Every time Toby woke, he was forced to breathe; the cold, dank, mustiness of the grave, mingled with the reek of rotten timber and mildew. Sometimes, while he slept, he caught the scent of his mother, but when he reached out to her, there was nothing there. He had grown used to the dark and no longer needed to leave the fridge open all the time. Now, he slipped out of bed and went to get something to eat. All the fizzy drinks and biscuits were gone, and he was left with the cheese, ham and milk. In a way, he was glad of this, as he had learned that too many sweet things made his tummy hurt. To his disgust, he had to use the potty thing, and now this stench, added to that of the room.
He wasn’t quite as frightened now that the little girl came to see him. At first, he was afraid, as sometimes the room seemed full of children. They moved silently around him in the dark. He heard them whispering and giggling, during what he thought might have been the daytime, but at night their voices were different. They called out to him, begging for help. During this time, he would cover his ears and shout at them to stop, but they never listened. The first time it happened, he had buried his head in the pillow and sobbed. That was when the little girl came.
The touch of her hand on his shoulder made him scream. He knew no one had come through the trap door above his head, and he was afraid to look around.
“Hello,” she whispered. “Don’t be afraid. I live here too.”
Toby looked up at her. She was about his age, kind of pretty and a bit weird looking. She seemed to glow in the dark.
“I never saw you before,” Toby said. “Where do you live?”
“Over there,” she pointed to one of the shadowy corners. “I live in the dark. My name is Rachael”
“How come I never heard you move or anything?”
“I was a bit afraid, in case you were like the bad men.”
“Did they bring you here?” He sat up in the bed and made room for her to sit down.
“Yes. They took me away from my Mam and Dad and now I can’t go home,” her eyes were sad when she looked at him. “You don’t know the way, do you?”
“No,” Toby looked up at the ceiling. “I think it’s out through the door up there, but there’s no stairs.”
“I hate it here,” she followed his gaze. “It’s always cold, and I’m frightened.”
“Here,” he lifted the quilt. “Get in, it’s warmer under here.”
She was right, Toby thought, as she cuddled up beside him. She was very cold.
“How long have you been here?” He asked.
“I don’t know, longer than the others.”
“The boys,” she looked at him. “They came here after me.”
“Where are they?”
“Over there,” she nodded to one of the dark corners. “But they won’t come out. They’re too afraid of the bad men.”
Toby shivered and looked into the darkness. None of this made sense. Why couldn’t he see the boys?
“I’m afraid of them,” Toby pulled the quilt up to his face, until only his eyes were exposed.
“The bad men?” The girl whispered.
“Yeah, them too, but I mean the boys.”
“They’re only boys,” she laughed.
“Scary boys,” he was on the verge of tears.
“Oh, you’re just silly,” she threw back the quilt and walked across the room, disappearing into the darkness.
For a moment, Toby thought she had left him forever, but she soon came back.
“Come on,” she called over her shoulder. “He’s just a boy like you. Stop being such scaredy cats.”
Toby watched in amazement as the shadows took shape, and two boys peeped out from behind the girl. They were wary at first, but then one of them saw the Superman doll, and came over to where Toby sat.
“Hey, cool,” he picked up the doll. “I used to have one like that.”
“He’s my favourite,” Toby lost his fear. “But I have Batman and Robin too.”
“Do you have the Batmobile?” The other boy came and joined them. “I have that. It’s cool, shoots rockets and everything.”
“Yeah,” Toby said. “But it’s at home.”
At the mention of the word home, the boys grew silent, and even Toby had to swallow hard.
“I wish we could go home,” the girl sat down on the bed beside them.
They all nodded.
“I miss my mother,” she started to cry.
The boys were all on the verge of joining her, but they looked at one another and an unspoken agreement was reached, they would be strong, for the girl.
Once they managed to calm her down, the hours flew by, as they swapped stories on how they came to live in the room. The boys, Paul and Raymond, were taken in much the same way as Toby. The girl, Rachael, was coming back from buying an ice cream from the van.
“I dropped my cone,” she said, as though this was a greater crime.
They all gasped at this act of sacrilege, and agreed that the men, who had taken them, were very bad.
“Why do they want us?” Toby asked.
The children looked at one another and Toby became afraid.
“It’s bad, isn’t it?” He asked.
“There are three men,” Paul spoke for all of them. “And they hurt you.”
“No,” Toby whispered, drawing back a little on the bed.
“They don’t hurt us anymore,” Rachael sought to appease him.
“No,” Paul agreed, and then thought for a moment. “But they might hurt Toby though.”
“Well, we won’t let them,” Rachael stood and placed her hands on her hips. “I’m sick of the dark and I want to go home.”
“We all want that,” Paul said. “But there’s nothing we can do.”
“I’m too frightened,” Raymond’s eyes were wide. “I hate them.”
“I hate them too,” Rachael agreed. “But I wish we could do something.”
The boys stood. Raymond allowed the doll to slip from his fingers, and back onto the bed. Toby saw how truly frightened they were, and his stomach ached, when he thought what the men might do to hurt him.
“See you,” Paul said, as he started to walk across the room, and back into the shadows.
“Here,” Toby held out the doll to Raymond. “You can have a loan.”
“Really?” He smiled for the first time and took the doll. “Thanks, I won’t break it or anything.”
Toby felt sad, as he watched Paul place his arm around Raymond’s shoulders, and lead him back in to the dark.
“They really are scaredy cats,” Rachael huffed, and sat down on the bed.
“Aren’t you frightened?” Toby was amazed by such courage, especially in a girl.
She thought for a moment, before answering.
“I suppose I’m a bit afraid,” she agreed. “But I’m more afraid of the dark, and I miss my mother.”
“I miss my mother too,” Toby said.
Rachael was now a constant visitor, and Toby was used to her popping in and out. Once, when he was alone, he searched the corners of the room, but there was no one there. He felt along the walls, looking for a gap in the timbers, somewhere they could come and go through, but there was none. It was all a mystery and one the children were unable to explain. The boys came to see him now and then, but they never stayed very long. Toby knew they were too afraid, and he caught them looking fearfully at the trap door on many occasions. None of them would tell him about the things the bad men did to hurt them, and he knew it must have been something awful, because when he had a scab on his knee or elbow, he loved to show it off. He tried not to think about this, as it made his heart beat faster, and his stomach hurt. Another thing strange about the children was how they never ate anything. Though he offered to share his food, they always said that they weren’t hungry.
Taking the milk out of the fridge, he drank from the carton. He knew his mother would never approve of this, but there were no cups or glasses. There was no sign of the others, and he was bored. There were some drawing pads and crayons on a table by his bed, and he found if he scrunched down beside the heater, its red light made it possible for him to see the paper. There were other drawings besides his, and he looked at the work the other children had done. Most of it was kind of sad, as even in the drawings of houses or dogs, there was always a picture of a child crying. Toby sighed and tried to remember the face of the man who had taken him. He was good at drawing, and within minutes, had an exact likeness of the man he had just got a brief glimpse of.
“Hey, that’s him,” he hadn’t heard Rachael approach.
“Did he take you too?” Toby asked.
“No,” she knelt beside him. “But he’s one of the bad men.”
They both stared at the drawing a while, until Toby remembered there was something, he had to show her.
“Look,” he reached into his pocket.
“Oh, you found it,” Rachael picked up the tooth. “It fell out a long time ago, but it rolled away, and I couldn’t find it in the dark, so I didn’t get any money from the tooth fairy.”
“Aw, that’s a pity,” Toby said, then added. “What if I put it under my pillow? The tooth fairy might think it’s mine and leave me the money.”
“Brill,” Rachael clapped her hands. “We can split it.”
They were giggling as they placed the tooth under the pillow. It would be great if their plan worked. Though neither one knew what they would do with the money, or how they would spend it, they just thought it would be great fun to get one over on the tooth fairy.
“Wait until I tell the others,” Rachael laughed. “They’ll be jealous.”
It was agreed Raymond would return the Superman doll at night, so Toby had something to cuddle up with. Though he had no concept of when day and night was, he judged it by when he felt tired and needed the doll. Sometimes, when he was alone and a little bit afraid, he thought he heard his mother calling him. The first time it happened he had shouted to her, but now he knew it was probably just his imagination. Still, when it happened, he closed his eyes and called out to her in his head, hoping she would hear him. He knew she was looking for him, and would never give up, and the other children’s’ mothers would be doing the same, so someone was bound to find them soon.
It was a gut-wrenching moment, when they realised the tooth fairy had not fallen for their deception.
“She probably knew it was old,” Toby looked down at the tooth.
Rachael took it out of his hand and threw it across the room.
“Stupid fairy,” she stamped her foot. “Now the others will be laughing at me.”
“Never mind,” Toby patted her back. “One of mine is a bit loose.
He opened his mouth and pointed with his tongue.
“See?” He asked, as she looked in his mouth.
“Yeah, but it’s only a bit wobbly,” she poked it with her finger.
“Yuck,” Toby pushed her hand away. “You taste funny.”
“No, I don’t,” she pushed him.
“Yeah, you do, like cold, mud.”
“No, I don’t,” she started to cry. “I’m not talking to you anymore.”
As he watched her disappear back into the shadow, Toby hoped she didn’t mean what she said. He was too proud to call after her and apologise, because she really did taste bad. Tired, he sat on the bed and waited. Outside in the night, an owl screeched its ghostly cry. It echoed through the cracks in the cottage walls, and all the way down into the cellar.