Chapter 6.16 – Patient

As the overarching story comes to a climax, I find that I am tasked with putting into words, the act of repairing the universe. I had wondered if, perhaps, I’d painted myself into a corner this time. So, over the past few days, during my quiet daily commute through rural Nashville, I have contemplated how to approach the job.
Now, I have always been a big fan of the KISS principal (Keep It Simple, Stupid). I could have attempted to write some verbose pseudoscientific word scramble, worthy of a Star Trek – Voyager episode. But I decided against that early during the planning. Then I realized what really was missing from the whole thing, was a bit of context.
What if the universe were alive, and injured? And what if our favorite reality-hopping sims were the attending physicians?
 
When a patient is ill, or has some defect or injury; the physician draws upon cumulative knowledge gained from the treatment of similar injuries to make a diagnosis. The patient benefits from the trial and error of those who have suffered a similar afflictions in the past. And when something new surfaces, the trial and error process begins again.
When there is no prior experience to draw from; skill, empathy, and intuition all play a part in determining to what degree the patient recovers from the ailment. In some cases, empathy and intuition play a much larger role. But more times than not, skill is the deciding factor in determining the overall success of treatment.
Regardless of any effort on the physician’s part, the patient must first possess the ability to heal. It is the one thing a doctor cannot do. Of course, the patient can cooperate by taking medications on time, or changing bandages, or following a set procedure. But the actual healing is something that just happens on its own. And it is a delicate thing, to be sure.
If the body becomes damaged beyond its ability to heal, then there is no recourse. Otherwise, once the thing causing damage has been removed and a path to recovery has been cleared, something amazing happens. The body repairs itself.
The damaged parts are replaced, purged, or protected with scarring. The body will even compensate if something such as sight or hearing has been lost. But for the more routine ailments, the body is capable of healing completely from the damage it sustains. Bruises will fade, bones will mend, and cuts will close.
All parts of the body are affected when the healing takes place; even the perfectly healthy ones. Certainly, there is some pain involved. And the pain of healing can be as traumatic as the pain of suffering the injury. But again, the doctor’s knowledge of this process can help to ease some of these stresses.
Thanks to the doctor, whose skill stops a wound from bleeding – and to the body which repairs itself from damage – and to the patient who makes strides to recover; the wound heals. Perhaps some measure of luck is involved as well, though neither the patient or doctor will ever know for sure.
Blood lost as a result of the injury will eventually be replaced by new blood. But there are some things, such as lost limbs, digits, or organs; which the body will never regrow. There may still be some trauma from remembering the initial pain, and the pain of healing, or the memory of what life was like before the injury. For some patients, the mind will very often linger long after the body has healed.
 
Finally, after the healing is complete, and the patient is healthy again; comes the time for celebration. Now considered a hero, the doctor has been able to intervene and allow the patient’s body to do its job of repairing itself. If not for the physician, the patient would surely have died. The doctor will undoubtedly have lost some sleep and precious time away from family while working to keep the patient alive.
 
And while the lost time can never be regained, the humble sacrifice proves to be, in the long-run,  only a small price to pay for that which has been prevented.

Chapter 6.15 – Ambition

The shock of watching Maria vanish has lasted for weeks, and has led Ben to a very dark and somber place.
 
Normally, talking to Dr. Kennedy about these thoughts would help him through it. But as it turns out, she is gone too. This leaves him with only one outlet capable of comforting his fears about “the end”. He spends the vast majority of his time focused on music. Whether it be writing, playing instruments, singing, or simply listening; for Ben, it feels as though music is all he has left.
 
Though his parents insist that there never had been any hospital, he is glad to be away from it. Since he never had any friends at school, there is not much effort involved in sinking into social obscurity. But his choice to distance himself from family does not go unnoticed. It is not difficult given the numbness he feels inside, but it is not something he necessarily wants to do. It seems to be more a reflex than a conscious effort. A sort of defense to protect himself from feeling another shock, should any of them vanish. Yet, there is one sim he cannot distance himself from, no matter how hard he tries.
 
Sarah doesn’t remember there being any fight, or the tantrum which landed him at a mental institution afterwards. But she doesn’t deny it happened. Her unwavering trust helps more than she can know. Ben cannot imagine why she would choose to spend time with her screwed-up brother, when she could have her choice of boys to hang out with. Most of the time, Sarah can’t figure it out either. Nevertheless, she and Ben continue to build on their friendship that began when they were small children. And as a result, Sarah has become an adept musician herself. She is not a natural talent, like her brother. But she absorbs what Ben shows to her about proper technique and form. Before long, they create amazing sounds together; some of which she insists they record.
 
Ben knows she wants to shop the recordings around, and he doesn’t mind. Sarah may not have the music bug, but she is a formidable businesswoman in the making. For all he cares, she can give the things away. It’s not like the Barimen family needs any more money. Still, he’s happy to provide a way for her to sharpen her claws. She’ll need them if she intends to seriously pursue a business career.
 
When the time comes for Ben to celebrate his birthday, he can think only of how relieved he is to be rid of school and all of the agony that came with it. He hardly speaks during the small party consisting of extended family. He gets congratulations from many of them who care to attempt breeching the shield he has erected.

Ben Barimen (Loner, Neurotic, Angler, Virtuoso, Star Quality)

Later, during the performance he gives to his guests that night, each member of his family makes a startling discovery. The feelings he finds impossible to express with words, come out freely and effortlessly through his music. He has become a master at weaving his thoughts into lyrics that can be easily disguised as less pertinent subject matter. This touches each sim present in a different manner, invoking a wide range of emotion in all who listen. It is the first time he has ever played for any “audience”. It is also the first time any audience watches in awe of his raw talent.
 
He is a sensation of charisma and spirit; deftly moving between different instruments to weave a spell of musical fantasy. But as soon as it is over, he transforms back into the nervous, edgy, and unapproachable sim who comes across as silent, creepy, and odd.
The afternoon Faith and Jimmy choose to talk with Sarah about the estate, is characterized by a wicked wind and an unusual overcast sky. The youngest Barimen can sense that it is a subject they would rather not approach. She remembers when her parents used to be happy and light-hearted. Her dad was always laughing and joking around, and her mother would never turn down the chance to play a quick game. But the constant worry over Ben and his problem has changed them over time. Now they just look tired, and weary.
 
Sarah has expected that “the talk” would happen any time now. With her driving ambition, great looks, and well-rounded set of skills; she can take the Barimen Estate to new heights. She has the potential to transform the family millions into billions, and give the name international renown. Sarah smiles as her parents effectively abandon the legacy passed down through the generations. In Sarah’s mind, they really had been given no other choice.
 
She feels her ambition licking its chops in anticipation of being sated with more power and authority than she can imagine. It is a feeling she is not accustomed to. The ambition seduces her with thoughts of limitless excess, and insists that she will adjust very quickly. She allows her thoughts to wander, imagining the wealth and indulgence she is only moments shy from inheriting.
 
Soon, her thoughts are consumed by the limitless possibilities that lay ahead. Her ambition has pushed aside all other traits. Forget Ben, forget temperance, and forget abstinence; she will be able to satiate every desire which crosses her imagination. Sarah can feel herself salivating from the lustful thoughts filling her mind. And it scares her.
 
Then, the immaculate sound of Ben’s furious piano concerto echoes through the Estate’s corridors and speaks to her as though it were alive. She is lifted by the music and transported to a time in the past.
 
There was a spirit. She refused to ever speak about the meeting, even to Ben, who was right there with her. She remembers every word the spirit had said to her, though she buried the disturbing memory among her fantasies and dreams. She remembers standing frozen, entranced by the aura of goodness, wisdom, and kindness. Whether she realizes it or not, it was this meeting with Jiang Xi that helped shape her virtue as a child and teen. Even now, the memory helps to overpower her bloated ambition in the breadth of a single heartbeat.
 
This is the decision Jiang Xi spoke of. He warned her it would not be easy. But she made the promise, regardless. She knew it was important then, and she senses that her decision is, in some way, essential at this moment in time. Without realizing she is doing so, Sarah speaks the words, exactly as Jiang Xi had spoken them to her that night.
 
Ben is not crazy.

Chapter 6.14 – Machine

Ben watches while Maria expertly gains entry into a locked car they had come across while running, and he finds himself contemplating how he managed to get into this situation.
 
Both Ben and Maria knew they were going to eventually get caught on foot. He couldn’t argue with her reasoning that it would be logical for them to take a car and leave town before anybody notices they are missing. But still, Ben could not condone stealing a car. Not only would it serve to compound their existing troubles, but it is plain and simply wrong. He only relents to the idea when she tells him that she will drive them back to his home in Sunset Valley, then return the car undamaged.
 
He sits in awkward silence after witnessing the ease with which she was able to break into and start the locked car. It forces him to wonder what other “talents” Maria might possess. The drive is tense, with both teens remaining silent and nervous as they travel through downtown on a busy expressway. Finally, after leaving the lights and sounds of the city behind, they use an old truck route to drive out of town, then connect with the coastal highway that leads to Sunset Valley.
 
They continue to drive for a long time in complete silence. Finally, Ben begins to hum one of his songs. When he finishes, Maria sighs contently, and comments that his music calms her. She knew that she wanted to be together with him because of the way he makes her feel. Most importantly, she believes him. She believes all that stuff about sims and places vanishing; and that nobody but him remembers they ever existed. She believes his feelings that the world is slowly disintegrating.
 
After another long stretch of road, Maria slows the car when she sees police lights up ahead. They both know immediately that the search is on for the missing teens. They park the car behind some thick bushes lining the road, and go the rest of the way on foot. Thankfully, they are already on the outskirts of Sunset Valley. But with the sun coming up, and both of them feeling completely exhausted, they agree to find a place to hide and sleep until they can move around after dark again.
 
Just up the side of a hill, is a small home overlooking the beach. It had, at one time, been converted into a cafe. But it has been closed for some time, and now just sits boarded up and unoccupied. The place appears to be nearly forgotten. Searching its perimeter, Ben locates the hood of a small storm cellar at the back of the building. He descends the steps to the door, with Maria quietly in tow, and wrestles with it until it opens.
 
He gently moves Maria a few steps into the cellar, then wrestles the door back into it’s “stuck” position. He turns around to find her standing very close to him. She says nothing when he moves his arms around her and draws her even closer. He cannot help but notice how good she feels pressed up against him this way. The kiss that follows sends sparks through both of them, and they remain lip-locked for several minutes.
 
She sits down on the cellar floor and invites Ben to sit next to her. Resting her head comfortably on his shoulder, she whispers to him about how much she hates the feeling of being boxed in by all the people and tall buildings. She admits she’d rather be dead than caged like a rat. It raises alarms in the back of Ben’s mind. He swallows the lump in his throat, and asks her pointedly if that is why she started the fire. Emotions play across Maria’s face in a manner he had never seen before, leading him to believe that she has been able to avoid her medication. But it is not the emotion he expects to see. Confusion and regret seem to win out, and she states plainly that she doesn’t know why she started the fire in her room. Maybe it was just desperation, or maybe she knew he would come to rescue her.
 
Ben allows the answer to sink in for a moment, then he asks another pointed question. This time about her paintings. At first she refuses to talk about them, acting as though she is insulted he had even asked. But he persists with a rebuttal she cannot refute. They talk about his music all of the time; and how he lets his feelings about “the problem” come out through it. Maria sighs, then reluctantly begins telling him about her own feelings. Like his, her thoughts are about the end of the world. But the perspective is quite a bit more “graphic”.
 
Tears begin to glisten in her eyes as she mentions her mother. She chokes on a sob, then manages to complete her thought. Her mother thinks she’s crazy. But the truth is that she would never think to harm another sim. Her thoughts are only dark fantasies that get transferred to canvas; and nothing more. Her last painting, a depiction of Ben, seemed to be the breaking point for her mother. Between the kleptomania, the paintings, and the lying; her mother had had enough. Then she chuckles to conceal another sob, telling Ben that he has been completely wrong about the entire situation. She sniffles and wipes tears away. It is obvious he believes that her mother and the doctors are all trying to protect her from him. But it’s not like that at all. It’s actually the other way around.
 
The revelation shocks Ben into silence. That night at the estate, when Dr. Kennedy called and freaked out over the phone. It wasn’t that she was afraid of Ben… she was afraid of how her daughter might influence Ben. As sleep comes calling, the two teens finally curl up into a corner and doze off together; each dreaming about the other.
 
 
The sound of someone pounding at the stuck door wakes them both up abruptly. The low sun is shining through the gaps between the door and frame, letting them know it is sometime late in the afternoon. Ben and Maria get up quickly and silently move deeper into the “cellar”. Noticing the high-voltage power lines and communications cable lining the ceiling, Ben begins to think that this is more than a simple storm shelter. The cables and wires all lead to a spot part way down the hall.
 
 —
 
Ben tries the door to the room where the cables lead. What he finds, is some kind of weird workshop. Blueprints and plans for all kinds of odd things have been hung haphazardly around the room. The place seems to have been converted to storage, however. Equipment from the cafe is being stored here in large crates. A strange object stands in the far corner of the old lab. Ben had mistaken it for another crate, at first. But upon closer inspection, it looks to be some kind of fantastic machine. Maria has also noticed the thing, and asks Ben what it is.
 
Before he can warn her to leave it alone, Maria has already pushed randomly at buttons protruding from a panel on the front. It immediately growls to life, glowing with some kind of unnatural energy. They look at each other with uncertainty and slowly back away from it.
 
Once back out in the corridor, Maria pushes herself close to Ben again and kisses him tenderly. Since he’s gone along with two of her crazy ideas already, she asks him to indulge her with one more. She mentions how they will both be adults soon, then asks if he will run away with her. They can find a small town, somewhere they can be invisible, and raise a small family together. The thought if it makes butterflies in his stomach go crazy. But not in a bad way. He looks deep into her eyes, which are clear and lucid for the first time since he has known her. He kisses her again, and begins to lead her back to the car. Then he hears the “stuck” door being forced open.
 
Ben curses to himself and waves Maria back, while peeking around the corner to see what they are going up against. If it is the police, they are as good as caught. But if it is just the property owner, maybe coming to investigate the machine being turned on, then they may still have a chance. He hears more than one voice echoing through the hallway and turns slightly back toward Maria.
 
It happens just like he says it does. Sims and locations fade into nothing, as though they had never existed. Ben had never known any of them personally; until now. It happens with very little warning, and is over in the blink of an eye. She is standing right beside him one moment. And then the next, she is not. He will play this moment in his mind countless times over his lifetime. But he will  never resolve for certain whether, during that instant, he imagined her calling out his name or not.
 
The thought of somebody close to him “vanishing” had often pervaded his thoughts, and he has long contemplated how he might react. Surely, he would have thrown an epic fit eclipsing the one at the estate. But the shock of it simply stuns Ben. He is motionless as the police descend into the cellar’s corridor. He moves like a rag doll as they lead him up the steps and into the early evening sunlight.
 
The police take him home. Truancy and trespassing; they’ll let him off with a warning this time. Mom and Dad are angry, but it doesn’t matter to him. Ben demands to know about the fire at the hospital, about Dr. Kennedy, and Maria. But all he gets from them is that same disappointed look. They don’t say a word, but they don’t have to.
 
Because he is crazy. And none of it has ever existed; not Dr. Kennedy, not the hospital, and not Maria. None of it.

Chapter 6.13 – Bridge

It finally makes sense.
 
Kacey has manipulated everything… the dreams, the temporal loop, the meeting with Faith, and who knows what else? But why him? He was nothing more than a homeless, vagrant eccentric; living a miserable existence on the streets of France. How did Kacey even know he existed? Or was the artifact responsible?
 
He had been comfortable believing the dreams he shared with Hope were echoes from the future caused by the temporal loop. At least it seems romantic compared to the cold truth. He was little more than a tool deemed best capable of facilitating Kacey’s rescue. And he followed the piper’s flute all the way to Sunset Valley. Granted, the subtle manipulation of spacetime was an awfully neat trick. But he does not know whether to feel honored or violated. Is it possible to feel both at the same time?
 
These are questions for another time, perhaps. Now, he must focus on finding a way to help restore things to the way they were before Khaliq stepped in. And if there is one thing he doesn’t mind sinking his teeth into, it is a good paradox. What he really needs is a bridge between the broken realities; a way to complete the circuit, so to speak. It has to be something that exists in both places at the same time. There is a pretty good chance a gadget he built years ago, might just do the trick.
 
Kacey and Gerard return from a long walk on the beach together while Doc finishes sorting out the facts. He tells them about the machine he designed to measure the temporal loop. It should be able to open a bridge to this reality. In theory, it would act like a kind of quantum drainpipe, allowing the realities to flow together again. Obviously, somebody will need to “filter” out all the garbage from flowing back into the main reality. Doc pushes at the bridge of his glasses with his forefinger, and informs Kacey of a slight snag in the plan. The machine was left powered down in a cellar belonging to Jared Wily; the pudgy little proprietor of the Bits-n-Bites cafe. Even if there were some way of contacting him, Jared isn’t exactly the cooperative sort. Kacey lets a rare smile play across her face. Her eyes light up when she compliments Doc’s unmatched ability to solve impossible problems; and promises that the machine will have power when the time comes.
 
The trio go fishing together that evening and prepare their catch for dinner. After eating, they discuss the plan of action. Doc feels pretty strongly that the first priority is retrieving the artifact. Kacey agrees, but states that it will be dangerous. Khaliq has hidden himself away in the rugged mountains where warlords still fight for dominance over scattered villages and tribes.
 
Then, in the quiet hours after the meal, Doc is shocked beyond words when Kacey and Gerard retire together to the tiny bedroom. They had not shown any sort of affection or attraction toward each other. In fact, he’s sure the entire thing is completely innocent. It must be his weary mind making something more out of it. Nonetheless, he lay awake on the sofa, late into the night, aware of the complete silence filling the cabin. He wonders if, perhaps, they consider each other “safe”. But then it begs the question, what do they both consider him?
 
His curiosity about the odd sleeping arrangements eventually drifts to thoughts about Hope, and then to a restless night’s sleep. There is little conversation in the morning. Both Gerard and Kacey act as though sleeping in the same bed together was completely ordinary and unworthy of discussion. Seeming somewhat eager to avoid the topic, Kacey asks both men if they are ready to travel. But neither one understands what she means when she informs them that they are going to take a walk to Africa.
 
It is still damp and cool when they begin walking, with low clouds obscuring the morning sun. Doc forgets about the awkwardness he felt last night as Kacey begins to explain how her ability works. She is powerless while at the cabin or near any of its many reflections throughout reality. But as the distance between her and that place grows, the more potent her ability becomes. It seems easier to use when she is moving, imagining small changes as she goes. Grass and conifers may slowly give way to sand and palms. The cool sea breeze warms, and then becomes a hot desert wind. Cloudy skies clear to a baking sun overhead. These things obediently manifest, exactly as she imagines them.
 
Having been completely enthralled by her description, Doc has failed to notice what Kacey has done. She has achieved what should be impossible. They have traveled to Africa by way of a short hour-long hike. Doc and Gerard are both speechless from the experience. Kacey seems to enjoy the reaction, as though it brings novelty to something she has done hundreds of times. Then it strikes Doc; this is probably the only time she has made this kind of journey among “friends”.
 
They have come to an abandoned village. It’s houses are covered in a thick layer of sand and dust, and there seems to be no living thing present. Kacey leads them to a small home, built from earthen brick. She signals them to remain quiet while she attempts to peer through latticework covering the windows. They all hear the sound of a man sobbing inside. They enter quietly, ready to react should the home’s occupant greet them with violence. There is no need, however.
 
Khaliq stands over the body of a young woman. Her heavy robes are stained with blood. Khaliq turns to face Kacey as tears stream down his face. He clears his throat and admonishes the chrome-haired woman for coming to gloat. She eyes Gerard and shrugs her shoulders to indicate she does not understand. Gerard moves toward the woman and notices she been dead for just a few hours. He says a prayer for her, then quickly retreats. Khaliq faces Kacey and frowns in disgust, claiming his plan to save his mother’s life was perfect, and that he feels no pity or regret for deceiving her. Khaliq smiles bitterly and claims his victory over Mark Barimen. It is a hollow victory, however.
 
Khaliq’s face goes pale as he recalls the event. The moment he arrived, he went to the village plaza and announced that he had discovered an infidel living among its residents. At once, the villagers dragged Mark, who was still disguised as Rakim, out of the home and started to beat him. They removed his disguise and stood him up to be shot. Khaliq demanded that he be the one to take the killing shot. Finally victorious, Khaliq should have been elated. But he was not. The wailing of his teenage mother, who was being restrained by villagers, chilled his bones to the core. He could not understand why she would continue screaming and crying over the imminent death of an imposter; the same man who would walk away from her and her child and never once look back. Conflicting thoughts and emotions were spinning uncontrollably in Khaliq’s mind. He could not understand why his mother did not hate Mark Barimen for deceiving her. Still she begged, screaming for them to release Mark. What happened next, could have been avoided had she moved an instant sooner, or an instant later. She broke free and ran like lightning to protect her husband.
 
The same bullet that killed Mark, had also taken the life of his young bride.
 
Khaliq spits at Kacey and tells her to take her devil machine and leave the house, before he kills all of them too. Kacey gently retrieves the alien-looking device from beside the body of Khaliq’s mother, and quickly leads the way out.
Author’s Note – see Chapters 4.7 – Brainwashing,  4.11 – Insurgent,  4.14 – Wounds, Chapter 5 – Supplemental)
 
Nobody mentions hearing the distinct report of a single gunshot ringing out from the home as they leave; though all three clearly hear it, and understood its significance.
 
Gerard eventually breaks the silence as they walk back to Kacey’s cabin. He mentions that Khaliq’s mother had only just been killed, no more than a few hours ago. Kacey nods, appearing to struggle against some unseen force. Breathing heavily from the effort, and with sweat dripping into her face, she tells Gerard that spacetime is doing something really bad.
 
It is an effect she had not accounted for. And it may turn out to be a fatal mistake. From her own point of view, it has only been several days since leaving the Barimen Estate. From Khaliq’s perspective, it appears to have only been several hours; even though the village seems to have been abandoned or a number of years. She tells them somberly, that the timestream is fraying. Doc’s eyes narrow as Kacey resumes the walk, now grunting with the effort of each step. It his been two long and painful weeks since that night, waking up in the French slum. He wonders how long has it been for Hope.
 
Finally, they walk around the bend of a large, convex cliff face by the seashore and see the familiar curve of Sunset Valley’s beach. Kacey drops to the sand, exhausted, while Gerard tends to her. Spotting a nearby apple tree, Doc grabs a few fruit for Kacey, then quickly returns. She thanks him, and frowns. Khaliq was the last living Barimen in this reality, and also the linchpin holding it together. Now that he is gone… Kacey’s voice trails off, leaving the thought unfinished.
 
They must find Doc’s “bridge” within the hour. Past that, not even her abilities can save them.

Chapter 6.12 – Butterflies

Doc gives the all-clear signal to Gerard through the open door, then quietly sits down next to Kacey.
 
Having lived on the streets all his life, Doc has become very familiar with the signs of emotional defeat; when a sim’s spirit has been completely crushed. This is what he sees when looking at Kacey. There are no tears to cry, and no dignity left to preserve; she appears as a sim who has surrendered to despair. Still, there is some sign of hope. Although she has said nothing, he can sense through her body language that she is glad he is here.
 
Gerard enters and cocks his head. He had met Kacey while visiting the Barimen Estate in Sunset Valley, and spoke with her on only one occasion. She had not been shy about expressing her opinion that the entire concept of religion was rather silly. Actually, she made a point of avoiding the church altogether, along with any its ceremonies and celebrations of faith. She turns slightly to regard the pastor, her eyes showing something akin to contrition.
 
They sit together in silence for a short time, each lost in his or her own thoughts. There is something wholly unreal and dreamlike about this place. Doc hadn’t noticed it before entering the cabin, but he now feels the effect concentrated right at this spot. He recalls the dream from earlier today, about his family laying his memory to rest in an empty grave. It occurs to him now, that HE may be the one missing. Doc’s heart begins to race as a dark question clouds his mind. Is this …the afterlife?
 
Gerard speaks first; his soft, effeminate voice breaking the spell of silence inside the cabin. He has noticed the otherworldly quality to this place as well, and he gently asks Kacey where they are. He waits patiently while Kacey silently ponders the answer to his question. She finally meets Gerard’s gaze with her deep, blue eyes; but remains emotionless. Her uneven voice seems to match the surreal quality of the cabin’s interior.
 
She tells Gerard about a puzzle that fascinated her as a child. How do butterflies, all spread across millions of square miles, migrate to one tiny spot of land? How do they know? With a brain the size of a grain of sand; how do they know? There is little scientifically quantifiable evidence to explain how millions of bugs are able to participate in such a communion.
 
Nonetheless, each tiny insect is born with this inexplicable instinct; and each one spends the vast majority of its lifetime making the journey. And when they arrive, they mate. Then scatter back to the four winds. It seems ludicrous and irrational. But yet it happens; as if each one has a singular purpose to make the journey and produce the offspring that will, in turn, repeat the cycle.
 
She sighs heavily and blinks new tears out of her eyes. She looks directly at Gerard and asks, how did he know? Her voice quivers as she whispers that she chose not to listen until death itself looked her in the eyes. Then she asks him again, How did he know? After a few moments, Gerard smiles for the first time in a long time. On the verge of tears himself, he tells Kacey that some butterflies will dismiss it as ludicrous and irrational. But the ones that trust in faith and make the journey, become a part of something wondrous and beautiful.
 
Kacey hesitates as she turns her attention to Doc. The look in her eyes is now that of a child caught with her hand in the cookie jar. She quietly tells him that no apology can fix what she has done, but she begs his forgiveness all the same. This place is a reflection of the life he once knew. It is a place where the Barimen family does not exist. She paces the small room looking for the right words, but has little luck finding them.
 
I am not like you.
 
It is the best she can come up with. This land, this little cabin, or whatever it wants to be called; it is truly unique in all of reality. It is special, in that it exists in simultaneous realities throughout spacetime. And it is where her kind come to spawn.
 
Kacey tells the story of how, when she was a teen, she discovered that she possessed a very unique ability to alter reality; to mold and shape the fabric of time and space. Obviously, she did not understand what it was when she was young. But her brother, Reid, did understand. Technically, he is not really her brother. He found her, along with some kind of amazing artifact, in the abandoned mine when he was a young boy.
 
Even at that young age, he knew how to manipulate the situation toward his own end. He convinced his mother to take care of the angelic child with silvery hair, and claim her as a daughter; while hiding existence of the artifact from everybody.
 
As time went on, he slowly learned to control her with intimidation, fear, and …other things. When he found that David’s ancestors had written about discovering the artifact a long time ago, he became increasingly paranoid that David was attempting to regain it for himself. So he began hording any information that might lead David to its whereabouts. As she grew older, Reid subjected her to experiments. She learned how to use the artifact to calculate intricate changes in reality to suit Reid’s increasingly sadistic fantasies. But there was one place where her ability did not work; the land where the Barimen family lives. Not only that, but the Barimen family itself seemed to be somehow “immune” to her talent. It sent Reid into a wild rage, and eventually drove him mad with paranoia about David.
 
He started working out the computations needed to bend reality to a point where he would be some kind of all-powerful super being. She told her brother he was crazy; and what he was asking for was far beyond her ability. Then, while reading a very old diary, he discovered the algorithm. The entry was recorded by a young girl named Moira McAllister; one of David’s ancestors. It was supposedly a key to unlocking the secrets of time and space. Now convinced that David was “toying” with him, Reid demanded that Kacey use the artifact to begin calculating the algorithm. By the time he realized it would take centuries to complete, she had already become an adult and moved in with David.
 
She attempted to stop David from telling Reid about the wedding. The poor guy had no clue what really was going on. She can’t blame him for wanting to ask his best friend’s permission to marry his sister. David was cute and romantic that way. But Reid was already too far gone. He attacked David and presented her with an ultimatum (Chapter 2.20 – Madness). She would either move ahead through time, then bend reality back to give him the algorithm’s solution – or die together with David. She often wonders whether she made the right choice.
 
She had very little control of her ability at first, and she started moving in very small steps. But she soon became impatient. This, compounded by her grief over learning that David had married his first love, Ciara, caused her to become careless. Still fraught with emotion, she moved too far ahead, too quickly.
 
It was like being tossed around beneath a breaking wave as it crashed ashore. But even through the torrent, she could hear the “voices” guiding her out of immediate and imminent danger. Finally, she was able to reach out to the artifact and break out of the violent riptide. But she found herself going from one bad situation to another. Military scientists had discovered the artifact in the abandoned mine and started experimenting on it. Her unexpected appearance in their lab was accompanied by some kind of massive energy surge. The ensuing explosion killed dozens, and found her lying in a hospital bed, trying to remember who she was.
 
It was during her recovery she realized the artifact was alive, and that she was somehow attuned to it. It sang to her, comforted her, and seemed to be healing her wounds. Even buried beneath the wreckage from the explosion, it reached out to her. And again, after General Buford attempted to meddle with its unimaginable power, she was kept alive by the artifact. It sustained her body for more than fifteen years, buried beneath a mountain of rock. She was too close to the spawning grounds to use her ability to escape. But far enough away to make the subtle changes that would eventually lead Doc to her underground tomb.
 
Both men exchange dumbfounded expressions. Under normal circumstances, Doc would have chalked this kind of talk up to severe mental illness. But given every other unexplainable occurrence over the past few years of his life, he has no reason to question either her story or her sanity. And while her story does explain much, There is still one outstanding question bothering him to his core. What happened to Hope?
 
Kacey’s expression wilts again and she sighs. She explains how badly she needed comforting and intimacy after being buried alive for so long. Khaliq had somehow learned about her abilty and played his charm perfectly while appeasing her emotions. He knew exactly when and how to strike. He demanded that she use her power to transport him back in time to a point before Mark Barimen escaped a militant training camp in the Middle-East. Even though she refused to do it, the artifact decided differently and transported them here. Khaliq succeeded in his plan, but there have been consequences. Mark’s death sent a shockwave through spacetime, erasing his entire lineage dating back to when Sunset Valley was first settled. This cabin is all that remains of their legacy.
 
Doc can see there is more that Kacey is not telling them, and he waits for her to speak again. When she does not, he asks her about the part she has left out. She looks up at him with regret in her eyes; her words causing Doc to shiver as they are spoken. Like a cracked mirror, the local reality now has two reflections. Kacey apologizes profusely, then confesses to displacing both he and Gerard from their “side” of the break, to help her figure out what to do. She could think of no other sims who would believe her incredible story long enough to help.
 
But if she does not find some way to repair it, the break will soon be complete; then there will be nothing she can do to bring them back together.

Chapter 6.11 – Smoke

Ben spends weeks at the hospital, quickly learing that cooperation is the key to avoid being given his “medicine”.
 
 —
 
Faith and Jimmy come to visit him almost every day, and often leave in tears when they learn that his “problem” has not improved. He’s not sure what the doctors are saying to make them think so. Ben has not said a word to anybody about “end of the world” stuff, and he has done his best to steer clear of the topic with his new doctors. He has seen Dr. Kennedy around the hospital, but she has avoided him since the night Maria was found his room.
 
He struggles with his newfound knowledge concerning Dr. Kennedy’s relationship with Maria, and he begins to fret over the possible reasons why his former doctor would have hidden the fact from him. Hearing Maria’s mother freak out on the phone that day at the estate, had left him with terrible feelings of worthlessness. Knowing now that it was actually Doctor Kennedy, reopens that old wound. What’s worse, is that Ben had actually mentioned the incident during his therapy sessions. In his mind, it is nothing short of betrayal.
 
 —
 
He would gladly prefer the daily ridicule he used to suffer at school, over the painfully long and boring days at the hospital. He is only allowed to see Maria during the doctor-supervised tutoring sessions. There are three other kids who also attend the tutoring, all with varying degrees of mental dysfunction. Despite these hurdles, however, He and Maria have still managed to grow close. He can tell when her meds have been throttled back, because her personality fights to emerge. It is during these times, when the doctors aren’t looking, that her eyes meet his and seem to be begging him for help.
 
As time goes on, he learns that Maria is amazingly resourceful and fearless when it comes bending the rules. She has somehow managed to obtain a keycard, and moves freely throughout the hospital. Sometimes she comes to visit him at night. Usually, they just sit together, but sometimes she wants him to hold her. She tells him it helps her feel safe. He can sense she would not object to something more intimate, but Ben is not nearly as fearless as she is. Then there are the times when she talks about “ending it”.  It has made him reconsider that perhaps her boldness his not so much a lack of fear, as much as it is having nothing more to lose.
 
The weeks eventually turn to months, while he spends the vast majority of his time singing songs, playing the guitar, and waiting for the day when he will be able to go home.
 
 
Faith paces the foyer, periodically looking through the window for signs of the car carrying her mother and brothers. They had finally given up looking for Doc after his disappearance several years ago. When Mei died, Hope did not attend the funeral for fear of missing some important lead on Doc’s whereabouts. Giving up on Doc could not have been easy, and reaching out to her estranged daughter was probably just as difficult. But in the end, Hope could no longer maintain her grudge against Mark’s decision turn control of the estate over to Faith.
 
 —
 
When the car finally pulls up, Hope has just barely stood upright before Faith launches into the kind of hug she used to give when she was a child. She is reminded of waiting up late nights, long ago, for Hope to return home from work. The tears flow as she apologizes for anything and everything she might have done to cause the rift to be prolonged. A girl needs her mother, and she should have worked harder to reconcile a long time ago. Hope likewise begs forgiveness for throwing away so many precious years.

Mary (left), Faith (center), and Hope (right) Barimen

 —

Dara (left) and Richard Nava (center), and Sarah Barimen (right)

 —
 
 —

Joseph (left), Sarah (center), and Thomas (right) Barimen

The following reunion is both joyful and sad, as the extended family gathers to share stories about the past and the present. The evening belongs to Aunt Mary, who tells stories about growing up in the Barimen household among older brothers and sisters. Her fondest memories are of Ciara, her mother, who died when she was still a young child.
 
 —
 
After the guests have left, Hope and Faith sit in the cellar, talking and drinking  vintage life-fruit nectar. It is just the way it used to be. Only now, the girl talk involves subjects never approached when Faith was younger. It is very late at night, at the tail end of a long conversation about Kacey, when Faith finally mentions Ben and his problem. She feels that the hospital might be taking advantage of the situation, and soaking the family for as much money as they can get.
 
Before getting up and going to bed in the guest room, Hope wonders out loud whether Ben has any problem at all; then adds that she can’t wait to meet him.
 
 
 —
 
The smell of smoke in an adjacent room wakes Ben out of another disturbing dream. It is late at night, but he can see the black whisps already clinging to the ceiling of his little “cell”. He leaps out of bed and tries his door — locked, as usual. If there is one thing that is absolutely certain in his mind, it is that there is no chance he is going to die in this hole. With all of the force he can muster, he smashes the door with his shoulder, and then kicks it until the frame splinters. After spilling into the hallway, he examines the doors lining the hall and finds the one with smoke billowing out of the top. It is Maria’s room.
 
The door is slightly open and he makes his way inside to find Maria standing, staring at the fire she has set on her bed. He immediately notices the fire alarm, which has been pulled off the wall, and now hangs by a wire. Hoping for the best, Ben twists the wires together and snaps the cover back onto the wall. The alarm obediently begins to screech. Ben rushes into the room and quickly guides Maria, who has started coughing from the heat and smoke, into the hallway.
 
By now, the entire mental hospital has come alive with chaos and panic. They stand there together, amid the overwhelmed nurses and terrified mental patients, as the fire grows and spreads. Then, just as Ben prepares to take Maria to safety, she brushes her lips against his ear and verbalizes a thought that had already crossed his mind, but seemed too crazy to attempt.
 
 —
 
Dismissing all caution, Ben grabs Maria’s hand and makes a break for the front doors. They pass fire crews with hoses and extinguishers and slip unnoticed past the growing number of emergency vehicles. Blending into the crowd that has gathered on the street, Ben and Maria walk swiftly away from the burning building, both of them fully expecting to be caught at any moment. He stops momentarily when he sees Dr. Kennedy emerge from her car, screaming and running toward the hospital.
 
 —
 
Without looking back, Maria pulls him along onto a side street; where they disappear together into the shadows provided by the darkness of night.

Chapter 6.10 – Connection

 
It is shortly past midnight when Ben wakes up in an unfamiliar hospital bed.
 
His head is still swimming from the sedatives, and he doesn’t remember much about what happened after Sarah yelled at him. All he knows is that he seriously freaked out, and caused some major damage. He really doesn’t know where the rage came from, and he starts to feel guilt about the trouble he has caused. This is not how he wants things to be. He doesn’t want to be the troubled, high-maintenance kid any more. But even now, he cannot suppress the feeling that something is horribly wrong with the world.
 
With no piano or guitar present, Ben begins to hum out a tune he has been working on. The lyrics come to him with ease, and soon his humming is replaced by his deep, melancholy voice. He sings in harmony to the guitar strings being plucked in his mind. The music eases his worries and calms him better than any sedative could. As the last notes of his new song evaporate into the air, he sees movement in the dark entryway.
 
Knowing she has been spotted, Maria emerges from the shadows and appears not to care that she is intruding. She has become a teen since the last time Ben saw her at the estate. She still wears that dull, emotionless expression on her face. The mannerisms that had reminded him of another sim  during her childhood,  have only intensified now that she is older. But he still cannot quite make the connection. She tells him plainly that she overheard the nurses talking about him being admitted a few hours ago. She moves closer to Ben, who is still startled by her sudden appearance. She is wearing the same style hospital “pajamas” as he, and also has the plastic hospital wrist bands. Is she a patient here?
 
She sits next to him on the bed, paying no attention to his discomfort. He had never seen her before without glasses. And now that he looks into her empty, blank eyes, he makes a startling and disturbing discovery. The poor girl is being heavily medicated. Her flat disposition is clearly a side-effect of the meds, and not just a boring personality as he had always believed. Having gained new understanding about his old friend, Ben gently asks her why she is in the hospital.
 
The question appears to confuse her at first, and her expression stalls while trying to remember. She finally pulls the information out of her clouded mind, then speaks in her monotone voice; saying her mother think’s she’s crazy. Lately, her artwork has been depicting some disturbing subject matter regarding the end of the world. Coming here is punishment for making “those kinds” of paintings. She comes here a lot, especially when her mother declares that she is having an “episode”.
 
Ben nearly falls off of the bed after hearing Maria’s confession. He looks deep into her eyes, hoping to find some glimmer of a identity behind the medication induced glaze. She instinctively blushes at his sudden display of interest, but gives no indication that she is even slightly lucid. Then, with a slight attempt at a smile, she tells him she loved his beautiful song. She asks flatly if it was about the end of the world.
 
Still deeply troubled by these new discoveries, Ben shrugs and admits that it was; sort of. Before he has the chance to pump Maria for any more information, both teens are startled by a loud commotion out in the hallway. Maria lazily turns her head toward the door, appearing to cower slightly away from it. The shouting becomes louder until he can hear panicked voices directly outside. There is a swift knock, but he has no chance to respond before a nurse flies into the room.
 
The woman cocks her head and sets her jaw upon seeing Maria sitting on Ben’s bed. Maria attempts to run, but is stopped easily by the burley woman. Ben throws his hands up and immediately promises that nothing happened and that she just wandered into the wrong room. The nurse shoots him a dirty look, then shouts into the hallway that she has found Maria.
 
When the nurse takes Maria by the arm, addressing as “Miss Kennedy”, Ben makes the connections all at once. His eyes dart from Maria to a very familiar figure now standing at the doorway.
 
Dr. Kennedy steps into the room wearing a stern look on her face, and shouts Maria’s name. Her expression melts from anger to horror as she recognises Ben standing in the room next to her daughter. The resemblance is as plain as day now that he sees the two of them together. It is amazing he didn’t make the connection earlier. Maria smiles, with daggers for eyes. Even in her medicated state, the animosity is crystal clear.
 
Maria slurs out a mocking introduction as the nurse pokes a needle into her arm. Her last legible words before succumbing to the sedative has Ben wondering how long Maria has been playing this scenario in her head;
 
…but I guess you’ve already met.

Chapter 6.9 – Cabin

The combination of Doc’s tired eyes and tricks played by shadows cast in the moonlight, make for difficult hiking through the dense woods that line the seashore.
Had it not been as simple of keeping the shoreline in sight through the woods, he would have become hopelessly lost. It is difficult for Doc to fathom that a thriving town should be here in place of the woods. He has given up trying to come up with a scientific explanation for now. Whatever is happening defies the laws of physics, nature, and mathematics. There is a high probability that the dreams he and Hope shared about each other are closely linked to this phenomenon; but he has no idea how.
The thirty minute hike quickly turns into two hours. Exhausted and ready to quit, Doc labors up a steep, rocky, incline. He rests at its top and takes in the spectacular view of the sea from his vantage. A tiny flicker of light reflecting in the water catches his attention. Searching the shoreline, he finds its faint source less than a mile away, hidden behind a mass of trees and undergrowth. The discovery gives him new energy, and he presses forward.
After walking another twenty minutes, it becomes clear that he has most likely gone past the source of the pinpoint light. He turns around and comes to the conclusion that he will have to go deeper into the woods, leave the shoreline behind, and chance getting lost. Doc is smarter than most sims when it comes to science and math. Some would say he is the smartest. But an outdoorsman, he is not.
When birds begin singing their morning greetings, Doc realizes he has been walking all night. He is completely spent from the hike. He nibbles on some fruit he had packed for the trip, then finds a decent bed of grass to fall asleep on. It is a troubled sleep, plagued by unhappy dreams about his family laying his memory to rest inside an empty grave. They have spent years searching for him, with no success.

Doc looks out over Sunset Valley town center.

He wakes up with the sun hanging high overhead. Feeling sore from sleeping on the uneven ground, but no longer exhausted, Doc gets slowly to his feet. He hears the faint sound of what seem to be many, many women all whispering at once. At first he thinks it is his mind playing tricks; but there is no doubting they are there. It is imperceptibly soft, like the sound of rustling leaves.
 
Doc attempts to follow the voices, which have no discernible source or origin. And after what feels like another hour of walking, he happens upon a clearing in the woods. Several ancient stumps stick out from the ground where trees had once been downed, and the area is otherwise overgrown with brambles. The voices have disappeared, but he can now hear the familiar sound of waves from the sea crashing below the bluff. There is a tiny log cabin a short distance away, standing proudly where the Barimen estate should be. (See Chapter 1.6 – Home)
 
As Doc approaches, he can see that the door the cabin has been left ajar. Unsure what to expect, he cautiously and quietly moves closer to the mysterious little building. He nearly leaps out of his skin when a flock of birds launches into the air, screeching angrily at whatever startled them. He turns quickly to see Gerard stumbling into the clearing on the opposite side of the cabin.
 
Doc motions for the pastor to remain quiet as he anxiously retreats from the cabin. Gerard has a number of scrapes and cuts from the dense brush and is covered in dirt. He is breathing heavily from what may have been a sprint through the woods. When he manages to get his breathing under control, he tells Doc that he wandered for a few hours and found a rocky area not far from here. It was heavily guarded by military personnel. They spotted him, and started shouting and running to intercept him. Then he did what any respectable coward would do. He ran.
 
Motioning for the pastor to remain behind, Doc again approaches the cabin. From this vantage, he can see a small portion of the interior through the partially open door. From what he can see, it is all quiet and still. The door hinges creak from lack of use when he gently pushes the door open. The front room of the small cabin appears to consume most of the building’s area.
 
His eyes meet hers immediately. They are a brilliant blue, framed by untamed locks of shimmering, silvery hair; and set in a sad, but pretty face. Physically, she appears perfectly healthy. But emotionally, it is evident that she is quite distraught. He speaks Kacey’s name in a whisper at first, then in a more normal tone when he asks if she is okay. Her eyes move from him to some point outside the window. She swallows hard and forces herself to remain composed, but says nothing in response.
 
She doesn’t have to speak for Doc to know that the answer to his question is No.

Chapter 6.8 – Map

A small hotel on the main highway leading into Sim City acts as a staging area for Doc and Gerard as they travel to Sunset Valley.
They find themselves with quite a problem, however. It seems nobody has ever heard of Sunset Valley. After the long flight from France and a gruelling rush-hour commute out of the big city, Doc feels his patience being tested like never before. He showers in his tiny efficiency room, wondering how many more curve-balls are going to be thrown at him. As if in spite, the water goes ice-cold part way through his shower.
Changing into the clean clothes he purchased from a thrift shop in town, he walks across the parking lot to a small diner, where Gerard is waiting for him. He sees the pastor with a map of the area spread out over a corner table. Doc becomes very uncomfortable when noticing they are the only two civilian patrons at the diner. The dozen or so others all appear to be military personnel.
Gerard frowns and points to a spot on the map where Sunset Valley should be. Instead there is only a symbol indicating the presence of a military base and large letters spelling out “FORT GNOME”. Doc blinks in disbelief and shakes his head; it simply is not possible for an entire town to vanish. Both men sit dumbfounded at the table until a waitress comes to take their order.
Forgetting they are no longer in France, Gerard begins to converse with the waitress in his native French. Seeing that she is somewhat annoyed, Doc takes over and does his best to remember the simlish he had learned.
After detailing her life’s story, the waitress eventually provides Doc with some valuable clues. He quickly fills Gerard in with the details. The spot where Sunset Valley ought to be located is a military-controlled area attached to Fort Gnome. According to the waitress, there is a local legend, that nearly two hundred years ago, the land was home to a small settlement of miners who found something valuable. Shortly afterward, the land was forcefully taken over by the military and every one of the settlers was killed. The legend had produced some fantastic tales used to scare young sims into thinking that ghostly miners haunted the densely wooded hillsides.
After eating and enjoying the company of the same waitress, who now seems to show some attraction toward the two foreign men, Doc thanks the woman and packs up the map to leave. The boldness of her offer to visit him in his room later, catches Doc somewhat off guard.
His eyebrow jerks upward and he gives her an apologetic smile, showing off his wedding ring. She frowns and asks about Gerard, who is clueless about what they are saying in simlish. Doc’s eyebrow jerks up again and he chuckles, informing her of his priestly vocation. The waitress walks off, exasperated, but thankful for the generous tip Doc leaves for her.
Doc and Gerard each walk to their own room; tired and no closer to solving the mystery at hand. Doc suggests they go back into the city (after rush hour) and search the public records for clues. Gerard shrugs, still numb and seeming to grow more withdrawn by the minute. Doc apologizes, conceding that he could not know what losing a parish would feel like. He tries to cheer his friend up, and thanks him for helping find his family. Gerard nods and gives a weak smile in response, then disappears behind the door to his motel room. Doc likewise retreats to his own room and falls asleep almost instantly.
The sound of a key tapping on the curtained window wakes him up some time that night. Doc groans and stumbles to the window to find the source of the noise. He sees the waitress smiling sweetly at him through the window, pointing to the door. Doc sighs sleepily opens the door, letting her in. After a brief and very uncomfortable silence, she asks sheepishly again if he wants some company. Still half asleep, Doc shakes his head, thanking her for the flattery. He tells her that his wife is missing, and that he has come from France to look for her in town called Sunset Valley. But he quickly adds that if he were not already committed, he would not think twice about her invitation.
She smiles, blushes, then takes a deep breath. Looking around somewhat nervously, she urges Doc closer. She whispers that there is more fact than fiction in the local legend she spoke about earlier. Her family has lived in a nearby town for ages, and she knows for a fact the mining town was called Sunset Valley before the military closed the area. She did not want to say anything earlier with soldiers present, but there is a tiny little cottage hidden beneath dense overgrowth near the shoreline. She tells him to look for a steep hill that heads to a bluff overlooking the sea. He may find some clues there. After circling the spot on his map, she purposefully leans over and kisses him.
Smiling slyly at his reaction, she gives him one final chance for a “wild night”. Doc gently guides her out of the door and thanks her for the information about the cottage. He watches through the window as she uses the stairs to reach the parking lot, then drives away. He sighs with relief as the tail lights disappear into the distance.
Tired but completely unable to sleep, Doc stares at the spot circled on the map. There is a road that brings him pretty close to the spot. It is about a twenty-minute drive, then another thirty minutes on foot. With his heart racing, doc scribbles a note on the map, gathers a few necessities, then slips the folded map under Gerard’s door. The threat of being stopped inside military property is very real. But he has no other choice.
If he cannot find anything here, then Hope is truly lost.

Chapter 6.7 – List

Ben finds himself standing alone at the beach, strumming at the strings of Papa Mark’s old guitar.
The ability comes to him with amazing ease and quickness. Perhaps the countless hours spent banging on that old xylophone as a toddler weren’t such a waste of time after all. He allows his anxieties about the disappearing world to also disappear as he plucks out melodies fresh from his imagination. It almost feels as though he can repel the forces consuming his world with nothing more than a guitar.
A new door has been opened for him, providing a way for him to lose himself and forget about the terrifying concept that everything is slowly being destroyed. Ben packs the guitar and drives back home, arriving just before curfew. He lays in bed while visualizing the compositions that have been locked away in his sim brain since infancy. For the first time ever, he falls asleep and dreams of something other than the end of the world.
As the days progress, his visits to Dr. Kennedy continue to help him figure out why he has these feelings. Before his birthday, he had mentioned his conversations with Maria, and her mother’s reaction over the phone when she disclosed her visits to Ben’s house. But Dr. Kennedy dismissed the incident and told him to focus, instead, on his list of things he thinks need fixing. She gently suggests that it will help him to understand his feelings. And it has, to an extent.
The list has definitely evolved over the years. At first it was simple thinks a kid thinks of, like a broken faucet or a squeaky door hinge. But since becoming a teen, that list has become more subtle and meaningful. It often incorporates his new appreciation for music. But sometimes, he puts himself on the list. Dr. Kennedy seems to think it only confuses the problem, and she encourages him to make the list properly. But there are times when he can’t help but wonder if there really is something wrong with him. He has no friends, nowhere to go, and nobody else to talk to about this stuff.
One unfortunate side-effect from his visits to Dr. Kennedy, is that he is always thinking about “the problem”. And it sometimes gets in the way of living a somewhat normal life. If there is one thing that has kept him from “cracking up”, it is his relationship with Sarah. She has always stood by him, quietly accepting the fact that her brother is “different”. But when Sarah’s birthday arrives, her attitude about this changes as well. Ben recognises the fact that his sister has grown up to become the most gorgeous and sought-after girl on campus. She is no longer “Crazy Ben”‘s sister. Unfortunately, he has become Sarah’s crazy brother.
As these anxieties continue to build, Ben becomes all the more reclusive; until one day, when the situation finally boils over. It may have been caused by the very difficult day of criticism and mockery he had endured that day at school. Perhaps it was finding Sarah making out with a boy who ruthlessly belittles Ben. Regardless, the final straw that day is Sarah angrily calling him a big freak when he interrupts, demanding he leave her alone before he ruins everything. Seeing Sarah mocking him with her new boyfriend at her side is too much. And he finally snaps.
His relationship with Sarah now a the top of the list of broken things, he decides to just keep breaking more things to put on the list. He doesn’t remember much about what happened before the police and ambulance came. All he knows is that he did a lot of breaking. He tossed things through windows, shattered mirrors, destroyed expensive vases, and smashed stuff with other stuff. Thankfully, everybody stayed out of his way, because he’s not sure what he would have done.
As the sedative given to him by the EMT’s begins to take effect; and while they stuff him into a “funny jacket”, Ben smiles and feels proud of himself.
Dr. Kennedy will be happy he made such a good list.

Chapter 6.6 – Invisible

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 Barimen (Neurotic, Virtuoso, Angler, Loner)

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.

Chaper 6.5 – Sermon

The old church becomes Doc’s home over the next few days, as he fixes broken plumbing and repairs items around the building that have fallen out of maintenance.
He does this in exchange for a safe place to sleep and regular meals. It is a commodity he had not enjoyed since he found himself “here”. His conversations with Gerard on the topic of science and faith take on new scope, given the state of their present situation.
Both men are forced to consider possibilities they would have otherwise dismissed. Gerard concedes on many of his preconceived ideas of the universe, but stands firm in his faith. He admits that as a clergyman, his spiritual understanding continues to evolve in much the same way scientist’s understanding of the physical world evolves.
Likewise, Doc finds himself perplexed by the things that cannot readily be explained by science. The wedding ring he wears on his hand causes him more confusion than anything. There is no theory or equation capable of explaining how he still possesses an artifact from a bygone existence. But there is no doubting it has been the ring’s presence that drives him. Without it, he would have regarded his family as memories of a vivid dream.
Doc is disappointed when Gerard declines the offer to join him in traveling Sunset Valley to search for answers. The pastor could prove to be instrumental in remembering details Doc may have forgotten. Despite Doc’s outward frustration, Gerard insists that he is much more valuable serving the homeless in this building. The shortage of ordained ministers also means having nobody to replace him while he is gone. And he cannot just close the doors.
There is no need for Doc to verbalize the obvious rebuttal. He sits alone in the courtyard, one Sunday morning, listening to Gerard preach his sermon to rows of empty pews. He genuinely feels bad for the young minister, who is quite simply being crushed by the competition. As Doc skims the newspaper, he is drawn to a tiny article about a local church closing to make way for a new dance club. Before he can read any further, two men dressed in priestly garb arrive in an automobile and begin walking toward the church. They walk past Doc, only giving him a nod as a greeting.
Doc’s eyebrow raises involuntarily as he pushes at the bridge of his glasses with this forefinger. Surely the article could not have been referring to this church? Inside, he can hear that Gerard has stopped his sermon. There is no shouting or raised voices; only silence for several moments before the same two men quietly exit and quickly depart in their automobile. After awhile, Doc realizes that Gerard has not continued his sermon.
No matter how curious he is to find out what was said, Doc decides to distance himself from the pastor’s business matters. Father Dupont has been very generous in allowing him to stay and earn enough simoleons to travel overseas. As the noon sun moves to hide behind the church’s steeples, Doc decides that there may be no better time than the present to make the trip. He has helped out as much as he can with minor repairs and maintenance.
Sim City is the closest airport to Sunset Valley. He will have to fly into the big city, then hitch a ride from there. Doc finishes reading the newspaper, then takes the first few steps toward his journey. He stops abruptly when the hears Father Dupont’s voice flatly asking him to wait. He has changed out of his clergyman’s frock and into casual clothes. Humorless and monotone, Gerard states that his parish can no longer be sustained financially; and that the council has decided to sell the property before it is forced into foreclosure.
He will be reassigned immediately to work at the Sister Ciara Mission in Africa, after taking a short sabbatical. Gerard turns his back on the parish he has worked tirelessly to preserve, and offers his assistance to help Do discover what happened to his family. Gerard stands in silence as they wait for the cab, and says nothing about the grim feeling he has had since seeing Doc standing in the narthex…
…that this is the beginning of the end.

Chapter 6.4 – Pastor

Father Gerard Dupont stares at the vagrant man standing in the church narthex.
It has been nearly twenty years since he took vows devoting his life to the clergy. Though some would consider him to be relatively young, he wears the burdens of witnessing many tragedies on his worry-lined face. But looking into his eyes, all that can be seen is the joy that comes from the blessings of his vocation.
He has presided here, in this rustic church, for most of his tenure as a pastor. Or at least that his how his recollection of things has been until this vagrant arrived. Something deep within his mind, akin to the memory of a dream, surfaces. He remembers the two of them having many discussions about faith and science. They had never agreed with each other’s point of view, though both had been given plenty fuel for thought.
He is a man with no name, but his family by marriage calls him “Doc”. Gerard had officiated the man’s marriage to his wife, and his dark-skinned daughter-in-law’s marriage to her husband. But it did not happen here. It was a different place …or maybe a different time? Deeply troubled by these new memories, Gerard tends to a homeless woman and her daughter, and then excuses himself to welcome the newcomer.
Calling him by the only name he knows, he greets Doc with guarded familiarity. Gerard, feeling suddenly awkward, recalls how Doc had always displayed some measure of discomfort toward his effeminate speech and mannerisms.  It is no different now as Doc’s sweaty brow darts upward, while he pushes nervously at the bridge of his thick glasses.
Doc appears as a sim who is extended far beyond the threshold of exhaustion. Gerard picks out an unoccupied pew for him to rest on. Before he can ask the first question about his presence here, and whether these new memories are mutual, Doc’s breathing settles to a quiet snore.
It is late afternoon the next day before Gerard sees Doc emerge into the kitchen, where the the young pastor is eating among the homeless being sheltered at the church. Gerard remembers Doc eating at his kitchen in Sunset Valley.
It was a feast in comparison to the donated rice and beans he now serves. Gerard excuses himself from the table and rises to serve Doc a portion. He blesses the meal before handing it to Doc; remembering that it is another thing he was never very comfortable with.
When Doc calls him “Father Dupont” while thanking him for the food, Gerard can no loner contain his curiosity. He sits with Doc at an unoccupied table. But before he has any chance to speak, he notices how Doc’s badly shaking hands are barely able to manage the utensil he is using to eat. Gerard takes a deep breath and asks the pointed question of whether Doc is using drugs.
Doc shakes his head and admits that it would be a much easier solution than the one he has chosen. Between ravenous bites, Doc explains everything. The dreams about Hope, his travel to Sunset Valley, meeting Faith, and also meeting Gerard in the town’s small church. He details everything he can remember. But there is something missing. There was some kind of earthquake or tremor; and he remembers drilling to look for something underground. But this is where his memory fails him. Then, one day, he just woke up here. No wife, no children, and no family. It is as if he has never left his little urban slum.
Father Dupont sits back in his chair and attempts to digest what Doc has just told him. He has felt the dreamlike numbness for a long time, but thought it to be only a sort of depression. He has watched as simciety embraces its descent into moral decay with lustful eagerness, while struggling alone to fight off his own cravings and desires. He now has more homeless coming through his doors looking for food and shelter, than he does believers coming to worship. Is it possible that Doc is right, and this place is some kind of dream?
Gerard closes his eyes and silently asks for wisdom and guidance. How is it possible to have memories of two different places? His head spins trying to think of some lesson in the teachings of his faith that may help to explain this. But with his mind racing as fast as his heart, he can think of nothing. What is he supposed to do?
The answer comes much quicker than Gerard had expected. Doc leans over the table and whispers to Gerard with deadly seriousness. He tells the pastor that he knows his family is in danger, and he will do anything to “save” them. But he cannot do it alone. He needs help from another sim who has been where he has been; and remembers details he may have forgotten.
It is the only way to make things right again.

Chapter 6.3 – Water

Ben turns to blaze a trail up the steep hill leading to the estate as the ghostly figure moves closer.
Sarah, however, stands her ground and gives no indication that she intends on following her brother’s lead. There is no way in Strangetown that he is going to leave his sister alone to get eaten by some creepy spirit, so he reluctantly inches closer to his sister’s side. Still, he can’t help himself but think that he can run faster than her, should the encounter turn ugly.
As if reading his thoughts, Sara shoots her brother a nasty glare. Ben shivers while wondering which fate would be worse; being eaten by an angry ghost, or being haunted by his angry sister. He sifts through these thoughts as the figure comes closer, aware that he is really not frightened at all. On the contrary, there is a calm serenity that seems to almost radiate from the apparition. Sarah must have sensed this right away.
Though the ghosts speaks no audible words, both children can understand what he is saying. His name was Jiang Xi. He was Mei’s grandfather. His smile is warm as he tells Ben that he is honored to meet his descendants; and how proud he is of Ben for managing his emotions, despite an unusually keen insight into a very serious problem. Jiang Xi smiles knowingly after Sara gasps with surprise. Jiang Xi nods and confirms her realization that, no, Ben is not crazy.
He instructs the children to picture the universe as a great body of flowing water. This water nourishes and feeds everything along its shores; it irrigates the crops, provides fish to eat, and washes what is not clean. He asks them to imagine what might happen if that water were to become polluted, or worse yet, diverted away from the sims it sustains. After a long and ponderous pause, Ben quietly asks if it is kinda like what a dam does to a river. He is rewarded with a warm, but sorrowful smile.
He tells Ben that he is one of only two sims who can bring the universe back into balance. And like the yin and the yang, they must work in harmony to have any hope of restoring balance. Jiang Xi smiles and shakes his head in an unspoken no, when Ben asks who the other sim is. He tells Ben that there are some things he must learn on his own, as not to cause any further damage. Ben also shakes his head and tells Jiang Xi that he does not understand.
Jiang Xi apologizes for his inability to be more helpful. All he can offer is a promise that, in time, he will understand. Then, turning to Sarah again, Jiang Xi asks for her word that she will speak to nobody of this conversation. And also that she must trust her brother is completely sane, even when he may sound completely crazy. He asks for her word; a promise that she will support him in whatever direction he may go. Because there will come a time when she is the only one he will have left to turn to. He again shakes his head with worry, and whispers that the decision will not be an easy one.
Jiang Xi, “kisses” each child on the head and apologizes for not being able to play a nice game of tag with them. There was a time when he was quite good at it. Before dismissing the children, Jiang Xi’s eyes sparkle as he whispers to Ben that Sarah would easily outrun him. And it’s a good thing he did not come hungry.
As he watches the children rush up the hillside to the estate, he is washed by a wave of sadness about the loss they are about to endure. His meeting Ben and Sarah was an unplanned, but joyful encounter. He must still perform his obligation for this journey into the living; to return with Mei, his granddaughter, so that she may sit among her ancestors in the afterlife.

Chapter 6.2 – Apparition

Making close friends can be a little bit tough for a kid whose perception is that the world around him is disappearing.
Ben does have friends at school who seem mostly cool. They are nice enough, and never feed into the rumor going around that he is nuts. But he never gets the feeling that they are completely convinced he is not crazy.
It’s most obvious when he talks about places and sims that he knew were real the day before; but today nobody remembers that they had ever existed. It gets to be pretty scary sometimes, especially when he wonders if somebody he really cares about will ever “disappear”.
Staying busy is one way he keeps himself from thinking about it. He’s pretty good at sports, and is always one of the first to get picked during pickup kickball games. He has Papa Mark to thank for that. Actually, with his Papa around, there is no way NOT to be active and fit. His dad seems to be one of Papa Mark’s favorite targets. Because his dad sometimes forgets to exercise. That, plus the few too many hamburgers he eats seem to add up pretty fast.
But honestly, sports is not his “thing”. Spending time with his family helps. He really likes when Aunt Mary and Aunt Dara bring their families over to visit. Ben is glad his Papa remembers them, because it helps to keep his mind off of the “problem”.
Other than his family, and those few kids at school who do not openly call him insane, there is nobody he can really call his friend. Even the kids who used to hang out and play Action Rangers with him when he was younger have all stopped coming over. Doctor Kennedy is the only other friendly face he can trust. She encourages him to continue making his lists of “broken stuff that needs to get fixed”.
His mom has seemed to warm up to Doctor Kennedy, too. He was kind of shocked to learn that Doctor Kennedy is also a mom. He found this out when she had to graciously decline dinner at the estate to spend time with her own child. Ben wonders why she never mentioned it before. Maybe one day they’ll get to hang out together.

Sarah Barimen (Friendly, Loves the Outdoors, Adventurous)

When the time comes for Sarah’s birthday, Ben is thrilled to have somebody to play with again. Sarah seems to be a bit of a wander-bug, though.
She drags the two of them all over Sunset Valley, exploring for treasure. It only takes a few days after her birthday for them to become inseparable best friends. And although it is the sibling bond which forges their friendship at first; it is a frightening encounter, early one evening, which ensures that it will endure their entire lifetimes.
Because inside of a small sunken cave at the beach, Ben Barimen and his sister Sara come face-to-face with a ghostly apparition.
And he is none too happy…