Splinter

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artwork: @jimmywyngaarden

by Jerry Zinn

Finally, spring arrived. St. Francis, askew in the pachysandras, had weathered another winter with his concrete nose corroded, and a once neutral expression frowned. From sunrise till one, the yard was sun-drenched. Alma set down the basket of damp sheets under the rays of midday and pulled the laundry line housed on the thick tree. Hooking it to a lesser trunk, she strummed the taut rope.

Inadequately filled bird feeders were stationed around the lawn where squirrels and birds foraged for refuse. At their bases were the beds where mums never grew, no matter how many times she watered and fertilized. Warblers played in the birdbath, and Alma tapped her finger to her temple saying, “change the water”—a Harvard Medical Review suggestion for memory solidification. She loved the birds, but it was awful to watch them splashing in algae. 

Tall magnolias, with their snaking arms and waxy fingers, guarded the backyard. Few cars came down the cul-de-sac, and even with hearing aids, Alma’s serenity was rarely interrupted. No evidence remained of the family she raised there. For many years they set up party spreads under the afternoon shade, and Alma spent all day cooking. She assigned her children to refilling drinks, which they tasted. Her husband took his beer warm and was good about asking the children for more. The young ones ran around the patio—now mossy and split by swelling roots.

Alma opened the box of clothespins. They were sharp, and their springs squealed. Wind took the warning label, but it didn’t shift her hair, quaffed and liberally sprayed. Teasing with a morning brush grew challenging from days of product accumulation (she rarely washed her hair). It was a shade lighter now, edging closer to blonde. Her hairdresser, the only Macedonian she’d ever met, was easing her to the white she acquired in her seventies. 

Movements were slower as she approached ninety, and more minor tasks grew in their demands—carrying in her stack of mail required two hands and a propped door. Once her youngest granddaughter, who wore canvas sneakers and cracked her knuckles too often, asked, “When did you start to feel old?”

Alma said, “I don’t feel old. Long as I can make that big bed myself, I’ll always be young,” which was met with knuckle-cracking.

Hanging clothes from the line connected Alma to her life before she was a matriarch. As a young girl at her grandparents’ house she adored playing in the curtains of wash. Staging vaudeville with her sister while their grandmother hummed waltzes, the backyard was a stage, and they were stars. Whether attending Easter Mass at St. Bernadette’s or pulling weeds, her grandmother dressed marvelously—pearls and a sterling charm bracelet.

She was nearly as petite as her grandmother now, though in her twenties people admired Alma’s height and slender figure. When they hung laundry together, her grandmother explained the importance of pinning the middle while gathering the ends—better than peeling wet sheets from dirty grass. Replaying her grandmother’s sweet voice, Alma clipped the middle. “Much like that, only try it this way,” her grandmother urged. “Now I hadn’t thought of that! I’ll give your way a try,” she said, which was encouraging for an eight-year-old. 

Once she had the damp sheets stretched across the line, Alma noticed the second set, balled in the basket, wetter and more wrinkled. Had she washed those too? Identifying days was difficult when Tuesdays and Fridays held the same shape. A black squirrel bounded frantically, just like the ones in Chautauqua—they chewed wires and were enlivened by electrocutions. Most of their winter weight was gone, and they’d stopped destroying the yard for buried stores. 

Alma hung the extra set. Dryers were better for certain items: thicker clothing and slacks. Sheets, towels, and private articles benefited most from the constant airflow that wrapped the brick house. It was a stately home with four bedrooms and weeping mortar. Groundcover hid most of the beds, which had not been properly mulched in years. A permanent charcoal grill rusted beside the patio, and she could still see her husband turning brats and overcooking hamburgers with a warm Bud.

The pack of new clothespins contained three dozen. There had been a sale, though the specifics escaped her recollection. New pins were grippier but ornery. Occasionally the dry wood snapped, or the springs shot out (they were made in Vietnam). Caught in the ritual of line-hanging, a splinter burned her finger.

Annabelle Lewis. Alma had not considered that name since their final day in St. Catherine’s jumpers and high, white socks, more than seventy years ago. A middle school classmate, Annabelle had a pound of freckles and reddish orange hair. Her uniform collars were heavily starched, so the skin on her neck was tough. 

In a classroom where mistakes were discouraged by stiff prayer and stiffer rulers, Annabelle confidently offered answers. Annabelle’s classmates never saw red knuckles by her Claddagh ring, where theirs hurt from Catholic discipline. It was for that reason, coupled with a habit of oversharing, Annabelle sat alone at lunch. Besides, she ate such strange foods—heavy stews and potatoes, loads of soda bread.

Alma and her friends thought it was fun, holding Annabelle down and shoving slivers of mulch, splinters sharp as toothpicks, into her squirming fingers (even her hands had freckles). Waifish and small-statured, Annabelle fell easily under their weight. Crying out helplessly, she was embarrassed. Girls laughed, the boys too—Alma loved the older boys’ attention. Annabelle only bled a little. For all her piping up in class, she never told the nuns what they did to her.

With a lifetime of masses, of child-rearing, and example setting, Alma never considered herself a bully. She modeled her life on the messages of Fr. Warren’s homilies and Fr. Pike’s after that. When they spoke of caring for others, of giving of one’s self without need for reciprocation, she did not fret about her entrance to heaven. Alma wrote checks every month to a dozen charities and refused to deduct them from her taxes—though they were all deductible. Frequently, others referred to her saintly nature. And yet there was this unequivocal part, clear as though it was yesterday they tussled in the field behind the school. How angry the nuns were when they saw the grass stains, but no one told. 

How well she’d forgotten Annabelle Lewis. St. Francis judged from beyond the laundry line. She was nothing like him, faithful to God and kind of heart. How much damage had she done to Annabelle, with her freckles and mortarboard collars? Alma was old, yet time was not a salve. How could her conscience rest knowing she once tortured an innocent girl? What happiness was she entitled to?

“Hangin up your laundry?” Audrey remarked obviously, emerging through the fence from Jean Salvatore’s old place—a house bought for well under asking. Her shorts were terribly short, synthetic shirt too tight and too supportive. She stood with her feet severely angled like a dancer’s.

“That’s right,” Alma replied, fingers tensed from guilt.

“I’m so jealous of you. You know how to do all these things the right way. I wish I’d been over here more often, so you could’ve taught me the ropes.”

“I’ve had time to practice.”

Audrey came closer, smiling large despite uneven teeth. “So, you just clip them like that? And the air does the rest? But doesn’t it have dirt—pollen, and such?”

“The sheets are clean.”

Alma smelled the fabric. She loved adding sprigs of lavender to the wash, a subtle and natural fragrance.

“And this works?”

“Certainly. Dryers are relatively new inventions. Not to someone young like you, but I’ve been around. Remember, I was born in the twenties.”

“I don’t feel young. Fifty has slowed me down. Not as flexible as I was.” Audrey reached down and touched her wrists to her feet. “Used to be able to scrape my elbows on the ground.”

Alma didn’t say what she was thinking. When she reached for more sheets the splinter stung. Using her Biotin-strengthened nails she extracted it, and her thin blood beaded.

“What happened there? Do you need a Band-Aid?”

“It’s nothing.” She brushed it off on her pressed capris. “If you make it this far, everything bleeds. Getting old’s for the birds, but it isn’t about the years; it’s a state of mind. My body may be coming apart, but I still feel young.”

“You should have a sit-down with my husband. On my birthday he gave me a card that said, ‘you’ve lived to see the cows come home.’”

“My husband’s the same way. Always quick with a joke. Men haven’t changed in centuries.”

Audrey rubbed her shoe against the flagstone. The birds beside her entertained themselves in the algae. She said, “Want me to put in fresh water? It’s no problem.”

“That would be very kind. I’m embarrassed it’s so horrid. If I’d noticed that I’d’ve taken care of it.”

“Neighbors must be good for something, huh? Such a stunning day, isn’t it?” She dumped the bath and used the hose to refill.

“It’s a day to be grateful for.”

“I’m sorry we won’t share many more with you. Heartbreaking to think you’re moving out. It’s been wonderful having you as a—”

“Moving out?”

“To The Valley. You and your daughter came over for lemonade last week and told us about it, remember? Being alone in that house must be difficult.”

“You must have misunderstood. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll die here. If I’m fortunate, out back on a day like this, hanging laundry. I’ve always imagined the beauty of dying with a smile.”

“Oh. Your daughter said it was decided.”

“No, I’m sure there was a misunderstanding. Nice of you to stop by Audrey. I must tend to the wash, otherwise I’ll be ironing all afternoon.”

Audrey’s shoes noiselessly carried her back through the fence gap. Alma saw through the pillowcases she was gone. There was a streak of red on the white fabric. What had she done now to make herself bleed? Every little nick bled these days.

A black squirrel darted to the shade of the wicker basket; it was looking more svelte than in winter. Alma shooed it away with a tsk-tsk-tsk. At least they were done tearing up the yard for acorns. Deeper in the basket sat undergarments. In the seclusion of the backyard, no one saw them dangle. Spread out and pinned in a row, her underwear caught the wind as though filled with phantom bottoms. How glorious it was to anticipate the flowers.

Thanks for the Memories

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@jimmywyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

Gray looked in the usual hiding places. Above the sink, the mug cabinet teemed with reminders of elementary school artwork and life affirmations. Beside the green, pleather sofa a wicker basket preserved decorative pillows and a medicine ball. Fiberglass logs in the disconnected fireplace guarded water marks on the brick. Gray’s hands were still fumbling for a nonexistent bottle in a gap in the attic insulation when his wrist buzzed.

Gray heaved his back against an exposed stud. The buzzing stopped. As he stumbled down the stairs his tongue Velcroed to the roof of his mouth. Burrowing deep into a mess of blankets on sofa, the chills crept millipede up his spine. Outside the sun beat down on barren, cracked earth.

His hands shook, and after laying on them for a while they went numb. When his watch buzzed again, he did not budge. One year passed since the house went empty – three hundred and sixty-five days lived out in centuries.

A clay saucer sat on the coffee table. At its center was a silver sensor bright from the light streaming through the blinds. Through Gray’s murky vision an aura formed around the device. With prickly fingers, he snatched the sensor. His clumsiness sent the saucer to the floor, transforming it into a mess of glazed shards.

Gray attempted to place the sensor on his temple, but it slid off. Against his pallid skin the polyester blanket was abrasive as he wiped. Finally the sensor stuck, and Gray closed his eyes, a smile crawling across his face as the memory materialized.

There was a trip once, to a lake upstate. They parked in an outcropping where a tire swing dangled from the long arm of a sturdy oak. Skater bugs shot across the brown water. Those gentle, miraculous movements enamored Gray’s daughter, while the two older boys traded flips, waves disturbing the algae, sending the bugs into a frenzy. Reclined on a plaid towel, Gray’s wife giggled. The boys competed for their mother’s laughter. They stood by and counted her snorts as she snatched for a breath.

All of it was manufactured – the oak, the skaters, the algae – machines run on circuit boards, an inorganic illusion. Everyone knew about the mechanics, but Gray and his wife, whose oldest memories contained real nature, understood.

Down the hall the grandfather clock chimed a third time, tearing Gray from the memory. Without regular maintenance the heirloom suffered. During the long year the bells served as painful percussion, each strike a reminder of life’s escape.

Cold shivers gave way to radiating heat. A shoebox-sized robot from Roth Industries chirped and folded the pile of blankets. Sensing the basket was full, it stacked them on the floor behind the recliner. Baseboards and furniture legs bore scuffs and gashes. Each time the robot made contact it apologized shrilly, “My mistake! My mistake!”

Gray found solace in the roving helper for a period. When he was drunk their exchanges were numerous. When dryness overcame him, the robot’s auto-generated responses were shallow and defeating. As the soundtrack to Gray’s demise, the robot preferred Rachmaninov. Gray once adored classical music. Now he detested it, but he could not muster the strength to end the torment.

While returning to its charging station, a banner for Roth Industries filled the robot’s display. Gray looked when his wrist vibrated. The messages matched: “Wellness cleanse recommended.”

Robots knew humans on an atomic level. Terabytes of biometric data made them as effective with targeted messaging as Lysol once was with germs.

Gray’s face was hollow, the skin loose wrapping for brittle bones and a tortured soul. Leaving the house in his transportation pod was akin to traveling through a new planet. Now a foreigner in a bleak world, nothing bright remained in the city. Not the neon signage, not the thirteen-story model blowing him the same kiss she’d send to thousands more, not the sight of people chatting as though their lives held meaning. Self-loathing cast a pall over those colorful reminders of what he no longer possessed. The pod drove under signs with variations on, “This way, Gray! You’re minutes from happiness!” After, the words changed: “This way, Maria! You’re minutes from happiness!”

Inside the pod it was still, but once outside the protection of glass and metal, people banged into Gray’s shoulders, pushed him from behind. Intention would have made it better. But Gray was a nameless victim, unworthy of individualized mistreatment. Alleyways narrowed into anthill tunnels, and the smell of burning plastic consumed the stifling air.

“Scan!” demanded the Roth Industries guard. Marble eyes bored through him from the mail slot, blinking. Mimicking an entrance to old neighborhood homes, the door was wooden, painted a sharp yellow. The brass visage of a lynx served as its decorative knocker.

Robots blinked in a strict ¾ rhythm. Rachmaninov maintained Gray’s sense of timing. Reaching out from the yellow door a stainless-steel wall divided the complex from the city. Unlike the streets, Roth Industries’ exterior was free of graffiti, free of the unforgivable marks of humanity. Exquisitely machined, the interminable metallic barrier was seamless.

Gray traveled beyond the door, which sealed behind him. Walls closed in, pressing him into an observation chamber. Cramped and wrapped in acoustic foam, the silence cried. Then it went black. A laser twirled in a choreographed dance, measuring his every imperfection.

“Gray Anders? Would you mind confirming your identity?” asked a utilitarian female voice.

“Yes it’s—” his parched throat spit out.

“Wonderful to see you, Gray.” The voice added compassion. “You’ll be feeling so much better soon. I’d love to get your consent. Would you like me to read the form?”

“No.”

“In that case, may I confirm your consent?”

“Yes,” Gray replied, the s-sound stinging his larynx.

“Wonderful. However, I do need you to reply, ‘I consent,’ to confirm consent. I apologize for the inconvenience. You know how demanding counsel is. Ha hah ha.”

“I consent.”

It was bright and organized inside Roth Industries. Sunlight stroked Gray’s arms, staving off another rising chill. His head was shaved. He was showered clean in hot water and given a yellow jumpsuit of comfortable natural fibers. How soft real cotton felt against his skin. A scooter slowed to a stop, “Gray Anders” displayed on the handlebars.

Gray and his wife always cautioned their children, “Don’t ever go in there. Roth will take everything from you, and you won’t even know it.”

Gray wondered what his kids would make of the place they villainized. His boys would love the scooters. His daughter would marvel at the tall grass – the kind that grew from soil – witnessing natural pigment on plants she could touch and smell. Not those facsimiles they knew, leaves made of bendable screens that changed shade on the first day of fall and transparent with winter’s onset – leaves that stood rigidly at attention awaiting the next line of code.

Patrons in yellow jumpsuits scootered past Gray, beaming. They balanced on one foot and reached into the swooning grass. Soon Gray would join them: happy and sanitized, his thirst slaked.

 Ascribing value to memories was not a game of chance, nor a decision left to the mercy of a temperamental adjudicator. People didn’t decide these things. There were algorithms. Math assayed. The process was clinical and unerring, so Roth Industries went to great lengths to assure the populace.

Gray’s long year was a protracted hangover. Rare peaks lead to deeper, unexplored trenches. When the money ran out, the alcohol dried up, and thirst governed. He reeked of misery; the scent drenched in his itchy skin like cheap cologne. Gray’s robot knew desperation.

Soon Roth Industries would cleanse him of compulsion, life turning to a constant high. Gray would have enough money for years. Without pain driving his addiction, he would be free.

An over-padded chair welcomed him. Gray read the options. The most money, the biggest data transfer. In Roth vernacular it was the “Premium Wellness Cleanse.”

Despite endless reflection, Gray never understood why his family died from what authorities deemed a gas leak. Why did he live? Just before the needle pricked his neck, understanding spiked the dark hairs on his arms. Gray’s fingernails bent from the force of his grip.

“Roth…” leaked from his lips.

When Gray awoke his body tingled. Roth Industries, the spectacular temple of progress came into focus. He was one of those blissful people now, the ones speeding towards life with a renewed – a cleansed – worldview. When he stepped through the exit, into the mass of humanity, the aroma of burned bottles surfaced. But it was not as foul an odor as before. In his pockets he rubbed the natural cotton. Loading into the pod, the noise canceled. Gray couldn’t recall being unhappy, but he sensed his confidence was new.

Where before were reminders of societal decay, now stood suggestions of new beginnings. Gray arrived home and settled into his nest on the couch, propping his feet on the coffee table. There was no sensor. No trace remained of the broken plate or the feverish chill. With the jumpsuit cuddling his body he was optimistic.

After an hour he went to the bathroom. In the mirror he pulled his lips down and poked at the tender gums. Running his teeth along his tongue, he scraped where it felt raw. Weeks would pass before the dryness returned. It would be worse then. He would not remember the source of his grief.

Black Dot Diagnosis

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@jimmywyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

“Martin?”

“Yes, Dr. Fanning?” came the prompt reply through the intercom.

“Will you page Dr. Joyce? Have her come to my office as soon as she can, please.”

“Is there anything specific you’d like me to add,” asked Martin.

“Just say it’s urgent,” said Dr. Fanning.

“I’ll send that out right away.”

Dr. Fanning waited for the light to go off. She dug her thumbs into the corners of her eyes. Fireworks exploded in the blackness. When she realized how tense her shoulders were, she had to use conscious effort to drop them. After breathing in for a count of four, Dr. Fanning held her breath for four seconds, and then released it slowly for eight.

Her heart rate went up. Briefly it dipped to 120, but she attributed that to measurement error. Dr. Fanning was skeptical about the readouts, but she found herself referencing them frequently as Gospel truth. Steadily the rate climbed closer to her orange zone. Later her watch would tell her she’d spent the morning exercising.

There were wads of paper surrounding a wire trashcan by the door. She balled up another sheet from her notebook and tossed it. Another miss. “I regret to inform you…” she scribbled. Dr. Fanning tore out the page but this time made the shot. Other than the three heartbeats of accomplishment, the make did nothing to change her outlook.

“Dr. Fanning?” said Martin through the speaker.

“Is Dr. Joyce here?”

“Yes, should I send her in?”

“Please.”

Dr. Joyce’s white coat was wrinkled, and the arms had ghost stains. But her makeup was pristine, and her dark hair neatly aligned. Dr. Fanning always admired Dr. Joyce’s eyebrows, trimmed and angular like English boxwoods. That fascinating contradiction between physical perfection and unkempt clothing created a unique effect on those around her.

“I had a feeling it wasn’t a social call,” said Dr. Joyce. She stepped over the missed shots. “Thinking of going out for the team?”

“I couldn’t have made it as a water girl for my high school team. The legal bills just to let me have a gym uniform, you wouldn’t believe. Allie, I’ve got a real patient dilemma here.”

“That’s what I love about you, Maria,” said Allie, crossing her legs at the edge of the chair. “Expert chase-cutter. No lead in, just chase. So, you’ve got a patient dilemma? Is there any other kind? I swear every patient I’ve had the last twenty-five years thinks they’ve got a new disease that requires a study and a new medication.”

Maria clicked her ballpoint compulsively.

“This is different. You’re right patients always present dilemmas, not always medical ones. But this is something else.”

“Well, now I’m intrigued. Maybe this was worth throwing away the rest of that chicken salad. It was the good kind today. I still haven’t figured out which one of the chefs does it right, but the discrepancy between the good chicken salad and the bad is night and day,” said Allie.

“Remember the oath?”

“There’s a chicken salad oath?”

The oath, Allie.”

“The Hippocratic one?”

“Do no harm,” Maria replied.

“I wouldn’t be much of a doctor if I didn’t. Not that knowing it is much difference. We both know plenty of doctors that can recite it while they prescribe a toxic drug cocktail.”

“This is serious.”

“Oh, serious…” Allie replied, relaxing her posture.

“Would you agree that we, as doctors, have an obligation to be transparent with patients on their diagnoses?” asked Maria.

“Where is this coming from? Are you bugged? Is this some kind of ethical audit?”

“No. It’s just – I need to hear it from someone I respect, so I can rule out insanity.”

“That’s all well and good for you, but I don’t know if I can rule it out for me.”

“Do we have that obligation?” Maria implored.

“OK. Yes, we have an obligation to be transparent.”

“I have a patient. Physiologically, psychologically, everything, she’s got top marks. I’d trade places with her in a heartbeat.” Maria checked her wrist. Her heart rate was nearing the red zone. “Her psychologist referred her to me for an abnormality he saw in her behavior. It was a blip, but he wanted investigation. Scans of her brain, professional opinion, that kind of thing. So we did an MRI…”

“Does she have an abscess or a tumor or something? What was the behavioral abnormality?”

“No, no tumor or abscess or anything like that. He didn’t elaborate on the abnormality, and I think I know why now. Actually, I do know why. This patient’s brain is perfect. I don’t think she’s ever had even a minor concussion. And brain function, activation, everything is textbook.”

“But?”

“But there was a dot. On the thalamus. Here take a look at this.”

Allie rounded the desk. Three orientations of the scan filled the computer screens. Maria pointed with her ballpoint to a small black dot, easily mistaken for a dead pixel.

“What is it?” asked Allie.

“Think of it like a black hole.”

“That doesn’t sound good.”

“It isn’t. My analogy is deliberate. What do you know about black holes?”

“Black holes?” asked Allie, sitting on the desk and filling her cheeks with air. “Lots of gravity, no light escapes. Galaxy far, far away. None of my knowledge applies. Limited as it is.”

“At the moment it’s just a blip. It doesn’t do anything; symptoms will never manifest. Only a highly trained psychologist like the one this patient has, who has seen this condition before, would be capable of even identifying the possibility this may exist in their patient. In fact there are only three psychologists in the world with the experience to identify a patient who may have this condition.”

“So… it’s rare?”

“Rare. Definitely. Like I said, think of this dot as a black hole. There is a mechanism that activates it. In an instant. When this process begins, or more accurately, occurs instantaneously, that dot will take over the entire brain. The patient will lose nearly all brain function. Interestingly, consciousness and memory are not affected.”

“So, you’re telling me they’re brain dead and fully aware of it?”

“Prisoners in their minds,” replied Maria. “And from the little information I’ve seen, their brain patterns look like those of an individual experiencing a nightmare. A never-ending nightmare.”

“Christ. Well, what’s the mechanism? How do you avoid the black hole and hellish limbo?”

“This is where my dilemma comes in. Take a seat, in the chair,” said Maria, inviting Allie to get off her files.

“How could it be any more outlandish?” asked Allie, shoving her hands into the deep pockets of her white coat.

“Trust me. You’re going to want to sit.”

Once her friend lowered herself nervously into the chair, Maria continued, “Awareness.”

“Awareness? I don’t understand…”

“That’s the mechanism for triggering the phenomena. Awareness activates the dot. Call it the supernova moment. Dot turns to black hole.”

“Explain it to me like I’m a child. That shouldn’t be hard to imagine, really.”

“It’s been the case with every patient that’s been diagnosed. Only by developing an awareness of the abnormality, does it take over the brain. So, the prevailing theory suggests ignorance can keep it at bay. Ignorance, in this instance, might be bliss. Or at the very least it can be the difference between reality and a… ‘hellish limbo,’ as you put it. Therefore, it would appear that if I tell her what I found in this MRI, she will become trapped in the worst her imagination has to offer.”

“What would that be like? For her?” asked Allie.

“Whether she lived for one more minute or forty years, it’ll feel like an eternity. And there’s nothing that could help. The brain scans I’ve seen of these patients show off the charts anxiety. They exhibit sustained stress response, extremely elevated heart rate. Sympathetic nervous system is at full bore. It’s like they’re running for their lives. And it goes on as long as their bodies can handle it. When they finally die, which this condition is ultimately fatal, they may have spent a thousand lifetimes running from something. Some fear, some deep source of terror.”

“And they wouldn’t experience any of this if they didn’t know?” asked Maria.

“If the theory is correct. And now to the central question: I have the obligation to inform the patient, don’t I? I’ve got her coming into my office at 1:00. She’s gonna want to see these scans. They are her scans. What am I gonna say?”

“Maria. You can’t tell her. ‘Do no harm.’ That takes precedence. It’s not a question here.”

“What am I going to tell her then?”

“Tell her everything’s fine. Because it is. Unless, you tell her about this dot that could become a black hole on her brain. So, you’re being honest.”

“The scans though,” pressed Maria.

“Show her someone else’s.”

“Allie, you know I can’t do that. That’s an insane HIPPA violation. They could take my license.”

“No, I know. I was just thinking out loud. Well, show her the real scans. She’d have to be a neurosurgeon with 20/20 vision to notice that dot. If… and that’s a big if, she even asks to see the scans. Most patients, you tell them they’re fine, they don’t ask more questions. You know that. They say thank you and goodbye.”

“So, just hope she doesn’t ask? That’s my plan?”

“Have the scans if she asks. But even if she looks, again, she’s not gonna notice that. And besides, if she does, tell her something else. Your screen is messed up or scans aren’t always perfect. That’s true. Those MRIs are good enough, but they can’t show 100%.”

“And it shows up on all three screens in the same place? I can’t lie to a patient. You know I can’t lie.”

“You’d only have to if it got to that level, and it won’t.”

“I hope you’re right. All those balls of paper are dead ideas.”

“I am right. She’ll thank you for it. She won’t know what she’s thanking you for. But you will.”

The intercom buzzed.

“Dr. Fanning? Your 1:00 is in the waiting room,” said Martin.

“Thanks, Martin. Dr. Joyce is just leaving.”

“Maria,” said Allie. “You’re doing the right thing.”

Maria gave a vague nod. Allie left the office. There was one chair occupied in the otherwise empty waiting room. A woman paged through The New Yorker, laughing at the cartoons. Allie couldn’t stop staring. Blissful ignorance in the flesh. A landmine was planted deep in the woman’s brain, but she could never know. The woman looked up.

Sensing Dr. Joyce’s presence, she put down the magazine. “Hello, how are you?”

“You’re in excellent hands. Dr. Fanning is one of my oldest friends. We went to medical school together. She’s a true gem.”

“Oh that’s lovely to hear. She seemed very nice in my first appointment. I had an MRI done, so I’m a little anxious. Of course I’m more anxious than I probably should be. I hope she won’t mind a million questions.”

Allie felt her breathing move to her chest. “Dr. Fanning is welcoming as a pediatrician.”

“I’ve been studying up on brain imagery for the last few weeks. There’s an online course through Harvard Medical School. Have you heard of it?

“I’m not… sure I-”

“Well, to a doctor it isn’t much, I’m sure. What do they say about a little knowledge? Dangerous, right?”

“It certainly can be.”

“Ms. Hansen?” said Martin sliding open the glass divider. He was kind and upbeat, unknowing.

“Yes?”

“Dr. Fanning will see you now.”

Ms. Hansen shouldered a burgundy leather purse with a manila file peaking out. Allie imagined there were notes and images from the Harvard course. Key questions to ask, things to pay attention to.

“It was nice talking to you, doctor,” Ms. Hansen said as she passed Allie.

“Don’t ask too many questions,” Allie replied with a forced chuckle.

Ms. Hansen gave a confused smile. Allie knew Maria too well. She was positive it wasn’t the good chicken salad that suddenly made her nauseous.

Feds Knocking

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artwork by @jimmywyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

“I’m running around the house like I’ve got a knife hanging over me! Like at any time it could come down and split me in half! And when I’m not running, because I get tired of it, I can’t do it every second, I just sit. I’ve got the TV on, and half the time it’s infomercials, but I can’t change the channel. Then I think, maybe, if I stay still, everything’ll pass by. I’ll blend in with the furniture and just disappear. I know how it sounds, but that’s the only way I can deal with it. If you can even call that dealing with it.

“No, I know, I know; worrying doesn’t get me anywhere. Sure, but that’s easy to say, look I’ll say it again: worrying doesn’t get me anywhere. So what? The only people who can live without worrying are brain dead or OD’d on antidepressants. And I’ve tried that. But I’m not crazy, and if you think looking at a lethal dose of uppers half-dissolved in a toilet gets you over the worrying…

“They know! Because I know they do! It’s more than just a feeling, it burns my stomach! It keeps me from sleeping or even thinking about sleeping! I haven’t closed my eyes for more than five minutes since that night. And the reason I know they’re coming is because… I did it! You know that, I know that, and what? The FBI can’t put two and two together? With all those investigators and forensic people and whatever the hell else kinda people they have. Smart people. People with degrees in figuring things out!

“Everything went right. I did everything right! That’s where I went wrong. It was too perfect. It had to have been a set up. They knew I had to steal it, so they cleared a path. They’ve had me tailed and bugged since the beginning.

“Well, and if I stay in this house much longer, it won’t matter. They’ll be dragging me out of here in a coffin instead of handcuffs. I’m starting to think jail wouldn’t be so bad. No, no! See that’s what all this time is doing to me! Jail wouldn’t be so bad? I’m falling apart!

“Regret it? Like hell I do! I mean yeah. If I’d known this would happen to me I never would’ve… but I couldn’t let it go. I had to do it. You understand that, don’t you? Sure you do. It was something I had to do. It doesn’t matter is the point. I can’t change it. And if time travel was a thing, and if I had a genie, and so on till inifinity.

“I don’t have a lawyer! How could I have a lawyer? They’ll give me one of those crappy ones that’s free like a stale sugar cookie at the grocery store! At that point I might as well represent myself. At least I’ve heard of laws.

“Someone’s knocking at the door… Someone’s at my door. I don’t want to go! I can’t go! I’d rather live the rest of my life in this house. I’m fine with that. I know what I just said! But I changed my mind. I can’t go to jail! They’ll… they’ll… well you know what they’ll do to me!

“They knocked again. I have to answer it. Or what they break down the door? And it looks like I refused to let them in, and that means another 10 years in prison! It’s the Feds. Jesus it’s the Feds. I know it. What?”

“Hi. Are you Rich Solomon?

“Why?”

“Uh Mr. Solomon, I’m with Fed—“

“OK! Jesus Christ! You guys are playing games? Why don’t you just get it over with? I’ve lost my mind already! Does this look like a sane person? Do I look normal to you? No of course not! You’re torturing me with the waiting. And you’ve just been staked out behind the bushes? Listening to me having a conversation with myself? Waiting for me to surrender? So I can go to trial, which is open and shut. And that attorney you’re giving me is an absolute fraud. He’s on your payroll. You guys are all shaking hands and high fiving when they send me to that cell. He’s supposed to bargain for me.

“Let’s skip the nonsense. I’ll tell you straight up. I’m not afraid anymore. Yes. Yes. Yes! OK? I did it. I stole the painting, and I sold it. I had the buyer, but I don’t know who it was. That’s the way these things work. But you already know all that, and your… whatever act you got going on here like you don’t know to get me to say more, just come on already!”

“Mr. Solomon I—“

“What is this?”

“I just need your signature here…”

“My signature? And then what? I sign my rights away? I’m not a moron. I did steal that masterpiece even with all the fancy security. What’s all this say? And give it to me straight.”

“I’m not sure what’s going on, sir. But when you sign, I’ll give you your package…”

“Package? What package?”

“I’m not sure what’s in it.”

“Wait, hold on. You aren’t… with the Feds?”

“I’m with FedEx.”

“FedEx?”

“Yes. Package delivery.”

“Oh. Wow… I got you, didn’t I? Not a bad performance, huh? I’ve been taking improv, and I needed an audience. There you go. There’s my John Hancock.”

“I’ll just get that package for you.”

“Yeah, you do that! And we’ll laugh about this between us, right? Just our little inside joke. The FedEx guy and the crazy improv guy. You don’t need to tell anyone about this. I know it was entertaining, but for now I’m keeping my one-man show under wraps. You were sort of the test audience. I know what I need to tweak for next time. Thanks for your feedback. I know you didn’t really review it, but your face told me what I needed to know. More or less. They say the face tells the truth the words won’t. Or something like that.”

“Yeah… you have a good day, sir.”

“And you have a spectacular one, OK? Maybe you and I can do something different next time, I don’t know if you do improv or not, but that’s an option. We’ve done the paranoid art thief bit, which is sort of overdone I know. You can start us off on something else next time. OK? OK? Bye now.”

Away From It All

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artwork by @jimmywyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

“Drew and I have talked about getting away from it all for a while, but it’s always been a sort of, hypothetical trip. Sure you can go to Bora Bora or the Maldives or the Seychelles, and you’ll be away from almost everything.”

Mindy pushed the wilted greens to the side of her plate.

“But you’ve been talking about the Maldives forever. Why all the sudden don’t you want to go there now?” Tisha asked.

“No, not all the sudden. Like I said, Drew and I have been discussing this for a while. And he made some good points about how the Maldives and the Seychelles and whatever, they’re just not far enough away. They still have Wi-Fi and hotels, obviously,” said Mindy.

“Let me get this straight. You, you are willingly going to a place where you can’t post?”

“Yes, Tisha. It’s not that hard to understand. Honestly. There’s no people there. How could there be Internet if there aren’t any people? That’s why these kinds of places are called uninhibited islands.”

“You mean uninhabited?” asked Tisha.

“No, don’t be stupid. I think I’d know what I’m talking about. Where’s that over-gelled waiter? I want that panna cotta. They aren’t going to have nice food or anything out there. So I better stock up now. I’m sure I’ll lose a ton of weight eating fish and… leaves or whatever we eat. Maybe I’ll come back looking like you, but hopefully I have some muscle on my body so I don’t look like a skeleton.”

Tisha squeezed the knife handle, and set it down slowly.

“OK, so then where are you going that’s ‘uninhibited?’” Tisha asked.

“That’s where it gets wild! I can’t tell you. I don’t even know! Drew found this island on some old map. You know how weird he is with history and stuff. I can’t believe his first marriage lasted as long as it did. I told him when we got married that he only had me for five years. I want to still be hot when we get divorced. Maybe I’ll even have a kid then. I don’t want my kids to look like Drew. And with the prenup I make out really good, so there’s no need to like give him a son or anything. I told you he thinks we’re ‘trying.’ Well anyway, the island doesn’t even show up on Google Earth, and that has pictures of literally every inch of the planet. Except Area 51 and North Korea.”

“Mindy, that’s insane. What if something happens? You’re in a place that isn’t on maps?”

Mindy’s silver band was inlayed with a price-upon-request diamond. It flashed when she reached for her wine. Tisha rubbed her much smaller ring with her knuckle. For weeks she took it off before going to see Mindy. Tisha didn’t want to hear her patronize. She felt out of place enough just going to the restaurants or to Mindy’s house.

“Oh Tisha, that’s so cute that you care, but nothing’s going to happen to us. Drew chartered a boat to take us to these coordinates and pick us up. It’s just a couple weeks. Plus Drew knows how to do survival things. His dad was in the Army something. And listen Drew’s paying that captain a fortune, so he’ll be sure we get there and back safely.”

“Take pictures at least. Sounds like it’s going to be a real experience,” Tisha said.

But there was nothing she hated more than seeing Mindy’s pictures of her tour of France or Argentina. The stories were boring: luxury hotels and five-course meals. It was getting harder and harder for Tisha to hold the weight of their friendship. Mindy hadn’t always been like that. The only reason she didn’t drop Tisha when she married Drew was because Tisha didn’t fight back. Tisha was Mindy’s punching bag.

“Tisha, I already told you I won’t have Wi-Fi, so I obviously can’t post.”

“No I know that, but just pictures you can show when you get back.”

“Tisha. No Instagram. Honestly sometimes I wonder if you don’t do drugs around the corner before lunch. It’s like your head is in space.”

“I just remembered, I have to be on the other side of town in like ten minutes. Have a good trip.”

“OK. Bye. Sorry you can’t come with.”

“Trust me, it’s OK.”

Tisha felt better when she sat in her Corolla. It was ten years old, and it looked it. The cracked dashboard was a comfort though. It was refreshing just to be around things that weren’t new or expensive. Her car was worth 1% of the engagement ring Mindy flaunted. She was tired of valets looking down on her. But worse than that, Mindy always called Tisha’s car “cute.” Everything about Tisha was “cute” to Mindy.

“Hey Mom,” Tisha said over the speakerphone.

“I can tell by your voice. Why do you keep seeing that girl?” her mother asked.

“I don’t know.”

“You’re loyal. And that’s admirable. But all that girl does is tear you down. I see her on Instagram. I know you see those posts too. That girl is undoing everything women like us have been trying to do. She doesn’t represent us. For her it’s all about the money, the stuff. You aren’t like that. And you know what happens? Guys look at people like her and they say ‘there, that’s the evidence.’ They rope us all into that.”

“I know, Mom. You’re right. It’s just hard for me. I feel like I’m the only one who could bring her back to reality.”

“And when was the last time she listened to anything you told her?”

“High school probably. She and Drew are going to some deserted island for a few weeks. They’ll be totally off-grid. I would pay to see that. The two of them in the wild? Bravo would put big bucks on that. So we’ll see how much I miss her. If I feel better while she’s gone…”

“Then you can end the friendship. If she blows you off or acts like she always does, then you’ll know you’re doing the right thing. Honestly honey, I just don’t want her to drag you into all that superficial mess. You’re too good. You’re too wonderful for that.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

“I hate seeing you miserable. And she makes you that way. You deserve to be happy. And you’ve given that girl a million and one chances. And that husband of hers is an evil, evil man. The way he made his money. I just don’t know how anyone could live with themselves. And that Mindy, she’s complicit. I’m sorry. Pretending to be ignorant is not OK. And Mindy turned her back on her upbringing. She forgot where she came from as soon as she got the chance. It’s time to let her go. If she wants to go down, fine, but she’s not taking you with her.”

“Yeah. You’re right.”

“We’ll get through it. Jeny would support you too. Your wife is a wonderful woman. And she and I are on the same page. She told you to leave Mindy years ago in the dust years ago. Would you mind picking up some flour on your way over?”

“Of course.”

That night, Drew and Mindy walked along the dock towards a small boat. Drew grunted when he slipped on a wet plank. It was dark out, but the moon was a floodlight. The boat was covered in fishing net, and the deck was full of crates. Sitting against a shack, a man whittled a stick and paid them no mind.

“Louis Vuitton isn’t very unassuming,” the captain said.

He wiped his hand on his stained apron and took their bags.

“I don’t think that hobo knows the difference. No one else is here,” said Mindy.

“Here’s the first half. Why don’t you keep the criticism to yourself, huh? I’m not paying you to do anything but drop off and pick up, got it? You’re just an Uber on the water,” said Drew.

“Yes sir,” the captain replied. “This is my nephew, Arturo, he’s going to be—“

“What did I just say? ‘Uber on the water.’ Not conversationalist. I don’t care what your kid’s name is. I don’t care what your name is. My wife and I shouldn’t have to talk to you unless we want to. By the way, what’s with this boat? I thought it was going to be a yacht? You said it was nice!”

“Anything nicer than this would draw attention. You can’t turn off the GPS on the new ones either.”

“Let’s just get going, huh?” Drew said.

Not long after they sputtered out of the tiny fishing village, Mindy was below deck, sick. Drew didn’t want to be near her, but he didn’t want to talk to the crew, so he sat at the back of the boat and watched the churning wake. He pulled out a satellite phone and held down the power button. The display clicked on, but before it loaded completely the screen went blank. When he cracked open the battery pack it was corroded.

“Piece of shit!” Drew yelled, hucking it into the water. “Hey captain? Where the hell are we? Are we close?”

“Mr. Drew, we’re not there yet,” the captain said.

“Well I sure as hell know that! Say something useful.”

“Are you sure you don’t want me to log this trip? In case something happens?”

“Look Poncho, I’m paying you more than you’d make in 100 years to drop us off and pick us up. We negotiated the terms in good faith. Here’s your check for the first half. You get the other half when you pick us up. And the only thing you have to do to secure that payment is keep your God damn mouth shut. Now that’s gotta be the easiest money you’ve ever made. Or do I have it wrong and you’re some kind of billionaire just running boats for kicks?”

Hours passed like days. The moon lit the ocean. Other than their camouflaged boat, nothing disturbed the surface for miles.

“There, is that it? Is that the island?” Mindy asked. She was leaning over the rail trying to breathe.

“I think yes,” said the captain.

“Think yes? Why don’t you check your bearings?” asked Drew.

“Mrs. is correct. That is your island,” said Arturo pointing to the map.

“Thank God. Get me off of this boat before I throw up more of my organs. Drew I can’t believe you put me on a floating death trap like this!” said Mindy.

“Roughing it for a few hours won’t kill you Mindy. It’ll toughen you up. The hardest thing you’ve had to do is walk from the Cayenne to the nail solon when it’s cold outside!”

“Drew! Just—“ Mindy threw up what was left in her stomach.

Shooting up out of the water like a church spire, the island was the only feature on the flat expanse. No smoke drifted from its volcanic peak. Lush foliage blanketed the landscape, glowing blue. The engine powered down as they approached.

“Hard to believe this isn’t on any maps,” said Drew. “I should name it! What about, ‘Drewlandia?’”

“Why you? Why not Mindy Island?”

“Because you didn’t do anything. You just got sick and complained the whole way. I found the map, I got the boat.”

Arturo hopped into the shallow waters and pulled the boat closer to the shore. He and the captain communicated shouted instructions back and forth. Once the boat was secured they helped Drew and Mindy get ashore with their luxury bags.

“Here, since I know that’s all you’re thinking about,” said Drew handing a check to the captain.

“Thank you, sir.”

“Don’t be pathetic about it. I know you don’t care about me, so don’t pretend. It makes you look desperate. Why don’t you two leave us alone now? You know the deal. Come back in fifteen days and pick us up. Don’t tell anyone anything, and you get another one of these. Got it? Don’t be idiots. You’re winning the lottery.”

The captain folded the check and put it in a dry pocket. His head was spinning from the number. Drew’s insults flew by unnoticed.

“Where are we going to stay?” asked Mindy.

“We’ll build something! I know you’re used to resorts, but this is the real world out here!”

Mindy kicked the black sand and winced.

“How long are we here again?” she asked.

“Jesus don’t do this already!” said Drew.

“Should we go now?” asked the captain.

“Yes. Get the hell out of here! What are you waiting for?”

The captain went back onboard and fired up the engine. Arturo pushed the hull free and climbed up the ladder. They pulled away and got the boat up to full speed.

“Smell that?” Drew asked.

“Fishy. Like dead fish. I’m gonna be sick again. I want to leave. Why couldn’t we just go to the Maldives like I wanted to?”

“God all you do is complain! It’s really annoying, Mindy. Dead fish isn’t what I was asking about. That air you’re so upset about? It’s air no one’s ever breathed! We discovered Drewlandia!”

“Don’t call it that. That’s a terrible name.”

“Yeah and ‘Mindy Island’ is so much more creative. Listen I spent a lot of money to get us here! Just be grateful, and for once don’t whine. It’s not like we’ll be here forever. It’s just fifteen days, and then you can go back to whatever it is you do all day.”

Arturo looked back towards the island, shrinking into the distance.

“Those two were made for each other. What a bunch of pricks,” said Arturo.

“Who do you think will kill the other first?”

“The woman’ll kill the husband. There’s enough of him to eat for weeks.”

“You’re right. Look at this check! Have you ever seen a number this large?”

“It doesn’t even look real.”

“I know this is just the first payment, but I wouldn’t make this in fifty years if I worked every day all day! This is enough for us, don’t you think? You and I split it. Half of this check is more than we’d ever need. I’m getting old anyway. What do I need all that for?”

“So what are you saying then?”

“Let them have their island. We’ve never lived for money. That’s what those people do. That’s why their lives are so miserable. Nothing worth having can be bought. Of course we need money to survive, but this is plenty,” the captain said.

“We’d be doing the world a favor. Let him name the island, and it’ll disappear with them like Atlantis.”

“No one knows this place exists except us.”

“Half of this is mine? Really?”

“50/50 split,” said the captain.

“So that other check, that’s how much their lives are worth?”

“No. People like that. People who treat others like less. People who live for their fortunes? People who don’t do anything good for the world? People who waste the chance to raise others up? They aren’t worth a penny.”

The Case of the Bag of Bones

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artwork by @jimmywyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

Never seen anything like it in thirty-two years, thirty-three if you count the first one, which I don’t. When I arrived on the scene the yellow tape was up, the road closed off. Four patrols, Engine 22, and an ambulance. I don’t like being briefed. I want my mind fresh: no preconceptions.

Every case is unique. Don’t get me wrong, that older stuff helps. You just can’t use it as the answer key. That’s the easiest way to end up looking for roses in a bedpan.

I sniff around when I arrive on scene. Picked up a bit of burned rubber. Hardly more of that tinny dried blood smell than what comes from a paper cut.

“Detective O’Neill,” one of the young kids said, holding up the tape like I’m an invalid. He pours coffee for me and stuff. What he doesn’t know is that it wont do him any good. “Here’s what we kn—“

“Stop,” I said, trying to shut him up.

“Yes sir.”

Normally I don’t like sir. But it kept a safe distance between he and I. I’ll have a beer with him some day, but not till he climbs in the sewer for evidence. Once a guy’s been covered in shit, I’ll hear what he has to say.

There was a little daylight left. I could size it up before the floods went on. Everything turns sanitary, and then red herrings pop up everywhere. The car that made the tire marks didn’t kill that man. That was indisputable. Stopped too short. That kid was gonna mention the marks, bet the house on hit and run. Looking at the vic it was obvious a car didn’t do it. He was a bag of bones. The skin was just there to make a neat pile. Just a little bit of blood out of the nose, and a pint trapped under the body.

Whoever was driving that car slammed on the brakes early. Probably texting or filling out a W-4, so they couldn’t be sure if they hit him or not. When people think they’ve done something horrible they run. Guilty, innocent, doesn’t matter. It wasn’t worth figuring out who almost ran him over. Incidentally the almost hit and run works in finance. They get the sport tires. Suckers for advertising and insecure about everything. Inverse relationship between horsepower and manpower.

Wasn’t an entry wound, and even though people erroneously think it’s pointless to check, this time there wasn’t an exit wound either. No stab marks, no bruises, no marks on the neck. I was tempted to say an orthopedic surgeon did it, cut him open and broke the bones, then sewed him up. Arthroscopically, cause there weren’t any slice marks.

So that was the question: how the hell’d all his bones break? Almost like he was just walking, and an anvil crushed him. Problem was, no anvil.

“Must not have been a milk drinker,” I said.

Without a twisted sense of humor, you’ll end up on the watch list real fast. Clean-cut, upstanding men and women? Hard for them to survive when they see the messed up crap.

“Hah…” the kid chuckled. Me being a “sir” and all he was thinking, “God, this guy’s a real prick.” Upstanding man. “What do you think, sir?”

I prefer to keep my thoughts private. At least until I’ve had a chance to think em. “Kid,” I said, “never whip up a cake till you’ve read the recipe.”

“O’Neill!” The Fire Chief’s voice is strong as he is. Saw him snap a bat over his knee once to make starters for a campfire. He’s a salty dog but a smart guy. Abrasive as a brick if you don’t know him. The kid didn’t know him. “What’d’ya think happened to that sorry sonuvabitch?”

“World still on fire?”

“Working on it.”

“Have they ID’d yet? I haven’t talk to anyone,” I asked.

The kid removed himself. At least he understood subtext.

“They got the license from his wallet. No idea why he looks like this though. I was thinking you should call Aunt Jemima in for questioning.”

The Chief’s not afraid to be cold. I don’t mind sharing ideas with him. He wouldn’t tell his shoes what I said.

“Course when I want coffee that kid’s scarce.”

“New guy?” Chief asked.

“He came with the uniform.”

“COD?”

Chief cleared his throat, a real hacking sound. Scares people away, so I like it. There’s something going on there, something about smoke and lungs. Chief’s the kind of guy you’d expect drinks a lot, but he’s a teetotaler. Not the righteous kind. He’d just rather drink Diet Coke.

“I’ve got an idea,” I started.

“What’s tippin’ you?”

“The best clues are the most overlooked. Look at the shoes.”

“What about em?”

“Little cold out to be wearing slip-ons, don’t you think? Other one’s way over there too, at that far end. I came in that way, walked right past it.” I pointed for his benefit.

“If he’d been hit…”

“Yeah, but you and I both know he wasn’t hit by a car. You’ve seen enough head-ons.”

“So, whadda you think? Murderer took the shoe off and beat the guy to death, then threw the thing?”

“If someone could cripple like this with shoes that soft, don’t you think they could throw better?”

“Guess so.”

“Look Chief, there’s not a mark on him. I never heard of rapid-onset osteoporosis either.”

“So, what about the shoe then?”

“They went through the pockets already. Let’s take a look at that bag. Our answer’s in there. Time of death? Ballpark?”

“Morrison put the range between two and four PM,” the Chief said.

“And the call came in at 4:30. I heard it on the radio. No way that body was lying on this street for two and a half hours before the call. Tighten that to between 4:00 and 4:30.”

“Detective O’Neill, thanks for coming out.”

I recognized the face, but the name was gone. I shook his hand all the same.

“I need to see the personal effects,” I said.

“Nothing useful. We were able to ID him. John Malkovic, age—“

“John Malkovich?”

“Different spelling.”

He led us into the trailer. Some idiot parked it on an embankment, so the stairs were more of a ladder.

“Figures. How old?” I was curious, but it didn’t matter.

“Fifty-one. He’s from Chicago, works in Big Pharma. C-Suite.”

The part about Chicago was interesting. I was seeing someone there for a while. Once it got cold we were inside her apartment a lot. Isolation begets clarity. I could see the clear plastic bag, and what I was looking for was in it.

The guy kept at it, “Just one big mystery. How’s a guy get run over but stay in one piece? All the bones are shot, but not a bruise or anything from gettin hit. Just some blood. Impossible…”

“Uh-huh. I’d like to take a look at the personals now,” I said, hurrying him along.

“So?” asked the Chief.

I drew it out for suspense, examining each item as though it might hold the answer. A calfskin wallet, supple and scoff-free. Definitely a swindling drug dealer’s money keeper. There were keys to a BMW, reliable cars if you don’t mind paying for em. I mind. That and I can’t afford one. An extra button, kind that comes with a new suit, and an unreadable movie stub. Then there was the answer. I held the thing up and waved it at the Chief.

“Get it now?” I asked.

I’d already done the first-grade math; it checked.

“I see what you’re holding,” he answered, clueless.

“What’s the date today?”

“Twenty… fifth?”

“Yeah. And what’s this say?”

Now I felt like I was the first-grade teacher, and the Chief was that sir kid.

“Twenty… fifth!”

“And the time on here?”

“3:00PM…”

“Probably an hour from Chicago that way… Tell me I don’t have to write it out. Please.”

“Wait a second. You’re not seriously saying he—“

“There were no marks, Chief. He wasn’t hit by a car. Nobody beat him. All his bones are toast. The timeline matches up. The Goddamn slip-on shoes! Christ!”

 “Holy hell… You’re a fricken genius.”

“Just a guy who knows when everybody’s looking down, the answer’s up.”

Between Potatoes & Roses

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artwork by @jimmywyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

I told the men they weren’t welcome in my home. I’ve been here forty-seven years, and they act as though it’s theirs. They ask how I’ve lived in a place so cramped. They’re the same ones who sanitize homes with white furniture, only a succulent and an Indian rug to accent dispassionate concrete. But there are memories in the pores of this place, in the DNA of the wallpaper, in the armchair’s aged leather scent, and yes, in that painting of the quiet harbor.

Cluttered. Hoarding. Disorganized. Unhealthy. Descriptions uttered in passing as though my hearing aids were earplugs. It’s easier to pretend I can’t hear. Saves me from a disingenuous apology.

We have an unusual relationship, if you can call it that. They come, unwelcome, offer deep criticisms in hushed tones, take my belongings, and leave by saying, “thank you.” Thank you? And I’m supposed to respond with a cheery, “no, thank you?” And I do, because that little morsel of sarcasm is my last defense, the drops of juice I squeeze from the rinds they leave. What remains of my dignity lies in that pulp.

In the beginning I followed them, asked why they were taking certain things. Sometimes I got angry, like when they tossed my mother’s delftware cookie jar as though it were a rugby ball. I didn’t follow them upstairs. I haven’t been up there in years. No need. And whatever mold’s up there’ll give them more hell than I could.

I leave the door unlocked; they don’t knock anymore. Resistance is a waste, but I still have my fun: turn up the TV real loud, scream obscenities. Nice senile stuff. So far it’s kept them from stealing from the living room where I roost in my chair with a sparkling water and look at the short, flowing brushstrokes and mellow hues. I get lost looking for my reflection in the dark pond, imagining I could walk across the bridge under the moonlight.

Repossession. Foreclosure. Reverse mortgage. They run together after a while. I suppose each item is seized for a specific reason. From a legal perspective that’s important. From where I sit it matters as much as String Theory.

When the men aren’t here to dismantle my life, I dedicate my time to reading. For a few weeks it was 18th century poetry, then it was science fiction from the fifties, and recently I’ve been engaged with graphic novels. I don’t go out of my way to vary the material; that’s what the people from the library drop off. Not sure who thought a Hoover baby wants to read about an orphaned Frenchman with lasers for eyes, but it isn’t as bad as it tries to be.

One day the personality will be totally sucked from this place. They asked me, eight times actually, “Are you sure you won’t sell it? You could pay for everything if you put it up for auction? Keep the whole place and all you’ve got in it. Buy anything you want.” What they didn’t understand then and still don’t is that I could never sell that painting. It was a gift from an old friend. We used to travel together and talk.

Now he’s gone, and what’s left of him lives in that canvas. None of the hired muscle see the value of the work. They wouldn’t know Monet from Hirst.

The idea of selling it, of others ascribing a value to it, willingly giving it up to keep what I have, it’s antithetical to my being. They’ll have to tear it from my rigor mortis hands. Rather unassuming life that work has lived in my care, nestled between potatoes and roses. You get to convincing yourself the artist admires your treatment. So long as you don’t cover it up or lock it away. When it catches my eye I feel proud for serving as its custodian.

On the Canals

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artwork by @jimmywyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

The kids were gone, off playing beyond the imaginary boundaries surveyed by their parents.

“I told them not to go past the square. They promised me they wouldn’t!” the mother said, massaging her aching temple.

“They never listen,” her husband replied.

“That doesn’t change the fact that we don’t know where our children are.”

“They’ll come back. Couldn’t have wandered too far. Besides all the bridges and footpaths bring you back to this square one way or another. Piazza Whatever-it’s-called, that all the signs are for with the arrows. If there’s a universal truth, it’s that all roads end here.”

“But in order for them to find their way back, they’d have to want to get back.”

“Let me take a picture of you in front of the statue. That one over there. Just stand next to it, maybe lean like… like that. There. Now just picture what it looks like to smile and try to copy that. One, two, three.”

“Happy?”

“Exceedingly.”

“How do we find our kids? Now that there’s a physical record of us enjoying our vacation without them. Terrible parenting.”

Her husband’s watch focused the sun into her eyes as he inspected the photo.

“Will you put that thing away! Why aren’t you worried?” she snapped.

“They’re just exploring. We’d have done the same thing at their ages. It’s a big tourist destination. Let’s get some pizza at that place on the corner. They’ll emerge from the woodwork if we have food. Probably hiding behind the church. Or running up the tower over there. What’s it called again?”

“I don’t remember. God it’s been so long since I took that architecture class. Free—something like Freedom I think.”

The mother bit her lip and examined the building with its cupola and layered columns. Canal levels were down and the surface calm. High water marks rose five or six feet, the walls darker from the detritus suspended in the blue-brown liquid. Not many gondolas drifted. It was still too early. Pizza was in the air, or else her hunger conjured the alluring scent: fresh, charred dough and caramelized cheese. She felt guilty for thinking of food when all three of her children had disappeared.

“OK, but in twenty minutes, if they aren’t back, we go look for them and call the police and send out a search party and dogs.”

“Yes, that’s a reasonable plan. Besides, they have each other. Now, I’m hungry. Heard this  place is great. My coworker, you remember Al? He and his wife were here last summer, and they went to this restaurant four times!”

“Al’s Italian, isn’t he?”

“Not just Italian, he’s Venetian! Well his family is anyway. He’s from Detroit.”

“If he’s Venetian, then he must know,” she said mockingly.

“God they’ve got pigeons here. Look at them up there on that building! Must be three hundred! Let’s hope they haven’t had their fiber today.”

“Charming.”

“I try,” he answered, signaling to the circling waiter.

There was a small vase with a fresh rose on the wire table. An elderly man, posture crumpled like an old beer can, wheezed an accordion. Each pull was a deep, troubled breath, each push a constrained, musical exhale. It was rustic or sad.

“You really do smell that when tide’s low don’t you? Drowns out the pizza…”

The wife twiddled with the menu while she brewed about her lost offspring.

“Imagine what it was like all those years ago, when this place was bustling.”

“Hmm…” she replied, considering the prospects of the past. “Remarkable this city’s still around. Through it all, the flooding, the conflicts. They say it was one of the wealthiest cities, you know?”

“Mom!”

“Dad!”

“Is it time to eat?”

Three young voices echoed in the long corridor. It sounded as though a troop was descending on a picnic, famished from a long hike through dense wilderness. Their father sat back, satisfied with the results of his laissez faire approach. The kids popped out from under a heavy arch.

“Where have you been? Never! Never do that again!” their mother reprimanded.

“Sorry…” the eldest responded at his shoes, guiltily kicking pebbles.

“Sit down. We ordered pizzas,” their father instructed, allowing a lack of disciplinary action to instill in them a sense of personal responsibility. So he imagined, asking a great deal of a six-year-old, nine-year-old, and ten-year-old.

“What kind?” the youngest, a tubby carbohydrate enthusiast with hand-me-down shorts that settled mid-shin, asked.

“Does it matter?” his sister asked.

“You’ll eat it no matter what,” said the brother.

“Don’t tease him,” their mother objected.

“Cheese and one with vegetables.”

“Well? What did you all see on this grand adventure of not listening to us?”

The girl took command, “We went to the docks, to see the ocean and some of the boats. There was one,” her eyes widened as her hands stretched out to represent two hundred and fifty feet, “this big! Like a whole mansion!”

“It had a helicopter on the back,” the youngest exclaimed.

“I was gonna say that!” his sister insisted.

“This city’s no stranger to big ships,” their father explained. “It’s an amazing place when you think about it. All this water through the city. Only get around by boat or walking across a million bridges.”

“Did you all know I was here once, when I was thirteen?” their mother asked. “Came with my parents, your grandparents. Things weren’t much different then, only they were doing all kinds of restoration work. Scaffolding was everywhere. Hurricanes caused a lot of damage that year.”

Pizzas arrived. On trivets they were set with the waiter’s warning, “Careful, very hot.” Eastern European and terse, the man was economical with his words. The father looked at each child.

“Oh! Thank you!” the girl said as the waiter walked away.

“Thank you!”

“Thank you…” her siblings mimicked.

“Never again!” their mother repeated. “Don’t run away, and don’t forget to say thank you.”

“OK, we understand,” the eldest replied.

“I was here once too, as a kid though,” the father recalled. “The food, that’s what I remember most.”

“Yeah, yeah. You were here before this was under water, huh?” his wife asked condescendingly.

“Not that old. You’re right. It is more or less the same as it was then. Nice to see it mostly fixed up. Hard to maintain a city on water.”

“Have you been to the other one?” their daughter asked.

“In Italy?” one of her brother’s wondered.

“Yes, once I was in Venice. But that city was built on water. For hundreds of years it stood with canals and ancient churches before the sea rose and gobbled it up. Believe it or not, people once drove around here. Everything you see was dry land. Before you all were born, before your mother and I were born even, Miami was a different place.”

Penny Saved

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artwork by @jimmywyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

“I’m getting that ‘Zah’ sensation.”

“We haven’t even gotten out of the car yet, Angie.”

“Don’t need to. It’s not something I control. It just is. This is the house.”

“Well let’s go inside and see the realtor. Just as an exercise in due diligence. What do you say? Want to make sure it’s right for the kids too. Not that I’m doubting your ‘Zah’ energy. Last time I did that it bit me in the ass.”

“Harvey…”

Harvey switched off the ignition and pleading innocence in the foul-call. Pollen season had just begun, so the air was thick with atomized yellow dust. When the breeze blew, clouds of the fine powder swept off roofs and trees with the delicate choreography of schools of fish.

“I think I might have done some work here. Years ago. Not for the current owners. Realtor said an addition was made in the last two years though, but that wasn’t me. My memory is all over the place these days.”

“I love the wrap around porch. And look,” Angie pointed to the ceiling as they walked up the stone stairs. “Oh my gosh, Harvey! Wood paneling with the ceiling fans? I’ve always wanted that. We could sit out here with lemonade in rocking chairs in the summer with the fans going. That would be just—“

“You don’t even like lemonade…”

“Hey! The Wingers!” The realtor wore a collection of bracelets, rings, and earrings. A chunky turquoise necklace lent an air of pre-colonial nobility. Her white vest had the collar popped, and her circular frames were an unnatural pink tortoise shell. She waved her hands down to her elbows.

“Liz, this is… well, I haven’t seen the inside yet except the pictures you sent, but I told Harvey—“

“Zah?” Liz offered.

“Completely Zah.”

“OK, that is fabulous. Let’s take a tour. What do you say? Harvey? Your general contractor is showing. Staring at the molding, looking for a wobbly paint line. You’re all the same!”

Harvey tilted his head to see the brush strokes beneath the trim against the light. “Yeah, well you know me Liz. I think I did some work on this house once. Is there a screened in deck out back?”

“Bingo! It’s beautiful. You feel like you’re in a tree house. Come on back, we can start there. Just ignore the renovated kitchen with its white granite countertops until after we swing through the forest.”

“Definitely. I put this in. Ages ago,” Harvey said, admiring his work with a studious frown and squinting eyes. “They painted it recently.”

Liz and Angie admired the view. Angie imagined herself there with a book and a mug, pouring a measure of cream and watching the white explode in a cloud. Liz led them back into the kitchen, where she fired up the gas-powered range. In the oven were cookies, a sweet-salty smell.

“So master is on the first floor, and then there are two bedrooms upstairs. So the twins could bunk in one, and you could use the other as a guest room. When they grow up maybe they get their own spaces. You know, a lot you can do there,” Liz said, leading them through the master bathroom with its large mirrors and ample closet space.

——————————————————————————————————————–

about ten years earlier…

“Are you concerned at all, about the pitch? You know the incline here? I just want to make sure its safe.”

“Dave, I wouldn’t take this job if I didn’t think it was safe,” Harvey assured him.

“Just use the best materials you can find. This is a terrible thing to say to a contractor, but the cost isn’t the most important aspect to me. It’s safety. Make this thing safe for my family.”

“You’ll be able to live out there if you want.”

Harvey pulled out his phone, its industrial case caked in dried mud. Where before had been a sloping mess of weeds and struggling grass, was now a geometric cross-section, awaiting concrete footers and a towering screened-in deck.

“Listen, George. The homeowner said money is no object. So, I’ll get the stuff that’ll get the job done, and in five years if he has issues I’ll come back, and that’ll be a fix-up job I can say was because the ground settled or something. You know how it is. He doesn’t need the best materials. Nothing’s going to happen to it. All that matters is peace of mind. And if he thinks I put the top of the line in, and he paid for it, then there’s no reason for him to worry. Besides, he’ll probably sell the place in a few years. So just quote me on the top shelf and quote me on the mid-tier. It’ll be reconciled. What do you say?”

——————————————————————————————————————–

Angie and Harvey moved quickly on the house. Liz told them there were prospective buyers lurking and willing to make higher offers. But she shielded them as a favor to the Wingers. They’d given her a great deal of business over the years. Harvey felt good about the move, especially the deck, because he trusted his own craftsmanship. Once he was established in the area, he stopped cutting corners and did top notch work. Getting to that point was difficult, but the ends justified the means. He’d all but rewritten the history of the early part of his career, so the means were victims of his unreliable memory.

Harvey stood at the corner of the wrap-around porch watching the street, away from the fan’s cool rush. Angie’s nose was in a paperback. She rocked rhythmically. Iced tea sat beside her, sweating.

“What were Hannah and Dallas doing when you came out?” He asked, straightening his arms and stretching his back on the rail.

“They were playing on the back deck. Building with those block things, the LEGO bricks. They aren’t LEGOs, but whatever they’re called. You know.”

“Gotta keep them away from the family bus—“ Ice ran up Harvey’s spine. A loud crack, like a Redwood snapping in half, reverberated through the house. Angie’s eyes were aflame with fear.

“What was that?” she asked, jumping to her feet, the book slapping the floor.

They hesitated and listened. A rumbling picked up, getting louder and louder. It was as if a wrecking ball were moving through the forest. Trees shook. There was a quick succession of cracks and pops followed by the screams of their children.

“The deck!” Harvey yelled, darting for the front door. There was no longer a lack of clarity. Harvey remembered the job as though he’d just cashed the check. Through the kitchen windows he saw the roof falling down, and the cost of his lapse in integrity shooting catastrophically up.

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.