I'll Be There


By Holly Goldberg Sloan

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Emily Bell believes in destiny. To her, being forced to sing a solo in the church choir–despite her average voice–is fate: because it’s while she’s singing that she first sees Sam. At first sight, they are connected.

Sam Border wishes he could escape, but there’s nowhere for him to run. He and his little brother, Riddle, have spent their entire lives constantly uprooted by their unstable father. That is, until Sam sees Emily. That’s when everything changes.

As Sam and Riddle are welcomed into the Bells’ lives, they witness the warmth and protection of a family for the first time. But when tragedy strikes, they’re left fighting for survival in the desolate wilderness, and wondering if they’ll ever find a place where they can belong. Beautifully written and emotionally profound, I’ll Be There is a gripping story that explores the complexities of teenage passions, friendships, and loyalties.


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Table of Contents

A Sneak Peek of Just Call My Name

Copyright Page

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The days of the week meant nothing to him.

Except Sunday.

Because on Sundays he listened to pipe organs and pianos.

If he was lucky, handheld bells, pounding drums, or electronic beat machines might vibrate while people sang and sometimes clapped and on occasion even stamped their dressed-up feet.

On Sundays, wherever he was, whenever he could, Sam Border woke early, pulled on his cleanest dirty shirt, and went looking for a church.

He didn't believe in religion.

Unless music could be considered a religion. Because he knew God, if there was one, was just not on his side.

Sam always came in after things had started. And he always left before the service was finished. He sat in the back because he was there only to visualize the patterns in the musical notes. And maybe grab a glazed donut or a sticky cookie on the way out.

If someone tried to speak to him, Sam nodded in greeting and, if he had to, threw in a "Peace be with you." But he had perfected the art of being invisible, and he was, even when he was younger and little, almost always left alone.

*   *   *

What he could remember, when he thought of the dozens and dozens of towns where he'd lived, were sounds.

Even Junction City, where he'd spent a whole winter and made a friend, was now gone, except for the ping of the rain hitting the metal roof on the apartment off the alley where the city parked all its noisy trucks.

That was three years ago. Fifteen towns ago. Another lifetime.

After Junction City they'd been outside of Reno for a while. And then in a trailer that rattled as if every screw and corresponding piece of corroded metal was ready to come undone.

The trailer was in Baja California, and it felt like living in a cardboard box, which was one of his many recurring nightmares. But he'd appreciated those five months south of the border.

Being an American automatically meant he was an outsider, so for the first time in what he could remember of his blur of a broken life, he'd felt like he could relax. He was different. It was expected.

But even fitting-in-because-you-don't-fit-in didn't last.

His father got them out of the country and back to the U.S. just as Sam was learning to speak Spanish and figuring out how to swim.

For weeks, while his brother and father slept, Sam had gone down right after sunrise to the crashing waves. Teaching yourself a skill, especially one that could kill you if things went wrong, wasn't easy.

At first, he only went in up to his knees. And then, gradually, he ventured into the swell, moving his arms in the cold surf like he'd seen people do from a distance.

He was pretty sure he looked like a real idiot.

But he was always able to get back to the gritty beach, even on the morning when the ocean suddenly shifted gears and began to pull him sideways down the shoreline. For what seemed like miles, he slapped his arms against the waves and thrashed his legs in a fury as he swallowed mouthfuls of icy salt water.

Because something inside him, even when he most wanted to give up, just wouldn't.

After that day, Sam figured he had once gone for a real swim. But he assumed that whatever he'd learned from the experience would disappear, like so much that had come and gone in a life dictated by his father. There were so many things that were a mystery. That's what happens when you've never gone to school past second grade.

But the good thing was that he didn't know what he didn't know, and that made it all easier.

Emily Bell was a collector.

And what she gathered and sorted and prized was carried with her wherever she went.

Because Emily's obsession was with other people's lives.

Her grandmother had once said that Emily would have been the greatest spy ever born. But only if spies didn't have to guard secrets as well as unearth them. Because Emily's own emotional wall of self-protection was see-through. She wasn't hiding anything about herself, so why should anyone else?

It was disarming.

Emily's interest in personal histories made her accessible to people's deepest emotions. It was as if she had some kind of magnet that pulled at someone's soul, often when he or she least expected it.

And that same magnet, which had to have been shaped like a horseshoe, allowed someone to look at her and feel the need to share a burden.

Hers was a gift that didn't have a name.

Even she didn't understand what it all meant.

Emily just knew that the grocery store clerk's cousin had slipped on a bath mat and fallen out a second-story open window only to be saved because the woman landed on a discarded mattress.

But what interested Emily the most about the incident was how the cousin had subsequently met a man in physical therapy who introduced her to his half brother who she ended up marrying and then running over with her car a year later after a heated argument. And that man, it was discovered, had been the one to dump the mattress in her yard.

He'd saved her so that she could later cripple him.

Emily found that not ironic but intriguing.

Because everything, she believed, was connected.

Now, at seventeen years old, Emily's question was how she fit into the big scheme of things. Where was her minor incident that would change the course of major life events? So far it had all gone according to plan. Good parents. Decent younger brother. World's greatest dog. Loyal best friend.

There had been no dramatic hairpin turns in her road. And not even any real bumps to speak of.

But she had lived in one town, and she had seen how small things changed big things. She saw every person as part of a ripple effect.

And, because of that, she believed in destiny.

At least that's what she would later tell herself.

*   *   *

Emily took a bite of whole wheat toast and stared out the window. She did not have a beautiful singing voice. She could carry a tune, but that was the extent of the situation.

So why was she going to sing a solo at church?

The answer was right across from her, drinking coffee.

Tim Bell was a college music professor. But on Sundays he was now also the choral director of their congregation. And, as Emily chewed, she decided that he really must not care about that new position if he was going to subject the people to her rendition of "I'll Be There."

Because it wasn't even a church song she had to sing.

It was a classic pop melody that the Jackson Five had made famous, and people had heard this song and seen this song performed and they all knew how it was supposed to sound.

Which made her singing it even worse.

Her father had a theory—because he had theories about everything—that love ballads could be used in places of worship and reinvented to have a spiritual dimension. Being an instructor, he knew that the key to emotional involvement with music was familiarity.

So the way Emily saw it, he was basically tricking people.

He was using songs that already made them feel good. The only problem in the scheme was her. It was just plain wrong to make her a guinea pig in the plan.

Emily had tried all week to appeal to her mother, who was always a voice of reason. But Debbie Bell was an emergency-room nurse and she said that she handled pain and he handled poetry, which meant she left music to her husband.

In desperation Emily had even worked on her little brother, Jared, who was only ten years old and, being seven years younger than her, would pretty much do anything she said. But even Jared didn't think her singing was a big deal.

Emily shut her eyes and she could hear her own voice, sped up suddenly like a cartoon chipmunk, singing: "I'll be there. Just call my name. I'll be there."

It was a total nightmare.

She would just have to grit her teeth and get through it.

But was it possible to grit your teeth and still sing?


Sam's father, Clarence Border, heard voices.

But they were voices of people who were up at odd hours and who lived exclusively inside his head. They were voices of people whose jobs were primarily to warn of danger—sometimes real but mostly imagined.

When you first met Clarence Border, you understood you were talking to someone who was anxious. His thin body seemed to crackle with energy. His fingers fluttered at his sides when he spoke, moving like he was playing an invisible piano that must have been located on the tops of his bony thighs.

It wasn't that he twitched. He was more in control than that. It was that he was hardwired to run in the blink of an eye.

And to take you with him.

Clarence was a good-looking man. He had a full head of dark hair and a strong jaw. When he was dressed in his always clean black jeans, you couldn't see that on the inside of his left leg, curled around the calf, was a tattoo of a black snake. He'd given it to himself, and it looked like it.

Clarence stood over six feet tall, and you could tell in a single glance that he knew how to throw a punch—and that it wouldn't take much to get him to do it.

His voice was deep and steady, and you'd think that would be a good thing, but then his fingers would start moving and it was like he was getting a message from some far-off place, not from circuitry in his frontal lobe that just didn't seem to work right.

There are many ways Sam's father's life could have played out. He could have stayed in Alaska, living near the old cabin where he was born, hunting and fishing and on occasion taking something that wasn't his and selling it to get by. But he'd gotten caught trying to unload an outboard motor to an off-duty patrolman.

The arrest uncovered a string of other misdeeds, and Clarence found himself at the age of twenty-two in prison for three years. When he was released, he left the state, and the only thing he knew, truly deep in his heart, was that he'd never go back to living behind bars.

Which was not to say that he was going to live a life of virtue. Far from it. Clarence Border's vow wasn't one of decency. It was a vow of preservation and desperation. He'd do anything, to anyone, to keep one step ahead of the government.

For a time, life in Montana, which was where Sam was born, was without major incident. Clarence had met Shelly at the Buttrey Food & Drug store. She appeared in the aisle just as he was preparing to slip a box of cheese-flavored Goldfish crackers into the back of his bulky winter coat.

Shelly was ten years older than he was, and he could tell right away that she liked him. Since she was wearing a name tag, he just needed her phone number. She gave it to him without his even asking.

Six weeks later, Shelly was pregnant with Sam and she was living with Clarence above her parents' garage. He worked odd jobs under the watchful eye of her family, and while the whole arrangement didn't actually work, it wasn't yet a colossal failure.

Shelly's father, Donn, was an electrician. If he'd had more opportunity, he'd have been an engineer. He understood not just wiring and current and all things mechanical—he also understood operating systems.

The first time Donn met Clarence Border, he knew that his daughter had hooked up with a man who had a busted mainframe. He tried to warn her early in the game, but Shelly was pregnant before anything could be done.

Donn then took a different approach. He'd teach the shifty snake a profession. As the months wore on, a new plan took shape. If he couldn't make Clarence understand electricity, Donn could electrocute him and probably get away with it.

But the snake struck first.

The voices in his head couldn't be ignored, and the morning of the bite they told Clarence that he'd need to be righteous when someone had done him wrong.

Donn wouldn't let Clarence smoke cigarettes when they were in the truck, and when they got to the Weiss Sand and Gravel Company, there was a No Smoking sign in the work area.

Clarence seethed as he unloaded their tools. Someone would pay for the way he was feeling.

Shelly's father was up on the roof attaching a new transformer to the pole when Clarence unhooked the ground wire. The old man was cooked in a single jolt that flung his body halfway across the roof into the company's TV dish. Smoke came off his body.

All Clarence could do was stare at the No Smoking sign and feel a sense of satisfaction.

*   *   *

After that, Shelly and Clarence moved from the garage into the main house, and Shelly's mother, consumed with grief, stopped speaking to him. He'd look back on this period as a time of focus.

When Sam was almost four and a half, Shelly got pregnant again and then, a month early, tiny Riddle was born. From the start, Riddle cried all the time. His weak sobs drove Clarence out of the house and back into the garage apartment.

The kid had colic. And some other problems. His nose ran constantly, and he squinted as if the sun were in his eyes even on rainy days. Because of his red face, Shelly named him Rudolph but he was known as Riddle from the second his father picked him up and he made his first squawk.

By the time Sam and Riddle were seven years old and two, the house had liens and the bill collectors didn't just make calls, they paid visits.

Shelly's mom couldn't take it anymore, and even though she'd grown attached to the two little boys, she moved down to Louisiana to be with her deaf sister. She said she'd send money when she left, but no one had believed her. Clarence hadn't worked in forever, and his wife finally went back to stocking the aisles at the Buttrey.

Shelly came home after an eight-hour shift on a cold, rainy day in March and the front door was wide open. The truck wasn't in the driveway, and the garden hose by the garage was missing. Clarence had taken the two kids, some power tools, one suitcase of clothes, and her Indian Head penny collection, which had belonged to her great-uncle Jimmy.

Sam was in second grade and the star of his class, reading books for fifth graders. Ten years later, he could still picture exactly what that classroom looked like.

He'd never seen another one since.

*   *   *

Since they'd left Montana, Sam's father always told the same story. His wife had died giving birth to the young one, and then he'd lost his business. Riddle always looked like he was either just getting over a cold or just coming down with one. He'd squint out at the world, and people just naturally felt bad for the whole motherless family.

Clarence said he'd been in auto parts. Not many people asked him about auto parts, and that was a good thing because he knew next to nothing about them.

He'd explain that he couldn't pay his employees health-care insurance premiums, but he'd chosen his workers over profit. He kept it going for as long as he could, and then finally the government came and forced him into Chapter 11.

Riddle first heard the story when he was a toddler, and back then he thought it meant that his father had been trapped inside a book. But somehow the tyrant had gotten out, and that had to be why Clarence hated teachers and any kind of learning, really.

Sam and Riddle's father believed in life experience. That's what he told the two boys. That's why he'd never let them go to school once they took to the road.

But they really didn't go to school because Clarence didn't just hate all teachers, he loathed the whole system.

*   *   *

The two boys had slept late for years. Now that they were older, their father didn't bother to even try to feed them, and they always woke up hungry.

Sam and Riddle had been taught to stay out of sight during school hours because people wanted to know why two boys were wandering around doing nothing. Plus it was better to let fast-food places open and have trash build up before they headed into the world.

They made a habit of not hitting the streets until the sun was high in the sky and knew to say that they were homeschooled if anyone asked. But Sundays were different. Sundays, they could be seen at any time.

And Sundays there was music.

Sam pulled on his shoes and stared at his little brother, who was asleep on the stained mattress on the floor in the corner. Riddle's breathing, as always, was heavy, and his permanent congestion had the wheeze of some kind of new bronchial infection.

Sam thought about trying to prop his head up higher on the pillow because sometimes that helped, but instead he took a pen off the floor and wrote in large letters on a scrap of paper:

BE baCk sOON.

*   *   *

Sam had seen the First Unitarian Church when they originally came to town.

Was there a Second Unitarian and a Third? Was it some kind of contest?

Because now, standing in front of the brick building on Pearl Street, he could see that this house of worship was much more upscale than what he was used to. These First Unitarians were the winners. The parking lot was mostly full and the cars were new and clean, and that wasn't right for him.

This church was in the best part of town, and nothing about it looked desperate. He didn't go into places like this.

The way he saw it, the less money people had, the more instruments they played and the more food they put out. And the easier they were for him to be around.

But Sam had been all over his own neighborhood and, without Riddle at his heels, he had walked faster and somehow had ventured farther than before.

Sam had heard the pipe organ playing from down the street. It was just too intriguing. And now he could see that the First Unitarian's large wooden doors at the front were propped open.

He could get in and get out.

And maybe catch a glimpse of what was making the amazing sound.

But it wasn't that easy.

The first problem was that no sooner had Sam entered than a man appeared from nowhere and closed the oversize doors. It sounded like the closing of an entrance to a vault.

Sam slid silently into the pew in the last row. The organ stopped playing almost immediately, and a minister appeared. He wore a robe but also a tie. He leaned into a microphone and offered up some words. Sam never heard anything these people said. Instead he studied the large space.

To Sam, a room that was clean and smelled vaguely like flowers and candles was exotic. And scary. He was now giving this place his full attention.

The walls were covered in wood that looked to him like pieces of soft leather. There was a large light fixture that hung from the ceiling up front, and it had rows of tiny candles, but they weren't really candles. They would look better, he thought, if they weren't fake. But then it would be impossible to light them without a huge ladder. And also they might drip down onto people, which would be painful.

The long wooden pews were not comfortable. But they never were. If you want people to pay attention, it was important to keep them from settling in. Hadn't his father taught him that?

The man in charge finally stopped speaking, and a choir stood up from a section off to the side. The singers were all ages and shapes, wearing white robes, and they looked to Sam like birds. He didn't know the names of many types of birds, but he'd seen his share, and he felt sure that some place must have big white birds with clean feathers and hairy heads.

Then the organ again began to play, and Sam watched as a girl in the group started to weave her way through the other singers. He could see that she was his age. And he could tell, as she edged toward a microphone, that she was very nervous.

*   *   *

Emily was feeling all sweaty but sort of cold at the same time. This was just ridiculous. Her father, who was standing off to the side waving his right hand in some way that was supposed to be significant, was for sure not going to ever get any eye contact.

Once she got to the microphone, she seized on her strategy.

She was going to focus on the back.

The way back.

Because that's where the people sat who checked their e-mail and monitored sports scores. The back of the church was filled with bodies that were there but not there. The nonlisteners.

Those were her people.

Or her person.

Because when she raised her eyes from the floor, she could see that today there was only one body in the last row.

Emily lifted her chin and opened her mouth and now sang directly to him:

"You and I must make a pact

We must bring salvation back

Where there is love,

I'll be there"

She could hear herself. But not hear herself. And that was the only blessing of her day. Emily knew the song. She knew the words:

"I'll reach out my hand to you

I'll have faith in all you do

Just call my name and I'll be there

I'll be there to comfort you

Build my world of dreams around you

I'm so glad that I found you

I'll be there with a love that's strong

I'll be your strength, I'll keep holding on

Let me fill your heart with joy and laughter

Togetherness, well that's all I'm after

Whenever you need me, I'll be there."

She was singing this all to a guy who she'd never seen before.

She could see that he was tall and thin. He had dark brown hair, which was wild and messy. Like it wasn't cut right.

The person who she was singing to was tan, like he spent a lot of time outside, even though it was still late winter.

And she realized that he looked uncomfortable. Like he didn't belong back there. Just like she didn't belong on the platform up front.

And he was intently watching her.

Pretty much everyone was watching her.

But what suddenly mattered was only that he was watching her.

Because all that had mattered to her was watching him. And now she'd made that commitment and she couldn't stop.

She was definitely giving the words of the song new meaning. Isn't that what her father had wanted? A heartfelt reinterpretation?

Was she having an out-of-body experience?

Her mouth was moving and sounds were coming out, but that didn't make sense.

What made sense was in the back row.

*   *   *

She could not really sing.

That was just a fact.

But it was also a fact that she was riveting. She was raw and exposed and not really hitting the notes right. But she was singing to him.

Why him?

He wasn't imagining it.

The girl with the long brown hair had her small hands held tight at her sides and, maybe because of how bad she was, or because she was staring right at him and seemed to be singing right to him, he couldn't look away.

She was saying she'd be there.

But no one was ever there. That's the way it was. Who was she to tell him such a thing?

It was intimate and suddenly painful.

Not just for her.

But now for him.

Very painful.


For a long time Sam was certain his mother would rescue him and Riddle.

Once she realized that they were gone, she would have called the police or the fire department (didn't they take cats out of trees?) or Mrs. Holsing, his second-grade teacher. Or even the neighbors. The ones named Natwick at the end of the street in the blue house who always waved when he walked by. People would be looking. He was sure of it.

Which of course was the case in the beginning. But his mother wasn't the kind of woman to lead an effort. She lacked not just the determination but also the organizational qualities of leadership. And it wasn't her fault.

When Shelly was a baby, her mother had placed her on the kitchen counter when she came in from the market. She'd only turned her back for a moment and the small child had wiggled free of the plastic bucket that was one of the early versions of a car seat. The straps were so complicated. Who needed them?

Shelly's head hit the floor with a thud that sounded like a bat hitting a watermelon. She was unconscious for a full five minutes, only coming around as their station wagon pulled into the emergency-room parking lot.

The doctors kept baby Shelly overnight and said everything was probably fine. The family couldn't deny that she was a loving child, calm and easy to care for. But after that day, she no longer had the potential for her father's brainpower or her mother's musical ability. If her mind was some kind of computer, that fall to the kitchen floor wiped away whole sections of her hard drive.

Once Sam's father took off with her boys, Shelly started going to My Office. The gimmick of the place was the revolving front door. There wasn't another one in town, and this piece of salvaged metal and glass, from a former savings-and-loan building in Denver, made it appear that you were really going into a place of interest.

In reality, the inside was just the corner space of the neighborhood mini-mall, and the only other attempt at an office setting was that a wall of dinged file cabinets made up the bar.

Shelly went straight there from work, which got her through the hardest time of the day. Dinner hour was when she most missed her two boys, and if she wasn't drinking, she found herself cooking for people who no longer existed.

At My Office, Shelly always sat facing the door sipping Shirley Temples because they reminded her of the kids. But her Shirley Temples had two shots of vodka dumped in with the red syrup.

Clarence had been gone for only six weeks when she got hit. She was walking home after a half dozen sweet drinks when, according to the police report, she darted out into traffic. It was impossible to know if it was suicide, an awkward street crossing, or both. She was pronounced dead on the scene. But they took her to the hospital anyway.


  • A 2012 YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults Book
    A 2011 Los Angeles Public Library Best of YA Book
    A 2011 Chicago Public Library Best of the Best Book
    A Holland Golden List Award Winner
  • * "Illustrates how we are all connected in big and small, positive and negative ways....[This] riveting story will keep readers interested and guessing until the end."—School Library Journal, starred review
  • * "[A] life-affirming exploration of the subtleties of love, compassion, and relationships. . . . Like the song it was named for, this book is hard to get out of your head."
    The Horn Book, starred review
  • * "Sloan builds characters rich with depth and realism.... A terrific read, quick to capture the audience, this book will make readers sing the melody in their hearts."—VOYA, starred review
  • "[Sloan] has fashioned a cast of memorable characters with compelling stories and relationships."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "Sam and Riddle are wonderfully appealing characters that readers will root for....A highly suspenseful read with a dynamic, cinematic quality that keeps the pages turning to the satisfying conclusion."—Booklist
  • "Sloan delivers a cinematic, psychologically nuanced first novel...[and] excels at crafting memorable characters and relationships."—Publishers Weekly

On Sale
May 17, 2011
Page Count
400 pages

Holly Goldberg Sloan

About the Author

Holly Goldberg Sloan is the author of the New York Times bestselling Counting by 7s and the highly acclaimed novel I’ll Be There, and has written and directed a number of successful family feature films. She was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and spent her childhood living in California; the Netherlands; Istanbul; Washington, DC; and Oregon. The mother of two sons, Holly lives with her husband in Santa Monica, California.

Learn more about this author