I was wet, cold and half-asleep when the door to my empty train carriage flew open. The kid who stumbled in was wide-eyed and sweaty, his voluminous afro sticking up at all angles and his ratty clothes covered in an indeterminant variety of fluids. I blinked a few times to check I wasn’t hallucinating from rancid river water, then the kid dove towards me, sliding beneath my chair and out of sight.
“Shh! Keep it quiet, bro!”
I stared at my seat, hesitant to settle back in.
“Just act normal, ok? My lifedepends on it!” the kid hissed.
I sat back down and stuck my head between my knees. “Your life depends on you hiding under my chair? You may wanna re-think your life choices man.”
He rolled his eyes at me and poked my head away. “Shut it, will you?”
A crash came from the next car and I sat up straight as a meerkat. Shouting and footsteps followed.
The first to burst through the compartment doors was the smallest, angriest kid I’d even seen. His blonde hair was spiked in grime-covered points and he wore a crest of worn Myki travel cards that covered his chest and shoulders like scaly battle armour. Beneath that he wore an army tank and over-sized cargo pants that made him look even tinier. He must’ve been about eleven – nowhere near old enough for the rage-fueled tantrum bubbling inside of him.
Following him were two older, burlier kids who were nearly identical. They were covered in dirt, hair and feathers, each with a Myki necklace that paled in comparison to their pint-sized leader’s.
The trio looked like they’d just walked off the set of a sci-fi film – a low budget one – and it took every ounce of my willpower to keep from laughing.
“Hey kid!” The leader’s voice was so high he sounded like an angry mouse. I pinched my leg.
“What?” I grunted in reply, receiving a jab from the kid beneath me. Was I supposed to just ignore this dirty jockey? It was hard enough to hold my giggles.
“You seen a black kid come through here?”
I coughed to cover the flicker of my eyes downward, then shrugged and shook my head. He narrowed his eyes.
“Kit!” he barked over one shoulder, “Kat!” over the other.
The twins snapped to attention.
“Search the rest of the train.”
They nodded in unison, then marched past and into the next carriage, leaving me uncomfortably alone – as far as he knew – with the tiny boss. Skirting a line of chairs that had been melted to a plastic husk, he leapt over a chair back and landed in front of me. He settled into the most intimidating pose he could muster – leaning forward with his elbows on his knees – and gave me a hard, lengthy stare. His leg bounced as if he couldn’t keep still. I stared back at first, but his silence continued for so long that I thought his cronies would return before he gave me his villain speech.
Finally, he leant back with his arms and legs spread wide, a lazy grin on his face. “What’s ya name, kid?”
I raised an eyebrow. Kid? Really? “Jeremy. Yours?”
“They call me Kicker. I like to kick.” He paused for more awkward staring. I looked everywhere but his stupid, arrogant face, tapping my fingers on my legs impatiently. “Don’t you know who we are, kid? We’re the Finders Keepers. We own this here station, and everyone who comes through it.” He caresses his Myki cards. “See these? Every one of them won in battle.”
Ignoring the hilarious thunderdome-style battle scene that comes into my head, I focused on his other declaration. Should I have heard of the Finders Keepers? Were they important, or dangerous? I swallowed hard, wishing I’d done some research before heading off on my crazy adventure.
Kicker crossed his legs with a satisfied smirk and began kicking my knee with his toe. “We’re the gatekeepers of the L∞p – the biggest, baddest bunch o’ kids in Vic. You sure you wanna get in our way?” He kicked harder and harder, my knee reddening. There’d be a bruise tomorrow.
“Look, mate. I’m just lookin’ for my little brother, alright? I don’t want any trouble.”
“Give up the black kid, we’ll help you find your brother.” His kicking stopped.
I could feel the tension emanating from the kid under my chair. If Kicker wasn’t so focused on intimidating me with his stupidly long stares, he may have caught him by now. His offer was mighty tempting. But the throbbing in my knee make up my mind.
“Sorry mate,” I said with a shrug, “pretty sure it’s just you, me and those two goons of yours on this shitty train. Thanks for the offer though.” I gave him a cheesy grin.
Kicker’s face twisted with ugly petulance. His snarled lips were just about to spit a retort when KitKat returned. From their vantage point, the chair kid was easy to see.
A distinctly American “shit!” shot out from under me, then chaos. Kicker launched at me, but he was so light that I threw him off with my hands and legs. He crashed against a chair and his Myki crest broke, scattering cards across the floor. The American kid squirmed out, grabbed a fistful of cards and tossed them at the twins. They swatted them away and he rugby-tackled them to the ground.
“Run!” shouted the boy, shoving his elbows into Kit and Kat as he struggled to his feet.
“You’re dead!” Kicker screamed. He thrust his legs out to block my exit, but I vaulted over the back of my chair.
We threw open the train door and sprinted onto the deserted, overgrown platform. The line opposite ours had a turned over train, covered in soot and rats. It was a miracle the Burner Line was still operating.
Our thin-souled shoes slapped the pavement, the morning air frigid and biting. My clothes were still uncomfortably moist from my overnight swim.
“What is upwith those guys?” I panted.
“They take their job real seriously.” The American kid ducked into another compartment and stopped to catch his breath, shooting me a massive, toothy-white smile. “I’m Ares by the way. Jeremy, right? I’ll call you Jer.”
“Is now really the best time for introductions?” I bent forward, chest heaving and stomach growling.
“I don’t want you thinking of me as some random black kid. It’s Ares, alright? Air-EEs.”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it.” I glanced back, then jerked into motion as the three bullies hurtled towards the door. I yelped and Ares clothes-lined Kicker. His crumpled body then made enough of a roadblock for us to make it to the next carriage.
“The train’s about to leave. They stay on here, we’re dead!”
“I’ve got an idea, just follow my lead, ok?” Ares weaved out onto the platform again, and after a deep sigh, I followed.
“You’re not crazy, right?” My voice cracked.
Ares shot me a wink. “I might be.” He stopped outside the last door at the end of the train and turned to watch our enemies advance. He bounced nervously on the balls of his feet – massive sneakers held together by duct-tape. My own shows were well worn from three years of hard labour in the BW. Tape was a luxury there.
“Why do I get the feeling you’re gonna get me killed – or at least beat up.”
The train hissed in preparation to leave.
“My Mom always said I have a knack for trouble.” His smile faltered for a moment and he looked away. “Ok, onto the train.”
We hopped on and Ares reached up to grab the yellow pole that lined the ceiling, nodding at me to do the same. He did a little tester pull-up and wiggled his eyebrows at me.
“I think it’s time we give Kickera taste of his own medicine.”
It took me a second, but I got it. I tried a few of my own pull-ups; I wasn’t particularly strong, but I could lift myself easily enough – I wasn’t very heavy.
“You really think this’ll get them off our backs?”
“Next train ain’t til tomorrow. Just gotta time it right.”
They came at us with Kicker in front, his small face screwed up in fury. We pulled ourselves up, then booted them all in the chests. KitKat wobbled and fell back onto the platform, but Kicker only stumbled.
The train dinged, and a robotic female voice resounded through the carriage. “Doors closing.”
Spitting profanities at us, Kicker threw himself into the train one last time. I got him in the shoulder and Ares booted him in the gut. The tiny bully tripped over the gap between train and platform, then landed solidly on his comrades. The doors slid closed.
“I’ll kill you! You’re both DEAD!” he screamed through the thick glass.
We pressed ourselves against the window, pulling faces as the train began to move. Kicker threw himself against the doors like a rabid dog in a cage, but they wouldn’t budge. Kit grabbed the end of the train, but it quickened beyond his speed, and he fell back into his sister. The train pulled away from Finders station, leaving Kicker’s solitary figure swearing his revenge from the broken edge of the platform.
“That was equally awesome and terrifying,” I said with a breathless laugh. I plonked myself down and let out a deep breath, running sweaty fingers through my shaggy, black hair. “Is this just a normal day for you?”
Ares chuckled and sat opposite me. “Hell no, I’ve been waiting almost three years to escape the L∞p. Without you, that little bastard probably would’ve taken me down. You do notwant to know what L∞pers do to traitors.” He shuddered. “Thank you, man.”
I shrugged off his thanks, more concerned with his depiction of life in the L∞p. “Is it… just traitors? Or are all the L∞pers like those Finders Keepers bozos?” I rubbed my thumbs along my calloused fingers – a habit I’d formed with the callouses themselves through daily hard labour in the BW.
Ares over at me, then out the window. The buildings outside were weather-beaten and reclaimed by nature, some of them burnt or ruined by L∞per mischief. We were headed away from skyscrapers and glass-walled monuments, towards greener pastures – I hoped. I hadn’t left the south in three years.
“They’re not all like that,” Ares said with a sigh, using a grimy string from his wrist to compress his afro up into a ponytail. “But finding good ones is a challenge. Ain’t every day you stumble across someone as charming and handsome as me.” He wiggled his eyebrows.
“Whatcha gonna do with your newfound freedom then?”
He shrugged. “I’ve heard there are tribes of kids along this line. Figure if they’ve lasted this long, they must be doing something right. Maybe I’ll find one with bikini babes who’ll feed me bacon and massage my shoulders.” He peered dreamily into the distance as if said girls would appear on a bacon-shaped cloud.
My stomach grumbled loudly. “Ergh, don’t talk about bacon. I’ve been living on a canned bean diet for almost a year now.”
Ares grimaced and shuffled one seat over. “Keep your gases to yourself then!”
We chuckled and the train made a screeching curve around the bend towards the next station. For a second I worried about the train careening over the edge, but the cries of metal-on-metal dulled, and my hands unclenched from my seat.
“So, where’s this bean restaurant?” asked Ares, slinging his legs up onto the chair beside him.
“Less of a restaurant, more of a soup kitchen,” I grumbled. “The BW’s the only place I know still running in the south. Had to swim the river to get here by sunup to catch the train. ‘S probably why I smell like wet dog.”
“Why didn’t you just take the bridge?”
“I was tryin’ to be stealthy! Would’ve gotten away with it if you hadn’t burst into my carriage, too.”
We both laughed, but Ares’ smile slowly faded.
“Why you gotta be stealthy, man? You runnin’ from something?”
“Nah, nothing like that. Just heard stories of the L∞p – vandals and all sorts of crazy shit. I’m tryin’ to keep a low profile while I look for my little brother Cody. No use gettin’ myself caught up in a heap of drama, it’ll only get in the way. Plus, I’m not much of a fighter.”
“You’re tellin’ me! Look at those spaghetti arms!” He grabbed my wrist and shook my thin arm. While I was toned, it was only a tiny step up from skeletal.
I pulled away with a pout. “I’m only fourteen, alright? And I’ve pretty much been constantly hungry for three years straight.”
“Hey, I’m fourteen too and look at these guns!”
He flexed arms much bulkier than mine, but not muscled. I guess there hadn’t been much food to go around in the L∞p either.
The train began to slow, a glass dome looming ahead: the next station. My heart thumped in my chest and I rubbed my fingers.
“Next stop… you gettin’ off?” I swayed to my feet with the motion of the train.
Ares rose with me, but he was cautiously watching the roads. “You know the next stop is still part of the L∞p, right?” he asked without answering my question. We both hung from the central pole by the doors, watching red brick pass by. The lights flickered. “It’s not underground like the worst of it, but there’ll still be scouts. They’re always on the lookout for more slaves to add to their ranks. More they have, less work they have to do. Scary-ass system, man.”
It sounded pretty similar to life in the BW, but at least there we were working to build a boat and get out of Vic together. And technically we were free to come and go as we pleased. But most kids who left never came back.
“Thanks for the warning, but I still gotta get off. Cody’s on this trainline somewhere, and I’ve gotta find him, even if I have to stop at every station from here to the end of the line.”
Next stop: Southern X Spiders
Author’s note: this is Chapter 1 of my work in progress Follow the Tracks.