The boys scrambled for the door. Taz stuffed the keys in his pocket as he went. That thing had Marcus’ voice. Was it Marcus? It certainly didn’t look anything like Marcus!
This was no time for questions. It was time for running. Like they’d seen on every scary movie, in every scary book, the boys ran for the stairs. They ran for higher ground, even though all it could do was trap them.
They raced for the top floor. The corridors were wider there. That part of the building was newer. If they ran that way they could take the second set of stairs, double back onto the floor below and make a second attempt at getting into the boiler room.
Taz was determined not to leave his friend behind again:
“James, come on! It’s easier if you take the steps two at a time. Trust me.”
James copied Taz’s leaping run up the stairs. Sure enough they got up faster than he would have believed possible. His fear of tripping pushed firmly to one side in the face of his fear of the thing behind them. They raced through the top corridor, barging through the door at the end, just as the door they had just come through creaked open.
Marcus poked his head round with a grin. He yelled something after them but they didn’t stick around to find out what it was. They took the other stairs in jumps. James wasn’t even sure if his feet were hitting the ground. Nothing about this felt safe but it was better to risk a twisted ankle than wait around for Marcus to get them.
They came out at the very back of the school. At the far end of a very old corridor. The walls were arched and it smelled of bleach from the gym hall toilets. They ran on and turned into the big stairwell again. Leaping down steps without counting.
He skipped the tiny ones and the huge old iron ones and tried the most likely sizes and shapes. As the keys rattled against the door he was sure he could hear movement from behind it, and a girl’s voice!
Something wasn’t right though. The girl’s voice was muffled more than it should be. Taz slid key after key into the lock until finally, with a satisfying ‘click’ he found one that worked.
Taz flung the door open to find a darkened room, not much bigger than a store cupboard. He turned on the light. The room was empty; Nicky wasn’t here.
James came in to see why Taz was taking so long:
“Where is she?”
A tiny, echoing, voice came from below:
“I’m down here!”
At the far end of the room the boys spotted a ladder leading down to a level below. To rescue their friend they would need to climb under the school. Marcus would be here any minute.
In a rush of inspiration Taz leapt for the door and slammed it shut. He grabbed the key and locked them in:
“This way he won’t know we’re here yet.”
There was a lot of space under the school. A lot more than they expected. More in fact than there would ever need to be. James started to wonder if this underground bit was older than the school.
He and Taz got back to the task at hand:
“Nicky? Nicky are you here? We’ve come to get you, we need to take you home.”
A muffled cry from a small cupboard nearby told them everything they needed to know. A strip of old electrical cable linked her right ankle to one of the heating pipes. She looked up with a face covered in muck and sweat.
Up till that point the boys hadn’t wanted to believe that this was real. Neither of them had imagined Nicky like this. Nicky had to shake them out of it:
“Please! Help me!”
They leapt forward and started working on the knots. The plastic coating on the cables slipped as they pulled at it. The seconds ticked by with the sound of their own heartbeat pulsing in their ears.
Marcus would figure it out quickly. They had locked him out but he could be waiting for them by the door when they came back up.
Nicky wobbled as she walked, her sleeping legs waking up as she moved them. The boys grabbed an arm each and helped her along to the stepladder. At that point she was on her own. They couldn’t pull her up so she forced her legs to move, despite agonising pins and needles.
The boys let her climb up first, shuffling from foot to foot as they suppressed the urge to ask Nicky to hurry up. Finally she reached the top and James and Taz hauled themselves up to join her.
There was no way of knowing what might meet them on the other side of the door. James pointed out that the longer they waited the more likely it would be that they would find Marcus there.
Taz pressed his ear up against the door, sticking his tongue out as he concentrated:
“I can’t hear anything…”
The door handle turned.
Taz scurried along the floor on all fours, putting as much distance between himself and the door as possible. James and Nicky grabbed him by his shoulders and pulled him towards them.
A metallic scraping sound came from the other side of the door. A huge clump of keys clicking against the handle. No other sound could be heard as a key clicked gently into the lock and produced a tiny ‘squeak’ as it opened the door.
A huge shape filled the open door. The lights in the stairway had been turned on leaving the figure’s face in shadow. As he stepped forward the three friends finally felt able to breathe. Mr Thomas, assistant janitor and saviour of the hour, gaped at them:
“What on earth are you all doing here?”
He stepped closer to them, frowning:
“Marcus was supposed to keep you tied up!”
They had seconds to digest what Mr Thomas was saying. Taz was the first to respond. Heaving his friends up he hauled them with all his might to speed past the man and leap through the open door.
They held hands tight and ran as one, slipping a little on the freshly polished floor, bumping into corners.
Mr Thomas poked his head out of the boiler room:
“Marcus! We have an escape attempt!”
A greenish-black shape blurred past them and took the shape of a ten year old boy:
“I really am sorry but I can’t let you leave.”
There was something odd about Marcus’ expression, somehow he really did seem sorry. All the same he clearly intended to keep them there.
The trio launched themselves right at him, knocking him to one side as they made for the door. They remembered too late that this wasn’t the way they’d come in. Nicky fiddled with the lock, no key just a twist catch. As soon as they heard the ‘click’ all three of them flung the door open and ran out into the night.
They made directly for the gate but the greenish-black shape was back. This time, away from the lights in the school, Marcus didn’t look at all like himself. Black eyes blinked at them from behind pale green eyelids.
The three friends stepped back from the creature in front of them. In his fright Taz let go of James’ hand. A gust of wind threw him aside and he heard the words ‘Tig! I got you!” hiding inside the wind’s howl.
Taz pulled himself up and found the playground deserted. James, Nicky, even Marcus. All gone.
For a fleeting moment he considered running back into the school. There was nothing he could do. He needed help.
Taz’s legs thumped onto the pavement like pistons. He ran in a flat-out sprint all the way to Tash’s house. There was no clear way of getting hold of her without ringing the bell but he knew her parents wouldn’t believe what he had to tell them.
He’d have to knock on her bedroom window. Thankfully Tash’s house was a bungalow so at least he wouldn’t have to do any climbing to get to her.
Taz crept round the side of her house and found that her bedroom light was already on. She hadn’t even closed her curtains. When he looked in he saw that she was sitting up in bed, tear-reddened eyes staring blankly at her bedroom door. When Taz knocked on her window she fell off the bed.
Tash dashed to the window and pulled it open:
“Taz? What are you doing here? It’s the middle of the night.”
Taz had no time to waste (he was also ridiculously out of breath):
“Marcus…He has Nicky and James. He was working with Mr Thomas the whole time. Adults won’t believe us. We have got to go. Now!”
Tash hadn’t even put her pyjamas on. She knew she wouldn’t sleep with Nicky missing. Now she had a chance to save her sister and help her friend. Her parents would never forgive her if she left without saying anything but, as Taz said, they couldn’t risk them not believing them. She scribbled a quick note down and left it on her pillow:
So sorry, had to go. Mr Thomas and Marcus have Nicky and James in the school boiler room.
Didn’t think you’d believe us. Leaving with Taz now. Love you, Tash
They climbed out the window and into the night. Tash led Taz to a shortcut to the school through some bushes at the back of her house. He stopped cold in the middle of the bushes. Tash couldn’t understand:
“What is it?”
Taz shook his head and closed his eyes:
“The whistling, can’t you hear it.”
Tash hadn’t heard anything at first. She did now. A quiet, gentle song, echoing against the cold hard walls around them. It was getting closer.