Notes: The timeline for precisely how long Sarah stays with her grandparents seems fuzzy on the show. For simplicity's sake, I'm choosing to go with approximate original airdates, or around June-early November.
Disclaimer: According to Past Me, characters are the property of Warner Brothers, Constant C Productions, and NBC. I am very grateful about being allowed to play with them.
+Special thanks to for uploading all of Sarah's scenes to a single and convenient YouTube channel.
Someone Else's Dream
The distance from Chicago to the farm in Wisconsin is 137.5 miles, give or take the accuracy of MapQuest, and according to her watch takes 2 hours and 52 minutes. It feels longer. Sarah speaks exactly three words on the trip, headphones firmly in place. She listens until the iPod battery dies and spends the rest of the time with silence ringing through her ears.
Sarah spends 36 hours locked in her room, counting her tears and the hours of her hunger strike like victories. She ignores two messages from Tony on her buzzing phone before turning it off and rolling over to face the wall. The bed is colder than it was in March, the room devoid of light. Opening the curtains takes more effort than she feels like expending.
On the second day she slinks out of her self-imposed prison, short-tempered from lack of food and resentful that neither of her grandparents seem to care. Words of cold politeness give the illusion of cooperation as she sits down to pancakes, then obediently slides her empty plate into the dishwater and asks to go outside.
As she wanders over once-familiar paths down by the pasture, the farm's black and white collie races up to escort her. He dances delightedly around her ankles at the prospect of a new playmate, and almost makes her laugh when he suddenly trips over his own paws. Sarah tries to pretend it's just a vacation, no different than last time, thinking about how jealous some of her friends are that she gets to spend a summer with half a dozen horses at her disposal. Pretending always was her specialty.
Tony visits that very weekend, but hardly gets in the door before she's begging him to take her, somewhere, anywhere, just to get away. Roller coasters and greasy pizza – most definitely in that order – don't quite fill the nagging emptiness, but for a whole glorious day it's almost worth it.
When Sunday night draws to a close, she doesn't cry – too worn out from earlier in the week. Instead she just gets quiet as they say goodbye, and he looks worried. "I'm working on a way to fix this, kiddo," he promises. "Every day. Just give me time." And she doesn't tell him that every day means more time slipping away.
Hugging the dog one night makes her realize she's starved for physical affection. Her grandfather is kind but not a demonstrative man, and her grandmother's well-meaning hugs feel like brittle bones, with none of the warmth her mother used to so readily give. An arm around the dog's side is as close as she gets, and he can't hug back. She misses being tackled for the remote control, kisses dropped on her hair in pride, even the dorky high-fives when she mastered a particularly tricky math concept.
Another visit, another escape, but this time before he leaves, she shows Tony all around the farm and insists he meet every horse with carrot pieces in hand. The biggest mare snuffles like a wild beast in her greed, and he leaps backward in alarm. Scattered bits of vegetable fly into the air, making her laugh so hard she gets short of breath. He looks satisfied that she's happy, but when she realizes she kind of is, the world crumbles in an instant. She watches his face fall too, wearing an expression of heartache that makes her feel worse as he moves quickly away from the fence and wraps her in a hug.
"Can I come home yet?" she sobs, a futile request. He doesn't say anything at all, just holds her tighter and lays his cheek on her hair. Dry wind rolls by, kicking up dead grass and dirt particles as she shuts her eyes and tries to freeze this moment, stretch it out to get her through the next however many days. It always seems to take him longer to come back than last time.
That's not to say there aren't perks to living here – one day she gets a clothes shopping spree at the mall. Tony might have taken her, but he wouldn't have much to say about the outfits, and he definitely wouldn't spend that much on them. Just to press her luck, she tries on one designer, definitely-not-on-sale top, but Grandma pays for it along with everything else without a bat of the eyelash. The victory isn't as sweet as she'd hoped, but neither does she ask to return it. Compensation's only fair.
Sometimes she forgets about being mad at them. She takes them to task at Scrabble on a regular basis, and sometimes when his laugh fills the room and her eyes twinkle with pleasure, it feels like a real family. It feels like possibility, like maybe her mother could even be in the next room. But other times, when it's over and she's alone again, going to sleep, she'll remember Grandpa's face last May, hard and cold telling Tony he wasn't good enough, and the anger burns anew.
It's only until the end of summer, Sarah keeps reminding herself. Temporary. She takes Belle out bareback, even though she has to stay in the pasture when she rides alone, and lets the early-morning tickle her shoulders before it gets hot enough to burn. Once near the fenceline, they flush out a doe and her fawn, bounding up and away like show horses over invisible jumps. It's not the last time she sees them, either, and Sarah beams over the memory for days. Sometimes she even forgets to call Tony until he checks in for a weekly update.
"There's a mixer down at the Y this Saturday," her grandmother offers in early August, "Just for teens. Would you like me to take you? You could meet kids your own age before school starts." Sarah represses a shudder at the thought she might still be here when the colors change.
"No, that's OK."
"I really think it would be nice for you," the older woman presses, and she's such a combination of insistent and anxious that Sarah gives in, although not without heaving a heavy sigh. "Fine, I'll go," she mutters at the table, watching out of the corner of her eye as relief floods her grandmother's face.
This is the dumbest place I've ever been, she thinks three days later, morosely standing in the corner. It's not that the crowd looks any different from her old school – although there are older kids here – or that the music is any different, but if this were home, she and her friends would be jumping up and down in a silly mass group number by now, or something.
Here everyone mostly hangs out on the sidelines, talking, but without an inroad to the conversations she's stuck doing her best imitation of a statue. Or she is until a slightly heavyset girl walks up and smiles. Sarah glances at her.
"Hi," the girl says. "I'm Andrea." And that's how it starts.
You'd never guess it, but Andrea knows some pretty cool people. Well, cool as a relative statement, anyway. Sarah's pretty sure these are the kind of people she and her friends actively avoided in Chicago. But those friends in Chicago, while they're very good with AIM and text messages, haven't been able to see her all summer. Here she might not have deep and lasting friendships, but being part of a crowd is almost good enough.
It's a little scary how fast she slides into the routine, scrutinizing her outfits to make sure they match trends, spending extra time with the curling iron on her hair, and figuring out a makeup routine she can store in her purse so she can put it on away from her grandmother's disapproving eyes.
Horses and board games fade into the background as she absorbs group interests and goes along their ideas, but so far most of it's still an act. Fortunately, no one seems to notice that she still finds the parties a little overwhelming, like navigating a foreign country. They don't even notice when she shrugs off the beer or only sips it for show, which helps. Getting so wasted you puke still doesn't sound like her idea of a good time.
However, she does find that if you drink it fast, a couple of smuggled cans take the edge off being told that next Monday is your first day at the local junior high.
The first two weeks are even harder than summer. Her transcript has landed her in a slew of honors classes, so she's back to not knowing anybody, but the worst part is the familiarity of her classmates. These are the people she used to know: if not the super-brains, then at least the people to whom spending a weekend on a project wasn't akin to having a contagious disease. Instead of embracing them, though, it only makes her that much more miserable and homesick for her old life.
So she goes back. The simple solution hits her like a bolt at lunch one day – she's always taken matters into her own hands, so why not now? It's not even hard; she'd mapped out a whole bus route and a series of cover stories before realizing she could ask for a legitimate visit to see her best friend, and her grandparents would pay her fare. She even still has her key so she can get settled in and surprise Tony when he comes home.
It doesn't go quite like she hopes. Besides nearly getting her skull split upon opening the door, she spends the day alone with her hopes battling fears, and it's the only day she gets. By the time midnight strikes, her Cinderella hopes will have dissolved back into the oak-paneled bedroom on the farm. And even though she tells him she'll be all right as they hug goodbye, and she does get why he couldn't let her stay, the sting of rejection and oh-so-close still seeps out in tears on the ride back.
By the next morning optimism replaces hurt. She replays "so we can live together forever" over and over in her head, sure it won't be long now. Even her grandfather remarks on her sudden cheeriness, serious but smiling when he asks if she's aware that she'll have extra chores for a month. For a while, all she wants to see is the good.
Her optimism wanes with the moon, as weeks pass without change in situation. Before long her grades grow lackluster and flatline, stalling in the key of C. Nothing seems worth her full attention anymore, even after she gets an earful from Tony about it. Despite his promises, they're still living in separate states. What's he going to do, send her another two hundred miles away? Her grandparents already grounded her, but it's not like sneaking out is hard when they go to bed early and sleep like the dead.
This isn't her. She's always been a good girl, the responsible one, holding things together when nobody else could. She grew up fast and liked it that way, proud of her maturity. But without anyone needing her to be a grown-up, backsliding into a teenage stereotype becomes the easiest thing in the world.
Life reaches a boiling point at one forbidden midnight party when Kevin asks her outside. He's the first really cute guy to pay attention to her, and the thrilling novelty outweighs everything else. Novelty turns into boredom as she endures him clumsily kissing her neck – it's supposed to be sexy, but mostly feels ticklish and uncomfortable. It's kind of low point in a hookup when you start running through a list of homework in your head.
Still, it's nice to be wanted, so she barely wavers before following him to his car, not drunk and definitely not even buzzed enough to excuse the next step. Rational Sarah, locked in the corner of her mind, rattles the bars and shouts warnings all over the place. Rational, Chicago Sarah knows this can't end any way good.
But stuck here in Podunk Wisconsin, what does she have to lose? It can't get any worse, so she might as well go with whoever will have her. Maybe if she's bad enough, gets in enough trouble, they'll see that Tony was good for her and this is not. Maybe her grandparents will get desperate enough to be rid of her. It's all hypothetical and what-if, and ultimately self-destructive and spiteful, but she keeps playing the part of the bad girl, hoping it will win her something.
Kevin's kissing her with more intensity now, and she's still not really sure what she's supposed to be doing with the tongue all over the place, but she's giving it a go and he isn't complaining. Suddenly it doesn't matter anymore, because he has one hot hand sneaking under her bra and the other groping her inner thigh. She panics and grabs the first thing she can find on the floor to ward him off.
It sounds like a crack and she thinks there's blood but she can't be sure, because the next minute she's out of the car and throwing up in the bushes, sobs racking her body, and she needs Tony, she needs Tony now. Sarah dials the practiced number blindly, babbles a garbled, incoherent message she won't remember afterwards, and runs like her life depends on it.
The last chance at her old one does.