Ryan sat there, painfully aware that things were changing for the worse. For the past few weeks, as he snuck off to the light valley, he had found something that could bring out the best in him, and with that so weak now, his demons were returning.
Ryan hadn’t had a ‘troubled’ childhood. He didn’t come from a bad home, and he didn’t have neglectful parents. He did well in school, and wasn’t jealous of other students. He didn’t have a need for respect, and he didn’t have a need to show off to other kids and gain their approval. But he was a bully. Despite the absence of “risk factors”, he was the sort of kid that enjoyed pointing out the shortcomings of his peers, to their faces, preferably evoking a negative emotional response. He didn’t quite understand why he did it, and perhaps he would have found it easier to deal with if he could blame it on any number of risk factors. But he couldn’t. He was what he was.
The last few weeks were a welcome respite from that life. He didn’t know what the light actually did – all he knew was that stepping into it seemed to transport him outside his own world. When he looked at other people, he didn’t see them as targets, the light helped him actually see them as people like him. It was an amazing experience, and one that he felt had healed him over time. Each time he left the light he was a little bit more tolerant and understanding of the differences he and his classmates had. He didn’t feel the need to relentlessly nitpick. He didn’t feel that pointing out their failures would make him feel as good as it always had. It was the weirdest thing, but it seemed to work. And for a kid that was a bully, but often wished he wasn’t, it was a godsend.
But now it was gone. The light had dimmed severely, and all that he had left was the little glimmer of a stream that was in it’s place. He stood in it, and felt almost nothing.
He could feel himself slipping back to his old ways. Everyone around him began to annoy him more than they ever had before. The insufferable old women. The bratty preteens. The girl that was just different. Why did she have to be so different? Why couldn’t she just blend in like everyone else. Looking at Mara was akin to the sensation of nails on a chalkboard. It scraped across his mind.
At first he coped with this by just avoiding everyone. He wasn’t going on his walks anymore, so the group realized something was up. In fact, he swore that he heard the old women talking about the light valley – they had figured out what he had been doing. They felt the valley was some sort of drug, and Ryan figured they might be right. But it wasn’t a drug you’d avoid using – it was one that would help you, if it were only around.
He sat alone thinking to himself, only interrupted by the Jamie, whom he tolerated for the most part, except those times when his dislike of Julie came raging to mind whenever he looked to Jamie. They looked similar, they acted similar, and she could get his anger flowing in the same way. So gradually, he began to ask her to leave, making up excuses.
The others, mostly, let him stay by himself. Every so often, though, the old women would want everyone to meet. Mostly at the start of the day, occasionally at the end as well. It was as if they wanted to have some sort of group therapy session, and Ryan wasn’t exactly thrilled to be roped into it. But they insisted that everyone had to be there. Given that they hadn’t met anyone knew since Mara arrived, the group was starting to settle into the belief that it would only be them in this place, forever.
It was at one of these therapy sessions that Ryan snapped. He didn’t want to, but it just happened.
“I don’t think it’s worth staying here”, Jamie said confidently, “The mountain has been really quiet lately, whatever that means. I think that if we went out and explored more, we would find some cool stuff. This place is so big, why are we staying here watching the tops of a far off mountain”.
“I agree”, Sara Beth said in reply, “But I think we should go toward the mountains and climb them. We’d be able to see more than we can now – we might be able to find new things to explore after we’ve had a look from the top.”
The older women were staunch in their belief that they should stay near the mountain, and also firmly believed that the group should stay together, not separating on a temporary or permanent basis. It made for a struggle, to create a plan everyone would buy into. Ryan didn’t care much for any plan that required him to associate with the others any more than he had to. He was all for staying alone, and staying quiet, at least until he found more light or a way to deal with his inner rage.
With the vote deadlocked, 2 to 2, the women began to pull at the edges of the group. Jamie unsuccessfully tried to engage Ryan, but he simply shrugged when he was asked questions. Sara Beth and G-ma tried to bring Mara in, and reluctantly Mara talked quietly. She didn’t have any real opinion on the matter, which didn’t surprise Ryan. She was worthless. Perhaps less than worthless – whereas Ryan had good ideas but only shared the best, Mara was sharing little whimpers of ideas. And she had that quiet mumble that frustrated him to no end.
Finally he just couldn’t take it anymore.
“Mara, be quiet”, Ryan said in a forceful tone.
“Why?”, Sara Beth asked on behalf of her friend, in a confused tone. They were genuinely perplexed why Ryan would hush her. The group looked at him as if, perhaps, he had something to add. Or maybe he’d heard something they should listen for. When they realized that he hadn’t, the’d want an explanation. He could feel their eyes on him.
“She’s not helping anything”, Ryan said in as calm a manner as he could. The inner Ryan wanted to come out blazing, his newer calm self was trying desperately to stay in control.
“I think she is”, Sara Beth said. Ryan shrugged in response. Hopefully they’d leave it at that.
But they didn’t. G-ma began to voice her opinion.
“Ryan, we’re all very patient with you – it’s no secret that you’re not really excited to be in this group, and that we aren’t your favorite people. But we’re here together, and we should support each other. Whatever you have against Mara, you need to get over it. It’s not her fault or our fault – it’s your fault that it bothers you. Grow up and deal with your issues, dear”.
A fire of a different sort began to swell within Ryan. They were patient with him? He was beyond patient with them. They were the ones that made so many demands of him to attend meetings, and talk out things. He made no such demands on them yet they were the patient ones. That burned at him. And it was his fault that Mara bothered him? It certainly was not. She’d bother any normal person, these women just couldn’t see that. He was the only sane one that recognized that a older-than-she-looked quiet freak wasn’t to be protected. She should actively try to be less annoying, he shouldn’t have to be less annoyed. In retrospect later, he’d see what was wrong with all of his thoughts in the moment, but that would come far too late.
The fire burned, he needed to be let out. He might as well say what he was thinking.
“You all are insane”, Ryan said, spitting the words out as his voice got harsher and angrier. He stood up to address the group.
“I’m the only one of us that even knows the situation we’re in. You’d all be lost without me. I’m the only one here with any sort of power – it’s because of my actions in the real world that Julie rains buckets here after the earthquakes. I’ve endured her pain and survived, and the rest of you all look for ways to make her happy. You’re all demented”
Most of them looked at him with a sort of shock. They obviously had nothing to say. He’d made his point. And he would have left it at that, if it wasn’t for that horrible Mara. She was noticeably not looking toward him. It was almost as if she didn’t care anything about what he had to say. She was the one he was directing this at the most. How dare she ignore him.
“And you”, Ryan began, pointing his finger toward Mara, “You’re the worst of them all!” Mara snapped her head up, looking at him. Finally she’d pay attention.
“You came here and wouldn’t even say hello until we begged you to come out. And now, you know what, I wish we hadn’t. I wish no one here had ever talked to you, ever cared what you were doing out there. You’d have gone off and we wouldn’t have to listen to you mumble your way through your words. We wouldn’t have to tiptoe around your life. We wouldn’t have to wonder if you have information we could all use but just don’t want to tell us yet. Ever think how stupid that is, Mara? We’ve all told each other how we knew Julie, and you haven’t mumbled a word over there. I terrorized Julie for months and I can admit it. What did you do to her? You know her somehow, and yet you let us all stay in the dark. What if you know how to get us out of here? What if it’s something you won’t tell us. These others are too dumb to ask about that, but I’m not. I bet your backstory is something you’re so embarrassed about, you can’t even admit it to yourself.
Amid Ryan’s tirade, the look on Mara’s face had gone from shock to sadness. She desperately tried to look away, look toward anyone for support she could. As he was speaking, she slowly began to inch toward Sara Beth. Ryan noticed this, and switched gears.
“Naw, you know what, I was wrong. You don’t have an embarrassing backstory, you probably don’t have anything useful. You’re probably some dumb girl that Julie saw one day and just happened to throw in this prison with the rest of us. It’s really clear to me that you don’t matter in the least. You’re not important to anyone, and you shouldn’t be important to us here”
By that point, Mara had begun crying.
“Sara Beth”, Ryan said, looking at the ground where Sara Beth sat, with her arm around Mara. “You’re a nice girl – you’re too nice. You’re wasting your time on that one – she’s not worth it. Give up and maybe she’ll leave. We’ll all be better off. I don’t know why you think she’s worth it. She’s nothing”
Sara Beth winced at the words directed at her friend. She had no idea why Ryan was acting like this, but she was beginning to understand why Julie found him so awful.
“She can’t even stand up for herself. Mara, why don’t you say something. Oh wait, you’d never get the words out. You’re too dumb, fat, and ugly to be able to speak properly”
Mara had enough. If Ryan could be brought to the breaking point, so could she.
As if something in her had snapped, she slowly rose up and began to walk toward a very surprised Ryan.
“You don’t know me”, she said through the remaining tears. They were quickly drying as her face burned brightly. Ryan was surprised, but undaunted.
“Oh I know you, you’re a worthless girl no one has ever…”
He never got the last word out. He didn’t see the punch coming – she didn’t fight like a girl. No big telltale haymaker that he could deflect. She jabbed at him, and while he didn’t feel pain, he did find himself knocked to the floor. She threw herself down on him, her arms around his neck, squeezing.
“You don’t know what I went through before I came here”, she said forcefully. “And you don’t know what I’m capable of”.
For a second, the world began to turn dark for Ryan. When he next opened his eyes, Mrs. Corum and G-ma were holding Mara back. Sara Beth and Jamie sat there, stunned.
“Calm down dear”, G-ma began, “We’re all under pressure – and it doesn’t excuse him, but we strangling someone isn’t the answer”. Mrs. Corum said similar. Ryan was too stunned to say anything at all.
“You all want to know my backstory?”, Mara said, defiantly. “Fine, I’ll tell you”.
“You don’t have to”, Sara Beth called out, “You don’t need to tell them anything”.
“It’s fine Sara Beth, this punk here needs to know that you can only push me so far, and everyone else needs to know why I might be here.”
“Tell us whatever you like, dear”, G-ma said, “But we understand if you need to stop”.
“I’ve never felt so bold as this moment, G-ma. There’s no easy way to say this, so I’m just going to put it out there”.
Mara took a deep breath, calmed herself, look Ryan right in the eye, and said:
“Ryan, at one time I did think I was worthless. How else would someone whose father touched her, then beat her, all while her mother watched and did nothing, feel? I felt so worthless, that I decided the world was better off without me, and I was better off without it. So one night, I made a video that was short and too the point. I told my viewers that I was sick of being abused, sick of being harassed for being different, and sick of life. I told them I was leaving. I posted that video and calmly swallowed every pill I could find in the house. So you want to push me? You want to make me cry in pain? Fine, go ahead. But I’ve tried to kill before, and the next time, my victim isn’t going to be me.”