“Hey,” someone’s soft, gruff voice said into my ear. “Hey,” it said again, a little louder this time. I was starting to wake up. I heard the clack-clack of the train on the rails, and a whistle, softened by the distance between my compartment and the front of the steam engine. I opened my eyes groggily. The noises of the train were starting to gradually slow. I had been on this train for almost 12 hours, but given what I had to do next, I wasn’t sure I was ready to get off it.
I looked at the man sitting next to me. I had spoken to him at the beginning of my long ride, and we had exchanged travel plans. Well, I had said I was going to Cereum. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him why I was going there.
He was quite a large man, with a big, bushy beard that hid half of his face. He was older than me by quite a lot, I guessed, but I wouldn’t call him old. Maybe around 50 or so. “Bud,” he said, for I must have still looked confused. “This’s your stop, yes?” he asked in his thick accent. I liked it, but couldn't tell where he was from.
I sat up straighter in the red cushioned seat and stretched. “Yes, thank you.”
“O’course,” he said, and must have smiled, though it was hard to tell under the beard.
I didn’t have much luggage to gather, only a small trunk that had been kept in overhead storage. I had a book, but it was small enough to fit in my pocket, and all the money I had brought was safely in my shoe. I had not let myself buy any of the overpriced train food, and I was hungry.
The whistle blew, a loud, calming sound. It reminded me of home. I had lived next to train tracks my whole life. The conductor came on over the loudspeaker, saying, “Passengers, may I have your attention, please? We have arrived at Cereum Station. I repeat, Cereum Station…” his voice now melted into the voices of the other passengers on the train, saying, “Oh, have a nice visit with your sister,” and “Really? You lost my bag?” and “Merry Christmas, dear.”
“Goodbye, Mr. Munnberry,” I said as I tipped my hat, trying to feel okay about this new chapter of my life.
“Please, call me George,” he said jovially. “Safe travels, Mr. Henlan.”
“Same to you, and please, call me Lehn,” I said as I squeezed past him and pulled my luggage down from over his head.
Now I was on my way. On my way to a new beginning after The War. I joined the army because my brother did. I was dumb. I was 16. Now, after four years of service to my “wonderful” homeland, I was finally free. I had served during one of the bloodiest parts of my country’s history, and my brother, along with countless others, had died brutal deaths. I couldn’t look up to Daniel anymore, and my parents were grief stricken. They didn’t know what to do with themselves, and for a while, I hadn’t either. But now I did. It was time to move on.
I exited the train and looked around me. The station was very beautiful, and with tall ceilings, small shops for tourists all around, sculptures, and flowers, it seemed like the pride of the city. People walked by hurriedly in the latest fashions, carrying bags and dragging suitcases behind them. But then I walked outside. I had never seen buildings so huge in my life. It seemed now like the world was too big for me.
I was especially struck by how loud it was. People talking, in so many different languages. Car horns honking. The cobblestone streets had worn grooves in them from cars over the years. I felt someone bump into me and realized I hadn’t moved since exiting the train station. It shocked me; I had never seen anything remotely like this before. It almost made me dizzy with nervousness. Back in my hometown, I knew most everyone, and here? Not a single person. I didn’t like being surrounded like this.
It was snowing, and I walked to a bench to dig my hat out of my trunk. I shivered.
It was an enormous city, a maze, towering buildings mixed with brick apartments and shops selling anything a person could ever want. There must be a place here for me. But I didn't feel excited. I carried everything, all the atrocities I had seen and committed, with me. My friends, my brother, all gone. My parents too upset to look my way. I was on my own, and instead of exciting, it felt depressing.
I had no plans for a job. I had barely any money. I desperately needed a place to stay, but for that, at least, I had a solution. The only problem was, I had no way to get there, no idea where it was, and not enough money to waste on a cab. “Excuse me,” I tried to stop a woman walking briskly past. She looked back at me and didn’t slow. “Do you know where 617 East High Street is?” I asked, shouting over the noise in the crowd. I tried to keep up with her fast walk.
“Yeah, take the left up there, keep going ‘til you hit the memorial, then a right.”
“Uh-huh,” she said, her tired voice blending into the crowd around her.
I eventually found what she had called “the memorial.” It was a big green statue standing on a large gray rock. It was a soldier, holding up a flag in victory. The front of the stone was flat, and names were engraved on it. I bent down and stared at them. There were so many people, so many deaths, from The War in Cereum alone! I thought the soldier was lying. We didn’t win this war. No one did. No one wins.
As I got closer to the housing district, the streets got smaller. The stone started breaking up, as if it hadn’t been replaced for a while. I could still hear the sounds of the city, but distantly now, like someone speaking outside of a dream. The sky was gray, bleak, like my mood. I barely knew the people I was staying with, but my mother had known the woman, Margaux, from school, and Margaux had said I could stay with her and her husband. That was all I knew of them.
I opened the door of a skinny brick apartment. Margaux had said in her letter where to go, so I took the rickety wooden steps up, until I reached a landing and another door. I knocked and waited, observing my surroundings.
An older woman greeted me. She wore a plain purple dress and had curly gray hair. She smiled when she saw me. “Now, you must be Lehn Henlan.”
“Yes. And you’re Mrs. Atwich?”
“Oh, call me Margaux.”
“Of course,” I tried to smile.
She opened the door and I walked in. It was plainly furnished, but quaint. There was a fireplace on the left wall, and a couch in front of it. Behind that was a table, and a kitchenette. There were two doors near the kitchen that must have led to a bathroom and a bedroom.
“Ben wanted to be here to meet you, but he’s having one of his spells again,” she said sadly.
“Is he alright?”
“Oh, yes. He just sometimes gets feeling a little funny and has to rest for a day or two. He’s in bed now, but he’ll most likely be up tomorrow.”
She added something about making dinner, but I wasn’t listening. I was staring at a picture on a wooden stand by the door. There was a young man, his arm around the waist of a woman about his age. They were both smiling with genuine happiness at the camera. They were standing in front of a Christmas tree, and wrapping paper was all over the floor.
Then it knocked the breath out of me. I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t recognized him the second I saw the picture: it was Frank, a boy that I knew from the war. I had seen him when he was in training, at his beginning in the war, and then I didn’t see him again until he died. Until he died. He died. He’s dead, and I saw it happen. The room spun, and I felt numb. An overwhelming white crept in upon my vision, causing me to stumble into the back of the couch. I thought Margaux said something, but I couldn’t hear her. I couldn’t even hear myself. I was breathing heavily, and I sank down to the floor. My head pounded, and my vision began to return. Margaux walked quickly over to the sink to fill me a glass of water.
“Lehn?” she said nervously. “Lehn, are you here? Are you okay?” She held out the water, and I took it weakly. When I drank it, I felt a little better, and when I tried to stand, my vision receded again, but after a few seconds, I was better. I tried to shake off what had just come over me. Margaux kept looking at me like I was going to drop dead on the floor.
“I’m okay,” I reassured her, not knowing if it was really true.
“What happened? Have you eaten anything lately?”
I hadn’t, and I was very hungry, but I knew that wasn’t the main reason I had almost passed out. I couldn’t get out of my own head. I told her I’d eaten on the way here and that I thought I just needed to get some air. She was still hovering over me, like a protective mother, which was right on the mark. I left before she had a chance to protest.
I hadn’t even taken off my coat, so I deposited my luggage on the floor and left, thumping down the stairs and opening the door out into the street. I was met with a blast of cold air, but it wasn’t windy and was barely snowing, and I wouldn’t have cared anyway if it was. I was so set on getting away from that apartment, that woman, that picture. I couldn’t believe it.
My feet crunched in the snow as I walked down the street, getting more crowded with people as I went along. But I wasn’t planning on going very far; it was just a five minute walk from the apartment, tucked away just before the neighborhood.
The memorial was surrounded on two sides by a small circle of evergreen trees, which served as a useless buffer against the crowded city streets. I could still see the buildings over the tops of the pathetic green branches of the short trees. I could still hear the people, and the car horns, and the winter creak of the snow on the ground.
There was a bench near the statue, so I sat down and read the names on the stone. When I didn’t find the one I was looking for the first time, I read again, and again, until I finally gave up. Frank Atwich’s name wasn’t on here. I thought back involuntarily again. I thought that maybe the more I thought about it, it would get easier, better. But it didn’t.
My battalion was visiting the base, back from another useless skirmish. I had been lucky enough to avoid what people considered a “real battle” until the end of my service. But for the month that we were stationed there, I became acquainted with Frank, and we were soon friends. I kept trying to remind myself that either he or I would probably die within the next year, so I shouldn’t become too attached to anyone. And I was right, but I didn’t listen to my own advice.
It was the battle just before Christmas. It was the first and last battle I fought before I could finally be done, be freed, from the war. I remembered seeing him for the first time since training. I had barely recognized him before a cannonball came roaring up, straight towards him. It hit its mark.
That battle had been won by our side, but we suffered heavy losses. So many men died that day, and I felt helpless. Even with a gun in my hands, I felt defenseless, but now my enlistment was over!
Finally, finally! The system is rigged. The entire thing. You enter because someone says, look bud, it’ll be fun, we’ll fight for freedom, we’ll be heroes, you’ll come home loved and respected, we’ll have adventures, you’ll learn so much and make friends…
What they hadn’t told me was that it was torture, grueling torture, I would see so many people meet their ends, I would become a murderer, I would come home an enemy. An enemy.
The war had been over for four years now. I was 25, and it had ended the year after I had left. I was one of the lucky ones; most were drafted into this war, but I had chosen to come, so I could leave when my enlistment was up. Frank had no choice, and no such luck.
I stared at the cobblestone, still visible underneath the bench. The snow was accumulating at my feet.
I had come here, to Cereum, to start a new life. I wanted to get as far away from the war as I could. Looking at today, it hadn’t worked. I just wanted to go back to my life before the war: my brother alive, my family happy, the world peaceful. But I couldn’t. My country had chosen to join a war that it had no business joining, and people suffered because of it. People died. My own brother had died miles away from home during my second year in the war, and it was then that my opinion changed. When I was younger, I was happy. I was happy to float along in life. I used to have everything! I had a good home, a good family, a good school, good friends, good grades, good looks, good luck, but the only thing that stayed was my luck. I survived the war, and sometimes I wished I hadn’t. I had decided that the only thing for it was to try and live a normal life, maybe not have the good things I used to have, but make some kind of home for myself. I wanted to feel safe, I wanted to feel loved. I wanted the fighting to be over.
And suddenly, I was angry. I was tired of people dying for nothing, for someone’s idea of freedom, for how one person could say “war” and everyone would scramble off the edge of the cliff as they were killed, one by one, by someone else’s explosions, but they were just numbers to everyone else, just statistics, just nothing. Someday someone would put this in a history textbook and no names would be mentioned but the person who ordered all this in the first place. I used to think there was something worth fighting for, but now I knew that this war was not it. My country was on the wrong side.
I wiped my nose on my sleeve. I kicked the snow. I got up on pure impulse and ran all the way back to the apartment. I stormed up the steps, leaving a trail of melting snow behind me. I wrenched open the door and Margaux was standing there, looking at me. I started to say, “I knew your son,” but didn’t even get halfway through before I noticed that tears were running down her cheeks.
“You remind me of my Frankie,” she sobbed.
I hung my head. What was I supposed to say to something so profound?
While I was staring at the ground, I felt her warm arms circle around me, and it was the most natural thing in the world, this woman I barely knew, hugging me like I was her son, and she seemed like a mother to me. She was still crying, but said, “It’ll get better.”
The mother of a young man named Frank, a young man, that, as long as I was alive, would never be forgotten. None of them would.