Hollow City / Page 23

Page 23


We began our trek down the mountain just as dusk was falling. The animals accompanied us as far as the sheer rock wall.

Olive said to them, “Won’t you all come with us?”

The emu-raffe snorted. “We wouldn’t last five minutes out there! You can at least hope to pass for normal. But one look at me …” She wiggled her forearm-less body. “I’d be shot, stuffed, and mounted in no time.”

Then the dog approached Emma and said, “If I could ask one last thing of you …”

“You’ve been so kind,” she replied. “Anything.”

“Would you mind terribly lighting my pipe? We have no matches here; I haven’t had a real smoke in years.”

Emma obliged him, touching a lit finger to the bowl of his pipe. The dog took a long, satisfied puff and said, “Best of luck to you, peculiar children.”

5

We clung to the swinging net like a tribe of monkeys, bumping clumsily down the rock face while the pulley squealed and the rope creaked. Coming to earth in a knotted pile, we extricated ourselves from its tangles in what could’ve been a lost Three Stooges bit; several times I thought I was free, only to try standing and fall flat on my face again with a cartoonish whump! The dead hollow lay just feet away, its tentacles splayed like starfish arms from beneath the boulder that had crushed it. I almost felt embarrassed for it: that such a fearsome creature had let itself be laid low by the likes of us. Next time—if there was a next time—I didn’t think we’d be so lucky.

We tiptoed around the hollow’s reeking carcass. Charged down the mountain as fast as we could, given the limits of the treacherous path and Bronwyn’s volatile cargo. Once we’d reached flat land we were able to follow our own tracks back through the squishy moss of the forest floor. We found the lake again just as the sun was setting and bats were screeching out of their hidden roosts. They seemed to bear some unintelligible warning from the world of night, crying and circling overhead as we splashed through the shallows toward the stone giant. We climbed up to his mouth and pitched ourselves down his throat, then swam out the back of him into the instantly cooler water and brighter light of midday, September 1940.

The others surfaced around me, squealing and holding their ears, everyone feeling the pressure that accompanied quick temporal shifts.

“It’s like an airplane taking off,” I said, working my jaw to release the air.

“Never flown in an airplane,” said Horace, brushing water from the brim of his hat.

“Or when you’re on the highway and someone rolls down a window,” I said.

“What’s a highway?” asked Olive.

“Forget it.”

Emma shushed us. “Listen!”

In the distance I could hear dogs barking. They seemed far away, but sound traveled strangely in deep woods, and distances could be deceiving. “We’ll have to move quickly,” Emma said. “Until I say different, no one make a sound—and that includes you, headmistress!”

“I’ll throw an exploding egg at the first dog that gets near us,” said Hugh. “That’ll teach them to chase peculiars.”

“Don’t you dare,” said Bronwyn. “Mishandle one egg and you’re liable to set them all off!”

We waded out of the lake and started back through the forest, Millard navigating with Miss Wren’s creased map. After half an hour we came to the dirt road Addison had pointed to from the top of the tower. We stood in the ruts of an old wagon track while Millard studied the map, turning it sideways, squinting at its microscopic markings. I reached into the pocket of my jeans for my phone, thinking I’d call up a map of my own—an old habit—then found myself tapping on a blank rectangle of glass that refused to light up. It was dead, of course: wet, chargeless, and fifty years from the nearest cell tower. My phone was the only thing I owned that had survived our disaster at sea, but it was useless here, an alien object. I tossed it into the woods. Thirty seconds later I felt a pang of regret and ran to retrieve it. For reasons that weren’t entirely clear to me, I wasn’t quite ready to let it go.

Millard folded his map and announced that the town was to our left—a five- or six-hour walk, at least. “If we want to arrive before dark, we’d better move quickly.”

We hadn’t been walking long when Bronwyn noticed a cloud of dust rising on the road behind us, way in the distance. “Someone’s coming,” she said. “What should we do?”

Millard removed his greatcoat and threw it into the weeds by the side of the road, making himself invisible. “I recommend you make yourselves disappear,” he said, “in whatever limited way you are able.”

We got off the road and crouched behind a screen of brush. The dust cloud expanded, and with it came a clatter of wooden wheels and the clip-clop of horses’ hooves. It was a caravan of wagons. When they emerged clanking and rumbling from the dust and began to pass us, I saw Horace gasp and Olive break into a smile. These were not the gray, utilitarian wagons I’d gotten used to seeing on Cairnholm, but like something from a circus, painted every color of the rainbow, sporting ornately carved roofs and doors, pulled by long-maned horses, and driven by men and women whose bodies fluttered with beaded necklaces and bright scarves. Remembering Emma’s stories of performing in traveling sideshows with Miss Peregrine and the others, I turned to her and asked, “Are they peculiar?”

“They’re Gypsies,” she replied.

“Is that good news or bad?”

She narrowed her eyes. “Dunno yet.”

I could see her weighing a decision, and I was pretty sure I knew what it was. The town we were heading for was far away, and these wagons were moving a lot faster than we could ever travel on foot. With wights and dogs hunting us, the extra speed might mean the difference between getting caught and getting away. But we didn’t know who these Gypsies were, or whether we could trust them.

Emma looked at me. “What do you think, should we hitch a ride?”

I looked at the wagons. Looked back at Emma. Thought about how my feet would feel after a six-hour walk in still-wet shoes. “Absolutely,” I said.

Signaling to the others, Emma pointed at the last wagon and mimed running after it. It was shaped like a miniature house, with a little window on each side and a platform that jutted from the back like a porch, probably just wide and deep enough to hold all of us if we squeezed tight together. The wagon was moving fast but not faster than we could sprint, so when it had passed us and we were out of the last driver’s sight, we leapt out of the brush and scurried after it. Emma climbed on first, then held out a hand for the next person. One by one we pulled ourselves up and settled into cramped positions along the wagon’s rear porch, careful to do so quietly lest the driver hear us.


Prev Next