It's been a good long while since I've seen my Maw and Paw. It was just as well, Mac and I got along on the farm just fine after they'd left. We never got an explanation or a word of warning. One morning we woke up, and they were gone. Granny wouldn't tell us where they'd gotten off to, but in time, we came to understand why.
They loved us, or, at least I'd like to think they did. They'd tell us every day that Mac and I made them prouder than a group a lions at a caribou eating contest. I always found that saying a bit weird, but it was one of the quirks that made 'em my Maw and Paw.
I have to admit, waitin’ at this train station at near midnight did make me a bit nervous. The lone gas lamp only lit about half the platform, and the light was only a flickering essence of the sunny days Ponyville was normally blessed with. Long, dancing shadows on the old hardwood reminded me of the time the girls and I went to Canterlot to be in that Hearth's Warmin' play. I'd like to think I made a pretty good advisor to Chancellor Puddinghead, though I gotta admit, anypony with a name like that must've hated her parents.
I'd just come from a party, though it wasn't the best one I'd ever been to, that's for sure. All my friends and family were there, wishing me well on my journey. It was a going away party, but those are always kind of bittersweet, ya know? It was like the one they threw for me when I was going away to the Canterlot Rodeo, only a little more... somber. I was a stubborn fool back then, refusing to return until I had the money I promised ‘em. That was a long time ago. From what I’d heard, they'd all been prepared for this party for a while now.
I don't know why they insisted on getting all emotional, though; it wasn't like I'd never see them again. They knew this trip had been a long time coming. Darn trees aren't as sturdy as they used to be, but they sure are heavy. A midnight train was a bit unusual, but it wasn't my job to question these things. My only job was to get on board.
I looked at the clock near the lamp. It was the stroke of midnight. Right as I noticed the hand move over the twelve, I heard a lonesome whistle echo across the empty fields. I figured that was my ride. The boards ‘neath my hooves began to shiver, makin’ my legs feel kinda numb for a spell. Looking down the tracks, I was nearly blinded by the white light of the headlamp at the front of the engine.
The steam billowing out of the sides and the stack was in sharp contrast to the color of the train. From what I could tell in the dim light, it was a simple black engine, black coal car and a few passenger cars. They didn’t look very modern, but I wasn’t one to take a free trip for granted. As it pulled into the station, I could see some of the faces of the ponies and griffins already on board. Some were asleep, some looked tired, others scared. I couldn't imagine why—it was just a dang train.
Once it finally came to a stop, the engine hissed in relief, releasin' the pent up steam in a cloud covering most of the platform. I could see the shadowy form of what I reckoned was the conductor stepping down from the lead car. Once the steam began to clear, I could see he was wearing an old time conductors outfit, the kind with polished buttons and straight lines and such. Rarity'd probably know what it was called, but his uniform didn't look all that sharp. The buttons were a bit tarnished, and the jacket looked like it had been meant to be worn by a bigger pony.
"Apple... jack?" He asked. His voice was a lot more gruff than I'd expect from a unicorn his size. I wouldn't call him old—more like worn. He had some gray stubble around his chin, kinda sunken eyes and a slim mouth, almost like a cut across his face. His wiry mane stuck out from beneath his conductor’s hat at all kinds of weird angles, so I couldn't imagine this feller taking good care of himself.
Maw taught her foals not to judge other ponies, so I just nodded.
“Welcome aboard," he grumbled in that raspy voice of his. I didn't know many railway ponies, but I'd have to imagine most of them sounded like he did. He opened the door to the first car and I climbed up the steps. I was alone, nopony else in all thirty seats but me.
"Ain't anypony else—" I turned to ask him, but he was gone, and the door had been shut. I shrugged my shoulders and took a seat. As the train lurched forward, I watched the station drift past the window in the darkness, then some of the fields, then the town of Ponyville itself. I recalled all the fond memories I'd made there, as well as the friends I'll never forget. I hated leavin', but I knew this was something that wasn't really an option. A girl needs to see her parents, and I'm glad I'm finally able to do it, but it did leave a certain bitter taste in my mouth.
As I sank into the plush of the seat, I looked around what was apparently my private car, and thought about the unique situation I found myself in: all alone, headed on a westbound odyssey on a train with no name. Granny Smith had always told me that train hoppin' used to be a good way to get from place to place in Equestria before roads. Maybe some of my ancestor ponies had done the same thing I'm doing. Well, I reckon all my ancestors have done it at one point or another.
Ponyville was long gone, though I could still make out the dim lights of town in the distance. I'd wager at least some of those lights belonged to my friends and family. I just hated leaving them so suddenly like this. A lot of them were sure I'd stick around. Heck, even I was sure of it. But that's neither here nor there. The point is, I'm on this train, and I'm headed back home.
Outside the train car was pitch black. No fields, no sparsely populated countryside, no lone farmhouses set in a field of corn or wheat; just the darkness of the night surrounding the train as it plowed onward to its destination. As the wheels rumbled beneath me, I fought with a sense of joy buildin’ in my heart. My parents were sure to be waiting for me once this mighty beast came to a stop, and I'd be ready for ‘em. I could already see the moment we'd reunite. I'd step off the train; they'd be there just as I remembered them from so long ago.
At the same time, I hated that I was the only one of my family that got to go on this trip. I know Mac missed them, and I know Apple Bloom's never even met them, and of course Granny Smith missed her daughter, but good, Celestia fearin’ earth ponies like myself don’t question the divine.
By now, I'm sure Apple Bloom has finally cried herself to sleep in Mac's bed, and I'd wager Mac's done the same. I hated seeing the anguish on the faces of my friends and family, but I took comfort in the knowledge that I'd see ‘em again. A glimpse of a couple trees outside my window reminded me of one of my closest friends.
I remembered the first time Rainbow challenged me to that 'iron pony' competition. She said she'd miss me the most, and I believed her. But that's RD for ya, always havin' to be the best at somethin'. I just wonder whose hat would she try to steal every dang day now? Even though she was a dirty cheatin' pony durin' the contest, I didn't care. I was just happy to be around her. Even though on the outside she was more concerned with winning, she would later tell me that deep down, she was just trying to impress me.
I couldn't imagine why. I was just a simple earth pony trying to keep my farm from goin' under, and she was practically a shoe-in for the Wonderbolts. A lot of pillow talk would reveal that she could never actually join the Wonderbolts because she dropped out of flight school. That was the first time I'd ever seen her cry. I don't mean get teary eyed, I mean really, truly cry. She had a dream she'd wanted since she was just a filly, and it was forever out of her reach. I couldn't really empathize, as the farm had been all I'd ever known or wanted, but I comforted her all the same.
I remember the nights we'd hang out in the hay loft, shootin' the breeze. I always figured Rainbow's independent attitude was just a cover. Everypony needs somepony to confide in, and I was her somepony.
I set my eyes to the sky as the pitch blackness outside continued to envelope the train. If not for those wonderfully twinklin’ stars, I'd have thought we'd have been riding through Tartarus itself. They were brilliant, but Princess Luna's pride was somethin' amazing to behold. I'd once recalled Twilight telling about how every star in the sky is like our sun, and could have all kinds of strange and alien planets floatin’ around it. It's hard for a simple earth pony like myself to grasp such an idea, that every star could hold a planet of creatures looking into their own night sky and wondering if any other intelligent life is looking back at them.
Twilight... of all the friends I'd made in Ponyville, she's the one I'm the most concerned about. She’s a brilliant unicorn, much smarter than I or anypony else in our hole-in-the-wall town could hope to be, but what she knew in book smarts, she sometimes lacked in common sense. She'd once wandered into the Everfree forest and gotten herself turned to stone by a cockatrice. All the book learning in the world can't make up for something like that. But she was a good girl, with a good head on her shoulders. The Princess was pretty smart to choose her to be her student.
I only wished I'd have gotten a bit more time with her. I know the farm was my life, but before my parents left, I had other dreams and aspirations. Don't get me wrong, I got my cutie mark because I realized the farm was where I belonged, but that didn't mean I didn't have other interests. As embarrassing as it is for me to admit this, I was never a very good reader. As a matter of fact, Apple Bloom had surpassed me early in her schooling, and I had to give all of her language homework to Mac to avoid embarrassing myself. I wasn't illiterate, but I was darn close. The only other pony who knew about my... problem was Twilight.
When I first came to her, and she figured out my little secret, I was so embarrassed. Instead of looking down her nose at me, she offered to help me. She wanted to show me all that I'd been missing out on. Every day when I could get away from the farm early, I'd head over to her library and we'd start our lesson. At first, we started with foal's books. I hated the idea of starting out with something so childish, but she always told me you had to trot before you could gallop. It was hard, and I would get really frustrated and want to quit. I know that ain't like me, but it's Celestia's honest truth. I wanted to quit and go back to the life I knew several times, but she wouldn't let me.
Twilight insisted I keep trying, insistin' I keep sounding out them troublesome words until I could pronounce them correctly. I'll always love her for that. She showed a hard-headed earth pony what persistence could accomplish.
The train pulled me out of my memories, beginning to slow. I pressed my cheek against the cold glass, trying to see where we ended up. I looked down and could see no ground, or even tracks beneath the iron wheels. In the distance, I could see a light. It was just a pinpoint at first, but as we got closer, it grew in intensity and size. I noticed the platform and train station come into view, as daylight seemed to rise out of the darkness, creating a visible line between the darkness we'd come through and the light we were headed towards.
The train came to a halt, the steam obscuring anypony waiting at the station from view, though I could make out a few hazy outlines in the cloud.
The conductor came up the steps with a clipboard in his magic held out in front of him. "Applejack, this is your stop," he said, opening the door for me.
"You mean this train goes to more than one place?" I asked. I mean, how often do you get a chance to ask a question like this?
"Indeed, but you don't want to know where the line ends."
I could tell by his tone he wasn't fooling around. I hopped down the steps and waited for the smoke to clear as the train took off toward whatever awful destination awaited those who hadn't disembarked.
As the steam evaporated, I noticed ponies in all types of clothes. Some wearing old west outfits, some in big poofy dresses, and others still in modern looking clothes.
I turned around, hoping my memory of that voice was still reliable. There stood my Maw and Paw, both overjoyed and a bit teary eyed to see me. I couldn't hold myself back any longer. I charged straight at them, feeling both their forelegs around me tightly. Words couldn't begin to describe how much I missed this feelin'.
I was finally with them. I was finally home.
"Sugarcube, we're sorry you had to go so soon..."
"It's okay," I assured them. I'd always miss my friends, and I'd always long for the day when they would ride the lone black train to be with me. Still, a part of me hoped for them, it would be a long time comin'. "I'm just glad I'm here now."
"We thought we'd see Granny Smith before we'd see you darlin'," my father whispered. Both of my parents still clung to me tightly.
"So did everypony else," I replied, finally releasing them. "Apple Bloom and Mac are probably feeling pretty down about now," I lamented. I hated to know my kin are upset when there wasn't anything I could do to tell them I'm in a better place.
"If you like, I can pass a message along, Applejack."
I recognized that voice. I turned around, and lo and behold Princess Celestia was standing right behind us!
"Princess? But, you ain't—"
"Dead? No my little pony, I'm very much alive. Communication between planes of existence is not impossible for an alicorn, you know," she smiled. “I trust Charon conducted the train smoothly?”
"He did,” I answered, “Can you tell my friends and family I love them, and Ah'm happy, and for them to not spend too much time cryin’ for me?"
"I shall. Know that all of the Elements miss you more than I can express."
I nodded, "Thank you, princess. Tell them Ah miss them too, would you?"
She smiled softly, "With you to watch over them, I'm sure they'll feel better soon enough."
"Now go, your ancestors await your arrival," she added, opening a brightly lit portal beneath her wing, which all other ponies on the platform began walking through.
"Goodbye princess," I whispered, a tear falling from my eye.
"Do not cry because your life is over, Applejack. Smile, because it happened."