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Missing Chapter from APPARITION: Detective Grierson finding Matthew’s Body in the Barn (Happy Halloween!)

A policeman stands at the entrance of a huge old barn on 12th Line. He pushes on the old barn door, slowly opening inwards, and he peeks inside. Then he pushes it open some more, so that sunlight streams like rays of heaven into a dark wooden cathedral. He steps inside. He can see the boy standing, slouching forward against something along the far wall. It looks like something is sticking out of his back, and on the ground in front of him, the dirt floor is dark. The officer takes two steps in, stops, then steps back into the sunlight outside.
“The kid is in there. He’s dead. Call it in. Grierson too. And better tell the old man he’ll be coming in for questioning.” Then he turns, head down, and walks back into the barn.
Detective Dave Grierson arrives on the Telford property about 27 minutes after he gets the call. He parks his blue sedan on the long gravel driveway that leads from the road up to the Telford farmhouse, grabs a canvas bag from the car floor on the passenger side, and steps out. There are already three police cruisers and an ambulance parked ahead of him. He walks across a rough field to the right behind the house, towards the old abandoned barn. It’s one of those very faded forgotten buildings in the landscape that don’t catch your eye. There are two officers examining the exterior, two more inside, taking notes and pictures, and two paramedics standing by, waiting for their cue to take the body out. Grierson’s seen a couple of dozen or so murder scenes in his 20 years on the Grey County force. Mostly they’ve been the result of people getting on each other’s nerves. Also drinking, doing drugs and being stupid. But this Sorenson kid was an “A” student from one of the cleanest families in town. He knows the parents. They do fundraising every year for the Annual Police BBQ Picnic. He steps just inside the barn door and sees the victim, a dark-haired teenage boy, standing upright near the far wall. This is the oddest, most brutal murder he’s seen in years. This is going to be a very big deal in Grey County.
The barn is mostly empty, probably hasn’t been used in decades. He’d noticed a second outbuilding on the other side of the farmhouse, brown aluminum siding. That’s what the farmer uses for his tractor, other equipment. Not this one. He walks inside. There are a few broken and rusted pieces of antique-looking farm machinery, tools, and old hardware junk piled up in corners. Nothing out of the ordinary. No signs of vagrants. No recent garbage. No pop cans or beer bottles. Not a hang-out. No illicit business venue. Just a sad, abandoned piece of local history.
Grierson looks up, through the massive timbers and rafters, towards the roof. The grey boards are weathered and loose, a few missing. In the fragments of sunlight the air is filled with dust. He looks back down at the figure before him, propped up like a hunch-backed puppet standing, facing the back stall. Pinned there, it seems, by a pitchfork. “What the devil?” he mutters to himself.
Grierson walks in the direction of the boy’s body, eyes on the ground, scouring for footprints, markings, anything loose, anything odd. He walks a half-circle around the corpse. He’s guessing dead less than a day. He pulls a worn notepad from his bag, pulls a pen from his shirt pocket, and begins to write. Pitchfork entered abdomen at a near right angle, parallel to the floor. He digs into his bag and pulls out a small metal tape measure. The handle end of the pitchfork rests on a horizontal stall ledge about 44 inches above the ground, extending into the stall by about 13 inches, wedged tight between two vertical boards in the stall door, held in place by another horizontal beam inside the stall. The rusty prongs, now sticky and caked, protruding through the abdomen just below the rib cage and out the back by an inch or so, four of the five prongs clear through, one on the right scraping the body. It’s the rib cage resting on the pitchfork that’s kept him upright. Arms limp at sides. Blood running south from the puncture wounds, down the jeans, front and back, on the running shoes and the ground. Grierson stares at the young face. He watches a fly crawling across the lower lip, over the dried blood that spilt down his chin from his mouth.
No sign of defensive wounds. No sign of struggle. Was the penetration made before or after the pitchfork was wedged into place? Could he have been killed, then propped up in this position? And if afterwards, and the pitchfork wasn’t plunged into him, was he pushed into it? Facing it? Did he resist? And looking at the tips of the prongs, how much force to be run right through? Quite a bit of force he reckons. Quite a bit. Ridiculous, really. He continues to write, focusing on questions for the coroner. What’s under the fingernails, on the palms?
The legs are slightly bent at the knees and ankles, not taking the body’s weight. From a distance, it almost looks like he’s standing. Grierson pulls out a flashlight and takes a closer look at the straw floor around the feet. He brings the flashlight back behind the body and slowly circles the light onto the ground. He can see what looks like tracks in the straw and dust leading away and down the barn floor, the kind of trail that might be made by someone kicking up straw as they pace back and forth. He brings the flashlight back to the body. The running shoes are dusty, covered in dry streams of blood and bits of straw. Grierson stands close to the boy’s face now, bowed chin on chest, black hair hanging over the eyes, the buzz of flies in the air, and thinks. Matthew Sorenson. This was a decent kid. Then he nods to one of the paramedics, and they move in to begin the delicate task of freeing the body from the metal grip. He flips through a few pages of his notebook, looking for the Sorensons’ address. This part he hates.

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Freedom to Read Week blog

I wrote the blog below for Amy Epps Stewart, for her blog A Simple Love of Reading, for Freedom to Read Week last month. It was an honour to be asked – thanks Amy!

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Freedom to Read Week Day 3

There’s a character in my YA novel Apparition called Kip who is a little irreverent. That’s just the way he is. My heroine Amelia first meets him at a Halloween party where they are both wearing Bob Marley masks (pure coincidence) while all the other kids are dressed either as zombies or vampires. Kip surprises Amelia with his take on zombies:
“Jesus was a zombie, for Christ’s sake. That’s what Easter’s all about.”
“I never thought of it that way.” Holy jeez. He’s different.

“Are you kidding? Don’t you know about the ‘resurrection of the body’ stuff in the Bible? The Bible’s all about zombies.” 

“No, I seriously never thought of that.”
That’s just Kip being Kip. And yet, as the author, I worried vaguely about including that little exchange in my book. I wondered whether some Christians might take offense. Then some well-meaning person warned me that it might make it difficult to get my book onto reading lists in American schools. That made me gulp, and I asked myself whether I really needed to have Kip say it. I decided I did. Apparition hasn’t made it into American schools yet, but I’m not sure it’s Kip’s fault.
The point is that there’s more to the threat of censorship than book banning. There’s self-censorship, brought on by the fear that offending some people might hurt sales, the publisher’s bottom line, and eventually even my own already sad bank account.
But what really concerns me is not that some parent might take offense to the mild reference to the idea of the risen Jesus being a zombie, or even zombie-like. What bothers me is when people aren’t allowed to read something that others consider irreligious or irreverent. Being free to be irreverent about religion, about politics, about industry, about customs, in other words, about dominant views in society, is a critical part of every society that aspires to be democratic. The belief runs deep, even in western religious traditions, that the so-called “sacred cow” as fair game.
Those who take offense are always trying to protect their position, their interests and their power. I don’t blame them for wanting to, I just don’t think they should be allowed to shut other people up.
I’ve always had a soft spot for 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, no stranger to pissing off religious authorities, who declared in his Theologico-Political Treatise that governments should have the authority to restrict the actions of their citizens. No problemo, he argued. But he added one small caveat: their citizens must be free to think and say (and write) whatever they will. What he counted on was that a society that allowed freedom of expression was the surest way to shape and foster a democracy, to keep its politicians clean and its laws fair. Because in order to effectively control people’s actions, you must also control their thoughts, and even better, push thinking itself right out the door. What keeps thoughts free is when they are engaged, agitated and inspired by their free exchange through words, speech and print. Free thoughts and words are the foundation of a just society.
So book banning, censorship, and even the pressures to self-censor, are the enemies of democracy. And offending those with the most power in society, even and sometimesespecially religious power, is a right that we must safeguard. Not for the sake of my character Kip necessarily, but for the sake of the next Salman Rushdie, and everyone in between.

Frrreezin’ Friggin’ Cold Memories of a favourite poem of my youth

imagesAll this cold weather takes me back to a favourite poem of my youth…

The Cremation of Sam McGee

BY ROBERT W. SERVICE

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
      By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
      That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
      But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
      I cremated Sam McGee.
Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam ’round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he’d often say in his homely way that “he’d sooner live in hell.”
On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see;
It wasn’t much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.
And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o’erhead were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and “Cap,” says he, “I’ll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I’m asking that you won’t refuse my last request.”
Well, he seemed so low that I couldn’t say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
“It’s the cursèd cold, and it’s got right hold till I’m chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet ’tain’t being dead—it’s my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you’ll cremate my last remains.”
A pal’s last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.
There wasn’t a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn’t get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: “You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it’s up to you to cremate those last remains.”
Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows— O God! how I loathed the thing.
And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
And I’d often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.
Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the “Alice May.”
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then “Here,” said I, with a sudden cry, “is my cre-ma-tor-eum.”
Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared—such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.
Then I made a hike, for I didn’t like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don’t know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.
I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: “I’ll just take a peep inside.
I guess he’s cooked, and it’s time I looked”; … then the door I opened wide.
And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
      By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
      That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
      But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
      I cremated Sam McGee.
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