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An alarm clock is ringing. The child it belongs to reaches out to stop it, and yawns herself awake. With a stretch of her arms over her head, she leans over and cartwheels out of bed.

As she skips down the stairs, she nearly slips on various wrappers and old clothes, but catches herself with cushioned giggles. Bits of lumber have fallen out of the bannister. Pictures of family that once lined the walls now line the floor. She kicks and shatters one with her last descending step, and jumps over her parents on the way to the kitchen.

Standing on a chair, she takes the last bowl from the cupboard and slams it on the counter. She fills it with bits of various cereals — Fruit Squares and Chocolate Zeros and Marshmallow Bystanders and Tiny Fiber Governments — that touch each other lightly, tenderly, in a bounded pile. She leaves the collection where it sits, and reaches into the refrigerator for an ice cold can of Coca-Cola. As she pours, the stack dissolves and condenses into a mushier stack. She scoops some into her mouth and laughs at the flavor, which isn’t real. Nothing is real. The bowl goes to the sink with the other bowls, and the girl heads out for school.

“Marisa, you’ve been wearing the same clothes all week. Is everything all right at home?”

“Yes, Mrs. Korkberkley.”

She comes home to a dark house. The only light she needs is in the refrigerator, and she opens its door. She leaves it open and sits beside it on the floor. The light reaches as far as her father’s face, and she watches his shadow as she pops the top of another Coke. “Not before dinner,” he used to say.

COCA-COLA: YOUR ONLY RESPONSIBILITY

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Koan

Having tackled the greater problems of asymmetric hands and lonely trees, Hiroshi was ready to advance to level ten, leaving behind the acolytes to join the full-fledged monks.

“This exam will test your resolve. You must not cease your meditation under any circumstance. Do you understand?”

Hiroshi nodded. “I understand,” he said, and felt the sting of the keisaku on his back.

“Let us start again. Do you understand?”

Though ignoring a master was flagrant disrespect, Hiroshi kept still. His back was perpendicular to the floor, his shoulders relaxed. In every breath, he felt the stillness of winter and the great purpose of fall. Other seasons would follow.

He heard movement around him. Footsteps of others. An audience.

“Yes, step right over there. Come forward. Now, you two are the most promising candidates for advancement, but we can only accept one right now.”

Hiroshi was almost startled by the clatter of the wooden sword in front of him, but made no reaction.

“Let the battle begin!”

He maintained his focus, even as he watched the bouncing martial footsteps come closer. His head was still, his eyes locked. As the distance between himself and his rival shortened, he did not adjust his focus. A pointed wind passed through him.

“Um, Master?” The voice belonged to Takashi, another acolyte, two years younger. “I can’t attack if he doesn’t defend himself.”

“If you do not attack, you cannot win.”

The boy moved in circles, asking questions, but Hiroshi could not negotiate. Takashi stopped in front of him, and with a bow, apologized.

Hiroshi did not react to the blow that followed, though the pain was great.

“Congratulations! You’ve won!”

As the audience cheered for Takashi, Hiroshi stayed still. The feast that followed smelled amazing.

He told himself he didn’t notice.

And the concussion felt like spring.

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