On Christmas Eve, many years ago, I lay quietly in my bed. I did not rustle the sheets. I breathed slowly and silently, listening for Santa’s sleigh. After a long time, I did hear a sound, though not the sound of sleigh bells. From outside came the sound of hissing brakes and screeching metal. I looked through the window and saw an old train standing perfectly still in front of my house.
It had rickety, metal carriages covered in soot and graffiti, and there was a sign on the side that said METROPOLITAN TRANSPORTATION AUTHORITY. People shoved their way on-board until the doors wouldn’t close. In the middle, a conductor stood at the open window of one of the cars. I put on my slippers and robe, and tiptoed downstairs and out the door.
“The train can’t go if the doors are open!” the conductor cried out. I ran up to him.
“Well,” he said to me, “what is it?”
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“Santa’s Workshop,” he said before turning to his microphone, “This is a North Pole-bound, Polar Express train. Please stand clear of the closing doors.”
“You’re not very Christmas-y,” I said.
“Yeah, well we’re public transit now, kid. They make the rules. Get on.”
I nodded my head and climbed aboard. He spoke into his microphone again. “Let go of the doors! There’s another train right behind us.”
The Polar Express was filled with other children, all in their pajamas and nightgowns. Together, as the train pulled away into the softly falling snow, we sat in silence and avoided eye contact. One kid was clipping his toenails for some reason. On-board, as if by magic, there were warm marshmallows and cups of hot chocolate, but they had spilled all over the floor and everyone pretended not to see them.
Outside, the lights of towns and villages flickered in the distance as the Polar Express raced northward. The mountains turned into hills, the hills to snow-covered plains. We crossed a barren desert of ice — the Great Polar Ice Cap. Lights appeared in the distance. They looked like the lights of a strange ocean liner sailing on a frozen sea.
“There!” said someone, “the North Pole!” We pressed our faces against the glass. The conductor came over the speakers.
“Due to an earlier incident, all northbound, Polar Express trains will not make stops at North Pole-Santa’s Workshop and are running on the N, R local track. For service to the North Pole-Santa’s Workshop, please transfer at the next station.”
We sighed and returned to our seats.
Soon there were no more lights to be seen. We traveled through cold, dark forests, where lean wolves roamed and white-tailed rabbits hid from our train as it thundered through the quiet wilderness. Faster and faster we ran along, rolling over peaks and through valleys like a car on a roller coaster.
Out of nowhere, we screeched to a halt. I was thrown across the cabin. And then we stayed there for close to forty minutes. Nobody knew why. Some kids slept. Others cried. A snowman came through asking for money. After a while the conductor came on and told us that a traffic signal had burnt out, turning off all the traffic lights on the same string. We should be moving shortly.
Time wore on. Eventually, we were transferred to another train. After all our troubles, we were going to the North Pole! A murmur of excitement grew among the passengers. When the lights of the great city and its workshops blinked into sight on the horizon, even the train itself shook with anticipation. I hugged my robe close and smiled.
Pulling into the station, we slowed to a crawl. In the yard, we passed a group of elves huddled together for warmth, chestnuts roasting on an open track fire. Even then, people stood at the doors, nervously kicking to get out. Finally, with a lurch, the train came to a halt and let out a great sigh. After a moment, which seemed a lifetime, the doors opened and we rushed out into the city.
It was a magical place, decorated with candy canes and gumdrops. As we exited the station, we ran into an elf, who started with a jump. In our excitement, we almost yelled our questions at him.
“Where is Santa?” we shouted. “Where are all the reindeer and the gifts?”
“Oh, they all went home,” he told us. “That whole thing was over, like, two hours ago.”