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A Tiny Light

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God-fucking-damn it was the first thing I thought when I woke up. I had to give a presentation in my Conflicts in Asia class that day. I put on a ragged polo shirt which was I assure you classier than my usual holy T-shirt shuffled out of my dorm into the dining hall shoveled a shit-ton of oatmeal and raisins into my mouth to try to fortify my weak body from skipping dinner the night before, and resentfully made my way to class.

“Last year the Shan Women’s Activist Network, also known as the SWAN, released a publication entitled License to Rape detailing the rapes of more than 600 women and girls.” I was in the middle of the presentation. “Oftentimes women will venture out looking for food or firewood for their families and be abducted by traveling groups of government soldiers. This is just one of many of the concerns of ethnic minorities in Burma brought against the ruling party.

“Even though the National League for Democracy legitimately won power in 1990, it hasn’t been allowed to govern.” I was wrapping this thing up. “Rather, its leader, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has been in and out of prison and house arrest for the last 20 years. Peaceful protests in 1988 and 2007 with the main complaints of economic mismanagement and political corruption that keep the vast majority of the citizens poor were violently suppressed by the ruling military junta and machine guns. The hope for the nation is that the party in power will relent in the face of international pressure and begin to compromise with the opposition party, the NLD. Thank you.” Thank God, I thought.

A small round of applause from the other eight members of my class clattered for a few moments while I turned off my slideshow and took my seat.

“Thank you, Lil,” said Professor Betty Brashu. “Does anyone have any questions?” Damn it, I had forgotten about questions. No one raised their hands. Thank you, I said silently to my dead-looking classmates. It was the first class of the morning, but I’ll be the first to admit, my presentation wasn’t particularly entertaining. What the fuck did any of us care about the Burmese anyways? I was in it for the grade, not to actually help. Getting an A was within my capabilities, but it’s not like there was anything I could do for Burma.

“Well I have a question,” said Brashu.

Fuck you, was my initial reaction. Just kidding, I silently apologized.

“What type of action has the international community taken?”

“Just public condemnation of the actions of the military junta,” I said. I was about to elaborate by saying that on multiple occasion the United Nations Security Council had brought up the issue of Burma, but all potential legislation had been shot down by China and Russia. But before I could speak, Brashu started.

“I would say, mmmmmm, maybe twenty years ago I was in a grocery store buying cauliflower…”

What the hell is this gunna have to do with anything? I tuned out immediately. It was going to be a long story.

“'You were only a kid,' I said to him,” was what Brashu was saying when I tuned back in. “I’ve done worse things in my seventies.’ He looked a bit perplexed since I was in my early twenties at the time. ‘You haven’t known me all of my lives.’” The class laughed good-naturedly if with confusion. I did not.

Thank you, Betty, for that timeless point, I thought.

“Okay, next we’ll hear from Meniah.”

A tall tanned girl with sleek black hair got up and shuffled through the files on the computer until the projector showed her intention on the screen at the front of the class. She took the next twelve minutes to tell us a story about a religious minority that had fled oppression in China only to be forcefully detained in refugee camps with limited access to basic necessities in the host nation.

Forty minutes later students, including myself, jostled into a different class room.

“Aii!” I yelped, startling an acquaintance of mine sitting at the desk next to me. The expression of distress wasn’t loud enough to cause a commotion as students bustled into the room.

She looked over with crumpled eyebrows in a look of what I assumed was concern. “Are you okay over there?” she asked.

“There’s a bug on my desk,” I cried, pointing. In a more malevolent tone I said, “I’m gonna get it,” as I coiled a piece of paper.

“Well don’t kill it,” she said, snatching the paper away. “If you kill it what’s to stop someone bigger and stronger from killing you? Our good deeds are our only protection.” She ushered the bug onto the piece of paper and hustled it outside where I assume she let it go free.

By the time she returned, class had already begun. “Every good has a cost of production attached to it,” said the old man at the front of the room. “Logically you would think that when you buy a good you’re paying for the cost of production plus a profit for the vendor. Actually, you’re getting a better deal than that. Consumers in rich nations don’t actually pay the full cost of production for most goods they buy in stores because, as vendors have found, the company that can offer the lowest price is the one that gets ahead. Many companies, therefore, have found ways to derail part of the cost of production away from the end consumer in order to increase profits. The total cost of production must still be paid, however. The dividend is recouped in a variety of different ways--including low wages to workers both at home and abroad. Let’s take, for example, the case of Walmart and Tide Detergent. Walmart’s very successful market niche is low prices. Therefore, it keeps its own costs low in order to pass on a margin of that savings to consumers. Walmart’s market power has gotten so large, that if it didn’t carry Tide Detergent on its shelves, Tide would go out of business. This being the case, Walmart can pressure Tide to keep its prices low resulting in not only low wages to Walmart workers, but lower wages to those who work for the companies Walmart stocks. That means American workers who aren’t being paid living wages and foreign workers are in even worse conditions because they aren't protected by labor laws.

“The other way costs are paid are through environmental externalities--pollution and so forth--that must then be dealt with by the government via the tax payers dollar. So even if you don’t pay for the full price of a good at the cash register, you're paying in other ways.” Damn, I thought. I liked it better when the workers were paying for my laundry detergent. It’s not like I was going to see a just economic system in my lifetime anyways. That would require a major evolutionary step.

About a half an hour later I walked, completely uninvited, through an open doorway in the dorms. Class had just finished and I was free for a few hours. A pale brown haired girl sat on the floor with a computer on her lap in the cluttered room.

"Hello!" I said in an overly enthusiastic tone.

"Hello!" she responded in like manner. I sat down on a futon mat without the futon frame and pulled out a text book.

After a few seconds of silence she said, “You know what I found out on the internet today?”

“What?” I asked.

“Everyone poops white once in their life.”

“What?!” I laughed loudly.

“It’s true,” she said seriously and scientifically.

“How does it work?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t read that far.”

“Now I’m excited for mine,” I confessed.

“I think I might be sad when it happens. One more step closer to death. It’s like marriage.”

“Maybe I’ve already had it. It’s not like I look every time.”

“That’s definitely something to worry about.”

The conversation mutually ended abruptly and we both went back to our respective work.

Presently a laugh came from the hallway shrill enough for both of us to turn our heads without making any kind of attempt to see the perpetrator.

“No laughter here,” I said in a condemnatory tone.

“Especially on a Tuesday.”

“I could see maybe on a Thursday or possible on a Monday. But a Tuesday when it’s sunny outside?”

“Bastards!” she said scornfully.

“Bastards!” I agreed.

Again the conversation ended as suddenly as it had begun as she turned her head back to her computer and I to my text.

“I hate white people,” said the girl after several minutes of silent study. PS, both people in the room were white at that point.

“Me, too,” I said, “But why in particular now?”

“In my sociology class we’re looking at this situation where, well basically what happened was a black kid sat beneath a tree where usually only white kids sat. The next day nooses were hanging from the tree. The school didn't really do anything about it calling it a harmless prank. So the a bunch of black kids in the school staged a peaceful protest where they gathered under the tree at lunch. With mounting racial tensions, the white kids and black kids got in a fight. One of the white kids suffered a mild concussion and went to the hospital. The kid was fine and even went to basketball practice later that evening. But six black kids got arrested and are looking at spending the rest of their lives in jail for ‘attempted second degree murder.’”

“Damn. Where did it happen?” I asked.

“Louisiana.”

“When was this?”

“It was like--hang on,” she focused on her computer for a moment, “last year.”

“What?! It was this century? I just figured it was a long time ago.”

“I know.”

“Good Lord. What's the webpage?” I reached over and grabbed my laptop from it’s unceremonious place on the floor. A moment later I was reading through the story. One white woman living in the town said in response to the suggestion that the arrests were racist, “Oh, there’s nothing like that here. The nooses were a simple harmless practical joke. The little dickenses are always playing little jokes on each other. Our little town doesn’t have any type of racist problem.”

You goddamn fucking bitch. That’s because you’re an ignorant asshole, I thought, becoming aggravated. I imagined strangling her just for a moment and then pulled myself together. Calm down, I demanded of myself and obeyed. I continued reading.

After the protest by the black students where they stood under the tree, the school administration called the DA. A singular white District Attorney Larry Burgheart spoke to the black students in a small quiet group. At one point he pulled a pen out of his jacket pocket and emphasized, “With a scribble of my pen, I can stop your heart from beating.”

At that my head almost exploded. You goddamned son of a bitch. You’re supposed to be an adult. You’re supposed to be responsible, I ranted in my head. You bloody fucking bastard. I imagined saying to him, “I will have your head,” pause, “on a rusty iron platter because it’s worthy of nothing more.”

Stop it! I scolded myself. If you think like this you’re no better than the lawyer you hate. Hate. The word got stuck in my head. Well that’s what started all of this. Don’t do it. Don’t hate. You’re okay. I focused on breathing.

Yeah, sure, I’m okay, but those teenagers who are going to prison aren’t. And what about their families? Good lord, their ages range from 15-17. During that period I was an even stupider asshole than I am now. I paused to question that assumption without coming to a decisive conclusion.

I couldn’t help it. I cared. Out loud I said, “I hate white people.” That was all I could do to help the situation anyways. Hate.

I started thinking about the presentation I gave on Burma that morning. If Burma hadn’t have been assigned to me I would never have known about the situation there. Nor would I have known about the other situations in Asia I had listened to my classmates talk about.

Asia isn’t even generally accepted as the most troubled of continents, I thought.

You hear about those big violent episodes like Somalia and Darfur. Some, it seems, are even stylish to put a bumper sticker on your car about--like Tibet. But are there more violent conflicts I don't even know about?

I typed, ‘violent conflicts on earth today’ into the web browser and found that, according to Wikipedia, there are twenty-nine ongoing military conflicts causing violent deaths. I clicked on an external link regarding one entitled, ‘Lord’s Resistance Army Insurgency (LRA).’

The link took me to a webpage chiefly concerned with child refugees throughout the world. Out of the approximate 300,000 child soldiers currently in use today, this conflict in Uganda, it seemed, involved about a tenth of them. The actual Lord’s Resistance Army was comprised of only about 200 adults at its center being led by a man, widely regarded by the international community, as mad. The LRA was more of a cult than an army aside from its violent attacks on small rural villages. The blurb I read about the conflict stated that the LRA had been known to light villages on fire at night and attack the fleeing residents. There had been accounts of them cutting off a mother’s leg and then forcing her child to eat it in front of her before abducting the child and using him or her as a soldier.

I didn’t swear this time. I just felt dizzy.

Then I got over it. What else could I do?

Nighttime found me in my own dorm room alone sitting on my bed again with a text book in my lap reading assigned pages. I flipped a page and instead of continuing the sentence that had been broken between the two paper worlds I got distracted by the picture in front of me. It was of a little dark skinned boy kneeling on the ground with his forehead to the dirt so you couldn’t see his face. His tiny limbs looked like twigs furled around a distended belly. In the background of the black and white photo sat a vulture.

A tide of pain as real as a fist knocked the wind out of me. I looked up away from the text and stared out of the window at the black night. The stars looked so cold.

I felt unworthy to live. Who was I to live in this comparative luxury, safety, and security when so many people were suffering RIGHT NOW!? Who the hell did I think I was? Good God, as a consumer in a rich nation I couldn’t even buy groceries without causing injustice to someone. At that moment I recognized what role I was playing. You know in novels when the good guy is the one who’s being unjustly oppressed or hurt in some manner by the bad guy and then there’s the coward who sees the injustice but does nothing? And everyone who reads the story hates that guy almost more than the villain? Yo. That’s me.

If only I could cry. I’ve felt that way often. If only I could have cried it would at least have been a release and cathartic and maybe everything would have been better. But I couldn’t because I was empty. So I stared vacantly at the icy stars.

“I can’t,” I said to them after a long moment. “I can’t do it. I can’t live in a world where this happens. I can’t. Either this goes, or I go,” I threatened the universe with my suicide and then I stared myself to sleep as the stars looked icily down at me.

The next morning I woke up to the sun. Things felt lighter. Darkness seems to aggravate depression. When the sun comes up, often the despair of the night fades away. It’s like when you’re happy you can remember feeling differently, but it seems silly. Like it was never really that bad and you were just being ridiculous.

This was one of those mornings. I was back to my old self and feeling great. I turned on my computer and saw that a hurricane had hit a little country I had never heard of before and the dictator government wouldn’t allow planes with aid from the international community to land.

I laughed out loud and looked out my window at the hidden stars. “Looks like you called my bluff,” I said to them, referring to my empty threat the night before.

But as the remnants of the smile from my cynical laugh faded, the same old recorder played in my head. Goddamn I hate life. I don’t want to go to class. And even worse, work. I can’t do it. Not today. I gotta get out of here. Don’t make me. I’m trapped.

The world, it seemed, was a reflection of my internal state. I seemed to be in the same pit as Yeats-the one broad noon had never reached. I often tried to let go of the things I learned in school--to make myself not care about the state of the world because I felt like I couldn’t do anything about it anyways. There’s nothing as disheartening as learning about something unjust, feeling a connection with the class and the professor, feeling like we’re in it together--to try to change it somehow--and then getting a poor grade back on a paper. It’s always a reminder of priorities. The grades were at the top of the hierarchy, not the people we learned about. So I tried not to care even though so much of what I learned about was heart-breaking.

But at the same time I knew that the external world hadn’t made me what I was. The world seemed vile to me because that was the state I had chosen for myself as well. I couldn’t remember a time when I wasn’t miserable and therefore believed I would be forever. Forgetting, after all, is the devastation of humanity.

Booze is the quickest way out of hell if you happen to be there. Only temporary, though. It’s like a day pass. Field trip! Woo!

It was 4am on a Sunday morning, technically speaking. The party was winding down into an unstructured display of human decadence and frivolity. If those had been the days of kings there would have been grapes. Two naked people ran down the hallway in front of me. Since I was sitting cross-legged on the floor all I saw was putty color, thank God. I myself was drunk off my ass and stoned out of my mind. That’s right, I had neither ass nor mind at the time. I’m a medical miracle.

I was sitting there talking to my best friend. She wasn’t quite as out of it as I was. Why was I sitting quietly talking to my best friend at a party who I talk to everyday anyways instead of doing something awesome and crazy like everyone else? Mind your own goddamn business. It was my college experience and I did what I wanted with it.

My friend the religion major made the point, “But it gives them hope.” That was the only thing I remember her saying the whole conversation through. Like I said I was pretty far gone at the time. I don’t remember everything.

“I hate religion because (that’s exactly what I said, too--’I hate religion…’) it makes people apathetic towards this world and this life. They focus on a world that may or may not be real. People think that wrong-doers are going to be punished after death and victims will be rewarded for their suffering so they do nothing to make this world better now.”

“But it gives them hope,” was all I remember her saying.

I had just come home to the dorms from church and felt like going for a walk. Yes, I went to church. I was looking for something.

I was wearing a pair of brown knee-high leather boots, a plaid skirt, a burnt orange tee with a white cardigan, brown eyeliner and brown eye shadow. My hair was long, straight, and shiny. My Sunday best is a stark contrast from my normal daily squalor. I was the image of conservative sexy. I can honestly get any guy I want. I look that good. Honestly, any guy (I am a pompous asshole, though). But they’re boring. They don’t really get to know you and just judge you by your appearance. Because they like what they see they start putting all sorts of random complimentary adjectives in front of your name that don’t even make sense. All along you know that if they really did get to know you, they’d see how vile you really are. Thank god they’re shallow. Sometimes you’re just dying for some type of human contact that it doesn’t even matter if it’s a lie.

Anyways, I felt like going for a walk. Okay I'm lying to you. I don't even know why. I was walking to a friend's house for dinner. It was like a ten minute drive and I didn't feel like driving. That left walking. I had been walking for about a half hour already and I decided to cut across a parking lot of a grocery store. There were other stores there, too--a pizza place, a running store, a medical supply store. Those always give me the creeps. The parking lot was completely empty because it was a Sunday and this was Utah. As I was cutting across the parking lot heading towards the opposite sidewalk, a woman came walking down the part of the sidewalk that I had missed by my expedition through the asphalt. From a distance I judged that our trajectories would intersect. Not just intersect, but become tangent since I was planning on turning. I felt uncomfortable. As I got closer it became official. We would pretty much be walking down the same sidewalk at the same time. I scowled and my stomach churned and I looked about for a way to avoid the situation. This may seem like an overreaction to you, but generally people don't feel like walking because they want to make small talk with a stranger. I thought about weaving across the parking lot to give her some time to get ahead of me, but I was already getting tired from walking and I just wanted to arrive at my destination and eat food. I thought about either speeding up or slowing down, but I had already allowed too much time to elapse to make these solutions viable. I conceded.

"Well you're very pretty," she said from a ways off yet. I am not kidding. That's what she said. Yep. That's how good I look. Even a strange middle aged woman walking down the street makes a comment about it (she was albeit, mentally not all there I would deduce after a few exchanges). I'm not even that thin. I'm pretty normal sized. And my boobs are small. If I had $20,000 I would get a boob job in a heart beat. If there was a starving person beside me and I had exactly $20,000 and a boob job cost exactly $20,000 including tax so there was no way I could get a boob job and buy my fellow man a meal as well, I would get the boob job. That's just the type of person I am. I know. I agree. When the founding fathers outlawed cruel and unusual punishment, they weren't accounting for people like me. Well, we can all rest assured that the punishments of God aren't bound by the laws of the land.

Anyways, the dowdy woman with unkempt man-hair shuffled along in an oversized windbreaker and unflattering black jeans.

"Thank you," I said curtly without looking directly at her. I try not to be rude but I always am anyways. I walked just a bit quicker to move a little ways in front of her along the sidewalk and tried to pretend I was still alone.

"He left me, you know," she said from behind me.

I kind of turned awkwardly to look at her as I walked and mumbled something like, "Did he?"

"He just wanted me for my money." Whoever he was he must have been pretty poor because this woman didn't look like she had any money. I was wondering if she was homeless and was kind of debating if I should give her money, but I hate giving away money and also if she wasn't I didn't want to offend her. This was excuse enough for me to not make the attempt.

"He said he loved me, but he just wanted my money."

"I'm sorry," I said, trying to make my tone sound sympathetic though I don't think it would have mattered much.

"He took my money, too. And then he left."

"Do you have a place to live?" I asked.

"But I'm glad he's gone. I loved him. And he said he loved me, too. But it was a lie. I'm glad he's gone."

"That's rough."

"He left me, you know."

"How long were you together?" I asked after a pause.

"Seven years," she said. She was more coherent than I might have given her credit for.

"That's a long time."

"But now he's gone. It was just the money."

"Why would he have stayed with you for seven years if he just wanted your money?" I asked, trying to make a logical point that might cheer her up.

"I paid the rent. He tried different things. He was a mechanic. He tried to open his own shop. When that didn't work he got a job somewhere else. I paid the bills."

"Oh," I said.

"And then he took my money and left. Now I don't have any money left."

"Are you okay?" I asked. Believe it or not I was genuinely concerned. I have a heart.

"He left me, you know," was all she said.

I came to my turn and our paths parted. She was the one to initiate goodbyes.

"It was nice to meet a pretty girl," she said. "Best of luck to you," I said and continued on my way. As I walked I looked over my shoulder at the small strange woman. Unwittingly, my eyebrows furrowed in concern.

A step later I sighed and turned back to my path. What could I do anyways?

“Pray,” my mother said. It was later that day (she likes to talk to me every Sunday). But what good would that do? I gave up prayers of supplication in childhood. They don’t do anything. They’re just whiny. Anyways if it was all true and God gave us everything and then we asked him for something else, in all seriousness of our heart, something that we don’t realize, but in the whole scheme of things is utterly and completely petty, that would be dumb. In my experience getting what you want is the quickest way to hell. So the only other type of prayer left is one of gratitude, and I wasn’t feeling particularly grateful.

Nevertheless, I don’t make the rules, cinematic media does. I learned all my life lessons from cable. I don’t argue with this the highest law and when people in movies need help they go sit in a Catholic church at night. I was in Utah so I went to a Mormon temple. I didn’t care. I don’t discriminate between Gods as long as they don‘t discriminate between me's. And there’s only one of me so that would be difficult. The only qualifications I have for a God are all-powerfulness and benevolence. Those seemed like two solid traits for a God to have. So that ruled out angry mythological gods and nature. I wore a big jacket, gloves, a hat, and a scarf, partly to keep out the cold and partly to hide my face from the world.

I got out of my car in a well-maintained parking lot. Street lights shed their precipitation on cultivated gardens of shrubbery still green in the winter. Must be the holy magical grounds that foster only life, I concluded.

I wasn’t exactly allowed inside the building since I wasn’t Mormon and it was closed at this late hour anyways. My plan was just to walk around the grounds.

All-powerful and benevolent, I thought as I moved down a dark path through the gardens that surrounded the building. It reminded me of a proposition by Socrates I had learned about in my Classical Philosophy class my first year in college. 'The Problem with Evil,' as it’s called basically says that if evil exists, how can an omnipotent, benevolent God exist as well? It must be that either God can’t get rid of evil and is therefore not omnipotent, or God doesn’t care to get rid of it, and is therefore not benevolent. Most churches get around this idea with the concept of ‘free agency.’

As I walked around the deserted grounds with my hands shoved in my pockets and my face buried under my jacket collar and my scarf, I turned this idea over in my head. I realized that I wasn’t satisfied with the explanation of free agency. So the children of God are allowed to progressively invent more and more brutal ways to torture each other because they’re supposedly on Earth to learn and at this point they don’t know any better? That’s bullshit. Parents don’t let their kids hurt other kids just because they don’t know any better. And supposedly this Christian God is a really good parent. That’s what it says in Matthew 5. Whenever people quote the bible it’s always Matthew 5...or maybe 6.

Fuck that, I thought. God must not exist.

New criteria for my God, I thought. I decided I could have stringent criteria for my prospective God because if I couldn’t find one with a suitable resume I just wouldn’t have one. I had gotten this far without one. God must be a better parent than mortal parents.

If evil exist, logically and all-powerful, benevolent God cannot, I thought again. If evil exists…

I came to an overlook behind the grand structure of piety. I leaned against the railing that blocked the drop-off and stared out over the lights of the city. And I looked up at those Goddamned stars. I don’t know why people like them so much. The little fuckers. They don’t do anything.

If evil exists…

The stars are probably the source of evil. Little springs of horror raining an invisible poison down on the Earth.

I know what you’re thinking. I don’t know why I hate the stars so much either. Okay, I relent the stars are probably not the foundation of evil.

If evil even exists…

I realized that in philosophizing about this dilemma, I had assumed that only two variables existed in the equation. If evil exists, how can an all-powerful, benevolent God exist? The characteristics of God, benevolence, and omnipotence, were in question, but what about evil?

Does evil exist? Well, how can I doubt that with all the givens?

But what if it doesn’t? What would that imply? That would mean that everything is good. Or maybe the lack of evil negates the existence of good if you believe in opposites. So either everything is good or everything just is. What would the point of everything be, then? With an all-powerful, benevolent God there…

Well, perhaps everything we experience in this life is for our own learning and growth.

Perhaps there is no evil.

It’s really easy for a relatively rich white girl living a life of comparative luxury to buy into a philosophy like that, I thought.

Things that go unresolved with this theory: 1) the major atrocities of the world 2) the huge disparity in suffering amongst different populations/individuals.

But still I felt something I hadn’t felt in a long time.

Perhaps everything I experience is for my own learning and growth--for my benefit.

I felt hope.

I’ll admit that I understand very little and I am very confused about most things. But I was in the market for a God anyways. I hadn’t really been functioning well up to this juncture and if this was the philosophy I needed to satisfy the logical part of my brain enough to believe in something positive, maybe that was enough. And--

Hope is very important. I had already known that, but I forgot how damaging hopelessness could be--to myself and to the world. I felt that there were other things I had forgotten as well. Perhaps I could rediscover those things, too. Forgetting is the devastation of humanity.

I took a deep breath of the sharp winter air as I looked out at the lights--

And smiled.

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"The grades were at the top of the hierarchy, not the people we learned about." Classic line, I think the one that best encapsulates the first half of your piece. The colloquial nature of her thoughts and the somewhat frenetic pace of the...

"The grades were at the top of the hierarchy, not the people we learned about." Classic line, I think the one that best encapsulates the first half of your piece. The colloquial nature of her thoughts and the somewhat frenetic pace of the protagonist's inner struggle strengthened the work overall. It may needed streamlined in a few places ... the Q & A with Betty Brashu was somewhat perplexing as I couldn't follow the exchange. That could just be me, however. I always give my prose the "common man" test. I let (or sometimes force!) a person to read it that doesn't particularly like literature and see if he or she likes it and can fully follow it. Their "common sense" works wonders for a short story.

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