Sarah has said nothing to Ben about their ghostly meeting with Jiang Xi.
Granted, great-grandmother Mei’s passing that same evening was especially difficult for her. Their mother, Faith, was amazing in the way she explained it to both Ben and his sister. And even though she worked really hard not to cry when talking about it with them, Ben could see the sad feelings in his mother’s eyes.
It is real quiet around the estate over the following days. But it becomes even more quiet when Papa Mark leaves for China. He apologizes, especially to Ben, for making a decision that might make them feel sad. China was where he and Mei met each other, and he feels that he must now return her remains. Then, he will live out the rest of his days as headmaster of the same academy where Jiang Xi had once taught him. He tells the family it is the only way for him to bring balance to his life without Mei. So with that, Papa Mark leaves for China, and never returns to Sunset Valley.
The estate is a very big place for just four people. There are rooms in the massive home that Ben has probably never even seen. What’s worse, is that his parents spend a lot of time at the science lab, so it often ends up just being him and Sarah playing video games or doing homework together. Most kids his age either avoid him like the plague, or mercilessly ridicule him because of his “special problem”. That is, until one particular sim takes an interest in hanging out with them.
Ben may be unpopular, but he is certainly well-known. Maria, by contrast, is one of the quietest kids in school and has remained mostly invisible. To be honest, Ben hadn’t even noticed her until the first time she came home with Sara after school. She seems a nice enough kid, but has a colorless and boring kind of personality. Still, she keeps up with the Barimen siblings and manages to befriend them both after a few weeks. For the first time since he can remember, Ben enjoys spending time with a friend who isn’t a member of his immediate family.
But he learns quickly that Maria does have a few quirks of her own. She has a tendency of being very direct and, at times, inappropriate. Ben is not even sure if she realizes when she is doing it. He becomes uncomfortable with one conversation in particular, when she states plainly that the kids at school think he is crazy (as though he didn’t already know it). Later, she casually tells Ben that her mother would go orbital if she found out she was hanging out with him, and how she lies about doing research at the library so she can come over to play. Unsure what to say, Ben tries to change the subject, but Maria presses on.
She asks point-blank if he really believes that the world is shrinking; and that places and sims are disappearing. Ben would normally think that she is just simply egging him on, trying to make him out to be some kind of fool the same way other kids do. But who would go through such an elaborate scheme to befriend a sim just to turn around and tear him down just for the fun of it? There is something about the expression on her face that makes him think otherwise.
Ben stares at Maria as she politely waits for his response. He is suddenly reminded of another sim he knows, but he cannot quite make the connection. It could be her facial expression, or the way she talks, …or something. When her phone rings, Maria cracks a sly smile. She very calmly states that it is her mother. She answers the phone, maintaining her relaxed expression while she apologizes for lying.
When Maria says Ben’s name, he can hear a voice screeching on the other end of the phone. Maria’s lips part to reveal a toothy smile. It is the first time he has seen her smile, Ben realizes. Answering her mother respectfully, she hangs up the phone and resumes her ordinary, neutral expression. She informs Ben that her mother is really angry and that she will have to leave; and will probably not be able to return. Seemingly unphased by this revelation, Maria shrugs her shoulders and tells Ben that she will see him at school.
In the days that follow, Ben learns that Maria has been withdrawn to be home-schooled. The news does not affect Sara all that much. She has started making her own group of friends, and spends much of her time after school going to other kids’ homes. But it bothers Ben quite a bit. His mom and dad still spend a lot of time at the science lab working together the “big project”, which often leaves him alone at the estate. Sometimes he wishes Papa Mark would come back so he would have somebody fun to fish with.
His birthday eventually arrives in rather anticlimactic fashion, with just the four of them having an expensive dinner out. Faith has a difficult enough time grappling with the emotions of her “baby” growing up. Eating dinner at the Bistro only sends her over the deep end, and she starts crying about how the restaurant reminds her of her mother. It is a subject that has always been avoided, so Ben has never really asked about it.
It is still early in the evening when they get home, so he and his father walk around the east wing, where the collection of valuable cars is kept. Jimmy apologizes for the botched birthday, admitting that he and Faith have been spending way too much time at the lab working out a very important problem. They talk together about the cars, school, and girls; eventually stopping at Mark’s antique muscle car. Smiling, Jimmy tells Ben that the elder Barimen wanted him to have it when he was old enough. He drops the keys in his son’s hands and tells him to go out and explore, but be back before curfew.
Ben smiles a rare smile and thanks his dad. Then, doing what he has seen his Papa Mark do a thousand times before; Ben grabs a guitar, throws it in the back of the car, and drives.