“I can’t describe it other than to use the word ‘bliss’”, G-ma said, reflecting on the experience.
“I think that’s pretty accurate”, Mrs. Corum added, “It was as if, for a moment, the entire world stopped, and I was basking in a warm glow. I didn’t want it to ever end”
For a few minutes, Sara Beth felt guilty that she had taken such measures to knock her friends out of the light they had been engulfed in. Sensing this after several minutes of talking about the glow and emotional effects of it, G-ma abruptly changed gears.
“But you did the right thing, Sara Beth, don’t get us wrong. We’re waxing poetic about something that wasn’t right. I don’t care where we are or what we think we want, human beings weren’t meant to suffer 100% of the time, or be high 100% of the time. It was as if I was on drugs, not that I’d ever known any of those drugs you hear about on TV. Closest thing I’d ever felt was the pain medication they gave me a few years ago when my back was out – and this was way more intense than that.”
Sara Beth was relieved to hear G-ma defend her actions. Mrs. Corum came around gradually as well, thanking Sara Beth for her quick thinking.
“I wonder what that place was”, Mrs. Corum mused.
“Still is – it’s right over there”, G-ma replied.
They hadn’t moved far away from the valley, it was still within sight just off in the distance. Sara Beth, this time, had a theory.
“It’s that place you go to right before you fall asleep, I think”, she began, “You know how it feels – you’re lying in bed and trying to get yourself ready to drift off. But maybe you’re too amped up, or maybe you’re distracted. So you start trying to relax, and eventually stumble upon on pleasant thought, one that makes you feel happy and content, and you fall asleep. That’s what it felt like to me, like that blissful state of relaxation right before you lose consciousness.”
The other two women thought about it, mulling the idea around for a few minutes.
“I could see something like that”, Mrs. Corum finally replied, “Or it might not be that pre-sleep state, it might just be that happy place we all think about – the enjoyable moments that we bring back up each time we’re sad or lonely, in need of a quick pick-me-up. I suppose that stepping into those moments may cause one to enter a state like we experienced – after all, those moments were designed to be the best our minds could come up with. It wouldn’t surprise me if we wanted to stay there, all the time”
“It was nice,” G-ma began wistfully, “But not for us to stay in. Especially not for the two of us to stay in and leave you here!”. It was clear that the longer she was away from the light, the more guilty G-ma began to feel for succumbing to it’s intoxicating atmosphere.
They decided to put the matter behind them, literally, and walk back up toward more familiar ground. Exploring would be done in future days, but for now, a return to places known was in order. Privately, each women reflected on potential uses for the valley, with G-ma taking the harshest stance. Over the next few hours, she would grow determined never to return to it under any circumstance, fearing that it would take what little humanity she may have left, turning her into a mindless hedonist. Mrs. Corum would think differently, wondering if perhaps, in limited quantities, the valley could be therapeutic. Straying into the light was dangerous, no doubt, but given the emotional tole this place could take out on someone, the prospect of a blissful few minutes seemed like it might have it’s place. In contrast, Sara Beth felt that both the valley and even the light may be useful in small doses (and with friends to back you up), but was not keen to try it herself. She thought, though, that if anyone were to ever go completely mad in this place, the valley might be the only way to help them. Over time the true abilities, nature, and limitations of the valley would be seen, with neither G-ma, Mrs. Corum, or Sara Beth hitting the nail on the head in terms of its best uses.
As they walked farther away from the valley and up toward Mrs. Corum’s old spot, they caught sight of something far off in the distance. It was odd in that it appeared to be moving. Nothing here moved other than the three of them and Sonic, so this was something potentially very interesting. They picked up the pace to try to catch up with the figure off in the future.
As they grew nearer, they were amazed – about 200 feet ahead were what appeared to be two children, walking quickly and talking in a very animated fashion.
“They can’t hear us”, G-ma reminded the group as Sara Beth began to call out, “We’re too far off”.
As they grew nearer, the forms took on more detail. Both children looked to be about the same age as Sara Beth. On the right was a boy, wearing what appeared to be a standard school uniform similar to the one that Sara Beth recalled seeing Julie wear. A red polo shirt and khaki shorts, with white socks and sneakers. Red was the same color Sara Beth wore at school, it was popular in that area of the country. She also surmised that it must have been hot whatever day he was copied into Julie’s mind – the shorts were likely only allowed during that weather. The girl, on the other hand, was not wearing the school uniform, or much of an outfit at all. She appeared to be clothed in an oversized t-shirt, slightly ratty with age, that stretched past her knees. It looked as if it might have been a nightshirt. She was barefoot, and her long hair was unkempt and wild. As she walked, she ran her hands up and through her hair multiple times, likely trying to straighten it.
As they drew closer, but still out of range to call out, Mrs. Corum and G-ma began to hear the conversation between the two children. Unaware of the women approaching them, the two newcomers were deeply engrossed in an argument.
“I don’t care what you think – I like her”, the girl said firmly.
“Her music sucks!”, the boy said in reply, “She’s just popular because people say she’s popular.”
“Is not – she’s really talented”, the girl replied.
“Talent?!? She sounds stupid – her voice sounds like someone ran my neighbor’s cat through the blender!”, the boy said, making simulated cat screeching noises.
“Stop it you idiot”, the girl shrieked. She was not a fan of animal cruelty, real or simulated.
“Make me!”, the boy replied.
“Shut up”, the girl called out.
From off in the distance, Mrs. Corum and G-ma were amazed at what they heard.
“It doesn’t seem like they’re too concerned with being here”, G-ma said.
“Yeah, they don’t seem to even notice it”, Mrs. Corum replied.
“What are they saying”, asked Sara Beth, who hadn’t trained her hearing to be as precise at the others.
“Something about a singer one likes and the other doesn’t, and the boy is talking about screeching cats”, Mrs. Corum said, looking toward Sara Beth. Sara Beth just shot a confused look back, “Yeah, I know”, Mrs. Corum replied, “Seems like they should have other things to think about, seeing that they’re here”.
With their backs to the approaching women, it wouldn’t be for another few minutes that they’d make contact. And with the conversation being so bizarre, the three ladies approaching wondered how to make first contact with their new guests. While they had no concrete evidence they’d been here longer than the boy and girl they approached, it certainly seemed that arguing over such a trivial thing wouldn’t be taking up the time of someone who had been here for awhile. It seemed more at home with the conversation of those who had just arrived.
Mrs. Corum and G-ma continued to listen to the two as they approached, but heard nothing important other than school yard taunting. Both of them began to appreciate the maturity of Sara Beth more and more as they thought of how these two might make life in Julie’s head a bit more untenable. Maybe they’d grow up quickly after realizing the magnitude of the situation.
Up until that very moment, the three ladies hadn’t ever considered that potentially the new arrivals in Julie’s brain would be less than stellar people. It appeared that Julie had selected people in her mind that would bring her comfort and peace, not people who would argue. Sara Beth, G-ma, and Mrs. Corum all felt as if the situation had been balanced before, and they began to wonder if these two might unbalance it. What if they decided not to be quiet during the dim hours? What if they decided not to be quiet at all? What if they didn’t want to join the ladies at all? The three of them had grown a bit dependent on each other, and the thought of finding two people at the same time, and then having both of them not want to join their small group seemed crazy. But then again, all three of them had found each other alone, with the loneliness potentially drawing them in. These two had each other, although perhaps they didn’t really want each other.
They were approaching the two new children quicker now, within 20 feet. Mrs. Corum decided it was time to make contact.
“Hello” she called out.
Neither child stopped.
“Hello!”, she called out again, this time with G-ma lending support.
The children stopped abruptly. By now the women were just about 10 feet away from the pair.
The children turned, looks of surprise and worry on their faces. It was as if they just now thought perhaps others could be here in this place. The five of them stood staring at each other. Then, slowly, a look of realization came over the faces of Mrs. Corum, the boy, and the girl. Sara Beth and G-ma watched, realizing that all three of them seemed to know each other. The girl began to look relieved, as a small smile came across her face. Tears began to stream from her eyes. The boy had a different reaction – a sullen look washed over his face. He wasn’t afraid, worried, or panicked at all. But he definitely wasn’t happy to see the sight before him.
Mrs. Corum broke the silence.
“Ryan?”, she asked. The boy nodded.
“G-ma!!!”, the girl cried, running toward the older woman who, in surprise, stooped down and opened her arms.
“Where am I”, Ryan asked Mrs. Corum, with a slight twinge of nervousness in his voice. He knew he wasn’t Mrs. Corum’s favorite student, given previous events, and she wasn’t his favorite teacher by a long shot. In asking the question so abruptly, it appeared to the rest of the group that, perhaps, Ryan had just realized that he was in a completely new and different world than he had ever previously known.
“It’s kind of hard to explain”, Mrs. Corum began, “And all that we know are theories that we’ve come up with over our time here. How long have you been here?”
Ryan thought for a few minutes, and realized he had trouble remembering too far into the past. In fact, the only thing he could remember was having the stupid argument about music with the annoying girl he had found only several minutes before. He recognized her as someone from the grade below him in school. Now she lie wrapped in the arms of the old woman. ‘They must know each other’, he thought.
“Just a few minutes”, Ryan said, answering Mrs. Corum’s question.
“Then you’re probably a bit overwhelmed”, came Mrs. Corum’s reply. “For now, just know that we’re in a place unlike any on Earth, and that you’ll be OK here. We’ll talk about it more over the next few hours.”
Turning their attention to the other newcomer, the group watched as G-ma and the girl finished their embrace.
“G-ma, I’m so glad you’re here, I feel better”, the girl said.
The look on G-ma’s face was priceless, a look that the old woman felt would never return to her face as long as she stayed inside this place. But here it was, a miracle come true.
“Everyone, this is my grand daughter, Jamie”, G-ma said, verifying what Mrs. Corum had already suspected. Sara Beth nodded, acknowledging the presence of someone the same age and gender as her, but apparently not someone she already knew. Julie might have been Jamie’s sister, and Sara Beth’s best friend, but it did not appear that the two had ever met before.
“Welcome to our group, Ryan & Jamie. As Ryan knows, I’m Mrs. Corum, and as Jamie knows, this is G-ma, and as neither of you may know, this is”
“Sara Beth”, Sara Beth said, cutting Mrs. Corum off.
The group looked toward each other, each with a different perspective on events. If the children had been older, they probably would have shaken hands, however at this age, the immediate reaction was to stand and not appear too comfortable.
As he stood there, Ryan had a realization wash over him. Jamie’s grandmother was the same person he’d seen pick up Julie on occasion at school. He connected the dots quickly that they were related, and suspected they might be sisters.
“Jamie – are you related to Julie, in my class?”, Ryan asked.
The entire group waited for the answer that all but Ryan knew already.
“Yes, she’s my crazy older sister”, Jamie said, without the slightest hint of sarcasm on the word crazy. This emboldened Ryan.
“She sure is weird”, Ryan began, careful not to say too much more around Mrs. Corum, remembering what happened last time, “Are you a weirdo like her?”.
“No, I’m normal – she’s the crazy one!”, Jamie said.
Abruptly, as if lightning had struck, both Ryan and Jamie clutched at their stomachs.
“What’s wrong? What do you feel?”, Mrs. Corum asked.
“I don’t know”, squeaked Ryan, “It feels like my insides are on fire. It came on so suddenly”.
Jamie nodded in agreement. Neither of them had appreciated the connection that Mrs. Corum, Sara Beth, and G-ma had.
“This is going to sound weird”, Mrs. Corum began, “But I think I know what’s going on here. You two need to apologize to Julie”.
“Why are you making us apologize?”, Ryan asked incredulously, “She isn’t even here”.
“Yeah, she doesn’t know what we said”, Jamie added in.
“That might not be completely true. Just go ahead and apologize”.
“Fine”, Ryan said “I’m Sorry”, delivered in the signature sing-song voice that children used when forced to apologize.
“You have to mean it”, Mrs. Corum instructed.
“Just make it stop”, Ryan replied.
“I’m not controlling it”, Mrs. Corum said, “Julie is”.
Ryan’s face distorted – a rush of questions came over him, however in his state of pain, he felt compelled to listen now and ask questions later.
Both Ryan and Jamie began to make a heartfelt apology, or at least as heartfelt as pre-teens can make when they really don’t want to.
The painful feeling began to lessen inside each of them. Finally after several minutes, it had passed.
“What is this place?!?”, Ryan asked again, this time Mrs. Corum and the others began explaining it to him and Jamie, as they sat in a circle.