Down to the Lighthouse (2009) Melodrama. In this rarely seen cult classic, two brothers attempt to put their lives back together after their family suffers from a tragic loss. Starring Gerard Butler. (90 min.)
At first it’s just the sound of water. Lonely waves lapping against the shore. Then the credits ease in, all those words that nobody reads floating on the cold, undulating murk. A stone skips across the steel-coloured lake, disturbing the text. And another. As the splashes ripple and diminish, the camera lifts away from the waves and angles toward the shore. We see a rocky beach where two boys sit at the foot of a dilapidated lighthouse. Michael Cera and Justin Bieber. They’re talking and tossing stones. We overhear that it’s the last weekend of summer, Labour Day, and the last chunk of time the boys have together. Michael is heading back to university and Justin’s entering his senior year of high school. In a way, these are their final few moments of childhood, of innocence.
Music swells and Michael checks his watch. Some credits peek playfully from behind the lighthouse, then coast on through the sky. The boys get up, walk over to their busted-up bikes, and start pedalling through the scrub to their grandfather’s farm. Their feet pump in time with the music and more credits float by like a reef of wispy clouds as the lads roll along the rocky terrain. Smiles flash in the dry sunlight. The boys radiate robust natural health—they’ve got their whole lives ahead of them.
An old-fashioned screen door sways in the breeze on a farmhouse porch. Justin and Michael coast down the long and dusty laneway. In the relative gloom of the farmhouse, swinging slowly like a pendulum, a corded phone hangs off its hook.
The boys leap off their still-moving vehicles and race for the door while the bikes skid on their sides in the grass. Justin gets through the door first. He stops, stunned. Michael slams into his brother’s back but before he can say anything he freezes, too.
Under the phone, their mother, Molly Parker, is huddled on the floor. She looks up at the boys, bleary-eyed, with snot running down her face. She can barely stand looking at them, so she covers her face with her hands.
“It’s—it’s your father,” she says.
Back in the city, at night, the family stumbles into their house like zombies. They’re wearing the same clothes from the farm. The entranceway is filled with photos of them smiling over the years. Justin Bieber, Michael Cera, Molly Parker, and Gerard Butler. Only Gerard’s not waiting for them.
In silence, Molly trudges up the stairs of their townhouse and collapses onto the unmade bed she shared with her husband all these years.
Downstairs, the boys open the door to their father’s study. They hesitate. Justin grabs Michael’s arm.
“Are you sure we should go in there?” he asks.
Michael nods, breaching their father’s domain.
It’s an old-fashioned study, a professional’s retreat from the ruckus of family life. Diplomas hang on the wall between heavily stocked bookshelves. Their father was a psychotherapist. The room is immaculate. On the desk, a single envelope stands out from the dark wood. Michael picks it up. It reads: To My Family.
With trembling hands Michael tears the edge of the envelope.
Justin steps forward.
“I don’t think we should—”
But Michael silences him with a glance. His eyes reveal a weight that hangs, taut, just behind his placid exterior.
The rough sound of ripping the envelope dominates the room.
Michael Cera’s eyes flit over the page.
“It’s a suicide note,” he says, the pressure from his fingers crinkling the piece of paper.
“We have to tell mom,” Justin says, reaching for the letter.
Like all older siblings, Michael unconsciously pulls the page out of his little brother’s reach. “No,” he says. He’s looking at the photograph on his father’s desk. It shows a young, bearded Butler with Molly Parker. They’re on vacation somewhere European. Sepia grins echo through time.
Michael slides the letter back into the envelope and shoves it in his pocket.
“We can’t tell mom,” he says. “We can’t do that to her.”
At first Justin glares at Michael defiantly, but he soon relents. How can he fight his brother at a time like this?
“Think about what it will mean to her memories,” Michael says. “Or his life insurance. He was hit by a car. It was a terrible accident.”
Justin keeps his eyes down. He can’t even look at his brother.
The conversation over, Michael Cera leaves the room.
Justin clenches his fists and breathes heavily. Surrounded by the remnants of a father he barely knew, alone in a room bereft of purpose, Justin Bieber descends into sobs.
A few weeks later, Molly Parker and Justin Bieber carry duffle bags through the screen door of the farmhouse. It creaks like a drawn bow, then slams shut. Her father, Tommy Lee Jones, greets them while wiping his hands on a ratty dishtowel. Molly drops her bags and hugs him. He’s old but tough, with gnarled arms that look like the roots of a tree.
Justin stands back, not sure where to put his bag. His face is marred with indecision, eyes flitting like an upset hummingbird. He glances up at his maternal grandfather, this lone widower welcoming woman and boy into his rustic sanctuary. The greeting is of course complicated by context.
“It’s good to see you, Molly,” Tommy Lee Jones says, disengaging from his daughter. “You too, Justin. Why, I’m not sure you’ve ever been out here in the fall. You might not recognize the place.” His grandfather is all smiles and what little warmth an old farmer raised during the Depression can muster. He’s inscrutable, like all people from another generation, as though keyed into a slightly different register.
“You can drop your bag anywhere, hun,” Molly Parker says.
Justin places his luggage on an ornate wooden piece of furniture. The kind of Victorian antique you see in old farmer’s entranceways: a tall combination of coat rack, mirror, seat, and footlocker. He doesn’t want to appear petulant, so Justin approaches his grandfather and extends a hand. Tommy Lee Jones grabs hold of Justin Bieber’s mitt and squeezes. The old man’s hand, toughened from decades spent wrestling with livestock and machinery, crushes the younger man’s fingers. Justin’s disquiet is palpable. He can’t tell whether or not this is on purpose. He thinks: Is his grandfather testing him? Or is it just his natural strength? Is this how real men treat each other?
Grunting, Tommy Lee Jones pulls his grandson off balance in a half-wrestling move and half-hug. The whole thing is kind of weird to watch, but Molly Parker doesn’t seem bothered by it.
“Not too bad for an old gaffer, eh?” Tommy Lee Jones says.
Not knowing what else to do, Justin smiles and says, “For sure.”
It felt like being in a locker room.
“Welcome to your new home.”
Elsewhere, established by the noise of traffic coming from the street outside, Michael Cera drops his bags on the floor of a dingy room. He kicks the door to his bachelor apartment shut behind him and walks over to the window. There’s no curtain on the single porthole to the outside world. Harsh, artificial light washes over Michael’s furrowed brow as he stares down at people milling about on the street below. His pupils dilate, and his mouth moves, but no sound comes out.
He stands there watching others for an uncomfortable amount of time. The expression on his face changes, but only slightly. He keeps his mouth open but breathes heavily through expanded nostrils.
Michael starts moving his hand. Fabric rustles. He lifts his cell phone up to check his text messages. There are a few new ones, but he dismisses them. It’s just his girlfriend, wanting to know how the train ride went. He tosses the phone onto the table beside him and starts looking out the window again.
On the scuffed table are a pile of envelopes and papers, a stack of unwashed dishes, a sickly looking plant, and bottles of wine and beer in various states of emptiness. Two ugly chairs squat by the table, one close enough to the window for Michael to rest his hand on its back. Against one wall is a stained futon on a wooden frame without any sheets, just a duvet balled up at the foot of the “bed.” A lamp with no lampshade sits beside the futon on a stack of hardcover textbooks that say things like Psychology 201 and The Human Mind. The far corner of the room hosts a tall pile of books arranged in a ziggurat. By the doors to the washroom and hallway there’s a kitchenette. The less said about the kitchenette, the better.
The phone starts buzzing against the table, so Michael picks it up and answers it half-heartedly while still staring out the window.
“Hey,” he says.
His body language is stiff and his voice void of emotion. He isn’t really listening.
“All right, I guess,” he says.
During his pauses, the whine of the traffic grows, until it sounds like crashing waves, like a pressure building inside our heads.
“Yeah,” Michael Cera says. “I’m home.”
Back on the farm, Justin Bieber and Tommy Lee Jones chuck square bales of hay into the back of a pick-up truck rigged with tall wooden slats on the side to keep the ever-growing pile of bales in the bed. Justin’s worked up a sweat. He takes off one of his work gloves to wipe the slick sheen from his forehead and run fingers through his hair. His urban haircut is blonder than when we first met him, his skin bronzed from working in the sun, and his shirt’s unbuttoned to reveal the labour-sculpted edges of his burgeoning muscles.
In the late-autumn heat, Justin finds himself subsumed in the rhythm of work. After a few false starts, and with a little advice from his grandfather, Justin has discovered a new, embodied capability, where his sense of self (and therefore self-doubt and self-loathing) dissolves within the taxing demands of complete physical attention.
What’s more, Justin’s good at baling. Almost as good as his grandfather. While Tommy Lee Jones is skilled and efficient, Bieber can keep going indefinitely. With some guilt he recognizes that this ability is merely the bloom of youth. Still, he can’t help but feel pride after each day of work, with another field clear and the throb in his body, the ache of accomplishment, making it all real.
The hours of baling would be far more boring for Molly Parker, sitting in the cab of the truck, slowly circling the fields in a narrowing set of concentric rings—except for the fact that she can see this transformation in her son’s body language. During the weeks in the fields his posture improves and the creases in his brow slowly vanish. Most of all, in the rear-view mirror she sees a bond forming between her son and her father. A chain of experiences bridging generations.
Despite herself, she’s reminded of her husband, and a similar scene in the rear-view mirror. It’s a summer from the deep past, with Gerard Butler in Justin’s place. Instead of a fluid rhythm of movement and exchange, Gerard looks like a rusty robot. He strains with every motion and pales in comparison to the supple form of a middle-aged Tommy Lee. The pair bristles in silence. Molly can’t quite remember how the bickering between them began. Had her father started acting like it was a competition? Had he sailed the kind of innocent, macho barb his brothers would have bandied about?
Or was it Gerard and his academic arrogance? He was utterly unable to accept the advice of another man because, no matter how hale the suggestion, it was an admission of ignorance, of rhetorical defeat. Or was it merely his insecurity in general, causing Gerard to push himself too far in an effort to prove that he was up to the task, all the while pretending that he was above such pettiness?
Regardless, it didn’t end well. Even though Gerard never brought it up, after they had the boys the family never again visited the farm during harvest.
Back in the present, Molly eases on the brakes at another pyramid of hay bales, and adjusts the rear-view mirror. She catches her eyes in the reflection, and cannot hide from what is there. Behind her, Justin hauls another cube of straw up onto the truck. It lands with a whump. His grandfather points and says something. The boy laughs. Molly bites her bottom lip. Hard. A wave of anguish ripples overtop of her freckled features. She breathes deep. In the background we hear the dull thuds of hay landing as Molly Parker’s porcelain-like face is screwed up in grief.
Someone bangs on the metal in the back of the truck. Three solid blows.
Done with this load, the boys sit amongst the hay. It’s time to drive to the barn. Shaking and sobbing, Molly punches the transmission into drive and the truck lurches through the field. There isn’t enough sun to do another load. It’s time to wash up and eat dinner. Then face tomorrow.
As the burdened pick-up rolls along the dirt track, Molly Parker’s breath cuts into her lungs, one gasp at a time.
The dawn breaks. A rooster struts a step or two atop a weather-beaten shed. But it doesn’t crow.
Inside the farmhouse, Molly Parker stands over Justin Bieber. He’s dead to the world. She leans on the doorframe to his room, holding a cup of hot coffee in one hand, a paperback in the other. Tommy Lee Jones walks by in the hallway. He looks at her and he looks at his watch then he looks at her again but keeps on walking.
“I know, I know,” she says, stepping into the room and pinching Justin’s big toe through the blanket. “Up and at ’em,” she says as the teenager rolls over. “You don’t want to be late on your first day.”
Justin’s eyes flutter open. For a split second fear registers in his dilating pupils and tension bites the skin around his eyes.
Justin rolls out of bed with a low groan. He stares at his closet while standing, shirtless, in his plaid pyjama bottoms. Drumming fingers on his ageless torso, he can’t figure out what to wear. He’s starting school halfway through the semester, so he’s going to stand out no matter what. To play it safe, Justin chooses a ubiquitous outfit: skinny black jeans, white v-neck t-shirt, and a zip-up hoodie.
Down in the kitchen, Molly nervously sips coffee while her father munches on dry toast and her son slurps the last bit of milk out of the bottom of his bowl of honey nut cheerios.
“I can drive you, you know,” she says.
“No thanks,” Justin says, checking his phone. “I’ll be fine. I don’t want to mess with your morning.”
Molly takes another sip of coffee. She knows her son is just being nice. He doesn’t want to be embarrassed by his mom driving him up to the entrance of Renfrew Collegiate. In her anxiety she’d probably forget herself and ask for a kiss. She could still remember the look of panic on Michael Cera’s face when she did that to him on his first day of university, right as they left his dorm room. No, it wasn’t concern for her morning, but his.
What was she going to do all day, anyway? Wash the dishes, watch her father flip through the newspaper, go for a walk down to the lighthouse, stare at the waves, and try not to cry.
A chair squeaks against the linoleum floor. Justin stands and grabs his knapsack.
“I’d better book it,” he says, stooping to kiss his mother on the cheek. “Wish me luck.”
It was only a saying, a meaningless phrase, but still, she couldn’t do it.
Justin Bieber realizes his mistake the moment the bus door folds shut behind him. It doesn’t matter what he wears. His entire wardrobe is wrong. Instead of Converses, these kids wear boots. Some cowboy, others work. Only girls wear skinny jeans. The boys dress like his grandfather, or else like some cartoon caricature of black kids from Brooklyn in the ’90s: wife-beaters, saggy jeans, and black hoodies with curious day-glo sigils. He can’t fit in or fly under the radar. He’ll just have to stand out a little.
Thankfully, few eyes are on him, so Justin sits down in the nearest empty seat and watches the trees and the fields roll by.
At school, things are the same. Nobody pays him much attention. He’s “The New Kid,” sure, so there is a bit of awkward unease here and there, but it’s a lot better than it could’ve been. He had expected to get put on the spot and introduced to the class at the front of the room, like in a TV show. Instead, they just fold him in. Justin is happy to melt into a chair and try to catch up to the narrative of his classes.
More than rejection, Justin Bieber fears attention. He doesn’t want to answer any of the obvious icebreaking questions like, “Why did you move here?” just yet, so he appreciates the social buffer. None of the teachers take an interest in him, no misunderstood outsider reaches out with a symbolic gesture, and no student suddenly finds their heart pumping at the sight of this new boy. No, nothing much happens to Justin on his first day of school in the country. It’s nice.
Over the next little while, Justin isn’t aware of much. He’s a bit overwhelmed by all the reading, so a week or two rolls by before he knows it. To kids who’ve known each other since kindergarten, he’ll always be “New Guy,” but the title soon loses its foreign glamour. Sure, the others think he dresses a little faggy (that word still has currency here) but he’s not so bad. It isn’t like he wears make-up. For the most part, he seems normal, so he’s ignored. By the time Justin catches up and, never a scholar like his brother, finds his stuttering pace in Chemistry, English, and the rest, nearly a month has passed by in a relaxing montage.
More or less in a groove, Justin mindlessly putts along, ticking the days off his Calendar app. Then one night at dinner Molly Parker asks if he’s made any new friends. He looks at her and almost stops chewing. Surely she realizes that would be impossible. It would demand putting himself out there, becoming a potential target again, and telling people things about his past that he hasn’t even broached with his friends back home.
In that moment, Justin realizes that he’s treating all of this like an extended vacation. A working holiday. Get some chores done on the farm, some work at school, then ship on back to the city and pick up his life where he left it. Some stupid part of him, deep down, still believed that they were gonna go back to their real life. To dad.
After swallowing, Justin says something noncommittal and waits for dinner to be over so he can go to his room.
Michael Cera’s phone buzzes on the table. He looks up from his book with an annoyed expression, stands with a sigh and grabs the mobile like a sausage, flips it over to see the screen, squints a little at the picture of his brother grinning, and rubs his thumb along the glass.
“Hey, what’s up,” Michael says.
While he waits for a response, Michael leafs through the pizza box on the table. It’s sitting on top of at least two other boxes. He contemplates the congealed cheese.
“Not much,” Justin says on the other end of the line. He’s sitting on a windowsill in the garret of the farmhouse. A cold fall rain is pounding down. The naked trees glisten in the light from the porch and the barn.
“Yeah,” Michael says, leaving the table to walk over to the window. “I’m just doing a bit of studying.” He leans against the window and looks at people walking by outside. A few are carrying umbrellas, but it’s only a light drizzle. Just enough to make the sidewalks shimmer.
“Sorry if I’m bothering you,” Justin says in an odd tone. Michael licks his lips. It wasn’t annoyed or sarcastic, like you might expect from a younger sibling. He almost sounds nervous.
Michael couldn’t think of any reason why his little brother would be anxious to talk to him. “No, no, it’s cool,” he says quickly. “What do you want to talk about?”
In the garret, Justin Bieber watches the driving rain as he decides whether he should tell his brother. It had been months. Maybe it was too late.
“It’s mom,” he finally says.
Michael Cera waits for more, but there isn’t any. He would have to drag this out of Justin, like always. “What about her?” he asks, leaning against the window, pressing his forehead against the cool glass, the bangs from his collegiate non-haircut splayed along its surface. “Is she on your case? I can talk to her if you want.”
“No. I mean yes, you need to talk to her—” Justin breaks off. He wants to say, “about dad, we both do,” but it won’t come out. He already knows what his brother will say. Not the exact words, but their shape. Michael will argue, and he’s better at it, so he’ll win. “—she’s having a really hard time,” he says eventually.
“What do you mean?”
“She cries. When she thinks nobody’s around, but it’s obvious. Her face is puffy, and there are bags under her eyes … I don’t think she’s sleeping.”
“Justin,” Michael says. “She lost her husband.”
“No, it’s more than that. It’s like she’s broken. She doesn’t even talk about getting a new job, or about anything. She’s stuck. So she focuses on me, and grandpa, and you—but the whole time she’s chewing herself to pieces because she can’t look at herself.”
“Whoa. Now who’s studying psychology?”
“Sorry,” Justin says, turning from the window to face the darkened room. “I don’t know for sure. I just want it to stop. Y’know, she talks about you all the time, wants to know how you’re doing, can’t wait for Thanksgiving …”
Michael Cera buries his fingers in his hair, grimacing. He wheels through his apartment and crashes onto his futon beside a pile of clothes and an empty beer can. “I know,” he says. “But I sure can. I hate that place. And that old man.”
“He’s our grandfather.”
“Whatever. He’s a racist relic. Not to mention sexist. Has he told you that he never cooked a meal until his wife died? She had cancer for two years, but she still served him hand and foot. That’s fucked.”
Justin doesn’t know what to do. “Maybe it’s what she wanted,” he says. His brother was drawing him into an abstract fight instead of talking about the matter at hand. “Like a source of strength or pride for her to do her duty.” He knew he was being baited, but there was nothing he could do to shift the frame of the discussion.
“Isn’t that sick?” Michael asks rhetorically. “Her sense of self, her self-worth, was contingent upon his happiness, not hers.”
“They came from different times. We can’t judge their happiness.”
“Warped times,” Michael says triumphantly. “Thank god for progress.”
“That’s not the point!” Justin says. “Mom needs you to get out of this!”
“She needs to get better on her own terms, Justin,” Michael says with slick self-righteousness. “Otherwise she’ll form a dependency. You don’t want to enable that, do you?”
Deep down, Justin knows his brother is just selfish. But he can’t prove it, can’t show it with words. Especially not when he’s upset. Michael would use that against him, dodging the real issue by saying that Justin couldn’t see sense given his emotional state.
“We need to tell her,” Justin says, low and quiet and intense.
“What,” Michael says.
“Absolutely not. I forbid it.”
Who did he think he was?
“She needs to know the truth,” Justin says.
“It’ll crush her.”
“It’ll help her move on.”
“How do you know?”
“It has to be better than this.”
“Things can always get worse.”
Stop retreating into platitudes.
“Just think about it,” Justin pleads. “We’ve got ’til Thanksgiving. Then you’ll be here, and maybe it’ll make sense.”
“I sincerely doubt it,” Michael says.
“Just think about it,” Justin says, deflated. “I’ll talk to you later.”
“Sure,” Michael Cera says, hanging up the phone. He tosses it onto a pile of clothes, collapses on the futon, and rolls onto his back to stare at the long, dark crack that runs half the length of his apartment’s ceiling.
A few days later, Michael is performing his morning rituals. It’s some time past noon, but he’s still in his pyjamas. His scruffy hair is sticking up at the back. Two shafts of light pierce the gloom of his apartment. In the kitchenette, he lifts and shakes a few empty cereal boxes then opens up the cupboard and removes a box of pop-tarts. He grabs the space-metal baggie covering a pair of toaster pastries and tears the thin packaging with his teeth before dumping the crusty beige and white sugar-filled rectangles into his vintage toaster. While the wires in the toaster glow orange, Michael pulls his cell phone out of his pocket and flips through screens with his thumb.
No new emails. There’s nothing on Facebook, either. So he goes to a news website to fry the moments. One of those aggregate sites that pools stories from different sources to make readers feel smarter on the pretence of cross-referencing. Things are happening out there in the world. Big things. Political things. The kinds of things Michael Cera likes to use as ammunition in conversations so that he can get an edge on kids with more life experience than him, or a more cultured upbringing. The kind of kids who never ate white bread and bologna, because their moms knew better.
The pop-tarts pop. For a second, Michael watches the rivulets of steam float out of the toaster. The bright white box stands out on the counter. Michael picks it up to inspect it. Then he hears the unmistakable rattling of a shopping cart pushed down an aisle. A child says, “Dad, can we have this one?” and Michael turns around with a start.
He’s standing in the fluorescent glare of a supermarket and his father’s there with two little boys. Michael takes a step toward them, but he can’t say anything.
“Whoa, boys,” Gerard Butler says. He’s helping a tiny Justin Bieber push the cart. He reins it in, takes Bieber’s hand in his own, and leads the boy over to his brother. The young Michael Cera is standing in front of a row of pop-tart boxes, conveniently at his head height. Gerard kneels down. “This is a very important decision, boys,” he says. He has their full attention. “When you go for pop-tarts, you have to make sure to get the right kind. They’ve got a lot of fancy flavours, but most of them don’t taste good after the first bite. That’s why you’ve got to stick with the classics, like strawberry, instead of s’mores or this cookie cake nonsense.” The brothers look up at him skeptically. “You’ve gotta believe me boys!” Gerard Butler leans in conspiratorially. “Before I met your mother, I lived off pop-tarts.”
The bright lights of the scene suddenly pull away like Michael Cera’s standing on an escalator or a moving sidewalk. The figures in the supermarket whiz into the distance.
He’s back in his dank apartment, holding the pop-tart box.
He doesn’t want to look, but he has to.
Cera snaps. For the first time since his father died, Michael Cera weeps. A lone tear struggles out his eye and runs across his cheek. More follow. His hand clenches the pop-tart box, the waxed cardboard shaking as he braces his body against the counter. Michael’s lungs heave and his chest wracks. Tears pour down his ruined face.
His father is dead.
The young man collapses against the countertop, wailing, pressing forearm then fingers into his face, burying his eyes, shielding himself from the world.
His father is dead. And it hurts.
He wants to throw the box away, but he can’t. So he bangs it against the counter. An intense shame wells up in his chest, along with the need to control himself, but instead he screams.
Michael Cera locks his body in a rigid shell. He breathes deep. He bangs his forehead against the counter. After a few moments, he shudders once, twice, and then it’s done.
Wiping his bleary face, remembering to breathe, Cera plucks a pop-tart out of the toaster and starts munching on his breakfast.
It’s still warm.
Back in the country, things are coming together for Justin Bieber. He’s doing well in school. He isn’t exactly fitting in with the other kids, but he isn’t an outcast either. He had attended his first “bush” party, which consisted of a ring of pick-up trucks around a bonfire in the middle of a field, underage drinking, and fooling around under the stars. So he considers his social situation more or less neutral. He doesn’t even think about it. Mostly, he can’t wait to visit his big brother in the city then come back for Thanksgiving.
Things seemed better after their phone call. Like a weight lifted from Justin’s shoulders. Not that things were solved—far from it—but at least they were confronting the issue instead of letting it fester. Justin trusts his brother to do the right thing. They hid something when they shouldn’t have, but they can still come clean, and heal, together. Like a family.
Now when Justin talks to his mother, he doesn’t have to avoid eye contact. She still looks terrible, but with some help from his brother, as a person and not a shrink-in-training, they’ll get through this.
One night, about a week before the brothers are set to meet up in the city, Justin can’t sleep. He isn’t sure of the time, and he doesn’t want to check. It’s that magic hour deep in the night when it feels like the house itself is slumbering. A blanket of silence wraps around every movement, making the rooms of the farmhouse foreign.
In the darkness, he slips out of bed. He stalks downstairs and through the hallway, toward the kitchen. Justin’s in a tie-dye tank top, grey sweatpants, and those socks athletes wear that don’t go up past your ankles. With soft feet padding along the cool tile floor, Justin glides towards the fridge. He wants a snack. Maybe cereal, maybe toast and peanut butter. As his hand reaches for the refrigerator door, he hears something out of the corner of his ear. It’s someone talking, low and urgently. He holds his hand on the fridge door but doesn’t open it. If he did, then they’d know he was there.
Breathing as quietly as he can, stepping on the balls of his feet, Justin makes his way toward the front door. The landline is in one of those old-fashioned closets in the entranceway. On his way there, Justin passes a window and is caught off guard by the brightness of the moon. The landscape outside is bathed in a chill light the colour of bone. With each step his heart pounds. The blood rushing through his ears overwhelms the rustle of clothes or the low murmur of the lone voice in the hall.
Cresting the front hallway, Justin freezes just this side of the door.
It’s his mother.
On the phone, she sounds almost happy.
“No Roger,” she says, but it sounds like a yes. “I shouldn’t have called.”
The handset meets the cradle with a deafening click. The floor creaks as Molly Parker tiptoes toward the front hall. Justin panics. If he moves she’ll hear him. There’s nowhere to hide. The bright moon behind him lights up the room. He freezes.
Molly comes around the corner and almost hits Justin. She leaps back, arms swinging, and screams, “Who’s there?”
“It’s me,” Justin says. He notices, without meaning to, that she isn’t wearing much. “Sorry if I startled you. Are you okay? Who was that on the phone?” In his confusion, Justin asks the questions rapid-fire, without any inflection. It comes out harsher than he intends.
“What’re you doing—eavesdropping on me?” she says, shielding herself.
Justin steps back instinctively.
“Don’t you know what time it is?” she continues. “What are you doing? Speak up!”
Justin takes another step back. His mother’s on the verge of … something. Gone over a cliff he hadn’t even realized was there, a void he didn’t dare confront. He raises his hands defensively, but can’t think of anything to say—there is nothing to say in the face of this—so he just stands there and stares.
Molly takes a step toward him. “How dare you spy on me? What is this?” she shrieks. The ethereal light of the moon splayed across her delicate features gives her eyes a pale, chilling gleam. The room looks alien. It looks like a dream.
Justin opens his mouth, but nothing comes out.
“What’s wrong with you?”
His palms sweating, his heart racing, his legs like stone and his throat in a wolf’s jaw. He just stands there.
The lights flick on, and the mania dissolves.
“What’s going on?” Tommy Lee Jones says from the top of the stairs.
Molly Parker blinks a few times then hugs herself.
“Nothing, dad,” she says to the room. “Go back to sleep.”
Tommy Lee Jones grumbles something, but he lurches back to his bedroom. The floorboards in the old house creak like his bones.
Justin is still frozen. He’s looking at a different person.
“I’m sorry, hun,” she says, turning. “You startled me.” Molly Parker takes a few steps towards the stairs then stops. “Maybe I was sleepwalking.”
Swallowing, Justin forces a nod and says, “Okay.” He marches up the stairs to his bedroom and cocoons himself inside his blankets. He rolls over and stares at the wall. Wide-awake in the dark, he rubs his feet together for warmth. His arms are covered in goosebumps and he’s shivering.
Justin slowly warms up. His eyelids droop a little.
In his last few moments of consciousness, Justin Bieber realizes that they will never talk about tonight. The way his mom looked when the light came on, it was like nothing had happened.
Outside the window, a blue jay hops down the naked branches of a tree.
Inside, a stately, silver-haired woman standing in front of a blackboard glances at her pocket-watch and says, “—we’ll leave it there for today, folks. See you after the break.”
Halfway down the table, far enough away to not look keen but close enough to participate, Michael Cera slides his notebook into a shoulder bag and grabs a pea coat from the back of his seat. The sound of chairs grunting against the floor dominates the room as the Psych 411 seminar shuffles out the door. A few people chat, here and there, and one student trails after the prof to continue their dialogue, but the majority file out in silence. It’s one of those unwritten rules of undergrad. You don’t make friends until after exams.
Michael throws his jacket on, grabs his bag, and marches out with the rest. In the hallway he sees Ellen waiting for him. He makes a sour face, like Is this for real? Ellen walks over to him, smiling sheepishly.
“Hey,” she says, falling in step beside him.
“Hi,” he says, visibly uncomfortable. Like one of those moments when your body forgets how to put your bag over your shoulder, so you half do it but it doesn’t work, so you hold onto it while walking for an awkward amount of time while you hope that the other person forgets about the first attempt in the interim so that you can try again without looking like an idiot.
“I thought maybe we could get a coffee and talk,” she says, as though that would be a normal thing to do.
“About what?” Michael asks.
“About us,” she says. “About your dad.”
“There is no us,” Michael says. “And my dad is dead.”
Ellen takes a few steps in silence.
“Anything else?” Michael says.
“No,” she says. “I’m sorry for bothering you. I’ll leave you alone now.” She turns ninety degrees and walks off into the crowd. She’s gone before you know it.
During the walk home Michael Cera considers whether or not he was too harsh. After some internal debate, he settles on “No.” After all, she ambushed him. It wasn’t like he agreed to meet up beforehand. He wasn’t even answering her emails. Can’t she read between the lines?
Michael stares at the sidewalk in front of his feet the whole walk home. Other people become mere legs and shoes. Rubber, leather, stockings, and pants on either side of his peripheral vision. There’s a pressure behind his eye and in his head, neck, and nose, but he does his best to ignore it.
Home, he slams the key into the lock, trudges up the stairs to his apartment, drops his things in a heap and grabs a tallboy from the fridge, cracks it open, takes a long, much-needed swig then plants himself on the futon, staring straight ahead at nothing in particular.
A few hours later he is in the same spot with a few more beer cans beside him. There’s a tentative knock at the door. It starts to open.
Michael scowls at the moving door. Didn’t he remember to take Ellen’s key?
“What the fuck d’you think—” he starts to say, when Justin Bieber pokes his head through the crack.
“Mike?” he says tentatively. “Is that you? I can’t see anything in there.” The light streaming in behind Justin makes his face dark and his hair a golden halo.
“Whoa,” Michael says. “I thought it was someone else.” He stands up with a bit of a stumble and heads for the only working lamp in the apartment.
Justin closes the door behind him at the same instant Michael flicks the switch.
The brothers stand staring at one another. It’s been a while.
Justin Bieber had never seen his brother look so … mangy. Bags under his eyes, unshaved, wearing clothes deflated from wear, almost as though he’d slept in them two or three times. It doesn’t help that the apartment stands as a squalid reflection of its owner. There are dishes everywhere, some with discoloured food on them, others colonized by spores and mould. A dark orange stain on the floor tugs at Justin’s attention, but he forces himself to look up. Clothes, books, and empty bottles dominate the landscape in equal measure, scattered over every surface like wreckage. How could his brother live like this?
Michael Cera raises an eyebrow at his brother’s appearance. He couldn’t remember Justin looking anything other than groomed for the mall. Now, overtop of his frayed skinny jeans Justin sports a pretty woodsy combo of flannel and a wool-lined jean jacket. But what sticks out most of all is his footwear, hiking boots. Thick rubber, dark black and brown, they look a bit like clown shoes at the end of his little brother’s tight denim legs. From head to toe, Justin is a crossbreed of city and country, a kaleidoscope caught between hick and hipster. At the same time, he looks … taller.
“Hey dude,” Michael says, stepping towards Justin and embracing him.
“Hey big city,” Justin says, smiling and squeezing his brother.
Michael Cera wheezes a little as air is forced out of his lungs. “Easy there, Rambo,” he says, like he’s trying to be jokey.
Justin crosses the threshold.
“How was the trip?” Michael asks.
Justin nudges aside a shirt on one of the two wooden chairs at the table. He looks resigned to his fate in his brother’s filth. He’ll try to not bring it up. “Oh, you know,” he says, easing into the chair. “The leaves were gorgeous and the bus was pretty empty.”
“Anything gorgeous on the bus?” Michael says with a leer.
It takes Justin one long second to figure out precisely what his brother means, but then he smiles, blushing. He doesn’t really know what to say. He doesn’t know how to be jocular with his brother. Not now. Not with everything they need to talk about.
Justin’s lack of response doesn’t matter, as Michael is already on his cell phone, tapping away rhythmically on the glass. His bloodshot eyes flick up at Justin then back down at the phone.
“Cool, cool,” Michael says, either not noticing the silence or referencing the activity on his mobile. “So you know Jay and Jonah?” he says without looking up. “We can head out to grab some Thai with them at this place on Spadina.” The eyes flick up again. “You’ll love it, it’ll remind you of home. Narrow, crazy wooden art, the owner waits tables, totally chill low-fi place. Then we can hit up a party on the west end, maybe a bar or two if it’s lame.”
“Sounds great,” Justin says, since, honestly, what else could he say?
To their credit, Michael Cera and his friends do their best to include Justin in their conversation, despite the differences both perceived and real between university students and high school seniors. That’s not to say that topics don’t occasionally veer into referential in-jokes or gossip, but they keep it to a minimum, and ask him a few questions about the country. Michael is proud of how his little brother handles himself. It bodes well for his chances at the party.
After eating, Michael decides to swing by the liquor store for more beers and a mickey of vodka to celebrate partying with his brother for the first time.
During dinner, Justin had noticed a sharp incline in his brother’s mood. Michael became so gregarious that it rang false. When they swerve into the liquor store it becomes unbearable.
“Can we talk for a second?” Justin asks, tugging at his brother’s sleeve.
“Only if you want to compare Smirnov to Crystal Skull,” Michael replies, lifting each bottle for inspection.
“What. No,” Justin says, more confused than annoyed.
“But it comes in a skull!” Michael insists. “A crystal skull. I don’t care about the price—you’re my brother and you deserve the best. Shopkeep!” he stage whispers while charging the nonchalant cashier. “A dram of your finest skull vodka, please.”
Outside, Michael paces back and forth while waiting for a cab, gesticulating wildly with his brown paper bag of beer. The glass globe of vodka feels heavy and cold in Justin’s fingers. It shakes with every step, so he sits with extra care when the taxi arrives. During the ride, the outside world a blur of people and lights, Michael keeps checking his phone.
“Jonah says the party’s bumpin’,” he says to answer a question nobody asked. He glances over at Justin holding the vodka like an uncomfortable cousin holds a baby they’re terrified of dropping. “You see the YouTube video Aykroyd made when he released that shit?” He keeps going without waiting for a response. “It was amayzing. It’s like, you can’t tell if he actually believes in the restorative powers of the quadruple distilled vodka, or if it’s just an elaborate prank. I think that for him, it doesn’t matter anymore—there is no difference between the two. It is both an amazing joke and a perfectly sincere paranormal-entrepreneurial venture. It’s so next level, like how SNL used to be subversive, only he’s ironical via his authentic beliefs.”
Justin hasn’t seen the video, but he nods and smiles through the bumpy ride while the clear liquid sloshes contained in his lap. It obviously means something to Michael, so he tries to pay attention, but when his brother asks:
“How would you rate it against Norm MacDonald’s roast of Bob Saget?”
Justin is forced to admit at least partial ignorance with a shrugged, “I don’t know,” which pricks the balloon of Michael’s feverish gaiety for a raw moment. The wrinkles under his eyes suddenly look more severe in the cold streetlight. He’s aged. But in a blink the cab lurches to a stop, and Michael’s roaming gaze takes in their surroundings. He announces, “We’re here,” pays the cab driver a decent tip, climbs out of the car, and starts ferrying Justin to the front stoop of a townhouse where a bunch of people are standing around, smoking and talking.
With a nod and a fistbump and a quick question about the location of the fridge, Michael Cera is in party mode. His glee becomes more electric with each step. For his part, Justin figures that there’ll be plenty of time for real talk with Michael in the next day or two. Right now, he was going to try and appreciate this time with his brother. They could sort things out later.
Justin carries the crystal skull up the threshold. A girl holding a cigarette points two red-nailed fingers and says, “Cool skull.” Justin lifts the globe of vodka in greeting and says, “Thanks,” with a bit of a grin. She takes a drag on the cigarette. She’s pretty in an indelicate kind of way, with long wavy hair spilling out from under her toque and smoke slithering between dark lips. “Justin,” he says, sticking out one hand while balancing the skull on his hip. “Margaret,” she says, giving his hand a firm squeeze. She pronounces her name with two, quick syllables. Marg-ret. You can almost see Justin repeating the name to himself. “This is Raph, and Toni,” she says, pointing to the guy and the girl beside her. One nods, the other says, “Hey.” Justin smiles, turning towards the front door. “Do you guys know my brother?” he asks, meaning to introduce Michael, only Michael isn’t there. He’s already gone inside.
“Oh,” Justin says, crestfallen. “I’d better go find him.”
“Cool,” Margaret says. “See you inside.”
As Justin enters the party, the smile melts from his face. Without his brother, he has no safety net. It feels like walking out into an intersection when the light is still red, only you expect it to change, but it doesn’t turn green in the first step or two, and you don’t know if you should turn back or keep on going.
Bracing himself, Justin pushes down the narrow hallway, his eyes peeled for Michael. Passing by the living room, Justin scans the faces, but none ring a bell.
“Whoa, check out this guy!” a voice hollers from a pack to Justin’s left. “Cool skull!” another jumps in. “Let’s crack it.”
Justin hesitates for a moment. Could he? Was this supposed to be special?
The moment hangs.
A hand lands on Bieber’s shoulder. It’s firm and reassuring.
“Yo, Kate,” Michael says. “Ahmed, sup? You guys want to try my brother’s vodka? You know that shit’s quadruple distilled, right? Can you even handle it?” He waves them towards the kitchen. “C’mon, let’s grab some mix.”
The moment is gone. Whatever initiative Justin possessed evaporates in his brother’s wake.
At first, Michael resents the fact that Justin got social credit for bringing the crystal skull vodka to the party. It was his idea. But liquid conviviality soon burns away the sharper sensations, allowing him to settle into the comfortable haze of pop culture references and meaningless, jokey debates.
Later, he watches his brother make a fool of himself by telling some story about a threshing machine to a girl in a toque, but it turns out okay, because she gives Justin her number before taking off for another party.
Then they begin drinking in earnest.
The afternoon sun scrapes against Justin Bieber’s eyelids. He’s on the floor of Michael’s apartment, in the clothes he was wearing last night, lying in a sticky film and wondering what clawed its way down his throat.
He checks his phone. There are several missed calls. He sees the time.
A feeble groan escapes Justin’s lips.
“Keep it down,” Michael Cera croaks. “I’m trying to die over here.” He rolls over on the futon, away from the sun, showing his back to the world.
“We’ve gotta get up,” Justin says, flicking through his phone. “We missed the bus.”
“Fuck the bus.”
“C’mon,” Justin says, nudging Michael’s shoulder. “I’ll call mom and tell her we’re gonna be late.”
Justin wants to talk on the bus, now that they finally have some time alone. Go over the last few months and figure out what was happening with their mother. Figure out what they’re gonna do and what they’re gonna say.
Instead, Michael asks for his own seat for the five-hour drive, so Justin stares at the highway and the cars and the dark trees, waiting for his headache to go away. Michael Cera sleeps the whole bus ride back to the farm.
Their grandfather is waiting for them at the bus station, a convenience store with a greyhound sign, ticket counter, and bench. He’s leaning against his pick-up truck, squinting into the end of the sun.
“Boys,” Tommy Lee Jones says with zero inflection while they toss their bags in the back. He grabs Michael Cera’s hand, tugs it a bit left and right, then pulls the young man into a crushing embrace. “Pretty good for an old timer, eh?” he says. Then he slaps Justin on the back and they climb into the cab of the truck. Justin gets in first, so he’s the one who has to sit in the cramped middle seat while his grandfather drives too fast and cusses the other folks on the road, and Michael stares out at autumn’s dying landscape.
In between observations and pleasantries, an oppressive silence descends upon the men driving out to the farm.
It’s dark by the time they arrive. Dinner’s ready. They sit down to eat within seconds of stomping through the front door.
“How’s school?” Molly Parker asks Michael Cera while pouring a glass of milk.
Michael chews on a piece of roast beef.
Justin Bieber senses his mother’s brittle excitement.
“It’s fine,” Michael says eventually.
Watching his brother, Justin takes a long, slow breath through his nose.
Michael gets the hint. “I should start my placement next semester,” he continues. “I’m hoping for a research gig more than something at a counselling centre or long term care facility. They say grades matter in getting what you want, but I’m pretty sure it’s just luck of the draw.”
“What about you, honey?” Molly asks Justin. “What did you think of the city? I haven’t seen Michael’s apartment since we moved him in there—” She interrupts herself to take a quick sip of milk.
All Justin can think about is the grime and filth. How could anyone who lives like that help other people?
“It was pretty busy,” he says. “Like, way more than Kingston. Just people everywhere. I met some cool folks, but I don’t know if I could ever get all-the-way used to it.”
“Well, that’s good stuff to consider,” their mother says. “You’re going to have to think about university soon. Maybe this will help you choose the right place.”
Justin hadn’t thought about that. He hadn’t even seen the university.
“If you even want to go to school,” his grandfather pipes in. Molly Parker’s face shifts to a pallid, fixed mask. “You’re a hard worker, Justin,” he continues. “I’m sure you could find a solid job here in town.” The local industries included farming, an aluminum foundry, and a coaxial cable manufacturing plant.
The rest of the family chews in silence for a while. That was often better than staging a direct confrontation with Tommy Lee Jones’s worldview.
After dinner, Michael watches TV while Justin helps his mom with the dishes. She washes and he dries. Justin turns from the cupboard, and he sees her reflection in the dark window over the sink. She stands ramrod straight, looking directly into the glass. Justin can’t tell if she’s looking at her reflection, or staring at nothing.
When they’re done, they watch television for a bit. When the game comes on Michael goes to his room. Justin’s mom and his grandfather watch the same television set, but see completely different things. Tommy Lee Jones is happy to watch the game. Molly Parker sees life decomposing in front of her eyes. Eventually, they all shuffle off to bed.
The next day, Michael Cera is never alone with Justin Bieber. It’s hard to tell if he’s avoiding his brother, or if it’s just a coincidence. Usually, Michael can hardly stand their grandfather, but now he’s asking Tommy Lee Jones all about riding the rails and working out west.
“I was sleeping on the job,” he says with a faraway look in his eye. “You had to get forty winks whenever you could in those days, if you know what I mean.” Tommy Lee takes a swig of beer. So does Michael Cera. Justin wasn’t offered one. He’s holding a ginger ale. “When I get back to my CAT machine—kind of a small truck with tank treads to get through the thickest bush—when I go back to the CAT for lunch, the door was ripped clean off its hinges. I’d left my sandwich in there, and a grizzly’d come along and snatched it! Now, when I rode her back to camp, trees whacking my face the whole way, I thought I was done for. My first week on the job, and I ruined the machine.
“Instead, I show up with my face scratched up and claw marks all over the paint job, well, they thought I tried to fight the bear off but was too Christian to admit it! Talk about the easiest way to get promoted!”
The boys chuckle. Justin takes a sip of ginger ale.
Later on that afternoon, after Justin finishes his chores in the barn, Michael is nowhere to be found. While hunting for him, Justin finds his mom sitting on her bed with a cardboard box, flipping through photographs.
She looks up. She stares right inside Justin Bieber, and in that moment, with that raw pain on her lovely face, it was like she knew everything, only dared not believe it, so instead she spent her entire being on holding the truth at bay. She spent herself, and so she withered.
They had to tell her.
“D’you know where Mike is?” Justin asks.
“Yeah,” she says, carefully putting a photograph down. “He went for a walk down to the lighthouse.”
It’s getting dark, so Justin Bieber pulls his old bike out from beneath the porch, hops on, and starts pedalling along the path to the water. The sun is setting in the background, shooting streaks of violet and salmon through the clouds that stream like banners across the horizon.
Pedalling hard, Justin flies along the rocky path. His cast is grim. He hasn’t been out here since the summer.
The lighthouse rises overtop of a hill, an old cedar shingled building with faded whitewash and a cracked window. Justin jumps off the bike, which skids to a halt among the flat, grey stones on the beach.
“Mike!” Justin yells. The waves crash against the shore. The wind is chill. It can be dead air at the farm, but there’s always a breeze down by the lake.
Michael Cera walks around the base of the lighthouse.
“Hey,” he says. “What’re you sayin?”
“Why won’t you talk to me?” Justin demands.
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve been avoiding me all day!”
Michael Cera scratches his ear. Justin doesn’t know what to think. He tries to calm down, to take a few breaths, to look at the rolling waves.
“We need to talk,” Justin says. “Seriously.”
“We’ve been talking all weekend,” Michael retorts. “All this talk, I had to get away for a bit.” He looks at his brother like a curiosity in a museum. “What’s going on?”
“What do you think?” Justin says, exasperated. “Mom! Dad! Don’t you remember anything I tell you? Don’t you listen at all? Can’t you think about anyone but yourself? Ever?”
Michael Cera takes a step towards his brother, holding out his hand like a ward.
“We already talked this through,” Michael says, with an extra layer of patronizing calm and smooth. “We aren’t going to tell her anything.” It’s like he was chewing each syllable. “She couldn’t handle the strain.”
“It’s not our place to decide,” Justin says. “She has a right to know.” All colour drains from his features as the last bits of warmth ebb from the day.
“It doesn’t matter anymore,” Michael says, but he won’t look at his brother’s face.
“It’s the truth.”
The wind picks up. It plays with Michael’s Brillo Pad hair and tugs at the collar of his pea coat. Gazing at the last remnants of day, he opens his mouth a few times before words can come out.
“Dad’s note,” he says. “It’s gone.”
Bieber’s jaw clenches.
“What” he says, without any punctuation.
“I’ll deny it,” Michael says, the sunset waning on his face. “You don’t have any proof.”
Bieber just stares at him.
“I destroyed it.”
Justin Bieber lashes a fist into Michael Cera’s sternum. It rocks Cera back a step, then two, his feet scrambling for purchase on the loose stones.
“You what?” Bieber screams, leaping at his brother, grabbing his jacket and throwing him to the ground.
“It’s gone,” Cera shouts, scrambling back up. “He’s gone.”
Bieber takes a step towards him.
“Get over it.”
Cera swings, and catches Bieber in the breadbasket. Bieber hacks, twice, then steps into it and shoves Cera backwards, splashing through the frigid waves. He didn’t realize how strong he had become. Bieber pushes Cera again, before his brother can get his feet under him. Then, wading into the lake, Justin Bieber punches Michael Cera in his fucking face.
A black trail of blood runs out Cera’s nose, over his mouth, and down his chin. He wipes his face on the back of his sleeve.
“Grow up,” Cera says.
Bieber descends on his brother.
A scream erupts from the shore. Molly Parker runs through the choppy waves towards her sons. Cera is down in the water and Bieber is hitting him, again and again. There is a lot of blood and the chill of the water clawing up their legs and the sounds of waves breaking on the shore and the steady, dull rhythm of bone meeting flesh.
She tries to force them apart. Her long hair is whipped by the wind. She pulls and pulls at Bieber’s back, but he will not relent. Cera is drenched, his face smeared with blood. He’s choking.
Bieber’s face is hidden in the darkness.
“Tell her,” he says, grabbing Michael Cera by the coat and shaking him.
Michael coughs and says, “Fuck you.”
Justin Bieber thrusts his brother underwater. Music explodes to life, a thickly resonant pressure that buzzes against Michael’s eardrums. His limbs thrash, churning froth in their belaboured wake. The cold bites Bieber’s hands, but his fingers grip and press like banded steel. Molly Parker screams while her fists pound against her son’s broad back. Justin leans in to keep the weight bearing down on his brother. His face hovers but a few inches above the surface of the lake.
Michael Cera grabs Bieber’s wrists and strains against the unyielding force. His feet kick up clods of dirt and smooth, round skipping stones but they find no purchase against the silt slope. The pressure now pushes from within, his chest burns and his ears scream. Michael’s lumpy, disfigured countenance gazes up at his brother’s murky eyes.
Molly Parker shouts, “Justin!”
Justin Bieber sees his father’s face below the waves. Gerard opens his mouth to howl a silent scream. White-rimmed corneas of air burst from between his lips. As the bubbles break the surface, nausea knifes through Justin’s guts. He relents with a shudder and hauls the limp body out of the water with ghastly, aching hands. Michael Cera’s face is stained and droopy. His left eye is swollen shut, and fresh, dark blood leaks from his battered nose. Justin looks at his mother. Her freckled face, frozen halfway between confusion and terror, punctures Justin’s rage. “It’ll be okay,” she says. “We’ll sort this out.” He hears ragged breath escape his chest, and slowly shakes his head.
Together, they drag Michael Cera to the shoreline. He lays there, inert. Molly starts pumping her son’s chest. Michael pukes his guts up. Blood, water, mucous, and a gravy coloured slurry with flecks of pink and white spill out. The mess dribbles down his cheek. Molly wipes off his face with her coat.
He’s breathing, but he isn’t conscious.
“Mom,” Justin starts to say.
“I’ll get help,” Molly says, and starts sprinting towards the farm.
Justin watches his mother disappear around the lighthouse then he bends over and pinches Michael’s nose with his fingers and cups his hand over his brother’s mouth. “Go, go, go!” a child cheers. Behind Justin a patch of shore glows day-bright. Gerard Butler stands there with his hands on his hips, grinning wolfishly. A small Michael Cera tugs on a kite string while a smaller Justin Bieber cranes his neck so far that he falls backwards. Gerard catches him and lifts the boy onto his shoulders. The kite soars over the water, string taut, ribs flexing against the wind. The radiance leaks into the suffocating indigo.
Justin doesn’t want to turn around, but he sees it all the same.
“There you go,” Gerard says, his voice rough and smooth at the same time. “Don’t lose her.”
Michael’s chest heaves, kicking his body in a spasm, but Bieber holds on tight and shoves one knee against his brother’s torso.
“Easy now,” Gerard says. “Give her some slack, you don’t want it to—”
The kite string snaps. The nylon diamond in its halo of light sails out over the inky lake.
Justin keeps looking up past the lighthouse but nobody is coming to stop him. Beads of sweat collect on his upper lip.
A child wails in the darkness.
“It’s okay,” Gerard says. “Let it go.”
His son opens his hand. The residue of contact peels off his burning palm as blood flows back into pale fingers. He feels a warm, sturdy hand on his shoulder. It squeezes. He allows the tears to fall, staining the shore with shame and remorse.
“Come on,” Gerard says. “Let’s go home.”
Justin unbuttons his jacket and lays it over his brother’s body. Then he walks down to the water’s edge to wash his filthy hands.
Tommy Lee Jones and Molly Parker emerge from the darkness. The grandfather stoops to his favourite grandson, resting two blunt fingers against his throat. The pitter-patter of life trickles through the boy. Tommy Lee Jones kneels, scoops Michael up in his arms, straightens his back and stands. Molly rushes to Justin’s side. She holds him just above the elbow, fingers digging into tendon.
“What the hell’s going on?” Molly Parker asks.
Justin tells her everything.
Molly Parker screams. She punches her thigh then picks up a stone and hurls it at the lighthouse, smashing the lone window that rests between planks of weathered barnboard.
“Molly?” Tommy Lee Jones says, his low timbre echoing in the dark. “Justin?”
Molly pushes Justin towards his grandfather and brother. “Go on,” she says, her voice sharp as glass. “I need to be alone.”
Dramatic music swells, and a complicated crane shot swoops overtop of the shattered family perched along the length of this limestone spit, rotating around the lighthouse as fulcrum and pivot. Molly Parker clasps her hands against her heart and leans upon the old lighthouse for support. Her laboured breath cuts through the soundtrack. Shudders and gasps drown out cello and drum. Tears run down the smooth slopes of her cheeks, her fist smites the stout wall, and her eyes lower to face the earth and the roiling darkness inside. Her back’s to the boys as they head to the farm, alone in the dark and her shame. Molly mouths the words “I’m sorry,” over and over, her quivering lips full of regret and blame. But all we hear, as the screen fades to black, are waves, crashing against the shore.