Track 1: Buying a Ticket
We met at the train station, not on the train, but I’ll start with the train.
You need a ticket to enter, and in order to leave, you need to keep it. Tickets can only be bought at 11:30. Each stop is at midnight, each lands you in a different town, ranging from New York City to Harpers Hollow, Pennsylvania. There are no set stops- save for a few big cities that are usually guaranteed. You might wonder why anyone would take this train. Well, for starters, it’s the fastest train in the world. Risk-taking businessmen already running too late to take a plane, already in too deep to cancel, will take it as a last-minute arrangement, hoping that the train will land somewhere near the big city they need to get to. But mostly it’s for people trying to get away. People who will go anywhere, as long as it isn’t where they were before. The midnight train is something hard to track, stops are never recorded. Once a person boards the train there’s no telling where they’ll be.
I was on the train because I was trying to prove that wrong.
I’m a cartographer. A supernatural cartographer, I map out the unmappable and constantly changing, through minute details and years and years of waiting. The ever changing have repetitions if you look closely. There are those with future-vision who say that even pi is rational. I mapped out the enchanted forest with yards and yards of string, finding the complex internal shifting plates that guided it- now travel there is doable without risk of falling off an enchanted cliff. I figured out how to predict where enchanted rivers take enchanted bottles with messages inside- it all depends on the enchanted currents. So naturally, the midnight train was my next bet.
Before this job, I only knew one person who’d boarded the train. Her name was Elsie, and she was trying to get away from Tinicum Township. I didn’t know why, and I never saw her again. Thus is the nature of the train.
At 11:50 pm, I lined up behind five other people to purchase a ticket. A ticket for one costs $6.35, exact change only, but for two people it’s 11 dollars. Not many people bring a partner, so the company doesn’t lose too much money. The stands are set up only half an hour before the train arrives at the station, and the town is only told the train is arriving a day before. So only five people, six with myself included, showed.
For those of you who don’t know yet, my name is May N. Snow. I’m from Clay Ridge, Pennsylvania, and by the time you listen to this tape I’ll be missing. There’s a fair chance that I’m dead, lying in a ditch somewhere in New Castle or Odessa, my fate known to only a select few and the poor hikers who find my body. There’s a chance I’m dead already, and that I’ve chosen to haunt this tape, that this isn’t pre-recorded at all, and what you’re hearing is live- and that I’m far from it. And there’s a good chance that when you try to show this tape to someone they’ll say “why’d you show me an empty tape” and you’ll blush as you rewind it, desperate to make sure that this story is told, as desperate as I was when I told you.
Or maybe not. Maybe I’m back in Clay Ridge, or New York, or far far away, out West or beyond. Maybe I’ve taken up a new life, a cartographer of the humbler sort, or I’ve found a gorgeous woman to settle down with, raise a litter of kids, and die with. Maybe it’s taken you a while to find these tapes, and by now my grave is covered with loving marks, loving bunches of flowers, loving tears. May Snow may be dead, but perhaps she lives in another form. If I could choose, I’d like the name Daisy.
How do I know that I’ll die? I knew it from the moment I sat in my seat. My neighbor, a woman of considerable age and therefore vision, turned to me and called me a living ghost. Apparently the ectoplasm was injuring her knitting.
But back to the station. I said I’d start with the station, but look at me, rambling on and on. I’d say you should’ve told me to stop, but that’s not really how these things work, is it? This conversation is as one-sided as it gets.
I stood in line with five other people. I was second-to-first. In front of me, the old woman, her hair silver, in a knot at the top of her head, her glasses golden, hiding her eyes from me. She stood a bit too far from me, nodded when she received her ticket, and stood near the train, waiting for the doors to open. I was next, behind me was a teenager, still in that phase of not knowing what to do with their height, slouching a bit, clutching their backpack close. Behind them was a man in a suit, sweat patches by his armpits, and I couldn’t see behind him.
At the booth stood the ticketmaster, a tall man in a thin suit, pursing his lips, silently looking me up and down.
The ticketmaster represents the train. Nobody knows if there’s a conductor, or if the train runs automatically, so he’s the face you see when you do deep-dive google searches. “You’re not the first, you know.” He said, in a gravelly voice. “Many have tried, many have failed. Many will fail.” with that final phrase, he looked back at me, shaking his head slightly. “I know.” I said tersely, handing over the money, exact change. He looked at me some more before handing over the ticket. I couldn’t look at him.
“Enjoy the ride.” I stepped aside. By now it was about 11:52, and I heard footsteps on the stairs. The ticketmaster turned. “Wait, wait!” A breathless woman panted, clutching the railing, her hair a mess, strands dangling over her face. “Wait, please, I need to board!” “Always a latecomer.” His eyes scanned her up and down, wrinkling his nose. “It’s well known we like customers to be at least 15 minutes early.” “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I just-” “No need.” He motioned for her to get in line, she stood behind the final person, who I could now see was a train tourist, the sort who gets on for a fun weekend, and goes wherever the train takes them, no matter hot, cold, crowded, empty. The floral button-down and sunglasses accompanied by the jacket tied around the waist and winter hat gave it away. She stood strangely, her hands clasped behind her back, her eyes at a constant focus on the stairway she’d come from, chewing her lip. If I remember correctly, I thought she might be a criminal. They try to come on the train sometimes, but the ticketmaster never lets them. How desperate must she be to try that? The person behind the businessman, who frantically checked his watch every ten seconds, was a young adult, in a blazer and tie, a briefcase in hand, but they shared none of the businessman’s panic or stress. They looked prepared. Smiling, an emotion that looked as out of place on him as a tiger on a lilypad, the ticketmaster whispered something to the upstart kid that I couldn’t hear.
There we were. Seven of us: the old woman with the golden glasses, me, the teenager, the businessman, the upstart, and the tourist. And her.
Something about her reminded me of Elsie. I couldn’t place my finger on it. Her eagerness to leave, her impunctuality, her messy hair, the strange look in her eyes. I don’t know why, and I still don’t. I’ve come to know her better, and I never want to compare them again. Never will. I might never have the chance.
The ticketmaster looked her up and down, and nodded, so she must not have been a criminal. But when he asked her for exact change, she blanked.
“Oh, uh… hang on, let me get my wallet, I have two quarters-” “Not exact change.” “I have a quarter, a nickel, and three pennies?” “Not exact change.” “I have-” “I can clearly see you don’t have exact change.” The ticketmaster shrugged. “No admittance.” “Wait!” I shouted, the sound being pulled from my stomach like a fish hook had snagged it. “I have a couple pennies!”
I remember this moment as if it happened yesterday. Her hair in the bun, her eyes, her gasp, then grin, the feeling of walking over to her with the change in my hand, “It has to be her money.” The ticketmaster interrupted. his expression didn’t change for a second, but her’s did, going from sunny to stormy in an instant. It felt like disappointing her was the worst thing in the world. “Uh-” I fumbled in my wallet, my fingers touching my own ticket, and suddenly, it was like the sky cleared. I asked him a question, no doubt in my mind about whether or not I should. “Can I refund my ticket?” “Sure.” “Great!” I went up to the stand and handed the man my ticket, accepting the change in return. “You’ve got two quarters and five dollars, right?” She nodded, and I added some cash of my own. “Two tickets for eleven dollars, please.”
“You do realize, ma’am, that ticket-sharers have to exit together?”“Oh.” I turned to the blonde woman. “Where are you exiting?”
“Wherever you want.” She smiled. “I’m not very particular.” she must be a tourist, then, banking on my luck.
The ticketmaster shrugged, accepted the cash, and gave us both tickets. And with that, the train doors opened to us all.
Once you’re on the train, all communication outside the train is frozen. Cellphones, laptops, none of that works on the midnight train. The most reliable dead zone on the planet. It’s why it’s so risky taking it, while other towns can send out notices when they’re made aware that they’re a stop, nobody on the train knows.
The businessman made a final call, promising that he’d “be there in a jiff” that “the train always stops in the big cities, it’ll be fine” and “Pete did this just last year, and it’s better than flying commercial, huh?”. The tourist sent a few texts, and a selfie in front of the huge locomotive, and the teenager pulled out their phone before putting it back in their pocket, not even turning it on. The rest of us got on without pausing.
Each individual car is for each stop, although you can move between cars rather smoothly. Once a car clears out, it’s taken over by a new stop. There are dining cars scattered throughout, sleeping cars for those who can’t handle seats, game cars, and a few completely empty ones. Nobody is quite sure how many cars there are, all the counts have differed. I’m not the first who’s tried exploring the entire train, and nobody’s made it quite to the caboose yet. That’s not what I’m planning though.
I want to find out where the train came from. A manual, a blueprint, something. And I want to chart its course. Those are my only objectives. And I can only do them from inside the train.
I don’t stay in the car for long. It’s pointless to stay. While a majority of the others sat down, taking out books or pamphlets, I remained standing, taking out my notebook. I should tell you what I had with me. An inventory check, if you will.
My satchel goes where I go. In it I have everything I need. A tape measure, three library cards for Pottstown, NYC, and Los Angeles, a small paperback book, a thermometer, tissues, a set of miniature screwdrivers, a notebook, pen, pencil, box of empty tape recorders, driver’s license, credit card, loose cash, a lucky rock, duct tape, a miniature atlas, a “Guide to the Train” for newbies, a business card from a woman I was enchanted with abroad (that I can’t find the nerve to throw out), a seashell, magnifying glass, binoculars, a Swiss army knife, a note from Elsie. The satchel has been with me through thick and thin, high and low, it expands and contracts as I add things to it. I’m not entirely sure if it’s magical or not. Some days I think it must be, other days I think I’m a magical organizer. Either way, I also brought a suitcase with clothes and other things I didn’t need immediately. I put that on the racks, then went to the door.
“Wait, ma’am!” I looked around the car, but nobody looked up. “Wait!” The voice came from behind me.
The young upstart from before, dressed in a blazer and tie, bright red if I remember correctly, stood by the door, a grin on their face. I paused. “You’re leaving, right?” They said, their voice warm, and not artificially. I nodded. “Let’s go together.” I paused for a moment, before nodding again. They intrigued me. I wanted to know why the ticketmaster smiled when they spoke. “You’re leaving?” The businessman looked up from his paper, biting his lip. “Is that allowed?” “Of course it’s allowed.” The tourist replied. “How do you think they get food in?” “I-” “There are dining cars all over. And bathrooms, sleeper cars, you name it.” “Ah. I see. Well, I’m not planning to stay long.” He awkwardly adjusted his tie, it was rumpled like his suit. “And I’ve never been here, so-” “It’s understandable! I’ve been on a few of these rides. Always a blast.” The tourist chuckled, leaning back in their seat. “Anyways, you two have fun. If you come back, tell me where the nearest dining car is.” “Right.” Before I could leave, the woman from before, the one whose ticket I helped pay for, grabbed my arm. She moved closer to me, smiling. “Um, before you go, I wanted to thank you. You didn’t have to do that, and I appreciate it.” “Oh, it’s no problem.” I said awkwardly, looking at the door. “Saved me some money too.” “I should’ve been more prepared, I left in a rush.” “I could tell.” “I’ll look after your stuff for you, while you’re gone.” She pointed at the suitcase. “It’s the least I can do.” “You don’t have to-” “No, I insist.” And she let go, pointing me off to the door. Before I could take a step, she spoke again. “I’m Kara.” She didn’t give me a last name, I didn’t ask. It might’ve been fake, for all I knew then. If she’d given me a last name it would’ve been, but the first name, that was all her. I remember her reflection on the glass of the door, how earnest it seemed. I wasn’t wrong about that. “I’m May. May Snow.” I saw a few of the others scoff, but I ignored them. By the time I got back they’d be gone. “May Snow.” Kara repeated, mulling over the words. “Will it?” I’d heard the joke so many times that the response was immediate. “Not today, I don’t think. Tomorrow, there’s a better chance.” “But today the forecast said definitely!” The tourist smiled. “I said what I said.” And with a shrug, I left, taking the upstart with me.
I think that’s where I’ll leave you for now. I have a lot to think about.