Chapter Two: Doors
The school auditorium was eerily quiet as the announcement was made. The entire student body of nearly a thousand strong sat cramped in the air-conditioned room. But even with the cooling systems running at full, the filled to capacity crowd, with many even sitting on the steps and hugging walls, were starting to sweat.
“And because of the unexpected use of our facilities,” the principal continued to speak. “Our school will have to close early for the day.”
Murmurs spread quickly through the students. Wolf whistles, excited calls and happy yelps were common. For Kenji, who sat amidst the masses on one seat surrounded by a sea of colours, he was hit with a pang of sadness. He had just started school that week, and had surprisingly looked forward to the occasion of spending time in a classroom again. It was odd, as he still had memories of feeling elated at early end for school days from just a few months ago, before having been forced out of his home.
After another half an hour of a reminder cum lecture on why homework needed to be completed in order to somehow become a useful member of society, the students were set free of the school into the noon Sun.
Waiting on the pavement outside, Kenji stared back at the building he had walked out from. Like everything else in Central Mullen, the school was built as a high-rise. At twenty stories tall and set in the corner of a junction, it was dwarfed by the structures beside it that were mostly twice its height. Glass pane windows reflected gleams of light that bounced and shone off all the other buildings. It was a glaring change from his old city, where the schools were the traditional large campuses.
Kenji waited as students filtered out. Talks of movies, outings and lunches at shopping malls filled the air. Groups of students in Kenji’s year who recognized him pointed and laughed at his stained jeans and slightly hole-ridden shirt. It would have been a peaceful scene had he not known how close the war was at their door.
That aspect of life was disconcerting to him. Just across the suburbs, in the not far off countryside, thousands of people were mourning the loss of homes and friends. Yet, on just the other side of the concrete walls, millions more lived without care.
Mei walked out of the building’s glass doors, waving to him the moment they saw each other and jogged up towards him.
“What are you going to do today?” she asked him happily.
She wore a fitting clean yellow shirt and grey linen shorts that contrasted night and day with his rugged dressing.
“Well, I don’t have much money,” Kenji replied. “I guess I’ll go to my dad’s workplace, surprise him a little.”
Her smile of an answer was warm and seemingly filled with pride, though he did not know where that pride was placed. “Well, I can’t argue with that. Let’s go!”
Confused, he asked, “You’re coming too? Aren’t you going to the refugees camp with your sister to volunteer?”
“Well, I don’t go everyday. Obviously not when school ends late. And my sister sometimes stays at the office here in the city for paperwork, so I’m really only guaranteed there on the weekends.” She laughed and grabbed his arm by the elbow. She continued with a toothy smile that glowed. “Otherwise, I would have gone to see you everyday!”
Stunned by the confession before he could reply, Mei dragged Kenji down the street towards the train station. Along the way, she laughed and he smiled, conversing about their day and lives. Homework and textbook, favourite novels and longest hobbies. Even after they boarded the 1-hour train ride that would lead them to the outskirts of the city where his father worked, they continued an endless conversation on endless life. The war suddenly seemed far away again.
They got off at the last station which doubled as a train depot located at the industrial edge of Mullen. The pair walked the final fifteen minutes to the power station where Kenji’s father worked. At the gate, the security guard, like most who worked there, recognized Kenji as the son of the lucky refugee who worked in the mailroom and received a scholarship for the boy. On the other hand, Mei was treated as the granddaughter of the man who invented the generators that quite literally pumped the money that paid them, and also as the daughter of their company’s CEO.
Compassion and sympathy. Reverence and respect. Two different walks of life with V for visitors passes dangling from their necks were let into the same building. A building that stretched the size of two fields and the height of four. Stepping in, the cooler interiors swept over their skin.
The ground of the first floor was fully bricked, as the generator was in the basement and needed all the cooling measures possible. The walls and stories above however, continued the dull white of office buildings. A reception desk was at the opposite end of the entrance, with corridors leading east and west and two down straight by the side of the desk.
“I’ll see you later, Ken-chan,” Mei said at the lobby.
“Aren’t you coming with me?”
“Well, I was just thinking of checking to see if my mom is in, now that I’m here.”
He smiled, and it was at that point he realized why she did the same thing earlier. In a world where material is worth and excess is wealth, the fact that family values still existed in people of his generation was rare.
He nodded back and said, “Okay. I’ll see you later then. If you can’t find your mom, I’ll be in the mailroom.”
Mei waved back as she walked away towards the left central corridor which lead to the office elevators. After seeing her out of his field of vision, Kenji headed towards the mailroom, which was down the corridor on the far right. He gave a smile to the female receptionist who simply greeted with a small nod.
The building was eerily empty. He suspected it was due to the lunch timing, and it was likely that most of the workers had left for their meals. The door to the mailroom was a single metal monstrosity at the far end of the corridor, right at the turn of the corner.
As Kenji approached, he could hear muffled voices. At first, he thought little of it, but as he got close and the voices got clearer, he stopped just short with his hand on the handle of the door.
“Ricardo-san,” his father voice could be heard speaking through. Kenji knew others working in the mailroom, even if just pass being strangers to at least by name. None of them were called Ricardo. “I’ve combed through the whole building. There’s nothing that points to there being some saboteur conspiracy. I can’t do this with just the resource of myself. Maybe you can get some people to–”
“No! That’s not possible, Miyagi. I’ve told you. Most of our agents’ names were leaked. You’re the only one who can do this.” There was a pause in the conversation. A long bated breath with a sigh that though inaudible, Kenji could swear he could hear through the door. “It has to be you. You retired over a decade ago, just before the system was overhauled. Your name’s not on any list, your records untraceable.”
Another pause, before Miyagi replied with a defeated tone. “Fine, but you have to promise–”
“Yes. Of course, teacher. You’ll continue your job here, and we’ll take care of accommodation and your son’s education. I promise you. Just one last rumble in the game.”
“Okay. Last one. But it’s not for you. It’s to make sure nothing happens to my son.”
The handle to the door depressed slightly. Kenji jumped and made a quick dash back down the corridor before taking a breath and turning back to face the door again just as it swung open. The boy pretended to continue walking as the man, a tall and hazel skinned individual with a sharp boyish face and short curly brown hair exited the room. The man named Ricardo wore a brown collard vest over a crisp white shirt, though the taste in styled and sleek clothing was shocked by a chocolate work pants tucked into light leather boots. A handheld radio was clipped to the side of his belt.
“Oh!” Ricardo exclaimed. “Hello, you must be Kenji.”
Kenji stopped in his track. His father stepped around the corner of the door from the room and looked on in shock. “Kenji?”
With a smile that painted a handsome face, Ricardo replied, “I’m surprised to see you. I’m an old friend of your dad from his army days. Came to see how he was doing after I heard he was in town. I’ve heard a lot about you. How are you?”
Uncertainly, Kenji replied, “Good…” He did not like how casual the man was in carrying on the conversation.
“Good, good.” Ricardo continued walking, setting a warm hand on Kenji’s shoulder as he passed. “I’ll see you later, Miyagi!”
As they watched Ricardo proceed down the hallway towards the exit, the man took out his radio and spoke inaudibly into it. Kenji turned back to his father, greeting, “Hey, dad.”
“Kenji,” the older man still sounded slightly surprised. “What are you doing here?”
“Well, school ended early.”
“Oh…is that so?” It took a quick moment – though still a moment – for his father to regain his composure. Smiling, he asked, “Do you want to join me for lunch?”