The problem with traveling to demi-planes was that the roads that lead to them aren’t the sort of thing you can travel down in the family mini-van. At least not usually.
Therefor, to spare Penny’s father’s car from the ravages of inter-planar travel, Grandma Apples arranged for alternative transportation for all of us.
“A translucent train?” Penny’s father asked, looking over the locomotive that was idling on the street in front of our house.
“It’s ok to call it a ghost train,” Conductor Jasmine said from her perch inside the front of the locomotive. “Just don’t call us late for our stops.”
“Any safety precautions we should be aware of before getting on?” Penny’s father asked.
“Watch your step when boarding and disembarking,” Grandma Apples said as she boarded the ghost train first.
“And no leaning out the windows,” Conductor Jasmine said.
“Or we’ll get lost in the interstellar void?” Penny asked. That seemed like the least severe of the many horrible fates I could imagine encountering when leaning outside a transdimensional train, but then I was often glad that Penny’s imagination wasn’t quite as vivid as my own.
“No, it’s just tacky, and we’ve got places to be,” Jasmine said.
With remarkably little additional fuss, we all scuttled aboard the ghost train and took our seats.
“I’m going to assume that the answer to a lot of the obvious questions I have is ‘magic’,” Penny’s father said.
“Like what?” Penny asked.
“Like how an entire train made it onto our street with knocking over a house or two,” he said. “Or how if I can see through the train and put my hand through the wall, I’m still able to sit on this seat and not fall through onto the road.”
“Yes, that’s all magic,” Grandma Apples said. “But it’s the train’s sort of magic, which makes it natural for train. What we call the ‘normal world’ is really far from normal, it’s just bigger than the places we call ‘magical’. For the most part what is natural or magical simply depends on your point of view since there are elements of both in all things.”
“It’s amazing that there aren’t more people interested in studying this though,” Penny’s father said.
“Somethings need to be observed and broken apart to be understood, they fit into the ‘normal world’ easily,” Grandma Apples said. “Other things can only be experienced or understood by considering them in their fullness. Those tend to fit better into the magical world.”
“So you’re saying if a team of scientists got onboard they wouldn’t be able to figure out how the engine runs because it’s not a collection of parts?” Penny’s father said.
“More or less,” Grandma Apples said. “Their experience with being on the train would determine how much of it was ‘real’ to them later, but the form that would take is hard to predict.”
“What do you mean?” Rosie asked. I think she’d become an enchanter because she was always something of a scientist at heart, and the prospect of understanding things seemed to enthrall her.
“She means that normal folks might mistake my Maybel for a funny light show,” Jasmine said. “Or if they got on board, they might wake up drunk on a normal train, or safe in their bed but with a burst of inspiration on how to improve a train design they were working on. Or they might just forget being here altogether.”
“Wait, you named your train Maybel?” Betty asked.
“No, she was named that long before I got her,” Jasmine said. “I’m just her current Conductor. There’ve been plenty before me and will be plenty after too.”
“How did you meet Grandma Apples?” Penny asked.
“Oh, we go way back, don’t we Apples?” Jasmine said.
“We’ve owed each other a favor or two for a fair while,” Grandma Apples said.
“Owed each other?” Penny asked.
“Sure, that’s how it works, isn’t it?” Jasmine said. “One of you does something nice for the other, you go to pay them back and it’s not quite enough to balance the scales, so you still owe a bit, but then you do another favor and now she owes you something in return. Go back and forth enough and eventually you lose track of who’s owed what exactly so you just keep doing each other good turns and figure it’ll even out somewhere in the end.”
“I like your world,” Betty said. “Can I come live there?”
“Well, the one problem with living on this train is that it’s kind of dead around here most of the time,” Jasmine said.
Betty and the rest of the girls groaned at that. Penny’s father seemed to be drinking in the experience with his eyes. It occurred to me as I watched him, that this was the first time he’d been along for a trip into the unknown. Grandma Apples and Inspector Brooks had demonstrated to him that the magic they talked about was real, but I think he’d assumed that it was simple tricks that gifted people could learn how to do. This was the first time he was confronted with the fact that the world was infinitely larger and stranger than he knew. For someone well past the age of childhood wonder, I thought he was taking it remarkably well, but then I suppose Penny’s gift for magic didn’t arise in her from nowhere. Her parents were a big part of who she was and how she viewed the world.
I thought about that as the train rolled on to the Fair Fields. I didn’t know much about Autumn, but there were probably still pieces of me that came from her. I was mad at her, justifiably I felt, but if I learned more about her, I might be able to learn more about myself.
My thoughts swirled around that idea until I felt the train slow to stop as we reach our destination.
“Fair Fields greens!” Jasmine hollered back from the engine’s cab.
We disembarked while Grandma Apples exchanged whatever sort of favor-payment the train ride cost and I had to wonder if she’d brought enough to pay for a trip right back home.
Our arrival hadn’t gone unnoticed and there were more than a few witches and other magical people glaring at us. Us and the tracks the ghost train had carved through their perfectly manicured central green.
I knew witches didn’t, usually, turn people in toads, but from the looks on the faces of the people gathering around us I had to wonder if this was going to be one of the rare exceptions to that rule.