"Poor kid," said Art Webber, a New York retiree sunbathing in the slant- shadowed warmth of a late afternoon in downtown Sebring. "It's just an awful mess, and I don't have an answer for it."
Few people do when the question is Kimberly Michelle Mays.
She is just another kid, really, this slender youngster who recently decided to renew her life where it began - with her biological parents, Ernest and Regina Twigg. She moved in with the couple earlier this month, leaving Robert Mays, the man who raised her from birth and who went to court to keep the child away from the people who gave her life.
She's 15, an age when young girls stand poised unsteadily to make those first steps into adulthood, when feet are more accustomed to sneakers than high heels, when applying makeup is still more thrill than chore.
It's a time when parents can be a bore, a pain, a closed door refusing to open to the wide, inviting world that waits beyond. Some kids run away from home at that age.
That's what Kim did.
Or did she run to home?
Home these days is Sebring, population 12,000. It's the county seat of Highlands County, a lake-dotted land where citrus and cattle enjoy an undeclared truce on the use of the central Florida terrain. A spate of civic- club signs lets visitors know that Sebring takes pride in itself. It's a town of animal lovers, too: The official town cat, Missy (1966-1979), is buried under a granite marker in the downtown park. The town is noted for its annual extravaganza, the 12 Hours of Sebring automobile endurance race, when luminaries no less than Paul Newman stop at the Cathouse Restaurant for biscuits and coffee.
Now, it is noted for a second celebrity. She lives just outside town in a sprawling, 4,600-square-foot home where Ernest and Regina Twigg are trying to keep the world away from their little girl.
Kimberly joined her biological parents March 8, turning her back on the Englewood, Fla., home she'd shared with Mays and his wife (Kimberly's stepmother), Darlena.
Life had not been going smoothly in Englewood. The girl didn't like the parochial school where her father had enrolled her, so she cut classes and got bad grades. And, said some, she was still steamed at Mays for not letting her attend homecoming earlier in the academic year at Lemon Bay High School. Life became intolerable, and in late February Kim moved into a youth shelter at the Sarasota YMCA.
That was where two of the Twiggs' daughters, Normalia and Gina, left a note for their baby sister, who wasn't there when they made the 60-mile trip to see her in early March. Call us, the note read.
Kimberly did. She wanted her mother . . . her real mother.
"Mom," she said in a call to Regina Twigg, "I love you, and I want to come home."
There wasn't much Mays could do. He and the Twiggs agreed to the move, citing in a statement a "parent-teen conflict." They also agreed to say nothing more about Kimberly, and have steadfastly stuck to that.
Now she's enrolled at Sebring High School, home of the Blue Streaks. Kimberly Mays, freshman, just wants to be part of the crowd.
But can she? Who else can say she was switched at birth, sued a couple of strangers who were her parents, became the subject of a book and TV movie, and became a millionaire - all before getting a driver's license?
Kimberly truly was just another kid in the summer of 1988 when she first heard of Ernest and Regina Twigg of Langhorne, Bucks County. They were looking for the only other girl born at a small hospital in rural Wauchula, Fla., in late November or December 1978, the same time as their daughter Arlena was born.
A frail child who suffered from congenital heart defects all her life, Arlena died during heart surgery in August 1988. But before she died, the Twiggs learned a stunning fact: Genetic testing proved the little girl with the pale skin and wan eyes, whom they'd raised as their own, was not theirs. Someone else had their real daughter.
That someone was Robert Mays, a roofing-material salesman and contractor. Mays, widowed - Barbara Mays (Arlena Twigg's biological mother) died of cancer in 1981 - and then divorced, was living in Sarasota. With him was his little girl, Kimberly, and together they led quiet, unremarkable lives.
That all changed at an Oct. 25, 1988, news conference. A clearly nervous Mays stood before a bank of microphones and acknowledged that his daughter, his Kimberly, was the child the Twiggs claimed as their own, inexplicably switched at birth with the child borne by Mays' wife.
Genetic testing the next year proved it.
The Twiggs moved themselves and their seven children from Langhorne to Sebring in 1989 to be nearer Kimberly. They began pressuring for visitation rights and got them in May 1990. Those visits ended five months later when Mays canceled them, contending the visits upset Kimberly and affected her schoolwork.
The next year, the Twiggs received $7 million in a settlement of their federal lawsuit against the hospital. Mays got $6.6 million. Kimberly got slightly more than $1 million immediately. At 18, she will start receiving additional payments that will total $4.2 million if she lives until 72.
With all that money in so many hands, grumbled George White, a friend of the Twigg family, lawsuits were bound to follow. "I'd say, I suppose, that the lawyers are the ones who have benefited from this so far."
Last May, Kimberly filed suit to sever the Twiggs' ties to her. The trial took place in August, and the nation watched as a very private pain was played out on a public stage for a week.
It wasn't pleasant. Kimberly sobbed and shook on the stand, testifying that she'd had nightmares about the couple stalking her. The Twiggs' lawyer responded that an "insidious" Mays had poisoned the child's mind against her true parents. In the end, a judge sided with Kimberly, declaring Mays her ''psychological father" and granting the Twiggs no visitation privileges.
End of story? No. The Twiggs appealed, and that has not been heard yet.
NBC chronicled the saga with Switched at Birth, a made-for-TV movie documenting the baby-swap case. A book came not long after, and the nation got to know the confused world of a hazel-eyed, blond-haired little girl with too many parents.
All the uproar still may not be over, said Norman Goldstein, a pediatrician who examined Kimberly and testified in the court case last year. She's going through most of those roller-coaster emotions that teens experience, "with a bizarre twist."
"It's like a typical divorce, when the parents are fighting for the child," he said. Often, Goldstein said, a youngster will play parents off each other - living with one, then moving in with the other when life at home gets unpleasant.
"This sort of thing happens all the time," he said. "But if this happens to Mary Jones down the block, who cares? Kimberly, on the other hand, gets national attention when she does it."
Ask the folks who live in Englewood, where Mays moved - fled, some say - after the nation learned of Kimberly's true parentage.
Englewood, population 40,000, straddles the Sarasota-Charlotte County line 85 miles south of Tampa. It is a place of wide sidewalks and tall sabal palms, of boats on trailers and dazzlingly blue skies, where postage-stamp lawns shimmer green under hissing sprinklers. The town, median age 64, is a haven for retirees. Much of it looks new, as if it sprung up recently from the hot dirt, and its flat roads are filled with out-of-state cars carrying aged vacationers to Englewood Beach just across the bridge spanning Ainger Creek.
"It's a quiet place," said Robert Harden, 74, a resident. "We want it to stay that way."
But the town hasn't enjoyed much serenity lately. Residents on the short street where Robert and Darlena Mays live peer at unfamiliar cars and scowl at television trucks, their satellite dishes like sunflowers seeking the light.
"He's been a nice neighbor, a good man," said a woman living next to the Mayses' home, an off-white stucco structure fronted by red azaleas ringing a live oak. "That's all I will say about Mr. Mays."
Nice. Good. Those are the same words that folks often use to describe the Twiggs.
"I can tell you that they are good people and a great set of parents," said Helen Havery, who befriended the Twiggs 11 years ago when Regina recorded some country songs with her guitar-playing son, Harry.
"Everybody has been giving them the raw end of the deal," she said. ''Everyone has said, 'They have seven children, why do they want another one?'
"But it's their daughter. She belongs with them."
Kimberly also needs time to herself, says just about everyone.
"She's had enough attention. You ought to just let her alone," said Betty Thomason, a part-time Sebring resident who spends her winters here, away from the Michigan winters. "That poor little girl needs some privacy."
Time to sort out all those issues that confuse and confound teens, agreed George Russ, a Leesburg lawyer who represented Kimberly at the trial to sever the Twiggs' ties to her. A children's-rights advocate, Russ represented Gregory K, another Florida child who successfully sued to cut the ties that bound him to his parents.
"The period between 12 and 18 years old can be hard," he said. "I remember."
Critics of Kimberly's court victory shouldn't view the girl's decision to move in with her former adversaries as proof that children aren't mature enough to have a voice in decisions affecting their lives, he said.
"Kim has had problems. The psychologists are not surprised," he said. ''It was predicted in court that she'd have problems."
And, for now, those problems have been played out on front pages, in the evening news and the TV tabloid magazines. The images are arresting: Kimberly Mays, dancing with coltish exuberance at a window, performing for a camera crew standing at the end of the shelled driveway leading to the Twigg home; Ernest Twigg, smacking a cameraman outside a Sebring restaurant; Kimberly ducking her head as she zips past reporters for her first day at Sebring High.
There has been so much attention focused on the girl that the local newspaper, the News-Sun, ran a survey late last week asking readers if the latest wrinkle in Kimberly's life has justified all the media scrutiny. The tide was running against the media at about 15-1, said Richard Tuttell, the editor.
And the Tampa Tribune, which broke the story about the girl's move, followed its scoop with an editorial urging everyone to leave Kimberly alone. Then the publication ran a photo of the girl at her first day in her new school.
Enough is enough, said Christine Ritchie, a clerk at an Englewood video store where teens who knew Kimberly often stop. "I think everybody's a little tired of it now," she said.
As proof, Ritchie noted that Switched at Birth, now available on videotape, has been discounted to a $2.12 overnight rental fee. It's near the back of the store, in the rack where other also-ran films collect dust. No one has rented it for a while.
"It's her life," said Ritchie, who shrugged. "She lives somewhere else now."
Yes, she does. It was on the evening news.