Maddie leaned back and stared out the window at the trees at the edge of the yard. They seemed further away than usual, she thought, squinting at them in curiosity. It must be a trick of the light.
She had been bed-bound for some days now, and she knew her time on this earth was drawing to a close. Selena had brought Tom and Madeline to see their Grandma almost every day, and talked about all the things they would do once Grandma was better; but Maddie knew in her bones that she wasn’t going to get any better. She wasn’t really sick. She was just … done.
Maddie glanced around the room that had been her bedroom for nearly fifty years. It was filled with seventy years of accumulated stuff – stuff she had taken great comfort in, but which now seemed completely meaningless. No wonder George would sigh, she thought, having to carve out his little niches on the dresser and in the closet while Maddie’s things took up all the rest of the space. Maddie chuckled, and spoke softly to her late husband, “Sorry, George. I didn’t understand until now.” She chuckled again, and laid her head back into the pillows. Selena and Don would be here soon; she would be glad to see them one more time, but something told her she wouldn’t really get to say goodbye.
Her thoughts turned to her particular possessions – the ones in the locked keepsake box, the ones her mother had given her and her mother before her, back eight generations. Those possessions were different from the rest. They needed to be hidden away and guarded, so that they couldn’t hurt anyone. Maddie’s family had been the guardians of these items for so very long, and the responsibility of guarding them had been so deeply impressed upon her … yet somehow she had never shared this with her daughter, with her only child. For some reason she didn’t want Selena to have to deal with it, for Selena’s life to be overshadowed with it as her own had been. Maddie had only ever been told that the items were dangerous, after all – she had never even laid eyes on them, actually, and had long since lost the key to the box.
Why have I held onto them, she asked herself, shaking her head. Why did I let Mama convince me, when I always thought she was a little crazy to believe it? But she had made a promise to her Mama to guard the box, and she had kept that promise. She didn’t even know what sort of danger the items posed, because Mama had always been so vague about it, but the box and the key and the promise had all been laid at Maddie’s feet with an air of urgent – almost paranoid – importance.
She had kept that promise, but she hadn’t wanted Selena to carry it forward, and it was certainly too late to talk to her about it now. Maddie sighed, long and cleansing, and felt her body shudder into a state that was at once disconcerting and fundamentally familiar. She understood now why people referred to death as “going home”, because whatever was happening to her body, the rest of her was heading for somewhere that she knew she had been to before.
She reached out to her bedside table, and her hand as it wavered in front of her seemed transparent. She didn’t have much time at all, she realized. She took up her crossword pencil in stiff, tingling fingers, and scratched it across the get-well-soon card her friend Marian had sent her.
“Just get rid of all this stuff, Selena,” she wrote – or at least she hoped she had written that, because her eyes were no longer seeing things quite as they had seen them a moment ago – “None of it matters. I love you and Don and the kids. I’m proud of you. Mom.”
The last arc of the final “m” trailed terribly to the right, and Maddie hoped Selena would be able to read it. She couldn’t hold the pencil anymore; it clattered onto the bedside table. She couldn’t really see anymore either, except a patch of light that must be the window. Her body felt … it felt … well, she couldn’t really feel it.
Her breath left her then, and she found that she couldn’t take another. It didn’t frighten her, though, because apparently she didn’t need to breathe. She floated up from the bed, and her vision suddenly cleared – the window, the mountains of stuff, the note she had just written, her own self on the bed. What a strange thing to experience, she thought, gazing down at her white, motionless body.
She looked into the closet, into the keepsake box – she didn’t need a key now, or hands, or anything. The “dangerous” items were as clear to her as the trees at the edge of the yard. She laughed, or imagined that she did, as she examined the items.
They weren’t evil, she realized. They were … competing with the living world, like angry neighbours quarreling over a shared well. What a relief. If Selena did find them, they probably wouldn’t be so bad to deal with as Maddie’s Mama had always feared. But the items weren’t welcome in the living world either, and Maddie knew now that she had been right not to tell Selena this strange part of her family history. It would be better for the items to be dispersed, so that their power could dissipate and eventually be forgotten.
I hope Selena listens to that note, Maddie thought. She marveled at how blissful love felt now that she was free of all other sensations.
Deciding that she wanted to fly, Maddie turned to the window and passed through it, on to whatever awaited her beyond the trees.
Mike had sat for a moment, listening to the situation next door and waiting for the familiar wail of police sirens. But today, something had snapped inside him. He understood now why the factory had let him go yesterday – sure, they had let a lot of people go, because, as his boss had explained, the “economy’s bad” – but now he understood why he personally was let go. He could see now, too, why he and Maria had ended up here in the first place, taking the factory job a year ago instead of pushing on to Missoula as they had planned when they left Texas.
“Maria,” he said, coming to his feet and staring out the window toward the Davises’ house. “Get the blue folder and the photos and anything else you really care about. Put them in bags and get them into the car.”
Maria was holding little Sammy. She blinked, nonplussed, at her husband, and switched Sammy from one arm to the other. “What are you thinking, Mike?” she asked, her voice expressing concern rather than actual confusion.
“I can’t watch this anymore,” Mike told her, never taking his eyes off the neighbours’ house. “That guy terrorizes his family, and then scares them into silence. They’ll never tell the police the truth, and the police never seem to do anything anyway. They think it’s her problem for her to solve … and maybe it is, but what are the kids supposed to do?” He shook his head. “They’re helpless in there, Maria. It’s not right.”
Maria had placed Sammy in the playpen. “I’ll be ready in five minutes,” she said, as though she had been preparing for this for a long time. “We’ll be leaving the furniture and all.”
“I know,” Mike said. “I know.” He walked out of the house, out the back door into the garage.
Maria watched him go, then she glanced out the window to the Davises’, where she could hear the sound of shouting, screaming, punches impacting with flesh. It sounded like the kids had already been allowed to flee – eventually Mr. Davis’ anger always turned exclusively to his wife. Mike wouldn’t be able to do anything for Mrs. Davis. Maria spun around then and hurried to the kitchen.
Mike pulled the sedan out of the garage and into the alley behind the row of houses. He drove slowly up to the Davises’ yard, to the place beside the garbage cans where six-year-old Derek Davis always hid when his father was angry. Derek was sitting there now, his hands covering his ears, his cheek bloody. He didn’t see Mike at first, but then their eyes met through the open passenger window, and Mike inclined his head and held his hand out toward Derek.
Derek stared at him with wide eyes for a long, long moment. His hands slowly came away from his ears, and his legs, bunched up under him, uncurled. He blinked at Mike. He looked toward the house, toward the yelling and the pounding and the noise. He looked back at Mike.
“Get your sisters,” Mike said. “Let’s go.”
Derek blinked again. Suddenly he climbed to his feet and ran toward the back of his house.
Mike didn’t know if Derek was coming back. He waited for two interminable minutes, his eyes focused on the Davises’ back door, his ears straining to hear the sirens that he knew would be coming any second. Glass shattered somewhere in the Davises’ living room, followed by more shouts of anger. Then the back door opened and Derek came out, followed by his two younger sisters. They scampered across the yard toward Mike’s sedan, and Derek’s small hands pulled the passenger door open. “Get in,” he said to his sisters, pushing them into the front seat of the sedan and then crawling in after them.
Mike put the car in reverse and brought it back to his own garage, backing it in so that Maria could get to the trunk. True to her word, she had quickly packed two large garbage bags with the things they really needed – the blue folder with all their important papers, the photo albums, Anna and Sammy’s favourite toys, her mother’s quilt, some clothes and shoes and toothbrushes. She dumped the bags into the trunk. “Anna,” she said to her three-year-old daughter, who had been roused from a nap and was now rubbing her eyes and glancing around her in confusion. “Get in,” Maria instructed. She opened the rear car door and slid inside, strapping Sammy and Anna into their car seats even as Mike pulled out once more into the alley. “I left a note for Mr. Franklin,” she said to Mike, referring to their landlord. “I told him the factory let you go, and that we couldn’t stay. I told him to do what he wanted with our furniture. And I left the keys on the table.”
“That’s good,” Mike said, nodding his head. “That’ll do.” He steered the car onto the street. At the far end, he saw two police cars speeding toward the Davises’ house, their lights flashing. “Stay low,” he said to Derek and his sisters. He drove with deliberate care to the corner, and then headed the car toward the interstate.
“My parents will wonder,” Maria said. “Where these three extra children came from.” She hugged the cookie jar to her chest – the jar full of what little cash they had managed to save up these past months. “What do we tell them?”
“We have eight hundred miles to figure it out,” Mike said. He pulled the car over to the curb beside the entrance to the freeway. “Is this what you want, Derek?” he asked, looking down at the little boy. “Amanda? Jenny? Did you want to come with us, and live with us now?”
It seemed like an eternity that they waited by the curb, cars whizzing by them. Eventually, Derek and his sisters curled up close to Mike; they never spoke, but they nodded their heads. In the rearview mirror, Mike saw Maria nodding her head as well.
“All right, then,” Mike said, and put his arm comfortingly across the pile of Davis children. He drove the sedan onto the freeway heading north, and didn’t look back.
… FBI Files: the times when the agents being interviewed have to be disguised.
FBI Files discusses cases, some from a really long time ago, others from just a little while ago. But, as often as possible, they interview the agents who were on the case, and sometimes those interviews are conducted in the shadows, and the agents’ voices altered. One agent actually had a mask over his head, in the shadows, with his voice altered. Why?
Because these agents are currently on undercover assignments.
When we think of “undercover assignments”, we tend to think big – the stuff we’ve seen in movies and TV shows, with glamourous stars and scripted “problems” and a knowing that the things we’re seeing are made up. The more TV shows and movies we see, the more likely we are to consider the subject matter to be fabricated, to be a thing that doesn’t really happen. But it does really happen.
Not every undercover assignment is a high-stakes Mission-Impossible scenario … but undercover assignments are usually in connection with some pretty bad people, who do pretty bad things. Being undercover is risky at best, and if they’re found out, the agents could pay for their deception with their lives.
In real life.
When you watch the FBI Files, you see a lot of men and women who are not glamourous stars. Since the cases are often from many years ago, some of the agents aren’t even agents anymore – they’ve gotten much older, and have retired, and look not just like regular people but like regular grandpas and grandmas. They don’t look gritty, or chiseled, or scary. Since they picked their profession because they care about catching bad guys, they’re often emotional about the cases they’re describing, the ones in which really bad guys hurt or took innocent lives. Real bad guys. Real lives. Real deaths. Real danger.
It gets so easy to criticize or judge – I don’t know how many true-crime shows I’ve seen where the people complain about how long it’s taking to find this bad guy or that, or where they just don’t understand why it’s so difficult to build a case – as though in the real world everything should take the same hour or two that it does on the TV screen. But in the real world, ordinary people become police detectives and FBI agents and intelligence gatherers … and those ordinary people risk their actual lives to do what they do, and it takes the time and effort that things take in the real world (more than two hours).
These people are someone’s mom or dad or grandparent. They go to PTA meetings and host children’s sleepovers. They bake and mow and do laundry and pay bills. And they have jobs that require so much secrecy, deception and danger that if they want to talk to you about the good things they’ve done before, they have to pretend they’re not them, and talk to you with a dark mask over their heads. And if they want to live through the day and accomplish more good things, they have to pretend they’re not doing them.
How many times have you wished that your job was more … glamourous? More exciting? More worth talking about? How many times have you bemoaned your “ordinary” life? If you’re like most people, you think sometimes that instead of being a claims adjuster or a hairdresser or a gas station attendant, maybe you could have been an agent of some kind, saving people and living a life of danger. But is that really what you want? If you had to do it as the regular person that you are – without scripts, or wardrobes, or people yelling “cut!” … if you had to be your ordinary self, working at a job where your life depended on keeping your identity a secret. Where if you fail, actual bad guys get away with actual crimes, and maybe, if you fail, you’re actually dead. For real.
What strikes me about FBI Files is that the people in the shadows and the masks aren’t really any different from me or you. They’re living this “glamourous” life – except that it isn’t really glamourous, and it is really dangerous … and when I realized that, it changed the way I looked at all the made-up stuff.
And it changed the way I looked at “ordinary.”
… Annabelle: the doll never does anything.
Annabelle is a large doll with glass eyes and a painted face … and a spirit that possesses her. People who own the doll report significant paranormal disturbances and a sensation of an evil presence. A psychic tells one of the owners that the spirit is a girl whose parents have died, and that the girl loves Annabelle and wants to stay with her.
Perhaps this “girl” is the evil presence, or perhaps there is an additional entity that brings something darker to the party. Maybe the whole thing is just in the overactive imaginations of the people who became spooked by Annabelle’s staring glass eyes. Maybe the current owner – a young mother who’s experienced a recent trauma – is just overwhelmed by hormones and emotions and memories; maybe she’s just concocting the whole thing in her head.
But the audience soon sees that something supernatural really is going on. Things around Annabelle are altered in strange and unpleasant ways, and the atmosphere is decidedly threatening. And the camera lets us know the source of this unpleasantness: the increasingly creepy face of the doll, whose eyes we assume will blink at any moment, whose head we assume will turn back and forth of its own accord, whose little doll feet will no doubt be heard scampering all over the hard-wood floors. But … we watch Annabelle for the whole length of the movie, and our tension builds, and we get more and more creeped out by the staring and the waiting and the unknown that we expect …
… and Annabelle never moves. She never blinks. She never turns or twists or walks or talks or anything. The only times she moves, she’s being held and moved by others. The supernatural things going on very quickly reveal themselves to be about whatever spirit has attached itself to the doll; rather than some kind of physical possession that allows Annabelle to be alive or animated, the possession is emotional, bringing the spirits into the house with the doll like a bad smell that won’t go away.
So why, even at the end of the film, are we still looking at her porcelain face and waiting – with our hands cupped over our eyes – for her to move? Even after we’ve identified the danger and dealt with it, why are we still waiting to see something in that doll?
Because we want to.
Not because it’s a horror movie, and we as an audience expect creepy things to happen, but because even in our actual lives, we think about the things that frighten or spook or disturb us … and we wait for it to happen. We almost want it to happen, just to resolve the growing tension of waiting for it to happen. We almost want it to happen.
We watch horror movies so that all these things that we fear can happen in a controlled environment – because somehow they need to happen, but we don’t really want them to. We just want a release from that tension, from the daily fear of everything that could go wrong. And we put all our eggs into one basket – the doll Annabelle – because that way, we’ve isolated the object of our fears into one convenient package, and if we can “stop” Annabelle, then we can “stop” all our fears in one fell swoop. We can imagine that all the fears in our hearts actually reside in this doll, and once it’s “dealt with” then our fears will go away … one Annabelle at a time.
But in truth, Annabelle is only a doll, even within the story. In truth, the evil presence attached to the doll is something separate and amorphous and enormous, connected to horrors the heroine couldn’t even really contemplate. In truth, no matter what dangers we face, it isn’t the doll that’s the problem. It’s the way we sit there, with our hands cupped over our eyes, building up our store of tension and dread, illogically wishing for the things we fear to “just happen already.” It’s the way that we put our fears into the things around us, and wait for them to live up to our expectations.
In truth, we bring the fears, and Annabelle just sits and stares at us, until the very, very end.