Miss Peregrine bobbed her head in the air—what seemed to be a nod.
Bronwyn gasped. “Oh, miss, I’m so awfully sorry. We had no idea.”
I felt a stab of guilt. I had led the wights to the island. I was the reason this had happened to Miss Peregrine. I had caused the peculiar children to lose their home, at least partly. The shame of it lodged like a stone in my throat.
I said, “She’ll get better though, won’t she? She’ll turn back?”
“Her wing will mend,” Addison replied, “but without help she won’t turn human again.”
“What sort of help does she need?” Emma asked. “Can you give it to her?”
“Only another ymbryne can assist her. And she’s running very short on time.”
I tensed. This was something new.
“What do you mean?” Emma said.
“I hate to be the bearer of bad news,” said Addison, “but two days is a very long time for an ymbryne to be arrested like this. The more time she spends as a bird, the more her human self will be lost. Her memory, her words—everything that made her who she was—until, eventually, she won’t be an ymbryne at all anymore. She’ll just be a bird, for good and ever.”
An image came to me of Miss Peregrine splayed on an emergency room table, buzzed around by doctors, her breathing stopped—every second that ticked by doing her brain some new and irreparable harm.
“How long?” asked Millard. “How much longer does she have?”
Addison squinted, shook his head. “Two days, if she’s strong.”
Whispers and gasps. We collectively went pale.
“Are you sure?” said Emma. “Are you absolutely, positively certain?”
“I’ve seen it happen before.” Addison padded over to the little owl, who was perched on a branch nearby. “Olivia here was a young ymbryne who had a bad accident during her training. They brought her to us five days later. Miss Wren and I did everything we could to try to change her back, but she was beyond help. That was ten years ago; she’s been this way ever since.”
The owl stared mutely. There was no life in her anymore beyond that of an animal; you could see it in the dullness of her eyes.
Emma stood. She seemed about to say something—to rally us, I hoped, kick us into action with some inspiring speech—but she couldn’t seem to get the words out. Choking back a sob, she stumbled away from us.
I called after her, but she didn’t stop. The others just watched her go, stunned by the terrible news; stunned, too, by any sign of weakness or indecision from Emma. She had maintained her strength in the face of all this for so long that we had come to take it for granted, but she wasn’t bulletproof. She might’ve been peculiar, but she was also human.
“You’d better fetch her, Mister Jacob,” Bronwyn said to me. “We mustn’t linger here too long.”
* * *
When I caught up to Emma she was standing near the plateau’s edge, gazing out at the countryside below, sloping green hills falling away to a distant plain. She heard me coming but didn’t turn to look.
I shuffled up next to her and tried to think of something comforting to say. “I know you’re scared, and—and three days doesn’t seem like a long time, but—”
“Two days,” she said. “Two days maybe.” Her lip trembled. “And that’s not even the worst of it.”
I balked. “How could things possibly be worse?”
She’d been waging a battle against tears, but now, in a sudden break, she lost it. She sank to the ground and sobbed, a storm overtaking her. I knelt and wrapped my arms around her and hung on. “I’m so sorry,” she said, repeating it three times, her voice raw, a fraying rope. “You never should’ve stayed. I shouldn’t have let you. But I was selfish … so terribly selfish!”
“Don’t say that,” I said. “I’m here—I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere.”
That only seemed to make her cry harder. I pressed my lips to her forehead and kissed it until the storm began to pass out of her, the sobs fading to whimpers. “Please talk to me,” I said. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
After a minute she sat up, wiped her eyes, and tried to compose herself. “I had hoped I’d never have to say this,” she said. “That it wouldn’t matter. Do you remember when I told you, the night you decided to come with us, that you might never be able to go home again?”
“Of course I do.”
“I didn’t know until just now how true that really was. I’m afraid I’ve doomed you, Jacob, my sweet friend, to a short life trapped in a dying world.” She drew a quivering breath, then continued. “You came to us through Miss Peregrine’s loop, and that means only Miss Peregrine or her loop can send you back. But her loop is gone now—or if it isn’t yet, it will be soon—which leaves Miss Peregrine herself as your only way home. But if she never turns human again …”
I swallowed hard, my throat dry. “Then I’m stuck in the past.”
“Yes. And the only way to return to the time you knew as your own would be to wait for it—day by day, year by year.”
Seventy years. By then my parents, and everyone I ever knew or cared about, would be dead, and I’d be long dead to all of them. Of course, provided we survived whatever tribulations we were about to face, I could always go and find my parents in a few decades, once they were born—but what would be the point? They’d be children, and strangers to me.
I wondered when my present-day back-home parents would give up on finding me alive. What story they’d tell themselves to make sense of my disappearance. Had I run away? Gone insane? Thrown myself off a sea cliff?
Would they have a funeral for me? Buy me a coffin? Write my name on a gravestone?
I’d become a mystery they would never solve. A wound that would never heal.
“I’m so sorry,” Emma said again. “If I’d known Miss Peregrine’s condition was so dire, I swear to you, I never would’ve asked you to stay. The present means nothing to the rest of us. It’ll kill us if we stay there too long! But you—you still have family, a life …”
“No!” I said, shouting, slapping the ground with my hand—chasing away the self-pitying thoughts that had started to cloud my head. “That’s all gone now. I chose this.”
Emma laid her hand atop mine and said gently: “If what the animals say is true, and all our ymbrynes have been kidnapped, soon even this won’t be here.” She gathered some dirt in her hand and scattered it in the breeze. “Without ymbrynes to maintain them, our loops will collapse. The wights will use the ymbrynes to re-create their damned experiment and it’ll be 1908 all over again—and either they’ll fail and turn all creation into a smoking crater, or they’ll succeed and make themselves immortal, and we’ll be ruled by those monsters. Either way, before long we’ll be more extinct than the peculiar animals! And now I’ve dragged you into this hopeless mess—and for what?”