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“Phantom,” by Danielle Susi

doodle spiked football shoe

My brother played baseball. He’d had his nose broken. Arms fractured. Skin ripped open by sliding metal cleats. His brown hair was always buzzed short to the scalp during the summer. His shoulders were broad and his arms were strong.

When he came home from a game or practice he’d peel off the sweaty layers. Each cleat popped off his foot left clouds of dust in the air. Bits of hard clay and dirt on the kitchen tile. Thick, high socks left those ridges in the skin on his shins. Back of his neck tanned shade of brown my skin will never be.

Dad had always coached a team. It didn’t matter whether it was my brother’s, but he’d always been very involved in our town’s league. Mom pretended to know exactly what was going on in every game on television or at the field. We were a baseball family, as I imagine many families to be. All the talk about the game didn’t end at the park. It traveled home in our cars. Made its way into our living room. Sat next to me at the dinner table.

His elite team won the district tournament when my brother was in the summer between his junior and senior years of high school. Won the state tournament too. And made it to the final day of the New England Regionals.

He was at that age where he began thinking seriously about college. Maybe he knew that he might not get the chance to play baseball anymore after high school. I watched him as he suited up that last time. Flame in his eyes. That was what I remembered of him.

I sometimes remember the blur of my parents. My brother laying in the dirt. Someone grabbing my arm from behind pulling me away from the fence. Ohmygods. A coach from the other team calling 9-1-1. I remember not being able to breathe. The haunt of ambulances and people sitting silent. My mother screaming screaming screaming.

It was a sort of freak accident—baseball to the chest that stopped his heart. I’d spend my whole life missing him. Bickering and the arguments. Walks to the corner store for candy and slushies. Bike-riding to the dead end and back up to the stop sign. I missed the summer I wanted to collect baseball cards so he wouldn’t have something that I didn’t. I kept the dozen cards my dad bought me in an old cookie tin. RBI, ERA, IP: Codes I couldn’t decipher.

I longed the summer before it happened. When his team made it to the final game of a tournament. I wore one of his old jerseys that didn’t fit him anymore. Our last name stitched on long ago by our mother, letter by letter. When they lost and he saw the jersey after the game. Told me I was an idiot for wearing it. When he and his teammates went to Hooters after and he wasn’t nine anymore.

Everything that happened after that was regarded in “he-would-be’s.” He would be graduating this year. He would be going to college this month. He would be eighteen today.

Extra stacks of prayer cards sat in a plastic grocery bag on a chair in the dining room. His name at the top, laminated. Should we tuck them into binders with those plastic sleeves like he used to with his baseball cards? The ones of Nomar Garciaparra with his bat cocked. Of Jason Varitek crouched behind the plate. Gloved hand extended.

I couldn’t test my memory with him anymore. Couldn’t ask, “Did that really happen when we were young? Or am I imagining it to be that way?”

When we went on family vacation every July by the lake, we stayed in a small cabin with wood paneled ceilings. At night, from twin beds on opposite sides of the room, we would quiz each other. Used moonlight sneaking through the blinds to find an owl’s face. A skull. A sailing ship. Four panels up from the door. Two feet to the left of the holes left from an overhead light since removed. Our navigation.

We laughed so hard our parents knocked on the wall from their bedroom. We lowered our voices. Quiet, so quiet, until one of us stopped responding.

About the Author:

Danielle Susi is the author of the chapbook The Month in Which We Are Born (dancing girl press, 2015). Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Knee-Jerk Magazine, Hobart, and The Rumpus, among many others. Recently, Newcity named her among the Top 5 Emerging Chicago Poets. Find her online at daniellesusi.com.

Image Credit: © dule964 / 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