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Fiction by Arzhang Zafar

from Founders’ Day

Arzhang Zafar’s Founders’ Day is a zine-length short story, available in print now.

Why would anyone want to do that?” was the first thing Linda asked Neil when he explained the situation to her. They were getting ready for bed, and he had finally worked up the nerve to tell her he planned on finding a surrogate. He was worried she would think he was being cowardly, but instead she simply doubted anyone in town would stick their neck out, even with a cash prize dangled in front of them. After all, Neil had already been chosen, and they hadn’t.

I guess we’ll see,” was all he could think to say in response. He kissed his wife good night before turning the lights out, but he didn’t fall asleep. He stared into the void, paralyzed by the terrifying knowledge that it was where he was headed, sooner or later. Eventually, the darkness lifted and morning greeted him like a rusty nail being hammered into each eye. He crept out without rousing either Linda or Jared and embarked on his quest.

First he stopped at the local gym. It was not a place he was familiar with, since he was a jogger by nature. The steady rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other, moving through space as the world disappeared around him, was far more comforting than working out on cold machines accompanied by the sounds of clanging metal and grunting men with intimidating physiques dripping sweat. When he stepped inside, the smell almost immediately made him lightheaded.

The young woman at the front desk looked vaguely familiar. She had likely been a student at Neil’s school, perhaps even his own pupil. Thankfully, she either didn’t recognize him or, if she did, didn’t care that he was one of the most hated men in town. He was relieved that she apparently wasn’t in the mood to judge him, but nevertheless found himself annoyed by her utter lack of customer service enthusiasm.

Excuse me,” Neil said with as much authority as he could muster. Are there any fighters training here?”

She was unphased by the question and responded tersely. Kickboxing class just ended.”

Thank you.” Neil smiled politely and immediately headed back outside to avoid succumbing to the atmosphere.

He waited impatiently in the parking lot, and his eyes lit up as a series of well-built men began filing out with their gym bags, judging by their demeanors both exhausted and invigorated by a series of thrilling sparring sessions. Most of them were not viable candidates, but Neil zeroed in on the most intimidating looking one of the bunch, a simultaneously toned and heavyset fellow with intense eyes, well over six feet tall. After psyching himself up, he approached the behemoth.

Hi!” Neil conjured a friendly expression and prepared to deliver his pitch. The man half-glanced in his direction and continued walking without giving him a second thought. Neil briefly wondered whether he should try raising his voice or following the target to his car, but couldn’t bring himself to do either. By the time he worked up the confidence to seek out another of the fighters, he realized they were all gone.

Neil had quickly become used to defeat, but he nevertheless felt dejected. He thought he knew how to speak to people, but either he was so out of practice that his powers of rhetoric were no longer effective, or he just couldn’t help but exude an overwhelming musk of humiliation. It occurred to him that his predicament was a kind of chicken and egg scenario–either he had always been a loser and only now saw it himself, or his being singled out by the council had depleted his social worth overnight.

He began walking, partly in hopes that he might happen upon someone who could help him, partly because he didn’t want to go home. He found himself tracing paths he took as a youngster–through the dog park with no name, across the flimsy wooden bridge over Belton Creek, down the secret walkway behind the public library where kids would learn to smoke cigarettes and do other illicit things that he was always too squeamish to try–until he realized he was in the immediate vicinity of what was at once his old stomping grounds and his current place of employment, and the absolute worst place in the world.

The very idea of the high school made Neil shudder. He couldn’t articulate why that was, even to himself in his mind, but he knew it was a repulsive place and a place that made him feel repulsed by himself. The air changed around the campus, became oppressive. He felt compelled to find a different route, turn away, go away forever. He walked on until he was free of the school’s clutches, but it wasn’t enough. There were tendrils extending all around town, eyes on every surface. He couldn’t see a single person, friend or stranger or enemy, yet he knew they were swarming all about. He walked until he found dirt roads. He kept on until he was someplace he didn’t recognize.

On the outskirts of Belton-Brockway there were disused railroad tracks. Under those tracks Neil came upon a tent. He could see there was commotion going on inside, and he recalled having heard tell of a man, or a series of men, who lived rough on the edges of town. He remembered names like Mister Dirt, Old Slug, Stinker, and most crudely of all, Shitty Jim. Neil was afraid to get any closer, but then he considered that fate may have finally thrown him a bone. Where better than a rickety old hobo encampment to find a willing surrogate? He tiptoed toward the tent.

Hello?” Neil called out, his voice trembling.

Huh?” a growl responded.

I’m looking for…someone…”

What do you want?”

Neil wasn’t sure how to explain what he wanted. He momentarily worried that being direct about his aims would sound insulting, then reminded himself that whoever was on the other side of the flap was, for all intents and purposes, not a real person. He wasn’t capable of being insulted. This man would probably relish the opportunity to die or make a few bucks. Before Neil had a chance to dawdle any further, the zipper came down and a figure emerged.

He was neither tall nor short, thin but not rail thin. He had long, graying hair and a scraggly beard, most of his teeth, and skin a little like sandpaper. He was wearing a flannel and an overcoat, two undershirts and a pair of baggy khaki pants. His boots were worn and their soles were coming off. There was dirt under his fingernails, and some on his clothes, but not as much as Neil would have expected. In one hand he held a large carton of orange juice, from which he took a big swig. No pulp was written on the side.

I’m Chris,” he said, and offered his other hand.

#

The underclass of Belton-Brockway was unique. Though economic disparities existed, the mini-society there was stratified along other axes as well. There were the despised and the loved, the pitied and the feared. Of course, most of the population fell into an intermediate position. Nevertheless, alongside money, strength and intimidation were also currencies, as well as charm and generosity. This was what the people of that quaint little town believed, at any rate. They believed that their special system transcended traditional hierarchies and allowed anyone to accumulate power or escape degradation. Chris believed something different.

As they stood beneath the abandoned train tracks, he listened to Neil describe his dire straits, and in turn explained his own philosophy. He had lived in Belton-Brockway all his life, just like Neil. He had had the de facto rules of life in the town drilled into him at a tender age, just like Neil. As a child, he had based his entire worldview around a potent fear of losing his life in the Founders’ Day Game, just like Neil. And just like Neil, it had occurred to him that the best way to avoid being chosen by the council was to become a ghost. Unlike Neil, he had actually taken that realization to its logical conclusion.

By his own admission, Chris was not a part of society. He was proud of it. He only entered the civilized part of town at night, to get supplies. He had become, over the course of his life, extremely adept at thievery and at finding the perfect trash, trash that was in fact not trash at all but reasonably good food and clothing and other useful material that had been discarded by wasteful people. He had no strong desire to take others’ belongings, but ultimately cared more for his own well-being than for the property of strangers. He did not require luxury, and in fact found comfort in squalor if that squalor ensured his safety. He spent much of his free time writing poems and appreciating the simple wonders of nature. He was an incredibly self-assured man who lived with little regret.

Chris explained to Neil that life in Belton-Brockway was no different from life anywhere else, that everywhere in the world people enacted humiliating pageants in order to demonstrate that everything was unfair and every person was only significant insomuch as they belonged in their rightful place, a place ordained by powers beyond comprehension without evident reason, but which, if disregarded or disrespected, would lead to utter devastation. Chris explained that these world systems created monsters to embody chaos and maintain order, and that in order to be free one must eschew both order and chaos, because in reality, which did not exist in terms that made sense unless one eschewed both order and chaos, order and chaos were actually the same thing, assigned different aspects and different names by society.

Chris explained to Neil that his dilemma was not a true dilemma because he himself had invented it in order to convince himself that his life had meaning, that his desire to be loved was a product of his fear of death and not a genuine care for the other prisoners of the false dilemma that had entrapped him. He explained that Neil did not deserve his fate any more than any other victim of an unjust power structure, that he was choosing to abide by laws which were backed up by hollow forces, illusions he could overcome, even as a single man, but especially if he were to use his unique circumstances to erect a platform and speak out into the void to make the others understand the illogic of the system rather than attempt to solve it within the laws that the architects of the system had contrived. Chris explained to Neil that, although he had been dealt a bad hand, he would not be free of destiny until he removed that hand, amputated it at the wrist and left it behind, preferably wrapped around the throat of one or all of the individuals who had decided he deserved his ill fate.

Neil, who had been unable to focus on Chris’s words due to the extreme discomfort he felt being in the presence of someone so wretched, finally perked up when he realized the vagrant had finished speaking.

So, how much for you to take my place?” he asked.

Arzhang Zafar

Twitter: @vomunculus

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