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It was surprising that Sara Jeanne Van Heygan, born into wealth and prestige, would notice the new boy in school. Sara hung out with the popular crowd; the pretty, flirtatious girls and the slightly stuck-up but brilliant or athletic boys flocked together. Sara had never tried to get to know anyone else, because it never seemed necessary. Her high school was top notch, founded over one hundred and fifty years ago just for the elite of New York. Then, this boy showed up at school.
Sara could hardly ignore him; his schedule matched hers for the whole day except for two classes. Also, his looks drew attention. He wore the uniform of the school, but standing at over six feet tall with a wild mess of wavy black hair and skin almost as white as birch bark, he looked intimidating. He rarely spoke, and he hunched over a little when he walked, always with his hands partly in his pockets, as if he felt awkward. Obviously not from an affluent family, Sara decided he probably came on a scholarship since he earned top grades—she knew because she saw him on all the honor roll field trips—despite his apparent lack of interest in school. All in all, there was nothing about him that should draw a girl like Sara.
Mystery or curiosity, Sara could not really tell why he sparked so much interest in her. At first, she let herself wonder, even tugging on the school’s grapevine and managing to gain some information. Johnny was his name, Johnny Waller. No one knew where he lived or much about his background at all; nevertheless, her obsessed search found some answers. He came from a poor, inner-city school, and was indeed only there because of government funding. Apparently Johnny was a genius and the government wanted to use his skills in the future.
In Spanish, he became Sara’s partner. Learning languages came easily to her, and he surprised her by keeping up with her skills. He excelled in science class, so much so that the teacher again paired them up as it was Sara’s weak spot. Yet even being around him so much, they did not really talk. He had an aura that made Sara feel as if he did not want chat, so she was too scared to initiate conversation.
She continued watching him, however. All the time, it seemed as if she could think of nothing else. She saw next to nothing that should attract him to her; her parents expected a blue-blood marriage and had taught her everything she would need to attain this goal. To be a socialite was all she had thought her future held.
Lately, she had begun rebelling against what her parents thought, and it scared her. They told her that beauty and popularity were the most important attributes, right next to money and power, along with how to maintain a good public image. Indeed, her mother managed that to a fault. Always donating to one charity or another, her mother constantly made the local social magazines. Also, her pictures were flattering; Mrs. Van Heygan had retained the color in her lusciously plump golden curls when all the formerly glamorous brunettes faded to grey. Sara had inherited her mother’s curls and her father’s dark green eyes. This gave her an exotic appearance, which was perfect in her parent’s opinion.
Although Sara loved her parents, she often thought they did not know her. She wanted her life to matter, yet the values they taught her at home were not the ones she read about in biographies of famous women. Kindness defined Mother Teresa, Rosa Parks stood fast for what was fair, and Esther embodied courage. No one seemed to care about their looks, though she was sure they had been beautiful. Comparing the world of her parents to the world she glimpsed from these women, the world of her parents seemed meaningless. Sara wanted more out of life than popularity and money.
After some time, her interest in Johnny faded. She could learn nothing new about him, and continuing to pry seemed pointless, so she let it go. Instead, it was one of the younger girls—not from the popular circle—she started getting to know. Red-headed and freckled, Emma DeMeyer bubbled with energy and life. The freshman girl was a refreshing breeze after the snobbish girls Sara’s parents encouraged her to like. Emma did not come from an upper-class family, but Sara had decided not to care and to befriend this new girl anyways, and she discovered a kinship deeper than anything she had ever experienced before.
The girls shared in particular their love for animals. While growing up, Sara always kept a few lap dogs since they were the only animal her mother would approve of. Emma, however, went wild over anything exotic. The first time Sara visited her house, she could hardly believe the diversity of animals, finding parrots, snakes, lizards, and a skunk. All the colors, patterns, and personalities were almost unimaginable. Emma introduced her to most of them, and the visit went by delightfully.
One day in the spring, Emma ran up excitedly. “Guess what Sara? I’ve volunteered at a downtown animal shelter. You should volunteer too!” So Sara did, and her mother gave permission for the work as it improved Sara’s public image. Twice a week she went down with Emma. They helped out mostly with the dirty work by cleaning cages and washing animals. Sometimes they sorted inventory or helped in the offices, other times they got to go out and hang up posters or walk the dogs. Occasionally, an odd animal came in and the girls researched how to care for it. Sara loved every minute of working. She felt like she was doing something useful, and getting to work with furry creatures added to her enjoyment.
Once when they were scheduled to work, Emma came down with the flue, so a nervous Sara went by herself. She had never been allowed to do something completely by herself before, but her chauffeur drove her down and said he would return in an hour and a half. So Sara gathered her courage and, almost trembling, walked up the steps one by one. Immediately, she encountered friendly faces that set her at ease. She was assigned to walk a border collie and two other medium sized dogs of questionable parentage.
Stepping outside, Sara drew a deep breath. She felt like she had run a marathon and won. She walked cheerfully with the dogs along a familiar path. Earlier, crossing the dark alleyways had scared her, but today Sara felt like she had conquered the world. While she briskly stepped by one, however, suddenly a large beefy man blocked her path. The dogs growled and bristled, but other men surrounded them and pulled the leashes out of her hands. Sara let out a scream and got a punch that sent her flying backwards. She lay dazed on the pavement where she had landed, intense pain dominating all of her senses. The man strode over and roughly dragged her up and began hauling her into the alley. Sara struggleed with all the might she could muster, fighting the dizziness and blackness that clouded her vision.
Then, from the corner of her eye, she saw someone run up and heard angry shouts. The man dropped her, and Sara weakly gave in to the blackness.
When she woke up, she first noticed that she was being held by someone. It felt secure and comfortable. Then the pain throbbed and she groaned and regretfully opened her eyes. She found a very concerned looking Johnny looking down at her. He meet gaze and relief replaced his worry. “She’s awake!”
Sara noticed the four other boys standing around. All of them, including Johnny, wore dirty jeans and t-shirts. They all appeared friendly. “Good,” said an older one. “The ambulance will be here soon.”
Johnny helped her slowly up, and led her to sit supported by a brick wall. She tried to speak, but he shushed her. “Don’t try to talk. You’re still bleeding pretty bad.” One of the other guys handed him a torn piece off a white tee-shirt and Johnny proceeded to gently dab at the cuts on her jaw. A tall boy draped his coat across her shoulders, “for shock” he explained. Sara relaxed under the care, pushing the violent emotions away to deal with later. Her mother had taught her not to show unpleasant feelings in public, and right now she was very glad for that. She warily watched the boys as they paced around the alley, watching the surrounding roads.
The ambulance arrived with a flurry, and paramedics hustled her into it. They examined her, and a police officer questioned the boys. Sara was told everything would be fine, her parents would be called as would the shelter, then they drove away to a nearby clinic.
Her parents came quickly, all worried and worked up. Sara insisted over and over that she was fine, no real harm done. They asked what had happened, and she told them most of the story, except exactly who had saved her. For some reason, she thought it would be best if they did not know.
The next day in school, she passed him a note thanking him, and he replied simply, and then would not chat with her again. But when she next went to the shelter to walk dogs, Johnny and his friends were there to escort her and Emma. After that every time the girls took dogs walking, the gang showed up too. They were a fun group of boys, and before school let out Sara and Emma became their ‘little sisters.’ During the summer, Sara went into the city nearly every day, even sometimes sneaking out of the house. She felt kind of guilty about that, but she desperately wanted to see her friends. These were real friends, ones she shared her troubles with, not like the ones her parents tried to arrange for her to get together with. She still helped at the animal shelter, more often than she had during the spring, and she still loved the feeling of importance it seemed to give her.
It shocked her how much more open Johnny became in his home environment. He laughed and talked almost as much as she did. One time as they walked down a street, he paused and bent down to pick something up. With a smile, he reached out and opened her hand to drop a small gold heart-shaped locket in. She wore it everyday after, but did not put anything inside as she could not decide what would be the best.
At home at nights, trying to fall asleep, Sara tried to come up with reasons why she liked him; his looks were never at the top of the list. Haunting, maybe. Mystifying and enchanting, probably yes. But handsome, never. He had no money and no power. Yet, she was always attracted to him when he was around. She finally decided it was the one thing her mom never told her was important, a personality. Johnny was a gentle, kind person, who took the time to develop deep relationships and who thought about the world instead of just accepting what he was told. Soon, Sara realized that she liked him more than any other boy she had met, and—it scared her, but—she would really like it if her like her back.
At first this recognition seemed impossible. But no matter how much she tried to fight it, she finally gave up as the feelings stubbornly refused to disappear. After thinking the implications over, Sara decided to do nothing about it and to work as hard as possible to hide her feelings. Johnny was just a good friend, no, a really good friend. He had never given her reason to doubt his friendship, but had never hinted to something more, at least not as the boys Sara was accustomed to dealing with did. Unfortunately, her decision resulted in her unconsciously drawing back form him. He tried to ask her about it, but she had no answer for his questions and ran away, a tear falling down her cheek. Later she realized the locket had dropped, but she was too ashamed to go back. Their once wonderful friendship began to wither away.
A new problem arose, when one day at breakfast her mother announced “I believe it is time for your débutante ball.” Sara sighed, but let her mother continue, knowing that the party was eventually inevitable. The coming-out party traditional to upper-class girls would be held right before school started again, and only influential families would attend. For weeks, her mother dragged her around, happily organizing the guest list, the food, music, and everything else. Sara, however, felt detached and restless, not interested in the party at all. Johnny, Emma, and her other friends took up most of her thoughts. Also, she had begun to think about what she had been told all her life, in the way Johnny did. She read more books and talked very little, not going into the city at all. She just felt empty, and she it felt like the entire world was waiting for her to decide who she wanted to be.
Emma once came to visit her. She snuck in after dark, as Sara’s parents had begun to disapprove of her. “We’re all worried about you. What’s up?” Emma asked. She looked so concerned and sincere that Sara immediately broke down in tears. She told of her dilemma and Emma listened, comforting her. Afterward, Sara felt a lot better, but she still had no satisfactory answer to her many questions. She fell asleep with no problem that night.
The weeks passed with a bustle of activity, but Sara hardly noticed. For her, each day dragged on for an eternity. Then the night was upon her. She stood in front of a full-length mirror wearing a white princess gown adorned in light colored crystals and satin opera-gloves. Golden curls framed her face in a most becoming fashion. The light pink make up provided a perfect balance between the elegant lady she was to become, and the scared little girl she felt like. Sara stared at the reflection, but did not recognize herself. As if in a dream, her father arrived and escorted her down the stairs. Behind huge wooden doors she waited for the moment that would define her blue-blood future. The doors swung slowly open, and a symphony welcomed them into the lit-up ballroom full of beautiful people wearing sparkling jewels adorning ball gowns of every shade. Lights shimmered, and everyone clapped for the beautiful princess entering, but Sara did not feel right. As her father led her to the boy designated to dance the first waltz with her, Sara felt horribly out of place. She began to dance the memorized steps flawlessly in the arms of one of her school mates, a boy born into money. He smiled dashingly at her and complimented her and she replied appropriately, but her thoughts were a million miles away.
She completed the dance, and then looked for an opportunity to slip quietly away. The hall felt oppressive. At her first chance, Sara escaped out to a large balcony overlooking the garden. Immediately, the cool night air surrounded her, refreshing her. She placed her elbows on the rail and breathed deeply, cleansing her mind. Lost in thought, the hands that came around to cover her eyes shocked her, and she jumped. Turning around, she had to blink a few times to confirm what she saw. Johnny! Her heart leaped with joy. He stood there wearing a tuxedo, completely out of character and grinning like fool. He immediately started talking. “Sara,” He said, stepping closer to take hold of her hands, “I know we haven’t known each other long, but listen to me. Emma told me what’s going on and I just wanted to tell you don’t go back to living the way you used to. I’ve seen you in school; you’re unhappy. And I always want you to be happy, Sara. I like you a lot.” He looked into her eyes and saw pure astonishment. Worry flooded his eyes, and without pausing for a moment, he swooped down and kissed her briefly, but firmly. Warmth flooded over her. When he backed away, he again searched her face, and what he saw brought relief. She was smiling. Her smile grew, and she said nothing, but stood on her tiptoes to place a gentle kiss on his cheek.
She did not feel empty! In one moment, Sara had decided not to live as her parents did. No confusion was left; she had found someone who could help her re-learn life. She would do something significant, but not in the way high society wanted her too.
Johnny pulled out the heart-shaped locket and clasped it around her neck. Sara could not stop the huge grin spreading across her face, and would not have wanted to if it was possible. She took his large hand in hers and led him into the party, and straight to her parents. If I am to start a new life, she thought, I’ll start it right. “Mother, Father, let me introduce someone who changed my life. He has no family title, money, or social rank. Please meet Johnny Waller.”