Hollow City / Page 22

Page 22

We thanked her and folded them into Bronwyn’s trunk. Then Grunt came loping forward holding a package wrapped up with paper and twine. “A gift from the chickens,” Deirdre explained, winking as Grunt pressed it into my hands. “Don’t drop it.”

A smarter person than I might’ve thought twice about bringing explosives along on our trip, but we were feeling vulnerable, and both the dog and emu-raffe swore that if we were gentle with the eggs they wouldn’t go off, so we nestled them carefully between the sweaters in Bronwyn’s trunk. Now at least we wouldn’t have to face men with guns without weapons of our own.

Then we were nearly ready, except for one thing: when we left the animals’ loop, we’d be just as lost as when we’d come in. We needed directions.

“I can show you the way out of the forest,” said Addison. “Meet me at the top of Miss Wren’s tower.”

The space up top was so small that only two of us could fit at a time, so Emma and I went, climbing its railroad ties like the rungs of a giant ladder. Grunt monkeyed his way up in half the time, delivering Addison to the top under one arm.

The view from the top was amazing. To the east, forested slopes stretched away to a vast, barren plain. To the west, you could see all the way to the ocean, where an old-looking ship rigged with giant, complicated sails glided down the coast. I’d never asked what year it was here—1492? 1750?—though to the animals I guess it hardly mattered. This was a safe place apart from the world of people, and only in the world of people did the year make any difference.

“You’ll head north,” Addison said, jabbing his pipe in the direction of a road, just visible, tracing through the trees below like a faint, pencil-drawn line. “Down that road is a town, and in that town—in your time, anyway—is a train station. Your medium of inter-loop travel is when—1940?”

“That’s right,” Emma replied.

Though I only vaguely understood what they were talking about, I’d never been afraid to ask dumb questions. “Why can’t we just go out into this world?” I asked. “Travel to London through whatever year it is here?”

“The only way is by horse and carriage,” said Addison, “which takes several days … and causes considerable chafing, in my experience. I’m afraid you don’t have that much time to spare.” He turned and nosed open the door to the tower’s little shack. “Please,” he said, “there’s one more thing I’d like to show you.”

We followed him inside. The shack was modest and tiny, a far cry from Miss Peregrine’s queenly setup. The entirety of its furniture was a small bed, a wardrobe, and a rolltop desk. A telescope sat mounted on a tripod, aimed out the window: Miss Wren’s lookout station, where she watched for trouble, and the comings and goings of her spy pigeons.

Addison went to the desk. “Should you have any difficulty locating the road,” he said, “there’s a map of the forest in here.”

Emma opened the desk and found the map, an old, yellowed roll of paper. Underneath it was a creased snapshot. It showed a woman in a black sequined shawl with gray-streaked hair worn in a dramatic upsweep. She was standing next to a chicken. At first glance the photo looked like a discard, taken during an off moment when the woman was looking away with her eyes closed, and yet there was something just right about it, too—how the woman’s hair and clothes matched the black-and-white speckle of the chicken’s feathers; how she and the chicken were facing opposite directions, implying some odd connection between them, as if they were speaking without words; dreaming at one another.

This, clearly, was Miss Wren.

Addison saw the photo and seemed to wince. I could tell he was worried for her, much more than he wanted to admit. “Please don’t take this as an endorsement of your suicidal plans,” he said, “but if you should succeed in your mad quest … and should happen to encounter Miss Wren along the way … you might consider … I mean, might you consider …”

“We’ll send her home,” Emma said, and then scratched him on the head. It was a perfectly normal thing to do to a dog, but seemed a strange thing to do to a talking one.

“Dog bless you,” Addison replied.

Then I tried petting him, but he reared up on his hind legs and said, “Do you mind? Keep your hands at bay, sir!”

“Sorry,” I mumbled, and in the awkward moment that followed it became obvious that it was time to go.

We climbed down the tower to join our friends, where we exchanged tearful goodbyes with Claire and Fiona under the big shade tree. By now Claire had been given a cushion and blanket to lie on, and like a princess she received us one by one at her makeshift bedside on the ground, extracting promises as we knelt down beside her.

“Promise you’ll come back,” she said to me when it was my turn, “and promise you’ll save Miss Peregrine.”

“I’ll try my best,” I said.

“That isn’t good enough!” she said sternly.

“I’ll come back,” I said. “I promise.”

“And save Miss Peregrine!”

“And save Miss Peregrine,” I repeated, though the words felt empty; the more confident I tried to sound, the less confident I actually felt.

“Good,” she said with a nod. “It’s been awfully nice knowing you, Jacob, and I’m glad you came to stay.”

“Me, too,” I said, and then I got up quickly because her bright, blonde-framed face was so earnest it killed me. She believed, unequivocally, everything we told her: that she and Fiona would be all right here, among these strange animals, in a loop abandoned by its ymbryne. That we’d return for them. I hoped with all my heart that it was more than just theater, staged to make this hard thing we had to do seem possible.

Hugh and Fiona stood off to one side, their hands linked and foreheads touching, saying goodbye in their own quiet way. Finally, we’d all finished with Claire and were ready to go, but no one wanted to disturb them, so we stood watching as Fiona pulled away from Hugh, shook a few seeds from her nest of wild hair, and grew a rose bush heavy with red flowers right where they stood. Hugh’s bees rushed to pollinate it, and while they were occupied—as if she’d done it just so they could have a moment to themselves—Fiona embraced him and whispered something in his ear, and Hugh nodded and whispered something back. When they finally turned and saw all of us looking, Fiona blushed, and Hugh came toward us with his hands jammed in his pockets, his bees trailing behind him, and growled, “Let’s go, show’s over.”

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