87.

He squats at the end of a rain spout, the little boy aged 9 or 10, holding steady a blue plastic bucket. It’s early in the morning, and the storm awoke him before the rest of the house, and he’s decided to do what Daddy used to do, only Daddy’s bucket was metal and held more water, and Daddy took it with him, but all the same he tries this morning as the sky cries itself anew. “Jesus Christ,” hisses Mr. Three-Piece Suit, loud enough for the entire continental Breakfast Club to hear, scraping the blackened Belgian brick out of the hotel’s goddamned waffle iron. He is all smiles–three times he fills his bucket, three!–until the cloudburst melts into tomorrow and his mother coughs and coughs.

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85.

“Never mind — just, never mind. Jesus, I’m not having this conversation!” A wet mass of legs and auburn fur slides onto the forest floor; the mother deer takes a breath. “If you ever bring this up again, I swear to God I’ll leave you.”

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83.

Sunlight stains the boat deck. The fishermen towel themselves dry, circling the twitchless corpse of a swordfish, patting themselves on their backs, cursing in jubilation. The general sees his imminent defeat writ across the valley, the day-bright hills saturated in blood and bodies and smoke too thick for hope to navigate. “Let’s pose for a picture!” prompts the captain; his vessel rocks a little harder.

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82.

“God dammit!” she hisses, plucking the charcoal-black-up-until-thirty-seconds-ago piece of bread from the toaster. Around the corner, her father hacks and wheezes in the living room armchair, his aged morning chorus a time bomb for the rest of her day; she ignores the knife’s shaking in her hand, slathering butter and jam across another inoperably burnt five-grain face. Meanwhile the old man’s foot itches, has not stopped itching for five years, smothers his mind in nothing but bone-deep, insufferable itch — the foot, like hunger itself, lacking. They eat at the coffee table, their crunch-chew-crunch a screaming voice between them.

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81.

A herd of giraffes breakfasts along the savanna. Its many tongues undulate like pink, graceful snakes through the canopies of pale green trees, coiling around leaves, the occasional berry. She receives a D minus on her biology report, cringes at the thought of her father’s reaction, then vows then and there to save up the next three summers’ worth of part-time money to fund a big game, one-woman Safari of Revenge. Thunderheads stalk the grasslands from the west; the animals lope about nervously, the inevitable storm fiercely alive in their hearts.

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79.

“Oh I’m fine, I’m fine.” The universes of frustration, pain, and unrequited dreams behind those words were infinite, but she said them anyway, each syllable a stubborn closet door keeping the ironing board of truth from springing free. Along the parched African soil, regiments of dung beetles rolled their Sisyphean shit balls, aimlessly, all-consumingly, the succoring shade of marula trees brief and incomplete. “Anyway,” she pressed on, “what’s happening with you?”

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78.

“She has been born Markless, Your Majesty. Her skin is whole and clear.” The night’s winds tore the trees of their winter coats, and the Axemen set to task stiffly, gritting fang against the numbness in their loins, the maddening fire of missing digits. The howling, freezing hills sung a dirge of silver moonlight; beside the royal hearth was the princess cooed to sleep.

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77.

She loved exploring sea caves as a child. Within them she learned the wind’s many voices, the maternal softness of perspiring hollows, and how life can flourish inside pools no deeper than buckets. In the house poised on the cliffs above lived another girl, born deformed and blind and deaf. Unmet, they kept their seclusions to themselves; the ocean bored its mass into the naked coastal wall.

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74.

“Remember no thing for its own sake, but for the ghost of a future self incomprehensible in this moment. Speak no thing for its own sake, but for the ears and well-being of a child long forgotten.” The rain-starved hills welcomed his car, its steely purr and pinpoint turns, as a kind of quenching liquid, some rambling flow of life on the run. The radio show ended, the DJ’s prophetic words another snowdrift of white noise piling in space,  until the driver pulled over, kicked open, threw keys, walked off.

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73.

The town priest closes his bible, then signals assent to the hangman. The rope delivers its promise firmly: a clean drop, no writhing or drooling, no death throes for the crowd assembled. In a faraway field of honeysuckle, a young girl and her mother collect flowers in a basket, severing each head from its hale, green stem. It’s a beautiful day for it, the picking, though somehow the wind feels lost.

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72.

Silent, statuesque, the heron bides its time along the early morning floodplain. Each lift of its sturdy legs thrums silver ripples through the cattails, alerting only the most sensitive fish to its precise, calculating presence. Across the marsh, the young surgeon cramps and sweats above his patient, the robotic arm assisting him an edifice of inhuman composure, assured and benevolent and uncomfortably, even vitally, alive. The heron lunges and misses, lunges and misses, before pausing, its eyes dead-firm, its beak slitting the water’s surface, the writhing fish consumed.

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71.

The cow rises with the dawn and begins to chomp the grass. Her child rises soon after, gamboling and eating in equal measure; a single activity. The commuter train flashes by the field, its rooms alive with ringing phones, glowing screens, professional insomniacs. The cows feast all day; the train passes twice.

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70.

The café stayed open, always. That was the rule — a rule forged in medias res World War II, kept alive by the taciturn nostalgia of many an ex-pat author’s internationally canonized ennui. The hunter skins the hide off a young doe; the process takes cold, cold hours, a supple hand, and tools with edges sharp as survival itself. He’ll write out of this life someday, inventing conversations and trysts for characters to have in coffeehouses far away, reciting aloud, “It’s the beans, not the bloodshed, dear girl, that won the fight.”

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68.

And so the mountain village was spared the rage of the avalanche. The elders of the village convened at the frozen, mile-wide base of snow curled high above their homes to plant prayer flags and bowls of incense. “But that’s not how life is,” his grandmother said, slamming the book closed, “because there will always be another avalanche.” He remembers her this way — white and pale, stubborn and suspicious of nature’s capacity for grace — whenever summiting a new peak.

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67.

The little boy fell into the lion pit. It took fourteen personnel two-and-a-half hours to bait and sedate the pride before they could extract the unconscious child and fly him to the hospital. His mother calls on the anniversary of the fall, asking him how things are, and he recites in even tones how he rarely notices the scars, how he remembers nothing, which is the truth. He hears her own scars pulsate her voice, their breath inside her breath, before his daughter grabs the phone, telling Grandma about her field trip to the zoo.

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66.

I’ve been busy. So busy. Yesterday, a bird ricocheted off my office window, breaking its neck (presumably), then fell the twenty stories necessary to stain the ground (again, presumably — I didn’t leave my work to check). My office mate, Tom, just reminded me this room lacks a window.

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63.

“It is now, and in this world, that we must live.” The little inscription fell out of the crescent-shaped cookie when she broke it in half. Her squad mates scoffed at it, trampled the box, thumped her head, and ordered her to pick up the pace; too soon would the raiders return to camp, too soon would the dust storms descend. She clipped the fortune under her helmet, her mind hungry for weeks — what other voices lay hidden, trapped, inside their stolen rations? 

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62.

For the first time, Libby didn’t write her name in the visitor’s log by the trailhead. She wasn’t rebellious — had even known the friend of a friend who was saved thanks to the simple action of recording his name — but that afternoon, so sunny and warm, Libby wanted only to ascend to the lake in anonymity. Her hike ended without tragedy, and the lake shone pristine, but one by one, the people she’d known since childhood ignored her, forgot her, until her face and her name evaporated from their hearts. She returned to the lake many times over; each visit it grew larger, its liquid voice deeper, rippled by the fingers of unwritten winds.

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60.

She rescued a rabbit from an overflooded culvert one day on her walk home from school. After its wounds healed and strength returned, the little creature no longer tolerated her advances of comfort, and spent its waking hours cowering in the far corners of its cage. “You can’t force fear away, lovely,” her grandma advised, “nor love to grow, but don’t think for a minute they can’t wear the same face.” The night she let the rabbit free, it hopped to the end of the lawn, its ears draped and quivering along its back, its progress slow, hesitant, retreating ever farther from her heart.

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59.

The Happiness Machine will run on happiness — that goes without saying. It will tour the world with its creator, and bring joy to a million suffering souls, and remind a million others that their heaviest problems are graciously, inconsequentially toothless. Half a decade on and the Happiness Machine joins the echelons of a la mode pocket gadgets depreciating in spiritual value by the quarter. Every so often, the magazines and newscasters will titillate us with rumors of a Sadness Machine, but the evidence always surfaces as a hoax, and you watch our smiling faces shrivel and dry and crack from the dream of it, don’t you, the sodding grinning git you’ve become.

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56.

The mice had bred to uncountable numbers, compelling the town’s farmers to raid their local hardware store and purchase every last model of mousetrap. Barns and pantries for miles stood cocked and loaded to crack the scourge’s collective spine, and the men and their wives slept soundly. But none more soundly than the store owner’s son; slighted too long for dreams of apprenticing a magician, he’d swapped the mousetraps for gag shop models, his cunning heart warmed by the train ticket stitched inside his coveralls. Grain silos rang empty that season, and the store owner boarded up shop, scurrying from the dark magic his son had left behind.

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53.

“That’s the last time I saw the prick. I tell ya, watching that man climb the gallows steps, you’da sworn Brother Jesus was in the crowd, nodding some sad approval — did my heart good. ‘Course none of us was expecting the traitor’s wings to break his chains, and none of us knew how fast he could hoof it till we hauled after him down the main drag, but he was too high, goddammit, too Kingdom-close to shoot down. Funny thing about it — what I ‘member most, anyways — was the prick left his hangman’s bag on, flyin’ blind, but straight, all the way up.”

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52.

Her pupil’s fingers played the piano like they were discovering new lands — prodigious leaps over entire valleys of sound no ordinary child should have ventured. “Wonderful, Edgar,” she praised, touching his shoulder, “you’re on perfection’s edge!” She let his music carry her to the world outside the studio, to the masses, virulent with deaf-rendering parasites, patrolling the soundless streets, barricaded from the conservatory and its denizens. Edgar played on, numb to the beauty abounding from his performance; the last Listener, his teacher, wept against the bolted window.  

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51.

She set the cake on the counter to cool, double-checking that she had everything the frosting recipe called for. For hours she adorned her creation with the sugary attention her imagination desired — it was more than the customer asked for, much more, but she knew he’d be thrilled beyond measure. Even now he remembers that cake, his last birthday treat before the planet ate itself alive. His mind often wanders from the squalor and meagerness around him to her artistry, its taste, the legacy of the world sweetly dancing on his tongue.

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50.

Snow fell heavy on the old man’s walkway. He geared up in the same coat and boots his father wore all his life, resolving in his heart to shovel the path clear if it killed him. Years after his funeral, long since those gathered had expounded on his gentleness and legacy, in a fitting symbolic gesture a surviving grandchild snapped and burned the cursed shovel. The coat and boots were kept; their weight and warmth eased many winters.

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49.

“Lunch, Justin!” she called from the kitchen. With a practiced flip, she plattered a grilled cheese sandwich, filled a bowl of steaming tomato soup, and balanced her way to his bedroom door. She knocked and entered, looking past hundreds of identical, dirty dishes, oblivious to the rotting, hot-box stench, and puzzled today’s meal onto a corner of his vacant bed. She closed the door behind her, mumbling “That stubborn boy,” then returned to the kitchen and the food she wouldn’t eat.

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46.

The wagon party formed a ring for the night. The men’s sons fed and watered the animals; the men’s daughters and wives stitched together clothes and a meal. Once more, the firelight flared its incantation through smokey lips and magma-hot tongues, showing the men everything absent from their lives — acres of unpeopled land, streams glutted with fish, gold and oil and precious stones beneath their boots. The wives and daughters and sons shivered, watching the men hunch again toward the unlit flames in the cold epicenter of the camp.

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44.

A disarming thing happens when you listen to your own beating heart: You realize it functions on grace. It is no reliable or uniform thing — there are gaps and skips, it fumbles like a timid drummer at a halftime show, whole black seconds pass with no blood churning — and yet somehow its irregular, nervous nature keeps your thoughts in alignment, sets your arms and legs to task. The others never told me how feckless the human heart is — armed with such knowledge, I would have forgone the transplant entirely, having never surrendered my immortal essence for the sake of a single, fading child. And yet my choice shines darkest for this unholy doubt: If their very organs stutter and tremble at Life’s threshold, of what unobtainable peace have we robbed them?

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40.

I awoke from a nap to find Life beside the bed, beating my chest like a child on Christmas morning. This happy violence resurrected my cells, convinced me I’d somehow given birth to my own flesh and bone, and then Life’s nimble hands led the charge, and we were outside, walking and eating and taking forced-perspective photos of us licking cloud plumes like they were ice cream cones, melting for joy. Life went missing during our game of hide and seek, the little devil, so I plunged into my chest, where Life’s hand had bruised my heart, and I planted the feeling beside an overgrown rock wall ten minutes drive from my cottage. I’m not worried about Life: She knows the way back to me, and mornings here are bright and clear — clear enough to catch her footsteps before they fall. 

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32.

She kept vigil beside the phone. Willful hostage to its silent machinations, its latent potential. A bird struck her window, spilling to the concrete balcony, its cheeps decaying into thin, liquid gurgles. She let the calls pour in, each cellular rumble like a tiny train departing.

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29.

A crowd of thousands mills along the gray seashore. For miles the sandbar is resplendent with castles, each crafted by factions of beach-loving architects. The ocean’s sure hand, its fingers longer than last year, gropes inland to overswell their ramparts, never suspecting the crowd’s shackles, its snares, its contrition. The cerulean appendage lies severed beneath the pier; the castles it craves grow in number.

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24.

The old woman buys a bouquet of carnations and walks straight to the cemetery on the hill. Every week for five years, she’s placed her bright offerings on a virgin plot of grass beside a line of foundering tombstones, a preemptive gesture of love for those yet untaken. Some days, visitors move the flowers to a neighboring grave, cursing the callous wind; others perceive a waste, tenderly plucking blooms to gift their other halves. By week’s end the flowers disappear, and the old woman, moved by mystery, returns.

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19.

A man impersonated a piano tuner for over twenty years. He had faith some baby grand, somewhere, would open a secret bookcase to him if only he played the right tune. The detective dedicated to his arrest dusted for fingerprints on thousands of ivory keys in hundreds of credulous homes, always a meter behind. Unlike his quarry, the music of their escapade never deafened the detective’s heart.

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3.

The apartment was small and mediocre and hers. She wondered in secret if she would live there until she died. Every night, her downstairs neighbor sprinted through her dreams, warning her against the vice of complacency. She got married, a promotion, a bigger TV, but the downstairs neighbor kept running.

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