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**PRINT: SMALL COUNTRY, by Lauren Pretnar, is No. 28 in our broadsheet series. Pretnar, a frequent contributor in recent months, has crafted a grand wedding tale, a deft rendition of the raw emotion of life forever tugged by the past, present and future. This issue comes with an excerpt from Spencer Dew's wonderful new book, Songs of Insurgency.

**WEB: MOLE Cassie J. Sneider
THE STORY Meghan Austin

Cassie J. Sneider

Sneider lives and writes in Austin, Texas.

The headlights of the cars drove on an invisible track across the ceiling and I was lying in my mother's bed. A t-shirt that didn't smell like my dad anymore slept peacefully between us, not knowing it was only enjoying the comfort of a bed because it was being used for its smell. The t-shirt didn't know he was gone yet, and I wondered if the half-smoked cigarette in the ashtray next to my side of the bed knew its last drag would never be tasted. I was five years old and wide awake, wondering if the cars were projecting themselves onto the ceiling so I could think about them, instead of how I was laying in the empty space of someone I knew was never coming back.

My uncle had died before I was born, overdosing on heroin, and leaving his twin and my father to sort through everything he'd left behind, which included a pregnant girlfriend, a wreck of an apartment, and a closet full of personal effects. My father sorted through papers and overdue bills while my other uncle sat on the bed trying on a pair of boots.

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"What the hell are you doing?" my father asked.

"These are perfectly good boots," he said, knotting the laces.

"They're a dead man's boots!" my father said.

"They're perfectly good boots," my uncle corrected, and he took them home.

I was with my dad when they broke the news. We drove from doctor to doctor that day, white knuckles on the steering wheel of the pickup truck. When we got home he told my mother, and everything after that was a blur, mental pictures ripped up and thrown out; faces scratched and negatives burnt. The day he left for the hospital, we sat on the bed and he pulled up his socks over gray feet, the feet of someone with a heart older than their 32 years.

"Buddy, I want you to tell Uncle Jeff to stay the hell away from my shoes."

"That's a curse." I was well-trained.

"You can say it just this once."

"Okay." I don't remember seeing my dad in the hospital. I don't remember seeing him on morphine, or my mother walking in on him sitting up in the crisp, white bed, pretending to sew.

"Keith, what are you doing?"

"I'm sewing wings," he said with his eyes closed, thumb and forefinger making sweeping circles in the air.

I do remember wondering what intensive care was. I remember wishing my dad had a dictionary in his dresser instead of a 1978 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records so I could learn what the words meant. I remember spending a lot of time at my aunt's house, in the sprinkler, in the sun. I remember listening to my dad.

"Uncle Jeff," I said, nervous about using the H word. "Daddy said to stay the hell away from his shoes." My mother and uncle went pale. Exeunt. Fin. Fade to black.

I hated the dark, but the bedrooms of our house were permanently bathed in streetlight. A fuzzy dark orange fell on my mother's face. She hadn't been sleeping and I had a sore throat again. I had climbed into my dad's spot next to the shirt to count the cars. With the looming prospect of having my tonsils taken out and no one to tell me what they were, I needed something more real than sheep.

"Do you know how to pray?" my mother asked after she'd turned off the lights.

The only thing I knew about God was the tattoo of Jesus on my dad's arm, and that he said he was an atheist. It was not until many years later that I would learn atheist was a synonym for "man contradicting himself." My reply came in the form of a vigorous headshake.

"You put your hands together like this. Then you say ourfatherwhoartinheavenhallowed bethyname... Then you could talk to Daddy if you want." She turned over and I was left to try to remember all those words, empty and hollowed in thy name. They didn't mean anything to me, but did they open a porthole, a skipped stitch in the space-time continuum, that allowed the living to speak to the dead and the dead to hear them in their graves with voiceless ears?

Was that what it was?

"Um, today in school Miss Welch yelled at me because I went to the school store to get a pencil and when I got back she was already teaching."

From within the pine of his coffin, my father makes a fist. If radiation should leak into the ground and all the dead fathers of five-year-olds rise as a collective body, the first thing they will do is shuffle to the local elementary school and eat the brains of every Kindergarten teacher. Then they will go to the Home Depot and look at tools. My father will test-drive a riding lawn mower. Then they will look at their watches and return to their graves in a punctual and orderly fashion.

When I was six, I was forced into the World of Girl Scouting, which in hindsight is as corrupt as the World of Mail-Order Brides or the World of Swallowing Balloons of Cocaine and Smuggling Them Across the Border. Girl Scouting is a form of trickle-down capitalism, the troop leaders shrewd and cunning businesswomen, and the Scouts proletarian worker bees, our tiny hands being frostbitten in subzero weather to push our product. For every box of Tagalongs, three Girl Scouts are sold on the black market. For each package of Samoas, one Girl Scout is put to death. The statistics are as chilling as a bite of a Thin Mint.

The lessons we learned as Scouts were nothing short of useless.

"Today we're going to learn about nutrition!" said Miss Leeann, our troop leader. Everyone cheered, and I silently picked a scab.

Miss Leeann produced a piece of loose-leaf paper, a carrot, and a jar of mayonnaise. "When something has fat in it, and you rub it on paper, the paper will magically turn clear." She spooned a glob of mayonnaise onto the paper. The troop watched with bated breath. Miss Leeann wiped the mayonnaise off of the loose-leaf and held it up for all to see. "The mayonnaise left a clear spot. That means it's bad for you."

The troop booed the mayonnaise. I, on the other hand, was mayonnaise's biggest proponent. Everyday for lunch, I asked for mayonnaise on white bread, and everyday I was told by my mother that everyone would think I was on welfare. The way she pronounced "welfare" made me think that being on it was like accidentally stepping in dog shit. I imagined myself eating a mayonnaise sandwich and scraping the dog shit onto the third-rate playground equipment relegated to the Kindergarteners. Welfare was nothing that couldn't be scraped off onto a lawn or doormat, and I proudly ate my mayonnaise.

Miss Leeann brandished the carrot and crumbled the loose-leaf tainted by the fatty mayonnaise. She rubbed the carrot and held up the paper. "Carrots are good for you, because they don't leave a mark."

The troop cheered the carrot.

The last I checked, there hadn't been any developments in the way carrots tasted in at least 500 years. Also, I had never been to a restaurant where fat people and diabetics brought loose-leaf to test their food on. This meant two things: A) Miss Leeann was a fucking moron and B) the merit badge for nutrition was bullshit. I went to work on my scab, and left the oohing-aahing sheep to their loose-leaf paper.

The only thing I looked forward to in Girl Scouts was the Wish Circle. At the end of the meeting, I stood in a circle with my comrades, holding their hands while I thought of who I had seen with their fingers buried deep within their noses. Miss Leeann started us off by making a wish and squeezing the hand next to her, and we all did the same until our wishes came full circle.

I took the business of wishing very seriously. While everyone else in my troop was probably wishing for a new Popple, I was carefully considering if my wish would be twisted into a horrible monkey's paw situation that I would have to spend the rest of my life trying to rectify. The only thing I wanted was to have my father back. If I wished for him to be alive again, would I come home to him sitting in a lawn chair, partially decomposed, trying to light a cigarette? What if he needed to feast on the flesh of the living to stay alive? There were only so many scouts I could lure home without someone noticing.

For this reason I made sure to word my wish with the utmost caution: "I wish for everything to be exactly the way it used to be."

One day, this wish would make my life play like a country song on rewind. I would emerge from the fluorescent basement meeting place into the warm sun and return home and me and my dad would sit on the couch watching a nature special and eating all the mayonnaise in the world.

This wish was foolproof. Even if it set time itself back to zero, I could still do it all over again. My first words would be "Watch your cholesterol!" and "Chest x-ray!"

"Did she just say chest x-ray?" my dad would say.

"I think so," my mother would say, "and she's pointing at you."

Every week, I would leave the fluorescent basement meeting place, and every week my unsinkable faith in wishes would tell me maybe next week. My mother picked me up from Girl Scouts one of those weeks. "When you do the wish circle at the end, what do you wish for?" she asked, fumbling for a cigarette with her keys in her hand.

"Popples!" said the part of my brain that was deeply embarrassed by wishing for the impossible. "Say Popples!"

I stuttered and tried to form the word Popple.

She stopped and looked through me. I watched the unlit cigarette moving up and down with her words: "If you're wishing for your father to come back, you can stop wishing because it's never going to happen."

The t-shirts were starting to smell more like an empty bed than my dad. My mother fell into a restless sleep each night with a prayer taking the place of a cigarette on her lips. I slept in my own bed, the soft orange glow falling onto my toys. God sat outside atop a wishless star, shining headlights onto my ceiling.