Illustration by Amy Levine
Aaminah Memon is a seventh grader at Castilleja who lives in Los Altos with her parents and older sister. She loves to write, a passion stemming from her even greater love for books of all kinds - her current favourite book series are the Spy School Series by Stuart Gibbs and the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer. When she’s not reading, Aaminah spends time with her family and friends, walking to Starbucks with her sister and playing board games with her parents and extended family. The two things she believes in most: the book is always better than the movie, and milk tea beats fruit tea any day.
Inspiration for The train to Nowhere came from the concept of unawareness. Nowadays, especially in light of the pandemic, it’s very easy to get caught up in your own life, so much so you’re completely unaware of the people and the world around you. I’ve seen plenty of instances of this in my own house - times when my mom is so immersed in her work she doesn’t realise I’m talking to her until after I’ve finished speaking. Times when my dad is so busy with his meetings he forgets he has kids he needs to pick up from school. Times when I myself am so caught up in homework or even my own writing that I keep forgetting there are other people than just me in my home and around the world. Life can be stressful, and I know through experience that it’s hard to take a break. The train to Nowhere is a story where a group of kids get to do just that - take a second to breathe and realise that other people can be just as interesting as they are.
An ambitious story that brings together four distinct points of view - a difficult feat, even for a professional writer. The setting is surreal and vivid, and the tone is reminiscent of well-known existential works. This impressive story addresses themes of isolation and the powerful need for connection at a time when those issues are on everyone's mind.
Meg, Andrea, Riley and Zeke wake up in a train compartment - they were never sleeping, yet their eyes flicker open, and they all stumble groggily to their feet as if just woken from a deep slumber.
They are on a train - but it isn’t the right train.
This train is wide and spacious, open and eerie. Silence creeps through the room and fills it like a living being. The stained-glass windows reveal a dark purple sky splattered with glowing white stars.
Which doesn’t make any sense, Zeke notes, given just a second ago, it was very clearly day.
But the sky above them is very obviously a night sky.
"Where are we?" Meg asks no one in particular.
And isn’t that the question? The question none of them know the answer to.
Before they had awoken, Meg was flipping through a book while seated on the train - the right train, not the wrong one she stands in now.
Zeke had been walking down the train’s crowded hallways.
Andrea had just stepped onto the train.
Riley had been running towards the train, scrambling, having forgotten to set her alarm - again. Riley’s mother hadn’t understood how she could be so stupid - Riley didn’t understand, either.
No one answers Meg’s question. None of them can.
She waits some more.
"Who are you?"
"I’m Zeke," Zeke says, giving her a small, shy wave. Zeke doesn’t talk to girls often. He doesn’t talk to anyone. No one ever wants to talk to him.
"I’m Andrea," Andrea says, running a hand through dark black hair. Andrea doesn’t know who these people are, and already, she can feel their eyes on her, watching her, judging her. Andrea hates it.
She wants to go to school and get the day over with so she can run back home and hide under the covers.
"Just Meg?" Andrea asks.
"Just Meg," Meg replies. Because that’s all she is. Just Meg. She’s nothing special.
Neither is Riley.
None of them are special.
Meg looks towards Riley.
"Well?" She says. "What’s your name?"
There’s a pause.
"Riley," she says, snappish, thoroughly done with this conversation and this situation. Riley doesn’t like other people. Other people don’t like her. It’s a state of mutual dislike. Riley ignores everyone else, and everyone else ignores her.
She likes it that way.
She doesn’t like Meg.
She doesn’t know any of them. That doesn’t matter.
She dislikes them first - she hates them before they can hate her.
Everyone hates her.
"I was just asking," Meg says quietly.
Now Riley feels bad.
She ignores the feeling, like everything else.
Silence, once again, fills the compartment as if summoned. Riley stares at Meg’s confused face.
She starts to apologise.
Distorted screeches alongside modified screams, sounds that are completely and utterly inhuman, echo through the train compartment, cutting Riley off.
Riley, Meg, Andrea, and Zeke all turn.
In the doorway stands a creature that isn’t an animal but isn’t entirely human either.
Cat-like eyes with snakish pupils glow.
The creature sucks in light like a syphon, leaving only darkness that hangs off its body like an ill-fitted coat.
Occasionally, it flickers, merging with the air and disappearing in a split second, returning just as fast.
It resembles a human but doesn’t, simultaneously looking humanoid and as far from human as it could possibly be.
Riley is the first to muster up enough courage to speak.
"What the hell are you?"
The thing stares, odd-shaped eyes glowing yellow.
"You may call me the Conductor," it says eventually.
"What are you?"
"I am Eldritch," it says simply.
The thing smiles, flashing sharp fangs and wicked canines - a smile so large it doesn’t quite fit on its face.
"Eldritch," It repeats. "Otherworldly,"
Zeke is the second to speak.
"Where are we?"
The Conductor tilts its head.
"You are on a train," it says. "The train to Nowhere,.
"The train to Nowhere?" Riley demands incredulously. "What the hell does that mean?"
"It is just a name," the Conductor says. "A title. It holds no meaning."
"So we’re going nowhere," Meg scoffs. "That’s not possible."
"You are never going nowhere," the Conductor responds. "There is always a destination at the end of the road."
"If we’re going somewhere," Meg says. "Why is the train called the train to Nowhere?"
"It is just a name," the Conductor repeats. "It holds no meaning,"
"Where are you taking us?" Andrea demands. "Where are we going?"
The Conductor hums an eerie, haunting melody that lasts a split second.
"You are going to where you need to be,"
The Conductor flickered once, twice, and then it was gone.
"This... this might seem weird, but I don’t feel scared," Zeke says after a while. An aura of quiet had been seeping through the windows and across the train compartment. As Zeke spoke, he cut through the silence with a sharp knife.
"No, you’re right," Andrea replies. "I would normally be freaking out around now. But I just feel calm. Way too calm."
"Calmer than I’ve been in a while," Meg agrees. "Despite whatever Eldritch abomination that thing was, everything about this situation feels oddly… peaceful."
"Do you think it messed with our emotions?" Riley asks.
"I’m not sure."
And that’s true. All Zeke knows is that his emotions feel muted, a calm serenity draping itself over him. No matter how hard he tries, he can’t feel any anger, or sadness, or anything remotely negative. Even after summoning up his worst memories, he remains calm. Composed. Happy.
Zeke isn’t sure if he loves it or hates it.
Riley is in the same boat. On the one hand, the constant whirlwind of negative emotions that always tries to drown her is gone. On the other hand, the happiness feels fake, artificial, nothing like true happiness. Riley wants real happiness, not these imposter feelings.
Andrea simply doesn’t like the thought of someone messing with her head, her emotions, her feelings. Those were hers and hers alone. Even when she’s sad, that sadness belongs to her. The current happiness isn’t hers. It’s someone else’s, and Andrea doesn’t like it.
Meg speaks up.
"Where do you think we’re going?"
"That - that thing said we were going where we needed to be," Riley reminds her.
"And what’s that supposed to mean?" Andrea asks.
"I don’t know," Riley admits.
Meg doesn’t like not knowing.
Meg knows things. She always knows things. Meg knows everything. She knows how to solve the most challenging math problems. She knows how to take care of her dog and little sister. She knows how to take care of herself and her mother when her dad can’t. She knows how to ace her classes and come out on top. She knows that fairytales aren’t real. She knows that things like the Conductor don’t exist - things like the Eldritch don’t exist. She knows that there is no such thing as trains going nowhere.
And yet, such things do exist, which makes Meg wrong.
Meg is never wrong.
Meg knows everything.
Well. Mostly everything.
Meg doesn’t know why her older sister is always crying. Meg doesn’t know why her parents are always fighting. Meg doesn’t know why even though other people constantly surround her, she always feels alone. Meg doesn’t know why she constantly feels invisible, at school, at home, everywhere she goes.
Meg doesn’t like not knowing.
No, Meg doesn’t like it at all.
"Hey," Zeke says suddenly. "I think we all go to the same school."
"Well," he says, pointing towards Meg’s backpack, a dark green backpack slung over her shoulders. "You have our school edition textbook. The very same one I have. And Andrea -" He points to Andrea. "Is wearing the Parks sports uniform under her sweatshirt," Andrea looks down. "And I feel like I might’ve seen Riley around before."
"You all go to Parks?" Andrea exclaims.
"We all take the same train," Meg concludes.
Riley’s eyes bulge.
"We’ve been in the same school for what, three years? And we’ve spent those three years riding on the same train every morning? How did we not notice each other?"
"I’m not very noticeable," Meg says quietly. "Although it is odd that we didn’t notice each other before."
"Everyone’s just been caught up in their own worlds, I guess," Andrea suggests.
Riley… doesn’t know what to feel about that.
Riley would like to believe that she’d notice other people from her school, her grade, on the same train as her. Riley is also painfully aware of how possible it was that she didn’t notice at all.
"That’s… really sad," Zeke says, voicing Riley’s thoughts.
Zeke, gentle and kind, who cries over the slightest thing, feels like he’s going to cry right now. It’s such a small, minuscule thing to cry about, but that doesn’t make Zeke want to cry any less.
"Let’s be friends," Zeke says abruptly, halting his tears.
"Huh?" Meg repeats.
"Well, we all go on the same train to the same school, and we see each other every day, so we should be friends."
Andrea, Meg, and Riley stare.
"If you guys want to, that is," he adds as an afterthought. "I don’t have many friends."
And that’s quite true. Zeke doesn’t have many friends. In fact, he doesn’t have any friends. Zeke is kind and caring, but he doesn’t have the time to make friends - at school, he must focus on his studies. He never has time to hang out after school - he has to help his mom at the restaurant or take care of his little siblings. Zeke has three of them. On the weekends, Zeke is always working.
Zeke doesn’t complain, though, because he knows his family is trying his best. "We’re in a bad place right now," his mom would say. "It’ll get better soon."
It hasn’t gotten better yet.
Zeke is always lonely.
And so is Andrea.
They’re all lonely.
In Andrea’s opinion, it’s better to be lonely together than lonely alone.
"That’s a good idea," Andrea says. "Let’s be friends."
"Can you just do that?" Riley asks. "Just declare that you’re friends with someone? Does it work that way?"
Riley wouldn’t know. She hasn’t had any friends either. Riley is blunt and abrasive, but struggles with her words, struggles to explain how she feels. Riley doesn’t have the best control of her anger, can’t control the emotions she’s always swamped with. She doesn’t have good grades - she can’t ever focus in class, always up and moving. Her parents are always disappointed in her, and so are her teachers. She spends all her time struggling with her homework - at home or in detention. No one wants to be friends with the troubled child who can’t do math.
"If we want it to work that way, it can," Andrea says. "Who can say otherwise?"
Andrea likes the thought of making a choice for herself. Something in her life that she has control of. Andrea doesn’t have any control over her life. Everything in her life thus far has been somebody else’s decision. When she makes her choices, she bases them off of what other people would think of them.
Andrea likes the idea of making a friend just for the sake of it.
"What really is a friend?" Meg asks. That’s another thing she doesn’t know, another thing she doesn’t understand. Meg hates not understanding. Maybe these people will help her understand.
"A friend is - well, a friend," Zeke stumbles over his words.
"Really?" Riley mutters dryly. "I never would have guessed."
"A friend is someone you hang out with," Andrea says with a laugh.
"Someone you talk with," Zeke suggests.
"Someone who helps you," Meg adds.
"Someone who understands you," Riley chimes in.
"Someone who doesn’t judge you," Andrea says.
"A friend is a friend," Zeke finishes. "So. Are we friends?"
"I guess," Riley says. Andrea and Meg nod in agreement.
"Good," He says with a satisfied smile.
Meg smiles back at him.
Andrea smiles too.
Riley doesn’t smile often. She smiles anyway.
There’s a chuckle from the doorway, and there the Conductor stands, materializing from nowhere.
"We are reaching the End," it says.
"The End?" Andrea exclaims, panicked. "That doesn’t sound good."
The Conductor stares at Andrea.
"All good things come to an End," It says. "But worry not, for your end won’t be coming anytime soon. We are approaching our destination."
"Our destination," Zeke repeats. "Where is that?"
"We’ve arrived," it says.
The train doesn’t feel like it’s stopped. To Meg, the train never felt like it was moving in the first place. Meg doesn’t question this. She accepts the fact that the train to Nowhere is filled with things she doesn’t understand and quite possibly never will.
The Conductor moves towards the train doors.
"Would you like to leave?" The Conductor says. "You could always simply stay here. It is an option."
"Where do the doors lead?" Zeke asks, gesturing to the door.
"Where does the train go?" Asks Andrea next.
"I’ve already told you," the Conductor says with a toothy smirk. "Nowhere."
"I want to move forward," Meg says suddenly, standing up. She looks to Riley, to Zeke, to Andrea. Meg doesn’t want to stay on the train, alone. Meg wants to move forward with her… her friends. Because that’s what they are now - friends. "I want to keep going."
"I do too," Zeke says.
"Me too," Andrea agrees.
Riley is the slowest to respond.
"I guess I’ll come too."
The four friends exchange glances.
"Let’s go, then," Riley says.
The Conductor offers a sharp-toothed grin as they approach the door.
"And leaving here will take us forward?" Meg asks.
"You are choosing the path forward," the Conductor replies simply. "It will take you on."
"On we go."
The train doors slide open.