The redbelly then came upon a strange tree at the forest’s edge. It was like a pine, tall and straight, but without the odor of sap and scaly bark. Its only leaves were at the crown, and thin; a pair of dark shoots that stretched into the distance in either direction from a strange, single, bifurcated branch.

Mating season was coming, and this tree seemed promising, so the redbelly hopped over to it and drummed out a love song. The wood was perfect for that purpose, and the call resonated through the area. Satisfied, the bird descended to what looked like a weaker spot, to test the tree’s suitability for a nest. It drilled at the wood, but found it unusually hard and unyielding, with a sour taste that soon made the bird feel ill.

Poisoned trees. They did exist, but never in so strange a form, so alien a shape. It was like a mockery of a tree, one specifically designed to attract and then disappoint woodpeckers. The redbelly flew off, still feeling rather upset.

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“Oh snap,” Carlos said. “You’re teaching in ES 215. The Bedroom.”

“Bedroom?” Marco looked at the building map. “It’s a lecture hall.”

“No, no. They call it the bedroom because it’s the most sleep-inducing classroom ever.”

“Classrooms don’t make people sleepy,” said Marco, straightening proudly. “Bad teachers do.”

“The lights in there flicker at 100 Hz, slower than we’re used to, which induces torpor. The chairs are very plush thanks to the renovation that only got half-done, so the kids sink into them. The room is always warm since it’s right up against the utility core of the building. And of course, there are no windows.”

“Bad. Lecturers.” Marco tapped his index finger on Carlos’s chest with each word.

“Well, we’ll just see about that. I recommend bringing a noisemaker of some kind to wake the kids up.”

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“It really is a shame that there’s so much false information on the internet these days, it makes it so hard to get to the truth.” Simona dealt the next card, the Magician. “Of course, it’s not all bad. Streaming the Westminster dog show is so much easier than going in person.”

“So what is a ley line?” Heath said.

“It sounds like something a high school basketball team would do,” Ash said. He had sunk firmly into one of Simona’s overstuffed lounge chairs and lodged there.

“Well, there’s a lot that goes into it, from sacred geometry to geomancy,” Simona said. “But the simple version would be this: every structure has a series of invisible lines that anchor it to the natural world. For large and important structures, like mountains or temples, the lines can be a source of considerable power.”

“What about Deerton?” Ruby said. “Would our lines be powerful enough to do something bad?”

Simona laughed and dealt the next card: the Hanged Man, inverted. “I should think not. This city’s only existed since 1874, hardly long enough to accrue that kind of arcane power. I suppose you could use it for a minor ritual or two, but nothing spectacular.”

“What about all that talk of breaking them?” Jayda asked.

Simona shrugged. “That’s just it, that doesn’t make any sense. You might as well talk about outlawing triangles; ley lines are a natural and immutable feature.”

“What if you could break them?” Ruby said.

The next card was Death; Simona buried it with a little slight of hand, as she knew it often upset visitors. She substituted the next card, The Lovers, instead. “There would be nothing to anchor the structure to the natural world,” she said. “I can’t imagine it would be good.”

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We can’t teach our kids
This liberal crap
They say

What will they think
Being told that they

How will they feel
When they learn about

Let them learn
From actions
Not words
You say

Very well
The book is

The lesson plain
For all

A little rhetoric
Has people
Up in

But school shootings
Are an utterly

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The pavement’s cracked and potholes
By 40-degree temperature swings
No money in the budget to fix it
We can’t afford such luxurious things

The highway bridge is crumbling
It’s concrete streaks with rust
“It’s good enough for now,” they say
“We’ll replace it when it’s dust”

The old school building’s groaning
Beneath the weight of kids and time
“Private school’s right down the road”
“Why should your kids get my dime?”

The city cops are cruising
In brand new patrol cars
Their budget’s quite uncuttable
“It isn’t theirs, it’s ours!”

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The shutter clicked merrily at the tiny, pear-shaped bird perched on the feeder. “I’m so glad Joker has started coming regularly.”


“I named her after her song, which sounds kind of like laughing.”

Another bird, this one grey above and brown-streaked yellow underneath, fluttered up. “Get out of here, Warby! You better not scare Joker!”

Irrespective of the scolding, the bird perched on the nearby set and began to eat.

“You do know that Warby is a Kirtland’s warbler, right? One of the rarest birds in the world and one that never, ever comes to feeders? Why are you trying to shoo it away in favor of a common red-breasted nuthatch?”

“Oh, Warby comes five times a day, but Joker’s new.”

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I think the postman meant to tell me “sorry for your wait.” It had been an uncomfortable 15 minutes in masks, behind a short but needy line of grandmothers looking for a professional packaging service, sorority girls looking for Cancun passports, and coughing unmasked assholes looking for lost mail.

At the same time, as what was probably the last substantive line in that office before the weekend, he clearly meant to say “have a nice weekend.” Another kind, if automatic, sentiment from behind the tall pressboard desk.

It came out, though, as “Sorry for your nice weekend.”

I briefly considered responding with “Thanks, you too!” just to compound the absurdity. But, trying to be more considerate than the people in front of me had been, I simply said “Thanks!”

For the rest of the drive home, though, I was attempting to mash together automatic pleasantries into something fun and chaotic.

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-Teacher is Virgo and Mercury is in retrograde.

-Saw ex in attendance. Did not sign up for drama class.

-Registered while drunk; seems less fun sober.

-Books too expensive. Fact that books are online and open-source irrelevant.

-Transferring to other school with more lax three-strikes policy.

-Passing grade in prerequisite class achieved by plagiarism, but new teacher seems sharper.

-Changing majors to accountancy; will trade soul for money instead of money for soul.

-Teacher clearly has it out for student after asking them repeatedly to put on shirt.

-Dad has decided lack of MBA no longer impediment to inheriting dealership.

-Hit by university bus; generous settlement means degree now unnecessary.

-Dropping out to become cosmetologist; was being serious about “wanting to curl up and dye.”

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“Imagine a plant that was perfectly adapted for its environment, and then the environment changed, isolating it to a tiny area. But the world outside has moved on, and if it could ever get outside that microclimate again, it’d…”

“…take over the world?”

“Hardtley’s book is the only place that we know of where he wrote about it. That’s why he’s dead, and that’s why we need to destroy that copy of his book.”

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Thank you for your purchase of the Holiday Time Megaphone! The following FAQ is provided for your convenience:

Q: Do I have to use the Holiday Time Megaphone for holiday-related purposes?
A: No, the Holiday Time Megaphone will function as a normal megaphone at any time of the year.

Q: What should I use the Holiday Time Megaphone for?
A: You can use it to announce gifts, communicate with relatives, or ring in the new year!

Q: Are there any built-in festive songs or sound effects in the Holiday Time Megaphone?
A: No, the Holiday Time Megaphone features only three modes: Amplify, Alarm, and Off.

Q: What makes the Holiday Time Megaphone a holiday item if it does not include any holiday-related uses or features?
A: Its bright red color and its packaging, of course!

Q: If the packaging is removed, wouldn’t it look like any other megaphone?
A: All right, maybe the Holiday Time Megaphone is simply a way for Hainan Microelectronics Limited to move a few more megaphones in the red colorway. But can you blame us? Americans will buy anything in December as long as it’s red. And they call uscommunists.

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