The girl nodded.
She bent down and held one of her palms above the grass. A few seconds later, a hand-shaped section of blades wriggled and stretched and grew until they were brushing the bottom of her palm.
“That,” I said, “is crazy.” Clearly, I was not at my most articulate.
Someone shushed me. The children were all standing silently with their necks craned, pointing at a section of sky. I looked up but could see only clouds of smoke, the flickering orange of fires reflected against them.
Then I heard a single airplane engine cut through the rest. It was close, and getting closer. Panic flooded me. This is the night they were killed. Not just the night, but the moment. Could it be, I wondered, that these children died every evening only to be resurrected by the loop, like some Sisyphean suicide cult, condemned to be blown up and stitched back together for eternity?
Something small and gray parted the clouds and came hurtling toward us. A rock, I thought, but rocks don’t whistle as they fall.
Run, rabbit, run, rabbit, run. I would’ve but now there was no time; all I could do was scream and dive to the ground for cover. But there was no cover, so I hit the grass and threw my arms over my head as if somehow that would keep it attached to my body.
I clenched my jaw and shut my eyes and held my breath, but instead of the deafening blast I was bracing for, everything went completely, profoundly quiet. Suddenly there were no growling engines, no whistling bombs, no pops of distant guns. It was as if someone had muted the world.
Was I dead?
I uncovered my head and slowly looked behind me. The wind-bent boughs of trees were frozen in place. The sky was a photograph of arrested flames licking a cloud bank. Drops of rain hung suspended before my eyes. And in the middle of the circle of children, like the object of some arcane ritual, there hovered a bomb, its downward-facing tip seemingly balanced on Adam’s outstretched finger.
Then, like a movie that burns in the projector while you’re watching it, a bloom of hot and perfect whiteness spread out before me and swallowed everything.
* * *
The first thing I heard when I could hear again was laughter. Then the white faded away and I saw that we were all arranged around Adam just as we had been before, but now the bomb was gone and the night was quiet and the only light in the cloudless sky was a full moon. Miss Peregrine appeared above me and held out her hand. I took it, stumbling to my feet in a daze.
“Please accept my apologies,” she said. “I should have better prepared you.” She couldn’t hide her smile, though, and neither could the other kids as they stripped off their masks. I was pretty sure I’d just been hazed.
I felt lightheaded and out-of-sorts. “I should probably head home for the night,” I said to Miss Peregrine. “My dad’ll worry.” Then I added quickly, “I can go home, right?”
“Of course you can,” she replied, and in a loud voice asked for a volunteer to escort me back to the cairn. To my surprise, Emma stepped forward. Miss Peregrine seemed pleased.
“Are you sure about her?” I whispered to the headmistress. “A few hours ago she was ready to slit my throat.”
“Miss Bloom may be hot-tempered, but she is one of my most trusted wards,” she replied. “And I think you and she may have a few things to discuss away from curious ears.”
Five minutes later the two of us were on our way, only this time my hands weren’t tied and she wasn’t poking a knife in my spine. A few of the younger kids trailed us as far as the edge of the yard. They wanted to know whether I’d be back again tomorrow. I made vague assurances, but I could hardly wrap my mind around what was happening at this moment, much less in the future.
We passed into the dark woods alone. When the house had disappeared behind us, Emma held out an upturned palm, flicked her wrist, and a petite ball of fire flared to life just above her fingers. She held it before her like a waiter carrying a tray, lighting the path and casting our twin shadows across the trees.
“Have I told you how cool that is?” I said, trying to break a silence that grew more awkward by the second.
“It isn’t cool at all,” she replied, swinging the flame close enough that I could feel its radiating heat. I dodged it and fell back a few paces.
“I didn’t mean—I meant it’s cool that you can do that.”
“Well, if you’d speak properly I might understand you,” she snapped, then stopped walking.
We stood facing each other from a careful distance. “You don’t have to be afraid of me,” she said.
“Oh yeah? How do I know you don’t think I’m some evil creature and this is just a plot to get me alone so you can finally kill me?”
“Don’t be stupid,” she said. “You came unannounced, a stranger I didn’t recognize, and chased after me like a madman. What was I meant to think?”
“Fine, I get it,” I said, though I didn’t really mean it.
She dropped her eyes and began digging a little hole in the dirt with the tip of her boot. The flame in her hand changed color, fading from orange to a cool indigo. “It’s not true, what I said. I did recognize you.” She looked up at me. “You look so much like him.”
“People tell me that sometimes.”
“I’m sorry I said all those terrible things earlier. I didn’t want to believe you—that you were who you said. I knew what it would mean.”
“It’s okay,” I replied. “When I was growing up, I wanted so much to meet all of you. Now that it’s finally happening …” I shook my head. “I’m just sorry it has to be because of this.”
And then she rushed at me and threw her arms around my neck, the flame in her hand snuffing out just before she touched me, her skin hot where she’d held it. We stood like that in the darkness for a while, me and this teenaged old woman, this rather beautiful girl who had loved my grandfather when he was the age I am now. There was nothing I could do but put my arms around her, too, so I did, and after a while I guess we were both crying.
I heard her take a deep breath in the dark, and then she broke away. The fire flared back to life in her hand.
“Sorry about that,” she said. “I’m not usually so …”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“We should be getting on.”
“Lead the way,” I said.
We walked through the woods in a comfortable silence. When we came to the bog she said, “Step only where I step,” and I did, planting my feet in her prints. Bog gases flared up in green pyres in the distance, as if in sympathy with Emma’s light.
We reached the cairn and ducked inside, shuffling in single-file to the rear chamber and then out again to a world shrouded in mist. She guided me back to the path, and when we reached it she laced her fingers through mine and squeezed. We were quiet for a moment. Then she turned and went back, the fog swallowing her so quickly that for a moment I wondered if she’d been there at all.
* * *
Returning to town, I half-expected to find horse-drawn wagons roaming the streets. Instead I was welcomed by the hum of generators and the glow of TV screens behind cottage windows. I was home, such as it was.
Kev was manning the bar again and raised a glass in my direction as I came in. None of the men in the pub offered to lynch me. All seemed right with the world.
I went upstairs to find Dad asleep in front of his laptop at our little table. When I shut the door he woke with a start.
“Hi! Hey! You’re out late. Or are you? What time is it?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Before nine I think. The gennies are still on.”
He stretched and rubbed his eyes. “What’d you do today? I was hoping I’d see you for dinner.”
“Just explored the old house some more.”
“Find anything good?”
“Uh … not really,” I said, realizing that I probably should’ve bothered to concoct a more elaborate cover story.
He looked at me strangely. “Where’d you get those?”
“Your clothes,” he said.
I looked down and realized I’d completely forgotten about the tweed-pants-and-suspenders outfit I was wearing. “I found them in the house,” I said, because I didn’t have time to think of a less weird answer. “Aren’t they cool?”
He grimaced. “You put on clothes that you found? Jake, that’s unsanitary. And what happened to your jeans and jacket?”
I needed to change the subject. “They got super dirty, so I, uh …” I trailed off, making a point of noticing the document on his computer screen. “Whoa, is that your book? How’s it coming?”
He slapped the laptop shut. “My book isn’t the issue right now. What’s important is our time here be therapeutic for you. I’m not sure that spending your days alone in that old house is really what Dr. Golan had in mind. When he green-lighted this trip.”
“Wow, I think that was the record,” I said.
“The longest streak ever of you not mentioning my psychiatrist.” I pretended to look at a nonexistent wristwatch. “Four days, five hours, and twenty-six minutes.” I sighed. “It was good while it lasted.”
“That man has been a great help to you,” he said. “God only knows the state you’d be in right now if we hadn’t found him.”
“You’re right, Dad. Dr. Golan did help me. But that doesn’t mean he has to control every aspect of my life. I mean, Jesus, you and mom might as well buy me one of those little bracelets that says What Would Golan Do? That way I can ask myself before I do anything. Before I take a dump. How would Dr. Golan want me to take this dump? Should I bank it off the side or go straight down the middle? What would be the most psychologically beneficial dump I could take?”
Dad didn’t say anything for a few seconds, and when he did his voice was all low and gravelly. He told me I was going birding with him the next day whether I liked it or not. When I replied that he was sadly mistaken, he got up and went downstairs to the pub. I thought he’d be drinking or something, so I went to change out of my clown clothes, but a few minutes later he knocked on my bedroom door and said there was someone on the phone for me.
I figured it was Mom, so I gritted my teeth and followed him downstairs to the phone booth in the far corner of the pub. He handed me the receiver and went to sit at a table. I slid the door closed.
“I just spoke to your father,” a man said. “He sounded a little upset.”
It was Dr. Golan.
I wanted to say that he and my dad could both stuff it up their asses, but I knew this situation required some tact. If I pissed Golan off now it would be the end of my trip. I couldn’t leave yet, not with so much more to learn about the peculiar children. So I played along and explained what I’d been up to—all except the kids-in-a-time-loop part—and tried to make it sound like I was coming around to the idea that there was nothing special about the island or my grandfather. It was like a mini-session over the phone.
“I hope you’re not just telling me what I want to hear,” he said. That had become his standard line. “Maybe I should come out there and check on you. I could use a little vacation. How does that sound?”
Please be joking, I prayed.
“I’m okay. Really,” I said.
“Relax, Jacob, I’m only kidding, though Lord knows I could use some time away from the office. And actually, I believe you. You do sound okay. In fact, just now I told your father that probably the best thing he could do is to give you a little breathing room and let you sort things out on your own.”
“You’ve had your parents and me hovering over you for so long. At a certain point it becomes counterproductive.”
“Well, I really appreciate that.”
He said something else I couldn’t quite hear; there was a lot of noise on his end. “It’s hard to hear you,” I said. “Are you in a mall or something?”
“The airport,” he replied. “Picking up my sister. Anyway, all I said was to enjoy yourself. Explore and don’t worry too much. I’ll see you soon, all right?”
“Thanks again, Dr. G.”
As I hung up the phone, I felt bad for having ragged on him earlier. That was twice now he’d stuck up for me when my own parents wouldn’t.
My dad was nursing a beer across the room. I stopped by his table on my way upstairs. “About tomorrow …” I said.
“Do what you want, I guess.”
“Are you sure?”
He shrugged sullenly. “Doctor’s orders.”
“I’ll be home for dinner. Promise.”
He just nodded. I left him in the bar and went up to bed.
Falling asleep, my thoughts drifted to the peculiar children and the first question they’d asked after Miss Peregrine had introduced me: Is Jacob going to stay with us? At the time I’d thought, Of course not. But why not? If I never went home, what exactly would I be missing? I pictured my cold cavernous house, my friendless town full of bad memories, the utterly unremarkable life that had been mapped out for me. It had never once occurred to me, I realized, to refuse it.
Morning brought rain and wind and fog, pessimistic weather that made it hard to believe the previous day had been anything more than a strange and wonderful dream. I wolfed down my breakfast and told my dad I was going out. He looked at me like I was nuts.
“In this? To do what?”