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Short Story Competition

Three great prizes. One List of rules. Unlimited Creativity.

There are a plethora of juicy stories buried deep within our Canadian roots, begging to be told! Your McMurray Magazine, as part of Balsom Communications, partnered with NorthWord Magazine and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo to award some seriously big prizes for the top three stories submitted to the first ever Short Story Competition. Were there some weird rules? Sure. But following those rules had a big payoff for a group of uber-talented home-grown writers.

  • HOOK, LINE AND SINKER by Mel Campbell

    1st Place

    Mel Campbell

    “My name is Rod,” he yelled. “Can I buy you a drink?

    The throbbing beat of the sound system made it hard to hear. It was Monday night at an uptown bar, and nearly time for last call.

    I smiled and pointed to the stool opposite. “Still got one. But sit down and keep me company. My date left earlier.”

    the rest of the story!

    The throbbing beat of the sound system made it hard to hear. It was Monday night at an uptown bar, and nearly time for last call.

    I smiled and pointed to the stool opposite. “Still got one. But sit down and keep me company. My date left earlier.”

    Rod plunked his butt down and had the courtesy to say, “My lucky day. Why?” I shrugged. “It was one of those E-Harmony first date things. I wasn’t his type.” It wasn’t hard to look sad.

    He nodded in sympathy. “It happens.”

    I had been eyeing him for some time. He was a decent-looking guy, if you don’t mind them short. Light brown hair, with a straight nose and regular features. But short. Good thing I’d worn flats.

    This was so out of character for me, being here by myself. But I’d seen others do it. Hooking up at the end of a night was supposed to be easy. This was a Monday, slow day. It hadn’t taken much to get his attention.

    I looked pretty hot, actually. Short black skirt, red halter top, and plenty of eye makeup. I’m pretty stacked, so that helped. No one from work would ever recognize me.

    But it seemed too good to be true. Here he was, the best looking guy still left in the place, chatting me up. And he was actually very charming. I liked how he asked questions about me. So many guys just talk about themselves.

    It was getting on two o’clock when he finally got to it. “So do you live around here?” That gave me my opening.

    “Not far,” I said, with a shy smile. “We could go to my place. My sister is away until Wednesday. The booze is cheaper there.”

    He looked a little startled. Maybe I had wrecked his plan? But I could see his mind assessing this new spin.

    He had a smile like Rob Lowe. “That would be nice,” he said.

    I was excited now, ridiculously so. I guess that probably bubbled out. But I’d never done anything like this before. I couldn’t stop talking all the way to his car, which he said was parked out back. It was actually a small silver truck, one of those Japanese jobs, with a bench seat.

    He held the door open for me, just like a gentleman. I strapped myself in. Before he could start the ignition, I reached into my purse. My hand came out with a small silver flask.

    “One for the road?” I said.

    Again, I had surprised him. Both eyebrows raised, and a wry smile crossed his face. “What is it?”

    “Rum,” I said. “The good stuff, high proof. I picked it up in Fort McMurray.” I offered it to him.

    “What were you doing in Fort McMurray?”

    Rod took it from me, unscrewed the top and took a swig.

    “My dad used to work for an oil company.”

    He turned back to me, appraising. Really, he had very nice hazel eyes.

    “Cool. I’ve never been north of Orillia,” he said. “This is an awesome flask.”

    “It was my Dad’s. He died recently.” Don’t think about Dad, I told myself. He wouldn’t approve of me tonight.

    “I’m sorry. Mine is dead too.” Rod put the key in the ignition. Nice hands, but small for a man. “So where are we going?”

    “Not far. Oh my God! I forgot my jacket in the bar. Hold on a sec. I’ll just run in and get it.”

    I pushed open the door and hopped out, leaving my purse on the seat. The night was getting colder. I dashed around the side of the building and in by the front entrance.

    They were starting to close up. My jacket was there, just where I had left it, hanging on the coat rack. I grabbed it. Then I made a quick trip to the washroom. This encounter had made me pretty excited, and when I’m excited…well, you know. It wouldn’t hurt to kill a minute or two. He wouldn’t expect me to do a runner, since I had left my purse back in the truck.

    I waved to the bartender on my way out. He looked weary, like he had seen it all before. Another man who wouldn’t approve of me tonight.

    When I got back to the truck, I went to the driver’s side and opened the door. Rod was slumped against the wheel. The flask had fallen from his hand; I picked it up and replaced the cap. Then I put it in my purse.

    I pushed him over to the passenger side. “I’ll drive,” I said for the benefit of anyone who might be in earshot. “You’ve had too much to drink.”

    But there was no one around.

    I climbed in and put the vehicle in gear. It seemed a little jerky but that could be because I had never driven a truck before. Before long, we were leaving the city lights behind us.

    It was rather bizarre, but I found myself humming. Rob was out cold beside me. You can pick up that date rape drug easily in Toronto, if you know where to look. Almost as easily as you can pick up a gun.

    Luckily, I knew how to get both. But I didn’t need to use a gun.

    I drove the pickup along the QEW to where it meets the junction, then veered right onto the 403 to Hamilton. I was starting to like this truck. It was nimble and easy to maneuver. The gas tank was nearly full; I’d checked that first, of course. No way did I want to stop for anything now.

    The road to Caledonia was lonely at this time of night. I passed one other truck, before driving through Jarvis.

    Parts of the Lake Erie shoreline can be pretty deserted. I’d scouted for the right spot earlier today. It wasn’t hard to find a vacant woodlot atop a small cliff. A small laneway led to the edge. I climbed out of the pickup, taking my jacket and purse with me. I placed them on the ground, out of the way. Then I walked back to the truck, pulled Rod over to the driver’s side and positioned him, snapping the seatbelt into place.

    The garden tool was where I had left it, earlier in the day.

    This was the tricky part. The truck was in gear with the driver door open. I stood to the side of the vehicle and reached in with the hoe. Once it was positioned over the gas pedal, I shoved hard.

    The wheels started to move. I just managed to pull out the tool before the pickup careened over the cliff. Erie is a shallow lake, so I had chosen this spot carefully. It landed with a splash and a thud. I watched it settle into the dark waters.

    When we were kids, Dad used to take us fishing in Lake Erie by Port Dover. This was before Mom died, and he moved out to Fort McMurray. Thing is, I know a lot about catching fish.

    The bar was the hook. ‘Back to my place’ was the line. And this was the sinker.

    I turned away from the lake, bent over to pick up my jacket and purse, then strode to where Emma and I had left Dad’s car this morning.

    ~

    My little sister Emma lives in a very small condo – one of those 400 square foot jobs in a glass tower downtown. Really, it’s just a bedroom with a small efficiency kitchen and a washroom. It was way past four in the morning, but I knew she would still be up. I used her extra key to unlock the door. She was huddled in a corner of the overstuffed couch, nursing a mug of herbal tea. The scared-rabbit look was still on her face. I wondered how long it would take for that to fade, along with her distrust of the world in general. The scars would reach long past the nightmare of two nights ago.

    “Did it go okay?” she asked. The shake in her voice was something new.

    I threw my bag on the floor and nodded. Then I took off the dark brown wig and shook out my blond hair. “Just like I planned. He won’t be raping any more women where he’s going.”

    I knew from my training that few rapists ever get convicted. Bad luck for him to use Rohypnol on the sister of a cop.

    Hook, line and sinker. Shame about the truck.

  • WHISKEY NIGHTS by Phyllis Humby

    2nd Place

    Broderick Taylor clutched his gun waist high and peered into the darkness. The ominous silhouettes could be small trees−or approaching men. Moisture crawled from beneath his arms to trail the contours of a body gone soft with age and excess.

    “Gary! Trevor! Stay away from here. You hear me? Stay away!” Taylor’s hoarse bellow echoed in the stillness. The rapid thud of his heart pounded against his chest. It was another whiskey night.

    the rest of the story!

    Back in the cabin, he slammed the door and slid the bolt lock into place. With the pistol firmly in his grasp, he slumped in his chair, the collar of his heavy jacket still up around his ears. Heat blasted from the kerosene oil stove until a film of sweat covered the fringed surface of his scalp. His head nodded towards his chest until eventually a grey-bristled cheek came to rest on the scarred surface of the old pine table. At times like this he was no longer Broderick Carowag Taylor. On whiskey nights he was simply Bo − Bo Taylor from Slave Lake. He’d never mentioned the hideaway. Especially to his college-age daughters. Overgrowth had swallowed the narrow road to the cabin so its existence remained secret ‒ even from local hunters. It became Bo’s habit to conceal his vehicle in the trees and use an ATV to cover the last few miles to the desolate spot. Though terrified to be here, he couldn’t stay away. Amber courage from these bottles allowed him to remain with her. Protect her. And he owed her that much.

    Passed out in a whiskey-induced stupor, his deep rhythmic snoring, that only those in a dead sleep or dead drunk were capable, wavered for the occasional moan. Awake or asleep it didn’t matter. Remorse gnawed at his gut.

    Donations to the women’s shelter did nothing to ease the ache. No matter how many fundraisers he spearheaded, the guilt continued to fester like a boil on his ass. Whiskey burned its way up the esophagus, splashing the back of his throat. Bo gagged, though in truth, it was the phantom smell of blood and vomit that finally jerked him awake.

    A coyote yipped in the distance. Bo cocked his head. In one fluid motion − one smooth and rapid action that belied his drunken state − his boots scraped the gritty surface of the plank floor and the bleary-eyed executive was on his feet, drool trickling along his whiskered chin. With both hands steadying the gun, he blinked against the stinging sweat in his eyes and positioned himself in front of the door.

    Bo had never actually seen Trevor and Gary in the woods, but he knew they were there. On whiskey nights he’d heard them taunting, laughing, threatening. He eyed the barricaded window and, gulping for air, pulled open the top snap of his jacket. Other than Bo’s ragged breathing, the cabin was deathly quiet as he shuffled a 360-degree turn.

    “It’s okay,” he whispered.

    Except for the two of them, the cabin was empty.

    His pinstriped suit lay in a heap on the floor, the soft folds of a creamy silk shirt nestled against the sharp crease of his pants. The toe of his Italian loafers – soft as kid − edged from beneath the pile.

    He didn’t know how much longer he could protect her. The years had taken their toll. After circling once more, he confirmed the all clear.

    Two boot-steps away from the bed, Bo lowered his weapon and wiped the perspiration off his face. “I scared them away,” he said. For now, he thought.

    A few feeble tugs on the snaps and his jacket opened. Dust bunnies scattered when it dropped to the floor. Sinking onto the grey and white tick mattress, he rested his head against a corner of the feather pillow − its sickly-sweet smell hauntingly familiar.

    After his grandpa passed away, he and his buddies came here to smoke grass and drink beer. It was a cool place to hang out.

    All of that changed in August of ’81.

    Now the fishing rods stayed in the rack behind the door. A dust covered tackle box lay nearby. Two-burner Coleman stove. Styrofoam cooler. All untouched.

    Bo shivered. In a cold sweat, he reached for the wool blanket and eased a portion of it across his body.

    Turned onto his side, he gripped the edge of the mattress, his pistol wedged against his soft belly. His old Rolling Stones t-shirt, marked with faded spatters and stains, stretched taut across his chest. The filthy, frayed jeans that hung from his hips years ago, were now uncomfortably snug.

    Dampness under his arms spread in darkening circles. Beneath his lids, his eyes roamed back and forth as if watching an action movie.

    ***

    They were doing doughnuts in the parking lot of the vacant Safeway store when they noticed her walking across the cracked concrete in their direction. A pouch purse hung from the edge of her shoulder by a skinny leather strap and skimmed the bottom of her denim shorts. Bo watched her approach, admiring her long, bare arms and legs.

    Trevor revved the engine and the car jerked forward, black rubber marking the pavement. The two-door Impala circled the lone girl and then rocked to a stop directly in her path.

    She looked at each of them, though Bo thought her gaze lingered on Trevor. He figured she recognized him as the high school quarterback. She rested her forearms on the window opening. Her breasts swelled above the vee of her halter-top and her stylish permed hair smelled of lemons when she leaned into the car. With her shiny pink lips pulled back in a smile, Bo noticed that her front teeth overlapped, but not by much.

    “Don’t you guys have nothin’ better to do?” Her voice was casual and friendly.

    “I can think of somethin’. How ’bout a beer?”

    A nervous giggle. Then her eyes widened when Trevor slid his football jacket off the twelve-pack in the backseat. She looked over her shoulder across the empty lot. Her teeth raked the corner of her bottom lip.

    Trevor laughed. “Come on. You know me. And I know you. I’ve seen you around.”

    “You have?” Another giggle, as if she couldn’t believe that THE Trevor Davis actually remembered her from school.

    Bo knew she wouldn’t resist Trevor. None of the girls did. His buddy was smooth and always in control. Something he never let Bo and Gary forget.

    When she opened the car door, they all hooted with laughter. Gary, always game to follow Trevor’s lead, jumped out and tilted the seat. Bo smelled the heat of the pavement on her as she climbed into the back of the car. There was another scent, like sweet jasmine. Kind of a sickly sweet smell that made his stomach flutter. Gary and Trevor grinned and Bo swallowed hard as she folded her long slender body in beside his.

    He didn’t catch her name. He thought she said it was Carlene, or Charlene, or maybe even Cheryl.

    They drank it warm from the case, then stopped by Trevor’s place and scooped a few more beers from his old man’s fridge. By then they already had a buzz on.

    It could have been Gary that said, ‘Let’s go to the cabin, man.’ They all knew he meant Bo’s cabin. It was on the lake. Smack in the middle of the woods. Smack in the middle of nowhere.

    They drank enough beers that everything they said sounded funny. Laughter spilled from the cabin and trickled across the sun-shimmered waters of the lake. Trevor and Gary sat in the two beat-up chairs. She perched on the cooler for a while until Trevor, with his broad-shouldered good looks, coaxed the naive girl onto his lap. Bo leaned against the makeshift counter, his fingers drumming the chipped surface. He didn’t like what he was seeing. Even though his buddy promised that the last time was definitely the last time, Trevor could do crazy shit when he was drinking. Uneasy, Bo popped another cap.

    Suggesting a dip in the lake, Gary started stripping off his clothes and soon they were all naked. All but the girl; she ran into the lake wearing her panties. Atop Trevor’s shoulders, her wet body glistened against the setting sun. She horsed around with each of them, grabbing Bo from behind. He could never forget her exuberant squeals or the feel of her pointy breasts pressed against his back as she clung to his neck, there in his grandfather’s favorite fishing hole.

    After the swim, she wanted to go home. She had to babysit, she said. She needed to go. Bo didn’t want her to leave but was afraid for her to stay.

    Trevor slurred his words when he told her to shut up. Even the chill of the lake couldn’t disguise the number of long-necks he’d consumed.

    Bo’s gut clenched. The voice in his head screamed, Oh shit, this could get bad. He kept his eyes on the girl.

    With a stubborn set to her jaw, she heaved one beer bottle after another against the bare walls of the cabin. “Take me home! NOW.”

    Trevor’s laugh was ugly − his expression, the one normally reserved for trotting onto the football field, was determined and smug.

    Defiance turned to fear. Her eyes shimmered and when she blinked, a tear dropped onto her flushed cheek. Her chin quivered and a tiny sound like the mewing of a kitten escaped her throat through clenched lips. She started to cry. Quiet sniffles at first. As the boys formed a circle around her, she began to sob. Big hiccupping sobs. Her shoulders shook until her entire body trembled.

    Bo stared at the nipples spiking the thin material of her top. He cursed. He was pissed off with Trevor. Even as he grew hard, he wished this wasn’t happening.

    “Teasing little bitch.” Trevor slapped her with an open hand.

    Bo, paralyzed, watched as his buddy hit her again. She fell backwards onto the mattress, the metal springs groaning in protest. Trevor landed on top of her.

    Bo’s breath caught. Beer boiled up in his stomach and he rubbed the ache in his groin.

    She fought back. Her bony arms and legs flailed in all directions until her elbow connected with Trevor’s nose. Blood freckled her face and sprayed the wall.

    “Hold her! Hold her!”

    They swung into action at Trevor’s command. Bo jumped onto the bed and grabbed her thin wrists, her pulse racing beneath his fingers. The gag Gary shoved in her mouth muffled her screams for help, but didn’t quiet the terror in her eyes.

    She looked directly at Bo – her eyebrows arched in a plea for mercy ‒ and continued to stare up at him as he knelt, one knee on either side of her head, her wrists pinned between his hands.

    After Gary’s turn, Bo did what was expected of him. The cheering of his friends spurred him on. With her gaze still locked on his, he squeezed his eyes shut and kept them closed. The sweet sickly smell of her perfume made his stomach churn. Hot beer sloshed against his throat. He rolled off her and leaned his head over the side of the bed, spewing an afternoon’s worth onto the dusty floor.

    The other guys laughed. He stumbled from the bed, his bowels cramping as he continued to retch. He clung to the wall against the motion of the room. The nausea passed. He took a deep breath and wiped his mouth as Trevor approached the battered girl with a filleting knife. Bo, weak and swaying, grabbed his arm. “What the fuck, man. No, come on.” His voice broke knowing he could never change Trevor’s mind.

    Teeth clenched and jaw muscles contracting, Trevor stared Bo down, his eyes narrow slits of intimidation. A bitterness rose in Bo’s throat. He hated Trevor as much as he hated himself.

    “No? Is that what you said? You stupid fuck. You going to prison? Taking us with you?” Trevor’s hand shot out, hitting Bo in the chest and knocking him backwards. Gary stepped between them.

    Out of the corner of his eye, Bo caught the movement. She was off the bed. With the top half of a broken bottle in her hand, she was limping towards the door. In a moment he’d always regret, he lunged at her, grabbing her long hair. The weapon flew from her hand and smashed against the leg of the table. His buddies were at his side by the time she collapsed like a rag doll to the floor.

    Trevor straddled her in an instant. He raised the knife and brought it down again and again. He was breathing hard. He slid off her body, handing over the knife to Gary, and ultimately to Bo.

    Bo squeezed the slippery handle. Blood and vomit cloaked him like a suffocating shroud. The ravaged remains of the girl with the crooked tooth and lemony hair lay in a puddled mass. His two best friends, their faces spattered, knelt next to her.

    “Do it!” “Come on! Do it!” Spittle flew from their mouths as they shouted.

    Bo raised the knife ...

    ***

    Just then, something landed with a thump on the roof directly above his bed. Bo blasted two holes into the rafters. “Stay away, you bastards.”

    With a throaty roar, he charged from the cabin in his thin t-shirt. Coughing as the icy dawn air burned his lungs he grabbed the gas can sitting at the edge of the open porch and jumped down on to the soft gravel.

    Bo headed into the woods.

    Surrounded by frost-glazed brush, the rusted Impala looked the same to him as it had when he parked it. He dumped the gasoline through the open window and lit the match. Blackbirds took flight as his keening wail sounded across the stark backwoods.

    Overwhelmed by fumes, he reeled away from the car and ran towards the cabin. Broderick’s hysteria calmed as he crouched over the bed. His fingers stuttered across the wool blanket. He dropped to his knees. The gun lay on the stained mattress.

    The Impala’s exploding gas tank smothered the blast of the Glock.

    ***

    Fort McMurray Today reported that the remains discovered in the burned out Chevy near the Slave Lake community have been identified as Gary Crawford and Trevor Davis. The skeleton of a young girl found on the bed in the cabin was identified as Cheryl Stevens. All three local teens had been missing for more than thirty-two years. Officials remain tight-lipped about the possibility of more victims.

    There is speculation that the well-respected Mr. Broderick Carowag Taylor, Fort McMurray’s most generous humanitarian and benefactor, and recent recipient of the Mayor’s Citizen of the Year award, was murdered when he unwittingly exposed a killer’s dumping ground during a nostalgic visit to the cabin built by his late grandfather.

    THE END

  • EVEN AGAIN by Bill Clark

    3rd Place

    There was one missing. Forty-nine. Only forty-nine of the colourful, vinyl-coated paperclips were on his desk. When he had returned from lunch, he counted them out into five piles of ten, just as he did every day. Today, there were four piles of ten and one of nine. One was missing. He looked on the floor. He didn’t see it. He looked on Steve’s desk. He didn’t see it there. He went over the day in his mind, trying to account for where it might have gone.

    Wallace Burstyn enjoyed his morning ritual of opening the day’s influx of mail. The applications for gasoline charge cards were delivered to his cubicle at Spur Oil every morning. Every day he would open fifty envelopes, then remove the applications and begin processing them. When that batch was finished, he’d do the next fifty.

    the rest of the story!

    “How’s it going, Wally,” Steven Giroux asked as he strolled to his cubicle across the aisle from Wallace. He was late. It was 9:06 A.M., but that was typical. Wallace said nothing. Steve, as he insisted people call him, was a Credit Agent. He was a level six pay grade, earning eight thousand more a year than Wallace did as a level four Credit Application Specialist. He wasn’t Wallace’s boss, but it still wasn’t his place to say anything. Steve set down his travel mug full of double-double and hung up his coat on the hook in his cube. “Anything good today?”

    “I don’t know, Steve. You know I open them all and take them out before I look at them. Then I pass them on to you.”

    “I’m just teasing you. I know you’ve got your system. I don’t want to do anything to disrupt you. We’re a good team and it means I’ve got a few minutes to get settled anyway,” said Steve, leaning back in his chair. “Do anything good on the weekend?”

    Wallace hated this question. Steve was thirty-five, ten years younger than him, married, and had three children, a boy of six and twin three-year-old girls. They were always doing something or going someplace.

    “No, just some things around the house. I went shopping. I watched a couple of movies on TV, read a book.”

    “Sounds great,” said Steve. “We didn’t do much. Just took the kids to the movies, then we all went to that new buffet place that opened over by the mall. Not bad.” He paused, waiting for some reaction. When none came, he got up. “I’m going to say ‘Good morning’ to the boss.” Wallace watched him move away across the floor, and then turned back to his work.

    His job was to run the applications through a scanner, assign each file a number, and pull a credit report on the applicant. Then he would print out the report, take a paperclip from one of the five piles of ten on his desk, clip the report to the application, and place it in Steve’s tray. Wallace picked up the first application and ran it through the scanner.

    He had five applications in Steve’s tray by the time his colleague returned from chatting with Therese. She was new to the dismal Northern Ontario city that housed the company’s customer service centre and always ready to chat with staff.

    Steve sat down with a sigh and picked the first application out of his tray. “How’s Therese,” asked Wallace.

    “Fine. She was going on about how great Calgary is again. It’s pretty clear she didn’t volunteer for this posting. Just putting in time so she can climb the ladder, I guess.”

    Wallace shrugged and went back to work. He liked his town. When the mill closed, and then the mine, he thought he’d have to move away. A lot of people did. His wife had been all for leaving. There were more than two thousand applicants for the four hundred jobs offered when Spur opened this centre. Wallace was hired as a Credit Specialist four years ago. He had a good reference from his former boss in the mine’s administration department. “Wallace is a good worker and a team player. He’s very methodical. He will be a great asset to any company that values quick, accurate work,” he had written in the letter he’d given Wallace before moving to Waterloo.

    Steve picked up another application from the pile that Wallace was continually replenishing. He checked each application against the report and decided whether the applicant should be granted credit and, if so, how much. People who applied for gas charge cards, especially using the paper applications, often weren’t good credit risks. Otherwise, they’d probably use a Visa or MasterCard at the pump. Still, the interest charges were a good source of revenue for the company and cards kept the clients coming back to Spur. That was important. Gasoline was a fungible good. “Fungible.” Steve learned that word in one of his college classes. His diploma had helped him secure the job as Credit Agent. He looked over at Wallace and thought how lucky he was that he wasn’t a level four. He couldn’t support his family on that salary.

    After several hours, Wallace’s first batch of applications was completed. As the clock flicked to “12:00”, he stood and smoothed his trousers. “Time for lunch. I’ll see you later.” Steve looked up from his work. “Huh? Oh, yeah, see you after lunch. Have a good one.” Wallace never asked Steve to join him for lunch. He liked his time to himself. He’d sit in the employee lounge with his Thermos of soup and his sandwich, watching the 24-hour news channel on the television. After 25 minutes, he’d rise from his seat, rinse his Thermos, throw away the wax paper in which his sandwich had been wrapped, and then head back to his desk, returning exactly thirty minutes after he had left.

    That was when he noticed the missing paperclip. Steve was away at lunch. He probably wouldn’t be back for a while. He wasn’t very punctual. So Wallace counted again.

    When Steve returned, he was carrying a large paper cup from a fast-food restaurant. Wallace wondered how come Steve never seemed to put on any weight, given that he never took any care in what he ate. His hand rubbed over his paunch for a moment before he turned his chair to face the other man. “Say, Steve, do you know what happened to my paperclip?”

    Steve shook the cup and sucked on the straw, not looking over. “Oh, yeah, I used one of them on my report to Calgary. I ran out of paperclips and needed to get it in the 12:30 courier pick-up.”

    Wallace pressed his lips together and took a breath in through his nose before speaking. “That’s stealing, you know. You took my paperclip for your own use. That’s a crime. Why would you do that?”

    Steve started to laugh but stopped when he saw Wallace wasn’t smiling. “Oh, loosen up. You’re over-reacting. I had to get the report out with the applications from yesterday. You know they want the signed originals on file there.”

    “Why didn’t you use your own paperclips for that?” “I ran out. I didn’t have time. I needed to get it into the 12:30 batch or it wouldn’t get there tomorrow. Jesus, I’ll go get you a whole box of paperclips, okay?” He started to rise from his chair.

    “These are mine. I bought them myself. You know that. I went to the stationery store and bought them because the company will only give us those plain ones.”

    Wallace had spent five dollars and ninety cents, plus tax, on the box of five hundred vinyl-coated paperclips in assorted colours. The plain wire clips the company bought were a little rough. Putting them on application after application, day after day, had irritated the skin on his fingers. Furthermore, he thought the colours were rather jazzy. Steve was supposed to take them off of the applications and return them. All of them.

    Steve was standing now. He threw up his hands, giving an exasperated shrug. “Well, I can’t get it back. It’s gone.” He reached into his pocket and started sifting change. “How much are they? I’ll pay you for it, all right?”

    “With tax, they’re one and a third cents each. That’s what I paid.”

    Steve was standing right next to him now, looking at the silver coins in his palm. “We don’t have pennies anymore, so here.” The nickel clattered on Wallace’s desk, spun, wobbled, and then fell over.

    He returned to his chair and sat, looking across the aisle. He shook his head. Wallace was looking back at him. “That was a bit dramatic, don’t you think?” Wallace picked up the coin and dropped it into a small black leather change purse he had pulled out of his gray wool trousers. The purse went back into his pocket. Wallace opened the drawer of his desk. He reached into the box of paperclips and removed one of the 450 fasteners contained therein. He placed it in the pile of nine. The pale blue clip made everything even again. He closed the drawer.

    Steve was still looking at him. His mouth worked a couple of times before any sound came out. “I can see why your wife left you.” After another moment of staring across the aisle, each man swivelled his chair back toward his desk.

    Steve picked up his telephone and started his call-outs to clients who had incomplete applications. Wallace prepared the next batch.

    That night, Wallace stewed over Steve’s behaviour. That’s no way to treat people, he thought. He thinks he’s better than me, that he can judge me. He wouldn’t like it if it was his ox being gored. Over-react? My foot! He wrapped the wax paper around the sandwich and placed it in the fridge. He set the can of soup and the Thermos on the counter next to the stove and the pot on the burner, ready for when he turned on the heat.

    Neither Wallace nor Steve spoke about the previous day’s argument. When Wallace returned from lunch, he found his paperclips sorted into five piles of ten on his desk. Steve was still at lunch and would be for another twenty minutes or more. Nobody else was around. He moved over to Steve’s desk and touched the mouse. The computer was locked, needing a password. He looked around the desk. He pulled open a drawer and saw the sticky note. The password was an arbitrary collection of numbers and letters, conforming to corporate policy. He sat and then entered the password.

    Wallace would move to Steve’s desk whenever the other man was gone for more than a few minutes. After about two weeks of this, everybody in the office received an e-mail saying that Steve was no longer employed by Spur Oil, effective immediately. The company wished him success in future endeavours.

    Therese came to see him later that day. She told him they needed a new Credit Agent. He leaned forward slightly in his chair.

    “You’ve been the Credit Application Specialist for a while now,” she said.

    “Four years last month,” he said, nodding.

    “I wanted to ask you, do you think Joan or Peter would be better for the Credit Agent role?” He sat back in his seat. She didn’t notice his sloping shoulders sag a little. “Joan. Definitely Joan. She’s thorough, and very punctual.”

    Peter was sitting at the desk across the aisle when he arrived the next day. Wallace explained his system to him and how important it was to return the paperclips so they could be used again. “No worries, I got it,” he said. “Say, do you think it’s true? The rumour about Steve?”

    “What’s that?”

    “That he was downloading porn on his computer. I heard maybe even child porn. You worked with him for, like, three years. Do you think it’s true?”

    Wallace shrugged. “You can never be sure what’s inside some people.”

    Two days later, Wallace was walking back to his desk from lunch. The department was empty. The other employees were still at lunch. He heard sobbing from Therese’s office. He knocked on the jamb of the open door. “Therese, is everything okay?” She looked up, taking her head from her hands.

    “It’s all my fault! But I had to! I couldn’t lie to her. Not about that.” She began to sob again, her body shaking. Wallace entered the office and held out his handkerchief. She took it and wiped at her eyes and cheeks, smearing it with makeup. She pointed to a chair and Wallace sat. He was uncomfortable. He didn’t like such broad, uncontrolled displays of emotion.

    “What is it?”

    She took a deep breath, the handkerchief crumpled in her fist. “Steve’s wife called me the day after he was let go. You’ve heard the rumours about why?” Wallace nodded. She continued. “The IT guy showed me some of what he’d downloaded. It was awful.” She closed her eyes and shook her head. It looked like she might start crying again.

    “We didn’t want publicity. We gave him two weeks’ severance. Any fuss and we’d call the police. His wife called and begged me to give him his job back. He’d told her he was let go because of restructuring.” Her face twisted as she fought back tears. She was sniffling and wiping at her eyes and nose as she resumed, “I had to tell her! I told her the truth. They have three kids. I couldn’t lie. I had to tell her what Steve had done.”

    He reached out and placed his hand on her arm to comfort her. “Of course you did. Anybody would.” He wondered why she was crying now. The call was two days ago.

    She placed her hand on his, as if drawing strength from it. She took a deep breath, then another. “She took the kids and went to her mother’s. Told him she wanted a divorce. Sole custody too. Said if he contested it, everything would come out. She went to the house today with her father to pick up some things and…” Her voice trailed off and her lip was quivering.

    “They found him hanging in the garage.”

    Her faced was turned to him, her eyes pleading for absolution. “It’s my fault, isn’t it?”

    He paused a moment.

    “No. It’s not. Steve brought it on himself. It’s not your fault.” He squeezed his hand on her forearm, reassuring her. He released her arm and stood, holding his hand out, palm up. She looked at it, puzzled. “My handkerchief?”

    He was counting his paperclips when Peter returned. “Holy crap! Did you hear about Steve?” He finished counting. He had five piles of ten.

    “Yes. I did.”

    He was even.

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