Fan Fiction - Written by Paul Austin - Sam Series

03 * Sam's Great Escape (Goodbye Sam, Hello Samantha)
Written by: Paul Austin

A/N: Third in the Sam series, changed a bit at start to avoid infodump. This fic shows through Michelle's very minor accident (since it's Book Universe) accident at her horse jumping contest. Steph & Michelle's calmer disagreement is what other fans and I believe happened w/the calmer, more in control Steph & Michelle of the books. See my newest story, "Just Like Family," for details on that. Also minor changes bring it more in line w/the updated version with her in the Honeybees & also to discuss a little more in depth the talk w/Dr. Steiner.

TV fans will notice that Gia is mentioned in a bit part. This is because she is never mentioned in the books, but someone from the past of the series was still likely a positive influence on her, even though Steph never was in Gia's school to influence her so much.

Stephanie Tanner gazed lovingly at Sam Burke, seven. "Believe it or not, our Uncle Jesse's right. Elvis gave a Cadillac to a fan who was admiring it once," Stephanie told her, confirming the wide-eyed query.

Jesse Katsopolis insisted, "I'd never tease about anything to do with Elvis." Stephanie and her younger sister Michelle agreed; he wouldn't.

Sam loved the laughter and togetherness of her surrogate family. And, she learned so many interesting - and sometimes strange - things. "I know your dad gives to the childrens' hospital, but...a Cadillac?!" Her own filthy rich parents donated money to charity - as a matter of fact they always gave a large around to the same childrens' hospital, which would allow Sam to attend their debutante ball someday. But, she couldn't imagine just giving some fan an expensive car!

Sadly, she also couldn't imagine her parents spending much time with her. They never spent any, and she really knew very little about them. Before Kindergarten, she'd had no consistent enforcement of rules at all at daycare, and none at home. Her parents were too concerned with their own busy work schedules.

D.J. Tanner, a month shy of eighteen, was coming downstairs with the girls' dad as they talked. "Wait a minute, Dad," the high school senior said, "three years ago you said high school was the best time of my life. Now you're saying college will be. Which is it?"

"Well, they're bests for different reasons. Once you get married, hopefully years and years and years from now, that will be the best day of your life. Though we eloped too fast, it was for your mom and I. Then you were born, and Steph almost thirteen years ago, and Michelle eight..." Danny Tanner rambled before giving a slightly wistful sigh at the loss of his wife, Pam, who had died almost eight years ago.

D.J. had been very proactive and was the mother figure for Michelle, but the guys had done great, too. Danny's best friend, Joey Gladstone, had Jesse had both moved in to help raise the girls after Pam died. Now, Jesse was married to Danny's co-host on "Wake Up, San Francisco," Rebecca Donaldson; they had twin three-year-old boys, Nicky and Alex.

Michelle wasn't as super-excitable as Stephanie, but she could be very exuberant. She quickly jumped in to say, "We've had great times, too. Remember when we went to Aunt Becky's family's farm in Nebraska last spring?" Sam agreed. The girls had even spent part of Christmas break encouraging Sam by practicing things like etiquette, though they'd done that, to some degree, since Stephanie first met her, when Stephanie was in fifth grade and Sam starting Kindergarten.

"Yeah. I'm glad you've helped me so much." Sam didn't always talk about her feelings - not to Michelle, who was in third grade, or to her best second-grade friend, classmate Courtney Larkin. So, she simply agreed.

Michelle and Stephanie would have helped Sam anyway. But, an experiment in their more broadminded Bay Area school system had really helped.

Stephanie had aided Michelle the previous year when Michelle was lonely her first day of Kindergarten. Michelle had sent a few other kids to see her after that. Then, Stephanie had begun aiding teachers with little disputes on the playground while she was at recess. Finally, her reputation had grown so much that they'd just given her an anteroom in the principal's office to use as her own. And, the job of Principal's Assistant had been continued after Stephanie left.

It was a position that was very common in Australian schools, and the local school system, experimenting with various things to help students and make teachers' and principals' lives easier, had loved the concept, at least in Sam's school, Fraser St. Elementary.

Sam had spent so much time in daycare, she felt trapped. Even with the Tanner girls helping her so much, and slowly bringing out the good parts of her. Sam had been a real troublemaker till Stephanie and Michelle started working with her over two years ago. She was pretty good now, but there were still major problems; Sam was still very impulsive at times, and though she did express herself fairly well, there was still quite a bit she held inside.

Her home had always seemed so empty emotionally. Part of her wanted to be away from all of that yet. Not away from the rules anymore, she accepted and liked to follow those. But, far away from that life in an uncaring place. A home daycare with a mother-type who would love her would have been great, except her parents would never have taken the time to find one. Michelle and Stephanie had shown her how wonderful a life she could have, how free, how happy she could be. And, she wanted to experience that.

Sam was comforted by remembering Stephanie's assurance that, "ou can come talk to me about anything," early in Kindergarten. Stephanie had been in fifth then. "It's my job to help kids like you. Help you to behave, help you to be nice, but also help you with problems."

Still, Sam again felt trapped as the new year dawned. That thirst for freedom grew, as Sam was once again trapped inside a classroom.

She didn't feel like she could go to Michelle. Michelle had her own problems. A new girl had moved into her third grade class that semester, and Michelle had been assigned to help this girl - who had moved all the way from New Jersey - to get used to the area. She was spending her time trying to get her original best friend, Cassie Wilkins, to get along with her new best friend, Mandy Metz.

Mandy was a nice girl. Sam liked to spend the night with Michelle at Cassie's, but had enjoyed it at Mandy's, too, when Michelle was over there one night. Sam could sense some tension between Cassie and Mandy, though, and as Michelle had explained the problems that had come since the teacher assigned her to work with Mandy, and they'd developed a close friendship, Sam felt uncomfortable.

She could empathize with Mandy, though. Mandy was halfway across the country from all she'd known, with her family, and indeed with a stepdad and stepsiblings now. She could understand how lonely Mandy felt. Indeed, it caused Sam to think a little more about her own situation.

There had been too much Light surrounding Sam lately and D-Sam gained strength from the dark situation and emotions of her charge - fear, emotional pain, crying, it didn't matter, she fed off them all and gained strength and renewal.

Sam had Courtney, too, as a best friend. But, a couple weeks into the semester, Courtney came down with the flu, as second graders were wont to do. If not for that, Sam might have confided in her about how she felt. Then again, maybe not; she'd kept things inside for so long, she really wondered at times if she could.

A deep sigh emerged from her as she sat in class that Wednesday. Courtney had been absent for a few days by this time. Normally, Sam could just pass a note to her, or better yet, turn around and talk to her. If she kept talking enough, she might get sent to the principal, but even then, Missy Saunders was a nice Principal's Assistant. She reminded her a lot of Stephanie.

Missy was a great PA. Still, though, there were some things Missy couldn't understand - at least, Sam didn't think she would. The pain and frustration of being cooped up, knowing there wouldn't be anyone at home for her, and so on - how could she? She was in charge of getting kids to behave and stay in school, just like Stephanie had been. And, while Sam generally respected rules now, there were times when it was a fight in her mind to stay within those rules, a remnant of the times when she'd hated to follow any rules.

This time, it was a losing battle. She knew that she needed to stay in school. But, part of her wanted freedom from everything. If people were going to ignore her, then she wanted to be away from it all, like when she'd tried to leave the daycare a few times over the summer after Kindergarten. Then, she'd had lots of angry, more destructive thoughts. Now, she wasn't going to hurt anyone. She was just going to...well, leave. What would be the harm in that? She'd be back when she felt like it. And, she wouldn't be hurting anyone.. And, Stephanie would make her go back to school or daycare; she'd made her stay in daycare before when Sam had tried to leave it. And, she knew Missy wouldn't just give her a few days off to explore the world on her own, either. So, she raised her hand.

"Ma'am, can I go to the bathroom?" she asked. She received a hall pass, and looked at the door out of which Kindergarten students went for recess. She decided to try that door, and discovered once outside that the fence surrounding the playground had a loose latch. She managed to open it, and closed it before departing.

"Ah, freedom," she said as she began half running, half skipping down the street. "Forget that business about daycare not keeping me after I turn eight. That's almost two months away. And, I'm going to have some fun." In her mind, she didn't care where she went. As long as it was far. She went in the opposite direction of the daycare building - where there was also a preschool and the meeting place of the Honeybees Club, which she belonged to with Michelle and Courtney.

"I'll miss Michelle, and Courtney, but...they'll understand," she told herself. "Let's see, I wonder where New York is from here. I think it's east. Well, it might take a while. I may as well look around here first."

Once she started looking around, she began to dawdle. She saw a rock pile at the end of one lawn, and began to play with the rocks. Eventually, she decided to throw them at cars for fun. "I'm throwing at cars, not people," she told herself. She hit several cars with them, including a couple in the windshield, though she hadn't meant to. They were big enough, and one caused the driver to swerve and almost have an accident.

That scared her enough she decided to walk in another direction, and stop throwing the rocks. She jogged toward another building, and ran around a track a little before entering. "I wonder what's in here?"

Darcy Powell and Allie Taylor were walking slowly from their class toward the first floor cafeteria. "I couldn't believe you just blurted out "a golf course" when that kid asked you the square root of California," Allie said.

"Hey, I'm used to it; he teases me quite a bit 'cause I get good grades in math," Darcy replied. "And we do have lots of golf courses here. We'd better save a seat for Stephanie." These girls were Stephanie's best friends.

"Yeah. She said she was going to ask..." Allie was interrupted by laughter.

"That's the shortest Middle Schooler I ever saw," one kid said.

"She must be a child prodigy," said another. "Hey, what color was George Washington's white horse?"

"Stop that girl!" Before she knew it, Allie was racing toward the front door of John Muir Middle School. Darcy was right behind her. And another friend of theirs had grabbed hold of Sam.

Sam quivered momentarily, having realized she was in another school. "Oh, uh, sorry...I have the wrong building. Please, I gotta get back," she exclaimed to the girl holding her. "I was just on a...field trip, and when the bus stopped here I got off instead of going on." Sam smiled. Maybe she believes me, she told herself.

The girl was unsure whether to believe Sam or not. There was a school bus parked out front - it was taking children to the Imaginarium.

Darcy recognized Sam, too. Taking Sam's arm and gripping it tightly so Sam couldn't get away, she scowled. "Yeah, right," she said. "Come on."

"W-where are you taking me?" Sam asked. She gulped nervously.

"To lunch. You probably haven't eaten, after all," Allie said, catching Darcy's look as the other girl let go, and Allie and Darcy began walking her toward the cafeteria.

"Uh," Sam whimpered. As she stood in line, she looked for a way out. She figured Stephanie's friends were way too fast for her, though.

Sam remained mum while Allie and Darcy got her food for her. She couldn't eat, though, once they sat down.

"Don't worry, we won't make you go to Stephanie," Allie said. In fact, she told herself, Stephanie will see her as she gets in line - or at least when she comes to our table.

"Y-you won't?"

Darcy saw what Allie was saying, and it did make sense. Why go look for Stephanie when she'd be coming downstairs anyway.

However, she thought of something even more urgent. "Sam, you weren't taken, were you? I mean, did any stranger, or anyone...well...hurt you?" She was repulsed at the thought, and wasn't sure how to say it. But, she had to make sure. "Because, we completely understand, if that's the case. And, Stephanie will, too."

Sam closed her eyes. Thinking of what could have happened, and how she could have been hurt, made her feel even worse for leaving. But, she knew if she made something up, Stephanie would see through it; she always did. And then...well, she didn't want to think about it. "N-no, I didn't go near any strangers. I just walked out of school."

"You walked out of school." Darcy tried to process what had just been said. Sam was that possible? "You mean...?"

"Sam!" The voice was Stephanie's. As Stephanie marched over to the table with an empty tray, forgetting all about the line, Allie smiled.

Allie explained as Stephanie came up to Sam, who instinctively covered her bottom, caught in the angry glare like a deer in headlights. "Thankfully, Steph, at least she wasn't abducted or hurt by some stranger. Sam, I can't believe you would do that! Don't you know what all could have happened to you?"

"You better never do this again, young lady? The folks at Fraser Street are probably scared to death right now!" Stephanie shouted.

"Especially Michelle," Allie added. She'd been Stephanie's best friend since Kindergarten, and knew Michelle very well.

"I'd compliment you more on your lectures, but I'm a little too upset right now," Stephanie spouted thankfully. "But, thanks for finding her. Where was she?"

"Just roaming the halls," Allie explained. She was normally pretty quiet, but even she was quite agitated and talkative in this instance.

"She was about to leave again. I think she realized a little too late this is a school. Luckily, Allie hollered for someone to stop her, and they did," Darcy responded.

"Is that so? Do you understand what they're saying, Sam! How do you think Michelle feels right now?" Sam's heart crept into her throat. "It's going to be your lunchtime soon, and she knows you should be there. Do you realize what you've put everyone through? We care about you, Sam, but you have to listen. And right now...what you did probably has everyone thinking you were kidnapped or worse! This is one of the very things we worked with you on so much to help you understand the last few months, never to do anything dangerous like that!" Stephanie screamed, her blood boiling. Soon, Sam expected smoke to come out of her ears.

Stephanie sat and held her tight, her anxiety overcome by protectiveness. She rambled like her dad, but there was a still growing part of her that wanted to protect Sam, just as her dad was often overprotective. Especially since Sam was still small for her age - though close to eight, she looked a year or two younger. "Sam, don't you dare do this again!"

The mix of complaints and lectures finally started to hit Sam, as her frustration at her life and how lonely she'd felt finally was overwhelmed by the realization that she'd really messed up. "I'm sorry," she said, sniffling. "I'm in big trouble, huh?"

"Oh, yes. From the school, for sure. But, also from me!" Stephanie failed to notice the admiring cafeteria workers who were watching the proceedings, or the many students' eyes which were on her. In fact, she could have had an entire tray of noodles dumped on her and she might not have noticed, her fears and then anxiety were so intense right then. She had always been very excitable, and when someone she cared about did something like this...

"Sam, I promise we will continue this lecture in the office; I'll ask one of the counselors or assistant principals if we can have a little privacy. But, I want to tell you this right now. You may not have the loving family we do. But, I can guarantee you, the Larkins and we do everything we can so you can feel loved and wanted. And, I promise you that I am going to act just like a mother would with you. I may have lost my mother when I was five. But, I think I've gleaned enough from D.J. and my dad and the others to know just how to handle someone with love and goodness, just like a mother would. Even if that means disciplining them."

She'd said the last very lowly, knowing that Sam was likely upset by how much she had to discipline at times. Sam was already weeping and sniffling. The Tanner children were so good in comparison to Sam. Spanking had never been considered, for instance.

However, the first couple years Stephanie had known Sam, that had sadly had to be a threat that had hung over what she'd done to correct Sam at times.

"Guys, have someone call Fraser St. Elementary, and tell them Sam's safe and here at John Muir. I need to ask the principal to contact the truant office. And, then Sam and I are going to have a very long talk," Stephanie said, glaring at Sam.

Stephanie called Mrs. Larkin at the Larkin home after someone called the truant officer. Then, tucked away in private in one of the counselors' offices, Stephanie began to lecture some more. And, quite loudly, at that.

After Stephanie's lecture, Sam was crying - she half expected Stephanie to make her sit in the corner. Stephanie assured her Missy would handle that part. "I am, of course, going to have to ground you, and place other restrictions on you, for three weeks," she remarked. "And, don't worry; you won't be grounded at home. You will be over at the Larkin's' every moment that you are not at school for the next three weeks. I know you need love and support. But, you also need to learn that there are some very bad consequences to this type of misbehavior. And, we are all going to make sure you are watched, for your own protection. Because, you know what could have happened." She finished by saying she might take a week off that for very good behavior.

Sam sniffled and nodded sadly. She sighed as she thought about what Stephanie had said, while Stephanie sat her on her lap and cuddled her for a minute. Stephanie was just like a mom.

As Sam felt the warmth of the embrace - the Tanners all loved to hug, it seemed - she considered the lecture to come as she buried her head in Stephanie's chest. Missy cared about kids, too. But, she was likely to be just like Stephanie had been - really tough. And, Stephanie didn't even know all she'd done.

Sam shuddered. She knew Missy would probably figure it out - she was just like Stephanie after all. And, she'd have more time to think about it; Steph was obviously not prepared to go in depth about what that something might be.

"Are you gonna spank me?" she asked weakly.

Stephanie was glad she only had to fwap now, and didn't have to actually hurt Sam's bottom anymore. It had become emotional enough she could just pat her, and it would just pinch a second, if that. She confided, "What you did was really dangerous, and bad on lots of levels. I'm handling the part with how dangerous it was, but Missy will have to lecture you on the problem of leaving school, too. If I don't, Missy might." Sam stood, and Stephanie took Sam's hands in hers. "I don't want to interfere with what the schools decide. The principal would probably have to do it anyway, so to relieve him of lots of the discipline burden, a few years back they decided to try to have me as a Principal's Assistant like in Australian and some British schools. Just as an experiment; and it's worked."

Sam was glad to have the topic changed for a little while. "I wondered why some of the other Honeybees didn't have girls helping like you did in their schools."

"That's right. I don't know how hard they had to work to make the position permanent. It might even be that budget cuts eliminating some administrative staff played a part in needing to keep me, then the others doing what we do on a volunteer basis. But, the point is, that's Missy's job now. To handle school stuff." She sensed the sadness in Sam's eyes. "But, I guess with how little your parents care, my job's become even more important, huh?" In saying that, Stephanie said what neither wanted to admit, yet both knew - Stephanie, for all practical purposes, was a mother figure to Sam; probably the only one. Hannah and Mrs. Larkin did very well, but Stephanie had been the first.

And, Sam knew she loved her. "What if I tell you what else I did?" She really believed Missy would do it in love, too. But, Stephanie had worked with her so much, she really preferred it to be her.

"Well, okay. I'll call and update Missy on what all you told me. She respects me enough that she'll just let me be the one to do it." She respects real parents enough to let them handle their own children most times, if they say they don't want her using physical punishment, Stephanie considered, though most were accepting of her once they meet her. Indeed, Missy respected parents enough to know that some kids would just need a light fwap or two that didn't hurt, and that Sam was one of those.

With a final warning, Stephanie said, "But, I'm telling Missy exactly what you say, so if you leave one thing out, she has the right to do it, too, if she thinks it's warranted!" For all Stephanie knew, Sam could have left hours ago and done something really bad. She didn't think Sam would do that, but after this stunt, she wasn't 100% sure.

Sam agreed. Then, she told Stephanie how she started throwing rocks at cars, playing around and trying to hit the windows, for several minutes during her wandering around the neighborhood, till one car almost had an accident...but she hadn't meant to hurt anyone, and the driver didn't have a wreck, but he almost had, and she felt really bad. Sam wept as Stephanie pulled her over her knees and fwapped her, slapping her bottom just enough it pinched for a second when she was done, and that's it.

As Sam cried in Stephanie's arms for a moment, Stephanie considered how emotional Sam was. Sure, some of it was Michelle's influence; she remembered how she'd written a short story about the abuse the cafeteria meatloaf took early in the school year, and by the end Michelle was weeping, saying "That poor meat loaf." Sam had developed a compassionate side, too; or, rather, been encouraged to let her compassionate, emotional side show.

But, still, just as Missy would wonder that night, Stephanie pondered that this might be even more than most kids Sam's age would cry. Still, though, all kids were different; neglect could account for it being a little worse, and she knew a number of other kids - especially girls - who cried very easily at age seven but who didn't really have other major problems. Besides, she had enough to worry about right now, making sure Sam got back and then got to the Larkins after school.

"You can expect a really good lecture," Stephanie said after a moment as Sam stood, still weeping and sniffling. "But, she understands what you've gone through, with all the neglect. She won't add to the pain - if you've been totally truthful with me." Sam promised that she had.

I'll bet the Australian Principal's Assistants never have to deal with anything like this, Stephanie pondered. At least, I sure hope they don't.

Stephanie smiled and said, "I understand how much you probably hurt inside, or at least I can make a pretty good guess. Even when you and I had problems, you've always been pretty good for Hannah." She didn't want to say relatively good, though she knew Sam's behavior still hadn't been the best for Hannah all the time.

Sam didn't need to hear a "relatively good" to know that's what was meant, though. She'd scared all other sitters away - to the extent that no sitter ever seemed to come back, whether due to fatigue, frustration, or something else. Hannah had, but Sam had only been good for her the last couple months of Kindergarten because of Courtney, Sam's friend in the Honeybees and Hannah's younger sister. She hadn't needed many rules enforced with Hannah watching her the rare times her parents were daring enough to leave the house without her. But, there had always been the underlying thought that she didn't want to disappoint Courtney or Michelle by acting up with a relative of Courtney's.

By the time Stephanie, Hannah, and others had watched her the previous summer, of course, the other sitters involved were the kind that just totally ignored things, for the most part. And, Hannah was accustomed enough to her that Sam could evade her a little, which she did. Because, Sam hadn't wanted to actually have any rules enforced.

Sam smiled sadly as she remembered that previous summer, while waiting for the truant officer. Michelle had once told her that most kids she knew were more ornery around their parents because they knew they'd still be loved; at least, that's what the girls' Aunt Becky had said. And, Sam felt a tinge of...something. She didn't know what. But, she realized that, just like here, back then she had refused to even try to test rules around Hannah because she was still uncertain of Hannah's concern for her. But, she'd been very certain that even if she did the most desperate things she could, Stephanie would still love her, even while punishing her.

One special thing was, now that she'd become nicer, and at least a little more comfortable with those trying to help her, she could sense that the Larkins had great concern for her, too. And, in fact, so did Missy, most likely.

"You know, Sam, we really do care about you. I'm missing my lunch now, but I'd rather make sure you're okay."

"Will you eat it during recess?" Sam asked.

Stephanie smiled, recalling the warm memories of her playground days. "No, Sam. That's just a privilege good kids get at your age because kids need their work day broken up more. Besides, I wouldn't play if I had one. My friends and I would spend our whole time looking at boys."

Sam looked oddly at her. "Why?" came the emphatic question.

"That's just so big in my mind, boy-girl relationships are so fun to think about at our age, that I don't really think about much else besides that and studying at times," Stephanie said.

Now, however, her thoughts were on the policeman at the door. She rose. "Hi, you must be Officer McLean. I'm Stephanie Tanner." They shook hands.

"Hey, Stephanie. I've heard about you. You really do a great job." He chuckled. "Now kids are going to think you rounded Sam up, too," he kidded her.

He then turned to Sam and explained he was going to take her back to school. "But first, we need to have a talk ourselves."

Sam was startled into silence. This was a police offer talking to her. She figured that Stephanie had probably let her off easy, if a policeman had to get involved!

The officer spoke to her more specifically about the dangers of being out alone, of kidnapping, and even of things like drugs. He'd heard of stories from the very inner city of drugs showing up in late elementary school grades. He knew it was probably a good idea to talk with her about drugs and such, too; just to hopefully plant seeds to stave off any difficulties in that area. The talk continued as they went down to his waiting car.

Missy waited anxiously with Principal Posey for Sam to be returned to their school. A fourth grader, Missy was the same age now as Stephanie had been when the Principal's Assistant position had been totally molded into its present form. Missy was a caring, compassionate girl, but she also knew when to put her foot down.

"Dear Diary," she would later write that evening. "I'm convinced now - you will probably hear nothing but stories of my dealings with students as Principal's Assistant. In fact, if I have many more days like today, I'll need to buy a new diary by April. And, I have next year yet!

"I guess part of the problem is Sam's growth was a bit stunted last year. Not that Jen was bad - she couldn't have gotten the position if she wasn't nice. But, there were worries about how Sam and a couple of incoming 5th grade bullies would be. So, I guess Jen was chosen more for her ability to take charge. She was always nice to good kids, and good at counseling and encouraging. But, nobody thought about counseling and improving 'bad kids.' Sam never felt comfortable talking to Jen, she says. Jen tried to change, and she was okay after that. But, she never could get the bullies or Sam to feel comfortable with her trying to help them."

Missy felt her mom's presence, and turned around. "Hey, Mom. This diary's a doozy today."

"I'll bet. Sounds like you handled things just right."

Missy smiled thankfully, then got up and hugged her mother. "Stephanie and Principal Posey were right. This job needs lots of heads to be put together. Thanks for always being here for me."

"Anytime, sweetie." She stroked Missy's fiery red hair. "I can't wait to see what you grow up to do. You're so good at showing love. You're compassionate, but you're really tough, too. Jen just never realized how much those bad kids need loved."

"Thanks, Mom." She sat and confided, "I'm kind of worried. She's made so much progress over the last two years, I didn't think there were any huge problems. But, the principal and I were talking, and...well, it's something we'll watch closely."

"You're worried about reporting it to the authorities?" Her mom reminded her, "That's really Mr. Posey's call, the administrative stuff. You don't have to worry about whether to do that if you don't want; as long as you know it's not really bad, like some of the stuff on that tape we had to watch."

Missy agreed. The incoming PA and a parent, in the late spring, had to watch a tape about different situations, such as abuse and neglect, that might come up, and how to handle it. The parent had to sign a form saying they'd watched and discussed it.

"If there is a bigger problem," Missy said, "it seems less sad than some of the things on that tape. I feel like there's more to it now that she ran away, the principal wonders...but Sam won't confide in us."

Her mother nodded sadly. "You're right. You can't just go on feelings, they change a lot. And, she has improved a lot. So, maybe this was the last gasp of a minor problem that the authorities don't need to step in on; at least now, everyone's watching, so if there are any more signs, it will be reported," she finished, trying to sound encouraging.

"I hope...well, would she be able to stay with Stephanie and her family?" Missy knew more than most kids her age about such situations, but was still young enough that most answers were more black and white to her - in one place or another.

Her mom knew the government could just choose to work with Sam's family, and that removal didn't always occur. "They'll do what's in her best interest. I think if it was bad enough she needed to be taken out of the home, it would have been seen two years ago," she mentioned. "My guess is, even if there is a problem, it's not that bad."

Missy thanked her. Her mother left the room, and Missy continued to write - some things she had told her mother, some she hadn't, about that day.

"Diary, when they brought Sam back I didn't know how to feel - relieved, upset, disappointed, angry, I felt so many emotions. And, hearing what Stephanie said confused me even more, in a way.

"The only good thing was, I knew I didn't have to spank her; Stephanie did that. I hate doing it, and while I've done it before, a couple times, I really don't like doing it. Especially to Sam, and her I know I'd only have to pat, really, not smack. Kids take advantage of Sam. She's a lot more gentle and docile. And, they try to torment her. That couldn't have been the cause of everything she did - and there was a lot of bad stuff today. But, I wondered if maybe it 'pushed her over the edge.'

"Stephanie not only spanked Sam, she grounded her over at the Larkins. Their youngest, Courtney, is one of Sam's best friends. I'm so glad she has friends. She sure doesn't have nice parents like I do, Diary. I know I've said it before. But, Stephanie's really Sam's mother. I don't know how she does it. But, she has even more support than I do. The Tanners and Larkins are each very warm and nurturing. I wish I could be that way, Diary. I don't know what all is in Sam's background, or if she's ever told Stephanie, or at least Michelle or Courtney, anything.

"But, I really want Sam to open up and tell me things, instead of just wandering off like she did. That's what hurts the most, that she doesn't, and I don't know how to get her to. It's one of the big things I emphasized when I yelled today. I hope she got the message. And tells someone. Because, I just feel like she needs to, wants to, so bad. And, she doesn't know if she can trust anyone."

Missy put down her magic marker, and sighed. That was what frustrated her the most - kids who seemed so troubled, yet wouldn't open up. A tiny tear inched down her cheek. She wished Sam could see how she felt about cases like hers.

At least her mom did. She ran to her, and gave her a great big hug. "I love you, Mom!" she declared.

Earlier that day, as Sam prepared to go to the principal's for after school detention, she mulled over what the officer had said. If she had gotten into some of the things the officer mentioned, like drugs...she couldn't fathom that much trouble! Stephanie would be soooo mad. It was a little easier, then, for her to face the principal. She half expected Michelle to be there, too, to lecture her. Michelle was quite loving and tender, but she could be very blunt, and her comments stung at times. Sam accepted them, though, because she could feel the love from Michelle.

The principal had been nice - nicer than she thought he'd be. Nicer than she deserved, she was starting to feel. "We care about you kids. And, we want you to learn and become good citizens. I'm sure Stephanie handled quite a bit of other stuff, but we want to make sure you understand that part, too," he'd said to begin a lecture of several minutes. Sam thought Michelle's dad probably sounded like Principal Posey at times. Michelle had told her once that he almost never raised his voice when lecturing, but that he could ramble quite well. It was more like listening to a teacher give a lesson.

Sam sighed heavily. She'd heard so much from everyone, she couldn't believe it. Her mind was filling with more information than she'd face in a month of classes.

Michelle was just relieved that Sam was okay. She, Cassie, and Mandy ran up to Sam as they prepared to leave school and Sam headed down the hallway. "Sam, I'm so glad you're safe," she exclaimed.

"Yeah, well...I really got in big trouble this time. Especially from Stephanie. And I have to stay after school, too."

"Well..." Cassie was still in shock over what she'd heard. Once the truth had come out, it was still hard to fathom, given all the fears that had crossed her mind; Cassie was more timid than the others. "We're...glad you're okay."

"Yeah, at least you're safe. I heard kids saying they thought maybe you got in some stranger's car, or that you went downtown. I even heard one say he thought you drove off with a school bus!" Mandy said, clearly disbelieving that last one. Thankfully, Sam's attitude brightened for a second, as she considered both the security of friends like Michelle and the silliness of driving off with a school bus.

Michelle turned to Cassie and Mandy as Sam walked away to the principal's office for her first day of after school detention. "She's better, but she's still got a bad attitude."

"I'll say." Mandy checked to make sure she wasn't within hearing distance. "And you say she's been worse? Bad enough to drive off with school bus, even?" The way the one child had told Mandy during afternoon recess, Sam was capable of such a thing.

Mandy was still dumbfounded. Michelle hadn't spoken much of Sam's past to the new girl, who hadn't yet been there a month. She hadn't wanted to embarrass Sam, so when they slept over at Mandy's one night, she merely said not to ask about her family or anything, as it made Sam sad. She'd known Mandy would understand, being in a new place herself.

However, now Mandy's new best friend was telling her a few of Sam's other misdeeds, and would tell of Stephanie's struggles with her later that day. And, Mandy would become increasingly shocked. Even when the worst stuff by far was when Sam was in Kindergarten, a couple years ago, it was hard to fathom.

"Well, I don't think she'd try to drive off with the bus, even at her worst back in Kindergarten. But, still, what she needs is a whole new attitude," Michelle emphasized.

Cassie nodded as they left the building and walked toward the bus. "Yeah. It's a shame we can't buy her one, with her birthday coming in just over a month."

After a few steps, Michelle stopped. Her friends noticed and turned around to see her scratching her head. "Why can't we?" Michelle asked.

The girls began chuckling. "I don't know where you'd buy one. Even Wal-Mart doesn't have them," Mandy remarked.

""I've never even seen one at all the garage sales my mom goes to, and you can find anything at those," came Cassie's joke.

Michelle laughed with them as they continued, but at the same time said, "I'm serious, guys. We can plan something; help her to see she doesn't have to think like a bad girl anymore. She can be a good girl. She just has to believe she can."

"How?" Cassie wanted to know as they boarded the bus.

"Well, let's see. She hasn't had a real birthday party yet. I mean, she went with the Honeybees to the Imaginarium when she was seven, but it was something for everyone. Our hive just moved it so it would be near her birthday, and called it a birthday present," Michelle explained. "And, when she was six, that was just the family."

"So, you'd like to give her this new attitude at her party?" Mandy asked.

The bus rolled down the street as Michelle thought out loud. "It's not exactly that. It's more like she's going to start looking, thinking, and acting different. And, that's a good place to start. Especially because of the theme - a princess party. Dad keeps lots of stuff from our old parties, especially mine it seems. So, we've got a lot of the decorations already."

"A princess party? I think I had one when I was three," Mandy asserted.

"I was four. But, that's just it - Sam's missed out on all sorts of fun stuff. When she realizes how much fun that stuff can be, she'll decide she wants to be the good girl who gets all that stuff, and not the bad girl who doesn't," Michelle exclaimed. She was getting more excited all the time, as she thought about the idea.

Cassie didn't quite get it, though. "You want her to like little kid stuff? What do you want to turn her into, another Joey?" Joey often acted like a kid, mostly because he was a professional comedian.

"She doesn't need to get that excited about it. But, here's what I want to do..."

Hannah sat in her room with her head on her hands, deep in thought. D.J., after hearing what Sam had done, and where she'd be, had called Hannah on the phone. And, it turned out Hannah had been considering the same thing.

"Hey, Hannah," Sam announced as she ran into Hannah's room and plopped a bag on the floor. They embraced warmly, Sam giving a contented sigh. "Since Courtney's still got the flu a little bit, and that cough, I'm gonna sleep in here with you tonight instead."


"Can I climb in bed with you if I feel like it?"

"Of course." She hoped Sam would continue to feel more comfortable around all of them. She'd never had the trouble Steph had with Sam, but that was because Sam had seemed scared, nervous that if she gave Hannah problems, it would hurt her relationship with Courtney.

"Why don't you unpack your stuff in here later; go out and play soccer with Courtney's and my brothers in the back yard. I need to talk to my mom about...well, school stuff."

Sam left, eager to have something fun to do. Stephanie had said that she had to listen to the Larkin's, and apparently her being grounded didn't mean she couldn't play outside, she just couldn't go anyplace beyond the Larkin's'.

Once she made sure Sam was occupied, Hannah left, and found Mrs. Larkin in the basement sorting laundry.

"Mom, D.J. and I were talking. And, well..."

"Yes, Dear?"

"I might as well just blurt it out - it always seems to work with Michelle," Hannah considered. "Mom, could we adopt Sam?"

Mrs. Larkin dropped the detergent she'd just picked up, scattering powder in a small area of the washroom.

As she recovered from the shock, and she and Hannah scooped up the detergent, Mrs. Larkin spoke proudly. "I know, you really care about her. So does everyone else."

"I haven't told Courtney - I don't want something like this to get back to Sam and raise false hopes."

"That's good."

"But, D.J. says she's thought about it, and...well, their mom having passed away, she knows a little more about the family finances than I do; Mr. Tanner's talked about that stuff with her lately. I mean, she knows they just couldn't do it right now, financially, they've got four incomes but they also have five kids between them and that Smash Club. And, it's dong okay, but not great. Plus, they've got a much bigger house. But, I told her I've been thinking about adoption, too. Dad has a good job, and you can always work on the side, plus I'll be working somewhere while I'm in college. And, our house payments can't be near as big as in their neighborhood." The last of the detergent had been cleaned up as she said this.

Mr. Larkin breathed deeply for a moment, nodding slowly. "I'd like to, too. Honey, if every parent who wanted to could adopt, if every one who was able to handle that extra child could do it, we'd hardly need any foster homes. And, you know we'd be first in line to do it."

"I know. But, this isn't just any kid."

"You're right, honey. And, she needs a loving family. But, it still way too tight for us financially. We can afford to have her here for a few weeks, and feed her off and on otherwise when she comes over, though having her this month puts a small crimp in our finances it won't put too big a crimp in them. Taxes are due in a few months, after all. But, a full scale adoption is different; even if Sam's parents were willing to give her up."

Hannah wasn't sure, but said, "They might be. I don't know; Stephanie seems to know more about them. Although she still doesn't know a whole lot." Was it possible they would contest having their rights taken away? She supposed it was possible, though they didn't seem to care that much.

Hannah's mom put an arm around her and explained the problem. "Adoption looks really simple in stories. But, there's home visits, medical checks, lawyer fees, paperwork, court costs. A simple adoption, even with the birth parent or parents consenting, can run five thousand dollars or more. And with the emotional problems Sam's had, that might be more, with therapy and other evaluations, I don't know."

"That's a lot."

"Even if I were to get a part-time job, I doubt we could raise the money to do it that fast; maybe in a few years. But, if I did that, it would defeat the purpose, because she wouldn't have a mother at home. Maybe, if we'd known about it four years ago, we wouldn't have put the money into fixing up the house, and it could have been done, but even then, it's doubtful. And, nobody knew about this problem back then."

Hannah nodded slowly. Life was so much more complex than she wanted to realize. She was extra glad she hadn't suggested it to Courtney now; it would have been a lot harder for her to understand, even if the idea didn't get back to Sam.

"Honey, the times Sam is here, we can provide her with so much love, that hopefully it can make up for the times she's not. Between us and the Tanners, we are giving her a loving environment. It's a little different from the way things usually go. But, she knows we care about her. And, that's the important part."

The next morning, Michelle made sure she got to school early. As she expected, the daycare van pulled up soon after she arrived. "Hey, Sam," she said.

"Michelle!" Sam bounded out of the van and over to her friend.

"I thought you'd like to hear about your birthday party."

"What birthday party?"

"The one I'm gonna throw for you." Sam smiled warmly. Though Michelle's comment had been rather blunt, she could feel the warmth behind it. It was a compassion that she'd seen from few others. She couldn't' believe that she'd tried to run away from the one place, besides the Honeybees, where she really felt cared for; she could trust Michelle, Courtney, and maybe even Missy like she could almost nobody else. She uttered a weak "thanks."

"Sam, Steph and I talked with Uncle Jesse about what you did. You probably remember me saying he was a bit of a rebel." She nodded. "He agreed with me when I said you need a new attitude. You have to stop thinking like the girl who can't seem to go more than a few months without getting in bigger trouble than I can ever imagine getting in," Michelle declared. She knew that comment might sting a little. But, she also knew that she was very thankful that D.J. had put her foot down from day one about enforcing limits, even though her dad had been nowhere near ready to use timeout when Michelle was just two.

"Yeah, but you have a family that loves you," Sam muttered.

Michelle put an arm around Sam. "Sam, I remember the story so well. D.J. and I would snuggle at bedtime or in the morning sometimes, even though she was a preteen or young teen it was just like a mom would do. After all, Dad would often be at work, and Uncle Jesse and Joey were on different floors. And, she'd tell me about going to church one Sunday when I woke her up, when I was about eighteen months. And, as they gave an invitation, she went up and prayed, 'Lord, help me be a Mommy to Michelle, because Dad's scared and sad yet, and Uncle Jesse and Joey aren't that great at enforcing limits.' And, she did. She started being proactive, instead of just reacting."


"Yeah, she says it means acting first instead of just reacting whenever there's a problem, like she would have done." Michelle smiled warmly. The family didn't go to church a lot. But, D.J. tried to pray sometimes with her, or talk about the Lord. And, Michelle had even heard the song D.J. remembered most vividly from that service - "Take My Life and Let It Be." It was very pretty. D.J. may not have given everything to the Lord like she knew people should do if they're going to be missionaries or ministers. But, she'd put lots of effort into disciplining Michelle till Danny was ready to start sending her to her room or removing privileges. She'd put lots of time into talking with Michelle about right and wrong. While D.J.'s work was mostly done, Michelle fondly remembered those days. She'd always loved being a good girl, and hated doing anything bad, primarily because of D.J.'s early, proactive efforts.

She didn't know how to fully express this to Sam. But, she said, "Sam, we're trying to do like D.J. did. It's really hard. But, we're trying to show you love just like her. She had to be a nice sister, but she didn't have to be a Mom. Yet, she tried to be, in some small ways."

"I know. Thanks, Michelle. You and Stephanie do a good job."

"But, we need you to help, too. We love you, even when you act really bad." Sam lowered her head and closed her eyes for second. "But, you have to try to be good, so you can do more cool stuff."

"I'm trying, Michelle. I really am. It's just that whenever I think about doing something, I do it. I just figure, why not?" She was just glad she hadn't been able to conceive of some of the things she'd do a couple years ago.

"You've been doing that for years. I know you want to be good now. I'm proud of that," Michelle said, sounding just like Stephanie would.

"I know. But, I'd need to change my name, my appearance, everything. Just growing my hair longer and wearing some of your old stuff instead of a t-shirt and jeans hasn't helped."

There was a pause while Michelle thought. Looking firmly at her friend she asked, "Is your name really Sam?"

"No," Sam replied. "It's Samantha Lynne Burke." She knew it from having heard it called at countless upper crust social events to which her parents had dragged her along to.

Michelle rubbed her chin for a moment as the first tardy bell rang. While they didn't have to be inside yet, they walked into the school. "Samantha sounds more girly than Sam."

"I know. I guess I liked Sam...I don't know, it sounded tough."

"Yeah. Maybe you could use Samantha."

"Maybe. I'll think about it," Sam said hopefully.

Jesse was listening to the radio while driving his boys home from preschool. Suddenly, he turned the volume up and pulled over, requesting that Nicky and Alex remain quiet.

"Sometimes you will hear me report on the misadventures of criminals," Paul Harvey spoke into many radios across the land. "Well, here's hoping that Sam Burke, seven, has learned very early that misbehavior just doesn't pay. It seems Sam was bored with school, and took a little walk...walked right out of the school building. So, this San Francisco area second grader wandered around for a while, then decided she had to explore another building in the area." He gave his typical dramatic pause. "It was another school. In fact, it was the one attended by her babysitter. Who just happened to be coming down to the cafeteria for lunch at that moment. O-oh, you better believe it; she was in far more trouble than if her parents had caught her."

"What was that, Daddy?" Nicky asked as Jesse turned down the sound.

"Oh, just some kid Steph knows." Jesse didn't want the boys blabbering about it. It was hard enough that reporters had called the Tanner residence, after the police report had come out that a girl, missing from school, had been found and reprimanded severely by Stephanie. Stephanie had even feared that all the kids in Sam's class would know about it, until Danny calmly reminded her that second graders didn't normally read anything but the comics; if that.

Alex asked, "Why'd she leave the school?"

"'Cause...well, I don't know. Maybe she was looking for your cousin Stephanie. I mean, she found her, right? And, well, I guess maybe she just needed a hug." Jesse was in full-fledged denial mode, trying to keep his children from worrying about things they couldn't comprehend, anyway. But, on the other hand, maybe he was right. Stephanie, and the others, really did have a way of getting through to Sam.

That's why Michelle was so excited about the next evening; a Friday night when she would get to sleep over with Sam at Courtney's. Michelle loved showering love and warmth on Sam. He smiled proudly; remember how he'd taken Stephanie and Michelle down to a soup kitchen to deliver meals a few Christmases ago. His lessons were sinking in, he told himself as he drove home.

Sam twirled the spaghetti on her fork like a seasoned pro that Friday night. It had been so much fun learning from Stephanie how to do this. There were times when she was just like what Sam pictured in a mom, the ideal mother, that is. It had always been tough when other kids would play house - she had no clue how to do that.

However, after only a few trips to the principal's office, Sam had sensed something about Stephanie. Something almost motherly. She'd talked to her about nightmares, dared to dream of a world filled with the love she needed, and done lots of other things with Stephanie. Sometimes she'd go there just to talk, and Steph would set aside time for her during Steph's own recess period, or - a couple times - before or after school. She'd asked Stephanie if she'd rather be at recess once, and Stephanie had joked, "Well, it would be better for both of us to be able to go when we're supposed to. But, there is this boy who likes to pull my hair. He can't pull it in here."

"Hey, Sam," Michelle remarked, dumping a meatball onto her plate. "Take this. Mrs. Larkin must have thought I was one of her boys, she gave me so much," Michelle remarked. She then scooped some spaghetti that was draped off Sam's plate back onto the dish.

"Thanks," Sam muttered, still in awe of the fact she'd be on a sleepover tonight. Just like her friends would do. Michelle and Courtney and she would just lounge in sleeping bags in the guest bedroom. They certainly went out of their way to make Sam feel normal.

Of course, Sam had been on them before. But, despite all the others did, there was something stirring inside that just didn't feel right. The others had homes they missed, and people to say they wanted to go home to when they were too scared, like Stephanie had when she had just turned eight and tried to go over to Allie's. Thus, though she'd done it before, there was still something about it that made her feel...well, almost normal.

"It's really nice having you here," Hannah remarked. "We should do it more often," she said, trying to encourage Sam a little to spend more time with them. It was ironic, since Sam was grounded over at the Larkin's, but she sensed Hannah was sincere, too. Hannah cared, just like Stephanie - Steph had made sure Hannah was her only sitter after Christmas of Kindergarten, and that worked out so nicely. Of course, Sam always behaved reasonably well for her, for one simple reason - she was Courtney's sister. And, Hannah would even bring Courtney over to play with Sam while babysitting.

Sam hadn't been certain, if she really misbehaved, if Courtney would still like her. She knew Michelle would, though. She'd seen that in action, when Michelle would talk bluntly to her, but also be very friendly, even knowing that Stephanie had had to sit Sam in the corner or remove recess for a day or a week. And some of her other sitters? Well, Stephanie had pushed to get Sam a regular sitter because Sam's behavior had been so wild by Kindergarten, Stephanie had been afraid she might get a sitter who was too rough. She'd been lucky, some had even shut Sam in the bathroom or treated her totally like a baby. The sitters she'd had never returned a second time - they'd all been too spooked. They never enforced rules, they'd just refused to deal with the problem. But, as she got bigger, if Stephanie hadn't found someone, they'd figured the Burkes might have ended up hiring someone really rough.

That was the last thing Sam needed. Stephanie was tough, but Sam could sense so much love in her actions even when Stephanie had to be her toughest. She'd never had rules enforced at home at all till Stephanie babysat her once the previous summer. She'd always obeyed really well for Hannah for fear of Courtney not liking her back then. And, as for the others Stephanie had found before they'd settled on Hannah as the official one? Well, they'd been great at distracting her, thankfully. Stephanie's old dance teacher - now Samantha's - had been the first "guinea pig" so to speak in October of Sam's Kindergarten year; she loved kids, could possibly create an interest in dancing in Sam, and didn't mind a mess; she was the opposite of Mr. Tanner, who was a neat freak. Her teacher had joked that she'd danced an entire ballet to keep Sam occupied. At other times, of course, Sam would be dragged to the parties she couldn't stand, and to which she'd stopped being invited after Christmas of her first grade year. But, the ones Stephanie found had been convinced to give her a chance, and patiently they'd watched Sam's rapid improvement over the last two-plus years.

Sam smiled as she slurped up the last of her spaghetti. Being at the Larkins was fun. She'd become used to Hannah caring about her no matter what, and Courtney doing the same. There had indeed been great improvement since Hannah first became the official sitter soon after Sam joined the Honeybees. But, in a way, she was already starting to see in Stephanie what she dreamed of - a parent who truly cared.

"So, what are you guys going to do tonight," Stephanie asked.

Sam smiled as Michelle piped up, "We rented a movie. You're letting her stay up later than usual tonight, right, Steph?" she finished eagerly.

"Well, it is a sleepover," Stephanie said grudgingly. "And it is Friday night." She put an arm around Sam and said, "It has to be rough to have your parents just up and decide to take business trips."

"Well...they do know I'm supposed to be over here." Sam didn't know if that made her feel better or worse.

Stephanie smiled lovingly. "There's lots of people who care about you."

"I know," Sam said gratefully. And I know Stephanie loves me; I really feel comfortable around her, more than anyone, she told herself. That, Courtney had said, was just like having her as a mom.

As they ate, they talked about the fun things Stephanie had taught her, the cool games they played, and the great fun that Sam always had talking with her favorite stuffed animal, Mr. Snuggle Bunny. Michelle had gotten him for her, and they sometimes talked as though Mr. Snuggle Bunny and Mr. Bear, Stephanie's prized possession, spoke daily about helping Sam.

Now, this was living! Talking about stuffed animals and their activities. And, while Hannah seemed to prefer talking about boys, and Courtney's brothers laughed about them, being older, the Larkin's encouraged this discussion, and enjoyed it.

Once they cleared the table, Stephanie left to go home. "Sorry you can't stay," Sam said politely.

"I'd feel like I was imposing; I guess." Although, in fact, Stephanie felt torn. On the one hand, she knew she was a real authority figure for Sam, so Sam might not feel comfortable. On the other hand, she might be needed there. She could tell Sam needed lots of support - though it would stun her when she learned how lonesome Sam felt. Stephanie could only relate to a couple times early in Kindergarten, when Stephanie had needed D.J. while grieving over their mom's death.

She motioned Michelle over to the side of the kitchen. "Michelle," Stephanie whispered, "do you think I should stay?" She knew her very blunt sister would say what was on her mind. They'd taught Sam to be polite, but now Sam would not only be a little scared to say she wanted Steph to stay, if she did. Stephanie didn't think she would but it was...well, she would almost say the mother in her, as strange as that felt to consider.

"If she wanted you to stay, she'd say it."


"Steph, she takes after me, not you."

Stephanie chuckled. It was true; Sam was starting to sound so much like Michelle - though without as much self-control as Michelle. She supposed that was true after all; Sam probably would admit to wanting Stephanie there. And, Stephanie would have sensed it.

However, Sam was truly excited at this moment, and didn't need Stephanie. She had Michelle, after all.

"Okay, thanks. Love ya," Stephanie said, mussing Michelle's hair a little. She then walked over and hugged Sam.

As Stephanie walked out the door, Sam held Michelle's hand. Michelle thought about her first sleepover, with Cassie. She'd had her over the week before, and invited three other friends, but they all left. Cassie was her best friend, though, so she stayed. That was before Mandy moved there. She wouldn't tell Sam about calling Stephanie that first night at Cassie's, just to feel not so lonesome. She knew Sam wouldn't have anyone to call.

"Yeah. There's nothing better than having sleepovers with your best friend," Courtney blurted, throwing an arm around Sam and pulling her close.

Later that evening, Michelle sat up and pondered how to change Sam's image. She could tell Sam was trying to take after her. But, what could she do to really help her get out of whatever rut of misbehavior had caused her to need grounded for so long over here at the Larkin's? Michelle didn't know why Sam had done it, but she knew more than ever, after seeing how good she could be there, that Sam could be a truly different person.

Sam was frustrated, too. She knew Missy had been right - she needed to talk to her friends. There was so much pain, though; it wasn't a matter of not thinking anyone would care anymore, like Missy thought. A large part of it was also that she didn't know when it would stop, once she started. She actually felt a little scared going down into the recesses of her mind. It just hurt so much to have had friends with such loving parents, and go home to such distant people. To have nobody consistent caring for her at the daycare. To never feel like she could be loved, till Stephanie and Michelle and Courtney came along.

Sam's friends noticed her starting to weep at about the same time. "What's wrong?" Michelle asked.

"I've just been so alone," Sam blubbered, her sobbing starting to turn into a cry of pure anguish. Michelle walked over to her and hugged her as Sam cried and told Michelle of the emptiness in her heart.

"I feel like nobody cares sometimes, Michelle. I love being able to dream with you guys, to have fun, to feel happy. And, I want to be able to do that all the time. I want to feel normal."

Michelle was startled. So were the Larkins - Mrs. Larkin came in, hearing the commotion, and was tempted to ask Sam if anything else was wrong, too. But, she quickly deduced that Sam was revealing everything to Michelle and Courtney. She simply whispered to Courtney to let her know if Sam told about something the police needed to handle. Thankfully, there was never anything like that in Sam's life.

The emotional neglect alone, though, was really bad. And, while it wasn't bad enough for the police to need to intervene, it had left some scars that were just now being revealed. Mrs. Larkin did decide to call Stephanie, who'd come over and helped comfort Sam till she got to sleep.

Michelle and Courtney both remembered how Missy had said it seemed like Sam needed to open up to them. Missy would be glad some things were finally being revealed, but also shocked that when Sam did, things would come rushing out at such a frenetic pace. As she told Danny and Stephanie the next day, the massive amount of tears and fears really concerned her.

Also that next day, Jesse came downstairs to ask Stephanie about the vacation Danny and the girls had talked about for a couple months from then. "Hey, Steph. All ready for your big trip to New Mexico for Spring Break with your dad and sisters?"

"Yeah, I guess." Stephanie had responded to Jesse without looking up from the book she was reading. She sat it down, placed a bookmark, in it, and sighed.

"Hey, why the long face?" Jesse sat next to Stephanie on the living room sofa. "Just be glad you're not me; Becky's dragging me along with her and the kids for a couple days in Sea World. Do you realize what my hair will look like after Nicky and Alex get me into one of them pools filled with plastic balls like they got there? With maybe a dozen other kids pelting me with them, too?" He grinned at Steph's smile. "I knew that image would cheer you up."

"Yeah, the thought of all those brightly colored plastic balls sticking in your hair is quite a picture." Jesse had black hair that looked painted in place, it was so perfect. "I'm just thinking about Sam. I mean, all this time, I've been treating her like just a normal, rebellious kid, just like...well, like if she were you," Stephanie blurted. Jesse had been a real rebel as a youth, though not as bad as Sam had been.

"You thought she was like me, eh? Yeah, you know...wait a minute, that wasn't a compliment, was it?" Jesse asked, the prideful smile disappearing from his face.

"Uncle Jesse, I just feel like such a failure with her. I mean, Michelle told me all this stuff about how she's been feeling, and how bad Sam says her life's been, even before I went over there to talk with her and cuddle with her and help her get to sleep." She explained everything Michelle had told her. "This isn't just Michelle getting bossy like she did before Kindergarten and D.J. putting her in her place with just a good lecture. It isn't even you acting like you did and getting sent to the principal's office all the time. This is a kid that needs a lot of help."

Jesse put an arm around Stephanie, and let her rest her head on his side. "Aw, Steph, I know it's tough. But, there are great parents who raise four, six, eight kids and do a great job, and you know what? Even after all their experience, they still wouldn't know exactly how to handle a neglected kid like that."

"But, Uncle Jesse, those parents don't try to adopt kids like Sam. And, if they do, they do a much better job than I've done." She got up and started moping around the room.

"Steph, look," Jesse said as he rose to follow her, "I know it's hard. But, at times like this you have to look at all the positive things you've done." She turned to face him. "You got her into a great dance program; Michelle's so pumped for her recital in a few months she makes it sound like Sam's gonna be the next Barishnikov. She's in the Honeybees, and she's made lots of great strides and great friends. She spends so much time over at the Larkins' or here she probably forgets she has a home where they don't want her half the time. And, most importantly, you are able to help her mature into a fine young lady. Sure, she's gonna make mistakes, but thanks to you, thanks to Stephanie Tanner, that girl is not neglected anymore, she has two families who care deeply about her." Jesse thought for a moment, recalling that he'd given her a similar speech when Stephanie had told him about an abused boy named Charles, who had then been taken away from his home.

"You knew there could be problems, but for the first six months you knew Sam, you didn't know anything about abuse or neglect or anything like that. It was only the Charles situation that led the school to decide you and future Principal's Assistants needed to learn about that stuff."

"But what about after, Uncle Jesse, when I was so tough on her? What about the time when I babysat her last summer? When I yelled so much and gave her those fwaps that didn't hurt then? And, back in Kindergarten, the smack I'd give Sam when she wouldn't sit in the corner for timeout then is what I'd have given a really tough rebel like you at age five or six. It still didn't hurt much, but..."

Jesse placed a loving hand on Stephanie's shoulder. "Maybe the light fwaps only worked because of how you'd done it before." Sensing Stephanie's disbelief, he continued. "Look, Steph, you disciplined her the best you could. And, I think it was pretty good. What you were doing was still better than what she was experiencing, because you showed Sam love all the time, even when you punished her. You tried to get her to do what's right, and she had to learn that. For a kid who never experienced spanking and didn't know how to do it at all, I'd say you handled it well."

"But, Uncle Jesse, I could have done so much more."

"Well, like what?"

"Well..." Stephanie sighed. She didn't really know what else she could have done. She had talked nicely to Sam; the first time Sam was in her office she put her on her lap and cuddled her while talking firmly but gently. She'd tried reward systems, she'd tried everything.

"Steph, some people might say she needed professional help. But, you know what? There's no way in the world you're gonna get every single parent in this country degrees in clinical psychology. That stuff's great for helping like when you were scared of that earthquake, and got so clingy to your dad afterward and didn't know why. But, look what I've done, and I didn't even graduate high school till I went back a couple years ago. All the brains in the world couldn't have helped if Sam didn't have someone to say 'I love you' to her. Because that's what all kids need; especially her. You couldn't provide her with professional help, but you gave her the most important thing. And, you know what? There's some kids out there who never have responded to any professional. The stuff they go through is so bad they won't open up to anyone till they really feel loved. Sam might have been like that."

Stephanie nodded her understanding. "I guess. But, doesn't she still need some sort of professional help? Someone better than me?" It was still hard for Stephanie to fathom that she'd done that well with Samantha.

"Maybe. It might help the authorities know how best to help Sam, 'cause I bet the school's gonna figure it's best to report it, now that word about her meltdown's gettin' around," Jesse speculated.

"Right," Stephanie said, beginning one of her rambling discourses that seemed so reminiscent of Danny, but also with the excitement of her late mother, Pam. "I already told Dad and Michelle we're bringing Sam over here to be grounded now; we're going to get her soon." Jesse said that was fine, but was unprepared for what Stephanie said next. "I told Michelle to tell us right away if Sam ever starts really hating herself, or if there's any signs of Sam trying to hurt herself or talking about it. In fact, I'm going to make sure there's no sharp objects around Sam, nothing she could hurt herself with. I want to make sure she's completely safe."

Jesse held up his hands at Steph's near-diatribe. "Whoa, Steph, calm down." He smile wistfully and said, "You sound just like your mom when she'd get super excited. But, I think you're goin' a little overboard. Now, I may be wrong, but I think with all the love you, and Michelle, and everyone showers on her, you got her feeling so good that if she does have a few bad thoughts about herself later, she's not gonna sink into depression and start thinkin' all that other stuff."

"I hope not." Stephanie smiled sadly. "That scared Michelle when I told her about that stuff, even more than Sam's outburst did. She's okay with it now, but...maybe you can tell her what you just told me, too."

"Yeah, you bet." Jesse would tell Michelle, and she wouldn't worry about that part, but she'd still baby Sam a lot over the next couple months, even weeks after Sam's party.

Continuing to ramble, Stephanie said, "That time with the earthquake, that was just one time, with me. Can't we go anyway, even if they say it's not important, just to make sure there's nothing else wrong. Because, well, I'm not scared or anything, not like Michelle was. But, well...okay, actually, I am scared. Uncle Jesse, what if there is something still in there?"

Jesse understood. Stephanie got very emotional sometimes. She could get so excited over anything, just like their mother Pam had been.

"Okay, I'll ask. You're right, it doesn't hurt. And, you were right to warn Michelle. Sam will confide in her or Courtney before anyone else, it seems; probably before she ever tells a doctor. But, I'm pretty sure you're not gonna have to worry about it bein' that bad. Just keep helping her to have fun. And, look forward to that big Disneyland trip we're all taking with the Larkins and her in July."

"Yeah. She's really excited about that," Stephanie said with a broad grin. Samantha was, indeed, a very good dancer, probably better than Stephanie ever was. "She's got a lot to look forward to; that, all the stuff with dancing, even singing now. She could be on stage, maybe even try out for a commercial or two. We've talked about that. I guess we have filled her life with positive things. And, we'll keep doing more."

"That's right, Steph. You may not have all sorts of fancy diplomas on your wall. But, you've been pretty much the only real mother she's ever known. It's never been bad enough to report it to the authorities, but this situation still needed someone to help. And, you've been there for her. You really have shown lots of love to her. That trip to Disneyland in a few months, and all the other stuff, is gonna be great. But, it's not because of Disneyland or anything else, but thanks to that simple thing called love that her dreams have come true."

"Thanks, Uncle Jesse," Stephanie said confidently as they embraced.

That Tuesday, Stephanie was trying to keep her mind off of her worries, and glad some help was coming. She passed the time looking dreamily through last years John Muir Middle School yearbook.

Joey walked up to the couch and sat next to her. "Hey, Steph, Michelle at her Honeybees meeting?" She was. "What's on your mind?"

"Oh, just dreaming about boys, what else?"

Jesse, D.J., and Kimmy were also in the Tanner living room. When Jesse gave a slightly startled look, Kimmy glared at him and said, "Hey, calm down, hairboy. She's a teenager - it's a requirement."

"Yeah, I just hope none of the boys she's dreaming of are like me."

"Cheer up," Kimmy responded as Danny and Becky arrived home from work, "I'm sure there are no Elvis crazed boys who spend hours fixing their hair in her class."

"Kimmy pipe down, will ya?"

Becky backed up her husband. "Yeah, he's got his technique down so it only takes him thirty minutes in front of the mirror." She passed Jesse a playful grin.

Someone knocked on the door, and Danny opened it. "Hi, I'm Mrs. Morris, the social worker," she announced, "we talked on the phone last night." She'd been told this would be a good time, when everyone was home, just before Jesse and Joey left for their radio show. This way, she could meet everyone, once Michelle and Sam got home.

"Oh, hi, come on in," Danny said, introducing the others. "Michelle and Sam should be home from Honeybees pretty soon."

Stephanie stood, wanting to sound professional, yet determined, like a mom. She. Danny had told her Mrs. Morris would be there, and that she'd heard of Stephanie's work establishing the PA position, though not many details. "It's great to meet you. We've tried hard to help Sam, but any little bit of help we can get will be good. She's staying with us now. Michelle's almost more protective than me. She's babying her so much; even insists on her sleeping in her bed. Dad set up a rollaway bed right next to Michelle's, so it's a couple singles together. That alleviates the crowding, there was room in that corner of the room. That's how she thinks best when it comes to handling this, and I can see why. Sometimes I just want to hug Sam and never let go, you know what I mean? I really hurt with Sam when something like this happens; I never imagined it could be this bad."

"You've certainly inherited your father's verbosity," Mrs. Morris said with a laugh. She assured Stephanie that she understood. The social worker told the family, "From what the principal told us, and what your dad told me last night, Sam has really improved. Some of the things you did probably helped to ease the pain a lot - like the baby book you made, Mr. Tanner, or taking pictures of her and getting them hung on their walls. I'm not saying it's a great situation, but I am saying that I can tell you've got what it takes to make her comfortable."

"You don't think there's a chance anything more could be wrong, do you? That's what Steph's concerned about," D.J. said.

"It's hard to say," Mrs. Morris said. "As I told your father last night, an evaluation is important - he mentioned Dr. Steiner, whom you saw after the earthquake once...was it you, Stephanie?" She looked at her notes as Stephanie said it was. "But, it's probably not a matter of Sam telling Dr. Steiner anything new. It's more like, she might be able to tell something about Sam that you can use to help, that wouldn't come out with just talking."

Ever the child at heart, Joey pointed out that, "There's a lot of important stuff you can see by how kids play, or color, or what they do with their toys and stuffed animals, for instance. Stuffed animals are great for getting kids to talk; you remember that with the one your mom gave you, Mr. Bear," he told Stephanie.

"And, you'd be able to make any little kid feel right at home," Jesse joked to Joey. "But, yeah, I think a professional would be able to do a better job," he finished before looking at his watch.

Danny sat beside Stephanie and put an arm around her. "Steph, we know you care a lot about Sam. Sam is a little girl who really needs someone like you. But, I remember when you were so clingy after the quake. And, we needed to make sure we talked to a professional so we could understand how to help. It didn't take that long. In fact, just having you explain the picture of your family that you drew was enough to get you to express how scared you were that I'd leave and never come back. But, Sam hasn't had the advantage of the loving family you have."

"Joey's right," Mrs. Morris said. "Play, like coloring or with stuffed animals, does enable children to let go more. My hunch is it will take a lot more than one visit, though, because as your dad said, you had a lot of advantages Sam hasn't."

Stephanie looked worried. "How bad do you think it is?"

"Well, honey," Danny said gently, "Michelle was pretty freaked out. Like she'd never seen anyone cry that much. But, I don't think it's really bad yet; it's just something that would scare a kid Michelle's age. I don't want her to be too scared for Sam. And, I don't want you to be, either. But, if Sam needs to see Dr. Steiner for...a while, maybe longer..." He could tell he was worrying her, though he hadn't meant to. "Okay, the truth? She might need a lot of counseling, but not because she's really depressed or anything. She'll need it because she's had a lot of things her parents neglected, and she needs someone like Dr. Steiner to help her work through those, and to help us work through those with her, so she can have the great future you want for her."

Becky went up to check on Nicky and Alex, who she figured were probably up from their naps, while Jesse and Joey went to get ready to leave for their radio show. The group talked for a few more minutes, with Kimmy mostly just listening while the others discussed it.

"Your father's right," Mrs. Morris concluded. "You have had to put together a patchwork quilt, if you will, of assistance for Sam, with all you've done. It's a quilt that's kept her feeling very safe and loved, though. What Dr. Steiner is going to do is help you help Sam to feel more comfortable, as well as determine how effective this current arrangement is, or whether the parents might need to be removed totally from the picture for a while, though that is unlikely at this stage." She chuckled as she added, "It's almost like you've already provided the assistance we would have in ensuring she had the emotional stability of a home life, over the last couple years."

Stephanie held out a hand. "But, how are we going to get her parents to agree to let her go? It's been hard enough getting them to sign papers for Aunt Becky and I or Dad and I to take her to a regular doctor for checkups," she pointed out.

"Yeah," Kimmy suddenly spouted, "now you want them to say, 'Let us take your kid to a shrink?' Even I'm not dumb enough to antagonize them like that."

"Oh, I know how to do that," D.J. offered. "Sam has something for the Honeybees that will require a permission form, and a field trip for school, right?" Stephanie nodded. "We just sneak a permission form for an adult to take her to Dr. Steiner on the bottom, and hopefully, they'll be too busy to read anything; especially by the time they get to the third paper."

Kimmy said D.J. had a good point. "Besides, squirt, didn't you say all those upper crust people they hang out with pretty much know you and the Larkins take care of her?"

To avoid the implication that people might think Stephanie hadn't done a very good job, Danny quickly added, "Yes, just like it feels like we're taking care of you sometimes, Kimmy, you're over here so much."

"Hey, my parents have been there for me, at least. Like when I got bit by that raccoon Garth and I brought home as a pet once, and I had to get rabies shots."

Mrs. Morris couldn't help but chuckle at the thought. "That's a clever idea, D.J., and I've actually suggested a similar strategy in different cases, but I think we can afford to be more vocal about it. We have had to contact the parents, after all. I think the best approach is for us to present the idea to them," the social worker said, "and say we can order it, or they work with you and, as long as there's nothing horribly wrong, they can keep away from the bad publicity in their social circle. We'll be playing 'good cop/bad cop,' if you will."

"If we're going to be poleicemen," Kimmy asked, "can I be Barney Fife?"

"That's just who I was thinking for you, Kimmy," Stephanie said with a nod.

Michelle and Sam came home then, shortly after Jesse and Joey had left, and Mrs. Morris enjoyed talking with them. She could tell the family was very protective and wanted to help. She reasoned that if this had to happen, it was probably the best possible scenario, the way the Tanners were handling things.

Stephanie insisted on accompanying Danny and Sam for the first appointment with Dr. Steiner, that Friday afternoon. When Danny walked into the office with Stephanie and Sam, Sam seemed a little apprehensive, and kept holding Stephanie's hand. "Thanks for seeing us so quickly, Dr. Steiner."

"Oh, it's no problem at all, Mr. Tanner. It sounds like you've really been a big help to Sam and her family." The doctor introduced herself to Sam; she remembered Stephanie from before. It was hard to forget a child that verbal, even if it was just one visit. She'd been told by the social worker about the situation, and how the Tanners were helping. "It seems a little unusual to think of having Stephanie in here, too, but I am pretty flexible when it comes to how things are arranged and who I see. When you've been in practice as long as I have, you see everything."

Dr. Steiner started by asking Sam to draw a picture of her family. "Which one?" Sam asked.

"Well...everyone in your life. The ones you stay with, your home. And, any sitters or other people you're really close to."

As Danny, Stephanie, and the doctor sat at the table in the office, Stephanie told her more about what she'd been doing; she'd heard some from Danny and Mrs. Morris, but not nearly everything.

"My, I remember you being quite verbal before, seeing you helps to jog my memory. But, it's really amazing to hear how much you've helped."

"We just want to make sure there are no other problems, too," Danny explained. "I don't even know half of what's gone on, there might be some times when I go out of the room and just let the girls in here. But, that's okay, I noticed your magazines aren't in a logical order in your waiting room, I could arrange those for you."

Stephanie was amazed at what all had come out by the end of the meeting. Actually, awestruck was more like it, though she probably shouldn't have been surprised that she, along with Mrs. Larkin and, somewhat, Hannah, were, emotionally, pretty close to being Sam's mother; or, at least what she perceived as what a mother should be.

She was a little bothered by the fact there was no real father figure - Sam had been asked to circle the person most like her mother, and drew a couple circles around Stephanie, and one around the others. But, she couldn't circle anyone who was like a father.

Still, as the doctor had pointed out, many children growing up without one still find someone to latch on to, just like it sounded like Michelle did D.J. as a mother figure, Steph did D.J. and Aunt Becky, and D.J. remembered Pam, but also looked to Becky. Stephanie made a mental note to try to get Sam more interested in going to church, so there were even more good adult models, in addition to how Danny and the others helped.

"It will be very important later, when Sam starts making decisions about boyfriends, and eventually marriage," Dr. Steiner had said. "Doing things with your Uncle Jesse and Aunt Becky will also be important, as she'll see how men and women interrelate with each other and with children, just like she does with the Larkin's. It sounds like that's a very happy marriage, where even with the differences, such as his love for Elvis, they can still get along and he can accept the occasional joke about it, just like your Aunt Becky accepts the occasional joke about Nebraska. It sounds like the kind of relationship that she might one day say is her ideal for marriage; right now she has the Larkin's, but she needs as many as you can find for her, so she knows it not just a one in a million chance. And, so she doesn't just go from guy to guy looking for love and not knowing if she'd found it."

"You know those cold sweats you say you get thinking about me going out with boys? I think I just had my first in there," Stephanie would later joke to Danny. She added that despite how she joked sometimes, she still saw Danny as a great example of the kind of man she wanted to see with Sam someday.

Another thing Stephanie told Dr. Steiner about at the outset, while Sam was drawing the picture, was Michelle's plan. Dr. Steiner agreed that it sounded like a good one, if it worked. A plan to totally escape the past, in a way. While she'd never totally lose some of the burdens of her formative years, Sam could still adopt a very healthy attitude, and choose to live successfully. Because, as it was, Sam felt a little trapped in her old identity.

Dr. Steiner considered, too, the request from the authorities to determine what the best course of action was in this case. She knew that one possible recommendation would be to remove Sam entirely from the Burkes. However, she dismissed it. She felt the status quo, with insisting that the parents co-operate much more fully and be in contact more with the Tanners about their daughter's case, was best for several reasons.

She could tell things were working well now. Although at a snail's pace at times, the Burkes had co-operated with the Tanners to this point. Indeed, they'd practically made Stephanie a nanny and the Tanners a foster family as it was! She knew the court case could disrupt what was actually an amicable situation too much, and take too much of a toll on Sam; why turn things nasty when things were functioning, since there was little hope of success? As she told Mr. Tanner privately, what he'd heard from a couple other lawyers was true - some counties were a lot tougher than others, and what would be a case for court supervision in the easier counties wouldn't get off the ground in others. She'd seen enough cases, as a child therapist, she could hear the judge now. "They provide her physical needs; the court system isn't here to protect children from just bad parenting, but to save them from dangerous individuals."

It's just that now, the county would ensure the Burkes co-operated with the Tanners in a timely manner, and that Sam was getting all the emotional help she needed.

By the end of the session, Stephanie and Danny could tell that it was important for Sam to continue seeing her to work through things. She knew she was loved and cared for, but she still had plenty of emotional scars from being left alone for so long. Thankfully, Sam had enjoyed it there, and wouldn't mind going back.

"It's going to take time to heal," Dr. Steiner said, "but I can tell she really loves it with you and with the Larkins; I see no problem letting her go there or to other friends' houses to stay if she wants; the important thing is that she be alone as little as possible," she noted, "so she really feels like she does have that companionship."

"So, can she, say, ride her bike and stuff; I mean, Dad's right, I can get pretty excitable. I don't want to smother her with attention," Stephanie said, trying hard to sound humble, though inside she did feel a desire to be massively overprotective. The fact she was holding it in, she decided, was proof she was growing up.

Dr. Steiner was glad for the question, as she could focus on something Stephanie had said earlier without scaring her too much. It did seem like Sam would avoid massive depression. And, she was right; Sam would never have feelings of wanting to hurt herself. But, it was best to be careful, with how Sam felt, and not take any chances.

"Yes, but for a while I'd recommend always having a buddy, so she feels secure knowing someone's always going to be there. We can re-evaluate when she can be alone riding her bike at a later appointment; as your dad has said, you'll watch her more like a girl just turning six right now, anyway, with her size, so she won't be riding all around alone right now anyway."

Stephanie agreed; Sam liked the protectiveness, too.

"The fact you let her go with other friends shows you are letting her have freedom in a healthy way," Dr. Steiner remarked. "I think you're handling this pretty well; it's good that you understand where you might go overboard if you're not careful. Something like not having sharp objects around, for instance," she noted. "I don't foresee any problems, but that's one area where you're right to ensure there aren't any around her, just for your own piece of mind. I don't think you're being overprotective at all there. But, having a security detail follow her around would be a bit much," she said with a laugh. The others joined in.

"I must admit, sometimes I think her protectiveness comes from me, too," Danny said. "But, as excitable as Pam could get, she always managed to keep me from going overboard. I guess Steph's learning the same way how to balance the two," he said proudly, stroking her hair lovingly as he did so.

"It's a hard thing to balance sometimes. Especially in a case like this; sometimes the wounds are so deep that they never heal. But, even if this is one of those cases, with the love your family shows, she can still lead a very happy and healthy and productive life," Dr. Steiner remarked. "Because I can tell that your family is one that's going to show that great unconditional love that you talk about. And, that's just what she needs to be surrounded with so she can recover well."

Michelle had been amazed by all that she'd heard when the others came home from Dr. Steiner's, after a short trip to the mall; she'd done all her homework for the weekend to keep her mind off it, and only heard everything after supper.

Michelle had already been babying Sam, offering to cut her food, getting extra pizza when they had that - which helped, since she couldn't reach as far, looking a couple years younger than Michelle, rather than just half a year - and other things.

Now, Becky saw her in the kitchen near bedtime. "I'm making some warm milk for Sam," she told Becky.

"Well, that's fine, but she doesn't need it in a bottle," Becky teased lightly, to imply that Michelle was perhaps babying Sam a bit much.

"I know, Aunt Becky," Michelle said with a laugh as she warmed a glass in the microwave. "Steph says this used to help her get to sleep. She said she could always taste the love D.J. put in it. I can, too."

"Well, I guess I baby the boys a bit too, sometimes. Just don't go overboard," she said as Michelle went back upstairs after having heated the glass.

Danny was reading Sam a story in Michelle and Steph's bedroom. "Hey, pumpkin," Danny said softly.

"Hey, Dad." She handed Sam the glass. "Isn't this amazing. I always wanted a baby sister, and now I've got one." Sam would have commented that the emphasis seemed to be on the word "baby," but she was too tired to reply - and loving this too much, anyway. It did make her feel so loved.

"You think that's something, Dr. Steiner said I'm like a mom," Stephanie said. She sat on the other side of the bed from Danny, and Sam crawled into her lap.

Once Sam had had a story read to her, Danny turned out the light. Michelle was allowed up a little later - with her size and the long day, Sam had felt a little more tired.

Once they were outside the room, Michelle asked, "What was it like when you learned Mom had died?"

Stephanie thought that an odd question, but not too out of the ordinary; she remembered all sorts of things popped into her brain when she was eight. "Well...there was a phone call. And, Dad just started weeping. I couldn't understand it; why would a phone call make him cry? Then he told me...I didn't want to believe it. I ran up and grabbed Mr. Bear, and I think we went to the hospital, Dad and D.J. and I. Grandma and Grandpa came and picked us up, and Joey watched us the rest of the day. Dad could hardly get anything out other than 'I love you' to us. It was just so incredibly sad. I don't know if I had any tears left by the end of the day."

"That's kind of what Sam reminded me of last weekend. I thought maybe you could have cried that much. Back then. But, you were just five. She's almost eight."

Stephanie agreed. "It's really hard. Michelle, one of the hardest things that could have happened was losing Mom. She was so important to me, especially at that age. D.J. didn't think it would ever be fun living in this house again, in fact. It's like there was such emptiness there. But, we've filled it with lots of love, and some awesome times, haven't we?"

"We sure have."

"I guess it's a good way to compare it, at your age." Stephanie had been trying to think of how to explain Sam's problem to Michelle. This was a good way to help her understand, she supposed. "Sam's the same way, in a way. Her parents don't take any time for her at all. They don't pay any attention to her. So, she's got a big, empty space in her just like we did after Mom died." In a way, Stephanie was thankful it had happened before Michelle could understand what was going on; she'd been spared that pain. "Except, that space is a lot bigger because at least we had the memories, while she never had any."

"What can we do to help?" Michelle asked, slightly teary thinking about her friend.

"You're doing the best you can right now. You may not have totally understood it then; and it's okay if you still don't 'cause I can't even grasp it totally," Stephanie confessed. "I told Allie and Darcy, I just can't fathom how much Sam's been hurting on the inside, it's hard to imagine being that lonely. But, we're doing just what we have to do; I guess because of instincts more than anything."

Michelle agreed; it was especially true with her, since she couldn't' understand it as well as her teenage sisters.

"You know, Michelle, Courtney's family and ours are working to fill that gap, that blank space that Sam needs to have filled. I didn't know it, but I'd been doing that since she first came to Fraser St. Elementary. And, you have, too. You've been a great encouragement, you've been friendly, you've helped her in a lot of ways just by being there. Sam sees you as her big sister," Stephanie finished.

Danny had overheard, and agreed. "I think last Friday night was really just her letting a lot of things out at once because she trusts you and Courtney. She believes you'll understand."

"I'm trying."

"I even told D.J. some of the stuff so she could bring it up with Hannah. Hannah will find it easier to explain to Courtney." Stephanie thanked him for that. "It's hard for us adults to understand how much she hurts. But, if you keep doing what you're doing, chances are she'll be able to grow into a wonderful young lady just like you girls. Because you're giving her the most important thing."

"What's that?"

"Love." Danny hugged Michelle and gave her a small peck on the forehead as he began to reminisce. "Honey, you don't remember this; Steph might have trouble, I don't know. But, your mom had a saying. 'Give away a smile; it's free.' She knew the world needed lots of smiles, and love. And, the more you give, you more you get. It's something we can always afford to give away, just like smiles." Stephanie remembered that after Danny had said it. "That's right. And, we've been giving for a long time, and it's paying off."

"What else do we have to do?" Michelle asked.

"Just keep doing what you're doing. The doctor liked your idea, Michelle; she thought it might really help. Keep showering that love, that attention on her. Keep showing you believe in her. And, she should really blossom someday. I think you're starting to see the results now; would you have believed a year ago she'd be one of the best ballet dancers they have where you danced when you were younger, Steph?"

"I don't know, Dad. I'd like to think I believed in her all the time. About her dancing, yeah, I did. But, all the time, I don't know." She smiled at Michelle. She decided not to think of the past, when there wee times when she did question how well Sam could behave. Instead, she thought of times like when Michelle invited her out for ice cream after some of Sam's worst behavior at school. "I know you've always believed in her, Michelle."

"That's just what she needs; someone to believe in her," he said.

Michelle smiled. She went to bed a short time later, and found Sam still partly awake. She cradled her like a doll, and said, "D.J. used to call me her Strawberry Shortcake when I was wee little, you know that, Sammie? We love you so much." She kept talking soothingly, as if she was putting a baby to bed. The way Sam had been so sad, it still startled Michelle, and she wanted to make extra certain that Sam knew she was loved. "Even Steph wonders if I'm going overboard a bit. But, I just want you to know we believe in you, Sammie. You've got a great family here. Remember that song you danced to for your first recital?" She began to sing; her voice wasn't as pretty as Stephanie's, but Sam liked it. "If just one person believes in you. Deep enough, and strong, believes in you......" She continued the song as Sam drifted off to sleep, feeling satisfied that while there had been a lot of loneliness, which would be hard to get away from, she knew the Tanners, and the Larkins, all cared deeply about her. She truly was loved.

The weeks leading up to Sam's party had been lots of fun. Michelle wasn't nearly as scared, so didn't baby Sam quite like at first, but still babied her a fair amount till abut a month after the party, as the shock of how hurt Sam had felt wore off. Of course, Michelle would always see her as a little sister who she had to help and protect.

Michelle wasn't just having fun seeing Sam as a baby sister, though. She went to great lengths to prepare the most exciting party she could. And yet, she had to keep it a secret from Sam; she wanted it to be a great surprise.

That Friday night, Sam and Courtney and Cassie and Mandy slept at the Tanners; the slumber party had been a lot of fun. They'd discussed all sorts of great dreams. Before Stephanie left for a slumber party Darcy was having with her and Allie, she helped the girls with ideas, like diaries where they wrote things like what they thought they'd be doing in ten to twenty years, their dream weddings, and so on. Stephanie was excited to see that Sam thought she could be a professional ballerina. Yes, Stephanie considered proudly, she probably could.

The others left after breakfast Saturday - they were going to play at Cassie's house for a few hours, as Michelle wanted everyone to be surprised. As Michelle and Sam walked toward the steps leading upstairs, D.J. and Kimmy came downstairs with matching purses - except Kimmy's had a large eye on it.

"Hey, squirts, you like this? If I come across a mugger I'll point this eye at them. Think this evil eye thing will work?"

Sam looked at Michelle, anxious to know what to say. She wanted to say something that sounded a little rude, but she knew Michelle had been coaching her for a reason. She was supposed to be nice to others.

"It's okay. She knows she's a little weird," Michelle murmured. To D.J. and Kimmy, Michelle said, "We're going to have the best birthday party ever."

"Well, that's wonderful. From all I've heard, Michelle, Sam should have lots of fun."

"Yeah, Deej. Although, don't tell anyone till the guests come. But, Sam needs something to complete her new image. So, she's getting a new name."

Kimmy smiled and suggested excitedly, "A new name, eh? How about Fred? That would give you a great new image," she said, giving a short, decisive nod.

"Uh...Kimmy," D.J. said, as if breaking bad news, "Fred is a boy's name."

"Really? Huh. I always thought that would be nice, a girl named Fred. Hmmmm." Michelle withheld giggles with her hand. Sam copied. "I know. How about Chaos. After all, any girl can be named Harmony. But, Chaos would be one of a kind. You know, Deej, I like that name. I'll have to remember it when I have little ones," Kimmy remarked as the teens walked out the door.

"I already feel sorry for her kids," Michelle admitted lowly, a small chuckle in her voice. Even at her age, having heard from Stephanie the meaning of chaos, Michelle realized that some of Kimmy's strange comments would be funnier, if it weren't so sad.

"Yeah, what weird names. Anyway, Michelle, you said you had a neat outfit for me?"

"That's right. Aunt Becky's here, too, she's going to give you a makeover. Then we can all do some later. That can be part of our activities."

A while later, all the guests were there, and the slumber party girls were back. Becky told Michelle to lead her friend downstairs, then rushed down and told everyone to watch.

The sight had brought gasps from almost all of the children. Finally, a girl named Amy broke the silence, walking up to Sam and saying in a voice shaky with disbelief "S-Sam?".

It was a stunning transformation - Sam was dressed in a long light pink "royal" gown that seemed almost bigger than she was and matching shoes. Her long, dark hair ws made up in a long braid and had little red ribbons threaded through it thanks to the work of Michelle's Aunt Becky. Her face showed a trace of makeup - one of Becky's ideas to enhance her "regal" appearance.

Sam had been expecting this reaction. She turned towards Amy with all the politeness Stephanie and Michelle had taught her. "Not Sam, Samantha," she said with a soft smile and a blink of her chocolate brown eyes, leaving the girl and many of the other kids open mouthed. She then turned to Michelle who was standing protectively behind her. "After all, I don't look much like Sam anymore do I?"

Courtney said with a hint of awe, "I expected a bit of a makeover. But, this..."

"Even I was amazed. But, Michelle's right. I need a whole new look," Samantha said, sounding more like the eight-year-old Stephanie might have trying to imitate D.J. or an adult. While those words wouldn't have come from Stephanie's mouth, they were confident like Stephanie's would have been; Samantha's tone wasn't that of an overly angry, bitter child like it could have been. She had lost out on many normal childhood things because of her upbringing.

She was totally unprepared, however, for what she heard next. Nicky and Alex's tapes had been brought down, and one of the girls had inserted one into a tape recorder. A Sesame Street song was playing on it.

"I know it's strange, Samantha. But, we're combining lots of birthdays at once," Michelle said excitedly.

"Isn't...that a little young for me, though?"

"Well, you never got to really have fun with this stuff, did you?" Suddenly, Joey entered from the kitchen with a great big cake - it had sprinkles all over it, along with white icing.

"Hey, is there a cake under all those sprinkles?" Amy joked.

Michelle chuckled. "I guess I got a little carried away with those."

"Hey, let's sing, everyone." The girls joined in singing "Happy Birthday," while Samantha just stood and watched in awe. All this was for her? "Nobody's ever done anything like this for me," she proclaimed.

"We care about you, Samantha. And, people who care to these things, just because you're you. And, that makes you special."

"That's right. You deserve the best," Michelle remarked.

"Michelle wanted to rent something like 'The Little Mermaid,' but we suggested something a little more on your level," Cassie told her.

"So, we have that and 'The Little Mermaid,'" Mandy said.

Samantha didn't want to hurt Michelle's feelings - she'd actually never seen that movie. Still, she said, "I guess that would be okay." she said. She knew accepting would mean they'd continue to baby her but in her situation she didn't care.

"Okay." Michelle had many more things planned. Of course, some of them were a little childish for an eight-year-old. But, Samantha found herself not caring as much as she might have expected. Just having someone pay attention to her, to spend time with her, and to have put forth such effort for her, was a great blessing.

Stephanie arrived home a while later. "Is that the alphabet song I hear?" she asked incredulously. "I thought Nicky and Alex were with their dad in the park."

"It is. Michelle...well, she did a lot of stuff for my birthday today," Samantha said. "She even did stuff for my birthdays when I was three and four today!"

Stephanie laughed. "Well," she said, looking at Michelle, "You certainly outdid yourself this time, huh? And..." She finally had time to study Samantha's new look.

"She even changed her name," Courtney said with disbelief.

"I didn't know you could get a new name for your birthday," Amy remarked.

"Well, you get one when you're born, right?"

"True, Michelle. Unless you're like my dad. My grandma tells the story of how they didn't know what they would call him till the next day."

"Good point, Cassie." Stephanie had been thinking about the change as she listened. Finally, she knelt down and told Samantha, "It's great that you want to change. However, the most important change will be on the inside. We've talked about what you need to work on, so I'm sure you know just what else needs done. Of course, now that I say that, this will certainly show people that this is a new you."

Stephanie rose and continued. "I ran into a friend of our dad's at the mall today, her name's Kirsten. She's maybe six or seven years older than D.J., but still young enough to be a great influence on this girl named Gia. Gia goes to Kennedy Middle School, and she had a lot or problems because of her parents' divorce. But, she's making a real, positive change, too. When my friends and I ran into them, Gia told me she finally managed to stop smoking."

"Steph, a teenager was smoking!" Michelle's eyes widened; adults looked gross enough when she saw them doing it. For a teen to do it...

Samantha echoed Michelle's thoughts. "If I ever did that, you'd have smoke coming out your ears!"

"You've got that right!" she said with a glare. Less emphatically, Stephanie said, "She's lucky she was able to stop. I wish she went to my school, though; I probably could have been a good influence on her. Kirsten might not have had to work as hard. Her mom said without a good female role model, she tried extra hard to get Gia involved in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program; though she might have eventually, anyway. Gia will graduate to the next grade this year, which is a real plus." Stephanie chuckled as she recalled that her dad, desperate to feel younger, had actually dated Kirsten one time, toward the end of Stephanie's third grade year.

Stephanie considered that she'd been spending so much time with friends and thinking about boys, and Michelle had been so preoccupied with her new friend (and likely would have thought of them anyway) that they hadn't even tried to look for after school programs for Samantha. She supposed that this change to Samantha would therefore signal a very positive step.

"You have a lot of freedom now that you're not in daycare. But, you'll always have us around to help you; same with Courtney and her family, and all your other friends. I know you really want to stay away from trouble and have a good time with your freedom," Stephanie said. Samantha agreed. "That's good. Because your freedom is very valuable. And, you know I could take any of your privileges away if I have to." Giving her a hug, she added, "But I'm not going to have to, am I?"

"No way, Stephanie!"

Stephanie smiled. The speech had sounded a little like she recalled their dad and the others talking to Michelle when she was first was able to ride a bike with training wheels around the block. But, given Samantha's development, it was appropriate. However, all sensed that they'd reached a great milestone with this birthday.

It saddened Stephanie a little, still, to think of how tough she'd been on Samantha early, when she was Sam, but Dr. Steiner had reassured her at an early appointment that Samantha felt Stephanie had done an awesome job. Stephanie was seen as a warm, tender, and loving mother who only got tough when it was really necessary.

Samantha began to blossom some, too, in not feeling quite as down as she had. She certainly had plenty of rough moments, but at least she didn't need Michelle's intense babying anymore. And, Michelle had gotten over it well, too. About five weeks after the birthday party, ten weeks after the meltdown, Samantha felt comfortable enough to join Joey as they went to visit his mom in Los Angeles before spending the week with Jesse, Becky, and the twins in San Diego on vacation. Danny and the girls went where they'd originally planned. And, a few weeks later, she'd gone camping with the Larkins.

Samantha wasn't as scared - though she was still as scared as Steph - when Michelle hit her head falling off her horse. It wasn't bad, just a small concussion and an overnight stay in the hospital for observation. Michelle was awake but woozy after a few seconds, and even got up with our help once the paramedics made sure she was okay; they have them at every event like that because of the kids and the risks. The crowd cheered, and with her mind a little foggy, she asked if the Giants won. Just that had freaked Samantha out a little.

Michelle and Elizabeth might have gone onto the trail otherwise, especially if she had gone to Jesse for advice, but she went to D.J. instead, since D.J. was like a mom, and was reminded of the time Danny had pushed Stephanie too hard with dance - she and Elizabeth simply walked their horses around like it was a simple riding competition, not a jumping one. The "strike" and talk from the rest of the family had gotten Danny and Elizabeth's mom to start being civil, and both to be more sportsmanlike and not push so much. Michelle's only aftereffect was that, since the concussion knocked out a couple hours of her memory, she didn't recall the fall, and a subconscious fear of heights came later, which she conquered.

Michelle and Elizabeth had proven their point with their little "strike," though, and neither Dad nor Elizabeth's mom ever pushed their kids real hard again. They became civil, and the girls became friends.

Even when she was so upset with Michelle for teasing her in front of a guy she liked, and showed him some very embarrassing pictures of Michelle to "retaliate." "I've seen those pictures, like the one where you're eating ice cream out of a nearly empty container. It really does look like you ate that whole gallon," Samantha whispered. Michelle nodded, embarrassed. "That was a good way to get back at you - she actually showed me those pictures for me to show others in case you ever got too rough correcting me in front of other people."

Michelle had to admit that, "I know I babied you a lot for a couple months there - and I'm still going to," she said with a laugh. "But, I'm glad you feel comfortable with so many people. Everyone cares about you; we know you can be a wonderful person. Even a professional ballerina, if you want to be."

"You bet. Steph's got a lot of rules yet, but I know they're there to protect me," Samantha said, considering that - with her size and how she could be taken advantage of easier - some of the rules for her were like those for a child a couple years younger. But, that was mostly just Stephanie's protectiveness. And, frankly, right now she still liked having someone watch over her so much. "I've really escaped from being Sam. Now, I want to learn. I want to have fun within the rules. I want to have a real childhood, just like you said."

The words might have sounded odd for most eight-year-olds, but given Samantha's troubled past with few good, loving role models, it was understandable. At least she'd gone from the angry, bitter scowls that should never belong in a seven-year-old to comments that might not be expected of children her age.

"By the way, someone said there's a new girl in my class who's coming today, for the first time." Samantha sighed. "You know, it's hard to believe, but...I think I can help he get used to the school. I can actually help people."

"I know you could, Samantha."

During lunch, Samantha and Courtney walked with their new friend to one of the third graders' tables - second and third graders ate together. "Hey, Michelle. This is Andrea Byrne. Her dad just got traded to the Giants. Even though there's a few weeks of school left, she came out now, since she'd only been in her old school district a few months, after he got called up from the minors," Samantha said. "She's the one I was telling you about."

"Hi." Mandy passed Jeff Farrington a look pleading with him not to ask for autographs as Michelle introduced her friends. Jeff couldn't help it, however.

"Oh, don't worry. Half the kids in our class have already bugged me." Andrea said, "I just tell them to write to the team."

Samantha and the others sat with Michelle and her friends. Samantha was really excited that she and Courtney could help a new girl like this. As Andrea talked about her dad's job as a backup outfielder, and Michelle discussed stories her dad had told of going to spring training a couple times with the Giants when he was a sportscaster.

Samantha felt excited about her new image. She sensed that many kids seemed comfortable with her, after months had passed of her being Samantha.

When she, Michelle, and Michelle's friends arrived at the Tanner home after school that day, Michelle and Samantha ran up to the room Michelle and Stephanie shared. "Hey, kiddo," Stephanie said, hugging Michelle. "Aren't you glad Dad convinced me not to tag along with you when you got back to school last week?" Samantha giggled. "I guess even though you weren't hurt too badly, I've been a little overprotective of you. But, I'm getting over it."

"Good luck. Sometimes I wish I'd always had someone watching over me like that." Samantha sighed and smiled warmly, thinking of how Stephanie had watched over Michelle at the party they'd had a week ago Sunday afternoon to celebrate, even if she hadn't been able to participate in the jumping contest then, with her concussion; she still couldn't play sports for a month or so, just in case. "I'm glad you guys do now."

"We'll always be here for you," Stephanie said.

"Yeah, we love you," Michelle said, bringing a tear to Samantha's eye. She'd heard it before from them. But, the Tanner home it was pretty much the only place she ever heard it.

"I love you too," Samantha said weakly.

"And, I know you're changed now. You've got a lot of fun choices you can make as far as where to go, what to do, that are within the rules. But, even if you should mess up," Stephanie said, looking Samantha in the eye, "I want you to know that you can come to us, and we will still love you."

With a teary thank you, Samantha joined Stephanie and Michelle in a group hug. While there would still be difficulties, she had truly escaped, escaped from a world of problems into a world of love.