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--- J .L .  S C H N E I D E R

He prepared himself in the usual way.

He shaved. He showered. He threw out the old Bic shaver and put a new one next to the Barbasol can in the vanity. He put on dress Levis, a pale blue cotton shirt, hesitated between wearing Topsiders and sneakers, finally decided on the Topsiders, and went downstairs for breakfast.

He listened to classical music on National Public Radio, ate Shredded Wheat, and thought about the previous week and patients he'd seen. On Friday, a man he'd never met walked into the office and asked about heartworm. Then, without provocation - much like the fundamentalist Biblers, whom he was used to, but different - the man started talking about Eastern philosophy. He wore a John Deere cap, most of his teeth were missing, and he smelled badly. Only one thing the man said stuck in his mind, a line he quoted from a religious text: "Ours is the action, not the fruit of the action." Remembering the line (it was the word action) made him think about her. He idly smashed the last bale of Shredded Wheat into a pulpy mush at the bottom of his bowl.

She had taken to watching sporting events on television with him. She didn't like sports, but she was making an effort to get more involved in the things he liked to do. (He was attending her book club meetings.) He particularly liked college basketball, and whenever the cheerleaders came onto the floor, she pantomimed their actions. Sitting stiffly on the sofa with her knees together, elbows pressed tightly to her sides, she swayed her wrists back and forth, her fingers occasionally exploding like pompoms. She bounced her legs up and down and silently mouthed the cheers, even though the mute button was on. It distracted him. It drove him crazy. He liked the company, but he didn't know how to tell her to stop.

He spooned out the last of the sweet, mushy soup and took the bowl to the sink to be put in the dishwasher by someone else.

She, also, prepared herself.

She packed the canvas tote bag she had gotten as a membership premium from public television. It was only a day trip, and the clothes they were wearing would probably be enough. But if someone should spill something on themselves...She had baked sugar cookies and bought a torte. She put an extra pair of panty hose in the bag.

At the dresser, lifting the bag up and setting it on the in-laid wood, the panty hose barely faded from her mind when she thought about his hand, the way she thought about it every several weeks since they'd been married. The way it stroked her head. How, when they lay in bed in the dark, and he spoke to her, it always seemed to cover her only open ear just as he said something important. When it grazed over the side of her head - his palm sliding across the cone of her ear - a low static echo blocked out his words, and no matter how hard she tried, she never heard what he said at that moment. For 15 years she'd been humming assents to words she never heard.

She wanted to ask him to stop, which made her think about the other thing she wanted to ask him. She had recently read in Nature that the okapi was the only mammal with a prehensile tongue. It could clean its own ears with its tongue. A tongue that could swab its entire face from ear to ear, as dexterous as an elephant's trunk, with a tip that could almost smell. She wondered how to ask him to do that one thing he had never done for her, but couldn't think of a way to broach the subject. She put her grandmother's hairbrush into the bag.

And the boy prepared himself.

He did his chores. After he cleaned his room he took the dog outside to do his business. He let the dog loose on the front lawn, and called him whenever he got too close to the road. But he soon got tired of calling the dog, and let him run free. When the dog finally returned with a stick in his mouth, the boy kicked him. The traffic was heavy on the road in front of his house on a Saturday morning, but he didn't care who saw him. It was the first time he'd ever hurt the dog. He felt bad when it yelped and ran away then stared back from a safe distance, its eyes dripping with pain and betrayal. The boy was 13, just beginning to scale the glacial heights of revenge he imagined it was his right to exact on the world. His father was a veterinarian.

He was anxious and bored and wondering when they were going to leave. He practiced dribbling an imaginary soccer ball with his feet. He kicked it, slipping it just under the crotch of a birch tree branch for a game-winning goal. He imagined the leaves shook with a thunderous ovation. He wished Olive Lansing was passing by on the road.

Only the dog didn't prepare.

When the Honey Dippers Septic Services truck slammed into the car, he was thrown out of the open rear window on the passenger's side. He landed on a patch of road grass that had long been neglected by the Department of Public Works. The years of matted thatch and mulch broke his fall, and he rolled over several times before coming to a halt. He dizzily stood up, got his four footings, shook himself, and sniffed the air for food.

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