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The Boy Who Called Himself Nameless
The engine snaked through the distance, a cloud of white smoke trailing alongside it like a close friend. It slowly grew bigger, first individual cars could be seen, then doors, then, as it pulled even closer, flashes of faces moving to hide in dark corners as the train slowed and came to a stop.
The boy glanced over his shoulder, a last effort to memorize the sleepy town that up until now he had called home. The land sloped gently off for a few miles, before suddenly rising in a mountainous plateau - Giant’s Chair, as it was called by locals. Closer, figures could be seen slowing moving about in the pre-dawn light, the sky’s turquoise hue making them barely visible. One of them was his father, the boy knew, rising to milk the one cow before going to argue with the crop buyer about the price for corn. His mother would be in the kitchen; the smell of bread baking in the oven would be filling the house and rousing his younger sister from bed. Tousle-haired, she would stumble down the creaky wooden stairs to collect the newspaper from the boy next door.
The boy swallowed, turning back to the train. His family didn’t want him anymore; they had made that clear when his father handed him a pack late one night the previous week, and said to be gone by morning. After the stock market had fallen, it wasn’t uncommon for a family to send their oldest son away, but he had never expected it would happen to him. He had hung around the farm, skirting the edges, waiting to see if they would welcome him back, but they usually pretended not to see him, if they saw him at all. Once, his little sister had started towards him, eyes wide and sparkling, until his mother had called her back.
Shouldering the pack, the boy clambered into the train, picking his way over boxes that looked like they hadn’t been toughed in months. In the back corner, a pile of blankets marked what looked like a bed, and a box held a few useful items - a small knife, pocket lighter, and the end of a loaf of hard bread. He glanced around; whoever the items belonged to wasn’t here anymore. He set down his pack, and reached for the knife.
Strangely it felt warm, like it had just been -
A hand yanked on his hair, and he dropped the knife with a yelp.
“Put down.” A gravelly voice said in his ear, “Not yours.”
The boy made a wordless cry, hand moving to his hair, where fingers still dug in. The grip lessened, but did not let go.
“Who are you?” the voice asked, thick with some European accent.
“Nnng...” the boy said, grabbing at the hand. The skin was paper thin, but the grip was vice-like.
“Who are you?” the voice repeated.
The boy said nothing,but continued to struggle.
The man - for it was a man’s voice and grasp that held him - snorted, and dropped the boy. “So.” He said, “You are Navnløs, Nameless. No matter.” he reached behind him, and picked up the boy’s pack. “Here. Go now.” he turned back to the pile of blankets and began folding them.
The boy finally found his voice, and he used it now, wishing it didn’t tremble like it did.
“I-I have a name. I just don’t want to tell you.”
The man snorted again, “You still here, boy?”
“I’m not a boy, either. I’m almost thirteen.” he glared, feeling braver now that the man’s hand wasn’t holding him up by his hair.
“Thirteen years. You know how many years I have, boy? Seventy-six. When you have seen seventy-six summers, and seventy-six winters, watched the trees turn seventy-six times, and felt the flowers bloom seventy-six ways, then you will no longer be a boy. Now, you will go, or I will throw you out.”
The boy scrambled over the boxes, torn between wanting to get away quickly and the fear of turning his back on the old man. He may have seen seventy six years, but he certainly had the strength of a much younger man.
As he approached the edge of the train compartment, he paused, hesitant to jump the small gap. With a groan, the train wrenched into movement, and the boy nearly pitched headfirst off the train. His hand caught the wall of the compartment, though, and after a brief fight with gravity, he pulled himself back onto the train.
Nerves on fire, he sat back and felt the train pick up speed, the scenery blurring into a mash of colors. Adrenaline drove through his veins, and he realized, some few minutes later, that he was shaking. A rasping noise from behind him made him turn.
The old man sat on an upturned crate, chest heaving. It took the boy a moment to realize that he was laughing.
“You should have seen your face, boy. Ho-ho, it was something to behold.” The old man laughed until tears streamed down his face, and he was choking to catch his breath.
The boy stared, unsure of how to act. First the man nearly throws him off the train, and then laughs when he nearly falls off.
“You’re sick.” the boy said, spitting.
The man held up his hands in a surrender, “Forgive me, I have been alone too long. A twisted young man grows into an old man with twisted humor.”
For such a thick accent, the man spoke english quite well, if a bit stiffly. His mouth seemed to want to form words that had no place in the American tongue; consonants wanted to flow together that had no business being next to each other.
The boy struggled to find a response, and, finding none, said nothing. He leaned against the compartment wall, feeling it shake and getting little comfort. The man continued to chuckle, until, seemingly spent, he wiped his face, and faced the boy with interest.
“What do you want from me?” the boy asked, after a few more minutes of silence.
“Want? I want nothing from you, boy, save a little information. As it seems we are to share this lovely abode, a name would be nice. Where do you plan on going? What sends such a young boy into the cruel life of a rail rider?”
The boy looked around, unwilling to tell his story. He picked at a scab on his knee, one that he had gotten climbing a tree not too long ago.
“So you are, at least, a smart coward.”
The boy looked up, “I’m not a coward.” he refuted hotly.
The man spread his hands out, open, “A braver boy would have jumped, regardless of the motion.”
The boy flushed, and spat again.
Suddenly, the man stood up, and pointed a bony finger at the spittle, “If you are to stay here, boy, you will learn manners. There will be no spitting on my floor. Do not make me teach that lesson any harsher.”
The boy nodded, again mute.
“Now, we will be eating soon. I would hope you have some food in that pack of yours; it will be a few days before the rats are coming. They do not take to new comers well.” With that, the man turned and climbed back over the boxes, leaving the boy to stare, until well after his figure had retreated into darkness.
The train, as it turned out, was full of life. Boys younger and older than he himself traversed the compartments, bringing with them tales of bygone times, or rumors of others aboard the train.
“You know the boy Rift? The tall one with the scar over his eye? They say he killed a man once, over a scrap of bread.”
“I’ve heard that once, millions of years ago, there were giant lizards walking around. Lizards as big as a house.”
“They say that when the moon’s full, the conductor of the train goes all funny and turns into a dog.”
The most useful information by far, though, was that regarding the train’s schedule. Anyone with information about the next stop was revered until he gave it up, and those with knowledge about the next police raid was practically royalty. The police raided the trains for the rail riders, shooing them away, or even catching them. The boy spent one memorable afternoon with a teenager who claimed to have been caught no less than thirteen times.
“An’ each time I barely got away with my life.” he swore, solemnly nodding.
When the boy asked another teenager about him, the kid snorted derisively, “That’s just Bo’s talk. He was only caught once, and they only let him go cause he sniveled on the policeman’s jacket. He was so busy wiping it off, he didn’t even notice that Bo got away.”
After that, the boy took everything he heard with a grain of salt.
Signs of the failing economy were everywhere. The train often slowed, but did not stop, in towns too desolate to truly be considered habitable, on a cursory glance, but once the boy grew used to looking for life, he found it. Children would crawl out of muddy caves to watch the train with wide, hopeful eyes. After a while though, the eyes lost their hope, and they simply stared with sadness as the train passed through.
The train drove through one small city, and it was here that the boy saw the true plight of the nation. The streets were full of men, women, and children, begging for scraps or spare coins. A small group of children were playing tag next to a dead horse, heedless of the flies that hovered like a storm could. A man in a suit stood next to a crate of moldy looking vegetables, feebly holding a sign that read ‘Vegetables: 2 cents a pick’.
The boy had been told that something bad had happened with the country’s money, but his twelve year old brain hadn’t been able to comprehend it. He had looked at the old man as they passed, curious.
The man sighed, “When the stocks crashed, not even the rich were truly safe. Better to spend your money than to keep it stored in something as fallible as the stock market. At least then you have something to sell. Truly we all thought that by now the money would be back, but our dearest President Hoover has done little to fix the situation.” Had the man approved of spitting, he would have spat, but he settled for a dark scowl.
When the pair was forced to switch trains, which happened fairly often, they might stay a few days in the town. Small town-like structures had been set up, hobo jungles, as they were called by locals. Tents, campfires, and ramshackle little huts were set up on the outskirts of towns, and everyone seemed to pitch in when it came time to food. On their first stop, the boy had hidden behind the man while he told stories around a boiling pot, his rasping laugh filling the air and breaking any tensions. The night would come, star-studded and navy blue, but the crackling fire would become a beacon to everyone within a fair distance, a symbol of hope.
Of other symbols, there were plenty. Wayfarers like the man and boy, hobos, would mark walls, fences, and other structures with some secret language that warned or else welcomed others. It didn’t take the boy long to pick it up, and after a few close calls with barking dogs and unwelcome campsites, he left a few of his own. Under the supervision of the old man’s sharp eyes he would scratch out a shaky set of parallel lines or circle enclosing an ‘x’. The man would frown and make him redo it, more often than not, but with time, the redoes became few and far between, until they disappeared outright.
By this point nearly three years had passed since he boarded the first train. The boy was no longer the soft, pudgy figure he once was, instead tough times had hardened his body into a lean, muscled shape. To most, he was known as Navnløs, the name the old man had given him that first day. To the old man, however, he was forever known as boy. The boy once asked him why he called him boy, but the man had shrugged and repeated the line he had before.
“When you have seen seventy-six summers, and seventy-six winters, watched the trees turn seventy-six times, and felt the flowers bloom seventy-six ways, then you will no longer be a boy.”
Some time after that the old man came back from fetching dinner one cold winter night, smiling and whooping, clutching a newspaper tight to his chest.
“Ho-ho, boy, you will never guess what has happened.”
The boy tried to pry the newspaper away, but the man wouldn’t let go.
“No, stop, this must be saved.” A kind of desperation set in the man’s face, “This is history, boy. History. President Hoover is gone and Mr. Franklin Delanor Roosevelt has taken over. He has promised us a new deal, a new start, to get us out of this depression we are in.”
The boy stared; an end to the depression? Surely it was too good to be true. After four years of knowing little comfort, was there an end in sight? A smile grew over his face and he quickly joined the old man in his celebrations, whooping and dancing, even as snowflakes gently started to fall. To the boy, winter had never looked so beautiful.
The next few months were full of talk about Mr. Franklin Roosevelt. The old man sang praises to everyone he met, never taking skepticism to heart.
“Aw, shut up old man, Roosevelt don’t know what he’s doin’ up there in that president’s seat. He’s just tryin’ to look good.” one young man told him.
The old man hadn’t even blinked, but the next morning the young man had woken missing several items, including a woolen blanket that looked suspiciously like the one that appeared in the boy’s sleeping area a few days later.
One day, however, the old man didn’t rise from his bedding. After waiting much longer than he should have, the boy crept over to see what was wrong.
The man’s face was ashen, his skin cold, and his chest no longer rattled. His eyes were shut, and the small amount of white hair that still graced his liver-spotted head hung limp. The boy let out a small gasp, and scrambled backwards, knocking into an empty oil lamp. It fell over, revealing a note written on a grimy slip of paper.
Boy, the note read, If you are reading this, then my time must be up. Do not worry, for you will survive; I have seen to it that you are protected until such a time comes that you can go and serve Mr. Franklin Roosevelt. Never forget that it is Mr. Roosevelt who is getting us out. It is he that will bring this beautiful country of yours to glory once again.
Under my blankets is a small locked box. The key you will find is already in your possession. The contents of the box are now yours, as well as anything else of mine you wish. Leave the rest, or give it out, whichever is your choosing.
Never forget, boy, the note concluded, a brave man and a fool are nearly synonymous.
The boy sat until well after the sun had reached its zenith, then tucked the note into his pocket. He found the key just as the note had said, stuffed into his bundle pack, and found the box shortly thereafter. With shaking hands, he popped the lock, lifting the lid with apprehension.
Inside were photographs, stories of the old man and who he had been. Underneath a fake bottom, the boy found nearly two thousand dollars, stored away over years of waiting for an economic break through.
The boy left the train compartment the next morning, after scrawling a message to other hobos on the side. He shouldered his pack, like he had years previously, and waited in the train station for a different train, one that would take him a different direction. It was the morning of his seventeenth birthday.
Seven years later, December 7th, 1941, Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
The boy wasn’t the only one, that cold December morning, lined up outside the nearest recruiting station. Brought together as only a nation in tragedy can, hundreds of men and boys signed up to join the military in the weeks after Pearl Harbor. They were lined up, and passed through a medical examination, before handed a uniform and bayonet rifle.
“Name?” was the most common question asked.
The boy had struggled at first, casting his eyes about, until the officer looked up at him in annoyance.
“Look, it’s not that hard of a question. What is your name?”
The boy’s eyes landed on a shipping box in the corner - Malexing Shippers - the name so faded that only the first half remained.
“Malix.” he said, “Malix... Navnløs.”
The army training was like nothing the boy had ever experienced. Life as a hobo was hard, there was no denying that. The man and boy had often gone to bed hungry, the gnawing pain in the stomach was more of a friend to him than many of the other young men at the training camp, and jumping on or off a train required a certain grit that he was sure several of the others lacked, but to become a soldier required something the boy had never needed - trust.
It required trust to stand in front of a line of men firing a gun at invisible enemies, while behind him more boys like himself did the same thing. He had to trust the others to not steal his things while he slept; for a while even going so far as to sleep with his belongings, until the ridicules of the others so far surpassed the need for security, that he finally gave it up. Most of all the boy missed the constant motion of the train, and the mystery of where they were going to end up next. Even as war raged on across the oceans, and the future of the United States was forever unclear, the boy couldn’t help but feel a monotony with his daily life. He rose every morning to the bugle call, dressed, ate, drilled, ate again, drilled some more, and then went to bed, to repeat the process the next morning. Some of the others had sweethearts back home, wherever they called home, and they marked the passage of time by the letters they sent and received. The boy knew nothing of sweethearts - there had been girls on the rails, for sure, but they were as hard as the boys; sometimes even more so.
Yet he persevered, and soon enough it payed off. His division was being sent to the Pacific - to Midway Island.
The crossing was considered rough by standards of many of the men. Most were seasick at one point or another; some more so than others. The boy, however, was long used to the rocking and shaking of the train, and found the ship’s movement comforting. The smell of the ocean was foreign, but he found that if he bunked near the engine room the smell of oil and grease was similar to a train.
At night sometimes, the boys would gather and tell stories. They spread rumors about the officers, and tall tales about the enemy.
“Didja hear Sergeant Luke once bit a bullet in half with his teeth?”
“Once those Japanese get a sight of us, they’ll run scared.”
When they reached Midway, though, they lost some of their steam. Wounded soldiers were carried onto the ship they had just vacated, limbs missing, wounds bleeding. The battle of Midway was raging, and the boys had been stuck in the midst.
After only a few hours on the island, the boy realized that war was a nasty business. There was no honor or glory in shooting someone. There was no dignity in frantically stabbing with the bayonet, praying that one hit was all it took. The battlefield became littered with bodies, and bits of what had been bodies - bombs having blown them to pieces. It was as if some cruel joke had been played. They boys had stepped onto the island expecting adventure, glory, justice. Instead they found that the adventure wasn’t as fun once people started dying, and that the only glory was that of a hot meal. The air was filled with the smell of death, the sound of the dying, and the sight of what had been. It was crippling to many of them. Once, Lieutenant Frank called the boy over, and asked him what he saw.
“I see death and more death.” he said.
“Navnløs.” the Lieutenant had said, a warning edge in his voice even as his tongue struggled to form the foreign word.
“I see Japanese bodies and American bodies. Death, and more death, sir.”
The Lieutenant never asked him what he saw again.
It was late, on the eve of the third day of being on the island. The moon had risen long prior, the shadows danced a silent waltz. For once, the island seemed still and calm. The boy shifted, trying to fall asleep and get a few hours rest before the sun rose and he was confronted by the burden of sight. Suddenly, like a knife, a voice cut through the dark.
“Defend, they’re on us.”
Men scrambled up, strapping boots with practiced haste, grabbing rifles and lining up to await orders. The Lieutenant gave the order, and they fired back, almost blindly. The world was filled with flashing lights as guns fired. The boy stared, half asleep still, watching the lights dance.
“Navnløs, move.” someone was shouting.
He didn’t hear, or, if he did, it didn’t connect. He only saw the lights dancing, heard the crack of guns, and the scream of bombs, so like the scream of train brakes. It came back in a flash, all of it. From a boy, thirteen years old, climbing onto a train for the first time, to the last wave goodbye as he hopped off, and watched the engine speed away. The same feeling he felt then rose up in him now, a great sadness, but on the edges, hope. The lights continued to dance, time continued to move on, but he was still, finally. He watched one light, brighter than the rest, head straight towards him, and suddenly he was hurtling backward, like a train across the flat country, hurtling, flying...
Middletown, New Jersey