Samantha was wearing the orange cowl neck sweater the night she ran away. Gwen's mother had given it and a brown turtleneck to Sam for her sixteenth birthday five days before. Gwen handed her the gift after placing a small, homemade cake on the table in the downstairs cafeteria at school. A hundred other kids were swirling around the tables, fighting their way to the lunch line, but none of them noticed the birthday party.
No-one celebrated her birthday at home, either, because she was "on punishment." Her older sister, Sally, was a psycho bitch. They lived with one of Sally's boyfriends, a macho guy from the city in a house that had been Sam's and Sally's grandfather's. Sally got a monthly disability check for back injuries from a car accident she'd had a few years before. That money, plus Sam's Social Security check, allowed Sally and the boyfriend to sit around the house, drinking and getting high, watching television, arguing with each other and planning chores for Sam. Mostly Sam obeyed them, cleaning the house, painting the garage, mowing the lawn, washing the dishes and doing the laundry while they sat in the living room, which meant she rarely had time to go anywhere. She had no other place to live, and she loved Sally, even if she was crazy. Sam saw her father only once a year after her parents divorced during her infancy, and after her mother's death she didn't want to stay with him. He didn't outlive her mother by much anyway and now even her grandfather was dead.
So Sam did the chores and put up with the fights. She tried to forget that her front tooth was rotting and she needed to go to the dentist. Sally wore dentures and didn't think teeth mattered; besides, it would cost money and they didn't know a dentist. She didn't ask to go to high school events because they would have to drive her, and, they'd remind her, there still was more housework to do; the answer would be no. Every night, the boyfriend made her wait until he was done with dinner before she could sit down and eat. She never could have a piece of cake, because he loved sweets and didn't feel like sharing. She wasn't allowed to have company, but that didn't matter because she didn't want to invite anyone over anyway. Occasionally, if she worked really hard and got everything finished, they would let her go to a friend's house for the weekend. Sam used to have two friends who would invite her over, but Amy had moved away, so now there was only Gwen. But then Sally and her boyfriend started to pick on Sam more often, accusing her of stealing kitchen utensils and even the boyfriend's underwear. "As if I like touching that slime's underwear, "ewww," she thought. When she denied it, feeling guilty because although she hadn't taken the missing items, she had found ways to sneak food, they accused her of lying. She was grounded, and had to scrub the house immaculately. Clean the bathroom grout with a toothbrush. Move the stove and vacuum under it. She wasn't allowed to use the phone, and because the offense had been committed two weeks before her birthday, it would not be celebrated this year. Sam thought calling it sweet sixteen was pretty stupid.
But Gwen and her mother had remembered. Besides the two sweaters she got for her birthday, her entire wardrobe consisted of a pair of jeans, a pair of overalls, a pair of worn-out sneakers and a tee-shirt. The air was chilly in November and the sweaters would come in handy, but she'd have to hide them in her locker or Sally would take them away.
Five days later, her sister found out about the sweaters anyway. Sam was called to the principal's office because Sally was there and had told him that Sam had drugs in her locker. They searched Sam's locker and didn't find any drugs, but that's when Sally saw the sweaters. When Sam got off the bus that afternoon, Sally and her boyfriend were waiting. They insisted she had stolen drugs from them, and Sally gripped the sweaters, demanding to know where she got them. They cursed at Sam and got more and more drunk for a couple of hours, then finally passed out. That was Sam's opportunity; she took the sweaters from the couch near Sally, careful not to wake her up, put on the orange one with her overalls and tiptoed out the door. Once at the end of the driveway, she ran up the road.
It was a tiny town, in population not geography, but Gayle, a fellow classmate at high school, lived not too far away. Gayle was a friend, but her life was complicated, and Sam didn't like to go to her house. Sam's family might be unpleasant, but she pretended otherwise, and so was judgmental. Being Gayle's friend might threaten Sam's plan. She did her best to keep her family a secret from the "in" crowd, almost believing that she owned more than two outfits, even avoiding smiling so that the problem tooth stayed hidden. In spite of Sam's situation, she longed to be one of the popular kids at school, friends with the cheerleaders and the jocks, and clumsy, good-natured Gayle didn't fit in this category. Neither did Gwen, for that matter, but Gwen's house was nicer and bigger than Gayle's and it wasn't so close to home. Sally knew Gayle's parents, and that meant Sam couldn't be safe there. Besides, Sam liked Gwen's family a lot more than Gayle's. But the night she ran away, Gayle's house was a good enough place to stop and make a phone call. When she got there, Sam was relieved to find out that Gayle's step-father wasn't home. Gayle's annoying little brother Ralphie was a pest, but tonight Sam ignored him. She explained what happened to Gayle and her mother, leaving out the part about drugs. They nodded sympathetically, but both seemed nervous. Everyone knew that Sally and her boyfriend weren't respectable guardians for a teenager, but no-one wanted to get involved. Sam sensed relief on their faces when she told them she wanted to call Gwen.
Gwen lived at least a fifteen minute drive away, but Gwen's mother pulled into the driveway in what seemed to be less than five minutes. Sam ran outside and jumped into the idling car. They flew down the narrow road, Gwen's mother asking Sam exactly what happened. She told as much of the story as she could on the short ride. Gwen's mother drove a Mercedes and Sam felt almost like one of the popular kids when she rode in it. Gwen's family wasn't super affluent, but they did have some nice things. Gwen's dad knew a lot about cars and got a good deal. For some reason, Gwen didn't try to capitalize on such things. Gwen could be so weird, and Sam found her frustrating. Sometimes Sam had to admit that she and her friend had little in common except that neither had a lot of other friends. Gwen put in little effort, but was an honor student who rarely got into trouble at school. She wasn't much of an athlete, didn't seem to care that she wasn't a member of any club or clique, and the brand of her clothes was the farthest thing from her mind. Gwen was different, and she acted like it was her choice.
Sam was different, too, but it bothered her. She was lucky to get a "B" even when she applied herself. She would have loved to be considered a jock, but was only average in sports, and wasn't permitted to stay after school anyway. She didn't have the wardrobe, the hair style or the spending money that are required to sit with the popular kids. She might not have any clothes, but she knew that when she got some, they sure would be more fashionable than the ones Gwen wore. In fact, if she had anything else in her closet, she wouldn't have liked the birthday sweaters so much. In her plan, she would have to be careful that Gwen didn't screw up her chances for having a social life. As they drove in the driveway, Sam could see Gwen waiting outside near the garage. Sam could hardly wait to tell her the entire story. Maybe Gwen wasn't Sam's ideal image of a best friend, but she could be trusted to not blab all over school about the night's ordeal.
It wasn't long before the town police showed up. Sally must have revived and she knew Sam had very few places to go. Before the cops came inside, Gwen's father told the girls to go upstairs to Gwen's bedroom, so they did. At first they hid in the closet, because Sam was scared she would be found. They could hear voices in a heated discussion downstairs. "Don't worry, my parents won't let them take you back," Gwen soothed, as usual acting more like forty than sixteen. Then Gwen's mom appeared in the doorway, telling them to come downstairs. The police were still there, sitting at the dining room table. They said since Sam was sixteen years old, she had the right to choose where she wanted to live, and she couldn't be forced to go home without a hearing in court. Sam crossed her arms and hugged the sweater. She stole a look at Gwen, who stood nearby, an unreadable expression on her face. Sam smiled, forgetting the brown tooth. The popular kids' table was one step closer.