The Karma Train

Daily Deviation
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‘There is nothing worse than going to school by tube!’ said Alice.

James had no reply.  They were hanging onto a pole in the middle of the carriage, swaying and bumping into each other, and into people on their way to work.  The train smelt of sweat, coffee and clothing.  The only passengers to acknowledge each other were those in school uniform.  The rest stared through each other, or over each other’s heads, expressionless and silent.

The next station is Southgate.

‘I’m never getting a tube again after school’s finished,’ said Alice.  ‘Well, not in the rush hour, anyway.  I mean, look at these people!  What a bunch of zombies!’

For a moment, James  tried to shrink into his school shirt like a tortoise into its shell.  Then he realised no one was looking at them.  Alice was right.  They were zombies, and not the flesh eating kind.  They saw nothing, and they heard nothing.

‘I wish I could liven things up a bit,’ said Alice.

The train lurched to a stop.  Alice and James, along with everyone else, were thrown one way and then the other.  The doors slid open.

This is Southgate.  Please mind the gap between the train and the platform.

At any rate, the zombies seemed to know which stations they wanted.  A lot of doctors and nurses got off at Southgate, leaving just a few people standing.  The seats down either side of the carriage, and the motionless figures sitting in them, became visible.  Anybody could now see anybody else, and James felt eyes on his back.  They belonged to Will, his year eleven brother, and Will was frowning.  James could not see this, but he knew it all the same.

Please stand clear of the doors.

‘I’ve got an idea,’ said Alice.

‘What?’ said James.

‘Tell you when we’re off the train.’

The next station is Oakwood.

The train slowed, lurched, and opened its doors.

This is Oakwood.  Please mind the gap between the train and the platform.  The next station is Cockfosters, where this train will terminate.

This was where the school kids got off.  The last onto the platform was Holly, a sixth former with Goth makeup and no friends.  She had been the last to alight every day since James and Alice had started year seven three weeks before.  She waited for everyone in her carriage to get off, her eyes following them, missing no one.  Her gaze, hard and unwavering, seemed to push James off the train.  It was an almost physical sensation.

Alice would not be pushed by anyone.  She met Holly’s eyes on the way to the doors with a look of insolence.  Then she barked out a derisive laugh, hopped off the train, grabbed James’s arm and bulldozed him through the crowd on the platform.

‘What a freak!’ she said.  ‘She should get off at Southgate and go to the loony bin.  Oh, that reminds me.  My idea!’

They had a ten-minute walk from the station to the school, through leafy residential streets.  Frequently a girl would run out of one of the houses and link arms with another girl.  Just as frequently, a boy would stride over to another boy and jump on his back, pull him into a headlock or take a swing at him with his satchel.

‘I’ve decided to do it to one of those loony bin nurses you get on the tube,’ Alice said.  ‘Some soppy girl.  Make her think she’s going crazy!’

‘Do what?’ asked James.

‘Send her a note.’  Alice giggled, and her voice dropped to a whisper.  ‘Make her wonder who it is on the tube who’s trying to scare her.’

‘You mean slip it into her bag?’

‘Don’t be stupid - that wouldn’t scare anyone!  I have to find out a name, and then I can address it to her personally at the hospital.  It’ll be a laugh, watching her on the tube next morning.  She’ll be looking round at all the zombies, wondering who it is!’

She laughed, squeezing James’s arm and dragging him along the pavement.  James looked at his feet.  Never had Will’s eyes left him since they boarded the train, and he could feel them behind him now, cold with disapproval.  How deeply would he frown, James thought, if he could hear what Alice was saying?


It took Alice a week to select her victim and prepare her scheme.  James didn’t ask how she did it.  At lunchtime, when they were sitting on a school picnic table with their feet on the bench, she showed him three versions of the letter she intended to send.

Dear Caroline,

You might think I’m one of your mental patients.  I am not.  It’s just that I find you interesting.  You might see me on the tube that stops at Southgate at 8.41 every morning.  But which one am I?  Try to guess.

One copy was typed, one handwritten in red ballpoint pen and the third made from newspaper cuttings.

‘What d’you reckon?’ asked Alice.  ‘I thought not the newspaper one.  It’s such a cliché.  And handwriting can be traced, can’t it?  So that leaves this one.’

So saying, she produced an envelope from her schoolbag and slipped the typewritten letter inside.  The other two copies she screwed up and threw into a nearby bin.

‘You’re really going to do this?’ asked James.

‘It’s just a laugh, James,’ said Alice.

The bell rang for afternoon lessons.  Alice hopped off the table, smiling to herself.


‘You all right, mate?’ Will asked James, back home after the school day, and meeting his brother outside the bathroom at nine twenty-five.

James shrugged.

‘Look, Jimbo,’ said Will.  ‘About that girl you’ve been hanging around with…’

‘You don’t even know her.’

‘I’ve seen the way she bosses you about.  Don’t let her bully you.’

‘You shouldn’t blame the victim,’ said James, and then he went to bed.


On the tube the next day, Alice pointed out Caroline as subtly as she should.

‘We’ll take turns looking at her,’ she said.  ‘You first.  Tell me what she’s doing!’

James looked.  Caroline was young, pretty and frail looking.  Her lips were tight, and she was staring at the ground.

‘She just looks a bit cross,’ said James.  ‘She must know it’s only a stupid prank.’

‘Stop looking,’ said Alice.  ‘My turn.’

The next station is Southgate.


At break, she drafted another letter in her student planner.

Dear Nurse Winters,

You didn’t look for me on the train.  If you found me, maybe I could help you.  I’ve heard that one of your patients might try to poison you.  Watch out for the coffee machine and the water cooler.

‘Can you imagine her at work after she’s read this?’ said Alice, with a maniacal grin.

‘Why bother?’ asked James.  ‘It’s not like you can watch her.  Can’t you just leave it, Al?’

‘I’ll type it up in the library at lunch.  The I.T. bods can’t find out if I don’t save it, can they?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Of course they can’t.’


Over the next week, as James was forced to watch Nurse Caroline Winters, he noticed a change.  She tried to look at the floor, but occasionally her eyes would drift upwards, red-rimmed and frightened.  Her lips began to lose their pursed look, and seemed to tremble.  One Friday, she even looked like she might throw up.  James could understand that.  He had seen the latest letter.

What’s in all those needles, Caroline?  Brain medicine?  Watch you don’t get any stuck in you.

Alice spent most of the journey hiding her laughter in James’s shoulder.

‘This is Southgate.’

Caroline shuffled to the doors, then looked over her shoulder and swept a wide-eyed gaze over all the strangers on the train.

‘Please stand clear of the doors.’

‘James, look at me!’ hissed Alice, smiling and laughing as though they were discussing pop music.  ‘And don’t look guilty!’

Please stand clear of the doors.

Caroline leapt off the train and disappeared into the crowd as quickly as she could.  The train rumbled on.

The next station is Oakwood.

Will, clutching a handrail, kept his eyes on Alice and James.  He had been noticing their strange behaviour.  So, it seemed, had Holly the Goth sixth former.

‘Is your brother okay?’ she asked Will, to his great surprise.  Holly had never spoken to him before.

‘I don’t think so,’ he said.  ‘But he won’t let me talk to him.’


On Monday, things were different.  Once aboard the train, Alice stood frowning at the floor as though deep in thought.  She didn’t talk, and she didn’t even glance at Caroline Winters.

‘You okay?’ asked James.

‘Tell you at break.’

Sitting on their picnic table an hour and a half later, Alice showed James a letter.  It had been assembled from newspaper and magazine headlines, like her early reject.

Hey, sweetie.  See you on the tube tomorrow.

‘You’re running out of things to say,’ said James.  ‘And you’ve changed your style.  Maybe you should just -’

‘It’s not one of mine, you div!’ said Alice.  ‘Someone sent it to me!  To my house!’

‘Oh,’ said James.

‘Is that all you can say?’

‘Well, what do you want me to do?’

‘We’re going to find who did this,’ said Alice, ‘and we’re going to make them pay.’


Please stand clear of the doors.

‘Hey,’ said Holly, barging her way through the commuters to get to Will.  ‘What is with those two?’

She jerked her head towards James and Alice.  James looked sick.  Alice had a frown on her forehead, which occasionally wobbled and almost turned to tears.

‘I don’t know,’ said Will.

‘It’s asking for trouble,’ said Holly, ‘sticking kids on a crowded tube like this.  I mean, who’s looking out for them?’

This is Oakwood.  Please mind the gap between the train and the doors.  The next station is Karma, where this train will terminate.

Holly’s eyes snapped upwards, to the scrolling announcement screen at the end of the carriage.

What?’ she said.

‘Cockfosters,’ said Will, ‘like always.  Hey, have you heard the Cockfosters joke?’


The days went on, and so did the London underground.

The next station is Southgate.

‘Nurse Winters is looking less jumpy,’ said James.  ‘Have you stopped sending them?’

‘I’ve got better things to do,’ said Alice.  ‘Look, it’s got to be somebody at school, right?  It’s got to be someone that knows me.’

‘Why?  You don’t know Nurse Winters.’

‘Oh, shut up.’

Alice’s hands were shaking.  To hide it, she fiddled with her hair.  Then she lowered her hand, looked at it and gave a squeal.

‘James,’ she said.  ‘Be honest.  Do you think I’m going bald?  Look at this!’  She held out her hand, and James supposed there must have been a long blond hair or two on it somewhere.  ‘And there were loads on my hairbrush earlier!’

‘Have you had another letter, Al?’

The next station is Oakwood.

Alice nodded, and said, ‘Show you at school.’

This is Oakwood.  The next station is Cockfosters, where this train will terminate.  Please mind the gap between the train and the platform.


At break, James found himself back on the picnic table, a letter in his hand and Alice hugging herself beside him.

You’re going mad, Alice.  The stress is making your hair fall out.  You’ll be bald.  You’ll hate that, won’t you?  And you’ll have to go to the mental hospital.  But don’t worry.  Your nurse friend will look after you.

‘Nothing’s really happening to you, Al.  I’ve heard that people lose between fifty and five hundred hairs every day.’

‘Whoever it is knows about the nurse,’ said Alice.  ‘They don’t mention her name, but that could be to make me think they know less than they do.  I think it’s her.’

‘But she’s a grown-up,’ said James.  ‘If she knew it was you, she’d contact the school or something.  She wouldn’t do this.’

‘How do you know?  You don’t know her!  Maybe she’s crazy!’

‘How do they find all these commas in newspaper headlines?’

‘They started out as apostrophes.’


Hey, Alice.  Imagine if your appendix burst on a crowded underground train.


‘It’s appendicitis, I know it!’ said Alice, doubled over and clutching her stomach.  ‘We have to get off at Southgate!  You have to call an ambulance!’

The next station is Southgate.

‘It’s all in your mind,’ said James.  ‘Someone’s trying to scare you.  What happened to finding out who?’

‘No!’  Alice shook her head, her eyes wide with desperation.  ‘It’s real, James, it’s real!’

This is Southgate.  Please mind the gap between actions and consequences.

‘Look,’ said James, ‘let’s get you to school and then you can see the nurse.’

‘I never want to see another nurse as long as I live!’

The next station is Oakwood.

‘It’s Alice, isn’t it?’  Holly had appeared beside them.  ‘Are you okay?’

‘It’s appendicitis!’ said Alice.  ‘Oh my God, the pain’s gone!  It’s burst!  I’ll die!’

‘Calm down,’ said Holly.

‘What’s going on?’  Will was beside them.

‘Just wait a minute,’ said Holly.  ‘We’ll get off the train, then we’ll let the crush die down, and then we’ll see about what to do next.’

‘It’s not appendicitis,’ said James.  ‘It’s all in her head.’

This is Oakwood.  The next station is Karma, where this train will terminate.

They waited while the rest of the school students, and some workers, got off the train.  Then Holly put her arm around Alice, and said, ‘Come on.’

Please stand clear of the doors.

‘It knows!’ said Alice, clinging onto the doorframe, her eyes huge and her voice tiny.  ‘And not just when you’re blocking the doors.  It knows everything!’


The two boys went to school, and Holly took Alice home.  Sixth formers could get away with things like that.  They ended up sitting on the sofa, where Alice sobbed out the whole story with Holly patting her shoulder.

‘You were right to tell me,’ said Holly.  ‘And you’ve stopped doing it, right?’

‘Don’t be stupid - of course I have!’

‘Good.  Because if anything was going to happen to you, I think it would be soon.  It’s nearly Halloween.  You know what that means, don’t you?’

Alice sniffed, and said, ‘To me it means chucking flour at parked cars.’

‘Not this year you don’t!  Halloween has real meaning, Alice.  It’s when the veil between worlds is at its thinnest.  If anything is trying to get to you, that’s when it’s going to manage it.’

‘You believe in that stuff?’

‘Yes,’ said Holly.

‘Halloween’s at half term.’

‘There’s no half term in the otherworld.’

Alice thought about this for a moment, the tears slowing down, until eventually they stopped.  She carried on thinking, while Holly patted her shoulder.  Then she slithered out of the older girl’s grip, and said slowly, ‘It was you!’

‘What?’ said Holly.

You sent those letters!  You figured out what I was doing, and did the same thing back to me!  Of course it was you!  You’re always watching us on that stupid train!  Is that what you do - hand out justice to school kids?  You’re sick!’

‘Alice, I’m just trying to look out for you.  Year sevens on the tube, on their own…’

‘You knew where I lived!’ said Alice.  ‘You brought me home!’

‘I was following your lead!’

‘Get out of my house, you sick freak!’

Holly sighed, but didn’t say anything else.  Instead she stood up and walked out of the house, shutting the door behind her.


At half past six that evening, Will pressed James for the whole story while their parents were watching BBC2.  James told him almost everything about the letters to Caroline Winters, and the letters that Alice had been receiving in return.

‘What a nasty little cow!’ said Will.  ‘I knew she was bad news.  You’re not going to keep hanging out with her, are you?’

James shrugged.

‘Who do you think’s doing it?’

‘Maybe it’s you,’ said James.  ‘You’ve never liked her.’

‘Oh, come on, Jimbo!’

James shrugged again, then mooched up to his room.  He made sure to shut the door behind him, because this was private.  He sat down at his desk and took out the letter he was working on.

What do you think would happen if

He looked at the letter for a long time, trying to decide on a suitable new threat, and wondering why he was starting to feel guilty.  Alice deserved this, and it was the only way he could think of to discipline her.

James looked down again at the letter.  Just for a moment, the words changed.

It is not for you to mete out justice.


On the first Monday in November, after a nerve-wracking week off school, Alice couldn’t find James at the station or on the train.  She looked around for Will, found him and pushed her way over to him.

‘Where’s James?’ she asked.

‘Ill.  He’s had a rough few days.  Sick bug.’  Will decided not to add that James, once fully restored to health, planned never to travel to school with Alice again.

‘How about you, Alice?’  It was Holly’s voice.  She was squashed up against Will.  ‘Was your half term okay?  Did you… do anything for Halloween?’

‘Yes,’ said Alice, not meeting her eye.  ‘I did actually.  What are you going to do about it?’

The next station is Southgate.

Alice’s gaze snapped up to the scrolling announcements.  She kept watching the screen, her body tense, her eyes following the spots of light as they danced from right to left.

‘So,’ said Will.  ‘Good half term, Hol?’

‘Yeah,’ said Holly.  ‘Halloween night, I found a tenner on the pavement.’

‘Great.  Maybe you’d like to, um… buy me a toffee apple if you see me at the Ally Pally fireworks?’

This is Southgate.  Please mind the gap between the train and the platform.
Memnalar's All Hallow's Tales Contest 2014 - Camera Obscura

Here is my randomly assigned photo: the next stop is... by randomaxes

It's obviously not a London tube train, but it's very similar and that's all the underground system (subway, in American) I know, so this is what the picture inspired.

Word count: 2,990 (approx.; this includes dashes and such)
© 2014 - 2021 ThornyEnglishRose
anonymous's avatar
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ilyilaice's avatar
loved it. the suspense was excellent.
GoldenNocturna's avatar
Excellent work! I like the little tendrils of supernatural that spread throughout the story; part of me wants to know what's causing them, but another part of me feels it's better if I don't. :XD:
ThornyEnglishRose's avatar
Thank you. :) I did want to keep it ambiguous - I think that's best! ;)
GoldenNocturna's avatar
No problem. :) And it probably is. :XD:
SCFrankles's avatar
Many congratulations on the DD! ^^Maracas This is definitely a story that deserved an even wider audience ^_^
Karinta's avatar
Wow.... I love this story. I simply love it. :hug:
Karinta's avatar
You're welcome!
LiliWrites's avatar
:clap: Absolutely fantastic! I love that you used our own paranoia to create the suspense instead of relying on the traditional supernatural stuff that Halloween conjures. Just top notch stuff! Congratulations on the win, and the DD! :D
xlntwtch's avatar
Congratulations on the DD following your feature on the Hallow's Tales win. 
A great week for the children on the tube, at least for you and your readers. The story is top-notch and well-told. Thank you. :)
ThornyEnglishRose's avatar
Thank you very much. :)
TheGalleryOfEve's avatar
Congratulations on your well-deserved DD!!! :iconflyingheartsplz::iconlainloveplz::iconflyingheartsplz: :clap::clap::clap:
I’m very happy for you!!! :iconloveloveplz: :tighthug:
Gryffgirl's avatar
Very gripping story!  I liked the dialogue and characters--you write kids really well!  Congratulations on your DD! :clap:
ThornyEnglishRose's avatar
Thank you very much. Kids are my favourite people to write about. :)
STelari's avatar
Congratulations, dear!
brassteeth's avatar
wonderful. Congratulations on your D.D! A worthy winner.
anonymous's avatar
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