Chapter 1

 

TRUMAN REID was white as a stick of chalk—skin so pale it was nearly translucent. His blue eyes were fashioned from icy spring water. His hair—platinum blond—lay in curls across his forehead and spilled down his neck. He was the kind of boy for whom adjectives like “lovely” and “pretty” would most definitely apply. More than once in his life, he was mistaken for a girl.

When he was a very little boy, well-meaning strangers (and some not so well-meaning) would ask if he was a boy or a girl. Truman was never offended by the question, because he could see no shame in being mistaken for a girl. It wasn’t until later that he realized there were some who would think the question offensive.

But this boy, who, on the first day of school, boldly and some might say unwisely wore a T-shirt that proclaimed “It Gets Better” beneath an image of a rainbow flag, didn’t seem to possess the pride the T-shirt proclaimed. At Summitville High School, even though it was 2015, one did not shout out one’s sexual orientation, not in word, not in fashion, and certainly not in deed.

Who knew what caused Truman to break with convention that morning when he made up his mind to wear that T-shirt on the first day of school? It wasn’t like he needed to proclaim anything—after all, the slight, effeminate boy had been the object of bullies and torturers since, oh, about second grade. Truman could never “pass.”

He was a big sissy. It was a fact and one Truman had no choice but to accept.

His shoulders, perpetually hunched, hunched farther during his grade school and junior high years, when such epithets as “sissy,” “fag,” “pansy,” and “queer” were hurled at him in school corridors and playgrounds on a daily basis. Truman knew the old schoolyard chant wasn’t true at all—words could and did hurt. And so, occasionally, did fists and hands.

And yet, despite the teasing—or maybe it’s more apt to say because of it—Truman was not ashamed of who and what he was. His single mom, Patsy, his most vocal supporter and defender, often told him the same thing. “God made you just the way you are, honey. Beautiful. And if you’re one of his creations, there’s nothing wrong in who you are. You just hold your head up and be proud.” The sad truth was, Patsy would often tell her boy stuff like this as she brushed tears away from his face.

It wasn’t only tears she brushed away, though. Her unconditional love also brushed away any doubt Truman might have had that he was anything other than a normal boy, even though he was not like most of the boys his age in Summitville, Ohio, that backward little burg situated on the Ohio River and in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. In spite of the teasing and the bullying—and the pain they caused—Truman wasn’t ashamed of who he was, which was what led him to wearing the fated T-shirt that got him in so much trouble his first day as a freshman at Summitville High School.

The incident occurred near the end of the day, when everyone was filing into the school gymnasium for an orientation assembly and a speech from the school’s principal, Doug Calhoun, on what the returning students and incoming freshmen could expect that year.

Truman was in the crush of kids making their way toward the bleachers. High school was no different than grade school or junior high in that Truman was alone. And even though this was the first day of school, Truman already had a large three-ring binder tucked under his arm, along with English Composition, Biology, and Algebra I textbooks. Tucked into the notebook and books were papers—class schedules of assignments and the copious notes the studious Truman had already taken.

Kirk Samson, a senior and starting quarterback on the football team, knew the laughs he could get if he tripped this little fag in his pride-parade T-shirt, so he held back a little in the crowd, waiting for just the right moment to thrust out a leg in front of the unsuspecting Truman, whose eyes were cast down to the polished gymnasium floor.

Truman didn’t see the quarterback’s leg until it was too late, and he stumbled, going down hard on one knee. That sight was not the funniest thing the crowd had seen, although the pratfall garnered a roar of appreciative laughter at Truman’s expense. But what was funnier was when Truman’s notebook, books, and papers all flew out from under his arm, landing in a mess on the floor.

Kirk, watching from nearby with a smirk on his face, whispered two words to the kids passing by: “Kick ’em. Kick ’em.”

And the kids complied, sending Truman’s notes, schedules, and texts across the gym floor, as Truman, on his knees, struggled to gather everything up, even as more and more students got in on the fun of sending them farther and farther out of his reach.

Now, that was the funniest thing the crowd had seen.

Who knows how long the hilarity would have gone on if an authority figure had not intervened?

 

 

DANE BERNARD, English teacher, gentle giant, cross-country track coach, and indisputably one of the most well-liked teachers at the school, saw what was happening to Truman and rushed over. He only wished he could have been quicker to act—the boy’s books and papers were now kicked out almost to the middle of the gym floor.

Dane knelt down by Truman, though, and helped him pick everything up as the kids behind, their laughter dying to a few isolated giggles, scrammed for their seats among the bleachers. It took a long time for the titters and whispering to die down.

Once the papers had been haphazardly gathered and even more haphazardly stuffed back inside notebook and textbooks, Dane put what he hoped was a calming hand on Truman’s shoulder and gave it a little squeeze.

“You okay, son?” he asked.

The boy didn’t have to respond. Dane frowned as he took in the tears standing in the boy’s eyes. “What’s your name?”

“Truman. Truman Reid.” As befitting his name, the slight boy’s voice came out reedy, a little high, still cracking, the bane of adolescent males since time immemorial.

“I’m Mr. Bernard.”

Truman stared up at Dane, and as he did, a tear dribbled down his cheek, across a couple of acne bumps, to land on the floor. “Thanks. Thanks for helping me.” Truman wiped away any remaining tears with the back of his hand. “I should get to my seat.”

Dane looked over at the crowd, many of whom were watching, giggles ready to burst forth from their mean little faces. Dane thought there was no creature crueler on God’s green earth than the teenage boy or girl. He squeezed Truman’s shoulder. “Listen, the assembly’s no biggie. Rules and regulations. Making sure you have ‘an attitude that will determine your altitude.’ Crap like that. You wanna skip it?” With a gentle smile, Dane tried to convey he cared. “We could go sit together someplace quiet for a bit and just chat.” Dane shrugged. “No pressure.”

“I don’t know.” The boy looked toward the crowd. Dane was disheartened when he followed his gaze. He didn’t see one welcoming face.

“Come on,” Dane said. “I’ve got Starburst in my homeroom.”

“Well then, if you’ve got Starburst, how can I possibly say no?” And at last Truman smiled.

That smile was the kind of thing that made Dane get up every morning and come to work.

“Follow me.”

Dane led the boy along the school corridor—green tile floors bracketed on either side by rows and rows of lockers in the same shade of industrial green. The boy, Truman, stopped at one of the lockers and began trying to work its combination lock. Dane paused to watch, figuring the boy wanted to divest himself of the load of books and papers he lugged around. Who had so much stuff on the first day of the semester?

Truman whispered what sounded like a curse to Dane as he did battle with the lock. He couldn’t get it. He tried several times, spinning and spinning to no good effect. His books and papers once more tumbled to the floor. The situation was so sad, so pathetic, it almost made Dane want to laugh. Not at the boy, no, but at the absurdity of life and how it could simply be so plain cruel as to kick this harmless-looking boy when he was so down.

Dane didn’t laugh. He neared Truman as the boy crumpled to the floor, sobbing.

Dane squatted next to him and patted his back. “It’s okay. It’s okay. Get your things together. We can get your combination from the janitor. No prob. Come on. Pick your stuff up and come back to my office.”

Dane’s heart just about broke as the boy looked up at him, cheeks damp and snot on his upper lip. What a way to start the year! He took in the shirt the boy was wearing and thought he might as well have affixed one of those “Kick Me” signs to his back before starting school this morning. Why ask for trouble? Dane wondered. Maybe he could figure the kid out once he got him to his office. Maybe he could let him know that some things that were personal should remain that way.

Truman stood, unsteady, a colt getting to its feet for the first time. He looked wildly around, like he was trapped there in the corridor. “I wanna go home,” Truman said, voice barely above a whisper.

“Don’t you wanna talk?” Dane asked, his eyebrows coming together with concern. “You’ll find my homeroom is a judgment-free zone.”

“I want to go home,” Truman repeated, his voice a little louder.

“Do you walk to school?”

Truman shook his head.

“Buses won’t be here for—” Dane glanced down at his watch, a Fossil timepiece with an orange band his wife, Katy, had gotten him last Christmas. “—another forty-five minutes. Come on. We’ll wait in my homeroom.” To repeat the offer of Starburst seemed like a silly incentive now. “Let’s just go there and chill a little. You’re a freshman, right?”

Truman nodded.

Dane grinned. “Come on. How many chances will you get to skip out on an assembly with a teacher? You like books?”

Truman nodded.

“Good. I teach English. You’d be surprised how many kids don’t, how the only things they read are text messages, tweets, and status updates on Facebook. Who do you like to read?” Dane started walking toward his homeroom, hoping to coax Truman along.

“I like Stephen King and Dean Koontz,” Truman said, not moving. “And I wanna go home.”

“I like them too. I read my first King when I was about your age. Christine, I think it was. You read that one? About the possessed car? Sick!”

“Look, sir, you’re being really nice and all, but I need to get home. I know the final bell hasn’t rung yet, but do you think you could let me slide? I don’t have to tell you I’ve had a rotten day, and I just need to get home, where I can hide.”

Dane shook his head, not to refuse Truman’s request but at the sadness of how the boy viewed home. “Where do you live?”

“Little England. It’s only a mile or so from here.”

Dane scratched his chin. Little England was one of the poorest neighborhoods in Summitville, bordered by the Ohio River on one side and railroad tracks on the other. The neighborhood, sitting just below river level, was regularly flooded. The houses there were mostly adorned with rusting aluminum siding. Or they were wooden frame in need of paint. Little England was poor. Dirty. And for Truman, Dane supposed, it was home.

“I can walk. Can you just look the other way? Please? Just for today?” Tears sprung up in Truman’s eyes again. “I could use a break.”

Dane so wanted to say yes, but there would be consequences if something should happen to the boy on his way home. Serious consequences, the kind where he could lose his job. And with twenty years here at the school, two kids and a wife to support, he couldn’t let that happen. Yet the terror and pain on this boy’s face rent his heart in two. “Tell you what,” Dane said finally. “If you can call someone to come get you—your mom or your dad—I can let you go with them. Otherwise—” Dane stopped himself as he watched Truman pull a phone out of his pocket. His fingers flew over the tiny screen. Dane was amazed how even the poorest of kids these days managed to have cell phones.

Truman didn’t look at him. Instead he stared at the screen as if willing it to life. After a minute or so, Truman breathed a sigh of relief. He held the screen of the flip phone up so Dane could see. Dane read the shorthand texts, which basically confirmed that Mom could get off from work and pick him up in ten minutes, but she wanted to know what was wrong.

What wasn’t wrong? Dane imagined Truman thinking.

“Can I go wait outside?” Truman asked.

Dane sighed. “Sure you don’t want to come talk to me? Just for a few minutes? We’ll see your mom pull up from my window.”

“You just have to make this as hard as you can, don’t you?” Truman snapped.

Dane’s smile faltered. “I was trying to do just the opposite,” he said.

Truman’s face reddened. “I’m sorry, man. I just need to get home.”

Dane nodded. “I get it. Go ahead. Wait outside for your mom.”

Truman started away, walking quickly, books still stuffed under one matchstick arm.

Dane called after him, “Come talk to me tomorrow. We’ll get your locker combination figured out.” Among other things, Dane thought as he turned to head back to his homeroom.

Once there, Dane plopped down in his imitation-leather desk chair and sighed. He rubbed his hands over his face. Seeing kids teased and bullied was, unfortunately, part of the job, and over two decades, Dane had lost count of the number of times he had witnessed cruelty. Sometimes he thought high school students had cornered the market on unkindness.

But Truman Reid bothered him more than most. It was that damn T-shirt he wore, one that might as well have proclaimed “I’m a big old fag” on the front, instead of its message of hope and the pride of the rainbow flag. Kids here just looked for any excuse to tease, to belittle. The jocks especially seemed to feel that someone’s being gay was as good a reason as any to make their life a living hell.

Dane was just about to reflect on the relevance being gay had on his own life when his phone rang. For a moment he was grateful for the ringtone, because it saved him from some of his darkest ruminations, thoughts he shared with no one, but which Truman—with his damnable and enviable pride—had brought out in him.

He pulled his iPhone from his pocket and glanced down at the screen. Unknown, Caller ID taunted him. Dane was tempted not to answer, to just let it go to voice mail and head for the student assembly so he could at least say he’d been there, but instead he pressed Accept.

“Dane Bernard here.” He fully expected a telemarketer.

“Mr. Bernard.” A male voice came over the line. “Is this the husband of Katherine Bernard?”

A chill coursed through him. “Yup.” He tried to swallow, but the sudden dryness in his mouth nearly prevented it. “Is everything all right?”

“I’m sorry to tell you this, Mr. Bernard, but there’s been an accident involving your wife. This is Bill Rogers, by the way, with the State Highway Patrol.”

Dane could feel his whole body go cold, as if dipped in ice water. “But she’s okay, right?” he managed to gasp.

The man responded, “Do you think you could come down to City Hospital? I’ll meet you at the ER. Just ask for Bill Rogers. I’ll wait.”

“Is she okay?” Dane repeated, gripping the phone—hard. But the patrolman had already hung up.