The streets were deserted and so quiet you could almost hear the dew fall. Clouds stretched thinly across the sky, with just enough moonlight glowing through to light my way. As I crested the ridge, a prickly feeling crept over me, and I looked around to see a man watching me from a distant outcropping. He had his hands raised to his face and his elbows splayed out like he was looking through binoculars. The first thing I thought was damn it, I’m caught, assuming it was one of the sheep farmers out on watch, playing detective. But if so, why wasn’t he coming over to confront me? Instead he just stood and watched, and I watched back.
Finally I figured if I’m caught, I’m caught, because whether I went back now or kept going, one way or another word of my late-night excursion would circle back to my dad. So I raised my arm in a one-fingered salute and descended into the chilly fog.
Coming out of the cairn, it looked like the clouds had been peeled back and the moon pumped up like a big, yellow balloon, so bright I almost had to squint. A few minutes later Emma came wading through the bog, apologizing and talking a mile a minute.
“Sorry I’m late. It took ages for everyone to get to bed! Then on my way out I stumbled over Hugh and Fiona snogging each other’s faces off in the garden. But don’t worry. They promised not to tell if I didn’t.”
She threw her arms around my neck. “I missed you,” she said. “Sorry about before.”
“I am, too,” I said, patting her back awkwardly. “So, let’s talk.”
She pulled away. “Not here. There’s a better place. A special place.”
“I don’t know …”
She took my hand. “Don’t be that way. You’ll adore it, I promise. And when we get there, I’ll tell you everything.”
I was pretty certain it was a plot to get me to make out with her, and had I been any older or wiser, or one of those guys for whom make-out sessions with hot girls were so frequent as to be of no consequence, I might’ve had the emotional and hormonal fortitude to demand that we have our talk right then and there. But I was none of those things. Besides, there was the way she beamed at me, smiling with her whole self, and how a coy gesture like tucking her hair back could make me want to follow her, help her, do anything she asked. I was hopelessly outmatched.
I’ll go, but I’m not going to kiss her, I told myself. I repeated it like a mantra as she led me across the bog. Do not kiss! Do not kiss! We headed for town but veered off toward the rocky beach that looked out onto the lighthouse, picking our way down the steep path to the sand.
Reaching the water’s edge, she told me to wait and ran off to retrieve something. I stood watching the lighthouse beam wheel around and wash over everything—a million seabirds sleeping in the pitted cliffs; giant rocks exposed by the low tide; a rotted skiff drowning in the sand. When Emma came back I saw that she had changed into her swimsuit and was holding a pair of snorkel masks.
“Oh no,” I said. “No way.”
“You might want to strip to your skivvies,” she said, looking doubtfully at my jeans and coat. “Your outfit’s all wrong for swimming.”
“That’s because I’m not going swimming! I agreed to sneak out and meet you in the middle of the night, fine, but just to talk, not to—”
“We will talk,” she insisted.
“Underwater. In my boxers.”
She kicked sand at me and started to walk away but then turned and came back. “I’m not going to attack you, if that’s what you’re in a knit about. Don’t flatter yourself.”
“Then quit mucking about and take off those silly trousers!” And then she did attack me, wrestling me to the ground and struggling to remove my belt with one hand while rubbing sand in my face with the other.
“Blaggh!” I cried, spitting out sand, “dirty fighter, dirty fighter!” I had no choice but to return the favor with a fistful of my own, and pretty soon things devolved into a no-holds-barred sand fight. When it was over we were both laughing and trying in vain to brush it all out of our hair.
“Well, now you need a bath, so you might as well get in the damned water.”
The water was shockingly cold at first—not a great situation vis-à-vis wearing only boxer shorts—but I got used to the temperature pretty quickly. We waded out past the rocks where, lashed to a depth marker, was a canoe. We clambered into it and Emma handed me an oar and we both started paddling, headed toward the lighthouse. The night was warm and the sea calm, and for a few minutes I lost myself in the pleasant rhythm of oars slapping water. About a hundred yards from the lighthouse, Emma stopped paddling and stepped overboard. To my amazement, she didn’t slip under the waves but stood up, submerged only to her knees.
“Are you on a sandbar or something?” I asked.
“Nope.” She reached into the canoe, pulled out a little anchor, and dropped it. It fell about three feet before stopping with a metallic clang. A moment later the lighthouse beam swept past and I saw the hull of a ship stretching beneath us on all sides.
“Come on,” she said, “we’re nearly there. And bring your mask.” She started walking across the wrecked boat’s hull.
I stepped out gingerly and followed. To anyone watching from shore, it would’ve looked like we were walking on water.
“How big is this thing, anyway?” I said.
“Massive. It’s an allied warship. Hit a friendly mine and sank right here.”
She stopped. “Look away from the lighthouse for a minute,” she said. “Let your eyes get used to the dark.”
So we stood facing the shore and waited as small waves slapped at our thighs. “All right, now follow me and take a giant breath.” She walked over to a dark hole in the ship’s hull—a door, from the look of it—then sat down on the edge and plunged in.
This is insane, I thought. And then I strapped on the mask she’d given me and plunged in after her.
I peered into the enveloping blackness between my feet to see Emma pulling herself even farther down by the rungs of a ladder. I grabbed the top of it and followed, descending hand over hand until it stopped at a metal floor, where she was waiting. We seemed to be in some sort of cargo hold, though it was too dark to tell much more than that.
I tapped her elbow and pointed to my mouth. I need to breathe. She patted my arm condescendingly and reached for a length of plastic tubing that hung nearby; it was connected to a pipe that ran up the ladder to the surface. She put the tube in her mouth and blew, her cheeks puffing out with the effort, then took a breath from it and passed it to me. I sucked in a welcome lungful of air. We were twenty feet underwater, inside an old shipwreck, and we were breathing.
Emma pointed at a doorway in front of us, little more than a black hole in the murk. I shook my head. Don’t want to. But she took my hand as though I were a frightened toddler and led me toward it, bringing the tube along.
We drifted through the doorway into total darkness. For a while we just hung there, passing the breathing tube between us. There was no sound but our breaths bubbling up and obscure thuds from deep inside the ship, pieces of the broken hull knocking in the current. If I had shut my eyes it wouldn’t have been any darker. We were like astronauts floating in a starless universe.
But then a baffling and magnificent thing happened—one by one, the stars came out, here and there a green flash in the dark. I thought I was hallucinating. But then more lit up, and still more, until a whole constellation surged around us like a million green twinkling stars, lighting our bodies, reflecting in our masks. Emma held out a hand and flicked her wrist, but rather than producing a ball of fire her hand glowed a scintillating blue. The green stars coalesced around it, flashing and whirling, echoing her movements like a school of fish, which, I realized, is just what they were.
Mesmerized, I lost all track of time. We stayed there for what seemed like hours, though it was probably only a few minutes. Then I felt Emma nudge me, and we retreated through the doorway and up the ladder, and when we broke the surface again the first thing I saw was the great bold stripe of the Milky Way painted across the heavens, and it occurred to me that together the fish and the stars formed a complete system, coincident parts of some ancient and mysterious whole.
We pulled ourselves onto the hull and took off our masks. For a while we just sat like that, half-submerged, thighs touching, speechless.
“What were those?” I said finally.
“We call them flashlight fish.”
“I’ve never seen one before.”
“Most people never do,” she said. “They hide.”
Emma smiled. “They are that, too.” And then her hand crept onto my knee, and I let it stay there because it felt warm and good in the cool water. I listened for the voice in my head telling me not to kiss her, but it had gone silent.
And then we were kissing. The profoundness of our lips touching and our tongues pressing and my hand cupping her perfect white cheek barred any thoughts of right or wrong or any memory of why I had followed her there in the first place. We were kissing and kissing and then suddenly it was over. As she pulled away I followed her face with mine. She put a hand on my chest, at once gentle and firm. “I need to breathe, dummy.”
I laughed. “Okay.”
She took my hands and looked at me, and I looked back. It was almost more intense than kissing, the just looking. And then she said, “You should stay.”
“Stay,” I repeated.
“Here. With us.”
The reality of her words filtered through, and the tingly magic of what had just happened between us numbed out.
“I want to, but I don’t think I can.”
I considered the idea. The sun, the feasts, the friends … and the sameness, the perfect identical days. You can get sick of anything if you have too much of it, like all the petty luxuries my mother bought and quickly grew bored with.
But Emma. There was Emma. Maybe it wasn’t so strange, what we could have. Maybe I could stay for a while and love her and then go home. But no. By the time I wanted to leave, it would be too late. She was a siren. I had to be strong.
“It’s him you want, not me. I can’t be him for you.”
She looked away, stung. “That isn’t why you should stay. You belong here, Jacob.”
“I don’t. I’m not like you.”
“Yes, you are,” she insisted.
“I’m not. I’m common, just like my grandfather.”
Emma shook her head. “Is that really what you think?”
“If I could do something spectacular like you, don’t you think I would’ve noticed by now?”
“I’m not meant to tell you this,” she said, “but common people can’t pass through time loops.”
I considered this for a moment, but couldn’t make sense of it. “There’s nothing peculiar about me. I’m the most average person you’ll ever meet.”
“I doubt that very much,” she replied. “Abe had a rare and peculiar talent, something almost no one else could do.”
And then she met my eyes and said, “He could see the monsters.”
He could see the monsters. The moment she said it, all the horrors I thought I’d put behind me came flooding back. They were real. They were real and they’d killed my grandfather.
“I can see them, too,” I told her, whispering it like a secret shame.
Her eyes welled and she embraced me. “I knew there was something peculiar about you,” she said. “And I mean that as the highest compliment.”
I’d always known I was strange. I never dreamed I was peculiar. But if I could see things almost no one else could, it explained why Ricky hadn’t seen anything in the woods the night my grandfather was killed. It explained why everyone thought I was crazy. I wasn’t crazy or seeing things or having a stress reaction; the panicky twist in my gut whenever they were close—that and the awful sight of them—that was my gift.
“And you can’t see them at all?” I asked her.
“Only their shadows, which is why they hunt mainly at night.”
“What’s stopping them from coming after you right now?” I asked, then corrected myself. “All of us, I mean.”
She turned serious. “They don’t know where to find us. That and they can’t enter loops. So we’re safe on the island—but we can’t leave.”
“But Victor did.”
She nodded sadly. “He said he was going mad here. Said he couldn’t stand it any longer. Poor Bronwyn. My Abe left, too, but at least he wasn’t murdered by hollows.”
I forced myself to look at her. “I’m really sorry to have to tell you this …”
“What? Oh no.”
“They convinced me it was wild animals. But if what you’re saying is true, my grandfather was murdered by them, too. The first and only time I saw one was the night he died.”
She hugged her knees to her chest and closed her eyes. I slid my arm around her, and she tilted her head against mine.
“I knew they’d get him eventually,” she whispered. “He promised me he’d be safe in America. That he could protect himself. But we’re never safe—none of us—not really.”
We sat talking on the wrecked ship until the moon got low and the water lapped at our throats and Emma began to shiver. Then we linked hands and waded back to the canoe. Paddling toward the beach, we heard voices calling our names, and then we came around a rock and saw Hugh and Fiona waving at us on the shore. Even from a distance, it was clear something was wrong.