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Short Story Prize

"Pax" by Brooks McMullin

For the next two weeks, we're rolling out the ten shortlisted entries for the CBC Short Story Prize. In today's story, an altar boy in training sees his troubles through the lens of the church.

Be sure to come back to Canada Writes on March 19, when we'll be opening the "people's choice" poll for you to vote for your favourite shortlisted story while we wait for the judges' verdict


Sleep if you want to, Father Greg, but I've got to get through these fourteen stations.  

"I love you, b'y," Da said.  It is the basement.  

Kiss is pog.  Pax is peace.  It is an afternoon like this one.  Kiss is pog.  Pax is peace.  I know why Jesus died in the afternoon.  "I love you, b'y," he whispered.  It was a curse or a secret in my ear.  He hung on to me.  "For dear life" are words my mother says often.  The words he whispered are like echoes that wait for me at the end of my life.  I hope that it is a promise unkept.  If there is an escape route or decoder ring, for God's sake, let me have it.

Am I someone to hang on to for dear life?  How do you say something to something like that?  His whispers woo woo woo me.  I have picked up doorstopper seashells that go like that.  Put your ear here and listen to the ocean even though you are a mile away from the ocean.  

He is helpless to be a father to a son.  Sometimes he is helpless because he is fit to be tied and he beats me with the belt he is tied with around the middle, and I leave a puddle before the belt is pulled off and doubled.  He is not fit to be tied now.  He hugs me like an undertow from the sea, though I have never had an undertow hug me.  I lean on the washer for support and look under his arm at the twin sinks.  The water boiler in the corner is white and looks back.  It is as dumb as me.

Remember he waited.  Remember he waited on the church steps and the dark came.  Remember he waited alone while I was tested in the glebe house.  He waited for the test for entrance to the altar boys to be completed.  Remember he taught me the Latin of the Mass.  Remember it got dark.  Remember he was there waiting for me.  Remember that he was there whistling, waiting for me.  Pax means peace.  Remember pax vobiscum means peace be with you.  Remember spelling homework.  A test every day and ten new words every day to learn every night for the rest of your life.

There are fourteen stations of the cross.  

"It's a Long Way to Tipperary" is a song my mother sings.  There are things you should know about Good Friday.  

On Good Friday, the bacon does not fry.  On Good Friday, it's porridge instead.  On Good Friday, cod soaks in a pot on the counter.  On Good Friday, she suffers without her sweets.  On Good Friday, thin crosses of icing on the hot-cross buns is the best she can do.

Pax is peace.  Kiss is pog.  I love you, b'y.

In the morning I go to Willy’s house. We sit in the Vauxhall and look at the graveyard next door.

An old man wanders among the graves, his head bent.

Willy says, "Malkie lost his bottle."

Peter says, "No.  He hid one from before and now he can't find it."

I say, "Isn't it grand, b'ys, to be bloody well dead."  

That is our cue to sing.  And we sing:

Let's not have a sniffle, 
let's have a bloody good cry,
and always remember 
the longer you live
the sooner you'll bloody well die.

The windshield fogs up.  Shadow barks at the end of his rope.  Mrs. MacAnnally appears in the porch door.  She is the narrowest woman I know.  Her elbows are red.  Her house dress is nearly out of colour.  Her hair stands off the side of her head like a bush in the wind.  She raises the empty coal scuttle to Peter and calls Willy into the house.

Today is too windy, too cool, too early for ground hockey.  Where we play hockey on the parking lot, water runs in lines.  But that wind, that wind!  

(Talk about that wind the way the old folks do.)

Willy and Peter return together. They fight outside the driver's door, fight for the handle, fight for the driver's seat.  Peter wins. Willy got in on the other side and told me he just got five dollars for putting “the old man back in bed.” Drunk again, his stomach shot, milk the only mix left for his rum.  

Peter got it one time from him.  For playing ground hockey after school without changing his school clothes first.  He was stood in the corner of the kitchen by the hot-water tank and treated like a boxer on the ropes with nothing to do but take it.  He had black eyes, burns from the tank on his back, on the backs of his arms.

Our backs to the pews, around on the outside aisle we go. It's hot in the church. I fight with Paul for the window breeze, for the view. We shoot elbows under the surplices. Nothing you’d ever see. But there is no carry on at all, of course, and you’re there with the priest before the stained glass and the station on the wall above. And we’re all looking up holding long lit candles on sticks. 

“As Jesus Meets His Afflicted Mother,” I get a look out the open window. The Chinese are down in the brook below my grandfather's house, standing in the water bent over picking greens.  One of them straightens up.  He smiles up into the Good Friday grey sky. He has a knife in his belt and it does nothing but shine.

“When Jesus Falls the Third Time” I see the parking lot full of cars.  I forgot.  There is no ground hockey. There are too many things to remember.  Keep the candle from swaying so it won't blow out.  Remember that.  He is there in the seat.  He is there to say that with his eyes.  But to look at him you’d think, he never even knew you. He’s looking straight ahead. His mouth saying the usual prayers. I only think, pax means peace.  I hear him say, I love you, b'y.  And the cars in the parking lot bring me back. No ground hockey. 

“When Jesus Dies on the Cross,” I can see nothing but the bingo hall.  When we get to “Jesus Is Taken Down From the Cross”, I can catch sight of the side exit.  But hope for an escape is no good.  Everybody knows we go around in the circle and nobody gets out--though some have tried.  Packed in the pews in all that heat, they let go of themselves.  They faint.  They fall. The sound of their falling echoes like thunder in the church.  They did not break their fall and no one else broke it for them.  If you faint and try to get out, you have to pay for it.  But there is no getting out.  Remember that.  Everybody goes back.  Pog, pog—pax is peace. 

Remember one thing: Judas died before the thieves did. The reason for everything is that there is no other ending to the story. We know the ending from the beginning—but expect something different.  And I don't, do not, mean this story, either! There is of course only one other thing: Holy Thursday takes the puck past centre, he passes to Good Friday, Good Friday over the line, to Holy Saturday, Holy Saturday slips a check, a back pass to Easter Sunday, Easter Sunday on the goal. He winds up. The shot! Easter Sunday! Easter Sunday! Easter Sunday scores!


Brooks McMullin has an MA in Contemporary American Literature from the University of Saskatchewan. He has studied screenwriting at the Sundance Retreat in Utah, and was a quarter-finalist in 2006 Zoetrope screenwriting contest for a feature-length script, Coal War. Brooks has been published in a number of Canadian literary magazines, and in his spare time he paints landscapes and trains Labrador Retrievers.

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set count down final date: 11/01/2014
set count up final date: 11/01/2014
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