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