Maddie leaned back and stared out the window at the trees at the edge of the yard. They seemed further away than usual, she thought, squinting at them in curiosity. It must be a trick of the light.
She had been bed-bound for some days now, and she knew her time on this earth was drawing to a close. Selena had brought Tom and Madeline to see their Grandma almost every day, and talked about all the things they would do once Grandma was better; but Maddie knew in her bones that she wasn’t going to get any better. She wasn’t really sick. She was just … done.
Maddie glanced around the room that had been her bedroom for nearly fifty years. It was filled with seventy years of accumulated stuff – stuff she had taken great comfort in, but which now seemed completely meaningless. No wonder George would sigh, she thought, having to carve out his little niches on the dresser and in the closet while Maddie’s things took up all the rest of the space. Maddie chuckled, and spoke softly to her late husband, “Sorry, George. I didn’t understand until now.” She chuckled again, and laid her head back into the pillows. Selena and Don would be here soon; she would be glad to see them one more time, but something told her she wouldn’t really get to say goodbye.
Her thoughts turned to her particular possessions – the ones in the locked keepsake box, the ones her mother had given her and her mother before her, back eight generations. Those possessions were different from the rest. They needed to be hidden away and guarded, so that they couldn’t hurt anyone. Maddie’s family had been the guardians of these items for so very long, and the responsibility of guarding them had been so deeply impressed upon her … yet somehow she had never shared this with her daughter, with her only child. For some reason she didn’t want Selena to have to deal with it, for Selena’s life to be overshadowed with it as her own had been. Maddie had only ever been told that the items were dangerous, after all – she had never even laid eyes on them, actually, and had long since lost the key to the box.
Why have I held onto them, she asked herself, shaking her head. Why did I let Mama convince me, when I always thought she was a little crazy to believe it? But she had made a promise to her Mama to guard the box, and she had kept that promise. She didn’t even know what sort of danger the items posed, because Mama had always been so vague about it, but the box and the key and the promise had all been laid at Maddie’s feet with an air of urgent – almost paranoid – importance.
She had kept that promise, but she hadn’t wanted Selena to carry it forward, and it was certainly too late to talk to her about it now. Maddie sighed, long and cleansing, and felt her body shudder into a state that was at once disconcerting and fundamentally familiar. She understood now why people referred to death as “going home”, because whatever was happening to her body, the rest of her was heading for somewhere that she knew she had been to before.
She reached out to her bedside table, and her hand as it wavered in front of her seemed transparent. She didn’t have much time at all, she realized. She took up her crossword pencil in stiff, tingling fingers, and scratched it across the get-well-soon card her friend Marian had sent her.
“Just get rid of all this stuff, Selena,” she wrote – or at least she hoped she had written that, because her eyes were no longer seeing things quite as they had seen them a moment ago – “None of it matters. I love you and Don and the kids. I’m proud of you. Mom.”
The last arc of the final “m” trailed terribly to the right, and Maddie hoped Selena would be able to read it. She couldn’t hold the pencil anymore; it clattered onto the bedside table. She couldn’t really see anymore either, except a patch of light that must be the window. Her body felt … it felt … well, she couldn’t really feel it.
Her breath left her then, and she found that she couldn’t take another. It didn’t frighten her, though, because apparently she didn’t need to breathe. She floated up from the bed, and her vision suddenly cleared – the window, the mountains of stuff, the note she had just written, her own self on the bed. What a strange thing to experience, she thought, gazing down at her white, motionless body.
She looked into the closet, into the keepsake box – she didn’t need a key now, or hands, or anything. The “dangerous” items were as clear to her as the trees at the edge of the yard. She laughed, or imagined that she did, as she examined the items.
They weren’t evil, she realized. They were … competing with the living world, like angry neighbours quarreling over a shared well. What a relief. If Selena did find them, they probably wouldn’t be so bad to deal with as Maddie’s Mama had always feared. But the items weren’t welcome in the living world either, and Maddie knew now that she had been right not to tell Selena this strange part of her family history. It would be better for the items to be dispersed, so that their power could dissipate and eventually be forgotten.
I hope Selena listens to that note, Maddie thought. She marveled at how blissful love felt now that she was free of all other sensations.
Deciding that she wanted to fly, Maddie turned to the window and passed through it, on to whatever awaited her beyond the trees.
Mama had a hold of little Victor’s hand – so tight that sometimes it felt too tight. He wriggled his fingers, and she relaxed her grip. “Sorry, Victor,” she murmured. “I just don’t want to lose you.”
Victor didn’t want to lose her either. First Papa had gone to work and never come back. Then Jacob had done the same, and Mama had spent many hours crying at the kitchen table when she thought Victor was asleep. Victor didn’t want Mama to go away the way Papa and Jacob had. He clutched almost desperately at her hand as they made their way in the cold toward the train station.
Mama had said they needed to leave and go west. Victor didn’t want to go – all of his friends were here – but everything had been so strange in town the last months that even Victor was eager to go somewhere that felt normal. Somewhere that felt safe.
Most of his friends seemed to have left already.
He and Mama approached the train station by walking through the trees. Mama said she didn’t want to take the road. So she and Victor trudged through brambles and rotting leaves until they reached the edge of the clearing where the train station sat.
A train was there, waiting on the tracks.
A lot of people were getting onto the train, people who looked scared. Victor stared at them with wide eyes. If they didn’t want to go on the train, why were they getting on? No one seemed to want to get on, but they were climbing up anyway, and disappearing into the bowels of the cars.
Suddenly Mama gasped and ducked back, dragging Victor behind a large stump and pulling him to the ground. “Victor,” she whispered, her face close to his face. “You have to run, my little boy. Run toward the setting sun.” She glanced over her shoulder toward the station. Victor could hear men shouting and the sound of running feet on the cold gravel of the clearing.
“Don’t let anyone see you,” Mama said urgently. “Until you cross the river.”
“Mama?” Victor said, frowning uncertainly. “Aren’t we going on the train?”
“You can’t, Victor,” Mama said. “You have to run.” She hugged him quickly, and he smelled her perfume and the lingering aromas of the things she had cooked for breakfast. Then she pulled away, and squeezed his fingers, and let go of his hand. “Get across the river, Victor,” she said. “Run, and don’t stop for anything, or anyone. Not until you get across the river.”
“Mama,” Victor said, panic welling up in his chest. “Aren’t you coming with me?”
She gazed down at him with so much love and pain that he felt tears in his own eyes. “I can’t,” she said. “They already saw me. But they didn’t see you.” She managed a smile. “You go, now, Victor. I love you. Be brave. Be good.” She nodded her head toward the west, toward the river. “Go.”
Victor didn’t want to go. He shook his head, and thought to argue, but the shouts were closer now. The men were in the trees, and coming closer, and for some reason that he couldn’t really understand, Victor didn’t want to meet these men. “Mama,” he whimpered, and tears slid down his cheeks. He backed away, and hid himself behind a berry bush whose dry, brown leaves had not yet fallen away.
He watched as the Mama stood and faced the men. The men took her by the arms and escorted her toward the station. She never looked back at Victor, and even in that moment, he knew it was so the men wouldn’t guess he was there. He blinked, memorizing the look of the back of her head, of her scarf and coat, of her boots and the hem of her dress.
“Mama,” he mouthed silently. He waited until the men had taken Mama to the train. She looked scared now too, like all the others. In a moment, she had vanished into the train-car. After a few more minutes the train started up and pulled out of the station. It wound its way east, its black smoke rising up into the grey sky.
Victor waited until the train had passed out of sight around a hill, waited until he could no longer see the smoke in the sky. He didn’t really know what to do, but he knew he needed to do what Mama had said – he had to cross the river.
Papa had said once that the river was fifteen miles away. That sounded like a really long way, especially if he wasn’t supposed to let anyone see him; he would have to go through the trees all the way to the river, and the thought of that frightened Victor quite a bit.
“Mama,” he said again. He had no choice, he realized. Mama was gone, and she had told him to cross the river, and to run, and to hide. He had nothing else to do, nowhere else to go. He buttoned his coat and pulled his hat down over his ears. His mitten was still warm where he had been holding Mama’s hand.
He started walking as fast as he could to the west. He rested when he needed to, but mostly he kept moving, until the sun hung low in the western sky before him.
The little girl burst into tears.
“But I never get to play the games I want!” she wailed. “Tommy gets to play in his room, but I don’t have any games. Can’t I ple-e-ease play in the living room?”
“No, Madeline!” Selena snapped, searching in her bag for the wad of bills that she was sure she had thrown in there. “Don, where’s the change?” she asked her husband irritably. “Didn’t I put it in my purse?”
“I don’t know,” Don answered. He picked up Madeline and pushed her hair away from her face. “Did you put it in the bag with the food?”
“Why would I do that?” she barked, scowling, still rummaging in the bag with increasing agitation. “It was, like, twenty dollars!” she complained. “Madeline!” She turned and glared at the girl, who was still wailing. “Stop that! You know I don’t like playing games in the living room; there’s not enough room. Everything’ll get knocked over.”
“Can’t we just move the furniture back?” Tom asked, rolling his eyes. “What’s in the living room that’s so important? It’s all just weird stuff from a long time ago.”
Don reached out and put a hand on his son’s shoulder. “You know that’s stuff that Grandma left for Mommy. It’s all she has left.”
Madeline kicked a foot out at her brother. “Yeah,” she said. “Don’t say mean stuff about Grandma!”
“It’s not Grandma!” Tom protested. “She told Mom to get rid of it!”
Selena felt close to tears; they swam in her eyes. “How can you be so cruel!” she hissed at her son. “Don’t you want me to remember my mother?”
“You’re not going to forget her!” Tom argued. “Plus you’ve got photos and home movies. It’s creepy to have all that stuff when she’s gone now.” He pushed his sister’s foot away from him. “We can’t ever just relax and enjoy anything. Jim’s family just enjoys things! Why can’t we be like them? His mom doesn’t get so upset all the time!”
Don looked distinctly alarmed. “Tommy, don’t talk to your mother that way,” he said firmly, hoping that Selena wouldn’t let this upset her any more than it already had. “Our house is good enough. Not everyone is the same.”
“But we’re not even normal!” Tom shouted. “We don’t even get to just sit and watch TV without a whole bunch of weird rules!”
Selena began to cry, and to feel both anger and a strong anxiety. “I can’t believe you’re comparing me like that,” she said in hurt tones. “I guess since it’s such a big deal, we’ll just get rid of all the game systems, and the TV, and everything else! Then maybe you’ll learn to appreciate things!”
Don, praying that she could be talked down from this plan, tried to put his arm around her, but she brushed it away. She dropped her bag on the ground in frustration, and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “I must have put the money in the bag with the food,” she decided in despair. “The bag we just pulled all the food out of and threw away!” She looked down the street, toward the alley dumpster they had passed on their way back to the car. “Why couldn’t we just eat it at home?” she asked, as though this oversight were her family’s fault. “Now I have to climb into a dumpster!”
“I’ll do it,” Don said. “I’m taller anyway.” He headed toward the dumpster, but Selena pulled him back.
“No,” she said glumly. “It was my fault; I’ll do it.” She stalked away from her family and over to the dumpster. It was as tall as she was, but there were some boxes beside it … she stopped abruptly, staring into the alley.
A man stood there. He had just pulled the used sack out of the dumpster; he had two french fries hanging out of his mouth, and in his hand – a gnarled and dirty hand with a worn-out glove wrapped around it – he held the wad of bills that she had carelessly thrown out. His clothes were filthy and full of holes, and all of them added together didn’t seem like enough to keep him warm. His eyes as he gazed in absolute awe and gratitude at the handful of cash were lit up as though he held a million dollars instead of twenty. He had already felt fortunate to have found the discarded fries.
Selena blinked at him for a moment in silence. Then, as a thousand emotions passed through her heart, she felt the anxiety and anger melt away from her. What the hell have I been doing? she asked herself. What the hell is wrong with me?
She turned back to her family waiting for her on the sidewalk, all of them looking resigned and none of them looking happy. “It’s gone,” she said. She put her arm around Tom’s shoulders. “Let’s go home,” she went on, her tone somber but pleasant. “We can push the furniture out of the way, and we can all play games. ‘Kay?”
The others stared at her in apparent confusion. “Really?” Madeline asked, her eyes filling with hope. “We can all play in the living room?”
“Yeah,” Selena said with a small smile. She didn’t say how ridiculous it sounded to her now, to have been doing things the way she had been doing them; she didn’t reveal how stupid and horrible she felt about it. “But I’m probably just going to watch, ‘cause I’m going to start sorting that extra stuff and getting rid of it. It’s time, I think, and other people could probably really use it.”
“Really?” Don asked. “What –?” He looked behind him toward the alley. “What happened back there?” He was staring at her as though he had never seen her before.
She took his hand. Everything, she thought. “Nothing,” she said. “Let’s find the car and go home.”
… Air Disasters (TV): the way it makes things really, really simple.
When you’re someone who likes disaster films and true-story TV shows about airline disasters, you get a lot of strange looks. But I don’t actually enjoy the fact that people – real people – died in these plane crashes; what I enjoy (outside of the excellent graphics) is watching the re-enactments and the interviews with survivors … because they all point to the same thing: in that moment, when the plane is about to hit the ground, the only thing that everyone is thinking, besides “please don’t hit the ground,” is “I want to live through this.”
In one moment, life comes to a very narrow focus, and the things that matter are really so few – love, family, friends, one more breath – and the passengers’ ability to control what happens is virtually non-existent, so there’s really nothing to do except brace for impact … and just be. In a moment when you don’t know if you’re going to live or die, you don’t think about your bank account, or whether your butt’s too big, or whether you were popular in school. You don’t think about wrinkles or laundry or meetings or college funds. You think about what matters – the love, the breathing – and you think about what matters for that moment: Where are the exits? Am I braced-for-impact sufficiently? Where’s my kid/friend/spouse? How quickly can I unbuckle this seatbelt?
For that moment, you are in the moment in the most fundamental way.
And what you begin to realize, when you watch Air Disasters enough, is that you don’t have to leave that moment. You begin to realize that every moment is the moment you should be in, and that the things that are important just before the plane crashes are actually the only things that are important, period. All that other stuff may be interesting or useful or fun or unavoidable, but it really isn’t important. It’s really not.
What would be important to you if your plane was about to crash? Whatever that is, hold onto it and let go of everything else. You can’t brace-for-impact sufficiently if you’re hanging on to anything else. That moment is every moment, and it’s the moment you’re in right now.
… 28 Weeks Later: the message of hopelessness.
The sequel to 28 Days Later has good acting, a reasonable premise, and excellent special effects. It is a fine entry into the zombie-apocalypse genre. I can find nothing to dislike about it; in fact, the scene in the pitch darkness, when the audience can hear Rage moving from one side of the crowd to the other, is extremely effective. The film is … just fine.
But I didn’t really like it.
I didn’t like that they broke the quarantine and spread Rage to Europe. I didn’t like that the child was a target. I didn’t like how Cillian Murphy wasn’t in it, but that’s probably just me. I didn’t like the hopelessness that they snatched out of the jaws of triumph.
Until I considered that maybe that was the point.
Jim, Selene and Hannah have to face extraordinary loss, hardship, and heartache to survive the first film. They have to carve love and family out of a decimated world … and they do that. They do that. They allow themselves to feel love and joy again, and they are rescued, going to a new life in (based on the accents of the pilots who find them) the U.S. or Canada. They have to let go of everything – literally everything – that they ever had or knew or cared about, in order to survive and thrive in a new reality.
In 28 Weeks Later, everyone decides that you can go back again. They decide that you can ignore reality and linger in a nostalgic past; you can have everything be the same as it was, even after it changes. They decide that all that stuff we learned in the first film is basically poo. And the consequences?
Death, despair, hopelessness, chaos, and outbreak.
The entire second film revolves around blowing up London (which looked totally amazing!) and reminding us why we were happy with the ending of the first one: Jim and Selena and Hannah move forward. They let go of things that are, well, already gone. They allow change, and movement, and newness. They live now. The people in the second film … do not. They’re trying to recapture a past that died six months ago when that girl let the monkey out of the cage. They’re living in that past, and they become as dead as it is.
After seeing 28 Weeks Later, I imagined Selena and Jim and Hannah sitting in Toronto or Texas or somewhere, watching the news about the destruction of London and the outbreak in France … and shaking their heads, and saying, “F’ing morons.”
“You can’t go back again.”
… Transformers III: Dark of the Moon: the part where Dutch goes all ninja.
Sam, Simmons, and Dutch have entered an unsavory situation, filled with several (probably armed) people who don’t like them. Just when it seems that the good guys are about to get in serious trouble, Dutch starts breaking arms and taking guns, quickly placing himself in charge and glaring at everyone with cold calm. When Simmons speaks to him in German – admonishing him, clearly – Dutch’s expression changes to one of contrition, and he drops his guns and apologizes to the bad guys: “I’m so sorry! That was the old me!” He instantly transforms back to the easy-going, placid man he had been during the rest of the movie.
We all spend way too much time rehashing our pasts to ourselves – not just the hurts that others have caused us, but also (or even more so) the hurts we have caused others. We question our right to let things go, because what if we haven’t been “punished” enough for our transgressions? We question our current worth based on the mistakes of the past – mistakes we made years ago, maybe even mistakes from our childhoods. But one of the reasons we can’t let these things go is that we can’t go back and un-do it. We don’t have the ability to go back in time and change what we did, and so we do the next best thing: we live in the past in our heads, and we feel bad for our crimes forever.
What if we went “Dutch” instead? What if we committed to changing our ways, and simply moved forward while our mistakes stayed behind us? What if, when we found ourselves repeating old habits or attitudes or actions, we just accepted that it happened, and apologized, and recommitted to the “new” us? What if we accepted that it really is okay to do that? – no punishment, just improvement. No rehashing, just making amends and moving on. No baggage, just a one-way ticket to the person we wanted to be in the first place.
Practice with me, now: “That was the old me!” – and then let the old-me go.
… Unless at some point you need to go ninja.