Robert's math teacher, Andrew McNelin, watches his best student floundering, concerned but wary of crossing the line between professional and personal. Gradually, Andrew becomes Robert's friend, then his confidante. As the year progresses, their relationship--in school and out of it--deepens and changes. And as hard as he tries to resist, Andrew knows that he and Robert are edging into territory that holds incalculable risks for both of them.
J.H. Trumble, author of the acclaimed Don't Let Me Go, explores a controversial subject with extraordinary sensitivity and grace, creating a deeply human and honest story of love, longing, and unexpected connection.
Praise For Don't Let Me Go
"A sexy, vibrant, and heartfelt debut." --Martin Wilson, award-winning author of What They Always Tell Us
"Deeply moving. . .will be appreciated by adults and teens alike." --Publishers Weekly, starred review
"A charming story. Trumble's love for the characters is evident on every page, and it's contagious." --Robin Reardon, author of A Secret Edge
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Where You Are
By J. H. Trumble
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2013 J. H. Trumble
All right reserved.
You still here? I'm giving a makeup test. Crap! Stop by when you're done.
I close Jen's e-mail and check the time in the corner of my computer screen—ten minutes—then glance up at Robert Westfall again. He's resting his cheek on his fist now and absently doodling in the margins of his test. My heart breaks for him, and I find myself wondering what's showing at the cinema in his head. Memories of hanging out with his dad—maybe playing catch in the backyard, learning to swim at a neighborhood pool, pushing a lawnmower for the first time. Or maybe it's the moment he got the news yesterday, an endless loop of shock, terror, sadness. Or is it some future flick about life without a father?
I pick up my red pen again and straighten the stack of tests in front of me, but I don't grade any of them. I just watch him.
I knew something was going on. It was just a feeling, this sense that he was off balance and couldn't quite get his feet under him. And now as I watch him struggle with a calculus test that he'd methodically tear up any other day, I'm struck with the desire to reach out to him; I'm just not sure how.
It's funny really. I'm not usually this intuitive. While I'd like to believe that I'm in sync with my students, that I know when they're having a bad day or when their hormones are raging and they've chosen to indulge their impulses instead of doing their homework or studying, I'm not.
My freshman Algebra kids are so squirrely that all my energy goes into maintaining order and keeping those classes moving forward. My senior AP Calculus students, on the other hand, have a laser focus on that end-of-course exam. I challenge them academically; they challenge me. If anybody's having a bad day in that class, I guess they keep it to themselves.
But with Robert, I knew. He still turned in his homework. He paid attention. He even answered questions when I asked them. But he's been quieter. More introspective, I think. Just not himself.
He rubs at his eye with the heel of his hand and attempts to focus on the problems again, but he looks perplexed, as if I've written the test in hieroglyphics and he just can't quite translate the problems.
Yesterday, his absence, that empty desk in the front row, pricked at my conscience. I thought about calling to make sure he was okay. I even retrieved his phone number. But I didn't call. Kids are absent—they get sick, they oversleep, they skip. The motivation to make that phone call seemed pretty thin. But Robert's not one of those kids. His absence was noteworthy and it bothered me more than it probably should have.
I turn back to my computer and scroll through the day's e-mail—notices of meetings scheduled and meetings canceled, an it's-still-not-too-late-to-sign-up invitation to Saturday night's school Christmas party (No, thank you.), a few eleventh-hour pleas from parents for extra-credit work, and a reminder that grades are due at three o'clock Friday afternoon. The high priority makes Ms. Lincoln's e-mail easy to spot.
To: Fabiola Cortez, Bob Benson, Annet Nguyen, Richard Gorman, Susan Weatherford, Andrew McNelis, Bette Flowers
From: Lynn Lincoln
Subject: Robert Westfall
Teachers— As you may already know, Robert Westfall's father has been battling brain cancer for the past ten years. Yesterday the family received some devastating news. Mr. Westfall's illness is terminal. According to Mrs. Westfall, the doctors estimate that Robert's father may have only three to four weeks. Understandably, this is a difficult time for the family. It is likely that Robert's attendance may become intermittent during the next few months. Please be flexible in your expectations and offer him whatever accommodations are necessary to get him through this time. If you see that he is struggling emotionally, or if you have any concerns at all, please contact me. Thank you as always for all you do for our students.
Lynn Lincoln Twelfth Grade Counselor
Poor kid. I check the time again. Fifteen minutes now. I push back my chair and get up. It's my day to pick up Kiki, and I have a feeling that I could sit here with Robert for another fifteen hours, and he'd still be doodling in the margins.
In fact, he's so caught up in his head that he doesn't notice me approach or say his name. When I place my hand on his shoulder, he jumps.
"Sorry. I didn't mean to startle you."
His eyes fall on the test in front of him and he seems surprised that he's only addressed a couple of the questions. "Oh, shit," he mutters. Then immediately follows that with an apology for his language.
"It's okay." I pull a desk up close to his and sit. "A rough day yesterday?"
"Yeah. Pretty rough," he says quietly.
"Anything I can do?"
He looks up at me, and his eyes seem to search mine like he's measuring the sincerity of my question. Suddenly I have a feeling the one thing this kid needs is the one thing I can't give him—a hug or maybe a friend he can really talk to.
"No," he says, palming the back of his neck. "But thanks."
"You look tired." Depressed is what I'm really thinking. When he doesn't respond, I decide to make one of those accommodations Ms. Lincoln spoke of. "You know, you don't have to take this test," I say, reaching for it. "I'm not worried about your mastery of this unit. You've mastered it. I can just double your last—"
"No. I can take the test," he says, flattening his hand on the paper to hold it in place. I notice he's not wearing a class ring.
"Okay. But, you know, I have a daughter. She's going to be pretty upset if I don't pick her up from her day care before dark."
He drops his head and then, suddenly agitated, runs his hand over his short blond hair a few times, then sighs heavily. "I'm sorry, Mr. Mac." He grips his pencil and punches down the lead a few clicks. "I'll have it done in a few minutes."
A few minutes? I don't think so. Not even for Robert. "It's okay." I give him what I hope is a reassuring smile. "I have some time. How about I walk you through the test? Maybe that will help you focus."
I don't wait for him to answer. I collect a pencil and a few sheets of printer paper from my desk and sit back down. On the blank paper, I quickly review the first section, then wait while he works through the set of problems. I guess something about me sitting there with him chases away the distractions—he's quick and he's precise, making his marks with his distinct handwriting, which is tiny but highly legible.
When he's finished, he twists his head up to me.
"Nicely done," I say, smiling. It feels good when he smiles back.
I place a big check mark over the section, and we move on to the next. While Robert is working, I find myself studying his face—the straight line of his nose, the freckle at the base of his neatly trimmed sideburn, the stray blond hairs on his jaw that he missed shaving this morning—and I can't help wishing that I'd known him when I was in high school.
Aside from the fact that he's a stellar student and a nice-looking kid, here's what I know about Robert:
1. He's a member of the band guard. The only male member in fact. I might not have known this—I don't attend football games. No time with school and grad classes in the fall, and Kiki—but it seems to be an endless source of amusement for Jennifer.
2. He has a boyfriend. Nicholas Taylor—Nic—cheerleader, ditzy blond, ghetto queen, Whore-Hay. All the kids call him that. Jorge, Whore-Hay. It's the year-round, fluorescent-lamp-enhanced tan, I think. I honestly don't get what Robert sees in Nic. The kid's a pretentious, over-the-top, party boy. Not his type at all.
3. Robert is one hell of a brave kid. (See numbers 1 and 2.) I'd never have had the courage to be 100 percent O-U-T in high school. And he's not just Out; he's got that quiet confidence that draws other kids to him. I don't know if he knows it, but he does a lot to bring skeptics into the fold on our campus. You just can't not like him or respect him.
And right now, I can't not look at him.
When he finishes the set, he looks up at me, and I drop my eyes to the test and make a quick assessment of his answers.
Another big check mark and we move on. The next set is a little more challenging. I force myself to focus on this work. A couple of times he missteps, but a quick uh-uh from me makes him stop, rethink, erase, then move forward on the right track.
The last section is the trickiest, and I get a kick out of watching him wrestle with the problems. He looks at me a couple of times, but I just raise my brows and shrug. He takes that as a challenge. I don't help him on this section, so when he missteps, he finds himself in a tangle and has to back up. I'm proud of him when he finishes the last problem and slides the test across his desk to mine.
"I knew you could do it."
"You did, huh?"
I check that section, then close the test and scrawl a big 100 across the top before I look back at him. "Yeah, I did."
We enjoy a moment of what I think is mutual admiration, and then I clap him on the shoulder and take the test with me back to my desk.
Robert stands, stretches, then grabs his letter jacket off the back of the desk chair as I enter his grade in the computer. I'd like to close out my grade book, but I have some Algebra kids who are under water and need a lifeline, which I will attempt to provide over the next couple of days before grades are due.
As he leans down to zip up his backpack, I take a quick inventory of the letters on his jacket—academics, band, guard, choir. They should give letters for courage too.
He grabs his backpack by the strap and shoulders it, but seems reluctant to leave.
"I'm really sorry about your dad. How are you holding up?" I ask, coming around the desk. I lean against it and slide my hands in my pockets.
He chews on his bottom lip a moment, then says, "I don't even know how to answer that, Mr. Mac."
How do I respond to that? I hate this. They don't train us for this kind of stuff. There are things I want to convey to him: I'm here for you if you need to talk. I know what it's like to lose someone. But all that sticks in my throat, because the truth is, I'm a teacher—not a friend, not a counselor. And I don't know what it's like to lose someone; my own parents are safe and sound in Oklahoma. I've not lost a single person in my life, not permanently at least. Besides, does he even want my sympathy? Kids can be so hard to read.
Jennifer Went makes my indecision moot when she chooses that moment to stick her head in the door.
"Oh. You're done," she says.
"Yeah," I say as she steps into the room. Robert mumbles a thank you, hitches up his backpack, and slips past her and out the door.
"They're making them big these days, aren't they?" she says, sticking her head back out the door to watch him go. "Mmmmmm. He's a hottie."
"You're not going all Mary Kay Letourneau on me, are you?"
"I don't know. I might be willing to spend a few years in prison for a few minutes in heaven with that one—"
"Arrgghh. Kidding, right?"
"—even if he is a little light on his feet," she finishes, then laughs.
I ignore the slur.
"So, how about I buy you a Frappuccino?" she asks brightly.
I already know that buy you a Frappuccino is just code for read my next chapter. Jennifer fancies herself a romance author. Her college roommate put herself through school writing erotica. Jen sees no reason she can't get herself out of school writing romance.
I suspect she fancies me as well. I mean, what could be more attractive than a twenty-four-year-old, divorced high school teacher with a two-year-old, a student-loan debt that rivals the GNP of any number of small nations, an efficiency apartment, and a six-year-old Civic with a crack in the windshield?
"I've got Kiki," I say.
"Aaaah. Bring her too."
"So? What do you think?" Jennifer asks. "Juicy, huh?"
Kiki is sitting on her knees and eating a yogurt parfait. I wrinkle my nose at her and she wrinkles hers back. I stack the pages neatly together and hand them across the table to Jen.
"I think you'd better change the names and maybe a few other details, or someone's going to sue your ass one day."
She laughs. "Ah, they're just placeholders. Once I get the story down, I'll run a global search and change all the names."
"So, is that stuff true? I mean, aren't both Philip and Liz married ... with children?"
"That's really sweet, Drew. You actually believe in that stuff, huh?" She flicks a bit of ice at me with her straw. "You know, if you'd ever come out of your classroom, you might learn all kinds of things. Like, for instance, that those two leave for lunch together every day. Every day. Different doors, different cars, but they follow each other out of the parking lot. Like that isn't obvious.
"And then last week, I went into Philip's office to ask him to show me how to use Audacity. He was on the phone. So he says, 'Gotta go. I'll see you later. Love you.' All that crap. So then he opens Audacity on his screen, and he's showing me stuff, and a few seconds later this e-mail pops up in the corner from Liz. I'd have to be blind not to see it. And stupid not to add up two and two.
"Trust me; they're doing it. And everybody knows it."
I wonder if Philip Moore has any idea whatsoever that his colleagues are talking about him behind his back, that his little subterfuge is not nearly as covert as he thinks it is. He's one of two technology liaisons on our campus, the go-to guy for everything software related, from converting YouTube video files to getting our contacts groups to show up in Outlook. Everybody knows him. It's his job to respond to technology crises or last-minute queries about how to incorporate some little gizmo into a lesson.
But even I've heard rumors that Liz Masters seems to have more crises and queries than most. Not that I care. What they do is their business.
"So is this how you get your jollies?" I ask. "Speculating about what those two are doing in the backseat during their thirty-minute, duty-free lunch every day?"
"It's twenty-seven minutes now, and hey, a girl's gotta get it somewhere," she says coyly.
I laugh lightly and pretend I don't notice the subtle suggestion.
She throws a quick glance at Kiki. "So," she says, "are you going to the Christmas party Saturday?"
"Come on. Why not?"
"Why would I want to spend my Saturday night with a bunch of people I hardly know? Besides, last year it was mostly couples. Awkward, you know. And borrring."
"You could go with me."
Don't think so. "I have Kiki anyway this weekend. I'm taking her to see Santa on Saturday, and then we're going to eat graham crackers and watch The Lion King again, right, baby girl?"
Kiki holds out her spoon, and I take a bite and wink at her.
"And then when she falls asleep, I'm going to write my plans for the next nine weeks."
"Wow, your social life kind of takes my breath away."
I wish it took mine away.
I turn my cell phone back on as I cross the parking lot. It vibrates immediately. Five new texts. All from Nic. I thumb through them as I walk.
I'm standing by your car. Hurry up.
Answer your phone.
OMG. Where are you? I don't have all day!!!
I'm done. Leeeeaving.
I note the time stamps and estimate he waited a whole ten minutes. I reply, although I don't know why I bother:
Had to make up test. Have group tonight.
He responds immediately. You could have told me that sooner.
I might have if I could have gotten past his posse of cheerleaders. Besides, we had no plans to meet after school. We never have any plans to meet after school. We rarely have any plans to meet anywhere. Sometimes I think Nic is my boyfriend in name only, when it's convenient, when he needs some arm candy. Not that I consider myself arm candy, but I think he does the way he clings to me and parades me around on the rare occasion when we do go somewhere together.
Sorry. Text you later.
He doesn't respond. I have about an hour before I have to be at Ms. Momin's for my music therapy group—we're playing "Jingle Bells" today—but I don't have the emotional energy to deal with Nic right now anyway. And I damn sure don't want to go home.
So I climb in the car, put my phone on silent, then tilt my seat back and close my eyes.
I allow myself to drift back to the classroom, to those gray eyes with the dark rings around the corneas, and that snug sweater over a striped, collared shirt, and the chest hair at the base of his throat that always shows no matter what he's wearing.
Excerpted from Where You Are by J. H. Trumble Copyright © 2013 by J. H. Trumble. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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