly seeking. He passes through the stages of grief while in Japan, a place where Danny traveled with his mom frequently. He makes a new friend, grieves the loss of an old girlfriend, only to have her reopen wounds that aren’t fully healed, all the while trying to overcome his loss and come to an understanding as to why his mom died. In the process, he surprisingly learns how to love, laugh, and live again, and also how to let go. When You Were Here is a wonderful emotional read that will touch your heart and soul.
Posted November 19, 2013
My goodness. There are very few books that make me cry just within the first few chapters. And this one…this one hit me in the heart fast.
Plot: As a parent of a little boy, I can’t imagine dying right before his graduation. But this plot…this plot grabs the reader right away. The range of emotions thrown at the reader along with the twist of death, you can’t resist it. I read this book in under a few hours. And let me tell you, it stuck in my mind afterwards.
Death: I think I related to this book so much because I’m a parent. Now, I’m not trying to be morbid but I do think how would my son take it if I were to die early. Would he understand? Would he be angry? And all of questions were answered through the mind of Danny. Danny, a wonderful teenage by faced with an onslaught of bad karma. I felt his emotions and thoughts come in clearly. I could see, feel and hear every emotion that rocked through him. The anger that coursed through his veins when he thought of everything that he experienced. Hell, even I was angry. This author did a fantastic job, capturing the voice of teenage boy facing hard times.
Love: Even though this book is full of bad events, I felt like this little tidbit in Danny’s life is important. It gave the reader that small chance of hope. That there can be peace for this character even in the midst of all the trouble.
Ending: The ending I felt was fitting. Everything felt completed yet the reader knows that it is not the end for Danny. Life sucks, yet we can move on.
As you can tell, I really enjoyed this book. I loved reading it and feeling my heart flutter in my chest with every turn of the chapter. When You Were Here is a great mix of edgy plot and lots of emotions. A wonderful tale with a journey that is sure to bring you to tears, When You Were Here is superb.
Posted July 25, 2013
When You Were Here was definitely different than most contemporary novels out there, but it was a great different. From a boy's point of view, Danny has lost everything in his life. His father died six years ago. His mother has been fighting cancer for the last 5 years, and has dies just before his graduation. His adopted sister has lost most contact with him when she decided she wanted to learn more about her "roots" and live in China. Danny is all alone in a house in California. His mother's best friend, Kate, lives right next door and is always there to take care of him. Ofcourse, there has to be the girl next door, and that would be Kate's daughter! Holland and Danny were actually dating a while ago, but things just changed later on.
As simple as this story might be, it was definitely peaceful. Just reading about Danny's journey of unraveling secrets about his dead mother was just beautiful. This book was set in one of my favorite places in the world, and it's Japan. I was thrilled to know that there was a large portion of this book set in Japan. I've never been there, but I've watched and read too many things about it to not know how amazing of a place it is. It's my dream to travel there, and just reading about it was so much fun! Anyways, Danny decides to travel to Tokyo because he had an apartment there to take care of. Danny also decided to travel to figure out why his mother always felt happier there. The description of the tea houses and the harajuku girls and the busy nights was just amazing. I completely loved it. As the story went on, it was interesting to understand why his mother felt peaceful in Japan. Throughout the days, Danny was able to find out day by day more things about his mother's days in Tokyo.
I loved Danny's dog, Sandy Kaufman. She was always the one who lights up the mood of the book. I love animals so it was so much fun to get to know Sandy Kaufman as more than just a "dog". There's also Kana, the amazing Japanese girl who becomes a very close friend to Danny. Overall, this book was beautiful in many ways. It's more to the realistic fiction, as it more concentrates about one finding his inner peace. This was a great read, and I cannot wait to get my hands on future books by Daisy Whitney!
Posted June 25, 2013
I Also Recommend:
Great books are always harder to review than ones I don't love as much. Words escape me, or aren't quite right. This isn't the first time author Daisy Whitney has me at a loss for words, and I'm sure it won't be the last, either. She's an extremely gifted writer whose books need to become more well-known in the world.
WHEN YOU WERE HERE may scare some people away initially because it's about loss and grieving, but it is about so much more, too. It is a book of triumph, of overcoming loss, of learning to live again. There are so many layers to loss, it's never black or white, this or that. When new loss is layered atop old loss, it's even harder to get out of your dark place and embrace life. Main character Danny goes through so many stages of loss and the grieving process, and he does it all in Japan, one of the perfect places to go when grieving. There is so much philosophy and legend built on loss and life in the Japanese culture. They bloom for such a little time and die so fast, but are beautiful for the time they're alive. Fallen samurai on the battlefield were often linked to cherry blossoms. There's even a sad story about a loyal dog named Hachiko, who went to the train station every day after his owner passed on. As soon as I heard that Daisy had a book about loss taking place in Japan and that the main character had a beloved dog of his own, I begged her to somehow include Hachiko...but she already had! Hachiko is that integral to a book on grief. Even if you've never been to Japan, you'll feel like you have after reading this book; I wanted to go back (I lived in Japan for two years) and eat delicious Harajuku crêpes, take part in hanami (Cherry Blossom Viewing Parties), go to the Tsukiji Fish Market, and do everything right alongside Danny. I missed Japan so much reading this, so if you've never been, I truly think you'll be able to embrace the atmosphere and be there anyway.
The whole book doesn't start out in Japan, however. Danny and his mom live in Los Angeles, California, but often travel to Japan to visit. They travel so frequently that they own a little place there. Danny's mom has been struggling with cancer for years, and her last wish was to see her son graduate. Sadly, she died two months before she could see her goal come to fruition, never saw him announced Valedictorian. He's shut out everyone in his life, especially his ex-girlfriend Holland. He no longer cares about anyone or anything, only happy when he's with his beloved dog Sandy Koufax. When he receives a letter from Japan asking what he'd like to do with his mother's property, he instantly decides to leave town and fly to Japan. Maybe in Japan, there will be answers about his mother and why she stopped holding on when she was so close to her goal. Maybe her Japanese doctor knows something, like whether or not his mom stopped taking his medication. He leaves behind a world of broken memories (and reluctantly leaves Sandy Koufax with a friend) and embraces an unknown future. Going to Japan is the best thing Danny can do. He comes to terms with his grief and learns to embrace life again. He befriends Kana, a girl not afraid to dress crazy and stand out. She takes him around Japan and helps him get out of his funk. When Danny's ex-girlfriend Holland reappears, she tears open his healing scabs and digs into his wounds once more. Can they heal together, or will Holland's presence destroy everything Danny's worked so hard to reclaim?
Whitney is superb at delivering beautifully-packaged prose. I quoted several sentences while reading and could have done even more. Her writing style worms its way into a reader's heart and forces him or her to care about the characters and the story. At first, Danny is lost and wandering aimlessly. You don't like everything about him or the decisions he makes. There's a hint of something good, however, and that nugget shines brighter and brighter as you continue reading until you can't help but love Danny and want him to be happy again. Kana was a great friend to Danny. I embraced her zaniness and would love to be friends with her as well. Her English is impressively good for someone who has yet to live abroad and become fully immersed, which bothered me at times, knowing where her English levels should probably be, but most people won't notice or care. It's a nitpicky complaint, and one I have only because I lived in Japan and knew quite a few Japanese who spoke English. At the same time, I lived nowhere near Tokyo, so it could be that Japanese teenagers are more fluent in large tourist cities. I don't know. Either way, I loved Kana and without her great English skills, wouldn't know her as well as I do by the novel's end--and neither would Danny. That would be a tragedy. As for Holland...well. Whitney creates a great character in Holland because she's easy to hate at times, but you also understand where she's coming from and can relate. Romances are complicated, messy things, especially when you're a teenager, and Holland and Danny are no different. Whitney's twists and turns were surprising, but always felt real and never trite.
There are so many nuances to situations in WHEN YOU WERE HERE, and everything ties together in surprising, unpredictable ways. Together, they form a cohesive, wonderful novel. All of these small elements make a whole, and the story would be imperfect without any of them. They come alive when pieced together to fully tell the story of a boy overcoming grief in so many ways and learning how to live again. It's a journey you shouldn't miss out on!
Posted June 20, 2013
Danny has suffered much loss over the years. The only remaining member of his family is his dog Sandy Koufax (named after his favorite baseball player... by his mom), and he finds himself itching to leave his home and escape everything. So he escapes to his favorite place--Tokyo, where his mom had hoped to find a cure but instead seems to have made peace with her life and imminent death. There, Danny hopes to find the same peace that his mom did and hopefully find a way to continue living.
Danny is a very real character in his grief. I've never had to go through what he did, and hopefully it'll be a long while before I begin to feel the beginnings of his pain. Sometimes he does stupid things just because he has a "get free card" thanks to his loss, and it's frustrating to see himself wreck himself like that. His journey of healing is slow and very real. It doesn't come as one big revelation at the end like many similar novels do; rather, it comes a little bit at a time, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle coming together. At times, Danny finds out something that throws the greater picture out of whack, but he never gives up hope as he persists in finding out the truth behind his mom's ventures in Japan and, more importantly, more about himself and what he has to live for.
The side characters are somewhat detached from the story. While I know that they're there, and I know what I like and dislike about them, they're never fully present. It's okay because this story focuses on Danny's inner development and his path to finding peace in life and moving on. Kana is the funny, eccentric Asian girl with a sense of humor. I like the friendship that forms between her and Danny. It's something that he needs--a good friend with whom he can really talk without worry. And she's good for him, unlike Holland, the girl who twists his heart and brings him so much grief. Honestly, I can understand why Holland did what she did to him, but I still can't bring myself to quite like her. She hurt him a lot at a time when he really needed her. I don't know why he still loves her. The only bright side to their relationship that I see is how Danny finally comes to terms with his feelings for her, which brings a nice resolution to the novel.
Another thing I really like about this novel is how effortlessly it incorporates a foreign setting into the novel--and better yet, one that has heartfelt meaning to some of the characters. There isn't any great wow moment or anything about going to Japan. No, it's a natural part of the picture, and everything comes in stride. I never felt like an outsider while in Japan with Danny. The story doesn't take time to explain everything to me. Everything flows together, and the context and writing does such a great job of portraying the setting to me that I didn't feel a need to ask for more details. Better yet, Danny and Kana show us the everyday life, not the tourist-y attractions that come immediately to mind when thinking about a foreign country.
When You Were Here is an emotional story about death, life, forgiveness, and making peace. It is about about moving on from the ghosts of the past to live in the present. It is about finding meaning in the every day. I recommend this to those who enjoy a good angsty contemporary read.
Posted June 7, 2013
This Book Will Stick With You
This is a book that checks all the boxes. It's funny AND heart wrenching. It's familiar AND different. It's smart AND relatable. It's literary AND commercial. Then to top it all off, this novel has voice. It's not just the MC Danny--but all of the characters, they are real, believable, flawed and likable. Additionally, I was mesmerized by the contrasting settings of California and Japan--unique and fascinating. When I closed the cover on WHEN YOU WERE HERE, I felt like I'd really been in the lives of these characters. They will be sticking with me for a long time. My favorite Daisy Whitney book to date.
Posted June 12, 2013
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Posted June 4, 2013
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Posted November 1, 2013
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Posted June 10, 2013
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