The Midnight Train, She'll Take You There
I always lost my nerve.
I began to ride the rails instead, for all that the trains left me dizzy and sick. I befriended the man who took the tickets and could tell us all where to get off: "Zoo stop," or, "Westmont," then, "Downers Grove, Main Street." Each time, I wavered as my station drew close. What if I stayed, accidentally-on-purpose? Where could I go? What might I see?
Or what if I climbed down and stood in front of the train? Would I understand you then?
I always lost my nerve.
That night was dark and full of rain. Such nights always are. I should have known. The blacktop glistened, oil-slick. I scuffed my way down the street to the station and didn't dare check the watch on my wrist. I was too late to the trains even to see mine leave, the 11:40 rolling home.
I sighed and let my backpack fall. I'd have to wait until the next train, half-asleep on a station bench.
Running rhythm snapped my head around, bright hollow clop on grimy floor: it wasn't you. He was slender, fifteen or twenty-five, and brushed past me with a toss of his head, white streak in dark forelock catching the eye. "You're late," he called back over his shoulder.
"I know," I said. "Train's gone—where's the fire?"
"Where's smoke? You can catch it, if you run." A glint of something at his feet and past him a slice of light spilling from an open door. Not late after all, or late but the train was later. I sighed at my luck.
He shied sideways as I reached him, then caught my hand and pulled me up. "All aboard."
The train groaned and shifted under my feet. I dropped my backpack to the floor. My watch's face caught the light as I braced an arm against the wall. The second hand ticked on past midnight.
"Where are you going to?"
I turned to face the row of seats, dark velvet plush and hardwood floors, fittings of gloss-polished brass. I shook my head and shook it again. I'd never seen this car before, nor the old man in the well-worn hat, blind, with eyes like old spilled milk and any tears cried for them long since dry. "Home," I said, and flinched at the word. "I think. Does this train stop—"
The old man nodded, satisfied. "It doesn't matter, baby girl. You'll get where it is you're going. The midnight train, she'll take you there."
I moved into more forward cars. One was sleek in fine dark woods, the next all gleaming gaudy chrome. I stepped into another like a forest, soft mossy wall where I set my hand, and one more, darkness with a drip of water and clammy heat. Outside the train was shadow and light, shapes that were colors, colors that were sounds.
The conductor was nowhere. His replacement was a crow-headed girl, her eyes darkly bright, and beside her someone with no name or face. They passed and left an idea in their wake: Next is the Zoo Stop, then on to the Mound and to Main Street. Six stops to Edgeworld, the end of the line.
I found the kid from the station chewing sugar cubes in the dining car. "This," I told him, "isn't my train."
He mulled that over for a moment. "Is now, isn't it? You can always get off, if you'd rather not get where you're going."
He raised his eyebrows in a not-my-problem shrug and offered me a sugar cube. I shook my head. I turned to go.
A voice behind me, then beside. A woman—my age, a little younger. "Don't mind Patch—he can't help it. I'm Thorn."
"Jane," and we shook on it. Her hand was cool, reassuringly present. Ordinary, like any commuter, like any of the people who weren't on this train that wasn't the 11:40, after all.
"Zoo Stop," she whispered as the train ground to a halt. The doors creaked to let in a growl that I felt more than heard and a thick heavy scent: old fur after a long winter sleep. I turned sharp from the window. This I didn't want to see.
Thorn sat on a hard wooden bench and patted me a spot. "I'm going to the Mound," she said. "But I'll probably not get off tonight, either." Her voice was soft, subdued. She clicked fingernails on the bench and watched me, mild and mildly interested.
"I think I'm on the wrong train," I confessed.
The Mound, the crow-headed girl and her companion suggested. The Mound. Main Street. Then on to Edgeworld, the end of the line. Thorn was watching me. "You're not," she said. "Is this your stop?" I reached for my pack—still in the other car, no good—and began to stand, then looked.
Were you running to beat that train, or were you going so quickly to meet it?
Thorn was still as the train chugged on, but I felt her gaze like weight on my skin. "Who did you see?" she asked.
"If it was him." I wasn't as sure of your face as I had been, or the sound of your voice. I heard only the wail of the train. I pictured only your body before it. In this place, how could it be you? In this place, how could it not?
"The Mound's down where the dead men go." She paused, the train sounds filling the space between us, the whistle that means not train a-coming but out of the way! Added, "I've seen my sister there."
Full stop. Thorn's mouth half-open, dark-polish nails frozen mid-click. Blood rushed to scorch my face. "I'm sorry—I didn't—I don't mean—"
"My fault," she said softly. "All my fault."
The crow-headed girl touched my knee; her companion might or might not have done the same. Main Street, and it came up fast, the station I'd left this afternoon, beyond it the downtown like any other day. My backpack was with the old man still and Thorn sat staring through me, but here was my stop and so I swung down, sneaker thump onto sidewalk, and the doors slid shut.
The midnight train rolled on, chugging off into the dark. I knelt on the tracks in its wake, pressed my hands to icy metal and then pressed my cheek, my body to the rail that shivered with the passing train.
But the train was moving away, and so I couldn't understand. The whistle sounded. Foghorn loud, lighthouse alone.
I walked home and up to our apartment. Everything on the way surprised me: how dull the world cloaked in midnight grey and how bright the lights when I switched them on. I fell into a kitchen chair and stared across the table, at the chair that had been yours.
We had talked of changing this room, of painting over the deep, rich red of the kitchen walls. We'd settled on a shade of yellow, trimmed with green and brilliant blue. I'd volunteered to buy the paint. You'd gone out for a run. We would begin when we both returned, a step towards changing ourselves as well, towards saying, yes, this place is ours. Towards saying, yes, I'm yours, you're mine.
I never got to the store. The train stalled deadly on the tracks, and red still pours all down our walls.
This room will always remind me of you. I haven't moved your coat from the back of your chair, and its leather scent has soaked into the floor. Your breakfast dishes wait by the sink. At first I thought I'd throw them out; the glass is chipped and light catches in the break. Your voice echoes from the answering machine when I play and play the message.
This is not the place I left this afternoon. I don't know if it's changed or if I have. I see it all from some great distance and when I reach to stroke your coat, my hand falls short, back to my side.
I don't know if it will work again. I don't know if I can find that train now that I know to look. I drag my feet at work, then rush, quick step and quicker mind, and lo, behold, I leave ten minutes late.
The summer heat's burned last night's puddles away. The station is near-empty. My footsteps ring back from the walls. It's no cooler near the trains, but this is a different lack of cool, not heavy humid summer but breath of some great animal. I wonder if there's a train-beast at the Zoo Stop: dark metal, grease, and staring headlight eye.
I've missed the 11:40. I hold my breath, close my eyes, turn a slow, stumbling circle. Left my pack, I think. Not done there yet. When I look, I see the midnight train with one door standing wide.
"Wasn't sure you'd come again." Patch stands close; I hadn't seen him there. He cocks an eyebrow and tips his head towards the train. "You wanna?"
"I do," I say, and this time get the jump on him, then pelt after as he passes, drumroll of running steps and swinging myself onto the train.
"Getting the hang," he admits and bumps my shoulder with his own as he passes; this time I don't pull back. I drop onto a seat to catch my breath and glance sideways to the blind man beside me.
"Hi," I offer, and, "How are you?"
"Back for more? Do you know where you're going yet?"
"The Mound," I say. "I think the Mound. I think—"
"The Mound." He frowns and then he nods. "Might as well. Good luck to you, girl."
I nod my thanks. I start to turn away. I hesitate and turn back again. "You . . . can I ask where you're going?"
He tips his hat back, the better to hold my gaze. "Have to know it when I see it."
I stand, slowly absorbing that, absorbing the train's motion as it bumps down the tracks. Outside the window is midnight blue before something slides past, slides fast in the other direction, slick silver with a bullet nose and backlit green-gold windows, vague shapes standing, staring through. I tell him, "You, too. Good luck."
And then I move on down the train.
The Zoo Stop rolls by while I stand in the forest car, hold myself very still and watch the flash of white and golden horn at the edge of my sight. I don't look outside. I move instead to a car that looks like my 11:40, double-decker with grey-blue vinyl seats and passengers hidden behind laptops, briefcases, books. Thorn is waiting there, and smiles. "Jane."
I slide onto the seat beside her. She grasps my hand, warm skin and bright sharp nails.
"I'm going to the Mound," I say. "I have to find Tim, ask him why."
She doesn't say, Who's Tim? And she doesn't ask, Why what? She only nods and nods again and after a moment, speaks. "I've gone to the Mound every night for a year, telling myself I'm going to get her back."
I hadn't been aware of my beating heart. Now it races like the train beneath us, around us, under our feet. You, Tim. No more nights alone. No more staring at chipped glass and empty coat. No more wondering what it was that went so wrong. My throat's gone too tight to speak. I swallow hard. "Get her back?"
Thorn's hands white-knuckle where they lie in her lap. She draws a long, deep breath. "The dead at the Mound—they're not really gone. All they need is life."
Life. I don't have any to spare, don't keep it in boxes or at the back of the fridge. But—what's a day, if it means we can talk? What use is a week, a month, a year, balanced against all those ahead? It's the not-knowing that digs beneath the skin and stays, blood gone too bad to heal. Anything for an answer. No sacrifice at all.
The crow-headed girl and the one who's not there. They do not pause as they pass us by; they know we don't need them tonight. I sit and watch world outside, fog and flame and open fields that have no end. I see a wyrm curled about the wreck of a ladybug Volkswagen and "Bolero" as performed by a sunrise. I see the color of forgiveness, but then I blink and see it gone.
In the distance, I see the Mound.
"Here we go," Thorn whispers, to me or herself. "Here we are. I'm sorry, Rose—don't go away." I wonder which parent thought their names were clever and how long before they began to disagree, or if they were the sort of sisters who hated the names and also loved them very much. I wonder why Thorn stands as I do but then falls back, struggles up to press her hands to the window, looks at me stricken and looks away.
The steps are solid under my feet, the metal handrail under my palm. They're the last things that are. The fog surrounds me thick and wet, cotton in my ears and stuffed down my throat, binding my eyes so I see only grey. My feet sink deep in spongy ground. Decay fills my lungs like the taste of rotting apricots. I am not warm. I am not cold. I reach back towards the train. I stop.
I think, This is how it feels.
I think, It feels like nothing.
I think, That's not so bad.
I see you standing beside me, vague shape in the fog, but this shape I know. The curve of your spine beneath my palm. The way you stand. The promise of motion even—especially—in stillness, and everything here is very still. The sheen of sweat on your body; the toss of your head so it won't drip into your eyes. The train whistle sounds from some great distance.
You stare at me, and through. You turn away.
Hands on my shoulders so I stumble in reverse, sit down hard on the stairs into the train, bang a shin as I kick to get away. Irritated snort in my ear and I'm hauled up the steps shaking and gasping, choking on tears, dumped on the floor as the doors close again.
"Idiot," Patch complains. "Save yourself, won't you?" He kicks at the wall for punctuation and moves pony-step quick away, disdainful glance towards Thorn and maybe not thinking I'd notice, more worried one towards me.
I sit there dazed, curled around the twist in my belly and the stab in my heart. So close, and here I am again, can't even move until Thorn clears her throat. "Did you see him?"
I nod against my knees.
I climb off the train at Main Street. I mean to walk home and find myself downtown instead, past the library with its big, beautiful windows and the store that sold dollhouses, past the place where we used to stop for ice cream. There's a cemetery here, old: you're not in it. I turn to walk through anyway.
I sit down beneath a tree and when I blink, salt tears track down my face.
You left me there. You left me here. I don't know what happened that day. I don't know what went so wrong. The things that I do know sting, and never seem to heal.
One night more on the midnight train. I'm not done with her; she's not done with me. This time I beat Patch to the train, grasp his hand, and draw him up.
I pop the cube in my mouth, sweetness on my tongue. I touch his arm as he starts to move past me, not holding on. I can't hold on.
"Patch," I ask him, "what's at Edgeworld?"
He shrugs with his whole body, eloquent. "What do you need to be at Edgeworld?"
I sit beside the blind man who smiles a quiet hello. Thorn is there, too, pale and resolute. I stare out the window as we pass the Zoo Stop and see myself reflected, no bars between us and nothing to block our gaze. Or maybe it isn't quite myself. This woman is finer than I want to be, too easily wounded, too jealous of her hurt. I look away and shake my head.
Thorn takes my hand as we near the Mound. Her voice shakes when she speaks. "Are you going to see him again?"
"I am," I say. "I'm going. Yes."
"Take me with—will you take me with you? I have to go. Don't let go of my hand."
I stand where she is. I know this place. I squeeze her hand. "You come with me."
Patch stands by the door as it opens, weight on one foot, the other cocked. He says nothing as we pass, but I can see it in his face: this time he can't pull me back. Thank you, I mouth, and he lights with a grin.
Nothing again as we step off the train. I raise our joined hands to the level of my eyes to be certain Thorn is with me. No sound. No scent or taste in the air but that of growing things feeding on dead ones. Precious little sight at all, but I push on into the fog and trust that you'll be in my path.
And there you are, hand in hand with a girl who looks like Thorn, a girl with pale fingernails but the same face, the same frightened eyes though Thorn's aren't frightened now—no, she's made up her mind. I turn to you and say, I'm sorry.
You don't ask me what for, and I don't tell. I'm not sure it matters. I open my mouth to say more and close it again. I study your face.
And then I feel cold, and less than nothing in my hand. I look down at my fingers joined with Thorn's, lift them again and startle because hers aren't there. I look sideways at determined Thorn, sideways at poor frightened Rose, sideways at you and wonder if you blame me, however you died.
Thorn blames herself even if Rose doesn't. She hangs on her sister's hands, knee-deep in the nothing and sinking fast. "Thorn," I say, but she's pleading, "Why?" and Rose won't speak; we can't know why.
I stuff my hand into my pocket and see you turn, and see you go. It hurts to watch you leave again, a hurt like cutting straight into my heart, but it's a raw pain, will bleed clean and so I can bear it. "Thorn," I say again, but I'm here alone.
In the end, I walk back to the train.
Patch blinks, surprised to see me, and pleased. He says nothing but sits companionably close as I settle down beside the blind man. Main Street rolls past our window; the train picks up speed again. I think I'll go to the apartment, hang the leather coat in the closet and the dishes in the drying rack, create a new message for the machine. I think I'll paint the kitchen, after all, once I've seen where this train can take me. And I think, This is how it feels to live.
Hannah Wolf Bowen grew up a few blocks from the tracks, went to college in a train town, and lived in a first apartment overlooking a railroad bridge. She now lives in Massachusetts, a few blocks from the subway and commuter rail. Her work has appeared in, , and , among others.