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Today's Story by Darren Callahan

How can a city lose so many children? How can you lose MY SON!

City of Human Remains – Chapter 37

Mary Lee

The mother passes the young black woman and, for just a spark, they know everything about each other, though physically they couldn’t be more different.  Mary Lee Becker is white-skinned, 34, mother of 3 children, married for over 14 years.  The husband beside her is a well-regarded chemist for City 32 who studies toxins in the underground rail system.  She is a marketing executive at a top firm, green-lighting everything from cola slogans to display window color schemes.  The couple met drunk at a party.  Walking with Mary Lee and her husband are their two children – Avery and Ang, a boy and a girl, ages 12 and 10.  But despite her skin, her affluence, her age, her husband, her multiple children, her clothes, her hair, her opportunities, she passes the young black woman’s shoulder and thinks, I know you exactly.

The women exchange nervous smiles before being swept away into opposite tides.

Mary Lee is happy her children have not left her side during the trip to the convention center.  In fact, they have not left her for days and days.  She has stayed home from work to watch them.  She has not even searched the city for the missing, afraid to leave the house.  And when she goes to the toilet, she takes Avery and Ang with her.  They’re under constant supervision now that youngest son, 7-year-old Bus, is in the 81.  Avery tugs on his mother’s hand and, for a brief instant, their hands part.  Slow down! she barks and snares his right wrist.

Suddenly, the moment hits her.  She’s terrified to hear news.  Any news at all.  Unless she turns this corner and sees Bus alive and running to throw his arms around her, anything less might kill her.  She knows it.  This can’t be good.  Every time the families are brought together, she falls through a hole in the sky.  She’s dead already.

We’re late, declares her husband with a check of the wall clock.

She nods toward the main hall, innards half-hidden by the gothic pylons.  They haven’t started yet.

How do you know?

She detects the irritation.  I don’t hear any voices, she answers sharply.

Families pour into the stalls of the convention center as if boarding a great, oval-shaped ark, ready for sail.  Mary Lee is right.  There are no voices.  No one speaks a word.  The sounds are only the echoes of footsteps and the shuffling of chairs.

It takes five minutes for the Beckers to find seats.  The convention center floor is not full – hundreds, but nowhere near capacity.  But there aren’t many open chairs, at least none together.  Blue-shirted volunteers hustle folded chairs from racks, opening them like umbrellas, struggling to keep up with the deluge.


The word is scrawled on a dozen enormous overhead banners, yellow text on blue backfield.  The product is a remnant of a sales conference.  Vendor tables fan the hall.  At the furthest end, a podium stands lonely on a stage.  Behind is another banner advertisement for the MITE, purpose unknown but greatness touted in 1000-point font.  Mary Lee appreciates the symmetry of the design and is pleased for even 10 seconds of distraction from her fears.

Here, calls her husband.  He’s found two empty chairs and is lifting them over the heads of a Latino family.  Sit.  The children do not obey, instead stand dumbly.  He points ahead to another set of chairs taken from a cart and flayed open by a volunteer.  I’ll get those.

The rear rows have gone out of alignment and the families break the pattern held in place by the front rows.

Mary Lee gently lowers Avery into a chair before doing the same for Ang, then seating herself.  Her husband is last down and he leans forward, resting his narrow chin in his long-fingered hands, a sober expression on his face.

The flatness of the convention center’s floor limits their sightline to the stage.  The Beckers are 30 meters and at least 200 people off, but Mary Lee knows they will at least be able to hear, and that’s all that matters for now.

A strange chemistry overtakes the convention center and the moment holds in cathedral silence.

Mary Lee nervously scouts for people she has met or has connected with during similar meetings of the families at scattered locations around 32.  She also looks for Mayor Cocanaugher.  Only once was he in attendance: the first time.  The mayor stood to the side and didn’t speak (unless you counted his short and respectful welcoming.)  The mayor left the agenda to the police who, in their own best-face way, told of the search zones, the house-to-houses, the road blockades, and other maneuvers from the first days of the chaos and the investigation.

It was in such a meeting that Mary Lee first heard of the six dead children.  The expressions on the faces of the authorities were no different from the families.  A few patrolmen cried right alongside.  She never felt closer to her city than at that very moment.

Mary Lee shushes the families around her – all ages, ethnicities, sizes, even though no one has made even a whisper:  Shhh, they’re starting.

This proves untrue.

Officials line the short lip of the podium.  The center man adjusts the dangling audio clip.  He’s not the speaker.  He is a technician.  When he finishes, he gestures that the audio is ready.

A woman bends into the light.

Her face has too much make-up, used to hide a prematurely aging complexion, and she wears wide hoop earrings and a necklace of fat white pearls.  Her hair is spiky, short, covering her ears with an unnatural comb.  She looks vicious, but her voice, feels Mary Lee, is soft like feathers.

Her words dart off the convention center’s walls with dubious clarity.

Thank you, everyone, for coming today on such short notice.   My name is Marsha Van Nuys.  I’m the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.  We wanted to gather together today for an important and private announcement related to the case.

From the rear of the stage, a man with handheld audio clip that translates what she has said into Spanish.

She continues, slowly and deliberately.

After today’s announcement, we may need to meet with some of you for brief interviews.  We hope to have everyone home within an hour.  Last night, as you may have heard, there was an arrest.  From evidence collected at the scene, we believe we have found someone who is deeply involved in the deaths of the 6 children found on Friday.  We’ve conducted interviews but the suspect has not provided any further information.  We have neither recovered any of the other children, nor any further clues as to their whereabouts.  We do, however, have hope to believe…that they are all alive.

Marsha Van Nuys waits for the Spanish translator.

In this pause, Mary Lee processes her words: ‘have hope to believe,’ not ‘have reason to believe.’  There’s a big difference and she doesn’t know whether to be comforted by their optimism, or crushed by their lack of confirming facts.

The commissioner sweeps a wisp of hair from her forehead.

We wanted all of you to hear together the name of this suspect.  We need to know if any of you are connected this man in any way currently, or if you knew him in the past, or can provide to us any further information which may take us forward.  It is important that our investigators speak with you, but – and this is critical – we are not yet ready to announce the man’s name to the Media.  Because of the high profile of this case, the suspect is being strictly watched in a secret location.  So please…for the sake of the case and the safety of the remaining children…do not, I repeat, do not let this man’s name…go outside of this meeting.

The police commissioner lets this instruction sink into the crowd.

Very well.  You understand the rules.

(Muy bien. Entendemos las reglas.)

Behind the speaker an image appears projected midair over the MITE banner by a few meters.  It is the picture of man, who is balding, hollow-eyed, with a moustache.  Over his nose is a swollen gauze bandage taped into place that covers bruised skin.

From the audience comes an audible gasp, though the origins are neither fear, nor surprise, nor recognition, only acknowledgement.  There is the face, the face, the face.  The man who kills children.

The image vanishes, replaced by another.  Same man.  Side view.  Then another.  Same man.  Rear view.  The triptych flashes in rotation and Marsha Van Nuys allows the man’s face to wash over the crowd.  The image morphs to an animation.  The man’s head comes alive, even looks shy, ashamed, and starkly normal.

Mary Lee creeps forward in her chair.

This man’s name is Alek Serkan.  He’s Polish descent, age 43, Caucasian, black hair, black eyes, average height, limited education, relocated to the United States in 2090, to City 32 in 2094, former resident of Cities 1, 18, and 6, each where he briefly worked as a day-laborer.  He has no history of criminal behavior – none on record, at least – not even any traffic tickets.  He attends St. Patrick’s Church off City Square every Sunday, is a bachelor, and makes an income of $64,000 annually.  His listed address is 18 North Luckovitch Boulevard in the Brunez Park borough.  Search of his premises netted no criminal evidence.  He had apparently not been home since October 19th.  We believe he broke into a home at 113 South Water Street.  He is accused of murdering three residents then using the home as his base of operations for the murder of the six children.

Pause for translation.

Mary Lee studies the body language of the crowd.  Everyone has now edged forward in his or her folding chairs.  Those who have brought children, like the Beckers, don’t bother to cover ears or hide dark facts.  No one mumbles or gossips.  Everyone listens intently, as if to miss a single word may result in expulsion.

The commissioner’s litany continues.

The meaning is lost on Mary Lee.

She can only stare at Alek Serkan’s face.

She thinks of dismemberment.

Bus’s arms, legs, torso, feet, toes, elbows, knees, eyes, ears, nose, every part of him.  And how inhuman that would be to do to a child.  She doesn’t know her son’s fate, but she can’t stop picturing the boy broken like an old porcelain doll.  This man is a human combine who has chewed up and spit out xis innocents, maybe more unfound.

He is Monster; he is Devil. 

She repeats these declarations as the speech goes on and on:





But even though Mary Lee repeats the words, they do not seem correct.  The man appears, in some ways, handsome, and not unlike any ordinary man she may glance at in passing.  His face is completely normal.  He is not a Thing.  He is a repairman, a neighbor, or, possibly, a patsy.  She expects to find evil in his eyes.  Instead, only near-sightedness (one of Marsha Van Nuys’s unhelpful facts.)

Mary Lee can’t listen anymore.

A Mexican man next to her jogs her arm.

Raise your hand! he urges in thick accent.

She barely understands.

Floating in the background noise are the words of the commissioner…

I repeat: if you believe that you have seen this man or know this man, or that your children have seen or know this man, please raise your hand.

I don’t know him! she whispers and shrugs to the Mexican.

Of course not.  I don’t know him, too.  But they will only talk to hands.

The wise implication strikes Mary Lee.

It’s the only way they’ll speak with us about Bus.  Otherwise, we’ll be dismissed with the others.

She raises her right hand high in the air.  Her husband’s brow wrinkles, as do her children’s faces.  Raise your hands! she urges and, though they don’t know why, the hands of the Becker family go up.

One-quarter of the audience has answered the call.  Mary Lee guesses most (if not all) are not genuine.  But if some are, she calculates, just one or two, those stories might lead to Bus.

Should she really cloud the investigators, waste their time with this shameful gamble for attention?

Just as she’s about to lower her hand, the speaker nods approvingly and, pleased, says: Very good.  Those of you who have raised your hands will be assigned numbers and interviewed by a member of the investigation team.  The rest of you, I’m sorry, will be asked to leave.  This is not because you’re not welcome, but is simply a matter of logistics.  On your way out, you’ll be handed a briefing sheet containing the latest details of the searches, as well as a confidentiality agreement that must be signed.  We appreciate you coming all the way down here for such a short meeting.  I’m sure you understand it was very, very important.  God be with you, your children, and our city.

Just like that, it is over.   As though she’s just met with a doctor who has informed her ‘no tumors’ and has sent her on her way, painlessly, for another year, Mary Lee is relieved.

The Beckers gather their children in arms and needle through the exodus.  They are escorted to the perimeter of the convention hall.  The tables are revealed to not be sales tables at all, but instead interview stations manned by uniformed and non-uniformed authorities.

Everyone’s face is grim as the grave.

The Beckers are fifth in a line that moves slowly.

A clerk collects the Becker’s signatures (even the children’s) on a boilerplate document that binds them to keeping Alek Serkan’s name from the Media or face ‘serious legal consequences.’

Mary Lee eavesdrops on interviews, though there is a gap between the front of the line and the chairs, creating gaps in the conversations.  She hears very little, in fact, except to note that these people really seem to have information about Serkan.  Though, to be fair, she has no way to verify if any of their information is, in fact, true.

Her line’s interviewers are three  men – one in blue patrolman’s uniform, the other two in plainclothes – young, fresh faces with intensity, all of them with jet-black hair and heavy eyebrows.  The shortest one wears eyeglasses with turquoise frames.

Her husband is getting antsy.

We shouldn’t be here.




They advance a notch and her husband begins to bite his fingernails in nervous tick.  What will they do to us if they know we’re lying? he whispers in her ear.

She can feel his hot nerves, and smell the faint coffee residue on his breath.  Shhh! is all she answers.

Nine minutes pass.

It’s the Beckers’ turn.

Mary Lee pushes her children out in front and seats them on the chairs in front of the city authorities.  She positions herself behind Ang and tremulously rubs the girl’s soft hair.  Her daughter is her armor.

After stating name, address, and some ancillary information about Bus, here comes the dreaded question: What is your information, Mrs. Becker?  The uniformed man asks this with bureaucratic numbness.  He licks his pencil and doesn’t meet Mary Lee’s eyes, as he is already facing the blank report laid on the table’s surface.

Mary Lee cannot speak.  She’s lost her voice.  Her throat is a dry desert.

The patrolman raises his eyes, first to Mary Lee, then to the boy on her left.

This is my other son, Avery.  She redirects to her little girl.  And this is Ang.

The patrolman smiles openly to the children.  But he is impatient, his pencil tip tapping the form.

A plainclothesmen catches Mary Lee’s attention.

What is your information, Mrs. Becker, regarding Alek Serkan, the suspect?  He asks the question with directness, though he bakes the words with a touch of sweetness.  The man knows there is a balance.

I want to know what’s going on, she declares in a seething, quiet voice.

Pardon me? asks the patrolman.

I’m in the dark, you know.  I want you to help me find my missing son.

The three pass knowing glances.

The best way to help you, Mrs. Becker, is for you to help us.  The patrolman’s smile does not crack.  What can you tell us about Mr. Serkan?

Listen, please, she starts.  I want to know what you’re doing to find my son.  You don’t tell me anything.  Those search sheets are bullshit.  I want to know where he is!  I want you to find him.  The city isn’t that big.

Have you been coming to the Daily Informationals? pecks the last plainclothesman.

Yes, but—

Then you hear everything we hear, Mrs. Becker.

She detects her husband’s hand on her shoulder and shakes it off.  Her voice turns bitter, a faded flower in high heat.  Yes, I’ve been coming to the Informationals.  Those meetings are completely worthless.  I almost didn’t come to this meeting, but I’m glad I did.  It had the most news in days!

Mary Lee, relax, her husband gently urges.


These guys aren’t—

No, I want to know… How can a city lose so many children?  How can you lose MY SON!  You fucking lost him, didn’t you?

The third man stands and puts out his hands.  Whoa, whoa, he surrenders.  This calms her enough so he can speak.  Mary Lee Becker, right?  That’s you.  Son is Bus Becker, age 7, right?  Date of birth April 8th, 2090, blonde hair, 74 pounds?  That’s him?  That’s your boy?  He recites these statistics without referencing a single file, a single data machine, or a single cribbed note.  He has nothing in his ear – no one feeds him information.

Mary Lee’s mouth opens slightly then closes.

I want to find your son, Mrs. Becker.  And if you are here to help, truly to help, you’ll tell us what you know about Alek Serkan or you’ll get out of the line.

Her husband is around her side now.  He’s pulling, ever so gently, his wife’s hand away from Ang’s hair.  The girl looks up at her mother.  Mary Lee’s children are rock stiff in their chairs, mouths shut.  They grip their plastic chairs and speak not a word.

I spend everyday, Mary Lee tells the police calmly, scared out of my wits.  I’m scared that you’ll lose other children as well.   She gestures to Avery and Ang, but doesn’t take her eyes from the third man, the man with statistics memorized.   She shakes from her husband’s grasp.  You don’t have to spend all this time and money to find someone you shouldn’t have LOST in the FIRST PLACE!

Everyone stares.  Those behind the table, those in line, those at the nearby tables.

This city has fucking FAILED me, she rants into the reverberation of the convention center.  You’ve RUINED my life!  If Bus comes back in pieces I will HUNT YOU DOWN!

Her husband grabs her firmly and demands, in a reclamation of manhood, Let’s go, Mary Lee.

But she again wriggles out of his hands.  Her fingers fall through Ang’s hair and her wedding ring catches and pulls.  The girl yelps then starts to cry.


I’m sorry, ma’am, rebuffs the first plainclothesman, throwing his hands up then gesturing to the others, Get her out of here.

The patrolman is speaking into his Eye Dial relating a clipped code Mary Lee cannot understand.

The third man comes around the table to direct the arriving reinforcements to the troublemaker.  He’s pointing down at Mary Lee’s head with a crane-like finger.  Her, get her out.  A dozen police, mostly women, surround the Beckers and tighten a circle.

Darling, please, it’s all right, it’s all right, repeats her husband, adding more and more words that mean the same thing but which affect no change in Mary Lee’s behavior.  A rush of red embarrassment has clouded his pale skin.  He redirects his attention to his children, covering Ang’s ears and rubbing Avery’s shoulder as the family is embarrassingly forced to the convention center’s exit.  He apologizes to anyone in uniform.  I’m sorry.  It’s okay.  I’m sorry.

She screams at them all.  Everyone.  She falls and they pick her up.  She’s gone to pieces and her voice is broken wires and glass and it carries, far, into her own head the loudest, where she can’t believe she’s misplaced her composure so blindly and wonders, for many minutes after their expulsion from the center, if she’ll ever get her wits back again.

In the convention center’s garage, she spots an Asian woman loitering with a Post It Man.  She recognizes the woman from the broadcasts.

The circle of police rings her family, but she’s able to drag them off course by flailing her arms big and wide.

His name, she screams, is Alek Serkan!  Alek Serkan!  Alek Serkan!  Alek Serkan!  Alek Serkan!  Alek Serkan!  Alek Serkan!  Alek Serkan!  Alek Serkan!  Alek Serkan!  Alek Serkan!

The killer’s name echoes off the hexed levels of the parking garage.

The Post It Man’s imager is raised and Mary Lee is dragged violently to her waiting glide.