the swarm

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artwork by @jimmywyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

Click-click-click-click-thunk.

The machinery continued unceasingly day and night, indiscriminate toward lunch hours and shift changes. Very little human involvement was necessary at the plant. There was a front-end loader who guided the shipments into the loading bay, but even the transfer of the raw materials was done by floating robotic arms and moving floors. Up in the crow’s nest, a glassed-in pod positioned high above the electronic ballet playing out in the hanger, two managers watched. But they could not watch constantly, it was too overwhelming. There were never any changes.

Most of the time Fred and Susanne, who held the day shift charge, sat at opposite ends of the enclosure, communicating only during the thirty minutes allotted at the noon whistle for eating. Susanne read books, all kinds from Tolstoy to Verne. On the wall behind there was an insurmountable collection she was chipping away at. Every fifteen minutes Susanne scanned the factory and checked the screens on which live footage was broadcast of every moving part in the facility. Seeing nothing out of order, Susanne returned to Robinson Crusoe.

Fred played himself in endless games of chess. For the first few months every match ended in a stalemate, but he learned to bisect his brain. Fred did not know what move Fred was contemplating, he saw only Fred’s strategy. As a result, Fred lost at the exact same frequency with which Fred won.

“Checkmate,” he’d say every forty-five minutes.

“Touché,” Fred relented, tipping over the cross-bearing monarch. It was then that Fred performed his checks.

There was only one night manager at a time, and the responsibility alternated between Gloria and Kit. Kit intermittently woke between alarms set every half hour. Gloria knitted. She started with mittens and socks, large enough only for infant appendages. Then she graduated to sweaters and impractical pants, colorful and gaudy, unflattering in form, anything to will her way to the morning whistle.

Click-click-click-click-thunk.

Hundreds of times a day, maybe thousands, for no one could keep track except the computer, frozen bricks of protein dropped onto the conveyer belt. After a heating, a shaping, a super-freezing, and every pocket of air sucked out, the raw shipment transformed into neat packages.

After the thunk of the bricks on the belt, they ventured off to the packaging operation. Once piled up in neat stacks, enough to fill a shipping container, the loader popped out of a hut and guided the collection to the transportation.

It was a flawless operation, swifter, cleaner, and more efficient than the old days, where cows and pigs, chickens and goats, had to be raised and slaughtered. Insects were grown in a matter of hours and then super-chilled before being sent to the factory. They required few nutrients, and even less care. No one had ethical issues with farming those nasty creatures, their beady eyes never seeing natural light, spindly arms and legs at acute angles crunched into a tight mass. People could hardly tell the difference in the flavor, and they’d finally mastered the texture. No longer was it mealy.

Low costs were predictably well-received, and every measure was taken to distract consumers from the true ingredients. Over time, bugs lost their nefarious reputation.

Click-click-click-click-thunk.

Another brick. Thunk. Another and another and so on and so forth they dropped through the sunlight and the moonlight, under dark, cloudy skies, and new moons. Inside the factory the outside world did not exist. For Susanne there were other worlds to tend to on the page. Fred was only one move away from winning and just as close to loosing. After a quick check, Kit could go back to sleep. Gloria was nearly done with the first batch of orange and purple tracksuits that would never be worn.

Click-click-click-click-thunk.

Susanne was on the last chapter of her most recent endeavor, the closing stages of a trilogy. She’d lost interest in the characters and the story some time in the second book, when she felt the plot points and background information were repeated unnecessarily. Susanne didn’t care about the characters anymore, but she never gave up on a novel, because the only thing she had was completing those works. Once she closed a book mid-way. Once. Never to open it again. Not because it was poorly written, in fact she rather enjoyed its language, but Susanne could not handle the grotesque imagery, the vibrant description of heinous acts. Her imagination was too active. Horror was the only genre away from which she readily steered.

Click-click-click-click-whoosh.

Susanne did not hear the clicks and thunk anymore, like the second hand of a clock it fell deaf upon over-exposed ears. But a whoosh? That was not normal. Without marking her page, Susanne threw the book down with a thud.

Click-click-click-click-whoosh.

Again with the whoosh. Susanne shot to her feet and darted from screen to screen, scanned the massive factory for abnormalities. Fred heard the book connect with the concrete floor and accidentally knocked over a bishop.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” Fred asked.

“The conveyor belt!”

“Yes, yes, what about it?” he said annoyed by the disturbance.

“We have to shut it down, something’s wrong!”

“Nonsense, nothing is wrong. Nothing is ever wrong. It’s all very precise. Can’t be shut down. We have to make the quotas, don’t you know that?”

“But the sound! There’s a whoosh and not a thunk. It’s always been a thunk.”

Thunk? What are you talking about?”

“Oh Fred, what do you know? You’re so lost in that game you don’t know up from down.”

“Maybe if you pulled your nose from those books once in a while you could clean out your ears!” he barked defensively.

Susanne grabbed the binoculars that hung dormant on the hook by their jackets. In her tenure, she’d used the magnifiers only once, on her first day when she gazed with wonderment at the technology. It did not take long for her to cool to the advanced mechanisms. They were not impressive, just menial and never-ending. Eyesight enhanced, she looked to the conveyer belt where neat bricks were not traveling equidistantly in a line as they were programed. Amorphous blobs splattered on the moving surface.

Click-click-click-click-whoosh.

Ten or twenty, maybe a hundred more whooshes in the period of indecision, of uncertainty, of hesitation.

“There! There! Look!” she screamed, pressing the rubber eye pieces to Fred’s face.

“What? Stop that, you’re hurting me!”

“Look at the belt, Fred!”

Fred snatched the binoculars irritably. “Give me those!” His jaw widened. “We have to shut it down! How do we shut it down?”

“See? Now you believe me!” cried Susanne.

“This is no time for squabbling. How do we turn it off?”

“I don’t know! I thought you knew how this all worked!”

“Me? I thought you were the expert!”

“Hah! Isn’t this just perfect? The one time something happens!”

The click-click-click-click-whoosh was now joined by another sound, amplifying exponentially with each passing minute. It started as a white noise, a fan on low in a back room. The floodlights darkened, unwelcome mood lighting. At first indescribable, when vibration joined the noise, a chilling sense of enlightenment overcame Susanne and Fred.

Click-click…

Clicking went inaudible. Whooshing was no more, not to say anything of the distant memory of thunking. Bzzzzzzzzzzzz was the auditory tidal wave sweeping through. Soon the industrial luminescence reduced to the twinkle of a few fireflies. Then the world went pitch black. Their ears bled blackness, an outpouring felt but not seen. Not even fingers inserted deep into canals could stem the flow or deaden the excruciating buzzing.

Beep-beep-beep-beep-clink.

The driver stopped reversing when the shipping container made contact with the buffer. He didn’t watch anymore, allowing the clink to guide him. As he climbed out of the driver’s seat, the man spit out brownish-green saliva laced with tobacco. He glanced at the display beside the massive bay door. Nothing was irregular. Times and weights were the exact same except the most recent.

But the driver did not notice, because he saw what he expected to see. Colorblind, the red appeared no different than the green. The man put in his earplugs, not wanted to hear the pounding, mechanical click-click-click-click-thunk.With a yawn and a readjustment of the wad under his lip from left to right, the driver punched the bay door opener. So effective was the hearing protection that the bzzzzzzzzzzzzzz did not register as the door lifted, drowning out his scream of exasperation as the swarm poured out into the clear night air.

Graham Jennings Hill

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artwork by @jimmywyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

“If we could all gather ourselves. I would like to begin the proceedings. My name is Charles Swift, and I am the President of the Rogers County Chapter of Kiwanis International,” a spruce of a man said from behind a podium of plywood and peeling laminate. His balding head was inflated, bulged out at the temples, and on the end of his branch nose sat half-moon spectacles through which he strained.

“Charles are we going to start now?” a member yelled from the back corner where he occupied two of the cafeteria’s structurally unsound plastic chairs.

“That’s what he’s doing, Martin!” another shouted back.

“Thank you, Fred,” Charles said. “I’d like to welcome everyone here to Parker Baptist School for today’s installment of our speaker series, ‘Bringing the World to You At Home.’ But first I would like to thank Parker Baptist for allowing us use of their fine dining hall.” He raised his arms and made a sweeping gesture to inspire eyes to scan the 1960s relic with harsh, triangular windows and stained office panel ceiling in an unfortunate green. The floor was black-speckled concrete, polished dangerously for the Rogers County Chapter. “Some of the wonderful ladies here prepared excellent Folgers’s coffee, which is on the back table along with lemonade and an assortment of truly flavorful doughnut holes,” Charles added.

The information swept over the room of multi-genarians like a cool fall breeze, eliciting expressions as glazed-over as the fried snacks. A few adjusted hearing aids, fidget spinners of the WWII contingency.

“When did he say they were serving the coffee?” a man in a wheelchair with a baggy button-down whispered loudly.

“We’ll make sure you get a cup,” Charles replied, leaning forward. “Hey Rick! Would you get Al some coffee please?”

“Does he want anything in it?”

“Al, do you want anything in your cup?”

“Coffee, you moron,” Al replied.

“Black! Now really, gentlemen, let’s move this along. Before I call up our speaker, as we traditionally do, I’d like any guests we have today to introduce themselves.”

Three men, sufficiently old to be mistaken for Rogers County Chapter of Kiwanis members and a young man of twenty slowly rose.

“I guess I’ll go ahead and speak first,” one of the men said, doffing his brown trilby. “My name is Gerhardt Sven Matthews, and I was roommates with your friend Sal here at the University of Tulsa back in ’52. Before I retired I was an insurance man,” he said. The introduction was met with piecemeal applause.

“Thank you, Mr. Matthews. And next, you sir?”

“Well hell, I don’t know if I can follow that one. I’m Ralph Almondson. I’m old as dirt, and George here told me they were serving coffee. Also I know the accused.”

“Mr. Almondson…” Charles’s voice trailed off. “And Sam, in the pink jacket?”

“Samuel Benet. I’ve known Charles here since, well, long before he was all ‘higher than thou’ as president of this fancy club. No, I am only joking. Charles is a good man. We served together, and he thought I’d be interested in today’s talk. Thank you, and I’m sorry about my joke, Charles is a good, honest, man,” his voice was high-pitched and gravelly like he’d smoked a pack of unfiltereds and huffed a balloon.

“Thank you Sam. If only more members were able to hear you! And finally, we have a young man in our midst. Son, would you mind telling us a little about yourself?”

“I’m Bradley. I’m a student at Oklahoma State, and I’ve known the speaker, Mr. Hill, for several years. We belong to the same gym, and we’ve had many great conversations in the sauna.”

“All the way from Oklahoma City! Welcome, it sounds like you have a great future ahead. Earn your degree, and I’m sure Kiwanis would be thrilled to accept your application for membership. Now I’d like to introduce our speaker. The man I’m about to invite to take the podium is an old friend of mine, a man I played poker with regularly in the 80s and 90s, and those are years not ages!” Charles paused for the chuckles.

“This individual is one of the most accomplished and highly respected men I’ve ever known. He fought in the Army in WWII and Korea, earning three Purple Hearts for his daring service. In civilian life, the man returned to his chemistry roots to work for the pharmaceutical company, Haynes-Bayton, and retired as the president of their research and development division after 30 years. But today, having recently turned 95, he joins us to talk about one of his many expeditions. Today he will tell us about the trials and excitement of making the push to the South Pole. Please give a warm welcome to Mr. Graham Jennings Hill.”

There was muted applause in the crowd and a fair measure of bewilderment. At the back of the room where the artisanal Folgers was percolating, three men laughed and added coffee to their cream, blissfully unaware. Graham Jennings Hill made his way to the front of the room with a swiftness belying his age, stimulating envy from those a great deal younger. Graham wore a hound’s-tooth jacket with straight, pink pocket square, black pants, and black penny-loafers. Nestled perfectly in the notch of his neck, set against a starched dress shirt, he wore an expertly tied bowtie. Though 95, Graham required no lenses to correct his sight. In a more refined setting, Graham could easily have been mistaken for a star from Hollywood’s “Golden Era.”

“Thank you Charles, for that very kind and thoughtful introduction. Of all the times I’ve been introduced, that was by far the most recent. It is an honor to be invited here to Rogers Country, a place etched into my bucket list between Singapore and Australia. As Charles said, I will be speaking with you all today about an expedition to the South Pole three years ago of which I was fortunate to be a part. The journey was trying, and deadly cold, but ultimately one of incredible adventure. I’ve put together here a Power Point which will show images as I recount the expedition.”

Charles turned on the projector, which released a puff of smoke from the vents strangled by vines of dust. Onto the pull-down screen materialized from a blurry haze the title slide, “To the Bottom of the Earth: An Expedition to the South Pole by Graham Jennings Hill.” The projector buzzed at a frequency low enough to bother some but high enough to go unnoticed by others. The backdrop to the title slide was an image of a massive black ship with a shark’s mouth across the bow.

“This is the Russian icebreaker, the Stalin, a poorly named vessel that should have been decommissioned after the war. I thought after Yalta I’d never have to fight Stalin again, but this ship gave us plenty to fuss about, including the night when my room flooded up to my waist, and I discovered very quickly which of my belongings were sea worthy. I’d have been more upset about my stuff if the water weren’t so damn cold. It ripped the breath right out of me,” Graham tried to use the clicker, “Next slide please.”

Charles pressed the button on the computer several times, applying greater force with each attempt. When the image on the screen didn’t move, Graham sighed. “What’s the issue?”

“I’m not sure. It won’t move forward.”

“Is he done already?” Al yelled.

“Fred, would you come up here? Fred is our tech expert, and he’s very savvy,” Charles said, reassuring Graham. It took Fred, at eighty-five, a minute to shuffle his way to the front, head pointed down from a pronounced slump.

He is your tech expert?” Graham quipped.

“This may take a bit!” Charles said to the room as Fred settled into the seat and unsheathed his readers. “Does anyone have anything they’d like to offer while Fred takes care of this technological problem?”

A hand shot up a few rows back. “I’ve got something, Charles!”

“Oh hell, is Rick going to ramble about some nonsense again?” Martin barked.

“Come on up, Rick,” Charles said.

As Rick replaced Graham Jennings Hill at the podium, he pulled a document from his breast pocket. “You all are going to love this. Remember Harry Truman? Well this is a story about Truman that will knock your socks off. We all know aliens are real of course, but do you know the story of MJ-12?” As Rick continued, Graham cradled his head.

The conspiracy theory continued for a few minutes before Fred called out, “OK we fixed it!”

“If I could…” Graham interjected.

“Now let me just finish this,” Rick replied reaching the end of the page before turning to the next. “And then they got ahold of a leaked, top-secret document singed by none other than Harry S. Truman himself!” He went on absent the interest of the crowd. But he was determined to reach the conclusion several pages away.

“Rick! They fixed the thing!” someone yelled.

“Shut the hell up and sit down!” another called out.

“We’re not here to listen to you. I have to put up with that at all these meetings already!” contributed a third.

But none of the shouts phased Rick, who by the time he’d completed his thesis on alien cover-up by Harry S. Truman, had killed twenty minutes and several members.

“Than you, Rick,” Graham said toeing the podium, “They say time is wasted on youth, but you found away to waste it on us. Now as I was saying, this is the Stalin. We boarded the Stalin in Argentina from where we headed south to the ice shelf. Joining me on the expedition were several U.S. military vets, a group of scientists from Argentina, and a man who was doing reconnaissance work and training for a solo attempt at crossing Antarctica. The Stalin was staffed with former Russian naval men who, based on their enthusiastic approach to taking on nature’s challenges, were likely discharged dishonorably for recklessness and purchased the once fallow ship at auction in Ivory Coast.”

“Charles, we’ve got to be done here in 5 minutes!” Martin called out.

“I’ve only just begun,” Graham protested.

“I know, and I’m terribly sorry, Graham, but unfortunately we are bound by our time-constraint, and Rick ate a rather large portion of your time.”

“He spoke for twenty minutes, and I’ve only talked for three. He didn’t have a portion, he ate my whole damn meal!”

“I’m so sorry Graham.”

“We want to ask some questions.” A man said through a mouthful of doughnut holes.

“Yes, Graham, I feel awful, but they were promised five minutes of Q & A.”

“Well, before I move to questions, let me just blurt out a summary. It was a difficult journey, it was cold, some people got frostbite, sadly one gentleman died, and the rest of us made it to the South Pole and back safely. And here are some pictures,” he said clicking through the remaining slides so quickly they could barely be seen. “There that’s it. What do you want to know? Yes, you.”

“Now, you said you went to the South Pole?”

“Yes.”

“So not the North Pole?”

“Correct.”

“I just wanted to clarify that because I’m sure many of us thought you were talking about the North Pole, which is the famous one.”

“I sincerely hope you are mistaken, but I doubt it. Others?”

“You said it was cold?”

“Yes.”

“And how did you know that?”

“Because we were all freezing.”

“Oh, so you actually went there? These aren’t just pictures you found on the Internet? Because my grandson can find anything on the Internet.”

“I’m in many of the images… Yes, I went to the South Pole. The temperature was many degrees below zero, which I was able to discern because we were equipped with a thermometer, a device which, if you all were not aware, measures the temperature.”

“Were there many reindeer there? Or perhaps the better question is, did you eat anything other than reindeer when you were there?” The member was impressed with the pertinent humor of his query.

“Frankly that isn’t a better question. Both queries are ludicrous. There are no reindeer in Antarctica, and as for what we ate, it was mostly soups and beans, generally canned fare. Our refrigerator was actually heated to keep the food from turning rock solid in the cold.”

“Is it true that the Eskimos are cannibals?”

“First of all, there are no Eskimos in Antarctica. Secondly, none of them are cannibals. I find you all to be terribly uninformed. Perhaps it is best I didn’t get to deliver my talk. I’m afraid to wonder what questions my full account would inspire.”

“Graham, I wonder if you wouldn’t mind fielding just one more question before we close?” Charles asked timidly.

“I’m nearly breathless in anticipation.”

“What does the South Pole look like?”

“Thank you, actually that’s a very good question. There is a sign indicating the geographic South Pole, but in fact the magnetic South Pole is not a fixed point. We used a GPS to locate it when we were there. Everything around was barren and icy, so the topography was not a reliable source of information.”

“You used a gypsy?” Al called out.

“G P S!”

“I don’t trust those people! Sell your shirt off your back and tell you you always wanted to get sunburned.”

“It has been a great joy speaking with you all today, something I look forward to forgetting in the years to come. Perhaps aging has its benefits. Thank you. Charles, adieu” Graham taking his collected notes to the coffee.

“Let’s give Mr. Graham Jennings Hill a big round of applause. I’m sure it would have been a wonderful talk had Rick not shanghaied the entire session. That concludes today’s speaker series. Next month the subsequent installment of ‘Bringing the World to You At Home,’ will be a talk by Edward Foster on what the difference is between a continent and a country. I’m sure that will prove very informative for all of us. Thank you, and we hope to see those among you who are still with us back here at Parker Baptist School at that time. Graham you’re invited to join us.”

After blowing steam off his styrofoam cup, Graham Jennings Hill smiled. “Not for all the gold in Fort Knox. Cheers gentlemen.”

All on Knightly News

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artwork by @jimmywyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

Mort grouped the glasses in a mass. All the alcohol was cleaned out. He poured Cokes, waters, lemonades, and the odd milk, into one container, a fraternity pledge’s virgin nightcap. Hardware went into the buss bin, food scraps dealt with later. All Mort wanted was to be out of that place.

It had been a slow night by Tackle Box standards. Other restaurants would have called it a Friday rush. Mort was the “staff” part of “understaffed.” When he was a kid, fish and chips was a rare treat. As an employee it was the overcooked, tartar-smeared remains he interred. He hadn’t eaten cod since the magic was peeled away during his first shift three years earlier.

There were supposed to be two other waiters, a busboy, and a food runner. The manager scheduled them, which was supposed to mean something. Not even the manager showed. He was salaried. Mort was jester, advisor, and king with all the responsibilities and none of the trappings. To accompany him was the dishwasher, out back by the dumpster trying to light a skinny blunt, and the owner, passed out in his office from consecutive sleepless nights.

On weekends there were performers, steamer trunk, train-hopping acts paid in meals and tips. So all the tables were bussed at once, after lingerers were thrown back out to sea. Frequently the acts took Mort’s tips from the tables as they shouldered their instruments. Mort confronted a comedian once about it. The funnyman denied it and landed a left on Mort’s gut. That night the three-piece jazz group had magnetic fingers.

Mort caught himself on a chair back after slipping on a French fry, the Tackle Box’s banana peel. Mort dreamed of the shower liberating him from the seafood stench. His elbows stuck to the thin layer of indeterminate slime, and he peeled them off like stickers melted to windowpanes.

“Mort Mackerel, everyone!” he called out. His last name was secret for obvious reasons. On his application he’d written Mort M., and the manager didn’t ask. Employees were paid in cash, when they were paid at all, so government names weren’t required. It was then, from his quarters in the bottom of a well of resignation, that Mort saw the handwriting scribbled on the back of a waterlogged receipt.

Where the line said, “tip,” was written, “see back.” Mort feared a cruel joke, a cutting line to finish him off. He remembered the table well, three smartly dressed men in their sixties, successful at something.

On the back was scrawled, “All on Knightly News in the fifth.”

Mort couldn’t help but laugh the loud, sarcastic outburst of a villain. “What’s next? Stocks and bonds?” Mort derided. He stuffed the stub into his apron, another submission to the random order slips, paperclips, and pens. When he brought the cart full of bus tubs into the kitchen the dishwasher was gone.

“Another Houdini. That’s four in three weeks.”

If left, Mort knew the crap would be waiting for him in the morning, so he loaded the washer. An hour or two later the dishes were done. Mort walked home knowing he wouldn’t get paid for the extra hours or even the scheduled ones.

Tomorrow was not a new day full of prospects. It was the same day, gearing up to play over again with a different cast of characters like an off-Broadway show. Mort slept soundly. It was the one thing he was good at no matter the circumstances. All he had to do was lay down, and he was good as gone, a falling cadaver caught by a hard mattress. In the morning Mort riffled through his apron and found the crumpled receipt: “All on Knightly News in the fifth.”

He looked in the mirror and noticed he’d missed a patch of beard. The resulting strands stuck out like weeds in an untended lawn. Mort felt twice his age and looked twice that. He needed a haircut, a massage, money, and a companion. Mort Mackerel would go get all that once he had something to begin with.

Mort called his old friend Andre. Andre and Mort went way back to when they were locked up in Kansas together. Neither did the crime they committed. At least that was the company line. Roughly the same age, Andre and Mort connected over a shared hatred of accountants. In different ways, accountants put them behind bars.

“Andre, if I wanted to play the ponies, how would I put money down?”

“You want to gamble on the track? Don’t tell me you loaded a pistol too.”

“Nothing like that. I got a tip on a horse. Figured I’d try my luck.”

“Your luck is shit,” Andre chuckled.

“About as shit as yours.” Mort replied defensively.

“But mine’s not as smelly. What’s the horse?”

“Knightly News. He races in the fifth.”

“The fifth at where?”

“I don’t know. That’s all the guy wrote.”

“What guy, Mort? You got a horse guy?”

“Just a customer. He wrote it on a receipt instead of a tip. I mean it is a tip, I guess. That was the point anyway.”

“Some people, man. Let me see if I can find out. How much you in for?”

Mort paused to calculate how much he could afford. “Five grand.”

“Five grand!” Andre nearly cracked the receiver. “Do you even have that kind of money?”

“It’s all I’ve got,” Mort replied. “The note said all.”

“Jesus, Mort. Are you sure about this? This guy know something nobody else knows? I found this pony. He’s got long-shot odds. And I mean long-shot.”

“How long?”

“That would pay out over… $700,000!”

Mort digested. “Since we’re out you picked up accounting?”

“Don’t joke. I can’t put all your money down. I won’t do it. But I’ll give you a guy’s number. If you really want to do this, call him. And… put me down for $200. But listen! You lose it all, and I’m not giving you a dime! I can’t afford to be a loan shark. Hell, I can’t swim!”

“Just give me the number.”

Not only did Mort put in the five grand, but he put Andre down for $1,000 too. That evening Mort was out of sorts, messing up drink orders, and staying in the kitchen when he was supposed to be tending tables.

“Mort! Get out there! Those people pay!” the owner yelled. But then he went back to sleep on his stool. “They pay…” he blubbered.

Mort stayed in the back and watched the time. It was 6:34, the post time for the fifth race. Seconds ticked slowly. At 6:38 Mort called the bookie.

“How’d he do? Where did Knightly News finish?” Mort was erratic. Inside raged a confusing optimism. There was something about that tip, about the way he found it, the ridiculousness that screamed for a reward. It was the turnaround, the great, promised pivot. He did his time. He worked hard. Mort wasn’t listening for the answer; he knew Knightly News won.

Mort didn’t know a thoroughbred from a Shetland pony. With the five grand he laid, he could have bought that pistol Andre alluded to. And if he’d had anything left after Knightly News tumbled in last, he’d have bought it, loaded it up, and used it.

Mercury Virus

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artwork by @jimmywyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

A white door sealed shut ended the narrow hall. No windows. No light lined the frame. Airtight. Out was kept out and in kept in. The floor to the stronghold was polished to a mirrored sheen, reflecting ceiling in high definition.

Two guards flanked the door. They did not move. They could not hear the conversation.

Inside was a long table of seamless mahogany. How the piece fit through the door was a mystery contemplated in private moments. Occupying the high back, leather chairs were the faces of power.

“So, what is the Board of Health saying?” the man at the head asked, wrinkling his silly putty forehead.

“Thank you Mr. President. The infectious disease center, called me a few hours ago. They’ve run the vaccine through about eighty patients after an extensive application to rats. Of those eighty, all eighty reported full recoveries,” said the woman in red.

“So we have it, right?” another asked. He was the tallest by a foot. The primary source of his height was in the torso. His hair was extremely short and peppered with gray, but his hamster mustache was jet black.

The woman nodded. “We have it.”

“Then why are we here? We should be rolling it out.”

A septuagenarian with half-moon glasses cleared his throat. “Not so fast. We have to consider our options.”

“The options are pretty clear. We have a vaccine that’s highly effective, and the Mercury Virus is spreading rapidly. If we don’t inoculate the population, millions of people will die. What choice is there to be made?” Margaret asked.

The glasses cleared his throat once more with a chilling chuckle. “You’re perspective is admirable.”

“Don’t patronize me!”

“From the numbers I’m looking at, rolling out this vaccine would be exorbitantly expensive, and—“

He was interrupted, “Now is not the time to squabble over pennies and dimes. Do you have any idea what our defense budget is now? And this, this medication will have a direct effect on saving lives. It’s nothing amorphous like, ‘defense against threats,’ or whatever crap you all are peddling at the military these days.”

The man at the head of the table, opened his mouth, and everyone went silent. “I admire the enthusiasm. But we need to listen. Before any decisions are made I want to know all the options. We should all know as much as we can.”

“Thank you, Mr. President. As I was saying, it’s going to be expensive, and the logistics will be a nightmare. But beyond that, we need to ask ourselves if we want to vaccinate the population. Our unemployment rate is at a record high, inflation is taking off, homelessness is rampant, and we’ve talked for years about a population that’s growing and aging more rapidly than we can keep pace.”

“What are you saying?” The woman with proud shoulders and silver hoop earrings cried out indignantly.

“Don’t be so naïve!” The man barked back.

“Oh please! We all know what you’re saying. But be a man! Don’t dance around. Say it!”

He paused. All eyes were trained on him, including the President’s, which squinted to focus. “Let me ask you all a question. Would it be the worst thing for our country? If we weren’t so… crowded.”

“Damnit, just say it! You’re suggesting we let millions of people die. We have the vaccine in our hands. She just told us how well it works and the good it can do, and you want us to lock it up and throw away the key while our citizens drop dead in the streets!”

To that, he had no reply. He crossed his arms, and sat back in the chair, which creaked mechanically.

“You can’t be serious…” the woman in red asked rhetorically.

A man who’s face was so thin his eyes almost faced outward raised his hand. “I don’t like this any more than any of you. But we can’t completely discredit what he’s saying. The cost is one consideration, but our population growth is a very real and pressing crisis. Mr. President?”

Heads turned slowly to meet his quizzical expression. “You know more about the Mercury Virus than anyone in this room. Give it to us straight. What would happen if we administered the vaccine nationally? And what would happen… if we didn’t?”

The woman in red looked at the papers before her, but she didn’t read anything. She knew what they said. It was a simple question. The decision at hand should be based on empirical evidence and moral principles.

“Conservatively, we can say the vaccine is seventy-five percent effective. So, if 4 million people catch the Mercury Virus, which is the current mid-range estimate based on spread and behavior to this point, than a thorough vaccination will likely result in 3 million people saved. That’s the death of one million.” She paused. Even those we had not spoken up listened intently. “And if we don’t release the vaccine? Of those four million? Four million will die agonizing deaths. The fatality rate is one hundred percent. That’s Queens or Brooklyn, two Manhattans, wiped off the map.”

The President turned to the man at his left. He was the youngest in the room, head shaved on the sides, a shimmering brown waft glued in a wave across the top. His lapels were thin, his tie equally deprived. But the trappings covered a strong figure. “So?”

“I’ve been talking about the population crisis for years. The way I see it, the Mercury Virus is a blessing in disguise. Call it divine intervention.” His voice was deep and sure.

Hoop earrings danced violently as the woman stood up, her chair striking the wall. “The fact that we are even having a discussion when we could be out there right now saving lives is an abomination. If the people heard what we are saying now, they would be sick. They would kill us, and they should. There is no choice here. We have an obligation to protect human life.”

Everyone hoped another would speak first. Caught in a silence both short and unending, not a word was spoken.

“Mr. President, you have to think about your campaign too. A health crisis happens, that can’t be stopped. But then you rally a broken country after it sweeps through. Unemployment disappears. Suddenly we have surpluses where there were deficits…” His left hand man spoke with sharpened directness, straightening the knot of his tie.

At the head of the table, the president drove his head into his hands, rubbing his temples radially as he tried to tune everything out.

“You have the vaccine with you now, don’t you?”

“Enough doses to vaccinate everyone in this room,” the woman in red replied.

“Would you be so kind?”

She went around the room, motioning for each cabinet member to roll up his or her shirt. After a quick alcohol swab she inserted a needle and administered the clear, life-saving liquid.

Peaking out from the president’s blazer were burnished copper cufflinks, miniature Empire State buildings. He ran his fingers over the shapes, the corners and imperfections. Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, they streaked across his memory like flying stars, each ending in an explosion. He guided his thumb around the perimeter of the building slowly, and then he went top to bottom, side to side.

“Thank you. All of you. For your counsel. The Mercury Virus is horrific, a global health tragedy. We’ve seen and heard what it can do and has done. The virus is not just a local issue for our country,” he said with speech poeticism. “We will recover, because that’s what we do as a nation. From the most difficult of times, we always emerge stronger. This virus spread so quickly.” The president took a long pause during which he rolled a short, perfectly sharpened Ticonderoga between his fingers. He didn’t look anyone in the eye. Instead he stared at the wall as he spoke, “There just wasn’t enough time…”

With that he stood up and pulled his jacket sleeves down to hide the copper reminders.

In the Tree Lies Beyond

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artwork by @jimmywyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

“If you go through, you will never return.”

The wind doesn’t blow at the lowest reaches of the vines in the rainforest. Though skirting across the canopy like a running fire, only whiffs make it to the floor, mere whispers of ghastly souls waft near that ground dense with the detritus of millennia. Animals howl in stereo, chitting and chatting, snickering and screeching. Deeper and deeper we cut ourselves through the Amazonian madness. She closed the doors behind, growing back ten-fold stronger. We could hardly place breadcrumbs before they were masticated and spit out, blurring our trail into the abyss.

We were given a seemingly simple task, the kind that when written down are straightforward and achievable: map this portion of the rainforest. Our directive came from the high ups in the House of Commons, but I presume it was inspired by the intellectual curiosity of the House of Lords. Nary a commoner cares for the hot, humid, Brazilian landscape.

Three of our crew, a small outfit from the start, succumbed to various diseases. Horrible in their symptoms, we were glad in the end to see them close their eyes, for in so doing they were released from the grip of terror. Only two remain, my guide and myself. João, a Brazilian by birth, is an Englander at heart. His English is better than many Englishmen I came across at university, and his understanding of these wicked weeds is unrivaled.

There was rumor of a small tribe living in the area we intended to survey. João had a hidden sense about those sorts of things. He was convinced we would be confronted upon arrival.

“The people who live there, in these places. They don’t want to be found. They are constantly running, escaping from the world closing in around them.”

“Will they be hostile?”

“We are going into their home without invitation.”

I saw his point clearly. Heat in the Amazon is not similar to that felt in the summer streets of cramped London. It eats you out from the inside, makes you smell as though you are slowly decomposing. There is no reprieve. Only minimal light filters down, sparkling like diamonds. I often look up and dream of climbing to the top of one of the fantastic trees and looking out over the landscape. Seeing the sun again and a sky of blue or gray, any color as long as it was devoid of vegetation.

Rumors it seems are sometimes true, because we did eventually reach our destination and were greeted with startling immediacy by an unusual tribe of people. Their hair was cut like wigs, the same adorning each, paint decorating their exposed bodies with dark colors and unfamiliar shapes. We were not so much welcomed to join them at their dwellings as we were compelled by the sharp protrusions on their staffs.

Fortunately for us, João was proficient enough in their hand signals to communicate our intent and diffuse tensions. When he described to them our desire to draw the topography and survey the black spot on our map the tribesmen looked at on another disapprovingly.

“Tell them it is imperative,” I said. “And let them know we will make no mention of them in our report. If privacy is their concern.”

It was difficult to read the leader of the tribe, a man whose status was derived from a heavy knobbed walking stick and the rather large pedestal on which he sat. He was the sole member in possession of a headdress. As a subject of Her Majesty, I am well versed in the significance of replacing one’s bowler with a ceremonial piece. As we waited for a decision, I wondered if we would make it out alive. It would be well within their rights to chop us to bits there on the spot. Aside from the discomfort of such an affair, I sympathized without objection.

“He will show us,” João said. “But there is something… something terrible? There is darkness there. He warns us not to go.”

“Please tell him we accept his offer. And we will be vigilant.” I tried my best to keep composure. The warning shook João. It was my responsibility to keep our heads on the level. With moss-stained hands I pulled my knife from my pocket, khaki long ago turned soot black. I offered it to the leader who nodded for his companion to accept.

“They will take us,” João said.

“Thank you,” I replied, unsure of how best to show my respect. I bowed, and conveyed the desired effect. The leader gave us a very stern look indeed when we departed. His eyes dug through to my innermost being, connecting with me spiritually. I could hear him saying, “goodbye, forever.”

João and I took measurements as we passed across the barrier of the thick rubber trees and spider webs the size of quilts, dotted with scurrying beasts and trapped insects like fists. Aside from the tribe, we were the first to see that place, to feel the bark, taste the grit of the moist air. I looked up from my notebook to see our guide pointing at the largest tree I’d ever encountered. Measuring no less than ten meters in diameter, it resembled more closely the base of a cliff than a forest resident.

The short man, much older than João and I combined, motioned for us to accompany him to the other side of the enormous trunk. As we did the birds ceased calling. I no longer heard the crunch of critters beneath my muddied boots. Not even that whispering air, which crept through vines, followed us. A smell, pungent like death under a cloud of incense welcomed us on the other side.

What I saw there cannot be accurately expressed in words. No picture would capture the scene to the full extent. Rippling like the waters of an otherwise still pond, a blackness large as a postal box. Swirling slowly in its far reaches were the twinkling stars of clear nights, nights away from the smog of London, out in the country where the world breaths freely.

“What is it?” I asked.

João recovered his faculties sufficiently. Our man was deliberate in his gestures, repeating the same sequence over with precise movements.

“What’s he saying, João?” I asked.

“If you go through, you will never return.”

I took out my notebook, the one in which these notes are scribed, and wrote these final lines. I told João to remain. The duty was mine not his, for Queen and country. Beyond those responsibilities I had curiosity to satisfy. After all, an adventurer at heart I have always been and will always be. I am now to step into the brilliantly swirling unknown, wandering, like Carroll’s Alice, into the beauty of other worlds.

 

Dutifully,

Edward Blakely

Childhood Treasures

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artwork by @jimmywyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

“Hold on, hold on. I have the code in this Ziploc bag. Just chill the hell out, Phillip.”

“Well? What is it?”

“It’s… #327765.”

“All right, well that didn’t work.”

“Oh, and then hit star.”

“Say the whole thing again. I forgot all of it.”

“#327765*.”

“Jimmy… that’s different than what you said before, but whatever.”

“No it’s the same!”

“Fine. That worked. We’re in,” Phillip declared, prying open the metal door.

The airline hanger of storage units was dark. Only the sliver of light from the open door provided insight. Around the corner was a timer. Jimmy twisted it to an hour, and, with a loud click, floods powered on in a neat row. A neon buzz followed the brothers as they walked down the long corridor with its icy concrete floor.

“Should we get one of those push carts? The flat bed things?”

“Honestly I don’t think we’re gonna take much with us,” Jimmy replied.

“What’s the number? This place looks like a hotel. Some kind of weird, futuristic hotel. I feel like if you rolled some of these up you’d see aliens or twelve-eyed monsters.”

“We’ll get right on that. It’s… uh… what number does this look like? Dad’s handwriting is complete garbage.”

“Weren’t you here before with him loading stuff?” Phillip asked.

“That was like five years ago! You expect me to remember which of these identical doors is ours?”

“That’s a seven. So, unit 374. Should be down this alley. Even’s are on the… no I guess not. There’s literally no rhyme or reason to this.”

“Well it is in number order. So there’s that,” observed Jimmy helpfully.

374 was easy for the brothers to find it, once they located 373 and 375. The door was orange, thin, and corrugated. Once the plastic-capped key was turned three quarters counter clockwise, the whole locking mechanism popped out. With a tug, Phillip sent the barrier rolling up into the doorframe, and the two were faced with an arsenal of boxes and shelves that overwhelmed them with a distinctive odor.

Jimmy sniffed. “Basement.”

“Hundred percent.”

“What is it though? I could never pin it down.”

Phillip considered. “I want to say wet dust and like three… day… old chocolate chip cookies?”

“That is excruciatingly specific, but also accurate.”

Faced with floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall offerings, Jimmy and Phillip stood with arms folded and eyes blank. Phillip was four or five inches taller than his older brother, a recent development that altered the power dynamics. Jimmy’s subconscious response was to act more like a domineering older brother.

“I bet most of this junk is yours,” Jimmy declared.

“Based on what? You’re older.”

“Yeah but you have a ton of crap. Your stuff’s always thrown everywhere.”

“Uh, huh. Forgot you were Martha fricking Stewart, placing your socks on the floor ‘just-so.’”

“Mhm,” Jimmy scoffed.

“Where do we start?”

“Hit the lights. Then maybe we just go left to right? Dad said we need to have the stuff we want out by next week. Maybe today we just do recon?”

Under the brightness of the cans, lesser boxes previously disguised appeared, and dark containers were no longer empty spaces.

“Throw it all away as far as I’m concerned,” said Jimmy, cracking his neck apathetically.

“But there is some good stuff in here. We can’t just get rid of it all. Our childhoods are in this unit. Probably don’t remember ninety-percent of what’s in here.”

“Exactly. So throw it away before we learn what we’ve got. It’s the easiest, quickest way to do this. Can’t miss what you don’t know you don’t have.”

Phillip was already deep into the weeds, his legs guarded below the hip behind banker’s boxes. “That’s a depressing attitude, Jimmy. Like look at this! Remember when you won this at the Karate championship? This trophy is sick!” Phillip hoisted the gold statue up as though he’d just been given the prize.

“Middle school trophies don’t get you laid once you get to college. Maybe in high school they still work.”

“Don’t be such a downer. So you don’t want the trophy? Fine. But there’s gotta be things in here of yours that you want to keep. Might even be some stuff worth selling, you know? Some finds we can post on eBay and throw a rager with the profits.”

“Sounds like a pipe dream. Most of this is worthless.”

“Why don’t you look there, and I’ll move to the back, then we can get everything without stepping on each other,” Phillip suggested, brushing aside the negativity. He noticed their relationship changed once he outgrew Jimmy, so Phillip was still at a point where slack was the preferred pathway. After all, Phillip could see how a height shift could affect Jimmy’s ego. His older brother had always been, taller, stronger, smarter, and every other ‘er’ attribute.

Old comic books, Happy Meal toys, and cassette tapes were plentiful. Magazines saved for revisiting at a time that never came were bent and moldy. Collector soda cans were carefully stacked, worth no more that day than in years past. The overwhelming majority of their belongings could be sorted into two piles: trash and recycling. In a third, minor bin would be placed items capable of more than five-cent redemption.

“Check this out,” Jimmy said, reaching behind a “Chairs of High Point” puzzle. “These are those candles we had to make for Mrs. Ginko’s class.”

“Mrs. Ginko? You mean Mrs. Gore?”

“Whatever, it’s been a while for me since fourth grade. She was a nut job. Great artist though, but just insane in the head. Mine was supposed to be a dog, but it ended up looking like… well, take look.”

Jimmy tossed the candleholder to Phillip who, after great effort, managed to move a large trash bag to a place where it could be investigated. Phillip inspected his brother’s creation.

“A dog? Yeah, I’m not getting Lassie vibes from this. Kind of looks like a… half-horse half-monkey.”

“I was gonna say it looks like a sloth. Here’s yours. What was it supposed to be?”

“I think it’s a beehive?”

Jimmy grinned. “Looks like a radiator.”

“Sculpture was never my calling.”

“That why you’re in pottery now?”

“No. I’m in pottery because Marsha is in pottery.”

“When are you two gonna quit that act and just sleep together already? Honestly you guys act like you’ve been married for decades. You argue pointlessly and give each other shit. The tension there must just be incredible.”

Phillip shook his head and started to open a hole in the bag. “Marsha’s just a friend.”

“Yeah. OK, sure.”

“Whoa,” Phillip remarked. “What the hell is in this?”

“What?”

Phillip reached in and pulled out a red Beanie Baby. It was a bear, bow tied around its neck, tag clipped onto its ear. He went in with his other hand and retrieved another plush doll: a unicorn with shimmering horn. “Holy shit…”

“What? A bunch of Beanie Babies? I thought Mom took those to Goodwill years ago.”

“Well good thing she didn’t!”

“Why you back on a baby toy kick?”

“Jimmy do you have any idea what these are worth? And all of them have the original tags!” Phillip riffled through the bag to confirm that each one of the hundred or so dolls was in mint condition.

“If I had to guess I’d say they’re worth less than the trash bag.”

“No! These go for thousands of dollars online. They’re collectible as hell. People go ga-ga for these. Some of them even go for like, I don’t know, ten grand!”

“Bullshit!” Jimmy reacted, shoving the candelabras back into their nook. “These fricken things?” He examined a Scotty dog, collar of plaid and eyes two black beads.

“Yes, no BS. If we put these up we can make bank!”

“Well, hold on a second. What do you mean we?”

“We: you and me,” Phillip explained.

“It’s you and I, but that’s besides the point. These are mine.”

“They were both of ours.”

“No, Mom used to pick them up for me when she traveled, and then when you were born we just both used them. But it was a thing. She bought them for me.”

“So the hell what? We both played with them. Let’s put them up and we’ll split it 50-50.”

“50-50?” Jimmy gave Phillip a skeptical eye.

“Well you wanted to just throw all this stuff in the trash. So, I’ve got to get at least a finder’s fee. Plus you thought they were worth nothing. Look it up! I’ll go 60-40.”

“There’s not even service in here. My phone just says ‘off grid.’ Either way though, forty-percent is a crazy finder’s fee. How about you can have one-percent. I kept these in great condition all those years, and I was the one that said we should keep the tags on them. You were probably trying to eat them.”

There was a look of deep resentment contorting Phillip’s brow and rippling his lips. He was ready to throw a punch, take the ukulele to a middle school canvas and scream. “I can’t believe you’re being such an asshole about this. We came here expecting to find a dump, and then I see a chance for us to make some money, and you cut me out?”

“Look, Phillip. That’s life man. Sure, you found the bag, but that doesn’t mean you did anything. You’re like Indiana Jones, picking up treasure that other people made and trying to make a fortune off it. You’re the one that’s being an asshole. I’m just following basic property law.”

Phillip reached into his pocket and pulled out a pocketknife. Slowly, being sure to attract Jimmy’s attention, he snipped the tag off the red bear’s ear.

“What the hell! Stop! You’re ruining the value!”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Did I just make this worthless to you too? So now we’re both making the same amount.” Phillip pulled out a zebra and removed its marker as well. Then, just to be sure, he jabbed the knife into its neck until some of the beans poured out. “So that’s what they look like inside? Interesting.”

“Stop it! Just stop!” Jimmy screeched lunging for the knife.

Quickly, Phillip got to work on others with his brother draped on his taller shoulders. Fending off wailing hands, Phillip continued the rapid devaluation. Jimmy reached for the knife, and when Phillip pulled it away, Jimmy yelled, “God dammit!” He was bent over with blood snaking around his forearm. “You slit my wrist!”

“You jumped at my knife!”

“That was deep as hell!”

“You’re bleeding all over the place! Jesus!”

“Not on the beanie babies, shit!”

“Let me tie this shirt around it. Phillip, this looks bad. Just get over here! Let me—”

“Shut the hell up! Clean off that bag before the rest of them get ruined!”

“Are you kidding me? You’re sliced open! Forget about the God damn beanies.”

“You just don’t want me to make any money!”

“No, I’m trying to make sure you don’t bleed out all over your self-portraits and my shoes!”

“You’re just jealous. You always have been. You’re never gonna turn into anything special. You can have zero percent of what I earn.”

“Jimmy, look at your face! It’s turning white! You’re bleeding everywhere, and you’re think about these Goddamn things? I wish I threw them away! Here!” Phillip took the knife stabbed the bag repeatedly. Phillip tried to stop him, but he was weak. Each time he reached blood squirted.

“Stop! Stop it Phillip! God damnit, you’re ruining everything!”

“If this is what it takes! I need to get you to a hospital! I can’t even call 911 because there isn’t any service!”

“Get away from those! I can still save so—” Jimmy’s voice trailed off. He slumped over a box white and limp as a tablecloth.

“Shit! Stay here, I’ll be right back!” Phillip yelled.

Later that day, Phillip woke up in a hospital bed with tubes attached to his arms and a heart rate monitor on his finger. “There he is,” his mother said, rubbing his shoulder.

“What?”

“You lost a lot of blood. Phillip told us what happened,” his father explained. “Apparently it snipped an artery. Lucky your brother called 911.”

Slowly but surely the scene came back. “The beanie babies!” he said excitedly. Jimmy grabbed his phone and frantically began typing. His disposition dropped. Each successive Google search brought further disappointment. “They’re… they’re… worthless?”

“Yeah,” Phillip said sternly from his seat in the corner. “Not worth a damn thing. And you almost died over them. Well you almost died trying to cut me out is what really happened.”

“I—I’m…” Jimmy pushed his head back into the pillow, feeling the effects of having been low on blood count.

“One hundred percent of zero? It’s zero. So you can have it all,” remarked Phillip.

Jimmy held back tears. “Phillip. I’m sorry. And thank you.” From his tone, Phillip could tell his brother meant it.

“Yeah, anytime. What do you say we don’t let stupid shit get between us again?”

“You mean like baby toys?” Jimmy asked with a chuckle.

“Yeah, like fricken baby toys.”

Losing Sight

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artwork by @jimmywyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

“I’m going blind,” Steve would often inform me before he made a racket bumping into the coffee table or the mantle, or causing my wingback kitchen chairs to scrape across the hardwood. He wasn’t blind of course, not then. But Steve was convinced. He was what experts call a hypochondriac. Meaning he had a lot of things he didn’t really have, stuff no doctor would ever diagnose.

Once my beloved husband came down with Ebola, during the crisis naturally. To hear him complain of bleeding out of his eyes, his nose, God even his pores. It was something to behold, because it was nothing. No blood, no leaking orifices, no Ebola. Where the blindness came from I’m not sure. Steve probably watched one of those shows, the medical ones I’m always telling him to turn off.

“Marta,” he’d always say in a low, condescending way, “don’t tell me what I can and can’t watch. Marriage isn’t a dictatorship.”

If only Steve could see past his Ebola-afflicted nose. It was a dictatorship all right. In the vein of some of the classic buffoons, Mussolini or Franco. But I wasn’t the monster on the pulpit, surrounded by statues I presented to myself to further my false glory. Steve lived atop a pedestal of his own creation.

“I’m going blind,” Steve would say in exasperation like my wailing mother-in-law. Then he’d close his eyes and start walking around, trying to prepare for when they were gonna come and take away his sight. I could tell he would be a mess if he ever did stop seeing for real. Anything he couldn’t see he walked or swung into.

“I’m going blind, really!” he insisted.

“Yes, oh I’m sure you’re going something…” I replied with no shortage of spousal sarcasm. I was tiring at cleaning the flotsam and jetsam of lampshades and picture frames in his wake while he acted out a bizarre fantasy. Steve wore a strong prescription. I don’t know the number exactly. After all, I never needed help seeing a fly on the wall. Not even readers for the newspaper.

Weeks went by, and his paranoia strengthened. He was fixated. “This may be the last time I ever see an egg,” Steve said holding a brown one up and inspecting it for flaws like a jeweler does a diamond. Seemed a painfully pedantic thing to go nostalgic over.

“It’ll be the last time you see me make you one if you don’t hand that back!” I snatched the egg, cracked it on the corner of the pan sizzling with butter so hard the shell exploded. I spent a minute or two fishing out the shards as the egg curdled.

“Orange juice is so brilliant, so remarkably vibrant. Those bits of pulp, they’re wonderful floating around in there.” Steve swirled the glass with scientific interest. All the sudden he was talking like a drunk poet, going on and on insufferably about the most insignificant details. Chocolate became, “a supple bar of soft gold,” bricks were, “hand-hewn pumice cured by the sun’s touch,” and blankets, God the blankets were, “woven threads of heavenly fleece, intertwined in a story that will never end.” Steve was a terrible poet whose descriptions ruined my perception of the world. I started to wish I was blind.

Steve was an alien, everything foreign and revolutionary. In the beginning he’d turn off the world, slam shut his eyes, and grasp around in a game of Marco Polo. Progressively he spent more time not seeing. But he kept up with the amazement. Only he’d ask me for help. “Marta, what’s this painting look like? Remind me how beautiful it is.”

“Open your eyes you damn fool!” I was reaching the end of my wits.

“But dear, I am going blind. I will need you to tell me about the things I cannot see.” He’d stopped using contractions, so his speech came across more contrived than usual.

“Well until then, see for yourself!”

What really got me was when Steve started wearing his sunglasses inside like Jack Nicholson. He’d latch onto my arm as though he were an invalid or a fading nonagenarian. People stared, but with weak smiles of pity. “If only you knew,” I’d think. “My husband can see fine. It’s just an act, a melodramatic pantomime.” I was ready to nominate him for a Daytime Emmy, toe to toe I’d’ve placed him with those other insufferable pretenders.

Wash those for me, will you dear?” He was pointing ten feet away from where the dishes sat.

“Wash them yourself!” I barked back.

“You know I cannot.”

“Damn it, Steve! Quit with this cockamamie nonsense! You see just fine with your glasses!”

Not long after, Steve stopped seeing at all. That is, he kept the sunglasses on. He spoke in a wistful tone about trivial things like tomatoes, wooden pencils, and azaleas. If a man could will away his vision, Steve had done it. I could stand, naked as the day I was born, in the kitchen, and he’d stumble in without a word. Either he was the most committed actor of our generation or he’d severed his optic nerves with sheer will power. I waved my hand across his face and… nothing. Not so much as an involuntary breath.

“I am just so lucky I got you, Marta. What would I do without you?”

I was starting to dream I’d get the chance to find out. Sometimes I’d see him sitting on the couch, listening to the news on the TV damn near silent. Guess his hearing got better when he turned off his eyes. It ate at me more each day. Just when I thought I’d adjusted, accepted my husband was a blind man, he’d say something that embroiled me.

“God Marta, you do not know what you have. Being able to see is such a gift. If only I had not squandered that blessing.”

I poured our coffees, and then I saw the bleach. I was ready to doctor his mug, give him a thorough cleaning, but I opted for cream. His sense of smell had improved. Besides, I didn’t want a swig of Clorox by accident.

When people asked me what happened to Steve I wanted to tell them he died. Would have been easier to explain. A year went by, and things were stationary. I was forced to adjust. Only good thing was Steve couldn’t read about diseases he didn’t have, so he didn’t come down with anything else. Finally I just accepted it all, threw in my towel.

Steve was blind. That’s what I told myself. Didn’t doubt it any longer. The world smells that defeat, that stench of giving up. Yet I suppose there’s something to be said for irony. Maybe Steve heard it, or smelled it, or sensed it. No matter how much you lie to yourself, you always know you’re lying. With all my 20/20 I didn’t catch it until it was the last thing I saw. And Steve? I heard him take a step back onto the curb. Want to know what I think? He saw the bus.

On the Open Road

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artwork by @jimmywyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

Jonathan squinted behind the visor. In the distance the St. Louis Arch was a glistening diamond. He turned to his father and nodded before giving the Triumph’s throttle a quick pull. Both bikes roared cathartically. Wheel-to-wheel, they traversed Route-66 toward downtown.

As one unit they veered off the highway and parked in the Meal-Rite Diner’s cracked, concrete lot. The building was small with white-washed brick walls and a pink florescent sign bearing the institution’s name. They were tired, but since they began their father-son trip a few days earlier, each had learned to cope with the pull of Morpheus. Morning was still in the early innings, and the diner was busy but not crowded, serving the local who’s who of blue-collars.

Jonathan switched off his engine and dismounted. He watched his father jimmy the key of the off-kilter ignition. Once the second engine ceased gurgling, the lot was quiet. Wind whistled like white noise through the city, modern structures leaving Meal-Rite as a time capsule of the last century. St. Louis’ beating heart of cop cars, ambulances, and benign shouting sat in the air like humidity. Jonathan retracted his hands from their gloves and wiped his face and neck with a bandana. Meanwhile his father struggled to unbuckle the strap of his vintage helmet with its muted tin shell and bright red racing stripe. Jonathan remained unconvinced about its structural integrity. But his father liked the headpiece, even if it was as much an insurance policy as a fedora. His father was cleaner than when they left the motel, as if the dirt respected him.

“First stop, St. Louis!” He grabbed Jonathan’s shoulder and shook it paternally.

“Heck of a long way to go from here,” replied Jonathan, kicking his boots against the curb.

“No one ever said a cross-country road trip was fast. Anyway it’s the journey that matters. Haven’t you seen that on bumper stickers? You think they just make those sayings up?”

“Hard to argue there. I have to admit; I’m enjoying it so far. Never imagined how peaceful it would be without music on the open road. Allows your thoughts to…”

“Wander?”

“Exactly.”

“You can’t be enjoying it more than I. Been waiting a long time to take this trip, and doing it with you…” he said, starting to choke up.

“I know, Dad. I’m sorry it took so long.”

“Life. You don’t have to tell me about how it goes. I know I’ve already said it a hundred times, and I’ll say it at least a hundred more. Jonathan it means a lot to me that we’re doing this together.”

With a smile he looked deep into his father’s heather-grey eyes, sharp from years of use but softened by the kindness in his heart. In that one glance, Jonathan couldn’t help but ask himself why he’d put off the trip for so many years. It never was about the trip. Sharing the journey was all that mattered.

“Hungry Dad?”

“Well it goes from St. Louis, down to Missouri!” he sang in response, trying his best to sound like Nat King Cole and failing endearingly. Through the screeching push-door they walked and sat at the counter.

“Be with you in a moment,” the waitress said mid-flight to delivering a couple stacks of pancakes. She was short and agile. Jonathan watched her maneuver, filling coffee and calling out orders all while dishing out dime quips on a breath and a blink.

The countertop was warped from thousands of elbows, many covered in the course sandpaper of canvas work jackets. The stools had been kicked around and beaten up, standing the test of time and outliving more than a few patrons. Meal-Rite was Route-66 before commercialization. There was nostalgia from genuine aging. No magazine articles about the establishment were hung. Meal-Rite didn’t tell people it was an institution. They already knew.

“What are you gonna get?” his father asked as he scanned the menu in its thick plastic casing.

“I guess I have to get a ‘Swinger,’ right?”

“That is why we came here. Not even sure why I picked this thing up,” his father answered with a chuckle. When he tossed the menu down its metal corners snapped against the counter.

“I’ll see if I can get her attention. Excuse—”

“Biking 66?” the waitress asked, dropping in like a jet on a carrier.

“That obvious, huh?” Jonathan answered. “My dad’s been asking me to do this for 10 years. Better late than never, right?”

“Certainly not the first time I’ve seen it. What’ll you have?”

“I’d like one of your famous Swingers with sausage and a coffee, black,” Jonathan said, closing the foldout.

“Where’s your dad?”

Jonathan looked at the stool next to him. It was empty. He swiveled to see the parking lot where his Triumph stood alone. Inside, the fragile glass that was his carefully constructed alternate reality had shattered at the lightest touch.

Looking blankly at the coffee maker Jonathan replied, “My dad always wanted me to make this trip with him, but I never… I was always too busy, too tired, too everything. In the back of my mind I thought I’d always have the chance to go…”

“Life goes according to its own plan,” the waitress said squeezing Jonathan’s hand with a love that transcended the briefness of their encounter. “I’m sure it means a lot to him that you’re doing it now.”

“Can you bring a second cup of coffee? We have a lot of open road ahead of us.”

The waitress winked knowingly, “Sure thing, sweetie.”

 

Battle for Europe

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artwork by @jimmywyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

“Hello and welcome! Thanks for tuning in to tonight’s matchup between Italy and France here at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. I’m Gareth Camp, and joining me in the booth this evening, as always, my partner Vince Chatham.”

“Thank you Gareth, good to be back with you.”

“Vince, this game ahead of us should really be interesting, with both teams in top football form.”

“Yeah Gareth, Italy and France are both riding hot streaks, and they’ve got a lot hanging on this contest. The intensity factor will be turned up to a boiling point in a way we haven’t seen for a very long time.”

“I heard French manager, François du Garde, in an interview yesterday, and he seemed supremely confident that his team would emerge victorious.”

“Nothing new from du Garde. He has always shown great faith in his team, almost I must say to a fault. I just wonder if he hasn’t underestimated the willpower of this scrappy Italian team.”

“Vince, scrappy is a good way to describe them. Simon Rossi has emerged as their de facto leader, scoring the deciding goals in the team’s last three matchups. Each of those scores came in added time when Italy seemed susceptible to a knockout punch. And on the other side of the pitch, René Monteux demonstrated poise and brilliance, as the French wiped the floor with Greece, Portugal, and Croatia, winning by an average of three and a half goals. Monteux been their ace, ascending from a relative unknown rookie to achieve an almost mythical status back in France.”

“So is it safe to say that Italy are the underdogs?”

“Italy is David, and France is Goliath. But as you said, Italy has tremendous willpower, and I know they wont go down with out a proper fight.”

“It reminds me a little bit of when Spain and Portugal faced off, with a Portuguese team coming out on top after having been written off by nearly everyone but their own countrymen. When they conceded those four early goals to the mighty Spanish squad, they appeared to be down and out. But Gareth, we all remember the heroics that followed. Portugal ended up winning 5-4. They then went on to fall to the French team warming up here today.”

“It does have a similar feel, but the stakes are so much higher in this game. You really have to go back to the middle of the 20th century to find a contest in which both sides put so much on the line, with so much to lose, but also a great deal to gain.”

“And there you have it: Italy vs. France, David vs. Goliath. The stakes? If France wins, they continue their domination of Europe and add Italy to their belt. If the Italian team wins, they will take over the massive French territory, currently at its largest since the Napoleonic era, and become the undisputed European power, rivaling the holdings of the former Roman Empire.”

“Football at its best, politics at its most extreme. Gareth it’s moments like this where we feel so fortunate that football has taken the place of war!”

“Right you are Vince. And here we go! The Italian team will kickoff in the ‘Battle for Europe.’”

It Came In With the Tide

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artwork by @jimmywyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

“What is it?”

“I don’t know. It’s like something from a sci-fi movie… some kind of prehistoric creature. Just look at it!”

“Who do we report it to? The police? Or do we go straight to the government? Who do you even ask for? Do you just call… the government, or is there a hotline for this kind of thing?”

“I don’t know, Lewis… I don’t know.”

The two stood in the wet sand at the edge of the ebbing and flowing tide and looked down at the strange organism lying lifelessly before them. Off in the horizon the daylight was giving way to the orange and purple hues of dusk, and the sea oats in the dunes waved back and forth like anemone in a gentle current.

“What about Dizzy? You think he’d know something?”

Laura thought for a moment about Dizzy. She’d be hard pressed to come across anyone who had a broader knowledge base, even in the police or the government. Dizzy had a sponge for a cortex, and it never seeped. He was a treasure trove of facts and figures, an animated reference book. Dizzy would have something to offer.

“That’s a great idea! I’ll call him. He might even know what this… creature is, or at least what we need to do with it.”

“Here, mine gets better reception around here,” Lewis said tossing his handheld.

Laura plugged in the code, and the line was connected immediately.

“Dizzy. Who’s it?”

“Dizzy, it’s Laura. I’m at the beach with Lewis. We… found something. I was hoping you could help us figure out what it is or what to do.”

“What kind of something are we talking about? That’s pretty vague. You find a funny looking shell?”

“It’s an animal. I think. It must have washed ashore with the tide, but it doesn’t look like anything either of us has ever seen. It’s exotic.”

“You’ve reigned in my curiosity. Describe.”

“Well it’s massive. Looks to be just less than, what would you say? Two meters? Ninety percent of it is covered in some kind of blue skin. But it isn’t tight like normal skin; it has all these folds and creases, like something thousands of years old. There are a couple black and silver lines and one thick black stripe that runs the down most of its back. It also has three large tentacles? But Lewis thinks there might be a fourth pinned underneath.”

“Wild!” Dizzy exclaimed with youthful exuberance. “And what about the ten percent that isn’t covered in blue?”

“It’s difficult to say because we can only see half, but I think it’s the head. It’s almost like it’s incased in a kind of clear membrane, a pouch.”

“Have you touched it yet?”

“No, we’ve been afraid to. Lewis thought it might be poisonous.”

“That’s certainly possible. Well it doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever come across. Is there a stick or something near you? Try and turn it over. A lot of organisms have some defining features on the ventral side.”

“We’ll take a look around. Also, I noticed there’s a black tube hanging off the side. It’s hard to see in low light though.”

As Laura and Lewis scavenged for something that could flip the mysterious form from the sea, Dizzy thought about the description. It was true he’d never come across anything like it, but maybe that was because it was a new species, undiscovered, undocumented, entirely unknown. What if it had come from another planet, or even another galaxy? Dizzy wondered. The prospect of an alien life form excited him to near hyperventilation. He wished he were on the other end of the line, staring at the clear pouch and the blue skin.

“We found a metal rod. Lewis is going to poke it to make sure it really is dead before we try and turn it over.”

“I’m right here. Let me know what happens, and tell Lewis not to hit the tube; it might contain something hazardous, deadly even. You definitely don’t want to run that risk, especially since we have no idea what we’re dealing with.”

“He hit it a few times. It’s definitely dead, or comatose. Now he’s trying to flip it over.”

The suspense was getting to Dizzy as he waited anxiously on the other line. “What do you see?”

“Hold on he’s almost got it.”

With a splash, Lewis overturned the organism revealing its front. Laura had been correct. The head was enclosed in a clear membrane. It was unlike anything Laura or Lewis could have drummed up in the most hallucinatory dream, completely dissimilar from even the oddity of the animal’s backside. Laura was breathless as she gazed upon the peculiar beast.

“Did he get it?” Dizzy was whispering in anticipation.

“Yes… and Dizzy… it’s so… bizarre. Otherworldly.”

“Describe!” Dizzy bellowed, spilling the contents of his room-temperature mug.

“Well,” Laura began, “its face, it doesn’t make any sense. There are two eyes, a large bump with slits, and a bigger hole below that. Hold on, there’s something on the blue skin. There’s a circle on one side. It’s a darker blue with a red line across it and four letters…” she trailed off as she strained to read the small text.

Dizzy, for all his knowledge and imagination, was having difficulty rendering the creature from the outlandish description. He hung on the line without blinking as he waited for Laura to speak. When she continued, a pang of apprehension, an apocalyptic fervor, spread through his body.

“N…A…” she stuttered, but he didn’t need to hear the rest.

Shrilly he cried out, “Laura… get out of there, get as far away as you can! They’re coming for us!”

This thing, he knew what it was. He’d read about it, seen it in documentaries and comic books. It was from another galaxy; the creature came from the Milky Way.