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Today's Story by Darren Callahan

she remembers his parents are dead and he is an orphan, trapped inside a fence. This makes her unwilling to look at him anymore.

City of Human Remains – Chapter 11



Cute kid, she thinks as she walks away.  At the bend, she remembers his parents are dead and he is an orphan, trapped inside a fence.  This makes her unwilling to look at him anymore.

She enters the building and waits between the two sets of doors for the old security guard to notice her, which he doesn’t.  She knocks on the door’s small, hexed window.  The guard is seated behind a metal desk of dubious quality, with dents and knocks, like the building itself, like the children inside.  The guard irritatingly waves her away, but she plants herself, feet apart.  The name stitched on his sleeve above a rental insignia reads: Burutzagi.

I need to speak with Ms. Ximon, she calls into the doorcom when this Burutzagi finally opens the channel.

Sorry, he apologizes in his thick and shaky voice.  She’s not here.

That’s wrong.  She’s on the second floor.

The guard is caught in his lie, but bounces back quickly.  She was, but she’s left for the day.

I have to speak with her.  It’s urgent.

Ma’am.  Please.

The old guard has a peculiar expression.  It says, If you have mercy, you’ll leave, you hound. Didn’t we just drive you away?  Why have you returned to bother, nag, and disrupt?  Where are your manners, you gnat?  A combination punch.  1-2.  I know you’re a good, reasonable person who will understand that you must fuck off, it says.

My name is Senalda Rojas.

What newspaper you work for? 32 Sun?  Daily?

She shakes her head.  No, no.  I’m not with a flash edition.

What channel?

None.  Just tell her I’m here.  She knows me.

Senalda Rojas?

That’s right.  Please.  Please.  Then softer.  Please.

Senalda’s expression is harder to read than the guard’s, but she tries to mold it.  You’re a good man.  I know you hate me.  But you’re a good man.  And you’ll tell her I’m here.  Because I’m important.  And you fucking know it.

Burutzagi switches off the doorcom and the space Senalda inhabits suctions quiet.  The guard keys something on the warped pad that precariously totters on his aluminum desk.

Senalda watches the man’s chapped lips move as he speaks into the wraparound Micro-Dial.  At a point, he raises his bushy gray eyebrows and glances back at Senalda, appraising, suddenly appreciative.

When he comes to the door and lets her in, the guard says nothing.

Second floor?

He nods.

Thank you.

He smacks her shoulder and she jumps.  Burutzagi’s tagged a security sensor to her blouse.  You’ll be tracked through the building, so don’t get any ideas, he’s telling her.

Unescorted, she finds the elevator and its UP arrow.  Soon, the car lowers to the ground floor.  She enters and is raised into the cylindrical vein of the orphanage.

While traveling the short distance, she attempts to tug the sensor from her dress, because she’s curious.  It won’t budge.  She winces and stops, leaving it intact.

At the second floor lobby, Ms. Katherine Ximon waits for Senalda.  This woman’s expression is stone, worse than Burutzagi’s to decipher.  Senalda knows the woman has been trained to hide emotion.  As Administrator of City Orphanage, cloaking is a prerequisite of the job.

Ms. Ximon, like that Burutzagi, also does not speak to her.  She escorts her into the rectangular office two doors down, with low ceiling and scented by a bevy of potted plants that line the windowsill.  She shuts the door.  Senalda is shown to a hard chair, with wheels, and Ms. Ximon rolls her guest loudly along the bare-wood floor until Senalda’s knees touch the overpowering oak desk angled in front of her.  The room has no windows, no furniture other than the desk, two chairs, and a cabinet.  No artwork on the walls.  Some stacked academic books littered about.  Plants, but no other traces of life.  It is the rusty detached hovel of a bureaucrat – a room that hasn’t been remodeled since the middle part of the century.  It is not the office Senalda experts for someone reported as so loving.

It was you, wasn’t it? Ms. Ximon asks her in an icy voice once they are settled on opposite sides of the desk.

Senalda is startled.  Pardon?  She removes her wide hat.

You took my two little girls.

No, no, I— Me?  No, I came here to—

Nary and Matty only know me as their mother.  Matty clings to me like a little monkey.

Senalda nods, understands, but can’t stop objecting.  No, of course, yes, I think that’s appropriate for you to sus—

You know I love them.  Both girls equally, but Matty no less.  You gave her up to us three years ago!  You signed the paper and promised to sever all ties—

I know, I did, I did, I know that, and you have every right, yes, to be worried, and to be called their mother in the papers and on—

So let me just say it’s very odd that you’re here two days after their disappearance and all it takes is a push of a buzzer and the police will come and—

Senalda raises her hands in surrender, but also leans forward, not attempting to hide any of her emotions – fear, insecurity.  You don’t have to think that, Ms. Ximon, I, I, I mean I won’t—

And I thought of you, you know I did, when the girls went missing from aftercare.  That you had come back for Matty and had no choice but to grab Nary to protect yourself.

It’s a natural assumption.   I would think the same, if I—

And I gave your information to the police.

I know.  They came by.

This stops Ms. Ximon.

Today.  It’s how I learned the girls were missing.  I…I hadn’t been really following the news.


Senalda spots her opening.  She’s caught the woman’s attention, so keeps talking.

Two came by.  Two police.  A man and a woman.  When they left, I watched the broadcasts about the 81.  I want you to know, like I told those nice police people, that I did not see Matty, didn’t speak with Matty, didn’t touch a hair on her head.  I am innocent of everything but what I did in the first place, not being able to take care of her.  I failed her, failed myself, and put her here.

The State put her in here.

No, I did.  By all the shit I did.  It was what I was then.  But not what I am now.

Well.  Ms. Ximon gives a distant appraisal from across the desk.  I admit you’re a lot cleaner than I last saw you.

I’m very different, Ms. Ximon.  I am.  I’ve changed.

Ms. Ximon takes a breath and tries to get Senalda to meet her eyes.

Senalda looks away, then back again.

I let Matty go, Senalda continues, but I felt good about it.  She was here under your care, and here was better than with me.  Then you took her home.  Her and her friend.  And I knew she was still safe.  Pause.  But now with her missing…

You don’t know if she’s safe anymore.

I don’t.  And I’m scared.

You want to help.

I want to help, yes!

You can’t have them back, you know.  That’s not possible any longer.  They know only me as their mother.

Senalda absently pats her dress, twines a finger in her straightened hair, and feels the biting tin rings of the notepad she’s brought to look respectable.  She touches the brim of her borrowed hat.  The hard wood of the chair beneath grates her – almost as if the chair wants her to leave.

I know that, she replies faintly.  But I’ve changed.

Ms. Ximon sighs heavy.  She wraps her fingers onto the edge of the desk.  I had to come back to work, you know, Ms. Rojas.  I couldn’t stand being at home, doing nothing.  Helping no one.  So I suppose I understand how you feel.  Pause.  The police called me this morning.  There’s a meeting today at 11 o’clock.  It’s for parents only.  You understand?  It for families to hear about progress on the investigation.  Away from the Media.

Senalda rises a few millimeters out of her seat.  Thank you for your time, she whispers and trains her eyes on her feet, hoping she remembers how to locate the exit without ever looking up again.  Her notepad slips from her fingers and onto the floor with a loud smack.  She bends to retrieve it.  I’m sorry, she apologizes.

When she draws up, Ms. Ximon has come around to her side of the desk.  The woman’s face is a mask of sympathy.  Do you…would you like to come with me?

To the meeting?

Ms. Ximon nods.

Senalda smiles.  Yes!  Thank you.  Thank you, Ms. Ximon.  Of course I would.

I have a few things to attend to first.  Wait downstairs with the guard.  I’ll join you in 10 minutes and we’ll drive together.

Senalda joins her hands in respectful prayer and beams.  Thank you!  Thank you thank you!  I want to help.  I want to help.

Wait downstairs.

Okay, okay.  Yes.  Thank you, Ms. Ximon.

Senalda leaves Ms. Ximon’s office with a rush of goodwill and, for the first time in forever, a feeling of belonging.

Downstairs, Burutzagi treats her differently.  He wears a kinder face.  When he removes her security sensor with the release pin, he does so almost tenderly.  Ms. Ximon must have Eye Dialed down and given orders or, less likely, explained that Senalda Rojas was Matty Ximon’s birth mother – a fact known to only a few.

Burutzagi even politely opens the door for Senalda when she goes outside to smoke a cigarette near the street.  She is one of the few remaining Americans addicted to the habit, and her breath and body are paying the price.  As well as her wallet.  Cigarettes are taxed to the Devil.  Too much of her income goes to feed the craving, her last toxic vice, which she considers a fairer trade than the poisonous drugs she used to inject four-and-a-half months ago.

Her smoking draws judging looks from the suddenly heavy parade on the sidewalk.  The crowd gives her wide berth to avoid the smog.  Even bathed in their judgment, Senalda winks at them and smokes her cigarette, happy, thinking only of Matty and the grown-up pictures of her the nice policemen showed to her in her hovel apartment.

That’s my little baby.  I’m coming for you, honeyMommy’s coming.

You’ll die, sings a deep, feminine voice passing Senalda’s ear – a woman on the sidewalk.  She fake coughs and dodges a tiny puff of cigarette smoke exhaled from Senalda’s lungs.  Stupid bitch, the woman adds in a short, sharp dagger from her throat.

Senalda barely assesses: early 20s, black, chubby, in blue jeans and long-sleeve white sweater.

Senalda grabs the black woman’s hair and pulls her to the ground, immediately clearing the sidewalk around her.  The woman’s face hits the cement, left cheek-first, and Senalda watches with pride as a seam opens in her skin and sprays red blasts over the white Kerohdee pavement.

Senalda lights into the stranger – fists and feet and kicks and punches – a merciless machine, until parts of the black woman’s face are unrecognizable.  No one stops Senalda’s violence.  In fact, the crowd opens around her, speeding up to completely avoid the incident.

When she finishes, the cigarette dangles from Senalda’s lips.  The skin of her knuckles has flaked and bruised, and her hands are smeared with blood – some of hers, most her victim’s.

She stopped not because she was through – in fact she could have taken things much farther.

She’s stopped not because of the dozen witnesses, their eyes reading horror but actions non-existent.

She’s stopped because she sees the boy with the Batman comic book.

He stands beside her on the other side of the fence, attempting to climb over it.  His foot is in the mesh and a hand halfway up.  In the boy’s simple call to action, his innocence and ineffectual comic-book ideals, Senalda is suddenly overcome with shame.

She looks to her bloodied fists, scuffed clothes, ignored notebook, fallen hat.  She can no longer smell the perfume that made her sneeze 10 times the first minute she wore it, instead catches the whiff of dank flop-sweat generated in her violence.

I’ve changed, she tells the crowd in a bewildered voice.

She starts crying.

Then she runs.  She runs through their ranks and down the street, disappearing in tears and screaming, I’VE CHANGED!

From her place on the ground, her victim utters a barely heard word.  Help.