You can sense your heart racing so fast it feels like it will leap out of your chest as you dart across the street, legs burning. A crash of lightning flashes from the night as you pull your jacket tighter... eager to get away from the cold embrace outside. The sound of thunder roars through the sky, causing you to briefly break your stride. Exhausted, you rub your tired eyes and catch your breath before absorbing your surroundings. Glancing around you can see the city has settled into quiet time. A period in the late evening where few are still left wandering and even less are out and about tonight. With your footsteps muffled by the intense rainfall you echo softly as you cross the street and scale chipped concrete stairs to duck into the relative safety of the train station. Fortunately, the station is covered by steel beams and thick panes of glass that hold the midnight monsoon at bay while creating a loud but not altogether unpleasant sound as fat raindrops continue to drum down.
The daily crowd of commuters has long since subsided and the large building is mostly quiet, except for the murmurs of a few stray voices and gentle hooting of unseen owls. A sudden panic grips you again and you fumble for what feels like the hundredth time to grasp an envelope in your soggy coat pocket, sighing in relief when your fingers touch the rough edges. You pull it out reverently and gently open it to reveal the contents: a royal red wax seal embossed with the letters "CE" on thick, fancy paper along with the words "Platform 7. Midnight." and the address of the station you just entered at the bottom, nothing else. You must be crazy for pursuing this, but you came all this way and would hate to let down the younger version of you that always wanted to find that once in a lifetime opportunity like a closet to Narnia. Stuffing the letter back into your coat, you find your feet treading down the long station hall to Platform 7. The midnight murmurs grow quieter as you traverse the main concourse leading to the station bays. You shake up your sleeve and glance at your watch briefly: it is 11:50 p.m. and you are running out of time.
You turn down a hollow corridor, barely illuminated by a few dimly lit lanterns that do nearly nothing to stave off the encroaching darkness pressing down on you from above the glass ceiling. You start to jog past the platform signs, but you still feel the weight of passing seconds far too acutely and you curse all the late nights you "treated yourself" with wings and pizza. What you wouldn't give to stop the cramping in your side.
With the first couple platforms firmly behind you, your steps instinctively slow as you peer down the hall to see a small figure emerge from the shadows of platform 5. It moves too quickly for you to identify its form.
“What on earth,” you mutter. The creature appears to hear you as it stops in the distance, turning to face you, revealing its eyes. Emerald orbs stare back at you for a moment as it blinks, you blink and it points to the sky. You look up. There is nothing out of the ordinary, save that a full moon has finally revealed itself in the midst of the rainy night. When you look back, the figure is gone.
Puzzled by the exchange you cautiously advance towards platform 5 and poke your head in to see if any other odd creatures come scurrying out. To your relief the platform is empty as you pass by. With no desire to confront anything else your pace hastens to a jog once more as you turn the bend and see platform 7 just a few yards away. Stopping in front of the sign you pull out your note again.
"This is it," you whisper. You have finally arrived.
When you step through the archway to platform 7 the first thing you notice is the absence of sound. Even the rain's persistent crescendo has lulled and there are no voices waiting to greet you. The only things of note are two food stalls, one on either end of the bay, as well as a large train painted half beige, half maroon, with white letters spelling Nyao-Nyao adorning the side. It is still and hums quietly with open doors, though no one goes in or out. The platform lists no time of departure or destination and your letter offers no more clues either.
Searching for some sign that this is the right place, you go to survey the food stalls. The first kiosk is a coffee booth with just enough counter space for an espresso machine and a few other necessary tools of the trade. The aroma of rich, velvety coffee from Brazil, Honduras, and Indonesia (according to the sign propped on the counter) mingles with the sugary scent of lavender syrup, vanilla essence, and the almost sour smell of hot milk. The kiosk is bright pastel pink with illustrated animal characters dancing across it, though the only one you recognize is the white cat with the big bow. You only know they are Sanrio characters because it says so in curling, yellow script on the corner. The pink awning above has stripes and a white wooden sign cut in the shape of a cat head that reads Hello Catty Cafe. Yet, strangely, there is no one behind the counter to accept cash, pour coffee, or hand out one of the delectable pastries sitting inside the large display case. Leaning closer, you can see a dozen or so glittering cupcakes take center stage while a few doughnuts, cookies, and other assorted treats rest side-by-side on half-full trays. It seems completely unsupervised yet also a quite popular spot, at odds with the fact that there is no one to buy the cupcakes that are sitting there arranged in a perfect tower, not a single white chocolate strawberry out of place.
On the opposite end of the platform is another booth, this one with green painted counters and an awning that looks like rain sliding down a spring green leaf, though nothing like the moody gray rain you just escaped. It has a toaster and small fridge with frog magnets; a couple are blown glass replicas of red-eyed tree frogs and poison dart frogs, several are illustrated cartoon frogs wearing various hats, and one is a rather large scientific illustration of the anatomy of a frog with proper labels. The chalk pavement sign sitting in front reads Bagel Bazaar and the edges are filled in with chalk flowers. What connection there is between bagels and frogs is unclear, but somebody must have thought it was a good idea. There are bagels piled under glass covers: poppy seed, sesame seed, onion, cheese, blueberry, cinnamon raisin, even a plain green one simply labeled "frog bagel" that seems to be the most popular, judging by the limited amount remaining. Yet here too, nobody stands behind the counter.
To your left are the train tracks. To your right, a set of stairs leading down a tunnel with a glowing green EXIT sign that reflects menacingly on the concrete ground below, though it seems odd considering you just left the street by taking stairs down. Maybe it is just old architecture that doesn't make sense anymore? As your gaze continues to linger on the EXIT sign you suddenly sense some movement from the corner of your eye which alerts you to a white cat with black and orange patches along with a cropped tail stepping off the train to stare at you. They have black circles over their eyes–no wait, are those small, round sunglasses perched on their nose? You give them a hesitant wave and they nod with what looks like a smile at you. As you second guess boarding the
Nyao-Nyao, you decide to walk back to the Hello Catty Cafe kiosk, hoping someone might appear to make you a drink and offer some insight as to what is going on. The cat (Japanese bobtail, you think) gets up and walks behind the counter before jumping onto it.
"Mrrow-" the cat cuts off with a cough. "Pardon me. Hello," they say in a voice that sounds exactly like how you always imagined a cat would talk. "Welcome to the Hello Catty Cafe. I am called Neko, what can I get for you?"
A look of confusion contorts your face and the cat's grin only widens in response.
“…Wait a minute. A talking… cat?” You're dreaming, you must be. The thought doesn't particularly relax you as much as you'd hoped it would. Still too befuddled to try deciphering the menu, and not fancying asking a cat for its opinion on coffee, you point at "Honduras" on the little countertop sign.
"Of course." Neko turns and pours a fresh cup from a carafe behind them before pushing it across the counter. It smells like sprinkles and violets, which is strange because sprinkles aren't supposed to have a smell. The first sip surprises you– it tastes amazing, like velvety chocolate with an accent of gold.
"It's on the house," Neko interrupts you.
So...talking cat, free fairy-like coffee, empty midnight train station...either you've stumbled on a lucid dream or this is probably how you are going to die. Well versed in the hours of murder mysteries you have seen on television you peer suspiciously into the coffee as you silently lament any bad karma you've ever accumulated. But hey, if this is how you go, at least the coffee isn't half bad, you think. You cautiously sniff the cup (can't be too safe) before taking another sip, swishing it around in your mouth to search for an indication of poison. It doesn't taste like poison, although you've never been poisoned before so you feel a little ridiculous since you're not sure what flavor you should even be looking for. You take a gulp before turning back to Neko.
"Hey, cat, tell me where this train goes and why I got this letter?" You wave the mysterious note in front as you speak.
"Yeah...sure. Neko, where is the train going?"
"To Narnia, of course." Neko blinks at you serenely. Suddenly paranoid that this cat can read your thoughts, you pause for a moment and quickly visualize a dog chasing a cat before switching tactics and lowering your voice to a more serious tone to say, "Are you monkeying around with me?"
"No. I'm not even catting around with you."
"Ugh, okay, what are we doing here then?"
"I'm waiting for you to get on the train."
"Why would I get on a train if I don't know where it goes?"
“A reasonable question. Here is a reasonable answer: the Nyao-Nyao is a metaphysical sleeping train that transcends time and space as you know it. It can transport you to a world where the rules are different and life is what you make of it. Also, there's an all you can eat chocolate factory on the other side.” You don't want to give Neko any credit but you can't deny that the sound of chocolate is appetizing, even if the cat is full of hot air. Not yet willing to relent, you down the rest of your coffee, crunch the paper cup in your fist, and pry for more straightforward answers.
"Come on, Neko. Metaphysical? Stop being obtuse and give me some real answers!" you scoff.
"I am only a cat...not a monkey and there are no angles."
“Then why did you send me this letter?”
"I didn't." Neko gives the first answer that surprises you. "But someone must have thought you would benefit."
"What happens if I leave?" you try.
"Then the train will depart without you."
"Can I come back?"
"Sure, but the train won't be here."
"When does the train depart?"
"When you get on it."
"If I get on the train, will I be able to come home?"
Neko rolled their shoulders in what looked like a shrug. "That's for neither of us to decide."
Unphased by your plight and apparently done with the conversation, Neko delicately steps onto the train without sparing you another look. Frustrated, you throw your hands up and decide you're a dog person.
"Hey! I'm not done talking to you!" You curse and, before you can think better of it, follow that infernal cat onto the train. As soon as you step in, a whoosh of hot air tickles your neck as the train doors close behind you.
"Alright, you, tell me exactly what's happening here."
Neko ignores your question and points to a metal bucket that seems to have come out of nowhere.
"You're going to need that," they say before sitting down with their back to you, still as a statue. Baffled, you grasp the bucket's thin handle.
"Why? What is this?" You keep babbling questions, undeterred by Neko's still silence. Moments pass, yet still nothing moves. Then, just as you are about to try grabbing Neko to shake some sense into them you feel the train lurch suddenly, knocking your feet out from under you and throwing you against the wall. Bizarrely, the train isn't moving, but it also isn't quite still, like it's vibrating or... maybe hovering? All you're certain of is that the sensation is unsettling as the cabin pressure is pushed onto your body like a plane taking off and roiling your stomach like a fast car going around too many curves. You really regret that cup of coffee and those unholy late night chicken wings as they make their way back up your throat and you gag. Like a bullet, the Nyao-Nyao jerks forward, this time knocking you to your knees while it rocks wildly side to side. You can't keep it in anymore and immediately realize the purpose of the bucket as you lean over and vomit in it, eliciting a curled lip from Neko as they abruptly unfreeze to sidestep away. When you manage to stop heaving, you can't feel the motion of the train anymore. It's smooth and sturdy when you stand up, the only shaking coming from your own legs. You wipe your mouth on the sleeve of your coat and grimace at the contents of your stomach. You look at Neko with embarrassment.
"It's fine," They say tiredly as they snap their paw. "Usually happens with first-timers."
You can't help but gasp when the bucket disappears from your hands and is replaced by a soft cotton t-shirt that says "I vomited on the Nyao-Nyao and all I got was this stupid t-shirt." The back of it has a caricatured version of a winking cat that looks suspiciously like Neko.
Now that you've regained control of yourself, you take a moment to observe your surroundings. The inside of the carriage is mostly confined to a small corridor with elegant teal carpet and walls the same beige as the outer walls of the train. To the left and right of the corridor, the bulk of the space is hidden behind a wall with two sliding doors. There are no windows alongside the doors, so you have no idea how fast the train is moving or what direction it's heading.
"If you're quite alright now, let's move on." Neko leads you further down the corridor, passing through different compartments. "You are free to look around. You will see that there are little surprises around every corner, but nothing that can harm you."
As you follow them, you notice that the rooms in each carriage have a small opening you can peer through. Unable to resist, you peek past a few of the doors, quietly observing what and who you see.
(Click on the doors in the graphics below)