Can you take on a new kid?” Ellen asked Sari first thing Tuesday morning. It wasn't really a question, since Ellen never accepted a refusal.
Sari looked up from the desk she shared on a first-come-first-served basis with several other clinicians. It was early and she was the only one there now, so it was all hers. “How many hours a week are we talking?”
“As many as you can give him.”
“Then there's no way,” Sari said. “I barely have enough time in the day for the workload I’ve got now.”
“Join the club,” Ellen said. “You want to call the parents and tell them you can't make time for their kid?”
“Am I allowed to mention that I work for a crazy zealot?”
Ellen laughed. “Come on, Sari. He's your kind of kid-melt-your-heart-cute with big Bambi eyes. Their first appointment's at ten this morning.”
“That's in less than an hour,” Sari said. “Seriously, Ellen-you said you needed Mary's progress report written up for her IEP this afternoon. I won't have time if I’ve got to-”
“You'll figure something out,” Ellen said. She tossed a file on the table in front of Sari.
“Who did the eval?”
“By yourself?” Sari raised her eyebrows. Ellen never had time to do the whole evaluation. She usually just came in at the end.
“Yes, all by myself. I taught you how to do them, if you remember.”
“You just don't, usually.”
“Well, they were desperate, so I squeezed them in late one night last week.” She pointed her finger at Sari. “You see? You can make more hours in the day, if you try hard enough.”
“We can't all be you,” Sari said.
“Mores the pity,” Ellen said with a wink and left.
And Sari sighed and opened the file, because Ellen-whose voice was too loud and who wore skirts that were too tight over torn black stockings and whose hair was too long and too red for someone over fifty-five-Ellen was her hero and her big sister and her best friend and the bane of her existence all rolled into one overwhelmingly dear package.
Sari had left home to get away from her parents and then somehow ended up working in a place where every woman she met reminded her of her mother. They weren't necessarily as pretty and well preserved as she was, but they all flickered with the same nervous terror.
Like the mother who had come in just the week before. The first thing she'd said when she walked in the door with her son was, “I wouldn't even be bringing him if his teacher hadn't made me. All this fuss and bother, just because he has a slight language delay.”
She smelled of cigarette smoke and Opium perfume and watched Sari's every movement with a ferocious intensity.
Sari tried to talk directly to the boy-a chubby four-year-old with dark rings under his eyes-but he wouldn't look at her, not even when she stuck a bright pink sticker on her nose and danced in front of him.
She put an M &M inside a cup, showed it to him, then covered the cup with a book. “If you take the book off, you can have the M &M,” she said. He sat there, hunched inside himself, and didn't move.
“He's not hungry,” his mother said. “He just ate lunch. He doesn't want the M &M.”
Sari put two cars in front of him and he lined them up next to each other, but when she took one and made vroom vroom noises, he just shoved the other one off the table with the side of his hand and didn't respond when she asked him to pick it up.
“He doesn't like to play with cars,” his mother said. “Everyone thinks boys like cars, but they've never interested him.”
The whole exam went like that. She kept making excuses for him.
When Ellen came in to meet with them at the end of the hour, she glanced through Sari's notes and told the mother that the boy had some clear delays in several key areas, areas that might suggest an Autistic Spectrum Disorder. She said they'd like him to return to the clinic for further evaluation and to arrange for a program of interventions.
The mother exploded. “Oh, for God's sake!” she said. “Look at him. He's sitting there quietly, as normal as you or me. But of course you won't admit that.” She stood up. “Do you ever say a kid is okay? No, of course not-why would you? There's no money for you in okay.”
“This isn't about money,” Ellen said.
The woman dragged her unresisting son by the hand to the door. “It's always about money,” she said over her shoulder and left.
Ellen and Sari looked at each other. “That poor kid,” Ellen said. “That poor kid.”
Sari was used to moms like that. She was used to moms of all types, really-she saw dozens of them at the clinic on any given day. Sometimes both parents came in with the kid, but ninety percent of the time it was just the mother, so it was definitely unusual for Zachary Smith to arrive at the clinic later that morning with only his dad at his side.
Sari rose to greet them, holding her hand out to the little boy, who had dark curly hair and large blue eyes. Ellen was right-Sari did prefer kids who were cute, although it was embarrassing to realize that her boss had noticed.
“Hi,” she said. She had to reach down and take his hand, since he wasn't responding. “You must be Zachary. My name is Sari.” She turned to the father, her hand still extended. “Sari Hill.”
“Jason Smith,” the father said, putting out his own hand in greeting.
The name and the face came together and she realized she knew him.
It was too late, though. She was already shaking his hand.
It hit him at the same moment, ‘“wait,” he said as their hands clasped. “That name. Sari Hill. Why does that sound so familiar?”
“High school,” Sari said. She withdrew her hand. “We went to high school together.”
“Oh, man,” he said with delight. “Of course! That's it! Sari Hill. I totally remember your name from attendance. Wow. What a weird coincidence.”
“Yeah.” She could have passed him a hundred times in the street and not recognized him, but, looking at him now, she thought he hadn't really changed all that much. He had been an athlete in high school, and he still looked fit but not beefy. His hair was still thick, but his face had gotten thinner, so the lines of his cheekbones and the slant of his jaw stood out more than they used to.
He was still just as handsome as he had been in the days when girls used to fall over themselves trying to sit near him in English class.
“So,” Sari said. Her voice came out unusually high. She cleared her throat with a little cough. “Excuse me. A lot's changed for you since high school, I guess. Tell me about your little boy.”
Jason looked down at his son, who held his hand patiently, staring at the opposite wall, oblivious to their attention.
“Zack's my pal,” Jason Smith said. “He's the greatest little guy in the world. Only-” He stopped. “You know.”
“Does he have any words?” According to the eval, he didn't talk yet, but it was good to go over the information again, in case the parents had left anything out. Plus it was easier to keep asking questions than to try to process the fact that Jason Smith-Jason fucking Smith-was standing in front of her.
“No. I mean, sometimes he'll surprise us by counting or making an animal sound or something, but no real words. He once recited part of the alphabet, but then he never did it again.”
He's very cute.
He smiled. “I agree.”
“He looks like you.”
“So they tell me.”
Sari cleared her throat again. “How's his frustration tolerance? Any tantrums when he can't make his needs known?”
“He cries a lot,” Jason said. “But he never throws anything or hits anyone or anything like that.”
“Any self-injurious behaviors?”
“God, no,” he said.
“Go sit down over there.” She gestured to a chair in the far corner of the room. “See if he'll stay here with me.” She took Zack's hand while Jason did as he was told. Zack didn't protest, just let her lead him to the corner where the toys were kept in a big cabinet. She spent the rest of the hour trying to see which ones interested him and what kind of candy he liked. They kept all sorts of treats and playthings in the clinic, positive reinforcement of good behaviors being the foundation of their behavioral approach.
Jason had been accurate: Zack didn't have any words that Sari could get out of him in that first session, and the slightest frustration-like having to wait while she took turns with a toy- made him open his mouth and wail. But he liked candy, and there were a couple of noise-making toys that seemed to fascinate him, and both those things were encouraging-it was the kids who didn't respond to anything who were hardest to teach. Zack didn't once strike out at her, no matter how frustrated he got, and that was a relief. She had plenty of bruises and scratches from kids who did more than cry when they were upset.
“So,” Jason Smith said when she beckoned to him to come talk to her at the end of the hour. “What do you think? Can this boy be saved?”
“He's really smart,” Sari said. “And sweet. He'll learn fast.”
His face lit up. “That's great,” he said. “You have no idea how great it is to hear that. It's been-” He stopped and then said, “How often can we see you?”
“I don't know yet,” Sari said. “It's complicated.”
“Ellen said that we should really push forward, not waste any time. She said some kids do as much as forty hours a week and that you can make the most progress when they're young. She said-”
“I know what Ellen says.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I know there must be thousands of people who want your time and it's probably impossible to take care of us all. It's just… I want so much for him.”
“I understand,” Sari said. “And we'll do the best we can for you. But-” She looked down at her hands. “You should be aware that it might not be me who works with Zack. It might be another therapist. Just so you know.”
“I hope it's you,” Jason Smith said. “You seem so good at this. I think Zack likes you already. And we go back such a long way together, you and I.” She looked up again to find him smiling at her. “I won't hesitate to play the old friends card if there's a chance it might help.”
“I’ll talk to Ellen,” Sari said. “We'll figure it out and get back to you before the end of the day.”
As they said goodbye, Jason leaned forward and gave Sari a quick kiss on the cheek. Maybe, Sari thought, that was what you were supposed to do when you met someone from high school ten years later. “Sari Hill,” he said with a shake of his head. “An honest-to-God miracle worker. Who'd have thought?”
Sari watched him take his son's hand and walk out the door with one last wave. She sank into a chair and let her head fall back.
Even hand in hand with a small child, Jason Smith swaggered when he walked, just like he used to swagger a million years ago in high school-when he and his friends ridiculed and tortured Charlie on a daily basis.
Sari tried to remember the details, but it was all pretty foggy. Funny how hard it was to remember the most painful periods of your life really clearly. Maybe there was a reason for that- maybe that way you protected yourself from reliving them.
Jason Smith was one of a bunch of faces, a bunch of names. They all blurred. Had he ever led the charge against Charlie? Been one of the ones who called him retard and shoved him against the wall? Or was he one of the kids who just stood there and laughed while shit like that went down? Looking at his face-handsome as it was-had made Sari want to throw up, so she knew he'd done at least that.
Some things your gut remembered better than your brain.
Someone had pulled Charlie's pants down during recess, in front of a circle of cheering students. Had that been Jason? By the time a friend had found Sari to tell her, and she'd gone running to help him, it was too late. There was a teacher already there, but he hadn't seen anything, and in the end no one got in trouble because no one would say who did it. It could have been Jason. Or one of his rich asshole friends. It almost didn't matter. Whether you were the one who did the deed or just the one who stood by-applauding-and let it happen-what was the difference, really?
Sari hugged her arms across her chest and rocked, feeling cold and hot at the same time.
All the girls had crushes on him. You'd walk into the bathroom and see his name in a heart with someone else's, or two girls would be sitting perched on the edge of the sinks, talking and smoking, and you'd hear his name over and over again. Even Sari couldn't not look at him when he was in the same room. He was that handsome.
He had kissed her on the cheek just now, had said that they were old friends, and she was supposed to-
She was supposed to help his kid. Sari was supposed to help his kid just because Zack had a neurological disorder, and because that's what she did. She helped kids with autism learn to talk and behave and overcome the symptoms of their disorder. No matter who their parents were.
Sari helped kids with autism get better, and it shouldn't matter to her that Zack's father and all his friends had tortured her brother and ruined her life.
She sat up straight. It wasn't Zack's fault who his father was.
So. She had to help him. It was the right thing to do and she knew it. It wasn't even a choice.
But the finality of that didn't stop her from wondering-did Jason Smith really not remember about Charlie or did he just not care?
Could anyone be that cold?
She crossed to the desk and fished her cell phone out of her purse. “I have to see you tonight,” she said when Lucy answered.
“Meet me at the yarn store,” Lucy said.