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Empathy (Short Story by Richard Thuss)

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I.

She was born during that time when parents kept trying to outdo each other by picking a name for their child that no one else had.  Whether it was one too many cigarettes made from the leaves of the pot plant growing in the basement, or a blood alcohol level twice the definition of drunk, Sarah and John Beck decided one night to name their first born, Empathy.

She never knew if it was caused by her given name, some genetic anomaly, or a challenging gift she received from the creator, but Empathy turned out to be an Empath. She wasn’t just sympathetic as most people are, that is other than her parents, she was a true Empath, a person who not only feels for another’s misfortune, but who actually feels that misfortune and absorbs some of it or all of it to help relieve the other’s pain.

In all of humanity there have only been a few true Empaths, and Empathy was not only one of them, she was also unique, for Empathy would feel and absorb a persons pain before they even felt it: A true gift for others, but most would say a true curse for herself.

In a way she received a double curse, because even her parents never knew. Since she absorbed their pain before it was felt, they lived happy lives, and they neglected a daughter who far too often seemed sullen and withdrawn.  “Shoulda called her Never Happy,” John told his wife one night, as he pulled the last bit of smoke out of the paper-covered weed in his hand. “The only time I ever see a smile on her face is when she’s out in the yard talking to the damn squirrels.”

John’s cruelty aside, he was right because a true Empath cannot forever just absorb another’s pain or they would die, so they release that pain slowly into nature with all the animals and plants in the yard willing participants in diffusing the negative energy of pain back to where it originated.

John never knew the curse he and Sarah inflicted on their daughter, never understood why his life was one of seemingly constant happiness. He never understood all of that until that night, and that night will be the rest of this story.

 

 II.

Empathy was never fully aware how her curse-like gift worked until she reached the eighth grade. Without someone to help her figure out the connection between her pain and another person’s soon to happen actions, she simply accepted the pain as something that was caused by the body and mind she inherited at birth and learned to live with it. Fortunately the transference process only occurred when the other person was near

In the earlier grades, her schoolmates mostly shunned her. During recess she would whimper slightly from the pain any of her classmates was about to feel a moment before they fell off the monkey-bars, jungle-jim or scraped their knee from a fall on the asphalt, and It was hard for even the nice kids in the class to call her a friend, because the bullies used her as their constant object of ridicule, and in the tiny town in Michigan where she grew up there were several members of her class destined for future incarceration.

If you find yourself feeling sympathy toward Empathy, then you need to understand that not all of it is warranted because her life was not one of constant pain. There is a gift side to an Empath’s curse.

When she was in school, whenever she could, she’d run far from the playground and then sit alone in the grass until the recess bell started clanging for her to return. All the time she was enjoying the soothing feelings of letting the pain she absorbed that morning return to the place from which it came.

Since there have been so few true Empaths in human existence, everything about them is held in legend and not science, so the process of the purging of an Empath’s absorbed pain back to nature has never been studied. That process not only releases the pain absorbed from others, but it simultaneously fills a well from which an Empath can draw upon when they experience their own pain.

Empathy’s well had become so full that she never felt pain of her own. Cuts, abrasions, burns from the cheap stove she used to cook her parents dinner were never felt. Even the occasional beating she received from the school bullies left no pain. The only pain she felt was the pain that would have been experienced by the bullies themselves when she managed to land a strategic kick.

It was on the first day of school for the eighth grade when her life changed. Her father drove her to school that day, an unusual gesture for a man who often would make her walk the one-mile journey in the pouring rain. But John Beck had a golf game with his friend Len Maxwell, and being in a good mood, he told his daughter he’d drop her off on the way.

Thinking of himself, which is what John usually did, as Empathy was getting out of the car, he said out loud to himself, “Gonna have a good day,” knowing he was a much better golfer than Len.

Empathy was startled, because what she heard was her father say was “Have a good day,” the first bit of kindness she’d experienced from him in a long time. And those misinterpreted words would be the trigger that would change her life.

III.

John drove off quickly, and he didn’t hear the “You have a nice day too dad,” reply from Empathy.  Feeling good about what she thought was a moment of kindness from her father there was a smile on her face when the bell began ringing, and she hurried toward the school. 

Going as fast as her long, thin legs could carry her it was only at the last minute that she saw the school bully pop out from behind a tree and stick out his leg in front of her path. An instant before her leg struck his, she felt the slight sting he would have felt if she were not an Empath, and as her leg hit his, she lurched forward and toward the ground spewing her books in all directions as she tried to stop her fall. Gravity defied her will, and she hit the ground hard with her outstretched left arm.

Her teacher standing at the school door saw the entire series of events unfold and started running toward Empathy even before she hit the ground. Still more than thirty feet away she heard the crunch of bone as Empathy’s palm hit the ground and the bone in her forearm snapped with the jagged end piercing through the skin. Empathy had already rolled in to a sitting up position when the teacher kneeled, looked at the protruding bone and then said, “Oh my God, Oh my God,” and dialed 911.

Empathy’s face was scrunched up slightly, but only because the teacher was feeling a little sick from looking at the bloodied bone sticking through the skin on her forearm. “You must be in horrible pain,” the teacher said, and was surprised when Empathy shook her head. “Doesn’t it hurt, child?” she asked incredulously, and again Empathy’s head moved in the “no” direction before she responded. “Why would it hurt?”

It would be difficult to write and give full understanding to the flood of back and forth questions that then transpired, but before Empathy was settled into the ambulance, she finally understood who and what she was. She even tested her conclusions by pinching the teacher as she was placed on the stretcher, telling the woman, “I’m sorry,” which she really wasn’t. Having felt almost nothing, the teacher touched her shoulder lightly and said. “Don’t worry. I’ll get a hold of your parents so they can meet you at the hospital.”

It was very late in the afternoon when her parents finally showed up at the hospital. Sarah told the school principal that she could not leave her job early, and John, a few strokes behind Len when the golf club manager located him walking from the third green, was not about ready to forfeit the rest of the game. “Just another two holes,” he said to his buddy, Len, and then repeated that for the rest of the eighteen-hole game followed by two beers afterward to settle up for his loss.

First in the ambulance and then when she reached the hospital, for the first time in her life Empathy was subjected to constant kindness. The pain killer in the IV wasn’t needed for her own injury, her internal well was pretty full, but it also worked to block the pain she would normally receive from others, and it worked even in the hospital emergency room where she waited without her parents for two hours before she was rushed into surgery to repair her broken arm.

“We can’t afford to have her stay in the hospital overnight,” John was yelling at the doctor when Empathy first opened her eyes. “Our damn deductable is high. Just give her some pain killers so we can take her home.” John’s insistence became louder and louder until the doctor finally gave in.

“We’ll give her a shot, but you two make sure she gets two of these pills every four hours throughout the night. Don’t miss a dose or she’ll be in agony.”

Barely listening, John told his wife, “Get her ready, I’ll get the car and be waiting outside the front entrance, but don’t be long.”

Empathy was in the back seat with her eyes almost closed when John’s car started its slide on the deserted country road a half-mile from their house and careened down the steep embankment before slamming into a tree.

The two people in the front seat learned a few lessons about Empaths that night before their hearts stopped for good. They learned, but did not understand in their agony that an Empath can’t absorb your pain if they cannot feel it. And they also learned that their daughter Empathy had no understanding at all of the word sympathy. 

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© Richard Thuss 2013.  His novels may be purchased at Amazon.

Image:  Empathy by Shelley Grund

Filed under long-reads prose love psychology empathy empath pain suffering buddhism literature parents children richard thuss scifi short story writing spilled ink lit

  1. itmovesmemorelol reblogged this from iknowuthink and added:
    Read More
  2. iknowuthink reblogged this from ollebosse
  3. ollebosse reblogged this from annmarcaida and added:
    Ollebosse: THIS!!!! Faith, hope, love, pain, sympathy, consolation, empathy and compassion.
  4. annmarcaida posted this