Hi Everyone – before we get into Part 6, I just wanted to thank those who have been reading the novel so far. I’ve come up with a name for it – “Cinereous”. I hope that you’re enjoying the book so far. This chapter clears up a few big questions, and asks a few more. Remember, in the end we’ll be at 30 chapters, so we’re getting a decent way in, but there is a lot more to come! If you have a chance, shoot me a message on Twitter (@jonwestfall) or leave a comment!
Shooting up like a bolt of lightning had hit her, Mrs. Corum blurted out “I think I know you”, toward Sara Beth’s general direction.
G-ma and Sara Beth were taken aback. They’d been together for about a week at that point, and had decided, mutually, that they’d spend most of the dim hours in silence. The only time this place didn’t mess with how you thought was when you could devote 100% of your attention to thinking, and so minimizing distraction was the goal. The only one who didn’t get the memo was Sonic, who from time to time would move around in his ball and require Sara Beth to pull him out and cradle him for a bit.
Sara Beth looked toward Mrs. Corum, subtly asking if she was talking to her.
“Yes, Sara Beth, I think I know you, or rather, I knew you, in the past, before this place.”
They’d been over a number of common questions in the previous week. The only thing they hadn’t done was an exhaustive listing of names. Sara Beth lived in the next town over from G-ma, and Mrs. Corum lived slightly north. They didn’t see any immediate connection. G-ma and Mrs. Corum had mentioned their shared link in Julie, yet Sara Beth hadn’t recognized the name. So again they launched into a long discussion about where they may have crossed paths.
“And the daycare center, Other Worlds, was where I met my best friend”, Sara Beth began, telling the story of the last day she could remember away from this place.
“‘Other Worlds’,” Mrs. Corum began, “I remember I had a few students who mentioned that place. Seems like an ironic name for all three of us to be saying given where we are right now!” They all laughed at the ludicrous observation. The people at ‘Other Worlds’ weren’t thinking of this place when they themed their classrooms and common spaces in foreign and space landscapes! I visited a few times when I’d drop students off at the request of their parents”.
Sara Beth then began the retelling of the fight between herself and her best friend, and both G-ma and Mrs. Corum took more interest than in the past – actively asking questions of things they didn’t understand. They both supposed that when Sara Beth had originally been found, with this as one of the first stories they’d heard, they didn’t think of it as critically as they might now, a week later. At the time all they knew was that a frightened little girl was upset, and had been more interested in her emotional wellbeing than the facts of the story.
“Sara Beth”, G-ma started, “What was your best friend’s name?”
Sara Beth looked a bit sheepish, and G-ma knew instantly that she’d asked a question with a less than obvious answer.
“Uh… I don’t think that’s important”, Sara Beth said, before launching into more of the story.
But when she naturally paused, G-ma again pressed the issue.
“I don’t know…” Sara Beth said casually, moving on in the story. This caught both Mrs. Corum and G-ma by surprise. Perhaps even Sonic too!
“Dear, you don’t know the name of your best friend?”, Mrs. Corum gently asked.
Sara Beth grew quiet. Finally she spoke.
“I never knew her name…”
“She never told you?”, G-ma asked.
“No….”, Sara Beth began, her speech shaky as she suppressed emotions of sadness and guilt, “You see…, we met at ‘Other Worlds’ 6 months ago, and we’d see each other every day. But when you first meet someone, they introduce themselves, and you introduce yourself, but you don’t always know they’re going to be your best friend”.
“And once you do…”, Mrs. Corum said.
“You feel stupid asking them what their name is”, Sara Beth concluded.
“Oh dear, we understand”, G-ma said. It was a common enough occurrence, the forgetting of a name, but in the world of a 12 year old, when names of classmates are known from first grade on, one doesn’t think to remember new names outside the classroom. There are no teachers to call on new friends, however, and it’s quite remarkable how little someone refers to themselves by name. Poor Sara Beth had grown to care about a friend deeply that she couldn’t even identify by name.
“I always kinda hoped she’d give me a card, but then when she did for my birthday, she just signed it with ‘your best friend and Sonic’s Aunt’”. The older women could not help themselves from giggling at the irony of the 12 year old’s ploy and it’s failure to work.
As they finished the story, a thought struck Mrs. Corum.
“G-ma, I think there is a similarity between your story of how you got here and Sara Beth’s”, she said.
G-ma hadn’t told Sara Beth the story of the sweater yet, and couldn’t see any sort of connection. After all, there were no hedgehogs or arguments in her story.
“What do you mean?”, she asked Mrs. Corum.
“Both of you were with other people. Both of you were talking with those people. And both of you had a memorable moment happen. For you”, she said as she gestured toward Sara Beth, “it was a fight that was a major event with your friend. For you”, as she motioned toward G-ma, “It was a moment with Julie where she beamed up at you with pride over your sweater. Both moments are things that people would look back upon in the future”.
The other two looked at Mrs. Corum skeptically.
“Shame you still haven’t come up with your story, honey, or else we might be further convinced!”, G-ma said to Mrs. Corum.
“I may have come up with my story…”, Mrs. Corum replied.
G-ma looked shocked. They’d been together for nearly 4 weeks at this point, and Mrs. Corum hadn’t shared this with her. She would have remembered – it was, after all, big news in the world they all lived in.
“Well… don’t leave us waiting!”, G-ma said with a tone that implied that this was definitely shared knowledge – there would be no secrets between the three of them.
“It’s embarrassing, and I’m afraid you’ll be mad at me”, she said to G-ma. G-ma was incredulous.
“How can I be mad at you? We didn’t meet until you came here”.
“Yes… but it involves Julie”.
They sat there for a few moments, wondering if Mrs. Corum would say more. Finally she did.
“I suppose there really isn’t anything I can do about it now. I just feel bad about it, still.”
“I promise I’ll keep my emotions in check”, G-ma said. In her mind, she ran through a list of all the potentially bad things that could have happened between a teacher and Julie, and was prepared for the worst.
“Julie has been a bit different for the past few months”, Mrs. Corum began, “She seemed to spend most of her time in a bit of a daze. It didn’t affect her schoolwork, but the other kids did start noticing. I was worried, so I talked with our school counselor, and she told me, confidentially, that Julie had gone through periods of inattentiveness, mood swings, and mania over her entire time in school. They generally passed without incident, but teachers were made aware of it so they weren’t surprised if the girl with the normally high grades suddenly checked out for a month, emotionally, or if she became overly social, or if she began to have boundary issues with other kids. Julie is a wonderful young woman, but she has these moments”
“You were afraid I’d be mad that Julie wasn’t perfect?”, G-ma asked, confused.
“Well, I didn’t you’d be happy about it, but that wasn’t what I was afraid of”, Mrs. Corum continued.
“A few weeks ago, another student in class, Ryan, began to notice Julie was, well, different. And he wasn’t happy to let it slide by. Each time she’d blurt out something in class, he’d make a wisecrack about ‘that crazy one’. I’d hush the children, but never do anything more. He attracted a small group of kids who began to scrutinize Julie for anything they could pounce on – you know how kids are – and they’d take the opportunity to point out her impulsive actions, her mood swings, her quietness even. I kept the classroom in order, but between teaching and managing everyone in the room, I never had much time to do anything else. Finally, one day, Ryan said something that struck a nerve with me. Julie had been working on an assignment that asked the students to imagine their future families. She’d drawn a picture of herself and her two children, and her husband. When it came time to present, she told the class that she wanted to have two kids with her charming husband. Ryan, upon hearing this, yelled out ‘As if anyone would want to marry you, you crazy ugly thing!’ Julie’s mood immediately dropped from ecstatic over her future plans to heartbroken, and she began crying.”
G-ma and Sara Beth attentively looked at Mrs. Corum as she paused.
“I lost it. I launched into a tirade against Ryan. The kind of tirade teachers aren’t supposed to launch into anymore, or at the least, launch into only in private with a student. I told him that he was being a horrible classmate to Julie, and a despicable person for saying such a thing. I told him that I would ask him to apologize if I felt his apology would be worth anything, but that I doubted it really did. I told him that he should be amazed if anyone in the class would ever want to be friends with him after such a mean spirited remark. By the time I was done, Julie’s tears had subsided, but Ryan’s had just begun. I emotionally tore down a 12 year old kid who was just acting like a 12 year old kid. A cruel 12 year old kid, but I mustered all of my might to be a cruel elementary school teacher in return.”
They sat there in silence while Mrs. Corum looked down at the ground. Tears rolled down her face.
“Everyone snaps, sometimes”, G-ma said, “I don’t know why you felt that you should worry about my reaction, it sounds like what you did was perfectly natural”.
Mrs. Corum looked up.
“Natural, perhaps, but not something I should have done. And I didn’t think you’d be mad at me for yelling at Ryan. I thought you’d be mad at me for not defending Julie earlier. In retrospect, I could have done a lot more to stop him before it ever reached that point. I failed Julie as a student, and I feel ashamed and embarrassed at my behavior. And the next thing I knew, after that, I was here. I never had a chance to make things right”
G-ma let a moment pass before speaking again.
“There is no point in chastising yourself for this again and again, it was a mistake – we all learn from mistakes”.
Sara Beth had sat there quietly through Mrs. Corum’s emotional story. Sonic sat idly by as well, almost as if he knew something important was happening, and that he shouldn’t interrupt. Both G-ma and Mrs. Corum had grown quiet, and Sara Beth knew that it was time to speak up.
“I think….”, She said as they looked toward her, “I think that I’ve heard that story before”.
“From who?”, Mrs. Corum asked. She feared that, if indeed they were copies, her present self my find herself in the unemployment line due to her little outrage, and that news may have spread of that fast. “Was a friend of yours in the class?”
“Yeah, I think so, I remember her telling me the story”, Sara Beth replied. “And another thing…”, Sara Beth took in a deep breath, “I think I know the name of my best friend”
Putting the pieces together, G-ma and Mrs. Corum looked at Sara Beth.
“My best friend’s name is, well after the fight, was, Julie”.
They paused, with Mrs. Corum breaking the silence.
“Julie told you about this?”, she said quietly.
“Yes, but you should know how she told me”, Sara Beth said with a upbeat note, “She told me all about how her teacher had stood up for her that day. That the other kids thought she was weird, and she’d been really upset, but that her favorite teacher finally told them off. She didn’t even remember everything you said, because she was still upset, but by the time she felt better, the rest of the kids were in shock and you were sitting behind your desk. She said that after school you held both her and Ryan back. You apologized to her for not stepping in earlier. She didn’t know what you said to Ryan”. The memories Sara Beth spoke from had become crystal clear over the past several minutes. Almost as though they’d been dusted clean and placed in the forefront of her mind.
“So I did make it right… but my copy was made before that”, Mrs. Corum mused.
“Again with the copies”, G-ma said. “Its as good a theory as any, but it’s a crazy one”.
By this point, the dimness had passed and it was about halfway through the lighter cycle of the day. The women had stood and idly began walking toward their latest destination – a spot still very much far off in the distance. As they walked, their conversation turned toward lighter matters. They all knew their common link, Julie, and as best they could place, they’d come here during emotional moments in her life. They joked that perhaps Julie was a supernatural being that could zap them away from life and seal them up here somehow. But still they had no concrete idea about where ‘here’ might be.
“Julie loved recess”, Mrs. Corum said absentmindedly, “It would be about recess time now, I suppose”.
“She’d tell me about how she would play with her few friends at school during recess – they’d make up stories to tell each other”, Sara Beth added.
“She was all about stories, even as a little girl”, G-ma concluded. Of the three, the situation regarding Julie was probably hardest on G-ma. It had been so long since G-ma had seen her, and while hearing about her from Mrs. Corum and Sara Beth was lovely, it also stung.
As they walked, something in the sky caught Sara Beth’s eye. “What is that?”, she said as she pointed up.
A flash of coppery shimmer appeared above them. They’d barely had a chance to talk about it before the earthquake began. Similar to the one that Mrs. Corum and G-ma had experienced weeks before, however much more severe. The tremors knocked the women back and forth, far enough from each other as to not be able to hear. Periodically they’d believe it to be over and get up to wander nearer to the rest of the group, only to have a tremor knock them down once more. Finally the rain came, dropping buckets of water onto their heads. The ground couldn’t soak it up fast enough, with Sonic’s little ball floating slightly from time to time as water pooled under him. Thankfully once the rain had stopped, and the ground was still, and the dimness came for the night, the women had time to gather their wits. All three were thankful that they couldn’t feel the pain they would inevitably been afflicted with if they were still on earth. G-ma and Mrs. Corum wondered if that one might have been fatal if they hadn’t been here.
“I wonder what happened”, Sara Beth asked.
“No idea, but whatever it was, it was severe”, Mrs. Corum replied.
“We’ve been talking so much about Julie”, Sara Beth continued, “That I thought of how her moods would change from time to time. They’d start out as if nothing was wrong. Then a burst of intense emotion, and then she’d end up crying. It was weird that the weather here was almost exactly the same as that”
The women thought about this for a moment, when G-ma broke the silence.
“Mrs. Corum, I think the copy idea may truly be right… I think I know where we are”
“Where?”, both Sara Beth and Mrs. Corum asked at the same time.
“You know how it is when you’re thinking about someone?”, G-ma began. The others nodded. G-ma spoke slowly and purposefully.
“It’s almost as if you place them in your mind, and you think about how they’d react to a situation, how they’d be if they were there. Sometimes you have them say things and control their behavior. Other times you just imagine them to have them near you during tough times.”
“What if sometimes you stole them away for yourself later? What if you kept a copy of them to recall in the future. We would have no idea how many times we’d been copied. How many of us there would be out there. We’d go on living our lives as if nothing had happened, with clones of us living out their days in the minds of others.”
“They wouldn’t feel any physical feelings, because they weren’t physically people”, Mrs. Corum added.
“They wouldn’t have any needs – I don’t think of my friends as having to eat, or drink, or use the bathroom, when I remember them in my mind”, Sara Beth said.
“Ladies… I think I know where we are… We’re in the mind of my granddaughter, your student, your friend, and little Sonic’s Aunt: Julie McKay”