Trains always have an unusual role in stories. They’re the meeting places for destined lovers or the final separation between parting friends or the vessels carrying souls to the afterlife. In a story, no one ever just rides a train.
As I stood at the station I considered none of the fantastical lore of trains. Why would I? Nothing fantastic ever really happens in life. Trains are easy: get on, ride awhile, get off.
I kept my eyes in my book until the subway’s headlights broke out of the tunnel and into the dusty station air.
I have a habit of sitting in a rearward-facing seat on my first train out of the city. It started out as coincidence; the only seat left open by the heavy just-past-rush-hour traffic in the car faced the back, and so I stifled the complaints of my forward-facing human sensibilities and took it.
That was the hardest part. Once I’d experienced for myself that sitting backward doesn’t send you flying over the seat in front of you with the train’s every acceleration, it became a pleasant symbolic experience. Life happens in the city. Good to face back and pay some respect to it.
On this day I rode backward as usual and continued reading. In the corner of my eye, I saw street lights appear. The train had gone above ground: my stop was coming soon.
As I finished a chapter and closed the pages around my finger to mark my place, I caught the end of the conductor’s announcement. ”…wherever you like, and to the green and yellow lines on the lower level.”
Weird, I thought, raising an eyebrow. Wonder what that first part was. Hope it wasn’t something about a track closure.
“Doors opening,” said the recorded voice. I stood and stepped out onto the platform.
It was a mid-autumn night, but it was barely chilly outside the train. There was a thin fog in the air, and as I began my walk from the end of the platform to the esclators I marveled that it made the sky look almost unreal. The station looked strange, too; with the stars dimmed above it, its white stone canopy seemed to be the only thing in the sky.
I stared for a moment. It was a powerful sight, the brightness of the stone contrasting with the blackness above, the clarity of the nearby station standing out against the depth of the nothingness beyond.
It looked unreal, I thought again, as another train pulled up on the other side of the platform. This time I heard the conductor’s full announcement.
“Top of the world,” it started. “Transfer point to wherever you like. And to the green and yellow lines on the lower level.”
How I knew it was the top of the world, I can’t tell you. But, looking over the edge of the platform that my train had left behind, I could see that it was. There were lights–lots of them–but more than that, there was a feeling. A feeling that I really could leave the station–take a flying leap from the platform, even–and get out there and get wherever I wanted.
It was all there. Everything. I could see it. The whole world laid out before me, the platform its giant, tiled welcome mat.
In the end, I took the stairs to the lower level and picked up the green line as usual. I’ve never again been to the station at the top of the world, but every time I get close to my transfer, I close my book and listen for the announcement a little earlier. And every time I exit onto the platform, I stare long and hard at the dark horizon and wonder where I might have been if I’d gotten off at that station for good.