Thursday, March 11, 2010

#fridayflash Death in a Small Town

As the whole world knows by now, there was a horrible tragedy involving two men who grew up in the same small village in northern Ontario.

Up until last summer, I lived there. 

Until something like this happens in a small town, you have no idea what kind of impact this kind of thing can have on people.

In a small town, everyone knows everyone.

And when a tragedy of this proportion happens, you wonder how the community will ever survive it.

I’ve struggled with the idea of this story, wanting to write it, not wanting to write it, not wanting to hurt anyone who is already hurting so badly. But I can’t think of anything else I want to write about. I am as shocked as everyone else and it preys on my mind. 

How, I wonder, is the community going to deal with this? Can it survive? 

Right now there is a media circus going on in that village. I feel for everyone who deals with this mess, day in and day out. More than that, I feel for the families of the two men, one a hero, one an alleged killer. Both with roots in the same place, a good place, full of good people and a proud history.

I hope that somehow it manages to survive. To overcome.

Although parts of this story may hit too close to home, it is almost entirely fiction. There was a train derailment there in 1981 and the photograph above is of that fiery night.

IT WAS HARD to deal with, the killings.

Matthiasville tried.

But it was awful hard, this thing was. Harder than most. And the little village clinging to the north shore of Trout Lake knew plenty about hard.

A fire in 1882 destroyed the main street and killed the Johnson family’s sleeping children, all nine of them. The parents had been at the hotel in the next town up, celebrating a nephew’s wedding. The community grabbed hold of the grieving parents, snugged them to its tender bosom, and held them upright through their righteous grief.

In 1953 two drifters broke into Al Franklin’s place out on the Boundary Road in broad daylight, taking what little money the old pensioner had in his wallet, slitting his throat and stealing his pick-up truck. Four of  Al’s buddies were having coffee at the Green Roof Diner and saw the murderous thieves driving by in Al’s truck, so they dropped their cinnamon buns and their coffee and followed in hot pursuit. It was hunting season and the driver had a shotgun that came in right handy when they slammed into the back of Al’s truck, causing the two drifters to pop out like brown bread in a toaster. The old boys wanted to blow some daylight into those two drifters right then and there but reason prevailed. When they were brought into the local constabulary by the scruffs of their red necks, the community hailed the four men as conquering heroes. 

In 1981 the night sky lit up like fireworks on the May Two-Four weekend when a passing freight train loaded with flammable liquids derailed right in the heart of the village. Volunteer firefighters from neighbouring villages came by to help the local boys put out the inferno. Even men who weren’t on the fire department helped where they could. The women of the village made bucketloads of coffee and station wagons full of sandwiches. The IGA opened up in the middle of the night to supply the women with more bread. Luckily nobody was seriously hurt, only Joe Haggerty, who tripped on a fire hose and busted his arm in three places. When the fire was put out, folks in the community helped the railway clean up the mess and put their broken town back together again.

It’s the way it always was.

No matter what the trouble was, Matthiasville stuck through it. It was a good place to live because the people in it were good people.

All that was before used car salesman Sam Pefferlaw’s wife left him, claiming irreconcilable differences. After 41 years of marriage Agnes packed her bags and went to live with her sister 450 miles away, down in the tobacco belt. It wasn’t until she was gone that Sam found out she had cleaned out his bank account. Worse, he discovered she had been cheating on him for the last 20 years and everybody knew it except for him. He was broke and he was the laughing stock of the town and he was right royally pissed off.

He phoned Agnes at her sister’s to give the old bitch a piece of his mind but Agnes wasn’t home, a male voice said, would he like to leave a message, he said.

“Who is this?” Sam demanded.

“Roy Garnell,” the voice replied. “Who wants to know?

“Agnes’ husband, you sonoffabitch,” Sam screamed. “You better get your fucking hands off my wife or you’re gonna regret it something fierce.”

Roy laughed. 

“What you gonna do, Sam? You’re a fucking idiot, not knowing what’s been going on all this time. You’re just as stupid as you are ugly and by the jesus you’re as ugly as they come. What you gonna do, Sam, you stupid prick?”

Sam threw the phone in the corner, unlocked his gun cabinet and put his deer rifle and a box of shells in his truck, then drove all the way to tobacco country, getting angrier with every mile.

When Agnes had got back to her sister’s house after doing some shopping, Roy told her what had gone on. 

“You stupid asshole,” Agnes shrieked. “He’s gonna come over here and fill us full of holes.”

She tried to reach Sam on the phone but she knew before she even punched in her old number that the phone would be ringing in an empty house.

“Call the cops, Roy. Call the cops, I tell ‘ya. He’s gonna kill us.”

Roy called 9-1-1 and gave a description of the rusty old Ford that might be headed their way. The operator said she’d send out a cruiser just to check things out, but cautioned Roy not to panic, it was probably nothing.

Meanwhile, Sam was only a few miles from Agnes’ sister’s house when a police cruiser came out of nowhere, squeezing up tight to his rear bumper and flicking on the emergency lights.

Sam was in no mood for this.

“Jesus FUCK,’ he screamed, and jumped on the brakes. The truck came squealing to a stop and the cruiser crashed into the tailgate. Sam grabbed his gun and lit out of that truck like the hounds of hell were following him which, in his own fevered mind, they were. 

Sam’s stint in the army and years of hunting prepared him for this moment. He rolled into the ditch, pointed his gun at the cruiser and started firing. 

Seconds later, a much lauded police officer lay dying on the side of the road. Sam staggered over to him, took the man’s service revolver from his hands, and shot himself in the head. It was over as quick as it had begun.

What Sam didn’t know, what he could never know, was the police officer he had shot was someone he knew, practically a blood relative, a young man who had grown up in Matthiasville and left to seek his fortune upholding the law. 

Daniel Pascal had grown up the next block over from the Pefferlaw house. He was the son of one of Sam’s distant cousins, and he used to come over to the Pefferlaw house to play with Sam’s kids. Danny was always a good kid. Good in school, nice, real polite, honest, hardworking. He was an Ontario Scholar three years running and could have gone to any university anywhere but he had fire in his blood to be an officer of the law. And in his four years on the force he was twice decorated, a real shining star, a hero and a true man of honour. His dream had been to work in his own community but he was serving his time with the provincial police force, waiting until he had enough seniority to move back home.

Six months ago he had married his childhood sweetheart and April had just found out she was pregnant. 

Life couldn’t have been any sweeter for Daniel Pascal.

Until Sam Pefferlaw shot him down in cold blood.

Nobody in Matthiasville could comprehend the horrifying coincidence that allowed this to happen. Both men had come from big, well-known families. Both men, in their own way, were loved by many people. When this happened, people automatically sided with the Pascals, taking part in one of the biggest police funerals ever held. The Pefferlaw family decided not to have a funeral. They weren’t sure if anyone would even show up. They had him cremated and buried his ashes in his backyard, alongside a couple of dead hounds.

Reporters from TV stations and newspapers and radios all over the province and even some from the United States swarmed the village streets. Folks stayed in their homes, their curtains drawn, hiding from the glare of media scrutiny. They began to feel like criminals themselves, hiding in darkened living rooms. The TV news anchors kept harping about how this could happen and the people of Matthiasville felt dirty in a way that no amount of soap could wash away.

Eventually the reporters went home and the people of Matthiasville tried to reclaim their lives.

It was hard, though. At first the Pefferlaws hung their heads whenever they went out, showing they felt bad about what had happened to the Pascals. Then they started to feel angry because they hadn’t done anything to be ashamed of. 

On the other hand, the Pascals tried not to show any hard feelings to the Pefferlaws, because it wasn’t their fault Sam turned out crazy. But, deep down, they were so full of anger and grief that they did blame the Pefferlaws. With Sam dead, it was the only blame they could lay.

Seeing as how they were both good families, well-brought up and church-goers, they kept their sorrows to themselves, avoiding each other as much as possible, passing each other in the grocery store like frightened ghosts.

There was no amount of coffee, not enough sandwiches or cinnamon buns in the world to heal the burgeoning rift that was tearing apart the village.

Someone would have to go.

It was the only way.


  1. You used Jesus Fuck. It's my favourite expletive. It's like the worst of life and the best of what's possible all jumbled up in an expression that feels so right sometime. Some say it's too harsh a term, but I always think it expresses what you feel the only word in your brain is why??? - that pit of your stomach this can't get any better ever ever ever feeling. And I'm sure that's what people in Mathiasville (and it's alter ego in Almaguin) are feeling. Your ending is apropos, because when emotions like grief and regret battle, something DOES have to give. It's sad, but it's true. Because the immeasurable effort it must take for each of these families to go on - and to go on in plain sight of the other - must be exhausting.

  2. You could have also called this Death OF a Small Town. It's sad that events such as this are tearing towns apart everywhere.

  3. I like the easy lope of your stories that break out into a full run-on patter of footsteps. I keep looking over my shoulder. This creeped me out. I love it.

  4. It was a riveting story!

    Heartbreaking that not only was the young officer killed, but so was the spirit of the town.

  5. Well, that's just tragic. I loved knowing that another car would be rammed from behind. And what a magical moment when the two thugs popped out like toast from the toaster! Nice work, Cathy.

  6. Wonderful story and for me it reads closer to the truth than fiction. Is Dave's father Max? He was interviewed in the Star. It truly must be a media circus in Sundridge. Just about everyone's lives touched by the tragedy. Including your blog readers.

  7. This is a tragic story, very well told. I was gripped throughout.

    I also wondered - how much is fiction and how much is true? Is the voice in italics at the beginning your voice, or another narrator?

  8. Excellent work Cathy. I liked the way you drew on a lot of stories to put this one together. It made it very real and particularly frightening to include the Pefferlaw reference ... that just screams crazy.

    It really makes us question who we are when the unthinkable happens in our small communities by someone who comes from the roots of it. I happened here a few years ago, a particularly grizzly murder committed by someone whose family had been here for 200 years. Volunteers in the community, people I knew, people my father new, people my grandparents would have known.

  9. You did an amazing job of showing all sides of this. Small towns have their share of hardship, and the people there are good at helping out their own, but when it comes to choosing sides it's another story. You did a great job of telling that story.

  10. That story packs a whallop in such an understated and almost... the surreal calm of being in shock. It's talking about things that I don't want to know - because I just know it's going to get me "right there", but I can't quit reading, because the narration lulls me into full-on cozy story-by-the-fire mode. Wow!

  11. I'm glad you decided to write this, Cathy. Writing is cathartic, for the writer and the reader. Sharing tragedy this way, by so skillfully putting us right there, helps us empathize with the horrors people have to endure and the aftermath of those horrors.

    Have a said this before? I think so, but you really have a knack for understanding human nature.

  12. Talk about glued to the page (well, screen)!
    Quite the story, and all emotions p[resented in here ring very true. Nice work!

  13. What a sad story. Such a strong town torn apart by one bad couple, and a good man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Very well written.

  14. Well, you have done a masterful job here, portraying how life changes in an instant, and how that which is broken may emerge stronger in the broken places as Hemingway said, but can never go back to being whole again. There are many things magical in your writing, but the lack of pretense and aritice are such a joy, even when you're dealing with tragic subject-matter. You're a born storyteller, girlfreind. ;-)

    And this, oh my goodness:

    "But it was awful hard, this thing was. Harder than most. And the little village clinging to the north shore of Trout Lake knew plenty about hard."

    So good.

  15. I think the voice, rather like a newspaper account, works well here. You've written a good account of a horrible tragedy. But it's a bit long for flash. I think your introduction and the first few paragraphs could have been summarized and made a much tighter story.

  16. Almost Shakespearean in its tragedy. Wonderfully written.

  17. I agree with Lou, and the natural conversational style of your storytelling is wonderful. The last two sentences really pack a wallop.

  18. Well done! It has been a shocking week for deaths.

  19. I agree with Tim that this read almost like a newspaper account. That voice was so effective in pulling the reader into this sad account. Well done. I suspect this was difficult for you to write.

  20. Hi Cathy, I'm not aware of the real life story you refer to, but this story in itself really caught my imagination. As comments above, it read like a piece of history or journalism (I could alomost hear someone reading it out loud) and it felt real, and I think that was what you were trying to capture. I hope writing these things down helped in the way you hoped they might. Great story, thank you.

  21. Nice work, putting this together must have been at least a bit time consuming, but it's a great flash! Liked it a lot :)

  22. I also was unaware of the true story. The best adjective is one already used: tragic. I did have a little confusion with the phrase "left to seek his fortune upholding the law." It seems that meant that he left that village to enter law enforcement, but I wasn't completly clear on that. Knowing a little more about why would add a little additional tragedy, which may be too much? Otherwise, excellent work, Cathy.


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