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Today's Story by Darren Callahan

Someone’s coming for me next week and I have to like them.

City of Human Remains – Chapter 31



The comic book is crushed under his belly.  When he rolls, a loose staple from the binding stabs his side, waking him.  He doesn’t want to lose the cover.  The cover of the last one Jose gave to him – fell off, blew away in the yard, and he regrets it.  He will ask Jose for some glue when he sees him.

But Jose doesn’t seem to be around this Tuesday morning.  He’s missing.

Hektor eats breakfast with the other orphans, then attends his first session, Mathematics – 8 AM to 9 AM on the first floor, room 17, taught by Ms. Ròs, who is old and difficult to understand, as she is Scottish, or Snottish, as Pasquel Martine likes to say when the teacher is out of earshot, and she speaks with a thick accent.

Hektor is sleepy.  He’d been up most of the night thinking about hair-lipped Prial.

There’s a tunnel in the basement.

Every night since the 81 vanished, and even more vividly since the six were discovered, Hektor has dreamed of the missing.  The dreams frighten him and he hopes they will stop.  In these dreams, he always knows the children – most often knows them well, but other times can only name names (this is not possible, though, as he has never seen a list.)  Faces appear out of fog, boys’ faces and girls’ faces.  When they materialize, sometimes as orphans alongside Prial and Minique in the cots, on occasion in the lunch or breakfast lines, Hektor instantly identifies the child as one of the missing.  The children never appear sad, or happy, or dead.  They don’t speak.  They are just there, in his dreams, and he knows them…

At the mid-morning break, Hektor plays tetherball outside.  He’s learned to love this equipment – the government-built monkey bars, carousel and swings (showing rust and spider nests.)  But today he is bored, more than any day he can recollect, bored with the predictable failings of his world’s limited offerings.  He fights fatigue in his body as he plays.  Listless, he severs himself from the game with the other orphans to be alone.

He leans against the mesh of the perimeter fence and stares at passers-by.  He’s not done this since the woman was attacked five days before.  Every time he thinks of the fight, he wishes he could climb better or faster, or wishes he owned a grappling hook, trampoline boots, or any super-gadget to get him over the wire.  Instead, he’s stuck with boots thin at the heels and nothing like a Batarang anywhere in sight.  At the fence, he also thinks of Policeman Lucrecio.  He hopes that man’s friend, Captain Ren, has found him alive and in one piece.

The weather has returned to bright and sunny.  The Doll System is behaving for the last week of October.  Though Hektor wears his city-issued gray jacket, he barely requires it, as the sun keeps him warm, even in the building breeze.

The Batman comic is curled in his back pocket.  He draws it out but does not flip the pages.

After a time, he notices a boy named Fleck standing near him at the fence.  What, Fleck?

Fleck is 10 and doesn’t merit much attention.  Aside from his accent, he is just like every other orphan in captivity.  He sometimes sleeps on the floor instead of in his cot, which is the only way Hektor has considered the boy at all, as Fleck has only been at the orphanage three months and Hektor has almost fallen over him 15 times on night-trips to the lavatory.

I’m leavin’, Fleck announces in his drawl.  I’m bein’ adopted.

Hektor doesn’t respond at first.  He gives a little shrug and says without excitement, That was fast.

They came here three times in the last two weeks.

Do you like them?

They’re old.  Pause.  Why haven’t you been adopted? Fleck asks.

I…  Hektor draws out the word and vibrates the roof of his mouth.

Do you do bad things?  Like light fires and stuff.

Nope.  Just the people who come to see me only come once, and they don’t stay long.

Why, they mean people?  I was worried mine would be mean.  But it wasn’t really like that.  We just played.

Are they too old to play on the floor?

Board games.  We just played board games.

Oh.  Hektor drops against the fence and lets it catch his weight.  Did they at least let you win, Fleck?

Well…now that I think ‘bout it, I guess I did win a lot.

Then you’ll probably be okay.

Hektor can tell the boy wants more from him.  He isn’t in the mood to offer it.  He kicks a loose crack of yard concrete out onto the outer sidewalk, where it rolls into the gutter.

Hektor, you ever gonna get out of here?

You mean get adopted like you, Fleck?

The others say you been here a long time.

My mom and dad were in a fire when I was 5.

Oh.  My ma died of cancer.  Dad lives somewhere in City 14, but I guess they can’t find him.  I haven’t seen him in a coupla years.  Grandma and Grandpa dead, too.  I think I have an aunt somewheres, but they tell me she crazy.

Then you’re an orphan, all right, and in the right place.  Just like the rest of us.


Fleck is not satisfied.

I was wonderin’, he starts slowly, if I could tell them no.  That I wanna stay.  Maybe my dad is gonna try to find me and if I leave he won’t know where ta look.  If I just said no I don’t wanna go with them old people, what would that do?

You can’t say no.  If you’re picked, you have to go.

No choice?  That’s terrible.

You have to think about these things ahead of time, Fleck.  Instead of playing board games with them, maybe you should shut up.  They start to think you’re weird and that the paperwork is wrong.

Is that what you do?

Hektor stalls.  At last, he says, Someone’s coming for me next week and I have to like them.  That’s what Jose told me.  What’s the point when I know I’m not supposed to go with a family like that?  I got plans and they’re gonna ruin them. So we all have troubles, Fleck.

What plans?

Never mind.

Fleck notices the comic rolled in Hektor’s hands.  Can I see that?

Hektor wants to say no.

I won’t hurt it.

Hektor exhales.  Okay, but be careful.  Cover’s coming off.  He hands it to Fleck.

Fleck flips the 40-pager, stops on a few panels of Batman angling for action.  Can you read, Hektor?

‘Course I can read.

I read okay.  You’re probably better.

Say, do you think those old people will buy me some comic books?

If you do your chores.

Chores?  They didn’t say nothin’ about chores.

There are chores here.  Why not there?

Fleck fingers the comic.  Did you get this for doing chores?  No one ever gave me a comic book for doin’ chores ‘round here.

Hektor straightens his back.  He takes the comic from Fleck, rolls it up again, and stuffs it into his rear pocket.  Well, hey, good luck with the new parents.  Hektor puts on a face.  I hope they treat you real nice and you forget all about this place.  ¿bueno sano?

I don’t speak Spanish.

Oh.  Okay.  Neither do I.  If they don’t teach it here, I don’t know it.

Fleck nervously shifts his gaze back to the yard.  Lorenzo is preparing to blow the whistle.  I suppose if you been here six years, that’s what you get, right?  Do you stay here because yer scared?

I’m not scared of anything.

You must be.  Or you’d leave.  We all figured you was scared of the city.  Why else would you stay?

Is that what everyone thinks?

Yeah.  Everybody.  And now the kids know you’ll be here forever ‘cos them kids got killed.  Say that’s scared you worse.  It’s all you talk about.  Those kids.  I don’t think you seem like a scaredy.  I tried to tell ‘em you weren’t, but everyone gets a good laugh out of you.  But you know that.

Why are you telling me this?

I just thought you should know what everyone is sayin’, that’s all.  Since you been real nice and let me see your Batman.  I figured you’d wanna hear it.

The whistle blows over Fleck’s shoulder.  Lorenzo impatiently waves the flock inside.

I have science class…

Fleck strands Hektor, just like that.

Hektor’s thoughts ripple, and then he remembers his dreams, the flashes of all those children he knows and doesn’t know.

They’re all dead.

The names, the clothes, the faces – sirens, warnings, driving him not to escape but further into his rabbit hole.  Because he’s a scaredy.  Fleck said it so it’s true.

He takes out his comic book.  He looks at Batman’s cape and cowl, his chiseled jaw and coal eyes, his gloved fists, locked in tightly wound coils.  I am not youI’m a coward who won’t leave Jose.  And everyone knows it. 

Slowly, deliberately, he rips through the cover of the comic book.  The damage is worse than the wear and tear of the staples.  The jagged split goes right through Batman’s chest insignia.  He drops the torn cover into the wind, which catches it, lifts it over the fence, and buoys it on the autumn air.  He allows the remains of the comic to fall onto the pavement.

Lorenzo blows the whistle a second time – a sustained last call to the stragglers.  Hektor brakes at the entrance, right in front of Lorenzo, and just then the boy’s fatigue overwhelms him.  He grips his temples and wonders if Lorenzo will just let him return to his cot and sleep through the afternoon.  Flashes of unknown children and Jose’s face drill his thoughts.  And he feels like he wants to cry.

I forgot something, he quickly announces to Lorenzo and races away.

Hurry up! Lorenzo snaps.

Hektor retrieves the torn comic book from the fence, where it has caught and lays flapping with the breeze.  Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the clock truck.