I was a girl who had always craved adventure. But living in an orphanage, there was never any time for me to go exploring, poking my nose in places where it didn’t belong. That is, until the railroad was invented.
Ms. Picket, the stout, gray-haired headmistress of the Hamburg Orphanage for Girls, herded us all to the brand-new station to watch the first train arrive in the city. We were a homely crowd: thin, dirty braids, tattered aprons, patched dresses. In a straggly line, we stood by the tracks, our hands clasped behind our backs, and waited for the modern marvel to arrive.
The frigid November wind bit my skin, threatening to make my reddened ears fall off. In my short sleeved dress, I was hardly prepared for a New England winter, but the orphanage didn’t have enough money to buy new clothes for all of the girls. Although, I reasoned, if Ms. Picket was stout, than she must have plenty of money to purchase food for herself.
Suddenly, a piercing whistle split the air, making everyone in the station jump. A hulking metal monster rolled along the tracks, screeching to a stop in front of me and the other girls. Plumes of smoke billowed out of a column on top of the contraption. A bearded man in a red striped cap stuck his head out of the first cart. The cart was called the engine, I remembered Ms. Picket saying, and the man was the conductor. So this was a train! There were several cars behind the engine. I’d heard that trains carried goods from station to station — sugar, cloth, that kind of stuff — but these cars had windows cut in them, and through the holes I could see cushioned seats. I wasn’t sure why they would go to all that trouble just to move food back and forth, but people these days were always having odd ideas. The train made its bizarre screaming noise again, and the conductor shouted, “All aboard! Next stop, Albany!”
A collection of pristine people, clothed in the newest styles, strode up to the train and stepped aboard. They seated themselves, suitcases in their laps. So this train doesn’t carry vegetables, I thought, it carries people! How splendid!
Ms. Picket pinched my arm and snapped, “Penelope, get away from the edge! The train is pulling out!” She jerked me back roughly by yanking on my cinnamon braids. While the train rumbled out of the station, the headmistress marched us back to the orphanage. It was a gloomy building, with dead plants in the front flower beds, dark stone walls, and rusty iron scroll work that cast eerie shadows in the dim candlelight.
After a sparse dinner of watery lentil soup, I changed into my threadbare nightgown and curled up on a cot in the upstairs room, where the wind howled and wormed its way through the roof, chilling us all to the bone. Blocking out the sounds of whimpering children crying for their mommies in their sleep, I eventually drifted off and had the most vivid dream.
In my sleep-induced vision, I was back at the recently erected Hamburg station, waiting for the train to arrive. It barreled past, not pausing for passengers. Even though the final car was nothing but a blur, it sharpened, and time seemed to slow down, allowing me to get a good look at it. It wasn’t like any of the other carts; this one had no windows, and was painted a cheery red. A caboose. Something told me that was what the cart was called. Trading goods were almost certainly stored inside. A plan bloomed in my mind: all I had to do was sneak onto the caboose, and the train would take me to Albany, the capital of New York. I was a talented cook, so surely it wouldn’t be too hard to find a job. I would support myself, live a life of my own, away from this oppressive orphanage and the cruel Ms. Picket. There was nothing for me here in Hamburg, and there was bound to be adventure of some sort in the great city of New York.
The next morning, I could hardly contain my excitement. I wanted to shout, “I’m leaving!” but of course I couldn’t do that. It would ruin my plan. When no one was looking, I stuffed everything I owned into a ratty pillowcase and tied it off with a stained hair ribbon.
Ms. Picket stumbled up the staircase, shivering from the chilly air. She held a scrap of paper in her chubby, wrinkled hands. Written on it in her spidery scrawl was a list of chores, with our names beside them. She smoothed it out and read, “Jane, you’re doing laundry. Harriet will clean the kitchen. Laura, I want you to beat the rugs.” On and on she droned until she reached my name at the bottom of the list. “Penelope, you’re going to pull out those dead pansies in the front and bring in four armloads of wood, as much as you can carry. Be off, now!”
I waited until Ms. Picket and all the other girls had filed out of the attic before grudgingly setting off to complete my jobs. Honestly, I wanted to skip all the way down the stairs, because this was going to be my last day in the orphanage, but skipping would attract too much attention. Slinging my makeshift bag over my bony shoulder, I trudged down the stairs, trying to look as defeated as always. The second I slipped out the front door, I broke into a flat out run, racing toward the train station. The morning train’s shrill whistle broke the still air just as I dashed into the station. Eagerly, I ducked from shadow to shadow until I reached the end of the train, where a bright red caboose sat, just like in my dream. Glancing furtively around to make sure no one was watching me, I prepared to drag the wooden door to the side and leap on. Before I had a chance to make my move, somebody tugged on my dress.
“Penelope, please let me come with you,” begged a dark-haired orphan named Hazel. She was about eight years old, and the had the largest eyes you had even seen. Perhaps she’d had the same dream that I had, something inside urging her to come to the station.
I don’t know what came over me. Allowing Hazel to run away with me would mean another mouth to feed, another body to clothe. But I found myself saying, “Of course you can come.” I heard the conductor yell, “All aboard,” and pulled on the caboose’s door until it gave. The cart was filled with crates of fruit and sacks of flour. I leapt across the track and landed with a thud on the wooden floor of the caboose. Throwing my pillowcase bag to the ground, I stretched out my arm, offering Hazel my hand. Her tiny fingers closed tightly around my own, and with undeniable trust in her eyes, she jumped. With Hazel helping me, we slammed the door closed right as the train lurched out of the Hamburg station.
We slumped against the wall, our breathing falling into rhythm with the train’s creaking. It was taking us away to a new life, to New York.
To the horizon.