The Vanishing Station

Read an Excerpt From Ana Ellickson’s The Vanishing Station

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from The Vanishing Station by Ana Ellickson, a young adult contemporary fantasy novel out from Amulet Books on April 30th.

Eighteen-year-old Filipino American Ruby Santos has been unmoored since her mother’s death. She can’t apply to art school like she’s always dreamed, and she and her father have had to move into the basement of their home and rent out the top floor while they work to pay back her mother’s hospital bills.
Then Ruby finds out her father has been living a secret life as a delivery person for a magical underworld—he “jumps” train lines to help deliver packages for a powerful family. Recently, he’s fallen behind on deliveries (and deeper into alcoholism), and if his debts aren’t satisfied, they’re going to take her mother’s house. In an effort to protect her father and save all that remains of her mother, Ruby volunteers to take over her dad’s station and start jumping train lines.
But this is no ordinary job. Ruby soon realizes that the trains are much more than doors to romance and adventure: they’re also doors to trafficking illicit goods and fierce rivalries. As she becomes more entangled with the magical underworld and the mysterious boy who’s helped her to learn magic, she realizes too late that she may be in over her head. Can she free her father and save her mother’s house? Or has she only managed to get herself pulled into the dangerous web her father was trapped in?

Balboa always sings a kundiman while he’s shaving, crooning to his own reflection in the mirror as he swipes a sharp blade across his chin—and I’m not talking Gillette razors, I’m talking a blade sharpened to perfection. A blade he keeps tucked away in his boot for emergencies. A similar blade lies hidden in my backpack, because there’s no way my father would let me wander San Francisco alone at night without a chaperone—even if that chaperone is a blade I’ve named Miss Marybeth.

I only know a miniscule fraction of Tagalog (yes, shame shame), but my dad has sung that kundiman love song enough times for me to know the lyrics backward and forward. It’s called “Dahil Sa Iyo,” and back in 1961, Nat King Cole came to Manila and sang it in Tagalog instead of English. It blew my dad away, hearing a Filipino ballad sung by the Nat King Cole. Like something in his own language was worth sharing with the whole wide world.

I wish he’d tell me more about his homeland.

Hell, I wish he’d tell me why we’re sinking further and further into debt.

With the secrets he spilled last night, I need more answers.

As the sun begins to peek through our slatted garage windows, I pretend to sleep. My dad sings to himself in the mirror, the usual kundiman. With all his rambling about deals with the devil and Six mentioning a debt, I refuse to blindly wait for him to tell me what’s wrong. What if he’s been gambling? He obviously already has trouble with addiction—what if he’s taken it one step further? What if I can stop him from making an even bigger mess? I need to know why we’re falling behind on my mom’s medical payments when he says that he’s working a full-time job. The rent payments are taking care of the property tax, house repairs, and funeral expenses. I’m taking on as many house-painting gigs as I can get, so I’m able to cover my own expenses and save a bit for when Stella breaks down. But somehow, we’re losing money. I’ve seen the overdue statements. It’s just not adding up.

The moment Balboa closes the garage door, I leap out of bed. I wrangle my arms into my backpack straps—all the extra clothes I’ll need for Chen’s Painting Service on this fine Saturday.

It’s not hard to follow him. I keep a block between us, ducking below trash bins when it seems like he’ll turn around. But he doesn’t turn back; he’s only ever trudging forward. At the station, my boots clamber down the stone steps until I’m deep below the earth, sucking in stale air and listening to the whirl of ticket turnstiles.

I pull a shimmering blue-and-white ticket from the machine. Dampened sunlight streams in at the far end of the platform where the concrete opens into air. Behind me, people speak in Spanish, Chinese, English, Hindi, and all sorts of languages mushed together. Balboa hovers a few yards away, far enough to not notice me with an inevitable hangover pulsing inside his head. My heart thuds when the sign flashes san francisco airport train: one minute. I stop listening to the cacophony of voices and the rustling of wings.

Instead, I’m listening for the train. I’m trying to feel its rumble in my bones.

When I was eight—before my dad came to live with my mom and me—I played this game where I tried to see how close I could get to the train as it ripped through the station. The conductors hated it. My mom freaked out on multiple occasions. But every time I was down here, I always ached to get as close as possible to that roaring wind.

Now, I feel that same urge thrilling through my veins. My eyes electric, my lungs savoring the intoxicating smell of metal burning bright. Wait—wait until the train comes howling into the station; wait, pressed up to that yellow warning line, until I’m only steps away from the roaring hot metal. I feel as if it’s a wild horse that I can snatch hold of and swing myself atop of in one daring leap. The train’s wake shoves me back, and I hold my ground against the wind, hold my eyes open to the silver rushing blur, hold on to the heartbeat hammering in my chest. I don’t even flinch.

And then, the doors open.

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The Vanishing Station
The Vanishing Station

The Vanishing Station

Ana Ellickson

Hot air blows out with a flurry of passengers going about their boring lives at Balboa Park station. Their hurried footsteps add more layers of grime and scuffs to the tile floors. I swallow down the pulse pounding in my throat. Every day these trains race below our city, nothing more than metal and electricity.

I hover on the platform and watch as soon-to-be travelers board the airport-bound train. They wedge themselves into the narrow blue vinyl seats, balancing suitcases and backpacks on their laps, cursing the fact that they brought too many pairs of shoes and books they’ll never actually read on their beachside adventure. A pang of envy rumbles deep inside my gut. What would it be like to have the freedom to go where I want, to follow my dreams?

A kid stares up at me when I stagger back from the yellow line. He saw, of course. In vain, I try to tamp down my wind-whipped hair. He tugs on my paint-splattered backpack, and his mother doesn’t notice.

“What did that feel like?” he says, little kid mouth agape.

“Like I was flying.”

He smiles.

“But don’t try it. It’s dangerous.” I wink. I really shouldn’t have winked. The last thing I need to do is encourage a seven-year-old to do harebrained stunts. But I can’t stop the adrenaline flooding into my chest. And I lied. It feels less like flying and more like I’ve jumped off a cliff into the roaring wind and I’m trusting that I’ll have wings.

It is dangerous. One wrong step and I’d be clobbered by 110 tons of metal.

Trust me, no one who knows me would ever call me a daredevil. I’m actually known as the Responsible One. The one who took care of her mother all through sophomore year of high school while she was battling breast cancer. The one who didn’t go away to college or travel abroad because too many people needed her here. I promise I’ll always keep those two steps between me and death. I swear it.

It’s just—I don’t know what makes me want to leap into that blur of blue and silver. It feels like I could leave this all behind and wake up somewhere else entirely. Somewhere brighter, bolder. It’s almost like there’s a wild heartbeat under the iron and steel, and all I need to do is reach out and grab the reins.

A horn blares.

I jump aboard before the doors slide shut, and the train shoots forward through the maze of tunnels twisting under San Francisco. I hide behind a thankfully large man and scan around his shoulder to see where my dad is sitting. Correction, standing. Leaning hard on his cane, but not wobbling an inch on this bumpy train. He stands beside the exit door on the opposite end of the car. The minutes tick by. Am I more nervous about him catching me on a BART train—or about finally finding out the truth? As we wait for the next station, my eyes roam across my fellow passengers. It calms my hammering heartbeat to imagine how I’d sketch their faces. Reality flips on full blast: the kid snoring beside me with a face like melting candle wax, the old man stuffing French fries in his mouth, making my stomach growl from no breakfast.

And a voice.

“Dahil sa iyo!” The Filipino words come swaggering down the aisle, an aisle so thick with passengers, I can barely see who’s singing.

But I don’t need to see.

I know his voice.

It’s the Sap Master himself.

My dad sings a wicked kundiman.

But why is he serenading an entire train car? I inch closer, still out of his range of sight among the crush of passengers. My legs wobble as the train curves underground, and I cling to a metal pole to keep from falling. Dried paint sticks under my nails. It’s been so long since I’ve walked on a train that my knees tremble with the effort.

Still, the song lures me across.

Dahil sa iyo…

Because of you…

His words come softly now, sweetly melancholy. His rich honey voice fades into the sound of brakes squealing against metal rails—dahil sa iyo, nais kong mabuhay. “Because of you, I want to live.” Something isn’t right— this isn’t the way he sings when he shaves in the mirror. His voice sounds mournful, broken at the edges.

A chill drips down my spine as I push faster through the crowd, the lonely words echoing in my ears. Is this really my father? It’s his voice, that much I know; but I’ve never heard this pain crackling down his throat. I shoulder through the crush of passengers blocking my way.

A flash of movement up ahead. His eagle cane, his shiny Elvis hair slipping away from the crowd toward the dark shadows. The train car’s connecting doors creak open. A blast of roaring wind pierces my ears. Am I the only one to hear it? None of the passengers flinch.

“Dad,” I say. “Dad, wait!”

The glass doors separating the two train cars begin to slide shut. I still can’t see with the last two passengers blocking my way. Through the crevice between their elbows, I catch my dad’s eagle cane as it disappears behind the doors. Fog swirls on the glass, and a spark of cobalt flashes across steel, rippling out like dewy spiderwebs.

“Hey, how about an ‘excuse me’?” a bald man grumbles as I shove past his shoulder.

I yank open the doors.

The heavy plexiglass slides open and leads into a space that reminds me of an old phone booth. An icy blast slaps my skin, as if the conductor has cranked the AC to max capacity. But that’s never the case on a BART train. It’s always too hot. Always too many people breathing in your ear, elbows out and sweat stains under armpits.

My breath leaves a mist on the glass, and I touch my fingers to the water droplets to make sure they’re real. A whiff of my dad’s coconut aftershave, his cracked leather jacket. He was here a moment ago. The two accordion walls crunch together as the train lurches to a full stop. It wouldn’t be able to turn inside the dark tunnels without these flimsy rubber walls bending with the curve. I don’t stay long. There’s nothing like imagining the train splitting into pieces while I’m standing on the bridge connecting the cars.

My eyes frantically scan the passengers’ faces before the doors open at Daly City station. Not-my-father, not-my-father. No! No slicked-back hair, no eagle cane, no leather jacket. Not on this train. It wouldn’t have been possible for him to push his way through all these passengers to the exit.

The conductor gives one final call.

Doors closing.

A warning beep blares into the tunnel.

“Dad?” I holler into the train.

Heads snap in my direction as if I’m a lost toddler. My cheeks redden at the sudden attention. I’m too old to be a little girl calling for her father. But I’m not worried about myself—I’m worried about him.

Before the doors slide shut, I gaze up at the ratty pigeons clinging to the ledges of the train station even though they’ve added spikes to scare them away. The train starts to speed down the tunnel in a blur of blue and silver. It scatters newspapers and feathers into the air.

In all the magic tricks, a dove always disappears and reappears.

We all know what really happens to the dove.

That will not be my father.

Adapted excerpt from the upcoming book The Vanishing Station by Ana Ellickson, published by Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams; © 2024.

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