One Page Stories – Third Web

Full Circle

Laney sat down at the little table by the window and looked out over the sunny courtyard. She felt safe for a change; she felt … happy.

The old man who always sat on the bench in the courtyard finally arrived, and took up his customary seat at the north end of the wooden bench. He carried a bag of bread crumbs that he would spend the morning feeding to the pigeons. He always fed them, all morning, and read the newspaper, and talked with some of the others who always came to the courtyard. Sometimes he had a thermos of coffee, but today he had a paper cup with a little tag hanging out of it – tea.

Today I’ll go talk to him, Laney decided. She got up from the table and called out to the nice girl who always brought her coffee and biscuits. “Janetta, would it be okay if you brought it out there?”

The nice girl smiled at her the way she always did. “Sure, Laney,” she said. “Are you finally going to talk to Mr. Steinman?” Her eyes twinkled, and Laney blushed.

“I am,” she announced, her voice wavering between bravery and nervousness. She had been wanting to talk to Mr. Steinman for a long time, because he seemed so friendly and smiley and yet just a little sad. He seemed like he had a story to tell.

He seemed like the sort of man who might understand that she had a story to tell.

She made her way tentatively to the bench, and leaned down toward the old man. “Mr. Steinman?” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.

He looked up at her with kind eyes and a gentle, inquisitive smile. “Yes?” he said.

Laney glanced at the empty end of the bench. “Could – could I sit here with you?”

“Of course!” he said, smiling broadly. He gestured to the seat right beside him. “Please; please!”

Laney sat down, smiling too. “I – I hope it’s not too forward,” she said shyly. “But Janetta said you were someone who might be able to help me.”

Mr. Steinman looked at her in surprise. “Why, of course!” he said. “But what is it I can do for you?”

“I …” She paused, and looked down for a moment at her hands folded in her lap. “I came in on one of the transports from Ritika. And … and I’m trying to settle in.” She looked around at the bright courtyard, with its fountain and flowers and statuary. “It’s very beautiful here,” she said. “But sometimes I worry.”

At the mention of the Ritika transports, Mr. Steinman’s pleasant expression had suffused with absolute compassion. “I see,” he said softly. He reached out one wrinkled hand and patted Laney’s. “You should call me Victor,” he said. “What is it,” he asked her, “that you worry about?”

“A lot of things,” Laney said. His hand on hers was very comforting, even though she had never spoken to him before today. “I worry that Cal is still alive and will find me. I worry that I shouldn’t have escaped from Ritika, even though it’s so much more beautiful here, and so quiet and good. I – I worry that I don’t deserve all this kindness.” She stopped, tears in her eyes that she hoped he didn’t see. Why on earth was she telling him this? What on earth was he supposed to do about any of it? Why did Janetta think he could help me with any of this?

But Mr. Steinman – Victor – didn’t seem bothered by her words, or by the notion that he was supposed to offer her something helpful. He seemed instead to know exactly what she was talking about, and to feel entirely sympathetic toward her. He patted her hands again, and then reached into the bag of bread crumbs and tossed a handful at the collection of pigeons in front of the bench.

“When I was a little boy,” he said, tossing a second handful. “My father and brother disappeared – I learned much later that they were arrested by the Nazis, and killed. My mother and I decided to leave our village, but the Nazis intercepted us, and my mother forced me to run away without her.” He gazed at Laney, who was staring back at him with wide eyes – she had heard of the Nazis, even in Ritika. “I never saw her again,” he went on. “I did as she said, and ran to the west, and I didn’t stop until I got to a city where the Allies were in charge.” He tossed a third handful of crumbs. “It was a long time – looking back, I think it must have been nearly a month. I ate what I could find in the woods, and got sick on that more than a few times; I was always so cold, even when the sun was shining. By the time I found the Allies, I didn’t know who to trust or what to do. I missed my mother, and I didn’t know she had been killed until twelve years later. I just kept hoping and hoping, and relying on the kindness of strangers, and wishing I could go back in time and bring my mother with me out of our village.” He sighed. “It was years before I really landed anywhere, and years more before I had made peace with the fact that I was the last member of our little family.”

Laney was weeping now, unabashedly. “I’ve been so selfish!” she cried. “I – I had no idea!”

Victor laughed, an incongruous sound in the wake of such an emotional story. “It was many long years ago,” he told her. “I lived my life, and made a new family. I have children now, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.” He put his hand on hers again. “My Sonya’s heart gave out seven months ago, and so I’ve been a little sad, but I know I’ll see her again, and my mother and father, and my brother.” He put his arm around Laney’s shoulders. “And I know – because it is what I would have wanted if our places were reversed – that they want me to be happy. My mother sent me into the woods that day so that I could grow up and be happy; it was all she had left.” He leaned close to Laney, and gazed into her eyes. “I have to be happy, for my mother,” he explained. “And you have to be happy, for all the people who wanted that for you.”

Laney blinked tears away. “I left Cal to die,” she said, so quietly that Victor could hardly hear her. “But he wasn’t going to let me go. He was going to pretend to let me go, but then he was going to make me go back to another place like Ritika. I had to leave him. I had to escape.”

Victor understood all too well the feelings she had not put into words. “Yes, you did,” he said. “You did.” He hugged her closer. “And now you have a good life.” He handed her the bag of crumbs. “Cal didn’t have to choose what he chose.”

“Neither did I,” Laney protested. “I could have gone with him, and escaped from him later, somehow.” She sobbed. “But I think – I think – Cal wasn’t a very good person. He wanted to keep everything the way it was, and … I didn’t like the way it was. I don’t think it was very good at all, and people died all the time.” She shook her head forlornly. “But maybe that wasn’t for me to decide.”

“It was yours as much as anyone’s,” Victor told her. “You chose what you chose because you thought it was good. And that’s …” He chuckled, and hugged her tighter. “That’s all we get sometimes. That’s the best we can do.”

She wanted to argue the point – to convince him that she should be sad – but deep down she wanted to believe him. She wanted to be happy, and to have the life that she had found outside of Ritika.

Deep down she knew that Cal would have killed a lot of people if he had been given the chance.

“I am a person?” she asked Victor, terrified of his answer, but needing it all the same.

Victor raised his eyebrows. “Of course you are, my dear,” he assured her. “Of course you are.”

Laney took the bag of breadcrumbs and pulled out a handful. “I want to be okay,” she said, and tossed the crumbs to the eager birds. Even though she didn’t really know Mr. Steinman – Victor – very well, and even though she felt that she had brought up unhappy memories for him, she felt closer to him than to anyone else she had met since she left Ritika. She laid her head down on his shoulder and threw another clump of crumbs.

“I know,” Victor said, patting her shoulder. “You will be.”

They sat for a long time on the bench, feeding the birds, drinking tea and the coffee Janetta eventually brought out to her, and soaking up the sunshine.

The sunshine felt good.

The Thing I Like About …

1408: When he refuses the express check-out service.

In 1408, Mike Enslin, coping with the death of his young daughter and the subsequent collapse of his marriage, spends his time writing books about haunted places – after checking those places out firsthand. We watch him spend the night in a “haunted” house, where absolutely nothing happens. We hear him describing other research trips wherein, outside of the “creepy” factor, the paranormal was entirely absent. He, in fact, doesn’t seem to believe in the paranormal at all – which suggests that in all his stays in haunted locales, he’s never actually experienced anything even particularly strange.

And that makes the extraordinarily haunted Room 1408 at the Dolphin Hotel all the more shocking for him. Although in the beginning he says into his little voice recorder that “we don’t rattle,” he proceeds to get rattled – thoroughly rattled. He quickly gets to a point where he doesn’t know where reality ends and nightmare begins, and, like the others who have been attacked by the Room, he reaches a point where death might seem far preferable to five more minutes in this wretched place. Those before him had indeed chosen suicide, and when the alarmingly cheerful woman on the phone offers Mike the “express check-out service”, we suppose he might take that clear path out of this ghastly situation.

But he says no.

He says, “We don’t rattle.”

And he finds a way not only to get out of 1408, but to get rid of 1408 altogether.

Most of us haven’t had the opportunity to witness a lot of things we would call “paranormal” (which most of those are perfectly happy about), but almost all of us, at some point, end up in a place where we really, really, don’t like where we are or what’s happening to us. We feel ourselves getting swept away in a flood of anxiety, heartache, dread, fear, and panic. We know somewhere in the backs of our minds that we just need to breathe, and regroup, and stay calm enough to find a way out of the situation … but that small voice of reason is drowned out entirely by the shrill screaming of confused terror. It could be something as simple and mundane as walking into a room full of strangers, or it could be a more pressing danger, like a car accident, a broken bone, a sudden illness, a mugging. It could be a long-term, gradual panic, as we watch ourselves falling into a life we didn’t want – a terrible job, an addiction, a person or entity that seeks to entrap and control us – and we feel more desperate with each passing moment.

Some of us take the express check-out.

But Mike Enslin decides to stick it out, to breathe, to regroup, to stay calm enough to assess the situation for what it really is. And when he does that, he sees not only a way out, but a chink in the armour of his aggressor that, once breached, will eliminate the Room as a threat forever.

He’s able to do this because he realizes that the creepy-perky voice on the phone is the real enemy, rather than the illusions that the Room has thrown in front of him. He takes a stand against that real enemy, and brings himself back from the brink.

It isn’t whatever untenable situation we’re in that gets us; it’s the thought – the fear – that there isn’t any way out of it. But that’s the real enemy – that voice that says, “This is too bad to survive! This is the worst thing ever! You’re not strong enough or smart enough to deal with this! We’re gonna die!” It says, “We’re never getting out of here.” It says, “Express check-out – that’s the ticket.”

That’s the enemy we have to face, the one we have to stand up to and say, “No, thank you.” We have to say to ourselves, “We don’t rattle.”

From there we can fix anything.

The Thing I Like About …

AVP: the part where the Predator honours the woman’s kill [spoiler alert].

In AVP, the Aliens and the Predators are duking it out on our planet – and we’re caught in the crossfire.  And we’re caught completely unawares, because we have no idea what or who the Aliens or Predators are, what they’re doing here, or (at first) even that they’re there at all.

The main character – Alexa “Lex” Woods – ends up being the last human survivor, bringing the Predator his weapons back because she hopes that he might be willing to let her live in exchange for being able to kill the Aliens together.  She is right.

He shows her how to use the Alien exoskeleton as a shield against their acid attacks.  He lets her handle the dispatching of her friend when they find him cocooned and impregnated.  He … doesn’t kill her.  And, after they fight off the Aliens and save the day, he marks her face with the symbol he has burned into his own skin – the symbol that says they have killed the Alien, a most formidable quarry, and that they have therefore earned respect as warriors.

It’s pretty cool.

But the really cool part is that she seems not just fine with it, but proud of it.  She doesn’t hesitate a moment when he offers to mark her face, and she recognizes that the mark keeps the other Predators from killing her too.  She stands there with her tiny human weapons, and her hard-won victory, and her scars … and then she gets on with her life.

In our culture, we shy away from scars.  We get tattoos and piercings, but we put them where we want them, and we make them look the way we want them to look.  We – especially women – don’t like random scars – especially on our faces.  They seem ugly, grotesque, and at best a sign that life is full of nasty surprises that we would rather not be obliged to think about.  But the truth is, life is full of nasty surprises, and challenges, and ordeals … and triumphing over these things is something we should be proud of, rather than feeling downtrodden or fearful or oblivious.  We have more strength than we imagine, more resourcefulness than we realize, but we spend our days hoping that we never have the scars from the battles we have fought and won.

Wear your scars.  They aren’t ugly, or grotesque, or bad.  They’re badges of honour and courage.  They say, “I did this.  I lived through this.  ‘This’ tried to kill me, and I said, ‘piss off!’”  They say, “I’m strong.  I’m a survivor.  I’m a respected warrior. Faberge eggs are ‘pretty’; I’m human, and I’m alive.”

Wear your scars.

The Thing I Like About …

… Total Drama on Cartoon Network:  it gives me hope for humanity.

Total Drama has various incarnations.  The first is Total Drama Island, wherein a pack of people chosen to compete on the island try to survive until the end, in order to claim a money prize.  They are typically in teams that endure challenges, and from the pool of the losers each week is selected someone to be eliminated.  Sound familiar?

But as a cartoon, Total Drama has something “real” reality TV doesn’t have – self-awareness.  It pokes fun quite skillfully at every stupid thing reality TV stars have ever done/said/experienced, highlighting so many of the things that a person might think is wrong with this world.  And that’s where the hope comes in.

If a cartoon can point it out, then that means people are in fact aware of how ridiculous it all really is.  And if people are aware of it, then more people can become aware of it (especially the impressionable youngsters who usually watch Total Drama), and then more and more people, until finally everyone realizes that reality TV – while occasionally a lot of fun – isn’t real.

The Thing I Like About …

Enemy Mine:  the part where Jerry runs from the camp to save Davidge from the horrible tentacled monster.

In Enemy Mine, Davidge is a human soldier fighting in a war against reptilian beings.  Jerry is one of these reptilian beings, and the war between them and humans is long-standing and bitter.  Both Davidge and Jerry crash on a planet with little hope of rescue, and to survive the planet’s harsh environment, they need to learn to work together.  One day, while Davidge is away from camp, he gets sucked into the ground by a horrible tentacled monster, and he starts yelling for help.  Jerry runs to help, and saves Davidge’s life.

Jerry explains his actions by saying that it’s nice to have someone to talk to, even if it’s someone as ugly as Davidge.

Life on our planet can be challenging.  We spend our days struggling to avoid the things that scare us; we often have significant conflict as people deal with change.  We yearn for connection, but we fear being hurt.  Jerry and Davidge have to be stranded – forced – to learn how to depend on each other, how to trust each other, how to like each other.  They have to face death to see what’s true for all of us – it’s nice to have someone to talk to, and to know that someone has your back.

It would be great to discover that all the things that frighten us are ultimately as harmless as Jerry and Davidge find each other to be.  It would also be great if we could discover that without having to be stranded on a harsh planet and forced to cooperate for survival.  Jerry and Davidge start out with mutual hatred and absolutely nothing else in common. They end up closer to each other than to anyone else in their lives.  If they can do that, maybe we in the real world can at least try to let each other in a little bit, and find the friends that are hiding underneath “enemy” exteriors.