The Evil Dead: Or how I came to long for higher-level problem solving abilities in central horror characters

April 19, 2013 - Leave a Response

Evil-Dead-poster

I don’t want to say that without Evil Dead me and my friends wouldn’t be friends, but before we got to the stage of life when the only excuse we needed to hang out and have fun doing so was a case or two of beer, we did it through movies. Of those movies, Evil Dead was probably the only one of consequence.

In darkened rec rooms and cabins we chugged off-brand colas and shouted at the screen with each weird homicide. At school in the days after, we’d make inside jokes about it all, as though it was something we had actually done. As though we had actually had an adventure and not just stayed up late and watched a weird movie.

And so when Evil Dead’s second coming was announced, we agreed to do something that premium cable, Netflix and Roku have rendered almost completely obsolete: go to a theater.

When the night finally came, when we got together, though, half the group opted out. If Bruce Cambell wasn’t in it, they had decided, it just made more sense to stay home and drink beer.

There are worse arguments.

campbell

Go ahead and try to make the case that Sam Raimi was the franchise auteur, that the whole thing was his baby, but if we’re honest with ourselves, out of Evil Dead I, II and Army of Darkness, the only thing that mattered was Bruce Campbell.

And yes he is missing from the remake and yes his orange-sized chin could benefit any motion picture, but if I have a problem with this Evil Dead resurrection, and I may have a few minor ones, it’s with the elements that actually were carried over from the original.

But let’s not get off on the wrong foot here. Let’s not get too negative too quickly. There’s a still a cabin. There’s still a chainsaw. The bones of the thing are still there.

The gore, for example. You can’t put the words Evil and Dead that close together without ramping up the human destruction to the point that it’s comic. For example, in this new Evil Dead, one character vomits out more blood in one continuous geyser than you could ring out of a bag of humans. Which for anyone who has seen the original is an obligatory, yet flattering nod to the source material.

But, to be sure, the gore has changed. If you look at the original franchise (and I think it makes more sense to talk about the original franchise as a whole than to dedicate the time to compare the remake to each of the three original films individually) the blood and dismemberment was frequently shone through a filter of camp and comedy.evil-dead-poster-red This iteration, though, is straight-ahead, no-nonsense horror. Although the volume of gore is somewhat comic, it’s delivered in a way that Eli Roth would do it, or the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake would (two references used only to provide context for the film’s approach and not necessarily for its overall success). That is to say, it may be comic at points, but it doesn’t put a lot of effort into trying to shift gears. There’s little comedy and less romance. It conserves that energy instead and redirects it toward a clean, focused march toward violence. Which not only changes the gore, but escalates it to a level that I don’t think Raimi or Campbell have or ever will consider. To what level? Young co-ed Olivia finds herself a knife-sized shard of broken mirror, puts it in her mouth and saws with it to carve away her face the way you would draw your jack o’lantern’s grin deeper and wider toward its ears. And the chainsaw. When the chainsaw comes, because you know it must, the way it’s used, the way it struggles and the volume of blood that it causes, squeezed out of our audience a groan that would turn Roth green.

 

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Like the vomiting of blood, the chainsaw is an obvious and obligatory nod. And do not be mistaken, these references are obligatory. The only way Evil Dead Jr. gets the greenlight is if the built-in audience, the army of fans that adores the original, is guaranteed to come in tow.

And although they are obligatory, and although the chainsaw is obvious, these references work. As do all the rest in the film, but for different reasons. Where the chainsaw is obvious, the other nods are in direct contrast with the gore – they’re relatively subtle.

For example, I’m thinking of the film’s throw-away character (I can’t remember her name and the character is so inconsequential that I’m not going to waste the time at IMDB to find it. Because there’s only a half-dozen characters in the thing, that may be a problem). After Ms. Throw-away gets bit on the hand by a zombie-demon-banshee hybrid, we watch the poison, the bad slowly curdle up her arm. And as the pink flesh slowly turns black-green I couldn’t help but think of Cambell’s Ash, what happened to him and what he said of the evil: “It got into my hand and it went bad. So I lopped it off at the wrist.” As if silently directed by Ash, Ms. Throw-away promptly does this. The big difference, not that it matters: Instead of sawing at the wrist, which because it’s at a joint, is a much easier job, she uses an electric meat carver to saw through her bicep, which obviously isn’t possible. But nonetheless.

evil hand

 

Here’s another example: as their friends drop off in increasingly demented ways, our dummie of a protagonist, David (and we can talk about him more later) tries to be optimistic. He starts muttering about how things will probably turn out fine.

“OK. We’re all going a little crazy right now,” David says. “It’ll stop raining in a couple hours the bridge will be clear, and we’re gonna go look for help. Everything’s going be fine.”

Our buddy the blonde bearded Eric, though, turns to him and sets him straight. Let’s say he says, “You don’t freaking get it, do you?”

What Eric and David are offering us is a useful paraphrase of what our original Ash says. Ash though didn’t need a sounding board. He delivered all the lines himself, to his own reflection in a mirror.

“I’m fine,” he says. “I’m fine.” Only to have his reflection come back at him: “We just cut up our girlfriend with a chainsaw, does that seem fine?”

When I thought of the worst-case scenarios of this remake, I pictured Ace Ventura in the woods or a shot-by-shot remake starring the Twilight cast. But what this remake did — and I want to do this using language that is far too elevated for a movie that demands a tree do what this movie demands a tree do – is it evokes the original without plagiarizing it. It doesn’t merely quote the original. It doesn’t dress up some handsome young jerk in flannel and have him spew forth with Evil Dead quotes like some knobby chinned parrot. These makers of horror movies (and I say it like that because it’s probably an epithet in some circles) have somehow realized something relatively sophisticated about their fans. To engage their core audience, they don’t need to pepper the script with “boomsticks” and “S-Marts.” They’d look needy, too eager to please. Instead, by just dropping clues and eliciting the Bruce Campbell memories, they instead make the viewer feel like they’ve solved something, like they’ve picked up and decoded the hints.

Writer/director Fede Alvarez seems to give his viewers credit, at least the franchise’s fans. And it works. Where the film struggles, on the other hand, is where it gets lazy, where it fails to challenge itself and its viewers.

And unfortunately one of the central example of this lies within one of its major plot devices.

pucci necronomicon

 

In the remake, a band of friends has retreated to a remote cabin to help their friend Mia kick a heroin habit. (Which, as far as I’m concerned, is a pretty solid premise) Unfortunately the cabin previously played host to an exorcism and one of the friends, Eric, stumbles upon the leftover Necronimicon and starts reading some passages, which kicks up some bad spirit that lodges itself deeply in Mia.

 

Along with them is Mia’s brother David, whom I’ve mentioned is just a straight dummy, but nonetheless the brother-sister combo set ups a conflict that has become obligatory in the zombie genre. It’s the conflict of one loved one being forced to put another loved one down. It’s obligatory, but I would argue it’s not cliché.

The evidence to support this?

Exhibit A: Daryl, in the Walking Dead, who has to stab out the brains of his beloved brother Merle after Merle gets the bug.

Exhibit B: To bring some unearned gravitas into this: Othello, the protagonist of his own Shakespearean tragedy, smothers the life out of his wife, Desdemona, after he believes he can’t trust her anymore. He thinks she’s cheating, which isn’t exactly the same as worrying that she’s going to eat his brains out, but it’s roughly within the same realm, and Shakespeare just isn’t that bold.

It’s a conflict that challenges us to ask questions about our humanity, such as, at what point are we willing to kill someone we love? Would we do it to relieve them from pain or torture? Would we do it to protect the greater good? Do we wait to the last second, or do we pull the trigger as soon as we know it’s the right thing to do? And this conflict does presuppose it is the right thing to do. It implies that only a coward would let their wife or brother or favorite Caddyshack star wander the wilds of Beverly Hills with a hunger for brains than put them out of their misery.

The conflict is usually effective enough in and of itself, but if you feel like you need to complicate it, just make it less clear that a well-placed 12-gauge round is the right decision. It’s what the original Evil Dead franchise did. At some point after Ash’s girlfriend goes bad, her demon subsides or at least tricks Ash into thinking that the throws of possession have passed. It’s a trick, a ploy, to draw Ash in so the demon can get at him. To be fair it’s not until “Army of Darkness” that Ash truly learns his lesson. In Army, after Ash knocks a banshee out of the air, she plays dead. Instead of falling prey to the old movie cliché, instead of leaning in, tapping her on the shoulder and asking if she’s OK, he drops a historic one-liner: “It’s a trick. Get an ax.”

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David, our stand-in for Ash in the remake doesn’t learn though. He’s maybe incapable of learning. A better journalist would put a solid, objective count on the number of times that David falls for the trick. But objectivity matters little to the viewer. It feels like a hundred times. It feels like Groundhog Day. I wanted to beg him to stop.

He knows his sister is possessed, but every scene or so, she shakes the raspy demon vocals and calls out to him in her calm, innocent former voice, begging for help. It’s chronic, almost rhythmic, but that connotation is too generous. It’s repetitive.

Again, this conflict is necessary. In the play between Eric and his sister Mia, we’re supposed to learn something about their bond, their relationship, and what kind of person Eric is by how long he is willing to hold off doing the unthinkable, removing her head.

Instead, though, it comes off as David being simple. If we’re being generous we could read his character as an attempt to evolve a horror cliché. It’s one that “Scream” did a lot of work combating. It’s the cliché of the good looking girl, who just as pretty as she is, is just as unwilling to make one good decision, even if it means saving her own life. She runs but inevitably trips and falls. As Scream points out, instead of running out the door, she runs upstairs and paints herself into a corner. Which is exactly the type of character David is. He’s brain-dead eye candy. The only difference is that instead of being a bumbling teenage girl, he’s a bumbling teenage boy. Which, again, I guess could be considered a step toward horror evolution.

But if the goal truly is to evolve the form, why not employ that old timey saying that George Bush II tried to roll out: “Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice … shame on … shame on … fooled man can’t get fooled again.”

Eventually David’s dogged stupidity pays off. He saves his sister, even if it defies logic and physics and biology and all the other rules we’ve come to agree upon. But where the subtle Evil Dead references gave the audience credit, this took it way.

David shouldn’t have saved his sister. He’s being rewarded for repeated bad decisions. It’s as if David takes an exam drunk because he’s spent the last two weeks studying drunk. And the way Alvarez writes it, David aces the test.

David should have made the hard decision. He should have killed his sister. It keeps him alive and some of his friends. But worst of all, while David is waffling back and forth between killing his sister and not, the plot is stalled. The growth of the film is static and stunted.

See the thing is, he’s not battling his sister. He’s battling a demon. Which we’re led to believe through the mythology of most other movies, are conniving, calculating, charming and able to escalate along with a situation.

So if David, our poor-man’s Ash, launches a calculated offensive, it forces his demon adversary to make a move too. Evil Mia can no longer play the same note. She’s got to move out of her below-the-floor lair. She’s got to employ elevated demon powers and strategies.

I mean, for Bruce Campbell’s sake, at the end, the sky rains blood. Now this isn’t really a tactical advantage, but it does illustrate that through a bit of creativity our villain could have taken things to another level. Perhaps she takes hostages. Maybe she summons their dead mother from hell, or at least details to David the extent of her torture in the underworld. Perhaps she dissolves into blood, rises through the floor-boards, soaks into his skin, and murders him from the inside. Perhaps she summons more demons, or the apocalypse, or the evil guy that they allude to throughout the whole film but are probably saving for a sequel. By going this way, both David and the villain become bigger and greater than they were.

But this never happens. Our characters remain somewhat medium sized and in its goal of scaring, the film relies mostly on gore instead of creeping us out by making us think this demon will out think us and out scheme us.

Much of the problem is a result of the character David himself. The writers force him to make bad decisions. But what aggravates things is that not only is the character simple, but the actor who portrays him, Shiloh Fernandez, seems to be, too. Perhaps he was well cast. It’s easier to believe David is willing to make the same bad decision over and over again when it appears he can’t think of a better plan.

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But he’s dull and one-dimensional. And what aggravates that situation further is that Mr. Fernandez is directly juxtaposed against two talented young actors in Jane Levy who plays Mia and Lou Taylor Pucci, who’s David. I’ve only caught a bit of her work on ABC’s “Suburgatory,” but it’d be an understatement to say that Levy has a sense of humor and a charm which take a specific kind of intelligence. She can emote. She can convey emotion and sell a joke with facial expressions.

And Pucci, I’ve seen a good deal of his work, most notably when his character in the Horsemen arranges his suicide in front of his father played by Dennis Quaid. I’m not James Lipton, but portraying something of that kind of emotional complexity is probably challenging. This isn’t illustrating my point at all, but what I would say is that Levy and Pucci appear to actually be making decisions about what they say and why they say it. Fernandez on the otherhand performs as though he’s trying to remember what someone who once saw Evil Dead told him about it. He can’t quite remember it and doesn’t have much of a connection to the story either. To be fair, David isn’t our hero, Mia is. But David probably gets the most screen time, which means something’s got to change.

The Evil Dead remake is a good movie. But it is not great, neither in the way that a B-level horror movie is or in the way that normal films are. What it needs is to give David a little more credit, the ability to think more complexly and feel more complexly, the ability to act on those thoughts and feelings, as well as an actor that is capable of doing the same.

Living Dead Tree

October 31, 2012 - Leave a Response

No one sets out to grow a Living Dead tree. At least I didn’t.

I’d just meant to go to Evans City.


It wasn’t until college that I found George Romero movies.

It’s weird when you find things buried right underneath your feet.

You see, I’d heard of Night of the Living Dead, because everyone had. I guess I knew it was black and white and who has time for that.

But one afternoon, in October I’m sure, I was looking through Comcast on-demand, in the free offerings of course, because I was in college at the time. And there was the colorful Tom Savini remake, with Candyman star and legend Tony Todd filling the shoes that the immortal Duane Jones left for the role of Ben.

Ben was nearly a survivor. He fought the dead through the night, only to be shot down by the careless living, and I hope I’m not spoiling anything here.

And maybe it was because I had seen Candyman first. Candyman was a tortured slave that will come for revenge if you say his name a
trinity of times. He was a killer with a pretty heavy motive.

But like Candyman’s jagged arm implant, I was hooked.

I tracked down the rest of the Dead movies. Probably first the most recent Dawn of the Dead remake, and honestly I’m not proud of details like that. But then I went for the originals. And learned, like I said, Night of the Living Dead, was waiting buried right under my feet. George Romero was a fellow grad of Carnegie Mellon.

And then I found he shot half the films in Evans City, which was just of Interstate 79, halfway between Pittsburgh and home.

Everything was lining up, I guess I’d say for this narrative at least.

Although it wouldn’t be for seven years after that I would actually go
to Evans City. I had thought about it a couple times. I had considered
going to the Halloween screening of Night of the Living Dead in the
graveyard there. But never did.


Knowing that there will be people at my destination somehow always makes it less appealing to me.

So in the nights prior I watched the Crazies and Night of the Living
Dead to note the landmarks, and that Saturday, just after the leaves
had turned, we went.

Only to find strange omens along the way.

On Route 58, just miles from home, we were behind the  Monstemasher, a monster truck from Fredonia, Pa., a coincidence that Anna found much less ominous than I.

And as we got closer, we passed Cheeseman’s Fright Farm, and we pressed through the boroughs of Harmony and Zelienople, which seemed jammed together like siamese twins beyond the point of being able to tell one from the other. But I chose that path because the internet had told me that a portion of the Crazies had been filmed in Harmony. And we passed anti-Obama signs that littered the countryside to a degree as though they thought they might actually count as votes. The signs read No Hope with the Obama Os for their Os.

I don’t know, I thought it was ominous.

I always feel a low-grade anxiety seep in when we get close to a destination. I always assume we’re lost.

We passed the Evans City High School and I thought we had missed the turn. I didn’t think we were supposed to go into town.

But then Anna saw it. Pioneer Road.

We climbed up to Franklin Road and climbed until we saw the Evan City Cemetery sign.

It’s a steep path to the top. I couldn’t imagine driving it in winter.

The slope was familiar from the film. It was the same that Barbara and Johnny had driven up in the opening. But it had grown up so much. You could see for miles when it was filmed in 1967, but in 2012 it was crowded with trees.

Its weird the nostalgia that kicks in at a place like this. I’d seen
the movie dozens of times now, to the point that it seemed like
somewhere I had been before. Like an alma mater.

And at the top of the hill, was the chapel, the most recognizable
element from the film.


There were already a couple other people there, circling the
dilapidated and boarded over structure. So we drove around the
grounds.

I could have done more research and picked out some grave stones, but I was drawn to the chapel. I’d read about it. How they’re trying to
save it. Romero even pitching in his own cash.

When we came around the other people were still checking it out, but I wanted to too. So we parked and walked up to its side.

It seemed everything that was falling off it, any conceivable hole was boarded over.


We circled to the front of it, and in one place where its pieces were
crumbling, you could see brick beneath.

We of course needed photos with it and took turns standing at the
boarded over front door as the other clicked with the camera.

In trips before, I’m thinking of Centralia specifically, the photos
and the memories of the place were enough. We found enough mystery and graffiti and eery abandonment to satisfy me. But this time, as I was shooting pictures of Anna, I felt like it wasn’t enough.

I was standing below an oak, which was just tiny in the film, and
under my feet and beside them, were its acorns.

I figured they, the nuts, might help, so I slipped a couple in my pocket.

We traveled the hill back into town, to Main Street Evans City where
the government declared Marshall Law in the Crazies. We went to the
Evans City post office and to the volunteer fire department and saw the rouge over everything that has become familiar of the Rust belt

Then we headed home.

I’ts hard to say when you know that the events of a day will set in as memories.

The drive was only about an hour or so home, but in thinking about the day and how it was a good day, I wished I’d be able to point to that day from time to time and remind myself, maybe even others, about it.

And then I thought about the acorns in my pocket.

And how permanent they could be.

For some reason I thought it would be easy to grow them. But I looked it up. It’s a bit complicated. But I did it anyway. I soaked them for a bit in water, then dried them, wrapped them up and threw them in the fridge so they can have their own winter.

Some time in December I’ll take them out and plant them in a pot.

I wander if I could trim the tree like bonsai and keep it a manageable size for its life; or if it needs to go in the ground. I don’t know if I have enough yard. Or if I should.

I don’t know if it’d be right to bring a Living Dead tree here.

Netflix horror worth your time #5: Yellowbrickroad

October 30, 2012 - Leave a Response

We all escape one way or another.

Through books, soap operas, other daydream fantasies, booze.

Or movies, like The Wizard of Oz, which is one big escape. From a black and white struggling farm to a vivid world filled with charming little people, flying monkeys and a wizard. (Synch up Dark Side of the Moon and you’ll really have something.)

All you gotta do is follow the yellow brick road.

In the movie Yellowbrickroad, things have always been hard in the town of Friar, N.H. Apparently especially in 1940, a year after Oz’s release, when all the town’s people, for no known reason, head out to the wilderness and try to follow what will ironically be called their town’s invisible Yellow Brick Road.

They all died somehow and somewhere out in the woods. Frozen to death. Murdered. Some just missing.

And nearly 70 years later, Teddy Barnes, a researcher and an expeditionist, decides to find out where they went.

He tracks down all the government files on the issue, gets a crew together, and heads out. But his info is bad, or his instruments are, because the coordinates for the trailhead puts them at the town’s theater, Rialto.

“Are you like retarded hikers of something?” asks the ticket taker, when Teddy and his band walk through.

Teddy had been tracking down the info for awhile and this setback has him discouraged, but in the theater he finds a townie, who knows where the trailhead can be found.

“We drink there sometimes to get scared,” she says.

Of course they’re marching off to their doom.

The first evidence is a stray 40s fedora they find in the woods. Probably evidence of the first lost expedition. Daryl, one of their map specialists picks it up and dons.

“Seems the best way to keep a hat safe,” he explains to his fellow mapmaker. She’s of course afraid they’ll catch whatever killed or drove crazy the original band of crazies.

There’s more signs, of course, for example, their GPS says they’re in Guam, and then comes the signature, unsettling ominous detail.

The music. From somewhere out in the distance. Something from the 1940s of course and from a record player. You can hear it scratch from time to time.

Like The Signal, in which this constant evil tone drives people into a homicidal rage, the music of Yellowbrickroad plays day and night. Most members of the expedition figure that if they follow it, that it is playing from the center of something, where the answers are, where the wizard lives.

Walter, their behavioral psychologist, who is tasked with making sure no one goes off the deep end, though, is a bit concerned.

“We don’t know what’s going on here and I think we should leave,” he says, throwing in a classic Jaws allusion, “I think we need a bigger boat.”

But they push forward, walking for days and days, miles into the wilderness.

Until one day, Daryl and his fellow mapmaker get into a scrap. They push each other and take each other down until Daryl pickups a large rock, holds it above his head and hammers it against her leg until he can remove her leg from her body.

He of course kills her and then of course runs off, loose in the trees waiting to kill more.

But they keep walking.

“I think we should go home with answers,” Teddy explains.

His base question in all of this is why did they walk originally, the townspeople of 1940. Where were they going and why.

“If you live in town long enough,” the townie says, “you know why they walked. You always know the trail is there. You feel like the trail will understand. Now I think that’s the worst part. That it does.”

And that’s what I enjoy most about the movie. We all want to find the trail, find where it goes. We want to discover something.

Some people do GPS tagging, geocaching. They hide a prize at specific coordinates and you go find it.

I like to go to weird spots like Centralia or the graveyard from the Night of the Living Dead.

Hoping there might be some residue or something leftover from the weirdness that once was.

But for the most part we stay put. Stay in the daily ruts we carve from home to work and back. Afraid of what danger might await on the yellow brick road.

And apparently there is danger there.

Netflix horror worth your time #4: Blood River

October 27, 2012 - Leave a Response

There are really only so many reasons that one person will kill another.

It can happen in a fit of passion, for revenge, to protect loved ones, or even for fun and money

All are compelling motives, but they’re still all very pedestrian, very human, comparatively.

Being raised Protestant or even more specifically Presbyterian isn’t very unique, but something about my interpretation of it all has left me very susceptible to be intrigued by movies like The
Prophesy and the Omen that take angels and demons, characters that have a weight built into them by the Bible, and flush them and their motives out to characters and plots that straddle the genres of epics and horrors (although aren’t all epics horror? All contain superhuman, homicidal foes. Homer, for example. Everyone was trying to kill him)

We’re supposed to fear Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees for their superhuman strength and near immortality, but compare that to the angels of the Prophesy; their strength is godlike and they have a motive more complex than we could possibly comprehend. They’re jealous of us, of men, because God loved us more, and because of it, they want to take us out.

That’s a lot deeper than seeking revenge because some camp counselors let you drown. I’m looking at you Jason.

There of course a couple risks in taking on biblical characters, though. That is that they’re too big. Zeus, for example, can lose, but if you follow biblical rules, God cannot. And the characters, nearly exactly by definition, are melodramatic. Half are pure good, the other half are pure bad.

The other risk is ending up writing something with a moral. We, as consumers, have very quickly grown out of and lost patience for stories that try to teach us something. We don’t want to hear it from our mothers and we surely don’t want to pay 8 bucks to get it delivered through celluloid.

And that’s why these examples work. They’re not didactic. You don’t leave the Prophecy feeling like you’ve been coerced into repenting or abstaining from anything.

But of course, when the risks are high, so are the rewards. Take Damien from the Omen, for example. His mother was a jackal. He is the antichrist. He’s just a boy, but he’s destroying the world directly around him on the way to destroying the entire world. The stakes literally can’t be higher.

But this is all just really a lengthy introduction to Blood River and why I find it so haunting.

You see the bad guy here is Joseph. He’s an angel. And he’s going to kill everyone in the movie.

And maybe at first you think he’s just a metaphoric angel.

Clark and Summer fill out the film’s trinity. They are a young couple crossing the desert. They blow a tire in the middle of nowhere and because their spare was stolen or is just otherwise gone, they’re left to bake and die in the sun. That is until Joseph, the angel, crosses their path.

He may be an angel, but he looks more like a cowboy. Cowboy hat. Leather jacket. Cigarette between his teeth.

And although we’ve never seen him in a car, he says he’s out of gas.

Clark and Summer actually crossed paths with Joseph at the beginning of the story. He’s hitching his way down a two-lane highway and they drive around him. When they get to their motel, of course he’s already there, at the bar, and when they leave, we find Joseph is in his room with the motel’s hostess. She’s in her bathtub with a cross carved into her forehead and the last we see of her is her dragging a razor down her wrist. Pretty blatant and ominous foreshadowing for what’s to come.

Because he says his car is out of gas and Clark and Summer’s has gas but is wrecked, Joseph devises a plan for Clark and him to walk to Clark’s car, siphon out the gas then walk to Joseph’s and fill it up. The first problem is that the vehicles are in opposite directions and they’re in the sweltering desert. The second problem is the incredible amount of tension between Joseph and Clark.

Joseph is weird to begin with. He’s played by Andrew Howard whose eyes are a blue so light they look faded out and he talks like his voice is used up. When Clark asks him if he has a problem with a authority, Joseph responds, “Only two authorities I’m aware of, myself and God and I don’t have a problem either.” When Summer calls Joseph a revolutionary, he shrugs it off by saying that what revolutionaries do has cycles. “What I do has a very definite start and a very definite end.” He tells Clark, who works in an office, up in his ivory tower, as Joseph puts it, that he’s not truly aware of what’s going on in the world.

The true tension comes when Joseph touches Summer. He puts his hands on her stomach to feel her baby kick, although they hadn’t told him she was pregnant. That night, drunk and around a fire, Clark tells Joseph that if he touches Summer again, he’ll kill him. And of course Joseph touches her again. When they start their trek for fuel, they leave Summer behind because she’s pregnant. But for safety, they leave her with Joseph’s gun. And he of course has to teach her how to use it and at one point he even pivots her so the gun is pointing at Clark.

 

So Joseph and Clark aren’t friends when they set out. They’re just stuck in the same situation. But of course being alone on the road together doesn’t help their situation.

Joseph begins to say things to Clark about how he knows him. He says he can see inside men. “Inside your soul,” he said. “The truth will come out in the end.”

“You’re making me uncomfortable with this shit,” Clark says.

“Probably the guilt. You’ve got a road back, just gotta know when to take it.”

They make it to the car. Then Joseph disappears and we find him again back at the ghost town where they left Summer.

We’ll cut back to the car, to Clark, who after hearing something in the trunk opens it, and finds the corpse of his dead stepson, Summer’s son.

“The man you love is much more dangerous than you or I,” Joseph says to Summer back at the ghost town, Blood River. “ He has sinned. Everything he has cared about will be crushed. Everyone he loves will be punished.”

Clark, worried for Summer, starts running back. He’ll find Joseph and Summer, and Joseph will let him tie him up. Clark tortures him and asks him, “Who are you?”

“I’m an angel. Sent down to earth from a righteous god. To punish the weak. Today is your day.”

“Punished for what?”

“Do you really want me to say?”

We never learn exactly what Clark did. It seems to have something to do with his stepson, Benny.

For the story to work, though, we don’t need to know. It’s enough to see Clark admit it with his eyes and silently concede.

Netflix horror worth your time #3: Head Trauma

October 25, 2012 - 3 Responses

Fear isn’t just about being scared. It’s not just about death, murder, knives or permanent disfigurement. Fear, too, a portion of it at least, is about discomfort – the disorienting and the disgusting.

Think of Toby Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The slashed off fingers, the segments of broken jaws and snapped off fingernails.

What Hooper and the likes of Eli Roth do is remind us of something we don’t like to think about – We’re not just a neat and complete package; we’re composed of loosely connected parts that can be separated and sorted in a very messy way. They take the chases and the scares and add a little something to bring it over the top – The kind of discomfort that comes from dirt and cold and exposure, that makes you ring your hands, hold your arms tightly into yourself and breathe shallowly to keep the smell out.

Who probably executes it best is A&E’s “Hoarders,” but that’s too much for me.

Head Trauma, on the other hand, hits the discomfort sweet-spot, marrying a measured amount of gore with the messy reality of things.

On the jarring-displays-of-phsyical-violence side of things, over the course of the movie our protagonist George finds a woman hanged in a tree by her pink scarf and a tooth wrapped in hair embedded in hardwood floors. Head Trauma though, is less about the physical effects of killing, and instead, the psychological, the mess it leaves behind in the psyche.

George has killed. He didn’t mean to. He got drunk with a girl and they went up to a tree house. Through a series of unfortunate events, she falls. He catches her, by her scarf. He tries to save her, he tries to pull her up. But that’s how she dies. Hanged by her own pink scarf.

He panics, puts her in a sleeping bag and tries to sink her into a river. And when he has, still hyperventilating, he speeds off in his car and wrecks it. He rolls it and suffers the titular Head Trauma.

We don’t know at the beginning that George is the killer. His Head Trauma, has made him forget. He has flashbacks, though. He was wearing a parka that night and instead of seeing himself kill the girl, he sees a man in his parka with the hood pulled up. Where his face would be, there’s just blackness, rimmed by the white lip of the parka’s white fur lining.

And that’s why we can categorize Head Trauma as Horror. Even though George is the killer, he’s
running from the man in his nightmares. The Man with Darkness for a Face. In his nightmare, George sees him kill. George sees him in the world around him, closing in on him like any good motivated killer.

All the answers are there, though. His grandmother, when she died, left him her house, and in the house she left him a box. In the box, are the parka, his head x-ray, the newspaper stories about the
accident. But the basement floods.

As the murky liquid rises to waist-deep, we see it swallow up the box, and the box belches out bubbles and sinks below.

The house is disgusting. It’s a mess and it’s condemned. And that disgusting house with a flooded-out basement is a metaphor for George.

In addition to swallowing up the box – the evidence and manifestations of what really happened – the basement flood is a weird brown stew of baby doll parts, old clothes, hair. And that’s just the basement, the id of it. The house’s upper floors are strewn with garbage. And drug addict squatters have painted over the windows. You can almost smell the mess through the screen and it almost feels like you might get some of it on your hands.

What’s scary about the movie is the faceless killer stalking George, of course. But you know you’re supposed to be afraid of that apparition.

After you learn the truth, though, things change. For the entirety of the movie we’ve followed George. He’s trying to fix up and clean up the condemned house. It’s the only thing he has and it’s the only thing he has to work for. We’ve been rooting for him, and when we find out that he’s the killer, that can be scary, too.

But what’s really scary is what the act of killing has done to him. There are physical manifestations of this. He’s balding. He’s got a scraggly beard. He chronically nips from a flask.

The trauma makes him forget, but what’s worse, just like how the basement flood swallowed up that box of answers, so did his trauma. And in the process it’s left his mind a place like that house. Like that brown-water basement. A place that leaves you wishing you could wash your hands.

Netflix horror worth your time #2: ‘The Caller’

October 18, 2012 - One Response

“Pontypool,” as you’ve surely already found out for yourself, is not only available on Netflix, but probably one of the horror movies most worth your time this Halloween.

“Pontypool,” is probably the best, but don’t count out “The Caller.”

The thing we take for granted most about the past is that it’s written in ink. By its very definition, there’s nothing undecided about it. It doesn’t have any moving pieces; they’re very much permanently cemented down. To take the metaphor further, the past is like the earth underneath our feet. We take for granted it will stay firm and constant below us.

In “The Caller,” though, our protagonist, Mary, is going through an earthquake. The past, specifically one deranged woman in it, is wiping out the people in her life; erasing them and any trace of them.

 

And Mary hasn’t had it easy. She’s just divorced her abusive husband, gotten a restraining order, and is finally beginning to relax as she moves into her own apartment.

That is of course, until the phone rings. It is, “The Caller.” Her name is Rose and she is calling from 1979.

(As a side note, the title of the movie, “The Caller” is too passive. The movie’s creators probably thought it would come off as understated, but it’s so understated that even having watched it and become a fan, I’ve still flipped past it. The concept is too complex for a traditional title, say, ‘Dialing Up Murder’ or ‘Broken Connection.’ Maybe it should have been something like ‘Those Who Don’t Learn …’ playing on the old adage about how dangerous unheeded history can be, or maybe ‘Premeditated,’ or ‘Killing Time.’ But that’s still pretty bad.)

Considering the concept of “The Caller,” its closest kin is “Back to the Future.” In “Back to the Future,” though, Marty McFly tries to prevent himself from gently fading away from a photograph; Mary is trying to prevent Rose from completely erasing the lives of the people around her. Not that it’s that fully altruistic. Rose has designs on maiming and murdering Mary too.

It turns out that Rose is unhappy. Her husband is cheating on her in 1979 and she wants to kill herself. The first time history plays itself out, Rose hangs herself. This time through, she somehow dials into the future and makes a friend, Mary. (Of course this is where you’ll need to employ your suspension of disbelief. The film doesn’t try to explain this unique phenomenon, i.e. calling into the future, so it’s easy to just let it go. But if we had phone numbers to the future, I think the Browns would have held off on Colt McCoy and Brandon Weeden and American mortgage lending practices would have been a bit more restrictive before 2008.)

The conversations are friendly at first. Mary suggests Rose stand up for herself. How Rose does this, though, is by killing her husband. It’s not what Mary had in mind. She’s uncomfortable and she tells Rose to stop calling. Unbalanced Rose though wants to keep their new friendship going and threatens Mary if she doesn’t keep answering.

In another stroke of coincidence, Mary lives in the same apartment Rose had, and to prove that Rose is in the past and that what she does can affect the future, she says she’ll make a mark in the pantry. Mary goes and looks and finds a rose painted there.

A painted rose isn’t too threatening though, or convincing, but soon Rose makes things very real.

 

Mary tries to take hold of the situation by telling Rose that she went to visit her in a nursing home. But, Rose asks her on a subsequent day if Mary visited again, and if she did if Mary noticed anything different.

Mary gets caught in a lie and Rose proves it. Rose tells Mary to dig in the yard. What Mary finds is a jar with a cloth inside. When she unwraps the cloth, she finds a finger.
Rose’s finger.

It feels like teleportation in a way. Rose sends her severed finger through time to Mary.

This doesn’t help their relationship of course, and as things complicate and Rose aims to show off her power, Rose kills the apartment building’s gardener and soon after she kills Mary’s boyfriend while he’s just a boy.

But the true weight of the whole thing comes when Rose calls and with her she has a little girl. It’s Mary.

And faintly in the background, you can hear boiling oil. Rose says she’s making fried chicken for young Mary. But Rose is getting angry and young Mary is close to the oil. Current Mary is yelling into the phone for the girl to run, but then we hear the pot overturn, the sizzle and burn, and then the crying.

Mary drops the phone and screams. She pulls back the shoulder of her sweater and watches as the oil-burns etch deep scars into her.

In horror movies the killer always has an advantage. They’re usually significantly stronger and aparently impervious. For Rose, her advantage is that she attacks from a place of safety, from the buffer that all those decades provide.

Mary will try to outsmart Rose. She’ll do her research. She’ll try to draw her to a bowling alley that catches fire. But Rose misses the bus.

It doesn’t end until they meet face to face. Rose has been waiting. And she comes for Mary.

Netflix horror worth your time

October 7, 2012 - Leave a Response

This is a public service, or at least aims to be.

If you have Netflix, you know the lost and desperate feeling that comes when flipping through the hundreds of offerings, hoping to find the perfect movie, or at least one that won’t make you feel like you’ve wasted 90 minutes.

I’ve lost hours that way. Even days.

And if you’re one of those people who ignores anything Horror until October, this is for you, too.

The goal here this Halloween season is to give you the top 5 best horror movies currently on Netflix that you probably haven’t heard of. (Because I could tell you, hey, go watch “The Omen” of  “Candyman.”  But if you haven’t already watched them, here’s hoping you’ve at least heard of them. And in that case, what kind of public service would that be? Sure, more lists may follow, but now’s not the time for promises.)

So without further ado, let’s begin with the best, because if the others wanted to be mentioned first, they should have made better movies.


1. Pontypool

We know to be afraid of coughing strangers; door knobs, railings, and public restrooms; the saliva and bites of men, animals and the undead.

But what about words? Language. Can you get the bug from a friendly conversation?

In Pontypool you can.

Pontypool, Ontario, where former shock jock Grant Mazzy has been marooned to the world of school closings, missing cats and weather reports, which come from Ken in the Sunshine Chopper, who is actually Ken in a Dodge Dart with a helicopter soundtrack playing into a cell phone.

It’s a little low-key for Mazzy, that is until a code 48 comes over the police scanner. A hostage situation. Two men holding a van at gunpoint, the van towing an ice house. And soon after, Ken – talking over the whop, whop, whop of his imaginary chopper – describes the crowd that has gathered around Dr. Mendez’s office, the explosion of people that follows, the people that are trampled.

We don’t see that scene. What the camera shows is us is claustrophobic. Outside there is a blizzard raging in the dark and what the camera shows us is the studio, which is in a basement. Everything coming in over cell phones, over radio signals.  It’s like shooting footage of the studio as Orson Welles delivered War of the Worlds. If the world really was ending.

A constable calls in. 75 dead so far. No one knows what’s going on.

Mazzy’s producer patches in the BBC trying to confirm reports that French Canadian troops are setting up road blocks and that the insanity outside is being perpetrated by separatist terrorists.

Then the BBC is gone and Ken, once in the Sunshine Chopper, now grounded and watching and hiding from the sick, whimpers: “I have just seen things that are going to ruin the rest of my natural life.”

An official French radio channel breaks in through Ken’s call: “For your safety please avoid contact with close family members … For greater safety please avoid the English language,” in the odd babble that is the French language of course.

And then Ken is back. He’s with a local teenager, whose, “body has been broken to pieces,” Ken explains.

Over the cell connection we hear the babbling but it’s not of the voice of a boy. As Ken describes it, the teenager “sounds like there’s a child screaming inside his breath.”

And at that point our hero Mazzy leans into the microphone, his eyes wide with panic, and he yells, “is this actually happening, Ken?”

In Mazzy’s eyes, you can see it. He’s got the bug.

Director Bruce McDonald asks us not to call them zombies. But like with anything else, we’re limited by language. When we see the film’s sick, they’re moving like they haven’t consulted their brains, there’s blood around their mouths, and they’re killing and eating their once fellow men.

And Mazzy is about to join them. But how’d he get the bug? How, locked in the sound proof booth, safe from saliva, bites and coughs, did he catch the bug?

As the conversation continues, Dr. Mendez, who has survived the people explosion at his office, slips through a window, like Doctors are want to do. And the good doctor is there to listen to Ken, who, after describing mass acts of cannibalism, dissolves into madness.

“This is what he is now,” Dr. Mendez says pointing to the microphone as Ken repeats the words ‘simple’ and ‘sample’ over and over. “Just a crude radio signal.

“It’s viral but that much is clear,” he explains. “It’s not of the blood … it is here, it is in words. Not all words. Not all speaking. But some. Some words are infected and it spreads out when the contaminated word is spoken. … a new form of life. It enters us when we hear the word and understand.”

And why is “Pontypool” number one?

Although the true originator and standard-bearer of the zombies we know and love, George Romero, never spends much time talking about what created the zombies in his universe and, for all intents and purposes, “Pontypool” is a 90 minute-origin story of a new kind of madness, “Pontypool” elevates the sub-genre.

Romero will always be first in my heart, but of the thousands of moviemakers that have followed him, many are lazy and uninspired. The zombie is merely cannon fodder for them. Romero uses his films to discuss social issues, consumerism, distrust of government. You can have a discussion after a Romero film, whereas other undead filmmakers present a product that oftentimes reduces the brain activity levels of its viewers to that of the film’s creatures.

To be sure, “Pontypool,” is not “Citizen Kane” or “Synecdoche, New York,” but after watching it there are obvious discussions to be had about language.

Being thought provoking is all well and good, but that in and of itself doesn’t make anything a good movie, let alone a good horror movie. But this is number one because above all else it’s just a good horror movie. Although we see very few of them, there is a high body count; we hold our breath as our protagonists get surrounded and have to think their way out; and it all happens in Canada, which is inherently just scarier. “Pontypool” has it all.

Fixing the Rust Belt with Playgrounds and Murals

October 1, 2012 - Leave a Response

I write this from a desperate time. The near-past. The waning months of a presidential election.

A time when it seems desperate voters are only asking desperate candidates desperate questions like, “can you fix our country?”

Sure any candidate and every candidate will answer, “yes, I can fix your country, and yes I will,” but each and every one of them will say it knowing it’s not nearly true.

It’s a lie because given one term, two terms, maybe even a lifetime and a willing Congress, it won’t be possible to fix a nation, ours or any other, in the way that people mean when they ask for someone to fix their country – They mean jobs and upward mobility. Affordable education and dissipating blight.

I know this because although writing this from the past may be a handicap – perhaps by the time this is published, we’ll have discovered a cache of jobs somewhere deep in the earth while fracking for natural gas, rendering most of what follows moot – my argument draws upon one greater resource. My location. The Rust Belt. Where over the last 30 years we’ve been attempting nearly the same thing, the same kind of resuscitation, just for something much smaller, the Rust Belt, the region, and more honestly and more accurately, our cities and boroughs and communities individually.

If we were to measure the Rust Belt’s struggle, the effort it has put into revitalization so far and the means it would take to reverse its plight, and then multiply those quantities out to the scale of a whole nation, we’d arrive at numbers and algorithms too great for any Democrat or Republican to comprehend or bear.

And it is an issue of scale, I’m learning. We see one big problem, so we assume we need one big answer. In the Rust Belt, we – collectively, not personally – know how to rebuild an engine, how to put a new support beam under a house; and we know our doctors can do something similar and even more drastic for a person – a heart transplant. These actions save homes and cars and human beings, and so the obvious goal would be to find some equivalent for a region or at least a Rust Belt town.

If you ask someone here, in Greenville, Pa., – population around 6,000 – how do you fix Greenville, the first answer, is one such big, simple solution – you just build a mill, a plant, a factory, of any kind, as long as it employs 2,000 local men and women.

But as I implied, I’m learning, and what I’m learning is that scale, in regards to these questions at least, can be misleading. Simple can mean impossible.

To pray for a plant is a kind of deconstructionist answer – it was that kind of facility and those kinds of jobs that were pulled from here and that caused this place to collapse – although “collapse” is too dramatic a term. It can seem bleak here at times and at certain address, but “collapse” implies something even more bleak than what is.

There are businesses that more than survive on Main Street, that thrive even. There’s Hurlbert’s Hardware, the Shoe Hospital, Carini Restaurant, and others, of course. Their windows are bright and filled with merchandise, deals and placards in support of local causes. But, pressed up against them, sometimes seemingly wrapped in them, are black windows stained in the dust and darkness that come from being abandoned for uncounted years.

And if you drive north up Main Street and look to your right, through the trees of Wentling Park and over the Canadian National railroad lines, you will see a 32-acre industrial abscess. It is wrapped in a rusted and crumbling patchwork fence. There are holes in the chainlink and they are cinched together by wire. In other areas, green plastic has been woven through to try to make a better barrier to hold the ugly in, but the plastic ribbons are falling away like chunks of skin in Chernobyl. Where the boundary is wooden, where there are holes, they’ve tried to board them shut, too. But through the holes and from the elevated street, you can see
down in, like it’s some kind of abandoned exhibit, a diorama of a brutal war fought and lost, by all involved. The fallow ground surrounded, looking like what must have been left over after they cleaned up the World Wars. There are weeds in patches, stunted and gnarled. The ground is dirt but rougher than any desert, and stained. It is littered with slabs of crumbling concrete and broken beams, like someone has taken an ax to the acropolis.

Just over a decade ago, this used to be Trinity Industries. They used to make boxcars here. This is where, on an average day, 2,000 people came to work. But there is no savior in this Trinity. About a dozen years ago they shut the doors, and took the jobs. Soon after the state started investigating. They found contaminants in the soil, and charged Trinity. Trinity consented to clean up but no one can build there until they do.

Trinity left a big hole, but they weren’t the only ones. There used to be Chicago Bridge & Iron, Bessemer Railroad, and just outside the borough in Sugar Grove Township, there’s Werner Ladder, the world’s leader in climbing equipment. Werner’s was founded here and built here, but all that’s left are the offices of its global headquarters. Jobs, sure, but only a fraction of them.

The obvious answer to the question, how do you fix Greenville, is to build a plant, but the evidence, the exodus of industry, indicates that it’s not a possibility. Like a species driven out by climate change, these plants are of an endangered kind. They’re fairy tales now. Praying for one would be the equivalent of planting magic beans in the dried out, unsettled land at the Trinity site.

That’s not the answer. That’s the bleak, and that’s not the moral. The moral, if you can call it that, is back in town. But when you’re headed back, before you get back to Main Street, turn right onto Alan Avenue, then back into Riverside Park, and find the new playground. It is the wooden Kingdom at Riverside with swings and slides in the shape of a canal barge, a nod to Greenville’s Erie Extension Canal past. The whole thing was built by volunteers and volunteer tools. Eight-hundred people gave of their time over five days to make it happen. And if you go back to Main Street, heading north again, there’s a mural of a kayaker, a covered bridge and white-tail deer on side of the Steele Building. It’s to be the first of 16 such pieces. And down in front of the borough building, there is now erected an electronic, scrolling sign that lists all the events and goings on about town.

They’re all the product of the countless and ever growing small groups that have been working and continue to work, in varying levels of specificity, to answer our initial question, how do you fix Greenville.

Juxtaposed against the goal of getting a new factory, a new electronic sign might look tiny. But over the course of half a decade one of these groups, The Committee to Promote the Greenville Area, or CPGA, worked diligently to raise the several thousand dollars needed to make it happen.

CPGA’s name is a little on the nose, but there’s also WAG, or Women’s Action Group, that has made the mural project happen and that is also responsible for the planters along Main Street, and other projects that have included painting flowers and trees on the windows of some empty Main Street storefronts.

There’s the Chamber of Commerce’s Marketing Committee, which has taken on John M. Schultz’s “Boomtown USA” roadmap and held monthly seminars and open forums to discuss ways to bring people and businesses to town.

There’s the Pool Committee, meant to resurrect Greenville Memorial Swimming Pool. The structure was originally furnished by the town’s veterans after they watched fellow soldiers who couldn’t swim drown in World War II. They hoped giving kids that skill would prevent those kinds of horrors in the future, but 60 years later, the basin is rusted, closed and empty.

There’s the new Greenville Opportunities, or GO, Team, meant to get adults under 40, somewhat of an uncommon species amongst the aging population, to tackle some projects, too.

And there’s more, often too many to keep track of, and sometimes too many projects to catalog, too – at one point, collectively and simultaneously the groups were trying to raise money for a new pool, a new playground, the murals, and the sign – and again this is all happening in a town of 6,000.

To be sure, it’s literally impossible to gauge or quantify in any way how much a mural or a new playground will actually benefit a town, financially or otherwise. But the people here have waited through legislative promises, they have cursed trade agreements, and they have prayed for new plants. And it seems when that old brand of patience wore out they stopped praying for a new Greenville and began fixing up the one they inherited. They changed the “fix,” from the goal of returning to the oft-recounted and mythologized Greenville that could support and featured, not only the pool, but an ice skating rink, and JC Penney’s and the Jordan Theatre, to
something more measured and tempered.

Now the unspoken collective understanding is that each project, each painted window, each good deed, even, is a step toward the good. If each action is a step in a different direction, sure you don’t go anywhere. But what this kind of perseverance seems to say is that if each step, no matter how small, is in the same direction, in a good direction, and if you keep your head down and keep walking, eventually you’re going to end up somewhere. Somewhere good.

The goal is to build around Thiel College, the UPMC Horizon hospital, and the three museums that are here; to make this town a place that people want to come and a place that people want to live; to make this a place that someone would bring a small plant, or a small business, or maybe just come for Heritage Days and get a couple hot dogs at the Majestic.

Such tempered goals, like the electronic sign, may look silly from the outside and out of context. Maybe it requires the unique and specific kind of faith found here, a faith in a Protestant God and the Pittsburgh Pirates, not to leave out St. Michael’s Catholics or the Cleveland Browns.

All that can be said with any level of certainty is that it won’t bring a new Werner’s or a new Trinity, something that will employee thousands in one shot. But it seems the worst case scenario is that someday down the road we’ll all wake up in a Greenville with a new pool, a new playground, 16 bright new murals, and all the people of a place working together.

Jug Wine: My NYCMidnight entry

February 1, 2012 - One Response

Over the last couple weeks I’ve been entering contests. Will I win any of them? I don’t know. But I’m playing the law of averages. I submitted my book for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, the Black Lawrence Press Big Moose Prize, and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award for the Novel; as well as a short story contest. It is the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge and I had eight days to write a story on a prompt. It had to have a magician, a surprise party and be in the genre of a ghost story. So here it is:

JUG WINE

She’d stayed for an extra drink at Grandma’s, even though it would make her late for Marshall.

And it had.

That’s why she was hurrying, and speeding, when the ice slush along the berm of Carpenters Corners’ curves grabbed onto her wheels and pulled her Honda, off the road and over, into the trees below, where the nose of her car would bend, then fold and tear around a thick old oak.

x x x

She was home on break and had seen him that morning, first time in eight months, at the store.

Her mother had needed flour and eggs, and Abigail had found Marshall in the canned goods, stocking shelves.

She had known him since Bible school. His hair always as yellow and his eyes always as blue as the crayons of that time. He was cute even then, and cute enough to give up her black and white cookies, lie, say she didn’t like them, then slide them on her napkin to him.

She said hi to him in the store. She’d wedged her hands into her pants pockets and watched his.

He was kneeling, moving cans from the pallets at his feet to the shelves above. He asked her about her classes, because she’d gone off to college and he wouldn’t for another half a year. She wanted to say, but didn’t, that it’s always dark there, at school. There’s no people, just books.

She lied, said classes were good, and noticed there weren’t more cans on the shelf where it had seemed he’d been placing them. There were fewer and fewer with each swipe. He was taking them.

She asked, “Where they all going?”

He blushed and flexed his fingers toward her, gave an aw-shucks shrug, said, “Magic.”

They had drifted apart before high school. She had heard he had taken up magic, that he would troll the halls, work up one side of lockers, then the other, with coin tricks, pulling flowers from places.

So Abigail waited by her locker until the day he came to her and held his deck of cards out.

She said, “Magic, huh?”

And he said, “David Copperfield’s with Claudia Schiffer, you know.”

“So you think girls are going to go for that,” she said, and his eyes stayed down at his cards and he said, “you tell me.”

He held them out again and she pulled one out, cupped her hand around it, playing along, and brought the eight of diamonds toward her eyes. She read and replaced it, and he looked deep into her, his eyes moving like he was sorting through a stack of magazines. He looked close enough, it seemed, to read each of the red squares in there, and said, “Eight of Diamonds.” She was surprised for a moment, that he had done it, and thought more. She wondered, while he was sifting through, what else had he read inside of her. What kinds of secrets had she left lying about.

With customers pushing past them, she asked if he wanted to come over. She was having a Christmas party, she joked. Just the two of them and a jug of wine. She said, “I could tell you what college is really like.” He said he wanted to, but couldn’t. He was a having a party. And she laughed as if he was joking, too. He said it was at the abandoned barn behind his parents’ house. A surprise party. For Ashley Suntheim.

Abigail pulled her eyebrows together and shook her head. She didn’t understand. He had gone into magic to impress girls, but nobody had explained to him that it wouldn’t. That it was a liability. And she didn’t mind. He could keep at it, conquer the hardest parts, learn how to make something disappear, and some Christmas she would come home from school with scars on her hands and cold inside, and by magic, he’d still be there.

He invited her though. Said she had to come. Said he was going to do a big trick. Biggest ever. He was going to disappear.

And maybe what was most confusing was that Ashley was a pretty girl. Worked too hard at it, maybe. Was 17 and dyed her hair. Tried to make it some new and perfect color between blond and brunette.

But still she was more beautiful than any girl Abigail assumed Marshall would have.

He’d have me, she thought, and that’s where the bar was supposed to be.

x x x

Abigail had tried at school. Had found a boy in her Beat literature class who wore a lot of black and perpetually carried Kerouac’s “Desolation Angels” like it held his arm to his body. And even though she knew it was backwards, she wrote him poems and used words like “midnights” and “crows” to try to explain to him the way she understood his beauty.

And eventually he bought them tickets to a show downtown. A little known guy that they both had known that wore black hoodies and strummed an acoustic guitar on a stool and moaned.

He told her to take the bus downtown, to meet him there. And she took an empty liter pop bottle and filled it with wine and stood outside with no ticket. When it was dark, when the low registers of the man moaning on stage started seeping through the walls, she took the bus back home, got another bottle of red, and stumbled back out into the night. To his apartment, under his window, calling his name over the music and female voice that vibrated through the windows. She called his name and stumbled back; and called again and stumbled back, stumbled back and fell back onto her bottle. The glass made lightning bolt lacerations down her fingers and into her hands. She went home to wash the blood away, and after she’d bloodied their door, its knob, and bloodied her own bed, her roommate drove her to the ER and the doctors sewed her up.

The roommate, and of course the boy, hadn’t looked at her since. It seemed like no one had.

x x x

Abigail stared at the burned out husk of her car. It looked as light as burnt newspaper, and seemed to flutter with the wind. She held her arms out and wondered if it’d move her too.

It didn’t. She looked to the seat where her body had been and still should have been. She wondered how long it’d been since she was gone, since her seat was empty, and wondered if Marshall, too, had already done his trick and disappeared.

She’d brought the jug wine for him. Because before, or after, his party, his magic, his Ashley, she hoped, she could use it. And if he wouldn’t admit what he felt for her, they would drink and she would convince him.

The jug was in the backseat. The door was likely sealed shut by the heat, crushed closed by the crash, but she didn’t even pull on it, just pushed her arm through, to the jug. It was wedged under and somehow protected by the seat, just its glass discolored, and she maneuvered it up and out the broken window.

She held the jug to her belly and wondered if he’d be able to see her and hear her. And as she thought of the answer, she cried for the first time. To mourn herself. To mourn being alone in the world. To mourn soon losing Marshall, too. But he was just on the other side of the trees and she hurried through them. She balled her fists around the jug and stomped as she walked, hoping to make the sound of feet through ice or snapping twigs, the sounds of life, instead of just being a whisper through the woods.

Through the other side, she found the barn, rough and old and faded. She’d heard and he had told her before, that’s where he worked on the tricks and created his magic. With her own kind of magic, she could have walked through the back wall, but hoped instead to walk around, pull open the front door, a huge hatch on wheels. She hoped he’d turn toward the sound and see her. And tell her, that they should forget all of this, the trick, the party, and just go to the woods, the two of them, hide from the people that would come and drink her wine.

But she set the jug just outside, pushed the door so it rattled, stood in the opening, and he looked, but didn’t see her.

He went back to what he was doing, up on a raised platform, where, when it was a farm, they’d stack round bales, now his stage. It was some kind of rehearsal, some choreography. He waved his arms, a cape in his hands, and stomped out a rhythm. She walked toward him and he waved the cape like a bullfighter in front of himself, then was gone, under it.

She waited for a moment and he climbed out from behind his stage and back up on it and did the dance again. And this time, as he stomped, she walked toward the stage, and through it, into the dark compartment below and waited. His stomps filled the cavern, and then he came, dropped down through, then sat a moment to breathe.

She stared at him, the gaps in the boards of the stage making yellow lines across his face. She thought of touching him. She held her hand out to do it, but didn’t.

“Marshall,” she said, hoping he’d hear instead.

But his eyes were closed, working over the trick.

And she said, “Marshall,” louder. And he didn’t hear. And she yelled again and punched the wood belly of the stage. It gave off a hollow boom and he opened his eyes and skittered back, pushing himself by his hands.

Alone again, she shook her head. She didn’t know how to do this without scaring him.

The front door rattled again, and it was followed by the muffled voices of people coming in.

Marshall crawled around, out of sight, and she walked out the stage’s front, to find the new boys, Marshall’s age, all in caps, bringing bottles and cakes. They covered a table with the things they brought and the things they’d accumulate as the barn filled with people and music, until a girl darted in, shushed the crowd and said, “she’s coming.”

Abigail pushed through the teenagers, not feeling them and them not feeling her, to see Ashley And when she did, the crowd yelled, “surprise,” and Ashley’s green eyes swelled wide and her long lashes fluttered, and she moved past Abigail, angled past a few more bodies, found Marshall and wrapped her arms around him, squeezed him and kissed his cheek.

Someone turned the music back up, and Abigail followed Marshall and Ashley outside. Ashley held his hands in hers, looked down to them, then up to his eyes, and said, “This is amazing. This so much.” And she kissed him. On the mouth.

Abigail shook her head, went back in with the crowd and paced around it. She wasn’t sure of what she’d do, but when Marshall walked up the center of the crowd and jumped on the stage, she went to stand at the front. They ratcheted the music up and he worked his hands through the air, producing coins, making them disappear. All things they’d seen before, but they clapped, because they knew it was just a prelude. Abigail looked back to Ashley, hovering in the middle of the crowd, eyes still wide like she was holding her breath, and Abigail, because she couldn’t watch, went into the stage.

She knew the dance and listened for the stomps. The trap door came down, and she knew what would come.

And she couldn’t let it.

She stood, pushed up on the door, and its edge caught his feet as he tried to fall. He shuddered, and part of him made it through, but just one leg. The other, the shin of it, smacked the stage, shot his hands forward; his face and nose smacked against the wood. He fell and the cape fell, too, and covered him in the darkness below. Then he ran, as soon as he’d landed, out the back, hand over his face. She yelled, “I didn’t mean to,” and followed him outside, to watch him run into the woods.

Abigail could hear the awws and gasps from inside, and moved around the barn, to the front, to where she’d left her wine.

He was crying when she found him. Back up against a tree. She set the jug nearby, dropped an acorn to it, and he found it by the sound. He moved back to his seat, uncapped the jug, gulped, and let the excess run down his throat.

“I’ll make it up to you,” she said, standing in front of him, talking so softly he wouldn’t have been able to hear anyway. “I could help your magic. Even Ashley.”

He was chugging from the bottle, it a quarter empty; and he chugged again and it was half empty, drinking like he meant to hurt himself.

“You just don’t know what it’s like,” she said, and wiped at her eyes like there might be saline there. “It’s just so lonely.”

And as his eyes sagged, and his head too, she realized he did know. Ashley wasn’t coming for him. They couldn’t survive this.

So she went back, to the bottom of the barn, where they kept the tools and found a length of rope. And tied it as she returned, hurrying, excited.

And she wrapped one end to the tree, and tied the other around his neck, looking into his eyes as she did, saying, “We were so lonely where you are now. But this way we won’t be.”

And he was so drunk, when she tugged on the rope, he stood. And she tugged, and he was on his toes.

Teetering, eyes rolling.

And Abigail was crying, from the tension in the rope, and pulled harder when she heard footsteps cracking. And when she saw it was the three boys that were first to the party, she panicked, pulled down hard, and he was in the air. But one of the boys had grabbed him. Had hoisted him so he could breathe, and the others were tearing at the rope. And even though they couldn’t see her, she backed away, and wandered, holding her hands around her neck, hoping she could find someone to help.

Christmas Magic

December 19, 2011 - Leave a Response

EDITOR’S NOTE: Every year, this time of year, my mother labors over a Christmas card. Sometimes it takes her months to work out the idea out of it, before even sitting down with scissors and glue, potato stamps or whatever the card requires, to actually make it, constructing each one by hand. I’ve never been good with scissors — my stars are never symmetrical — but consider this my Christmas card.

It had started after Jorge checked all the normal places – the closet, under his mother’s bed, under the big pile in the garage – and found presents, but not enough for two boys, not enough for both him and his brother.

He didn’t blame his brother for that, but when he pushed the Frosty DVD into the player, got down in his bean bag chair, and leaned onto his knees with his fingers on his mouth like he’d seen thinking people do, he meant to do something very important.

He had watched the cartoon about the living snowman each year, each and every year of his life. But all those years it had only been on TV and they played it too fast. He had stood up next to the screen, nose leaving an oil dot on the TV glass. He pried his eyes open with his fingers but all the details blurred. He couldn’t tell what he needed to know – how the magic soaked in, where it came from, if it sparked like static from the hat to the snowman’s crown.

But Jerry from School had Frosty on DVD and Jorge had pretended to like him enough to be invited over to make snowforts and stole that DVD and this Christmas would finally figure it out, how it worked, how to make his own man of snow to dance, and sing, to teach to curse and hide his brother in his snow belly like a mobile, humanoid jail.

He squeezed the remote tight in his fist, the plastic crinkling and creaking, thumbing the rubber edges of the pause button, ready to rewind and pause and rewind and pause, ready to inspect each Technicolor frame. He knew it was about 20 minutes in, but watched it all, reciting the dialogue of each child and each simple woodland rodent and then the mad magician with a snear. And when the freckle faced kid sitting on the shoulders of the plump boy with donut dust on his coat collars got the silk hat brim just over the top ball of snow, Jorge was nearly out of the bean bag, hunched over and bent in half with tension.

And just as the hat dropped, just as Jorge felt the magic like fear of heights, like goosebumps, like static, Jorge’s brother, Matthew, swooped in, his arm like a hawk wing with a claw. And because the magic had loosened Jorge’s grip, his brother, Matthew, his little brother, even, yanked, and the remote came free, and even before Jorge could understand, as he looked beside him and around him hoping to find it, hoping the magic moment hadn’t gotten too far, Matthew was sitting on his knees, nose up at the screen, calm. There, now, Frosty gone, a small cartoon boy – made with sharper lines and older colors – with thin cartoon boy hair, drug a blue blanket across a stage and spoke quietly in a darkened theater about shepherds and stars.

Jorge thought of standing, walking to his brother and punching him in his ear. But he had done it before, and still Matthew had done this.

Jorge didn’t even yell, just stood and walked to the fireplace, not far behind his brother, and found a long, thick splinter, pulled it out, carried it, carefully out from his body, its flame wavering in the air, to his brother. And because he knew it’d burn a patch down through Matthew’s orange hair and to the skin, leave enough pain and much more smell, he did and it did and the horrible stench of it filled the room and brought their mother. Matthew’s hand was on his head, over the burn, face scrunched up to fake out some tears, and their mother, who had been washing dishes and brought with her a plate in each yellow gloved hand, raised the plate in her right hand and slammed it to the carpet. It chunked and sprinkled into the shag.

Looking at the boys, and holding the other plate in the air, she pointed out the sliding glass door beside her, and before she could flinch with the hand holding the second plate, the boys had drug their snowpants and coats out the door and outside, and were scrunching up like caterpillars on the cement slab porch to pull the snowpants on, before sneaking glances through the glass at their mother, slipping on their boots and coats, their hats and then dragging their only sled, heavy with wood and runners, down the hill and into the field.

“Why’d you do it,” the younger asked. Matthew was rubbing his head but Jorge drug the sled and Matthew followed and Jorge couldn’t see. Jorge answered, “I did it for us, Matthew.”

“Don’t you believe in Santa?”

“You know that I do. And don’t you think Jesus brings us all the toys?”

“It might make more sense.”

Jorge stopped and turned and looked at his brother.

“Make more sense than what? Just a tiny bit of Christmas Magic helping Santa make all of our Christmas wishes come true? And it just takes a little bit of it, Matthew. And it’s just out there.” In one hand was the sled rope; the other he threw over his head. “Somehow this time of year it’s out there. And I’m going to prove it to you.”

Matthew’s head was down. He said, “What I understand is that we’re not supposed to hurt each other. Even Santa says that.”

“You think Baby Jesus would bring you trucks and video games? And you should see what Mom got us.”

“She didn’t get us anything?”

Jorge turned and started walking and shook his head, and said, “Not enough.”

Matthew shook his head but Jorge didn’t see. And the sled’s runners whispered through the snow, through the stubbled over cornfield, past the abandoned barn, through the woods, around its downed and rotted trunks, over the shells of puddled ice, rasped against rocks, to the hill above the pond.

“You don’t understand anything,” Jorge said. He moved the sled by the rope and pointed it, at the top of the hill, down to the ice covered pond. “Santa’s just got that tiny sled and can only bring so much. The parents have to buy the rest of the toys. And that’s how they say they love you. The more presents you get the more they say they love you. There’s magic and there’s logic. And this is logic.”

“I don’t think that’s it,” Matthew said. “Mom said it’s harder with just one.”

Jorge held his hand out for his brother to get down on the sled, and when he did, Jorge said, “No, she’s saying she doesn’t love you.” And when he said it, when he thought of what he was going to do, he was telling himself that he just wanted to scare his brother. Into understanding. Jorge bent low, put his shoulder into his brother’s back, and pushed and ran behind, and pushed the whole way down the hill, as far as he could, until he was rolling, his head on the ground, his feet in the sky. He hoped the sled’s runners would hit the lake ice and be faster than Matthew had ever gone. As fast as an out of control car. So fast that he would go sidewise, hold the rope to his chin, shake his head and cry.

And when Jorge found his feet again, rolled onto his knees and looked out to the ice, his brother was sidewise, his eyes clenched tight, like having them closed would make him disappear. And then he disappeared. Into the ice.

Jorge breathed in for a minute or more, blinked the cold, dry air and that image away from his eyes, stood and ran. He tumbled in the loose snow around a patch of weeds, lost his glove, rolled and ran. And on the ice, his boots and feet jolted out from under him and he fell to his chest, and knocked the air from himself. He scrambled and pulled with his hands, the nails of his ungloved hand catching on the sharp imperfections of the ice, and he drug himself, another body’s length to where the ice had opened up, to a black hole of water. A hole big enough for a boy, his sled.

He tried to look into the black water, moving his head to look past his own reflection, and wondered if his brother was gone. He hated him, sure, he thought, but he didn’t want him gone. He was shaking his head with his answer, no, and plunged his hand into the water. Recoiled from the cold, but moved his arm around, hoping to knock into something firm, an arm, even a head, anything to grab onto and pull. But he was only splashing, and used his elbows against the ice, to pull himself closer to the hole, and when he still felt nothing, into the hole, the ice a half-foot above the water, his desperate breaths making hollow sounds in between. He reached and squirmed and kicked and found a hand.

He squeezed and pulled and yanked, and had the arm out, then the head, it wobbling and rolling as he tugged. And his brother’s body bent and curved over the lip of the ice as he did. And with his brother out of the darkness of the water, with the blue of his skin marbled in the light, Jorge’s eyes were wide and he gasped, and pulled him, his brother’s back on the ice, walking backwards with his brother’s hands in his. His brother still and his eyes closed. Jorge could see his mother yelling again, louder, the sound coming from her guts this time, and plates chunking. It was his fault.

He had seen things like CPR and mouth-to-mouth on television shows but didn’t believe them. He needed to save his brother and to save his brother, he needed something he believed in.

He pulled Matthew to the bank and to the snow and got down beside him and began to pack the snow around his head. Under his jaw and around his ear, over his head and covered his eyes. It made Matthew’s mouth obvious. His lips still and blue. Crumbles of snow around it. And Jorge took in a big breath, yanked at the cuff of his hat around his ears, then pulled it off his head. He knelt beside his brother, beside his head, and with his hat in his hands, a blue and black zigzagged stocking cap, he began to stretch the hat, to make it big enough for his brother’s snowhead. But it was too large, his snowhead, and Jorge was frantic. He knew you had to breathe and Matthew wasn’t. He was tearing at the cuff, the elastic of it, tearing it to fit. Looking from the accordioned elastic to his brother’s mouth, pulling and crying.

And as the hat began to give and stretch and reach around his brother’s crown, an arm came up, Matthew’s, and Matthew’s hand knocked away the snow, away from his nose, his mouth, spitting as he shot up, and chunks of snow falling from the top of his head. He sat up and the boys looked at each other. Matthew’s teeth began to chatter and Jorge tried to bend his mouth to look angry and not sad, as his tears betrayed.

In his nose and behind it, Jorge was filled with snot, and he snorted and gasped as he tried to clamp off the crying. He rubbed and wiped, with the ungloved hand under his nose. He said, “Mom’s going to be so mad at you.”

Jorge stood and grabbed his brother’s mittened hand with his still gloved hand, turned toward the horizon, behind which they lived, and without looking again at his brother, began to walk, and pull his brother as they climbed the hill.

It was Jorge who had burned his brother’s hair and then killed him, but Matthew didn’t ask why their mother would be angry at him, even though Jorge expected the question. Jorge worried that meant there was something still broken in his brother, but because if he began to talk, he would begin to cry, he didn’t say anything, till they were past the hill, huffing, and Matthew said, “Do you think Jesus did it?”

“What?” Jorge said.

“Well, you made me die, right? And now I’m alive, right? How else could you explain it?”

Because it seemed obvious to Jorge, he shook his head, and said, “how could it be Jesus?”

“Don’t you ever think it’s Jesus? Couldn’t it, every once and a while have to be Jesus?”

“No,” Jorge said and threw the sled’s rope down. “No. I packed snow around your head. Didn’t you feel the snow? I packed snow around your head and put a hat on your snowman head. How could it be anything but Christmas Magic.”

“That’s just a cartoon, Jorge.”

“If it was Jesus, why didn’t he make you float on water? Isn’t that what he does? I saved you with Christmas Magic. I saved you by making you a snowman. What more proof do you need? You don’t have any poof.”

“I have proof,” Matthew said, his teeth chattering again, his snow clothes still dripping. “I’m just cold.” He looked blue in the dark, even in his eyelids when he closed them, and when he opened them, he looked to the sky, now purple and darkening, and said, pointing, “there! I knew if it was Jesus there’d be a star.”

There was one star, high in the sky, still faint with the sun lingering, but one star all the same.

“That doesn’t prove anything,” Jorge said.

“You’re right. We have to follow it.”

And they did, until the woods, and looked up through the bare branches and followed it through.

“Where’s it at?” Jorge asked.

“Just follow it,” Matthew said, and he took the lead. And at the barn, its walls and boards frayed, it dark, Matthew said, “Here. We’ll figure it out here,” and he shivered. He climbed the hill to the huge door, to its handle, and pulled on it, made it rumble in its track. He grunted and walked it open, tugging in fits till he gained momentum. Jorge slipped in as soon as the door would allow, scanned the dark, the straw strewn across the floor, the work bench, an old lawnmower and said, “nothing here,” before his brother had the door open.

There was more light now – the open door letting the moon in – and Matthew walked to the edge of the puddle of light and squinted into the dark.

“There really isn’t anything in here,” Jorge said.

Matthew turned, his soaked mitten on his hip, his eyebrows scrunched up, and said, nearly yelling, “You haven’t proved anything, Jorge.”

“I made you a snowman and I saved you.”

“Jesus saved me,” Matthew yelled, throwing his hands down.

“I could have made you fly like a reindeer or put you up a chimney. I saved you with Christmas Magic.”

Matthew was staring into Jorge, but his eyes drifted, beside his brother then to behind him. Matthew pointed and said, “There!”

He shuffled across the light, his snowpants swishing. Jorge had been looking out at the moon, and when he turned, to see what his brother was doing, he couldn’t see at first. He leaned forward as his pupils opened and gathered the light. His brother was still in shadow, but he could hear him, tugging on something large, something scraping the wood floor with each tug.

“Come on,” Matthew said from the dark. “Help me.”

Jorge walked to him, and soon Jorge could see, Matthew’s back, and the porcelain tub in front of him. Jorge got behind the tub and pushed. The sound of the tub’s feet against the wood constant now and higher pitched, until Matthew jumped back and yelled, “here.”

The tub was in the oval of light, and Matthew leaned on its, edge, teetered, got a leg down in, then lay down, too.

“Is this your manger?” Jorge asked.

“We need more straw,” Matthew said. Jorge went to the bales of it in the dark, brought two handfuls of it and tossed them on his brother.

“More!” Matthew said, and Jorge found a bale, and drug it over. He tore handfuls out and threw them on his brother, a game now, to bury Matthew.

But still he asked, “What’s the point of this?”

“I’m cold,” Matthew said. He pulled his head in toward his shoulders and Jorge took what was left of the bale and laid it on him.

“When’s your miracle come?” Jorge asked.

And then they heard rustling out in the yard. And then a long shadow, with a long neck, cut into the light. Jorge turned and climbing the hill, was an alpaca.

Matthew was below the lip of the tub and couldn’t see out. He asked, “Is it a camel?”

“No,” Jorge said. “It’s an alpaca. You’d just love to get your nativity, huh?”

“I’m not so sure I won’t,” Mathew said. He was sniffling and rubbed his sleeve under his nose.

The alpaca walked in to the warmth of the barn and gawked into the dark. It turned and scurried, when coming after it, was a collie.

“Is this one a camel?” Matthew asked.

Jorge turned toward his brother and shook his head. The dog went to the tub, put its paws up on its lip and looked down.

“It may not be a camel,” Matthew said, “but I think we’ll have our nativity soon.”

“And then what? I just don’t get the point.”

“Of me proving you wrong?”

“Of all those people going all that way for a baby,” Jorge said. “He’s just going to die.”

“But he was sacrificed.”

“But he just got to go to Heaven. That doesn’t seem so bad.”

Jorge was watching the animals mill about, the dog sniff and snort around the gas cap of the mower, then heard boots scraping on the cement, before stepping on the wood floor, then a boy saying, “You know, I’ve been thinking about that for a very long time.”

Jorge turned and walked toward the boy, not much older than himself.

“Who are you?” Jorge asked, pointing with his chin.

“Are you a wise man?” Matthew yelled from behind.

“Well, I’d like to think so,” the boy said.

“Really,” Jorge said, his hands on his hips. “Who are you?”

“I’m Bob.” He held his hand out and Jorge shook it. Bob leaned around him and pointed to the animals. “And those are mine.”

Jorge turned and yelled back at his brother, “See, this isn’t a nativity.”

“But he’s a shepherd,” Matthew said and Bob walked to the tub and looked in on Matthew.

“Are you trying to make a nativity?” Bob asked and looked to Jorge.

“Ask him,” Jorge said pointing down at his brother.

“Doesn’t matter,” Bob said and shook his head. “What I was trying to say is, is that I’ve been thinking a lot about what you guys were talking about. And I’ve got it figured out.”

“You’re 12,” Jorge said.

“Wanna hear it or not?” Bob asked.

But they both gawked as a light cut through the barn, slipping between the spaces between its boards.

“That’s probably the star,” Bob said, and they walked back toward the open door.

“What star?” Jorge asked.

“The star you followed,” Bob said, but looking out, flipped his hand and said, “Ah, just a car.”

But they heard it rolling over the gravel of the drive. And then it climbed the mound to the mouth of the barn. The rattle and wheeze and lights of it filling everywhere the dark had been and Jorge put his arm over his eyes.

The driver door opened, a woman stepped out, and yelled, “Jorge, what the hell did you do to your brother,” and she stormed toward him. She clamped her hand down around his arm, her eyes wide and angry, and drug him to the tub, him screaming, “Ow, he’s fine.”

And they looked down in, Matthew’s head turned and his eyes closed.

“He’s not fine, Jorge,” she yelled. “He’s not damn fine. What did you do to your brother?”

Jorge poked his brother’s leg through the straw but his brother didn’t move.

“He was fine,” Jorge yelled, so she could hear over her shaking him by the arm and yelling, “He’s not fine. He’s not fine at all. What did you do to him?” And she reached down with her palm and put it on Matthew’s cheek and yelled, “He’s frozen, Jorge.” And she was hysterical. Jorge looked into her face and wasn’t sure if she was yelling or crying. Or if she was yelling so hard she was crying.

And Jorge was yelling, “He was fine. He fell in the lake, but he was fine.”

And his mother scooped his brother up in her arms and tried to run with him, and Jorge was yelling, “He was fine.”

She rattled the car’s back door with her hands full with the boy, but got it open. She slid him in, was careful with the door as not to slam it on his feet, didn’t say anything or look at Jorge as she hurried into the driver’s side, slammed the door. The tires tore backward down the hill and it was dark again.

Jorge stood and stared at the wide open mouth of the barn. Into the glow the moon made.

“I was saying,” Bob said somewhere behind him. Jorge could hear the hollow steps of the animals on the wood, the shoosh of their feet pushing straw over it. Bob had both animals on leashes now and had led them into Jorge’s periphery.

Bob said, the animals wandering and tugging gently in opposite directions, “I think God doesn’t speak English. I had a dream about it. He talked liked an alien. He was trying to tell me something, but I couldn’t understand him. It was just weird sounds. So he has to do things instead. That way we understand.”

“I don’t understand.”

“He had to give up something he really wanted.”

“Jesus?”

“Yeah. He was his kid.”

“But he came back.”

“But he made him die first. Your Mom ever make you die?”

“No. But it’s not like she’s sacrificing for me either.”

“You mean the lady who swooped in here and saved your brother?”

“Yeah, and she left me here. I have to walk home.”

“What’d she get you for Christmas?”

“All I found was some Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and an Xbox.”

“Just an Xbox? You know what parents have to do to get an Xbox?” Bob had twisted his head toward his shoulder, curled up his lip and his voice had changed. “They don’t just stand in line and someone hands them an Xbox, OK? That’s sacrifice. They have to sacrifice and sacrifice and sacrifice. I mean, I chase alpacas a mile every night in subfreezing conditions, and I will never get an Xbox. Never. Ever. I’ll never even see one.” He was shaking his head and walking backwards. “Never. I don’t get you, man. You just don’t get it.”

And Bob started walking out the mouth of the barn and toward the road. his animals behind. Jorge watched him for a minute, but knowing Bob would soon be gone and that he’d be going home to a quiet, empty house and he’d have no one else to ask, he yelled, “Will my brother be OK?” after Bob.

“No,” Bob yelled without turning. “He was blue, dude.”

Jorge thought of crying, felt the pressure of it somewhere behind his eyes. He waited till he couldn’t see Bob anymore, till he was sure Bob wouldn’t hear, and let it pop out of him, his lips flapping, his tears hot on his cold face.

He rubbed his coat sleeve over his face to get the wet streams then under his nose, and because it was a long walk, he started it. He kicked his way through the stubbled over cornfield, the cold making his feet heavy.

He didn’t mean to hurt his brother, he told himself, sure he hadn’t meant to, and hoped, because there was a chance, he told himself, that he’d find the lights on when he got to the house. The car in the drive. His brother, unfrozen and breathing in his bed.

But when he peaked the last hill, the windows were dark. And when he went in, just wandering with his boots, his coats, his snowpants still on, hoping to hear coughs or clinks or whispers anywhere, he didn’t.

He plopped himself down in the couch, exhausted and frozen, and stared at the dark Christmas tree, the new wrapped boxes under it. Just a half dozen of them. The one Xbox sized box towering over the others. He looked away from it. He wanted to stomp on it and kick it.

He wanted to sit, still, too tired to even lay down. But he looked at the boxes again.

And he stood, pulling the afghan from the couch back with him as he did. He drug it to the tree. Laid it out and stacked the presents in the middle, pulled the edges together, made a bindle and put it on his back. Like Santa, he thought for a minute, then shook that thought off.

He went out again. He trudged through the stubbled over cornfield, past the abandoned barn, through the woods, around its downed and rotted trunks, over the shells of puddled ice, to the hill above the pond, and down to the hole they’d made. That he’d made.

And he set the afghan down and its presents beside the hole and sat on his knees next to it. He pulled the smaller packages out first, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, he told himself, and flipped each one in, poked them till they would sink. Till there was just the big box. He looked from it to the hole, the black that had swallowed their sled and his brother, and then he nudged it in.

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