Chapter 17: Pain
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?”
The two young women hugged, and then sat next to each other as the sky darkened.
“Sara Beth”, Mara began.
“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”