The Sara Chronicles
Someone had made a terrible mistake twelve years ago and had placed a homeless child in the care of Janet and Hugh Finklestein. How the infant grew to be a remarkable young girl despite the minimal attention given to her care was a downright miracle. She was a well-mannered, sweet child, well thought of by all who knew her. But the trouble was no one really knew her.
This girl, Sara, was a rather unique character in a world of ordinary people. She had an inner glow about her that made her stand out in a crowd. People never looked once at her; they often looked a second and third time as she made her way through a room. A pretty girl, she carried herself well, shoulders straight, perfect posture, always so very careful to please. In fact, she was so careful in everything she did—too careful—like she was walking on eggshells.
In conversation, she spoke slowly, as if she were afraid to say the wrong thing, and never made eye contact, even when speaking directly to someone. She never sought out others to speak to, but many people seemed to want to speak to her, to be near her. Many children tried to get to know her, but she remained as distant as ever, politely detached from anything but casual “how do you dos” and general discussion about class or homework. There was always an underlying fear in her; she was a little rabbit in a world of rabid wolves. They didn’t bother her much at this point; they pretty much just left her alone because that’s what she seemed to prefer.
Her teachers would shake their heads and talk among themselves. Something wasn’t right about the way she acted. They had all attended the seminars on how to spot an abuse victim, knew the signs, knew who to report them to, but with her they never made the effort to do so.
But she never had any bruises or welts. She was skinny; that was true, but some kids were naturally thin, weren’t they? Besides, look who her parents were, Hugh and Janet Finklestein. They were rich for goodness’ sake, and everyone knows that rich people are also well educated. And of course well-educated people do not resort to abusing their children. This particular bit of wisdom was handed down as fact by the school principal, Mr. Beals, when the staff gently suggested that something less than the usual family stuff was going on. Sadly, people believe what they want to believe; sometimes that makes it easier to live with unpleasant possibilities. So Sara continued to go home to the fairy-tale mansion where every second of her life there was spent in total misery. Day after day she plodded through life trying to avoid being noticed by her family, because if they ignored her, the verbal abuse would not come. She would not be called the skinny little ingrate, the terrible mistake. If they just ignored her, she would not be berated for every action and every thought she ever had. And there would be no problem, if she just became so small they didn’t notice her. Please don’t notice me. Please don’t punish me. I’ll be like a little mouse. I don’t like the dark room. I don’t like being made to sit and go hungry while I watch you eat. Please just pretend that I’m not here at all.
But inside she also had a tremendously strong will, and that’s what kept her going day after day as she learned to survive. She played their game, listened with one ear, and made herself as invisible as she could, knowing there was something beyond life with the Finklesteins.
The Finklesteins were a very wealthy family who, though high on the social ladder, were low on the moral ladder. They would lie, cheat, and steal, and then conduct themselves in public as if they had no idea what the word dishonest was. No one would ever suspect that Hugh Finklestein was the mastermind of many a shady land deal, selling lots of non-existing parcels of land to the unsuspecting buyers. Janet was just as bad; her Internet sales of low-quality products and hacking into people’s bank accounts earned them millions of dollars. They had moved many a time, trying to remain ahead of the long arm of the law, and had been successful so far because many of the people they had cheated had been unable to hire lawyers. Furthermore, Hugh was very good at covering their tracks, hiding behind many false business names, and sometimes changing names; in fact, Finklestein may not have been their real name at all.
So here they all were, the misplaced young girl and her criminal guardians, hiding out among the richest people in the county and pretending they belonged, while looking for the next opportunity to steal or cheat their next victim. Even if she was told on a daily basis that she was not their biological child, it was obvious that these dark and burly people were not related to this little, blonde girl. She had the face of an angel and was very thin, almost painfully so. In fact, most people would say that a good meal had passed her by many a time. Her skin was pale, desperately in need of a little sunshine. Her eyes were deep blue and always had a sad, faraway look, as if she knew she belonged anywhere else but where she was now. In contrast, the Finklesteins were, to say it kindly, not very attractive people, and not just in matter of appearance: they were ugly in the way that they acted toward others. Janet and Hugh, not Mom and Dad, were kind only in the regard of furthering their livelihoods. If the school gym needed a new floor, then they could be counted on to provide the funds. But there had to be something in it for them, the best seats at school games, their name on a plaque at the school’s entrance.
They would seek out and cultivate the most influential citizens of the town and “help” them to make investments. These investments would sometimes pay off a little; had to keep it looking legitimate. Most of the money went into their pockets; they could explain the losses by saying that investments were risky, but it was never enough to raise suspicion.
“Got to be careful,” Hugh would say. “Don’t mess with anyone too close to home. That’s how you get caught. I’m too smart to get caught.” Then they would laugh about how there was a sucker born every day, and how you just had to have the skill to spot them. They liked the little town of Midland and planned to stay awhile, so they kept their business affairs long distance and remote from where they resided.
Their children Amy and Andy were horribly spoiled and selfish children who lacked for nothing. They had all of the latest gadgets: cell phones with every imaginable feature, laptop computers, and elaborate entertainment centers in each of their rooms. Yet they had nothing: no character, no kindness, no love for anyone other than themselves; but, considering what they had learned from their parents, I guess they could hardly be blamed for all that.
They were mean to Sara because their parents were. It was just an accepted fact that she just wasn’t part of their real family. She was just there because… Well they weren’t really sure why she was there. Amy had asked her parents once why they had brought this child home eight years ago. Her mother had looked her right in the eye and said, “At the time, I really couldn’t avoid taking her in.”
“Money’s money after all, no matter where it comes from,” she’d said and would explain no more.
When she first arrived, the children had tried to provide some comfort to the little girl, but they soon learned that their parents did not like this at all. They were strongly discouraged from showing any signs of kindness to Sara, so they now felt perfectly comfortable with calling her all kinds of names and giving her their chores to do. Usually they ignored her altogether. The stupid girl didn’t even fight back anymore, and that was really boring. They just accepted that she was here, and as long as she worked for them, it was as it should be. Why did they have to see her at all? They just knew that their rooms were neat, and they always had clean laundry, and now that’s all they cared about. Amy and Andy were beyond overweight; their massive frames strained at the seams of their designer jeans, which provided an interesting contrast to Sara’s emaciated frame. Each of their plump faces boasted several dermatological problems that could easily be solved by proper diet and exercise but most likely never would be. They had no one to set the example for them and had no reason to change anything they did.
While Amy and Andy’s every need was attended to, Sara had to fend for herself to obtain the things she needed. All of Sara’s worldly possessions were bought with money earned from her paper route. She saved all of her pay and went regularly to the thrift shops on Huntington Avenue. It was at these places that the owners allowed her to purchase entire bags of used clothing for ridiculously low prices. She was always polite and thankful, so the shopkeepers went out of their way to find her the nicest things that were in her size and set them aside for her. They would have given them to her free, but Sara insisted on paying for everything. It was the right thing to do. She knew somewhere inside that she was expected to do her best, no matter what happened. Don’t be like them, a soft inner voice said to her.
She even managed to stash some groceries in her bedroom so that she would not starve to death. Mostly fresh fruit and some prepackaged meats. Not the best of diets, but some food was better than no food. Survive, the message played in her head over and over, so she listened and continued on as best as she could. This thought carried her through days when she didn’t think she could endure another second in this place. She got up early, delivered her papers, and continued to attend school day after day because somehow it was all very important; she just didn’t know why.
School was her saving grace. She was allowed to go only because it was against the law to forbid her to go. Try as they might to deny her, she was a registered member of their family in the eyes of the law, and it would have looked strange to not send her to school with the others. Sara loved school and excelled in all her classes. This was of no comfort to Janet, who had to poke and prod Amy and Andy to attend. If they made a D+ on their report cards, it was an occasion to celebrate. To Sara, school was a welcome escape from the negative atmosphere of home. Her teachers praised her efforts and encouraged her to participate in extra activities, going as far as to mention it to her parents. This, of course, was not welcomed with a positive response from Janet. The answer was “no.” “Sara has too much to do at home,” she had said when asked. But it had given Janet an idea. If Sara was doing so well in school, maybe she could use it to her advantage; she was very good at using good things for her advantage. It was about that time that Amy and Andy’s grades had drastically improved. It was not that they were putting forth any effort to make it so, it was because Sara was now doing all of their work also. Sara began doing homework from the minute that she arrived home from her paper deliveries. She was still doing homework until about eleven o’clock each evening, and that was on a good day when she didn’t have to familiarize herself with new information (Amy and Andy were two and three grades ahead of her—and had been for several years). Maybe this year they would pass on to the next grade.
The family was now out to dinner for the fourth time that week, and Sara was at home alone completing a report on scientific advances in health care for Amy to turn in tomorrow. She sat in her dimly lit basement room, shivering because the room was so cold. No effort was spent to make this room comfortable. Sara had purchased a few heavy quilts from the thrift store to keep her small bed warm. The bare concrete floor had a few brightly colored rag rugs scattered here and there, and two small space heaters kept some of the chill away. Pictures of smiling family groups torn from magazines graced the walls; they were families that she liked to pretend were her own. This was her refuge; the Finklesteins would not go beyond the basement steps. They considered the basement a nasty, filthy place that they were too good to go into, and that was perfectly okay with Sara. She sat at a small desk made from cinder blocks and a plank of wood. The rough surface scraped her hand as she leaned over to read what she had been writing. She was very tired and had to read over the paper very carefully because the words were beginning to blur, and she had to finish the last page. Sara wrote the last couple of words, laid it on Amy’s dresser, walked back to the basement, and collapsed on her cot.
It was the end of one day, which quickly turned into yet another before she had slept too long. Sara awoke the next morning and hurriedly dressed for school. She dressed carefully in her warmest sweater; it was robin’s egg blue, and she loved the way it felt on her skin. Next she chose a thick pair of black pants and her warm black jacket. She wanted to look nice today for Mrs. Swan. She had promised her breakfast that morning if she was able to get there at six thirty. Sara had assured her that she would be there. Breakfast was a rare treat, and she did love to talk to Mrs. Swan, the English teacher who would loan her books from her library at home, books that Sara treated with the greatest of care. Mrs. Swan always looked at her with her compassionate brown eyes that made Sara feel like the most precious child in the world.
As she gingerly opened the basement door, Sara was aware that Janet would try to stop her if she knew she was going. Sara walked the four miles to school, just as she did every morning, tossing newspapers in doorways as she delivered to her customers. Her breath made little billowy clouds in the air as she breathed. The crisp air made her face feel tight, and her chest hurt a little from breathing it in.
The sun was just coming up when she reached the school. She spent a wonderful hour with Mrs. Swan discussing the latest book she had read and the paper that she was writing for the essay contest. Before she knew it, it was time to go to class, and the rest of the day sped by as she completed her mid-semester exams. As the end of the school day approached, she grew more and more anxious.
Large groups of students walked past as she made her way down the long hallway toward her locker. She passed a bulletin board with a sign proclaiming that homecoming was just around the corner, and elections for the king and queen were to be held next week. Kids her age were talking on cell phones and making plans for the weekend, and here she was in the middle of it all. The world was going on around her, and she was completely alone. These kids had friends, families, and things to do; she had hatred and loneliness. And this was Friday. Above all, she hated Fridays.
Fridays meant she would be out of school for two whole days, days that she would have to spend at home doing endless chores and putting up with the constant verbal abuse that the Finklesteins could hand out. Resigned to her fate, Sara slowly walked home. When she arrived, she was greeted by Janet and Amy.
“What did you think you were doing?” yelled Amy.
“How dare you mess up my report? You deliberately sabotaged me!”
Sara looked at Janet and Amy, both of them practically foaming at the mouth with anger. Janet reached out and pulled Sara into the house.
“She got an F on her paper. Do you think that was funny?” Janet raged.
“I don’t understand. I did what you asked. I wrote the paper,” Sara said in a small voice as she tried to move out of their reach.
“Well, you didn’t finish it.” Amy wailed. “It started out so good, and then it just ended with a bunch of scribbled words. The teacher was going to let me finish it on break, but I didn’t know what to write, so she gave me an F!”
“I must have been so tired that I didn’t notice the mistake,” Sara said.
“Well, I’ve had enough of you and your excuses, young lady!” Janet yelled. “Get to your room, and we will decide what to do with you!”
With these parting words, Janet shoved Sara to the basement door and pushed her inside. The next thing Sara knew, she was falling down the stairs.