Sunday, September 17th
At the top of the stairs, a group of teenage boys slumped against the walls with their feet out, taking up most of the passageway. They wore black puffy jackets and had the same expressions on their faces: blank, hard, bored. Emma heard their voices from around the corner, echoing off the tiles. As soon as they saw her, their conversation stopped.
"Excuse me," Emma said politely.
Very slowly, they moved their feet back. There was just enough room for her to pass. She had to walk straight through the middle of the group, feeling their eyes on her. They watched in silence as she struggled down the steps with the buggy and Ritchie and all the bags.
She was glad when she got to the bottom of the steps and around the corner. The tube platform was deserted and starkly lit. Emma checked behind her. The boys had not followed.
"All right, Rich?" Relieved, she crouched down beside the buggy. She was not normally a nervous person, but with Ritchie there she found herself hoping the train would come soon.
Ritchie, a solid, chubby thirteen-month-old, had begun to grizzle, sticking his tummy out and rubbing his eyes with his fist.
"Tired, eh?" Emma jiggled the buggy. "Soon be home."
She was tired herself. It had been a long day: a trip all the way across London to the East End. She'd been desperate to get out of the flat and couldn't face yet another walk to Hammersmith Broadway or the North End Road. They'd made a day of it; wandered around the stalls in Spitalfields Market, bought some trousers and vests for Ritchie, and gone to a busy little café for scones and coffee, and a jar of Banana Surprise. Then they'd got a bus to Mile End and gone for a walk by Regent's Canal, watching the swans and the long boats with their painted flowerpots. But when it turned chilly it was time to go home. In the dusk, the canal had a layer of green scum and a rusting shopping trolley poking out of the water. It took quite a while to find a tube station, and the shopping bags doubled in weight, knocking against Emma's legs as she walked. She was relieved to finally spot the familiar blue and red London Underground circle ahead of her on the pavement.
"Muh." Ritchie leaned out of his buggy to thrust his orange lollipop at her. Sticky liquid trickled down his sleeve.
"Oh, for God's sake." Emma felt a headache starting. "Why did you ask for it, then?"
Roughly, she took the lolly from him and wiped his face and hands. She looked around for a bin. None anywhere, of course. It was a quarter to eight on Sunday evening. Everyone seemed to have finished their traveling for the day and gone home. There wasn't a soul about. She could just chuck the lolly on the tracks. In the end, however, she wrapped it in a tissue and stuffed it into her bag. On the wall of the platform opposite, an ad for bottled water showed a picture of the countryside. Trees, and water, and peace.
Ritchie whined again, straining at the straps.
"Come on, then." What harm could there be in letting him out?
As she knelt to undo the straps, a faint scratching noise sounded from deep in the tunnel.
There was something sinister, Emma had always thought, about the sound of a train approaching through a tunnel. The way you could hear but not see it; only the rattle of the tracks ahead of whatever monstrous thing was about to loom from the darkness. Quickly, she lifted Ritchie onto the platform. He'd heard the noise as well and turned to stare, a breeze lifting the blond down on his head. Emma held on to his harness, stooping to fold the buggy with her free hand. The noise grew louder. Ritchie pressed himself against her leg, gripping her jeans in his fist. Distracted though she was, she remembered afterwards the way he had looked. Round little face, eyes wide, mouth in an O as he gaped at the tunnel and waited for the monster to come.
Excerpted from The Stranger on the Train by Abbie Taylor. Copyright © 2014 by Abbie Taylor. Excerpted by permission of Atria/Emily Bestler Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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