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.
Quite honestly, the five of them had creeped her out in some ways and reassured her in others. They seemed really friendly, and she wondered if it was because they all were a bit stir crazy and happy to see anyone wander into their group. They’d told her about their theories of where they were, and about this Julie person that she’d never heard of. However she had a hunch that, if what they were saying was true, she might exist in the minds of more than one preteen girl right now. After what she did right before she got here.
It was reassuring, however, that they didn’t seem to be overly concerned with prying into her life. They even told her that they didn’t mind if she wanted to be alone, or if she wanted to go for walks or if she wanted to sit far enough away that she couldn’t be heard talking, screaming, or crying. The older women even told her that they’d practiced refining their hearing, so she’d need to sit farther away than 20 feet if she wanted privacy. Mara didn’t need to be away for privacy, though, she was quite fine just not saying a word in a group of chatterboxes, drawn inward reflecting on her own feelings and problems. She’d been doing that for around 4 years now, so she’d gotten pretty good at it.
Would she tell them her secrets? Maybe. She’d have to give them some time to prove themselves. She worried that she might get upset and let a few things slip, here or there, so perhaps sitting farther away was a good idea. She’d always known that once she began to feel comfortable talking to someone, everything would probably come spilling out. That wasn’t an option, so she avoided teachers, coaches, counselors, and ministers that might tempt her to talk.
But here in this place, metaphorical new light was shining. She could talk about things, and there would be no negative repercussions. In fact, she’d noticed that just the past few days she’d been here, she already started to feel a tremendous sense of relief. It was ironic, she supposed, that her new friends probably wanted to get out of here as quickly as possible, and she hoped that she’d never have to leave. This wasn’t paradise to most, but it was to her. And it wasn’t just because she was wearing her favorite outfit, minus the rain boots.
As she looked up at the sky, a copperish hue shot by. She glanced up at the mountains in the distance, and saw them lighting up. She wondered what that could mean.
Mara had just walked away from the group for a bit of time alone. Once she was out of earshot, the group turned their attention to their newcomer.
“Does anyone know her?”, Mrs. Corum asked to shaking heads, “I suppose I might have run across her at my school or elsewhere, but she doesn’t seem to be from around our area.”
“How do you know that?”, G-ma replied.
“She just doesn’t act like the anyone from around my school”, Mrs. Corum replied. In showing a tiny bit of prejudice, she’d likely been keying in on Mara’s unconventional dress, not realizing that she may have come here on a non-school day, or that her school might not be in session. Mrs. Corum knew she found something off about the girl, and perhaps it was her dress, or perhaps it was something else.
“I think she’s weird”, Jamie said.
“Why is that?”, G-ma asked.
“She just is – why wouldn’t she want to come talk with us for so long? And now, why is she sitting away from us? Doesn’t she like us enough?”, Jamie replied.
It was fairly obvious to G-ma that Mara didn’t fit nicely into a category that either Mrs. Corum or Jamie could understand. Mara wasn’t yet a woman, at least as Mrs. Corum or G-ma might recognize, and she also wasn’t a preteen like Jamie or so a lesser degree, Sara Beth. And obviously, she wasn’t male, like Ryan. Everyone looked at her through the eyes of their own experience, and it was difficult for them to see that her experiences likely didn’t match any of them.
“I think she just needs time”, G-ma replied, thoughtfully.
“Do you think she knows Julie?”, Jamie asked the group.
“Well she has to if we’re all in Julie’s mind”, Ryan said, taking an interest in the conversation. “At least that’s the theory we seem to buy into here – so somehow she knows Julie or Julie knows her. Personally I think Julie saw her somewhere and maybe they talked, but neither ever got their names out, sort of what Sara Beth experienced”. Sara Beth was a bit shocked to hear Ryan say her name and reference her life – he’d never seemed to care much about history in the past.
“I don’t think so – she doesn’t seem like the kind of person my sister would hang out with”, Jamie said, defiantly.
“You don’t know who your sister would hang out with, she hardly hung out with you”, Ryan said. It smarted a bit for Jamie to hear that, and she withdrew from the conversation. And in that moment, something amazing happened to Ryan. For the first time in his life he felt, in an exceedingly small way, guilty, for what he said. What a weird feeling, he thought, as he shook it off.
“Maybe she’s someone important, and Julie watched her on TV or something like that”, Sara Beth offered. The group seemed reluctant to accept that idea.
“I just don’t think that would have made enough of an impact”, Mrs. Corum began, “I think the only way you get into this situation is if you know Julie really well, and in order to do that, you need to talk with her, and get to know her. Mara must know her somehow, I’m sure of it.”
“I think it’s really unlikely, dear, that Mara doesn’t know Julie and that Julie does know and care about Mara enough to bring her here”, G-ma said in reply, “But it’s not out of the question”.
“What if Mara isn’t a real person”, Ryan said, steering the conversation to a somewhat strange direction.
“What do you mean?”, Sara Beth asked.
“What if Julie made Mara up – maybe Mara never existed outside of Julie’s mind. Maybe Mara is a character Julie created for some reason.”
The others hadn’t quite thought of that possibility. It opened up a whole new world of possibilities about this place, and frankly, it really scared them. While they all mumbled something to the effect that they didn’t think that was the case, they were clearly frazzled by it. Ryan was frazzled too, but not for the reason they were. He was upset because he had no idea where the thought he offered even came from. Maybe he was smarter than he thought? He also was amazed that he could have the effect he had on the others simply with an idea. Previously he’d only ever gotten that sort of reaction through bullying. Weird.
As the others began to break apart and go back to their own activities, Ryan wondered if he should take one of his walks, despite the fact he’d just taken one yesterday.
‘No, Better not’, he thought to himself. Sometimes one had to show some restraint.
Why is she coming over here?
“Do you mind if I sit over here with you?”
“Uh… no. I guess that’s fine”
What does she want? Maybe the rest of them put her up to this. Maybe they think I’ll open up to her since she’s closest to me in age. They’re wrong, I’m not that easy. Still, she seems to just be sitting there, playing with that hedgehog. It’s been awhile since she came over. Probably at least 20 minutes. Maybe I should test her.
“I don’t really feel like I’m like any of you here”
If she wants me to open up, she’ll go on about how I’m just like them, and how that’s great. I’ve heard that before.
“Maybe. It doesn’t matter though. You’re Mara, and I’m Sara Beth, and he’s Sonic, and well we can be is the best Mara, Sara Beth, and Sonic we can be. You don’t have to be like us”
Didn’t expect that one. She’s clever. Maybe she’s going to let me be me for a bit before she tries to get me to change. It’s been a few minutes now and she hasn’t asked any questions. Maybe she just doesn’t feel like talking. I know how to tell if she’s into talking and prying – I’ll get her to talk about herself, and then she’ll ask me a bunch of questions thinking I’m obligated since she just shared a bunch. That’s what that teacher did a few years ago – boy was she mad when I wouldn’t talk back. ‘We all shared Mara, you need to too!’
“How long have you had Sonic?”
“About six months before I came here. My dad works a lot of long hours and I don’t get to see him too much. My mom knew it would be nice if we could do something together and if I had a friend around more often, so she asked Dad to take me to the petstore and pick out a pet. They had lots of little animals but I really liked Sonic. My dad was really skeptical about buying a hedgehog, but once we learned more about them, he was more open to the idea of me getting one.”
“Is it just you and your mom and dad?”
“Yeah, in my family that’s all it is. My mom had to have an operation shortly after she had me, and she isn’t able to have any more kids. But I like being an only child – it gives me a lot of time to do things on my own and be independent. I kind of wonder though what it was like to have a sibling – Jamie talks about Julie a lot, and some of it is good, some of it is bad, but it sure is different than what I knew, that’s for sure. Maybe being an only child prepared me well for this place.”
“I’m an only child too”
She didn’t ask a question, even when I slipped up and let out that I was an only child too. She’s got some game going on here, I know it. She just hasn’t tipped her hand yet. I can wait her out.
“What do your parents do?”
“My mom is a line supervisor at a local factory. She watches over some production line where they make stuff – I don’t know exactly what. She’s been with the company for a lot of years – she worked there before she met my dad. The job is pretty good, and she makes a bit more than my dad does, so the three of us usually have things pretty good. We’re not rich, but we have enough.”
“What about your dad?”
“He’s a police officer. He works a lot of hours. It’s actually his job that is making us move in a few months. He got an offer from another department that would be a promotion, and Mom found a factory owned by the same people as hers that she could transfer to. Both of them get to keep doing what they like, but I have to change things quite a bit. Well, I guess I had to change things quite a bit – now I’m stuck here. Guess the other Sara Beth will have to deal with the changes without me!”
I’ve got some bait for her…
“Police officer huh? Your dad wouldn’t like me. Most police don’t seem to want to help me”
“That sucks, I’m sorry to hear that.”
That’s it?!? It’s like she doesn’t want to know every secret detail.
The girls sat next to each other for the rest of the day, and watched the sky dim. They talked sporadically, about nothing much in particular. Sara Beth had a hunch that Mara needed time to open up, and so she was careful not to push anything. In her mind, she had all the time in the world that she’d need to become friends with Mara, and since it didn’t look like Jamie was going to be her friend anytime soon, a tiny bit of selfishness was involved as well. Sara Beth needed a friend, well, a human friend, and she had a hunch that Mara needed one too.
The next morning, as it was getting brighter in the sky, Mara decided that she might be OK to let a little out. Maybe what those therapists had been telling her for years was right, she’d feel a little better.
“Can I hold Sonic for a bit?”
“Sure, here”, Sara Beth said as she helped Mara form her hands into a good position for Sonic to sit in. Mara got comfortable – having a furry friend seemed to help in this for some reason.
“Sara Beth, can I tell you a secret”
“Yes, I promise I won’t tell anyone”
Here it goes…
“The last 3 years have been really rough for me, and I haven’t been handling it that well, mostly because I don’t think I can trust anyone. But now that I’m here, all of the things I worried about can’t happen to me anymore. I still don’t know if I can trust someone, but at least if I pick the wrong person here, they can’t call the police, or social services, or my mom or dad. So the worries I had about that are gone. All that person I trust could do would be hurt me emotionally, and I’ve been hurt emotionally so many times that I guess I can take it”
“Mara, I won’t tell anyone anything you don’t want to share. But don’t share with me anything you aren’t ready to. We’ve got all of the time in the world.”
“I’ve been waiting years to tell someone, you promise you won’t hurt me?”
“OK… I’ve never said this out loud, not even to myself. Can I whisper it to you?”
“Come closer”. Sara Beth leaned in, and Mara put her mouth to Sara Beth’s ear. She began to speak, but about halfway through the first line she started crying. Crying in a soft controlled way, but crying forcefully, purposefully.
“Oh my God”, was all Sara Beth could say.