One-Page Stories

Decisions

Mike had sat for a moment, listening to the situation next door and waiting for the familiar wail of police sirens. But today, something had snapped inside him. He understood now why the factory had let him go yesterday – sure, they had let a lot of people go, because, as his boss had explained, the “economy’s bad” – but now he understood why he personally was let go. He could see now, too, why he and Maria had ended up here in the first place, taking the factory job a year ago instead of pushing on to Missoula as they had planned when they left Texas.

“Maria,” he said, coming to his feet and staring out the window toward the Davises’ house. “Get the blue folder and the photos and anything else you really care about. Put them in bags and get them into the car.”

Maria was holding little Sammy. She blinked, nonplussed, at her husband, and switched Sammy from one arm to the other. “What are you thinking, Mike?” she asked, her voice expressing concern rather than actual confusion.

“I can’t watch this anymore,” Mike told her, never taking his eyes off the neighbours’ house. “That guy terrorizes his family, and then scares them into silence. They’ll never tell the police the truth, and the police never seem to do anything anyway. They think it’s her problem for her to solve … and maybe it is, but what are the kids supposed to do?” He shook his head. “They’re helpless in there, Maria. It’s not right.”

Maria had placed Sammy in the playpen. “I’ll be ready in five minutes,” she said, as though she had been preparing for this for a long time. “We’ll be leaving the furniture and all.”

“I know,” Mike said. “I know.” He walked out of the house, out the back door into the garage.

Maria watched him go, then she glanced out the window to the Davises’, where she could hear the sound of shouting, screaming, punches impacting with flesh. It sounded like the kids had already been allowed to flee – eventually Mr. Davis’ anger always turned exclusively to his wife. Mike wouldn’t be able to do anything for Mrs. Davis. Maria spun around then and hurried to the kitchen.

Mike pulled the sedan out of the garage and into the alley behind the row of houses. He drove slowly up to the Davises’ yard, to the place beside the garbage cans where six-year-old Derek Davis always hid when his father was angry. Derek was sitting there now, his hands covering his ears, his cheek bloody. He didn’t see Mike at first, but then their eyes met through the open passenger window, and Mike inclined his head and held his hand out toward Derek.

Derek stared at him with wide eyes for a long, long moment. His hands slowly came away from his ears, and his legs, bunched up under him, uncurled. He blinked at Mike. He looked toward the house, toward the yelling and the pounding and the noise. He looked back at Mike.

“Get your sisters,” Mike said. “Let’s go.”

Derek blinked again. Suddenly he climbed to his feet and ran toward the back of his house.

Mike didn’t know if Derek was coming back. He waited for two interminable minutes, his eyes focused on the Davises’ back door, his ears straining to hear the sirens that he knew would be coming any second. Glass shattered somewhere in the Davises’ living room, followed by more shouts of anger. Then the back door opened and Derek came out, followed by his two younger sisters. They scampered across the yard toward Mike’s sedan, and Derek’s small hands pulled the passenger door open. “Get in,” he said to his sisters, pushing them into the front seat of the sedan and then crawling in after them.

Mike put the car in reverse and brought it back to his own garage, backing it in so that Maria could get to the trunk. True to her word, she had quickly packed two large garbage bags with the things they really needed – the blue folder with all their important papers, the photo albums, Anna and Sammy’s favourite toys, her mother’s quilt, some clothes and shoes and toothbrushes. She dumped the bags into the trunk. “Anna,” she said to her three-year-old daughter, who had been roused from a nap and was now rubbing her eyes and glancing around her in confusion. “Get in,” Maria instructed. She opened the rear car door and slid inside, strapping Sammy and Anna into their car seats even as Mike pulled out once more into the alley. “I left a note for Mr. Franklin,” she said to Mike, referring to their landlord. “I told him the factory let you go, and that we couldn’t stay. I told him to do what he wanted with our furniture. And I left the keys on the table.”

“That’s good,” Mike said, nodding his head. “That’ll do.” He steered the car onto the street. At the far end, he saw two police cars speeding toward the Davises’ house, their lights flashing. “Stay low,” he said to Derek and his sisters. He drove with deliberate care to the corner, and then headed the car toward the interstate.

“My parents will wonder,” Maria said. “Where these three extra children came from.” She hugged the cookie jar to her chest – the jar full of what little cash they had managed to save up these past months. “What do we tell them?”

“We have eight hundred miles to figure it out,” Mike said. He pulled the car over to the curb beside the entrance to the freeway. “Is this what you want, Derek?” he asked, looking down at the little boy. “Amanda? Jenny? Did you want to come with us, and live with us now?”

It seemed like an eternity that they waited by the curb, cars whizzing by them. Eventually, Derek and his sisters curled up close to Mike; they never spoke, but they nodded their heads. In the rearview mirror, Mike saw Maria nodding her head as well.

“All right, then,” Mike said, and put his arm comfortingly across the pile of Davis children. He drove the sedan onto the freeway heading north, and didn’t look back.

One Page Stories

Course Correction

The man stood behind the tree until he heard sirens, and then he scuttled away, disappearing into the park without a trace. Dana watched him from her upstairs bedroom window, tilted her head in curiosity as he hurried to avoid the – she craned her neck to see the source of the sirens – police. He was avoiding the police. How strange, she thought. He didn’t look like he needed to avoid police. He looked like a regular person.

Maybe it’s just a coincidence, she thought. Maybe he’s just avoiding everyone, and the police happen to be here too.

She certainly understood wanting to avoid everyone.

She sighed, and folded her hands in her lap, and stared out at the deepening twilight. This neighbourhood is so pretty, she thought. The trees are so pretty. The window was open, and she could smell all kinds of flowers, and someone’s barbecue. It was all actually very nice. Maybe she didn’t want to leave.

But it was too late now.

She could already feel the changing, the tingling and the hollowness. Her head was already getting a little fuzzy.

But what if she just ran off, like the man in the park? What if she just walked away from everything and started over on the other side of the park? Metaphorically, of course; she didn’t really want to run away. Life was hard enough without having to start from scratch and do it all on her own. But maybe she could metaphorically run away – just let go of all this stuff she always found herself clinging to, all the difficulty and anxiety and sadness, all the bad memories that never seemed to go away.

But I don’t want to take drugs or whatnot, she argued with herself, ignoring the irony of the notion. I don’t want to medicate myself into oblivion.

A different part of her head responded, as very sensible part that she usually tried to ignore as well. It said, very sensibly: Then you would have to learn to do it – to go to the “other side of the park” – without stuff like that. There are all kinds of people who are specifically trained to help you do that.

But that sounds so … fatiguing, she complained to this sensible voice. Her hands felt all floaty, and she clutched them together to keep them from flying away. That sounds like it would be a lot of work, and I’m already so tired.

But that’s because you’re not doing the things that trained people would help you do, to make it not so tired and not so hard.

That’s easy for you to say, she argued, and then giggled. “Oh dear,” she murmured to the empty bedroom. “I think my head’s not working.” She squared her shoulders, and collected her scant ability to think or focus, and contemplated her own thought process. The sensible voice was no doubt correct. It almost always was; it was very sensible. And while it was very, very, painfully true that nothing was as easy to do as it sounded like it would be when you just said it, it was also true that all kinds of people would help her.

If she let them.

She looked at the bushes through which the strange man had disappeared. He was clearly evading police, she thought. And he had no doubt fled through the other side of the park, and the police might never find him. He had clearly done something that the police would not be happy about, she thought, and he’s getting away. He’s getting what he wants, and he’s a criminal of some sort.

Surely she deserved as much chance as he did.

She sighed again. “Oh dear,” she said again. “I hope it’s not too late.” She turned with difficulty to the cellphone on her nightstand, and picked it up with tangled fingers that didn’t want to do what she told them to do. Her strength was fading fast, she realized. Better hurry. She managed to push the numbers, and waited the interminable several seconds that went by before someone answered.

“Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?”

“Hello,” she said, as pleasantly as she could muster. “I’ve taken a bunch of pills, and I need someone to come and help me, because I’ve decided that I don’t want to die after all.”

“What’s your address, ma’am?”

She gave the person her address. “Please hurry,” she said, her voice growing fainter with every breath. “I don’t think there’s much time.”

“I’m dispatching an ambulance right now,” the person assured her. “We already have police in that area; I’ll send a unit to come stay with you until the ambulance gets there. What’s your name?”

“Dana,” she said. She felt so much better just to have made a decision. “Will you help me?” she asked. “I really don’t want to die anymore.”

“I’m right here,” the person promised. “I’ll stay here until the ambulance comes. You stay with me, okay?”

“Okay,” Dana said. She sat quietly and waited for more sirens, for police and paramedics, for help. She needed to get to the other side of the park, she thought. It’s a metaphor, she thought, finding that to be extremely funny. She was still chuckling about it when the police found her.

One-Page Stories

Transport

She hadn’t slept all night. Not a wink.

The transport was supposed to be here by now. They had called for it twelve hours ago; she had been told that it would be here by morning. But the sun was peeking over the horizon, and the transport was nowhere to be found.

The platform creaked and groaned, and listed even further to the side. It wouldn’t stand much longer. Not to mention that the whole area was about to be levelled – if they weren’t evacuated in the next two hours, they’d be obliterated under the rubble.

“Are they coming?” she asked.

“No, Laney,” Cal said, exasperated. “Do you hear them? They’re not here. When they’re here, you’ll hear them.” He looked sharply at her. “Have you been trying to get out of your cuffs, Laney?”

“No,” she said. “Why would I do that?”

“Because the liberators made you think you’re a person,” Cal explained. “They made you think I’m wrong. But I’m not. You’re not a person. How could you be? And they don’t have the right to steal from me.”

“I don’t want them to steal me, Cal,” Laney said. “I’m happy with you.” She had been with him for two years now, and she had worked hard to please him. She didn’t always succeed, but he was learning to trust her intentions. He hardly ever had to educate her anymore. And sometimes he even took the cuffs off. But not now, with all the upheaval. The city had been liberated – which meant that everything would be razed, so that something new could be built from the ashes. The liberators had been fighting for this city for four years, and infiltrators had been disseminating propaganda for a long time – we’ll save you, you don’t have to be slaves, the outside world is different. She didn’t know if she believed the propaganda, but it sounded nice.

It really sounded nice.

But the trade-off was war, one that had already demolished the outskirts of the city. Everyone knew that the liberators wasted no time asking questions; if you weren’t available for transport by the time the bombs dropped, then you became part of the ashes.

The propaganda explained that the liberators fought a great evil, and that great evil needed to be swept away, whatever it took.

Laney didn’t know if Cal was evil, but the infiltrators had made the outside world seem so nice. She hadn’t even known there was an outside world before the infiltrators came. Cal said it was all lies … but that didn’t make much sense. There must really be an outside world for the infiltrators to come from. It seemed more like Cal was trying to trick her, the way the propaganda said.

The transport suddenly appeared on the horizon. It roared toward the platform, and all the survivors who had gathered there began cheering. Cal stood and hauled Laney to her feet.

“Come on,” he said roughly, and quickly removed her handcuffs. Her hands hardly knew what to do without the metal chains hooking them together. “We’ll wait til the others are all on the transport,” he told her. “So that no one can argue with us. And we’ll play along, so they don’t get suspicious.”

Laney wasn’t stupid. Cal was exactly the sort of person the liberators didn’t like, and he would only be allowed on the transport if Laney pretended that Cal was a “freedom agent”. After they were brought to the refugee camp, Cal was going to connect with some others who had already done what he was trying to do, and then they were going to escape to a new city where they could live the way they wanted. And they were going to make a stronger city, one that wouldn’t fall to the liberators.

Cal had often talked about how weak the city’s defenses were.

The transport landed, and the other survivors quickly climbed onto it from the swaying platform. Cal pulled Laney up the metal stairs from the little alcove where they had been hiding all night. He peeked through the heavy door that led to the landing pad. “One more minute,” he said. “Then we’ll go.”

“Okay,” Laney said. She looked over her shoulder at the metal stairs. They were quite steep, and went down about twenty feet to the lower level. The lower level had been compromised some time ago, and was now underwater. “Cal?” she said, turning back to him.

“What?” he barked.

She grabbed Cal’s belt – she was very strong, after all, because Cal never did any work if he could help it, and he was too poor to buy more than one wife. Sometimes, when he passed out from drinking, she had been obliged to carry Cal to his bed. Pulling him backwards down the stairs would be easy compared to that.

“I’m sorry,” she said. She yanked him off balance, and shoved him down the metal stairs. Looking more surprised than scared, he fell into the murky water below, and she watched for a few seconds before flinging open the door to the landing pad and running toward the transport. “Wait!” she shouted.

One of the liberators leaned out and reached for her. “We almost left you!” he yelled over the roar of the engines. “Are there any others?”

“No,” Laney said. “I’m the last one.”

The Thing I Like About … [mild spoiler]

PsychoPass: the part where she can’t save her friend.

In PsychoPass, Akane is a new detective placed in charge of Enforcers, people with cloudy psychopasses who can use their latent criminal tendencies to find actualized criminals but who cannot be allowed into the general population themselves. The psychopass is a government-run assessment of personality and emotional state, and if it’s cloudy, then the detectives and Enforcers are authorized to use specialized guns – Paralyzers. Paralyzers can stun or kill, but each one will only turn on for its authorized owner, and the decision to stun or kill is made by the government-run computer network rather than by the detective.

Akane’s friend Yuki is abducted by the bad guy, and when Akane corners him, he uses Yuki as a shield. Akane trusts her Paralyzer, but it turns out this particular bad guy doesn’t have a typical psychopass, and the gun won’t recognize him as a threat. Akane does find an ordinary shotgun, loaded and ready to go, but she keeps trying to use her Paralyzer. She even aims the shotgun, and eventually fires it to the side, but she can’t bring herself to shoot the shotgun at the bad guy. Shooting him with the Paralyzer would probably kill him, given his criminal proclivities and the fact that he was actively endangering another human being, but Akane – who had literally vaporized other criminals with her Paralyzer – could not shoot the bad guy with the shotgun … even as he slits Yuki’s throat.

Akane can’t shoot him with the shotgun, because it would be her shooting him, and she’s never been expected to make that decision – even though she’s taken lives in the line of duty, it was always the Paralyzer making the ultimate determination, and doing the dirty work. She was just pulling the trigger.

Science fiction uses futuristic or otherworldly settings to explore current human problems, and PsychoPass explores several. But the shotgun incident – that leads to Yuki’s death – explores one that has been plaguing humanity since we arrived on the planet: we want things to be done, but we don’t want to take responsibility for the decision. We want outcomes, but we’re not willing to pay the consequences. “Authority” and “responsibility” are, for some reason, not synonymous; instead we equate responsibility with “blame” – and no one wants to be blamed, especially for stuff they actually do.

Akane isn’t the sort of person who wants others to do her dirty work, or who wants to avoid blame at all costs; in fact, her character takes her job, her responsibility, and consequences very seriously. But she has lived her whole life in a culture that encourages her subservience to the moral decision-making of the government computer network. She’s never been taught how to decide. She’s never learned how to evaluate. Her actions in this world aren’t her own to choose or to judge. She knows that she’s supposed to be “good” rather than “bad”, but she’s never been given the chance to understand the differences between good and evil, and to pick one or the other.

And because Akane lives in a world where a single entity guarantees that “bad guys” will be automatically eliminated, and where all the “burden” of selecting right or wrong will be rendered moot, Yuki’s throat is slit, and she dies for no purpose, and the bad guy gets away. No good is done. No wrong is righted. No cultural value is upheld. It’s a total failure on the parts of the hero, of the police department, and of good itself.

Even as Akane holds the loaded shotgun.

It isn’t that she’s bad, or inept, or that she doesn’t want to save Yuki. It’s not that she thinks the bad guy shouldn’t be stopped, perhaps by extreme measures. It’s that she doesn’t know how to make the decision in the absence of the computer network.

It doesn’t matter if the controlling entity is government, computer networks, parents, religions, bosses, peers on the playground … it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if that entity is benevolent or not, or if it’s competent or not; what matters is whether or not the individual knows how to go it alone. What matters is whether or not the individual has learned for him or herself how to decide – between good and evil, between right and wrong, between left and right. If you can’t decide to shoot – whether it’s a Paralyzer or a shotgun – then why say you’re doing anything at all? Why show up at all? If you don’t know how to tell what’s best to do, then how will you evaluate the moral ability of the entities who’ve been deciding for you?

Find your ethical center. Find the courage of your convictions. Learn how to choose, evaluate and act … how to be responsible, to accept consequences, to adapt to new information.

Before another Yuki dies.

The Thing I Like About …

28 Days Later: the people who are “saving” the chimps.

In 28 Days Later, a group of animal-rights activists break into a lab and attempt to free a group of chimps and other animals that are part of an experiment. The animals don’t look as though they’re being mistreated per se, but they don’t look happy either, and they’re being forced to watch horrible images of violence and chaos. I don’t think animals should be tortured; hopefully few people think animals should be tortured. And I certainly don’t know – even in the context of the film – exactly what purpose there was in forcing the monkeys to watch violent television.

It’s not that I disagreed with the animal-rights activists, per se.

It’s that the animal-rights activists act without knowing all the facts – even when the nice, terrified scientist man tries to tell them the facts – and their subsequent “rescue” of the animals unleashes a zombie plague that decimates England and threatens the whole world.

People pretty much want to do good in the world. And they want that “good” to happen right now, no waiting. No red tape. No discussion. No chance for the people on the “other side” to say their reasons for thinking the “good” thing may not be so good. They get frustrated with government for “dragging their feet” … but then they get equally frustrated – and angry and litigious – if government acts without having “gotten all the facts” … the “good” facts.

Reality is a little more complex than that.

We should champion the causes we think are important. But it’s also important to make sure we know which side we’re on. It’s very, very easy to make mistakes; it’s also very like the world to change of its own accord, so that what was once the truth is no longer so. Should we all just stand around waiting for some ultimate end-of-time fact-meeting before doing anything? Hardly. But it might be useful to listen to the information we’re already receiving, and to base our actions on what will help – instead of on fear, or on a need to “win”, or on a misguided notion that “I was trying to help” will somehow magically put the zombie-rage back in the cage.

The Thing I Like About …

… video games: the endless possibilities.

I don’t actually play video games.  My eyes do not enjoy trying to navigate an avatar through moving terrain.  I play less visually complex games such as Peggle or Mario or Spider Solitaire.  But I do watch other people play video games; I have watched friends play – among others – Star Wars, Zelda, Resident Evil, various Batman incarnations, various Lego incarnations, The Last of Us, Black Rain, L.A. Noire, and Grand Theft Auto V.  It’s very fun to watch – I don’t get attached to looking for treasure or beating anybody at anything, and it’s kind of like a re-e-e-eally long movie with an ever-evolving plot and dozens of characters.

But the most amazing thing about all these games is how many different possibilities there are.  It isn’t just about going right instead of left. There are choices for good and evil, for money versus fame versus power versus other goals. There are so many different ways to complete so many different Lego-Marvel missions that I don’t know if a person could exhaust them all in a lifetime.  There are programmed personalizations that can take thousands of forms, and there are now often on-line features that let you add your own stuff.  Many games add new adventures later that can be downloaded. And even in my level of game – Mario, for instance – there are different ways to approach the journey: against the clock, to get the most money, to get the most lives, to spend the fewest lives, to jump as quickly as possible through the levels, to go through each level one at a time, to get all of the hidden stuff … and that’s in Mario.  I couldn’t begin to count the different ways you can approach a more complicated game like Grand Theft Auto V.

There is one problem, though. Companies are now spending hundreds of millions to make video games, and people are spending billions to buy them, and these millions of people around the world spend hours and days and weeks and even months playing these intensely, almost unbelievably complex games.  They devote time, energy and money to the endeavor, and they often have complaints at the end of it that the games weren’t complex enough – that they wanted even more layers, more choices, more paths, more differences, more outcomes, more possibilities.

Why is that a problem?

Because these millions of people with their complex, infinitely changing brains tend so often to shut off the games and the consoles, put on their shoes, and walk into a world where they refuse to believe the truth: that they can alter things, that they can choose to “play” however they wish, that any number of ways of living are equally good and viable, that they can change their minds in the middle or start over from the beginning. They don’t see that the world that spawned the video games is therefore so much bigger than the games – that the only limitations are the ones we make for ourselves.

Maybe we could try shutting off the consoles but keep the game running. Maybe we could let it play out in front of us, with every step we take and every decision we make. Maybe the key to world peace is not for everyone to be of one mind, but for everyone to be of countless unique and boundless minds, following their own paths and shaping the world into whatever they can imagine. Maybe the thing I like about video games is that they’re just like life.

Family Stories – Grandma’s Wedding Ring

My grandmother married my grandfather in the early 1920’s; he died in the ’70’s when I was three or four.  She was still very social after he died, but, other than a couple of friends who seemed to feel they were more-than-friends, my grandma never opened her heart to any man other than my grandpa.

She had a wedding set – diamonds and whatnot – that she wore all the time, and it was so enormous that it dwarfed her finger.  Those rings were the only ones I ever saw or knew about until after she died.

My mother was reminiscing about my grandma a little while ago, recounting a fairly serious heart procedure that Grandma had undergone in her late 80’s.  She is, in fact, in some record book for being the oldest person to have the procedure.  Since I don’t live in the same town with my parents and grandmother, all I knew was that the surgery had gone perfectly well and that Grandma recovered completely.  But my mother revealed that there had been some anxiety beforehand, as they were prepping Grandma for the operating room.

“Well, of course,” I said.  “I’d be pretty anxious.”

“Oh, no!” my mother said, shaking her head.  “She wasn’t anxious about the surgery.  She trusted her doctor completely.  She trusted God completely.  No, it was her wedding ring.”

Her wedding ring?  Well, the doctors said that she needed to remove all jewelry before the procedure, including her wedding ring.  Grandma cheerfully pulled off the giant collection of diamonds and silver that hung off her left ring finger.

And the other one too, the doctors said.

Underneath the wedding set was another ring, a simple metal band that had been on her finger – rain or shine, day or night, life or death – for more than sixty years.

She became very agitated.  Charlie (my grandpa) wouldn’t like it.  She had promised him.  She couldn’t take it off.

My mother explained to Grandma that they would put the ring back on as soon as she woke up from the operation, and that the operation was going to save her life, and that Grandpa wouldn’t want her to die.

Well no, Grandma agreed.  He wouldn’t want me to die.

For many moments, she pondered her choices.  That ring had been there, unchanging, for longer than many people get to live.  It represented a promise.  It represented all the love in her heart.  It was a way to feel that my grandpa was still connected to her.

But without the surgery, her life would be cut short.  In the end, she decided that she would rather live, and that the ring would be safe for a few hours in a box.  In the end, she chose life, and she twisted the simple band off her finger and handed it to my mother.

It took a long time, though, for her to choose.  It took a really long time.