Near the outskirts of Hazen, on a train platform long out of operation, two figures found refuge from the snow.
The roof of the platform was coated a thick, white layer of snow, one that caked the grounds around the station. Beyond the platform, leafless trees bent down under the white weight, the occasional broken branch buried in the snow underneath; post-lamps that used to be black shone through the freezing fog, long chains of fairy-lights intricately coiled around them. Hazy bursts of colorful light, green and red and yellow, mingled with the electric blue of the lamps, granting the fog a whimsical quality.
By the deserted railroad, a crooked and dented metal sign was imbedded in the snow, the name of the station it was meant to read faded away with the weather and misused time. A sole line of fairy-lights dangled from it, flickering irregularly; this one was soft and yellow, spots of light reflecting against the metal and casted down at the snow.
Back on the platform, Dan leaned against the vending machine, slipping change into it and hitting number seven. He watched with a measure of disinterest as the machine clicked and groaned, processing the demand, before pushing a soda can away from its flock. The can tumbled down, hitting the bottom of the machine with a muffled, metallic thump.
Instead of bending to take it out, Dan slipped more change into the machine and hit number three. The machine clicked and groaned again, before promptly falling still and silent.
Dan cocked his head, giving the machine an encouraging nudge. It didn’t respond.
“Aw, come on,” he muttered under his breath, nudging the machine again. He pressed number three a few consequent times, and when that gave no response, bent down to check the change compartment, only to find it empty. With a defeated sigh, He crouched and took out the cold soda can, before turning back to join Jamie on the bench.
“I don’t know how you can drink this monstrosity,” he said, tossing the can to his friend. Jamie caught it out of the air and swiftly opened it, the proceeding click and sizzle loud and clear in the empty station. “Not only is it freezing cold, but also absolutely disgusting.”
“That’s because you have the taste-buds of a ten-year-old,” Jamie said, sipping his sparkling water. “Maybe once you grow up, you’d appreciate the bitterness for what it is.”
Dan’s eyebrows rose. “And what would that be?”
“A cruel metaphor for the unfairness of life,” Jamie replied, offhandedly, between sips. “The inability to avoid the reign of inevitable disappointment and crippling failure.”
“Ah,” Dan said, pulling at the sound. “I might be halfway there already, if that’s the case.”
Jamie gave him an inquiring look, and Dan gestured his head toward the vending machine. “The bastard swallowed my money, and didn’t give me the Ferrero.”
Jamie frowned. “Since when do they sell Ferrero in vending machines?”
Dan shrugged. “Beats me. Why’s there a Christmas tree in an abandoned station? Life’s full of mysteries.”
At that, both boys fixed their gazes on the platform’s resident Christmas tree, stationed next to the barricaded ticket-booth. As far as they could tell, the tree was a legitimate pine tree, massive and dense; it was amply decorated with rounds of steady and colorful fairy-lights, with heavy, red and gold glass-ball ornaments hanging from its needles. A yellow plastic star was perched on top of the tree, slightly tilted.
Jamie finished his sparkling water and tossed the can in a nearby trashcan without getting up. He then leaned back against the bench, crossed his legs, ankle against the knee, and tugged his beanie down to cover his ears; his cheeks were rosy from the cold, eyes narrowed as he observed the deserted railroad. They could hear the distant hymn of Christmas carols carrying in from the city, monotonous in their accustomed familiarity. Dan’s knee jittered in synch with their rhythm.
When the carols gave way to a faint rail-squeal and a metallic clatter, the boys perked, curious eyes searching the rails. The sounds amplified as seconds passed, overtaking the night before long; Dan’s knee stilled and Jamie straightened when a horn blew against the squeals of an incoming train, which soon thereafter came into view and slowed to a halt by the platform.
Dan glanced to his sides before settling his eyes on the train again. The doors of the train opened with a heavy creak, but no passengers came out. The only figure to appear was a tall and bony man, dressed in a conductor uniform and wearing a cap that didn’t completely hide his bright orange hair. His pointy brown shoes were almost as shiny as the snow on the ground.
Dan and Jamie exchanged a baffled look.
“Isn’t this platform supposed to be abandoned?” Dan muttered, looking back to the man, who miraculously didn’t seem to have noticed them yet.
“It is,” replied Jamie.
“Where would it even be going?” said Dan. He leaned forward to look beyond the platform at the railroad’s continuation, right up until where it abruptly stopped — having been destroyed somewhere between now and way back when, when trains had still gone through here. “How did it get here in the first place?” He looked back to the train itself. “What on earth?”
The man — the conductor, who Dan assumed was horrible at his job, circumstances considered — finally noticed them. His face lightened up in a bright smile as he formally waved at them, voice rising above the train’s rattle. “Howdy, boys! Would you care for a ride?”
“We’re good,” Dan shouted back.
“We have plenty of spare tickets, sold with a discount!” called the conductor, as if that was what’s caused Dan to decline. “The train will be leaving any minute now.”
“And going where, exactly?” Dan couldn’t help but ask.
“Next stop is—“ the conductor paused, pulling a clipboard out of seemingly nowhere and riffling through the pages attached to it. “Aestiria.”
“That’s not a place. Is that a place?” Dan said, turning to Jamie. Jamie shook his head.
“Not one that I’ve heard of,” he said.
“Last call,” proclaimed the conductor, clipboard having gone back to where it’d come from. The train’s horn blew twice in quick succession. “Next stop: Aestiria. Last call!”
“Oh, what the hell,” Dan said, climbing to his feet.
“Because we’re clearly not lost enough as it is,” Jamie said, following him as he stalked toward the train. They bought two tickets from the conductor, who pocketed the money and gave them another bright smile that somehow didn’t land as innocently as the first one. Neither of the boys cared.
“Have a pleasant ride,” the conductor said, climbing into the train-car after them. The doors creaked shut, the train rattled as if by courtesy of an earthquake, and before they could turn around to look through the window at the platform they’ve abandoned, the train was off.
The car was empty save for three other people, none of whom paid them any heed. Around them, they could hear the undertone of radio music, its generic cheer distorted by the rattle of the moving train.
“Front or back?” asked Dan.
“I don’t care.”
“Middle it is, then.”
They stalked halfway through the car and claimed an empty booth of four, sitting opposite each other by the large, square window. Dan stretched his legs, and scowled when they hit the skeleton of the table; begrudgingly, he crossed his ankles against it and let his spine sink against the back of the chair.
Someone had left a black elastic band on the table, outstretched with use. Dan picked it up, absently starting to fiddle with it as he leaned his head against the window, heedless of the ride’s rattle. Outside, they’ve passed by snowy mountains and rivers frozen over; the hints of lights from the occasional cabin made their way through the fog, the frost drawing intricate patterns on the train’s window-panes.
They were a good fifteen minutes into the train ride when the conductor showed up, looming over them with a crate cradled in his arms. His conductor cap has been replaced with a golden-colored top hat with a brown ribbon tied at its base, a vest in matching colors thrown over his conductor uniform.
“Good evening, lads,” said the conductor, and Dan frowned.
The conductor tipped his head, puzzlement overwriting his features. His gaze traveled to the window, and he said, “is it?”
Dan glanced back at the window and looked back to him almost instantly, opening his mouth to confirm. But then what he’s seen registered, and he whipped his head back to the window, unable to suppress his groan. “Oh, c’mon, not again.”
Jamie snickered from across him. “Does this mean it’s Christmas already?”
“As soon as the clock chimes twelve,” confirmed the conductor.
“And how long ‘till that happens?” asked Dan.
“As soon as all the year’s dues are paid,” said that. “Can I offer you some holiday snacks?”
Dan leaned forward to peer into the crate, and started. Packs of Ferrero candies were stacked on top of each other to three-quarters the volume of the crate, their clear boxes and wrappings reflecting the colorful fairy-lights strewn about the train.
“These are Ferrero’s,” Dan helpfully distinguished.
“Since when are they specifically a holiday snack?” Jamie curiously asked.
“Ever since travelers have turned homesick,” replied the conductor. He set the crate down on the table and took a clipboard out of it; Dan peered into the crate again, trying to recall whether the clipboard had been there before. Must’ve, he thought, even though he knew he hadn’t seen it. “I see that you’ve filed a Ferrero order.”
“Who, me?” Dan said, puzzled. “I don’t remember doing that. We’ve only just gotten on your train.”
“No, no, I have the request right here,” said the conductor, holding the clipboard out for Dan to see. Squinting, Dan skimmed through the intricate listings, scribbled out in the pretty type of chicken scratch, until his eyes fell on his own name at the bottom of the page.
Daniel Catix; (1) order of three-pack Ferrero Rocher (pending).
“There seems to have been an error,” supplied the conductor, taking the clipboard back to absently skim over it himself. “The payment had been misdirected. Compensation is due.”
“Compensation,” said Dan. He blinked. “Are you talking about the vending machine?”
“That channel of distribution is, unfortunately, prone to mishaps,” sighed the conductor. “The elves work overtime and seem to be incapable of withstanding the currency’s allure.”
“So they steal it?” Jamie chimed in.
The conductor grimaced. “So to speak.”
“Pay them better, then,” said Dan.
“We’ve tried,” said the conductor. “Alas, they keep eating the coins.”
“Then I don’t know what to tell you,” Jamie said, leaning back in his seat. There was a small crease between his eyebrows, despite his feigned look of disinterest. “Maybe you should try upgrading the system.”
“Christmas elves are creatures of tradition,” said the conductor. “The best we can do is try and compensate for their shortcomings. When it comes down to it, there are none more loyal, in terms of dedication to the job.”
“Clearly,” Dan dryly said. “Are you saying you’re giving us this Ferrero for free? Like, free-free?”
“The due order, indeed,” replied the conductor. He handed Dan a sole three-pack of Ferrero’s, before picking up his crate and turning to leave. “I’m afraid I’ve got to deliver those around,” he said, gesturing his head down at the crate. His hat skewed across his forehead. “In the meantime, I wish you lads a very merry Christmas, and goodnight.”
“And you,” said Jamie. Dan grunted in association, slouching to inspect the candy package. He turned it this and that way, looked under and over it, and finally gave it a gentle shake.
All signs led to it being a completely normal, regular, standard package of Ferrero’s.
He was about to tear it open when a thunder shook the entire train, and it flew out of his hands along with the startled yelp ripped from his throat. “The hell was that?!”
“Your Ferrero’s running away,” Jamie said. Dan frowned, leaning over the table to see that, lo and behold, his Ferrero package was floating in the air and making its escape. It stopped before the door and lowered to meet the ground, after which the car’s door slowly opened an inch or two.
The two boys stared in baffled silence as the Ferrero floated up again and squeezed through the narrow opening, the package visibly crinkling as one Ferrer hit the metal, before the door slammed shut and the package was gone.
They exchanged a quick look before scrambling to their feet and starting after the escaped Ferrero; Jamie pushed the door open and Dan was about to dart forward, before suddenly realizing he was seeing the railroads and the ground quickly running under them. He barely held himself back, arm shooting to grab a hold of the train as wind whiplashed against his face; he looked to a fro, before his eyes caught the fleeting sight of a golden packaging disappearing behind the edge of next car’s roof, above a metal ladder.
Jamie stepped outside and let the door slide shut behind him, latch clicking. They took a moment to examine their surroundings, before silently agreeing that the best course of action would be the obvious one.
Dan leaped the distance between the cars’ ledges, reflex alone holding him back from crashing face-first into the opposite door; he balanced himself, turned back to give Jamie a thumbs up, and started climbing the ladder. Jamie tugged his beanie down to cover his ears and followed in his friend’s footsteps.
They emerged on the rooftop to see the skitter of the floating Ferrero, disappearing under a large, grey sweatshirt that was lying against the roof, secured in place by two wooden screws. Dan might’ve been wrong, considering the distance and the movement distortion, but it looked like they were embedded in the very metal of the train.
“My Ferrero’s suicidal,” Dan blandly said, slowly climbing to his feet against the whiplash.
“As are you, apparently,” Jamie replied. He was still clutching onto the ladder, albeit stretching his body to get a somewhat clear view of the frankly quite uneventful scene. “Where’d it go?”
“Under the sweatshirt,” said Dan. In small, cautious steps, he started making his way forward, and Jamie could do nothing but follow him. They were very cautious, and the wind was very strong, and the generic cheery music seemed to be laughing at them from below. The moment the pop would switch into dramatic violins and drums, Jamie would pull Dan down and back inside, Ferrero be damned.
The music, however, remained cheery and generic even as they reached the sweatshirt. Dan crouched — very slowly, very carefully — and pulled the rag to look under it. “The hell did my Ferrero go?”
Jamie snuck his own peak under the sweatshirt, and was faced with nothing but the metal plate of the train. “I swear, if that’s another portal, I don’t know what crimes I’m going to commit.”
“What’s so bad about portals?” Dan innocently asked, lifting round eyes to Jamie. Jamie raised his eyebrows.
“Really? After last time, you’re really asking this.”
Dan rolled his eyes and let go of the sweatshirt, climbing back to his feet. He wiped his palms against his pants, as if to get off any stray dust. “I think we’re closer to this end of the car,” he said, pointing at the way opposite the one they’ve come from. “We might as well just get down through here.”
“Lead away,” Jamie said, gesturing forward with his arm. They proceeded to make their way — very slowly, very cautiously — across the remaining distance to the end of the car, before finally reaching another thankfully-intact ladder and climbing back down to a more reasonable ground.
Dan was about to turn into the secure space of the train when he stumbled across a heap on the floor. Looking down, he realized he’s almost stepped on a nest of blankets. It took half the space of the floor outside the car, right until where the car gave way to a latch and the railroad under that.
Jamie crouched before the nest, his expression soft and his arm invitingly outstretched. “Hey there, fella,” he cooed.
When Dan crouched next to him, he saw what Jamie was talking to. A small kitten, made of red yarn, was nestled in between the blankets, chin perched against a soft crook they made. It’s eyes, big and black buttons, were fixed on them. Dan would say it looked intrigued rather than alarmed — as much as that could be detected in buttons and yarn.
Jamie reached his hand into the kitten’s space, and the little creature inclined its head and sniffed it. Its whiskers, made of thin white sewing thread, jostled with the repeated movement. Then the kitten leaned into Jamie’s hand, and Jamie pet it.
“Where’s my Ferrero, you little thief?” Dan asked, no venom in his voice. Quite the opposite, in fact. “How’d you even get all the way here by yourself?”
A startled jingle attracted both their attentions’. To their collective astonishment — that beside’s the kitten’s, it seemed, as it kept hitting its head against Jamie’s palm in attempts to have himself pet — a small figure manifested out of thin air, holding Dan’s Ferrero pack over its head.
It was roughly the size of an apple and had a triangular shape, attributed to either its red-and-green velvet dressing or to its very figure. It had a small velvet hat, red and brimmed with white wool; a golden bell was attached to the end of it, jingling softly, almost inaudibly, along with its movement.
“So you’re the thief,” Dan simply said. He made sure to make his voice as stern as he remembered his mother’s being, every time he’d snuck into the kitchen and eaten the Christmas cookies before she’d allowed him to. “You’re rather naughty for a Christmas elf, aren’tcha?”
The elf shook its head vehemently, arms still outstretched over its head and its bell jingling. Jamie watched curiously, paying half a mind as to keep petting the kitten.
Dan opened his mouth to say something else, before being cut off by the elf’s thin, high-pitched voice. “Pwease don’ wepowt me to Sa-sa-san’a.”
“Aww, buddy,” Dan said, brow creasing in sympathy. He dropped all the sternness from his voice. “What do you take me for?”
The elf stared at him, its entire figure visibly shaking. Its little arms barely held the weight of the Ferrero package. “Pwease, Mi-mi-miste’,” it pleaded. “I’m sowwy. Pwease don’ wepowt me to San’a.”
“We won’t,” Jamie said. “But you’ve got to realize stealing’s bad, right?”
“I wou-wou-wouldn’,” said the elf. It gestured its head toward the kitten. “Thunde’bol’ likes them, a-a-and the mean man do-do-don’ wan’ to give him any.”
Dan looked to the kitten. “That’s probably because chocolate’s bad to cats,” he said, turning back to the terrified little elf.
“It’s made of yarn, though,” Jamie remarked. “Does that still matter when it’s made of yarn?”
Dan shrugged exaggeratedly. “I’ve no idea, Jay. Until five minutes ago I didn’t even know yarn cats were a thing.”
“Thunde’bol’ isn’t fwom awound this twain,” said the elf.
“You named him Thunderbolt?” Dan said.
The elf nodded vehemently. This time, the jingle of its bell was drowned out by a thunder crackling across the sky overhead. They looked over to the kitten, which closed its mouth in synch with the passing of the thunder.
“Thunde’bol don’ meow,” said the elf.
“Clearly,” Jamie dumbfoundedly said, his hand frozen midair. Thunderbolt thumped its head against his palm again, and didn’t stop until Jamie resumed his petting. “You’re a little menace, eh?”
Dan turned his attention back to the Christmas elf, gesturing toward the Ferrero pack. “What d’you say we make a deal, huh?”
The elf’s shaking started to diminish, and it gave Dan a curious tilt of the head. “Wha’ kinda deal?”
“If you give me back my Ferrero,” he said, “then I’ll give you one in return.”
“And you won’ wepowt me to San’a?” asked the elf. Dan shook his head.
“Nope. No one except for the four of us would ever know,” he said. “Promise.”
The elf started slowly lowering the Ferrero pack. It tried to conceal its little exerted huffs, and Dan pretended not to notice.
“Okay,” said the elf. It put the package down on the ground, and promptly dropped to sit beside it, legs outstretched and hands in its lap. “Thank you, Miste’.”
Dan affectionately ruffled its hat before tearing open the Ferrero package. He gave one Ferrer to the elf, which promptly scrambled to stand and skittered over to Thunderbolt. Jamie pulled back as the elf slumped against the kitten’s lap and tore the candy’s crinkly golden wrapping.
Thunderbolt opened its mouth and an erratic thunder crackled across the sky, lighting flashing bright. Dan blinked, and after the blink, saw the kitten munching down on the chocolate. Low rolls of continuous thunder crossed the sky, and the reflection of a distant lightning strike glinted against its buttoned eyes.
Jamie stood up, tilting his head in consideration. He then stalked over to the door and pulled it open. “C’mon, Danny.”
Dan tore his eyes from the two little creatures, nestled against each other in the array of blankets. The elf was excitedly telling Thunderbolt something, animatedly waving its hands around, its voice too quiet to reach Dan. Thunderbolt, still chewing, was completely fixated on the elf’s words, the occasional low rumble of a thunder interjecting.
The door slid shut, and Dan was greeted by generic cheery music and a wave of warmth enveloping him. This car was vacant, save for him and Jamie; he followed his friend as that stalked across the car to sit in a booth at the middle, and sat opposite him.
He laid the two Ferrero’s left on the table and leaned back in his seat, examining the candies for a few moments. Then, jerkily, he snatched one of them, and tore open the wrapping. The crinkle it made was oddly satisfying.
He popped the chocolate in his mouth, crumpling the golden wrapping and discarding it to the table, looking on with half a mind as Jamie took the second Ferrero. He then turned his head and looked out the window; the railroad was boarded with a thick view of snow-coated pine trees, taller than the edge of the window, the occasional one decorated with mesmerizing fairy-lights. Wherever they were, it was already Christmas out there.
“Merry Christmas,” Jamie told him, before biting down on his Ferrer. Dan turned his gaze to him and grinned.
“A Merry Christmas it is.”
The Otherworld Train © Michal Rotko
Photo by Sam Lee on Unsplash