Authors: Rick Mofina
A Short Story
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the creation of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
In A Moment
2012 Rick Mofina
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The story, “A Lifetime Burning in a Moment,” was first featured in the anthology
Dead in the Water
, by Rendezvous Press and later appeared in
The Penguin Book of Crime Stories, Volume II
, edited and introduced by Peter Robinson. It is included in my e-anthology,
Three to the Heart
, my second small collection of short stories which is the follow up to my first anthology,
Dangerous Women and Desperate Men
I regard the stories collected in
Three to the Heart
to be among the best of my short crime fiction.
Rmofina @ gmail.com
by Rick Mofina
knew the boys who lived in the clapboard houses by the railroad tracks not only liked beating him up, but needed to beat him up.
He was the only part of their lives they could defeat because he didn’t dare hit them. Not like their fathers, who were always reeking of beer and cigarettes, or bruised mothers drowning in guilt.
“We can do whatever we want to you.” The biggest boy with the broken tooth would punch Devlin’s face and stomach, always failing to make him cry. “Nobody’s ever going to stop us.”
It was understandable then that years later colleagues at his firm would tell you that Dev, the quiet son of a widowed math teacher, listened more than he talked, as if conversation were a form of confrontation, something he had averted since the dark days of his boyhood by the railroad tracks.
As an actuary, Devlin took comfort in the parameters, calculations and sums of an orderly world where everything added up. But whenever life required him to deal with mundane matters, he felt out of place. Like today, with Blake, his little boy, waiting with him in the checkout line at the auto parts store.
The air smelled of rubber, echoed with compressors and the clank of steel tools dropped in the repair bays. This was a domain of greased-stained knuckles, rolled shirt sleeves and tattooed arms; of two-day growths, ballcaps and T-shirts emblazoned with skulls, flames and creeds on living, dying.
Devlin had come to buy a pea-sized bulb for his Ford’s dome light.
In line ahead of them a boy, a stranger slightly taller than Blake, turned and eyeballed Blake from head to toe. The boy’s face oozed contempt before he drove his fist into Blake’s shoulder. Blake tensed then retaliated with a punch just as the bigger boy’s father turned to see it. The man fired glances at Blake and Devlin then drew himself to his full height. He had a scar on his chin and a toothpick in the corner of his mouth.
“What the hell’re you doin’?”
Alarm rang in Devlin’s ears.
“Nothing,” he said. “I mean, it was a mistake. Blake, apologize.”
“But Dad?” Blake’s face reddened.
“We’re sorry. Blake, say you’re sorry.”
“But he started it.”
“Did not!” the bigger boy said.
“Liar!” Blake said.
“All right. Okay,” Devlin laughed nervously. “Just a little harmless horseplay. We’re terribly sorry.”
At that, the other man’s height appeared to increase as he assessed Devlin. The stranger shifted his toothpick, sucked air through his teeth then reduced Devlin to a waste of his time and turned away.
In the car, Devlin smarted from the incident but tried to conceal it as he struggled to replace the tiny bulb in the parking lot. He exaggerated his concentration, giving significance to an insignificant task. His sweating fingers lost their grip and he lost the bulb under his seat.
“Can we just go Dad?” Blake asked.
Driving home, Devlin found his son’s face in the rear view mirror and the sting of shame for having let him down.
“You have to understand something, son.”
Blake watched strip malls roll by.
“Non-violence is the best way to handle these situations.”
Blake said nothing.
“It’s just wise to back off. Because you never know how these things are going to go. You just never --”
“It’s all right, Dad.”
And with those words and with his tone, Devlin’s nine-year-old boy had passed judgement on him. Devlin was guilty of a monumental failing. He had been tested and shown to be a father incapable of defending his son.
At dinner that evening, Blake never revealed to his mother and his older sister what had happened. Neither did Devlin. It was not mentioned in the morning when they packed their Ford before setting off for their family vacation to the lake in eastern New Brunswick.
But it was all Devlin could think about.
It weighed on him as they drove through the rolling hills and low rugged highlands that straddled the border with Maine. They dropped the windows and cracked the sunroof. Elise, his wife, was barefoot, wearing shorts, a summer top and sunglasses. Her hair flowed in the breezes. Annie, their daughter, was listening to CDs and snapping through Wired magazine. Blake took in the countryside blinking thoughtfully at the forests.
Watching him, it dawned on Devlin that Blake’s reaction to the kid in the store was heroic. That in a split second he’d made a clear, morally justified choice to defend himself. Something he’d lacked the courage to do. But Blake was a boy, hardly mature enough to fathom the consequences, or appreciate the ramifications of a conflict. At least that’s how Devlin tried to rationalize it as the miles passed.
They navigated the route to their rented cabin from the crudely sketched map the manager had faxed. After they got off the highway, Elise identified the landmarks. “There’s the red-roofed barn, turn left there.” They drove along a ribbon of pavement that wound through rolling fields and pastures creased by streams with railroad tie bridges.
It wasn’t long before it narrowed into a twisting hilly dirt road, darkened by the thick cool sweet-smelling forests of cedar, pine, hemlock, butternut, maple, tamarack and birch. Under a quilt of light and shadow, the trees hid sudden peaks and valleys that hugged small cliff edges. It was beautiful, Devlin thought, loving the winding, undulating road. Annie and Blake were awed, as if they were penetrating a lost world. True to the map, after some forty-five minutes they arrived at a hamlet made up of a few buildings clustered around a sleepy four-corner stop with a blinking yellow light.
The Crossroads, the hand-painted sign read.
It had a small mall with a restaurant, a postal outlet, a one-pump gas station, and Pride’s General Store with a fat drowsy dog nearly asleep on its front porch.
“Pride’s. That’s where we pick up the key to our cabin,” Elise said.
“Place looks like a ghost town.” Devlin parked.
The planks of the porch creaked and the dog raised its eyebrows to greet them as they entered. Elise bought a few groceries and snacks while Devlin showed the teenage clerk his driver’s license. She produced a small envelope from the till. It contained a single bronze key with “Number 7,” carved into it.
Back in the car, as they started off on the final portion of their trip, Elise tilted an open bag of potato chips to Devlin then pointed to the restaurant. “It looks nice. Let’s go there for dinner after we settle in at the cabin.”
The last stretch lasted some twenty minutes along a treacherous pathway that seemed even more primeval than the road they’d already travelled. Leafy branches slapped and scraped the Ford as gravel popcorned against the undercarriage. Soon the lake made its first appearance on the left, flashing between the trees in patches of brilliant blue.
It seemed so near.
“This is so cool,” Annie slid off her headset. “It’s like the loneliest place in the world. Like we travelled back in time or landed on a strange planet or something. I love it. It’s so cool.”
Blake wondered about Native legends and lost trapper ghost stories.
“Oh, turn here,” Elise pointed to a broken birch which suggested the letter ‘T’. “This is it.”
Devlin stopped, dust clouds enveloped them as he inched off the road onto an earthen path curtained with a tangle of tall shrubs that swallowed their car. Through the stands of trees they glimpsed the lake and their cabin.
It was built with hand-hewn pine and had a wide deck with Adirondack chairs. There was a hammock tied between a pair of tall cedars. The cabin’s lake front wall was a floor-to-ceiling window with French doors. Inside, hardwood floors gleamed to the fieldstone fireplace.
The main floor had a large living room dining area. The kitchen had a small fridge, freezer and stove, which were state-of-the-art energy-efficient, powered by batteries and solar panels on an exposed hillside. The sink had a pump to draw clean well water. There was a small hot water reservoir. There was a master bedroom downstairs and two large spacious bedroom areas in the loft which Blake and Annie found immediately.