Sunday Sam’s Last Stand

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artwork by @babyboyjw

a short story by Jerry Zinn

Sam let out a grunt, grabbing his left shoulder in pain. His cream color shirt was dripping in the maraschino blood seeping steadily from the fresh bullet wound. He tore off his sleeve and tied it around the injury to help stem the bleeding while using his leg to straighten himself up against the corner of the adobe walls, spurs jingling on the heels of his life-beaten leather boots.

“Poetic, isn’t it?” The words came from below and behind a distant wall. Sam flashed a quick glance around the edge from his perch, holed up in the bell tower of the white washed Spanish church of St. Sebastian. A bullet took a chunk from the edge of the structure near his face and threw some plaster dust into his eyes, causing him to recoil. In the brief look, Sam was able to discern where the sheriff and his two deputies were settled.

“Sunday Sam,” the sheriff continued, “picked a church for his last stand, and on Sunday afternoon no less. It’s almost like the good Lord planned it. You’ve knocked off eight banks from here to the Mississippi, and you’ve still got the audacity to show up in church every week. I can’t quite figure if you’re a God-fearing man or if you think weekly service somehow absolves you of your sins. Well I’m done chasing you, Sunday. You’re only leaving that church one of two ways: walking out in handcuffs or in the box I had made up for ya. It’s up to you. There’s three of us and, at two guns a piece, that’s six barrels lookin’ for your head or your heart.”

Sam heard the sheriff but the message didn’t faze him. He pulled his revolvers from their holsters and slipped out the bullets from his belt to fill them. The wooden handles had crosses carved deep like crevasses, something he’d done over a bottle of whiskey one lonely night in Nevada. A fine job he thought, professional-like. With his uninjured arm, Sam reached for his hat, a light brown wide-brim decorated with sweat stains and the same dust that filled his lungs.

He leaned forward and affixed it to his head, mopping the moisture from his forehead with his remaining sleeve. Even in the seclusion of the tower, the sun was inescapable, branding the drenched arm hairs to his skin. Without looking, Sam pointed one of the revolvers through an opening and took a shot, a puff of smoke quickly dissolving in the dry breeze. He counted eight blasts of return fire, and by the sound he could tell none of the men were any closer to the church.

Convinced of his momentary safety, Sam reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a cigar, damp with perspiration but still dry enough to light. He struck a match on the hardened mud and took a deep draw, the tip curling to accept the flame. As he smoked, Sam looked at the large bell hanging above, its thick rope dangling to the ground. The bell was simple but large, a cast bronze with the year of its installation fastened to the side in raised numbers: 1817. His teeth dug into the end of the cigar, freeing a bit of the tobacco, which he fished for with his tongue and spat onto the planks under his soles. In spite of the predicament, Sam was calm, and his mind drifted. He wondered how heavy the bell was and how many men it took to raise it up.

“Hell of a time for a smoke, Sunday!” the sheriff called out with a chuckle. A sly smirk worked its way across Sam’s face. He took a drag and tilted his head back, opening up so the smoke could scale to the roof and dissipate. Then he tossed the cigar out the tower, and a few shots fired. It was a good sign, Sam thought. They were nervous.

“Well? What do you say, Sunday? You don’t want the next time you go to church to be for your own funeral, do you?” There was impatience in the sheriff’s voice. Sam yawned, scratching his bristled neck and grasping the red bandana at his throat.

“How tall are you, sheriff?” Sam yelled.

“What’s that?” the sheriff replied, confused.

“Just wonderin’ if I’m taller than you.”

“What difference does that make?”

“I was just thinking we could put you in that coffin you had made. No reason it should go to waste.”

“I didn’t realize you had a considerate side, Sunday.”

“Sheriff, if you think I’m gonna surrender myself to you, you’re even more of a God damn fool than most in your profession. And about every one I’ve met I’ve turned to dust.”

“You should be more careful with your language son. You are in church after all.”

Sam stood up and kept his back glued to the corner, wincing at the sharp, throbbing shoulder pain. “Why don’t you and your boys join me? The service is about to start,” he teased.

“Joe,” the sheriff whispered, “you head up to the well quickly. Abe and I’ll cover you.” Joe looked back skeptically.

“You sure?” Joe asked.

“Look, Sunday’s not budging. Our only chance is to get into the church, so we got to get over there in stages. Now we’ll cover you. Just keep low and try to be swift and quiet about it,” the sheriff responded. Joe’s insecurities remained as he looked over the wall and saw the well halfway between the church and his refuge. Back in the tower, Sam was considering his options. He knew he couldn’t go down; his shoulder was done for, unable support the weight to lower himself.

Joe inched around the corner of the wall and, gripping his rifle tightly, he bent over and shuffled towards the distant stone watering hole. Sam crouched down and extended for the rope, giving it a strong tug. The bell rang out loudly as it swayed, the large clapper inside clanging against the cast frame. The sheriff and Abe fired a few shots each and Joe froze where he was, panicky eyes set on the tower and its swaying mechanism.

Sam took a breath, raised both of his revolvers, and turned the corner to see Joe stuck in no man’s land. Faster than any of the three law-enforcers could think, Sam fired a shot from each pistol at Joe and ducked to the other side as the replies whizzed by.

“Joe?” the sheriff called out. When no response came, he peeked over and saw Joe lying motionless on the ground, his head an unappetizing bowl of ground meat. “God damn it. Joe’s dead,” he said. The color flushed out of Abe’s face when he heard the words, and it fell to his toes when he got a look for himself. Sam stealthily glanced at his handiwork.

“It’s too bad about Joe, sheriff. Why don’t you and your other little friend go home now while you still have each other,” Sam said, loading more bullets into the rotaries. “Maybe order a bottle of hooch and hold hands.”

“You’re going straight to hell when I’m through with you, Sunday!” the sheriff yelled.

“That’s quite a prophecy, preacher,” Sam replied. “Didn’t know you were ordained.”

The sheriff turned to Abe and motioned with his head for Abe to try where their comrade had failed. Abe shook his head in refusal, his shock over Joe’s demise still fresh on his sunken cheeks. The sheriff read Abe’s expression and loosened his lips.

“We’ll both go at the same time,” he said, which seemed to settle Abe. Sam let out a deep breath and closed his eyes, cocking back the hammers on the nickel-plated guns in effortless synchronization. A piece of leftover cigar made its presence known in the back of his mouth, and he chewed it a little, extracting the peppery spice from its fibers. Almost as quickly as his bullets, Sam darted across the opening, saw the sheriff and his remaining deputy, and fired. One of the bullets struck the bucket hanging above the well, and water gushed out the hole. The other shot caught Abe in the neck, and he collapsed to the ground. The sheriff threw himself against the stones of the well and looked back at his fallen deputy. Abe gripped at his wound, but the sheriff recognized there was nothing either man could do. He knew his partner would bleed out in a matter of seconds. The sheriff sat still as a boulder, watching helplessly as he lost his second man of the day.

The sting in Sam’s shoulder was intensifying, and the sensation radiated. Blood was coming through the makeshift bandage, and he knew he needed to end the standoff soon and find a way to get himself medical attention if he was to stay out of the made-to-measure coffin.

“You’re going to have to be speedier than that, sheriff.”

“Those were two good men, Sunday. Your body count’s not going to help you where you’re going.”

Good men? Good at what?”

The sheriff stood up slowly and pointed his rifle at the bell. He didn’t respond to Sam’s jab. He remained focused. For the first time, fear sent chills over Sam’s body, a strange freeze in the hot New Mexico summer. The sensation was foreign, and he almost didn’t recognize it. Since it was one of the few things he’d never experienced, he was able to identify it by process of elimination, knowing, for example, that he hadn’t just fallen in love. His palms secreted sweat and loosened their hold on the cross-embellished handles. With the tip of a barrel, he pushed up on the brim of his hat and let it fall behind.

“You’ve made your decision,” the sheriff said without flinching, the intensity of his words weighing uncomfortably on Sam’s ears.

“How’s that?”

“There’s only one way you’re leaving that church now: sealed up in a pine envelope.”

“Envelope? Well I’m not much for writing, and I damn sure ain’t much for dying.”

Sam prepared himself for one more move. He took a deep breath in and out and said, “It’s been a real pleasure getting to know you over the years, sheriff. I’ll be sure to lay a flower by your gravestone.” Immediately after he finished speaking, Sam turned, and three shots went off. One of Sam’s bullets hit the sheriff in the leg, the other struck the dirt, and the force of the sheriff’s shot threw Sunday Sam back toward the bell. As he fell down the tower, Sam reached for the rope, and when he struck the ground, the bell tolled.

“I hate flowers,” the sheriff said to the audience of emptiness, grabbing his leg and hobbling toward the church, the bell still singing its somber song. He threw open the doors and stumbled into the aisle, a simple wooden crucifix hanging nobly on the altar. The sheriff looked to his left and saw Sunday Sam on the ground, head turned the other way, rope still swinging above his body. As the sheriff made his way over with labored steps he could hear the sounds of several horses riding in from the distance. It was his backup, conveniently and substantially tardy. Slowly, Sam’s head rolled over to face the sheriff. Sam looked him straight in the eyes and winked with his last exhale.

“Sheriff? You all right?” one of the men said as he dismounted and entered the church.

“Yeah, I just got shot in the leg. I’ll go see Doc Otto first thing. I guess you saw we’re going to need to more coffins out here?”

“What about Sunday Sam?”

The sheriff pointed his nose to the lifeless body and added dryly, “Sunday Sam got his last rights.”

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La Fontaine

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artwork by @babyboyjw

a short story by Jerry Zinn

The air had the chilled nip of a kiss from an early spring mistral in the French countryside. Paul Van Dyke stood, Bordeaux in hand, at the top of the elevated patio overlooking the endless stretch of fastidiously manicured grounds. Van Dyke felt the cold touch of the breeze against the back of his neck like a stroke from the hand of a siren, receding into the imaginary sea forthwith. He took a sip from the glass and allowed the full body of the wine to roll the fullness of its body around his tongue, its alcoholic constitution a welcome radiance as it made passage. His wrist turned naturally in the constant search of temporal awareness, but he recognized and ignored the inclination to check his timepiece.

The button of his expensively tailored, black wool suit was unfastened, and he thumbed it through the hole as he walked slowly down the stone steps, his arrival at the base marked by the crunch of the fine, white gravel. He proceeded forward with a deliberate lack of pace, placing his hand on the weathered stone ledge feeling the small pores and imperfections as he slid along. The boxwoods lining the long network of green and gravel lines were geometrically flawless as though he were inside a famous diamond, and from his distance the network’s constituents appeared solid as Italian marble. He came toe to toe with the fairway-length lawn, its alternating light and dark green stretching from the caps of his polished oxfords to the horizon point where they met in the distance. The spray of the fountain shot up and fell down continuously, creating the illusion of a transparent tree of water growing forth from the discolored pedestal.

Right or left? That was the decision to be made in order for him to continue without infringing upon the blades of sacred Poaceae. Van Dyke allowed his feet to choose for him, following their heading to the right. Each subsequent, crackling meeting of his leather soles with the tiny stones brought him closer to the somber expression on the Grecian statue who called the garden home, her head turned as if preventing her gaze from falling upon him. With the brilliant canopy of trees stretching to the sky chirping from within, Van Dyke fell into unpleasantness. He had no one to blame but himself for the position in which he was immovably set. After all, he had taken the money, and with that he signed away the luxury of a clean conscience. He finally understood that he wouldn’t be able to eat the cake he had collected, an annoying cliché, frustratingly fulfilled.

As Van Dyke followed the sharp angle of the path, forcing him nearer the fountain, he heard but could not see the plane overhead, remaining as it did, hidden behind the peppered gray matching the shade of his hair. Initially he wished to be aboard the plane instead of where he was, but he struck down the thought with the remembrance that actions have consequences, and those couldn’t be avoided or escaped, only faced as in duels belonging to earlier times. Regrets were poisonous, poisonous as Botrytis blight and just as difficult to treat, Van Dyke thought as he turned another corner and walked to the bench, placed equidistant from the parallel sides of the garden. He stood between the bench and the fountain circled with lavender. Van Dyke could never go back and undo the damage he’d done, the greed to which he succumbed was like spilled soup never to be fully returned to bowl. In his business dealings he became well acquainted with the valuation of land, and to his disgust he also knew his own price, to the cent.

With glass in hand, he felt the gentle mist of the peripheral fountain water brushing against his face. What’s done is done, he mused as he took another appreciative sip of the vintage 2003. Over the years, Van Dyke often stood in the very spot in which he found himself, and presently its familiar comforts were no less familiar or comforting. He closed his eyes and welcomed in the subtly aromatic lavender with none of the artificial enhancements added in reproductions.

“Mr. Van Dyke.” The introduction did not startle him; he knew it was coming. Slowly he allowed his eyes to welcome back the splendor of his surroundings. Van Dyke set the glass down carefully on the moss-patched bench as he about-faced. He adjusted the cuffs of his starched shirt peeking out from his jacket sleeves.

Van Dyke didn’t feel the piercing metal bullet work its way through the infinitesimally thin fibers of the black wool fabric, past his pink silk pocket square, beyond more dermal barriers, and into his heart. He didn’t even hear the muffled pop of the shot through the suppressor. But Van Dyke could feel the life leaking out of his body, and each shuffled step backwards felt heavier as his balance began to fail him. While engaged in a rearward fall, the rippling, clear waters waiting to receive him, a strange thought came into his head given the circumstances: he hadn’t finished his glass of Bordeaux. It was an unfortunate, though appropriate way for him to go out, he thought, as the known world dissolved away.

Halloween Party

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artwork by @babyboyjw

a short story by Jerry Zinn

“What do you think it’ll be like tonight?” Oscar asked.

“It’s impossible to know for sure, but I’m predicting the most insane one yet. After all it is the tenth, and I hear they’re going all out. We’re talking epic proportions,” Ryan answered.

“Last year was pretty crazy though. You think it’s going to be even more out there this go around?”

“Yeah but come on, this is the tenth anniversary. The first couple were kind of lame, but the last few years have just been insane.”

“Duly noted. I’ll brace myself for impact.”

Oscar returned to his desk and sat watching the clock tick slowly with his chin resting in cupped hands. The annual Halloween Party at Blair’s Dopamine Center was an event people talked about anxiously as soon as the Labor Day weekend played through. And while its reputation for excess was well known, officials turned a blind eye each year and allowed it to go mostly unregulated.

Officially, the Halloween Party didn’t exist. It was organized purely by word of mouth. Most offices scheduled the following day off in advance, citing obscure holidays as reasoning, as expectations for productivity were meager at best. It seemed no one was immune to the temptation, the lowest workers in the food chain frequently rubbed elbows with CEOs and bigwig decision-makers. It had evolved over the decade into one of the biggest days of the year, and even those few who didn’t attend, mostly because there were still necessary operations that needed tending to, received a contact high from the festivities.

Part of the reason the celebration was so over the top was the prevalence of a particular drug in almost limitless supply. While not illegal, the substance was tightly controlled the other 364 days of the year, and Halloween was the one occasion where it was not only unchecked, but policing and governing officials frequently indulged in it themselves.

Overdoses were common and accepted for what they were. Hospital’s usually found their ERs and bed towers filled beyond capacity the following morning, and it often took almost a week to process and administer care to every patient. Politicians, when asked how they could better manage the festivities, frequently responded ambiguously so as not to infuriate any of their constituents. It seemed the entire affair was more or less a necessary evil to maintain order and keep happiness at acceptable levels.

The workday ended later than Oscar wanted, and he quickly went home to change out of his work clothes and into something that would permit him to live a little, let his hair down, and so on. He arrived at Blair’s, dimly lit and decked in ghostly and ghoulish ornamentations, where loud music was pounding. The crowd had a raw energy, an unstoppable energy, a lift from which no one so much as considered the prospect of the inevitable downturn. From the sprinkler system drugs rained down in a fine mist, seeping into clothes and lungs with equal indifference. The party stormed on for a few hours before nearly all in attendance, clothed in everything from togas to pinstripe suits, had either passed out where they stood or went home to retire to the most easily accessible places in their homes. The music died down until it could no longer be heard, and somewhere far off in the distance, as if reaching the space from the end of a dark tunnel, voices murmured.

“Do you think we should have let Blair eat all the candy?” the woman asked.

“Well honey he is ten now. Halloween’s going to start meaning less and less to him as he gets older, so we might as well let him enjoy it. Besides, its just one night, and after eating his weight in sugar I think he’ll probably sleep the whole way through the weekend,” the man responded.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so amped up. I bet his dopamine center was having the party of the century.”

“Well he probably wont want to eat another piece of candy till Christmas after tonight.”

The man left the room and the woman lingered a moment longer, smiling at her sleeping son sprawled out on his bed. She flicked off the lights and left the room, shutting the door quietly behind her and officially ending the year’s Halloween Party.

Lágrimas da Noite

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artwork by the gifted Jimmy Wyngaarden @babyboyjw

a short story by Jerry Zinn

As I peered aimlessly through the delicate fog of Lisboa into the sea of black and white tiles rolling like imperfect waves over Rossio Square, I felt a stream of rain fall on my toes with their crimson-painted nails exposed. I adjusted my umbrella, which I had allowed to list back as my distant memories swam in the square. Sentimentality often strikes me when I am at my weakest, a warm refuge for the cold and lonely spirit. Decades of experience taught me there is only one cure when I fall into the trap of musing, and fortunately for me I was standing just near that very medicine. My feet carried me swiftly and surely to the tiny counter of A Ginjinha, an establishment smaller than my closet and as old as the vines in Porto.

My visits were regular, perhaps even daily. Though my days often appear similar, I never intend for them to be. I follow my heart, and my heart often longs for familiar comforts. My years of patronage are too numerous to count, and in so doing my true age would be revealed. Suffice it to say the trips were many over a long period. To Emilio, working with the kind of graceful movements that masked his mechanical efficiency, I simply smiled and raised a finger to indicate one drink would do.

Emilio nodded as he placed a small, white plastic cup before me and tilted a large glass container, pulling out the wooden knob and allowing a few of the morello cherries to jump out before putting the stopper back in just far enough to hold back the fruit and allow the sweet, dark-red Ginja liqueur to fill the vessel. I placed the Euro coin on the countertop, but he didn’t take it, raising his eyebrows as if to say, “I know you’ll want for another.” Of course he was right, but for my own sake I left the coin there just the same as I took little sips of the delicious elixir, the tartness of the cherries bound by alcohol to the sweet syrup. When it was gone I tossed the two fruits in my mouth, manipulating them with my tongue to extract the pits and holding them off to the side as I enjoyed the soaked bits of bliss. Then in the classic Portuguese way, I took great pleasure in spitting the seeds on the mosaic square, adding them to the scattered collection from unknown mouths.

For a moment I considered walking on, but the dry, sour pull at the back of my tongue beckoned for another, and I obliged. Emilio had already prepared my next drink, and I placed another Euro on the table. My second offering he promptly stacked on the first and handed back, patting his chest to signal the charges were to be added to the house’s tab.

“Obrigada,” I said with great sincerity.

“Boa noite, Carlota,” he said as I carried on past the theater with its Ionic columns, slick steps shimmering under a thin film of moisture. It is an image, along with the city’s winding streets and pastel hued buildings, carved resolutely in the marble slate of my mind. The backs of my hands are strangers to me when compared to Lisboa. It is a city that weeps its glorious history from every crack and seam, its spirit stiffened by an endless chain of hard times but still breathing an inextinguishable flame of life from within. I am only a dot in its present, a passing thought in its timeline, but still present in an intimate and indelible way.

Night was soon to fall upon the city, but the fog would let the light of day linger on longer, dimming imperceptibly to darkness, replaced by the artificial luminescence of lamps and storefronts. I continued to weave my way through the city, up the steep inclines that led only to steeper inclines, and whether the Tejo was at my back or facing me I seemed to be climbing up. This is the Escher-like reality in which alfacinhas are inextricably tangled, a metaphor for the uphill battle of Portugal itself. As I wandered I could smell the intoxicating aroma of salty bacalhau and the foamy head of beer. Conversations skipped off the plaster walls of buildings that ran together like a long, winding train, the road cutting them at harsh angles.

I reached my destination, more a time than a place, and I peered out over the city below. The myriad colors that decorated the structures by day had turned to black, and the scattered flickers sprinkled bright dots like Christmas lights hanging above the water. I heard the bell of the tram as it rounded the bend, its sign floating above the solitary headlight, and I raised my hand so it came to a halt at my feet. I closed and clasped my umbrella before climbing aboard and paying for the privilege, the coins earlier refused, accepted now. I found a solitary seat in the back corner at a window from where my insatiable appetite for the environment could be satisfied.

The tram worked its way along the tracks, smooth in the straightaways and choppy through the curves. When I was full I pulled the cord and hopped off, back out into hidden alleyways. Before I could unfurl my umbrella the rain subsided to a fine and bearable mist, so I left the protection tightly wound. By then the night was alive as if spiked with espresso, but without the tempering effect of sugar or cream, an unnecessary luxury. Day is only an activity to be endured, serving as the time which comes before the night and which rears its unwelcome brightness when night turns in. At night, life possesses endless possibilities as the worries of the day drift away like a blue-tinted wisp of smoke from a damp cigarette. My heels clapped against the tiles like the clicking of an antique typewriter, driving my imagination to ruminate more poetically as I arrived in front of the small bar nestled between busy restaurants and shops. The blue and white tiled number 85 affixed to the stone doorway receded from the brightness as I stepped inside.

“Olá Carlota! Como vai você?” Franco asked from his seat, teardrop-shaped Portuguese guitar set upon his lap as he carefully tuned each of its dozen strings.

“Tudo bom, Franco. Tudo bom,” I answered. “Tonight, I’ll just be doing one song.”

“Lágrimas da Noite?”

I confirmed without speaking. Around me the crowd bustled. Words and phrases from all angles entered and exited my ears, fortified like fine port with the clinking of glasses and scraping of silverware. The space was full, and though the bar was not much larger than the tram, the pack of people made it seem more expansive. I knew the place well, familiar beyond the unknown faces. I was at home in its routine. Sometimes the greatest comforts are found in normalcy. Once Franco was satisfied with the sounds of his instrument, he looked up to me and nodded. The patrons needed no other signal as a hush fell upon the room, and all eyes turned to me.

“I will be singing one song this evening, one of my favorites: ‘Lágrimas da Noite.’ For those of you who don’t know the piece, it speaks to the fleeting nature of the night and the inevitable transition to the responsibilities of day. ‘Lágrimas da Noite,’ ‘Tears of Night,’ will not just be my only song this evening, it will also be the last I ever perform,” I explained to gasps and the great surprise of Franco, who has been at my side for many nights through many years. I closed my eyes, and Franco recovered to begin plucking, delicately and masterfully, transforming the mood of the room as he played. As I sang I let the song take me away. It transported me to the first time I sang it all those uncountable years before. My younger self danced with my present to the tune of my future as my emotions carried the melody. I felt as if all the raw passion inside me was invited to flow out from within as I swayed, the power of fado. When I arrived at the final line, it emerged slowly, savoring as I did the feeling of each word as they passed over my lips one by one into the hazy air:

Como lágrimas da noite, passo contra a minha vontade em dia.

(Like tears of the night, I pass unwillingly into day.)

“Dia” hung around a moment longer, undulating like a radio wave as Franco played the remaining notes. Applause filled the room, pouring over into my grateful heart. As I opened my eyes I bowed in appreciation, one final time. Franco gave me a loving embrace, and the next singer, a young girl a sliver of my age rose up to take my place. I stepped back out into the street and opened my umbrella to ward off the drops that fell with the heaviness of my saturated soul. They were tears, tears of the night, raining down through an atmosphere seasoned with enchantment, which would, as I would, pass unwillingly into day. I wandered down the avenue alone, but my story, transforming from present to past instantaneously, entered the ranks of Lisboa’s distinguished history.

Dinner at the Waldens

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a short story by Jerry Zinn

The Waldens sat at the dinner table in silence, each plugged into devices, seemingly unaware of their surroundings. The extent to which meals in the home had evolved by 2122 was utterly lost on them. No one remembered what life was like a hundred years before.

Only a few moments passed before the barrier of silence was broken, not by any of the Waldens but by the kitchen itself, which had begun preparing the evening’s feast. Mechanical arms weaved through the space swiftly and with the synchronized and flowing movements of an orchestra. In earlier generations, people would have paid simply to witness the technological wizardry that was taking place in front of the Waldens, but advancements had become so commonplace that devices like those were often tossed on the side of the street like newspapers once were, the litter of an inundated society.

At the table there was no conversation. There were no questions regarding how each of the Waldens’ days had been. No comments were made on the state of the country or the world at large. Talk of upcoming films and works of scintillating fiction was left behind decades before, trapped in the lost memories of cinemas and libraries. The dish the robotic chefs were preparing was the same they prepared each night for the Waldens. The menu was set when the machines were installed, and they were designed to stay with the routine unless reprogrammed. The Waldens never considered reprogramming the kitchen, just as they never considered reprogramming anything else in the house.

A message streamed across the notification wall in the kitchen, as it had for a week, with the time updated: THIS HOME WILL BE OBSOLETE IN 1 HOUR. There were no further details. No follow up was necessary. The Waldens were aware of what would happen when their home officially became a technological relic. In 2100 it was decided that residents in out-of-date homes would be evicted, the parts repurposed, and the remaining structure leveled to make room for the next generation. Not even the impending removal and destruction surfaced as a talking point at the dinner table that evening.

The Waldens were served their dinner by the kitchen bots, an unceremonious Last Supper. Their last time at the dinner table together would be no different than their first. They consumed all that was set before them, the portions having been measured out perfectly for their individual needs. A glance or two was passed from one to another around the table like a breadbasket, but still nothing was said.

When the hour had passed, the power was cut to the Waldens’ house for a few seconds, and then a strong, red strobe light began flashing through the house. Over the speakers hidden within the building came a loud and clear message, “This home is now obsolete! Prepare for reassignment! This home is now obsolete! Prepare for reassignment!” The words repeated as the front door was thrust open and a squad of robots, painted all black from head to toe with a large recycling symbol illuminated in green on their chest plates, entered the kitchen. In a blitz, they dismantled and reclaimed all of the technology in the kitchen and moved on to the other rooms in succession. The Waldens sat at the table, silent and unflinching. When the robots finished stripping the house they turned to the table and approached each dinner chair one by one, unplugging and removing the now obsolete machines from Waldens Robotics.

Inner Landscape

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a short story by Jerry Zinn

Howard Jordan sat on the back patio on a cool autumn morning and took a sip of warm, freshly brewed dark roast. He could hear the birds chirping and what remained of the leaves rustling, the two sounds often melding together. Leaning back into the deep wicker chair, it’s fibers crunching as the strands rubbed against one another, Howard propped his feet up on the table, atop a stack of large books on subjects about which he knew nothing. All that mattered to Howard was that they were suitable for elevating his loafered feet to a comfortable position. He held the mug to his face and let the humid fragrance dance up his nostrils.

As he nestled in, Howard wondered what Noel Fullerton’s idea was. Fullerton had commissioned Howard to paint a few pieces in the past and purchased countless others. But when he phoned the night before saying he wanted to commission another work, Fullerton said, “It will likely be the most challenging and frustrating piece you’ve ever done. I believe it has the potential to be incredibly rewarding as well.” What he meant by all that, Howard was unsure. When Howard pressed him, Fullerton insisted he would provide no further details until he met with Howard in person the following morning. So there Howard sat, the following morning, awaiting the arrival of one of America’s great philanthropists and supporters of the arts, anxious to discover what subject would be at once challenging, frustrating, and rewarding.

Behind him, Howard heard his wife moving around in the kitchen and pouring herself a cup from the pot. “Come on out here Sara. I’m just waiting for Fullerton,” he said.

“I’m just putting some sweetener in my coffee, then I’ll be out.”

“I can’t believe you put that poison in your coffee. It ruins the taste, and I hear that substitution stuff is worse than real sugar.”

“I know,” Sara said, settling into the chair next to Howard with a shiver. “Chilly this morning,” she remarked, changing the subject from toxic substances.

“Yeah it’s finally starting to feel like fall out here.”

“Any idea what Fullerton has on his mind?”

“I thought about it all night, and I’ve been thinking about it all morning, which is to say I thought about it instead of sleeping. Honestly, I have no idea. Maybe he wants me to paint a ceiling, like the Sistine Chapel. I couldn’t even get him to give me a hint. He said it was important to him that he ask me in person.”

“Sounds like it will be an interesting project. I can tell the unknown intrigues you. To have you up all night, after all these years, that’s something. Well he should be here any minute, so at least you won’t have to wait much longer.”

“Hey Sara?”

“Yeah?”

“Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For sticking with me. I know it’s not easy being married to an… artist,” Howard hated calling himself that. It made him feel like he was boasting, even to his wife. “It isn’t the most structured life. But there’s no way I get to where I am today, figuratively or literally, without you being by my side every step of the way. I don’t say it as often as I should, but I love you more than anything.”

“I love you too Howard. I knew what I was getting into when I married you, just like you knew what you were getting with me! No one should ever wish for an easy life. The most important thing is to be surrounded by the people you love and who love you. We are both very fortunate.”

“Exactly right, Sara,” A ring interrupted their professions. “I think that was the doorbell. Must be Fullerton.”

“I’ll let him in and leave you two to talk shop.”

“Thanks hon.” Sara rubbed Howard’s shoulder lovingly as she slipped back inside and went to open the door.

A moment later, Fullerton’s unmistakable, booming voice rattled through the house and out to Howard in his wicker chair, which shook at the sound, “Hey Sara! Is the maestro in?”

“He’s just out back,” Sara answered,  noticeably softer.

“Howard!” Fullerton said as he walked in and invited himself to be seated.

“Noel. I must say I’m anxious to solve your riddle. What is this piece you want me to paint that’s so special it can’t even be mentioned over the phone?”

“Boy Howard, you don’t mess around do you? No time for weather talk or how’re you doings, huh?” Fullerton replied, “Down to business. Well, it’s something I’ve wanted to talk to you about for a long time. You know we’re setting up that exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art, of your landscapes, next year?”

“Yes, I think I might have gotten a phone call or two about it,” Howard joked.

“I felt it would be an important statement, an insight into your mind if you will, if I could commission you to paint on a very personal subject, as a complement to those pieces.”

“And what might that be?”

“Howard, I want to commission you to paint a self-portrait. And before you refuse,” Fullerton put his hand up to quash any reactionary responses. “Please hear me out. I realize you’ve never done one before, and I understand why you haven’t. But consider how much of an impact that could have on people who come to see your work. You are unquestionably one of the most influential artists of the last fifty years if not more, and you’ve changed the entire idea of what people believe is possible, and not just in art frankly. I’m not exaggerating. You know me well enough to know I’m a straight shooter.”

“Noel, I just don’t know about doing a self-portrait.”

“People want to know how you see yourself. All I’m asking is for you to think about it, Howard. As I said, it will be very trying, but I think you’d be surprised how rewarding it could be for you and for countless others.”

“Alright, Noel. I’ll consider it.”

“Thank you Howard. You know how to reach me,” Fullerton said standing up. “Take your time to think it over. In keeping with your philosophy, now that I’ve said my mind, I’ll leave you and Sara to enjoy the day.” To that Howard simply nodded his head and returned to his coffee as Fullerton let himself out the front.

“I heard what he said…” Sara said stepping back onto the patio.

“Yeah.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Think about it. I owe him that much after all he’s done for my career. I suppose he’s right too. It could have an impact on some people. Can we go for a walk?”

“Of course, let me grab your shoes and coat.”

Howard felt for the table and set down his coffee, carefully to be sure none of it spilled, as he sat up. He stood and stretched as he let out a sigh and walked through the kitchen.

“I’m just at the door Howard. I’ve got your coat and shoes.”

“Thanks Sara.” Sara guided Howard into his tennis shoes and jacket, and they headed out the door. She threaded her arm through his and hugged it tightly. “You know Sara you’re more than just my wife, you really are my better half.” Sara didn’t answer but Howard imagined she was smiling, which made him happy. She guided him down the steps one at a time, serving as his wife and his better half, as she’d always done and would always do.

Yours in Time

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a short story by Jerry Zinn

Alicia stood at the water’s edge, the occasional tail of a broken wave sending cool water between her toes. She held a small round shell in her hand, rubbing the sand off with her thumb and forefinger as she looked out on the layered atmosphere. The only visitor as far as her eyes could see was a seagull gliding on the ocean breeze like a distant kite. Once Alicia no longer felt the coarse grains, and her fingers slid along the ridges of the shell without interruption, she tossed and caught it a few times, keeping her focus on a buoy jostling with the current far away. She waited for the white of the next wave to form, and then skipped the shell across the surface towards her marker. It kicked up in the air when it made contact with the crest before falling behind with a plop. Satisfied, Alicia wiggled her toes and tensed at the slight pricks from bits of crushed shells.

She ran her hands along her smooth thighs while the wind picked up and filled her linen shirt like a sheet drying on the line. When Alicia turned her head a mess of her hazelnut hair cut across her face. She quickly flicked it back and out of the way. With a full breath of the salty-sweet sea air, she turned and walked along the shoreline, a thick forest of palm trees to her right, the clear water folding to her left, and nothing but pristine white ahead. She had the island cove all to herself and was attempting to use the opportunity to think of ideas for her next play, walking without urgency. Tucked into her front pocket was a pen and small moleskin notebook where she recorded the intermittent flashes of lightning in her brainstorm.

Alicia noticed something glistening in the sand and shifted her course a few degrees to investigate. When she arrived at her destination, she found the neck of a green beer bottle. She could tell it had been there for a time because it had transfigured to sea glass, the strong sheen weathered away by passing sand and the ebb and flow of the tides. Alicia bent over and pulled at the lip, expecting it only to be a broken piece, but was surprised to find a fully intact vessel. Alicia dumped out what had accumulated inside. She smiled as an idea crossed her mind. Perhaps she was just the hopeless romantic everyone seemed to think: the idea of putting a message in the bottle was too tempting to avoid.

Alicia sat down on the warm, shifting ground, which hugged her legs welcomingly, and pulled out her notebook, its leather a little damp from sea spray. Looking to the cotton ball clouds in the sky for inspiration, Alicia thought of what to write. She clicked her pen and introduced it to the tip of her tongue as she opened to a fresh page.

“Dear Wanderer,” she started. “I’m writing this message from a different time and a different place. I don’t know you, but if you’re reading this I feel you must be a romantic like me. Take a minute to look around you and appreciate what you have, for each moment is as fleeting as the wind, and like each breeze, it is precious. Yours in time, Alicia, March 1st 2015.”

As she finished signing her name, Alicia took care to separate the page from the journal. She rolled the paper and sent it into the mouth of the bottle as she stood up, brushing off the sand that clung to her skin. She looked around for something to cap the container with, noticing the spent cork of enjoyed Bordeaux within reach. With a few taps from the base of her palm, Alicia secured the stopper, preserving the capsule until it reached its unknown person and time. She made her way back to the edge and waded out until the salt water seeped into the white fabric of her button-down. She gave a last look to the hazy green glass, her note tucked safely within, and then threw it as far as she could, beyond the push of the current, with the maritime postal service stamping the parcel with a splash.

Alicia watched the neck of the bottle bobbing away for a few minutes before losing it behind some ripples and then continued her aimless trek along the beach. Her mind wandered through a labyrinth of themes, time periods, and storylines. She caught a glimpse of high tea in Elizabethan England, bombshells exploding on the shores of Normandy, and young lovers sharing a laugh at a tapas bar in turn-of-the-century Madrid. Her stream of consciousness ran at its own pace, speeding and slowing at irregular intervals. For a time she got so lost in her imagination, she no longer saw the beach in front of her or the ocean and palm trees to either side. It was as if she was watching a montage of what her play could be but without the guidance of what it should be. Alicia scribbled bits and pieces of her thoughts, a scrambled alphabet soup in a code only she could decipher. But nothing original seemed to materialize.

The whirlwind came to an end, as it always did, and thrust her back to the present. A few more seagulls joined her and were warming their pipes like a barbershop quartet with laryngitis. Ahead of her a bent palm tree reached out like an arm from the dense foliage, its fronds swaying with the whistling wind. The scene was restorative after the hurricane in her mind ran its course. Further down the beach where the shore bent outwardly, there was a man tending to a small boat, propped up atop a few logs. As she got closer she watched him push it to the water and over the break of the waves. He hopped aboard, propelling the boat forward with powerful strokes of an oar.

A stronger swell took Alicia off guard as it crashed up against her legs and sprayed her up to her waist. As the water receded, the color from the sand drained slowly after. A crab scampered across the whitening surface and stopped a few feet from Alicia. She could see its eyes, fixed at the end of small antennae, looking her over as its claws opened and closed, snapping like Spanish castanets. Assessing Alicia to be a threat, the crab sidestepped its way back onto dry ground and gave her one last look before diving into its hole.

When Alicia’s gaze returned to the shoreline, she saw a green bottle wash up in front of her. She recognized instantly that it was the bottle she had thrown in earlier. Seeing it again so soon made her laugh. With a sigh she picked it up from the wet ground, some of the thick sea foam still clinging to the bottom. Slightly resigned from her failed attempt, with a shake of her head she pulled the cork out using greater effort than expected. She flipped the bottle and knocked out the curled paper. As she unrolled it, she looked at her watch: noon. Looking back to the message, a strange feeling came over her and she flashed back at the timepiece. Alicia realized she had lost track of time, noon coming as not much of a surprise, but a different marker of time’s passage was indeed very strange. Upon closer inspection she confirmed what her quick glance had revealed: March 1st, 2065.

Alicia’s eyes, wide with alarm, moved from the face of the watch to her hands, littered with the lines defining a long life. Her hair was no longer the familiar nutty color, but was instead a soft white like the earth surrounding her. Alicia looked down at her legs, their formerly toned shape more relaxed, with a few straggling streaks of blue veins. In disbelief she dropped the bottle. Then with shaking hands, she opened the letter and saw the words, the handwriting faded and warped from condensation over decades: “Dear Wanderer, I’m writing this message from a different time and a different place. I don’t know you, but if you’re reading this I feel you must be a romantic like me. Take a minute to look around you and appreciate what you have, for each moment is as fleeting as the wind, and like each breeze, it is precious. Yours in time, Alicia, March 1st 2015.”

Suddenly a flood of scenes came crashing through her head like a tidal wave, missed and forgotten moments from the past fifty years of her life, remembered in an instant. Every clip flew by, unfamiliar, as if she were remembering some other person’s life. The words of the message churned over and over unrelentingly in her head as if it were trying to become butter, as she stood breathless, the water washing over her feet: “each moment is as fleeting as the wind.” Suddenly such a wind picked up, shaking the palm trees, and forming small ridges across the surface of the water as her hair blew into her face again. When she cleared the tangle strewn across her eyes, the message was torn from her hand and thrown into the sea. Alicia watched as the paper floated on the surface before it soaked up the salt water and disappeared from view. For a while she stood, staring out across the water, wondering how she’d let decades of precious moments slip away like unappreciated breezes, her own message unheeded. Alicia looked back at her watch, 12:05, March 1st 2015. Frantically she gave herself a look-over to find everything as it was before: young and colorful. She pulled out her notebook and wrote with haste the outline for her next play.