"How old are you, son?" asked the man behind the counter. It was a small stretch of space set aside inside of the stock market for enlisting in the military, a small line of three that I currently stood at the head of. The man in charge of this space wore brown tweed and peered suspiciously at me, as though trying to gauge whether I was of legal age to enlist or not.
"Sixteen, sir. I turned sixteen a month ago." I replied smoothly, pulling out my school identification card and timetable, which was printed neatly on card stock. He examined the timetable, scrutinizing the schedule with pale green eyes. He was portly, with graying hair and a thick mustache that I would describe as being walrus-like in appearance. He nodded as though to show he found no fault with the evidence of my age.
"Very well." he confirmed, giving me a cursory glance. "You are from the Alborn family?"
"Yes sir." I said politely, giving him a nod in return.
"On behalf of the Nebelheim National Military, I'd like to thank you for enlisting." the man said in a somewhat tired voice, handing me a small card rather like a business card. "Go to this address to complete the process and receive your uniform and train ticket. Make sure you aren't late. The military expects their soldiers to be cordial."
"Will do, sir. Thank you." I replied, inclining by head somewhat to indicate a bow.
"Good luck, boy. May the odds be in your favor."
I strode out of the stock market, my materials stashed away securely in my schoolbag. I had abandoned school before my last two classes to make my way down to the stock market building to enlist, not that the school would care enough to inform my mother. It had been quite a while ago that I started being something of a "problem student" at school, skipping classes to learn from the textbooks on my own. Mother had been reported to a few times, but she understood why I had problems with the pacing in the class and didn't say anything of it. This incident was nothing new, and it would be forgotten almost at once if it was reported.
I headed home. Home for me was in one of the apartment complexes located behind a row of shops on a main street. These were no high-end flats, but it was big enough to accomodate our family's particular needs. It was in one complex that I lived with my mother, two brothers, and occasionally...stepfather.
The word still made me cringe, in all honesty. My "stepfather" was a man named Bernard, who was somewhat shorter than my birth father had been, with caramel-colored hair that lay in waves. He had been born into a richer lifestyle than I had ever lived in and this caused some clear differences between us that left a gaping rift in the home. He had never properly worked a day in his life, nor did he seem to care about how I felt about the way he went about things with my mother at home. With mother occupied by Bernard, my joys at home now were my two brothers.
I was blessed to have been born a twin, which was quite a rare thing in our day and age, especially in the setting we had been born into...a quiet life on a ranch with no proper midwives around to assist. I cannot remember the day I was born, but from what I had been told, it was a rainy Friday morning in March that our mother had taken down in the sitting room. Born in the wee hours of the morning preceding the big storm, Callan first arrived in the world with what my mother described as the most irritated-sounding sort of cry she'd ever heard from a baby, just as the rain began to go from a light drizzle to a more consistent pitter-pattering on the roof. One hour and forty minutes later, the wind was screaming and the rain pounded a tune on the roof as I entered the world, apparently howling something awful. It was no proper midwife that delivered us, but a kindly neighbor, and our mother said that we had only calmed down once Callan and I were united for the first time since individually departing the womb.
We were fraternal and not identical, but this impacted our closeness in no way. We may not have looked perfectly alike, but we did everything together nonetheless. My hair was brown and my eyes were blue as my father's had been. Callan shared my eyes, but his hair had come out red and never became the deep brown that mine did. He also had a somewhat paler complexion, but my mother had always found this interesting. It seemed that I resembled my father a great deal while Callan's hair and complexion suggested to my mother that her father's genetics still ran strong in the family.
We were not alone. From a memory I can vividly recall of our old home, we were joined by a brother when we were nine years old. It had been a very warm summer night and I had been sitting in our tub (full of cold water at the time) while Callan perched nearby to read something and wait for me to finish my soak when mother once again birthed another son in that living room. Thus, Damien joined our family unit. Damien's hair was dark like mine, but he was (like Callan and I before him) born with the same blue eyes like dad's, the same eyes we all had.
I was deeply reflecting on our early lives still as I found my way up to our apartment, but I caught sight of something when I opened the door that immediately soured my fond memories of the past. Bernard was on the couch with my mother, callously unaware that I was arriving in that he was saying something of a teasing nature to her and angling his hand up her dress. I flooded with the heat of anger as I so often did now in my more temperamental teenage years, where it seemed anger now followed me as though it were my shadow. I let my bag down at once...not enough to cause a fuss, but definitely loud enough to be heard from the living room, before I caught sight of another familiar face and ducked into the kitchen.
Callan met me there, rolling his eyes for a moment as though to indicate that he was perfectly aware of what was going on in the other room. He seemed to be in the process of preparing a vegetable soup of sorts for dinner when I joined him, still fuming. Callan was often the one cooking nowadays, for Bernard never left mother alone long enough for her to cook. This was fine by Callan, who had a kind of passion and flair to it that made every meal made by him an enjoyable one. I leaned against one stretch of the counter as Callan stirred and sampled the broth he had prepared for the soup.
"Where's Damien?" I asked in a quiet voice as I heard a giggle from the living room and clenched my fists. Callan shot me a warning glance, giving the soup a cautious stir with a wooden spoon.
"In our room, playing." Callan replied back as he tended to the soup. "I told him to stay in there, so to avoid him...seeing this. It's a good thing he listens to us."
"I'll say." I snorted in a biting tone. "We don't need him seeing this kinda shit. Has he been here this whole time?"
"Yes. Wouldn't leave mum alone." Callan sighed, voice marked with disdain. I offered out my hands, my way of telling Callan to let me help him cook dinner. He let me chop some vegetables, reminding me hastily under his breath to make sure I was careful as I began chopping up the greens. I channeled some of the anger out by sadistically and systematically chopping those greens before turning them over into Callan's capable hands. I leaned against the counter once more and studied the fridge, perhaps too pensive.
"What is it?" Callan asked, pausing for a moment to study my expression. "Something's up, Ted. You don't look like that unless something's up."
"I enlisted." I said, in such a tiny voice at first that Callan didn't hear me.
"What?" he asked again, but a knowing look flickered in his eyes as I averted my gaze to study the tile of the kitchen floor.
"I enlisted." I repeated, raising my eyes to gauge his reaction to the news. Shock flitted across his face for a moment before he turned to add vegetables to the soup, eyes narrowed.
"I had to, Cal." I replied back in almost a groan. "You think I can stay here and come home to...to that every day?" I further emphasized by giving a nod in the direction of the living room. The pair in the living room were so wrapped up in their own little world that my words went unheard by everyone but Callan, who only occasionally stole glances at me as he mulled over my news.
By the time we settled for dinner, we had both gone quiet. This went unnoticed for the most part, as even Damien wasn't particularly plucky today as he looked from Bernard's seat at the end of the table to us. I knew Damien felt uncomfortable around Bernard, at least far more so than he did with us. We were his flesh and blood after all, while Bernard was nothing to him from a biological and familial standpoint, even if he was involved with our mother.
"I heard you left school early again, this entire week." my mother said as we consumed our soup and bread in silence. I gave a noncommittal shrug, not caring what the school or anyone else thought of my attendance. My mother flashed me a stern look and I responded back with a somewhat sheepish expression, but this was not enough of a lecture for someone else at the table.
"I don't know how you expect to learn if you're always skipping school." Bernard scoffed as he dug into his soup, flashing me his own look of disdain.
"I beg your pardon, but I hadn't asked your opinion on it." I replied as my mother made some small noise of shock at my declaration. "I was doing quite well when I was on independent study anyhow. The pacing at school is just rubbish sometimes."
"Well, aren't you a clever boy." Bernard said back in a somewhat snippy tone. "But I thought you were out to receive a proper education. Learning by book on your own is not a formal education, boy."
"Don't call me that." I clipped back at him, firing off a glare. "Your concerns fall on deaf ears. A formal education isn't any good to me unless I learn at a pace I find fitting. All this waiting around for the others to catch up is not good pacing."
"You need to mind your manners." Bernard fired back in response. "Your hostility isn't being appreciated by anyone right now. It's dragging the very atmosphere of the room down."
"Very well, then I'll excuse myself." I growled, a bit louder than I'd meant to. I left the table abruptly, storming out into our room in spite of my mother's protests, even shutting the door to our room a bit harder than I'd intended. I crossed the room to sit on the bed that Callan and I shared. The room was shared in entirety too, with Callan and I's bed on the side nearest to the windows while Damien's small child's bed was pushed against the other wall. We could have had seperate bedrooms, as we had a room with a door adjacent to our bedroom that had become a study, armed with tall bookshelves and a few armchairs to read comfortably in. We had refused our own room though, liking things to stay as they were.
Change. It was not always an enjoyable thing. Callan and I opted for a room with Damien in it because we had shared a room since he was born and we were inseperable now...we needed each other, all three of us. Change had driven our mother into the arms of a man I stubbornly disliked, a man who felt the need to "correct us" in our ways, even though we did all we could to be good boys for our mother. Before he'd been in the picture, I had worked long hours at the R & R Ironworks, riding my bike to and from there every day, making money as a young boy to help the family stay afloat. I lifted heavy iron to and from the conveyor belts, so our company could produce Battle-Bots, the large robots used for transportation and fighting alike. Callan had taken up several odd jobs himself at the time to keep us suppoted. He'd worked as a butcher's apprentice for a while before being sent to take up work at a bakery instead (he loathed butcher's work), then found himself making morning rounds as a paperboy.
Callan and Damien joined me as soon as supper was over, with the former making a rude hand gesture in the direction of the door while the latter bounded across the room to leap on me and sit in my lap. Damien could not remember our father, for he had been a baby when he'd died, but he certainly knew me. Callan and I had helped our mother raise him and he was so attached to us - his older brothers - that he might as well have been joined at the hip with me.
"Bernard's dumber than you are anyways." Damien said in a low voice, turning his bright blue eyes up to meet mine. Damien was the epitome of a child. Even though he was well-dressed and his hair was fairly neat, there was just a touch of childish messiness about him. The room was lined with playthings of his and the bookshelf in our room was packed with bright, lively tales to match our sweet younger brother. He was intelligent and sweet, and almost playful to a fault at times. To compliment this, he had an incredible smile too...a brash grin that brightened his eyes and was just crooked enough to reveal a few missing teeth.
"Well, I'm glad you appreciate my smarts, kiddo." I laughed, ruffling Damien's hair as he squeaked with protest. Cal sat on the bed beside me then and gave me a curious sort of look then. I knew he was planning something, but didn't quite know what...
That night, I lay awake in bed, thinking about the situation. Our room was the biggest bedroom in the house, with a big walk-in closet that had many boxes of toys and tucked-away belongings. We had our own adjoining bathroom too, but it was small. Callan and I had a single bed by the window, adorned with four bunchy pillows and two thick comforters; one indigo and the other of a tolerable primrose pink, both purchased together during a sale. Damien was sleeping in a small bed that used to be Callan's, near a moon-shaped nightlight that cast a soothing yellow glow into the room. I could see his thick dark hair poking out from under his blood-red colored comforter. I peered from the window out into the quietly-buzzing streets. I did this periodically, I couldn't help but feel a sense of unease. I allowed myself to fall asleep, only upon recalling fond memories of our father...
...I woke up quite suddenly. It wasn't even five o'clock in the morning yet. I noticed why I had stirred at once. The space where Callan ought to have been was empty. I waited a few minutes, assuming it was a bathroom break or something. After fifteen minutes, I jumped out of bed and shrugged off my pajama shirt and shucked off the pants, pulling on my school uniform. I crept into the hallway, where the front door opened suddenly. I brought my arms up in a defensive position. There was no need. It was only Callan.
"Cal?" I asked. "What are you doing up?" His head was slightly lowered as though he dreaded responding to me.
"Don't be mad at me, Ted. I couldn't let you go alone." he replied quietly and softly.
"What?" I asked, perplexed by this solemness.
"I've enlisted." he said. I stared in shock as he continued. "I can't let you go alone, Ted. And lose you too? No."
"Someone needs to take care of Mother and Damien though." I objected, knowing that Bernard sure as hell wouldn't even do a decent job of it. The man had never cooked or cleaned a day in his life, nor had he been made to be responsible for another person.
"Then Bernard can do it himself." Callan replied simply.
"Cal, he doesn't even know how to cook." I complained, recalling when Bernard had entered our kitchen and looked at all the utensils in a perplexed sort of way. Callan had looked like he was going to murder Bernard that day, for trespassing into his sacred territory where he churned out delicious meals like magic.
"There's a first time for everything." Callan replied with a smirk.
The designated location was at the church across the main street from where our apartments were. Callan and I left early the next morning. It was during school, but all boys enlisting in the army were exempt from school for the occasion. There, a drill officer was lecturing us on the importance of the battle, and how we were helping to protect our loved ones and our wonderful country. Then, we were issued our formal military uniforms. They were fairly comfortable, and black as death, or as night without the moon or stars. I did enjoy the peaked cap that came with it, and using one of the provided mirrors, noticed the more manly effect the uniform seemed to bring.
Callan and I folded our uniforms neatly away in our suitcases, which we had brought with us. We both cast each other uneasy glances, knowing that tonight was the night we had to tell Mother and Damien about our enlisting and impending departure, which was set to be early tomorrow morning. Night was quickly falling.
On the front doorstep, we wished ourselves the best of luck.
"Mother?" I asked gently, as soon as we came in. I nodded for Callan to make a beeline to our rooms to pack other valuables, having a feeling we wouldn't have an easy time leaving if we lingered too long.
"Yes darling?" she asked in her kind voice that I loved so much. She was sitting with Bernard on the couch. My throat tightened up upon seeing his fingers touching my mother's beautiful brown hair that felt like silk. In moments like these, I really hated him. Perhaps I felt too loyal towards my father, but I couldn't stand seeing him touch her. Trying my hardest not to glare, I took a deep breath.
"I just want you to know, that no matter what, Callan and I love you." I said, slowly and deliberately. From behind me, Callan gave the thumbs-up, having packed what few belongings we needed left into our suitcases at light-speed. He tossed them out the ajar door and came to join me.
"Mum...we've enlisted in the Nebelheim National Military." Callan said quickly, saying those words I just couldn't get out. There was a tense moment of silence and shock, which was interrupted by Damien, who started crying. Even the young children knew the effects of war by now. Damien curled himself up in a ball so we couldn't see him, but I could hear his sobs and I reached out to touch his small shoulder.
"You can't go." Mother gasped, looking like she was about to join Damien with tears now.
"It's too late mother. Callan and I already have our uniforms and our train tickets. We're leaving Laurentime on the Falcon Express during the street parade tomorrow." I choked back, feeling a single tear run down my own cheek.
"You can't leave. I can't lose you two...not after your father." Mother cried. Bernard put his arm around her to comfort her and I glared at him for doing so.
"Mum, it's the only way we can protect you and Damien. We have to fight for you." Callan pleaded, trying to reason with her. Throughout our lives, Callan had always been the voice of reason, and I had always looked to him when I didn't feel like being chastised.
Mother got up and Callan and I immediately embraced her and I couldn't help the tears that followed, for I knew that there was that chance we would never see her again. But I had to remain hopeful that we would, because what was I without hope?
"I'm sorry." I sobbed against her shoulder before I turned away from the hug and scooped Damien into my arms. The small boy sobbed hard against me as I let my cheek press to his, knowing I would miss my precious little brother. I handed him to Callan so they could share a moment too before Callan handed Damien to Mother, who held him tight as he struggled to chase us, bawling. Callan and I turned and strode as fast as we could out of our home then.
"Stop!" a voice shouted behind us. It was Bernard. I filled with a frenzied kind of anger. Of course he would try to stop us, so he could be Mother's hero. I wasn't going to have it. I wanted to turn around and hit him in the face with my suitcase, but knew better than to do that.
"Keep going." Callan said in a low voice to me. "The longer we prolong it, the more time they have to try and make us stay."
Suddenly I was slammed into. The impact didn't hurt me much, but I lost my balance and fell to the ground. I only had time to notice it was Bernard before Callan dropped his suitcase and threw himself at Bernard, knocking the man over viciously.
"Don't...ever....put your....hands on....my...brother!" Callan yelled, raising his fist over Bernard before letting loose a few punches on him. I knew Callan wasn't hitting Bernard with the intent to really harm him, but more to get his message across and to convey his anger. I got shakily to my feet as Callan got up and brushed himself off a minute.
"Just because you aren't going to fight, doesn't mean I'm going to watch men and boys of all the other families leave to die. We need to serve for our country, and keep our father's honor. And there's no turning back! For our country, and for Dad!" Callan yelled. I could feel the revolution stirring within me.
Callan grabbed his suitcase and beckoned for me to follow suit. Then we turned, and ran into the indigo-shaded night.
We ended up taking refuge at an older friend of ours named John's house. John was a good friend of ours for quite some time now, and he didn't live too far from our house. As soon as he saw us on the doorstep, he knew we weren't able to stay home and made beds for us on the sofa.
John was a friendly fellow, who had always helped me with my arithmetic work. He had a kind, amiable nature to him, golden hair and bright ocean blue eyes like the poster Nebelheim boys did. He was not much taller than us. with a nice, kind smile. His mother and father were rather used to us by now, and were just as friendly. John, too, was departing for war. He was more than glad to be leaving home with friends, saying it was better to have company than none at all.
The next morning, we all pulled on our nicest uniforms and bade John's parents farewell. We walked through the streets and to the church, where men in uniforms had assembled in the street. A large black military-issue truck with an open back for us to sit awaited. Families peered out of windows and doorways and lined the nearby sidewalks. The very young children would already be at school by now, in their uniforms and waiting to salute the soldiers as they passed, as was the custom.
We all did a large communal salute, then got into the back of the truck. As luck had it, I had Callan on one side and John on the other when I clambered in. The truck spluttered to life, then with a deep grumble, began its trek to the station, where we would leave our former lives behind.
As we passed, people gave us the national salute. I could see the adults of families, some of whom were crying. I could see why. Though there were mostly older boys and men, there were a few kids in the truck that looked about eleven or twelve and even more thirteen and fourteen year olds. People stopped in the street to look us over. There were four military trucks; Callan, John and I were in the very first one departing.
We passed by our side of main street, and I could see Mother and Bernard. Callan and I yelled to her, and I could see her wave and start crying. Bernard comforted her and I couldn't prevent my hands from balling into defiant fists where she could not see. Callan and I, with a terrible sinking in our hearts, got our very last glimpse of our mother for a long time.
Before long, we were passing the schools. Elementary school aged children stood in a neat procession on the sidewalk, saluting us, their identical uniforms almost making them a small army of their own. I could see Damien. We waved to him and he stopped to wave back, getting some attention from his friends for it. The last glimpse we got of our dear little brother was him saluting us, showing us the country's ultimate form of respect as our destinies opened up and Callan and I joined a world different from the one Damien knew.
We passed by old schools we knew of and shops we had bought goods at. We even passed the Ironworks I had worked so hard at. Old, seasoned employees began saluting me and adding a special hand gesture of their own, which meant "good luck" as far as factory terms went, by placing the index and middle fingers of their left hand just over their right eye.
The truck ground to a halt, and we all got out in perfect lines. The station Callan and I had passed by so many times while bicycling together on the way to school was before us, even more grandiose than ever. Ranks of officers led us in, and we each flashed our tickets to the inspector and were marched up to a waiting scarlet and black locomotive.
Callan, John and I stopped to give the town we had lived in one final, fond glance. Today we stood there together as boys, barely men in a sense. But I knew that by the time we would return home, we would already be men.
Without further hesitation, we stepped onto the train and took our first steps into a long and uncertain journey.