Sitting in the passenger seats, three children looked at their invitations to The Fledgling School to Everything. All around them, more students settled into seats arranged in pairs on each side of the train car. Two faced forward, with two more placed facing backward, with next to no room between the seat backs. There would be no napping on this train ride. On the floor between them, their book bags reflected the intensity of their future schooling.
Peter, with his glasses sliding down his nose, had the biggest bag. Filled to the brim with textbooks on statistics, he muttered about averages and means under his breath. Actuary was an honorable profession, his father deemed him worthy. If only his mother was a sure. He pushed his spectacles up reflexively, and mopped his brow. The day was unseasonably hot.
Melinda's bag bulged with a uniform she knew she would grow into. A measuring tape was attached to a hook on the outside. It would be important. Tires were always supposed to be exactly two inches from the curb. The town where she lived depended on it. Streets as narrow as theirs required expert parking skills and quick removal of vehicles which did not meet the standards. Her mother was proud to see her daughter take up the calling of meter maid.
Ulrich sat in his worn out pants and wondered why he needed to go to school to become a street urchin. There were no books, and he knew there would be no uniform. In fact he was likely to lose what little he had before they turned him loose to his occupation. No one sat beside him. His was a lonely fate. And then the train began to move.
"Next stop Wallpaperville. I need to see your invitations to the school." The conductor held out his hand at each set of seats.
"What would he do if we didn't have one?" Peter whispered.
"Toss us out the window?" Melinda's sarcastic comment had Ulrich wincing.
Ulrich dug into his brown paper bag, and gave silent thanks to the chili pepper Gods. At least he had a way to feed himself. The seeds at the bottom of the bad would sprout no matter where he planted them, and give him a crop of many different peppers. A way to support himself. The bag was all he had to his name. On the back of his invitation, unlike the ones the others had, was a faded inscription. Urchins are our life line. Why would that be? His curious mind turned the inscription into a hundred different possibilities.
From the front of the train car, a man stood and rapped his knuckles against the steel of the door leading to the next car.
"Fledglings, a word of advice." He paused to clear his throat, his eyes twinkling. "Do not assume you are in a dead end. The school is not what it appears. Listen and learn. Choose your friends carefully. The students here will work together in ways you would never imagine."
"What do you think that means?" Melinda whispered.
"Exactly what he says," Peter responded.
"I wouldn't count on it," Ulrich said as he slid his invitation back into the envelope. His fingers shielding the back of the heavy folded card.
"We'll see who is correct," Peter said. "Numbers will never lie."
"Unless they are twisted through bad equations," Ulrich retorted.
"And slide underneath bad rules." Melinda added.
"Not if I can help it." Peter declared.
And Ulrich closed his eyes. Sleep could happen anywhere, even sitting up in a stiff backed chair. Maybe these two would be people he could trust. They seem to fit with both sides of his personality. The one side wanted to believe the best of people, and the other which knew the seedy underside was always there. His life so far had taught him well.