A Lifetime Burning in a Moment

Penguin Book of Crime Stories
June 2010
Penguin Canada
ISBN-10: 0143172344

Dead in the Water
April 2006
Paperback: 312 pages
Publisher: Rendezvous Press
ISBN: 1894917375

Read an excerpt below from Rick's short story.


John Devlin 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.

A Lifetime Burning in a Moment

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. . . . . .

Copyright© 2017 Rick Mofina. All Rights Reserved.