Something occurred to me. Had I ever seen Mr. Barron’s eyes? Not really. He was always wearing these giant, old-man sunglasses that wrapped around his face. The yard man wore sunglasses, too, and a wide-brimmed hat. Had I ever given either of them a hard look? How many other roles in my life had this chameleon played?
“What’s happening?” Emma said. “Who is this man?”
“Shut up!” he snapped. “You’ll get your turn.”
“You’ve been watching me,” I said. “You killed those sheep. You killed Martin.”
“Who, me?” he said innocently. “I didn’t kill anyone.”
“But you’re a wight, aren’t you?”
“That’s their word,” he said.
I couldn’t understand it. I hadn’t seen the yard man since my mother replaced him three years ago, and Mr. Barron had vanished from my life after eighth grade. Had they—he—really been following me?
“How’d you know where to find me?”
“Why, Jacob,” he said, his voice changing yet again, “you told me yourself. In confidence, of course.” It was a middle-American accent now, soft and educated. He tipped the flashlight up so that its glow spilled onto his face.
The beard I’d seen him wearing the other day was gone. Now there was no mistaking him.
“Dr. Golan,” I said, my voice a whisper swallowed by the drumming rain.
I thought back to our telephone conversation a few days ago. The noise in the background—he’d said he was at the airport. But he wasn’t picking up his sister. He was coming after me.
I backed against Martin’s trough, reeling, numbness spreading through me. “The neighbor,” I said. “The old man watering his lawn the night my grandfather died. That was you, too.”
“But your eyes,” I said.
“Contact lenses,” he replied. He popped one out with his thumb, revealing a blank orb. “Amazing what they can fabricate these days. And if I may anticipate a few more of your questions, yes, I am a licensed therapist—the minds of common people have long fascinated me—and no, despite the fact that our sessions were predicated on a lie, I don’t think they were a complete waste of time. In fact, I may be able to continue helping you—or, rather, we may be able to help each other.”
“Please, Jacob,” Emma said, “don’t listen to him.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I trusted him once. I won’t make that mistake again.”
Golan continued as though he hadn’t heard me. “I can offer you safety, money. I can give you your life back, Jacob. All you have to do is work with us.”
“Malthus and me,” he said, turning to call over his shoulder. “Come and say hello, Malthus.”
A shadow appeared in the doorway behind him, and a moment later we were overcome by a noxious wave of stench. Bronwyn gagged and fell back a step, and I saw Emma’s fists clench, as if she were thinking about charging it. I touched her arm and mouthed, Wait.
“This is all I’m proposing,” Golan continued, trying to sound reasonable. “Help us find more people like you. In return, you’ll have nothing to fear from Malthus or his kind. You can live at home. In your free time you’ll come with me and see the world, and we’ll pay you handsomely. We’ll tell your parents you’re my research assistant.”
“If I agree,” I said, “what happens to my friends?”
He made a dismissive gesture with his gun. “They made their choice long ago. What’s important is that there’s a grand plan in motion, Jacob, and you’ll be part of it.”
Did I consider it? I suppose I must have, if only for a moment. Dr. Golan was offering me exactly what I’d been looking for: a third option. A future that was neither stay here forever nor leave and die. But one look at my friends, their faces etched with worry, banished any temptation.
“Well?” said Golan. “What’s your answer?”
“I’d die before I did anything to help you.”
“Ah,” he said, “but you already have helped me.” He began to back toward the door. “It’s a pity we won’t have any more sessions together, Jacob. Though it isn’t a total loss, I suppose. The four of you together might be enough to finally shift old Malthus out of the debased form he’s been stuck in so long.”
“Oh, no,” Enoch whimpered, “I don’t want to be eaten!”
“Don’t cry, it’s degrading,” snapped Bronwyn. “We’ll just have to kill them, that’s all.”
“Wish I could stay and watch,” Golan said from the doorway. “I do love to watch!”
And then he was gone, and we were alone with it. I could hear the creature breathing in the dark, a viscid leaking like faulty pipeworks. We each took a step back, then another, until our shoulders met the wall, and we stood together like condemned prisoners before a firing squad.
“I need a light,” I whispered to Emma, who was in such shock that she seemed to have forgotten her own power.
Her hand came ablaze, and among the flickering shadows I saw it, lurking among the troughs. My nightmare. It stooped there, hairless and naked, mottled gray-black skin hanging off its frame in loose folds, its eyes collared in dripping putrefaction, legs bowed and feet clubbed and hands gnarled into useless claws—every part looking withered and wasted like the body of an impossibly old man—save one. Its outsized jaws were its main feature, a bulging enclosure of teeth as tall and sharp as little steak knives that the flesh of its mouth was hopeless to contain, so that its lips were perpetually drawn back in a deranged smile.
And then those awful teeth came unlocked, its mouth reeling open to admit three wiry tongues into the air, each as thick as my wrist. They unspooled across half the room’s length, ten feet or more, and then hung there, wriggling, the creature breathing raggedly through a pair of leprous holes in its face as if tasting our scent, considering how best to devour us. That we would be so easy to kill was the only reason we weren’t dead already; like a gourmand about to enjoy a fine meal, there was no reason to rush things.
The others couldn’t see it in the way I did but recognized its shadow projected on the wall and that of its ropelike tongues. Emma flexed her arm, and her flame burned brighter. “What’s it doing?” she whispered. “Why hasn’t it come at us?”
“It’s playing with us,” I said. “It knows we’re trapped.”
“We ain’t any such thing,” Bronwyn muttered. “Just gimme one square go at its face. I’ll punch its bloody teeth in.”
“I wouldn’t get anywhere near those teeth if I were you,” I said.
The hollow took a few lumbering steps forward to match the ones we’d taken back, its tongues unfurling more and then splitting apart, one coming toward me, another toward Enoch, and the third toward Emma.
“Leave us be!” Emma yelled, lashing out with her hand like a torch. The tongue twisted away from her flame, then inched back like a snake preparing to strike.
“We’ve got to try for the door!” I yelled. “The hollow’s by the third trough from the left, so keep to the right!”
“We’ll never make it!” Enoch cried. One of the tongues touched him on the cheek, and he screamed.
“We’ll go on three!” Emma shouted. “One—”
And then Bronwyn launched herself toward the creature, howling like a banshee. The creature shrieked and reared up, its bunched skin pulling tight. Just as it was about to lash its trident of tongues at her, she rammed Martin’s ice trough with the full weight of her body and levered her arms under it as it tipped and then heaved it and the whole huge thing, full of ice and fish and Martin’s body, careened through the air and fell upon the hollow with a terrific crash.
Bronwyn spun and bounded back in our direction. “MOVE!” she cried, and I leapt away as she collided with the wall beside me, kicking a hole through the rotten planks. Enoch, the smallest of us, dove through first, followed by Emma, and before I could protest Bronwyn had grabbed me by the shoulders and tossed me out into the wet night. I landed chest-first in a puddle. The cold was shocking, but I was elated to feel anything other than the hollow’s tongue wrapping around my throat.
Emma and Enoch hauled me to my feet, and we took off running. A moment later Emma shouted Bronwyn’s name and stopped. We turned, realizing she hadn’t come with us.
We called for her and scanned the dark, not quite brave enough to run back, and then Enoch shouted, “There!” and we saw Bronwyn leaning against a corner of the icehouse.
“What’s she doing?!” cried Emma. “BRONWYN! RUN!”
It looked as though she was hugging the building. Then she stepped back and took a running start and rammed her shoulder into its corner support, and like a house made of matchsticks the whole thing tumbled in on itself, a cloud of pulverized ice and splintered wood puffing out and blowing down the street in a gust of wind.
We all hollered and cheered as Bronwyn sprinted toward us with a manic grin on her face, then stood in the pelting rain hugging her and laughing. It didn’t take long for our moods to darken, though, as the shock of what had just happened set in, and then Emma turned to me and asked the question that must’ve been on all their minds.
“Jacob, how did that wight know so much about you? And us?”
“You called him doctor,” said Enoch.
“He was my psychiatrist.”
“Psychiatrist!” Enoch said. “That’s just grand! Not only did he betray us to a wight, he’s mad to boot!”
“Take it back!” Emma yelled, shoving him hard. He was about to shove back when I stepped between them.
“Stop!” I said, pushing them apart. I faced Enoch. “You’re wrong. I’m not crazy. He let me think I was, though all along he must’ve known I was peculiar. You’re right about one thing, though. I did betray you. I told my grandfather’s stories to a stranger.”
“It’s not your fault,” Emma said. “You couldn’t have known we were real.”
“Of course he could’ve!” shouted Enoch. “Abe told him everything. Even showed him bloody pictures of us!”
“Golan knew everything but how to find you,” I said. “And I led him straight here.”
“But he tricked you,” said Bronwyn.
“I just want you to know that I’m sorry.”
Emma hugged me. “It’s all right. We’re alive.”
“For now,” said Enoch. “But that maniac is still out there, and considering how willing he was to feed us all to his pet hollowgast, it’s a good bet he’s figured out how to get into the loop on his own.”
“Oh god, you’re right,” said Emma.
“Well then,” I said, “we’d better get there before he does.”
“And before it does,” Bronwyn added. We turned to see her pointing at the wrecked icehouse, where broken boards had begun to shift in the collapsed pile. “I imagine he’ll be coming for us directly, and I’m fresh out of houses to drop on him.”
Someone shouted Run! but we already were, tearing down the path toward the one place the hollow couldn’t reach us—the loop. We raced out of town in the spitting dark, vague blue outlines of cottages giving way to sloping fields, then charged up the ridge, sheets of water streaming over our feet, making the path treacherous.
Enoch slipped and fell. We hauled him up and ran on. As we were about to crest the ridge, Bronwyn’s feet went out from under her, too, and she slid down twenty feet before she could stop herself. Emma and I ran back to help, and as we took her arms I turned to look behind us, hoping to catch a glimpse of the creature. But there was only inky, swirling rain. My talent for spotting hollows wasn’t much good without light to see them by. But then, as we made it back to the top, chests heaving, a long flash of lightning lit up the night and I turned and saw it. It was off below us a ways but climbing fast, its muscular tongues punching into the mud and propelling it up the ridge like a spider.
“Go!” I shouted, and we all bolted down the far side, the four of us sliding on our butts until we hit level ground and could run again.
There was another flash of lightning. It was even closer than before. At this rate there was no way we’d be able to outrun it. Our only hope was to outmaneuver it.
“If it catches us, it’ll kill us all,” I shouted, “but if we split up, it’ll have to choose. I’ll lead it around the long way and try to lose it in the bog. The rest of you get to the loop as quick you can!”
“You’re mad!” shouted Emma. “If anyone stays behind it should be me! I can fight it with fire!”
“Not in this rain,” I said, “and not if you can’t see it!”
“I won’t let you kill yourself!” she shouted.
There was no time to argue, so Bronwyn and Enoch ran ahead while Emma and I veered off the path, hoping the creature would follow, and it did. It was close enough now that I didn’t need a lightning flash to know where it was; the twist in my gut was enough.
We ran arm in arm, tripping through a field rent with furrows and ditches, falling and catching each other in an epileptic dance. I was scanning the ground for rocks to use as weapons when, out of the darkness ahead, there appeared a structure—a small sagging shack with broken windows and missing doors, which in my panic I failed to recognize.