An enormous sound crashed in his ears. Charlie jumped up instantaneously, snatching up his sweater. He waited in anticipation until yellow flooded the tunnel and a silver train thundered in, its headlights illuminating the station.
He ran a little forward as the subway fully came into view, flashing behind a row of black pillars. But as it kept roaring at full speed, manifesting an intense din that pounded in Charlie's ears, fury set in. It wasn't stopping!
Small figures created silhouettes in the illuminated windows, all sitting without him. It disappeared and silence slowly returned. Echoes of the train broke his heart. When it had briefly lit up the station it was obvious it was moving in a middle track due to the pillars. There were three pathways at this station, and not the usual two. The subway had kept his hopes up, only to skip him. Charlie felt defeated.
While the boy agonized his terrible luck faint voices floated from the right tunnel. He froze, before groping back to the entrance area. His hands glided on the slippery tiled wall while he felt his way in the dark, sure that the tracks weren't that far away. Charlie was about to pass through the bar machines when he saw them.
A group of children carried flashlights just like the policeman, and walked unafraid along the subway track. They talked at first in whispers, but then threw away their caution. There were six boys and girls, all wearing black clothes, and as they proceeded loudly their conversation carried to him.
"How much time do we have?" someone asked. "We can't get trapped in rush hour."
"It already is rush hour. It's like, almost six."
To Charlie's horror they walked towards him, but he relaxed when they kept on looking down, as though searching for something.
"We have to find it. We have to," a distinctly masculine voice declared.
Charlie didn't understand why he was still standing there, in plain sight, as though hypnotized by their voices. Part of him wondered if they would help him. The other part believed there would be certain trouble if they spotted him. His hand clutched the bar, torn between aid and flight.
A girl leapt onto the platform, agile as a cat. "We don't have to find it. Maybe it's not even here. You're lucky your dear sister even helped you in the first place. Subway tunnels are disgusting. I already ruined my new shoes." She turned away from him.
Charlie was about to slide under the bar when a boy's face pointed in his direction. "Wait, there's someone -”
The girl glanced with confusion to her right, when the boy had already lunged onto the platform and was sprinting to the left in pursuit of Charlie. He forgot all about sliding silently under the bar and went through it instead, making a noisy clank. Even though he was fast, the other boy was taller and had longer legs. Accelerating, the boy aggressively grabbed his shoulder from the back and jumped on top of him. Charlie winced from the jarring pull, and was pinned to the ground.
The group ran towards them, interested in the fight. Charlie tried to break from underneath the boy, but couldn't even though he struggled. He just wasn't strong enough.
"Let go of him, Seven. I think you're suffocating him."
It was the boy's sister again. Even though she said it forcefully, Seven (which was a really weird name), didn't listen.
"Stop being so stupid. That's why you'll never get to City League."
City League? Was that some kind of school? Charlie wondered numbly. The pain had become excruciating. Finally Seven relaxed his grip and released. But Charlie still knew he was in trouble because the kids had surrounded him in the entrance area. Two girls were blocking the stairway.
"Who are you?" asked Seven, which was in funny in a sick kind of way since that was exactly what the policeman had said.
"Anything else you want to explain to us? What were you doing here, anyway? I think you could tell this place is closed, it's so dark down here," the girl stated. She had dyed her hair a kind of russet or chocolate, which looked rather nice.
"Well, I could say the same about you. Why were you all walking in the tunnels? Aren't you afraid of getting hit by subways?" Charlie said with a regain of his confidence.
"Well, we kind of know which tunnels to use," answered a kid to the back, but Seven silenced him with a look.
"I'm not asking about me, I'm asking about you," said the girl impatiently. "Will you answer us or not?"
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," challenged Charlie.
Seven gently pushed his sister away. "Listen, kid, I'm not putting up with this. Are you spying for the City or not?"
Charlie was bewildered. "What's the City?"
Seven seemed angry. "I said, stop stalling kid! You're really going to play dumb with me?"
"If he's not going to answer, he's not going to answer," reasoned the girl. "So... Do you like personal questions better?"
"Like what?" asked Charlie.
"Like... Where do you live? Where's your family?"
"I live here, or at least I think," Charlie said to the girl. "And as for my family... I'm an orphan."
"Aren't we all?" muttered a boy.
"You think you live here?" scoffed Seven.
Charlie was getting angered by all of this. "Okay, I was warning that you weren't going to believe me, and it turns out that I was right. Now should I tell you my story? Because I'm definitely not waiting for you."
Seven looked like he wanted to say something, but his sister silenced him. "Shut up for once." He glanced away.
"Well..." Charlie began, but paused. "I don't...really know how to start, but I do know this: I woke up last night in a different world. Your world."
A girl giggled to his far right. "Now he's really gone crazy."
"Go on," the girl with the dyed hair nodded, but Charlie noticed she had a frown.
"And, I... Oh yeah! And now I have no idea how to get back. I woke up in my apartment. But the whole place is going to be demolished. I go outside, meet a police guy who tells me I broke some kind of curfew that definitely doesn't exist, and then he tries to kill me!"
"Wait," the girl interrupted. "Kill you?"
"Yes! He tried to shoot me! And he would have if I didn't run away!"
Now everyone was hysterically laughing. Charlie's face burned. No way was that stupid or funny.
"So tell me, Charlie. That's your name, right?" a girl with curly black hair asked rudely.
"Yeah," he mumbled.
"Did he take out a gun? Or something that resembled a small Memory Rifle?" she probed.
"Okay, I have no complete idea what that is, and I don't know how you all expect me to know it! I already told you, I just woke up in your disturbing world yesterday!"
She was about to say more when leopards began pouring out of the tunnel.
Charlie spotted glinting eyes in the darkness, and was about to warn the others but they had already noticed. They swung their flashlights around defiantly and shone them into the leopards’' faces. There were three of them in total, but the strangest part was that each of their left eyes was violet. They snarled, agitated from the intense light, but didn't advance.
The girl with the dyed hair whispered to everyone. "We're going to break the light eventually, since we can't stay here forever. On a count of three, we're going to make a 4B2 formation for the edge of the platform. There are underground stairs leading to the other side, for those of you who don't remember."
Charlie leaned in, confused. "Why aren't they attacking when we shine the light at them?"
She replied curtly, "They're blinded. One, two, three!"
"Wait -" Charlie protested, but everyone started to move at once. A few of the children sprinted into the darkness of the platform's end, but Seven and another mature-looking kid stayed behind, shinning several flashlights at the leopards that the others handed to them. Charlie noticed the boys were slowly retreating to the stairs as well, but backwards, since they had to keep their eyes on the vicious cats.
"Uh," Charlie muttered. "What am I supposed to do?"
Seven glanced at him for a brief second. "RUN!"
"I thought so," Charlie mumbled, then sprinted after the others, afraid that at any second a leopard was going to mangle him. Deeply regretting he didn't have a mini flashlight in his pocket, he stumbled in the dark. How would he know when he reached the stairs? When he fell in?
He relaxed when he saw Seven's sister accompanied by the girl with curly hair, each sharing the only flashlight that wasn't donated to the boys fending off the leopards. Charlie could see a faint vision of stairs behind them.
"What are you doing here?" the rude girl drawled. "I thought you had already run away."
"Well, I -"
Seven's sister interrupted. "Go downstairs. We don't have time for this, and we can't have you interfering in our plans."
They walked past him without looking back, and Charlie felt resentful. He wasn't messing up anything! He was just confused because no one had cared to see if he understood what a 4B2 formation was. He was about to pad down the stairs blind when he heard a high-pitched scream. The boy whipped around.
In the distance something had gone terribly wrong. The girl with the curly black hair was being attacked by a leopard, and the two others surrounded Seven, his sister, and the other tall kid, dishing out blows. The scream continued.
Without a moment's hesitation Charlie ran into the fray. All he knew was that several fallen flashlights were laying down in the subway tracks, the screaming girl was laying on her back while the leopard loomed over her, Seven and the other kid sure knew how to wrestle animals, and -
The leopard broke away from the girl with the curly hair and faced Charlie's direction, interested in its new prey. Its cruel face snarled at him, making sure to show all his teeth. His heart pounded in his chest again, afraid that the leopard knew he was scared. It growled once more before it lunged.
Charlie rolled away and jumped into the track, which was something he never did before. It was as deep as him, and realized he would have a problem climbing out should a danger strike. He reached for a glowing flashlight since the others had broken in the fall, when the leopard leapt in after him. Charlie froze, not sure what to do.
He didn't know much about leopards. He knew they didn't attack people that much, which implied these weren't...normal. They were probably trained to eat human flesh or something. But he did know never to stare into a wild animal's eyes, because they took that as a challenge. So he cautioned not to do that.
Soft growls resounded in his right ear, which meant the feline was close. He didn't bend over for the flashlight since the leopard would seize that chance to sink its claws into his back. Charlie remained frozen, dreading the moment the cat would finally decide to attack.
A subway rumbled in the distance and his stomach dropped. The ears of the leopard twitched. Seven's sister peered down into the track, herself battling feral leopards with a single knife. "It's alright!" she reassured when his panicked eyes met hers. "There are only subways going through the middle." A clawed paw swiped at her, and she moved away. "I can't help you! I have my own problems."
Now that Charlie understood he was on his own, a crazy idea strengthened under the noise of the incoming train and the snarls of the advancing cat. But would it work?
Charlie ran into the middle track without anything more than a second's decision, hoping that the leopard was stupid enough to chase him. He slipped past a pillar just as headlights blinded him and the rumbling, just like thunder, became unbearable. He was never as scared as he was then, terrified of the impeding subway and the leopard that was now preparing to jump onto him, but he ran, never faltering, over the track even as the subway was a foot from his fragile crushable body, and when he reached the other side the train roared behind him.
Charlie swung around as he heard a sickening impact when the subway collided with the leopard following him. He stepped away from the middle track, afraid of what he would witness when the subway rode away and uncovered the broken body. He felt his way until he touched the wall of the underground track, surprised when he actually saw it when he opened his eyes. Two girls, most likely twin sisters, huddled around a forbidden flashlight that Charlie knew they shouldn't have had. His anger overflowed.
"So, you hide a flashlight when your friends are dying over there on the other side, just so you can watch the fight like watching T.V.?"
"What's T.V. anyway?" One of the girls laughed breathlessly.
The other sister completely ignored Charlie. "Wow! That was amazing! You really killed the leopard! They're, like, impossible to kill. Here!" She handed him the flashlight. "Go and see!"
His insides twisted in apprehension of the ugly sight lying on the tracks, and the realization that he had to help the others immediately. He jumped back into the tracks, pointing the flashlight through the pillars to illuminate the other side, instead of swinging it at the dead cat. It had gone strangely silent in the station, wiped clean of the yells and snarls of the battle. A very bad sign.
"Hey! What are you doing?" One of the twins protested. "It's mine!"
Charlie didn't answer but struggled to spot the four kids and the two other leopards on the loose. Misgivings crawled all over him while he shifted carefully to the right, so as to not step on the carcass. He brushed through the pillars. Fears of a reentering subway taunted him.
"Look!" A distant feminine voice yelled. "They're coming back!"
Charlie scrambled back to his previous track way and jumped onto the platform, cautious not to drop the flashlight. He ran to the stairway, furious that he was lagging behind the idiotic twins. Charlie caught up just in time to see the girl with the curly hair, looking exceptionally grim bearing crisscrossing wounds on her arms. Her eyes flashed to his face as though accusing him of everything that had happened.
The other battle scarred kid followed, looking around him nervously. His shirt was ripped on the front and blemished with blood. And right after came slow hesitant footsteps, announcing the arrival of Seven. He seemed strained under the weight of carrying his sister, but held her gently as her legs hung out limp from underneath his muscular arms. Charlie took one look at her and his eyes widened. Her face was slashed open.