Hi! This isn't the fic I mentioned in my profile update (still editing that one!). This is a Christmas fic I thought up a few weeks ago. Essentially, I took the movie Polar Express and replaced the main character with a ten-year-old Harry. I also added a Rise of the Guardians twist-I just couldn't resist! So my North Pole has yetis and Santa has tattoos on his arms.
As always, I don't own Harry Potter, The Polar Express, or Rise of the Guardians. I can always dream though! (Season of Perpetual Hope and all that!)
Just a reminder; I don't have a beta or a brit-picker, and I also though I might warn you that the ending is very rough-it's 2:25 right now by my clock, and I've been working on it all night. :)
Harry was thoroughly miserable. He sat alone in the cold, dark shed, glad that Uncle Vernon had forgotten to lock it again. If he had been outside in the snow his night would have been even worse—Harry might even have caught pneumonia, and Aunt Petunia would be furious because they would have to pay for medicine.
His aunt had locked him outside in the cold hours ago because he had 'ruined' the dinner. Harry had been clumsier than usual because Dudley had sprained his wrist, and he had dropped Aunt Petunia's prize Christmas turkey on the floor. While that would have been a capital crime any night, it was a particularly heinous crime tonight because of the date.
It was Christmas Eve, and Harry had resigned himself to spending the night outside alone in the snow, cold and wet, because he had been too clumsy to catch Aunt Petunia's precious turkey. It wasn't as though the date mattered to Harry, though.
He had never been allowed to celebrate Christmas with the Dursleys, and the one year he had dared to ask Uncle Vernon about Santa Claus, the rotund man had told him very nicely that Santa only gave presents to good little boys, and gave coal and switches to useless freaks like him, before throwing him into the cupboard. That Christmas, Harry did in fact receive a switch for Christmas from Uncle Vernon, who promptly spanked him with it and threw him back in the cupboard for the rest of the day. Harry never asked questions about anything Santa- or present-related ever again.
Harry stared morosely through the window at the darkened house whose occupants were snug and warm in large beds with down pillows, sound asleep and waiting for the morning to bring a joyous Christmas day—a day he would not participate in. Harry scratched the rough outline of a Christmas tree on the iced-over window, painstakingly drawing a small present under the tree with his initials marked on it.
"Happy Christmas Eve, Harry," he whispered, a single tear sliding down the lonely boy's cheek.
Then, the tools stacked in the shed began rattling, a small hand-rake clattering right off the shelf. Harry darted out of the way; alarmed by the way the very floor seemed to be shaking.
A quick THUD-thud-thud-thud-THUD-thud-thud-thud grew louder and louder, slowing down as bright lights began to flash on the ceiling of the small shed.
Harry darted outside as a long train-whistle sounded, skidding to a halt in astonishment at the sight of a train stopped in front of No. 4 Privet Drive. The locomotive materializing from the mists surrounding it was black with red trim, and the words Polar Express were emblazoned on the side in silver. Harry had started to walk toward the engine when he heard a shout.
"All Abooooaaaard!" A man emerged from the mist, coming from near the front of the train. He was tall with a neatly trimmed brown moustache that was nothing like Uncle Vernon's bushy monstrosity, and he wore a blue uniform with the word Conductor on his blue hat.
"All Abooooaaaard!" he shouted again, coming to a halt by the entrance to the brightly lit car at the front of the train. Harry slowly approached the conductor, coming to a halt a safe distance away.
The man's quick eyes took in his dirty form (he hadn't been allowed to bathe in a few days) and his ragged clothes (Harry didn't own pajamas); complete with sockless trainers and taped glasses from where Dudley had broken them by punching Harry in the nose.
"Well? You coming?" The man asked.
Harry stared incomprehensibly. He looked back at the train—it looks so warm in there—before returning his gaze to the conductor. "Where?"
The man's lips quirked as if he was amused, and then he said, "Why, to the North Pole, of course. This is the Polar Express!"
The conductor's shout echoed around him, and Harry stared up at the locomotive. "The North Pole?" Harry whispered in disbelief. The North Pole? Really? Did Aunt Petunia actually catch my head with the frying pan earlier tonight? This can't possibly be real.
The conductor's eyes narrowed. "I see," he said. He turned to the steps beside him, handing his lantern to Harry with a "Hold this, please." and a "Thank you." He quickly retrieved a brown clipboard.
"Is this you?" the conductor asked, turning the clipboard to where Harry could see the list of names. Sure enough, right by the conductor's finger was written Harry Potter, age 10 in fine golden script.
Harry nodded. "Yes," he replied.
"Well, it says here…" he turned the page back to him and read off, "Christmas gifts not received for the past nine years…Didn't write a letter to Santa; didn't even make a wish…Openly disdains the existence of Santa Claus at school." The conductor put the clipboard back, still speaking. He looked Harry in the eye. "Sounds to me like this is your crucial year. If I were you," he said, leaning closer to Harry's face, "I would think about climbing onboard."
After straightening up, the conductor's voice returned to its previous sharpness. "Come on, come on, I've got a schedule to keep!" he exclaimed, pulling a watch out of his coat and observing the time on it.
Harry shook his head, backing away. He knew what Aunt Petunia would say to all this—and he definitely knew what she would say if she learnt that Harry had gotten on that train.
"Suit yourself," the conductor said in reply. He hopped onboard, waving his lantern. Harry could hear the engine starting up, and the most magical thing to ever happen to him began slowly chugging away.
'It wasn't worth no meals for another week,' Harry told himself firmly. Then his eyes narrowed, watching the train. 'Hell, who am I kidding?' Harry almost unconsciously started running, jumping for the bar on the side of the car entrance. As he caught it and his momentum swung him onboard, Harry thought whimsically, 'I hope they feed me on this ride, because Aunt Petunia surely won't if she finds out about this.'
After a moment of watching No. 4 Privet Drive speed away, Harry turned to see the conductor behind him. The man opened the door, bowing as he gestured Harry inside. Harry walked slowly into the light- and warmth-filled car, gazing around in wonder.
The brightly-lit car was lined on both sides with red seats and a narrow path down the center. There were children of all ages in the car, some quietly staring out the windows while others jumped around, chatting and playing. There was a small group singing a song about the Polar Express.
Harry entered the car warily, sitting down on an empty seat to his right. He sat quietly for a moment before noticing that a girl was sitting directly across the walkway from him. She was rather pretty, with dark skin and black hair bound up in braids on her head. The girl was watching him. Harry eyed her warily for a moment. She noticed his gaze and smiled at him. Harry looked away quickly, feeling embarrassed for some reason.
Suddenly a loud voice exclaimed, "Hey! Hey, you." Harry looked up to see a blonde boy with large glasses peering over the seat and staring at him excitedly. Harry belatedly realized the other boy was still talking.
"Yeah, you. Do you know what kind of train this is?" The blonde boy's voice was loud and obnoxious, and his question confused Harry. What kind of train?
"Huh?" he answered the other boy in confusion.
"Train. Do you know what kind of train this is? Well do ya?" Blonde boy asked eagerly.
"Uh…" Harry started to shake his head.
"Of course," a voice came from across the aisle. It was the girl. "It's a magic train." She grinned at Harry again. "We're going to the North Pole," she added, still smiling.
Blonde boy sounded dismissive as he said, "Yeah, I know it's a magic train. Actually, it's a Baldwin 2-8-4 S3-class steam locomotive…" Harry glanced over at the girl.
Blondie was still talking. "…built in 1931 at the Baldwin Locomotive Works. It weighs 456, 100 pounds and…"
The girl shook her head in exasperation as Blondie kept on chattering. Harry shot her a skeptical look. "Are we really going to the North Pole?"
She nodded. "Mm-hmm. Isn't that wonderful?"
Suddenly Blondie shouted, "Hey, look! Herplosheimer's! Herplosheimer's!" All of the children ran to the right side of the car and stared out the windows. Harry did as well.
Herplosheimer's, apparently, was a toy store. The windows were filled with toys and cool things. Christmas music played loud enough for the children on the train to hear.
"Wow, look at all those presents!" Blondie shouted. "I want all of 'em!"
"It's so Christmassy and cozy and beautiful!" the girl exclaimed.
Harry said nothing. He didn't want to admit that he had never even heard of Herplosheimer's before, not when it was obvious all the others knew what it was. He stared wide-eyed at the window fronts filled with presents and toys. There was even a life-sized windup Santa bowing on his stand as he offered a gaily wrapped present. Harry shook his head. That stuff had never been for him, so it was no use getting hopeful. He would just enjoy this ride then go back to the Dursleys' and pretend it had never happened.
"Tickets!" the conductor's brisk voice called out. He was clicking a hole-puncher. "Tickets, please. Tickets!" The conductor stopped in front of Harry. "Ticket, please," he said in a quieter tone.
Harry frowned. He didn't have a ticket. "Try your pocket," the conductor said in a business-like tone.
Harry looked down, sticking his hand into his right trouser pocket. He blinked in surprise as his fingers poked out of a rather large hole. Harry wondered if this would warrant a new pair of jeans. He hoped so, but you could never tell with Aunt Petunia.
The conductor sighed. "Try your other pocket," he said with the air of a man who felt he was behind schedule.
Though skeptical, Harry did as instructed. His eyes widened in amazement as his hands closed around paper and he pulled a golden ticket out of his left pocket. The ticket was quite large, and had the words Polar Express—Round Trip on the front with a picture of the train on the back.
Harry stared at it in awe for a moment before handing it to the conductor, who gave him a "Thank you, sir" as he took it from the boy. The conductor held the ticket up and brandished his hole-puncher. He attacked the ticket with a vengeance, littering small round holes of paper all over Harry as the man mutilated his ticket.
"Thank you, sir," the conductor repeated as he handed the ticket back to Harry. The man then jumped in alarm and raced to the front of the car, shouting, "That is a public-address microphone—it is not a toy!"
Harry held the ticket up and stared at it. There was a 'B' punched at one end, with an 'E' at the opposite end.
"Boy, that guy sure likes to show off with his ticket punch," Blondie's irritating voice suddenly rang out. "Look what that wise guy punched on my ticket!" A golden ticket was shoved in Harry's face, and he had to repress the urge to duck away and run from the sudden threat. "L—E. What the heck does that mean?" Blondie demanded, waving his ticket in Harry's face.
—Next stop, 11344 Edbrooke— the conductor said, his voice amplified by the microphone.
Blondie gasped, clambering back onto his own seat to stare out the window. "We're heading for the other side of the tracks!" he exclaimed animatedly.
Harry stared curiously out the window as the train slowed. They were stopping in front of a small, disheveled-looking square yellow house that had clearly seen better days. Harry stuck his head out the window and saw the conductor talking to a little boy wearing an oversized nightshirt that went past his knees. The boy had galoshes on his feet.
"Well, you coming?" the conductor's voice rang out faintly.
"Ah, it's just another pick-up," Blondie said, staring out the window next to Harry's. "That's weird. I thought you were supposed to be the last one," he said as he pulled his head back in the train.
Harry continued to watch as the conductor spoke to the boy. "Why to the North Pole, of course!" he exclaimed. Harry supposed the man said the same thing to each child he saw. 'Wouldn't that get boring, though?' Harry wondered. 'Saying the same thing over and over all night as he picked up children?'
"Suit yourself," the conductor said calmly as the boy shook his head. Harry watched as the man swung his lantern, signaling the engineer. Harry's head jerked back as the train began moving again. He watched as his window passed the boy in the snow. Their eyes locked as Harry waved.
The boy continued watching as the train picked up speed. Then, he started running, reaching out for the handle. Harry's eyes widened.
"Hey, that-that kid wants to get on the train!" Harry exclaimed. He turned back to look at the boy again. "Come on!" he shouted, encouraging the other boy. "Hurry up!" he called out, waving his hand. The other kid wasn't nearly as fast as Harry, though, and he missed the last bar, falling behind the rapidly accelerating locomotive and collapsing in the snow.
Harry turned back to the car. "We have to stop the train," he said commandingly.
"I don't know how—" the dark girl began, but Blondie interrupted her.
"Pull the emergency brake!" he shouted, pointing to a red lever at the back of the car. Harry raced to the brake, applying all his weight as he pulled the lever down. The result was instantaneous. There was a hideous screeching noise as the wheels locked and all the children were flung forward with the momentum of the car.
As Harry stood up rubbing the back of his head, he saw the boy's face appear as he walked up the steps. Their eyes locked again, and Harry waved again. The boy turned to look at the opposite door, opening it and slipping inside just as the conductor raced into the car.
"Who in the blazes applied that emergency brake?" he demanded.
Blondie pointed to Harry. "He did!" The dark-haired girl sent Blondie a scorching glare.
"You!" the conductor hissed. He began striding forward, still talking. "In case you didn't know, that cord is for emergency purposes only!" The conductor lowered his face until it was level with Harry's, glaring.
He then strode over to the open window, waving his hand to signal the engineer again, ranting, "And in case you weren't aware, tonight is Christmas Eve! And in case you hadn't noticed, this train is on a very tight schedule! Now," the conductor said, walking back over to Harry and glaring venomously down at him, "Now, young man, Christmas may not be important to some people, but it is very important to the rest of us!"
Harry stared wide-eyed, not daring to argue. Any time Uncle Vernon was this angry Harry ended up not being able to sit properly for a week. Astonishingly, the dark girl came to his rescue.
"He was just trying to stop the train so that kid could get on!" she said, pointing to the back door of the car.
The conductor straightened, staring through the round holes in both car doors. The boy was sitting down in one of the leather chair, examining his surroundings with interest. "I see," the conductor said, his tone much more reasonable now. He fixed Harry with a piercing gaze. "Young man" he asked, his tone softening, "is that what happened?"
Harry nodded frantically, glancing for support towards the girl, who began nodding as well. The conductor nodded once in reply. "Well…" he said, taking a golden watch out of his pocket, "let me remind you that we are on a very tight schedule."
The man snapped his watch open and burst into motion. "And I've never been late before!" he exclaimed, rushing back to the front. "And I am certainly not going to be late tonight! Now everybody," He snapped, staring down the rows of chairs at the dozens of children "take your seats, please!"
"Thank you," he rumbled out. After a moment, the train began speeding up again, and the conductor picked up the microphone.
"Your attention, please," he said, his voice tinny and filled with static. "Are there any Polar Express passengers in need of refreshment?"
Every hand in the car went up. "Me! Me! I want some!" the children called out. Harry hesitantly raised his hand, reasoning with himself that Aunt Petunia would never know, and besides, it wasn't as if a magic train would charge his relatives for refreshments.
The conductor nodded. "I thought so." He stepped to the side and slid the door open, making way for eight smartly dressed waiters who were—tap dancing?
The next several moments were a blur of activity and music as the waiters slid the children's seats around so that they were facing one another. Each waiter pulled off his spotless white apron, which turned into a table between every pair of seats.
The waiters danced around passing out cups and saucers into which was poured a steaming brew of the most delicious hot chocolate Harry had ever tasted. Point of fact, it was the first hot chocolate Harry had ever tasted. He found himself grinning along with the other children at the infectious atmosphere created by the sight of singing, acrobat waiters and chefs as well as the spectacle of the conductor dancing around his microphone. The man was actually a pretty good singer, Harry thought.
Harry did chose not to say anything as he noticed the dark girl hide a cup of hot chocolate under her seat. It wasn't any of his business if she wanted to save any for later. The waiters and chefs left in a flurry of activity—righting chairs and removing their apron-tables as the exited to the front of the car, followed closely by the conductor, who slid the car door shut behind him.
Silence reigned for a moment in the car, before quiet babble filled the compartment again. Blondie was chattering about Montezuma. Harry stopped listening almost immediately—that boy talked entirely too much.
The dark-haired girl ducked down under her seat and lifted the stolen cup of hot chocolate from the floor. It was still steaming. She began walking to the back of the car.
"Where are you going with that?" Harry asked in confusion.
She smiled. "It's for him," she answered him, nodding her head towards the back car.
Harry frowned. "I don't think we're supposed to leave our seats," he said.
Blondie started saying, "Yeah, it's a violation of railroad safety regulations for a kid to cross moving cars without a grown-up."
'How does he talk that fast without having to stop for breath?' Harry wondered.
The girl huffed in exasperation. "I think I'll be okay," she said, rolling her eyes.
"Are you sure?" Harry asked worriedly. The girl stopped walking, and both children froze at the sound of quiet footsteps behind them. They turned to see the conductor standing in the aisle with a hand on one hip.
"What about this lad in the back?" he asked softly. "Did he get any refreshment?" Harry and the girl shook their heads in reply. The man was quiet for a moment, and then exclaimed, "Well, let's take some to him, by all means!"
Harry shook his head at how confusing the conductor was. The man just never acted the way any of the other grown-ups Harry knew acted. Now the conductor was gently leading the girl across the cars, murmuring "Watch your step" as the pair entered the rear car.
Harry stood, watching the two leave, when a glimmer of gold caught his eye. "Uh-oh!" he called out. A shiny golden ticket was on the seat where the dark-haired girl had been sitting.
"She forgot her ticket," he realized, holding it up. "It hasn't been punched!" he said, looking at Blondie, who was watching him. He held the ticket up, and turned, walking towards the back.
"Hey, what are you doing?" Blondie demanded. "You're gonna get us all in trouble!"
Harry opened the door. He looked down. There was a gaping hole between the two compartments, bridged only by a thick link holding the cars together. He gazed across nervously, and then frowned determinedly, getting ready to jump to the other car.
The wind was blowing strong, and the ticked flapped around under his grip on the edge of the doorway. A great gust of wind blew the wildly flapping ticket right out of Harry's hand. He grabbed for it desperately, trying to catch it, but the wind blew it in a merry dance all around Harry's head, before it flew around the side of the train-car.
Harry chased it, watching the ticket fly from window to window before getting caught in the window at the end. He opened it hastily, grasping for the ticket, but it flew away, rising high in the winter sky and fading out of sight.
Harry sat staring out the window in horror. He didn't even turn when the conductor returned with the girl to their compartment. He felt a knot of guilt form in his stomach as the conductor said, "Forgive me, young lady. I believe I have neglected to punch your ticket. May I?"
The girl searched around her for a moment before looked up and replying, "I left my ticket right here on the seat." Her tone was confused and distressed. "But it's gone." Harry cringed.
"You mean…" the conductor inquired stiffly, "you have lost you ticket?"
Harry got up, turning to face them. "She didn't lose her ticket," Harry said boldly. "I did. I was trying to return it to you," he explained, walking down the aisle toward them. "But the wind blew it out of my hand."
Harry hesitated, looking between the conductor's stern gaze and the girl's crestfallen expression. "You can have my ticket," he said, holding it out to her.
"Aah!" the conductor snatched Harry's ticket just before the girl took it. "These tickets," he said agitatedly, "are not transferrable."
The conductor turned back to the girl. "Young lady, you will just have to come along with me." He held out his hand and the girl took it, standing. Harry followed them to the door, the girl looking back at him worriedly as she left the compartment with the conductor for the second time that evening.
"You know what's gonna happen now, don't ya?" Blondie shouted. "He's gonna throw her off the train!" The nerdy boy continued his monologue with relish upon seeing Harry's alarmed expression.
"Yeah, he's probably gonna throw her right off the rear platform," he exclaimed, standing up. "It's standard procedure—that way, she won't get sucked under the wheels."
Harry raced for the door, watching them through the round door-windows. The conductor was leading the girl out onto the platform at the rear of the train, past the other boy's compartment. Blondie was still talking. "They may slow the train down, but they're never gonna stop it!"
"Stop it?" Harry repeated, an idea hitting him. "That's it! I have to stop the train again."
Ignoring Blondie's vocal objections, he grasped the red lever again. Just before he pulled it, Harry caught a glance of flickering golden paper in the grate. He cautiously reached up, grasping it with two fingers. He pulled out—the missing ticket!
Harry held it up to the room, astonished, before grasping the green door again. He stuck the golden ticket in his mouth, clamping it between his teeth. The small, dark-haired boy lunged for the other car, stumbling against the green door which was identical to the one on his car.
He ran hurriedly through the compartment, throwing open the door at the opposite end and staring out at the empty platform. The tracks sped away behind the train, and there was no sign of either girl or conductor.
Harry raced back into the rear compartment, swiftly interrogating the boy sitting there. "Where'd they go?" he asked desperately. "What happened to them?"
The boy looked up at him, but still said nothing. "Please, she's in big trouble!" Harry yelled, brandishing her ticket. "You have to help me."
The pale boy looked up at the window. Harry looked as well, and saw the tiny reflection of a man and a small figure in a nightgown silhouetted against the glass in the light of a lantern. Harry raced outside again, this time spying the ladder which led to the roof of the car. He grasped it firmly, ticket in hand.
The climb upward was the most terrifying, yet exhilarating moment of Harry's young life. To his front was the icy railing of the ladder, to his back was sheer cliff. Below him was the track and rocky ground. As the boy clambered onto the roof, he saw the faint glow of a lantern illuminating the almost indecipherable outlines of the conductor and the girl.
"Hey!" Harry shouted. "Hey! I found your ticket! Wait!" He stood, digging his feet into the snow to keep from being blown right off the train. "Hey! Hey!" The light winked out in the distance. "Wait! I have your ticket!"
He stumbled forward, dragging his feet in the snow. The wind blowing back into Harry's face was swiftly erasing the tracks left by the conductor and the girl. Everything was dark and cold and numb.
Harry didn't see the campfire until he was almost on top of it. The fire crackled merrily as a kettle bobbed above. A grungy man playing a strange instrument sat humming on the other side of the fire.
Harry approached warily, unsure of what to make of this bizarre scene of calm in the midst of the howling wind and snow. The man stopped playing and singing abruptly as he caught sight of the small boy shivering at the outskirts of his fire. "Is there something I can do for you?"
The man's voice was rough and low and he watched Harry curiously, waiting for an answer. The black-haired boy gathered his courage and said, "I'm looking for a-a girl."
The man stared dumbly. "A gi—?" He hacked out a laugh, rolling in his seat and chortling, "Ain't we all?"
Annoyed and not in the mood to be mocked, Harry held up the golden slip of paper. "I have her ticket."
The man's gaze suddenly focused, and he took the ticket from him. "Well, lookie. Lookie here. What is this?" The man examined it carefully. "This is an official, authentic, genuine ticket to ride. Ooh, you better keep this in a safe place, young man." Harry stuck it in his pocket as the man continued to talk.
"If I was you…" The man gestured to his foot, pulling his shoe off. "I keep all my valuable right here. Right here in the old size 13." He waved his holey shoe around. Harry was disgruntled to see that a train-hopper had better shoes than him. 'Generosity my foot! Aunt Petunia's nothing but a miserable penny-pincher.'
"Experience show this is the safest place," the rugged man continued. Harry pulled his hand out of his pocket and tucked the ticket into Dudley's oversized, holey trainers. "Not that I have much use for those," the man said scornfully. "Tickets, nah. I ride for free."
He grinned at Harry's look of surprise. "Oh, yeah, yeah. I hop aboard this rattler any time I feels like it." The man smirked. "I own this train. Oh, yeah, it's like I'm the king of this train. Yeah. The king of the Pol Ex. In fact, I am the king of the North Pole!" he said, standing up and waving his arms around.
He turned back to Harry. "Oh, where's my manners? Sit, sit. Sit," he said insistently. "Take a load off. Hey, would you like some Joe? Nice hot refreshment perfect for a cold winter's night."
Harry looked down at the tin can he had been given. The liquid inside was thick and black and had flecks floating in it, but Harry was never one to turn down any food or drink, so he quickly downed it. It was awful, but he had had worse before, so he didn't complain.
"What about, uh, Santa?" Harry asked. "Isn't he the king of the North Pole?"
"You mean this guy?" the man asked, pulling out a dirty Santa hat and doing a mocking rendition of Father Christmas. He started laughing, but then turned serious. "What exactly is your persuasion—you know, on the big man? Since you brought him up?"
Harry looked down. "Well," he began hesitantly. "I…I want to believe, but—"
"But you don't want to be bamboozled. You don't wanna be led down the primrose path. You don't wanna be conned or duped, have the wool pulled over your eyes." The man began shoving things into his jacket. "Hoodwinked. You don't wanna be taken for a ride, railroaded!"
He doused his fire and swung a sack on a stick over his shoulder. "Seeing is believing," he whispered, staring Harry down. "Am I right?"
Harry stared at the strange vagrant, crestfallen. "But what about this train?" he asked.
The man lifted an eyebrow. "What about it?"
"We're all really going to the North Pole, aren't we?" he asked in a small voice.
"Aren't we?" the vagrant repeated mockingly.
Harry stared at him desperately. "Are you saying that this is all…just a dream?"
The man gave an odd laugh. "You said it kid, not me." He took a drink from a steaming cup which had appeared in his hand, picking up the crate he had been seated on. "So!" he exclaimed. "Let's go find that girl!" The vagabond started to walk off, then returned and leaned close to Harry.
"One more thing," he whispered. "Do you believe in ghosts?" Harry shook his head. "Interesting," he murmured, walking off.
"Wait," Harry called after him, stumbling in the snow. "Wait!" he screamed as the man disappeared. He trudged on his own for a few minutes, then cried out, "I have to wake up!" he pinched himself, shouting "Wake up! Wake up!" He fell down on the roof of the train, throwing snow into his face. "Wake up! Wake up!"
The train whistle blew, and a figure appeared out of the flurry of snow. "Kid!" a familiar voice shouted out. "Kid, get your head out of the clouds! Wake up, kid!"
It was the vagrant man. He was now in possession of a headlight and pair of skis. "There's no sleepwalking of the Polar Express!" he shouted. "We gotta jump them knuckles." He maneuvered himself until his back was to Harry. "Come on, kid. Flip my shoulders." He held out his hand. "Grab my lily." He pulled Harry up on his shoulders, shouting, "That skirt you're chasing must have moved on ahead. We gotta hightail it to the hog, pronto."
"To the hog?" Harry yelled back, confused.
"The engine. The engine, you tenderfoot," he replied testily as he began to walk forward with Harry up on his head. "We gotta make the engine before we hit Flat Top Tunnel."
The man sighed. "So many questions," he wheezed out. The vagrant looked up at Harry. "There is but one inch of clearance between the roof of this rattler and the roof of Flat Top Tunnel. Savvy?"
He looked back down. "It's just the run up to the hump, kid. This will be interesting." Suddenly, they were sliding backwards. Harry flew off the man's shoulders, barely catching the top rail of the ladder at the back of the car.
"Get back on, kid. Hurry! Here—grab my muck stick!" the vagabond shouted. Harry did as instructed. Just as suddenly as before, he was flying through the air, only this time, he landed on the skis in front of the man.
They were sliding forward this time, jumping the skips in the train cars as they skied along the top of the train. As they neared the front, the man said, "There's only one trick to this, kid. When I say "jump" you—JUMP!" The vagrant's voice trailed off as he disappeared, vanishing into the snowy night. Harry hesitated for a moment, and then jumped into the coal car.
He tumbled downward, sliding through the block of coal into the engine room. The dark-haired girl was perched in the engineer's seat, the firelight glinting off the pink barrettes in her hair. "You!" Harry gasped. "I though you got thrown off, and—" he gaped. "You're driving the train?"
"They put me in charge," the girl replied, grinning. "The engineer had to check the light."
Harry stared around the small room in wonder. "How do you know how?" he breathed.
"It's easy," she replied. "Come here, I'll show you." She pointed. "This big lever here, that's the throttle. And then, this little one here, that's the break, and those are the pressure gauges. And that rope is the whistle."
Harry stared at the innocuous-looking brown rope with a wooden handle on the end. "The whistle." He repeated, staring at her skeptically.
She nodded, her grin widening. "Yeah! You wanna try it?"
Harry grinned back and pulled down on the smoothly polished handle. The whistle blew out, and his arm followed the handle back upwards. He giggled. "I've wanted to try that my whole life!" He exclaimed as he pulled it again.
Then, they heard the distant sound of a ringing bell. The two looked out the window to see a fat man Harry assumed was the engineer gesturing wildly and shouting frantically. "What's he saying?" Harry yelled.
"I think he wants us to stop the train!" the girl called back.
"Stop the train?" he parroted, before climbing back down into the room. "Which one is the break?"
The girl pointed to a small brown lever. "He told me this one was." Harry nodded, not stopping to think, and pulled the lever.
The effect was immediate. All the wheels locked again, and the train came to a screeching halt. The two children fell to the floor. Harry heard the conductor dash into the engine room. "There can be no Christmas without the Polar Express arriving on time!" he shouted agitatedly. "Am I the only one who understands that? You!" he yelled, catching sight of Harry. "I should have known. Are you bound and determined that this train never reaches the North Pole?" he demanded.
"But look!" the girl exclaimed, pointing out the window.
The conductor went over to look. "Caribou crossing?" he exclaimed in frustration. The trio hurriedly made their way to the front of the train so that the conductor could confer with the engineers. The children just wanted to see the caribou.
After that little delay was handled by the long-bearded engineer's pained caribou-speak, the engineers returned to the engine room. The conductor remained behind to ensure that there were no more caribou on the tracks. Harry and the girl stayed with him.
That had to be the most exciting ride of Harry's life—traveling at the head of the Polar Express. Even when the train had gone out of control, he wasn't afraid—not really. Glacier Gulch was terrifying, but in an adrenaline-charged manner. It was wild and fantastic. He only became rather worried when the train began sliding over the frozen tracks. Still, the vagabond's appearing only to save Harry and disappear again made him wonder… 'Do you believe in ghosts?'
As the train reached safe tracks again, Harry gazed back at the now un-frozen lake. He was glad he had resolved the dilemma with the girl's ticket, and a part of him wished he hadn't touched the silly thing when he saw that the girl had left it. A much larger part was glad of the adventure.
The train continued its upward climb as the two children followed the conductor down the roof of the locomotive. The conductor's story did strike a small chord in Harry. "And sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can't see." He had said, staring directly at the green-eyed boy.
The only time Harry was really frightened was the instance with the Scrooge marionette. It had only taken him moments to realize that the vagrant—who might or might not be a ghost—was the one controlling it, but the experience still terrified Harry, not because the scene was particularly frightening, but because of the truth that rang in the ghost-man's words. Having heard nothing but lies Harry's whole life, he didn't know what to believe, and so he refused to believe anything.
Harry also decided that Blondie had to be the most annoying boy he had ever met. 'Doesn't that kid ever shut up?'
As exciting as the moment atop and on the front of the train were, the time at the back when the girl and the little boy in galoshes sang in the cold night about Christmas meant the most to him. He didn't understand it; how could the two have such faith in someone they had never really seen—someone there was no proof of in any way.
The three children stared in awe at the Northern Lights as they approached the North Pole. The others were singing the Polar Express song again as they pulled into the city.
"There should be elves. Where are the elves?" It was odd how such an innocuous question could lead to a subject like the First Gift of Christmas.
Harry felt a tiny sliver of hope rise in his chest at the thought of a gift given by Santa to one of the Polar Express passengers, but he squashed it ruthlessly. There were nearly twenty children—the odds that Santa (if it was really he) would choose unbelieving Harry, dressed like a beggar-child, over one of these wealthy, happy believers were nonexistent.
The sight of the square was beautiful, and everyone laughed at the hordes of tiny elves cavorting around the train-tracks. One child asked the conductor what the large hairy creatures lumbering around were. "Those are yetis," the conductor had replied. "They're actually the ones who make all the toys—the elves are too silly, they don't get any work done. Santa just uses them to monitor the naughty and nice lists—and to clean up, of course. When they're in the mood, elves are marvelous housekeepers."
As the girl grabbed his shoulder and pulled him out of line, Harry wondered why he let this girl lead him around so much. 'Surely that wasn't natural?' The two ran back onto the train, Harry slipping on the steps as one of his too-large shoes slid on his foot.
"Look, you have to come with us," the girl said.
"She-she's right," Harry panted, out of breath.
"Christmas just doesn't work out for me—never has." The boy replied quietly.
The girl tried to convince him with a frankly sappy speech about the wonderfulness of the Christmas season, and Harry scowled as the boy repeated his pitying "Christmas just doesn't work out for me."
"Look!" Harry snapped. "I don't know if Christmas is going to work out for you this year or not—I'm probably going to be sitting in the snow hoping I get fed all day tomorrow—" he added, glaring at the startled looks on both of his companions' faces, "but this is Christmas Eve! Don't stay here by yourself."
"Yes," the girl said, "come with us. We'll go together." Then, just as the kid looked like he was going to give in, an ominous creaking sounded as their car started to roll away from the train.
"It's gonna be okay," Harry said. Then, as they sped up suddenly, switching tracks, he shouted, "Maybe noooooooot!" He raced to the other end of the car. "The emergency brake!" he searched frantically, but didn't see it. "I can't find it! Where's the brake?"
He heard the clanking of a tin can. "Take a break, kid!" the vagabond shouted, tapping his can on a shiny wheel. "How about a nice good hot cup of Joe?" The ghost turned to snow as he hit a building.
Harry could hear the other two screaming as they entered a dark tunnel. Harry turned the brake, and they began to slow down, but not before crashing at the end of a circle of tracks.
Now the two boys were following a girl who claimed to hear the bells to Santa's sleigh. They stayed on the train tracks until they disappeared, passing buildings obviously designed for tiny people—elves, maybe?
"Right, it's down this way!" the girl called back.
Harry frowned. He still didn't hear anything. "Are you sure?" He called after her.
She stopped, and looked back at him, confidence in her eyes. "Absolutely."
She shushed him as they entered a large room filled with desks. It was dominated by a globe that was slowly turning on its axis under an enormous platform of television screens. Each screen showed a different child.
They could hear squeaky voices chattering, one sounded like it was on the phone. Abruptly, a loud alarm went off, deafening the children. A flashing red sign proclaimed NAUGHTY.
"We got a troublemaker now?" One elf with a gruff voice shouted. "Just what we need. What's his 20?"
A shrill voice answered him. "Apparently, some kid from Maplewood, New Jersey stuck some gum in his sister's hair."
"New Jersey?" the first elf asked. "Is that the same kid that put that tack underneath his teacher's chair last year?"
"No, sir," Elf Number 2 replied. "This kid's name is Steven. So what do we do, chief? Alert the big man? We talkin' nothing for Christmas Eve?"
The "chief" elf picked up a phone, then set it back on the receiver. "Look, it's...it's almost Christmas, alright? We'll let him off this time, but you put him on the Check-Twice list for next year."
"All right, boys," the chief elf said. "Let's shut it down—that's enough for this year. Come on."
"Hey, boss, are we taking the pneumatic?" an elf's voice rang out.
"Of course we're taking the pneumatic," the chief elf returned scornfully. "It's the fastest way to get to the square on time!" After the elves had left, the three children climbed into the pneumatic pod.
"I don't know about this," Harry said. The pod slid shut and took off with a whoosh. The group of children let out alarmed yells as it flew through a series of narrow tunnels. The ride was certainly interesting, but he wasn't in a hurry to try it again.
The children came out in a packaging area. Harry's idea to follow the arrows on the conveyor belt wasn't the best, but it worked out eventually. He also learned that the boy—Billy—lived in his town. 11344 Edbrooke Ave, Little Whinging. Billy was probably a year below him at school. Harry made a mental note to get together with Billy sometime—discreetly. There was no reason to give Dudley another target.
It was actually kind of fun, ending up in Santa's bag of presents, though their newest run-in with Blondie only reaffirmed Harry's dislike of the spoilt and pretentious boy. Though they didn't talk, he could tell that the yetis that helped the children out of the bag didn't have a high opinion of Blondie either.
Finally, though, they were all back with their group in the square where they belonged. Harry stared in awe at the flying reindeer cavorting around and almost pulling the little elves holding their halters off the ground. A string of elves carrying two chains of beautiful silver bells on red leather lines followed them, shaking the periodically in time with the song the elves were singing.
A frown formed on Harry's face. He couldn't hear them. When the elves rang the bells, all Harry heard was silence. He kept frowning, raising a hand to his ear as the elves attached the bells to the reindeers' harnesses. The girl's comment didn't help either.
"Aren't those bells the most beautiful sound?" 'I'm sure they would be, if only I could hear them.' Harry thought, disappointed and confused.
Then, Santa came out. Harry jumped around, trying to see him over the little elves hopping on top of one another and leaping about. "I can't see him!" he cried out. "I can't see him!"
Harry could hear the desperation in his own voice. He glanced away from the open doorway for a moment over to the prancing reindeer and the bells shimmering in the light of the giant Christmas tree. As he watched, one bell loosened from its spot on the chains of bells and flew through the air. It landed at Harry's feet. Time seemed to stop as it rolled to a halt by his scruffy trainers.
He heard the ghost's words again. "Seeing is believing. Am I right?" Then the conductor's. "Sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can't see."
Harry knelt down and picked up the bell. It was almost as large as his hand. His hands and voice were trembling as he shook the bell. Doubter. Doubter. It seemed to whisper.
"Okay, okay!" he said, almost crying. "I believe," he whispered. The boy choked out the words in something that resembled a sob. "I—believe."
He whispered it again, and rang the bell again by his ear. As it moved, the sweetest, clearest sound he had ever heard met his hearing. It filled him with a sense of wonder and awe that he had never felt before. As he gazed in a stupor at that amazing, miraculous bell, he saw the reflection of a very familiar image on its silvery surface.
Harry looked up to see Santa Claus standing in front of him. The man was everything Harry had ever imagined him to be and more. He wore a red coat trimmed with not white, but dark fur. On his head was a square-ish cap of the same dark fur. His hair and beard were pure white, but his eyebrows were bushy and dark grey. His blue eyes were kind.
"Vhat vas dat you said?" he asked in a rumbling voice. His accent was foreign and strange, but it somehow simply validated the man in front of Harry.
"I—I believe," Harry stuttered in reply. He looked around, feeling nervous with the eyes of all the people (and yetis) in the square on him. "I believe—" Harry said in a firmer voice, raising up the bell, "—this is yours?"
Santa took the bell. "Vell…" he said, looking rather taken aback. "Thank you."
Blondie started shouting, destroying the small moment that had hung around the two. "Me! Me! Pick me Santa!" Harry could hear the girl shushing him, but the obnoxious kid kept on. "Pick me, pick me! I want the first gift."
"Young man," Santa said severely, "patience. And a smidgen of humility might also serve you vell."
Blondie nodded, chastised. "Yes, sir," he murmured.
Santa turned to the girl. "And you, young lady…" He smiled. "A lady of decision. Full of confidence and spirit. Christmas spirit." Santa chuckled at the wonder in her eyes. "Keep up de good vork."
"And Billy," Santa said. He paused. "It is Billy?" Billy nodded. "I see you've made some new friends." Santa gestured to Harry and the girl.
Billy nodded, glancing at Harry. "Yes sir, I sure have."
Santa nodded back to him. "You're a lucky lad," he said gravely. "There's no greater gift than friendship." He then turned, raising his voice to address the entire square. "And speaking of gifts…" he pointed to Harry. "…let's have dis young fellow right here."
Harry's mouth fell open as the square erupted in cheers. The conductor nodded to him with an approving smile on his face, and Harry followed Santa to the enormous sleigh. The old man effortlessly placed Harry on his lap.
"Now," he said calmly. "Vat vould you like for Christmas?"
Harry stared in stunned disbelief. "Me?"
Santa smiled and nodded. "You."
Harry thought for a moment, and then whispered into Father Christmas' ear, "I want a way to always remember to believe."
Santa sat up, visibly surprised "Yes. Indeed," he murmured. "Yes, indeed." Santa stood, guiding Harry to his feet as well. The old man held up the bell still in his hand.
"De First Gift of Christmaaaaaas!" He shouted, lifting the bell high. Everyone cheered, the elves jumping with joy. Santa turned back to Harry.
"Dis bell is a vonderful symbol of de spirit of Christmas, as am I. Just remember, de true spirit of Christmas lies in your heart." He placed the bell in Harry's small hand.
Above them, church bells began ringing out. Santa shook Harry's hand. "Happy Christmas," he said, smiling down at him. Harry turned to see the conductor behind him.
"Better keep that in a safe place," the man said. Harry slipped the bell into his right trouser pocket before climbing down from Santa's sleigh. He stood with the other children as Santa rallied his reindeer.
The man conjured a magical rainbow whip, cracking it above the reindeers' heads. "On Dasher! On Donner!" he cried, cajoling the reindeer trying desperately to pull the laden sleigh off the ground until finally, they did it! They flew a lap around the square, and Santa lit up the tree like a candle with a crack of his conjured whip before vanishing to begin his long night of gift-giving.
The scene around them devolved into a swing dance as the conductor herded the twenty-or-so children back onto the train. Yeti and elves danced and jumped around. A rock band of elves sang as a big yeti played the bass.
The conductor punched each child's ticket again as they reentered the train. "Ticket, please?" he asked Billy. He handed it back to the boy with a word now punched in it. Billy turned it over and over; the words changing from side to side in variants of "RELY ON".
"That is some special ticket," the conductor said quietly.
Billy smiled. "Sure is."
"So can you count on us to get you home safe and sound?"
Billy nodded. "Absolutely. Me… and my friends."
The conductor nodded gravely, turning to the dark-haired girl, who was in front of Harry. "Ticket," he said briskly. Hers said "LEAD".
She said as much. "Like lead balloon!" she exclaimed.
The conductor smirked. "I believe it also is pronounced 'lead', like 'leader', 'leadership'. 'Lead the way.'" He saluted. "Follow you anywhere, ma'am." She smiled and boarded the train.
The conductor's eyes landed on Harry. "Ah, yes," the man said. "Young man with all the questions. Ticket?"
Unlike the others, the conductor hid Harry's behind his back, punching it without looking. He handed it back to Harry. The word "BELIEVE" was punched into it. "It says—" Harry began.
"Don't!" the man said sharply, before his face softened into a warm smile. "It's nothing I need to hear." Harry felt a smile grow on his face, and he nodded.
After he had entered the compartment, the other children crowded around him. "Show us the bell!" they all cried. Grinning, Harry stuck his hand in his pocket only to encounter…a hole. Realization rushed into him, and he slumped down on the seat.
"It's gone," he said.
"Where is it?" the girl asked.
"I lost it. I lost the bell from Santa's sleigh." He said heartbrokenly.
A voice spoke up. It was Billy. "Don't worry!" he exclaimed. "We'll—we'll find it!" the other children spoke in agreement.
Harry was surprised to hear even Blondie say, "Yeah, we'll help you. All of us!"
Then the train started. "It's too late," the girl whispered. Blondie said some worthless platitudes, and Harry sat there woebegone, trying not to cry. "I'm sorry," the girl murmured, placing a comforting hand on Harry's shoulder.
Harry passed the ride back in a daze, only rousing a bit when they stopped at Billy's house. Billy came up to him and held out his hand. "Thanks for stopping the train for me," he said softly.
Harry smiled and grasped his hand. "Let's meet sometime after Christmas," he said. "Do you know the park on Wisteria Walk?"
Billy nodded. "The day after Christmas?"
Harry nodded. "If I'm not there, try again after school starts back up." He and the girl watched out the window as Billy exited the train. The boy dashed back outside, holding his Christmas present over his head.
"Look!" the girl cried. "Santa got to Billy's house already! Isn't that amazing?"
Harry shook his head in wonder. "It is amazing," he said. He repeated it to himself. "It is amazing."
The next stop was the Dursleys'. He stood in the doorway with the girl, desperately wishing he didn't have to leave. "You know," he said, turning to his companion, "I never got your name!"
She laughed. "Olivia Thomas. Here, I'll write my address down—you can write me!" she scribbled out her address and name on a scrap of paper.
"Like pen pals?" Harry asked.
Olivia nodded. "And what about you?" she inquired, tearing the paper and handing the other half to him.
He grinned at her as he wrote his address. "Harry Potter."
The conductor cleared his throat as the two hugged and shook hands. "Watch your step, please," he said briskly as Harry exited the train.
Harry smiled at the man. "Thank you," he said.
"No," the conductor returned, "thank you." Harry began to walk off. "Wait!" the man shouted. He handed Harry a thick blanket with a small bag and a tall thermos. "It looks mighty cold in that shed. Wouldn't want you to get sick." When the boy opened his mouth to protest the gift, the conductor winked. "Don't worry; you won't get in trouble for having these. I've made sure of it."
As Harry began to walk off again, the man said, "One thing about trains: It doesn't matter where they're going. What matters is deciding to get on." He winked again.
Harry nodded and waved to Olivia. He walked back towards the cold shed, turning when he heard a shout. The train was moving again, and the conductor was shouting. "What?" Harry asked.
"MERRY CHRISTMAS!" the conductor yelled back as the train sped away. Harry spied the vagrant ghost-man on the roof of the train. The man waved, and then dissolved into snow.
Harry curled up in the shed, this time wrapped in a warm blanket that never seemed to get any cooler. In the bag was a box of cookies, which Harry promptly ate. The thermos turned out to be full of hot chocolate, and Harry found that no matter how much he drank, it never emptied.
Full and happy and warm for the first time that he could remember, Harry drifted off to sleep.
Harry was awakened by shouting from inside the Dursley house. "It's Christmas!" Dudley hollered. He was whooping and shouting. Harry noticed that Dudley never once said "Santa's been here!" Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon disapproved of "propagating fairy tales". How wrong they were.
Harry was still wrapped in the warm blanket, the still full thermos and box of eaten cookies next to him. He opened the box to see if he had missed any crumbs, and was amazed to find it full of scones and sausages. The boy ate his fill, wiping the crumbs and grease off his face.
He heard the back door open, and he stood in a panic. If Aunt Petunia saw him here with these things, she'd call him a thief and lock him in his cupboard with no meals for at least a week. As if in response to his alarm, the three items flew up, miniaturizing and coming to rest on a small pendant now hanging from a chain around his neck.
Harry hastily tucked the chain under his shirt and slipped out of the shed. "Do you need me, Aunt Petunia?"
"There you are!" she huffed shrilly. "What were you doing in the shed?"
He shrugged. "It was unlocked." Harry glanced up slyly. "I guess Uncle Vernon forgot to lock it again."
She scowled. "That man! Honestly, it's the third time this month. Does he want rats and mice in our nice shed?" Petunia snapped at her nephew, "Come on in! I want you to clean up the mess in the living room." Harry obediently followed her inside.
While Harry was clearing away the mountains of wrapping-paper surrounding the Christmas tree, he found a tiny box. It had his name on it. Throwing a swift glance at the doorway, he took the chance and opened it.
The bell from Santa's sleigh was inside.
He held the bell up to his ear and rang it gently, marveling at its sweet sound. He noticed a note under the bell.
'Found this on the seat of my sleigh. Better fix that hole in your pocket,
North (Mr. C).'
Harry felt a great bubbling happiness well up inside him. He hastily stuffed both the bell and the note in his pocket and threw the box in his bag of trash.
Later, whenever the Dursleys' antics or the expectations of the Wizarding World grew too much for him, Harry would pull out the bell from Santa's sleigh and ring it. At first, most his friends at Hogwarts could hear it. Over time, however, the bell fell silent for all of them.
Though they grew old, the bell always rang for Harry and Billy and Olivia, as it does for all those who truly believe.
Sniffles and sadness! I missed my five minutes to midnight by almost two hours.