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Stories We Tell Ourselves

Romantic complications between a surgical coordinator and a brilliant transplant specialist.

"I hadn’t wanted Clara at first, at least no more than any other woman I’d casually slept with. Too bony, too neurotic. Too pale. But when she asked for a ride home from the dinner party where we met, I drove, intrigued at the prospect of UCSF’s top heart-transplant surgeon debasing herself with a med school dropout-turned-cellist."

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The Twitches

Middle school and family unease; a mysterious neurological condition.

"I knew something bad was about to happen right before it did. My face heated. All the sound cut out, like a huge furry helmet had been dropped over my skull. The room, it didn’t look right. I’m trying to think how to explain it, but all I can come up with is that the colors separated, kind of fizzed around—the green and red marks on the dry-erase board hovered like insects, the purple of Mr. Franz’s tie pixilated. I had that greasy swirl in my stomach like when you’re about to fart and are still praying there’s a way it will be silent, like when you go to the bathroom after a science lab of intolerable closeness to your intolerably cute lab partner and see that yes, the tingle on your nose was actually a tumor-sized whitehead erupting."

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The Open Palm of Desire

A single father's life is complicated by his son's new friend: a severed hand.

"That decided it—we would walk away. Let some other dad deal with the fallout of their kid digging up evidence of, what? A murder, maybe? A ritual dismemberment? The Mob torturing some poor fool before sending him to sleep with the fishes in the East River? My mind reeled at the possibilities. Whatever the case, getting involved was the last thing we needed, especially with me battling Mo for custody. I could see the headline in The Post: LET’S GIVE THE BOY A HAND! Her lawyer would have a field day."

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Hide and Seek

A young man's struggle with his mother and his physical traits.

"When it was my turn to hide, I dreaded the moment of being found. What I hated more was the thought of all my mother’s attention focused on me. My father was out the door, smoke between her fingers. I didn’t know him, my mother having removed any evidence of his existence, but I knew that I resembled him. Darkness was the only place that gave way to my imagination. I pictured his face, laughing at our state of incompleteness. Crouched in a laundry hamper and waiting for the game to end, I’d grow fearful, then angry. My mother was husbandless, and I was squatting in a basket. She was too pretty to work. There was nothing she could do, but there was nothing I could do. I thought about really being lost."

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Wait Anywhere

A tale of two sisters with bodies that produce feathers.

"Up ahead a diesel semi had stopped, idling, its emergency lights flashing red in the mist, and on the wet tar and on Gale. I looked at her chest. The feathers were still growing, like a cancer. They would be as long as she was, longer. They would strangle, drown her. She ran to the cab of the truck, the door swung open far above. I couldn’t see the driver’s face."

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The Giantess' Daughter

A giantess attends her normal-sized daughter's wedding.

"She had practiced the art of speaking with barely a sound until sometimes she could not even be sure that she would be audible to a human’s undersized ears. As she made her nomadic way across her land to that of the humans, she had spoken to herself in ever quieting tones; everything she would say to Freya when they met, everything she had longed to tell her baby through the long nights, the songs she would have sung to soothe a teething gum, the reasons for the way of the world and the whys and the hows, the way their parting had left a crack running through her, a fracture so fundamental that she knew she would one day simply fall into two pieces."

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Wild Goats

Two stories about a woman turned goat's attempts to communicate with others.

"She’s a few feet up and can’t see much further than she could from the ground. The goats aren’t anywhere in sight. She tries to wait, but it’s so warm and she’s so tired from her sandwich-making attempt. A few blinks, a nod, a couple upward jerks of the head and she’s asleep. The next morning she crawls down, eats breakfast, does her goat-business and crawls back up. Late afternoon the goats amble toward her. They don’t look at her. They stand around like they always do, not talking, but looking at one another and then the ground."

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The Harvester

A homeless man's wanderings and moral quandaries.

"Aimless, his wandering. The recurring theme of his life. That he would never escape. The single aspect of a pointless existence. What had he accomplished? The food in the bag would sustain him for two days more, three. Would his body retain any of it? Could he eat it without tasting his own wretchedness, the abhorrence that churned now through his body? A turn and then another, then down a street, an alleyway to hunker down in, only to leave abruptly because of a passing shadow, a rustle of paper. He felt persecuted, scared, timid and small. He felt disgust. For himself, the life that had prodded him thus. It was a thing that welled inside of him, the pit of his stomach, like a ball of thorny vine that tore and snagged on his delicate insides. Hours had passed. But hadn’t it been but a moment’s time? For him, all had changed; he had crossed the river to foreign shores and the language was one he could not recognize. He could not go back, though he longed to, and tried to look to the other side, but it had disappeared. He walked."

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The Jugulars

A woman is sent on an ominous mission to collected a jugular vein.

"The hands are still clapping when I jump, when I take on the air, when I dive. My body slams into the dirt at the bottom of the hole, some of the jugulars beneath me, I can feel the softness of them, I pull the rest near me, bring their thick heavy softness near the heat of my body."

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The Goldfinch [Excerpt 2]

An act of terror at an art museum.

"When – with difficulty – I made my way into the centre of the space, or what seemed like the centre of the space, I saw that one door was obscured by rags of hanging debris, and I turned and began to work in the other direction. There, the lintel had fallen, dumping a pile of brick almost as tall as I was and leaving a smoky space at the top big enough to drive a car through. Laboriously I began to climb and scramble for it – over and around the chunks of concrete – but I had not got very far when I realised that I was going to have to go the other way. Faint traces of fire licked down the far walls of what had been the exhibition shop, spitting and sparkling in the dim, some of it well below the level where the floor should have been."

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The Revolution Room: Station One

A horror/mystery story about heart removal, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Chinese food bags.

"It is not easy to remove a heart with a spoon from the chest of a man, nor is it clean. The spoon was purchased 48 hours earlier from the Bed, Bath & Beyond on 9th Street. The Nicole Miller Moments 5 pc Flatware Set was $24.99. The salad fork, dinner knife, dinner fork, and soup spoon were disposed of. Only the teaspoon remained.

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To Be Old

A terminally ill young woman arrives in New York to spend her last months.

"Outside, the spring wind rippled the silk across Sabrina’s skin and as she tilted her face up, the sun drew freckles across her nose and cheeks. She felt lighter than she had in weeks. It had been a strange irony that even as she was losing weight, she’d felt leaden; it was the loss of energy, of course, but it was more than that, too. It was as if the knowledge inside her was quantifiable, which meant it was diminishable, too. She hadn’t wanted to hand pieces of her diagnosis to those she knew, those she loved—but what a relief to give a sliver of it away."

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Haunting In B Minor

A relationship is explored via memories and lists; a mental breakdown ensues.

"I thought the standard things like dates and flowers could keep us normal. But it was the subtle derision in your smile that made me want to smother you in your sleep after I said things like: It aches sometimes—how life seems so long. You thought therapy could keep us sane so you made it an ultimatum and flushed my Seroquel down the toilet."

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Notre Dame Des Patates

A young woman engages in various misguided religious devotions.

"She reaches out and takes one of his hands, lifts it to her mouth as if to taste his blood, but he pulls it away and takes her hands—both of them—in his own. Because he is Christ, she lets him. He kisses her palms, each of them in turn, and then once more, lingering over the taste of salt; of something like stone, like metal; of roses from the tomb of the saint; and the taste, he swears, of hunger.

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That Baby

Two parents contend with a grotesque, rapidly growing newborn; from the author of Don't Kiss Me: Stories, published today.

"Daddy and I had heard of ugly babies, of unnaturally big babies, we’d seen a show once where what looked like a 12-year old boy was in a giant diaper his mother had fashioned out of her front room curtain, sitting there with his legs straight out in front of him like he was pleased to meet them, his eyes pushed into his face like dull buttons, and the mother claiming he wasn’t yet a year. But Levis wasn’t on the TV, he was right there, his eyes following Daddy across the room, those eyes like gray milk ringed with spider’s legs, and at two months Levis had chewed through a wooden bar in his crib, splinters in his gums, him crying while I plucked them with a tweezer, me feeling that nail in my gut, me feeling something less than love."

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The Harvest

A series of hallucination-like memories in the aftermath of a car accident.

"The accident happened at sunset, so that is when I felt this way the most. The man I had met the week before was driving me to dinner when it happened. The place was at the beach, a beach on a bay that you can look across and see the city lights, a place where you can see everything without having to listen to any of it. A long time later I went to that beach myself. I drove the car. It was the first good beach day; I wore shorts."

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Smiling to Himself

A man's colonoscopy causes him to reflect on aging, mortality, and family life.

"For a moment, Pete wondered if he should say something else, anything, but the guy had already picked up his magazine again, leaving Pete to ponder not only his inadequacies, but his colonoscopy, something he was suddenly looking forward to and maybe even deserved."

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Vicissitudes, CA

A surreal, minimalist exploration of dating, longing, accidents, and keen observations.

"The next day Brandon woke up to the bright morning sun shining through his bedroom window. He walked to his couch and napped until lunch. After lunch Brandon looked for jobs on the Internet. He read: Financial Analyst, Portfolio Associate, Dental Receptionist, Detention Services Officer, Helicopter Repair. Just like the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that, and the day before that, etc., there were no listings for Ethnomusicologist."

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Sewing For The Heart

A bag-maker takes on a medically unique client. From the new collection Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales.

"It was indeed a strange bag. The complicated shape of it was difficult to achieve. I had assembled nine different pieces of leather into an asymmetrical balloon with seven holes of varying size. The bottom of it was an oval, but the bag tapered toward an opening at the top that fastened with hooks."

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Probably Somewhere

A story of strange actions and potential love for a one-armed misanthrope.

" The next day it wasn't raining so hard, just a drizzle that faded in and out like bad reception. After lunch I did a little work on my fake arm. They need a lot more upkeep than you'd think—I had to oil the elbow cam, replace a couple of grommets, and adjust the socket to keep it from rubbing my stub raw. That rubbing wasn't much fun, but it was cupcakes compared to the phantom aches I got every so often. You've probably heard about them on television: just because you've lost a limb doesn't mean it can't hurt like a bitch where the limb used to be. I couldn't say which was worse—the pain itself or the way it reminds you of what you aren't anymore."

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Thigh River

Boys and girls showcase themselves on opposite sides of an anatomical river.

"It only takes a split second for all of my cells to light up with horror-shock, a split second before I start gagging. The river is full of thighs, pushing along like fish, huge as bass, moving downstream. The thighs bump up against each other, create awkward waves, a strange flood of lone limbs in water, it is a tide of skins."

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Broads

A dirty story about delicate hands. Part of Guernica's two-part erotic fiction issue. NSFW.

"Jimmy bathes with his eyes closed, his long dark hair clinging to the ceramic edges of the tub. He fantasizes about trashy and brassy broads—imagines their mouths and breasts and thighs and eyes."

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Celestial Marriage

A delightfully strange and humorous imagining of Mitt Romney's thoughts during a massage.

"Something curdled inside him—he didn’t deserve this dig. Yes, he’d been busy lately, insanely busy, especially with those foreign-policy dopes, but he’d tried to remain attentive to his lady. He’d arranged this nice weekend for them. He’d canceled events, he’d canceled events that were scheduled months ago. Suddenly, he was impatient to get away from her, to find the remote and check on the day’s news. He hadn’t turned on the set since lunchtime yesterday, a gesture he’d hoped that she’d notice and appreciate, mostly because it came so hard to him."

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The Picture In The House

After being caught in a downpour, a traveler takes refuge in the home of a twisted old man; Happy Halloween.

"As the man mumbled on in his shocking ecstasy the expression on his hairy, spectacled face became indescribable, but his voice sank rather than mounted. My own sensations can scarcely be recorded. All the terror I had dimly felt before rushed upon me actively and vividly, and I knew that I loathed the ancient and abhorrent creature so near me with an infinite intensity. His madness, or at least his partial perversion, seemed beyond dispute. He was almost whispering now, with a huskiness more terrible than a scream, and I trembled as I listened."

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Twenty Fingers

A young man explains the physical and psychological turmoils of his anatomical differences.

"Sorry, I keep forgetting you’ve seen my file. As I was saying. Even after I started dating, I still had to leave the gloves on. I’d tell a girl that my hands were covered in burn scars or that I had early onset arthritis. It was easier to lie to them, give them something they’ve heard of, something they could believe. Something they could deal with."

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The Gown From Mother's Stomach

The inimitable Blake Butler presents us with a strange gestation and a talking bear.

"God will knit it in my womb like he did you, she murmured. When you wear it you will blind the world. "

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Hello Everybody

A. M. Homes, author of the forthcoming May We Be Forgiven, trains a satiric eye on the ennui of wealthy Los Angelenos.

“I don't mind feeling paralyzed. I think I'm used to it. In fact I’m not even sure that what people would call paralyzed isn't just normal for me. I don't move a lot.”

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A Disturbance In The Herd Affects The Flock

An exploration of an old couple with mystical powers.

"He lifted his arms like a high-diver preparing to jump, closed his eyes, and opened his mouth toward the sky. As he did this his body came apart in twelve pieces, each falling and forming into a tiny complete man. The men landed with a soft crunch in the snow, then hopped together and ran remarkably fast: under the deer carcass, past the oak tree, and into the bare forest, smaller and smaller to her eye, until their naked running bodies and small puffs of breath were lost among the trees."

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Weight Loss

A woman explores the complexities and hardships of weight loss.

"Mostly, it has been good. She will feel her hardening thigh muscle and think, yes, that’s good. But sometimes–increasingly now–she will jolt while she gropes her own calf. It is something like regret. Panic. No, there’s not a word for the unheimlich spiral she gets when she feels her side and remembers how her hand didn’t used to rest flat there. She’s lost weight. Instead of remaining intact but changing, thin slices of her are getting shaved away, going nowhere, unable to be retrieved."

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Moto

Escalating competitions between two boys take an unexpected turn.

"Most of my losses, though, were at the hands of the son, Jimmy Knockwood Jr. Two years older than me, Jimmy wore a hint of Iroquois aristocracy in his cheekbones, and some part of his body was usually sheathed in a dirty plaster cast. He beat me at every sport we had equipment for. At 13, he had arms like a man and could throw a baseball with such force that after playing catch with him you couldn't turn a doorknob. Once, when we were wrestling, he put me in a choke hold that made my vision go white. I cursed Jimmy's mother, and he rubbed a toad into my teeth. Seeing me in tears afterward, my father asked why I put myself through the disgrace of playing with Jimmy. He had forgotten the infatuation a boy has no choice but to feel for a peer who is good at everything."

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Three Things You Should Know About Peggy Paula

Sketches of a lonely woman's search for love and happiness.

"...three weeks later asking the redheaded dishwasher to drive her home and directing him to the spot she knew those girls went to, her lips aflame, when he pulled up sliding over, the stick shift digging into her hip, putting her mouth on his freckled neck, it smelled like mashed potatoes and industrial soap and sweat, her hand first on his thigh and then crabcrawling to his zipper, it was already hardening under there despite him saying, Hey hey, what, and Peggy Paula saying, Just, please, and the dishwasher quiet after that, letting Peggy Paula, letting her, following her into the backseat, holding her tight when it happened, saying I’m sorry and Peggy Paula saying Shh, stinging his shoulder with her lips and his back with her nails and feeling filled up and afraid and like her heart could kick the windows out."

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Entrainment

The hungry, woozy thoughts of a young hitchhiker.

"The time since our last bath has made us smell completely wanton, like we’re bad apples. That is why I am not allowed to faint, no matter how hungry I get. If I swoon, there won’t be help. My body will not be held in arms until it can be laid gently among the reeds. Rather, my skull will split against, and brains will spill great fountains on the sidewalk. The crowd will continue, too busy to observe the tableau by their feet. If anyone hears my splash, they’ll see the dark sky and be convinced that it’s somehow got to do with rain."

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Sometimes He Became A Coaster

An abstract observation of a man on life support.

"The contract was spongy white yellow and was held by a paper clip and smelled of musk and told her to unplug them no matter what. He had wanted it that way. She too. But now here she was three sweaters down and two pairs of striped socks snug and warm against a niece’s fourteen-year-old cream calves and her drink resting on his chest sweating itself to dilution."

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Your House Is A Body

Descriptions of a decrepit house take on (and intersect with) human qualities.

"Look at your hallway here, these smooth white walls, freshly painted, everything seems clean and healthy. But you’ve got to think of your house like a body, all wired up with electrical veins and pipes, a nervous system running beneath the surface without you even knowing it. You’ve got your water pump, your furnace, your water heater in the basement, these are your organs, they keep things moving, they keep things regular."

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Lost Limbs

An aimless man forms a connection with a one-armed woman.

"Our date ended on that uncomfortable accusatory note and I didn’t see Lenore again for quite some time. Occasionally I would have these little fantasies, daydreams involving Lenore and her metal pincher hand. She’d stare at me with those light eyes while we made love and that other rubber hand would lie on a table next to us, feeling left out of the action."

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The Tip

A darkly comedic story about a fighting couple and an unexplained severed finger.

"'You mind shutting the hell up and helping me look for my finger?'I skim my good hand over the crusty red felt carpet. I pull myself off the ground, but standing adds a new dimension to the folds of my dizziness; I fall back against the bar, and Clive hoists me up with his elbow."

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Buckets

Observations on a hailstorm of human bodies.

"Great masses crashed above us, great vapors clashed. We could hear loud smacking hands and feet, bourn up and circulating through the thundercaps, as we waded through the puzzlebox of interlocking fingers."

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Quarters

A young pregnant woman versus the dryer at a military Laundromat.

"She is thirty-one years old, and she never wanted anything so much as to be married to the man she loves and to have a child with him. And she had thought, all those years when they tried to conceive, that she knew and loved her husband better than anyone she could even imagine. But what kind of man joins the Marines when there is a war going on? She could never have imagined herself in this Laundromat across the street from a strip designed for the eighteen-year-old children who are most of the Marines, her husband's new colleagues."

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On The Fire Escape

An adolescent girl encounters some sketchy characters in and around her apartment building.

"That afternoon, after I cursed the old guy, the rain finally got to me the way it sometimes did and I got all depressed and cried all the way home. I unlocked the metal gate and walked into the dark hallway of my green apartment building. My neighbor was standing there in the hallway drinking a beer like it was his living room."

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Wheeling

A flurry of interactions in a doctor's office hint to varieties of unnamed medical problems and domestic unhappiness.

"Why wasn’t the doctor coming out? I could give her a ride, but not to another state, not to Wheeling, West Virginia. Beyond the glass doors, a vacuum started loudly. Suddenly, the woman who’d drawn my blood walked quickly past us, tears streaming, mouth tight, clutching a pink piece of paper."

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Tongue Party

A father uses his daughter in a disturbing scheme.

"It only takes an hour and the pile of money gets higher and higher every time. The men pay twenty dollars a pop to come to the Tongue Party. "

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Blueprints For Building Better Girls [Excerpt]

An altercation between a female college student and a blue collar man at a dive bar.

"It wasn’t a time you’d think of people being awake, and drinking, but the parking lot was jammed with rusty cars and hay wagons and tractors, pickup trucks with gun racks. I always wonder when a guy tells me I have a nice rack if that’s like a gun rack, like deadly—or a rack of antlers, like a trophy you’d hang on the wall over your fireplace. Either way it’s a compliment."

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Backbone

A stand-alone piece of the manuscript that became The Pale King, this story details a young boy's mysterious and doomed obsession.

"During the five weeks that he was disabled with a subluxated T3 vertebra—often in such discomfort that not even his inhaler could ease the asthma that struck whenever he experienced pain or distress—the heady enthusiasm of childhood had given way in the boy to a realization that the objective of pressing his lips to every square inch of himself was going to require maximum effort, discipline, and a commitment sustainable over periods of time that he could not then (because of his age) imagine."

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Anskan House

This house has a power. Happy Halloween.

"She said she rang the bell and then waited until she heard the sound of it coming up from the basement and could sense it there behind the door. And then she opened the slit of the letterbox and spoke into it."

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Female Explosion Syndrome

A universal panic--the spontaneous combustion of women--highlights feminist questions and everyday living.

"The stories kept circulating: a mother of five, sitting on the sidelines of a Little League game, gone. A waitress in our favorite diner, who always remembered that we needed extra napkins, gone. A bank teller we said hello to when we deposited our checks, gone. Who could figure this out, we asked. Who was going to protect us?"

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Luminarium [Excerpt]

What if science could trigger an out-of-body experience? Alex Shakar probes the question in this excerpt from his new novel, Luminarium

"He’s afraid: fear comes in ripples, emanating from his center. He can feel nothing but these ripples, he realizes, neither the chair beneath him nor the helmet on his head, nor his head itself."

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Obstacle

A woman has an unavoidable encounter on a city street.

" I detest him. I will do all in my power to avoid his languid eyes––the smirk that saturates his lower jaw. He demands my eyes to rummage his wares and drink in exactly what came groveling back at him from out of the pleasing mirrors and shop windows he passed."

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Peerless

Fabulist fiction, about a shoeshine boy with a secret.

"Dr. Fessenden takes an interest, both medical and fatherlike. He wears black leather brogues at least twenty years old, the kind they don't make anymore. He prods my back with his doctorly fingers and makes considering sounds. "

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The Secret Room

Meticulous details of a room and a murdered young woman; a sample of Robbe-Grillet's sometimes challenging forms.

"In the background, near the top of the stairway, a black silhouette is seen fleeing, a man wrapped in a long, floating cape, ascending the last steps without turning around, his deed accomplished. A thin smoke rises in twisting scrolls from a sort of incense burner placed on a high stand of ironwork with a silvery glint. Nearby lies the milkwhite body, with wide streaks of blood running from the left breast, along the flank and on the hip."

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A Real Doll

A boy falls in love with a Barbie doll. A little NSFW.

" I did something Barbie almost didn't forgive me for. I did something which not only shattered the moment, but nearly wrecked the possibility of us having a future together. In the hallway between the stairs and Jennifer's room, I popped Barbie's head into my mouth, like lion and tamer, God and Godzilla."

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Becoming Deer

A woman makes the choice between deer and cattle.

"I want to explain. I was raised on milk and beef. That’s how I was robbed of my swift, slender legs. That’s how I was given the shape of a woman. "

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No One Word For Dying Of Thirst

A man's crumbling life is explored through his precise medical afflictions and liquid consumption.

"“This is a little bit of shit luck that you’ll certainly shake,” his father had sighed sympathetically into the phone. “You know, when you step in shit, sometimes you just got to leave that shoe outside for a while, but eventually, it airs itself out.” It was an awkward attempt to imbue some wisdom on his son, but Fredrick wasn’t exactly sure what he meant."

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Homo Sapiens

A darkly comic piece about when the body goes awry.

"Daniel finds blood in his underwear on a Monday. It happens in the eighth floor men’s room, during a restructuring meeting. The meeting has something to do with 'capitalizing on human potential,' which is a phrase, after three hours of PowerPoint presentations, Daniel still does not understand. "

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We See In The Day And In The Night

An ailing massage therapist views life and interpersonal connections with philosophical musings.

" Again my eyes get the waves, white water foam at the edges, rolling toward the center, blurring my vision. It feels like someone ripping off the film of my eye, Doc. Like someone's pulling the lid off my eye if my eye were a pudding. Cold plastic chair. A bright light. He looks disconcerted and leaves the room and is gone for awhile and then comes back in."

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The Story Of An Hour

A classic short detailing a woman's grief.

" She did not hear the story as many women have heard the same, with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance. She wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister's arms. When the storm of grief had spent itself she went away to her room alone. She would have no one follow her."

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The Fence

Pleasure, pain, and electricity from the author of Daddy's (Featherproof Books). Explicit.

"After I cleaned myself up, I went to the fence. I went again just before Tim came home. He thought I was out there to greet him, and I let him believe it."

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The Power Is Out, Sing

Musician Jordaan Mason's eerie, formally experimental story about a love triangle.

"The difference between him and her was parts of the body represented through skin as organs which were not the same organs. "

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They're Not Your Husband

Raymond Carver's stories have a knack for illuminating uncomfortable marriage scenes, and this tale of a man wanting his wife to lose weight is as well-written as it is saddening.

"He pulled the covers up, closed his eyes, and allowed himself to think about the incident. The humiliation started in his face, the forehead and cheeks, and worked down into his shoulders and on into his stomach and legs."

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Mirrors

Life without reflection.

"She does her hair in the morning in much the same way her husband shaves: by feel, brushing it out, patting it into shape, fixing it with pins. She's been putting on earrings for forty years, and certainly doesn't require a mirror for that."