Now Arriving on Track Four by Michael Merriam
The ghost train pulled into the station as I draped the canvas sheet over my kiosk in preparation of enjoying the party’s leftovers.
The fifth anniversary of the St. Paul Union Depot reopening meant a bash thrown by the city and state to show off the successful project to lawmakers and other high-rollers, plying them with music, free drinks, and tours of the different transit vehicles—gleaming and polished for the occasion.
The party brought me little in the way of business. People drinking and celebrating aren’t looking to purchase newspapers or magazines. Not that many people were buying old-school paper media anymore, what with everyone from your great-grandparents to tiny toddlers carrying smartphones and tablets for entertainment these days.
My bread-and-butter customers remained bored patrons sitting around in the great room waiting for their train or bus to whatever destination they were fleeing toward. Chicago, mostly. Not that their problems could be solved by running away to another tired old city, though I’d thought of leaving too. I’d sell my slowly failing kiosk, pack a bag, and hop a train to California or Oregon or some other place. It sounded romantic. Not feasible, but romantic.
I paused with the plastic cup of warm champagne I’d scored inches from my lips as the building trembled. The roar of an arriving train reverberated through the depot: the huff of a steam locomotive, the squeal of brakes as it rolled to stop. I glanced at the board. No scheduled arrivals, and if the mystery train was part of the anniversary celebration, it was too late. Curious, I followed the handful of staff still present toward the platform. A big black locomotive sat parked at the platform, steam and smoke swirling around the big wheels.
“Good lord, that’s the Twin Cities 400.” The speaker was one of the tour guides, a stooped and elderly gentleman dressed as a late nineteenth-century train conductor.
“The Twin Cities 400. She was the fastest train on the line between here and Chicago, back in the day.”
Dozens of passengers dressed like extras from classic film noir, all fedoras and furs, disgorged from the various carriages. As a group they looked almost normal, but when I tried focusing on individuals, they seemed muted, faded, ghostly.
They entered the depot, ignoring security’s questions and attempts to stop them. Standing in front of them or reaching to grasp arms made no difference; they became like smoke at contact before passing the security guards by and reforming in their soft-edge impressionistic state. They were purposeful, heading toward the depot doors, fading out into gray blobs the further they moved from the train until they all simply vanished as the steam engine rolled away from the platform.
I suppose I should have been terrified. They were ghosts—or something like ghosts. Mostly I was just stunned speechless. By the next morning I wondered if I’d dreamed the whole affair. When I arrived at work to find the depot locked and under guard by serious-looking men in dark suits, wearing earpieces and carrying large weapons under their suit jackets, all notions of last night being unreal fled.
They closed the depot for a week. I mean, you can’t just go about your business after a train from the past arrives, disembarks its passengers, and vanishes into the night, right? But after no reoccurrences for a week, it was deemed safe to reopen.
The news reported it as a mass hallucination, possibly brought on by too much drink and merriment. All the security guards and custodial staff on duty that night lost their jobs over the incident and those of us they couldn’t just fire received stern warnings from the depot management to not speak to the press or anyone else, or we’d find our contracts voided and they’d deal with any lawsuits we brought against them.
They could call it a mass hallucination all they wanted, but when the legendary Hiawatha arrived in the middle of the day a week after reopening, even I recognized it. I mean there was artwork of the Hiawatha all over the depot, how could I not? The big art deco diesel engine drawing seven carriages and a domed observation car painted in Milwaukee Road colors of orange, maroon, and black squealed to a halt at the main platform. The passengers appeared more real this time as they entered the concourse, solid, less ghost-like as they walked across the building past people waiting for arrivals and departures of more mundane vehicles.
One Hiawatha passenger, a middle-aged man in a gray suit, stopped at my kiosk, picked up a Pioneer-Press, and scanned the newspaper, paying particular attention to the date. He glanced at the price, looked up at me.
“Fifty cents?” he asked me.
“Most newspapers are at least a dollar these days.” I shrugged as I looked right into his brown eyes. A little voice in my brain asked what the hell I thought I was doing talking to a ghost, but casual conversation was something I was practiced at. It felt normal and easy.
He frowned and tossed a heavy silver coin on the counter. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. There you go, miss.” He looked around the station before heading out the front door and down the steps, past the Light Rail platform on Fourth Street, into downtown St. Paul, newspaper tucked under his arm.
I picked up the coin. It was a Walking Liberty half dollar. 1938. I waited for the coin to vanish like fairy gold. When it didn’t, I pulled a dollar from my wallet and exchanged it in my till for the coin and two quarters, knowing good and well the big silver coin was worth way more than face-value.
I looked up to minor chaos. Security was refusing to engage the phantom passengers, the guard nearest me, a tall thin fellow, muttering “It’s just a hallucination” under his breath.
The perfectly normal passengers in the lounge were a mixed bag in reaction: some were happily recording on their phones, and I knew by the end of the hour every social media platform supporting video would be flooded with material. Others were screaming, fleeing, praying the rosary, or watching in fascination depending on their inclination and nerve. I looked across the mess at my friend Janet over at the shoeshine stand. She watched the phantom passengers with a look of wonder.
It took the St. Paul police a solid thirty minutes to arrive. They “secured the scene,” which meant they chased us all out of the building regardless of our positions, and “cordoned off a perimeter,” by parking cruisers with their lights flashing around the building and standing around with their hands on their guns. Not that it did any good: by the time police arrived, the phantom passengers had vanished or wandered into the city and the Hiawatha had long since pulled out of the station. Janet and I hung around watching the whole circus until a motorcade of black sports-utility vehicles arrived and disgorged a platoon of men in dark suits with large weapons.
“Can’t call it a hallucination now, can they?” Janet said.
I shook my head and linked arms with her. “Let’s get out of here before the cops, or feds, or men-in-freaking-black start looking for people to question.”
They closed the depot again, this time for a month. Everyone from ghost hunters to experts in quantum mechanics investigated at the behest of local, state, and federal authorities.
“Rip in time and space,” one physicist theorized. “Centered on an as-yet-undiscovered nexus point.”
They tried to entice the trains to return in a controlled environment, the depot full of scientists, government investigators, military personnel, and paranormal researchers. They ran the Amtrak Empire Builder for two weeks, filled with those same investigators as ringers. No ghost trains.
Meanwhile, I sat home watching my meager savings vanish and my bills pile up. I was on the second Grain Belt and scowling over my bank account when Janet knocked on my apartment door.
“We’re going to the bar,” she exclaimed, closing my laptop and sweeping me up. “Some of us are getting together and I’ve decided that includes you.” She gave me a stern glare. “You’ve been ignoring my texts.”
“You need to be with your friends.”
Over nachos and beers we watched the non-stop news coverage on the big screen hanging over a corner. They played a compilation of videos.
“Definitely not a mass hallucination.” Tim, a large cheerful man who’d been one of the first security guards laid off, laughed. “I’d hoped for maybe an apology from… someone, but whatever.”
Faith, who worked the Amtrak ticket counter, reached over and patted his arm. “Maybe when this is sorted you can come back to work at the depot.”
“I wonder if they’ll ever figure out what’s happening,” Janet said. She fiddled absentmindedly with a lock of her red hair.
“And why it’s happening here.” Faith paused, nachos raised. I watched a jalapeno fall off the mess back to her plate. “It would help if, you know, we could talk to them.”
I looked at my fellows. “I’ve spoken with one. He bought a newspaper and walked out of the building. I watched him vanish around a corner.” They all stared at me. “What?”
Janet bit her bottom lip. “No one else has been able to talk to or touch any of the… um…”
“Ghosts? Phantoms?” Tim replied.
Faith narrowed her eyes at me. “Yeah. Part of the never-ending news cycle talking points is if we can’t communicate with them, how can we know what they want?”
“Why do they need to want anything? Why can’t they just, you know, be?” Tim asked.
I took a long drink of my beer, peered over the top of the bottle. “Can we maybe change the subject?” I said in a low whisper.
After a moment of silence, Janet smiled. “Well, I’m sure they’ll reopen the depot soon.”
When they did reopen to public use a month later, the federal government refused to allow any shops it deemed unnecessary to depot operations to reopen, which included my little newsstand. I heard through the grapevine the employees and riders couldn’t get through the front doors without suffering an hour of security theater. Still no ghost trains.
Meanwhile, I was buying ramen noodles in bulk and doing odd assignments for a short-term temp agency. Even Janet’s normally irrepressible good humor was getting strained as she faced the prospect of moving back into her parents’ suburban home.
Eventually various businesses and Metro Transit took enough of an economic hit that they complained to the mayor of St. Paul, who called the governor of Minnesota, who leaned on the congressional delegation, who worked their contacts in Washington to make Homeland Security see some sense. The scientific community wanted to study the ghost trains up close and held to the theory that the only way to bring back the trains was to return to normal operations—whatever that meant—which added weight to the argument to reopen the depot. I was allowed to reopen my kiosk in peace. Well, under the watchful eyes of stern men in suits with earpieces, but at least I was able to go back to work.
Within a week all the great old trains started coming regularly: the 400, the Gopher, the Hiawatha, the Rocket, the Zephyr, and others, all running alongside the modern Empire Builder.
Passengers disembarked, walked through the depot, and into the city. All efforts by researchers, security personnel, and the plain curious to interact with the passengers was in vain, and attempts to board the trains ended with the ghost trains vanishing and bewildered looking people somehow standing on the empty tracks. At least they weren’t dropped from a height and injured.
With no easy explanations forthcoming, everyone from the President in the White House to the custodians in the depot’s maintenance office threw up their hands and declared this the new normal and hence something to turn into a tourist attraction. Come see the trains from the past in all their glory! Maybe catch a glimpse of your grandparents as they disembark! Of course, no one had identified any of these apparently time-lost travelers, but that didn’t stop the advertising machine. There was money to be made in this new kind of tourism and everyone wanted a cut. Not that my little kiosk was seeing much of an increase in sales.
Three months after the first locomotive arrived, the first phantom streetcar rolled up at the light rail platform in front of the depot, bell ringing, and those time-lost passengers climbed aboard that impossible streetcar, scattering across the metro. By then, the arrivals and departures board began showing schedules for the trains from the past, the automated announcements letting people know when they would arrive and depart with no one programming these dates and times in. It just happened.
The City of Ghosts.
That’s what the rest of the world called us. It was too much for some people. They fled the city, fled the suburbs, fled the whole state, and in their place the past took hold. I watched an echo of the long lost Metropolitan Building rise up, ghostly and translucent at first, growing more solid each day as I rode the light rail from Minneapolis into work every morning. I wondered how it was sharing space with the modern office building on its old location, but wasn’t curious enough to go check it out. Okay, I was too scared. I am not ashamed to admit it. I mean, would you?
Some people threw themselves whole-hearted into the experience, like Janet. She bought herself a vintage newsboy hat and suspenders because why not? I thought she looked quite dapper. Curious tourists from around the world would fly into the Twin Cities and take a ton of pictures and fly home. Priests tried to banish the ghosts. The fire and brimstone types hung around outside with signs proclaiming all residents of the City of Ghosts in danger of eternal damnation.
The station brought in more security. It was great to see Tim back on the job and a good thing at that, because one fine day a ghost passenger stepped off the Zephyr, walked up to Faith’s ticket counter, and bought a coach-class ticket to Seattle. With shaky hands, she passed over the boarding pass to the young woman in heels, hat, and furs.
Faith nearly fainted on the spot, but Tim managed to calm her down. When the station manager approached the ghostly young woman, she didn’t respond to him, and word was she vanished from the Empire Builder a few minutes after it pulled out of the station.
After that, the occasional interaction with the ghosts happened, with no real explanation or pattern anyone could spot. Researchers and federal agents would sometimes try to intervene in these interactions, but the phantom passenger simply vanished into thin air if touched or spoken to by anyone except the person they initiated contact with.
I tried to ignore the narrowed-eyed, stern glances from the agents, police, and security when they finally noticed the thing I’d figured out long since. I was the one the phantoms interacted with the most.
I expected to be swooped down on and swept off to some secret government laboratory—or prison—at any moment. Instead, the authorities settled for keeping a close eye on me.
The shiny levitating high-speed bullet train pulled into the station with a muffled whisper nine months after the Twin Cities 400 made her first appearance. I was taking a break and chatting up Janet about a possible date after work when the speakers intoned “The Northwest Express is now arriving on track four.” The soft hiss of the sleek machine stopping and the sudden change in air pressure inside the building killed all conversation in the station.
The chrome doors of the train cars swished open and dozens of passengers disembarked. They entered the station, the Union Depot seeming to exhale with relief from whatever caused the pressure to build. Once inside, the passengers stared and pointed at the station’s various interior features as if the old Union Depot was the most wondrous thing in the world. They struck me as tourists, these strangers from the future dressed in loose-fitting flowing clothes in earthy browns and greens.
I made a quick dash for my kiosk, just in case. I mean, they might want to know when they were, right? What better way than the daily newspaper? Setting my own rising fears and disquiet aside, I settled behind the familiar counter of my kiosk, ready to do commerce. This was something I understood, a piece of normal I could grab with both hands.
They did purchase papers. And magazines. And books. The coins sported dates like 2157 and I could only peer in confusion at the flimsy credit chips the future customers offered when they discovered I wasn’t equipped to perform retina scans to access their accounts.
The government agents confiscated all the credit chips and future coins I didn’t manage to hide, handing me a form to fill out to “request reasonable reimbursement, pending presentation of satisfactory documentation.” The only reason they weren’t grabbing the older coins was those coins were well-known, if obsolete, currency. My cash flow suffered.
The rip in time and space theory jumped to the front with the new arrivals, and a desperate search began for the focal point—the nexus, as they kept calling it. This time the depot stayed open as the researchers sought the center or cause of arrivals past and now future.
From that moment forward, all arrivals from whatever time could interact with everyone past, future, or present. Attempts to detain and sometimes kidnap them continued to fail. They would simply phase out of existence like phantoms. The future travelers seemed to find the entire situation charming and amusing and took great glee with dropping little hints about the situation to the researchers who sat and questioned them.
My little kiosk was pushed into a dark and unprofitable corner as all kinds of interesting equipment arrived from the four corners of the world in an attempt to solve the puzzle before the past, present, and future of Minneapolis and St. Paul became a hopeless tangle. I spent my downtime reading books from the library and checking websites to make sure history and recent current events matched my memory. Nothing seemed changed to me, though Janet pointed out we might not really know if a change occurred.
Within days of the arrival of the bullet train, a two-hundred-story floating and rotating skyscraper began phasing in and out of existence nightly, dominating the St. Paul skyline. This caused confusion in the city council. Should they be funding that project for the future or fighting to protect the historic integrity of downtown? I figured the real problem was now people wanted to stay out at all kinds of odd hours, making it impossible to roll up the St. Paul streets by 7:00 p.m. every night.
“We should check it out,” Janet said one night as we were wrapping up.
I bit my bottom lip. “I’m not sure that’s a great idea.”
“Probably not. So head right over?”
Fifteen minutes later, we stared up at the giant floating building from the sidewalk below.
“It is really tall.” Janet whispered.
A bystander drifted over to us. “Trying to get in?”
“Yeah,” I replied, not sure I really wanted to enter.
“Okay, you just stand over on the blue platform. There’s a console with numbered buttons on it. Pick one and you end up on that floor.” He paused, then reached into his pocket and showed us a card identifying him as James Kelsey, a building inspector for the city of St. Paul. “It’s perfectly safe.” He looked up at the building, his expression one of awe and wonder. “I really want to make sure this project goes through.”
Janet led me to the platform where people from all the tangled times were coming and going. We picked a floor at random. Turned out there was a club on the sixty-second floor with a band playing a mix of music on instruments that were either from the past or the future; I really couldn’t tell what most were except the upright bass. The club went quiet for a few seconds as we walked in before a sudden cheer rose up and the music slammed into us like a physical blow.
It was a great night of dancing, probably the most fun I’d had since this whole mess started. When Janet and I tried to settle up the tab, the bartender waved us off with a casual “Y’all are covered.”
I walked Janet back to her little efficiency apartment.
“I had a lovely night,” Janet said. She was playing with her red-hair again, smiling her little freckled-face smile.
“I’m glad you talked me into going out. I really needed to have some fun.”
“Could I talk you into coming in?”
I blinked at her. “Are you sure?”
“Oh yes. Come in. Stay.”
I was a bit surprised and utterly pleased. “I’d like that.”
Her lips tasted like the Manhattan cocktails she’d been drinking and her body molded nicely against mine.
It became commonplace to find myself at the light rail platform engaged in conversation with a mill worker living in 1933 or a solar tech specialist from 2168 while waiting for the green line train. I was in the middle of having one of those conversations and wasn’t paying attention. It should have been impossible anyway. I should’ve found myself standing in the middle of the tracks looking chagrined as I clamored back onto the platform to wait for the proper transport from my time period. Instead, the conductor told me that the fare was ten cents. I looked up in surprise and before I could respond, the bell rang and the big yellow streetcar pulled away from the station, taking me along.
I paid with a modern dime. The conductor peered at President Roosevelt for a few seconds before he shrugged and offered me a paper transfer slip. I took a seat next to the man in the gray suit who had bought that newspaper from me all those months ago. He was holding a very modern tablet and I wondered for an instant at the idea of an antique streetcar with Wi-Fi. I casually peered over to see what he was reading. It was some sort of online news site. The masthead claimed a date of August 15, 2201, and there was a large color picture of me, black hair pulled back in a ponytail, wearing my favorite yellow sleeveless blouse and blue jeans. I stood in front of my kiosk, smiling at the camera. Under the photo in small print it read, Theresa Roy, First Opener, at her Union Station Depot newsstand, 2018. I remembered doing that promotional photograph last year. I looked so cheerful.
The streetcar stopped before I could start reading the article over his shoulder. My seatmate looked me in the eyes. “I think that’s your transfer,” he said, pointing at the sleek silver glider waiting on a crossing track. “This train doesn’t go to Minneapolis,” he added helpfully.
I exited the streetcar and walked to the waiting future version of mass-transit in—if I said I was in a dream state it might seem dramatic, but I really can’t explain my state of mind otherwise. I stepped aboard and a disembodied voice, low and soothing, welcomed me by name. The other riders went silent, staring.
Despite the futuristic climate controls and crowd of riders, it was a quiet and uncomfortable ride to Minneapolis, punctuated by periodic new passengers giving me a double-take as they climbed aboard. When we came to a smooth stop at Target Field, I fled, ran the three blocks to my apartment, only to find it filled with milling strangers, future and past, peering at my personal items as if my apartment were some kind of museum display. They looked surprised at my appearance, meekly shuffling out under my glare. One grandmotherly lady dressed in the loose and flowy earth-tones the future seemed to favor stopped and touched my cheek, thanked me before shuffling out. What the hell she was thanking me for, I had no idea.
I took a moment to make sure it was my apartment in my timeline. I’d never thought about becoming time-lost, but after the two transit rides today, I wanted to be sure. All the items belonged to me. The food in the fridge was fresh and looked like the groceries I’d bought two days prior. I pulled a Grain Belt tallboy from the fridge, opened it, took a tentative sip. It tasted fine.
I was on my third Grain Belt when my tired brain put it all together and the truth clicked into place. Rip in time and space, centered on an undiscovered nexus point. Theresa Roy, First Opener.
Me. Somehow, all this was my fault.
I sent Janet a text, packed a backpack and carry-on suitcase, and caught the blue line to the airport. There I explained to the ticket agent at the Delta counter that my trip was a sudden thing, the death of a beloved uncle in Missoula. I really needed to leave. Tonight.
It’s a nice enough city, Missoula, Montana. I picked it at random from the departures board. I sold all the odd coins and credit chips—except for that first silver half-dollar—I’d accumulated to a collector and bought out a newsstand in the Missoula International Airport from a couple looking to retire and spend their golden years living in the mountains. Janet joined me a month later, moving into my apartment and into my life as if it were the most natural thing in the world. She borrowed money from her parents and bought out the stand next to mine, sold coffee and tea and snacks to weary travelers. I started taking classes at Montana University, deciding to finish my degree in Environmental Studies.
I wrote a personal memoir about my time in The City of Ghosts and put it in a trunk, too afraid of the potential repercussions should I publish it. Maybe I’d leave instruction for its publication after my death. I wondered what would happen to the nexus after I died. Would it all unravel and would things go back to normal? Would these time-slips I seemed to cause knot up worse? I didn’t think so. Once you open a portal, I suspect it is hard to close, and the news article called me the first opener, which implied others. Tim let us know over social media the trains and travelers were still arriving: the Twin Cities was still the City of Ghosts.
It’s been a good two years. We were just starting to think I was wrong, that maybe we could unpack the go-bags, get a dog and cat, buy a house, maybe think about a family.
But Friday night, after the last scheduled arrivals were safely on the ground and all the passengers gone off to collect their luggage, a vintage 1940s Lockheed Constellation with the logo of the long defunct Northwest Orient Airlines on the tail appeared out of the darkness, landed, and taxied up to the terminal.
The man in the gray hat gave me a cheerful smile and wave as he led the procession of phantom passengers down the terminal concourse.
Michael Merriam is an author, performer, poet, and playwright with ten books and over 90 pieces of short fiction and poetry published. His novel, Last Car to Annwn Station, was named a Top Book by Readings in Lesbian & Bisexual Women’s Fiction and his novella, Should We Drown in Feathered Sleep, was long-listed for the Nebula Award. His scripts have been produced for stage and radio, and he has appeared in the Minnesota Fringe Festival, Tellebration, StoryFest Minnesota, and over the air on KFAI and Minnesota Public Radio Michael, and is a co-founder of the Minnesota Speculative Fiction Writers. Learn more at his website.