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Today's Story by Darren Callahan

Americans—beh!—we’re not good with the past.

City of Human Remains – Chapter 43


The sidewalk squall parts and Zabik notices the boy in the brown coat.  Reaching out, the news seller steadies the hung papers jostled from the other kid’s clumsy collide.  He thinks about yelling, Watch it!  Or better yet, Pay attention, ya dumb bastard!  But Zabik controls himself.  It’s too late now anyway.  The boy is gone.

You.  You, come here, he orders the brown-coated boy with a snap of the fingers.  As the boy looks his way, Zabik lifts the roll of blubber around his beltline and shifts a tit from its uncomfortable place under his shirt.  Zabik wears a terry yellow blanket around his shoulders to keep him warm; underneath the blanket is a long-sleeved white tee shirt and blooming blue pants, loose on his round body.  He adjusts his cap and massages his bushy white/brown beard.  You, he repeats.  I said come here.

The boy steps towards the seller.

Zabik is framed in the day’s headlines.  Hung flash editions drape the proscenium of his wooden cart.

Eventful day, he growls with a shake.  I see you nodding.  You agree.  Don’t you, son?  You aren’t in any trouble, are you?  No.  Where are your parents?

The boy gives a indiscriminate point of his finger coupled with some faint story.  Zabik barely pays attention to the lie.


Excuse me, he says, interrupting the boy’s tale.

He reaches for the buzz box that holds down his handwritten receipts, fat-fingers a button, and looks to the air.  In a few seconds, he begins to nod patiently as the confirming beeps begin.  The hung papers momentarily go white and then are recharged with the latest stories.

The front page of the 32 Sun reads:


Zabik snatches a paper from the clip, never rising from his buckling chair.  He scans the story.

The boy leans in to read the encapsulation but is brushed aside by a wave of patrons hungry for the latest download.  Money changes hands and the next several minutes are occupied by transactions.  Zabik keeps an eye on the boy while filling holes in his arch.  He hooks new editions into spots with his wooden pole.

When the action has died down, Zabik speaks.

They’ve found those last 11 and made an arrest.  Sloppy Joe, this guy.  Wilderness hunter by name of Fredrico Gaarland.  Uses tranquilizer darts on a park of kids and a couple chaperones.  Then he loads the kids into his van-glide.  Needle don’t quite stick and one lucky little girl jumps out the back.  Got a license plate and everything.  Took less than an hour.  Full Heavy Team raid.  What’s that, son?  Nope.  None of ‘em harmed.  Probably all with headaches, though.  But alive and well.

Heh?  No, I didn’t watch that hatchet business this morning at the courthouse.  Read about it.  Sold a lot of papers over it.  Banner day.  This dog’s pile of tragedy does get me paid.  But that’s not right at all.  Flash a story about some new school ribbon-cutting and I sell three copies.  Something awful happens and I can’t keep stock.

Who was the guy who attacked Serkan?  That your question?  Morning edition said it was some daddy of the murdered six.  Daughter named Brecht or Bret or something like that.  Inside job, but I don’t know how closely they’ll be asking questions.  Serkan got what he deserved.  Here ya go.

Two more papers leave his hands to customers.

Of course you’re interested, kid – you’re a baby yourself.  How old are you?  Nine?  I’m guessing low.  You’ve got the disposition of a wise old fart, but you’re just a baby kid, aren’t you?  Smaller than most, aren’t you?  Seen a lot, I imagine.  Oh, not that much, you say!  What, you been in prison?  I’m kidding.  What kind of boy stays in a place his whole life?  Before I got fat, I did lots of things.

Zabik shakes his big belly and gives a toothy smile.

Want to know my theories?  Are you sure?  No one listens to a guy on a corner, but at night I’ve taken a few papers home and done a little research.

Did you know this: every one of those 81 originals had at least one parent working with the city.

Zabik holds up a finger.

Yes, I’m sure.  Don’t be a smart ass.

The first edition after the disappearances.  That fold-out, remember?  To help the Searchers?  Face of every kid plus a few biographies.  Well most in that fold out also had occupations of some of the parents listed, and a little over half of those were the government.  Post office, city courts, streets and sanitation – could be a janitor, could be Under Secretary of Lies and Corruption.  Level don’t matter.  So I went digging.  I made some calls.  I even hobbled my way to the public records office on my day off.   And, though I don’t have everyone accounted for, I’ve got 66, and every one of the 66 has at least one parent takin’ salary from the city.  Now what do you think of that?

Zabik throws a dismissive wave the kid’s way.

You don’t know.  Naturally.  I’ve told my brilliant conclusions to an idiot boy.

Yeah, ‘course I called them and left it on the tip line.  No one called me back.  I hope someone’s working on that, but I doubt it.  Last time __________ listened to a mere, lowly citizen I was probably as old as you.  This place has become a monster.  Full of ungodly goodness – equal parts ungodly and good until lately, though now I don’t know which way the ball falls.  Every day some new horro—

Here ya go.  Thanks, ma’am.  Mucho grazias.

Yes, damn right, I called the city __________.  Damn right I did.  This is __________.  It’s no number.  They teach you kids not to say it.  The old name.  It’s like they want the next generation to forget all about the past.  The future’s all numbers.  Propaganda.  It’s manipulation of the mind.  Mass hypnosis.  32 this, 32 that.  They don’t try to pull this shit in Europe, where cities are old and people have respect for their history.  Americans—beh!—we’re not good with the past.  It makes us feel like we’re not constantly reinventing ourselves to be so nostalgic.

It wouldn’t be the least bit of a bombshell if Cocanaugher took the kids himself just to collect votes.  He’ll come through and save the day, take all the credit.  Why do you think this isn’t happening in an election year?  No real risk, you see?  And that’s why the kids are all government kids.  Mayor called in favors.  The 81 are probably hiding in their basements until Cocanaugher comes and says, Boo!  Weirder things have been thought ‘a.  Weirder.

So, Kid…

That government thing’s my best lead.  But I’m no detective.  Hurts my back just to close the stall and go down the street to my apartment.  You think I’m going to comb __________ searching for needles in haystacks?  I mean everyone in the city’s been searchin’, what’s a guy like me going to do?


The sky above grows abruptly black with clouds.

Zabik looks up.

Gonna rain again.  Help me with the stall, will ya, kid?

Zabik and the boy in the brown coat batten down the hatches.  The boy ends up doing most of the work, following the owner’s instructions to the letter.  Strings release the rain flaps; chains pull the proscenium under the tarp; rollers move the footrests up and in.

Crack!  The thunder and lighting align and the deluge begins.

The boy scoots closer to the man in the folding chair.  He doesn’t have space underneath the tarp for either of them.  But he allows the boy to hold aloft Zabik’s wide umbrella to protect them both.

You’re a good kid.  What’s your name?

Zabik cocks his head.

That sounds familiar.  He gives a wry, knowing smile.

The rain is loud on the tarps and people rush by, some with umbrellas, others bare and soaked.

Doll System’s crash is the Mayor’s doing, too, asserts Zabik.  Be just like him.  Wants his city all straight, but really prefers chaos.  What politician doesn’t?

The boy shrugs.

Fucking weather.

A man with tight-cut beard and hat, white rain vest and white umbrella, late 40s, comes before them.  He’s wiping his nose with a rag.

Can I get the new edition?

Sure thing.  Zabik reaches left and snatches a flash edition from under the tarp.

The patron rubs the boy’s hair as he pays.

Adios, says the white-vested man as he heads into the tempest.