Suddenly the compartment door opened up. It was a boy, younger than Callan and I, about twelve or thirteen. He had short red hair that was messy and was in uniform, like us. He seemed nervous as he swung around a clunker of a green suitcase at his side. The suitcase showed a bit of his personality, as it was plastered sparsely with the stickers of rock bands.
“Can I sit with you guys?” he asked, a bit more confidence in his voice than there was on his face. His suitcase stopped swinging as he waited tentatively for an answer
“Sure.” I replied, smiling at him.
He grinned instantly and slumped down beside me. His name was Liam Tiernan, but he encouraged us to call him LT, a longtime nickname of his. He had just turned thirteen years old, and like me, had been working in a factory. He had been living with only his older brothers in a small house with no air conditioning and one of them had gone to enlist a year ago and never came back. So LT himself had snuck out and enlisted, claiming to be fourteen.
“And here I am.” LT concluded, his pale eyes peering around at us. He was inquisitive and seemed to be interested in us.
“What about your parents?” John asked softly, as though not wanting to come off as rude.
“My mother died when I was young, and my father is in jail. Tried to steal a police bot.” LT explained. He seemed upset when mentioning his mother, but shrugged off his father’s arrest easily as though it didn't matter. His father must have been like what Bernard was to me.
“Sorry to hear that.” John apologized. LT waved it off and leaned back into the seat to take a nap. As the train went through a dark tunnel, my memories began to consume me.
I giggled, rolling down the biggest hill I’d ever seen. The grass was a perfect emerald green, the sky a vast blueness above me, marred only by a few puffy clouds. I was wearing a white shirt with a design of a wolf on it, and a pair of navy blue shorts with white sneakers. Callan came running after me, about ten years younger than I knew him to be, wearing green camouflage shorts and a white shirt exactly like mine.
“Hey Teddy! Callan! Wait up!” a strong male voice cried. I was shocked. I knew that voice. I turned and saw Dad. He was every bit as handsome as I remembered him to be, with brown hair and blue eyes. He stood six foot two, with lots of muscle and the world’s brightest smile on his face.
In that very instant, both Callan and I ran for our dad and hugged him. He seemed pleasantly surprised by our affection, but lifted us both up in the air effortlessly.
“Now here’s my little men!” he cried, grinning. I was hugging him very tightly, and I could tell Callan was doing the same on his other side.
“What was it that you wanted to be when you grew up again Callan?” he asked.
“An artist!” Callan chimed. I was a bit more than surprised. Callan and I would go on to fend for ourselves and support our family so much in the future that our childhood dreams for adulthood lay forgotten. I knew Callan could have achieved his goal too. I’d never met someone who could draw like how he did. I could draw a bit myself, but it was only okay drawings. Nothing like the magnificent art that Callan could accomplish.
“And what about you Ted?” he asked. Mentally, as sixteen year old Ted, I was surprised and rather curious about my answer. I had long forgotten what my dreams for the future were.
“A knight!” I said, to my own surprise. Then I remembered. When I was little, ever since I was a knight for Halloween, I’d been practically obsessed with them and wanted to be one myself.
Suddenly I was not six year old Ted, but sixteen year old Ted, standing apart from my dad, Callan, and my six year old self. I tried to yell for Dad, but he couldn't hear me.
I jolted awake. John and LT had fallen asleep, but Callan was awake and blinking at me with surprise.
“Well that was a short nap, Ted. I guess nineteen minute naps are your new record.” he said, with a shrug.
“Cal, my dream wasn't a normal dream. It was a memory. I couldn't remember it until now.” I cried. He responded by looking at me curiously.
“What was it about?” he asked.
“Remember when we used to live in the country? Before Dad died?” I queried.
“Yeah...yeah of course.” he said, a flicker of nostalgia in his eyes as he remembered those rolling fields of green.
“Remember what we wanted to be when we grew up?” I asked. Callan paused to think for a moment, before looking back up at me, crestfallen.
“I remember now. You wanted to be an artist when you were young...and I wanted to be a knight.”
Callan looked puzzled for a moment, then his face changed to one of complete shock.
“I just remembered that.” I explained. "In my dream, that's what happened."
The trip was many hours long, but I passed it either sleeping or talking to Callan, John, and LT. We were fed "handheld" hot dishes that could be eaten on the go, perfect for train travel. The sky outside the window gradually darkened as the train chugged through fields. A sign informed us we were enroute to the city of Eldek. When the train finally stopped and we were told to disembark, night had fallen magnificently and cloaked the sky in darkness.
We lined up in rows and saluted before being released. There were stations where a soldier could find a list of hotels willing to keep him for free if he signed his name on the boarding list, stalls that listed temporary expense-free lodgings, and kiosks with cards that bore the names of families that were willing to take a soldier in for a while. The lines for these stations were long, so Callan, John, LT and I went out into the night. The cool night air was pleasant, so I removed my cap and held it in my hand.
A young boy with dark brown hair approached us. He reminded me of Damien a little bit for how small he was, looking to be only around nine years old tops. Strangely enough, he was wearing a Nebelheim military uniform identical to what we wore, albeit smaller. He moved closer nervously then, and just as I was about to greet him, he snatched off my hat and began to run.
“Hey!” I shouted as he skidded down an alleyway with my hat. I took chase, my suitcase still in my hand and now swinging at my side as I sprinted to catch up to him. Callan, John, and LT dashed behind me, letting out their own cries of confusion. I pounded after him quickly, putting my all into the sprint. Was it me, or was he trying to keep himself in sight of us? And was it a trick of the night, or did it look as though he wasn't alone?
He ran into a building, right into what looked like an apartment complex. I paused outside of it cautiously and peered inside. It was a hall with stairs that led to four doors; two of them on the downstairs level and two of them upstairs. I stepped into the hall, my boot making a pleasant clicking noise against the linoleum. I squinted against the light that flooded the hall, my eyes adjusting from the darkness of the night. The door upstairs and to the left was ajar, so I strode up the steps to it and peeked inside.
The boy was there, sitting at an oak table and looking at the door for me. I pushed the door open and took a step inside as the boy took my hat and placed it on the table, peering at me almost apologetically. I heard footsteps as Callan rounded the stairs next, panting a bit. He was followed by LT and John, who were just entering the hall below.
“Why’d you take my hat?” I asked the boy, who stared at me. His eyes were an interesting color; black, black as the night without stars. His dark brown hair was relatively neat. His features hinted at foreign descent, such as the way his eyes naturally made him look tired and the structure of his face and his slightly tanner skin tone.
“You needed a place to stay, didn’t you?” the boy asked. I dropped my suitcase by my side and stared at the boy, perplexed.
“You can thank me for inviting you and your friends to stay here.” the boy said. He looked up at me with apologetic eyes again before eyeing the others. Putting aside the odd feelings I got, I convinced the others to join me inside the building. Someone else had entered.
He was about our age and taller than either Callan or even John, with chocolate-brown hair. He wore a uniform like ours, but didn't seem to be too particular about it appearing neat. He was fairly muscular for someone than our age too.
“Hello there. You guys new to the military?” he asked in an affable sort of way. I smiled and gave him a nod.
“Nice to meet you, mate. I’m Murdock. Kain Murdock.” he introduced, producing an infectious sort of grin. He reached to shake my hand, so I took his hand in mine and gave it my finest shake. He grinned broadly at this, amused.
“I’m Ted Alborn, and this is my twin brother Callan and our friends, John Davies and LT Tiernan.” I said, gesturing to my friends individually as I said their names. They each smiled and greeted him, earning a warm welcome back.
“I’m Hilbert Hinterher.” the little boy said in a quiet voice, his eyes meeting with mine for a moment.
“Why’d you take my hat and run like that?” I asked him quickly. He lowered his head thoughtfully.
“Because something just told me to do it.” he replied, looking a bit unnerved.
“Weird...” I heard Callan mutter under his breath, quiet enough that nobody other than myself had heard.
Kain and Hilbert had only a spare room with a single bed and a fold out couch to accommodate two. Callan and I took the bed, since even back home we’d shared. Mother only had enough money for two, and when Damien got too old for the crib, he took Callan's old bed. It wasn't that I really minded, because there was always some comfort in knowing even in sleep that you weren’t alone. Even since back then, I’ve always had a tough time sleeping in a room when Callan wasn’t in it. I think it was a twin’s sort of feeling, that I always got enough comfort in his presence alone to send me from hopeless thoughts in the dark of night.
Alone in that room though, I had the opportunity to discuss things in a hushed voice with Callan. And after the day’s events, I wanted to discuss things with him. So much had gone on today, aside from spending most of it traveling away from our mother on a train.
“Callan?” I asked as soon as the door clicked shut.
“Yeah Ted?” he replied, looking a bit eager to start musing over what we'd seen.
“Did you notice anything....odd?” I asked him then, seeing if he could detect what I was hinting at.
“Well the kids in this town, save from the ones in this house seem to be annoying.” Cal snorted with disgust. “They were screaming things and jabbing at people and whatnot.”
“No I mean did you notice anything about Hilbert?”
“Well he seems pretty jumpy about something doesn’t he? And I’ve noticed he doesn’t smile an awful lot for a kid either.”
“Yeah, I noticed that too. Think something’s happened to him before?”
“Possibly. He seemed shifty to me.”
I wouldn’t have long to find out what it was about Hilbert that I was missing.
The next morning Callan and I pulled on our uniforms and began to walk through the streets. It was a pretty cold morning and the wind practically began whipping at us as soon as we left the apartment. When you were looking for odd things, you saw them everywhere in this town. There weren’t kids playing freely in the street, riding bicycles and whatnot like they did back at home. The people walking around us didn’t make eye contact or say hello. Every one of them lowered their heads in a sort of quiet submissiveness, like they were all defeated.
As Callan and I were walking down a lesser-used street, some guys came out of nowhere. I allowed Callan to get a step closer to me before I kept walking. The biggest guy came towards me. He had thick brown hair and a rough look to him, wearing a red shirt that looked as though its sleeves had been intentionally (albeit poorly) torn off. The second boy was smaller than the first and slender, with black hair and wearing a white t-shirt and a vest that was too big for him. The third was small and blond, a bit bigger than Hilbert and looking only a bit older. His blond hair was long and unkempt and he wore a fedora, for no apparent reason along with his huge denim jacket.
“Where do you think you’re going?” the big one asked. He shoved me back rougly and I glared at him, getting ready to shove back. The slender black haired one snickered, a low and slimy sort of snicker that I'd associate with crooks.
“Who do you think you are to bother us and question where we’re going? It’s none of your business.” Callan shot back defensively. They looked at us and whooped as though Callan was playing around with them. I moved forward, and when the biggest one tried barring me, I shoved him hard. He lost his balance and toppled to the ground, looking surprised. He and his buddies glared and began encircling us. The big one pulled out his switchblade.
I immediately acted on instinct and began to grapple the biggest of the three. He growled at me, but one rough shake caused him to drop I the switchblade. I saw Callan pushing the slender black haired boy up against the wall. The small blond blinked a few times and began scrambling towards the silver-handled switchblade. I knocked the big guy over long enough to kick it away from the Fedora kid, who gasped as he slammed into my leg and earned a kick.The switchblade landed within grasp of Callan, who scooped it up. The slender dark-haired kid made a go for him. Callan dived out of the slender kid's way and threw the switchblade high in the air. I heard it make a small skittering noise as it hit the rooftop.
“You son of a bit-” the second boy said but I kneed him in the stomach and watchedwith satisfaction as his eyes bulged from the hard hit. Almost immediately the small boy jumped on me and clung to me. With the awkward position and the way he was holding onto me, I lost my balance and fell. From my viewpoint on the ground I could see Callan and the slender boy rolling around, cursing as they tried to grapple the other into submission. The biggest guy got right up on top of me and raised his fist, when I heard something.
The big guy was sent flying off of me as a blur knocked him off. A shorter but somewhat muscular figure grabbed the slender kid and yanked him away from Callan, hitting him squarely in the jaw. A red-haired blur arrived to have at it with the small blond with the fedora, the latter of whom scampered away, shrieking. Two of my rescuers came over and helped me off of the ground.
I recognized the tallest rescuer among them. It was Kain Murdock, rubbing his fists (which had dealt a great many punches) and swearing loudly with disdain at the fleeing trio. The red haired figure was none other than LT, who was grinning from ear to ear. The muscular guy who had taken on the slender kid was someone I did not yet recognize. He had thick black hair and was wearing royal blue.
“Bastards.” Kain snarled venomously. He tripped the small blond and spat at him before allowing the smallest of our attackers to escape, wailing at his vanishing comrades.
“Who were those guys and what did they want with us?" I asked, furious.
“The tallest one was Rex Teague. Big jackass if I ever saw one.” Kain said, his voice still having that snarling nature present in it. “The skinny black haired guy was his buddy, Gale Massarotti. And the little shrimp was Mick Cosman. They’re all annoying little bastards who like to stop people on the streets to mug them.”
“Gale’s the worst. Real ass.” the guy I wasn’t familiar with spat out angrily.
“Oh yeah, this is Malcolm King, but I just call him King.” Kain said, gesturing towards the guy who had beaten on Gale Massarotti. He grinned broadly and Callan and I exchanged handshakes with him. None of us were too injured to really raise any alarm, so we headed back for the apartments. As soon as we went in, Callan and I made a beeline for our room to relax. Once there, we began to talk.
“Really nice city isn’t it? There’s no kids on the streets, no one will look you in the eyes and there’s thugs roaming around like they own the place.” Callan said with an almost heated contempt. He was clearly still furious about the attack, and I couldn't blame him. It was never like that back in Laurentime.
“Something’s terribly wrong with this town Callan." I panted. "Whatever it is, I want to get to the bottom of it. This is mad."
“It’s not just the town. What about Hilbert? He still seems a bit...shifty.” Callan pointed out. Callan had a point. Hilbert was definitely a suspicious figure. He was confident enough in his ability to wander out on his own last night, when the same trio could have easily found him.
“Yeah, he definitely has some dark history going on here.” I agreed. Callan gave me a wave and let me lay down in the bed. Before long, I was drifting into sleep, dreaming of faceless people in a strange town that seemed already too depressed and defeated.
I was awakened by the ground shaking. I rolled out of the bed as something fell off a shelf and broke. Callan threw the door open and pulled me out of the bedroom. In the living room, John and Kain were moving the couch while Hilbert, King, and LT brought boxed supplies over in their arms. There was some kind of trapdoor concealed under the couch. Kain went to one side and pried his fingers under it, sliding the door out of the way and dropping each box down the hole before sending Hilbert down first. I clambered down the steel ladder into the darkness, Kain securing the door above us. I’d never felt anything like this. It was...not an earthquake. I knew that much.
Far below there was a room, where we camped out. I took the time to talk to Kain.
“Kain, what happened?” I asked.
“We got bombed again.” he said, looking upwards with a sort of uneasiness about him. I stared at him, surprised. Bombed?
“What about the city’s police force?” Callan asked, looking just as startled as I was. Back in Laurentime we had a sturdy police force to tackle any would-be terrorist.
“They all got taken out by the past bomb raids.” King said, playing idly with a pocketknife. Callan and I exchanged a significant look. We both moved to the far end of the room. Kain left, as the bombs had now stopped.
“You think that’s why this town is so messed up Cal?” I asked. "Because earlier, we only skimmed the surface."
“Probably. I mean, no police force to keep people in line and bombs being dropped around here...no wonder the people are so distant. And if they aren’t distant but normal, they’re criminals.”
“What about Hilbert?” I queried. Right now the young boy was sitting a fair distance away, seeming distant, but in a different way than the people from in town. He didn't seem defeated or tortured, but he seemed...aloof.
“We’ll have to find that out soon enough.” Callan remarked as a square of light appeared from above. Kain came clambering hurriedly down the ladder, holding something in his hand. When he hit bottom, he had a worried look on his face. We all stopped, frozen.
“Get loads of sleep tonight, guys.” he said, seeming a bit stunned.
“Why?” John finally asked.
“Because they want us out there, ready to fight.” he said.
“Tomorrow?” LT asked.
“Tomorrow.” Kain stated, and the darkness in the room seemed to become akin to the uncertainty that seemed to surround us.