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The O. Henry Prize Stories 2014 gathers twenty of the best short stories of the year, selected from thousands published in literary magazines. The winning stories roam the world, from Nigeria to Venice, from an erupting volcano in Iceland to a brothel in the old Wild West. They feature a dazzling array of characters: a young American falling in love in Japan, a girl raised by snake-handling fundamentalists, an old man mourning his late wife, and a fierce guard dog with a talent for escape. Accompanying the ...
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The O. Henry Prize Stories 2014 gathers twenty of the best short stories of the year, selected from thousands published in literary magazines. The winning stories roam the world, from Nigeria to Venice, from an erupting volcano in Iceland to a brothel in the old Wild West. They feature a dazzling array of characters: a young American falling in love in Japan, a girl raised by snake-handling fundamentalists, an old man mourning his late wife, and a fierce guard dog with a talent for escape. Accompanying the stories are the editor’s introduction, essays from the eminent jurors on their favorite stories, observations from the winning writers on what inspired them, and an extensive resource list of magazines.
Mark Haddon, “The Gun,” Granta
Stephen Dixon, “Talk,” The American Reader
Tessa Hadley, “Valentine,” The New Yorker
Olivia Clare, “Pétur,” Ecotone
David Bradley, “You Remember The Pin Mill,” Narrative
Kirstin Valdez Quade, “Nemecia,” Narrativemagazine.com
Dylan Landis, “Trust,” Tin House
Allison Alsup, “Old Houses,” New Orleans Review
Halina Duraj, “Fatherland,” Harvard Review
Chanelle Benz, “West of the Known,” The American Reader
William Trevor, “The Women,” The New Yorker
Colleen Morrissey, “Good Faith,” The Cincinnati Review
Robert Anthony Siegel, “The Right Imaginary Person,” Tin House
Louise Erdrich, “Nero,” The New Yorker
Rebecca Hirsch Garcia, “A Golden Light,” Threepenny Review
Chinelo Okparanta, “Fairness,” Subtropics
Kristen Iskandrian, “The Inheritors,” Tin House
Michael Parker, “Deep Eddy,” Southwest Review
Maura Stanton, “Oh Shenandoah,” New England Review
Laura van den Berg, “Opa-Locka,” The Southern Review
The Jurors on Their Favorites: Tash Aw, James Lasdun, Joan Silber
The Writers on Their Work
Daniel stands in the funnel, a narrow path between two high brick walls that join the playground to the estate proper. On windy days, the air is forced through here then spun upward in a vortex above the square of so-called grass between the four blocks of flats. Anything that isn’t nailed down becomes airborne. Washing, litter, dust. Grown men have been knocked off their feet. A while back there was a story going round about a flying cat.
Except there’s no wind this morning, there hasn’t been any wind for days, just an unremitting mugginess that makes you want to open a window until you remember that you’re outside. Mid-August. A week since the family holiday in Magaluf, where he learned backstroke and was stung by a jellyfish, a week till school begins again. He is ten years old. Back at home his older sister is playing teacher and his younger brother is playing pupil again. Helen is twelve, Paul seven. She has a blackboard and a little box of chalks in eight colors and when Paul misbehaves she smacks him hard on the leg. His mother is doing a big jigsaw of Venice on the dining table while the tank heats for the weekly wash.
He can see the white legs of a girl on the swings, appearing, disappearing, appearing, disappearing. It is 1972. “Silver Machine” and “Rocket Man.” He cannot remember ever having been this bored before. He bats a wasp away from his face as a car door slams lazily in the distance, then steps into the shadow of the stairwell and starts climbing toward Sean’s front door.
There will be three other extraordinary events in his life. He will sit at dusk on the terrace of a rented house near Cahors with his eight-year-old son and see a barn on the far side of the valley destroyed by lightning, the crack of white light appearing to come not from the sky but to burst from the ground beneath the building.
He will have a meeting with the manager of a bespoke ironworks near Stroud, whose factory occupies one of three units built into the side of a high railway cutting. Halfway through the meeting a cow will fall through the roof and it won’t be anything near as funny as it sounds.
On the morning of his fiftieth birthday his mother will call and say that she needs to see him. She will seem calm and give no explanation and despite the fact that there is a large party planned for the afternoon he will get into the car and drive straight to Leicester only to find that the ambulance has already taken his mother’s body away. Only later, talking to his father, will he realize that he received the phone call half an hour after the stroke which killed her.
Today will be different, not simply shocking but one of those moments when time itself seems to fork and fracture and you look back and realize that if things had happened only slightly differently, you would be leading one of those other ghost lives that sped away into the dark.
Sean is not a friend as such but they play together because they are in the same class at school. Sean’s family lives on the top floor of Orchard Tower whereas Daniel’s family lives in a semidetached house on the approach road. Daniel’s mother says that Sean’s family are a bad influence but she also says that television will damage your eyes if you sit too close and that you will die if you swim in the canal, and in any case Daniel likes their volume, their expansiveness, their unpredictability, the china greyhounds on either side of the gas fire, Mr. Cobb’s red BMW which he polishes and T-Cuts lovingly on Saturday mornings. Sean’s older brother, Dylan, works as a plasterer and carpenter and they have a balcony which looks over the ring road to the woods and the car plant and the radio mast at Bargave, a view which excites Daniel more than anything he saw from the plane window between Luton and Palma because there is no glass and you feel a thrilling shiver in the back of your knees as you lean over and look down.
He steps out of the lift and sees Sean’s mother leaving the flat, which is another thing that makes Daniel envious, because when his own mother goes to the shops he and Paul and Helen have to accompany her. Try and keep him out of trouble. Mrs. Cobb ruffles his hair and sweeps onward. She is lighting a cigarette as the silver doors close over her.
Sean’s jumbled silhouette appears in the patterned glass of the front door and it swings open. I’ve got something to show you.
He beckons Daniel into Dylan’s bedroom. You have to keep this a total secret.
Daniel has never been in here before. Dylan has explicitly forbidden it and Dylan can bench-press 180 pounds. He steps off the avocado lino of the hall onto the swirly red carpet. The smell of cigarettes and Brut aftershave. It feels like the bedroom of a dead person in a film, every object freighted with significance. Posters for Monty Python and The French Connection. “Jimmy Doyle Is the Toughest.” A motorbike cylinder head sits on a folded copy of the Daily Express, the leaking oil turning the newsprint waxy and transparent. There is a portable record player on the bedside table, the lid of the red leatherette box propped open and the cream plastic arm crooked around the silvered rod in the center of the turntable. Machine Head. Thick as a Brick. Ziggy Stardust.
You have to promise.
Because this is serious.
Sean tugs at the pine handle of the wardrobe and the flimsy door comes free of the magnetic catch. On tiptoe Sean takes down a powder-blue shoebox from the top shelf and lays it on the khaki blanket before easing off the lid. The gun lies in the white tissue paper that must have come with the shoes. Sean lifts it easily from its rustling nest and Daniel can see how light it is. Scuffed pigeon-gray metal. The words remington rand stamped into the flank. Two cambered grips are screwed to either side of the handle, chocolate brown and cross-cut like snakeskin for a better grip.
Sean raises the gun at the end of his straightened arm and rotates slowly so that the barrel is pointing directly into Daniel’s face. Bang, he says, softly. Bang.
Daniel’s father works at the local pool, sometimes as a lifeguard, more often on reception. Daniel used to be proud of the fact that everyone knew who his father was, but he is now embarrassed by his visibility. His mother works part-time as a secretary for the county council. His father reads crime novels. His mother does jigsaws which are stored between two sheets of plywood when the dining table is needed. Later in life when he is describing his parents to friends and acquaintances he will never find quite the right word. They aspired always to be average, to be unremarkable, to avoid making too much noise or taking up too much space. They disliked arguments and had little interest in the wider world. And if he is bored in their company during his regular visits he will never use the word boring because he is genuinely envious of their ability to take real joy in small things, and hugely grateful that they are not demonstrating any of the high-maintenance eccentricities of many of his friends’ retired and aging parents.
They walk across the living room and Sean turns the key before shunting the big glass door to one side. They step into heat and traffic noise. There is a faint brown smog, as if the sky needs cleaning. Daniel can feel sweat running down the small of his back.
Sean fixes the pistol on a Volvo traveling in one direction then follows an Alfa Romeo going the other way. We could kill someone and they’d never find out who did it. Daniel explains that the police would use the hole in the windscreen and the hole in the driver’s body to work out exactly where the shot came from. Elementary, my dear Watson, says Sean. Let’s go to the woods.
Is the gun loaded?
’Course it’s loaded, says Sean.
The woods rise up on the other side of the ring road, a swathe of no-man’s-land between town and country. People park their cars at the picnic area by Pennington on the far side of the hill and walk their dogs among the oak and ash and rowan, but the roar of the dual carriageway and the syringes and the crushed lager cans dissuade most of them from coming down its northern flank.
They wait on the grass verge, the warm shock waves of passing lorries thumping them and sucking at their clothes. Go, shouts Sean, and they sprint to the central reservation, vaulting the scratchy S-shaped barrier, pausing on the ribbon of balding grass then running across the second carriageway to the gritty lay-by with its moraine of shattered furniture and black rubbish bags ripped open by rats and foxes. All that bacteria cooking slowly. An upturned pram. They unhook the clanky gate where the rutted track begins. Sean has the gun in a yellow Gola bag thrown over his shoulder.
They pass the scrapyard with its corrugated-iron castellations. They pass the Roberts’ house. A horsebox with a flat tire, a floodlight roped to a telegraph pole. Robert Hales and Robert Hales and Robert Hales, grandfather, father and son, all bearing the same name and all living under the same roof. The youngest Robert Hales is two years above them at school. He has a biscuity unwashed smell and bones that look slightly too big for his skin. He used to come in with small animals in a cake tin, stag beetle, mouse, grass snake, but Donnie Farr grabbed the last of these and used it to chase other children round the playground before whipping its head against one of the goalposts. Robert pushed Donnie to the ground, took hold of the fingers of his left hand and bent them backward until two of them snapped.
The curtains in the Roberts’ house are closed, however, and there is no red van parked outside. They walk on toward the corner where the path narrows and turns into the trees. Slabs of dusty sunlight are neatly stacked between the branches. If it weren’t for the smell of exhaust fumes you could imagine that the roar of traffic was a great cataract pouring into a ravine to your left.
They find a clearing that contains the last few broken branches of a den they built earlier in the summer where they drank Tizer and smoked four menthol cigarettes which Sean had stolen from his mother’s handbag. Let’s do it here. Sean finds a log to use as a shooting gallery and sends Daniel off in search of targets. He climbs the boundary fence and searches among the hawthorn bushes which line the hard shoulder, coming back with two empty beer bottles, a battered plastic oilcan and a muddy teddy bear with both arms missing. He feels exhausted by the heat. He imagines standing on the lawn at home, squeezing the end of the hose with his thumb and making rainbows in the cold falling water. He arranges the objects at regular intervals along the log. He thinks about the child who once owned the teddy bear and regrets having picked it up but doesn’t say anything.
Sean raises the gun and moves his feet apart to brace himself. A deep cathedral quiet. The traffic stops. He can hear the shuttle of his own blood. He is not aware of the shot itself. The loose rattle of scattering birds. He sees Sean being thrown backward, as if a big animal has charged and struck him in the center of his chest mid-leap. The bear, the oilcan and the bottles are still standing.
Oh my God. Sean gets to his feet. Oh my God. He begins dancing. He has clearly never done anything this exciting in his life. Oh my God.
A military plane banks overhead. Daniel is both disappointed and relieved that he is not offered the second shot. Sean breathes deeply and theatrically. He braces himself again, wipes the sweat from his forehead with the arm of his T-shirt and raises the gun. The noise is breathtakingly loud. It seems obvious to Daniel that many, many people will have heard it.
What are you doing? It is the youngest Robert Hales.
They jump, both of them, but Sean recovers his composure quickest. What do you think we’re doing?
You’ve got a gun. Despite the heat Robert is wearing a battered orange cagoule.
Let me have a go.
Yeh, right, says Sean.
I want a go, says Robert. He steps forward. He is taller than Sean by a good six inches.
Just as he did in the bedroom, Sean lifts his arm until the gun is pointing directly at Robert’s face. No way, José.
Daniel realizes that Sean may kill Robert. He is excited by this possibility. He will be a witness to a crime. People will respect him and feel sorry for him.
Robert doesn’t move. Five, maybe ten seconds. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Daniel can’t tell if he’s terrified or utterly unafraid. Finally Robert says, I’m going to kill you, not in the way they say it to one another in the playground, but in the way you say, I’m going to the shop. He walks away without looking back. Sean aims at him till he vanishes. The two of them listen to the fading crunch of twigs and dry leaves under his trainers. Spastic. Sean lets his arm slump. Bloody spastic. He walks up to the teddy bear and places the barrel in the center of its forehead. Daniel thinks how similar they look, the bear and Robert, uninterested, staring straight ahead. But Sean can’t be bothered to waste another bullet. Shit. Robert’s appearance has made the adventure seem mundane. Sean throws the gun into the Gola bag. Let’s go.
They walk back through the woods, taking the long route that loops up the hill and comes out on the far side of the scrapyard, avoiding the Roberts’ house altogether. Gnats and dirty heat. Daniel has dog shit on his left shoe that he has not been able to scrape off completely.
His sister, Helen, was unexpectedly born breech. The cord became trapped while her head was coming out and she was deprived of oxygen. Daniel is not told about this until he is sixteen. He knows only that there is a light in her eyes which stutters briefly sometimes then comes back on. He knows only that she has trouble with numbers, money, telling the time.