It was a beautiful dawn in Toytown. Sunlight spread from roof to roof. Birdsong drifted on the breeze and the earliest risers drew back the curtains.
But the blissful scene was broken by a baby’s screams and the sound of torn fabric.
Five years later, as the wooden birds chattered just like they had on that first morning and every morning since, Andy had a nightmare. His parents were there, Hugsy the Doctor was there, and they stared at him in horror. Then there was a ripping sound. Blinding, agonising pain, and Andy awoke to a dull ache in the stuffing between his legs.
His days were spent at school. Lessons on hugging, flower picking, embroidery, and getting the perfect smell when baking. Every class was taught the same things, year after year, until they were old enough to get a job in the hugging mines or the rainbow factory. And when they were older still, they would retire to a life of baking delicious pies until they gradually faded away.
Today, the students laughed and played together, as they always did, and everybody’s work was colourful and perfect, as it always was.
Except Andy’s. Time after time he took home burnt cookies, dark, harrowing stitchwork, and his hugs were always uncomfortable because of the way he’d move his hips.
The teachers sent home letters first, then visited his parents when he still didn’t improve, but nothing changed. Tutors became uncomfortable with the way he stared and stopped turning up. He couldn’t concentrate when his parents tried to teach him, haunted by his nighttime visions of them. Worse still was being taught at the kitchen table, his mother’s hustle and bustle around him. He asked to read in the imagined quiet of his father’s study, but it was forever locked to him.
Rumours spread around Toytown, no matter how much Andy’s parents tried to quiet them. Andy was different. Andy brought something else to Toytown, something it hadn’t experienced before. He made people uncomfortable in a way they couldn’t understand.
Then the day of the incident came. Andy was kneading dough in baking class, pressing his wool-stuffed fists deep into it and holding them there. This part he enjoyed, but as soon as the dough was in the oven he lost interest. The other children gathered around each oven, one at a time, to appreciate the smell of baking bread or cookies or cakes while Andy stared out the window.
But today, he caught sight of the baking teacher, Anne, leaning over with her eyes shut. She was sniffing at a pupil’s apple pie, smiling appreciatively, and he felt something new. A tingling in his belly and the same ache that he woke to each morning. He didn’t realise he was moving until he was behind her, pressing against her in a strange parody of their hugging classes.
It was a first for Toytown; a child was sent home from school.
Lying in his bed, Andy could hear the murmurs of his parents through the gaps in his floorboards. Doctor Hugsy was with them, his paws making a racket as he awkwardly tried to drink tea.
“We thought it best to talk to you,” said Andy’s father.
“He was sent home from school today,” said Andy’s mother.
“Yes, yes, I heard,” said Hugsy, “you’re worried he has the drive.”
There was a shocked silence.
“At the time,” continued Hugsy, “I thought the extraction was successful, but it’s possible we missed some small portion.”
“Oh no,” said Andy’s mother, beginning to sob.
“Don’t cry, dear,” said Andy’s father, “it’s not that bad.”
“I’m afraid it is,” said the doctor, “we’ll need to repeat the operation.”
Now, Andy’s mother wailed out loud.
“Techniques have improved. I’m sure we’ll be able to do a full extraction this time. You still have the original?”
“Locked in my study,” said Andy’s father over his wife’s cries.
“I’d like to take a sample of it. If we can piece together the exact composition, it will make identifying any affected stuffing that much simpler. We can pencil in Friday for the operation.”
“What should we tell people?”
“Anything but the truth. Tell them he is ill. Tell them you expect him to have recovered in a week. We are a stubborn lot here in Toytown. We are blessed, and we can’t risk your son upsetting that. I know you and your wife have suffered more than anyone through this, but do so in silence a little longer. Perhaps one day we can explain what happened, perhaps not. But certainly not today.”
At this point, Andy stopped listening. He covered his head with his pillow to block out the cries of his mother.
His parents kept him off school for the rest of the week and locked him in his room. He watched the other children playing from the window, practising hugging or arranging large, colourful wooden blocks into words, but when their parents noticed him staring they dragged their sons and daughters away to play inside, whispering to them as they did.
Doctor Hugsy visited most days, bringing different bags with him each time, and he could hear hushed conversations downstairs. They must have been in the study, looking at whatever terrible thing lurked there, as he couldn’t make out what they were saying.
Friday crept closer. Andy was still locked in his room, sandwiches brought up to him three times a day. He’d try to sleep, but he’d wake up feeling like his stuffing was about to burst out, dreaming of the doctor and his parents over and over. He dreamt of the study too, the door opening as he approached, only to reveal his parents and the doctor laughing together, or a blinding white light and the memory of pain, or more and more doors, stretching forever onwards until he didn’t remember whose house he was in.
It didn’t take long for him to forget the town outside, his school lessons, the smell of fresh baked pies and the feel of the cotton roads under his feet. He was consumed by the knowledge that something was about to happen, that his life would be irrevocably changed. He tore at his woolen hair until it threatened to rip from his head.
Friday morning arrived. The sun was as bright as always, the birds sung in the trees, but the oppressive mood that had hung over Toytown since Andy’s birth was heavier than ever. No curtains were opened. Children were kept home. The town might not have been told of the Ragdolls’ struggles, but they could feel them. Save for Doctor Hugsy, not a soul moved between the brightly painted woodblock houses. Not a single wooden car moved down the yellow roads.
The knock downstairs made Andy jump. He was waiting by his bedroom door. There hadn’t been a sandwich this morning or the night before, and he knew this was a sign. He could hear each creak of his stitching when he moved, every padded step of his parents around the house. Then he heard footsteps on the landing and knew it was time.
The door opened inwards, hiding Andy behind it. The pillows under his duvet were arranged to look like a sulking child lay beneath.
“Andy,” said his father, “it’s time to get up.”
His mother suppressed a sob.
“Come on, Andy,” continued his father as he stepped into the room, “wakey wakey.”
Andy stepped from behind the door and pushed with all his might against his father. It wasn’t much, but it unbalanced him. He lost his footing and stepped on the marbles strewn beside him, slipping and falling on his back.
Andy hadn’t waited to see if it worked. He threw a toy train at his mother, hitting her in the face and cracking a button eye. Then he charged and drove his elbow into her midsection. She stumbled backwards into Doctor Hugsy and they both rolled down the stairs in a tangled embrace.
Andy dodged his father’s grasping hand. He leapt over his mother and the doctor at the foot of the stairs. He was running for the study.
The door was open. He sprinted through it and found himself in the oft imagined but never glimpsed room. It was like any other in their house, the same floorboards, wallpaper, light fittings, everything. All that set it apart were the books that lined the walls and the equipment that Doctor Hugsy must have been transporting for the last few days: a table covered with a white sheet; a set of surgeon’s tools on a tray next to it; a bright lamp shining right at the middle of the table.
And there was one thing that Andy knew had always been there. A jar with something unnatural floating in it.
Andy knew what he had to do. He could already hear his father yelling. His mother and the Doctor were on their feet again. He didn’t have much time.
He grabbed the jar, raised it above his head and threw it straight down. Glass and foul-smelling liquid spilt everywhere, but a pink lump lay in the wreckage.
His parents arrived at the door too late to stop their son, but just in time to see him push the small, meaty thing back between his legs.