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Jim Ryan

Window Seat

Hanna slides a dollar bill into the slot, where it is accepted with a beep. “Thank you, sweetie,” the woman behind the wheel says. It’s 6:35 and still dark outside as Hanna makes her way toward the middle of the bus, where the heaters are. Glad to be shielded from the February air, she will be at the community college in an hour—a commute that would take her only twenty minutes if she had her own car. She is self-conscious of the fact that she is still without a driver’s license at nineteen, but this is made slightly less embarrassing by the fact that she can’t afford a car anyway.

Hanna is normally the first one to board the morning bus, since West Springs is the farthest point from the city and the last stop on the route, but today there is a young man with a neck brace sitting in one of the seats closer to the front. As she makes him out in the near-darkness, her eyes meet with his for a second. Blue under-lighting from the seats glows faintly against his wide stare, and his beard is pressed out by the brace as if it grows horizontally from his chin. She catches her breath slightly and lowers her eyes as she finds a seat several rows behind the man with the brace.

Hanna slides over toward the window and fogs the glass with her breath. A heavily-bundled couple walks by the bus, holding hands as they pass beneath a street lamp, and Hanna wonders for a moment who would choose to go for a walk at this hour. Maybe they will be leaving for their respective jobs soon and this is the only time of the day when they get to do whatever they want. Hanna remembers how she and Thomas used to go for walks, how on their last walk she had reached her hand into the small space between them and he didn’t close the gap with his, how during their following walks they had walked a little farther apart. Soon the couple is out of sight and the street returns to its usual morning inactivity.

Hanna opens the thick notebook she holds in her lap. It contains everything from class notes to meandering thoughts and drawings. Each page is marked with a colored sticker that indicates its category: blue for notes, yellow for parts of stories and poems, green for the pages she shows to no one else. Flipping to the last page marked in blue, she confirms that she’s done all she needs to do for today’s classes. She keeps her coat wrapped close but pulls off her knit hat, planning to replace it with headphones from her backpack—she will slip them over her ears, turn up the volume and drift off until the bus gets close to the college stop. But before she can get comfortable, a body drops into the seat next to her with the swoosh of a Nylon windbreaker.

“Hey, you wanna talk about something?” the man with the brace asks. Hanna turns to him—he’s very close to her now. He must be in his late

twenties, and his face looks like it’s been left out in the snow too long, blue eyes etched with red. He is staring at her expectantly, not blinking.

No, she does not want to talk to him, but she has nowhere to go and she has a feeling he won’t take no for an answer. “Um, sure.” Hanna rests the headphones on her lap.

“I really need to smoke a fucking cigarette,” he says, in a way that she guesses is supposed to seem conversational. “You know what I mean?”

“I don’t smoke,” Hanna says, moving her eyes to the back of the seat ahead of her. She focuses on the pattern of crisscrossing colored lines in dark- blue fabric. Maybe if she doesn’t feed into what he is saying, he will give up and leave her alone.

“Yeah, that makes sense. It’s really shitty for your health. Still, I’ve been on this bus for a while, now, and I’m starting to really need one.”

Hanna sees that his hands are shaking and imagines that cigarettes aren’t his only vice. There is a lighter in his right hand that he keeps flicking, hard enough to cause a faint spark, but not to bring a flame. She has the urge to tell him that he probably shouldn’t fidget with a lighter on the bus, but she doesn’t.

“Broke my neck,” he says. “Never should have gotten on the horse, I guess, but I really wanted to. Mom said, ‘You better not do that, honey,’ but I did, anyway. That’s pretty much why I’m where I’m at now. Dad kicked me out of the house. Can’t work with a busted neck, ya know, so I lost my job at the Sunoco station. And who am I gonna sue for this?” He taps a fingernail on the brace—click, click. “Am I gonna sue the farmer because I jumped bareback onto his fucking horse?” He raises his eyebrows at Hanna, his gaze jumping back and forth as if considering alternatives. “Well, am I?”

“No, I suppose you aren’t.” Hanna looks up at the driver’s rear-view mirror, which seems so far away. The driver apparently has her eyes set firmly on the road, and Hanna can only see the rim of her blue hat. Hanna presses her body tight against the cool window, if only to put a few more inches between her and the man who has cut off her passage to the aisle. The bus passes over the river, and Hanna gets a quick look at the water through the bridge’s guardrail, pushing onward as if refusing to freeze—it has someplace to be in a hurry.

“You’re damn right I’m not,” he says. “That shit I was doing is illegal to begin with.” He looks around for a minute as the bus comes to a stop just past the bridge.

Maybe he will get off here, Hanna thinks. But he doesn’t. She turns again to the window, her breath forming veins of frost on the glass. They have reached Platt Falls, a step closer to the city. A church stands near the busstop, and she can see a man carrying a briefcase stepping through snow toward the bus. Soon they continue to roll, and the man with the brace looks to Hanna again.

“I have no home right now because my father kicked me out of my own house. I’m homeless. Does that sound right to you?” His eyes bear down hard at Hanna this time, and she feels a knot tightening in her chest. He looks so angry. At his father, at her, it doesn’t seem to matter.

“No, I guess it doesn’t.”

“I’ve got a good mind to severely lower his quality of life.” He reaches up with his left hand to scratch at his chin. “I mean, my life is over. I have no money and I can’t even nod my fucking head. Just spent my last bit of cash on this box of cigarettes and the fare.” He starts to laugh with his chest heaving like he’s trying to hold it in. The noise of his laughter eventually trails off.

Hanna thinks there is something particularly menacing about his choice of words: lower his quality of life. She imagines that he is riding to his parents’ house now, where they are probably still sleeping. Would he knock down the door? Or quietly step through the house and into the bedroom before pouring gas over his father and igniting him with that lighter he is still flicking? The fire department would find two roasted bodies—the father and the mother both consumed by the flames. Or maybe the fire wouldn’t kill the mother right away, and she’d live out the rest of her short life, unrecognizable, in the burn ward of the city hospital.

The man is still in her personal space and isn’t showing signs of leaving anytime soon. They come to two more stops without change. People walk up and down the aisles absorbed in their routines and seem to not even notice him. They zip and unzip coats. They talk on cellphones. It is like the man with the brace is a ghost placed on the bus just for Hanna.

Hanna wonders if he will stay with her until she gets to the college and if he will follow her off the bus. At five feet, five inches, and probably only half his weight, she feels she is too small and thin to defend herself against him, even with his broken neck. She thinks of the fork that she packed with her lunch—maybe she can get it out of her bag without him noticing and then stick it in his eye if he comes at her. But that thought disturbs her as well. The idea of seeing the contents of his eye slop out across his beard and over the white plastic and Velcro of the brace makes her queasy.

“Anyway,” he says, “my name’s Brian.” He shifts the lighter over to his left hand and reaches his right over to Hanna in a friendly gesture. His eyes are creased in the corners and the anger seems to have relaxed out of them somewhat.

“Hanna,” she says. His hand feels surprisingly soft as they shake, not like she expects. But what did she expect? Brian lets go of her hand with a tremble and continues flicking his lighter.

Then he’s getting up from his seat next to Hanna and rushing toward the front of the bus. “Shit, that’s my stop. Stop the bus!” he says. He’s already pulling a cigarette from a rather crunched-up box and shoving it between his lips.

Hanna looks to the empty seat at her right, almost expecting that Brian will have left something behind, but there is no trace of him except the slight smell of cigarette smoke, which fades in moments. It’s only after he steps out through the folding door and the bus starts moving again that she notices her hands are shaking, not unlike Brian’s.


Hanna slowly makes her way down the hall connecting the administrative building with the geoscience classrooms. The financial aid offices are on this hallway, and there are lines of people shifting around like worms. Sunlight bears down through the windows on the opposite side of the hall as restless students type text messages and shuffle papers and listen to music through fat headphones pressed into baseball caps, afros, and bedheads.

Nearing the end of the hall, Hanna needs to nudge through one line of students to reach the hall where her class is. She bumps her elbow into a tall boy wearing a black hooded sweatshirt, and he turns around, seeming to make eye contact with her for a brief second.

“Oh, hi; excuse me,” Hanna says.

But the boy is already facing back toward the windows, staring into the distance. Hanna’s face feels hot and she keeps walking. As she passes the last group of waiting students, she pulls her phone out to check for messages, though she knows she doesn’t have any.

She arrives at Human Geography five minutes early. Professor Laney is a tall woman with blonde hair who can’t be out of her twenties, yet has a surprisingly deep voice. Hanna thinks she is nice, even pretty, but not necessarily the best teacher. Professor Laney once said that limited crude oil supply is not really a matter of concern—if we just keep digging, we’ll keep finding more oil, no problem. Hanna had wanted to challenge Professor Laney on this. What about the millions of years it takes for animals to fossilize into the oil we use? How can that be sustainable? But, just as Hanna had started to raise her hand, a boy toward the back of the room spoke up: “Amen to that! I’m so sick of hearing about this so-called energy crisis,” and she had dropped her hand back to the desk.

“Good morning, everybody,” Professor Laney says. “It’s good to see all of your lovely faces.” She turns off the lights and uses her laptop to project a PowerPoint presentation, just as she always does. The PowerPoint lulls Hanna into a stupor with charts and bulleted points about birth-rates, death-rates, GNPs and GDPs. Hanna knows she should pay attention, take notes, and engage with the material. These are important things to learn, after all—there is a lot going on in the world, and she should try to be aware of it. But she finds her thoughts drifting back to the morning’s bus ride, to the blue under-lighting between the seats, to the man with his neck brace, to the feel of Brian’s hand gripping hers. Hanna looks to the girl sitting at the desk to her right, whose chin is planted in her palm as she stares at the projections. Professor Laney clicks forward to the next slide, and Hanna sees the colors reflected on her neighbor’s glasses flip in unison with the image on the screen.

On the ride home that night, she reads part of Elie Wiesel’s Night, trying to make some progress on her homework for her class, Literature of The Holocaust. As usual, Hanna’s the last one remaining on the bus, and the driver decides to make a stop at McDonald’s before driving by her block to let her off. Hanna watches the driver’s heavy gait as she makes her way across the parking lot to the glass box of a restaurant, the glow from inside McDonald’s casting a broad shadow in her wake.

Hanna wonders if Thomas ever watched her as she walked away from him. Would she have looked resolute to him? Or just alone?

She has replayed the moment over and over in her head: Thomas is wearing his glasses as he sometimes does when he is in too much of a rush to put in his contacts. They stand outside the room where they have statistics class together and where they have just finished taking the final exam.


“Hey, I’ve been meaning to talk to you,” he says. “And now that we’re done with finals and everything—”

He trails off, his fingers messing up his short blonde hair. “What’s wrong?” Hanna says.

“It’s just that I know we’ve been hanging out less, lately. Talking less and everything.”

“Yeah. Well, we’re done with classes now. More free time to do other stuff.”

“That’s kind of what I wanted to talk to you about,” he says. “I’m going back to work now, and I’m sure you’ll have a lot going on too. Neither of us is going to be around the campus for a while, and we obviously don’t have class together anymore. What I’m trying to say is that it probably won’t make sense for us to try and keep hanging out.”

“Oh,” Hanna says. The pain in her chest is worse, and she’s staring down at the floor, at the flakes of bluish and red color in the smooth tile and the bands of shiny metal separating one square from the next. That’s what their relationship has been reduced to: hanging out.

“It’s not that I’m mad at you or anything. Really.”

Thomas’s voice sounds like it is coming from far away and Hanna can’t bring herself to say anything. What could she possibly do? Ask him to please change his mind and keep seeing her? No, she thinks. If she has to ask, then it isn’t worth trying. She’s already lost him.

“Say something?” he asks.

“Okay,” Hanna replies. “I understand. What you’re saying makes sense.” She makes herself look back up at him. He looks uncertain, not of whether he’s making the right choice, but of whether he has properly let Hanna down easily.

“So, are we okay? I mean, are you okay?” he says.

“Yes, I’m fine. See ya later.” Hanna turns and walks down the hall, away from Thomas. Her arms are crossed in front of her, gripping the straps of her backpack. She listens for Thomas to say goodbye back to her, or tell her to wait, but she hears nothing except the relieved voices of other students leaving the final exam.

After several minutes, the driver is back in her spring-cushioned throne, filling a cheek with some apple pie as she pulls a lever to shut the folding door. “So sorry to keep you waiting, honey,” she says. “Woman’s gotta have her sustenance, you know?”


The bus continues rolling and Hanna reads a passage from Night about a group of people who were hanged in Auschwitz before a sea of onlookers. One of them was a small boy—a “sad-eyed angel,” Wiesel calls him—who struggled and dangled there for some time before dying. He was simply too light for the rope to do its work quickly. Hanna finds herself thinking something this bad could only be the product of a stray, dark imagination, but reminds herself that it is real and wills herself to see it that way. However she tries, though, she suspects she will never understand how bad it was, and she is ashamed of herself for this.

After stepping off the bus, Hanna makes the short walk down her street to the house. The sun has dipped below the horizon, but the sky is still partially lit. As she gets closer to home and a pinecone crunches under her foot, it seems that all the color has drained from the world. But, surely, it will be back in the morning. After all, she has no reason to feel sad—her life is comfortable, safe.

Dinner is leftover spaghetti. Her dad pulls it from the fridge in a Tupperware that had belonged to Thomas. He made her cookies for her birthday late last year and she never remembered to give the container back. She offered to bring it to him, but he said he didn’t care—he had more like it. Hanna still suspects that he wanted to avoid seeing her again.

Her dad twists his fork in his spaghetti, scraping the tines against the Pyrex plate, making her cringe. “Something wrong, munchkin?” he says, wiping tomato sauce from his neat beard.

“Nah, Dad. Everything’s fine, just a bit tired.” And her eyes are back on the Tupperware.

It was just luck that Hanna met Thomas at school. Growing close with him was like an alignment of the planets; she is sure it won’t happen again.

Hanna is alone on the bus, slipping in and out of sleep, as usual, listening to the same old songs on her iPod, even the ones that remind her of Thomas that she never seems to get around to deleting. Like the previous day, there is no sign of Brian. She wonders if she just imagined him being there, if there was never really a man who dropped into the seat next to her and shocked her with his words and the click of his lighter between thumb and fingers. The more she considers the possibility, the more likely it seems. After all, she’s been getting very little sleep lately on this schedule, getting up before the sun every day and going to sleep after midnight. Isn’t it possible for people to hallucinate when they are sleep deprived?

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<< A Bit about Nothing                    Welcome to Joe's >>

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Jim Ryan

How to Walk in the Dark

They burned what was left of her in Arthur’s backyard. It wasn’t nighttime. Someone walked a dog down the street. Someone pushed a stroller. “I can’t get the cookbook to burn right,” Arthur said. Joe watched as his neighbor and best friend took a long drink from something that almost certainly had alcohol in it. Arthur drew a breath in through his teeth before setting the glass down on the arm of his plastic lawn chair.

Joe took a can of WD-40 from Arthur’s feet and spread the pages of the cookbook like a fan in the fire-pit, being careful not to touch the smoldering bottle of coconut skin lotion—he never knew you could burn a bottle of lotion until that day. The flames were red, not orange, and lotion oozed slowly from the wounded bottle. Joe drenched the splayed pages of the book, then ignited them with a long lighter that was sitting on the cement-block perimeter.

“I didn’t realize you were an expert on book-burning, Joseph,” Arthur said. He lifted his glass in an approving gesture before taking another large sip. Joe pulled a similar plastic lawn chair over to the fire-pit, sat down, watched the pages of 50 Exciting Vegetarian Recipes curl and turn to a crumbly gray.

“I don’t know what to say.”

“You know what you need?” Arthur said. “You need to meet a girl who says ‘I don’t know’ a lot.”

Joe laughed, realizing Arthur was trying to think about something other than Jamie and why she was gone.

“You’re always saying ‘I don’t know’ about something,” Arthur continued. “I guess. I mean, I don’t—”

Arthur shook his head slightly, grinning. “She left the pictures right where I would find them. She got in the shower and left them right there on her phone. Goddamn redneck too. I mean, I wouldn’t even be as mad if the guy was better looking than me. I’m not great, I know, but that piece of shit?”

Joe nodded. The spine of the cookbook finally buckled and fell into the cluster of ashes and half-burnt pages around it. “She’s gone now, anyway.”


The truth is Joe had met a girl who said ‘I don’t know a lot.’ He didn’t mention her at the time, because it didn’t seem appropriate. He couldn’t bring himself to go on about her when Arthur just saw his relationship of two years go down in a toxic blaze.

It had been nearly the end of the semester for Joe, and he had been friends with Evy for the majority of that semester since their meeting in class for the first time. As finals week grew closer and closer, though, he was concerned that they would go their separate ways—as people do at the end of semesters—and possibly not see each other again. He couldn’t bring himself to admit it to Arthur, but it had taken him weeks to come around to asking her out for more than a bagel at the campus café.

Joe and Evy were walking between buildings, their final classes having let out, in order to have lunch on campus a final time before summer.

“Hey, Evy?” Joe asked. “I know I’m going out on a bit of a limb here, but what if I said I wanted to be more than friends?” She turned to him as they walked, the breeze scattering her hair across her face.

“What are we in, fifth grade?”

Joe’s face burned. All at once he wished he hadn’t opened his mouth and was relieved that he had—that he wasn’t just wishing he could say something to her.

“I’m just really not good at relationships,” Evy went on. “What happens if we break up? Things could get weird and I would hate that. Not that I’m a bad ex. I’m still friends with my exes.”

“Me too. I still keep in touch with a couple of mine.” Joe watched Evy’s hands—she was wringing them as they walked, wrapping her long fingers together then unwrapping them. “But wait a minute,” he said. “We haven’t even agreed to anything yet.”

“I know, I’m sorry,” she said, staring at the ground in front of them as they walked.

She didn’t give him an answer that day—said she would need a couple weeks to think about it. At this, Joe told himself to give up the whole thing altogether. Classes were over, and there were only two finals between him and the full force of summer. He was convinced that soon the only people he’d see on a regular basis were his dad, Arthur, and Little Nick.

The summer was shaped like a beer bottle, he decided. The beginning was quick and full of enthusiasm, a neck of cool amber, and the rest was wide and ponderous and full of empty spaces.

Joe had been working at Little Nick’s Landscaping for the past couple of weeks. Dropping him at a job near the center of the village, Nick lifted the steel grate that formed a ramp into his trailer and slammed the latch into place. He crushed what was left of his cigarette under a steel-toed boot. “Well, there ya go, Joey. I’ll seeya back here around four, alright? Should give ya time to get this mowed.”

“Yep, no problem.” As Little Nick’s Ford drove away, pebbles popping under its tires, Joe rode the mower over to the edge of the West Springs Commons. The Commons included a complex of doctor’s offices, a day-care center, and 14 apartment buildings. All were surrounded by wide, flat lawns that had grown significantly since he mowed them the previous week.

That summer was going to be different. Normally, Joe hated the summer, the brightness, the heat. He would step outside and the sun would fall on him like a twelve-pound hammer, and there would be that inescapable sensation in his head—the pressure, the thought: this summer will be the one that kills me. But that was all going to change. He’d do his work with a smile on his face, mow in neat, straight lines, south to north, north to south. Get up early every day, smile more, lose some weight. Stop feeling sorry for himself, stop wasting time.

He wasn’t sure how to do all of these things, but he could start with the straight lines. Joe accomplished this so well that he surprised himself. Some days, there is just nothing more beautiful than the way mower blades sweep the grass into alternating stripes of light green and dark green. From one end of the lawn, his passes were light-dark-light; from the other end, they were dark-light-dark. It all depended on where you stood while you admired the job. As if anyone but a lawnmower stood and admired the job of a lawnmower. But there he was being a downer again. Smile. Stay positive.

By four, Joe had finished. He was ready to stop imagining how dumb he looked bouncing around on the mower seat with a grin painted on his face. Little Nick pulled up in his Ford, twenty minutes late as usual, and rolled down the window. “Dude, I’m really sorry. Had to get the damn blades fixed on the other mower again.” Joe drove the mower onto the trailer and strained to lift the ramp up behind it and slide the pin into place.

“I’ll take ya home,” Nick said when Joe plopped down in the passenger seat. Joe noticed a glass pipe leaning in one of the cup holders and the smell of what Nick had been smoking in the air. He wondered why Nick couldn’t wait until he was home to smoke, and what would happen if a cop pulled them over. But Joe didn’t comment. The rivers of colors in the glasswork reminded him of the marbles he and Arthur used to play with as kids—a time before booze and broken hearts and rednecks, a time when nothing needed to be fixed. They’d roll the marbles along the grooves in the wooden picnic table in Joe’s backyard, pretending the glossy orbs were sentient. A marble’s worst fear was falling from the end of the table, off the track, off the edge of the world into whatever lay below. Joe thought how easily something like this could happen. It took so little effort to become lost.

Soon, the Ford pulled up in front of Joe’s house. Joe sat there for a moment, thinking Nick might pull out his wallet, pay him for at least some of the hours he had worked.

Nick seemed to notice that Joe wasn’t getting out yet. He scratched at the stubble on his cheek. “Joey, I feel like a jackass, but I don’t have the cash for ya right now. I’m gonna have to wait till I get paid to pay you this time. Is that okay?”

“Sure, man,” Joe said. “It’s not like I need it right this second anyway.” He smiled at Nick before getting out of the truck. Joe thought he had about enough money left in the bank to buy some beer, but that was about it.

When he got inside, he realized the house was empty—his dad still not home from work—and he stripped down to his boxers and lay on the floor in front of the small oscillating fan. It swept the air back and forth, and he thought his body must be radiating its own heat like a glowing iron or the embers in a dying fire.


Joe was back at the fire-pit, the lump of scorched plastic that was the lotion bottle still nestled in the ashes. Arthur stacked up thick dry logs of wood in the lawn nearby, then arranged a few of the logs in the pit with some kin- dling and began to start a fire. “I invited Denny to come down tonight—he’ll probably bring Maryanne. You’re obviously invited to stick around.”

Soon it was dark, and a respectable fire cracked in the pit sending embers drifting off into the night above. Joe wondered if the embers went dark when they got enough distance from the flames, or if they were just too far off to see.

Denny showed up then. He carried a bottle of Johnny Walker and Maryanne trailed along behind him. This was normal for Maryanne. It seemed to Joe that she’d been following Denny around since high school despite the fact that he often blew her off. Joe was used to seeing them together, and he figured Denny and Maryanne were also so used to being around each other that it wasn’t likely to change anytime too soon. “Hey, guys,” Denny said, drawing out his vowels to show he was excited to see them.

Once they all had a place to sit, the shots started. Joe did one, then two, then stopped, because moderation was one of his goals for the summer. He would avoid drinking too much, sleeping too little. Every little bit counted toward being a better person, the kind of person who loves the summer and the sun, smiles, and is comfortable whether he’s by himself or with others.

Denny and Maryanne didn’t ask about the absence of Jamie. They seemed content to sit on the opposite side of the fire, not really talking to one another but both doing something with their phones. Joe thought this was probably for the best since Arthur actually seemed relaxed—staring into the fire, drinking, laughing at the occasional joke one of them would make.

Arthur continued staring into the fire, but spoke in a voice just loud enough for Joe to hear. “She came over earlier.”

“What?” Joe said.

“We fucked and then she went home. We both agreed the fucking was worth it. She’s not my girlfriend.”

“That’s disgusting,” Joe said, not realizing what he was saying before it came out.

“What do you mean by that?” Arthur said.

“I mean, it’s disgusting how she treated you.”

“Yeah, whatever. I don’t know anyone else,” Arthur said.

Maryanne looked up, apparently catching bits of the conversation, but she didn’t say anything. Joe realized that he had just judged his friend, found it disgusting that he would still have sex with Jamie when she was probably seeing that other guy. Then Joe told himself that Arthur had good reasons for what he was doing, and that Joe couldn’t possibly understand, having never made a relationship last for even close to two years. “I know you think I shouldn’t,” Arthur added.

Joe propped his feet up on the perimeter of the fire-pit. Denny got up and walked inside for the bathroom as Maryanne drank another shot of the Johnny Walker.

“I love him, you know,” she said, gesturing toward the house with the empty shot glass, where Denny was. “I’ve loved him for years and it’s like he barely notices me. But I’m still here. He’ll come around eventually, maybe.” She put the glass down by the bottle and the fire danced in the reflection and in the golden liquid it held.

Joe wondered if he loved Evy. Was it love that made him feel so raw when one day after another went by without hearing anything from her? There’d been no text messages, no calls. He noticed a shred of paper in the bottom of the fire-pit—part of a list of ingredients next to a picture of something that looked like asparagus. He was amazed at how something so light and flammable could sit right in the midst of all that heat and avoid oblivion.


It wasn’t until the middle of June that Evy called. “Hey, you still haven’t seen the new Gatsby movie, have you?”

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<< Leaving Adak                    Watch the Ash Soar >>

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