Once upon a time, there were train tracks. Along the tracks, somewhere midway between their beginning and end, was a town. It was small and rustic and old, the kind of town where you married the boy you played with when you were four and grew up to be just like your grandparents, grumpily proclaiming that things were different in your day, even though they really weren’t. It was the kind of town that few people left, and if they did leave, you knew they weren’t going to come back. It was the kind of town that could fulfill your dreams; your dreams were small and simple because you didn’t really believe there was a whole world outside of the town, a world where you could do something different than what your parents did before you. It was the kind of town that killed any aspirations you had above your station and strangled your imagination because it interfered with what you were supposed to do to make your family proud.
Nobody in the town knew what the train tracks were. The train that had once run along the edge of town had been diverted to a different route so long ago that nobody in living memory even knew what exactly a train looked like. The children in the town knew that if they ever worked up the courage to leave, they would follow the tracks. On long summer days, they dared each other to go farther and farther down the tracks, always turning away with frightened giggles when they reached Old Gabby’s farm a little outside town. Everyone knew that Old Gabby was crazy and that his dogs were vicious, and whenever the children heard the barks, they would lose their nerve.
They never went the other way down the tracks. That way, North, lay something more frightening than dogs and crazy old men, something that parents didn’t even need to warn their children about; the kids learned quickly enough that when they tried to go North, their skin began to prickle, their hair stood up on their arms, and the world seemed to darken. Nobody every talked about it. It was the kind of town that didn’t like to voice certain things.
That became a problem when one day in late autumn, a woman ran into town from the North and fell, panting and red-faced, onto the mayor’s porch. She managed to scratch a word in the snow before she passed out: “Help.”