Something to Hold

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It didn’t hurt at all, you know. In case you’re wondering. He stepped out of his house on a Tuesday morning, with the sky mostly sunny but for a line of light gray clouds over the hills, with a core of darker gray keeping it cool.

He stooped to pick up the Times by the lace begonia in its iron pot, meaning to tuck it under his arm. Instead, his body landed on the brick sidewalk. His nose was crunched and his glasses broken, but by then his spirit was already here in the garden, walking slowly – a little stiff and tentative from the jump – but with a sense of mission.

Everyone arrives here looking for something. For everyone a totem, a touch stone of the world that fades away becoming bone chips and tree roots. God knows what the thing might be. They hold it a moment to remember, then forget, then they can move on.

A coat, a cup, a bicycle, a ring with a stone of lapis lazuli. A doll. Something that meant the world to them down there. I remember a woman who came and found an orange tree she ate from as a child.

Well, he moved through the garden, beginning to loosen up and find his pace. I was sitting on a rock, just watching, and thought I would give him a hand. Like the guy in the parking lot after the late movie, who just happens to have jumper cables when your car won’t start.

Morning, I said.

He stopped and looked at me on my rock.

Are you looking for something? I asked.

My box.

Really? Tell me about it.

Well it’s about this big, for holding pencils. But that’s not what I kept in it. My Dad made it for me when I was in fourth grade.

What did you keep in it?

Just junk. Couple of hot wheels cars, Indian head nickel, magnifying glass, a pen to write in four colors, a blue ribbon from the Veterans’ Day parade.

So you’re looking for the box, not the stuff inside?

It had my initials carved in the lid.

Right.

I left the rock and moved to him. I handed him the box. He looked at it, held it, opened it to see that everything was there. He held it and believed.

 

 

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A Decent Interval

A flash fiction piece.

Listen to an audio podcast of this story, as you read.

Today I slept until I was sure that the sun was on the house and it was warm. Even then I stayed in bed, staring up at the white ceiling. I stared at the frosted dome light etched with peacocks, gray with dust. Then I read for a while from The Book Of Untroubling Thoughts, which I keep in a drawer beside the bed. Then I was not troubled, even by the men feeding branches to a chipper down the road, so I got up and made tea. While it steeped, getting darker and stronger in the heavy brown mug, I sat by the window in a maple chair, and listened to the birds. It occurred to me that birds have a lot to sing about, so much that I could never understand. But I was not troubled by this.

I have never been easily troubled; in fact, some people are amazed at how steadily I take things in stride. My husband went out one day to play golf and had a heart attack, and never did come home. I just kept on going. My friends expected me to fall apart, to resolve into a dew as it were, perhaps because I’m rather small. And we were very close. We did so many things together. We always went to church, and the traveling, art classes, swing dancing. He loved to dance. So when the insurance came through, I just stood up and went away. There was a cruise to Alaska, then one to Italy. I know what people thought. They whispered about a decent interval of grief. But he wasn’t getting any deader while I sat around. He would have wanted me to go, and I loved to watch them paint Venetian masks.

My husband died on a day like this, bright and dry and still. But he comes to me mostly at night when the moon is dark behind clouds, or dim in its first sliver, so that he is hard to see. Then I think that he is standing in the yard, where he would often pause after setting out the trash cans for the truck. He liked to stand and simply listen to the night.

The birds sang a long time; long enough for me to drink the tea, and have a dish of applesauce and peaches. My husband was fond of peach ice cream, you know. He would microwave a slice of pie and have it a la mode. He was a man of simple pleasures, brief, uncluttered thoughts. He said there’s no good way to die but many fine ways to live. He lived to play golf in the sunshine and eat as well as possible. I think one or both – golf or food – may have betrayed him, but I try not to be troubled about that.

There is a path from here that runs across a weedy field and through a copse of trees — sycamores, he told me once, I think — then breaks through a cleft in a rocky bluff and drops to the edge of the river. I like to walk that pathway when I can. But the trail is steep and he rarely walked that way with me. He was afraid of the current, that it would sweep him off a slippery rock and carry him away, fast and furious, and grind his bones for parts of rocky banks and gravel beds. Or worse, he said, that the river would do this to me. But I like the trail to the river from our house. The neighbors ride their horses, the animals nervous and wide-eyed for the way the trail begins to drop through the oaks and deadfall firs. But I can walk it pretty well. I take my time to come back up. If I were naming things I’d call the best, most wooded part The Mushroom Glen, for all the yellow fungus on the stumps and fallen logs. It’s peaceful, cool and green, and I can lose my sense of passing time.

My husband was a man with focused fears of death. So we walked up the hill, to where the conifer shade gives way to a field that’s often in the sun, with wildflowers growing there. He would always pick some for me to carry home. And I would stand next to him, watching as year to year his back grew narrower in a light blue or gray checked shirt – he would wear nothing else outside of church – as he aged and shrank. And then there came that day when he completely disappeared.

My mother left a set of alabaster vases that I love, but I don’t need to use them anymore. I wrapped them all but one in felt, and put them in the closet down the hall, behind the light bulbs and her box of recipes. Just one I keep in the center of my table in the kitchen here, with two silk poppies. They don’t require water, or a walk up the hill to pick them, and I’m much too busy now for picking flowers anyway. You know how it is.

I found myself, one evening clear and warm and flooded with northern summer light, on the deck of the Statendam, off the coast of Alaska. But in that moment, I had no idea where I was. Suddenly, the world went blank. Even my name was gone, and everything – the ship, the coast, the sea – was overwhelming, huge. I froze in place and couldn’t even cry or scream or ask for help. But finally they took me to my room. The doctor came with valium and said it was my nerves. Anxiety. I needed rest, he said, and he was right. I slept and everything was fine. I slept all night and I was right as rain, as my husband used to say. Except that the day, the several hours before my episode, were gone. My memory of Hubbard Glacier never did return. I have the photos though.

My friends come by from time to time. We sit and talk over coffee, and watch the breeze in the tree by the bay window there. It has pale yellow blossoms and long seed pods. A strange tree; Australian, I think. Or we meet for lunch at the café in town. The place with the old exposed brick walls, and framed sepia photos of dead settlers. Families on buckboard wagons, men in large hats. I like the spinach quiche and raspberry iced tea. They serve those little sourdough rolls in baskets lined with linen towels. My friends talk about their grandchildren. It’s all so nice and very calm, with the clink of silverware and the murmur of a friendly day. Impossible to be in such a place and still feel troubled over anything at all. I know you understand.

And you see why I have to go down to the river, through The Mushroom Glen and down and down, with half a dozen switchbacks and glimpses of the river below through the brush. Finally, the grassy bank, the rocks along the edge, and water rushing fast and cold. I hope that the river will take him now, carry him out to the headlands and the sea. It’s for the best. I have to go because of what I heard in church, that an angel went down into the pool and troubled the waters, and whoever went in next was healed. And that’s all I want, to be healed, set free, sent home. To go and tell no one. Go and sin no more.

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Wizard of Rain

He drives into the garage with such impatience that the radio antenna brushes the bottom of the door as it goes up, and makes a cartoon sound: oing oing oing. But he has no sense of humor to enjoy such things tonight. He is a man with responsibilities.

Moving automatically, he turns on just enough lights to find his way to the bedroom. He throws his suit on a chair, changes into sweats and a hoodie, and goes to make tea in the kitchen. Then he turns the lights all out again and stands looking through the glass doors at the rain drumming on the balcony, and at the lights of the city below.

“Well it is dark and it is raining. It will be a long night for us all.” This he says aloud as though praying; a spell of faith in the night and the storm.

He sets his cup on the glass table near the door, beside a brass elephant the size of a fist, slides the door open and goes out. He stands in the rain, lifts his face to it, fists clenched against his chest and says:

“This rain began at sundown, as rain always does when it wants to seem portentous, prescient. It imagines itself with tidings of solemn work or grief. But men know the rain is blind and deluded. Man builds his own sorrow, stick by brick, and calls down rain to wash it all away.”

He leans out over the balcony’s drop – 30 feet into wet scrub oak and weeds – with his belly against the railing, arms spread wide.

“I want to give up. I want to retire from wizardry, this calling down of storms, dispensing clouds with my arms. My shoulders are hills of dark forest and it causes me terrible pain.” Relieving himself into the canyon, he says, “here’s what I think of the rain.”

The storm moves on to Bakersfield, San Bernardino, and falls as snow on Bridgeport while he sleeps. It’s Saturday and he rises late, puts the sweats on again. Standing in his bedroom, he sees the light is gray on the drapes but there is no drumming of raindrops on the roof. He feels empty, an indehiscent husk. It takes an hour of CNN and three bowls of Cheerios to make him feel human.

Shaving, he sees his face as from a satellite, all deltas and estuary. His forehead drifts like noon on the Salton Sea. His eyes are wetlands full of wild birds. He feels better, knowing his father before him faced a mirror just like this, and his grandfather too. We face ourselves early in the day to get the hard part done, move on.

He tells the mirror, “I am a man. I know the wind blows cold.” And zipping up his jacket in the hall, he says, “I am not afraid.”

 

 

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The Wind Has Gathered Words

I’m surprised to find that I’ve never shared this flash fiction piece on Metaphor. I like it, not just because I think it’s unique and passable writing but because it was a lot of fun to write.

It had its public debut at my Fused Realities reading with Joseph Gallo in Santa Barbara.

The Good Story

He always tried to be a good story. Through the years, as paragraphs drifted by and settled on his shoulders, he offered no protest. As the wind has gathered words against curbs and gutters, against chain link and picket fences, caught in the weeds that persevere, he simply put them in his pockets, moving on. He is a work of small phrases but that has been his job, to collect these little things and keep them cleared away. He has done it carefully, without complaint. But to take up all of it was just impossible; so much was left behind. It’s not his fault. He’s just one simple story, after all.

It started well enough, and happily, though he was born on a day when it clouded suddenly, rained and stayed dark, and everyone said it was much too late in the year for that sort of weather. They said the ocean seemed to be thinking about something, deeply. And that maybe someone would go out for abalone, dive down and be caught in one of those thickening blue-black thoughts, and not come home. It was that kind of day. The divers saw it and stood on the dock for a long time drinking coffee and shielding their eyes with their free hands, watching the ocean think about death. Then they put their gear away and tossed the dregs of their coffee into the water and went home.

Looking back on it now, he sees they must have known that he was born that day, that he was probably the context, if not the point of view, of all that earnest brooding air. So he’s been held to blame. Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

As a child, he learned to put small things together, line them up. Subject, object, verb. And it was all predicated on time, which he saw laid out before him in great galleys, on a table in the morning sun. He wandered here and there through phrases of melody, past periods when everything seemed to stop. And taking a breath, he would rise and fall again. He was a child on a slide that stood shining in damp grass – the sun was barely even up! – and anything was possible if he followed rules, dropped nothing that was given him to hold or let it

    break away too soon. That’s not so much responsibility. 

The problem comes with wanting to grow, to take on more of self and life, to be an  important story of substance, tinted with green flecks of meaning that glitter across the room. He wanted to be a work like that, a tale to turn heads, drive conversation at parties, be mentioned more than now and then. “Yes, but you really must read …” and they would know his name. So he grew, and took on height beyond a single page of pretense and prefigurement.

As he grew, he took on heaviness and years. He had to slow down from a dance to a trot, then to a less readable jog. Before he learned he had to walk – that the only way to make it through, to find a happy way to end, was to lean back in a comfy chair and take his time about it all – a worse thing happened.

His voice changed. Just a little. You probably wouldn’t have noticed. He didn’t reveal his narrator, or anything so bad as that. But he found his vowels creaking now and then, and when he stood and tried to speak, what rattled out was tinged with grief. He had learned to pick up bits of memory, and use them here and there to start a scene. This is something stories do. It can’t be helped, since future tense is conjectural at best.

So he turned one late spring windy afternoon and went to see his grandfather, who had been a long novella about work and holidays and dogs. Grandpa had been built on backstory himself, so he had so much good advice to give: Keep your lines clean and sharp, stand up straight, and always leave them wanting more. And one last thing, boy. Tell the truth.

It helped. It really helped a while, I think. He tried to going on living well. One word after another, that’s the key to happiness. And if you block, just say the next right thing. But all that doesn’t pay the bills, not in a town this small, not for the long and heavy haul, not on page two of any life that drifts through drafts like this. Sooner or later, everybody makes stuff up.

Like the time he met the unformed ghost of no one in particular, which rose up from a warped and dusty hardwood floor and came at him, and moaned. And how he screamed and hit the screen door at a run, and fell out into the yard. The house stood like a dull and dying thing made of trees in the August heat and laughed at him. A story should be more fun than that, and brave enough to stand and face the unseen world in which it lives. I know that you agree.

He wanted peace. He grew weary of page after page of getting up and eating life, then lying down. He knew what everyone thought about him, that he was the story of a rainy day and the pensive sea and how the men could have died, their bodies swept away, dissolved, digested by the churning engine of the world. He knew it was useless to change the subject after all, that it was carved on his synopsis, and it would mark his grave in fading ink.

One day he got up late, after all the writers were gone for espresso and scones, and their computers were idling with screensavers of lost and knotted pipes. He climbed to the top of the hill; the hill that is bald on the top, weedless, a scorched and freckled pate of rock. He stood and looked down on the harmless, mostly useless town. There were no factories, no feedlot, no winery or mill. What do those people do all day? Just the houses and the school where he started, waiting in line to climb the slide.

I am not a story of the sea, he roared, and the birds scattered from the trees below and all around. I am not a tale of sad weather, not anymore. I am a story of children at a carnival, with a teacup ride and a Ferris wheel. I can tell you about cotton candy and getting sick in the grass, and ring toss games that aren’t quite fair. I know about going from ride to ride with your father, and him buying your ticket for the carousel. I have seen his face grow bright and brighter, every time you come around. And what about the dogs? I could be a story, damn you all, about dogs and how they eat and sleep and play. I could show you a little dog, running in a dream.

We know that that’s not going to happen. We knew from the second paragraph how things would all turn out for him. No easy death, no publishable adventure, no bright turn of phrase to give the reader hope. He’s not that kind of guy. We read near the end of the story Rust Abides. He doesn’t understand the phrase, but feels persistent truth in it, a sense of doom, an unremitting entropy.

We writers have a place for things like him. It’s not an envelope addressed to the big city. Why pay for the postage, just to buy rejection slips? It’s certainly not the wicker waste can by the desk. He’s maybe just a shade too good for that, with all he’s learned and all he’s suffered stoically. He understands what happens now, and you can help by stepping back. Just watch, as he stands and brushes the crumbs of consonants from the front of his shirt and from his jeans, and slips himself quietly into the drawer.

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The Good Story by J. Kyle Kimberlin
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If It Was A Joke…

Y’all would’ve missed a chance to laugh.

It was right here, on this very page, free gratis and formatted in pristine Arial font. The single most mind-blowingly epic flash fiction piece to appear on this blog since Wild Radish was right here, and it seems to have been entirely overlooked.

It has alienation, estrangement and the abject stagnation of the human soul. It has lizards and weeds, bad coffee, an unnamed protagonist waiting in vain for rescue or redemption. There’s a named character who never even appears. I’m telling you people, it’s Waiting for Godot revisited for the single serving crowd. There’s lost love, existential pathos, and an unlocked but unapproachable garage, which may or may not be the portal to some life-rending metamorphosis.

It has the fall of night and the pall of midnight, hopeless except for the prospect of breakfast. So that finally after a wandering generation has forgotten him, we see that Kerouac was right about how evening comes

… just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody else besides the forlorn rags of growing old.

This story is what Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf could have been, if only that shrewish Martha had had the decency to decamp with her pity party and leave that poor bastard George in solitude and in peace.

We might all end up wearing those forlorn rags by the end of my tale, but for that breakfast teetering on the very cusp of oblivion. And some tiny mustard seed of faith that – as Cormac McCarthy wrote – the right and God-made sun might rise for all and without distinction.

And finally – O wonders! – the whole misbegotten story of bleak humanity on the edge of a lake framed like a great lidless eye, will if printed out in a standard font fit on but the two sides of a single sheet of cheapass paper. I’m sayin’ it’s short.

Anyway, I don’t know what brought you here, or what you might be looking for, but here it is:

Waiting For Earl, by J. Kyle Kimberlin

The story of two men withdrawn to contemplation on the shore of a nameless, remote and treeless lake in California’s high desert. The fun starts when one of the hermits fails to show up for the story at all. 

Excerpts:

The sky is beautiful and clear. From the Santa Lucias to Tehachapi, it stands disaffected, unashamed, unchallenged by impertinent clouds. How can a man look on all that sky and not feel drawn to self examination, called to make accounting of himself? Our man is thinking about his shoes. …

No man passes through this world and leaves the fabric of existence just the same. There is a ripple or a wave; for better or not, things can never be the same. And he does worry about that, about how he might accidentally cause damage. He has seen the chaos that a careless word can bring, and the churning of the wind in just the smallest dose of hate. …

Now he’s not so sure that time exists at all, except when he’s waiting – like tonight – or seeing how the lines around his eyes are getting deep. Reminds him not so much of crows as of a confluence of rivers.

Yeah, OK, I’m kidding around. But it would be cool if some people would read it and let me know what they think.

No Man Is A Cabin

Today is my 50th birthday. It is a juggernaut; I tried to fend it off 2 days ago by invoking Shakespeare, but there’s nothing conscionable to be done about it, is my point. So congratulations to me on being another day older than I was yesterday, still above ground and not remanded to custody. Free to move about the thoroughfare with the rest of you fine worthies of the camp.

Anyway, I believe it is time to start the ceremony. Cinnamon is out for the peaches.

So here’s a bit of commemorative fiction.

Waiting For Earl

At dawn there was a soft breeze on the lake. He warmed a cup of coffee in the microwave and went out on the porch. The coffee was bitter, so he threw the cold half of it on the ground and sat on his bench. He looked at the lake, which did not look back. It is an ugly lake, with no trees. From an airplane, it looks like the face of the moon, with a squinting blue eye.

The truck won’t start. Dead battery. He wanted to go into town, get his mail and some beer. He needed a cheeseburger, made by someone else. He needed someone to set it down on a Formica table, with an indifferent clatter. He needed someone to say, “what else?”

What else do you want?
What do you need?
What have you done?
Where are you going?
What are you willing to pay?

He needed toilet paper and #2 pencils, Campbell’s chunky soup, and to see others of his kind. But first, he needed a jump start.

He lives alone on the lake, except for Earl, who lives in another old cabin, over where the road comes in from the highway, and starts its ring around the moon’s lidless, lashless, possibly infected eye. Earl has a bait stand he opens on weekends, if anyone shows up to fish. He carries nightcrawlers, Fritos, beef jerky and Coors. Earl has a battery charger, but he is probably insane.

Meanwhile, there was a great something growing inside of him; possibly grief over something we may not learn about, which is growing at a distance beyond his understanding it or even feeling it yet. Like that breeze that was a long time over the lake, taking its time getting to know the surface like a glass table, becoming a breeze fit for water, fit for stones on a small beach, then a breeze fit to chill a man to the back closets of his soul. But even if this great growing something would come to drive him to his knees, it wasn’t as bad as the thing that drove him out of the town and across the valley to this lake. He might never know the name of that.

Now he goes down the steps, half-buried splintered railroad ties, past the sweatpeas going to seed in a border of stones he carried up from the lake, after a storm stripped away the muddy sand and laid them bare. He comes to the bottom of the drive, walking on the grass between the ruts made by his truck, and by the trucks and cars of a dozen dwellers in the cabin before him, and turned onto the gravel road around the lake to Earl’s place and the highway beyond. And we see that the something within him, larger now, might be joy at meeting another dull and gritty day on it’s own ridiculous terms.

Lizards flick away to hide in the weeds and under the rocks as he walked along the road. He speaks to them, claiming that he has never stomped on a lizard in his life, so they have no cause to run. They can relax in the warm light and twitch happily, and eat what they eat, for all he cares. He can see Earl’s cabin in the distance, the bright metal chimney against the grayblue sky, so that a small pit of dread flickers to life in his stomach. He knows he’ll get the battery charger, and carry it back along this road, but he’ll have to endure an hour of small talk. Tales of fishing the beautiful lakes of the eastern Sierra, of hiking the pilgrim trails that cross above Yosemite, of being sniffed by wolves in the pure air of Lassen. Worse yet, Earl will start in with his days in the navy, of swimming in Tokyo harbor, standing bitter cold watch all night in the South China Sea.

Earl is crazy because he loved someone more than himself, more than sunrise or stellar jays pecking through the trees, and she’s gone. It startled him because he hadn’t thought it through, so he talks. Earl lives far out and pretends to be indifferent when someone comes, but he sits and prays that someone will. So he’s doing Earl a favor stopping by, listening, watching those eyes – oblivious and blue as the lake itself – that look out from the rickety porch onto nothing but the past.

The sky is beautiful and clear. From the Santa Lucias to Tehachapi, it stands disaffected, unashamed, unchallenged by impertinent clouds. How can a man look on all that sky and not feel drawn to self examination, called to make accounting of himself? Our man is thinking about his shoes, wondering if the tear along the sole on the right one, inside above the arch, will break through before he gets the chance to use his little tube of glue.

No man passes through this world and leaves the fabric of existence just the same. There is a ripple or a wave; for better or not, things can never be the same. And he does worry about that, about how he might accidentally cause damage. He has seen the chaos that a careless word can bring, and the churning of the wind in just the smallest dose of hate. He cares too much for his sister, her children, their parents. He phones from time to time, and they stick to safe subjects. The mounting cost of war, the price of gas. But he has withdrawn himself to the hot and ugly lake, beyond the range of hurting them, barely within sight of crazy Earl.

There are sea shells on the edges of the steps to Earl’s porch. Conches, abalone, and bits of driftwood hauled back from his trips to the sea. He climbs up, using the 2×4 rail that someone painted army green in the years before Earl arrived with his opinion that paint is a futile gesture. He’s careful not to kick these treasures off in the weeds.

The knotted pine door is shut behind the screen, which screeches like an owl when he opens it to knock.

Behind the cabin – the gravel path grown up with chickweed and wild oats – he sees the pickup truck is gone. It must be that Earl has gone to town.

The sun went down beyond the end of the lake, while he sat on the porch and kept watch on Earl’s place. It’s late spring and was still light out when he ate dinner, standing at the kitchen window, watching for Earl. Now it’s dark, too dark to see the telltale plume of dust on the road when Earl comes home. He’ll have to watch for the lights in Earl’s windows. When they come on, he’ll take the heavy D-cell flashlight from the table by the door, and start on the trail around the lake again. But if the lights go out before he can get there, he’ll have to turn back, since Earl has gone to bed.

He pulls from the shelf a book about time and how it collapses on itself like a hollow house of sand, when confronted by certain events in a person’s life. Yes. Like that Christmas, a week before he left for college, mid-term, and rose up out of the long dying valley shaking, to lose the feeling that everyone behind him was falling into shadow. He stood and looked around at twenty-two, to see the buttes, the infinite cascades, were utterly indifferent to his life.

Now he’s not so sure that time exists at all, except when he’s waiting – like tonight – or seeing how the lines around his eyes are getting deep. Reminds him not so much of crows as of a confluence of rivers. And Earl, who has now been gone three hours past sundown – the night full dark and a half moon up – claims not to like rivers. Says water should settle itself in a place and learn to sleep. Water should be cold where it’s deep enough to hide from sunlight.

Midnight, and still no sign of light or life across the lake. The stores in town, the restaurants, have all been closed for hours now. What could be keeping Earl from getting home? Maybe he’s dead or hurt in a ditch beside the road. A wreck, yes. Or maybe a trip to Las Vegas, to play the slots. Earl’s threatened to do that before, and more than once. But certainly he wouldn’t go without a word.

In the morning after breakfast, he’ll have to break in to Earl’s garage, if the man’s not back. It’s not wrong, you know, not hardly criminal, and Earl won’t mind. He’s said a dozen times just help yourself to tools – that there’s a old good shovel, by the way. Then he could go and see about the neighbor, check the road for wreckage. It’s the right thing to do – his brother’s keeper – and he’s too weak from fear to walk eight miles into town.

It’s settled then, so he can sleep. The lake won’t see him pacing, watching all night long, afraid he’s been forgotten here, alone with nothing but water, stones, and lizards. Left for dead.

 

 

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