There's a train that goes by every night. I can hear it in my bedroom if I'm up late enough. Strange, because I've lived here my whole life and never known there to be any railroad tracks close enough for me to hear the train at my house. And I only ever hear it at night. I've fancied it's a ghost train, following the same path it followed ages ago before it crashed, with a ghostly conductor and passengers. I mean there's probably a reasonable explanation for this train that goes by around 1am pretty consistently, but really, why would a train only drive by at night, every night, at exactly the same time? Is it secretly carrying coal to fuel, I dunno, child prostitution rings? Or carrying loads of meth or weed or something? What logical reason is there for this train? I've never mentioned it to my parents. This was partially because it never seemed that important and partially because I thought it might be a figment of my imagination. I have a very vivid imagination, you see, and I also see ghosts and spirits and hear things and sometimes, sometimes, I question how much of what I see is really there. I'm sane…mostly. I pass for sane. But sometimes, I wonder, like when I hear the train roll on by and sound its horn.
Tonight I wonder more than most nights. I'm restless. I snapped at my Mom earlier over something that's become a bit of a sore spot for me and she'd apparently had a really rough day so she called Dad up crying about it. He then called me a little after midnight and yelled at me for snapping at Mom and generally just bit my head off over the phone. Okay, I'll readily admit I snapped at Mom and I shouldn't have. But Dad reamed me a new one and blew the whole thing way out of proportion. And it stressed me the frick out. And when I'm stressed, I get wired. And restless. So when I heard the train go by, I was already itching to go somewhere, do something, just…not stay still. And I know I'm not going to be able to go straight to bed, haha, no freaking way. I'd just lay there and think and then spiral into self-doubt and self-deprecation terminating in depression and just start ripping myself to shreds because I'm a horrible horrible person and Dad wasn't overreacting at all I deserved to be yelled at and you know he didn't yell at me enough so maybe I shouldn't eat tomorrow as kind of a self-punishment or maybe I should throw away a bunch of the things that really matter to me because they're just taking up space anyway and they're really wasting it and you know that might be fitting and…
Okay clearly I can't stay here. Stopping the spiral I already started now. I snag my flannel pjs and pull them on, then slip down the stairs as quietly as I can. I don't want to wake Mom up. She gets up at the crack of dawn anyway, poor woman, and I don't want her missing any more sleep. She already stays up late waiting for me to get home. So I slip past her and snag my coat out of the closet by the back door, then slip outside. I can still hear the train rattling by, which is strange, because normally it's stopped making noise by now. I take it as a good omen as I slide my feet into my rubber boots and shudder at the cold. I pause at the edge of the porch. Do I really want to do this? It's night time after all. That's when the creeps come out, and I could get hurt or go missing, and that would just make more trouble for Mom and Dad. And Mom would worry herself to death.
The train's horn blows again, one short and one long whistle. Impulse takes over and I find myself running across the yard, shoulders hunched against the drizzling rain that's fallen pretty consistently for the past several days. The train's whistle sounds louder, as does the clickety-clack of the wheels on the tracks. I can't see much, but the moon is out enough I can see the path in front of me and not run into trees. I have to scale a few fences and skirt around a few yards, and I get really alarmed once when I hear this dog that sounds like a Rottweiler barking, but I make my way with little incident. Before long, I'm walking swiftly in the woods. I know I'm not on our land any more. Far from it. I don't know whose land I'm on and I hope they take kindly to trespassers. Or if they don't that they just don't notice me. Who am I kidding? At about one-thirty in the morning, if they're out in their woods, I've got more to worry about than their feelings on trespassers.
The train's whistle blows again. It's much closer this time. I feel the ground shake a little as the rumbling of the wheels gets louder. Then I've stepped from the cover of the trees into a clearing and just a few steps in front of me is a platform by the train tracks. The train is coming down the tracks towards the platform.
On impulse, I climb up onto the platform and wrap my arms around myself. Maybe I can wave at the train as it goes by. It's probably decelerating just in case someone's on the tracks. I'm not stupid enough to get on them.
But the train doesn't go on by. It decelerates to a stop right by the platform. There are a few coal cars on it, sure, but there are passenger cars too. We don't have a train station anywhere nearby – at least not that I know of – so the fact that it's carrying passengers or even can is weird.
The door slides open. A man in uniform stands just inside, cap on, and smiles at me. He has bright white teeth and dark brown hair, and the prettiest blue eyes. I feel suddenly very self-conscious of my flannel and muck boots. "Boarding?" he asks pleasantly.
"Oh, no!" I stammer, taken aback. "I-I didn't even know this was a station! I'm so sorry, I just…I just thought it would be cool to wave at the train from this platform…uh…" I trail off, embarrassed and feeling rather stupid.
He smiles. "What would it be but a boarding platform? And you're out here, so you must want to board."
I shake my head, cheeks flushing. "Oh, no, I…"
The man offers me a blue-gloved hand. "Anna Chester, right?"
Wait. How did he know my name? I stare at him. "Y-yes, I'm Anna Chester. H-how…how did you know my name?"
"We were supposed to stop here to pick up an Anna Chester. That's you, correct? Then you'll be boarding?"
"Wait, I, I don't understand."
He leans closer and scrutinizes me more thoroughly, looking if anything more puzzled than I. "Well what would you be doing out here in the woods this time of the night if not hoping to board the train? If you don't mind me saying so this is a peculiar place for a girl to be at…" He fishes a pocketwatch out of the pocket on his shirt and checks it. "…almost two o'clock in the morning."
I flush. "Well, I was just…restless, that's all! Restless!"
He smiles again, as though he understands. "Of course."
"And I haven't a ticket anyway!" I protest.
He laughs, and the sound is quite pleasant. "You needn't a ticket. Reservations are made under name. Now come on, Anna. Either you are or you aren't boarding, and I need to know for certain very soon. We need to stay on schedule, you know."
I open my mouth to tell him emphatically that I am not boarding, nope, no way, but find myself reconsidering. The situation is strange, and it should seem wrong – him knowing my name and all – but something's compelling me to board. "Where…does this train go?" I ask instead.
"Oh, it goes where it needs to go. The destination's not the important part. Now, Anna, are you boarding?"
I'm not mad at Mom, and I'm not mad at Dad. Really, I'm not. But I don't want to go back to that bed. I don't want the spiral that I know is waiting for me. And the only way to avoid it is to not go back. And that means I have to board. I know if I go back I'll criticize myself and find out all my flaws and rip myself into shreds better than anyone else ever could. I don't want to go back.
I take the offered hand and step onto the train. "I'm boarding."
He smiles, escorts me in, and shuts the door behind me. "Very good, Anna! Please take your seat. We'll be back on track momentarily."
I choose one of the seats and sit down, not really noticing if there are any other passengers. The whole thing has a feeling of finality about it, and I don't think I'll be seeing home again. I look out the window at the trees. I stare at them until they begin to move past the window and the wheels clack on the tracks again.
I close my eyes and curl up in my seat.
The train rattles on.