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“Excavations,” by Emily Kiernan

ridiculous dog

In the news today was an article about a dog in Yuba City who dug up human bones in the backyard. There was a jaw bone and a skull. The police suspected religious rituals. My dog too has been digging. There is a spot up against the fence that is shady, where the grass never grew in thick, and he has been worrying at this for a week now. After he has loosened the dirt and cleared away the weeds, he will lie down for a minute or two, so maybe he is only trying to make a cool spot for himself, like flipping from one side of a pillow to another. But there is something frantic and mindless in the way he digs, and I don’t like it. He’s four years old, and he’s never done this before.

He woke up last night, growling and barking into the darkness. There was laughter out in the alley. Ryan got up and went through the house, flipping on lights and checking locks. He took a long time to return to bed, and the noises from the street sounded like they were coming from the kitchen. Really, it wasn’t the dog that woke me at all, but Ryan standing there beside the bed, looking and listening for something.

The owner of that dog in Yuba City was named Mr. Kind. In the quotes he gave to reporters, he said the word “kind” again and again. “It went from kind of cool to kind of serious,” he said, and I wondered what it must feel like, to say your own name so often. I had a boyfriend once named Rich. He was an asshole, and we wouldn’t be friends if I met him today, but sometimes I still see him on Facebook, and he lives in Yuba City, and he always has the same nice-teeth smirk, and he’s almost never wearing a shirt, and he always looks like he owns the place, wherever he is.

It occurs to me that the dog has been sticking close lately, subtly insinuating himself into my space. At night he jumps between Ryan and I, settles in slightly to one side. Ryan says, “Why does he only love you?”

Sometimes, when I take the dog for his walk in the evening, I will feel him shrinking away from some object or another that seems strange to him—bending into a c shape, crab-walking into my legs. Usually, I do not understand what it is that scares him, and I pull him along. Sometimes he will growl at the men who approach, and he does not show his teeth then, but his lips are pulled back tight. It is the same look he wears when he is digging: a look that says, “I don’t know what else I could do.”

About the Author:

Emily Kiernan is the author of a novel, Great Divide (Unsolicited Press, 2014). Her short fiction has appeared in PANK, The Collagist, Monkeybicycle, Redivider, JMWW, and other journals. She resides in Berkeley, California, with her man and her dog. More information can be found at emilykiernan.com.

Special Note:

This story was a finalist in The Conium Review‘s 2015 Flash Fiction Contest, judged by Laura Ellen Joyce.

Image Credit: © asmakar / Dollar Photo Club

“Teaching Them Happiness,” by Joseph Dante

rope noose with hangman's knot

After the first suicide, Mrs. Loomis was determined to teach her class happiness. We’ll talk about our passions, she thought. What makes us feel most alive. At the very least, let’s get some thunder in these clouds.

Her students stood up one at a time. She asked them to be completely honest with her.

“I want to have sex with as many girls as possible,” Jack said.

“I want to kill as many boys as possible,” Lana said.

And so on. A whole day of this complete honesty and somehow Mrs. Loomis refrained from reprimanding any of her students. After all, they’d only done what she asked.

After the second suicide, the school brought in a grief counselor. Memorials weren’t enough. The regular school counselor wasn’t enough. This greying woman with an enormous mouth made everyone gather in a circle, throwing around terms like closure and coping mechanisms.

Mrs. Loomis wasn’t a religious person, but she still believed suicide was a very selfish act to commit. “Suicides not only cause grief, but often cause more death around the victim,” she told her class. “It becomes infectious, like a disease.”

She made them write essays about how else selfishness can spread. Maybe this dissection would suture their softer parts that’d come apart, would make these deaths seem even more real.

After the third suicide, Mrs. Loomis became terrified. She wondered who the next victim would be, if it could be her. She read about pacts and tried to understand what could convince a hundred people to jump in front of a train at once, or serve arsenic from a punch bowl.

This time, she had her class write essays about how they’d spend their last day on earth. Despite the change in topic, it was still more of the same. Having sex as much as possible, discovering what it’s like to kill without consequence. All that naked hunger, the pulse becoming the body.

Mr. Loomis tried to reassure his wife. “Don’t despair,” he said. “It’s probably just a phase. Like my dreams in high school of training for the seminary and believing something made the heart grow fonder, but it certainly wasn’t abstinence.”

 Was she supposed to laugh? The hallway mirror only reflected her perfectly blank expression.

After the fourth suicide, Mrs. Loomis thought more about the apocalypse. She always thought it’d be a lack of resources that’d bring about humanity’s downfall, probably an environmental disaster. But could it possibly end like this instead? With a suicide epidemic? In bed at night, she pulled her husband closer.

One morning, Mrs. Loomis found an anonymous message under her door as she was walking into her classroom. It read: You are your serotonin, signed with a drawing of the appropriate molecule. She tried to match up the message with her students’ in-class essays to figure out who may have written it, but nothing seemed a good match.

When she reported her discovery to the principal, he simply dismissed it. “You aren’t special,” he informed her. “Many other teachers have received the same message. Rest assured though, Mrs. Loomis, anyone else who tries to kill themselves will be immediately expelled.”

Again, she thought. Was she supposed to laugh?

After the fifth suicide, Mrs. Loomis circled around the school a few times. She saw the serotonin molecule everywhere she went. Did catching the culprit even matter? Would raiding the den stop the howls?

It was not long until a girl came into class with the molecule tattooed on her wrist. Mrs. Loomis stared too long at the fresh ink as she was passing back papers. The girl turned around, clearly feeling the stare a mile away.

Mrs. Loomis found herself in front of the class, nearly shaking. “Have I taught you all nothing?” she blurted out. It was loud, but expected. There was no surprise in their faces.

The newly tattooed girl was quick to confront her. “You need to understand,” she said, “it’s a symbol. Surely you, as an English teacher, can appreciate multiple interpretations.”

A sigh came from somewhere. A bit of silence. Not long after, the students went back to their assigned reading.

After this long-awaited outburst, Mrs. Loomis began to imagine appropriate deaths for her students. Jack would asphyxiate himself in an intense moment of self-pleasure, dying before ever having an opportunity to finally lose his virginity. Lana would slash her ample arms, one cut for each boy not properly killed and tossed into the canal behind her house. The hallway mirror showed Mrs. Loomis more and more wrinkles until a smile formed. A smile almost turning into a laugh that had threatened to bubble up since the very beginning.

She wrote on the board the following day: You are your self-prophecy. No molecule, no signature.

At her desk were copies of her newest assignment for the students: Write, in detail, how you would kill yourself. Record the entire process. As always, creativity counts. She made it worth 50 percent of their final grade.

As soon as suicide turned into work, they’d stop. That was her reasoning. Who’d get tattoos then? Where was the romance in that? The cryptic notes? The principal agreed and gave her the go.

Her fingers formed a steeple. Treating these young people like porcelain dolls or bombs with countdowns, Mrs. Loomis thought, seemed to imply that breaking or exploding were just endings. That we could only have danger as signs before the exit.

She waited for the bell to ring.

About the Author:

Joseph Dante is a writer from South Florida and currently serves as an assistant fiction editor at Pithead Chapel. His work has been featured in (or is forthcoming from) The Rumpus, Best Gay Stories 2015, PANK, Pear Noir!, Corium, Monkeybicycle, and elsewhere. He has been nominated for both the Pushcart Prize and the Best of the Net anthology.

Image Credit: © dule964/ Dollar Photo Club