The Kissing Disease by Jeffrey Winter

It is strange the way they encourage us to seek out and squirm into places which are usually forbidden to us, but we are having too much fun to waste time questioning. Miles has spent most of the morning under Ms. Collars’ desk, rummaging through the small collection of shoes she keeps there, searching through the drawers for confiscated phones or the giant wad of gum she is rumored to fashion from the pieces we spit into the trash can throughout the year.

I have chosen the coat closet for my hiding place. For most of the morning I have been burrowing into a giant pile of coats, each bearing a tag marked with its owner’s initials. I have been bathing in the various smells, luxuriating in the strange imagined home lives of my classmates. I have always wanted to do this; I have fantasized about it for hours on end while Ms. Collars droned on and on about the branches of the government and the water cycle. For me – for all of us, I think – this day is a dream come true.

One of the other teachers is said to have rappelled down from the roof to the window of her classroom, tapping on the glass with a ruler and shouting, “I can still see you!” to a number of students who didn’t reckon on being looked for from that particular angle, sending them screaming delightedly to find new, more secure spaces in which to secrete themselves. Ms. Collars is far too old and hefty to pull off such a stunt; she strolls up and down the hall, past the windows, gripping her own ruler at shoulder-level and peering into the room with the same squint with which she searches our class daily for “cheaters and malingerers,” as she calls them. One glimpse of a cowlick, one flash of the sole of a shoe, and she barges into the room and bellows out the name of the student she has spotted. She asks him or her how his or her parents would feel. Then she exits the room and we try again.

The lights are off; anyone passing by would assume the room is empty. Signs have been placed on each door: LIBRARY. FIELD TRIP. BACK IN A JIFFY. The silence is delicious. Some of us fall asleep, safe in the warmth of our hiding places. Some of us whisper to friends across the room from our secret stations. Some of us shush each other while others start giggling and cannot stop. Then comes the tapping of the ruler on the glass, and all noises immediately cease.

The whole afternoon is like this. In the morning, up until lunch, we ran No Time to Hide drills, in which we are given ten seconds (counted over the loudspeaker by our principal, Mr. Weller) to search for items which could be used as weapons and then present them to Ms. Collars. I brought up an English textbook and was awarded a single star. Miles brought a staple remover he keeps in his backpack and was given three stars, which he stuck to the front of his shirt. Later in the morning Mr. Weller poked his head in the door and said, “Oh, look at this! A whole galaxy of stars!” Then he moved on to the class next door and we could hear him use the same line.

In a few minutes teachers from all over the school will storm our classroom, brandishing their rulers before them and screaming. They will uncover each of our hiding places, and when we are found we are to stand up and hold our “weapon” out in front of us. The longer we can stand still without laughing, crying or running – all while the teachers scream and jab their rulers within inches of our faces – the more stars we will be awarded. The winning class receives the Bravery Star and is given a picnic lunch on the last day of the school year. The act of standing still with our “weapons” in front of us is supposed to signify an “attack.” When Mr. Weller told us about it at the assembly he grinned and said, “That’s right! You actually get to attack your teacher! About time, right?” Then he kept nodding his head and everyone was quiet.

I lie back on the coats and listen to the sounds of the raid taking place a few doors down the hall. Next to me a purple coat – I can’t see the initials – begins to move. I pull at it and and uncover the head of Sara Guidry, who begins to giggle up at me. I had not realized she was here. I thought I was alone. I smile back, then reach over to pluck a purple sequin from her cheek. And then, not understanding what I am doing or why, I lean over and kiss her. I kiss her on her lips, which taste like syrup and stick to my own. And neither of us says a word.

My father once told me to keep away from girls, winking at my mother and explaining the dangers of the kissing disease, which he said could keep me laid up in bed for up to a month. Later, when I asked about it again, he said, “Honestly? It’s probably worth it,” and I wasn’t sure if he was talking about the pleasure of the thing that caused it or the time away from school that would result from contracting it. Lying on the coats next to Sara I hear the classroom next door erupt in shrill squeals and laughter – a voice I recognize as Ms. Collars’ cries, “Don’t you know how much danger you’re in?” and rulers rattle on desktops. I stare up at the ceiling and I can feel, deep inside me somewhere, the first tentative movement of the virus.


 

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Jeffrey Winter is a married father of two young children and a high school English teacher in Cypress, Texas. He has been published in The Collagist, Pif Magazine, Eunoia Review, and others.

The Panther by Jamie Cooper

I dreamed there was a panther loose in our neighborhood. I tracked the panther until I found it crouching beneath a little girl’s bedroom window down the block. It did not attack me. Instead, it followed me home, and I had to sneak it into my bedroom where I gave it food and water and hid it from the hunters and zookeepers and the neighborhood watch committee that had organized a special task force to capture or kill the beast. The task force dressed in all black and wore black ski masks and carried butterfly nets and you could tell the women from the men because of the form-fitting outfits. The zookeepers wore safari outfits and also carried butterfly nets and were all short, stocky men with handlebar mustaches. The hunters wore orange camo shirts and Stetsons and tapered blue jeans with white Nikes and carried semiautomatic handguns with silencers.

I fed the panther milk and cereal from my favorite bowl, which was decorated with dinosaurs, and the panther looked at me as if it wanted to say something but couldn’t because we did not speak the same language. So instead it laid down in a parallelogram of light coming through the bedroom window and yawned and licked its paws and squinted at the sun. I tried out different disguises on the panther: a novelty Groucho Marx mask, a blonde wig with sunglasses, a trench coat and fedora ensemble.
Then there was a knock at the door, and it was my mother, who was delivering an important package. I said I was sorry I hadn’t been home for several days, tried to explain that I’d undertaken a secret mission regarding the missing panther and that I hoped she could find it in her heart to forgive me, but she looked at me sadly and walked away without saying a word.

I wanted to set the panther free. I wanted to fly it first-class to the nearest jungle and push it out of the airplane with a parachute strapped to its back. I wanted to watch the panther, at the threshold where the jungle meets the civilized world, take its first cautious steps toward freedom, to look back at me with a sort of longing, as if to say something like farewell, as if to ask me with its eyes if this was what I really wanted for the both of us. I wanted to watch it vanish into the brush as if the mouth of the jungle had opened up and swallowed it whole.

When I got back to my room, the panther had disappeared. I searched the neighborhood for hours. Eventually, I found a set of bloody paw prints leading back to my garage and heard the angry rabble of the nearby mob. When I went into the garage, it was pitch black inside. It was like stepping through a portal to a place outside of time. I swallowed the blackness whole and felt our hearts beating in the syncopated rhythm of our shared mammalian fear. I listened to its low steady growl that seemed to be coming from inside me now.


 

Jamie Cooper is a 2004 graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His work has appeared in TYPOColorado Review, Parthenon West, and elsewhere. He teaches English and writes about the NBA for UPROXX Sports. He lives in Portland, Oregon

My Coworker Haunts Me by Kathy Chamberlain

My co-worker haunts me. He died one evening in June, after Friday drinks at the pub. He roams the office floor, hanging around the water cooler, or hovering over newspapers, staring at his own face. The headlines are mocking: “Car crash marriage!” – too on the nose, or what’s left of Simon’s.

Now I look up from entering data. He’s popped up behind my computer screen. His eyes are the same dull green they always were, but the skin underneath them is grey. Partially collapsed into his rotting nose. I jump just a little every time.

“Jesus, Simon.” I look back at the screen and scroll through the October figures. How many armchairs did we sell?

He coughs.

I rest my hands on my knees. Swallow a yawn. Will my back to stay straight, though my shoulders are heavy. “Was there something you wanted?”

He crosses to my side of the desk. Leans down next to my ear. His breath makes mine catch. Simon lifts a black, earth-caked finger to my screen. I know he’s going for my formula bar.

“What’s wrong with it now?” I’ve triple checked it. He’s watched me triple check it. But he can’t leave me alone. Can’t leave.

I think I’ve figured it out. This office is a sanctuary for both of us. I could go home earlier. Clear the coffee mugs Chris litters my living room with, gifting me with brown rings on my coffee table, the pile of coasters untouched. Make the bed he quite literally rolls out of every morning. Ask him about his day before it’s time to throw pasta in a pan, load the dishwasher to the evening news, and set the alarm to do it all again. Chris will be home already, disappointed to find my driveway empty. But here I am. Well, here we are: Simon and I.

He’s decided his unfinished business is business. That, or it’s easier to be around me than her. The woman from the newspapers. She’s the reason he ran out of their front door and into the bonnet of a speeding taxi. He was broken before the impact shattered his pelvis and the pavement claimed half of his skin.

The reports have been almost as brutal. The local journalists swarmed around family friends, drawing out the dirty details, lapping the supposed truth up. If Simon could talk, I’d ask him what was more painful. Was it having his private life – private even to him until those last few moments – dredged up for all to read about?

Or was it the indignity of dying beneath the window of that bedroom, unable to forget the image of his wife’s knickers wrapped around the bedpost? Her legs wrapped around someone else’s head.

I shiver. He’s had a rough time of it. I look back at the computer. “I’ll check it again.” Maybe I’m missing something. He’s got – he had – seven years’ more experience when I started. I can’t shake the feeling he knows things I don’t.

But I don’t find anything, and he’s unwilling or unable to speak up. I leave him there at seven-thirty.

Later that night, Chris presses a tired kiss to my forehead and rolls off me. I smooth the silk of my nightgown out over my thighs. I return his smile politely.

Chris cocoons me in a tangle of limbs. And I know that Simon’s wife could throw her legs around hishead and I’d feel only a vague sense of surprise. My stomach tenses under the sudden impact of that. The feeling builds and burns under my skin.

I know, unlike Simon, that I could walk out of this door and into the street and live, and live and live.


 

Kathy ChamberlainKathy Chamberlain moved to Swansea in 2011 when she embarked on her postgraduate studies. She’s a fan of circular narratives and plain style prose. Kathy teaches undergraduate classes in creative writing and English literature. She’s been shortlisted by Flash500 and longlisted by The London Independent Story Prize. Her most recent publications include FlashFlood, Hypnopomp Magazine, and The Cabinet Of Heed. She tweets @KathyChmberlain

What We Deserve by Wendy Oleson

We deserved new snow that morning, snow that had fallen all night, accumulating, blanketing, heavy and wet. We wanted it coated with ice, a slick shell perfect for sledding and canceling school. Hadn’t we earned this after what happened with Mr. Hendricks and Teena Paige Rodgers? Our minds forever corrupted by the Newsweek and baseball bat, the complicit schnauzer and Eric’s pant-load of a dad emailing everybody the FBI report? To be swallowed by snow forts, pelted by snow balls, and warmed in the sun’s reflection was to be healed. And given our circumstances, our need, the stakes higher than Mr. Hendricks in that report, we can’t overstate how it felt to see, from our bedroom window that morning, the heavy, gleaming porcelain bathtub under the oak tree, hunkered on dry, winter-dead grass.

Upon closer inspection, it didn’t gleam. There was the chalky skin Danny licked on a dare—not so remarkable, we’d cleaned toilets and tubs, weren’t strangers to soap scum—but the hair got to us. They weren’t our hairs or our mothers’ or brothers’ or even grandfathers’. Hair, many, many hairs missing their owners; hairs of the guilty and the victimized, the sick and confused, the inexplicably happy—who knew?—all these possible hairs comingling in our yard. After months of talk of DNA evidence, every local news broadcast a reminder, this bathtub flashed crime scene. The hairs were long and short, curly and straight. Alphabets of hair could be written, topographic maps drawn. But all we could think of were the corresponding bodies, their bereft follicles.

If there had been snow, could the tub have served as a sled? If there had been snow, could we have seen the footprints and/or tire tracks that led to the tub’s deposit under our tree, right on the hallowed spot (one of us realized with a shudder) Mittens and Marley were lain to rest? We’re left with too many questions and another day of school. Four more hours of standardized testing so they can know what we know. Pencil shavings and spent eraser flecks, Mr. Hendricks’s unsealed classroom taken over by Mrs. Briggs, and the knowledge like a half-popped kernel in our guts that nobody gets what they deserve.


 

Wendy Oleson_dorothy zbornak headshot

Wendy Oleson is author of Please Find Us (winner of the Gertrude Press 2017 Fiction Chapbook Contest) and Our Daughter and Other Stories (winner of the Map Literary 2016 Rachel Wetzsteon Chapbook Award). Her flash has most recently appeared in The Tahoma Review, Moon City Review, and Copper Nickel. She teaches for the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension and Washington State at Tri-Cities. Wendy lives with her wife in Walla Walla, WA.

Ice Story by Malwina Andruczyk

Here’s how I realized my family was poor. I grew up in a very small town in Poland where everyone knows one another and so the gossip can be vicious. We had a small market, a school, and a bus stop right on the edge of town where you could take a bus to the city or a bus to church. If you were in a plane flying over my town you would see a few red rooftops and mostly woods that seemed to go on and on. You might even think to yourself that you’d like to visit there one day, that being there would be a return to simple times and some kind of spiritual retreat.

I was still small enough to be completely dressed in one of those children’s coats that is a onesy. So it has a pants part and coat part all together.

The memory starts with us walking home from the lake. Since it was winter we would save money on bus fare by walking to church across the frozen lake in our town. The lake would get very frozen. Thick ice. It was always a cold winter in the part of Poland I’m from.

The mood was what I could back then only understand as “thick,” because I really understood moods in my family in terms of textures and levels of thickness, like those moods were something I could touch. My dad had either just gotten fired from a job or had just gotten paid for a job but spent most of the money drinking.

I was holding my mom’s hand, and my dad was walking alongside us when I saw it, “MONEY!” I shouted pointing at a spot in the road ahead of us. No one else saw it at first. They peered closer to the spot, and indeed there was a 10 złoty bill trapped underneath some ice right there at our feet. If you’re wondering if that’s a lot of money, it’s not. It’s no more than three dollars.

With no discussion, we all got down on our knees and started jabbing at the ground. My first attempt with just my gloved hands was useless so I found a little rock to pound at the ice with. My dad had his keys out and jab jab jabbed. My mom found a stick. The ice was melting a little where my knees were and some of the water was soaking into my coat, my wet gloved hands were starting to have that pins and needles feeling that would be followed by a wave of warmth—which was confusing because it was still really cold. At this point, I drifted up above us and saw the three of us on our knees in the ice and snow like that to get 10 złoty. That was when I realized we were poor.

Finally, our cold bony fingers got under the ice and the money was carefully and gently removed.

“She saw the money. It is hers!” my mom declared and handed it to me. I can never be sure if she had to say that so that my dad wouldn’t take it.

I carried it solemnly using both hands. It was on my open palms, handled so carefully and gently, like a patient after a serious surgery being taken to the recovery room.

As we got closer to the market my mom asked what I’d like to get with it. And though my knees were cold wet and numb, and my hands felt on frozen fire I wanted the same thing I always wanted but couldn’t get, “Ice cream!”

At the store I picked out the ice cream I wanted and paid the lady with my wet money. She clinked the register open and gave my mom a few coins of change, but laid the wet money out to dry on the counter next to the register. She handled it between the tips of her forefinger and thumb—as though she wanted to have as little contact with it as possible, this wet, cold, poor people money.

 


 

Malwina Andruczyk bio pic

Malwina Andruczyk is a New York-based writer and therapist. She is a 1.5 generation immigrant from Poland.

White Noise by Judy Xie

You have gone deaf in one ear, and I have not. Which is not to say that you don’t hear the noise under the sofa. We agree that the noise must go. But our approach to this varies. You say it must be covered, and I say it must be tackled. We say to each other that this noise must go. So we bring our weapons. In your hands you hold the tablecloth, you say that it can be smothered, and I hold my broomstick closely. We approach this noise slowly, and you say I must poke it. I tell you that I do not want to irritate the noise. I tell you to fill the crack. I say that the noise can not stay if there is not enough room. You say the tablecloth is not big enough. And although a broomstick and a tablecloth are two completely separate animals, they remain similar in their static positions. We decide that the noise can be dealt with another day.

I told you a month ago the noise had begun to make a ruckus. But you did not care until the noise began to make a ruckus by your good ear. The noise has learned to growl. I said it must go, but you said it didn’t matter. But now, it won’t stop grumbling during your favorite version of jeopardy. You cannot outscream its answers. It is breathing by your toes, and you say you can’t stand it any longer. We agree that the noise is a monster. Something must be done. So we approach the noise once again. I hold my broomstick close to my chest and you with the tablecloth at the ready. I say it must be poked. We must chase it out with my broom. Chase it into your arms- spread wide with the tablecloth. You say you do not want to touch it, that it is better to fill the crack. You say if I still loved you, I would fight the noise under the sofa. And of course, I still love you. We disagree even about this.

Today the noise decided to make a racket in my purse. At first, I didn’t realize that it was there. The noise made itself known between my nail appointment and walk to town. It began its incessant barking, as I waded past the cluster of people squinting into the dying sun. I blushed at this. I passed all the familiar places, the pizza store between the post office and the library where the view to the north wasn’t clouded by hills. And all this time, I held my hand over my purse, hoping to hush the noise. I moved through the crowds that gathered to watch the distant blue belt of the sky, and I wished madly for the silence, the unblinking in their eyes. Hands over shoulders, warm smiles. And I stood between cars and streets and bushes and lights. I thought that the sidewalk might be some sort of bridge. Some connection. I felt this quickening of possibility, like the touch of some other place. I didn’t know what I expected to discover there.

The noise finally stopped.

I saw you sitting behind the plate glass window of a restaurant on the opposite side of the street. I could see you talking to her from across the table, her face soft and casual. Your hands were cupped together behind the salt shaker, and her shoes stood imprinted on the carpet. You were stroking her left leg with your right foot, your toe arched and padded, curved around her calf. The image was clear.

The noise was quiet.
I held my purse by its belly. And shook out all the noise onto our kitchen table. Saw it for the first time. It was black and spotted with fur stuck on all wrong. It was a whimpering mess. It was disgusting. It didn’t even have eyes. And I thought if I loved you, I would beat out the noise. It must go. It must be tackled. And so I clutched my broomstick close to my chest. Held it up from the wrong end. My knuckles just above the bristles. You said once that the noise was no trouble really. It was small. I swing overhand and underhand. The noise is mangled now, and it looks nothing like when I started.

It looks nothing like when we started.

One foot dragging behind the other. It moves back under the sofa. And I collapse next to it. My head resting where your lap should be. My eyes scan the long lean of the afternoon sun as it slips through the living room blinds, staining our white, painted walls with yellow faded stripes. Think how the windows have stopped talking. Watch as those same stripes turn blue with the evening, bounce off the passing cars. And I sit by the noise. Line up our inhales and exhales perfectly. You know I do this. But you don’t know how much it matters.


 

Judy Xie’s writing has been nationally recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, Rider University, and the Festival of Books. She attends Mountain Lakes High School and has been published in PolyphonyHs, The Colombia Journal, Into the Void, and Noble / Gas Qrtly, among others.

There Will Be a Reconciliation by Shayne Terry

Today is not the day the blood clot will travel to Marian’s heart. Today it will stay in her leg, a coagulated mess nestled in a deep vein. It does what it’s been doing for months: slows the flow of blood or staunches it, just for a moment, a flashing red.

Marian rises on the third alarm and says to Liam that she feels rushed by brushing her teeth in the kitchen while unloading the dishwasher.

Liam spends his mornings leisurely. He is up with the sun, but his office opens late. He reads the paper on the porch in his robe and house shoes. He makes himself waffles even though it is a weekday, offers to make her a waffle too. It would never occur to him to feel bad about indulgence. He drinks as much coffee as he wants. Sometimes he drinks green tea because he doesn’t even need the caffeine.

She leaves through the garage. He waves as she backs out, his green robe blending into the cushioned patio set, jungle flora.

Today is the day the auditors arrive. They will stay until they locate the source of the problem. They require a soundproof room with no windows.

“Our conference rooms all have windows,” she told the junior auditor over the phone.
“As long as there are blinds on the windows.”

She ordered blinds online with two-day delivery and justified the expense on company letterhead.

She drinks the break room coffee. It is the kind that comes in a plastic pod. Once, the other analyst, Janine, said, “Don’t you worry that drinking hot water that’s gone through plastic will give you cancer?” Janine spends five dollars a day at a coffee shop that makes flat whites just like they do in Australia. Janine went to Australia for a bachelorette party and came back calling it a hen party.

The auditors are late and younger than her. They call her Mrs. Pierce, even though she signed all her emails Marian. Did she mention her husband? It would have been unprofessional. She escorts them to Conference Room D and demonstrates how the blinds work. “It looks like you should pull this cord, but it’s actually this one.”

The auditors don’t even use the blinds. All morning, she watches them from her desk in the office she shares with Janine. There are two of them, and they open briefcases and spread paperwork over the table. There is a teleconference monitor mounted to the wall and they cover the webcam with a post-it note. They are hunting for her mistakes.

At half past eleven, Janine says it’s important to treat oneself and goes out for a second flat white. She does not ask if Marian wants anything. Marian prefers it that way. Asking about wants would only start the whole back-and-forth of buying one another coffees and scones and chocolates: items of unequal value. One of them would end up owing the other.

The junior auditor appears at her office door. “We’re ordering lunch.”

Marian rolls her chair back to face him. “I bring my lunch.”

“Great. Where can we tell them to drop it off? Front desk?”

“Oh. That’s fine.”

He disappears.

She stands for the first time in hours. Her torso is perched on two weighted balloons, swelled to bursting.

Tiny needles prick her toes. Asleep, they have fallen asleep. She shakes a foot and cries out, nearly falls.

But the intensity ebbs, a strange tide.

She is supposed to keep an eye on the auditors, but they are not going to do anything crazy. Her doctor says she should take real lunch breaks.

Traffic is bad. A blue car cuts her off, but she lets it go. Road rage is something she doesn’t tap into because who knows how much of it she has?

“You could walk,” Janine has said more than once. Janine moved to Austin from Chicago and insists on walking anywhere under a mile, even when it’s over a hundred, even when there is no sidewalk.

At Lady Bird Lake, there are benches facing the water. The first bench is covered in goose shit but the second is clean. A steady stream of heat-trained runners in sports bras and shorts run along the bike path. Marian’s leather flats constrict her feet. A bead of sweat starts at her neck and rolls down her spine, followed by another. Her waistband feels tight. The mayonnaise on her sandwich melts into its greasy parts.

She could stay on the bench, in the sun, looking at the lake or go sit in the car and finish her sandwich in the air conditioning. She wants to be the kind of person who appreciates nature, however rotten the fishy water smells, who doesn’t care what the auditors find. There will be a reconciliation.

Somewhere in this world, there are elephants. Somewhere, there is a person unafraid of hard things who is milling logs for a cabin she will build herself. There are streams that fork at fault lines, carve their trails in the rock, come back together, miles on.

Marian uncrosses her legs to air out the wet slicks on the backs of her knees. She could be one of those runners. She could get up early and exercise while Liam drinks his green tea on the porch, could sprawl out on the front lawn, asking for water because she deserves it. She could drive wherever because she already put in the miles, could eat two sandwiches, if she wanted.


 

Shayne Terry

Shayne Terry is a Midwestern transplant living and writing in Brooklyn, where she is a founding member of the Rumble Ponies Writing Collective. Her work has appeared in American Chordata, Wigleaf, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Find her at shayneterry.com.