Knee-Jerk

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A new boyfriend complicates the creative and personal relationship of two teenage musicians.

"I was asking if she had figured out the fifth part because we had worked on three or four different versions, and John said all our music talk was boring. Kenna looked at him for a second, and I could tell she was annoyed, but she wasn’t going to do anything about it. He was limiting her. The old Kenna might have dumped his Denver Scramble on his head. She just made a face."

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A primer on services for the afterlife.

"So you’ll start by taking a ride in the flatbed truck with Gurtie, and she’ll drop you off at the ARF center. You’ll probably be pretty disoriented. It’s okay. You’ve been riding in the back of a white flatbed truck with a bunch of recently dead people for several hours through the Afterlife—which looks basically like North Dakota. None of you will be happy campers, and some of your traveling companions will look downright alarming, what with death not being such a photogenic moment for most people. We understand and we sympathize. It’s an unpleasant time for you, but like I said, we are understaffed. Do we wish there were a better way? Yes, we do. Is there a better way? Not yet, there’s not."

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A father and son clash over a murdered dog.

"Bear. Who hopped up and wagged his tail at my dad. He thought they were going on a trip. Probably thought they were going hunting up to the last minute. Until my father laid the muzzle of his gun against Bear’s own muzzle, soft. I can imagine Bear sniffing at the gun in curiosity, looking up to my dad, who had fed him and watered him, and for my dad Bear had braved wild pigs, skunks and angry raccoons. I can see him sitting, wagging his tail expectantly, waiting for the command to search, to run."

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Confusion and nervousness ensue when items slowly go missing at a nursing home.

"After that conversation, more glasses went missing. Sometimes we found them on the wrong peoples’ faces. Sometimes a pair showed up, perched in the middle of a bowl of oatmeal. Everyone was confused; Miss Marilyn panicked. Even my grandma had her theories—a rat had carried things off and dropped them in sly places. But I knew who was responsible and I kept quiet. I couldn’t break a man’s spirit.

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A young couple approaches the task of caring for calves.

"Paul followed his dreams by becoming a soldier, and when he came home was sleepless and dreamless, folded himself into the envelope of space Lori had made for him in her bed, and one day decided he was going to buy a calf. He wanted something warm and gentle around. He said he would raise it and slaughter it when it was grown, but Lori did not believe this even at the very beginning."

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A woman's communications and interactions with a potential criminal.

"The beaten man lurches to his feet and pulls out a shape, a gun, from his pocket–somehow it must have escaped the notice of the other men before. He staggers backward into the porticos and I can no longer see him. But a minute later I can hear him yelling in English as he storms up the stairs of my building, calling, 'Help! Help!' and hammering on doors. There are several banging sounds as though he’s fallen."

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Two working class brothers and their girlfriends dream of elevating their bleak lives.

"Growing up, we always looked up and wondered what it would be like to live in the grand homes looking down. At Christmas, our parents drove us along the overlook. Our mothers cooed at the beautiful decorations even though on every other day they cleaned those houses and took care of the children living in them. Our fathers, who worked for the grand homeowners, grunted. They said it wasn’t anything special. They swallowed the bitterness of their envy and chased it with a nip of whiskey."