The light bulb swings from side to side, hanging from the wire that powers it. A trickle of dust falls from the concrete ceiling. The blast must have been close, as the sound and the vibration reached our room at almost the same time. I look over at the other children huddled in the corners, wide eyes blinking beneath filthy blankets and realise they are more scared than I am. This frightens me even more.
I don’t want to be the strong one.
There are kids in this room older than I am. Well, at least taller. Not that I know my exact age, I can only guess. I remember overhearing one of the masked ones telling a customer that I was twelve years old, but I have no idea how long ago that was. Maybe months. Maybe years.
‘Shhhh!’ I tell some of the kids who are starting to whimper. ‘They’ll come and hurt us all if they hear you. Remember Lucas?’
I regret saying that, but it has the desired effect, as the room becomes silent. We all saw what happened to Lucas. None of us can go a day without seeing his face, the confusion and pain. His name has become a curse-word, used by the masked ones as a warning of what happens to children who don’t do what they are told. There is a time to cry, but that is only after lights-out at bed-time. Once the footsteps disappear.
Gunfire echoes and the other kids flinch.
We rarely get to hear gunfire. Usually it is only when one of us attempts escape, but no one has tried that for a long time. Where could we even go? The labyrinth down here makes it so easy to get lost. Most of the children who try to run away end up running straight back into the arms of the masked ones. There are no second chances. They are dragged away and a door slamming, silencing their cries, is the last thing we hear.
“Dead meat,” the masked men call them; the kids who try to escape. I don’t think they are exaggerating, either. I have had to clean the stains in the metal room. I would never want the door to close behind me in there.
Charlie walks over to the corner and lifts the wooden seat, relieving himself. The room fills with the smell of sewage. We all hold our breath. He finishes, shutting the lid with care and I pray the stench will dissipate quickly. He runs back to his corner and hides under a blanket.
Whatever is happening out in the tunnel, I hope it ends soon. I hope no one in another room has made any trouble. I hope the masked ones aren’t in a bad mood. The last thing we want is them taking their anger out on us for what some stupid kid from another room did.
A loud blast rings out, maybe a shotgun, at the same time we hear a man scream, but it is cut short.
I pick up a small chunk of concrete and throw it at the swinging globe. It breaks and the light goes out. In the dark all we can hear is our breathing. The ghostly glow of the light burned into my eyes slowly fades and my night-vision gradually emerges. I stare at the door.
A scraping sound behind the door tells me that someone is removing the metal bar which lies across it. The door handle moves. The door swings open, the shadow of a man appears. A torch beam scans the room quickly before turning off again. Pink fire suddenly appears in his hand and he throws the fire-stick to the ground, lighting up the room. He lifts his binoculars to the top of his head and approaches, before kneeling in front of me. He is wearing a mask with a skull on it, but I don’t back away. It is not a mask I have seen before. This man is a stranger. Gunfire flashes in the corridor behind him, but we continue to stare at each other. He removes his mask and winces, probably at the smell in the room. His beard is black and looks soft.
‘What’s your name?’ he asks in a soft voice.
‘Anna,’ I reply, realising how filthy I must look.
‘Nice to meet you Anna. My name is Alex. Those men aren’t going to hurt you anymore. We are here to take you home. You remember home?’
The blurry faces of my parents appear in my mind, but it is too long ago to remember anything specific. I can’t even remember my last name.
I shrug. He grimaces. His eyes look sad, but kind.
‘Well anyway, we are here to take you all to the surface. You are safe now.’
He offers his hand and I take it instantly, guessing whatever happens next can’t be worse than what I have already been through and seen.
‘Coming out!’ he yells.
‘Just a second!’ someone responds. I hear grunts of effort, noises of heavy things being dragged. ‘Okay. We’re ready!’
Alex leads me into the corridor and the other kids follow, some limping. Bright, little lights have been set up and spaced along the corridor. Other men are opening other rooms and leading out the other kids, who look almost transparent in the light.
Lying on the ground are various blood-soaked blankets. I can tell the masked ones are lying beneath them, but I feel no sadness. I kick a blanket just to make sure, which surprises Alex. It doesn’t move. Alex smiles and leads us toward a funny-looking car with small wheels. We climb aboard, me in the front and it takes off silently.
After a while I realise that we are as far down the corridors as we have been in years. We pass doors I don’t recognise and more bloody blankets. New glow-in-the-dark arrows, which I have never seen before, have been painted on the walls. After a few turns the tunnel tilts upwards and we see in the distance a bright, white dot. The dot gets larger and larger as we speed up towards it. My ears pop and I start feeling dizzy, but I can’t look away. The surface!
My head begins pounding and I find it hard to breathe. The kids in the back begin to cry, but the driver ignores them, focussing on driving. My stomach hurts and I feel like I want to throw up. My nose is running. I think it might be bleeding.
I don’t want to say anything to Alex, but I feel like I am passing out. Tears run down my cheeks. My head is so sore and breathing is getting harder as my lungs feel like they are on fire, but I need him to keep going. We can’t stop now, we are almost free. Nothing else matters. I want to feel warmth again. We are nearly there, I can almost taste the fresh air.
From inside to outside. From down to up. From dark to light.