rural life

50 articles
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Fragmented Instructions for Half-Formed Girls

A series of instructions for a woman in a small town.

"Purport, coyly, that you are dating a tall pile of driftwood arranged in an aesthetically pleasing way, and let’s say this wooden statue’s name is Chad and that he is generally a little slow on the uptake. Say Chad is like a Nordic carving of a real person in that he is extremely beige, even his hair, and he can go for a long time without blinking or saying anything of substance. Say you might as well be dating a Hummel, except Chad is more durable."

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Ugly Girls [Excerpt]

Baby Girl and Perry, two small town partners in crime; from Hunter's forthcoming debut novel.

"The Estates was a ritzy-ass neighborhood with a gate at the front and open sidewalks on either side. Perry and Baby Girl had hit the neighborhood before, strolled right in. Those sidewalks were an in- vitation: Come on in, and steal some stuff while you’re at it. Perry had started to think if rich people weren’t afraid of their stuff being taken, they wouldn’t feel so rich."

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The Wide and Lonely World

A widower takes his children to visit relatives under vague, suspicious circumstances.

"One day he said he was taking us on a trip to meet his people in Missouri, relatives we hadn’t known existed. They were farmers of German descent, with exotic-sounding names like Fritzi and Helga and Smit. We loaded up the car and just drove, right out into the country. If our mother had been alive, she’d pack a cooler full of bologna sandwiches and Mars bars, but there was none of that. The windows were down and hot bursts of wind boxed our cheeks and made the Cubs cap on our father’s head twitch."

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Slow Wave

A tale of small town love and loss; a summer tale for the last official weekend of summer.

"Do you love her? Those things are kind of hard to know. For me, anyway. My mom died when I was four and my dad never met anyone else, at least, not anyone that made him want to try again. I never got to watch him love, and so it feels like that part of me is broken. I know how to ride a bike, how to fry an egg sunnyside-up, how to thread a worm on a hook, but I don’t know when someone says I love you if they mean it or if they just want me to lie back in the grass and hike up my skirt."

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Wild Hearts

Two shorts about cowboys, love, and unhappiness.

"We’d been too young, too passionate. We lived wearing blinders: we only saw each other. After pay days, we had nothin’ left but a few dollars for a six pack and a pack of smokes, but that’s all we needed. We’d sit on the back porch, drinking and smoking, watching evening fall. And once it got dark, we’d go inside, make love, have a drink and another smoke, and then make love again."

"I drove past Low’s house, saw his truck out front. I didn’t slow down. My body ached, I prayed for rain—a purple-blue tempest, lightning slicing sky."

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On the Shore of the Great Salt Plains Lake Near Jet, Oklahoma

Sex, potential violence, and human awkardness convene on an isolated shore.

"A slight breeze brings slight relief from the heat and a taste of the saltwater lapping against the hard sand. He’s been here many times. Though he has no desire to kill a bird, he loves this place, this lonely beach at the edge of this lonely lake too shallow for boats and too lifeless to attract fishermen. He loves the sand bugs and the sharp edges of the sand grass. Especially he loves the deep shade beneath the willow trees, and the sound of the cicadas’ music in the sun."

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Walls [Excerpt]

Tender, sad interactions between old friends; an excerpt from Worthington's forthcoming book from Civil Coping Mechanisms.

"He was looking at the television across from him, above and between two of the tables. I was looking at the television behind the bartender, in front of the kitchen. It was the first time we had seen each other in two years. We didn’t have anything in common to talk about except for the Browns. I didn’t even really care about the Browns anymore. I glanced over at him, and he looked down at his drink, picked it up, took a sip. He returned his gaze to the screen. I often feel violently angry when people are not able to communicate effectively with me, but, at that moment, I didn’t. I took a sip of my drink."

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We're Coming For Them

A study in building spaceships.

"Mostly, the spaceship builders did not come out of their trailers or houses, though our local guides claimed they didn't mind the occasional tour. They were so serious they could not see that others might laugh. Some of their grounds looked measured and neat; some were spilling over or scraped to dust. Most were single, a few married, some widowed or divorced. The married ones interested us most—what sorts of agreements had they come to? were the ships built for two?"

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Depth Perception

A small town paramedic reflects on her troubled yet protective uncle.

"Inside, Lou washed our faces and made us some lemonade. I changed my pants. He turned on the radio in the kitchen. He made us peanut butter and crackers. He dealt out hands of Crazy-Eights and told us a story of Mom learning to milk a cow. Not once did he look out the window. After an hour, Lou picked up the phone and called the coroner."

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The Rough and Tumble Sort

Colliding Michigan demographics; the novelty of AOL chat rooms.

"So me and Little Tom were sitting on the couch watching television, not so much in the mood to do anything else having been witness to the worst kind of execution.'Wish you had a computer,' I said finally. 'AOL is so great. You know about it?' Pause. 'You have AOL down there?'"

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Myopathy

A father struggles after a layoff.

"Now John was paralyzed. For three weeks he’d been on the couch, drinking whiskey out of a dirty glass, or stretching out and turning away from the TV, burying his face in the back cushions and trying to coax a nap out of his subconscious. All the while he felt consumed by a quickening in his heartbeat, or he’d stare at his hands until he was sure that he saw his pinky finger start to shake. He breathed in on a count of four, held it for a count of four, out for a count of four, hold for a count of four. During one of the safety trainings at the mill they’d told the workers that it was a way to regulate your heartbeat during times of shock."

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Souvenirs: An Excerpt

Abandoned children make a home in a hollowed-out school bus.

"The dead squirrel lies shocked on the floor, spun down by lightning last night, claw-up and crusted. The little girl uses a knife to split the thing down its belly and starts peeling. Lucky, she says to her brother. You’re lucky I’ll share with you. Aunt Helen brushes their hair, one by one, picks insects and sticker vine from their legs. A night like all nights: She leaves through the front door without saying goodbye. The children blow kisses. They pray for their mother. They sleep."

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Inheritance

A story of time passage and land inheritance.

"While we watched the flame chew the wood, I thought of the years of sun and rain that had turned a tiny sapling into a towering spruce: Grandpa had introduced himself to Grandma at a church function. They married a few years later. They purchased River Farm from a family who’d owned it for three generations and were moving somewhere north near Baptiste or Athabasca. There, they raised a family of eleven, and harvested a barley crop fifty-five times in fifty-five years. And then Grandma, once Grandpa had passed, moved into the city when the farm became too much."

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Male of the Species

Tensions rise when a high school teacher fails a star student-athlete.

"Word spread: Jimmy Carter, the prize of the Permian Basin, the boy who could flat-out fly, the jovial kid who never turned in work but still somehow always got Cs, was in danger of getting yanked off the team, all because some Yankee teacher had to show his moral fiber. How convenient that his son just happened to be the backup."

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Backbone

A boy's crush is complicated by his parents' troubled marriage.

"His father offered him the bag of pretzels and he took one. He thought his father might say something else, about Monica, or the movies, but he didn’t. They walked down Main in the glow of empty shop windows, taking their time, the only people out and about tonight. If his mother wasn’t ready for them at home it wouldn’t be any good to go back now. 'Do men and women think alike?' Greg said."

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Carl the Raping Goat Saves Christmas

A Southern defense attorney's complicated family Christmas, told through the point of view of his child.

"Every Christmas Daddy throws a 'Taking the Christ Out of Christmas' party and invites everybody. Everybody loves my Daddy except for a small percentage that want to take their revenge, so it's lots of people, old clients, other criminal defense attorneys, Rey Mason from the feed store, everybody. No Jesus cause it makes Daddy angry and both his hands already broke."

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The End of Everything

A story of telemarketing and the aftermath of a terrible accident.

"She looks run down and queasy under the yellow fluorescent lights. When I was on her side of the glass, I thought visitors always had a look of contentment, as if they didn’t have problems, other than someone in here they had to visit. They came in all tan, wearing white shorts and baseball caps like they were headed to picnics after. It seemed cruel. My parents always looked like they’d gotten lost on the way to church."

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Salvage the Bones [Excerpt]

Children in Mississippi prepare for a hurricane's arrival in this excerpt from 2011's National Book Award winning-novel.

"If one of Daddy's drinking buddies had asked what he's doing tonight, he would've told them he's fixing up for the hurricane. It's summer, and when it's summer, there's always a hurricane coming or leaving here. Each pushes its way through the flat Gulf to the twenty-six-mile manmade Mississippi beach, where they knock against the old summer mansions with their slave galleys turned guest houses before running over the bayou, through the pines, to lose wind, drip rain, and die in the north. Most don't even hit us head-on anymore; most turn right to Florida or take a left for Texas, brush past and glance off us like a shirtsleeve. We ain't had one come straight for us in years, time enough to forget how many jugs of water we need to fill, how many cans of sardines and potted meat we should stock, how many tubs of water we need."

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Goodbye Hills, Hello Night

A complex look at an act of small town violence.

"There wasn’t time to think about it, though, because Jim had already opened his car door and was running up the concrete incline toward where the two men were sleeping, and there was two of them and one of him, so I kicked off my slides in the floorboard and grabbed hold of my blackjack and run up the hill after him."

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So I Went Away

A man returns to his small hometown for a temporary substitute teaching job.

"I went away from this place and I lived somewhere else. Years passed. When I came back, it was all the same. It had been years, but the place was the same. I started teaching at the school I went to as a boy. It was a substitute gig. The original teacher needed surgery and she would be out for three weeks. There was a little girl there in the 5th grade class and she was so shy she could barely speak. The other 5th grade teacher told me that the little girl’s mother was on drugs. She told me not to get close to the kids like that because they never made it through the school year. They always ended up moving or just disappearing. She told me that she had been to a funeral just a few weeks earlier for a student’s mother who had overdosed."

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Heaven

A boy in Texas comes of age as a frequent visitor to an adult video store.

"Ricky pushes open the blacked-out door and heads to the counter at the back of the room. Ed trails slowly behind him, pausing to look closely at the shrink-wrapped magazines and their pictures of men and women together. They look bestial, naked, sunburned, mouths open and showing teeth. The magazines Ricky has at home are not like this, magazines of women only, alone, their clothes caught while falling off them, or running naked through the surf at the beach, the surf covering that one exact spot."

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Memory As Flicker, As Fury

A fisherman/trapper and his wife, the emergence of a child-like ghost spirit; an excerpt from Matt Bell's In The House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods.

"But still I was unsatisfied, still I claimed that the son she had given me was not the son we had made and that somehow she had replaced him with this other, this foundling. Against these claims my wife offered no new defense, would only reassure me again, telling me not to worry, that of course he was my son, that despite the wonders of her voice her songs could not make a life. She said this again and again, against my many multiplying queries, each voiced as I trailed her around the house, following her from chore to chore, until after so many denials she changed her tack, asked quietly, What is a life lived but an array of objects, gathered or else made into being, tumored inside the wall-skin of our still-growing house? What else to make a biography of, if not the contents of these rooms?"

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Wasteland, Wasteland, Wasteland

The appearance of a "mole man" reflects the past and realities of a hardscrabble town.

"We are soothed by the authoritative acronym-loaded binder delivered to us ages ago by the gentleman-embodiment of the U.S. Department of Energy and stored in its secure glass-faced case beside the MSDS and the Terror Alert Color Wheel, for since there are no people who dug the dark tunnels of Yucca Mountain, nor people working as stewards of the nation’s nuclear waste deep inside, then it is only a rumor that there is a subterranean population at the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, only local lore that below us, in a town perhaps identical to ours, move once-human creatures whose genes the Department has tweaked over generations until their skin went translucent, until a scrim of skin grew over their useless eyes, until two thick, cord-like and translucent whiskers sprouted from their faces, sensitive as a catfish’s barbels, and their mouths gone a little catfish too, a side effect."

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Homecoming

A high school athlete from a troubled Brooklyn family tries to stay on the right path in a small Virginia town.

"But it didn’t take long for Marcus to get around to missing Brooklyn. On weeknights his granny would be in bed by eight, and since the television in the living room got such poor reception Marcus would go to his room. The windows in Granny’s house had no curtains or blinds, so when it was dark he got a creepy feeling, like he was being watched. There were no yellow streetlights, no sirens or car stereos, nobody calling out to anybody else outside. Just unfamiliar sounds rising and filling up the air until it sounded like they were invading the room itself. Frogs? Crickets? He couldn’t tell. He’d make up his bed and lie down in it and put on his headphones and close his eyes and think about home."

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Half A Life-Time Ago

From 1855 comes this gripping tale about the consequences of acceding to a deathbed request.

"Let me go. Let me go!" said Susan (for her lover's arm was round her waist). "I must go to him if he’s fretting. I promised mother I would!" She pulled herself away, and went in search of the boy. She sought in byre and barn, through the orchard, where indeed in this leafless winter-time there was no great concealment; up into the room where the wool was usually stored in the later summer, and at last she found him, sitting at bay, like some hunted creature, up behind the wood-stack.

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Someone Else Entirely

A philandering newspaper reporter documents a small town's economic collapse.

"But, very late at night, other men and women walk the small streets alone, shuffling slowly along the leaf-filled gutters that border the roads, sometimes a constable stopping them as they walk, shining flashlights in their faces, saying little or nothing before nodding and driving away from the distant, fading stare of a man or woman fearing that their life is falling apart.

'This kind of rapid breakdown generally only occurs in times of war, famine or plague,' a Stanford economics professor tells me as I take notes, a group of six strikingly healthy grad students unloading knapsacks, tape recorders and clear plastic clipboards from a Land Rover parked nearby."

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Distance

A family man visits his wayward, troubled brother.

"I've driven here after all these years to figure out—maybe for the first time—the person my brother is. My brother who I've known only in memory. And in two-minute phone calls and birthday cards and rumors. My brother who is sometimes kind and sometimes cruel. Kind when he brought me pizza after my accident, when, at two in the morning with an IV poking through my skin, we ate and laughed to the rhythmic beep-beep of the heart monitor. Cruel when he chased Tommy Gleeson—our autistic neighbor—down the street with a pipe, cornered him, and then stepped on his stomach until he vomited."

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Cud

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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Your House Requires You To Adopt The Habit of Preserving

A woman eking out a meagre existence takes a younger woman in from the cold.

"Inside, I make her tea and give her slices of cake until she is full. She holds big bites inside her mouth and pours tea over them, so each chunk soaks in a hot pool until she swallows it down like it hurts her. She eats four slices this way and does not seem to find happiness in any of them."

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Dredge

A troubled loner finds the murdered body of a young woman and attempts to solve the mystery.

"In the garage, he lifts the lid of the chest freezer that sits against the far wall. He stares at the open space above the paper-wrapped bundles of venison, tries to guess if there’s enough room, then stacks the meat on the floor, makes piles of burger and steak and sausage until he’s sure. He goes out to the car and opens the back door. He lifts the girl, grunting as he gathers her into his arms like a child. He’s not as strong as he used to be, and she’s heavier than she looks, with all the water filling her lungs and stomach and intestinal tract. Even through her tank top he can see the way it bloats her belly like she’s pregnant. He’s careful with her as he lays her down in the freezer, careful as he brushes the hair out of her eyes again, as he holds her eyelids closed until he’s sure they’ll stay that way."

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The Crossing [Excerpt]

With a mix of danger and empathy, a teenager attempts to save an injured wolf.

"She turned and wheeled away. So quick. He hardly had time to get one heel in front of him in the dirt before she hit the end of the rope. She did a cartwheel and landed on her back and jerked him forward onto his elbows. He scrambled up but she was already off in another direction and when she hit the end of the rope again she almost snatched him off the ground. He turned and dug both heels in and took a turn of the rope around his wrist. She had swung toward the horse now and the horse snorted and set off toward the road at a trot with the reins trailing. She ran at the end of the rope in a circle until she passed the cholla that had first caught the trapchain drag and here the rope brought her around until she stood snubbed and gasping among the thorns."

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The Rights Of The Wronged

Small town acts of violence intersect with moments of despair and redemption.

"Roddy and I talked about it a couple of nights later in the lot of the Arby’s on route 15, and I told him that he was pretty damned lucky, after all. If he’d been cold-cocked by someone local it would have been all over the town in a matter of a week; since it was college kids who did it, all the locals could just say 'goddamn college kids' and forget it’d happened, and it wouldn’t come up again until someone got drunk enough to forget what they should and shouldn’t say. I don’t think I made him feel any better."

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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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Amundsen

A new teacher begins work at a TB hospital in rural Canada.

"The number of students who showed up varied. Fifteen, or down to half a dozen. Mornings only, from nine o'clock till noon. Children were kept away if their temperature had risen or if they were undergoing tests."

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A Good Man Is Hard To Find

A family, headed to Florida, encounters a gang of criminals in this grim classic.

"The old lady said that in her opinion Europe was entirely to blame for the way things were now. She said the way Europe acted you would think we were made of money and Red Sam said it was no use talking about it, she was exactly right. The children ran outside into the white sunlight and looked at the monkey in the lacy chinaberry tree. He was busy catching fleas on himself and biting each one carefully between his teeth as if it were a delicacy."

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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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The Chrysanthemums

A ranch wife's conversation with a passing stranger is rife with unspoken implications.

"'Well, I can only tell you what it feels like. It's when you're picking off the buds you don't want. Everything goes right down into your fingertips. You watch your fingers work. They do it themselves. You can feel how it is. They pick and pick the buds. They never make a mistake. They're with the plant. Do you see? Your fingers and the plant. You can feel that, right up your arm. They know. They never make a mistake. You can feel it. When you're like that you can't do anything wrong. Do you see that? Can you understand that?' She was kneeling on the ground looking up at him. Her breast swelled passionately."

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Camping

During a camping trip, a son sees his father as a flawed individual.

"Behind me, Bruce wrestled with the tent flaps. Nature thrived all around me. The river ate away the sludgy bank. I knew somewhere within the onyx waters, fish turned and dove. Furious and haphazard. Organisms crawled under my feet. My father and I had brought supplies where only we had use for them. We were out of place in the wild, and I started to wonder if Bruce knew what he was doing."

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Child Her Mother

A young girl's relationship with her mother and rural surroundings are told in an experimental dose of stream of conciousness.

"...you ask her what she is doing and she tells you still not opening her eyes nothing, girl only that word does not mean what it means it means something so big and black it can hardly fit into language though she does not say another thing and her lack of saying says more than her saying ever could the sun bit by bit turning itself off and the evening bit by bit turning itself on and the over-sweet summer breeze stirring for maybe fifteen minutes no more without cooling a thing and you go back into the trailer to watch the television trying not to think about all this thinking but after a while you go out again to see and she is still there still sitting in the lawn chair alone precisely as you left her smoking with her head tilted back eyes closed..."

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Things To See In Toughlahoma

New, eerie definitions and potential crimes surround a water park..

"Some say that when the Jesus of the Dakotas fed his blue ox Babe to the five thousand there were thirteen baskets of Babe-flesh left over, and the Babe-flesh was discarded beside a pond where it ossified or petrified or what have you, into a whale. A whale with a slide head and a diving board tail. But that's stupid. The oldsters want you to believe that it's the very whale that spit out Ishmael when President Action Jackson ordered him to go preach to the savages, which is theologically unsound and also why I wish we had not abandoned the practice of sacrificing our oldsters to the Great Teen Spirit."

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Shiva Dancing

An astrophysicist's long walk to avoid distraction turns into a mysterious journey.

"One day Thackeray has to leave the house; he is overcome by a feeling that is not familiar to him seeing Maria’s legs, and he’s on the brink of discovering the mathematical secret of the universe, and he must think, by God, clearly now, women’s legs of all the absurd things, so he walks out the door and along the streets up to the college, across the millstream, losing himself in thought, out past the observatory and up an old mining trail and finally into the wilderness as the light among the great trees thins to dust."

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The Bedford Quarry

Residents of a small New Hampshire town deal with various problems and hardships.

"I unchained my bike and rode out through the center of Carlisle towards Jack’s house. A couple of times, I had told Wesley that I was done being a thief. It was like when Jack decided to stop drinking. Quitting’s easy, Jack told me, I’ve done it hundreds of times. I was scared at night, when I would hear cars pull up, and wonder if someone I had ripped off was after me."

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Driving

A dream-like drive alternates between urban and rural settings.

"A few streets away from home now, past the closed tailor’s shop, and suddenly there are ducks gathered under a streetlight. The night is disobedient. When she pulls up she sees them standing there, hovering over a puddle of dark water in a small crater made by broken paving stones. There are seven of them, tall and snow white, untouched by the soot and grime in the air, with bright orange beaks and feet. She stops the car and turns off the lights."

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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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Tinto

The lives and tribulations of two small town families intersect and collide.

"I was five months along, due in April, around the same time Bran would have turned twelve. That seemed ominous to me, but my aunt assured me that I was suffering from nothing more than nerves. My husband laughed at me, said Calum couldn’t keep track of all his kids. He was bound to lose one or two."

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Twin Forks

The new owner of the Twin Forks Store and Campground encounters some trouble.

"The sheriff had said, 'You probably should've shot him while you could do it legal and get it over with. He might be back for you, or you might not ever see him again, who knows with meth heads. But you surely will want to be ready if ever he does come around for you, and that could be at any time from now on.'"

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Hands

From Winesburg, Ohio, this classic short stands as a model of character description and authorial empathy.

"The story of Wing Biddlebaum's hands is worth a book in itself. Sympathetically set forth it would tap many strange, beautiful qualities in obscure men. It is a job for a poet."

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The Hooferman

On monsters, both fantastical and real.

"Wendell and I ate hotdogs and argued about Hooferman. He’s not real, I said. My dad saw him, Wendell said. My dad said only drunks see him, I replied, and it’s really the devil they see."

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Night Stand

From the author of Winter's Bone: A Vietnam War veteran grapples with the aftermath of killing a home intruder.

" A year after his return Pelham ceased to mention Vietnam to new acquaintances, dropped it from the biography of himself he’d give if asked. Only those who knew him before he went were certain that he’d gone. Jill was a second wife, fifteen years his junior, a lovely, patient blond, and remembered Vietnam as a tiresome old television show that’d finally been canceled about the time she left third grade. "

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Trilobites

Fossils and farms in the American South.

"It took over a million years to make that smooth little hill, and I've looked all over it for trilobites. I think how it has always been there and always will be, least for as long as it matters."