“We have to hide!” I said between gasping breaths.
Please let this creature be stupid, I prayed as we sprinted toward the house, please, please let it be stupid. We made a wide arc, hoping to enter it unseen.
“Wait!” Emma cried as we rounded the back of it. She pulled one of Enoch’s cheesecloths from her coat and quickly tied it around a stone plucked from the ground, making a kind of slingshot. She cradled it in her hands until it caught fire and then hurled it away from us. It landed in the boggy distance, glowing weakly in the dark.
“Misdirection,” she explained, and we turned and committed ourselves to the shack’s concealing gloom.
* * *
We slipped through a door that was hanging off its hinges and stepped down into a sea of dark, aromatic muck. As our feet sank with a nauseating squelch, I realized where we were.
“What is this?” Emma whispered, and then a sudden exhalation of animal breath made us both jump. The house was crowded with sheep taking shelter from the unfriendly night, just as we were. As our eyes adjusted, we caught the dull gleam of theirs staring back at us—dozens and dozens of them.
“It’s what I think it is, isn’t it,” she said, lifting one foot gingerly.
“Don’t think about it,” I replied. “Come on, we need to get away from this door.”
I took her hand and we pushed into the house, snaking through a maze of skittish animals that shied from our touch. We threaded a narrow hall and came into a room with one high window and a door that was still in its frame and closed against the night, which was more than could be said for the other rooms. Squeezing into the far corner, we knelt down to wait and listen, hidden behind a wall of nervous sheep.
We tried not to sit too deeply in the muck but there was really no helping it. After a minute of staring blindly into the dark, I began to make out shapes in the room. There were crates and boxes stacked in one corner, and along the wall behind us hung rusted tools. I looked for anything that might be sharp enough to serve as a weapon. Seeing something that looked like a pair of giant scissors, I stood up to grab it.
“Planning on shearing some sheep?” said Emma.
“It’s better than nothing.”
Just as I was taking the shears down from the wall, a noise came from outside the window. The sheep bleated anxiously, and then a long black tongue drifted through the glassless enclosure. I sank back to the floor as quietly as I could. Emma put her hand over her mouth to silence her breathing.
The tongue poked around the room like a periscope, seeming to be testing the air. Luckily, we’d taken refuge in the most fragrant room on the island. All that sheep aroma must’ve masked our scent, because after a minute the creature seemed to give up and reeled out the window. We heard its retreating steps.
Emma’s hand came away from her mouth and she let out a shuddering breath. “I think it’s taking the bait,” she whispered.
“I want you to know something,” I said. “If we make it through this, I’m staying.”
She grabbed my hand. “Do you mean it?”
“I can’t go home. Not after all that’s happened. Anyway, whatever help I can be, I owe you that and a lot more. You were all perfectly safe until I got here.”
“If we make it through this,” she said, leaning into me, “then I don’t regret one thing.”
And then some strange magnet was pulling our heads together, but just as our lips were about to touch, the quiet was shattered by terrified, bleating shrieks from the next room. We pulled apart as the awful noise set the sheep around us into frantic motion, bounding off one another and pushing us into the wall.
The beast was not as dumb as I’d hoped.
We could hear it coming toward us through the house. If there was a time to run it had already passed, so we screwed ourselves into the reeking soil and prayed it would pass us by.
And then I could smell it, even more pungent than the house’s other stinks, and I could feel it at the threshold of the room. All the sheep pushed away from the door at once, herding together like a school of fish and pinning us against the wall so hard the breath was pressed out of us. We gripped each other but didn’t dare make a sound, and for an unbearably tense moment we heard only the bleating of sheep and the clop of staggering hooves. Then another hoarse scream erupted, sudden and desperate and just as suddenly silenced, broken off by lurid, ripping bone snap. I knew without looking that a sheep had just been torn apart.
Chaos broke out. Panicked animals ricocheted off one another, throwing us against the wall so many times I got dizzy. The hollow let out an ear-splitting screech and began to lift sheep to its slavering jaws one after another, taking a blood-spurting bite from each and then tossing it aside like a gluttonous king gorging at a medieval feast. It did this again and again—killing its way toward us. I was paralyzed with fear. That’s why I can’t quite explain what happened next.
My every instinct screamed to stay hidden, to dig myself even deeper into the muck, but then one clear thought cut through all the static—I won’t let us die in this shit-house—and I pushed Emma behind the biggest sheep I could see and bolted for the door.
The door was closed and ten feet away, and a lot of animals stood between it and me, but I plowed through them like a linebacker. I hit the door with my shoulder and it flung open.
I tumbled outside into the rain and screamed “Come get me, you ugly bastard!” I knew I had its attention because it let out a terrifying howl and sheep came flushing out the door past me. I scrambled to my feet and when I was sure it was coming after me and not Emma, I took off toward the bog.
I could feel it behind me. I might’ve run faster but I was still holding the shears—I couldn’t seem to make myself let go—and then the ground went soft beneath me and I knew I’d reached the bog.
Twice the hollow was close enough for its tongues to lash my back, and twice, just as I was certain one was about to lasso my neck and squeeze until my head popped, it stumbled and fell back. The only reason I made it to the cairn with my head still attached was that I knew exactly where to put my feet; thanks to Emma, I could run that route on a moonless night in half a hurricane.
Clambering onto the cairn-mound, I tore around to the stone entrance and dove in. It was black as tar inside but it didn’t matter—I only had to reach the chamber to be safe. I scrambled on my hands and knees, because even standing would’ve cost time I didn’t have to waste, and I was halfway to the end and feeling cautiously optimistic about my chances for survival when suddenly I could crawl no more. One of the tongues had caught my ankle.
The hollow had used two of its tongues to grapple onto the capstones around the tunnel’s mouth as leverage against the mud, and it covered the entrance with its body like a lid on a jar. The third tongue was reeling me toward it, I was a fish on a hook.
I scrabbled at the ground, but it was all gravel and my fingers slid right through. I flipped onto my back and clawed at the stones with my free hand, but I was sliding too quickly. I tried hacking at the tongue with my shears, but it was too sinewy and tough, a rope of undulating muscle, and my shears too dull. So I squeezed my eyes shut, because I didn’t want its gaping jaws to be the last thing I’d ever see, and gripped the shears in front of me with both hands. Time seemed to stretch out, like they say it does in car crashes and train accidents and free-falls from airplanes, and the next thing I felt was a bone-jarring collision as I slammed into the hollow.
All the breath rushed out of me and I heard it scream. We flew out of the tunnel together and rolled down the cairn mound into the bog, and when I opened my eyes again, I saw my shears buried to the hilt in the beast’s eye sockets. It howled like ten pigs being gelded, rolling and thrashing in the rain-swollen mud, weeping a black river of itself, viscous fluid pumping over the blades’ rusted handle.
I could feel it dying, the life draining out of it, its tongue loosening around my ankle. I could feel the difference in me, too, the panicky clutch in my stomach slowly coming undone. Finally, the creature stiffened and sank from view, slime closing over its head, a slick of dark blood the only sign it had ever been there.
I could feel the bog sucking me down with it. The more I struggled, the more it seemed to want me. What a strange find the two of us would make a thousand years from now, I thought, preserved together in the peat.
I tried to paddle toward solid ground but succeeded only in pushing myself deeper. The muck seemed to climb me, rising up my arms, my chest, collaring my throat like a noose.
I screamed for help—and miraculously, help came, in the form of what I thought at first was a firefly, flashing as it flew toward me. Then I heard Emma call out, and I answered.
A tree branch landed in the water. I grabbed it and Emma pulled, and when I finally came out of the bog I was shaking too hard to stand. Emma sank down beside me and I fell into her arms.
I killed it, I thought. I really killed it. All the time I’d spent being afraid, I never dreamed I could actually kill one!
It made me feel powerful. Now I could defend myself. I knew I’d never be as strong as my grandfather, but I wasn’t a gutless weakling, either. I could kill them.
I tested out the words. “It’s dead. I killed it.”
I laughed. Emma hugged me, pressing her cheek against mine. “I know he would’ve been proud of you,” she said.
We kissed, and it was gentle and nice, rain dripping from our noses and running warm into our just-open mouths. Too soon she broke away and whispered, “What you said before—did you mean it?”
“I’ll stay,” I said. “If Miss Peregrine will let me.”
“She will. I’ll make certain of it.”
“Before we worry about that, we’d better find my psychiatrist and take away his gun.”
“Right,” she said, her expression hardening. “No time to waste, then.”
* * *
We left the rain behind and emerged into a landscape of smoke and noise. The loop hadn’t yet reset, and the bog was pocked with bomb holes, the sky buzzing with planes, walls of orange flame marching against the distant tree line. I was about to suggest we wait until today became yesterday and all this disappeared before trying to cross to the house when a set of brawny arms clapped around me.
“You’re alive!” Bronwyn cried. Enoch and Hugh were with her, and when she pulled away they moved in to shake my hand and look me over.
“I’m sorry I called you a traitor,” Enoch said. “I’m glad you’re not dead.”
“Me, too,” I replied.
“All in one piece?” Hugh asked, looking me over.
“Two arms and two legs,” I said, kicking out my limbs to demonstrate their wholeness. “And you won’t have to worry about that hollow anymore. We killed it.”
“Oh, stuff the modesty!” Emma said proudly. “You killed it.”
“That’s brilliant,” Hugh said, but neither he nor the other two could muster a smile.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. “Wait. Why aren’t you three at the house? Where’s Miss Peregrine?”
“She’s gone,” said Bronwyn, her lip trembling. “Miss Avocet, too. He took them.”
“Oh God,” said Emma. We were too late.
“He come in with a gun,” Hugh said, studying the dirt. “Tried to take Claire hostage, but she chomped him with her backmouth, so he grabbed me instead. I tried to fight, but he knocked me upside the skull with his gun.” He touched the back of his ear and his fingers came away spotted with blood. “Locked everyone in the basement and said if Headmistress and Miss Avocet didn’t change into birds he’d put an extra hole in my head. So they did, and he stuffed ’em both into a cage.”
“He had a cage?” Emma said.
Hugh nodded. “Little one, too, so they didn’t have room to do nothing, like change back or fly off. I reckoned I was good as shot, but then he pushed me down the basement with the others and run off with the birds.”
“That’s how we found ’em when we come in,” Enoch said bitterly. “Hiding down there like a lot of cowards.”
“We wasn’t hiding!” Hugh cried. “He locked us in! He would’ve shot us!”
“Forget that,” snapped Emma. “Where’d he run off to? Why didn’t you go after him?!”
“We don’t know where he went,” said Bronwyn. “We was hoping you’d seen him.”
“No, we haven’t seen him!” Emma said, kicking a cairn stone in frustration.
Hugh drew something out of his shirt. It was a little photograph. “He stuffed this in my pocket before he went. Said if we tried to come after him, this is what would happen.”
Bronwyn snatched the photo from Hugh. “Oh,” she gasped. “Is that Miss Raven?”
“I think it’s Miss Crow,” said Hugh, rubbing his face with his hands.
“That’s it, they’re good as dead,” Enoch moaned. “I knew this day would come!”
“We should never have left the house,” Emma said miserably. “Millard was right.”
At the far edge of the bog a bomb fell, its muted blast followed by a distant rain of excavated glop.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “First of all, we don’t know that this is Miss Crow or Miss Raven. It could just as easily be a picture of a regular crow. And if Golan was going to kill Miss Peregrine and Miss Avocet, why would he go to all the trouble of kidnapping them? If he wanted them dead, they’d be dead already.” I turned to Emma. “And if we hadn’t left, we’d be locked in the basement with everybody else, and there’d still be a hollowgast wandering around!”