Toby lay on the bed, afraid to move. He had just woken and had was unsure of where he was. He knew he wasn’t at home, and if he called out, there would be no familiar voice to answer him. Kneading his fingers into the sour-smelling quilt beneath him, he tried not to cry. The darkness all around seemed absolute, and he was terrified at what he would find, if he sat up. His face was sticky and smelled bad, so he brought his hand up, and touched the wet spot on his chin. His stomach had rebelled against the fumes of the chloroform.
“Ouch,” he could not suppress his groan of pain.
The drug-soaked cloth was pressed against his skin with such ferocity it had burned his nose, cheeks and chin. Of course, he was unaware of the red marks that marred his face and knew only that he was hurt. His throat ached, adding to his discomfort and he bit down hard on his sore lip. The memory of his ordeal was returning, and he tried to hold back the tears. Squeezing his eyes shut, he prayed this was all a bad dream and he’d wake at any moment in his own bed.
“Mam?” his question echoed in the silence of the dark room.
There was, as he had expected, no answer, and he pulled his knees up and rolled into a ball in the centre of the bed. Despite the fact he was still wearing his anorak, he was shivering, and the air around him felt cold and damp. Something nudged against his side and hurt him. Allowing his hand to move down to the source of his discomfort, he felt in his pocket.
“Superman,” he held his favourite action figure against him, glad of the company in this strange place.
The softness of the doll’s cape felt good against his skin, and the familiar scent made Toby feel just that little bit braver. Sitting up, he wiped his face with the back of his hand.
“Yuck.” There was residue still in his mouth, so he spat and wiped his hand on the quilt.
With Superman in one hand, he edged his way back on the bed, to where he imagined the headboard would be. To his surprise, his back met the bare wall and damp, cold wood.
A small light glowed in one corner of the room, but it did little to dispel the gloom, and there were dark shapes everywhere.
“Hello,” he called, hoping someone would hear him.
He held his breath, as he waited, but there was no one. The only sound came from the slight throbbing of a motor somewhere far away. In the distance, he heard the gentle crying of the wind.
Moving to the edge of the bed, he felt the solidness of the earth beneath his feet and stood up.
“Don’t be afraid,” he whispered to the doll. “We’ve been in worse situations.”
Mimicking the words of his hero, he felt his way around the room. The first item throbbed beneath his fingers and buzzed like a swarm of bees. It was cold and shiny to the touch. Letting his hand move down to the front, he located a handle and pulled. Instantly the room glowed with light, as the fridge door opened. He studied the contents and was relieved to find it filled with all sorts of goodies. Mostly the kind of stuff his mother would not allow him to eat. There were lots of fizzy drinks, chocolate, biscuits, some cheese, ham, butter, bread and loads of other stuff. Four large cartons of milk lined the door, but what boy could resist cola, and he took a can off the shelf. The hiss of the carbonated drink filled the room, as the metal pull gave way and he gulped, aware once again of the pain in his throat. The sugar rush worked its magic, and he burped loudly, delighted by the sound.
Leaving the door open, he used the light to find his way around the rest of the room. Chomping on a biscuit, he searched his prison. There was a large cupboard set against one of the walls a stout lock guarding whatever was inside. He flinched and pulled his hand away, when he touched the heater. Although barely warm, it was a surprise to find heat of any kind, and he traced his fingers along the accordion shape and down the side. Locating the button that regulated the heat, he pressed it down another notch. By the time he was finished looking around, the room was already becoming much warmer and he took his anorak off.
Some things in the room puzzled him. Like the old-fashioned iron bath and he shivered, hoping he was not expected to wash in it. Beside it sat a weird thing, shaped kind of round, and he lifted the lid and peeped inside. It was a toilet, of sorts, more of a big potty really, and he knew he would never use such a thing. After all, he was seven years old.
The novelty of searching his new surroundings soon wore off, and even Superman was beginning to lose some of his initial bravery. Toby climbed back onto the bed and wondered what he should do next. The fridge buzzed loudly, protesting the intrusion of warm air into its icy innards. His mother often scolded him for leaving the door open, and he knew he should close it, but was afraid of the dark. Still, he thought, the food might go bad if he didn’t, and sliding off the bed, he walked over and pushed it shut. Instantly the room was bathed in shadows, and he hurried back to his place on the bed. Holding the doll against his face, he moved his lips over the ridges that served as curly waves on its head.
“What’ll we do, Superman?” He wondered out loud.
I won’t cry, he thought, I’ll think of a plan to get free. He felt tired, and since there was no clock in the room, and no window to show what time it was, he decided to sleep. Turning the quilt over so he didn’t have to lie on the vomit stains, he lay down and placed the doll on the pillow beside him. It was just possible to make out the red and blue of the costume in the dim light, and he was glad he always carried the figure with him. It would have been extra scary without Superman.
As his head filled with plans, each one more daring and dangerous than the last, he tried not to think of his mother and home, but it was no use. The tears that welled up in his eyes were so big they burned and refused to stay back.
“I’m not afraid,” he assured the doll. “I’m just worried about my Mam. She’ll be missing me by now.”
The doll’s expression never changed, and Toby took this as a sign it understood what he had said was true. Sniffing and wiping away the tears, he lay back down.
“Did you know he was a bad man?” he asked.
When Superman didn’t reply, Toby thought he probably had known. If he had tried to warn him, then Toby had not heard, but it was hard to be heard when you’re stuffed into someone’s pocket.
“Never mind,” he patted the cold plastic of the doll’s chest. “We’ll think of something.”
As he drifted off to sleep, Toby couldn’t help but remember the bad man.
It was cold that day, and he waited until after everyone had gone, to go looking for his mother. She was never late, and he knew he should do as she asked, and stay inside the school railings until she came, but he was freezing. He heard the bang as the huge door was closed, and he walked to the edge of the building and watched as Mr Jackson turned the big key. He was laughing with Mr Keane about something, and Toby wondered if he should go and tell them his mother was late but decided against it. The men didn’t see him, as the teachers’ car park was on the opposite side from the school gates, and it felt weird and kind of nice to be left alone in the empty playground. For a while he ran around in the side yard pretending, he could fly. With Superman in one hand, he jumped and swirled until he was tired and dizzy. Going back to the gates, he was surprised his mother still had not arrived, and walked outside to look down the road, in the direction in which she would drive.
Sighing, and not willing to wait any longer, he started off in what he believed to be the way home. Passing the shops and the police station, he waved now and then to the odd friend, who was still shopping with their mothers. Soon there was no pathway to walk on, and he had to skim along the verge of the road. There were hardly any cars, once he had left the village, so there was no need for him to hop up on to the grass. He stopped only when he heard a motor approach and jumped on the mound beside him. To his surprise, the car stopped, and the driver wound down the window.
“Hello, Toby,” the man smiled. “Your mother sent me to collect you. She’s had to take Bess to the vet. It seems that the dog got into an argument with a hedgehog and got herself spiked.”
“I don’t know,” Toby looked at the door that was pushed open from inside.
His mother had always warned him about getting into strange cars.
“Hurry up,” the man glanced in his rear-view mirror. “I haven’t got all day, I have cows to milk, and I’m doing this as a favour to your mother.”
Well, Toby decided, he did know about Bess, and his mother would be cross if he didn’t take the lift.
“Thank you,” he climbed in and was about to haul his satchel after him, when a movement in the corner of his eye stopped him.
His eyes opened wide with terror as the man grabbed him and held a cloth over his mouth. He struggled, unable to breathe, and tried to push the hands that held his head in a vice-like grip away, but it was useless. He felt the satchel slip from his fingers as the fumes overcame him, and he remembered nothing more until he had woken in the cold, dark room.
He cried out in his sleep as the memory of the suffocating cloth on his face returned.
“No,” he screamed, jumping up in the bed.
Sweat made his clothes cling to his body, and the heat intensified the stench of the room. The reek of mustiness and damp earth was choking, so he slipped from the bed and walked over to switch the heater off. He was panting and could feel his hair sticking to the back of his neck. Pulling off his school jumper, he used it as a towel to wipe his face. The draft from the open fridge cooled him as he searched inside for another cold drink. He held the can against his cheeks, until he got his breathing under control, and his heart stopped racing. He knew it had not been a bad dream, and what he recalled had really happened, but it was beyond him why the man should have taken him. He was too small to be a slave, he reasoned, maybe the man had no little boy of his own and wanted one. Either way, he had done a very bad thing in taking Toby, and the police would be very angry. His mother would have told them by now, and they would be looking for him.
There was a noise above him head. A scratching and digging that was, in fact, nothing more sinister that the nocturnal foraging of a fox, but to Toby’s terrified imagination; it became a monster trying to claw its way in. Leaving the fridge door open, no longer caring if the food went bad; he ran back to the bed and grabbed his Superman doll.
“Go away,” he screamed, braver now that his superhero was close. “Leave us alone.”
The fox picked up its ears at the sound and scampered away into the trees. Toby sat shivering and looking up to where the sound had come from. It was gone now, he decided, the monster must have realised he was not alone, that Superman was there too.
“I hope they come for us soon,” he told the doll, before curling up against the cold wood on the wall behind the bed.
In his mind, he pictured his mother rallying the police to action, and the millions of people who would be looking for him. He had seen on the news how helicopters were used in searching for missing people, and he wondered if he would get to ride in one of them. Anyway, he thought, pulling the foul-smelling quilt closer; if the police don’t find me, Bess will. She was a great tracker and could always sniff out the rabbits in the orchard, so she would probably guide them to him. They could always ask his mother. She knew everything, and she could even read his mind. He knew this, because she could always tell if he was lying. It was impossible to hide anything from her. She was aware of the most secret things like if he didn’t brush his teeth or finish his homework.
Despite the light from the open fridge door, there were parts of the room that were still hidden, and he tried to not to think of the things that might be lurking there. Reaching out with his mind, he called to his mother. Mam, help me, I’m locked up in a big, scary, dark room and I want to come home.
Covering his face with his hands, he screamed, as the shadows that had lain in wait swooped from the corners of the room.