It’s hard to find work these days. At least it is for those of us that don’t actually have what are generally referred to as “skills”. For years I worked at a nice, mindless job at a factory where I was, frankly, resigned to work for the rest of my life. A place where I could basically check out mentally for eight hours a day and get paid for it.
But the factory closed and everyone lost their jobs and I was reduced to living in my sister’s attic while searching for another job. Any job would do. I was not being particular, and yet no job could I find. Months stretched out. I got antsy and a little depressed. My sister got resentful and decided I was purposefully taking advantage of her hospitality.
And then, just in the nick of time before we drove each other completely insane, I got a job offer, and a train ticket. The job was far away. The farther the better, if you asked me.
The job description had been a little vague, but I hadn’t cared. The goal was to escape my pitiful attic-residing existence. I was determined to see this job as an adventure. I was going to love my new job, even if it killed me.
I had never been on a train before. A little strange in a place where trains were the main form of transport, but it is surprisingly easy to just never go anywhere. I was more than ready to go wherever this job happened to be.
I mean, I did know where it was. It was in a small town way up north. So far that it was the last stop on the train line. I had whimsical notions of becoming the invaluable personal assistant of some delightfully eccentric scholar out in the picturesque countryside in a huge old sprawling estate, the house full of quirky staircases and hallways, the grounds scattered with gazebos and follies and koi ponds, the old unused stable possibly haunted by the spirit of a long-lost childhood pony…
Okay, yeah, my imagination might be a little overdeveloped. There are worse things.
That’s what the job was, though. I was going to be a sort of all-purpose secretary for a retired historian or something. He had been a professor for decades at the University, and now he needed someone to organize his notes and open his mail and, I don’t know, probably make tea for him. Nothing gross or weird. There hadn’t been anything about nurse-type tasks in the advertisement I’d answered, or in the short letter that had arrived in the envelope with the train ticket. That had just been a quick welcome note, along with instructions that I would be picked up from the depot at the end of the line.
Yes, I was slightly nervous, but hey, beggars really can’t be choosers. It was either go far away to live in a house with some possibly senile old man and maybe get murdered in my sleep…or stay with my sister. I would gladly take the former, thank you very much.
There’s something charming about trains. They may be filthy and packed with strangers getting way too far into your personal space, but the clickety-clack of the wheels on the rails, the hooting of the whistle, the gentle rocking motion of the cars…it all sort of lulls you into a state of calm relaxation. Maybe that was just me, though. Maybe it was because it was my first time on a train. Maybe if I had to ride one regularly to get to and from a job I hated I wouldn’t feel that way. But for the moment, on my first train journey, headed to parts unknown and what I was determined would be a marvelous new adventure, I was enchanted.
I was also nervous. Even though I knew that my stop wouldn’t be coming up for a long while, I made sure to listen closely every time a station was announced, just in case.. In case the geography of the country had changed recently, I guess. Anything’s possible, right? However improbable.
After an hour or so I decided I was comfortable enough with the whole train operation that I would have myself a little mini-adventure and walk through the train. It would be another couple of hours until we reached the end of the line, and there was a café care somewhere ahead of my car. I would get some tea and a sandwich or something and stretch my legs for a bit, and then return to my seat with plenty of time to maybe have a little nap, or maybe obsess some more over my possible impending doom getting closer and closer and closer…
As pleasant as the rocking of the train was while sitting, I found it was a little tricky to walk on. I was glad there were the backs of seats to hang onto, to help keep my balance. I imagined it might be like getting your sea-legs on a boat. If you rode trains often enough, your brain would just automatically adjust your body to its rhythm. Not that I’d ever been on a boat, either.
My seat was near the middle of the train car. I headed up the aisle to the somewhat intimidating sliding door that led to the space between cars. It was all enclosed there, but loud, and colder. It was like being in some strange, mechanical space between day and night, a place where the world was not entirely done being built.
I stepped through the next sliding door into the next car. It was another passenger car. I walked on through, to the next in-between space, then into the next car. Another passenger car. I started to wonder just how long the train was. I hadn’t thought to look when I was boarding from the platform, to count how far back from the engine my car was. I had seen people coming back through my car with food, though, so the café car had to be somewhere farther up.
Sure enough, two more cars forward had me stepping into a car with tables and seats built into the whole left side and most of the right, where about a dozen or so passengers were eating and drinking things. At the far end was a small kitchenette area behind a counter, behind which stood a very bored looking woman. I ordered a cup of tea from her and turned to find a seat, but my eye was caught by a sign that was posted by the door into the next car.
It said ‘Library Ahead’.
I blinked, and stared at it. Trains had libraries? Seriously? I looked back at the bored tea seller, the uninterested passengers. I looked at the sign again. I put down my tea and walked through the door.
The in-between place was warmer than all the others had been so far, the air still. I stepped through into the next car, and stared.
It was a library. Like, a real library. There were shelves and shelves of books leading off from the center aisle where I stood. I started to walk forward slowly, gaping all around at the tall shelves, the high ceiling with small electric chandeliers hanging down every few feet, the long rows of books stretching to my left and right.
I was about halfway through the car when I stopped and shook my head. It was too big. How could a room this size fit on a train? I could still feel the gentle rocking motion of the wheels on the rails. The chandeliers swung with it ever-so-slightly.
“This is impossible,” I breathed. I pulled a book from the nearest shelf and it was a real book, heavy in my hand, with real pages. The title on the cover read ‘The Life and Lies of Morton Wakefield’. Where had I heard that name before? I couldn’t place it, but I suddenly really, really wanted to sit down right there and read all about his life and his lies. He must have been quite the fibber if there was a whole book about it. But I glanced at the door at the far end of the train car, if in fact I was still actually on the train and hadn’t somehow magically ended up in a real library somewhere.
Magic – bah! That was a bedtime story. People didn’t have magic anymore. It had dried up from the world years ago like a shallow streambed in summer. There had to be some reasonable explanation.
I put the book back, still wondering about Mr. Wakefield, and walked on toward the next car. There was another sign there by the door. It said ‘Sea View Ahead’.
What could that possibly mean? I glanced back the way I’d come, at the door back into the café car. I still had plenty of time for exploring, even if I was beginning to feel a little weird about this train.
I opened the door.
The in-between place was cooler than the last one, but balmy and breezy. I stepped through into the next car
I was on a boat.
Literally. On a boat. There was no way it was part of the train. There were masts and ropes and sea gulls drifting up in the sky and water stretching out on either side past the railings. In the back of my mind I thought that I could no longer say I’ve never been on a boat.
I walked to the railing to my left, gaping out at the water. It was so blue, and the waves swelled and swayed, and swelled and swayed…
I started feeling queasy. Apparently I was prone to seasickness. I turned away from the water, looking at the boat and gripping the railing behind me hard, trying to focus on the solidness of the deck under my feet.
There was another door on the far end of the deck. That must lead to the next car. Or…to whatever the next place was. Someplace solid, hopefully. Someplace immovable, that didn’t bob and sway and tilt under my feet.
Lurching a little, I made it across the sun-warmed, sea-salted deck, and breathed a small sigh of relief as I opened the door to the next in-between place. I glanced up at the sign by the door as I passed it, raising my eyebrows at what it said.
‘Mountain Pass Ahead’ and in smaller print beneath was ‘Turn Left’.
What in the world could that mean?
The in-between was colder, the wind positively brisk. But it was proof that I was somehow still on the train. And what amazements might be through the next door? Only one way to find out…
I opened the door.
“Oh, my God!”
And that’s when I almost fell off of the side of a mountain.
“Turn left,” I muttered, after I had successfully not fallen to my death and was pressing back hard against the side of the mountain. “I understand now. Of course I should turn left, and not plummet into an abyss.”
I looked up and around to avoid looking down and could only gape, yet again, at my unexpected new surroundings.
Towering peaks, gray stone, white fog, whiter snow high above. I could hear water rushing somewhere. Down below, probably. I had no interest in looking. Apparently along with getting seasick, I was also iffy with heights. Okay, well, I supposed I could live with that as long as I, you know, didn’t die by falling off a mountain.
So I turned left and walked along the mountain pass. The path was several feet wide, which would have made a very roomy sidewalk along a city street or path through a garden or lane through the countryside, but was not wide enough for my comfort when one side ended in a sheer drop to certain death. So I kept really close to the mountainside and peered ahead in search of the door to the next car.
And somewhere in the back of my mind I was thinking ‘You asked for immovable. Mountains are pretty darn immovable’.
The path curved around to the left more and more sharply, and then suddenly the next door was in front of me. I grabbed the handle gratefully, closing my eyes as I leaned against it for a moment. I was almost afraid to look for the sign. What possible ridiculous scenario was I going to be thrust into now? Part of me wanted to just go back and find my seat again and take that nap I’d contemplated, but at that point which would be more treacherous? Going back or going forward? Well, my hand was already on the door, so…
The sign said ‘Open Ahead’. Once again I had no clue what that meant, and wondered if it would be as obvious in hindsight as the others had been. Hopefully this one meant that there was more space to move around in.
I opened the door. The in-between place was there, but was almost entirely dark. I could feel and hear the clacking of the rails, but the sound was muted, the motion quite gentle. The air was still, and warm. It was altogether quite comforting. I took a deep breath and slid the next door open.
There was darkness all around me. My eyes slowly adjusted to the dark and I could see the difference between the dark of the ground I was standing on and the dark of everything above that. There weren’t any trees or mountains or buildings or boats to obscure the view to the horizon, and up and up and up…
The sky was filled with stars. So many, so thickly clustered, so bright and sparkling on the field of deep black emptiness above me.
More space to move around in.
I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life. Wherever the next door was, whatever was in the next car, I really didn’t care. I lay down on my back on the dark ground and just gazed up at the sky. I took in a deep breath and closed my eyes, soothed by the incredible peace of the moment.
I opened my eyes. I was sitting in my seat on the train. I blinked and looked up at the conductor in the crisp blue uniform who was standing next to my seat.
“End of the line, miss. This is your stop.”
I blinked. “Oh.” I stood and gathered my bags and followed the man to the exit. Stepping into the place in between the train cars felt weird. I glanced at the door to the next car as the conductor assisted me down the narrow steps to the platform. Once off the train, I just stood for a moment, feeling strange to no longer be on something that was moving. I turned to look at the train, my eyes skating along the length of it, from car to car to car, all the way to the engine. It was a normal-looking train. I turned away from it, picking up my bags. I’d been dreaming. I felt a distinct twinge of disappointment. It had felt so very real.
I left the platform, walking into the station’s little waiting room. There was no one in the waiting room, not even anyone at the ticket counter. Probably because it was a small station at the end of the line. I wondered if I was the only person who’d been there all day.
Before I could decide whether to sit down there or go out front to wait for whoever was going to be taking me to my employer’s house, the door opposite me opened and a man walked in. He was tall, well-dressed, and very sharp-eyed. His sharp eyes lit on me and gave me a quick once-over, then a quick nod as he met my eyes squarely.
“How was your trip?” he asked. I opened my mouth to reply with a ‘fine’ or an ‘alright’, but there was something in his expression that made me pause. There was a glint there, something weighing and testing.
I lifted my chin, my grip on my bags tightening. “It was rather a grand adventure,” I said boldly.
The corner of his mouth twitched a little. “That’s good,” he said, his tone neutral. “Let’s go, shall we?” He started to turn to the door.
“And, um, who are you?” I piped up, not moving yet.
“How impolite of me.” He turned back to me and took two long steps toward me, holding his hand out to shake. “Morton Wakefield, at your service.”
The Life and Lies of…
I shook his hand even as my mind turned. Where did I know that name from?
“You’re my employer,” I blurted, remembering the advertisement I’d answered, the letter sent with the train ticket. This was the retired historian? He didn’t look old enough. He looked, well, spry. Young.
People don’t have magic anymore.
He nodded. “I am, indeed.” Our hands released and he gestured rather grandly to the door. “Are you ready for your next adventure?”
“One question,” I said, and he gave a small nod.
“Why is there a book about your lies?”
He smiled. “I’ll tell you all about it on the way to the house,” he said, and opened the door for me.
I paused, looked at the open doorway in between this part of my life and the next, and looked him in the eyes. “Is working for you going to be anything like being on that train?”
His left eyebrow arched up in question, in invitation. “Are you up for it?”
I blinked, and smiled, and stepped through the door.