Chapter 29: Secrets
They all cried, even Ryan, after the shock had faded. G-ma hadn’t been seen since she fled the group. Jamie’s body lie like Ryan’s had days earlier, with no hint of activity. Around her neck, marks where the old woman had strangled her, were visible.
“I can’t believe it” was the popular phrase uttered. They all knew G-ma had become somewhat of a fanatic regarding her belief. They never imagined that she was capable of this. Further complicating matters, they didn’t even know what ‘this’ was. It looked like death, but could one really die here? So many unanswered questions.
And while the bulk of the attention had been on Jamie, the group also couldn’t deny that something was happening to Sara Beth. The ‘faded’ appearance she’d taken earlier had only intensified, and it appeared to be affecting her in other ways than just appearance. She seldom responded the first time someone called her – they’d need to repeat themselves to gain her attention. It was as if she was in a daze, losing touch with the reality around her.
Mara found herself especially worried about Sara Beth, mostly due to the fact that she thought herself the only one actually tuned into the events around her. Jamie’s ‘death’ was traumatic, but for some reason, Mara felt somewhat numb to it. Sara Beth had been her one friend from the start, and Mara was determined not to let her friend fade away. She sat with Sara Beth, trying to keep a conversation going about everything and nothing. If she waited too long for a response, Sara Beth seemed to lose track of the conversation.
Mrs. Corum and Ryan found themselves unlikely conversationalists, each repeating how shocked they were at G-ma’s actions, with Ryan also considering a plan of defense should G-ma return. As luck would have it, he didn’t have to wait long. G-ma walked in on their conversation. However her demeanor had changed.
“I can’t run away”, she said somberly, as she carefully placed herself with her back toward her granddaughter’s corpse.
Immediately everyone took a defensive posture. Mara stood in front of Sara Beth, Ryan and Mrs. Corum standing at the other points of a triangle, with G-ma in the middle of them all. The old woman wasn’t in the mood to fight, however.
“I’m just going to say what I need to say, then I’m going to leave.”
The group was unsure how to respond, so G-ma continued to speak. Her voice steady, at least at first.
“I’m not going to explain anything, other than to say I’m sorry. I can’t go into it anymore than that. I’m leaving now and won’t bother any of you again.”
G-ma began to walk away.
“What should we do?”, Mara asked.
“I’ll tell you what we should do”, Ryan said. His voice trailed off as the anger erupted inside him. For weeks he’d tried to keep his emotions in check, but even the most reserved person would have trouble keeping his anger in check. Ryan didn’t have a chance.
“She can’t just walk away from us without explanation”. Ryan began to run toward G-ma, who was still visible in the distance. Running past her and turning on a dime to stop in front of her, his face took on a menacing tone. His years of bullying had prepared him well for such confrontations.
“You don’t get to leave without explanation”, he angrily sneered.
“Leave me alone”, she said, her voice still somewhat firm.
“No. I will not. You killed her”
“Just let me be, Ryan. I said I was sorry. I made a mistake that I have to live with. That’s painful enough”
“I don’t care what pain you’re in – you’ve put us through pain and we deserve to know why”
G-ma’s voice began to shake slightly.
“I just can’t… I just can’t talk about it”
“You’d better figure out how. I don’t care if you’re old or if you think you’re doing things for others – you killed your own granddaughter and tried to get your other granddaughter to commit suicide. You’re a monster, and before you slink away like other monsters do, you’ll explain yourself to us”
G-ma’s slightly shakey tone became more so apparent.
“I was just trying to help… it all went wrong… let me go… I just wanted to come back here and apologize… before I go off for good”
“You don’t get to go off you witch! You will stay here until we’re done with you, then we’ll let you leave – unlike you, we don’t kill people who make us mad.”
With that final push, G-ma broke down. Ryan stepped back as she fell to her knees.
“I think I should take it from here”, Mrs. Corum said as she put her arm on Ryan’s shoulder.
Ryan moved toward the back of the group, himself feeling both triumphant and evil, useful yet his own kind of monster.
Mrs. Corum knelt down and looked G-ma in her tear filled eyes.
“I don’t know if I can ever forgive you for what you did to that little girl”, Mrs. Corum began, “But I can listen to you, and I can help you grieve as I grieve”
All G-ma could say was that she was sorry, repeatedly, and that she was only trying to do what was best. It would take several hours before they would be able to get her to talk about things.
G-ma and Mrs. Corum sat across from each other. Behind Mrs. Corum sat Mara, Ryan, and Sara Beth, although one could easily miss Sara Beth, given her faded, nearly transparent appearance. They had all agreed that Mrs. Corum would ask G-ma what they all wanted to know, since she was probably the most level-headed of the three at this point.
G-ma sat with her back to Jamie’s body, still refusing to look toward it. In fact, she’d backed up rather than walked in that direction to get to the spot at which they sat.
“Before we start”, Mrs. Corum said, “I want to tell you a story that might make this a bit easier. It’s not anything close to what you’ve done here, but it is something I regret deeply, and how I got over it”. G-ma nodded, eyes averted down to the ground.
“When I was 21, I met a man. He was just finishing college, like me, and we were both moving to the same town for work. He was an engineer, and I was excited to start my teaching job. My mother had told me what to expect from a long term boyfriend, and everything appeared to be going according to plan. After a year he proposed to me, and I accepted. In fact, when I started teaching, I told everyone I was just about to get married, and while my last name hadn’t changed yet, my students and peers started calling me Mrs. instead of the Miss, as was customary at that time.
After we’d been engaged for a few months, I realized that my fiancé wasn’t doing things the way I wanted them done. I felt I knew what was best in most regards of the house and home, social life and norms. I left him to deal with the business of providing for our family, which he excelled at.
One day we had an argument about the proper way to fold a towel. I told him that my way was the most efficient way, that the towel looked nicer, and that it was plain to see to anybody that I was right. He countered that there really was no ‘right’ way to fold a towel. I angrily told him that I was right, he was wrong, and that he’d better get used to just listening to me on these things if we were going to get married.
And as soon as I said that, the look on his face changed from anger to a state of sullenness. He slowly walked to the door, told me that he’d call me later, and left. I never saw him again. In retrospect, I suppose there were dozens of other warning signs, but I was so blinded by what I believed about marriage that I threw out a man who loved me over a towel. Today I can laugh about that to some extent, but not completely. I was stubborn, hard headed, and maybe a little hard hearted as a result of it. I regret it to this day. The only thing that ever made it better was to talk to myself and others about it. To figure out what went wrong, rather than push all of that pain away.”
G-ma nodded again.
“I get what you’re trying to say, dear”, G-ma replied, “But I killed someone over a bad belief. Fittingly one that came from my mother. And I can’t ever forgive myself for that”.
“I’m not asking you to forgive yourself, but I am asking you to explain yourself. And maybe at some point, you will forgive yourself.”
“My mother wasn’t an easy woman on those she loved. She grew up in a time when she saw two world wars, and a depression. She saw that only the strong survived. And she felt it was her responsibility to make people strong. She loved her family, but it was what today they’d call tough love.
My mother felt that you needed to be able to handle tough things, or you wouldn’t have a hope of surviving. When I was little and other kids would pull my hair, or call me names, or do all of the things that little kids do, I would cry and my mother would simply tell me that I couldn’t let them get to me. She’d push me, at first gently, but later more firmly, to ‘get over it’. I know now that every parent does that to some extent, but she took it to a new level.”
G-ma stopped speaking for a moment, as a new wave of tears flooded out of her eyes. Regaining her composure, she began again.
“I always knew Julie was a little bit different from other kids. She was much more emotional. Much sweeter, but much more volatile. As a little child, she’d cry over anything, which is amazing to notice when kids cry often enough as it is. But you could tell, she was the emotionally weak one.
Once Jamie got here, and I heard about what I’d been doing over the last eight years, I realized that I’d become a lot softer than my mother had been. When we started to see changes related to her mood, I started to feel incredible guilt. My mother had taught me how to make a kid tough, and all I did with Julie was make her weak. All of my behavior over the last few weeks was an effort to make her stronger. I figured she’d either get stronger, or she’d die. Somehow her death didn’t phase me – I felt as if it would be mercy upon her to not have to go through life as an emotional wreck. I realize now I wasn’t thinking clearly. No one should believe death a better alternative than life. And no one should enable those thoughts. I let myself believe that, even though all of you told me it was a bad idea. I let myself believe it so much that I killed Jamie over it. I told myself it was all for Julie, but in reality, it was all my own stubbornness over the cruel world I had endured as a child. It wasn’t right to be cruel to people when my mother was cruel to me, and I can’t keep using her to justify my behavior”
G-ma began crying once more. The others sat in silence. It made sense, although the sense didn’t make anything any better about it. The saddest thing one can see is someone who deludes themselves so much that they buy into their own twisted version of the truth. G-ma was a villain in the moment, and a victim in the entire span of time.
When next G-ma looked up, she wiped the tears from her eyes just long enough to realize two things. First, the group was behind her, and that some commotion was happening. Second, as she turned, she noticed Sara Beth looked a bit more solid again. That was amazing, but not as amazing as what she heard next: Jamie’s voice.