by Charlaine Harris
Art by Jason C. Eckhardt
Sarah Toth parked her car in the Travis High parking lot just in time to hear the first bell ring. She and her brother James exchanged a long look as they unbuckled their seat belts. “Isn’t there any other way?” he asked her.
As she shook her head, her glossy braid whipped back and forth on her back like an animal’s tail. “We’ve talked about this,” she said, her voice flat. “Come on, bubba. We’ll be late.” James, whose first class was in the south wing, took off in that direction without looking back. More slowly, Sarah went to the main entrance. It was the oldest part of the school, and there were stairs up to the huge front door. She went up them awkwardly, and as she made her way in she could tell that other kids noticed her limp. The door to the left led to the outer room of the principal’s office, where Christy the secretary reigned. The principal herself, Anne DeWitt, had emerged from her inner sanctum to watch the students flow into the building, as she did from time to time. Ms. DeWitt’s face was always calm, always composed, and Sarah found it impossible to tell what the principal was thinking while she scanned the incoming teenagers. When their eyes met, Sarah nodded, because she was a polite and politic girl. She wasn’t surprised when Principal DeWitt nodded back. Everyone on the faculty knew who Sarah was, a source of some pride to the girl. But Principal DeWitt wasn’t the adult she was looking for this morning.
There. Mr. Mathis, the assistant principal, was standing at the T-junction of the main hall and the entrance area, his invariable post in the morning. Sarah could feel him watching her as she limped past. She was sure his eyes followed her as she turned left to go to her first-period class. World History was taught by Coach Holt Halsey, who was a surprisingly good teacher for a coach. Everyone—everyone in Sarah’s world, that is, the students of Travis High, Colleton County, North Carolina—thought of Halsey, boys’ baseball coach, as a little forbidding. He wouldn’t put up with foolishness, but he was approachable about serious stuff, and he had the reputation of knowing everything about any student who took part in a sport, both boys and girls.
Sarah was decidedly nonathletic. She was a short, slightly plump, seventeen-year-old senior, with unfashionably waist-length dull brown hair and an unfashionably curvy figure. Sarah wore glasses, though behind them were large blue eyes. She proudly flew the flag for the nerd camp. Sarah was very aware she was possibly the smartest student—maybe the smartest person, teachers included—at Travis High. But that didn’t mean she was happy.
Sarah’s brain was not on Coach Halsey’s mind as he noted the girl’s slow progress to her desk. While he taught the mostly bored first-period students about the Reign of Terror, he was trying to recall how many times he’d seen Sarah with bruises. When the bell rang at the end of the period, he stopped her as she made her way to the door. “Sarah, hold up,” he said, his voice neither quiet nor loud.
Sarah paused, her eyes cast down. “Yessir?”
“Your leg?” the coach asked. He was a man of few words.
Sarah shrugged, not meeting his eyes. “I fell on the stairs,” she said.
In the ensuing silence, Sarah’s shoulders stiffened. Finally, her gaze met Coach Halsey’s. He saw that her eyes were filled with rage. He hadn’t expected that. It interested him. He sat down so he wouldn’t be looming over the girl. He thought it might put her at ease. Halsey was well aware he made some people nervous.
Mostly, he was fine with that.
“You’re going to take the SAT again in three weeks?” Halsey asked, after a glance at the calendar.
“Yessir,” she said. “At least, I . . . I plan on doing that.”
He didn’t ask what might stop her.
“Just two points away from a school record,” the coach observed. “We’re proud of you. The honor you’re bringing the school.”
She smiled quite genuinely. “That’s really nice of you, Coach. Thanks. ’Scuse me, I’m late.” And then she scuttled—well, limped as quickly as she could—to her next class. Halsey noticed that Brian Vaughn was waiting to walk with her. Brian was tall, gawky, and had hair like a bird’s nest. He was a good kid. Brian ran track—not with distinction, but with reliability. Halsey, who was excellent at sizing people up, thought Brian would have a pleasant life unless something crazy happened to him. Halsey knew more than anyone at Travis High suspected (anyone except the principal, Anne DeWitt) about the terrible things that could happen to people. He’d had a previous career that would make parents blanch if they discovered it.
Though he didn’t often spend time in the teachers’ lounge, Halsey got a cup of coffee there at lunchtime. Sarah’s limp was the main topic of discussion that day, though everyone was being carefully oblique. Coach Halsey didn’t join in the talk, but he listened intently.
“James seems okay,” said the older mathematics teacher, very cautiously. “Moody, sure, but healthy.” Sarah’s brother was younger than her by two years, but he was tall and strong and an athlete.
Reading between the lines, Halsey interpreted that to mean that James had no appearance of being abused. Though all the faculty members knew that an abusive parent sometimes picked one child to be the punching bag, James’s well-being made it a bit more plausible that Sarah was genuinely accident-prone.
“James doesn’t seem very happy,” Coach Redding said. James played football for Redding.
“James is a teenager,” the younger biology teacher said. He was the most cynical person on the faculty. “Teenagers are unhappy by definition.”
“That’s simply not true,” the calculus teacher said, giving the biology teacher an unfriendly look. She rose to get some more coffee. “They’re as happy as they’re allowed to be.”
“I asked Sarah about her home life,” said the school nurse, and there was a silence in the lounge. “She came to me because her arm was hurting. She said she’d fallen. But there was a mark on her upper arm, looked a lot like a grip mark.”
The faculty members present all stared at the nurse, a middle-aged woman with a sweet face and a practical air about her. “And she said?” asked the older math teacher.
“She said everything was fine at home,” the nurse said, and shrugged. “She said that her father grabbed her to keep her from falling off the front porch. What are you gonna do?”
There was a moment of silence. If Sarah would not confide in someone as trusted as the nurse, she would not confide in anyone, was the unspoken consensus. And if her brother James wanted to report what was happening to his sister—if anything was—he’d had plenty of opportunity. It was not a clear-cut situation. The previous principal, the one before Anne DeWitt, had made an accusation of abuse that had proved to be false, and they were all gun-shy as a result.
After the last bell of the day, Coach Halsey went to the principal’s office. He was glad to see that the secretary had already left, because he wanted to talk to Anne DeWitt without Christy’s sharp ears listening. He knocked on the door frame of the inner office. Anne looked up from the pile of paperwork on her desk.
“More to fill out?”
“The government,” she said tersely. Anne was in her thirties, young for a high-school principal. She was lean and muscular and quietly attractive. When she’d been hired as assistant to the previous principal, the school board had been impressed not only with her steady and serious demeanor, but her glowing recommendations. Also, they’d figured that her status as a childless widow meant she would be free to put in long hours. When Principal Delia Snyder had committed suicide (a shocking and tragic loss), Anne had been a shoo-in to fill the post. The school board had no idea what a total package they were getting. Under another name, Anne DeWitt had trained government operatives at a secret camp. She had trained them to survive in extreme conditions. Naturally, a few students had failed her class by dying; Anne had made a few enemies during her service. Her new name, background, and occupation were fabrications she would maintain for the rest of her life—a kind of severance package.
Holt Halsey, who’d graduated from a similar class, waited quietly while Anne took care of a few more forms. When she looked up and stacked the papers neatly, signaling she was ready to talk, Holt said, “We have a problem.”
“No . . . wait, the Spanish teacher? What’s she up to?”
“I saw her coming out of a liquor store in Candle Springs. Why go to a liquor store in another town unless you’re buying a lot more than you should be consuming?” They both understood that the issue was not Penny Carson’s morals. The issue was the potential scandal and bad publicity for Travis High School if a teacher was discovered to be an alcoholic.
“So you might have to have a talk with her.”
“Not on the basis of one out-of-town trip to a liquor store,” Anne said briskly. “But I’m going to keep an eye on her.”
Halsey nodded, accepting Anne’s judgment. She’d been trained to evaluate hazardous situations, and she was usually very accurate. “Sarah Toth was limping today,” he said without preamble. “She’s getting beaten at home, but she won’t talk about it. This is not the first time she’s come to school with perceptible physical issues. And the SATs are in three weeks. I’ve never met her parents. Have you?”
“JimBee and Lizzy.” Anne leaned back in her office chair. “Yes, I’ve had the pleasure.” She crossed her legs, and Holt enjoyed the view.
“Seriously, JimBee?” he asked.
Anne shrugged. “His real name is Jim initial B period Toth. When he was in elementary school, someone thought it was cute to call him JimBee.”
“And he’s let people keep it up.”
Anne spread her hands in a “What can you do?” gesture. “I’ve been concerned about Sarah’s home life since last year,” she said. Sarah had first taken the SAT in her junior year, and her score had attracted a great deal of attention. “I’d hoped the situation would improve over the summer. I helped Sarah apply for computer camp, which meant four weeks away from home for her, but whoever’s hurting her just can’t stop. I guess it’s time to start the ball rolling.” She smiled at Holt. “Not a baseball reference. I’ll give the Toths a call.”
JimBee Toth was a handsome man, a bit past his prime. He’d married late, in his early thirties, because (as he told everyone) “I was having a good time screwing everything that moved, so I didn’t want to settle down.” When he’d finally decided it was time to start a family—perhaps when it became a little harder for him to “screw everything”—he’d chosen Lizzy Bell, a blonde ten years younger than him. Lizzy was plain in the face but a hot babe in the body. To JimBee’s shock, eight and a half months after they’d wed, Lizzy had delivered baby Sarah. His “hot babe” had turned into a mother, and JimBee was no longer the center of her universe. Worse, Lizzy’s figure changed. Her stomach was no longer flat, her boobs were not as perky, and she had stretch marks.
JimBee had had a hard time adjusting to this new situation. A very hard time. He did not love the baby. He felt he should, and it baffled him, until he had a revelation. JimBee realized one morning—following a night when the baby had cried for hours—that Sarah couldn’t be his.
Eight and a half months? Sure, he and Lizzy had been enjoying themselves prior to their marriage. But what if Lizzy had also been enjoying someone else? That chimed with so many of JimBee’s suspicions that he knew instantly it was the truth. And while he never confronted Lizzy with her possible lack of faithfulness, he never loved Sarah. If she’d been an adorable, quiet baby, that would have been one thing . . . but she wasn’t.
Sarah had allergies that kept her indoors, clogged and wheezing and crying. Lizzy was always exhausted staying up with the little brat, suctioning her nose and rocking her, held upright against her chest to breathe. When Sarah was old enough to begin solid food, of course she had food allergies. Then when she was ten, she’d needed glasses, and couldn’t wear contacts, for God’s sake. The girl couldn’t catch a softball, and she sure couldn’t hit one. She had to carry an EpiPen, and she got plump, and she had to get allergy shots . . . the list of strikes against the girl grew with each year.
Though Sarah could read by the time she was four, JimBee didn’t think much about that. He figured any girl of his would grow up to be a cheerleader, or a homecoming queen, or at least popular. When Sarah had been born, he had imagined it might be kind of cool, watching boys trailing after his daughter, giving her advice on what to put up with and when to shut it down. But Sarah never had many phone calls that he knew of, and she never came to him for advice. He finally had to admit there was only one thing that made “his” daughter special.
Sarah was smart.
She was in the Honor Society, and she got some award for writing a poem. She had a bunch of certificates. And other dads congratulated him on Sarah’s achievements, from time to time.
But really, what use was her brain? He sure as hell couldn’t afford to send her to Davidson University, which the girl had set her heart on. She could damn well get a scholarship to the local junior college, and he told her so. He was not going to send her to a fancy place like Davidson when she wasn’t even his own daughter. And he told her that too.
Lizzy’s second child, James B. Toth, Jr., was a son any tire salesman could be proud of. It was evident fairly soon that James wasn’t real long in the brains department, but he could play sports (though not brilliantly), he passed in school (though with an effort), and he was popular (in a modest kind of way). The only strange thing about James was his strong bond with his sister. JimBee wondered at this bond and resented it, in equal measure.
JimBee, who cheated on Lizzy—though not as regularly as he would have liked—found himself fantasizing about Anne DeWitt after he’d attended a Rotary Club meeting at which she’d spoken. So when she called the Toths into her office for a conference, he simply didn’t tell Lizzy, so he could meet Anne on his own. The principal was a fine-looking woman; and as a widow, she must need some lovin’. It stood to reason.
JimBee was full of a pleasurable anticipation when he arrived at Travis High. When Christy told him Anne was ready to see him, JimBee cheered inwardly. DeWitt was wearing a straight skirt and high heels. Her legs were spectacular.
He was a bit disappointed when she took her seat behind the broad desk. The surface hadn’t been cleared for action. There were stacks of paper everywhere, and a metal in-basket that was far from empty.
“What’s on your mind, Miss Principal?” he asked, flashing the big white smile that had helped him sell a lot of tires. “I can give you a great price on some steel-belted radials. Real safe driving.”
“In a way, it’s safety that I want to talk to you about,” Anne said. “Specifically, your daughter’s.”
An alarm bell sounded in JimBee’s lizard brain. “Sarah’s not sick, not that I know about,” he said cautiously. “She’d have talked to her mother about that.”
“She seems to get hurt a lot.” The principal’s expression was neutral.
“She’s always been a clumsy gal,” JimBee said; his inner alarm bell was clanging nonstop. “I’m afraid her brother got the athletic skills.”
“Really? Coach Redding tells me all he can do is play football,” the principal said. Her face was as calm and immovable as a glacier. “Redding tells me that on the field, James is not good at strategic thinking. He has to be given the same directions repeatedly.”
“You shouldn’t be down on James because he’s no big brain,” JimBee said righteously.
“Not like his sister.”
“The girl’s smart,” he admitted. Where was this going?
“She’s very smart,” the principal corrected him. “She’s one of the most intelligent students we’ve ever had at this school. She’s so intelligent she may make a record score on her SAT. If nothing happens to her.”
JimBee thought this through. “You mean . . .” And then he hesitated, uncertain as to how to phrase his sentence.
“No tripping. No falling down stairs. No walking into doors, no bruises, no broken bones. She shouldn’t even shake because someone’s yelling at her. And that situation should be maintained while she’s attending Travis High School. Am I perfectly clear?”
“I can’t promise that girl will suddenly stop being clumsy,” JimBee protested, “but I’ll try my best to make sure she doesn’t take a wrong step between now and the test.” He wavered between confusion and resentment. After all, he had a right to discipline the girl if he saw the need. That girl and her problems! It was just me me me all the damn time. His parents had never hesitated to give JimBee a lick if he needed it, and look how he’d turned out. Whose business was it if he gave the girl a slap every now and then?
“I’m glad you understand me,” Anne DeWitt said, though she sounded as if she doubted very much that he did. She stood up, and once again he got to admire her shapely legs, though not with as much gusto as he had before. “I’d really hate to think we might need to have this conversation again.”
It never occurred to JimBee that she was threatening him. . . .
# # #
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"Sarah Smiles" by Charlaine Harris, Copyright © 2014 with permission of the author.
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