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Illumination: Chapter One
This would make a sufficient coffinâ€”certainly, it would. I had never felt darkness press upon me with such a tangible texture, as I had imagined the confining darkness in any coffin to have done to its occupant. Had I gone blind, this, I imagined, would be the suffocating feeling I always thought it to be. I was not dead, thoughâ€”that much I knew. When I had stepped aboard this carriage, I had been very much alive. The noises around me cemented that fact into my mind; the snores of my fellow passengers, the sound of our luggage clunking beneath the carriageâ€”death would not have accounted for such sounds. Nor would death provide for me the cold and pilling blanket in which I wrapped myself to protect against the frosty night air. And so, I decided, I must be alive.
What a shame, for death, indeed, seduced me at this moment. I know, I knowâ€”death is not something to be wished... I am not so naÃ¯ve to fancy death a shortcut. I had been brought up better than that. But, at this moment, I held nothing that provided me with the slightest reason to want to be alive. Well, that was not the entire truth. I had my journal.
Certainly, my book of memories had enough importance to live for. Nothing interesting in my life had ever been entered onto a single page of the leather bookâ€”embellished and bound with a blue ribbonâ€”I grasped tightly to my chest. Writing in it every night had left me with a definitive account of my boring life. Too bad none of it was anything worth reading. No one would ever want to read a fifteen-year-old boy's lifelong memoir, in which consisted nothing but a retelling of my daily schedule. Daily schedule! Ha! How that had changed now!
I shook myself. This was no time for laughing.
Yes, I decided; this journal was my reason to live. When it had been purchased for me, I had made a promise to myself that I would continue to write my life story until my purpose had been realized and written about in this journal. It would be my life's justification! People would remember me long after I died for the things I write in here... no matter how tattered or stained these pages have become... or will become. But, obviously, I have had nothing of great importance to write about all my life. This was my chance to write about something exciting. My life had drastically changed in the last twenty-four hours, and, oh, how cliché it was of me to be frightened.
My head crashed into the ceiling of the carriage at a sudden descent. I thought I would have been used to those intermittent drops of altitude by now, but apparently not. Massaging my forehead, I rubbed at the soreness generating between my eyebrows; not another headache, I hoped.
Unaware that anyone aboard had been aware of my identity, I whipped my head in the direction of a peculiar voice calling out my name. I glanced over my shoulder, expecting to see a familiar face, as the voice had been known to me. Nothing but blackness greeted me upon scoping my surroundings. Holding my arm out, I reached into the darkness, attempting to discern if my caller lay just beyond the screen of black that blinded me, but found only a wooden wall.
How peculiar! I was not silly enough to believe that a wall had called my name, but, certainly enough, nothing appeared about me to prove otherwise. I pressed my ear against the wooden wall, but heard only the sound of a rushing wind, whistling past the barrier of the carriage.
Another jolt knocked my head into the ceiling.
A groan emerged from the bunk beneath me, and I was glad to hear I was not alone in hitting my head at every turbulent shake the carriage gave. I leaned up, careful to mind the low ceiling that my forehead had now several times met. My eyes had finally adjusted to the thick darkness around me, allowing me to see the rows of bunk beds aligned along the wall. Poking my head out, I realized just how long this carriage actually extended into the night air as we flew. There must have been a hundred boys aboard this evening, all desperately trying to stay warm in this frigidness. Occasionally, a tall man would pass by my bunkâ€”at which time I would pretend to sleepâ€”holding an open flame in his hand, assuring that none of the boys had injured themselves in the convulsion of the carriage.
Once he had passed for the third time this night, I lowered my head to peek at the bunk beneath mine. I was shocked to see that I met a pair of eyesâ€”belonging to another boyâ€”straining to see into the darkness. Startled, I backed away, but was even more intrigued when the boy did not move upon seeing me. Once again lowering my head level with his, I realized he could simply not see through the thick fog of darkness that choked us all. I waved my hand before his face, hoping to make him aware of my presence, when I realized how brave I was being.
I'd never been one to strike a conversation with another! And never would I have thought that my shyness would abate here, of all places! But something about this boy drew me to greet him, as if, by some chance, we were destined to meet upon these bunks.
“Hello,” I said to him.
He gasped once realizing that a head floated before his own, and his eyes widened to reflect the image of me hanging upside-down over his bed, my long, shaggy hair undulating with the movement of the carriage.
“Whoa! Who're you?” he asked me.
“I'm, uh, James.” My timidness struck my body stiff as it usually did upon talking to someone new.
I remained silent for a moment, not sure whether he was going to comply and tell me his own name. At length, he responded.
“Dean. I'm Dean. So you go' drafted, too, huh?”
“Yeah... my parents were really angry,” I told him.
“Well, so aren' everyone’s. I be' you every boy on this carriage has a pair of worried moms and dads back't home.”
“That pretty much summarizes me.”
He laughed at my comment. “Well, my Dad left a long time ago, so... yeah. I don' think he's worried abou' me.”
“Oh.” I paused again, not sure why Dean had been so forward about his absent father figure.
“My Mom was define'ly mad, though.”
A sock flew onto Dean's head from another bunk.
“Shut up! I'm trying to sleep,” said a boy lying in the bed where the sock had emerged. Through the darkness, I could barely make out the other boy's blanketed silhouette. A series of 'yeah's and 'you tell 'em's whispered out from the surrounding mattresses, all shushing Dean and I into silence.
“Don' mind them.” Dean laughed. “Tha' kid wen'to school with me before we go' draftedâ€”he's a jerk.”
“You're a jerk,” the voice said back.
I pretended to laugh with Dean, worried at any moment a large, beefy bully might appear from the black across from me to give me a piece of his mind. Looking down at Dean once more, the darkness seemed to thin every second, allowing me to make out more of what was around me. Dean appeared to be a blond headed boy, about the same age as I, shivering within the freezing temperatures. Our breathes produced a wet mist that hovered about as we spoke.
“Uhm.” I thought for a moment. “No.”
“Oh, well, me, too.” Dean crowbarred his lips into a smile. “We're jus' goin't an academy, right? Kind of? Jus' a strict one, is all.”
“Just a strict one, yep.”
“And the war is almos' overâ€”I thinkâ€”so we shouldn' have anything't worry about. It's jus' the Candeors who're goin't have't go, maybe.”
“Maybe.” I started this conversationâ€”why could I not contribute beyond my flat, one-word answers? This was my chance to make a friend! Open up and talk! Was that so difficult?
Lightening stabbed through the sky, a bright knife of yellow piercing the clouds. A white hue flooded the entire carriage, illuminating what lay before me for the first time that night. In the brief moment that my blindness had been procured, I saw what seemed to be a sharpened dagger upon Dean's bed; but what shocked me more, was how close our faces had unknowingly come in the darkness, and we both pulled away from each other once seeing our noses about to touch. I, hoping to recover from our second of oozing awkwardness, asked Dean what use the dagger served at the moment.
“Oh, this?” He held it in his hand. “Jus' somethin' my Mom gave me a long time ago. It's a family heirloom, she told me.”
“I have an heirloom in my luggage, too!” I exclaimed, excited at finding something relate-able with another person. Another wave of shushes washed out at me from the coast of bunks. Dean seemed to be perfectly sufficient in ignoring the pleas for silence, and so I followed his suit.
He ran his fingers along the smooth blade as another zag of lightening ripped outside. I made out a peculiar symbol upon the handle of Dean's dagger, which I found to be somehow familiar. As to why this symbol so immediately jumped at me, I was unsure, for I found no recollection on seeing it in the past; but I had. I knew I had. The shape was so recognizable that, had I had a pencil and parchment, my own hand could have recreated the intricate design without another look.
“What's that symbol?” I asked him, eager.
“Hm? Oh, I'm no' sure... Iâ€”,”
But before Dean could finish his thought, our eyes clenched tight as the brightest light I had every encountered pierced us. I clamped my hands over my face, but the luminescence still burned through the imperfect blind my fingers attempted to create. In unison, a moan of disapproval erupted from every corner, and even Dean, who had the shadow of my bed to aid him in the pain of sudden eyesight, gnarled through gritted teeth for the darkness we had all acclimated to. The haunting confinement of black I had once despised aboard this trip was now something to desire in contrast to the length it took to repair our burnt retinas.
“Wake up, boys!” a voice boomed from down the aisle. “This may not be morning, but that does not mean you need to sleep!”
Lowering my hands from my eyes, I tried to peek down the aisle to discern who was speaking in such a militaristic manner. Only through inverted eyebrows and squinted slit eyes could I withstand the brightness that felt to protrude directly through my forehead.
“Will you calm down? They're still just boys,” another voice said. “People seem to forget that here.”
“And boys they'll remain if we treat them as such,” the loud, stoic speaker continued.
I slunk back within my bunk as the man stood before my bed. As my eyes had not yet adjusted, I saw only the outline of a tall, muscular-shouldered man who, hands at his sides, strode about the aisle with a precision walk. I dared not question this man's authority, and so I hopped off my bedâ€”despite how weak my legs remainedâ€”to ensure that he saw I had awaken. Until now, I had not noticed the accented tilt of the carriage, having been flying through the air at a diagonal angle. Dean clambered off his own mattress, standing beside me with a slouched posture, his hand placed upon the bunk to support his weight. I could slightly make out the fuzzy contour of every other boy, too, loosely standing at attention to appease the carriage dictator.
“My name is Emerson Caldwell.” As he continued to project his words about the carriage with perfect enunciation, I matched that name to the face becoming clear before me. I knew that name. I knew that face. And I knew that voice. “You will not call me Emerson, and you will not call me Caldwell. To you, boys, my name will be Arbiter Caldwell.”
Having only known this man out of eaves-dropping, I knew that I could never express the hatred I had for him. I'd never forget how he had made my Mother and Father cry the night of his visit, and how he had instilled so much fear in me; I distinctly recalled the shape of his large head, having watched it bob as he harshly spoke with my parents, the whole time waving my draft forms around in his hand, which my parents had left unanswered for some time.
“Erudite Academy is not one for the lazy nature, nor one for the trouble-making natureâ€”let me assure you of that. We, the faculty, do not condone such behavior with the slightest of leeway. Ever. I remind you again... this is not a typical boarding school. This is Eruditeâ€”the draft war academyâ€”and if you refuse training, then the war will be your detention.”
I strangled my pants with my sweaty hands once hearing this unsettling speech. What an un-comforting welcome! But I had nothing to worry about. Nothing at allâ€”thank goodnessâ€”as I had always been much too cowardly to ever even wonder what adventure rule-breaking might bring. Then again, never had such a punishment been parred, and I felt within me a slight buzz to spite themâ€”to test them, evenâ€”on the law that had been set.
No! Stop it! I shook myself, rubbing away that sudden desire to test the rules. Perhaps, I was not so humble to obey every order, after all.
“Emerson,” said the other man once again. His voice stirred the air in a different direction than Arbiter Caldwell's, and I felt more relaxed upon his interference.
“It's Arbiter Caldwell in front of the boys, Arbiter Ewing.”
“Yes, yes, Arbiter Caldwell. Please, let me take it from here.”
Arbiter Caldwell gave the other man a condescending gaze, his narrowed brows pointing to the floor, as though their disapproving v-shape was an insult. Finally allowing the gentler authority to take position, Arbiter Caldwell marched down the aisle, two curious heads ejecting from each row of bunks to glare at him as he exited. As I looked on Arbiter Caldwell from my position, I realized that the once so painful blindness had merely been but a series of dimly lit flames mounted along the wall. Upon focusing closer, I saw that the balls of fire actually hung by no torch or lantern, but hovered of their own accord.
But the second, gentler man interrupted my line of vision, and my attention soaked up the situation again.
“You can call me Arbiter Ewing, all of you,” he continued. “I'm Erudite's teletherapist, and, I must be honestâ€”Arbiter Caldwell is correct in saying that none of you will be treated like boys here. This is not a simple boarding school, as you are all aware of. If you have any questions, never hesitate to come and see me at the academy. My door is always unlocked.”
At that moment, Arbiter Ewing turned directly to face me. I felt as if our eyes connected for a brief second, almost as though his offer of guidance had been specifically for me. He crossed his arms, lowering his head, as if telling me he'd be expecting me to enroll in one of his teletherapy sessions.
“Now... gather any belongings you carried aboard and align yourselves within the aisle. Quickly, please,” he said as he moved down the carriage, hurrying the boys along.
At once, the carriage filled with the noise of moving feet and creaking bunks, each boy clambering about their assigned beds to ensure nothing would be left behind. Slowly, I lifted myself atop my bed, my arms tired, and double checked my bag of possessions; nothing had been stolen under night's cloak, as had been my primary fear. Several of my belongings proved much too important to carelessly leave to my luggage's security, and so I carried them aboard with me under my arm's tight guard. To my relief, everything was still presentâ€”my leather, blue ribbon bound journal; a picture of my parents and I, huddled before my house on the sunniest of summer days; a small amount of money savings, of which apparently would go unused here; andâ€”most importantlyâ€”a golden hand mirror my Mother had granted me upon my departure. My fingers tingled at the touch of it, feeling its cold weight. I held it up to the gloomy light fixtures, looking at my reflectionâ€”the most curious part of the heirloom.
Framed by the complex design of golden swirls, the mirror reflected what I remembered about my appearance before I left, butâ€”as had always intrigued meâ€”the mirror never showed me what truly lay behind me. Every time I had ever peeked into the glinting glass, I saw the most curious of locations; I appeared to stand in the center of a large, aphotic living room, lit by only the voracious fire escaping the confines of a masterfully constructed fireplace, illuminating several bookcases and over-stuffed armchairs under its fiery glow. As I stared into this unknown room, I barely saw what appeared to be a family coat of arms hung above the fireplace, but still remained too shadow-eaten to be made out fully.
“Hey, James,” Dean called out to me. I turned to see him standing, his head level with my bunk. He gestured toward the aisle that had become filled with a moving line of boys, marching down the carriage's length like some conjoint leviathan creature. “You ready? We're roommates!”
“Really?” Dean's excitement toward boarding with me sparked my own. “How do you know?”
“I asked that Arbiter Ewing guy over there... he said your bunk par'ner is your roommate, so that means you, I guess. He's actually pretty niceâ€”well, so is everyone compared to that Caldwell guy.”
I stepped into the aisle with Dean, immediately feeling the force of the boys behind us pushing us along faster than we had expected. Each and every boy wore an identical uniform of a thick, fitted blue t-shirt with a pair of loose, blue sweatpants that became a laced boot as the fabric approached my feet. These were our 'work-clothes', as had been made perfectly clear upon arriving to the carriage, where we had been asked to change. Why we had not simply been given our 'sleeping-clothes', I was unsure, but I rather enjoyed wearing the uniform. I was never one to stand outâ€”nor wish toâ€”and so filing into this mass of moving bodies made me feel rather wholesome, as though I'd been accepted into something larger than myselfâ€”more important than myself.
Dean, still beside me, opened up his leather sack previously strapped to his back to showcase some of the belongings he had carried aboard with him.
“Check this out... it's like a pack-a-suitcase thing. My Mom bought't for me before I left, 'cause she knew how much I hated packing...”
“Pack-a-suitcase thing? Is that what it's actually called?” I laughed at the cleverness of the product name. Even better, Dean laughed, too.
“No, no... I forget what it's called.” He smiled. “But I tried't out before I left for the carriage and't packed my entire suitcase, like with its own telekinetic power, or something.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know what you mean. I got this thing for Christmas once that used the stuff around my bedroom to form a ticking clock whenever I needed the time,” I boasted. I saw Dean's eyes widen with curiosity. “My Mom didn't like it, though, 'cause it sort of messed up my room every time I used it.”
We both laughed again, but were interrupted when a large boy, towering over both Dean and I, crashed into our backs, flinging us into the group of boys before us. A domino effect of bodies stumbled ahead several steps. Looking behind me to behold the boy who had shoved himself into us, I saw who appeared to be an older, rough looking boy of adult stature.
“Look't all these blue-backs!” exclaimed the boy, in a horseplay type of harassment. I noticed that the similar uniform the boy wore was white, whereupon I realized thatâ€”mixed in with the crowd of 'blue-back'sâ€”were an assortment of various colored uniforms, ranging from blue to red to dark gray to white.
“The draft really swiped in a lot this year.” said another boy beside my shover. His voice sounded concerned at this acknowledgment.
“Half of 'em'll be gone before exams. I'm Caleb, this is Cabren. We're Candeors.” Caleb extended his hand to me, and I shook it firmly, then realizing he had not wanted a handshake, but a strange greeting I thereafter saw many of the other returning upperclassmen greet each other with.
Not sure exactly what to say, I continued to walk silently while Dean introduced both of us.
“This is James. I'm Dean. I thought this was a blue-back only carriage.”
The upperclassmen laughed upon hearing a blue-back himself use the condescending term.
“Good behavior let's you visit home.” Cabren said.
“My parents're dead, bu'don'tell 'em, or else they won' le'me go anymore,” said Caleb, laughing, but neither Dean nor I recognized that as humor.
“And by 'good behavior' he means not getting caught,” continued Cabren, shaking his head. I suddenly recognized his face. Many things aboard this train were familiar, I suddenly realized; the symbol upon Dean's dagger, the intimidating Arbiter Caldwell, and last but not least, this boy who stood tall before me. This peculiar realization left me feeling rather interested in getting to know Cabren, as though he were my sub-consciously chosen role-model.
Our conversation was interrupted as a strong shake of the carriage flung us off our feet. Both Dean and I latched onto a nearby bunk, holding tight to the wooden frame of each bed, until the aggressive seizure of the carriage ended. My leather bag had been crammed between my body and bed upon my lunge for stability, and I opened it up to ensure that the mirror had not shattered under my boyish weight. Once seeing that it remained intact, I wiped my forehead and accepted Cabren's offered hand, lifting me to my feet.
“Just the landing,” he said.
Once looking around, I saw that it had been only the blue-backsâ€”or new meat, or whatever the proper term was for the new studentâ€”who had fallen to floor during the carriage's descent.
I helped Dean to his feet and we continued down the aisle until the moving line came to a pause. As I had been one of the shortest of the boys, I stood upon my toes in hopes of seeing what lay outside the carriage once the door opened. Over the mass of heads, I saw what I remembered to be Arbiter Ewing unlatching a series of mechanical padlocks without physically touching them. His hand simply waved through the air, as if composing some grand orchestra, and upon every flick of his wrist flew open another lock barring shut the large, wooden door.
My stomach began to convulse, and I felt it crunching tinier and tinier, my nerves squeezing it as though it were some stress reliever. Who knew what lay beyond that door? Well, certainly the older boys behind me knew, as they exhibited no similar sense of apprehension. Looking over at Dean, I felt comforted in seeing that his face displayed as much worry as mine, and I could almost hear the beating of his heart through his blue uniform... or perhaps that was my own.
A loud, iron click emerged from the exit door, and as the last mechanical lock unhinged, the door drew back to reveal what lay beyond the carriage.