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.

Face Value

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artwork by @jameswyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

The ache in every joint, the slow response of limbs to their calls for action, a stiffness generally reserved for raw materials, all delivered to Norman Warren an unequivocal message: he needed the day off. On a business trip, he woke up in a generously sized hotel room much larger than the space he required. It was on the company’s dime, so he didn’t feel it was money wasted, at least not his money. As for comfort, the expense proved unnecessary, for comfort was as hard to find amongst the “well-designed” furniture as Norman’s glasses, hidden somewhere in the recesses.

He was a lead guitarist on a drug-fueled fit while he tore the room apart. Then it donned on him. Like watching a brief headline span across the television screen, it was announced that Norman had locked his glasses in the safe. It was a foolish decision, that much was evident. He needed his glasses to get his glasses. In his state, the irony was too irresistible to not grant hearty laugh.

With a few clicks the combination safe opened, the same code as always. Norman never gave it any thought, but if he were ever asked how that year became chiseled so deeply on the tablet in his mind, he would reply with a shrug. There were many things he struggled to explain, but fortunately for his sanity, he was never one to get hung up.

Having retrieved his glasses, their horn-rimmed frames set squarely on the bridge of his nose, allowing access to a clearer picture of the world, Norman set about fixing the wreckage he’d caused. He was a details man, some would say eccentric in his deliberate nature. He dressed, smartly as was his habit. Rarely seen without a suit, well tailored, tapered, and lint-free, colleagues and friends frequently remarked on Norman Warren’s well kept style, before even commenting on his character or disposition.

Even on a day of rest from his profession, sartorial resplendence did not suffer. It had been some years since he was last in Chicago, colder times in younger days, but he scanned through his list of remembrances, probing for favorite activities to relive.

The rest was all-encompassing, any thought of business wholly and truly forgotten. If a passerby asked at that juncture to list the primary responsibilities of his office, he could hardly have produced a one. But Norman’s memory was not without water. He remembered a diner he used to frequent downtown, and the smell of its pancakes resurfaced in the cabinet de curiosité with the aromatic fortitude of a fresh stack beneath his nose.

Along the sidewalk the brisk winds whipped around impressive feats of architecture. There was a supreme contentment in the air like a private weather system. Norman danced along the cracks, a checkerboard of light under the guidance of a harshly angled morning sun. Little attention was paid to the many faces gazing upon him. And while it did not trouble him in the least, he noticed a few men in dark attire seeming to follow. Those characters he dismissed as figments of his elaborate imagination.

“A stack of plain pancakes, please,” Norman declared to the waitress who’d shown him to a vinyl booth, adding, “with just a dollop of butter on the top, and a container filled generously with maple syrup.”

She nodded with a smile, clamping the menu under her arm as she made notations in a dilapidated notebook.

“Any bacon or sausage?”

“No, no. I wouldn’t dream of it. Nothing to alter the experience of these wonderful pancakes! Things haven’t much changed since I was here last. Not too many places can say that. I’m not as young as I once was, of course. Sure the chef’s different now. Joe I think his name was. He was old when I was young. Now that I’m old, I suppose there’s another Joe,” Norman replied with an enthusiasm rarely in such abundance at that hour in that place.

“Coffee?”

“Indeed. If my sometimes faulty memory serves me, the coffee here is likewise worthy of unaltered consumption.”

Her confusion was legible. “Black, got it,” she answered with a laugh, sifted out the important elements of the superfluous reply.

Norman folded his arms and looked around the diner with great satisfaction. It was just as it had been those many years before, when responsibilities were minimal and attitudes could only be described as carefree. Norman was blissfully unaware of any changes undertaken since his last visit. Even the table possessed the same sticky spots identified decades before, elementary to its function. He glanced at the face of his watch out of reflex, but restrained his attention. It was not a day to worry about passing minutes or hours, and decidedly not one on which to be concerned with ticking seconds.

His pancakes arrived with the full-fledged scent he’d earlier recalled so vibrantly, though now they were real. Using careful swipes of the knife, Norman spread the butter. Precisely he laced a pattern of syrup that soaked into the pores of the hot, fresh stack. The pillowy texture and sweet, salty taste delivered to him the exact pleasure he desired since waking up. Bites he paired with sips of coffee, replenished at irregular intervals by floating hands in his periphery. Nothing distracted from the enjoyment of the monumental breakfast.

As Norman neared the end of the meal, a refill of his coffee came with the handwritten bill, a scribbled amount in faded pencil on a carbon copy. He reached into his wallet and pulled out the last remaining bill, heavy enough to cover the expense plus a generous difference to those who’d taken care of him. “I need to go to the bank,” he thought aloud. He tore open a wet wipe from the dispenser and sanded away the sticky residue from his fingers. Then he dusted off crumbs from his peaked lapels.

A few of the men from before were sitting at the window table, trying to be invisible. The other patrons, those not dressed in black, watched him too as though they expected a performance on his way out.

“Hey Norman!” a kid called out from nowhere. “Can I take a picture with you?”

Not wanting to appear as though he didn’t understand the intricacies of the generation, Norman obliged with a smile and a twinkle of an eye. How strange, he thought, what will these teenagers come up with next?

Norman noticed a branch of his bank two blocks down the street. His phone had a seizure in his breast pocket. It was the kind of arrhythmic nonsense that indicated a return to service after a period absent a signal. Best to be ignored, something for later, Norman supposed.

“Mr. Warren, good morning,” the spick and spam manager said with outstretched arm.

Norman was more than a little caught off guard at the warm welcome. The manager’s face was unfamiliar.

“It is a good morning,” Norman replied.

He approached the teller, who smiled with her bright white teeth in full display. For a moment he debated whether or not to complement on the perfect arrangement of her ivories, but thought the better of it. “You have a beautiful smile,” he went with instead, judging it a more acceptable compliment.

“Thank you, Mr. Warren,” she replied. “What can we do for you this morning?”

“I’d like to make a withdrawal. Here is my card and my identification.”

The teller picked up his debit card but slid the ID back. “That won’t be necessary. I only need this.”

So much for security measures, Norman thought.

“And how much would you like to take out this morning, Mr. Warren?”

“How does $160 sound?”

“Wonderful. And I’m guessing you’d like that in twenties?” she answered with a chuckle.

“That would be… fine. It doesn’t matter to me particularly.”

“I just thought you might prefer twenties, because, well, you know.”

“Beg your pardon? I’m afraid I don’t follow.”

“Here you are Mr. Warren,” the teller responded as if she hadn’t heard the comment, as though he’d said internally.

Norman retrieved the stack of bills. “Thank y—“ he started to say, but his attention was arrested. He examined the money, given to him in an exclusive denomination. Cold swelled like a frozen wave on the shores of a Scandinavian island. The gaiety of his earlier manner shattered into jagged shards. Staring back at him on each of the crisp bills, a green and black slide in two dimensions, was the unmistakable visage of Norman Warren.