Book Review – Corridor Nine: A Novel

“Corridor Nine: A Novel”
by Sophie Stocking
Published by Thistledown Press
Reviewed by Ben Charles
ISBN: 9781771871815

“Corridor Nine: A Novel”, written by Sophie Stocking and published by Thistledown Press is an exceptional novel that expertly encapsulates the extremes of soul-crushing emotions and outlandish behaviour in a way that is very accurate to the human experience. Even though this novel could be read within a weekend, it packs wallop. At under 200 pages this novel makes no room for literary fluff, every word is a thread that weaves into a beautiful and fantastical yet tender and tragic story of life and loss.

The story follows Bernadette Macomber, who thought that she had all but completely cut ties with her troubled father, Fabian, to begin again and start a family of her own. In the wake of Fabian’s sudden suicide, Bernadette finds herself returning home. All is not over for Fabian, however, as he finds himself in a completely foreign afterlife named Corridor Nine and in the company of an angel/griffin-figure named Bune. As Fabian transverses life-after-life, Bernadette or “Bernie”, is left in the mundane to seek the source of her father’s recent insanity. As the twin narratives consecutively play out, they also intertwine to result in the closure that both Bernie and Fabian so desperately seek.

As mentioned, this novel is a relatively short read but a truly delightfully one. Those with an inkling towards supernatural series will have a seriously good time tearing through this novel while also enjoying more mature tones, narratives, and characters than something like the Harry Potter or Twilight series would have to offer. That is not to say that young readers could not enjoy this novel, either. There is a certain exuberance to this novel that exudes from all its aspects, from the mystery of Corridor Nine and this universes’ afterlife, the fantastical qualities and characteristics of Bune, to the bizarre remnants of Fabian that he left behind. There were very few parts of the novel that it was not apparent that this story was truly a passion project of Stocking’s and it was story that she had been burning to tell. In fact, the cover painting of the novel, also rich and vibrant, is a work of Stocking’s as well. While it is not the most unusual thing in the world to see authors create their own covers, it is rarely executed so well and is honestly a breath of fresh air.

In conclusion, this is a delightfully read for nearly all ages. It perfectly blends the relatable themes of loss, guilt, and conflicting feelings about loved ones with the imagination of the supernatural. This far exceeds the quality that one would expect from a debut novel and I am excited to see how Stocking’s career flourishes as a great Canadian author.

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

Arrangements

I was 26 years old when the hospital called and told me that my father had finally drunk himself to death. They worded it as a “liver cirrhosis-related rupture” but I knew that it meant the same shit. They had told me that he is still alive but does not have much longer. They asked if I wanted to come in to say goodbye to him before he goes. I said no and hung up my phone.
My father’s routine was the same from the time that I was a child up until his hospitalization, and by extension, his death. He was a heavy equipment operator by trade but had trouble keeping consistent employment as he was pissed drunk most of the time. This fact was never apparent to him, however. He would come home from a shift of running back-ho and plop himself straight onto his battered recliner. After downing a pint and half of Alberta Premium, he would preach his tirades to me, or to anyone within an earshot, about how the immigrants, the faggots, and the Liberals were leeching off of the hard-working man to “go-on and live their lavish lifestyles off of his back!” The man never did have much self-awareness. When he wasn’t sitting on his ass choking down cheap whiskey and Players cigarettes, he kept himself busy by either sneaking off to the bar or slapping my mom around. He never did know that when I was 15 years old I started a job as a night janitor at my high school to help Mom keep up with the bills and the mortgage. I wasn’t given the job legally. It was given to me out of charity, or pity, depending on your point of view. I still thank Mr. Krasinski to this day for setting that up. I was paid under the table to work four three-hour shifts every weeknight aside from Friday and one four-hour shift on Sunday nights. As far as the Canadian Revenue Agency was concerned, my wages were filed under Welding Education Supplies: Miscellaneous. I saved what I could to free myself at 18 but I gave the most of the money I earned to Mom. We had a silent understanding that dad could never know.
I remember the Easter of 1998. After two years of working under Mr. Krasinski, he awarded me with an extra $50 one March Friday night. He expected me to get some beer or maybe take a girl out. Neither of those interested me – instead, I bought my mom a large bouquet of daffodils. They were her favourite flowers and she especially loved having them around at Easter time. I spent the remainder of the money on a tin of Skoal for myself and a bottle of Mr. Clean for the house. The flowers were only perched on the kitchen table for about ten hours. After a drunken squabble based on one of my father’s paranoid delusions that mom was cheating on him, he smacked the vase and flowers on to the floor. I’ve watched the man beat my mother’s face to the point of unrecognizable with his bare hands, I’ve seen my mother struggle to walk for two weeks due to the bruises that he left on her legs with his belt. But never did I see her cry as hard as she did on that day.
My father died the same way that he lived – bloated, miserable, and in the absence of a son that never loved him. When I did arrive at the hospital, the nurse informed me that he hung on for ten hours in the palliative care wing before passing away. I had a hard time suppressing a smile knowing that the son of bitch spent his final hours suffering and alone. 
“So, what now?” 
“Well, now you need to make your arrangements. Did you and your dad have a conversation about his wishes after his death?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Good. You know that we legally can’t keep him here for more than twelve hours, right? He will be moved to the hospital morgue for tonight and then to Zens’ Funeral Services first thing tomorrow morning. Will you be okay to continue this process with them? Do you need any time?” The nurse mumbled as she smacked her gum under the buzzing fluorescent lights. Her coffee breath fiercely overpowered the piece of Excel that she started chewing three hours ago.
“No, I’m fine.”
“Alright, hun. Go home. The death certificate and his cremation request have been faxed to them, you can pick him up next week to continue with your arrangements. I’m sorry for your loss.”
Before I could respond, the nurse readjusted her frizzy, red ponytail and marched away from me with as much conviction as someone wearing white
New Balance runners could muster. If I were in the hospital for anyone else, I would have been pissed at how fast I was being pushed out. Instead, I laughed to myself as the nurse stormed off around the corner.
   

When I turned the ignition on my 2003 Honda Civic the next week it barely started. Despite its alternator problems and the fact that I drove across town with the gas-light on, I made it to Zens’. The place was dreadfully drab, even by funeral parlor standards. As I walked in, I was assaulted by the stale stench of formaldehyde and that unmistakable “church-smell.” I walked to the front desk to be met by an overweight woman who was visibly annoyed by my presence. Her eyes were glued to her computer screen and she mindlessly tended to her nails. Her perfume was overwhelming. I think her technique was if she ignored me for long enough that I would go away.
“Excuse me.”
She released an exasperated sigh, “What?”  
“‘What?’ I’m here to pick up my father’s remains and that is all that you have to say to me, ‘what’? Is Mr. Zens here so that I could speak with him?
“Rob’s busy,” the impatient woman snapped, “but if you want to start talking to me politely then maybe I could help you out. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar, sugar.”
I was ready to throttle this bitch, but I was more ready to leave this place and all of this behind me. I decided to pick my battles and took a deep breath.
“I am searching for Darren White, Mr. Darren Lee White. He would have been moved from the hospital to here last week. I was told to pick him up at this location. Further arrangments will not be necessary, that has all been taken care of.”
“Lemme take a look for you, gimme a couple minutes. This old computer takes forever to do anything.”
After a few minutes of apathetically searching her files and making various breathy noises, the receptionist had found the file.
“Here he is, Mr. White. Brought in last week and has been cremated. Are you sure that you have your arrangements made? Aside from the cremation request made by him a few weeks ago, there is nothing on his file about funeral arrangements.
“Yes, it has been taken care of. My dad always was a private man, it is no surprise to me that he requested the details on his death be kept close to the chest, too.”
The receptionist gave me a skeptical look but could not be bothered to put in the effort of questioning me. Instead, she lazily mumbled that Robert Zens’ office is through the hall and the second door to the left. I will be able to speak with him when he is ready and will get my father’s remains then.
“Thank you,” I said as I headed towards the hall.
“Yeah.”
Mr. Zens’ office was in a sad state of affairs. The cramped corner office had stacked documents and files scattered everywhere, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the chaos. The desk was littered with newspapers, empty Diet Pepsi cans, and envelopes with PAST DUE stamps on them. One single 60W lightbulb hung over the office and even that was on its last legs. The only positive within the depressing office was a picture of what I had to assume to be Mr. Zens standing with two young girls, probably around ages eight to ten. A tired, middle-aged man wearing an ill-fitting suit entered the office. I extended to shake his hand and he obliged.
“Mr. White, I presume? Thank you for coming in to meet with me.”
“Please, just call me Marcus.”
“Fair enough, Marcus. Your father’s ashes are ready for pick-up. All you need to do is sign a few release forms and you can be on your way. Your father made arrangements with me to be cremated but there’s no indication of any sort of arrangements after that. If I may pry, which church will you be hosting the services at? I can recommend you some good ones in town, depending on your denomination, of course.”
“We’ve made our arrangements. With all due respect, Mr. Zens, this process will be kept between my father and I. Just know that he will get the proper burial that he deserves.”
“Fair enough. Please sign these release forms and you’ll be on your way.” Mr. Zens extracted two forms from the mountain of papers like magic. There was no way in Hell that anyone but him would know where those papers were. As I signed the surprisingly pristine documents he sifted through a series of black boxes in the corner, muttering to himself.
“Ackerman, Rhyhorski, Li, Scott, McCarthy, Verne… ah, here we go, White.”
He hoisted the box onto the desk. It was about the size of a household printer and completely black. The only defining features on the box were the latch to open it and the label on the top, “White, Darren Lee.”
“We’re all set, Marcus. Is there anything else can that we can do for you? Would you like some help carrying this out to your car? Don’t let the fact that its ash fool you, these boxes are heavy.”
“I’ll be fine, thanks.”
“In that case, thank you for choosing Zens’ Funeral Services for taking care of you. I am sorry for your loss.”
“Somebody’s gotta be.” I lifted the box out of the building and into my car.
I drove around with my father in the backseat for a couple of hours, only stopping for gas and a drink at McGee’s, the shitty dive bar that my dad spent most of his time at while he was on this side of the grass. After reaching the end of the second hour, I had found my father’s final resting place. It was on the outskirts of town at a Husky truck stop. I pulled up behind the building, away from the prying eyes of underpaid employees and overtired truckers. I turned my car off and pulled the box containing my father out.
“Well, Dad, someone should probably say a few words. But that person ain’t gonna be me, that’s for fuckin’ sure.”
I peeled the name that he gave to me off of the box, lifted the lid of the dumpster up and slid the box inside. As I drove back home my only regret was that there was a lot of other shit in my car that I should have thrown out while I was there.       

  

 

 
      

Large Richard

The bartender gave me his most sorrowful look as I limped to the bar.

He already knew what I wanted but went through the motions, perhaps out of pity, to ask anyway.

“What’ll it be?”

“Two beers.”

“That’s one for you and one for your friend over there?”

“Yeah.”

My hands wrapped tightly around the brews and I trudged back to my booth. I tried to prolong the trip back to him as much as I could stretch it. I wish I could just walk out the door and go home.

“Got the suds?”

“Yeah.”

“Aw, yeah!”

Nearly three-quarters of Richard’s beer was gone in one greedy slurp.

“You’re welcome.”

“About time, man. I was dying over here.”

“How much longer do we have to stick around here for?”

“Until I feel like leaving. That gon’ be a problem?”

I stared at Richard. I stared right through his fat face and into his shriveled soul.

“No.”

“Good,” Richard laughed. “Try to lighten up, would you? You asked me to hang with you, not the other way around. You used to literally drag me here.”

Richard slurped the last of his beer and gave me a “friendly” slap on the back that knocked the wind out of me. He was a large man and becoming less aware of his strength as he continued to feed beers into gullet at my expense. God, I hate this dude.

“Hey, Rich. I think that I’m gonna go hit the dancefloor, see if we can maybe find some women to hang out with tonight for once.”

“You think you’re gonna find a skirt, do you? By all means, then, Casablanca.”

I opened my mouth to correct him but decided against it. What would be the point? I sauntered towards the dancefloor and boldly hung out on the outside of the crowded throng.

As I awkwardly picked the label off of my beer bottle and did my best to stay out of Richard’s sight I could have sworn that I had heard someone speaking to me.

“Hello? I’m speaking to you!”

I recoiled in both the amazement that someone was talking to me at a bar and that someone was the most beautiful woman that I have ever seen.

“Y-yeah?” I sputtered.

“Is that your friend over there? The big guy?”

Of course.

“I know him. Why?”

The instant that my sentence was over my face met a lukewarm and sticky assault. I could taste the lime and cranberry as her cosmopolitan dripped down my face and onto my shirt.

“If you or that pig ever comes near one of my friends again we are pressing charges. Last chance, perverts!”

She stormed off and I was left standing with a drink on my face, no money in my wallet, and alone in a room full of strangers. The only thing that I had was the lesson that I had learned: finding women at the bar scene does not work better if you have a Big Dick.

The City Man

The morning had become afternoon an hour ago as the sun’s intense rays pierced through the holes in Jacob’s walls and persisted to assault his face and eyes. Despite his best efforts to ignore the day and sleep it off, it had become too much. He pushed his blanket off his beaten body. Those birds weren’t helping with all of their damned yapping, either. Couldn’t they shut up for just another few moments?

Jacob Mann reeked of whiskey and “the odour of hard workin’ man”, as he liked to put it. Other ranchers in the Chela district had lesser words of Jacob’s scent, and of his work ethic. He planted his bare feet on the wooden planks below his bed and stretched his small frame as far as it would go. Whether he liked it or not, today was another day and there was work to be done.

The work would have to wait a few hours before he could get to it. His head was killing him and it was way too hot to be out in the fields this afternoon. Only a fool would be out breaking their backs in this kind of heat. Not him, though. He wasn’t stupid.

First thing was first, he needed a drink of water. He stumbled to the canteen on the table and squeezed every drop out of the small leather sack. Drops of water clung to his beard and he contorted his tongue to find each and every bead. He patted his pockets to ensure that he hadn’t lost anything to the night before. He thought that he should maybe change his clothes but decided that there was no one here to impress. Besides, the pocket in the shirt he had on had exactly what he had been looking for – his pipe. He plopped himself down on a wooden chair and lit the half-burnt tobacco inside. All he had to do now is have a pipe while he waited out this heat, check on his sheep in the evening, and head over to The Pig’s Head after a day of honest work.

The embers of Jacob’s pipe smoldered out as he did on his wooden chair. His buzz-saw snoring droned on for what seemed like hours. The peace of the first break of his workday was suddenly broken by loud thuds on his door. Jacob’s foot nearly met his chin as he flew off the chair and onto his back.

The knocks on the door were relentless as Jacob pulled himself off of the floor. An aggressive voice pierced through Jacob’s walls.

“Jacob Mann, Mr. Jacob Mann! Open the door this instant! In the name of the Chela District Diplomacy, you will answer the calls of the court or face persecution!”

Jacob stumbled to the door and flung his door open to the unforgiving wrath of the sunlight. After rubbing his eyes, Jacob looked upon the man. The man stood tall, his black hair slicked back diligently and his clothes too pristine for the Chela Plains. He even wore a watch on his belt. The gleam of his shoes shone just as brightly as the sun itself. Jacob knew what kind of man he was dealing with – this was a city man.

“What’re you flappin’ your gums about, son?” Jacob asked as his hand slid up the frame of his now open door.

“You know damn well what I’m ‘flapping my gums about’, Mr. Mann. My name is Sam Braser and I represent the Chela District Diplomacy and we have been waiting for far too long for your Grazing and Ranching Taxes.”

“Go on then, Sam,” Jacob replied.

“Do you think that you are above paying taxes as your fellow ranchers do? Do you feel good about yourself for not paying the mandatory fees?”

Jacob did not have his arm pressed against the door just for balance, he was aware of the Chela District’s laws regarding open doors. So long as the doorway was not open for the city man, he could not enter without a warrant. This was not met with a lack of trying. The ornery man attempted to enter the home and Jacob pushed him back with a palm to the chest.

“Let’s just hold on for a second, son. Are you employed with the Chela District Diplomacy or are you a contractor?”

“I represent the Chela District Diplomacy.”

“You didn’t answer the question. Are ya or ain’t ya?”

“I’ve been contracted by the C.D.D. as a private collector on all outstanding taxes and to find evasive debtors, like yourself, Mr. Mann.”

“Evasive? I’m standing right here, ain’t I, Mr. City Man? Y’all know where to find me. As for these alleged taxes, I sent mine in at least two months ago. I suggest that you go back to the government that’s got your manhood and you tell ’em to bugger off.”

Jacob went to close the door, “Besides, you ain’t got any real authority here.”

Sam clasped the door and struggled to keep it from closing, underestimated the frail-looking rancher’s strength.

“Regardless, Mr. Mann, I have been sent here to do a job. I will not be leaving your side until you pay what you owe. My provisions are with me and I have been instructed to gather the funds by any means necessary within the law. I can be here for a long, long time.”

Jacob relented and rubbed his temporal. He was too tired for this nonsense and just wanted to get back to the work that he was doing.

“Fine. What do you need to get out of here and back into whatever hole you crawled out of?”

“Eleven hundred.”

“Eleven hundred? I can barely clear that in a season. Where in Ariel’s name am I supposed to get that kind of scratch together?”

“That sounds like a “you” problem, Mr. Mann. All I know is that I will not be leaving until the debt is paid.”

Jacob Mann had a plan.

“I can see that you traveled a long way to just to harass me, Mr. Braser. You’re also a very persistent fellow, which is a rare virtue to see on the job these days…”

“Just get to the point,” the man seethed.

“How would you like to get all of the money that you’re owed and then some?”

“And how do you propose that?”

“A Raven’s nest. It is not but a few miles East of here. It will have all kinds of treasures. Enough to settle the debt and more. Might even be enough to buy yourself a new personality.”

Sam snarled but bit his tongue. Based on the rancher’s abode and demeanor, this nest was the best chance to bring at least something back to his employers.

“Show me the way, rancher. But if you try to weasel out this in any way, so help me I will murder you where you stand.”

“I doubt that. What I don’t doubt is that I want you off of my property and I’m guessing that you aren’t too crazy about spending time with me. Let’s get a move on, shall we?”

Sam mounted his horse while Jacob packed the few provisions that they would need for the journey and they rode out. Sam spent most of the journey gritting his teeth and stewing over all of the better things that he could be doing at the moment. Occasionally, this would be interrupted by Jacob’s off-key singing while he strutted on his donkey. Sam could not help but crack a smile at it, he had dealt with many debtors in his day but never any this carefree. He must have been confident in the riches this Raven’s nest and of his abilities as a thief. How else would he be this nonchalant about this ordeal? Sam shuddered to think what the Ravens would do to somebody if they caught them stealing in their nest. Even though Sam was a city man, he knew that a man who stole from Ravens was as good as dead.

The open fields of Jacob’s ranch seemed more-and-more of a distant memory as the embrace of the forest became thicker. Jacob pressed on as if the branches were not a constant nuisance but Sam had difficulty in doing so. At seemingly every moment Sam was spitting out bugs, keeping the wooden whips from slapping his face and feeling the sticky sap invade his clothing. He had wished that his agency had insisted that he wear these fancy clothes at all times, they never did understand how diverse this job could be. He bet that Jacob never had a demeaning boss who never listened or would kick him while he was down at every opportunity. Jacob may be in debt, but Sam figured that the rancher was far more a free man than Sam was.

Sam’s horse had not been as deep in thought as his rider and jerked to a halt. They had made it to a clearing in the center of the forest. The thickets had subsided but the moss was like plush carpeting and the mushrooms of the forest floor were bigger than a large man’s fist. It was the most peaceful place that Sam had seen The absolute silence was a far cry from the bustle of the city and the offices that he was used to. He felt at peace and oddly grateful to Jacob for bringing him here. If only he had met this odd rancher over different circumstances.

“Well, what you lookin’ like a pig pissin’ for?” Jacob said as he pointed to the massive pine nearby, “this is the place, all we gotta do is climb to the top and you’ve earned your payment.”

“I certainly can’t climb a tree in my duds,” Sam said. “It’s your debt, Mr. Mann, if this is the jackpot that you claim it to be, you go retrieve it.”

Jacob gave a shrug that said ‘that’s what I thought’ and began to climb the gargantuan tree. His hands and feet guided him ever upward without so much as a change in his expression. It was obvious to Sam that this man had raided this nest many times before. There had to have been valuables in this nest before to come all of this way for it. Maybe this rancher wasn’t completely full of it?

The rancher reached the foot of the nest and peered down on the dot that was now the taxman. Poor boy in his Sunday best. Now, it was time to find a treasure to get this peon out of his life. Jacob stumbled into the nest and fumbled around in the bed of feathers and branches. Ravens are as jealous as they are greedy. If they have shiny things, they will bury it away from the prying eyes of other murders. Jacob began to frisk the nest: stick, stick, piece of fur, feather, stick. Finally, Jacob felt something man-made, he felt glass. His arm withdrew a half bottle of scotch. The label had been torn off years ago, but the bottle was nice and after a quick taste test Jacob confirmed that it was very fine scotch. That was good enough for him, but not for his friend on the ground. He slipped the bottle into his coat pocket and continued to dig. The search had begun to feel fruitless until Jacob spotted a gleaming piece of steel sticking from a corner of the nest. He snatched the bit of hope up like a hungry dog to scraps only to find a bracelet of bone and brass. These bracelets were usually made by farmwives to be sold at local markets in the region and were as common as a bowl of stew. They were cheaper too, everybody in Chela knew that. However, the ornery sucker on the ground probably didn’t. He slipped the bracelet into his pocket and made his descent.

“Are you ever in luck! I cannot lie, I did not suspect that this nest would much of anything up, but am I ever glad to be wrong.”

Jacob withdrew the bracelet from his pocket and hoisted it above his head like as if it were a prized fish.

“That,” Sam scoffed. “That is the big-time payday that you drug me through this for? This what I ruined my clothing and nearly killed my horse for?”

“Quit yer bellyaching. If you were nearly two-thousand years old you wouldn’t look nearly as good as this fine jewelry.”

“Fine jewelry? That is about as a fine as an old mule. You’re going to have to do better than that, Mr. Mann.”

“I suppose that you are right, Sam. I’m sure that the Ravens don’t steal anything of value, certainly not a warrior bracelet from the First Age. I’ll just hang on to this and work off the debt over the next several months. You are welcome to bunk with me until then.”

“Hold on, debtor,” Sam interjected. “I can accept the bracelet as a beginning payment. I will need it appraised to see if it is worth what you claim.”

Jacob relinquished the bracelet to Sam.

“There’s a jewelry appraiser and pawnbroker just West of Noird. He’s a lowballer but if you tell him that you represent the C. D. D. he’ll be a bit more inclined to give you a fair estimate to get you out of his hair. Doesn’t like the eyes of the law and the government on him too much, that one.”

“Very well, Mr. Mann,” Sam said as he took in one last look on the pristine forest floor. “Let’s get out of this Godless bush.”

The duo returned to Jacob’s ranch home. The afternoon heat had begun to subside as clear blue skies transformed to fantastic shades of violet and crimson. Sam had truly hoped that the bracelet was the First Age relic that Jacob had claimed it to be but another part of him hoped that he had a reason to escape the city and return to the ranch. His training had instructed him to treat every debtor as less than dirt but he had a hard time doing that to Jacob now. He could not help but have a soft spot for the old lush.

Sam bid the rancher a goodbye and rode over the hills. Jacob let out a sigh of relief. For the time being, he could live another day without some snotty city kid breathing down his neck. Now, it was time to get back to work. He plopped back down in the chair that he had flipped off of hours ago and began to rest his eyes.

Jacob found himself flying head over heels again as his house rattled with the force of one thousand earthquakes. The assaults on his home ranged from deafening wing beats, planks flying off his walls and sharp beaks easily piercing the roof. He ran outside to find three Ravens hovering above the now destroyed shack.

“Hey! What’s your trouble, you home-wrecking cretins?”

The leader of the bunch dropped to Jacob’s feet with such a tremendous impact that the dust of the dry land blew into his face. The Raven’s claws burrowed into the dirt with rage. The great bird towered over the rancher, he leaned in to bring his beak nearly to his eyes.

“Our ‘trouble’, little man, is that you have stolen from us. Did you expect us not to notice that our precious treasures were gone? Return them to us, at once!”

Jacob withdrew and lit his pipe, looking upon the Raven with an apathetic expression.

“I don’t know about that one, it’s a bit of a stretch if you ask me. Here’s what happened – you see that fancy boy on your way over here? The clean lookin’ fella with the watch hangin’ off his belt? He came ’round here this morning hootin’ and hollerin’ that everything and everyone on this here land owes taxes. Y’all being the intelligent birds that you are, that includes you, according to him.”

“Taxes?”

“You betchya. I tried to stop him but I’m afraid that the fella was insistent. Didn’t think too highly of y’all, either. I think I heard him call you something along the lines of ‘black disease-bags’.”

“Is that so? I am to believe that you had nothing to do with this? This city man just knew where our nest was?”

The Raven stepped closer and closer to the rancher’s eyes, pushing him back.

“I realize that we’ve had our differences in the past but this isn’t like that. I watched the city man take a worthless bracelet and a quarter bottle of booze. He took it for taxes but what on Earth would I do with that?”

“It isn’t worthless to us. Are your words true, rancher?”

“Of course they are. I’ve been nothing but respectful to the Ravens and have even helped you find treasures before if you care to remember. You find the city man, you find your treasures.”

The Raven signaled the two members of his murder off to scout for the tax collector.

“Listen to me and listen well, rancher. We will find this ‘city man’ and bring him to justice. If we find out that you are lying to us we will be back to you bring justice, as well.”

“You find the right guy and I guarantee that your return here will not be necessary.”

“We will see about that,” the Raven said as his mighty wings slammed one last gust of dirt into Jacob’s face.

Jacob watched the Raven transform from a vengeful giant to a black sliver in the sky. He withdrew the bottle of scotch from his breast pocket and took a swig. Perhaps the Raven and the taxman will be problems that will take care of themselves. Then again, perhaps they won’t be. In the meantime, Jacob watched the sunset and had realized that his workday was done. It was time to go to the Pig’s Head Tavern. With any luck that hunter that he hired every now and then would still be there. The guy is a bit of self-righteous blowhard but he’s in a tough spot, he needs Jacob’s advice now more than anybody. Jacob mounted his donkey and began his journey over to the bar. The rancher’s work was never done.

 

 

The Hunted

This night was not unlike any other at The Pig Head Tavern- loud, obnoxious, and no place for womenfolk. Tonight’s hunt had been a success and the men were celebrating and cooking their lot. The tavern was between the villages of Noird and Broek, and the villagers who had gathered there were warm with each other’s company in the wee hours of the night. With each passing minute and pouring beer, they seemed to have forgotten all about the petty rivalries that the villagers had carried with them for generations. The sounds of clinking glasses, laughter, and singing replaced the begrudged mumbling that a man would typically hear during an exchange of these villagers.

Amongst the camaraderie were also the Chela folk, farm men from the Southern Fields. By nature, they are more reserved than their more impulsive counterparts in Noird and in Broek. They were hard-working folk and did not like to speak. However, they did have a love of drinking beer and casting lots when the work was done. Tonight’s celebration was a chance for them to break from their harvest, and the usually recluse Chela men could be seen sharing stories and playing dice with the village men.

The iron stove was glowing hot and travelers from miles away could see the lights and sounds of the party through the light snowfall. The world within the tavern was a warm place. The world within one man at the tavern, however, was not. For the skulking figure seated at the bar, the world was a cold place. The Hunter had wished for nothing more than to brood, to be left alone with his thoughts as he withered away. The only thing he wished for more than that was revenge, but he was not even sure of that anymore.

The Hunter’s silent wishes to be left alone were rudely interrupted by an exaggerated pat on the back and laughter that reeked of booze. It had to be none other than Jacob Mann, a local rancher, a drinker, and a notorious welcher. Amongst his faults was loyalty, however. The townsfolk would say that even though he would drink all of your wine, he’d always be there to help you find more. The Hunter had kept predators from Jacob’s flocks in the past, and even though Jacob was late paying him most of the time he had always come through.

Jacob slid up to The Hunter at the bar and withdrew a small wooden pipe from his ragged coat.

“You got any of that Golden Import on you, brother?”

The Hunter replied with a disdained grunt.

“Fair enough,” said the rancher as he conjured a small leather pouch of tobacco and filled his pipe to the brim. After quickly packing it with a match he ignited the bowl and savored his first draw as his pipe bellowed strings of earthy haze.

“You still on about that Wolf, brother?”

The Hunter glared at the rancher, “Yes. I am still ‘on about’ that Wolf.”

Jacob was a small man, but never let the world intimidate him. The full wrath of The Hunter would make most men of the Noird rethink their next words, but not Jacob. He scratched his beard and drew another puff of his pipe, his bowl ablaze with char and smoke.

“Well, I don’t know what to tell you, lad. You’re as mad as a werewolf about this whole business, and for what? So you can stew here, doin’ nothin’ all day and all night? When was the last time that you even went hunting, Mr. Huntsman?”

The Hunter was annoyed but knew that the rancher had a point.

“I am to depart tomorrow morning. It is time to hunt again.”

Jacob shook his head slowly and tapped his pipe, “I wish the best of luck to you then, brother. If you’re heading up the Mispons, be wary. I lost close to a dozen sheep there a few weeks ago to those sharp peaks.”

He stood up and gave The Hunter a reaffirming smile, he looked upon The Hunter as if he were saying goodbye to an old friend.

“Just remember, lad, I will be here to drink with you when you return. And it’s here you should be drinking with me and celebrating life with the boys, not out moping in the mountain tops over death.” He paused for a moment and put his hand on The Hunter’s shoulder both for reassurance and to regain his balance. His words would have been sagacious had it not been for the drunken hiccuping between every second of them.

“Going after that Wolf isn’t going to bring her back.”

After he had said his piece, the rancher jaunted to a nearby table to play cards and tell embellished stories of his fishing and romantic conquests. The Hunter withdrew his pipe and his Golden Import. He sat at the bar and thought as he smoked. Perhaps the rancher was right. Either way, The Wolf must die.

It was well before dawn when The Hunter arose from his straw bed in The Pig’s Head. After bathing and eating a small breakfast, The Hunter packed his horse with his provisions and his weapons. It was to be an enduring journey but his broadsword given to him by his father and his bow was all that he would need in the Mispons. His plan was to catch The Wolf in his slumber and slay the wretched creature in his sleep. He was a humble man but was given his name for a reason. If anybody could track down the animal and kill it, it was The Hunter.

He rode from the tavern towards the Northwestern Mispon Mountains. According to Wanderers and other huntsmen in the region, it was there that the Wolf had taken up residence in one of the high peaks. He had only come down from his slumber during the winter sporadically to raid cattle caravans or ragdoll hapless travelers. That was to soon come to an end, for The Hunter rode hard and rode fast. He rode through the howling winds of the prairies. He rode with conviction.

After a few days of relentless travel, The Hunter had made it to the HorseEye River just a few miles south of the Mispons. Plains had changed to ridges as him and his horse had changed from tireless warriors to weary campers. He pitched a tent on the Western coast of the HorseEye River where the Great Trade Route crosses the river. As night fell, the roaring of the river and the crackling of the fire put him at ease while he rested with his pipe.

He could not help but think of Mila, and how he had never taken her camping riverside at the mountains. How he was always too busy out on his hunts to make time for her. Being out here in the forest at the steps of the mountains with him would have made her so happy.

Although he was at rest, he was not completely on his laurels. The Hunter was always listening to the Earth and to the winds. Both were bringing a traveler and an ass, the sounds of clanking pans and crunching snow became progressively louder as the traveler approached the campsite. The Hunter had his broadsword cloaked, but was now grasping its hilt.

“State your business,” said The Hunter.

“I’m just passing through. On my way to Shyayn,” replied the traveler, “I saw your flame and thought that I would stop by to let you know that there is a fire ban in effect in the HorseEye District.”

“I do not see what concern that is to me, nor to you.”

The traveler had come to a complete stop at the foot of The Hunter’s camp.

“Well, for starters my boy, you are in HorseEye, you know? If The Riders caught wind of this then you will be subject to prosecution.”

The Hunter clutched his sword harder, “And how will they know?”

“I will put it to you this way. Put out that fire now or I will inform The Riders. They will find you and you will be penalized as they see fit.”

The traveler was now close enough to The Hunter that he could run him through in an instant. No one would ever know. He unclutched his sword and kept it hidden under his cloak.

“It’s getting late, be on your way, traveler. I will put this fire out posthaste. There is no need to get The Riders involved.”

“Thank you for understanding,” replied the traveler. “The Barrier Forest is drier than it has ever been. Not even the snow of the Mispons can protect it from even a single getting way out of hand.”

The Hunter gave the traveler a compliant nod and he was on his way. He disappeared into the darkness as the clanking of his wares became a distant whisper. The Hunter was disappointed that he could not have the warmth of his fire near his tent but knew that reports to The Riders would slow his mission. A man has to pick his battles, and this one was not worth fighting. He snuffed out the flames with a few handfuls of snow and settled in his tent for the night.

It had been a treacherous path up the mountains the next morning. Several hours and a little sleep had passed since The Hunter’s run-in with the traveler. The morning sun could only manage to get momentary peeks in between the thick fog rolling over the mountainside. The Hunter remained undeterred as he trudged through the snow. He had sent his horse home and was now relying on his mocassins to carry him the rest of the way. His sword on his back, his bow around his shoulder and a hunting knife and a lantern on his belt now being the only supplies that he was carrying.

While The Hunter walked he reviewed his plan to slay The Wolf. He knew that for the next few miles he must tread lightly, move slowly and stay low. The Wolf could hear and smell far better than any man could imagine. Legend has it that The Wolf could even ambush approaching prey in his sleep. The Hunter knew that he only has one shot to bring the beast down, and even in its slumber it would not be easy.

The fog was growing thicker but The Hunter pressed on. He could barely see past his feet, but that’s all he needed. Just below him was the first paw print. The Hunter crouched down to inspect the gaping holes in the snow. One print alone was enough to fit a child inside of, and The Hunter knew that many children and other innocent people had met their end under those paws. He followed the tracks diligently for about a mile on the treacherous peaks. With frost on his face and rage in his heart, he continued up the mountainside.

On the rocky cliffs of the Mispons, he had found what he had been looking for. It felt like he had been searching forever, and now that he found it he was not sure that he wanted to go inside. The Wolf’s cave was finally in his sight. It was a dark and curved entrance that almost looked like a twisted perversion of a smile. The Hunter could not help but think that The Wolf took some kind of twisted pleasure in that. The Hunter struck a match, lit up his lantern, and stepped inside.

The interior of the cave somehow seemed colder than the unforgiving peaks of the Mispons. The light of his lantern flickered as he stepped over the bloodstained stones and old bones that cluttered the cave’s floor. For many of his steps, The Hunter could only feel discarded ribcages and limbs under his moccasins. The stench was unbearable. The scents of wet fur, carcasses, and urine forcibly entered his nostrils. It only got worse as he pressed on through the catacombs.

The Hunter had noticed that the bones he was stepping on were parts of complete skeletons, many of them still wearing the clothes or armor that they died in. There was no sign of The Wolf caching gold or weapons, there was not a glimmer of silver to be seen in the caves. Judging by some of the positions that the deceased were in, it seemed that these poor souls died in the cavern. The Ravens had a love of human treasures and are known for stealing all that shines. The Wolf did not. The Wolf detests men above all else, he despises their treasures and their greed. His treasure was suffering. The Wolf would thrash men within an inch of their lives, and drag them to the caves to watch them die. He rarely showed mercy to women and children either, tearing their skin off alive and eating it in front of the men as a cruel way to inflict pain on them. To inflict the cruelty that The Wolf had seen men so easily give out. The wrath of The Wolf was insatiable. He carried it with him since he was just a cub and now knows no other way.

Even though his crimes against nature and The Hunter were unforgivable, The Hunter felt a small sense of pity for The Wolf. The Wolf had lost his way, but so had the men of late. Men were now more concerned with building treasuries and fueling industry than living with dignity and freedom, living as subservient hoarders instead of proud men in living off of nature. There was a time when men protected all on the Earth, and would proudly ride with Wolves for grand hunts and to deliver justice. The Hunter’s Fathers rode with Wolves. Perhaps, if they were in another time, The Hunter and The Wolf would have ridden together.

There was no time to reminisce about the Old Ages now. A flicker of his lantern revealed a large, hirsute mass sprawled across the cavern’s floor. Had it not been for The Hunter’s sharp eye he would not have seen it, for it was as black as night. The Hunter held his breath and quickly sought refuge behind one of the cave’s walls. He crept his head around the stone and focused his light on the creature carefully as not to wake it. He inspected the seemingly lifeless body and knew that this was his chance. This was what he was waiting for. He – well – he and Mila would finally get their revenge. He smothered his lantern and drew in the dank, frosty air through his nose. He stepped around the stone and began to stalk the beast. The hunter had become the hunted. Each step was taken with more caution than the last as he got closer to the sleeping giant. He stepped breathlessly to not crunch bone or kick pebbles. After the longest few yards that he had ever walked were done, he was at the neck of the wolf. It was dark as Hell, but he could see the fur and the curves of his body. The wolf had been in such a slumber that it appeared dead, not making a sound. This was it. The Hunter slowly withdrew his sword from its sheath. His cold hands wrapped around hard leather, the gleam of the blade shone even in the deepest pits of the cave. He lifted the hilt above his head and drove the blade through the fur and into the bone. The wolf did not respond. The Hunter took the opportunity and ran the wolf through several more times. His sword driving deeper and deeper with each strike. The Hunter left his sword in the wolf after piercing it deep as the hilt and dashed back, drawing his knife and readying himself for a fight.

A fight did not come.

“What in Ariel’s name?”

He grasped his sword and withdrew the blade from the fur. After a few seconds of silence, he relit his lantern. The carcass below him was certainly large enough to be The Wolf, and it looked strikingly like The Wolf. However, there was something incomplete about it, as if it were a sum of many parts rather than one body. The Hunter brushed his hand against the coarse fur and lowered it to the ground. The fur had a bottom as if it were a massive rug. The Hunter pulled from the bottom with a long stroke and flipped the rug over to the side, revealing the contents underneath. Laying under the fur were ten or eleven large sheep carcasses, arranged to appear as the bulk of The Wolf. The remainder of the rug was stitched together with another wolf skull, paws, and bear claws. These caves were ancient and powerful, a strong enough wielder could create illusions to convince even the savviest of hunters. The Hunter knew that he was in danger.

“Oh, fu-“.

Before he could finish his words, The Hunter felt the weight of one thousand knives enter his ribcage and his back. He released a bloodcurdling cry as he felt his body lift off the ground and move with impossible speed. It had taken him about ten minutes to get as deep into the Mispons as he was, and now he could see the light of the grinning entryway within a matter of seconds.

The frigid wind slapped him with impossible force as he felt his attacker fling his body weightlessly. He braced himself for a crash landing and hit the snow. The seeping crimson of The Hunter’s wounds was a stark contrast to the pure white blanket of the Mispons. His ears were ringing, but The Hunter could make out the sound of deep, guttural laughter. It had sounded like the Earth itself shaking, and it possibly was. The Hunter lifted his face out of the snow and then his whole body. There he stood in front of The Wolf.

“Well, if it isn’t the mighty hunter? Did you come to show the ‘Big, Bad Wolf’ the meaning of justice? You should have stayed in that rat’s nest near Noird, boy.”

The Hunter stood firm despite the searing pain in his ribs.

“Yeah, after this I will end up doing exactly that. But they needed a few ashtrays and a chamber pot. Thought I’d run up here for your paws and your skull to help them out.”

The Wolf bellowed his unholy laughter, “Is that right? For such a small fellow you do have courage, you do have that. Your words aren’t enough to cut me, Huntsman, and neither will those infantile blades. Men greater than you have tried to fell the Beast of the Mispons, and all have failed.”

To be fair, The Wolf towered over The Hunter. The Wolf stood twofold the size as one of the Grand Bisons of the Chela Plains. The Hunter could not see the entrance to the cave behind The Wolf as he swallowed the area with his massive stature. The Wolf began to circle The Hunter, preparing for an attack.

The Hunter grimaced and put his hand on the garments over his wound. His hand now covered in frozen blood.

“Enjoy this bloodshed, monster. It will be the last that you ever see.”

The Wolf lunged at The Hunter faster than lightning, the Hunter drew his bow and drove two arrows into The Wolf’s neck. The Wolf did not feel them and was instantly within striking range of The Hunter. He was close enough to The Hunter that he could smell The Wolf’s rancid breath, The Hunter evaded the beast’s jaws with a lateral dive. The Wolf snapped his neck back and caught The Hunter’s leg with his mighty jaws. Once again, The Hunter was flung into the snow.

The Wolf laughed so hard that he began to cough.

“You are no different than all of your men-kind. You mistake arrogance for conviction, greed for justice.”

The Hunter rolled to his back and slashed The Wolf across the face with his broadsword. The strike opened a gaping wound in the Beast of the Mispons’ face as he fell back and bellowed, but it also served to anger him. He bared his teeth and snapped them at The Hunter’s shoulder, lifting him off of the ground. The Hunter withdrew his knife and repeatedly stabbed The Wolf behind the ears and in the neck, as the teeth of The Wolf drove deeper into The Hunter’s shoulder. The knife was enough to subdue The Wolf after a dozen strikes and he relinquished. The Hunter had the upper hand for the first time and seized the opportunity, he drove his broadsword into The Wolf’s ribs. The Wolf cried as The Hunter continued to hack at the beast. Each strike gnashed fur, snow, and blood. For the first time since the Wolf was a cub, he was vulnerable. He retreated to the cliffside and laid across the rocky peaks. He was beaten.

The Hunter was breathing heavy and bleeding heavier. He looked down at the mighty creature, now a dying wretch. The Wolf seemed to enjoy watching his prey die, but The Hunter would not give him the satisfaction of partaking in the cruelty that he was expecting. The Hunter began his journey home to let The Wolf’s tyranny become a thing of the past.

But The Wolf had different plans, he smiled through his bloodstained teeth.

“That’s just like you to leave me here to die, Huntsman. You seemed to have no problem doing the same to that wife of yours. What was her name, again? Mila?”

The Hunter stopped dead in his tracks. The sound of her name coming from that degenerate’s mouth made his blood boil. He clenched his fists.

“Yes, that was it,” The Wolf continued, “Mila. Her last words were your name, you know? She begged you to save her. She cried in vain for something that was never strong enough to save her as I snapped her pathetic bones in half.”

The Wolf laughed as he sputtered blood onto the stones. The Hunter was shaking with rage, but The Wolf was as deceitful as he was cruel, The Hunter stood strong to ignore his taunts. He wanted to walk away, but his feet felt as if they were one thousand pounds.

“As a matter of fact, go into my cave before you leave. I left you her spine. She could never be protected with a spineless man, borrow hers so that you can try again with another harlot daughter of a drunkard.”

The Hunter screamed a warcry loud enough to be heard from the Nabi Desert. He pounced at The Wolf with his hunting knife in hand. The Wolf bore his final grin and in an anticipated swoop, he snapped his powerful jaws around The Hunter’s wrist and slid them both into the darkness below.

 

“The More Things Change: A Case Study to Introduce Information Technology Ethics” (A Book Review)

“The More Things Change: A Case Study to Introduce Information Technology Ethics”
by Donna Lindskog
Published by Benchmark Press
Reviewed by Ben Charles
C$20.00 ISBN: 9781927352373

“The More Things Change: A Case Study to Introduce Information Technology Ethics”, written by Donna Lindskog is a thought invoking exercise in technology ethics that manages to also be an entertaining experience along the way. The story follows Carol McIsaac, a brand new employee of MTS, working as a programmer analyst. Set in 1979, Carol and her friends, Jeremey and Susan, transverse the new world of technology using keypunch machines to write code. Although the technology used throughout this story is archaic by today’s standards, the ethical dilemmas found within are very much relevant to today’s professional and technological climates. The issues that Carol faces include plagiarism, fraud, sexual harassment, racism, basic incompetence, and a plethora of other debatable ethical dilemmas. The book also provides a detailed appendix of all the information that an IT enthusiast needs in order to act ethically and responsibly in a professional setting. This includes a Code of Ethics, generously provided by the Canadian Association of Information Technology Professionals (CIPS).

In our world of net neutrality, Russian bots, micro-transactions, deleted emails, and private information being stolen by social media conglomerates, the topic of information and technology ethics has never been more relevant than it is right now. Lindskog’s fabulous case studies invoke the reader to truly reflect on the ethical use of technology, data, and information in a professional setting, and arguably for personal use, as well. The case studies in this book are separated into 11 chapters that each explores different ethical topics but also come together to form a cohesive, entertaining plot. Throughout the story, the reader can see how the choices of the characters and the company lead to somewhat catastrophic results. The book also provides discussion questions for each chapter at the end of the book. I must admit, these discussion questions brought me back to review each chapter a few times, as I had completely missed some of the questionable actions or decisions made by the characters. It made me think, “If it is that easy to overlook unethical practices in a case study written exclusively about ethics, what am I missing in my day-to-day life?”

I would highly suggest this piece to anyone with an interest in computers, technology, and information, as well as to employers to utilize as a useful training resource for their IT professionals. Lindskog’s extensive background in IT, and her passion for the field truly shines through in this document. Before reading this piece, I never knew that it was possible to smile and think about the difference between acting ethically and acting professionally at the same time.

THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM

Forgive Me, Father

FORGIVE ME, FATHER

by Ben R. Charles

The two teenage boys shifted and stirred uncomfortably in the dated classroom chairs that they had found their asses in. Every slight movement caused the rusted metal legs and the cracked plastic seats to moan and creak. At the moment, every one of these minor infractions of the peace was louder than the last. The boys had been in trouble before, but never quite like this.
Across from them was seated Father Riley, a relatively new priest who had been with the church for a decade even though he was just passed the age of thirty. To Robert and Mitch, he might as well have been in his sixties. To be fair to the boys, he looked the part of a sexagenarian; his genetic lottery had blessed him with a prematurely receding hairline and a salt-n-pepper barrage of greys on the thick black hair that he had left. His stern expression added to his authority as he seemed to have stared into both of the boys’ eyes at once. The only distractions from his gaze in the small church office included the humming of the lights, that distinctive church-smell, and those damned creaky chairs. The fulcrum of the tension in the room was between the boys and the Father; it rested silently on the Father’s desk and was yet stuck out like a sore thumb. It also seemed to be the only thing in the room unaware of the tension, as Vida Guerra’s peppy, smiling face looked up at the church ceiling. Her dark, barely-clothed body was covered only by a black laced thong and her long, brunette hair cloaked the title Playboy.
The Father hummed and slid back into his chair, finding relief in the soft velvet of its lining. He removed his grain-farmer glasses to reveal his crows feet and his tired eyes. He rubbed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and index finger.
“Your parents have already been called and you’ve already been caught. There’s no point in lying anymore, boys. I’m only going to ask you this one more time: where did you find the magazine?”
“We already told you!” Robert said, his voice quivering from frustration. “It was laying there just behind the church by the crick. Me and Mitch go down there just to fu- mess around and we just found it under some tall grass. It’s the truth! Tell ‘em, Mitch!” Robert glanced over to his friend, his eyes begging for reassurance.
“Yeah,” Mitch said softly. “We was gonna throw it away, I promise. It wasn’t ours, we just picked it up. We knows we shouldn’t have, we wasn’t thinkin’.”
“No, you were not thinking,” Father Riley replied sharply. “What made you believe that reading this filth was acceptable? Did you boys listen to none of my sermons over the past year? Do you not care for your own sanctity? Have you no respect for yourselves?”
“Yes, Father, we do,” Robert replied. “We weren’t gonna keep it. We just wanted to show our friends and have a laugh. You know, we thought it would make us cool. And you gotta admit, she is pretty hot. You woulda picked it up, too. Whoever it belonged to had good taste.” He laughed nervously.
Robert’s explanation did not impress Fr. Riley. It seemed to have annoyed the exhausted priest even more. He leered at the boys. Robert slunk into his chair and began playing with the strings on his sweater.
Father Riley raised his eyebrows and lowered his voice. “You thought it would make you ‘cool’? Tell me, how? How would it make you ‘cool’, my son?” The Father knew that he had to maintain a stern composure, but he could not help himself from chuckling on the inside in anticipation of hearing the fourteen-year old’s explanation.
Robert bit his lip and cleared his throat to no avail, his voice cracked anyway.
“Well. It’s like- um- yeah, I guess it is kind of stupid. Forgive me, Father.”
“It is kind of stupid, and I know that you boys know better,” the Father replied calmly, partially disappointed in the safe response but relieved by it at the same time. “Now, go in peace. We will deal with this further with your parents next Sunday after mass. You two will be staying here all day to help Mrs. Kovach clean the church top-to-bottom. There’s a whole day’s worth of grass cutting and weeding that you will be doing, too. I will be speaking to the bishop about this,  and you better believe that we will find out where this smut came from.”
The boys moaned and sheepishly walked out of the priest’s office, leaving the door slightly open. Fr. Riley could hear the sounds of muffled footsteps and a shushed argument as the boys left the church.
Father Riley dipped his head into hands and ran his palms over his forehead. A pool of sweat gathered from his head and into the heels of his hands. He ritualistically wiped the moisture onto his lycra dress pants as he had done thousands of times since the church moved him from the East and into the dry prairie heat. The heat and his hectic schedule had made him more tired than he usually was. First of all, he had the bishop on his case about ordaining a new deacon. It would not be such a difficult job if the bishop wasn’t such an arrogant, self-serving prick- not that Riley would ever say that out loud. Secondly, Riley had two funerals, a wedding, three confirmations and a baptism booked in this week alone. Every priest expects summertime to be busy but this had just been absurd, especially for a small Saskatchewan town. Riley had much bigger fish to fry than dealing with a couple of kids who had found a magazine in the bushes. Is looking at a few dirty pictures really that bad, anyway? It’s natural for kids that age to start getting curious about that kind of thing. Big deal.
Fr. Riley sighed, and then stood up into a long stretch. He walked over to his office window, he had always enjoyed the birch and the oaks that surrounded the church and crept into the crick, and the way that the birds would sing outside of his window. Even the bishop, as much of a hard case as he is, loved the beauty of the trees at this church and would often go out for hiking and prayer excursions in the small forest nearly every time he visited. Fr. Riley took a moment to soak in the heat of the afternoon and the chattering of the sparrows. He took in a few deep breaths and he smiled.
Upon regaining his tranquility, the priest knew that he was thinking rashly. It was true that, yes, it is natural for boys to become curious. However, the word of God and a mature perspective are necessary to guide these young minds away from the seduction of pornography and into healthy relationships with their partners and families. To normalize pornography and to cheapen love at such a young age is harmful, dangerous even, for a young mind. Too many times the Father had seen good men fall victim to pursuing lust and too many times had he seen those men lead empty, lonely, and hollow lives. The men of tomorrow need guidance to lead richer lives. If that cannot be provided by a man of God, than by whom?
The sunshine parted through the clouds and into the Father’s office. He became blinded by the bright rays and turned himself to escape the irritation. He shifted his gaze away from the sun, down to his desk, and straight to Vida. Her radiant, brown eyes stared right back at him, and her luscious hair draped over her bare back. She may have been just a model on a magazine cover, but she might as well have been right in the room with him, whispering in his ear. The room became quieter than it was just a few moments ago before he began lecturing the boys. Fr. Riley reminded himself that his next meeting was not to start for another two hours, and he had no expected visitors today. He began to think that maybe he should see for himself what it was that he was giving the boys so much trouble over. It might be best to know his enemy if he wants to continue preaching the word of God in the future, after all. The young priest had successfully kept his vow of both poverty and celibacy for over a decade. Surely taking a quick peek at a magazine wouldn’t hurt, right?
The priest sighed and slid into his chair, caressing the wooden armrests and listening intently to anything that could break the silence in the church before he fully relaxed. Once he was convinced the coast was clear he placed his outstretched palm over Vida’s face and pulled the glossy magazine across his desk and into his hands. He slowly picked the magazine up and examined the covers it carefully, as if expecting it to trigger an alarm. He revealed the back cover to himself, which was nothing more than an advertisement featuring an ecstatic golfer, his female caddy, empty promises of male enhancement in a pill, and some bad puns about “club sizes” and “making a hole in one”. He flipped the magazine back into the reading position, cradling the smut under his desk and on his right arm as if holding Vida, herself. He licked his left thumb and began leafing through the slightly soiled pages.
While glancing through the first few pages the priest had thought to himself how easy it would be for someone to mistake this for a lifestyle magazine. There appeared to be nothing except for advertisements for luxury cars and watches, fitness advice, and even some surprisingly well-written editorials. This would not last long, as the priest had found what he was secretly hoping for. Right there in the center of the magazine and now permanently embedded into the holy man’s mind was Vida’s centerfold. Fr. Riley couldn’t remember the last time he had seen something like this or felt something like this. It felt so aggressively wrong, he knew that he had to stop now and put the magazine away. He knew that, but he was powerless to stop staring at Vida’s completely nude body, her dark curves contorting and contrasting over ivory satin sheets. His mouth hung open and his fingers gently traced over the silhouette of the woman. He thought of his high school crush, Becky Wilson, for some strange reason. He felt a flush of ecstasy invade his Garden of Eden; he began adjusting his robes over his lap to hide his rising Moses and the parting of the seams.
“Those robes can be quite an itch to scratch in the summer, can they not, young Father Riley?” A hoarse voice rattled from above.
“Jesu- Jiminy Cricket!” Riley exclaimed as he almost fell completely backward in his chair. “The Most Reverend Joseph Bolen, I was not expecting you for another few hours! Please, have a seat.”
The young priest hurriedly folded his robes back to his sides and placed the magazine face down on the desk.
The old classroom chair released a metallic moan as the bishop lowered his ancient frame into the seat. The bishop crossed his legs much closer together than any man Riley had ever seen, it was almost impressive. The Father was tempted to make a comment on the bishop’s flexibility to break the tension but thought that it was probably for the best not to, considering the circumstances.
The bishop glared knives at Father Riley for what felt like an eternity. He began to question if he had actually died and that this was all some sort of sick Purgatory punishment.
Finally, the bishop spoke. “That is an interesting choice of reading material for a man of the cloth, wouldn’t you agree, young Father Riley?”
The priest immediately lifted his palms towards the bishop and pumped the air twice, as if pushing away the old man’s implications.
“Whoa, whoa. Ok. This is not what it looks like!” Father Riley exclaimed. “Two boys from my parish had found this down behind the church in the trees, I had actually just sent them home. I will be discussing this with their parents and punishing them in a few days. I had just decided to take a brief look at it to see what I am up against. Nothing more, I swear.”
Father Riley had started to sweat heavily, the beads now pouring down his neck and soaking his shirt. Bishop Bolen is not a forgiving man, he had caught Riley red-handed, and he has fired priests for far less. Riley gulped; he knew that this may very well be the end of his priesthood. The magazine advertisement’s dopey grin of Smilin’ John and his ridiculous golf outfit would be the last thing Riley would see as a man of God, he thought to himself.
“What do you take me for, young Father Riley, a fool?” The bishop asked through his teeth. “Do you see me as the blind man from John, 9:1-12?” The bishop became more irate with every word.
Father Riley kept his palms in the air and said, “no, it’s just- I…”
“Shut up,” the bishop snarled. “Close that fly-catcher of yours before you embarrass yourself and The Lord any more. How dare you even think about practicing such a shameful act in The House of The Lord? Have you no shame, young Father Riley, have you no respect?” The saliva and vitriol from the bishop’s mouth were now spraying Riley’s face.
“I do- if you’d just listen…”
“You’re suspended- for three months- without pay. This will be placed on your permanent record, as well. I am being more than merciful, more than fair; I should fire you right now. It’s not like you care about being a priest, anyway.”
Father Riley lowered his face into his hands; he fought back the hot tears welling up in his eyes. This was not right; he had been a devoted priest for ten years. He did care. The bishop had just happened to catch him at the worst possible moment.
As if it were not enough injury the bishop began to berate him some more. “Only you would think that indulging in such perverted acts was even close to acceptable here,” the old man sneered. “It’s bad enough that you brought this… this, harlot into our church, one who does not even have enough dignity than to cover herself with more than a black shoestring.”
Father Riley’s head snapped back up from his hands and his eyes pierced the bishop, no longer sad and defeated, but rather inquisitive and sharp. They flitted down for Riley to see Smilin’ John and his male enhancement advertisement. The magazine was face down.
“What did you just say?” He asked.
“N-nothing!” The bishop stammered. “It hardly matters, you are to be suspended effective immediately. Take your things and get out of my sight. Leave this filth here to be disposed of by a real man of God.”
The priest stood and began to collect his books and knick-knacks from the office. He knew exactly what was going on. He never understood why the bishop needed the hikes and the solitary prayers down by the crick; no other priest, let alone a bishop ever did that. It was all starting to make sense. He collected his items in an office box, taking his time as he lumbered towards the door. He turned to the bishop one last time.
“So, you want me to leave your magazine here, then?”
“Yes.”
The bishop immediately recoiled at what he had just said. He stuttered and bellowed every excuse on God’s green earth. His face became the most violent shade of red that Riley had ever seen. The bishop ceased his fit, he knew that resistance was fruitless. He lowered his head and raised his eyes to Riley’s unconvinced expression.
“No one needs to know about this,” The bishop whispered sheepishly. “Your suspension is lifted, and this little incident will not go on your record. Please, forgive me, Father. Is there anything that I can do to make this right, to make sure that this stays between us?”
Father Riley lowered his box to the ground and smiled.
“You know what? There is. Mrs. Kovach is going to need some help all day next Sunday to give our church a much-needed cleaning and grass cutting. We got weeds growing all around this old building that needs pluckin’, too. And I think that you’re just the right man for the job.”