Chapter 7.9 – Checkmate

Amber stares at an old, dusty portrait she found at the warehouse, as though the subject could speak his name.
 
He is strikingly handsome, and exudes supreme confidence even through the dirt and grime his frame has accumulated over years inside the old warehouse. She spotted the small painting hanging askew on the wall, behind a stack of crates and shipping containers. There is no telling why it was hung there in the first place.
 
The man depicted in the painting smiles slyly at Amber, challenging her to learn more about him. She can almost hear him taunting; asking how she expects to find the identity of a man in a portrait, when she can’t even manage finding information about a living mystery man right in front of her. Amber sniffs defiantly and turns him around to look at the wall.
 
After a moment of sulking, Amber carefully cleans the frame and glass. Then, after several attempts, she manages to capture a good close-up of the portrait using her cell phone camera. She writes yesterday’s date on a sticky-note and a cryptic description of where she found the painting. She then attaches it to the glass, obscuring the man’s mocking eyes.
 
Amber sighs. She removes the sticky note, and looks into the portrait’s eyes. He’s right. She has been going at this with the mind of a child. She has allowed emotional tides and eddies carry her off course. Replacing the sticky note onto the back of the frame, Amber puts the portrait aside, then eagerly checks her email.
 
When she thinks about Mr. Dworkin, it has always been through sympathetic, rose-colored glasses. But since Billy’s near-death experience, Amber has shifted her way of thinking. The changed strategy has yielded her some important clues. As it turns out, her former math teacher had made a career-change into education some years ago. His previous employment as a young man, made him no stranger to the warehouse or to Mr. Jones, Billy’s father.
 
His specialty in that former profession? Con artist.
 
 
Armed with a new attitude and quite a bit of information, Amber makes her weekly visit to the embattled, old man. She has no desire to attack him with the details, so she manipulates her expert subtlety to direct the conversation toward her desired topic. Realizing the strategy too late, Mr. Dworkin becomes aware of the moves that have led him into check. He smiles weakly and comments that she would be quite skilled in his former line of work. The remark does not sit well with Amber, and the hesitation allows him to maneuver out of her well-crafted play.
 
Still very appreciative of his former student, Mr. Dworkin stands, and admits the misdeeds of his youth. The problem with that line of work, he states, is that a sim can never really quit. It hangs like a chain around a sim’s neck their entire life. It is not a question of if, but when the chain is going to be pulled; dragging them back into the thick. Then there is the troubling question of who is at the other end of the chain, doing the pulling.
 
Mr. Jones is responsible for recently bringing him back into the organization to help fight off Brand. Brand likewise recruited him to help fight off Mr. Jones. The cheating scheme was nothing more than a power-trip used by Mr. Jones to demonstrate his authority. Mr Dworkin tells Amber he knew immediately she had been the one to blow the whistle, after she began to show so much interest in him. And so did Brand. The envelope she spirited from him that day was Brand’s idea, and he had no choice but to comply. He states plainly that she has been drawn much deeper into the affair than she realizes, adding that he has already played out his role and has no real information to give her regarding either sim.
 
As though some switch had been flipped inside of him, Mr. Dworkin’s mild-mannered and victimized expression turns to that of a calculating genius. He informs Amber that she is the prize of a rather sick game being played. Any trust she has placed should immediately be regarded as misplaced, and that she should consider herself amply warned.
 
Breaking the overcast silence, he studies the portrait Amber had captured on her camera phone. It takes only one glance for his face to betray the attempt at a concealed smile. He suggests that she need not look farther than her own family album to identify the man. Then, leveling his surprisingly intense gaze at a stunned Amber, Mr. Dworkin tells her flatly that what she takes away from this conversation can trusted as gold. But he adds that she should not expect the same from any future dealings with him.
 
Then, as though the switch had again been flipped, he sits back down to their abandoned chess game, ponders the board with his nervous eyes for a short time, makes a move with perfectly feigned hesitation, and smiles as he announces checkmate.

Chapter 7.8 – Billy

Lisa watches with discomfort as Amber hugs and kisses on Billy Jones, who is in the hospital recovering from a gunshot wound.
 
Ben’s brother-in-law, Ricky Nava, had divulged that he was injured during a rival gang shoot out the previous evening. Billy was lucky to escape with his life, seeing how a number of other sims did not walk away from the gunfight. Lisa has tried her best to be understanding and respectful of her daughter’s choices. But to be romantically involved with a gang member crosses the line.
 
She had taken Amber to see him the moment news about the incident broke around town. She has never seen her daughter so spooked about anything. Normally calm and unflappable, Amber now seems deeply disturbed and intensely worried. It is more than just the situation with Billy, too. Something else is going on with her daughter. Unfortunately, she has been so preoccupied with the mounting legal problems, that she has not checked in with Amber for far too long.
 
Billy acts his typical narcissistic, arrogant, and impetuous self toward an infatuated Amber; even arguing with her at one point. But she is too dumb-struck to realize it. She kisses Billy goodbye when it is time to go, and tells him she will see him at the lake again when he is ready to continue his training. Lisa dreads telling her daughter that there will be no more lakeside martial-arts training for the two of them.
 
Lisa treats Amber to a movie, then to some comfort food at the diner before arriving at the beach just in time for sunset. As they walk barefoot through the wet sand, Lisa shares her concerns about Billy; and explains that her responsibility as a parent is to keep Amber safe. Sometimes keeping a child safe, even a teenager, unfortunately means that some choices will be taken away.
 
Before she can continue her thought, Amber asks meekly if she is going to be forbidden from seeing Billy. Lisa wants to say yes, but knows it will cause nothing but trouble. Lisa tells her, instead, that she can only see him if he visits the estate; and that they cannot spend time unsupervised. Amber sighs, and rolls her eyes, but does not argue. Lisa apologizes and states that she wishes it could be different, telling her they are welcome to use the estate’s gym for training.
 
As they continue to walk, Lisa and Amber chat about school, boys, and life. She has always been a mature child, having little problem carrying on conversations with adults. Lisa finds herself telling Amber about the legal problems the family faces. It has been years since she and Ben quit the music scene, yet there has been steady stream of litigation against the family. Some of the lawsuits are ridiculous, such as a fan claiming damages for lost sleep due to grief over the band’s breakup. But some are serious, such as songwriters claiming that Ben had stolen a song, then claimed it as his own creation.
 
Not a single one of these lawsuits had resulted in money being awarded to a plaintiff. But as soon as one case ends, there seems to be another, more serious one waiting. The legal fees by themselves are costing a small fortune. Recently, a number of businesses owned by the Barimen family have been sued for more money than they are worth. What has family worried, is the fact that it seems to be some kind of coordinated attack. As though somebody powerful is trying to destroy the Barimen fortune.
 
Lisa apologizes to Amber for dumping her own worries at a time when she is clearly upset about her boyfriend. Oddly enough, Amber seems keenly interested in the information. Preoccupied and in distant thought (a frustrating trait passed on by her father), Amber says the most curious thing in response to her mother’s apology. She absently assures her mother that there is no need to apologize, and that the information has been incredibly enlightening.
 
Lisa’s mothering instinct kicks in after her daughter’s weird response. She has been acting very strangely since last night, even before she learned about Billy’s altercation. Lisa doesn’t need gifted senses to see that Amber knows more than she is telling. After a short pause, she asks Amber what she knows about Billy’s gang involvement. Feeling suddenly overwhelmed and confused, and not wanting to lie to her mother, Amber begins to cry. She tells Lisa that he’s been working some shady jobs at the warehouse after school. But she knows he is made up of more than the thug he portrays. He is a different sim when they are alone together.
 
Throwing caution to the wind, Amber begins to unload her bottled-up emotions about Billy, being careful to edit out her own excursions to the warehouse. She talks about Billy’s lack of interest in martial-arts training, the intense make-out sessions, the broken fingers, and her weakening willpower in regard to woo-hooing with him. Amber knows he is a complete jerk. But yet, there is something irresistible about him that she cannot ignore.
 
Lisa smiles and hugs her daughter as the sun sets on their stroll. Lisa’s voice is gentle, wise, and perhaps, a slight bit amused when she reassures Amber that she knows exactly how she feels.
 
And that when it comes to the bad boys, it’s the same now as it ever was.

Chapter 7.7 – Evidence

The pages of Amber’s book seem to almost write themselves, as she taps into her fascination with the mysterious activities going on at the warehouse.
 
Wendel Colt, Amber’s publisher, continues to praise the teen for her skillful and captivating writing. She has never actually met Wendel. Their business has been conducted mostly by phone or mail. Amber wonders how he would react, were he to learn the origin of her muse. Because of her age, Wendel has insisted that she publsh under the pen name Barbi Meerman, to protect her from potential weirdos. It has actually been a brilliant move, because her first book has done surprisingly well. Seeing how it has treated her parents, the last thing Amber wants is stardom or fame.
 
She completes another few chapters and submits them to Wendel before going to meet Billy on the edge of town. She always pushes herself at a near sprint to get to the private, little lake. She tells herself that it is to take advantage of the rough terrain to get a great workout. But she knows there is another reason.
 
Billy obviously does not know about her finding the evidence that led to his father’s arrest. The video contained something heinous enough to convict the elder Jones, who is serving a lengthy prison sentence. Billy often talks about his father being “railroaded” by the new warehouse foreman, who Amber assumes is actually Brand. There clearly is some kind of connection between Brand, Billy’s father, and Mr. Dworkin. But she has not been able to discover what it is.
 
Despite his cruel, creepy side, Billy does possess some redeeming qualities. When he is around other sims, he is a loudmouth jerk who takes joy in seeing others suffer. But when they are alone in the woods, far away from any sims, he is a different. He is a sim she could fall in love with. When she is able to pull him away from his “work” at the warehouse, she teaches him to discipline himself with meditation.
 
She tries not to be disappointed when he reverts to the Billy she hates. But that is when she feels her efforts are being wasted. She refuses to let herself give up on him, however. She’ll just have to be patient and realize that he is a work in progress.
 
She arrives at their spot by the lake and melts into one of his amazing kisses. She senses, at times, that he is just playing along; waiting until she finally gives in to his many advances. With her heart pounding in her chest, and electricity from their kiss jolting through her body, she fights the urge to let it happen. Regaining her senses, Amber works to center her emotions and manages to bring herself back under control. With the immediate crisis averted, she steps back and shifts gears away from the inevitable event. For the moment, at least.
 
Sensing the need to take her mind (and his) off of the topic, Amber plants a curious little idea in Billy’s head. As she has done in the past, she starts off with a harmless question, and grows it into something much more useful. Billy is sure that the foreman is behind his father’s arrest. What he really needs to do is find some proof and present it to the authorities. There is still some daylight left. If they can get to the warehouse before the foreman arrives, Billy is sure he can pick the lock to his office and find the evidence he needs. Billy kisses her soundly on the lips and looks into her eyes, slyly commenting that he nearly had her. He flashes a wicked smile and asks her if she wants to join him.
 
The obvious answer to both his spoken question and his implied one, is yes. But the other yes will have to wait for another day.
 
Having entered through one of the many concealed doors hidden throughout the warehouse, Amber and Billy move quietly through the dusty, old corridors. He navigates through crevices formed by forgotten crates and containers, and broken down equipment. He knows this place inside and out, she observes. Doing her best to keep a mental map as they travel, Billy eventually stops at a door near the top of a flight of stairs.
 
He deftly manipulates a slim, metal tool and opens the door, then motions her to get back. Billy does not need to ask twice. Amber had seen a number of interesting items along the way and backtracks silently to acquire them while Billy rummages around the foreman’s office. These are not just fancy goodies she wants for thrills. Rather, they are items that may score her some intelligence. The most curious of which, is an old framed photo hanging askew on the wall. She cannot understand why a dirt-encrusted portrait would capture her attention. But it did. She pilfers the items with ease, then hurries back to where she left Billy.
 
The sound of voices impedes her path back to the office. Amber retraces Billy’s path behind crates and through a maze of empty shipping containers. Finding a dark spot to hide, where she can see the top of the stairs, Amber stops moving as the voices grow louder and more agitated. Billy comes flying part-way down the stairs, but catches himself before falling. Brand emerges from the doorway to his office, looking as though he wants to kill.
 
Amber can hear shouting from a number of others whom she cannot see. They are arguing about Billy. Some of them are still loyal to his father, it seems. Brand moves in and out of her line of sight as the shouting continues. Then, as she cowers in the shadows, Amber shivers uncontrollably when a presence approaches. She knows of it, but has not yet met it. Its arrival here signals the impending death of a sim.
 
It is not any spoken word she hears, but she obeys the command to flee as though it had been shouted at her. Terrified and panicked, and running faster than she thought possible toward the nearest concealed exit, Amber is gone before Brand’s frigid words can reach her ears.
 
KILL HIM.

Chapter 7.6 – Grudge

Despite the feeling that she ought to know better, Amber begins to spend a lot more time with Billy Jones after their encounter at the warehouse.
 
She has been preoccupied, thinking about the possible consequences of getting caught by Brand inside the warehouse. Something in her gut says that he is an incredibly dangerous sim. The fact that Billy found her first may have just been a completely random coincidence; but it may have also saved her life.
 
Looking past the fact that Billy is a colossal jerk, she begins feel that he really isn’t all that bad. Thanks to her marital-arts training, he minds his manners and wouldn’t dare think about laying a finger on her. In fairness, he’d probably have difficulty with it, anyway. She accidentally broke the first three fingers on his right hand, in response to repeated “out-of-bounds” infractions during one of their make-out sessions by the lake. She does feel bad for hurting him. But she kind of lost her temper after the tenth warning for him to stop. In any event, it drew the line pretty clearly for him, and here hasn’t been any more of that nonsense, since.
 
Amber wonders sometimes, why they’re not like other couples in school. It is always hot and cold with him. He’s either madly in love, or wants nothing to do with her. It doesn’t really bother her most of the time. If anything, she just feels sorry for him. He’s fairly good-looking, and a great kisser. But that’s about it. For the most part, he’s as dumb as a rock.
 
Right or wrong, she has been able to exploit this “limitation”, to slowly gain information about what he does at the warehouse every day. It appears there is quite a bit more happening there than what most people are aware of. She has been careful not to mention Mr. Dworkin, for obvious reasons. Otherwise, Billy has been a wealth of knowledge about the new “foreman” at the warehouse.
 
He is a foreigner who has very recently taken over (somewhat forcibly) much of the warehouse’s daily operation while Billy’s father serves his prison sentence. Amber feels pretty confident that this new foreman and Brand are the same sim. If this is true, then Amber has just uncovered a much larger mystery to write about.
 
Lisa gossips with her daughter about Billy, and sees a mirror image herself twenty years ago. Honestly, she can’t blame Amber for liking Billy. He is a good looking kid. Besides, at that age, Lisa was a sucker for the bad guys, too. At least Amber has a caring family to keep her grounded. Lisa wasn’t so lucky. Her single mother was either out partying or working most of the time; and Lisa just modeled what she saw. She’d had countless revolving-door relationships before Ben came along.
 
Amber just shrugs Billy off as a “teen thing” and promises that she’ll stay out of trouble. Ben has shared his worry about Billy with his wife on many occasions. But Lisa points out that causing trouble for their daughter will only serve to make Billy that much more attractive to her. Amber will eventually move on and find her knight in shining armor.
 
Lisa remembers the night Ben stepped in and played guitar for her drunken guitarist/boyfriend. It was like magic. In fact, everything about their relationship has been charmed. Almost instantly, she had gone from complete obscurity to super-stardom when she joined Grayswandir. And while her relationship with Ben continues to grow and flourish, it is the trouble with Grayswandir that has her worried.
 
Lawsuits have been piling up against Ben and Lisa, costing a small fortune to defend against. It is not so bad for either she or Ben. But Sara and her husband, Ricky, are barely staying afloat. There is new litigation being conjured up against them daily. Ben continues to throw more money at the problem, helping Sarah anywhere he is legally permitted to.
 
 —
 
For now, there is no crisis. Jimmy spends his birthday at the house with family, going over financial strategies with Ben and the lawyers. But Lisa can see the worry in Faith’s expression; though she knows her mother-in-law will never admit it. The family still has plenty of cash reserves to draw upon, but that may eventually change. Then they may be forced to take more aggressive actions.
 
Lisa cannot help but feel somewhat outraged. She and Ben had every right to quit Grayswandir. Sarah had never held them to any contract, and the remaining band members never missed a gig. But there seems to be an ulterior motive behind this orchestrated legal attack to financially dismantle the family. It’s almost feels like somebody out there has a nasty grudge to repay.
 
What worries Lisa most, is that they appear to be doing their best to make good on it.

Chapter 7.5 – Misdirection

After submitting the first few chapters of a new mystery novel based on the school cheating scandal, Amber finds at least one publisher interested in purchasing the remaining chapters of her story.
 
Wendel Colt, the editor and owner of a small publishing house, comments that he has not seen such a purely entertaining sleuth story in quite some time. Amber laughs during her phone call with Wendel, when he suggests that the next teen-vampire-romance story he sees will promptly have a wooden stake put through it, before it gets tossed into the fireplace. But with kidding aside, he liked her story enough to pay her in advance for the next couple of chapters.
 
Writing comes easy for Amber. It helps with organizing her thoughts, and it forces her to think about the facts in all new ways. Writing lets her explore the motivation behind some of the things she has seen sims do. It also helps her to put unrelated facts together in ways she would have not have otherwise thought to. Amber provides a nice sucker-punch ending to her mystery novel and sends it off to Wendel. It should be a fun read for whodunit fans.
 
She just wishes the real mystery would tie up as neatly. Writing about the scandal has helped her to look at every facet of the case. But no matter which way she looks at it, things just don’t add up. It has been a long time since the incident happened, and her weekly visits with Mr. Dworkin have yielded no new leads or clues. She has grown somewhat frustrated with her lack of progress; frustrated enough to begin to taking some risks.
 
Billy Jones has actually been hitting on her for the past few months. If he weren’t such a sleeze, she might actually consider going out with him. He’s good-looking, rebellious, and lives a little bit on the wild side. Just the kind of boy a girl could get into trouble with. And unfortunately, warming up to him may be the only way of gaining new leads.
 
Now that she thinks about it, all of the guys at school have been paying a lot of attention to her. Her cell phone rings constantly with boys trying to score points. Most of the time, she just ignores the calls. If she didn’t, she’d be talking on the phone twenty hours a day.

Tina Barimen (Brave, Couch Potato, Easily Impressed, Hopeless Romantic)

She just doesn’t get why they’re so fond of her. As far as she can tell, she’s not all that attractive compared to somebody like Tina.

Tanya Barimen (Artistic, Athletic, Excitable, Mooch)

Even Tanya has grown out of her nerdy kid-sister persona and into a ruggedly athletic kind of pretty. Amber does her best not to stand out, and stays mostly with her core group of friends; which obviously include Tina and Tanya.
 
But most of the time, she just spends time watching other sims; alone in a crowd, so to speak. Amber has learned that sims are creatures of habit, and she is no exception. As a child, she would go to the park every day after school. It was a predictable pattern that she realized as soon as she became a teen. She has decided to choose a new venue randomly every day. If for no other reason, than to avoid some other observant sim from discovering her routine.
 
Over the course of her travels, she has noticed that one sim in particular has a routine of his own. Every day after school, Billy Jones makes a bee-line to the old, abandoned warehouse.
 
The Barimen family owns a stake of just about every business and leisure property in town. She has gone with her parents and grandparents on many occasions to visit each one of them, nearly twenty different places in all. They spend a couple hours at each place; speaking to managers, going over the accounting, and approving any needed reinvestment. But there is one building that they do not visit.
 
Amber has asked about the warehouse on a number of occasions. Each time, regardless of whether she asks her parents or grandparents, the answer is the same. The warehouse is strictly off limits. But it is on this particular day that Amber decides to see exactly why it is off limits.
 
She parks the car at a nearby shop and walks the remaining distance to the fenced and barbed-wired building. She walks the perimeter of the seemingly abandoned structure and makes note of numerous concealed doors. After ruling out an attempt to enter through secure front entrance, Amber picks a hidden door and pushes it open.
 
The interior of the warehouse looks about the same as the exterior, run-down and abandoned. Voices echoing off of the high, vaulted ceiling indicate that she is not alone. Amber navigates the cob-webs and crates, moving toward the source of the voices. She soon realizes that one of them is quite familiar.
 
Amber hears Mr. Dworkin and Brand arguing about something just around the corner, out of sight. Poor Mr. Dworkin sounds terrified. It seems the sequel to her first book just got a lot more interesting.
 
Amber’s eyes narrow when she hears carefully muffled footfalls approaching. She turns to see Billy Jones attempting to sneak up behind her. His face wears the expression of the cat who caught the mouse; though he is clearly shocked that she noticed his approach from so far away. She senses that being found by Billy is far less dangerous than being found by Brand. So she takes charge of the situation with a misdirection that Billy likely does not see coming.
 
She glides gracefully up to him and scolds him for trying to ditch her in this gross place. She pulls him close with a more-than-friendly hug, then demands that he stop avoiding her right here and now. She plants a soft and potent kiss on his lips and senses his demeanor change instantly, while he tries to rationalize through the scenario she has just manufactured. Evidently, he had not caught her snooping around, as he had thought. But rather, she had come here looking for him.
 
She brushes her lips against his ear and giggles softly, asking him if there is somewhere else they can go; somewhere where the mood is less creepy. She plays the part perfectly and hides the fact that her heart races with adrenaline from the danger that lurks only few hundred feet away, should Brand discover her presence here. For all Billy knows, her heart is racing for him. Or is it?
 
Billy’s reaction is so predictable that it might as well have been scripted. It is the change in her own demeanor that Amber finds troubling, however. What began as an act, has quickly turned into something very, very enjoyable. She wonders how long has has she been wanting to kiss him, without realizing it.
 
A few hours later, Amber returns home and contemplates just how stupidly dangerous her adventure was. She ponders what might have happened if her misdirection had not worked so perfectly. Amber and Billy had retreated silently from the warehouse to a quiet fishing spot to make out under the stars. She refused woohoo with him, and he went home pretty upset.
 
Despite the near disaster at the warehouse, the odd experience with Billy was not terrible. She buries her confused emotion about Billy, and focuses, instead, on what she saw at the warehouse. The time has finally come to ask Mr. Dworkin about this mysterious Brand character. She falls asleep thinking about her next visit with the retired teacher. Her last thought, before the fog of sleep eclipses her consciousness, becomes lost as it slips away into her dreams.
 
An unfortunate thing, really. It was a thought warning her of another, more elaborate misdirection. And that, perhaps, there may be no real mystery after all.

Chapter 7.4 – Chess

Amber lay awake that night, thinking about her encounter with Brand.
 
Normally, she has no problem meeting new sims. She enjoys learning about their mannerisms and watching how they talk and communicate. Most of the time she can learn more about a sim this way than by what they actually say. But Brand is different; and not a good different. He is exactly the kind of creep that little girls are taught to be afraid of. Just making eye contact with him felt gross.
 
It is now clear to Amber that poor Mr. Dworkin has been used for some reason. What she cannot figure out is how Billy Jones fits into the puzzle. The only person who might know for sure is Brand. And even though the thought if it scares her, she will have to pull the information out of him. But something tells her that it may not be so easy.
 
She does have one thing going for her. Amber possesses the cognitive and emotional faculties of an adult. But she also does a great job of just being a kid. If she can pull off the “silly little girl” routine, while he and Mr. Dworkin are speaking, Brand may just feel safe enough to allow a few details slip.
 
Feeling good about her plan, Amber gets an early start to the park. As expected, Mr. Dworkin is playing chess with Brand. Amber skips up to the two men, and does her best to ignore an unmarked, sealed envelope sitting on the bench next to the weary-looking math teacher. She immediately senses that it is important, though feels hesitant about its conspicuous placement. Amber can almost hear it yelling, Hey! Look at me!
 
She goes immediately into her “pesky little sister” impression; talking incessantly and asking outlandish questions. When she notices that the two men have resigned to the fact that she is not going away, Amber makes her move. She innocently asks Mr. Dworkin when he is coming back to be her teacher again. He winces at the question. But Amber sees Brand’s delighted amusement. Brand echoes her question back to a now squirming Mr. Dworkin.
 
Brand smiles his greasy smile, then answers the question for the trembling, old man. Talking as though he is telling a fairy-tale, he tells Amber that some very bad sims have made her math teacher do things that were very, very wrong. And that she should go home before the bad sims make her do something wrong too.
 
Though she is just a kid, Amber knows when a situation is turning south. And the needle just took a nose dive.
 
One of the many neat tricks Amber has learned while watching sims at the park, is how to swipe things. She scrambles up to Mr. Dworkin and gives him a hug. Then, she skips over to her bicycle with the unmarked envelope tucked securely under her shirt. She peddles her bike as hard and fast as she can to Aunt Sarah and Uncle Ricky’s house. Uncle Ricky is a police officer, and he would probably love to see what is inside this envelope; especially if it has something to do with “bad sims”.

Amber Barimen (Loves the Outdoors, Perceptive, Disciplined, Kleptomaniac)

It is only just days later when Amber learns how right she is. Uncle Ricky is present for her teen birthday bash. He pulls her aside during the party for congratulations, but also to give her some new and interesting information.
 
He informs her that Mr. Dworkin has moved into a nearby retirement community. It is a secure complex with gates, intruder alarms, and around-the-clock security. Amber does not understand why, at first. But the facts come together quickly when Uncle Ricky explains what she was able to uncover.
 
The envelope she found contained a flash memory chip with a video of Billy’s father, Mr. Jones. Though Uncle Ricky would not tell her any details, she is able to deduce that it was some kind of bribery or blackmail. Uncle Ricky assures her that her role in this will be kept perfectly secret. But he also says that there is no proof that her mysterious Mr. Logrus had done anything wrong. In fact, there is no record of anybody with that name in the entire system. Then, he scolds her for getting involved in something so dangerous; and suggests that she save the detective work until she is an adult.
 
But Amber finds the mystery to be irresistible. She visits Mr. Dworkin every week to play chess and chat about math. She does not discuss cheating scandal, or the envelope. But she does often wonder who this Brand character was. She can tell that her former math teacher has a story to tell, but senses it is not yet the right time. Mr. Dworkin is happy just having somebody to visit him and play chess. Perhaps, some day, she will ask him about it. Until that time, she will just have to learn to live with the lingering question that sometimes keeps her up at night.
 
When she does eventually find out who Brand is, will she wish he hadn’t?

Chapter 7.3 – Pawn

Most sims tend to see the park as a place to come and relax, play, and get away from things.
 
Amber sees it as a learning opportunity. In very much the same way a gardener harvests her crop, Amber enjoys picking details and information from those around her. She has learned how to get rid of the weeds, and keep only stuff that bears fruit. She still has not learned how to plant seeds or how to fertilize. But that is very likely to change in the matter of only a short time.
 
Mr. Dworkin has been at the park a lot lately. She waves at him every day, and he waves back with weak but genuine smile. He was a really good teacher, she thinks to herself. She has been driven to find out the truth about the cheating scandal that cost him his teaching job. She has a gut-feeling that Billy Jones and his family somehow have something to do with it. She has been hoping to find something that will pin responsibility on them. Normally, Amber is not quite so vengeful. But Billy is a special kind of jerk.
 
An unusual looking gentleman, quite a bit younger than her former teacher, has been meeting Mr. Dworkin at the park at the same time every day. He is very well dressed with what she can only assume is very expensive clothing. Their conversations are always tense, but forcibly masked with fake smiles and false pleasantries. They are trying to figure out who blew the whistle on Billy’s cheating scheme.
 
Mr. Dworkin is visibly weary and appears to be slightly afraid of this other man; as though he holds some kind of authority over him. After three or four days of this, Amber has seen enough to know that her poor teacher is nothing more than a pawn in this chess match. But how does she prove it?
 
Amber returns home where she is greeted with squeals of happiness from her little brother, Paul. It will be just the four of them together in the house for the next couple of weeks, while her grandparents take Tina and Tanya to China for their birthdays. Amber feels a much closer bond with her mother than with her father. He always seems sort of distant. Maybe it’s his superstar status, or maybe something else altogether. Regardless, Amber and Ben are able to spend more time with each other than they ever had in the past.
 
One particular evening, while he helps her to finish a difficult homework assignment, Amber asks him if he had ever known about things that nobody else had ever noticed. Ben just stares at her for an uncomfortably long time. At first she worries that she has somehow offended him, but then she realizes that he is staring right through her, and is lost in his own thoughts.
 
She quietly apologizes, but Ben turns it around and apologizes to his daughter for “checking out”. He sighs a heavy sigh, then begins to tell her about his own childhood and the disturbing things he had known, and that nobody else believed. She listens in awe, knowing there are details that he is withholding due to her age. Nevertheless, she is still captivated by the amazing account. She wonders if her own acute perception is somehow linked to what he experienced.
 
After a short pause, Ben asks her why she brought up the subject. She feels much more comfortable revealing the things she can do, knowing about his own unusual experience as a child. She watches his face react with the same kind of awe she was likely displaying when he spoke about his own childhood. She explains how she is able to quickly master new things just by watching. She doesn’t know how, but even the tiniest details just seem to scream out, as though telling her that something is out of place.
 
Thoughtful and perhaps a bit disturbed, Ben tells his daughter that the family has been blessed throughout its history, and that she should always remember give thanks for what she has been given. He also gently warns her to not get herself involved with either the Jones family or Mr. Dworkin; but especially the Jones family. Amber nods and thanks her father, but purposefully avoids giving her word.
 
Early that next morning, a Saturday, Amber rides to the park alone on her bike despite her father’s warning. Mr. Dworkin is there again. She waves to him, as usual, but this time she walks up and speaks with him. She can see he is immediately uncomfortable, and he looks around nervously, presumably for the well dressed gentleman. Amber eases his mind with small talk about her family, then engages him with a question about pre-algebra.
 
After talking about math, he seems to be a lot more relaxed. So Amber begins to gently probe her former teacher for information. She does so in a way that seems childlike and innocent, as if she were asking why the sky was blue. It is the first use of a skill she will one day come to master. She absorbs every word, facial expression, and body movement. And then, just as she is about to get to the juicy stuff, the well dressed man arrives in his limousine.
 
He approaches and smiles charmingly at Amber, then asks Mr. Dworkin to introduce his pretty, little friend. Amber senses that he already knows the answer, but finds Mr. Dworkin’s nervous reaction to the inquiry somewhat amusing. Amber steps in with equal charm, and politely introduces herself as Amber Barimen. The man’s smile is decidedly sinister. Or perhaps, evil. He reaches out his hand and smiles his creepy smile, introducing himself as Brandon Logrus. Or, as he prefers, just simply Brand. It is not what he says afterwards, but how he says it, that sends shivers down her spine.
 
I’ve heard SO much about you.

Chapter 7.2 – Truth

It can be kind of fun, “noticing” things that other sims usually overlook.
 
But sometimes, it can be downright annoying. For example, Tina left the house today with a button on her shirt only half-buttoned. Who notices those kinds of things? Or more importantly, who cares? Evidently, both are true of the Barimen heiress, because it bothered her the entire morning. She’s thankful that she’s not also a perfectionist. Because that would just be cruel…
 
But honestly, most of the time it is not so bad. She possesses an amazing aptitude for figuring out how to do things without much effort. Skills come to her, she jokes, rather than her having to go to them. Perhaps this acquity is attributable to her observational skills. Or perhaps there is something more; something that neither Amber nor any of her ancestors had ever considered.
 
Regardless, some sims might be inclined to show off, or brag about being a “cut above” other sims. Not so for Amber. If anything, she would much prefer to blend in than stand out. Standing out means that other sims would all be watching what she does. And she would much prefer that it be the opposite.
 
Children always seem to know when there is something wrong in the home, but Amber sometimes is aware of things that kids her age usually miss. Her understanding of complexities and relationships allows her to grasp the legal problems her parents are facing for leaving their band, Grayswandir. It has not missed any of its engagements; but it has done so with replacements for its biggest stars. And the lawyers want a lot of money from them for quitting.
 
Amber does everything she can to help make them feel good about their decision. Poor Aunt Sarah had to quit the record company she started because of it, too. But she’s not mad with Amber’s mother or father. In fact, she can see that Aunt Sarah is much more happy and fun now that she is no longer working those long hours like her parents were. And it looks like the extra time has been put to good use.
Despite the legal problems her family members are having to endure, there seems to be no happier place than the Barimen Estate. The extended family has become very close and they often get together at the Estate for parties and barbecues. Amber will often sit in awe as she listens to the stories they tell each other about how things used to be. For example, her great-great-great grandmother was killed by a car-bomb right her at this very house. How creepy!
 
And her great-great grandfather was an undercover secret agent for the government. And Great-Grandma Hope his half-Chinese!!
 
Like a sponge, Amber soaks in as much information as her little, eidetic mind can handle. It is both a blessing and a curse. She learns that among all the wonderful things she has learned and observed, there are some despicable things she sees as well. At first, she thought it was just a mistake that her math teacher, Mr. Dworkin, had given Billy Jones two test papers instead of just one.
 
Billy is a trouble-maker. And his family has no problems stepping on toes or stealing the shirt off a sim’s back to get ahead. Billy has been bragging pretty loudly about his grades, and his upcoming transfer into an exclusive private school. The only thing, is that Amber knows Billy isn’t quite as smart as he would like everybody to believe he is. The second time it happens, a week later, Amber is sure that Mr. Dworkin is nervous when he hands Billy the two papers. Of course, Billy made an A on both tests.
 
 
When Amber sent an anonymous email to the school principal, inviting her to visit the classroom to discourage cheating, she did so feeling that she had fulfulled her moral obligation; but also feeling that the principal would never actually respond. She certianly did not believe that the principal would come into the room, just as Mr. Dworkin was handing out test papers. Or worse, catch Mr. Dworkin giving Billy an answer sheet along with his math test.
 
Amber sits in her chair, her heart sinking, as the principal calls for an assistant to continue adminstering the test – minus Billy and Mr. Dworkin. The next day, when she learns that Mr. Dworkin had been dismissed, Amber cannot help but feel responsible. Amber makes a decision that it is time to put her senses to work, and find the truth about what happened between her math teacher and Billy.
 
But of course, she has no way of knowing that by uncovering this one, tiny, little truth; she will begin to unravel a entire world of lies, secrets, and crimes that have gone unnoticed for generations.
 
And worse still, that once unraveled, they all tie to a single, well-known name – Barimen.

Chapter 7.1 – Sisters

If she sits very still, and lets all the noises and smells and sights blend together, she can almost sense the town talking to her.
 
Amber smiles slyly at the twins reaction to her story. They’re SO gullible. They both call her “sister”, even though she isn’t really. She’s technically their niece, even though they’re all only a few hours apart in age. Grandma Faith was pregnant at the same time as her mother, and they were all born on the same day. Explaining this over and over again, a hundred times, gets old pretty fast. So Amber just goes along with being called their “sister”.
 
Mom and Dad say that being at home with grandma and grandpa helps to keep all the crazies away from her while they’re out playing concerts all over the world. Her parents cannot go anywhere without being followed by fans and those stupid photographers. They even hang around the estate trying to get pictures. Or at least they used to until Grandpa Jimmy started zapping them whenever he saw them on the property. She’s glad that they don’t follow her around that way.
 
But anyway, it is true. You know, that thing about the town. It could be that she is just super-observent about things. She loves to watch sims and peek into their world for just a few seconds. This one is searching his pockets, now looking on the ground. He’s lost something. He came on a bike, so it’s probably not his keys. Plus she saw him go to the bathroom talking on the phone. She watches as he makes the connection for himself, then dashes off back to the restrooms.
 
 —
 
There’s a lady who’s interesting. She’s looking around all nervous for some reason. She keeps glancing over her shoulder at the police station. She walks funny, too. On her tippy-toes like she’s trying to be quiet. She’s probably after that laptop computer somebody walked away from to play catch. Yep… swiped. Amber’s uncle, Officer Nava, will be interested in hearing about this one for sure. She got a really good description this time too.
 
 
Tina and Tanya finally finish their chess match. Amber doesn’t care for chess all that much. But it is fun trying to predict how her “sisters” will each react to certain moves. They run to play on the swings together, then fish until dark. Dad …or Grandpa, comes to pick them up in the hot-rod as soon as it starts to get dark. Each girl gets a pat on the head as they get into the car.
 
Amber screeches with excitement when she sees all the photographers waiting out in front of the estate. It can mean only one thing. Mom and Dad are home from their music tour. She and the twins get showered with gifts, and hugs, and kisses. The hugs and kisses are great, as always. The gifts are pretty cool too. But it’s the subtle little things Amber notices about her mother and father, and the little secret that they’re keeping to themselves, that makes her smile bigger than anything. As usual, nobody else has figured it out yet.
 
But Amber decides to play along, and just enjoy having both parents at home. For a couple of days, at least. That’s when she can no longer contain her excitement, and blurts out her flood of questions. She’s alone with her parents in the studio when it happens. Both Lisa and Ben are amused that she has contained her curiosity for so long. At the same time, however, they’re amazed at how she arrived at the conclusion that her mother was pregnant.
 
 —
 
Amber enjoys the time her parents spend at home when her brother, Paul, is born. She will remember these days as the happiest time of her life. Ben and Lisa soak in the precious moments spent with Amber and Paul, and come to dread the next time they will have to leave to play music around the world again. Amber knows the decision is made even before Lisa and Ben do.
 
It may not seem as obvious to anybody else, but it is clear as day for Amber; and she couldn’t be any happier.
 
Despite being at the height of their popularity, Grayswandir has played its last tour.

Chapter 7 – Amber

More than a hundred sim years separates the evening when Bebe first took Julian to the cabin overlooking the bluff, and the birth of the latest Barimen heiress.
 
The family has enjoyed periods of prosperity in the past, but they seem tiny in comparison with the present surge in fame and fortune. The Barimen family has produced some of the world’s most recognised names, and has already become known for it’s painters, a renowned surgeon, law enforcement personalities, and a five-star chef. But none of them have ever reached the mega-star status achieved by Ben and his wife, Lisa.
 
Ben and his sister, Sarah, had set the entertainment industry on fire with Barimen Records and Grayswandir. Since that time, there has been a major upswing in worldwide recognition of the Barimen name. It is now spoken with the same respect as the names “Alto” and “Landgraab”. But where the former is associated with power and greed, and the latter with arrogance and elitism; the Barimen name has become associated with kindness and charity.
 
Amid all of the worldwide notoriety and fame, rises the quiet giggle of one little girl, now hiding from her grandmother in a toy-box. Her name is Amber Barimen.
 
She is carried by an air of wisdom and understanding that few sims will ever know. Even as a toddler, she possesses a sense of fairness and insight only found in much older children (and oftentimes absent in some adults).
 
She is a charming child with a bright expression and a rare empathy toward others. She is also very adept at watching how things are done, and nearly perfecting them before ever trying them herself. The adults all laugh, becuase she’ll sometimes be so engrossed in watching other kids play that she forgets join in with them.
 
Her grandmother and grandfather had given birth to twins on the same day she was born. With her parents very often gone on musical tours, she becomes very close to them. Grandma Faith is thrilled to have all three children under her wing; and she often affectionately refers to them collectively as her “litter”.
 
As toddlers, the three girls do everything together as a unit. But even then, there are signs of the far-reaching empathy Amber will possess as an adult. She had seen how happy Grandma was when Tina and Tanya learned to talk and potty, and gently refused talking and walking lessons from Grandma Faith.
 
It was as though she was waiting for her parents to return home from music tours, wanting to save the cherished moment for them. Secretly, she had already figured out how to do it by watching her “sisters”. But she wanted her parents to have the same happy surprise as grandma and grandpa.
 
Being at home with her grandparents is great. But she loves spending time with her mother and father more than anything else. She especially loves being sung to sleep when it is just the three of them.

Tina Barimen (left) and Amber Barimen (right)

Tina Barimen (left) and Amber Barimen (right)

As a child, this sense of empathy only grows and flourishes. Being so in-tune with other sims, and so carefully insightful about her surroundings, allows her to make observations that many others simply never pay attention to. In time, her curiosity will show her activities in Sunset Valley that normally go unnoticed. And what may be even more important than the observation she makes, is the difficult lesson she learns in the process.

Amber Barimen (Disciplined, Loves the Outdoors, Perceptive)

There are some things which may be safer left unnoticed.
Welcome to Chapter 7! I was curious to know exactly how many sim-years has passed since Julian. So I did what any programmer would have done. I made a spreadsheet. Enjoy!
 

Chapter 6.21 – Endlessly

In the calm of night, I hear ’em. Can’t see ’em, but I know they’re there.
Friends and neighbors, kindred spirits; disappeared, I don’t know where.
 
As a kid I went out lookin’ for this place where they’d go.
I wasn’t sure if I’d find it, but sure enough I’d try.
Sometimes I’d go all day – check’n the ground, check’n the sky.
All day long I’d be out there, but I’d never have nothin’ to show.
 
In the calm of night, I hear ’em. Can’t see ’em, but I know they’re there.
Friends and neighbors, kindred spirits; disappeared, I don’t know where.
Oh, but I sure don’t know where.
 
I try to remember faces smilin’ at me, makin’ me smile right on back.
The kind words, gentle voices, easin’ my mind helpin’ me face the day.
It’d have been hell without ’em, couldn’t have done it any other way.
Now there ain’t point in tryin’ any more, at night it’s just pitch black.
 
[Guitar Solo]

I smell her hair and feel her breath’n next to me, I remember wonder’n if we should.
I know I’ll never know – ’cause then I hear her voice askin’ me what’s goin’ on.
I got no words to say, I can’t move or make a sound, I just stare and then she’s gone.
Ain’t nothin’ to do but give her my word I won’t forget, and pray I can make it good.
 
[Bridge]
They said that it ain’t happenin’ But I knew it really was.
I seen it right before my eyes, I knew each and every one.
I ain’t gonna say I’m sorry or pretend I didn’t know.
Cause I told them I’d remember, and that’s just how it’s gonna go.
[Bridge]
 
In the calm of night, I hear ’em. Can’t see ’em, but I know they’re there.
Friends and neighbors, kindred spirits; disappeared, I don’t know where.
Yeah, taken, but don’t know where.
 
[quiet]
Grown up now, in a different world, I hear my baby callin’ me.
[growing louder]
I remember my word and think of them, and the little fun we had.
The clouds have cleared and the way ahead doesn’t seem to be too bad.
Though my lady doesn’t hear em, she listens; cause she loves me endlessly.
[loud]
Yeah she loves me for me, Lord; and she loves me endlessly.
 
In the calm of night, I hear ’em. Can’t see ’em, but I know they’re there.
Friends and neighbors, kindred spirits; disappeared, I don’t know where.
In the calm of night, I hear ’em. Can’t see ’em, but I know they’re there.
Friends and neighbors, kindred spirits; disappeared, I don’t know where.
 
No I can’t see ’em, but I know they’re there.
Yeah, I know they’re there.
Lord, I know they’re there.
Kindred Spirits
Grayswandir
Courtesy of Barimen Records

Chapter 6.20 – Renewal

As chapter six comes to an end, I cannot help but feel a little guilty for cheating Ben out of nearly half his chapter. The whole thing seemed more focused upon Kacey and the “big picture” than Ben. Still, I feel that Ben’s story has turned out to be one of the more compelling ones.
 
For all the difficulty I put him through, Ben came out fairly unscathed. After meeting Lisa that night, the romance heated up very, very quickly. He was with her later that night to turn away the hung-over boyfriend. She moved into the Estate the very next morning. Ironically, the drummer Ben had been dating seemed to find the drunk guitarist to be more her type. She left Grayswandir to join him and the keyboard player in forming a new band. Meanwhile, Lisa and the drummer from her former band joined Grayswandir.
 
 
As much as chapter six has been about ending the “temporal loop” plot-line, its conclusion conjures up a sense of renewal. I had kept Doc away from Hope for the duration of the chapter, living alone in a little one-bedroom home; if for no other reason that to “simulate” his being missing. They now live together in a gigantic mansion (downloaded from the exchange) adjacent to the Barimen Estate. And though Hope is very close to becoming an elder, they evidently decided to make up for lost time.
 
As though the shake-up within Grayswandir had not caused enough of a tabloid feeding frenzy, Ben and Lisa quickly tie the knot a few short weeks after meeting each other. The paparazzi have a field day with the news that Lisa is pregnant. Speculation that she had been so before the wedding dominates the cover of every gossip rag in town.
 
Truthfully, becoming a mother had not been in her plans. Lisa had been overly careful with other boyfriends, almost to a point of paranoia, to avoid this exact scenario. The thought of having a baby scares her to death. Now it seems as though her career will never manage to get off of the ground. But there is something calming about living at the Barimen Estate. It is not anything she can put into words, but it is just a feeling that everything is under control.
 
There is an awkwardness about the whole situation, though. She is head-over-heals in love with Ben, but she barely knows him or his family. What she does know about them, she had read in magazines. Ben is the most attentive and loving man she has ever had the pleasure of knowing. Everything about him shows that he is happy and in love with her. Yet, there is a sense of ponderous sadness that oozes from him. Quite honestly, she is afraid to learn why.
 
 —
 
Her mother-in-law’s easy demeanor has taken away much of the anxiety and fear about Ben and the pregnancy. Honestly, she has found Faith to be more of a best friend than a mother figure. This bond becomes even stronger when Faith can no longer hide the fact that she and Jimmy are expecting as well. Lisa knows it wasn’t planned, but she can still sense their excitement and joy as though they were twenty years younger.
 
Faith and Jimmy are the most incredible couple she has ever met. They share the honor of being top research scientists at the Barimen Science Center. He is funny and a little bit goofy, and she is as sharp as they come. Even after years of marriage, they appear to have maintained that newlywed intensity in their relationship.
 
If nothing else, life with the Barimens has given Lisa the opportunity to focus completely on music. All his other amazing qualities aside, it is the music she makes with Ben that sends her into the clouds. Their individual styles compliment each other perfectly when performing. Together, they pen more than a dozen songs before the big day arrives.
 
And arrive it does – Faith is first, early that morning;
 
then Lisa just a few hours later.
 
Jimmy and Faith bring home twin girls, Tina and Tanya.
 
 —
 
Amber Barimen, the seventh generation heiress, arrives home shortly afterwards.
 
 
Author’s Note: Three generations of Barimens now have young children. This makes for a rather confusing family tree. To contrast all the birthing that had taken place; Mary (Mark’s sister and the last of David’s children) passed away shortly after the girls where born. She lived a long life and had a number of great-grandchildren of her own.

Chapter 6.19 – Pain

  • Author’s Note: You may want to re-read the following chapters before reading this post.
  • 2.19 – Accusations
  • 2.20 – Madness
  • 2.21 – Alone
  • I apologize ahead of time that this may not flow exactly into chapter 2.20, but the intention is there. Consider it a bit of a retcon 😀
Kacey paces the rocky shoreline and weeps.
 
She simply cannot endure any more pain. Gerard is gone, and the artifact along with him. She had lost them both in the flood between realities. And while the pain of yet another loss further erodes her spirit, she cannot afford do quit.
 
During her journey, she had faced many dangers. But she faced them with he knowledge that the artifact was a kind of safety net. It had kept her alive in situations that would have killed any other sim. Now her safety net is gone. What’s worse, is she has no way of solving the algorithm. She will have to return to Reid empty-handed. With her heart pounding wildly in her chest, she begins to walk.
 
She has always known where “home” is. In fact, the effort required to move farther away from it has been much like stretching out a rubber band. The farther it is stretched, the more resistance it gives. Once the resistance is eased, the rubber band does the work of “snapping” back into place. In only a matter of moments, Kacey finds herself back where she started.
 
Despite all the dangers she has encountered, nothing terrifies her more than having to confront Reid again. Her hands and legs tremble while she makes her way through the unstable rocks and rubble blocking the entrance to the abandoned mine. She tears several long gashes into her dress climbing through the rocks. The only other outfit in her pack is the one she wore the night she left this place; a fitting irony. She works to calm her breathing and steady her panicking mind. She cannot stop the flood of emotion as she re-lives abuses from the past. But it has to stop here.
 
Climbing through the last bit of blockage, she steps into the dimly lit cavern, where the smell of blood hangs heavy in the air. The gravity of the situation comes crushing down upon her. David is dying. But Reid is nowhere to be found. She quietly runs over to David’s side and shrieks when she sees the extent of his injuries. It was a stupid thing to do.
 
She senses him before she sees him. His bloated evil wafts around Reid; stinking of pure narcissism, nihilism, and hatred. A cold chill causes her to shiver uncontrollably as she puts the final pieces together. When he was a child, Reid found her in this old, abandoned mine. But he had also found Reid.
 
“Reid” steps out of the shadows and grins a particularly viscous grin. Then he asks whether she has discovered the nature of her origin. Kacey stands up straight and faces him, but fails to keep herself from trembling with fear. She states plainly that she has, adding that she has also made another discovery. His power is limited here in the same manner as hers. To this, he squints his eyes and frowns. He brags that he could have just killed her as an infant and been done with it. But he could not resist the opportunity to corrupt someone of her stature; sewing the seeds of skepticism and doubt in her malleable, young mind. Watching her mature among the faithless had been so much more delicious. Then, after pausing, he asks where the artifact is.
 
As Kacey contemplates her dire situation, a bit of information sprouts up through her memory. There had stood a tree near this place, at one time. And in an act of ultimate deceit, he used it to manipulate the downfall of this world. But the tree did not die. She looks at him and meets his sinister gaze. Knowing full well that these next words may be her last, she tells him that it is lost.
 
He lashes out with explosive anger, striking her repeatedly until she falls to the ground. Kacey shivers silently on the floor, waiting for the killing blow. But in a feeble, dying attempt to protect her, David grabs Reid’s pant leg. The response is a vicious kick delivered to David’s midsection. Although she may not care whether she lives or dies, she must save David. Kacey launches to her feet and screams for Reid to stop.
 
She knows the only way she will be able to save David is to fight fire with fire. Fight deception with deception. Kacey falls to her knees and begs for her life. She promises to give Reid anything he wants; herself included. He can do what he wants to David, but she does not want to die. Reid grabs her blood-soaked, silvery hair and demands that she submit to him; both in mind, and in body.
 
Kacey draws upon the tattered scraps of her seductive side, and pulls herself close; pressing against him where she knows it will have the most effect. She keeps herself from gagging on the bile that rises in her throat, and kisses him. She whispers that they don’t need the artifact. Together, they can capture a fallen world ripe for the picking. She rubs his chest and declares that he is winning the battle. She has been to the future. Pleasure will claim victory over virtue.
 
Panting with feigned lust, she tells him to clear the rocks away from the shaft, then push David in. Better yet, she will push David in; to prove her obedience and loyalty. She will give him everything he wants; here in the cavern, as soon as the deed is done. He turns with black-eyed fervor while Kacey silently begs forgiveness. Reid had died a long time ago. Even so, the thing she is about to do still feels so incredibly wrong.
 
It has been weeks. The real and tangible kind, and not the sort where she is racing forward through time watching those sims she loves grow old around her. David has been released from the hospital. He is still shaken, but will have no permanent injuries. Her own injuries have healed as well. But like him, she is still shaken. The nightmare is over, yet she has no sense of relief.
 
Kacey knows she should have just disappeared, and left David to his life with Ciara. But she cannot bring herself to leave without making it final. She finds him where he always goes to think. She smiles, affectionately recalling his many ancestors who will also love coming to this spot. His family has been her support system. She loves them all. And for that reason, David must know that she is letting go of him. There cannot be any hesitation when Ciara returns.
 
For the first time in a century, she looks into the eyes she fell in love with. She hugs him. And she kisses him. And she tells him to follow his heart to his true love. David tries to convince her to stay. The temptation is unbearable. She could have him for herself, she knows.
 
Of all things that have caused her pain over the journey; this one hurts the most. She cannot bring herself to say goodbye before running away. She does not care where she goes, or where the four winds carry her. She runs, with the tear-blurred world shifting around her. There must be some place where there is no pain.
 
She will not stop running until she gets there.

Chapter 6.18 – Sight

As Sarah continues to dominate the local music industry, she finds herself with more incoming band demos than she can handle alone.
 
So every couple of weeks, she invites Ben to her office. Together, they evaluate all the new demo tracks that have come across her desk. It takes the stress out of a job which should be anything but stressful. Working this way with Ben reminds her of a couple of teenagers sitting together, listening to the new records they just bought. She has learned that her brother makes his decision about a song within the first twenty seconds of listening to it. There are only a select few of them he downloads onto his music player. Those are the musicians she contacts for live auditions.
Lunchtime is always the highlight of these sessions. It means the business part of the day is over, and they get to spend the rest of the afternoon together. It is also their chance to catch up on gossip. Sarah has moved in with Ricky Nava, a local police officer. And even though he is a distant, second-cousin-once-removed, type of relation; nobody seems to care all that much. On the contrary, everyone can see what a perfect match they are. But even so, Ben cannot resist the little bit of teasing he is entitled (or perhaps obligated), as her big brother, to provide.
 
She is happy to return the jibes, but is careful not to take things too far. She knows he is still ultra-sensitive about losing Maria. He has divulged enough of the small details, over time, for her to piece together a picture of what he had experienced. And it seems terrifying.
 
He has only now just started dating. And it only happened after the band’s drummer literally threw herself at him out of exasperation. Sarah insists that Ben only likes her for her maracas; to which he has no response, other than a goofy smile. But with kidding aside, both she and Ben know it is the truth. He is not in love. And that is what worries Sarah the most. She wants desperately for him to find his one-and-only before he becomes too comfortable with living the revolving-door lifestyle of the super-stars. Though she doesn’t dare say it, she wonders whether Maria had been his one-and-only. She often prays that she is wrong.
 
Eager to take her mind off of the topic, Sara proposes that one of her new artists play as an opener at Grayswandir’s gig tomorrow night; to give them some exposure. Ben agrees immediately. He remembers listening to a recording of their audition, and finding it to be one of the few he really liked. The band’s musicians were sloppy, and only marginally skilled. But despite the clumsy performance, he recognised the hidden passion underneath that ugly exterior. If properly played, the music could be brilliant.
 
Ben and Sarah spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing at the beach together. Then, after dinner at the bistro, they finalize the set list for Grayswandir’s show the following night. Practice runs later into the evening than usual. The siblings had taken an unscheduled break to recover from a tear-inducing fit of laughter. It was evidently triggered at the beginning of a song, which opened with maracas. Obviously, none of the other musicians have any clue what crack-up is about. Nevertheless, they all enjoy the light-hearted diversion, then finish the night with a flawless rehearsal.
 
Ben paces the backstage corridor, listening to the ruckus of impatient fans waiting for the opening act to start.
 
The warm-up band had arrived together earlier that evening; but they had not displayed much “togetherness” since then. Two members of the band had been at each other’s throats and screaming profanities at each other the minute they arrived. Ben kept his distance, but could still smell the alcohol saturating their breath and clothes. The vocalist, presumably the “adult” of the band, was clearly embarrassed by her band mate’s behavior. Though at the same time, she seemed resigned to it.
 
She expressed genuine frustration when apologizing to Sarah for their poor showing. Then, Ben watched as the two bickering band members continued to drown themselves in alcohol during the final rehearsal. By show time, they were both incoherent and impaired beyond the ability to perform. Ben knew then, that the evening would not end well for this band.
 
 —
 
A frown forms on his face as they take the stage. He decides to move closer to get a better view of the oncoming train wreck. He winces as the guitar player completely misses the first chords. The keyboard player is equally bad, sounding as if he were wearing mittens. Ben finds he cannot watch the carnage and turns to leave, but stops when he hears the most amazing voice attempt to rise up over the brutality. He turns to regard its source, and finds the vocalist, defiantly trying to perform music. She must be the heart and soul of this band. Without ever having met her, Ben knows this is her passion.
 
Lisa Linn’s heart sinks as she labors to stay composed over the embarrassment caused by her idiot boyfriend and his roommate. She has worked countless hours honing her voice and guitar together, to reach near perfect harmony. But it’s over before it even begins; both tonight’s show and her career. Nobody recovers from a disaster like this. She’ll be stuck working late nights, trolling dive bars, and suffering drunks trying to make their moves on her. The only thing she can do now is sing, and pray that somebody hears what she is capable of.
 
The audience is clearly in shock, because they have not started booing yet. Startled cries from out in the crowd cause her to stop singing and look behind her. Her boyfriend staggers aimlessly for a few steps, plucks a few random strings on the guitar, then passes out drunk onto the stage. In a fit of rage, his moron roommate shouts out obscenities, kicks over the keyboard, then storms away in disgust. The drum player quietly folds his sticks into his lap.
 
Whispers from the stunned crowd and the sharp whine of feedback are the only audible noise in the building, as stagehands come to remove her drunk boyfriend. When he eventually wakes up, he’ll find a way to blame her for the whole thing. Looking for a way to escape, Lisa spots Sarah backstage; arms akimbo and shaking her head. After they make eye contact, all Lisa can do is look at the floor in shame. Defeated, she apologizes to the audience and assures them that the guitar player will recover; then asks for their patience while Grayswandir prepares to perform.
 
The audience grumbles, and some begin to shout and boo. She is expecting it. She deserves it. This was supposed to be her big break. She had begged her boyfriend to concentrate and practice for tonight. Instead, he spent the night celebrating with his roommate at some floozy nightclub. She had wanted this so badly. Now all she wants to do is retreat and hide. Still staring at the floor, she slinks away from the microphone.
 
Lisa nearly jumps out of her skin when the opening note to her song blasts out of the amplifiers and fills the building with impossible clarity. It is perfect, unwavering, and powerful. Her song continues to be played as she had always imagined it should, with masterful skill and loving embellishment. The drummer has also started playing again, but all Lisa can hear is the smooth-as-silk electric guitar wrapping around her like a lover’s arms. She misses her cue to sing. But the guitarist does not miss a beat, and bridges flawlessly into another intro.
 
She doesn’t know what is happening, but she doesn’t care. Closing her eyes, Lisa allows the music seduce her. She sings like never before; making love to the song as it caresses past, around, and through her. She reaches deep inside and finds a voice that had been dormant, but is now suddenly aroused. And she lets it sing without restraint.
 
The applause is deafening as the last notes are tenderly played. She dares not open her eyes while her next song begins with even more intensity and passion than the first; then the next, and the next. When it is over, she realizes she performed the entire thing with her eyes closed. She had done so out of fear that opening them would dispel the magic; but more importantly, because what happened tonight was something more than just music. Besides, there was no need for her to look. She already knows who had played those songs. There is only one sim possessing that kind of passion and skill. Sweaty, breathless, and glowing; and amid thunderous applause, she finally opens her eyes to find his. And they both know immediately.
 
It is love at first sight.

Chapter 6.17 – Maelstrom

It is done.
 
But it was no easy task. Finding the machine was nothing compared to Kacey’s daunting effort afterwards. They opened the gate between realities and were immediately pulled into the maelstrom. Kacey was able to protect them from the worst of it. Honestly, Doc was unsure how she was able to do it. He was sure, however, that she would not able to keep up the titanic effort for long.
 
He had heard Kacey’s frantic voices telling him that she would not be able to continue shielding both men. Doc was willing to make the sacrifice to save Gerard, but the good pastor seemed to already be one step ahead. Perhaps Kacey had discussed this possibility with Gerard during one of their private discussions. Or perhaps it was decided the evening they slept together. Regardless, before Doc was given any opportunity to react, Gerard had already disappeared into the chaos; having been swept away instantly as Kacey let go of him.
 
It was not until they found the other side, and he had stepped onto solid ground, that Doc was certain they would survive the ordeal. He knew something was amiss when Kacey had not emerged with him. Incredibly, she had turned right back around, headlong into the maelstrom; presumably to go and find Gerard. What he saw while looking back into the machine after her, had rocked him to his foundation and left him completely speechless. And speechless is what he remains his entire lifetime. He never speaks about what he saw, just before shutting down the machine.
 
He stares at the dormant machine for a long time. It isn’t until he breaks free from his state of shock, and thinks to check the current date, that Doc’s worst fears are realized. Much time has passed since his disappearance; enough time so that his sons are now grown men. A thought crosses his mind, but he does not allow it to gain footing. Entertaining the hopeful possibility of using the machine to travel back in time, could be disastrous. Doc wisely walks away, but not before ensuring that he never gives in to the temptation of undoing the work they have just completed.
 
Emerging from the cellar, and into the sunlight, Doc smiles broadly to see Sunset Valley back the way it is supposed to be. He takes a cab to the massive Barimen Estate, and finds that a number of guests have already arrived. The family has gathered here. He has a sense that they all know what has happened. He does not know where their knowledge originated, or how they understand what his role was in the whole affair. But somehow, they know.
 
Hope is there to meet him with open arms and tears. She has missed him terribly, but is proud of him beyond words. Not every sim can lay claim to having saved the universe. Doc allows his anxiety of the past weeks to melt as he holds is aging wife close to him. There is not a dry eye in the room as the two express their boundless love for each other.
 
Doc makes eye contact with Faith. Hers was the first face he had seen in Sunset Valley, and he knew immediately she was something special. He nods and thanks her, but he is not sure why. Perhaps the overt kindness she had shown him as a child had opened his heart and allowed him to see things in a new way. Perhaps he has been wrong about things all along.
 
Ben takes some measure of satisfaction in knowing they finally understand what it feels like. He had been right all along, but the drama did not unfold for the other members of his family until much later. But regardless how long it took for them to see it, they each know now, how close they came to extinction. But no other living sim, poor Jimmy included, seems to have any clue a comically significant event had just occurred. There is no explanation as to why only the Barimen family knows, outside of the fact that they all share a common ancestry. Could it be some kind of family trait? And why was he able to sense it so much sooner than the others?
 
Both Faith and Sarah remember Ben’s tantrum, though there is no evidence it had occurred. They also remember Dr. Kennedy, the hospital, and Maria; despite the lack of any proof they had ever existed. In fact, all the sims and locations that had vanished, seem to have been lost forever. He does not linger for too long on the details. It is what it is, and thinking about it makes his head hurt. Though he does wonder what his life with Maria would have been like. Would they have been happy?
 
During the weeks that follow, Sarah becomes an adult and explodes onto the music industry. But rather than performing, she uses her natural business acuity and becomes a rising force. She does a brilliant job acting as her brother’s manager, and brands his music under the name Grayswandir. They are both instantly successful, Ben becoming wildly so. He plays to sold out venues every time he announces a gig.
 
Ben and Sarah enjoy a very healthy working relationship while carrying their life-long friendship forward into adulthood. Ben’s acute musical sense helps Sarah identify the good auditions from the bad. He rarely is wrong about new talent. It is a formula that proves to be nearly flawless. Before long, Sara has built herself an impressive portfolio of new artists, and Barimen Records is born. It muscles its way onto the music scene with its star, Grayswandir, leading the way.
 
Ben sits with his family and listens while his first recorded hit, “Black Road”, debuts on the airwaves. And he smiles. For the first time in his life, Ben is truly happy. He lets the music carry him to a place he has never been before. It is a place where he is free from the bleakness of watching the world around him crumble.
 
It is a place where he will never again have to worry about witnessing the end of the world.