Gate Number 4 (A Wing-Feather Fable)

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The tour guide keeps tugging at his vest, red satin flashing neon at his belly bulge. “Fifteen gates inside this station, folks, each one busy day and night, selling tickets to exotic destinations all across the kingdom!”

It was a bald-face lie. Way Station did have fifteen gates, and it was a bustling hub of spit-shined marble. Not a minute passed without the hiss and thump of rolling suitcases, travelers tangled up in turnstiles, tipping hats and swirling skirts and the thwap of new shoes against the flagstones.

And there were exotic destinations. Toby’s uncle saw “polky-dotted donkeys” in Mazoola. Grandma Birch went to Koot each year for swamp mud facials applied by tame orangutans. Take your pick: salt lake beaches, green-eyed mermaids, sasquatch mountain tours, rivers made of rum. The Station trains went everywhere.

But there weren’t fifteen busy gates, and everybody knew it.

Gate 4 was empty, bare concrete and rusted bars. As they scurried past the flaking counter, their tour guide spread his arms, protective, and hustled them along. Toby craned his neck. “Eh, no loitering there, boy-o!” the tour guide blustered.

Gate 4 was surely out of place in the newly-minted city, everything reborn. Take the Station restaurant where Toby’s family ate, famous for its lamb kabobs and baby spinach, baby carrots, baby corn and scaloppini. Toby never asked about the thin, pink meat his mother ate on baby wheat crust buns.

“It’s disgraceful,” she whispered while Toby stabbed a baby artichoke. “That gate! They should tear it down!”

His father’s voice boomed around the edges of a newspaper. “With what?” he snorted. “Who the hell could beat the ghosts?”

“Ghosts?” Toby piped. His mother shot a death-look through the paper. “Nothing, dear,” she said. She checked her watch. “I’ll be at the Station spa. Buff and puff today!” Toby’s father grunted. Beneath the table, Toby snuck baby cheese curds to a stray dog, trying not to giggle at the wet warmth of its tongue.

“Dad?” His father didn’t answer, but the dog slipped out, cocked its head, and whined. When it bolted half a second later, Toby followed. They darted past the fuchsia cupcake bakery, the caffeine candy shop, and the liquor ice cream stand, past Gates 8-12, and underneath the showgirl bandstand, skidding to a stop, all out of breath, right beside Gate 4.

No one watched this gate, its back wall striped with light, its nicked-up bars and riddled concrete. Toby took another step. “May I help you, sir?” The old man’s ghost was grey and wrinkled. He smelled like toes and sweaty marbles. Toby fished two silver coins out of his pocket. “Where can I go with these?”

“Back,” the old ghost said. “Before.” He wagged a knobby finger. “No pretty-pretties, there. No servants in red satin.”

Toby looked down at the mangy dog, who wagged his tail. “Two tickets, please,” he said, and the old ghost nodded, smiling, as if he had been waiting, remembering, hoping for that answer, all along.

~ Photo by Brenda Gottsabend; Story by Lisa Ahn

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