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Susan Cox Is No Longer Here

A group of volunteers helps make sure people are not alone when they are dying:

I sat in the room with the volunteers. Every three hours one of them would leave, and someone else would appear in the doorway. Amanda, Denise, Martha, and others. Noon, midnight, 2 a.m., 6 p.m., a rhythm.

They had found NODA in various ways. Amanda Egler read about it in a news app on her phone. Her grandmother had died the previous year, and it was fresh in Amanda’s mind that the death had been something of beauty, that her grandmother had been conscious until the very end, thankful that a constant flow of people were in her presence, sitting with her, the room never empty. Amanda read about NODA and considered what it might be like to die alone. “This is something very simple, but so important,” she said. “Because everyone is going to die, and to give three hours of your life, at the end of someone else’s, seems like the right thing to do.” She went to the first NODA volunteer meeting, just to listen.

PUBLISHED: Dec. 3, 2013
LENGTH: 32 minutes (8100 words)

The Old Man and the Tee

A 29-year-old combat veteran returns home, then decides to try to walk on as a kicker for Wyoming:

"Noble took a job for his uncle's hay-brokerage company, throwing bales from trucks into the barn lofts of thoroughbred horse farms, sometimes 720 of them a day. He told the stories of walking dusty streets and climbing mountains in Afghanistan, of recognizing Coke bottles full of sand with wires sticking out as IEDs. Stories of the other men of 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, of air strikes and snipers, being on a squad searching for a month for a high-target member of al-Qaeda. Stories of friends getting wounded, and killed. He went to the bowling alley with his old buddies, and patrons stopped to talk to him, and he was feted with free meals and drinks, and when he went to a high school football game, he would be announced, then stand on the bleachers and turn around and wave and feel the applause turn to him instead of the field. The first few months were as though he were home on leave, as though he were still a hero, and then the novelty of his presence wore off, and everything went back to the way it had been before he left.

"He got bored, and he got angry. It felt as if there was nothing for him, as if he were still in high school, hanging out with his old friends, who hadn't changed, and who, as time passed, treated him as though he hadn't either. He went to bars and listened to arguments and complaints about problems that were petty compared with what he had seen. He did not want to be home anymore. 'I'm not the type of guy who goes out to look at the stars and wonder about things,' he says, but one night a few months after he came home, he did just that."
PUBLISHED: Jan. 25, 2013
LENGTH: 11 minutes (2979 words)

Longreads Best of 2012: Justin Heckert

Justin Heckert is a writer living in Indianapolis. His work has recently been anthologized in the book Next Wave: America's New Generation of Great Literary Journalists.

Read more guest picks from Longreads Best of 2012.
PUBLISHED: Dec. 29, 2012

The Hazards of Growing Up Painlessly

Georgia teenager Ashlyn Blocker is learning to navigate through the world despite not being able to feel pain:

"The girl who feels no pain was in the kitchen, stirring ramen noodles, when the spoon slipped from her hand and dropped into the pot of boiling water. It was a school night; the TV was on in the living room, and her mother was folding clothes on the couch. Without thinking, Ashlyn Blocker reached her right hand in to retrieve the spoon, then took her hand out of the water and stood looking at it under the oven light. She walked a few steps to the sink and ran cold water over all her faded white scars, then called to her mother, 'I just put my fingers in!' Her mother, Tara Blocker, dropped the clothes and rushed to her daughter’s side. 'Oh, my lord!' she said — after 13 years, that same old fear — and then she got some ice and gently pressed it against her daughter’s hand, relieved that the burn wasn’t worse."
PUBLISHED: Nov. 15, 2012
LENGTH: 23 minutes (5802 words)

The Town that Blew Away

It smelled like Pine-Sol. Of all the things that night to startle the senses, that’s what nearly everyone remembered. The trees smelled like that after they broke. The sky cleared. The breeze hushed up, and the stars popped out. John English found a flashlight and walked over what was left of his property. His johnboat was hanging up in a tree. Billy Briscoe helped pull Carlos Viera out from beneath the concrete slab of his family’s home, which had been turned and scattered all over the Porter property. John English checked on the Porters; Mike Porter went over to see about Ms. Willis. The houses were gone.
PUBLISHED: Oct. 1, 2011
LENGTH: 22 minutes (5504 words)

Lost in the Waves

Swept out to sea by a riptide, a father and his 12-year-old son struggle to stay alive miles from shore. As night falls, with no rescue imminent, the dad comes to a devastating realization: If they remain together, they’ll drown together.
PUBLISHED: Nov. 9, 2009
LENGTH: 25 minutes (6452 words)

Greetings from Helen

(Featured Longreader Justin Heckert's pick of the week.) Every September, Helen, a town of 750 people clustered on two square miles in a mountain valley, braces to accommodate up to 300,000 guests over the course of this uber-party. Steins will be hoisted; spindly, pale thighs will chafe under lederhosen; and someone inevitably will fall and sprain an ankle while doing the ungainly “chicken dance,” providing onlooking buddies with enough snickering material for another Blue Collar Comedy Tour. Other spectacles just as memorable, but not likely to be remembered clearly, will unfold in the tavern parking lots, including fist-fights, heaving expurgations, and acts of urgent carnal release—sometimes all involving the same two people. In a strange hybrid of highland folkways, Helen is where gemütlichkeit—the arm-linking, swaying-together fellowship of the Alps—abets the hell-raising volatility of Appalachia.
PUBLISHED: Sept. 1, 2009
LENGTH: 14 minutes (3717 words)

Letter to a Young Reporter

Ten years ago, Justin Heckert emailed Walt Harrington a few clips and asked for some advice.
PUBLISHED: April 4, 2000
LENGTH: 19 minutes (4903 words)