Read the first chapter here! This is a work in progress.
Poppy’s journey was delayed from the start.
Entering the cavernous grey confines of the Camden Town Tube Station, she found the down escalator jammed and the tunnel to the train platform swarming with the rightfully annoyed. School satchel already weighing heavily on her thin shoulder and dragging her overstuffed, wheeled suitcase behind, she moved edgily from the bottom of the escalator into the crowd. About three trainloads of passengers crammed the platform. She couldn’t get near the trains.
Word was going around that someone had jumped onto the tracks in front of an oncoming train. Poppy never saw the victim, or any evidence of one, but this was the usual excuse for the tube being held up. Her father said it was an urban legend, but Poppy was never really sure. Perhaps it was a sign…
She looked back through the teeming multitude and wondered if she should go home. But it was superstitious to believe in signs, Daddy said. Childish. At fourteen she wasn’t a child any more. And even if she wanted to go back, she couldn’t, the crowd was squashed into the tunnel like a cork in a champagne bottle and fizzing like it was about to explode.
Of course, being British, they wouldn’t explode, but would rather suffer in silence.
Twenty minutes later, she was lugging her suitcase on board the next tube train heading for Victoria Station. From there she caught British Rail for South Croydon. She’d missed the train that would have taken take her into Surrey in time to catch the shuttle to her new boarding school, Blight’s Academy. The next train from South Croydon to East Grinstead wasn’t coming for another 40 minutes. When it arrived, she hauled her bags up the steps into the half-empty car.
Sitting on a forward-facing seat by the window, Poppy decided to adopt a philosophical attitude. This the first time she’d beenaway from home completely on her own. She had her mobile. If she missed the shuttle, she’d just call Blight’s to come and pick her up.
Taking a forbidden, stomach curdling yet curious book out of her satchel, Beyond Belief: The Moors Murderers by Emlyn Williams, she settled in for a read. The creepy story of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley put her in a rather miserable mood. The murky, twisted workings of the criminal mind were proving to be too much for her. Maybe she wouldn’t become an investigator after all. She didn’t have the stuff.
She closed the book on her thumb and watched the scenery pass.
Traveling into the countryside, woods grew close against the tracks. Poppy could see them through the windows on both sides of the train, trunks close together, branches arching over like a tunnel. Poppy didn’t like woods. She was a city girl, a London girl. She didn’t trust trees.
She had to change trains again at East Grinstead. She’d hoped it was a proper town. Instead, she was left alone on an isolated platform. Behind her was a station house as grey and closed and empty as if it hadn’t been serviced in a hundred years. And encroaching all around, leaves rustling in the wind, were the woods.
For some reason, drunks falling in front of trains were not half as frightening as being out here alone. Why did the trees seem to be watching? Of course, it was impossible. She was just being silly.
A gust of wind rushed up her back. She shivered with a sudden chill.
It was twilight. The air was heavy, as if it was going to rain. If she hadn’t missed her connections, she would have gotten to Blight’s well before dusk. She let go the handle of her suitcase, set down her satchel, with its Blight’s Academy logo of a school building inside a ring of black thorns, and checked the time on her mobile phone. The light flashed up like a signal. It was almost the 19th hour —- 7:00!
Where had the time gone?
“Ridiculous!” she mumbled, annoyed at how long this trip was taking.
She put the phone back into the pocket of her brown corduroy jacket, pulled her long, layered auburn hair off her neck, and pulled the collar up. Her feet in their little tan cowboy boots, skinny jeans tucked in, felt firm, planted, the rest of her at sea.
There was a bench under the eaves of the station house, but Poppy felt too uneasy to sit down. Besides, she was reluctant to step back from the sight of the tracks and their promise of the next train. Across the tracks, and a little further down, was another deserted platform, and more woods. The tops of the trees were tossing in a high wind, fragmenting leaves black against the dimming sky.
It was so quiet. Poppy wasn’t used to quiet. She would have popped some music on her mobile, then decided it was a bad idea. Who knew who was listening, besides the trees?
As if by magic, a single light came on under the eaves of the station house, lighting up a schedule posted by the shuttered window. Taking out her phone again to check the time, Poppy strolled over to look at it.
“Next train… 19:45… It’s very late.”
The trees across the tracks went still, and seemed to stare. Poppy scanned the area for signs of human life, then worried about who might show up. She was all alone out here. What if some gang-bangers came along? Or…
If Poppy allowed it, her imagination would get the better of her. She’d read too many mysteries and crime novels. Watched too many horror films. Her mum never understood how such a young girl could be interested in all that morbid stuff. But for Poppy it wasn’t morbid. She just liked to puzzle things out, solve things, such as how to get to her first day at a new boarding school on her own. She didn’t know the train would drop her off in the woods. And she’d have to wait for ages by herself. In the middle of the Blair Witch Project!
Now she wished she’d let Mum drive her.
You’re always so headstrong, Poppy…
Mum’s constant litany.
What am I going to do with you?
Her younger sister Daisy, chiming in: You always have to have your own way!
But she was fourteen. It was time to be independent. She was an Aries, after all.
She needed to talk to her mother, so punched in her phone number at home. Mum would probably throw a wobbly knowing Poppy was out here alone in the wilderness, but what could she do? The phone rang and rang. The answer phone came on.
You’ve reached the Farrell residence. Please leave a message.
“Not!” Poppy fumed and hung up.
From somewhere came a screech. Heart hammering, Poppy hoped it was a train coming. She looked up and down the tracks both ways, but saw no light. Another screech came, this time she could tell it was coming from behind her, in the woods at the back of the station house.
It must have been an animal.
A high, shrill cry echoed up through the trees. Ah! Ah! Ah!
Perhaps it was an owl. They’d had owls in London. In the back garden,
A splat of rain hit her face.
Thunder rolled, long and loud then fading off.
Poppy buttoned the top buttons of her jacket, tugged her collar close again, and headed for the awning of the station house. The bench was coated with a thin layer of moss. Looking for a bare patch of whitewashed board so as not to ruin her jeans, she sat down.
Where was that train?
Sounds of breaking branches and strange noises coming from the woods sent her rocketing to her feet. Shaking with raw panic, she inched her way out to the platform, into the rain, and stared at the darkness between the trunks of the trees.
The single light from the station house shone on something white coming through the woods. Two hands appeared, pushing the branches apart. The scratched face of a girl came through and then her whole body followed.
Her long blonde hair hung in hanks; her dress was torn. She was shaking as bad as Poppy was who just stood there, gobsmacked.
“Who are you?” Poppy shouted over the thunder that crashed. A sheen of lighting blanched all color from the frightened girl’s face.
The girl’s eyes slid from Poppy to the satchel still sitting on the platform. The girl opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out.
“What? What’s the matter?” Poppy said, grabbing her suitcase and satchel and taking them under the awning. “Are you all right?”
The girl jumped, then looked back at the woods, the leaves now pattering in the rain. She stretched her hand out toward Poppy, pointing her finger at the satchel.
“Don’t go there,” she said. “Don’t go to Blight’s Academy.”
“What?” Poppy couldn’t believe her ears. Blight’s was a prestigious and highly regarded boarding school. One of the best.
“Don’t go there. Please, don’t go to Blight’s Academy! Go back! Go home!”
The wind blew the girl’s long, straight hair over her face and seemed to blow her words away, for though her mouth was moving, Poppy heard nothing.
A loud whistle and a beam of light on the tracks heralded the train. It was going in Poppy’s direction.
“The train’s coming,” Poppy cried over the din, running to get her suitcase and satchel.
“Don’t go!” the girl shouted. “Please, listen to me!”
The train pulled up with a loud screech. Poppy opened a door in the last car and shoved her bags inside. She had one foot on the steps when thunder banged like a china cabinet falling over. The girl’s face went livid white, her eyes so black, and her lips so red, she looked ghastly.
“What are you going to do?” Poppy said. “I’m leaving.” She shut the door.
The train jerked and squealed and began to go. Poppy grabbed a seat and watched the girl through the window. She was running around on the platform, waving her arms around, then appeared to jump off. The train was too far down the track to see what happened next, but Poppy thought she heard a long, drawn-out scream.
“Oh my God,” Poppy murmured. She put her hands over her heart to stop it hammering. How awful for that girl. It was like she was mad or something.
Poppy got up to stash her suitcase in the luggage rack, and realized her legs felt like overcooked pasta. She just got it stowed, and was slipping into a seat with her satchel, when the door at the end of the car slid open.
A tall, burly fare collector came in, hand out for her ticket. He had a little ticket- selling box hanging on the front of his blue uniform making Poppy think of a toy wind-up monkey.
“Got your ticket, miss?” he asked.
“Yes.” Poppy pulled the ticket she’d bought at Victoria Station out of her jacket pocket, and handed it to him.
“Where you getting off?” he asked.
“Blight’s Academy,” she said. Moments ago, she’d have been proud to say those words, but after the girl on the platform, she wasn’t so sure.
The fare collector frowned and nodded. “Of course. It won’t be long now.”
“Sir, did something bad happen there? I mean—-I met a girl on the platform—-”
“I don’t know,” the fare collector said, lifting his nose as if to avoid a bad smell. “I haven’t heard a thing.”
Poppy went quiet and studied the man as he slid back out through the door from whence he came. He’d say that to anyone. Even of he had heard something bad, he wouldn’t say what it was.
Poppy slouched down in her seat. Occasionally she looked out the dark, rain-spattered window, back toward the platform where the mad girl had jumped off, wondering what had happened to her. Not that it did any good. Hopefully, someone at the school would tell her what was going on. Perhaps the girl had been expelled, or something.
The lights went on overhead. Poppy sat up and looked around. She was the only passenger in the car. The dark zipped past the windows, and once in a while, a patch of clear, moonlit sky whizzed past. It was spooky being alone, but she wasn’t in the mood to change cars.
Instead she opened her satchel and took out another book, a less morbid one she’d bought on the internet with her allowance money: The Biggest Secret by David Icke. This was her biggest secret: Poppy adored conspiracy theories. These were the best mysteries of all. They made her think.
As she closed the satchel, the logo of Blight’s Academy stared up at her. A ring of black thorns around a red-brown school building that looked like a castle. For the first time she noticed, just above the door, a tiny five-pointed star.
The logo was a bit scary, she supposed, with the thorns and the star. But weren’t most hedgerows full of thorns? Hadn’t she heard they were meant to keep intruders out?
That girl back there was off her rocker. That was all.
There was a theory at the back of Poppy’s mind, about the Web of Wyrd. She’d heard about it in a film and then looked it up on the internet. It suggested that all events in the world were connected, especially evil ones. That certain people were thrown together along the strands of the web, and tragic events played out. Poppy shuddered and clutched her book. She hoped she hadn’t been caught on the same strand as that girl back there. David Icke had a theory that the royals practiced black magic and had done so for thousands of years, that maybe, they’d created the Web of Wyrd to run the world their way. Was that a conspiracy theory, or what?
She sighed. How her friends would laugh if they knew what went on in her head! There were no conspiracies, really. Unless it was a convocation of spirits, or something…
It was all so intriguing. Coincidences were amazing.
The woods were pressing against the train on her side of the car, branches sliding against the windows. Poppy flinched away. Why did the woods frighten her so much, but not horror films, or these conspiracy things? It was only nature. It wasn’t like the woods were full of witches or something.
When were they going to get to Blight’s? Would she find her way in the dark? Would there be a shuttle waiting to pick her up at the next station? She checked her mobile for the time. 20:20.
God, she was late! Would they even let her in?
She thought back to whoever had hurled themselves off the platform in front of a train at Camden tube station, and then that girl jumping onto the track back there.
Oh my God!
Poppy covered her ears at the memory of the girl’s scream. Why would anyone do that? It had to be painful as hell to be run over by a train, and besides, if someone wanted to kill their self it seemed damned rude to inconvenience other people. She wondered if that girl was lying dead on the tracks, or if she’d made it across to get the train going the other way.
Poppy groaned. She was sick worrying about it.
The train blasted its whistle and careened around a bend.
A bell was ringing.
“Blighton-Moss Station! Alight here for Blight’s Academy shuttle service.”
Poppy stuffed her book back into her satchel, then hurried to retrieve her suitcase. She was waiting at the door when the train screeched to a halt.
The door slid open on perfect darkness.