Written by J.E. Mitchell
The train came at one o’clock each morning, though only the bravest had been willing to go at first, but the stops became sporadic before dwindling to hardly anything at all. Then the pandemic struck, and now everyone was waiting outside of where it usually stopped, hoping to get away from this recent tragedy and escape into what once was unthinkable.
Yet, the train stopped coming all together after the pandemic began, and everyone who had been hoping to get away found themselves stuck in the filth they had created. The railroad once carried misfits away from society’s cookie-cutter ethics, those who did not want to deal with the consequences of the collective agreement of capitalism outweighing mother nature.
“Don’t they know?” Asked the old man to my left. He hunched over in a coughing fit after speaking those few words. “The train isn’t for the conformists of the world. It’s not for those who thrive in their corporate environments. It’s for those who wish to blow their fickle brains out each time they have to talk about the goddamn weather with people who will turn around and talk shit about them five seconds later.”
He heaved, pulling out an inhaler. “The train of misfits knows when to change the docking station, though they’d been stopping here for nearly thirty years now.”
A few people shuffled away from the bench we sat on as I leaned in closer to hear him better.
I had been waiting for it for three days, having nothing left in my life but the insanity that was a child’s tale though it had taken Charlie.
My older brother.
Only three years ago now, but it felt like a century.
He’d been talking about the train on his last day, insisting that it was real and would come to him. He was the biggest misfit of them all. He had been a drag queen in a compact town full of small-minded folk, and there wasn’t a place for him in a town like that. He’d traveled all over the west coast before finally coming back to town to say goodbye.
“It came three years ago.” I finally turned to the weak elderly man who was talking to nobody in particular, “I’ll die on this bench waiting.”
“Well, that’s up to you,” he said to me.
Several minutes passed in silence.
“Let’s get a sandwich.” The way he said this and stood had me panicked he would fall over at any second, but he put his mask on with sturdy hands, not shaken ones. His cane supported his weight, though barely by the looks of it with how he swayed in the wind.
There were five more hours before this train came, if it ever did.
I had time.
We walked across the street to the sub shop next to a paint store. One fluorescent light flickered against the green shirt and tan khaki bottoms of the worker in her visor, covering a face that begged for the clock to strike the end of her shift, and her freedom to be restored.
My companion knew what he wanted right away, placing money into the tip jar while the unenthused teenager kept her head down.
We sat for our meal the frail old man paid for, which was appreciated by my ten dollar bank account. The conversation didn’t start up again until we walked back to the old train stop, more people having left after waiting only a few hours.
“Time isn’t real,” I mused as I chugged the rest of my pop, opening the lid to eat the ice chips. “If it is, it’s a prison.” I put the cup to my mouth, hitting the bottom with my hand to help it slide down faster.
“See, you want to be a misfit, and maybe you are, but that’s some derivative philosophy major talk. You know little to nothing of actual pain, only some sad documentaries and maybe a child-like heartbreak, but nothing beyond the regular trauma of growing up,” he said dismissively.
I was taken aback at how confidently he spoke, looking as weary as he did, heaving a labored breath while sitting down on the bench. “You still have a few more years of discovery. Have you complimented someone today? Making someone smile can cure a bad mood.”
“A little conceited to think you understand someone after a sentence, isn’t it?” I shot back with a raised eyebrow, cleaning a leftover chunk of bread from my upper gums.
He nodded, chuckling to himself. “I’m trying to see if you’ll crack and spill your life story, but you’re not so simple, huh?”
I resisted the sigh, wanting him to leave me alone now. It was fun at first, but he had proven to be another judgemental person, and I didn’t come here for those.
Ten minutes passed, and the sun finally set.
The old man stood and gave me a slight smile. “Maybe you don’t need it like you think you do.”
I used to say the same thing to Charlie.
“You don’t need it like you think you do,” I’d say to him when he went on a drug binge.
“I like to see the colors.” He would tell me. “Have you ever seen life with so much color? Everything is beautiful, and everything is peace.”
“I want to see the colors,” I spoke to the man who was now long gone. “I want to see them on my own terms.”
Hours passed, and another night slipped into day.
The train never came.
I woke and found that a man’s body laid directly in front of me, his deep snoring rattling his chest. He wore a flannel shirt and blue jeans.
No mask, though.
I jumped back to the second row of seats, leaning against the wall and putting my feet up.
Much better than my previous seat.
“Daisy!” The lumberjack woke with a start, I leaned forward, and he flinched at the sight of me. I must look rough after four days of sitting here.
“Daisy isn’t here,” I said as I assumed my previous position, shutting my eyes as he stood.
“Who are you,” he asked. “What are we doing here?”
I squint one eye open, noting his confused expression. He did not remember what happened last night.
“We aren’t doing shit,” I said. “I woke up, and you were here.” A soft breeze came from my left, making me look around the old station. “Who’s Daisy?”
It was cleaner than last night. They really were taking the pandemic seriously.
“There was a train, and Daisy got on it.” He looked around for his missing companion.
“That’s happened before, but this train hasn’t been here in a long time,” I explained. I breathed through my nose as he breathed out his mouth, laughing as he did.
“I need to stop having nights like that,” he sighed.
“Nights where you imagine a train that wasn’t here,” I asked rhetorically. “I wouldn’t be here if it had been.”
I wanted an everything bagel with cream cheese. A shower also sounded nice.
“Are you living here?” The young man looked around the abandoned station, and I found myself taking note of his jaw, how angular his cheekbones were. “Doesn’t look safe for a young girl, bad things happen in the night.”
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes, not wanting him to feel bad for stating the obvious. Though, he wasn’t wrong. I was lucky to wake up in the same spot, untouched.
“Do you think we’re being punished,” I mused. I couldn’t help expounding on the world. “Being left on a planet that is clearly close to extinction. I mean, didn’t this train used to come? It would take people far away from their problems and let them start over but now we get to experience this shit-hole built by greedy men who thrive on oppressing the powerless. Why do I have to stay here, and witness such cruelties?” I was agitated with the smell radiating off of me, mad at how matted my hair was, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to go home anymore, not after that fight with mom and her telling me to join my brother.
“Ah, you’re one of those negative folk.” He grinned, pulling a rattling box of mints from his pocket. He gestured for me to take one, which I gladly did, knowing it would help my rough breath. “My friends will be here any minute to pick me up since it’s not the first time I’ve woken up here.. You can come back with us to our place, we all live together and while it’s not the cleanest place, it is a place you could shower and eat a warm meal.”
I folded my arms over my chest, looking away in response to the offer. No way was I going to join a stranger and his friends at his place, I would end up dead. He seemed to register my refusal because I saw him nod out of the corner of my peripheral.
“I get it, you can call someone you know to let them know you’re safe and your whereabouts if you’d like? I feel bad leaving you here, but my friends also hate when I bring home stray pets.” He laughed at that part, kicking the dirt up with his shoes with a little dance.
“I ain’t no pet.” I glared.
“You’re right.” His grin remained, eyes fully trained on my face. We stared at one another in silence, he looked to be having an inside joke of some sort while I refused to back down from whatever he was addressing with this blinking contest. “There’s a train that still comes, but it’s two states over in Washington. I can lend you my phone to text whoever you need.”
“Why?” I was starting to grow shaky, uneasy of how insistent he was for me to join his band of misfits. “Why would I go with strangers across two different state lines, and possibly end up murdered?”
A car pulled up the road, honking its horn as it came to a full stop. We both looked over to see a girl staring at us from the driver’s seat, gray sunglasses covering her eyes and a deep frown on her face.
“She hates having to pick me up from here.” The young man in the flannel stuck his hand out, “My name is Maze, really it’s Mason but no one calls me that anymore. My girlfriend Daisy committed suicide here a year ago and some nights I get drunk and think I can see her around the same time she jumped.”
I looked to the tracks, eyes widening. There used to be trains everywhere, but they had stopped showing up to their destinations, no longer the form of transportation required, entirely something sought after.
“You’ve heard of the train though, that picks people up and takes them away from this provincial life?” Charlie had spoken highly of it, knowing it’s where our father went when he wanted to escape for this reality. The train came, everyone inside dressed in their finest clothes, and off they went on a grand adventure across the states. It didn’t choose everyone, only the gifted and lucky.
Maze appeared to not know how to answer me, his mouth closing and opening again. “Yes, I have heard of that train. It picks you up with its attendees in their finest clothes and takes them on an unforeseeable adventure. Truly remarkable, but a one in a million chance anybody is chosen.”
The girl honked the horn again, throwing her arms up at us.
“Del,” Maze called, “I’ve made a friend but I think she bites! Don’t worry, I don’t think she’s rabid but I do think she’s a wild one.” He winked, and the wind shifted. A shower sounded wonderful, and it was hard to turn one down as the heat began to rise with the sun. He was halfway to the car before I stood, finally understanding how alone I would feel once he left.
Charlie had been all about adventure, maybe this would help me get to where I needed to go after all. He always encouraged spontaneity and said life is too short to hide in our own corners. If sunshine was a person, he had been it.
The car was a hatchback, at least 20 years old, rust forming around it’s rear wheels. My heart thud in my chest, not wanting to talk to strangers anymore, but desperately wanting their company, a shower and food.
“What kind of puppy is this, Muffin?” The girl Maze had referred to as Del was a spunky blonde with tye-dyed ends, placed into a messy bun on top of her head, sprouting in every which direction. She wore thick eyeliner and purple lipstick.
The intensity in her gaze froze me where I sat. “My roommate here has a big heart. I cannot say the same for myself. Are you someone who will inflict harm on myself, him, or any of our friends?”
I shook my head no, not breaking eye contact.
“You in any danger?” She raised an eyebrow, without breaking eye contact, reaching towards Mason and slapping both sides of his cheeks when I repeated my previous response. “What have I told you about bringing home ze quiet ones! Ai! You never learn.” The italian accent she tried to embody didn’t sound right coming from her with the way her wrist clacked from the clash of her metal bracelets.
“She needs a shower and some food, then we’ll learn more about our new friend. She’s made it very clear she is not a pet and I must say, I like her timid ferociousness. A real paradox, this one” They seemed to have a conversation with their eyes, Del breaking into a smile after a few seconds of an intense eyebrow standoff.
The drive to their place didn’t take long at all. I was surprised Maze didn’t just walk when Del pulled into a driveway only a few blocks away from the station. They lived in a small brick building, their front porch seemed to be caving in.
“Don’t take a step on any board but this one, or you will fall right through,” warned Del. “The post lady won’t deliver our mail anymore because it’s a hazard. Had to get a mailbox.”
Del put her key into the lock, opening the door to a baby being bounced off the knee of a young girl no older than eleven. She had glistening skin from sitting in the heated apartment, her black curls looking wet from what I assumed was sweat, though several fans were going. The baby was a boy, and a cute one too, with his rosey cheeks and infectious smile. He giggled at the sight of Del, raising his arms for her.
“Hi baby.” She cooed, picking him up and turning to me. “This is my little guy, Travis, and that sweaty girl is my sister, Zoey.”
I smiled at her but noticed her frown, how I must smell in such a heated space.
“I’m going to shower now, if you don’t mind.” I told Del, heading towards the open door where I could see the shower and toilet. Their apartment was small, and the heat was alarming for such a dark space, but I was excited to feel the water against my skin.
I hadn’t even realized how much dirt coated my skin. It took several minutes for the water to run clear again. I used a strawberry shampoo that was likely Del’s or Zoey’s, as well as a minty body wash.
I didn’t want it to end, but the water started to run cold and guilt took over. I turned off the water and grabbed the towel Zoey had laid out. I swiped my hand over the fogged mirror to take in my face, noting how freckled it was from the days previously spent in the sun. The door cracked open, causing me to squeak in fear.
“Sorry! I got clean clothes for you since you seem to be about my size. They might be a little big though.” Del held out a bundle of white and black cloth, something I took with a squeak of gratitude. She provided underwear, tights, a tank top and a mid-sleeve white, woven top.
When I stepped out into the hall, Maze and Del were seated in the living room, the baby sleeping in Del’s arms but was beginning to stir. Zoey was nowhere to be seen.
“Maze told me about our adventure. We will leave in an hour. Zoe is packing up some things but the car has air conditioning so no one minds. We’ll have to stop and get snacks but other than that, we can head straight across state lines.” She flipped the baby towards me, exposing his drooling face. It was now I saw that their television was smaller than the one at my mom’s house, and how torn apart their couch and loveseat was.
I knew they were waiting for me to speak, but I didn’t know what to say.
“It’s interesting how many trains there used to be, but now there are only three that run in this entire country,” Maze finally spoke up when I failed to do so.
“This is a special train though. I might as well stay here if you’re taking me to any train stop.” I wasn’t trying to be rude, it was how I talked but people often found it intense.
Del handed Travis to Maze, a fart escaping from one of them, though I couldn’t tell from either face the culprit as both looked equally ashamed.
“Of course not, this is a rare train, only comes at one am.” Del spoke, “It’s often spoken of, especially now that it’s gone forever and no one knows where it last took the people on board, if those people are even real anymore. You think you have what it takes to get on board?” Her smile was directed at me, now picking up clothes on the couch, folding them as she went.
Charlie had said not everyone believed in its magic, but then he disappeared on it and left me with no other option but to believe it in the hopes of one day getting him back. To one day feel the comfort of being in the company of someone who truly got me made my chest ache.
I found myself helping them pack, Del packing me a bag with extra clothes as well, and I felt at peace with them even though they were strangers. Something within my chest stirred as we packed up the car, reminded of childhood memories forgotten of mine and Charlie’s adventures in his old beat up pick up truck. We used to drive to different beaches, some close and others far but those days had always been my favorite.
Once we were finally loaded into the car, Zoey leaned over to me, reaching over Travis in the process who dropped what he had been focusing on and reached for her with his chubby arms, unable to hold on.
“You look much better now that you’re clean.” She nodded towards her hand, adjusting her glasses by flexing her face and nostrils.
“Understandably so.” I looked down to her hand. “I’m sorry, touching people during a pandemic stresses me out.”
“It’s airborne anyway, you probably already passed it to us if you have it.” She was clearly judging me, but I found myself grinning at her, something she returned before opening a book to end our conversation.
Three hours passed, and I took in the beauty the Oregon coast had to offer on this cloudless day. Del let us have the windows cracked, and it seemed like Travis just wanted to share the view, smiling each time I glanced down at him in his car seat. It wasn’t long after that both he and Zoey passed out.
“Do you both often go on spontaneous road trips with strangers?” I spoke up over the wind, not taking my eyes from the glistening water in the distance.
Maze looked back at me, his eyes lingering on Travis with admiration shining within. “We like to help people, and if we get to adventure along the way, then we’re doing our civil duty as humans in our quest to explore our souls and minds.” We locked eyes for a second before he looked out his window, raising his voice so I could still hear, “life is short, might as well adventure. What else were we going to do, sit in that hot house and drink in the local bar again? No thank you.”
“Well, you were going to sit at the local bar. Someone has to watch your little boy.” Del spoke up, pulling her sunvisor down and taking the lid off her chapstick.
I looked down at Travis, unable to help how my heart melted at his round cheeks and the spit bubble formed at the opening of his mouth, drool coming out to hang in the air. “He’s yours?”
Maze nodded. “Mine and Daisy’s, yeah. Del was Daisy’s best friend and is Travis’s Godmother.”
We stopped in Portland, a relief to my sore back but a shock to Del and Maze when they saw the parking deck cost fifty bucks. It seemed like a good time to pull out the emergency credit card I took from the house before leaving, that and my driver’s license in case I needed to ID myself. I hoped to leave my identity behind by the end of all this, but it was nice to be able to help my new friends out and seeing how relieved they both looked at my covering this cost.
“I might dash for a bit while we’re here, to earn some extra cash for the next city.” Del parked on the street. “You guys should get out and explore! I’ll be back in a few hours with extra cash for us, that way we can have a fun night.” We got out as she started dancing in her seat, turning up the radio to play music Zoey probably shouldn’t hear the lyrics to.
We watched her race off down the street, another car honking at her that was trying to exit the parking garage we had avoided entering.
“She’s crazy, and amazing.” Maze looked after her with love before looking down to strap Travis into his baby carrier, placing little sunglasses and a hat on top of his head. He was the epitome of cool, little chubby fingers looking as though he was giving us the finger when Maze walked past Zoey and myself.
People rode their bikes past us and graffiti art decorating each free wall, brick or not. Many had powerful statements from the movement I’ve read in the papers showcased in the grocery store and discussed on the radio while we drove. I simply wanted to get away from the obscurity of it all.
I also didn’t want to get a job but that was unavoidable. Unless I got on the train.
“Who told you about the train?” I noticed that Maze didn’t ask this until Zoey was ahead of us.
“My brother, Charlie. He left to get on the train three years ago.”
Charlie’s laugh had been contagious, the way it grew with each breath. He’d been the happiest person I’d known, but in a weird way was also the saddest. Mom had a rare moment of honesty during a drunken fit last year, professing her sadness for not embracing Charlie when he came out to her. How she’d let her religion interfere with her motherly instincts. She now saw how harsh that was to say to someone, since he’d left for his road trip right after, not returning for another two years.
Even that last visit only lasted an hour.
“You’re sure he made it there? On the train, I mean.” Travis threw his glasses off, making a triumphant grunt when they successfully hit the pavement. Maze picked them up with a squat, sweat forming at his temple.
“I do, I’m not so sure about my dad though.” I answered honestly, having given a lot of thought to this. “See, Charlie was special, but my dad was just an ass he idealized. He had to grow up pretty fast in our house, taking care of me because our mom works a lot and hasn’t ever taken the time to get to know us. She’s odd like that, never disappointing in bringing down the mood in the room. Anyway, Charlie was always selfless, and was always there for me until I turned twelve and he was eighteen. If he wanted a magic train, he deserved one.”
“Do you know why he wanted to get on the train? Everyone has a different reason but I’ve never actually met someone who so wholeheartedly believed in it.” Zoey was dancing to a song in front of us, she plucked up a dandelion from a crack in the pavement and presented it to an elderly woman with a deep frown contrasting her gray and black hair. This woman looked to be of high class, and Zoey was clearly not a rich child, with her messy hair piled on top of her head. Yet, the frown disappeared from the elderly face and she curtsied at Zoey.
It was a beautiful moment to witness, and I drank it in.
After Charlie left the first time, I found myself looking for the beautiful moments so that I could have something to relay to him when he came back since his adventures were going to be far better than any of mine. Once he left for the train though, I found myself turning more cynical. No longer did I see the beauty but all the pain. Everyone seems to be burdened with it, though everyone handles it differently.
“That was our last conversation actually, because I asked him why. I was mad at him though, because he’d just come back but was already leaving when I had a lot I wanted to tell him. It hurt my feelings that he didn’t want to know about my past two years, and he didn’t invite me to the train.” I tried not to think about that night often, remembering how wide his eyes grew at my outburst. He left shortly after answering, and it’s a moment I will never be able to forget. “He told me the train took those who bled for others, because the train knew that these people deserved more than being fed to the wolves in a world with so little compassion. He wanted to be around others who felt pain as he did, I didn’t understand it then and not even sure I get it now because I’ve always felt everyone’s pain. I thought that was normal.”
We continued on without speaking, and I found myself questioning if I viewed him the same as he did our dad. He was a role model figure but he was also a kid like myself, someone who left as soon as he could without looking back in my direction.
If he could feel everyone’s pain, why couldn’t he feel mine.
We ended up at the Rose Test Garden, vibrant flowers and sweet scents filling the air. Mixed with the cloudless blue skies, my heart thud with the beauty this day presented. Life wasn’t all storms even though that had been my forecast the last several years. It was spontaneous like Charlie had said, and maybe he had felt bad about leaving me, but he needed to live life for himself. I now knew that when adventure called, it was hard to turn it down because I felt alive for the first time, probably my entire life.
Del showed up a little later, excited to have found us at an event that was playing a french documentary in the lawn between roses. We read the subtitles, ate the popcorn, and shared jokes as though our friendship was ages and not seven hours old.
We used my moms credit card for the hotel room that night, I knew she wouldn’t even notice. Being the CEO of a fortune five-hundred company kept her , but it also made her wealthy. It seemed she was an amazing role model after all, showing me who I didn’t want to turn into.
Since the train stop was only three hours away, we spent the next day exploring more of Portland. We enjoyed coffee while Zoey fought us about children needing caffeine as well. Travis seemed provoked by the coffee scents, but his squeaks were answered with mouthfuls of applesauce that he attempted to drool out the side of his lips only to be scooped back up by Del and placed back into his mouth.
“You know, if the train doesn’t come, you can join us in Seattle.” Del offered when we got in the car to leave.
“If the train does come, you can come with me.” I winked, because I knew I’d stay with them if the train didn’t come, and found myself fearing their departure from me.
Del and Maze looked at each other, Del looking back at Zoey, Maze at Travis.
“Yeah, if this magic train comes, we will answer that call to adventure, or else we’d be total phonies,” said Del. Her hair was red at the ends. She dyed it in the hotel last night. She looked fierce.
We stopped to get food before the sunset, knowing that the tracks wouldn’t be occupied until one in the morning. I spoke with my friends about my mom, and they spoke of their parents.
My heart was thudding loudly in my chest long before one, because I didn’t want my time to end with my new friends. The amount of love they felt for one another, always having each other’s backs. It was beyond pure, and they took me in as one of their own. Yet, it was interesting to look back at the four days I spent at that other stop in northern California, far from my home in San Francisco. I had felt alone, but as I looked around now, I saw that those events led me here.
Led me to the single light that showed through the trees and on the darkened track, a Choo! Choo! blazing through the winds.
“No shit.” Maze breathed, and we all felt that moment in union.
We all felt the call of adventure and we were going to answer together.