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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86.

Rain clouds converged above the empty garden. The remains of a scarecrow’s stake wagged limply in the breeze, throwing its fragile shadow over parched crowns of soil. He’d caught the lizard on the sidewalk two evenings past, and already its tail, severed to give the slip, had begun to regrow. A tough hand of wind plucked the stake from the garden’s center, the shallow hole it left behind soon plugged by muddy water.

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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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84.

Squad car, stake out. Suspect tailed for twenty blocks, alleged to sell dope to middleschoolers in Roosevelt Park; no hand-offs reported. The widow’s walk funnels the screams of the sea to her ears, her salt-bitten eyes, the fog-layered horizon withholding her husband’s vessel’s masts. Beyond these bubbles of wait pops the world, children roughhouse, oceans tide men home.

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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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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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76.

Another endless drive-thru line. No date, no radio. A meteor the size of a humpback whale skims Earth’s orbit, recalculates its interest, then deflects to a more appetizing corner of void. “Dammit, I said no pickles,” growls the driver, chucking this newest burger out the window.

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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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65.

Winter months saw the train pass through town in a bedlam of whistles and spilled inkwells of smoke. Children, starved not least for entertainment, took to standing parallel to the station tracks, their game over whenever the weakest lunged among them coughed through the locomotive’s asphyxiating soot. “Over here!” shouted the lad who found them first: boot tracks zigzagging away from the depot, alone, preserved in the train’s dim snow, not a stride indented through the powder. That long season, that juggernaut train, continued, its every flight beside the shanties claiming yet another boy.

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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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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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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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31.

I’d heard that the pipe organ was once the most mechanically advanced human invention in the world. What must that be like, I wondered, crafting something to shift the cultural sands, a precedent decreeing “Yesterday, void; today, the beginning?” After my usual walk around the church, the arpeggios of a robin muted history’s echoes from my head. Birds need no precedent, I thought — a simple thought — then whistled for the first time in ages.

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26.

She played her tenor sax on a vivacious city corner. Day after day, she drew stray dollars, withering looks, but never crowds. A boy holed up at a nearby café, shamelessly recording her performances, until, a month’s worth of free concerts collected, he flipped her hard knocks genius on his website. His masses soon demanded their usual jaded infinity; she staked another corner, filled with vagabond delight.

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18.

Rain roared off his roof in perpetual, silvery sheets. Its mania frothed the narrow gravel road, beheaded newborn flower beds, drowned thought. From the comfort of his chair, he watched a hummingbird, trapped for the duration, wheel, lunge, and zoom the length of his veranda, its dire heart rejecting the storm’s endless demeanor. “There’s patience in the rain,” he might have spoken, then promptly returned to his book.

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14.

She tumbled onto the groundskept football field, her body a glowing, surf-washed star. She lived for these flashes of post-running bliss, when the grass, like a tide of victory, lapped sweetly against her skin. Above her, the cerulean sky endured, then, without violence, dimmed as she watched, no bird or cloud the culprit. The dimming continued throughout the summer, biting at her heels like a chum-drawn shark.

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13.

She said he’d know if she ever became rich because she’d spend all day patrolling Main Street, feeding change into parking meters. “Some of my brightest days started after someone ‘changed’ my life,” she proclaimed. The patient doctor applauded her kindness, held her arm fast, and escorted her back to her room. Months after her passing, no meters starve near the hospital.

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11.

“Growing up, my neighbor down the hall kept a window garden. Pretty standard botanical fare–tulips and marigolds and the like–but I learned all their needs, their peccadillos, and kept them company when she’d leave for family trips. Once, during a morning watering, my fingers unearthed a cache of sterling silver rings, then quickly folded them back into the soil. She often asked why I stopped coming by to check on their blooms, never realizing her hand in reshaping what beauty meant to me.”

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9.

The line for scratch tickets was typically centipedal. She listened with dull attention to the jaded prattling of her neighbors and friends, each leaving the corner shop with slightly fatter wallets. On her turn, under the cashier’s hooded gaze, she shaved off five losing numbers on her third ticket, then yelped as her fist got yanked skyward like a heavyweight champion’s. She was too exposed, too slapped with surprise, to act happy; was this what losing in a world of winners felt like?

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8.

A man took a walk before lunchtime on a Tuesday. Passing through the empty park, he watched a stranger on a bench silently collapse onto the ceramic autumn ground. Instantly he rushed over, fingers ghosting the emergency number in his phone, but the fallen stranger, more than okay, laughed like a raving child. Anger filled him, relief drained him–then our walker folded over, too, hysteric with joy, the distant clouds scattering behind the dying, gilded boughs.

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6.

And then the man and Sleep were not on speaking terms. Ten weary days elapsed before the duo made their peace, though Sleep played the tease, never saying what went wrong. Around the block, a mother and father fell into bed, praying for an eleventh night of newborn baby slumber. Their angel wailed and wailed.

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