Chapter 21: Dark Thoughts

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Ryan was quiet for the next few days, seldom making eye contact with the rest of the group. It was obvious to all that the revelation he’d forced out of Mara had affected him in some way. Ryan could be cruel, but it didn’t seem like he was a full on sociopath who felt nothing at all for others. He was the quintessential adolescent man, trying to live up to expectations of strength while also avoiding alienating everyone who he came in contact with. The group, even Mara, pitied him. It was possible that this place would prevent you from ever growing old, but maybe it would allow people to grow up.

Continue reading “Chapter 21: Dark Thoughts”

Chapter 18: Torment and Resent

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The next day the mountains turned red once more, and the cycle repeated itself. The following day, however, they lit up sporadically, but no flash of red appeared, and no pain or despair came upon the group. Ryan had stood up early that morning and decided to go for a walk, shrugging off the suggestions of others that he stay back. If he was going to be in pain, he reasoned, then it didn’t matter where. No one could help him anyway. Thankfully, though, he likely escaped pain free that day.

Back at the group, about midway through the day, a different event happened that caused excitement.

“Oh my! I can’t believe it!!!”, G-ma said as she looked to her side. She’d been sitting with Mrs. Corum to her right, talking with her about everything and nothing, and didn’t notice a bag that appeared next to her, seemingly out of nowhere.

“What is that?”, Mrs. Corum exclaimed. It was the first new thing to ever appear for either of them, excluding living people.

“It’s my knitting bag!”, G-ma said, amazed and nearly speechless, “I haven’t seen it in so long”. Quickly she opened the bag, and tears of joy streamed down her face. “It has everything in it! Everything I ever needed. Needles, patterns, yarn, markers, absolutely everything. And wait… I never owned this…”

She reached into the bag and pulled out several skeins of yarn.

“Feel this”, she said as she handed the yarn to Mrs. Corum.

“Feels like yarn?”, Mrs. Corum replied. Obviously Mrs. Corum did not appreciate the finer points of fiber arts.

“Oh you wouldn’t understand… Jamie!”, G-ma called out. Jamie, a bit farther out, turned to face them and was shocked to see G-ma holding the yarn.

“Where did you get that?”, Jamie asked, excitedly.

“I don’t know! It just appeared here a few moments ago. Come over here and feel this”.

Jamie obediently came over and sat down next to G-ma. Holding the yarn, she began to speak in amazement.

“This is the softest yarn I’ve ever felt – it’s not coarse or stringy, and the dye job is beautiful”.

“I know, dear”.

As they sat there, a torrent of yarn-speak came forth, with Mrs. Corum tuning out after they began talking about what sort of animal the yarn had come from. Sadly it had no marking on it.

“Ladies…. Can we talk about what happened?”, Mrs. Corum interjected.

“Uh… sure”, G-ma said, “Just let me get started on something here. I haven’t had real needles and yarn in so long!”. G-ma grabbed a size eight needle and the yarn.

“I’m going to knit a scarf!”, G-ma said excitedly.

“That’s great…so where do you think that yarn came from”, Mrs. Corum asked.

“I don’t know… and I really don’t care”, G-ma said.

It was obvious that Mrs. Corum wasn’t going to get much out of G-ma or Jamie. So she got up and began to walk toward where Mara and Sara Beth were sitting.

“What’s going on over there”, Sara Beth asked. She wasn’t close enough to hear the commotion, but could tell something interesting had occurred.

Mrs. Corum explained what she’d seen, and both Sara Beth and Mara were left speechless.

“G-ma is so preoccupied with the arrival of her knitting bag that I don’t think she realizes how weird this truly is, or what it could mean. If it is the case that Julie can ‘control’ us in some ways, or can create a reality for us, she could also give us things. Maybe the knitting bag is the first step. Maybe somehow G-ma signaled to Julie she wanted her knitting bag, and that’s how she got it.”

“Well, she has been knitting here for 8 years without yarn or needles”, Sara Beth observed, “That’s a pretty strong signal”.

“Perhaps. I just hope we don’t have to spend 8 years before we get something nice”, Mrs. Corum replied.

Mara eyed Sara Beth, wondering if this might be the point at which Sara Beth mentioned Mara’s purse. But Sara Beth stayed quiet. Mara felt relieved.

After Mrs. Corum had left, Mara looked at Sara Beth and quietly spoke.

“Jamie knows why Julie would suddenly start handing out presents”

“Should we talk to her about it”

“We can try”


 

“Jamie”, Sara Beth said as they walked toward the girl. She was sitting next to G-ma, watching her knit.

“Yeah… what do you want?”, she replied, obviously not interested in interacting with Sara Beth.

“Mara wanted me to ask you to come see her.”

Jamie was torn. On one hand, she wanted to know what Mara wanted. The girl was an enigma, that so far only Sara Beth seemed to be special enough to crack. Perhaps Mara was getting tired of Sara Beth, and wanted to be friends with Jamie. On the other hand, Jamie was quite happy watching G-ma knit, and learning how to do it herself.

“Go off and see her”, G-ma said, urging her granddaughter to be more social.

“Fine”, Jamie said, getting up and walking in front of Sara Beth on the way to where Mara liked to sit.

As she went over the small hill, she was shocked by what she saw in Mara’s hand.

“Come sit in front of me”, Mara said. In her right hand she held a simple hair brush, the kind that secretly, Jamie had dreamed about since coming here. It was bad enough that all she was wearing was a nightshirt and underwear, but the fact that her hair was a complete disaster had always bothered her.

“I’ll brush your hair out for you”

Jamie eagerly accepted the offer, sitting in front of the older girl as Mara gently began to brush her hair out. Jamie hadn’t ever had a haircut, other than simply work done to trim split ends. She’d insisted that she wanted long, flowing locks, and her parents had allowed it. Her sister kept her hair trimmed to about the middle of her back, whereas Jamie’s reached at least 4 inches lower. She would normally spend 20 minutes or so brushing her hair each morning before school, and it was always easier if someone else would help, like her mom, or in years past, Julie.

“Thanks…”, Jamie said as she felt her hair finally get under control.

“Don’t thank me, thank Sara Beth – she’s the one who noticed my hair brush and suggested you might like to use it. I’d been so preoccupied with this place that I didn’t realize it.”

“Uh… Thanks Sara Beth”, Jamie said, with slight hesitation.

“Sara Beth is always doing those caring things for others”, Mara said, as she continued to brush the younger girl’s hair.

“Uh… yeah”

Mara knew that, if she were to get anywhere with Jamie, she’d need to start slow. Over the next hour, they chatted about a number of topics, with Mara showing extreme restraint every time Jamie said something that was mildly infuriating to the girl who had spent most of her life as an outcast. Jamie had bought into a lot of the cultural aspects that Mara never found important, and the thought crossed her mind that in the real world, Jamie would have despised Mara for not ‘fitting in’, much like she despised Sara Beth for being a better sister to Julie than Jamie was. This was an angle that Mara could use.

“It’s funny”, Mara began, “In the real world, we’d probably never be friends. And here I am, brushing your hair like girlfriends do for each other”

“Yeah… I guess I wouldn’t have thought you’d want to have been my friend – you are kind of…”

“Weird?”

“Uh… yeah…”, Jamie said, self consciously.

“It’s OK, I know what people think of me”, Mara replied, reassuring her.

“Doesn’t it bother you?”, Jamie asked.

“Not anymore, it used to bother me a lot though. It used to really hurt me that others found me so different and would make judgments about me. They didn’t know me, and it felt like all they did was try to hurt me.”

At the last few words of that sentence, Jamie flinched slightly. Mara suspected she may have struck a nerve, figuratively speaking.

“Have you ever been hurt by others?”, Mara asked.

“Just my sister… she doesn’t like me as much as she likes other people”

“Why do you think that is?”

“I don’t know…”

“Well, something must have happened to make her like you less. After all, you are sisters”.

This line of questioning took awhile, with Jamie dodging around the issue, and Mara re-focusing back on Julie and Jamie’s relationship. Finally, Jamie couldn’t dodge any longer. Mara had asked about what Julie and Jamie did together over the past few years.

“I guess Julie doesn’t like playing with me anymore, cause of what I say”, Jamie said, as she moved away from Mara and ran her fingers through her hair. It was long and straight, no more clumps or mats.

“What do you say?”, Mara said, as Jamie turned to face her.

“I guess I kind of figured out how to get to her”, Jamie said, “But it was just for fun – she’d get so upset, and I’d keep kinda, you know, poking at her. Saying stuff that would get her riled up until she finally went a little crazy at me”

“Crazy?”

“Yeah… anytime she’d get really, really angry with me, she’d kinda cry and then start mumbling the craziest stuff. She’d talk about how she was gonna get me back, how she’d… make me feel the same pain she did…”

“How would she do that?”

“Uh… I don’t remember”

“I think you might, if you want to borrow my hair brush in the future, you’ll tell me”. Mara felt it might be time to use the biggest threat she had available.

“She said… that she wished I’d burn up with the same embarrassment and rage she felt… she described it like a fire burning within her”.

As soon as she let it out, things began to make sense to Mara and Sara Beth, but they weren’t prepared for what Jamie said next.

“If I made fun of her further, then she’d really go a little nuts, and talk about how she’d change things. She’d talk about G-ma, and her friends, and other people, and how she imagined they all had these wonderful lives, with cool stuff, and fun adventures.”

As Mara and Sara Beth watched, a thought occurred to Jamie.

“She always talked about giving G-ma 100% baby alpaca yarn, as much as she wanted, to make whatever she wanted from it”

“I think we might know why the knitting bag appeared today”, Mara replied.


 

As the reality of the situation set in, the characters all took stock of how life might change. It seemed that things were really getting pushed to the extreme for Julie, on a regular basis, if she’d actually started imaging the physical items she’d give to people vividly enough in her mind as for them to appear. G-ma was happy she had her yarn, but wasn’t sure if it was worth it, knowing how Julie might be feeling.

The red mountain tops had stopped appearing regularly, which they took to mean that perhaps Ryan and Julie weren’t having their meetings anymore. It could be summer, or perhaps Ryan wasn’t getting to her as badly. No new items had appeared since the knitting bag a few days earlier, and the group wondered if Julie needed to get upset to make new items appear, or if perhaps she just needed to use her imagination, even when happy, to manifest them. So many questions.

But what nobody expected was what happened between Jamie and Sara Beth after the hair brushing (Incidentally, Mara was happy to loan her hairbrush around to the rest of the group, as long as it came back to her. She also told the others that it was the only thing in her purse, and strangely, no one pressed her on that strange fact). Jamie and Sara Beth were, amazingly, on speaking terms with each other. Apparently Jamie had decided that, perhaps, she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life angry at 20% of the population she knew presently. Or perhaps in revealing her secret, she felt little need to stay so angry, realizing that perhaps she was somewhat to blame for the way that Julie felt about her.

Sara Beth welcomed having Jamie behaving in a less hostile way, however she felt she’d probably remain skeptical of Jamie’s motives for at least some time. After all, while it might be nice to instantly make a friend, it didn’t seem to work that way in the real world. Nonetheless, it appeared that after the events of the previous week, life may be calming down a bit inside the mind of Julie McKay.

Chapter 17: Pain

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When Mara turned 13, she decided that she was entitled to at least one night free of torment, so she decided to sneak out around 7 PM and go see a movie with her friend Jessica. Her dad didn’t like her out after dark, so generally she didn’t sneak out until after he was asleep, around 9 or 10 PM. This night, however, she felt it was OK to risk his wrath if she was caught.

Before she left her room, she decided to take a few precautions. Using the webcam on her computer, she set up a video stream so she could hear what was going on. It was very rare her parents ever set foot inside her bedroom, usually they just called out to her and waited for her to answer. Using a bit of technical know-how, she rigged up the speakers in her room to play whatever she sent them through her cell phone. So this way, if her parents started calling out, she could placate them enough to get home and get back to her room before they would open the door. She thought it was a pretty brilliant plan, as many adolescents thing before the experience of the real world reminds them that things are seldom that easy.

She was right about one thing – the webcam certainly did allow her to hear what was going on. As the movie started, she inserted one earbud from her phone to keep an ear on her room at home, while the video streamed into her pocket.

As was her luck, that was the night her parents decided to call up to her at 8:30, and she heard it as she sat in the theatre. Springing up from her seat, she darted out into the hallway and out the exit. Jessica wasn’t at all shocked – she knew this was possible – however she was amazed at the speed with which Mara moved. Mara lived about 10 minutes from the movie theatre, so hopefully she’d make it home in time.

Desperately trying to not sound out of breath, she tapped on the button that would allow her to talk through her phone to the speakers in her room. Her mom was calling up to her, and she yelled back that she’d be down in just a minute. However something was wrong – Mom kept yelling. Frantically Mara raced home, wondering what was wrong with her setup. She briefly thought of calling the house phone from hers, under the ruse that she wasn’t able to come down right now but would be there in a moment, but knew that this angered her father, so she decided not to risk it. Another decision she’d regret later.

About 5 minutes from home she pulled her phone from her pocket and watched the video stream. It was no longer her mother just calling her, her dad had started yelling up as well. This was getting bad, and Mara prayed for a few more moments before her parents were motivated enough to get up and investigate. Sadly she didn’t get them. As she watched, her father burst into her bedroom, and instantly figured out what was going on. Unaware she was watching, his fury let loose as he screamed about his ungrateful daughter, using dozens of other words in the process that were far less complimentary. When she got outside her home, she could tell that things were much worse than they ever had been before, when she heard noises coming from the second floor clear out to the street. She briefly thought of running away for good – never opening the door to the pain that awaited. Now as she sat thinking of the story and telling it to Sara Beth, she wished she had. Instead she went into the house, found her bedroom room in shambles, and found her father waiting for her with a crazed angry look in his eye. It took several weeks for her to completely heal physically. Emotionally, she doubted she’d ever heal.

Sara Beth listened to the story, patiently waiting as Mara worked through the more difficult parts. At the end, she hugged Mara, which was not what Mara was expecting, but she wasn’t opposed to the idea either.

“Why did you tell me that story today?”, Sara Beth asked, “I don’t mean that it wasn’t something you shouldn’t have told me – don’t get me wrong – you can tell me whatever you need to – I’m just curious what brought it up”

“That”, Mara said as she pointed toward the mountains in the distance.

“What about them?”, Sara Beth replied. The mountains and their strange colors had moved into the ranks of the mundane for all except Mara, who pointed out their strange behavior the day before, and would today.

“There isn’t any activity today”, Mara said, “If the activity happens when Julie is active, she doesn’t seem to be very active right now”.

“Yeah, she doesn’t, but what does that have to do with the story”.

“The problem that night at my house was that I was too quiet. My mom told me later that they were used to me making noise – music, TV, something. When they heard nothing, the got suspicious and worried. The irony is that I thought about that in advance, and had music just loud enough to be heard outside the door set up to play while I was gone. Just one problem – before I left I forgot to turn my speakers on. So no music, and no “calling back” to Mom and Dad as they called me. I might have saved myself a lot of pain if I’d just checked that button on the front of the speaker.”

“Mistakes – we all make them”, Sara Beth said reluctantly.

“It was quiet – too quiet – just like those mountains”


 

As it turned out, the mountains didn’t stay dark for long. A few hours later, a few colors danced across their tops, and the group became hopeful that perhaps normality was returning. But the hope didn’t last long, as a blood red color appeared on the tops. Ryan, who came back earlier that day, began to nervously pace, hoping that a repeat of yesterday was not in store.

However about an hour after they watched the tops of the mountains begin to turn, Ryan began clutching his stomach. The same pain as yesterday came flooding back to him. It lasted approximately the same amount of time as it had the day before. As it ended, like clockwork, Sara Beth broke into tears, with G-ma following after her. Nothing had happened to the others.

That night, the group tried to make sense of the events.

“Is it going to keep happening?”, Sara Beth asked, “Well, I know no one knows if it will, but do you think it will?”

Ryan, exhausted from the ordeal, spoke up with a shaky but calm voice.

“I think it will keep going as long as whatever is bothering Julie keeps bothering her.”

“But what could that be?”, Sara Beth replied.

“Perhaps she’s being reminded of something each day, of something sad. Maybe she found out that you’re moving, Sara Beth”, Mrs. Corum offered.

“Or perhaps she isn’t doing very well in school, or her home life is a mess – both possibilities”, G-ma added.

“I guess so”, said Sara Beth.

Curiously absent from the conversation was Jamie, who appeared to be interested but not inclined to talk. Mara eyed her suspiciously.

“I just wish it didn’t target me”, Ryan said, “You know, maybe it could share the wealth”, flashing a slight grin. He was only half joking – at age 12 all ideals that may become altruism in the future are absent. Ryan would have given this torture to any of the others in a heartbeat. But unfortunately, he had no say in it.

“I don’t know what it means when one person is hurting and two others are crying”, Mrs. Corum began, “Unless somehow Julie is doing something with all three of you in the real world. Maybe it translates to us somehow”.

“Well, it would probably then go in order of when Julie sees us”, Ryan said, “She’d see me at school, then Sara Beth, and then G-ma later in the day”.

“Yeah, but she’s been doing that for months, if not longer, why are we feeling this now?”, Sara Beth replied.

Mrs. Corum had a theory on that.

“Ryan… I’m not quite sure how to put this…”, Mrs. Corum began, “Did you make fun of Julie outside of class?”

Ryan looked down, averting his eyes from any of the others. It was the obvious body language of guilt. He surprised himself in that regard – the pangs of guilt he’d felt before had now bloomed into full regret for his behavior in the past.

“Yeah… I kinda noticed she was walking home a certain way, and thought about where I could find her along the route and who I could take with me to have some fun with her, at least that’s what I thought it was in my head. Just some harmless ‘fun’”. He stopped himself before he let out anything remotely like an apology. He wasn’t completely weak willed quite yet, he told himself.

“You were doing this before you came here?”, Mrs. Corum asked, in confusion.

“No, I thought to do it closer to the end of school, when there was less chance I could get in trouble. I figured the teachers would be busy with things, and that Julie wouldn’t say anything since it would have been over in just a few weeks.”

“I think I know what’s happening after that”, Sara Beth said. The look on Ryan’s face was somewhat one of relief – Mrs. Corum hadn’t seemed to happy to hear what he had to say, and he briefly wondered if he was in for a verbal dressing down akin to what had happened in class weeks ago.

“What is that, dear?”, G-ma said, urging her on.

“Whenever Julie had a bad day at school, she’d tell me about at ‘Other Worlds’”, Sara Beth began, “And I’d always try to just listen and then try to make her feel better. But in the past few months, it’s been harder and harder to help her. Nothing I could really say could make her feel any better. I’d get really frustrated, and I think she started to realize that. She wouldn’t always talk to me about it – sometimes she’d even tell me ‘Oh, it’s just going to make you sad cause there is nothing you can do about it’, and I’d have to insist she keep going, telling her not to worry about me”.

Off in the distance, Mara felt a bit relieved hearing this story, understanding that, perhaps, Sara Beth truly had no ulterior motives. She simply was a caring soul.

Next to Sara Beth, G-ma looked up to speak.

“She’d come over to my place sometimes, on her way home from daycare, especially if it had been a bad day. I’d try to cheer her up too… and I think she felt the same way about my reactions. It’s frustrating when you can’t help someone you love”.

Mrs. Corum looked at both of them, and Ryan, and began piecing a theory together.

“Here’s my guess. The mountains turn red when Ryan begins taunting Julie, and Julie runs off, heading to daycare. While going there, she imagines what she might want to happen to Ryan, in retaliation. Later, while talking to both Sara Beth and G-ma, she feels guilty for burdening them with her story, and imagines how they must be feeling inside. I think Julie might have the ability to do something this world can’t do on it’s own: Change how we feel or do, perhaps even how we think.”

This thought took them all by surprise, even Jamie who was desperately trying not to be involved in the conversation, yet still needed to be close enough to hear it.

“I always felt bad”, Mara said, as she walked closer to the group, “I always felt bad when others suffered because of what I was going through. Felt somehow responsible”.

“There’s nothing I can do here”, Ryan said, “Just hope that maybe I stop doing things in the real world”.

They all looked at him and nodded. They’d noticed such a change in him after the first few weeks he’d been here, but were still not quite ready to accept he might be changing before their eyes. He wasn’t ready to accept that either.

As the conversation trailed off, they gazed up at the mountains. No real activity, other than a burst of light here or there. It was getting close to dim, and Mara looked at Sara Beth. They’d been sitting together the last few dims, talking about their past. Mara looked forward to those times, as did Sara Beth.

After they left the large group, in an uncharacteristic twist, Sara Beth opened up to Mara.

“I don’t want to cry anymore”, Sara Beth said, “I don’t think I can handle it”.

“I know how that is”, Mara said, soulfully, “I’ve been there too”.

“How did you get through it”, Sara Beth asked.

“I didn’t… I still cry a lot about my past”

“Maybe we can get through it together?”

“Maybe”

The two young women hugged, and then sat next to each other as the sky darkened.

“Sara Beth”, Mara began.

“Yes?”

“Jamie knows something about this”

“How do you know?”

“It’s written all over her. She didn’t say a word while you guys were talking. She knows something about all of this that she isn’t sharing. It may be something really important, but she isn’t going to share until someone forces it out of her”

“What do you mean?”

“Someone needs to push her – she’ll deny she knows it but I can see it so clearly. You don’t go on for half a decade trying to hide something without knowing what that looks like in other people”

“What should we do?”

“I don’t know… I don’t know if I can get it out of her alone. I’m still not sure who to trust around here, other than you”.

Sara Beth smiled, taking the compliment.

“I guess we’ll try to talk to her about it tomorrow”

Chapter 16: Lows and Highs

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Sara Beth knew she couldn’t tell Mara’s secret to the rest of the group, but at the same time, she also thought it was something Mara might want to mention at some point since it would, likely, get the others to stop wondering so much about her. Sara Beth reasoned that it must be quite difficult to have others talking about you all the time, wondering about your intentions, and whispering about every little action you did. It would drive Sara Beth nuts to know it was happening, however it didn’t seem to be bothering Mara very much. Sara Beth wondered if Mara simply didn’t notice. Should she tell her? Would that make it worse or better? And what if (And this really threw Sara Beth for a loop), Mara knew about it and really didn’t care. This caused a great deal of conflict within Sara Beth – it was the first time she had ever realized that perhaps it wasn’t important for others to approve of you – Mara certainly didn’t seem to be caring if the others talked about her.

Continue reading “Chapter 16: Lows and Highs”

Chapter 15: The Sins of the Father

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They’re all staring at me

Mara sat about 20 feet away from the rest of the group. It had been a tiring few hours with them. She’d learned all about their past, while successfully keeping them away from her’s. The boy had come back, and she learned his name was Ryan. He looked like he could be trouble for her, as many boys were, but at least he seemed pretty jovial after his walk. She wondered what his secret was.

Continue reading “Chapter 15: The Sins of the Father”

Chapter 14: Contact

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If I go out there, there is no coming back.

The girl sat alone in the park. It was near dusk, and the birds were beginning to fly up into the trees for the night. They didn’t like intruders mulling around below them, making a terrible racket whenever they sensed a disturbance. The girl hoped and prayed that perhaps they’d allow her to stay. She needed to be here, now, more than anything. She knew they wouldn’t be likely to understand. Birds don’t have to deal with the issues she had been dealing with.

She felt ashamed, deeply, deeply ashamed. It shouldn’t get to her like this, she thought, and that made her even more ashamed and guilty. She didn’t think it was her fault, but then again, no one had told her she was free from guilt. Others, however, did seem to think she had a hand in it. Whatever the reason or cause, she felt very unhappy that night, and she hoped the birds would show her some sympathy.

I don’t trust them.

This time she wasn’t in a park – she had ventured to a local shopping mall. She’d blend in well here, since there were others about her same age. She wondered what time the mall closed, and what time security would chase her out. If it closed at 9, she’d probably have until 9:30, provided that she kept moving until finally a guard told her it was time to go. Then she wasn’t sure where her next stop would be. The gas station on the corner wasn’t very reputable looking, and she’d tried that in the past with disastrous results. The park was an option, but perhaps somewhere new would be best.

As predicted, around 9:30 she was asked nicely, but firmly, to leave so the mall could be locked up. She left the bright fluorescent world and went out into the cold. It was around 30 degrees that night. She figured she wouldn’t want to be home until around 11:30, so for 2 hours she looked for somewhere to rest. A bus bench seemed like a good idea. She checked the schedule and found two busses that would be by. She could easily fake that she was waiting for the other, and at this hour, the drivers wouldn’t be back around. They’d be off and back home to their families. That thought, of the tired bus driver heading home to his wife and children made her tear up. She pictured herself as the wife, waiting for her loyal husband to return, tending to her children. It was all so enviable, so desirable. She wanted it to be her so badly.

By the time she came back to reality, the busses had stopped coming by her little bench. It was 10:45, and she knew that without busses coming by, the cops were bound to stop and ask her questions. She looked a lot older than she was, which was why the guard at the mall hadn’t asked her about why she was there alone so late. Cops rarely checked her for ID, which was good, because at her age, she didn’t have one quiet yet, except for her school’s library card.

It was a blessing and a curse to look older at her age. She’d developed early, or at least that’s what her teachers had told her. She knew something had happened as soon as the boys stopped avoiding her and instead began looking at her, staring her down while pretending to look another direction. Some days she wished she looked like the other girls again, to keep the boys at bay.

11:30 – enough time had passed now. She quietly walked toward home. No lights were on, but the key was easy to find. She’d been prepared this time – last week she’d found her dad’s oil can and oiled the hinges so they wouldn’t creak. She even lubed up the lock and handle mechanism so it turned silently. The preparations had paid off, even though at the time, she had hoped she wouldn’t have to make use of them. Silently she crept in, got up to bed, and feel into a restless sleep.

They’ve already seen me – they’ve already decided what they like about me.

Six months later the door had begun to creak again, however by that point, the rope ladder had been acquired. She’d found it out on the curb the previous month, a discarded portion of a child’s backyard treehouse. Each time she climbed it she would think of it’s original owner, wondering how many days he or she had climbed in excitement to get back up to the treehouse. She knew his or her name was Taylor, as she’d found a discarded piece of wood near the ladder bearing the name. Taylor was all grown up now, and didn’t need the treehouse anymore. The new owner of the rope ladder wished she could slide back in time, pre rope ladder, when she wouldn’t have needed it’s assistance.

It was sad that she found herself in this situation – it wasn’t supposed to be like that. She thought back to the trip to the mall, over a year ago, and the bus driver’s wife fantasy she’d had. It was a foolish fantasy of a girl just beginning to notice the effects of puberty. Now that she’d become accustomed to it’s effects as well as the way the world reacted to her transition from girlhood to womanhood, she took a much more jaded view of her future. What were the odds she’d find a decent bus driver husband? Previous experience didn’t seem to predict future success.

Climbing up the ladder, she was grateful it was dark. She didn’t need to worry about anyone nearby, looking up at her (and thus looking up her skirt), and also could climb slowly, careful not to touch too loudly on the outside of the house. Thankfully her window was on the far side of the house from the other bedrooms. She wondered if that was intentional, or just circumstance.

Into her bedroom, she quickly but quietly pulled the rope ladder up. It was getting increasingly hard to find a place to stash it, but she realized that under the mattress still worked pretty well for now. Had to put it in the middle, so that it wasn’t visible when the corners were lifted to put the sheets on, or else Mom would have found it. She carefully stowed the ladder and changed from her clothes into her pajamas. Picking out her clothing for tomorrow (the one day a week she could wear blue jeans, which was fine, since she only had one pair of blue jeans), she settled into her to-do list. Homework had been finished hours earlier. She thought of the essay she was supposed to be writing, but figured that she wouldn’t actually need it’s grade to pass the class. She could still get a D without it. She’d also finished her chores already, leaving her free to work on her own projects. Tonight that included work on removing a loose floorboard in just such a way that it could be easily put back in place. She’d found a tutorial on the Internet that spoke of this, and had the plans committed to memory. She’d grabbed a butter knife from the restaurant they’d been at last Saturday, and used that to gently loosen the edges of the board. Soon the rope ladder would have a new hiding spot.

As she worked, she thought of her former friends. She reasoned that at one point, she had actually been popular. But those days were long past. Tears dropped to the floor as she went about her task.

Why not, it’s better than going crazy watching them.


 

She decided to head out right after the sky brightened up for the day. The boy was off – she’d watched him long enough to realize that he left for awhile and then came back. The less the better. The two older women were sitting and talking, and the two girls were sitting conspicuously far from each other. She wondered why they didn’t get along, but drawing on her own past, could come up with a number of plausible reasons. She’d been in that situation before, she knew how relationships could look innocent and friendly on the surface, but in reality be deeply dysfunctional and hurtful. Same old story, just new people playing the roles.

She knew she was going to regret this. She always did regret opening up to other people – they never bothered to care about her anyway. Once she had tried talking to the man sitting next to her at the bus stop. He seemed friendly, and interested in what she had to say. He also seemed different than the others – he didn’t make lewd comments or ask her if she was one of ‘those kinds’ of girls. At least he didn’t initially. But after about 20 minutes he showed his true colors. Thankfully the bus came at exactly the right moment, and she hopped on board, begging the driver to simply drive off without fare, who did so, recognizing the look in her eyes and the situation before him.

But this place was too weird to stay away. She’d been hiding just over the hills for awhile now, circling to stay out of sight, moving quickly in and out of their midst as she could. She’d knocked over the girls shoes that last time she rushed by, and hastily put them back differently than they were. She knew that they noticed this, but could do nothing about it. She was surprised they didn’t bother to come look for her after that one. It was a sign, she was sure, that they didn’t care already. Otherwise they’d come find her on their own, right? Or maybe this strange place was inhabited by stranger people.

She meticulously planned out how she would approach them. What she would say, or more appropriately, what she wouldn’t say. They were going to ask questions. People always asked a lot of questions. At first she thought they asked the questions because they wanted to help her. But over time she realized they just wanted lurid details for their own use. She wasn’t into giving details, even if they weren’t particularly interesting. Best to keep some distance. She was going to need answers that wouldn’t arouse suspicion, so she quickly came up with some.

She also wanted answers – she’d been here for about a week and had no idea where she was. This place was really weird, and she hoped they had a better clue as to what it was than her guesses. Her guesses were that she was dead (unlikely, since nothing seemed to happen to her – no afterlife – no life at all actually), or that she was held captive (also unlikely, nobody would want to kidnap her). With her guesses falling flat, she was prepared to open up just enough to get the answers she wanted, without opening up too much. With answers prepared, she stood up and began to walk toward the group.

Before she was within sight, she stopped and paused – she hadn’t thought about if she should talk first or they should. In the past, whenever she had appeared friendly, people would behave the same way even if they weren’t to be trusted. She figured she’d let them make the first move. See how they reacted.

A few moments later, she got close enough they could see her. What they saw was a five foot seven inch young woman who looked to be around 16 years old, but in actuality was only 13. Slightly overweight, but by no means fat, and dressed in a black v-neck blouse and her only pair of blue jeans, she looked out of place within the rest of the group. Her black rain boots and long matted black hair further made her stand out among the group of women. Over her shoulder hung a black purse. On her face, dark makeup accentuated wrinkle lines not typical of someone so young in age, but typical of one so old in experience. She walked quietly and purposefully toward the group.

G-ma was the first to notice her and immediately they locked eyes. G-ma smiled, trying to put the new person at ease. As the others talked to G-ma they realized she was no longer listening, and turned to see what G-ma saw.

And while all four women knew it was impolite to stare, they had a hard time looking away. She just looked so different than them. For one thing, she really had a thing for the color black. If anything, this group had a love of grey and red, black wasn’t a color they saw often.

“Hello”, Mrs. Corum said, in a tone that wasn’t meant to be too cheerful and yet was also meant to be welcoming. Mrs. Corum had been in these situations before – approaching new children on the first days of class. She knew she’d have to be gentle.

Following her lead, G-ma spoke next “Hi dear, welcome”. G-ma referred to everyone as dear, but noticed the clear wince that the new visitor had to the term. She mentally made a note not to use it again.

They all looked at her, unsure what to say next.

Finally one action seemed to diffuse the tension. Sara Beth got up, holding her most precious possession, Sonic, in her hands. She walked over to the visitor and smiled.

“Hi, My name is Sara Beth, and this is my friend Sonic”.

The visitor looked down at the squirming hedgehog.

“I’ve never seen a pet hedgehog before”, she said in a low voice.

“They’re super fun – you just have to know how to hold them, and don’t get your fingers too close to their teeth.” Sara Beth then gave a quick lesson on how to hold little Sonic, and passed him off.

As she held Sonic, she almost let her guard down. These people seemed nice, and one of them even trusted her with her pet. But she’d been burned before. She briefly thought of jamming the hedgehog back into Sara Beth’s hands before running as fast and as far away as she could. This was too much and way too fast. She was holding another person’s pet! What happened to her plan to stay aloof, to learn what she needed to learn, and then decide purposefully if she wanted to stay with this group or if she wanted to go off on her own. She had plans that apparently she was breaking already.

But, alas, she was already here. Already committed. So instead, as she held Sonic (Who appeared to be fine with it), she simply looked at the group and spoke softly.

“My name is Mara”

Chapter 13: Unidentified Flying Object

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Where am I?

Am I finally done? Is it all over?

Sara Beth remembered a day years ago before she met Julie, back when it was just her and her parents, living far out in the country before they moved closer to the city. It was sunny, and warm, likely the first warm day of spring. The grass was green, and smelled great after the rain and passed. She had been cooped up inside the house for so long that she’d forgotten that there was so much to do outside, but on that day when she walked out without a coat and wasn’t freezing cold, she decided she couldn’t stay indoors any longer. She rode her bike all afternoon, and when she came in, her mother frowned, looking at her shoulders. They’d been out all afternoon, thanks to the tank top that Sara Beth was wearing. Continue reading “Chapter 13: Unidentified Flying Object”

Chapter 12: Occupation and Preoccupation

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Mrs. Corum’s mind was working frantically. She needed to complete 6 more before she stopped. Sara Beth dutifully called them out.
“Uh, 32”
Mrs. Corum thought for a few moments.
“1024”
“33?”
“1089. Make them farther apart, it’s more challenging”
“OK… 98”
“Ooo….. 9604”
“73”
“Hmm… 5329”
And so it went for at least another few numbers before Mrs. Corum decided to take a break.
“How long is it taking me?”
“About 10 seconds”, Sara Beth replied.
“I can feel myself getting faster!”
Sara Beth was happy to be of help, but really saw no use to what Mrs. Corum was trying to do. G-ma happened by at that moment and seemed to have the same thought.
“What on earth are you doing?”, G-ma asked. Sara Beth braced herself to hear the same thing that she’d heard a few other times already from Mrs. Corum, as she explained it to her, to Jamie, and to Ryan. G-ma was out of the loop on this one.
“I’m teaching myself to mentally square two digit numbers as fast as possible”, Mrs. Corum replied.
“Why?”, G-ma asked.
“Because I remember reading about it years ago, and even remember hearing the steps, but never actually practiced it enough to do it quickly. You see, it’s based off of figuring out the easy calculations and then adding numbers together. Take that last number that Sara Beth gave me – 73. I’m gonna round that down to the nearest multiple of 10 – 70. Then I add whatever I took away, 3, and get 76. I multiply those together in my head – 6 times 70 is 420, 70 times 70 is 4900, add those together to get 5320. Then I take that little bit I shaved off earlier – 3, square that and you get 9, hence 5329”.
G-ma looked at Mrs. Corum like she was crazy, which unfortunately, Mrs. Corum took to be confusion.
“It’s really quite simple – take 32 for example – I shave off 2 to get to 30, then do 30 times 34 which is 1020, then I add 2 times 2, and get 1024”.
Before Mrs. Corum could do another example, G-ma stopped her.
“OK, dear, I get what you’re doing. But why are you doing it now? We don’t exactly need a lot of math done here in Julie’s mind. Why bother with this?”, G-ma asked.
“Because I need something – I need something to keep me interested. Spending time today learning this has made me forget all about where we are and what we’re up against. I realized it yesterday when we played Ryan’s game – if we do things that remind us of home, home doesn’t seem so far away.”
“You memorized weird math tricks at home?”, G-ma asked, sincerely.
“No, but I used math, and I taught it, and this would have been a fun trick to use at parties”, Mrs. Corum replied.
“Teachers have the wildest parties, I guess”, G-ma said with a chuckle.
There was some truth in what Mrs. Corum said, whether G-ma wanted to admit it or not. They all needed a good diversion to keep them from getting too stir crazy in Julie’s mind. This was as good as any, G-ma decided. She sat in with Mrs. Corum during her practice from time to time, but never got as fast as her younger companion. And while Sara Beth didn’t particularly try to learn how to do the math trick, she found after awhile she could do the same calculation, albeit a bit slower.
Over the next week, the group of five sat in their spots near the mountain range, watching it light up and fade away. It was especially beautiful at night. They also found, to their surprise, that a walk back toward their old spots seemed to take less time. Perhaps they’d found a shortcut or perhaps they were experiencing the same effect that G-ma talked about happening to her. The world here seemed to be very pliable, large and small based almost on nothing more than a whim.


The five had been camping, if you wanted to use such a term, by the mountains for about a week when Sara Beth brought up something that, unknowingly to her, the others had thought of as well.

“It’s less active”, she mused.

“I think you might be right”, G-ma replied, “Definitely seems like it was more active when we first got here. Sky seems a bit dimmer during the day too.”

“What do you think it means?”

Ryan jumped into the conversation, unexpectedly, “I think we’re reading too much into things”. The rest of the group seemed to differ.

“No, these things matter, Ryan”, Jamie replied.

“They certainly seem to”, Mrs. Corum added.

Ryan shrugged his shoulders. The rest of the group had noticed that Ryan seemed a bit less hateful of Julie over the past few weeks, but certainly wasn’t her biggest fan either. They suspected that being in Julie’s mind may have simply started to wear on him, perhaps causing him to like her to some extent. While they read this as like, the real truth wasn’t as positive. Ryan had simply become disinterested in Julie – he didn’t dislike or like her. He just wanted out of her brain. He had come to the realization that whether Julie was happy or sad was irrelevant. Whether she moved a lot or moved very little didn’t matter at all. It was more important that he keep his eyes on the prize: Finding a way out. So far he hadn’t been that lucky, but thankfully he had found other ways of handling his depression than lashing out against Julie, drawing the ire of the rest of the group.

Returning to the debate at hand, Sara Beth spoke again.

“I wonder if maybe summer vacation finally started, and Julie is spending time being lazy without having to think of school.”

“Not my sister!”, Jamie said firmly, “She was always a ball of energy during summer break – we’d go out and play, sometimes Dad would take us places when he had time, and even if we were cooped up inside, we’d find ways to run around and be crazy – Mom always hated that at the end of the day”.

“Maybe Julie isn’t into that as much, dear”, G-ma said, “She is getting older, maybe she is doing things with her friends – talking with them on the phone, texting them, all things that aren’t as active as running around like an indoor tornado”

Jamie gave that some thought, and turned her face down. Maybe G-ma was right, maybe this summer wasn’t going to be as much fun as the previous ones had been, now that Julie was nearly a teenager.

Mrs. Corum made a different suggestion.

“Maybe Julie is playing more with Sara Beth, outside of school and daycare, and they’re not as active”.

Now came Sara Beth’s turn to look sad.

“What’s wrong”, Mrs. Corum asked.

“If it is summer vacation, than Julie isn’t playing with me”, Sara Beth said quietly.

“Why?”

“Because I’m not going to be around to play with”, Sara Beth replied.

Over the next few minutes, Sara Beth would relay how her parents had told her, a few days before she had come to this place, that they were planning on moving near the start of summer – around the end of June. She was going to be living in Chicago, a long way away from where she grew up, and she’d have to make new friends. Her parents were sorry they had to do this to her, but her dad had taken a new position with a department there, and it was a big promotion, and they were all making adjustments so he could make more money. Sara Beth didn’t care about the money though – she wanted to stay where she had made friends. At least she could bring Sonic with her, but she couldn’t take Julie.

“So if it’s near the third week in June”, Sara Beth said slowly, “I’m not around to play with”.

The group commiserated with her, although in a strange way, the move wasn’t necessarily a big deal anymore – Sara Beth lived inside of Julie’s mind. She couldn’t move away if she wanted to, irony not lost on Ryan as he sat watching from the outskirts of the group.

He had been keeping track of the time – he knew that it wasn’t the third week of June yet. Just as Mrs. Corum had her love of math, Ryan liked knowing the stages of the moon. He’d been following it since he was a child, and knew it’s cycle well. Based on the last time he’d seen the moon, he knew only about 3 and a half weeks had passed. It was the first week of June. The others, in their excitement over the events of the past week, had accelerated time. He felt like correcting them, but then wondered what the use would be. He didn’t care about the mountain range, didn’t care about Julie, and certainly didn’t think anyone here should care about time. He’d simply been following it too long to easily forget.

Turning his attention back to the group, he found them still talking about the mountain range. Finally he couldn’t listen to them drone on anymore about it, and got up, walking away from the group and the mountains.

It was several moments before anyone realized he was gone. In the end it was Jamie who decided to follow. The other three women figured that there wasn’t any harm in her tracking him down. After all, what sort of trouble should you get into in a world where there was no pain.

Jamie caught up with him fairly quickly.

“Where are you going”, she yelled as soon as she was within range.

“None of your business”, he replied, “Go away”.

“No – you’ve got to tell me what you’re doing. Why don’t you care anymore about the Mountains? Why don’t you participate with the group? A few days ago you came up with that game – that was fun – why don’t we do something like that again?”

“You ask too many questions, Jamie”, Ryan replied.

“I just want to know what’s up with you”, Jamie said strongly.

“Nothing! You know what’s up with everyone here – it’s all the same – Nothing! We sit and we watch stupid mountains all day, or we talk about how what we do impacts Julie. I don’t care about Julie anymore. I didn’t like her when we first got here, and now I just don’t care anymore. I think I’m just going to go insane, and I’d rather go insane alone”.

“If you go insane”, Jamie said slowly, “Then 20 percent of the entire population of this place goes insane. That’s not good for all of us”.

“I don’t care what’s good for all of us – there is no good as far as I’m concerned. Now Go away! Go back to those other crazy women who care too much about things they can’t change. Just leave me be”. Ryan said, as he started walking faster.

“Are you going to come back?”, Jamie said.

“What? Back to the mountains?”, Ryan asked incredulously.

“Yes”, Jamie replied.

“Why should you care?”, Ryan said angrily.

“Because I do – because maybe I’m just as mad as you are, I’m just keeping it together better. Maybe I want to know you’ll be around to balance out things. Will you come back?”, Jamie said. Honestly she didn’t know how much sense she was making. It seemed to her, though, that Ryan, despite being the most ornery and hard to get along with person in the group, still played a vital role.

“Sure, I’ll come back”, Ryan replied as he kept walking.

Jamie wasn’t convinced. Running at him at full speed, she tackled him, taking him down to the ground. As he tried to push her off of him, he found her to be surprisingly strong. Much stronger than a girl her size should be.

“You can’t leave until you promise to return”, she cried.

“FINE – I’m just going to go for a walk, but I need some time ALONE”, he said as she pinned him to the ground.

“OK”, she said, releasing her grasp.

“I’ll be back before tomorrow night”, he said quietly. She didn’t ask him why his walk was going to take that long, and if she had, he wasn’t about to tell her.


 

“I’m back”, Ryan called out.

The others looked up from where they were sitting, surprised to see him in such a good mood.

Jamie ran up and hugged him, Ryan was relieved this time he didn’t end up on the ground.

“Where did you go?”, Mrs. Corum asked.

“I just had to go clear my head”, Ryan revealed with a smile. “I needed to sort some things out”.

“All of us are different”, G-ma said with a grin, “Some of us just need more space than others, I suppose”.

“How’s the mountains”, Ryan said, gesturing up to the peaks above.

“A little more active this morning”, Mrs. Corum replied, “But last night they were really quiet – for a few hours before it dimmed. If those mountains are her activity level, then she’s not doing much far in advance of falling asleep”.

“Maybe she’s sick”, Ryan replied.

The thought hadn’t really crossed the other’s minds, even though it could explain a lot. Since they didn’t see too many differences in the overall world other than the darker than normal sky, they had fixated on something happening to Julie, but not necessarily something on the inside. Thoughts about what she might be doing or feeling emotionally seemed to be their most common theories to explain the inactivity, they hadn’t thought much about the fact she might just be ill.

“I know I don’t move around much when I’m sick”, Ryan replied, “and I feel a little down because of that. Maybe everything is just natural – and she’ll be feeling better soon”.

“Perhaps”, G-ma replied. The group was clearly shocked, once more, than Ryan had some sort of insight into the group that the others hadn’t. He was the most unlikely person to be coming up with these revelations.

“I don’t know what you do on your walks, Ryan, but you seem to really get a lot out of them”, G-ma continued.

Ryan looked at her with a grin

“I guess I never really knew how useful walking and ordering your thoughts could be until I came here. I don’t know how, but a good walk seems to do me wonders”, he replied.

“We all have the things we do to stay happy, or at least to stay sane, dear. I say if you’ve found something that makes you feel better, go for as many walks as you need.

“Don’t worry, I certainly will – just don’t be worried if you don’t see me for a day or two. I’ll always return”. In his mind Ryan knew he would always come back, because despite how he felt when he left the group, for some reason he was always compelled to walk back. He still didn’t quite understand how it all worked, but it was keeping him from starting a giant fight, and from having a giant breakdown. And he had, so far, kept it under control.