by Soren James
Zeno Zatzenberger had no sense of time. He was born not knowing whether a second was an hour, two minutes a lifetime, or a week a millennium. He could stand in a phone box for days watching daylight come and go as if it were passing headlights. On the two occasions this happened, he was asked by police what he was doing, and responded simply, “I was about to make a call.”
One time, instructed by a cook-book to fry onions until brown, he forgot to put the heat on under the pan and stood for five days until the onions decayed – culminating in a particularly rancid hot dog. This insensibility to passing time made Zeno perfect for the job of night watchman – a job his care-workers arranged for him.
The work was easy, and Zeno would often be surprised when – feeling he’d only just sat down – someone would arrive to tell him the shift was over. Zeno didn’t care how his time was spent. He lacked interests, had no desire to achieve, or to get anywhere. There was no urgency or limit to his time on this planet. He couldn’t feel his life running out – but it was.
All this changed one night when, sitting at his night-watch station, he was approached by a woman with a gun. Seconds later Zeno was failing to respond to a pertinent piece of information: a bullet heading directly toward him.
Sensing something important in this, and having never seen anything like it before, he watched, fascinated by the projectile in motion. He was transfixed, seeing this piece of lead approach his forehead. It were as if it had meaning. For the first time in his life Zeno was interested in something, and could feel time passing – the living moment multiplying infinitely with his burgeoning curiosity.
Captivated by the bullet’s approach, he leaned forward to get a closer look. The bullet touched his forehead, sending shock-wave through his skull. This thing had an unusual amount of energy in it. Irritable, Zeno leant back and swatted the bullet away.
Dizzy, he noticed a pain in his hand – grazed from the bullet he’d pushed away. About to run a curious finger over the wound, he noticed another bullet heading toward his shoulder. This time he moved out of the way and stood behind the woman.
Confused, she turned from the security guard that had just disappeared from before her to aim at the guard that now appeared behind her. She then blinked several times as this guard also disappeared.
“What are you doing?” Asked Zeno from behind her. “Look, I’m bleeding!” He pointed to the wound on the edge of his hand. “That’s dangerous.”
Turning again, the woman began shooting at what seemed to be yet another guard.
“Stop it!” Zeno shouted from beside her.
As her arm slowly primed itself to shoot, Zeno, for the first time in his life, became curious as to what was going on behind another person’s eyes. He gazed at the woman’s expression to see her impulses falling into place, then held still in a cold, frozen fear – as if her nervous system were angrily on hold.
Zeno took the gun from her hand and placed it in her pocket, then patiently waited for her to recognise what had happened. A frown appeared on her face and her eyes widened. Her senses seeming briefly open, Zeno thought this an opportunity to engage with her. “Why are you doing this?”
Several thoughts flickered in her eyes before she settled on a lie. “I was told –”
“Truth!” Zeno interrupted. “Why are you shooting people?”
A pained look came to her face. She frowned and closed her eyes.
“What are you feeling?”
“My father, he . . .” She fell to her knees, crying. From her trench coat pocket she heard the gun’s clank on the floor and grabbed for it.
Assuming she was about to shoot him, Zeno stepped behind her. Instead she put the gun to her head and pulled the trigger.
Mouth open, Zeno watched the weapon recoil. He grabbed the gun as the bullet began breaching the short space to the woman’s head, then blocked the projectile with the side of the barrel.
The woman passed out.
Zeno tried to wake her, anxious to know if she was alright – the first time ever he’d had a concern for another human. Due to this interest, Zeno’s sense of time was expanding exponentially. The wait felt lengthier than anything he’d experienced before – as if there were an infinity of time ahead of him. It was unbearable.
No longer able to pass uninvolved over the living moment, Zeno put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger. As the bullet approached, a boundless anticipation of what death would be like ensnared him. He became stuck in an infinite and pained expectancy, waiting there – unable, ever, to live or to die.