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American Sad Inspirational

Content warning: suicide

The unknown man lies dead in the barn for three days, and on the fourth we bury him. We tried to bury him before but had to wait, the ground was so hard. Gunne, who tried to dig the plot in the cemetery down the road, says it was like trying to break ice with a toothpick. 

So we wait until the March thaw frees the ground enough to dig up cold earth for a resting place. We wanted to do everything right, lay him there with all the rites and prayers and everything, as if he had been our own dear brother.

The second night, the air is cool and clean, blowing in from the South, where they have been having summer rains already. The icicles hanging from the rafters and windowsills are dripping and falling one after the other to the ground, to melt and vanish forever. The sky is dark with storm clouds, gathered like a shawl over the horizon, and the wind smells sweet like wet earth and honeysuckle. The house behind me is alight and glowing and filled with carefree laughter; it is easy to forget worries over a game of cards. But I step outside, barefoot on the ice-slivered ground, and go to see the body. 

Mother told me not to, but I can’t help it. I want to see for myself. Even on a farm, with farm animals; sick cows, fatted pigs and hens, sheep ready to butcher and sell, it is my first brush with death. Farm animals don’t die; they have always been meant to die and so their ending is just… closure. Attaching myself to each dying animal would mean constant heartbreak, an unlivable life. And if I tried to stop the butcher, we would starve.

But this is different. I tuck my head down to my collarbone and skip quickly across the yard. There is some soft, frightening mystery hanging around the barn, floating on the sweet southern wind. The sun is almost gone: its last red rays are cast across the Nebraska plains and touch on solitary scraggly trees and slanted, wind-tormented barns, like a man caressing the face of his lover.

Silently, like the ruffle of wind on skin, I slide back the red door and slip inside. I stand alone with my back up against the wood, taking in the musty smell of straw and animal cud and rusty farm tools. And there’s another smell too, held back by the dry cold still hanging relentlessly in the air. I have my brown cotton dress on, with my brother’s trousers on underneath, and a green wool sweater over it all, and still shiver like a marigold in the wind. I tell myself it’s just from the cold. 

I creep forward with my hands over my mouth. I’m barefoot and sidestep the dark steaming piles littering the ground, making my way slowly and fearfully across the center barn room to the other end, where something small and dark is lying quietly on a bench. My heart pounds in my ears and each step is hesitant, each step is fought in my head before I take it; to go forward, or to go back. Forward or back. I go forward and stand a few feet away from the body. 

The man -- I have to remind myself it’s a man, not just a body -- is small and wiry, with skin roughened by wind and work and crusted with black blood -- And I think to myself that he looks like a cowboy, a man who rides the dusty Texan plains and squints into the sun. 

We do not know this man. Uncle Halvor speculates he is a farmer, like us; living with his family on vast, lonely land, like us; who kissed his wife goodbye and ruffled his son’s hair and walked away across the Nebraska pastures until he couldn’t see anything but land, dead land, arid lonely land; and walked until he came across a shelter, our red cow barn, and pulled out the pistol from his belt. At this point while Halvor was talking, sitting on Grandmother’s ottoman in our warm living room, my twin and I put our hands over our ears and ran upstairs. 

The man’s moustache is dry and clumped with the same color that spatters his clothes and the side of his head. His eyes are shut but he doesn’t look at peace. He looks tired and tormented, as he probably did in life; his body is twisted with rigor mortis, colored pale purple and blue, and when I see this I choke on my own bile and run away, unable to look death in the face. I hide behind the house, taking deep breaths and pressing my palms into my eyes until the lump in my throat dissipates and my shoulders stop shaking. I pull my tearstained palms away and think for a second, stricken, that they are covered in blood. I let out a cry, a guttural scream, before I see it’s nothing, just the moonlight in the shadows, and press my hands over my trembling lips. Where is God? I think. Frozen to the dirt barn floor like a pool of blood, something else inside me answers. I close my eyes and wish I were dead.

Uncle Halvor and my brother Ben find me outside half an hour later, with marked cards in their pockets and worry in their eyes. The wind has turned cold now and curls around my bare feet and ruffles their hair as they stand over me, scolding and laughing and asking where I was. 

I tell them and they take me by the arms and bring me gently inside. 

When Ben and Halvor and I come in, we find only women inside. Everyone else, and Mother, is searching for me outside. Grandmother is sitting alone with a book in her lap by the kitchen door, biting her nails; Yelina plays with baby Josef on the floor by the stove; and Hella washes dishes. When Hella sees me she screams “Aundy!” and everyone looks up as she runs from the warm, bright spot by the stove and throws her arms around my shaking body and sobs with me. It is warm in the house but I am cold, and I stand there in the living room and rock and rock and cry and cry in Hella’s arms, whispering that I am afraid, so very very afraid.

We decided, after Grandmother called the superintendent in town, to bury him in the Norwegian graveyard twelve miles across the snow-plaited fields. Superstition dictated that a suicide must be buried at the crossroads, but Grandmother and my aunts could not bear to subject the unknown man to such humiliation. They negotiated a corner plot -- reserved for unknown corpses -- with the superintendent, and Yelina and Uncle Aron made a small wooden cross. 

It rains during the funeral, not a storm, just a gentle shower. I stood looking down at the small black hole with my heart aching inside my ribcage as water poured down my hair and dripped onto my skin. It was like the whole earth was mourning with me. Once the service was over and we walked home along the warm, damp roads, I felt something fill me: a hand on my back, a smile, a beam of light. Small flowers, marigolds, foxgloves, and bluebonnets, lined the warm road and seemed to call Look, look at us. The earth was smiling at me; God himself, no longer frozen to the ground, was walking along the road with me, borne by fresh winds, as the sun shone through the blurry horizon after the rain.

A few weeks after, Aundy found her twin standing on top of the barn, barefoot with her green summer dress swinging in the spring breeze. She climbed up the side as quickly as possible, her bare feet following the paths she and Hella had made as young children, breath moving in and out raggedly, calling “Hella!” urgently. 

Aundy walked slowly and carefully along the slanted rooftop until she reached the motionless form of her sister and threw her arms around her and dragged her backward. 

“What are you doing?” she screamed as she fought with Hella, who was biting and scratching and trying to get free and stand up again. They tussled for a minute, Aundy doing her best to keep them on the roof and keep her grip around her sister, both panting desperately, each fighting for their own reasons.

Hella kneed her in the stomach. With a grunt Aundy released her, but instead of standing and crawling to the edge again, Hella crumpled and began to cry. “What, what?” Aundy could only beg. “What? Tell me what’s wrong, what are you doing, what is going on?” 

Through her sobs Hella whispered, “I’m scared, I’m so scared. I can’t do it but I’m scared not to.”

Aundy didn’t know what to think or say or even how to breathe. She could only say, “Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t be afraid.”

“I saw him too,” Hella told her, lifting her big red tearstained eyes. Her face was swollen and tormented, like the unknown man’s face that March. “I saw him too and I got so scared. He looked unhappy, so unhappy and tired. He’s not -- ” She took a big, shaky breath -- “Not resting. Not at peace.”

Aundy looked out across the flat fields waving with wheat and corn, moving with the wind like the sea in a storm. She opened her mouth and shut it. 

“But I’m scared,” Hella went on; “I don’t know what will happen when I die. I just don’t know. That scares me so much I want to die.” She let out a laugh, a giggle mixed with panicked tears. “I’m crazy. I know, I’m just crazy.”

“No you’re not.” Aundy was finally able to speak. She rubbed Hella’s shoulder and ran her fingers over her twin’s shining brown hair, which was tangled with wheat buds and tiny pink wildflowers and splinters from climbing up the side of the barn. Hella bent her head again and wiped her wet face with scraped and bloody hands. The wind on top of the barn was stronger than on the ground. It pulled and pushed at them, the warm summer wind, and the sun shone brightly down on their backs, burning their skin and hair. Everything was silent but for the rush of the wind and a distant hawk, screaming as he dove for prey. 

“No you’re not. Don’t die. Live. You’ll see.” That was all she could say. “You’ll see. I did.”

Hella looked up at her again. Her chin and cheeks were light red from her scraped hands but there was something new shining in her eyes, something like the freedom of the diving hawk and the rustling wheat and the sleepy gleam in baby Josef’s eyes. “You did?”

Aundy nodded. “Look, I see God.” She raised her arm and pointed across the fields, warm in the bright noon sun, awash in soft winds. There were small bluebells, marigolds, sunflowers, and Indian paintbrushes growing between the fence stiles and along the road. In the big wide pastures, a group of cows ambled toward a pond, protecting a calf that skipped along happily and nosed the ant piles and snake holes. And the tree line in the distance was blurred by the sun, as if drawn by pencil, stirred by far away winds. “Look, I see God.” 

And Hella looked, and did not ask “Where?”

Years afterward, when the days of long, open fields were over, and the bluish-green grass had been ploughed under until it had almost disappeared from the flat prairie; when fences ran around the land like calves skittering around a heifer’s ankles and roads no longer went around like free winds but followed directions and maps, the unknown man’s grave was still there, with a leaning fence around it, and an unpainted wooden cross. Beyond the Norwegian graveyard, long left to rest, the road from the north curved a little to the west there, and the road from the east swung out to the south, so that the edges of the grave, laying at the very corner of the yard, was always untouched, with its tall bluish grass never mowed, like an island by the road. At dusk, under an old moon or the clear evening star and bright, ever-changing night sky, the dusty roads used to look like soft brown rivers flowing past it. 

Aundy never walked past the grave without emotion, and in all Nebraska it was the place most precious to her. She loved the simple superstition that had put the grave there, a lighthouse for those left behind, and she loved the peace it had given her, the peace of death and of life together -- that of the tenderly moving roads along which old-fashioned cars or wagons rattled during warm, lush afternoons. She knew in her heart that a tired, homeward-bound driver never passed the small corner plot with the unpainted cross without wishing peace to the sleeper beneath. 

August 04, 2021 23:41

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131 comments

Zilla Babbitt
23:42 Aug 04, 2021

This was difficult to write. I had the idea for a long time but the subject was hard, so please critique! ❤

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Nicole Bolla
23:46 Aug 05, 2021

My first time on this site. I can certainly see why people adore your writing so much! Your world building is amazing and captivating! Makes me feel inspired!

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Chicken Writer
16:39 Aug 08, 2021

Hi nicole! I see this is your first time! Go ahead and write on your bio, follow some peeps, and write a book! Write on! :)

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Zilla Babbitt
21:16 Aug 07, 2021

Thank you, Nicole. Welcome 😘

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20:52 Aug 06, 2021

I don't know what to say about this. I mean, the story was written perfectly. I'm just touched by the simplicity of the words and how they have come together to make something beautiful and true. I have no critique. I'm still reeling from what I've just taken in. This is beautiful.

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Zilla Babbitt
21:13 Aug 07, 2021

Thank you so much! Thrilled you like it 😘

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Palak Shah
08:55 Aug 05, 2021

Nice story Zilla, I loved the way that you used the prompt and your style is a great read :))

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Zilla Babbitt
21:49 Aug 09, 2021

Thank you, Palak!

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Palak Shah
18:12 Aug 10, 2021

No worries :))

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Rayhan Hidayat
02:56 Aug 06, 2021

I thought you tackled such a hard subject well enough! It was not preachy at all and you used it to explore a child's coming to terms with concepts of mortality and afterlife quite vividly. The scene descriptions struck me the most. They served to paint a rich, lush world of the countryside. There's a nice touch of wistfulness with the urbanization that occurs towards the end. My main complaint is I don't really see how switching to third person added anything to the story at all. Not a bad thing per se, and I get that the prompt requires ...

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Zilla Babbitt
21:16 Aug 07, 2021

Thanks a lot, Ray! I do love descriptions. I went back through and read La Tempestad and saw how much I wrote on the wind and trees as well as the characters. It adds another layer, so I tried it here. As I said to Anne, the POV shift serves to show that Aundy matures a bit and by pulling away from her voice I can show that, as well as show the turmoils of other characters like Hella that would be smothered by Aundy's voice. That's not super clear, and if I can edit before the story's approved, I will.

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Chloe Longstreet
10:15 Jan 31, 2022

I have to say the POV shift threw me too and pulled me out of the story a bit as I tried to figure out what was going on. Your descriptions are marvelous though, I could see and feel everything in the story as if I was there.

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Zilla Babbitt
02:14 Feb 01, 2022

Thanks for taking the time to read and critique :) Glad you liked it!

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A.G. Scott
01:15 Aug 05, 2021

Tough subject for sure, I think you handled it well. The story doesn't try to say anything too directly, doesn't romanticize anything or lecture anyone, but we can pick something up from the emotional ripples you describe so well. small tweaks: "as a man caresses the face of his lover." -- needs to be something like "in the way a man..." otherwise it sounds like something that's going on meanwhile "At this point while he was talking," -- need to remind us of the subject (Uncle Halvor) lines: “I don’t know what will happen when I die. I jus...

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Zilla Babbitt
21:09 Aug 07, 2021

Thank you so much. I was a bit worried. So glad you liked those sentences! I really wanted to do a piece on death and the fear of it, because it's so present in all our lives. Thanks again, A.G. :)

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Thom Brodkin
21:38 Aug 12, 2021

Zilla, I'm sorry it took so long to find my way to this story. First of all I am amazed at how well you tackled the prompt. It takes a very skilled writer to switch between the two points of view without making the story feel disjointed. Your story was anything but. It was a beautiful yet uncomfortable ride. It's pace was slow which allowed me to marinate on the details. You have such a gift for description. It's almost as if you are looking out your window and describing what you see. It feels that real. You also deal masterfully, not on...

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Zilla Babbitt
15:34 Aug 17, 2021

Thank you so much for reading and commenting. What are you up to these days? Do you plan on submitting with the fee?

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Thom Brodkin
19:16 Aug 28, 2021

I’m not sure what my plan is. Maybe I’ll take up stand up comedy. 😀

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14:47 Aug 10, 2021

One of the things I loved most about this story was its emphasis on nature. From the ice and clouds to the flowers and pastures; your descriptions made the exploration of God and death even more impactful. This was a heart-breakingly beautiful coming-of-age story. Fantastic job!

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Zilla Babbitt
12:47 Aug 12, 2021

Oh, thank you, Phoenix!

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Chicken Writer
13:57 Aug 08, 2021

Tough subject, but put well. I love the style and suspense and flow of your stories and how everything just goes. Keep being 1# on the rank!

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Zilla Babbitt
21:49 Aug 09, 2021

Thank you!

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R. K.
20:56 Aug 07, 2021

Hi Zee, thanks for your comment. I've been so busy as of late, but I do really want to squeeze out some material before the summer skids to a close. Today I'm here to read, breathe and dawdle for inspiration. I've been into dark fairytales recently -- maybe I'll start there? This was such a wonder. Death -- we are so scared of it, but we live as if it'll never touch us. It feels unreal somehow. I really love how you showed the realization and acceptance here, as well as the subtle countryside details. A favourite piece, for sure!

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Zilla Babbitt
21:17 Aug 07, 2021

Thanks Ru! It's good to "see" you again :). So glad you liked it!

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Laiba M
16:22 Aug 06, 2021

The story was amazing~ You definitely succeeded at translating a difficult subject into a well-written story! The setting descriptions were absolutely beautiful, and the ways you blended emotion into the story are flawless. It worked well to switch to third person for this particular piece, and gave me a mesmerizing type of feeling I can't really describe :) Thank you for the story, Zilla!

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Zilla Babbitt
21:13 Aug 07, 2021

Thank you, Laiba! 🤩

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A.Dot Ram
21:04 Aug 05, 2021

I like this. It reminds me of Willa Cather or Kate Chopin. I think you got the tone just right. I see this as being about finding peace with mortality--a circle of life kind of thing. That's a big coming of age moment. I had to think about it for a while to come up with some constructive recommendations. First, your opening sentence doesn't quite match the rest of the story. Something about "the suicide" bugged me. It doesn't sound like a child's voice. What if you just said "the dead man lies in the barn for three days..." ? It's clear late...

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Zilla Babbitt
21:12 Aug 07, 2021

Anne, you hit the nail on the head. Thanks so much. I've never read Kate Chopin but I love Willa Cather. I read My Ántonia a year ago or so and loved how she described the scenery and used it almost as its own character in the book. The POV shift... I'm trying to figure that out myself. Right now it serves to show that Aundy matures a bit and by pulling away from her voice I can show that, as well as show the turmoils of other characters like Hella that would be smothered by Aundy's voice. Thanks again Anne. Your comment meant a lot to me :)

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A.Dot Ram
21:57 Aug 07, 2021

Awesome. I loved My Antonia. I see it in this story. Certainly the point of view shift opens up the story in a nice way. I'm still trying to think of another reason driven by the story...I want to go read some more stories in that prompt category.

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Teri Kron
21:40 Jun 23, 2022

As I am currently writing my first novel whose main protagonist has been planning their suicide until they meet a woman challenged with a terminal illness, I was compelled to read this story in hopes that I could get some insight into this dark topic. I was impressed (and inspired) by the author's ability to describe scenarios with rich and colorful words that spoke to my soul and kept me reading. I only wish I will also be able to capture my audience the same way and touch their hearts as mine was.

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Sam Fox
12:30 Jun 29, 2022

i love your writer i wanna be like you to make people happy

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11:12 May 16, 2022

Good, to see your still on top :)

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Zilla Babbitt
01:38 May 17, 2022

Thanks, Sia 🥰

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05:43 May 17, 2022

:))

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Thom Brodkin
05:01 Mar 13, 2022

Hey, what do you know? I finally won one. You predicted it but I was losing faith. 😀

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Zilla Babbitt
18:36 Mar 13, 2022

Oh my gosh Thom! I hadn't even checked it yet, I just saw the email saying I'd gotten a comment. Congratulations! ❤ And it's one I haven't even read yet, I'm so excited. Of course you deserve it and I only wish it had been sooner! Wow! 👑

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Betsy Lynch
14:03 Feb 14, 2022

I love this story's detail and firmly rooted sense of place. A small hint early on that we're reviewing years later from an adult's perspective would help, but I might be wrong about that. Beautiful story!

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Holland Wells
09:27 Aug 22, 2021

You have a way with words. I love how you brought the scene's to life. I could picture them as if I were looking at a painting. Great job, thank you for a great read.

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Brenda Wilkins
19:47 Aug 18, 2021

Hi Zilla, Great job. Your voice is powerful, your descriptions vivid. You have a beautiful way of placing the reader inside the story itself. I love your choice of words used to paint your picture; simple yet appropriately descriptive. My only critique would be an over use of commas...this is something that I struggle with myself. There were a couple places where I had to read the passage twice in order to understand it's intended meaning. That aside, you did a wonderful job tackling a delicate subject with gentle tact and sympathetic...

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Niveeidha Palani
05:02 Aug 11, 2021

I've read Falling Leaves before :) It was pretty heart-touching. Have you heard of Chinese Cinderella? It's written by Adeline too.

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Zilla Babbitt
12:39 Aug 11, 2021

It's terrifyingly sad! I haven't read that one, but I'm interested because Falling Leaves is so good.

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Niveeidha Palani
22:07 Aug 11, 2021

Yeah, reminds me of my grandmother's childhood. Something like that, but just a little more traumatic. :)

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Zilla Babbitt
17:30 Aug 12, 2021

Oh my, now I'm very curious. What do you mean? What happened? (Writer's curiosity haha).

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Niveeidha Palani
04:41 Aug 14, 2021

Haha, no worries. I get curious sometimes too. :) Well, growing up as a child (she grew up in India) she got separated from her parents, and her mother never bothered to make contact with her. She had brothers, and they got prioritized, you know, because they were boys. So her brothers got an excellent education, while my grandmother and her sister were left in India all alone. And they had no relatives, so my grandmother and her sister were left with their aunt who was plain stingy. At first, she refused to take care of my grandmother an...

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Zilla Babbitt
15:35 Aug 17, 2021

Wow, that is an incredible story. I'm so thankful she was able to rise above and succeed. You should write about her! A similar book to Falling Leaves: Wild Swans, by Jung Chang. I recommend it. She also wrote a book called Mao: The Unknown Story which is absolutely fantastic.

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Thom Brodkin
15:24 Nov 14, 2022

Hey, if I give you $5 will you write another story. I miss seeing what new worlds you will create.

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Zilla Babbitt
20:45 Nov 15, 2022

Haha! I am always glad to see your comments, Thom. I wrote two stories in August that I *might* post soon (without entering the contest) because they were a small step back down the writing road. Sadly I really have no time these days for anything but academic writing. We'll see how upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks change that, however. How have you been? Are you enjoying the weather? Any new books you've read/written?

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Thom Brodkin
20:56 Nov 15, 2022

I am a winter guy so the colder the better. I’ve been recycling some of my old stories because I wanted the opportunity to “fix” things I didn’t like. It’s been both good and bad. I think the revisions are much better but it stops me from writing new stories. I’ve committed to submitting a new story this week but I’m pretty sure it won’t be one of my best. I see the story in my head but am struggling to let it out. I hope you do submit your new stories. Reedsy isn’t the same without you. Good luck with class and stay safe. 😀

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Zilla Babbitt
15:52 Nov 17, 2022

That's great! I love the cold too, as long as I'm prepared for it. When I get time next week I will read some of your newer stories and catch up on what's been in your heart :) Hugs!

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