Uriel Fox and the Mystery of the Dying Children

Uriel Fox rambled through the mountain forests and meadows for much of the year, and frequently he’d meet a fellow sojourner along the way. These encounters often proved to be brief; however, sometimes valuable information might be shared. When a visitor named Peter Snow wandered into Uriel’s camp, the communication he shared with Uriel could only be described as a revelation that Uriel couldn’t readily comprehend.

As soon as Snow sat down near the fire, he described a cryptic series of events occurring in a large city, he had visited in a previous summer. “Uriel,” Peter began slowly, “I once lived in the city of Hollerin for six months and during that time, I stumbled upon a phenomenon that seemed to be highly suspicious. Hundreds of children in Hollerin die every year at the age of twelve. These deaths have been happening for a long time and apparently no medical doctor in Hollerin can explain why the tragedy continues. It almost appears to be a curse. Some children who are twelve simply drop dead! The parents say goodnight to their youngsters at bedtime, and the next morning they have perished. It’s happening to both boys and girls.”

Despite Peter’s bizarre statements, the look of horror on his face convinced Fox that the assertions were trustworthy. Uriel also felt certain that he needed more specific facts. “How is it possible that only some specific twelve year olds die, and why don’t other young people die who are younger or older?”

“I don’t understand either,” Peter explained. “Parents are frightened for their children especially when they turn twelve. Occasionally, younger or older children die, but it remains rare.”

            “What are the authorities doing to uncover the source of this calamity?” Uriel asked.

 “The authorities,” Peter continued, “either don’t know how to find a cure or don’t care.”

Uriel felt stunned. “What do you mean they don’t care?”

“Despite all the deaths and uncertainties,” Peter replied, “The doctors don’t seem to be making any tangible progress in solving the mystery.”

“What do you think is happening?” Uriel wanted to know.

“I think an unknown illness is somehow involved or something more sinister is at work. I just don’t know,” Peter confessed.

Uriel reclined by his crackling fire for a long time. He clearly believed that Peter was on to something; but it was also obvious he couldn’t describe the crisis in Hollerin in any detail. Since Peter appeared ready to leave the camp, Uriel realized he would have a few precious moments to ask Peter any more questions. Uriel now felt strongly about going to the city, and he knew that Pete might have at least, some helpful advice. Uriel quickly asked another question “Is the city of Hollerin dangerous?”

Peter stood up and replied, “The residents of Hollerin don’t like strangers, and they actively seek to get rid of them. Nevertheless, they will tolerate individuals who work at cleaning jobs like janitors.”

 “Janitors?” Uriel said in surprise. “Why are they special?”

“The people of the city believe themselves to be superior and they consider cleaning beneath them. Not only is cleaning manual labor, but they also think it is filthy work unfit for members of their society,” Peter asserted.

“Interesting,” Uriel replied thoughtfully. “How do I become a custodian, so I can live in Hollerin for a while?”

“That’s easy,” Peter explained. “You must look and act like a submissive janitor and be prepared for a lot of hard work.”

    Uriel seemed convinced that Hollerin possessed a mystery worthy of his immediate attention. As he watched Peter disappear down the trail, he called out, “Thanks for the information!”

“Be careful!” Peter yelled back.

            The crisis in the city of Hollerin felt so compelling to Uriel, that he started his journey to the city as soon as Peter was gone from view. Usually any town’s dilemma proved to be readily solvable by Uriel’s observation skills. However, this mystery of the dying children seemed provocative to him. Clearly, the idea of dying children seemed difficult to believe, however, all Peter’s comments taken together pointed to something insidious. The entire trip to the city, Fox attempted to discern the causes of the mysterious deaths of the young residents of Hollerin, but more questions existed than answers.

Several days later, Uriel found himself on the outskirts of Hollerin.  Beyond the elaborate city sign, there seemed to be no welcoming slogans. Instead, there existed a large sign that discouraged the homeless and poor drifters from entering the city limits.  In addition, the bottom of the sign read: All visitors are required to register at the Hollerin Business Office with no exceptions.

It was late afternoon by the time Uriel Fox reached the Hollerin Office, and he felt tired and vulnerable. But the employee behind the counter simply stared at Uriel suspiciously and asked bluntly, “What do you want. Are you a drifter?”

“No, sir,” Uriel answered politely. “I was hoping to find work as a custodian.”

As Peter had predicted, the man became friendlier. “Have you ever worked as a janitor?”

 “Absolutely,” Uriel answered enthusiastically. “I really do a good job cleaning homes and office buildings. There’s nothing I can’t clean: sweeping, mopping, polishing, dumping, and dusting. I can wash and scrub anything.”

“Very good,” the man replied. “Be here at 8:00 am for your assignment. Congratulations!”

Uriel felt fortunate to get a job so easily, but that remained only the first step. If he could delve into the mystery of the dying children, it could be useful; but it could also be difficult and dangerous. Nevertheless, Uriel felt compelled to continue his secret inquiry.

At precisely 8:00 am, Uriel returned to the Hollerin Business Office to receive his job assignment, and he was assigned to the Hollerin Hospital for his custodial work. Ironically, this position seemed to be perfect because it allowed Fox to sneak around anywhere in the institution. Nevertheless, he learned to cloak his action each day as he labored at the hospital. He endured every possible cleaning job including dumping bed pans and cleaning up patient accidents, but he also began to investigate in earnest.

The first thing Uriel noticed was the absence of children and especially teenagers. He could see plenty of new born babies and many adults and seniors, but he noticed very few children and these seemed to be quite young. He dared not inquire why this was so, but when the administrators ordered him and some other custodians to work in the late afternoon, Uriel quickly obeyed. He realized, the hospital was far less crowded then, so he could more privately access the patient records when opportunities arose.

Since patient records from previous years appeared to be easy to access since the cabinets were left unlocked during the day, Uriel began his search in the historical records section of the patient file cabinets. There he found some very unusual entries in the new born records. In each file, there existed some kind of code that had three components. The first part of the code identified the annual income of the parents. This income number seemed to be clearly important beyond simple record keeping. The second section had either a (AB or N); however, the meaning was nowhere to be found. In addition, the third component of the code contained (C or NC), again with no explanation. So for example an entire sequence might read: 12,000(AB) (C).

Fox felt certain that these symbols functioned as a method to separate babies into specific categories. His next step focused on learning how to interpret the codes and their consequences. Logically, since these codes were designated at birth, the new born section of the hospital seemed to be a good area to inspect. Uriel eventually found files that specifically contained new born information, but he also observed nurses organizing infant trays with tiny metal chips on some trays, but not on others. This seemed strange enough, however; when Uriel examined the medical folders open on top of the trays, he noticed some letters and numbers that corresponded with the other patient records that he had just skimmed in the cabinets.

But, just as Uriel grasped a new folder, he was caught by one of the nurses. “What are you doing?” she scolded. “Why are you looking at the folders? I’m going to make sure you’re fired!”

Fox knew he had to have a believable explanation directly, if he hoped to survive another moment at the hospital. “Nurse,” Uriel began humbly. “I was told to make everything spotless, and to thoroughly clean anything that needed it. Your tray had some dried blood stains on them, so I wiped them up.”

Since maintaining the cleanliness of the trays proved to be the nurse’s responsibility, she found herself in a compromising position. “Look,” the nurse replied somewhat nervously, “I clean the trays not you, are we clear?”

With an inner sense of relief, Uriel replied submissively, “Yes, Ma’am, I won’t be cleaning those trays anymore.”

The nurse seemed satisfied with Uriel’s submissive explanation, but Fox realized he would never be able to examine the trays again. Nevertheless, he had correctly associated the codes and the chips with the newborns. Unfortunately, the information he gathered still didn’t offer any conclusive solution, so he realized he needed to further investigate.

To avoid another incident with the nursing staff, Uriel kept to a strict routine which involved doing his work and remaining in his hospital accommodations at night. The problem of gathering evidence remained, however; so he decided to walk around the city in order to seek some inspiration.

Fox observed that the city appeared to be very modern, yet the people seemed to be suspicious and condescending. They made no eye contact and acted as if they felt superior. After having attempted to initiate conversation several times, Uriel concluded the people’s attitudes were cynical as well, so he decided to refrain from conversation all together and continued his solitary sojourn. Finally, he had some good luck.

Across the street, a large graveyard called the Hollerin Cemetery provided Uriel with an inspiring notion. He walked to the churchyard and examined every headstone in order to find out how many twelve year old children had been buried there. By subtracting the date of birth from the time of death, Fox realized his friend, Peter knew the truth. Indeed, there did exist many graves with twelve year old children buried in them. In another inspirational moment, Uriel decided to write down the names of twenty of these children and their ages at death, so he could compare them to historical hospital records.

His work at the hospital provided Uriel an opportunity to further develop the theories he had conjured up at the cemetery. He figured out if he could change from the late afternoon shift to the night shift for his job, it would offer him many more opportunities to search for clues. Since the hospital shut down at 9:00 pm for visitors and most of the staff, Uriel would be able to investigate with fewer authorities to question him.

It proved to be a simple matter to change shifts because the graveyard shift had more vacancies than the late afternoon roster. Equally important few people wanted the third shift because it could be labor intensive and very lonely. Fortunately, Fox’s supervisor didn’t ask why he wished to change shifts, either because the shift remained short of employees or he simply didn’t care. That night Uriel felt hopeful as he began his new schedule and carried his esoteric notes from the cemetery with him.

Fox returned to the children’s historical records and began examining the cabinets. Luckily, the security precautions appeared to be minimal. Nevertheless, Fox needed to unlock the cabinets, select the records on his list, and pilfer them. In order to disguise his theft, Uriel planned to slip the files into a large bag he had hidden in his mobile refuse container.

The first night, Fox entered the record room, but it happened just before his shift was ending. However, the very next night, he returned to the room almost immediately after his shift had begun. The files were supposed to be locked overnight, but unbelievably, someone had left the keys on top of a desk. Without wasting any time, Uriel unlocked every cabinet and confiscated file after file until he obtained all twenty of them. But just as he began to close the cabinets, Fox heard heavy footsteps approaching down the hallway. A security guard opened the door and spoke sternly, “What are you doing in here, janitor? This room is off limits to all insignificant personnel.”

“I was just cleaning,” Uriel replied nervously.

“Well, clean someplace else, you idiot!” the guard snapped. “I swear the janitors around here get more incompetent every day!”

Now, Uriel realized his next statement would be crucial, so he chose his words carefully. “Sir, you’re right. This is my stupid mistake. You think I would know enough where to clean. I’m sorry.”

The security guard suddenly laughed and changed his attitude, but not his authoritative tone. “Don’t let me catch you down here again, or I’ll assume you’re up to something.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you sir,” Uriel said with relief.

As the security guard closed the door, Uriel had already hid the records he needed. He allowed the guard to move farther away from him and turn a corner before Fox could finally relax. Although Uriel had just eluded the guard and tricked the nurse earlier, he realized he might be pushing his luck, so he needed to exit the hospital and his room. Since he also felt he had gathered enough information to finally unravel the child death conundrum, he left for good the next morning.

Uriel left the hospital with the children’s vital folders and camped at a nearby trail shelter. He built a fire and began to consider the records carefully. Although the income section seemed to be similar in amounts, the other elements appeared to be exactly the same: (AB) and (C). Furthermore, each baby with the code was then assigned a chip that appeared to be inserted between the toes of each child’s foot. There seemed to be no direct reference about the reason for the the insertion of the tiny devices, but the chips seemed to be meant to be inserted in every identified infant.

Fox puzzled over the children’s files for a number of hours before he finally believed he had several feasible explanations. He surmised that the chips had a termination date of twelve years which probably meant that (AB) was an abbreviation for abnormal. These babies were implanted with (C) chip that ended up killing them for no discernable or diagnosable reason. Perhaps, the actual entries had to do with the parents’ status or wealth which gave them the resources to take care of their atypical children.

The final piece of the puzzle involved determining how the children were diagnosed as abnormal. It wasn’t much of a stretch for Uriel to consider DNA testing. He firmly believed the hospital could already be advanced enough to administer the test routinely.

Now that Fox had determined the reason for the crisis, he didn’t know what to do about it, if anything. Was it really his place to interfere with a society of which he wasn’t even a member? Yet it seemed extremely unjust for children to die at a young age especially without their parents even knowing the cause.

Uriel decided to return to the children’s cemetery and wait for an informative parent to come by, so he sat on a bench near several graves. Two hours later a grieving father sat down next to Uriel and began weeping. “Hi, my name is Uriel,” Fox said softly.

“I’m Joseph,” the man replied sadly. “That is my boy, Arthur, buried in this grave.”

“How did he die, if you don’t mind me asking?” Uriel replied politely.

“He was only twelve years old and in perfect health,” Joseph replied. “The doctors couldn’t even tell us how he died. How can a child die when he isn’t even ill?”

“How’s your wife doing with all this?” Uriel wanted to know. “Is she all right?”

“She blames herself. She thinks she overlooked something regarding Arthur’s health. Worse yet, she thinks she did something wrong like giving him tainted food,” Joseph sighed and began sobbing again.

“I doubt your wife did anything wrong,” Uriel answered trying to comfort Joseph.

“Tell that to my wife,” Joseph replied in despair.

Uriel Fox had made his decision about intervening by the time the grieving Joseph left the cemetery. He could not stand by and let the children of the dead parents continue to be deceived. Besides, the chip implantation appeared to be still occurring which meant a new generation of innocent families were about to suffer.

Uriel believed this injustice in Hollerin had to be stopped or even reversed if possible. Ideas appeared to be few; however, the risks were enormous. Uriel also began to question if people in positions of power and status expected more rights than other parents. He believed that the term “abnormal” could also be a subjective term as well especially as it involved the deadly chip. Perhaps, children of the wealthy received special privileges. Maybe they paid for additional medical help. More importantly, if the children of the rich labeled as “abnormal” were spared the chip, where were they? Besides, Uriel thought to himself, children who were labeled “abnormal” could also be gifted with abilities in art, science, and mathematics. Isn’t unity with diversity better than everyone being the same?

Fox began to look for a shelter or institution where these victimized children might be hidden away. He passed by hospitals, hotels, and even old landmarks and then eventually hiked into the country headed north. On the trail he noticed many human tracks that led up to a long steep hill. Before long, Uriel approached a large unsightly building and observed several prominent citizens filing in and out through the steel doors. The longer Fox hid behind some spruce trees, the more noteworthy people arrived and departed. Finally, he summoned the courage to knock on the intimidating entrance. When a young man answered, Uriel stated assertively, “I want to see my daughter.”

“Fine, what’s your name?” the man demanded. With all the thoughts spinning in his mind, Uriel forgot how he would actually gain access to the building. Then he remembered the name of a person who had visited earlier. “My name is Roberson.  Mrs. Roberson is my sister.”

The young man oddly accepted the phony name, and Uriel was permitted to walk inside. Even as he passed through the door, Fox recognized that his thinly veiled diversion wouldn’t hold up long, so he entered the building stepping alertly. He gazed into the rooms and hallways and soon observed many children. Everywhere physically and mentally challenged children wandered from room to room, seemingly lost and despondent. Surprisingly, however, many apparently healthy twelve year olds resided there as well. They too seemed overly quiet and sad. Unfortunately, several supervisors recognized Uriel’s intrusion into their facility, so Uriel quickly found the exit. He didn’t stop running until he felt certain he wasn’t being followed.

The mystery of the children abandoned in a dingy institution proved to be rather uncomplicated to unravel. Politicians and other powerful leaders produced children with genetic abnormalities, but they appeared to be spared the chip implantation. However, at age twelve, when genetic defects in Hollerin always first appear, these children needed to be hidden away, so their parents could visit them, but not live with them permanently at home. Probably the children in the institution, who remained healthy, still had the potential for their genetic health problems to surface. They were kept out of sight just in case.

Uriel returned to his camp and pondered the cruelty and hypocrisy of it all. Those with influence and wealth kept their children, while their apparent belief in unity at the expense of diversity kept a city of parents in despair. These less fortunate parents would have loved their children despite their health issues. Yet even as the crisis worsened, Uriel still had no idea how to remedy it.

Nonetheless, just as Uriel despaired of finding answers, he overheard three people whispering about one hundred yards up the trail. The wind blowing in his direction allowed Uriel to identify the location, so he crawled toward the murmuring voices.

A young woman spoke first, “We must act this week. Our plan is risky, but we must not become panicky and back out, so let’s go over our strategy one more time.”

A man with a deep voice answered, “First we gather up all the chips and melt them down, and then we destroy the chip machines, and steal the experimental power

sources from the core of the reproduction segments.”

Another man seemed to be fearful for the success of the whole plan.

The woman now became more assertive. “Don’t you remember what happened to your wife, when your son, Jonah, was killed? The government might as well have murdered both of them!”

Then the group appeared to grow quieter, but Uriel could tell from the general tone of their voices that they were intent on carrying out their mission. At first, Fox felt shocked that some of the citizens of Hollerin knew the truth. However, clearly they did. Uriel crawled back to his campfire; pleased that he wouldn’t need to solve the crisis with the children. He believed the three courageous citizens of Hollerin intended to rectify things.

After his encounter with the three rebels, Uriel returned to Hollerin every morning and purchased a newspaper from one of the local coffee shops. He skimmed every page hoping to find some information about them in an article that might condemn the three “traitors.” Three days later, Uriel found his answer in a fabricated article that described “three malcontents” who broke into the science building. They destroyed all the important weather experiments that were designed to help control weather disasters like tornadoes and floods. The three traitors were to be put on trial the next week.

Fox understood by decoding the article that the three courageous individuals he had witnessed at the clandestine meeting had accomplished their mission. It didn’t surprise him the government lied about what happened, nevertheless, the chips and their technology had been destroyed at least; this was Fox’s hope.

Later, he heard about the harsh punishment all of them received. Without any chance to defend themselves, the patriots were forever banished from the city and all three would be executed if they dared to return. The very next day, the patriots were escorted ten miles from the city with nothing but their clothes to help them survive. Worst of all, no family members would be permitted to join them.

However, imagine their relief when they spotted Uriel Fox hiking up to their location. “You may be banished,” he said cheerfully, “but I’m not about to abandon you. I’ve traveled this country for many years, and I know a number of cities where you can find refuge. As a veteran outcast, you can trust me to help you.”

“Why are you helping us?” the woman from the secret meeting asked.

“That’s because, you three found a way to correct a terrible injustice.” Uriel replied. “Were you able to destroy those horrible machines and take the sole energy sources?”

“Yes,” the woman answered.

 “How many experimental chips did you melt?” Uriel now wanted to know.

The man with the deep voice replied, “Every one. Every last one.”

Uriel Fox smiled and sincerely admired the group’s courage in the face of such real danger. As he led the group many miles from Hollerin, he knew the city would still have problems with the residual effects of the DNA laws, but he also knew the sources of the chips and technology had been destroyed. For the first time, Uriel felt as if he were travelling with heroes who might be more daring and resourceful than anyone he had ever known – including himself.

John F Zurn has earned an M.A. in English from Western Illinois University and spent much of his career as a school teacher.  In addition, he has worked at several developmental training centers, where he taught employment readiness skills to mentally challenged teenagers and adults.  Now retired, he continues to write and publish poems and stories.  As one of seven children, his experiences growing up continue to help inspire his art and influence his life.