Hollow City / Page 30

Page 30

“You give me strength I didn’t know I had,” I said. “You make me better.”

She blushed. “I don’t know what to say.”

Emma, bright soul. I need your fire—the one inside you.

“You don’t have to say anything,” I said. And then I was seized with the sudden urge to kiss her, and I did.

* * *

Though we were dead tired, the Gypsies were in a buoyant mood and seemed determined to keep the party going, and after a few cups of hot, sweet, highly caffeinated something and a few more songs, they’d won us over. They were natural storytellers and beautiful singers; innately charming people who treated us like long-lost cousins. We stayed up half the night trading stories. The young guy who’d thrown his voice like a bear did a ventriloquist act that was so good I almost believed his dummies had come alive. He seemed to have a little crush on Emma and delivered the whole routine to her, smiling encouragingly, but she pretended not to notice and made a point of holding my hand.

Later they told us the story of how, during the First World War, the British army had taken all their horses, and for a while they’d had none to pull their wagons. They had been left stranded in the forest—this very forest—when one day a herd of long-horned goats wandered into their camp. They looked wild but were tame enough to eat out of your hand, so someone got the idea to hitch one to a wagon, and these goats turned out to be nearly as strong as the horses they’d lost. So the Gypsies got unstuck, and until the end of the war their wagons were pulled by these peculiarly strong goats, which is how they became known throughout Wales as Goat People. As proof they passed around a photo of Bekhir’s uncle riding a goat-pulled wagon. We knew without anyone having to say it that this was the lost herd of peculiar goats Addison had talked about. After the war, the army gave back the Gypsies’ horses, and the goats, no longer needed, disappeared again into the forest.

Finally, campfires dwindling, they laid out sleeping rolls for us and sang a lullaby in a lilting foreign language, and I felt pleasantly like a child. The ventriloquist came to say good night to Emma. She shooed him away, but not before he left a calling card. On the back was an address in Cardiff where he picked up mail every few months, whenever the Gypsies stopped through. On the front was his photo, with dummies, and a little note written to Emma. She showed it to me and snickered, but I felt bad for the guy. He was guilty only of liking her, same as me.

I curled up with Emma in a sleeping roll at the forest’s edge. Just as we were drifting off, I heard footsteps in the grass nearby, and opened my eyes to see no one at all. It was Millard, back again after having spent the evening talking with the Gypsy boy.

“He wants to come with us,” said Millard.

“Who?” Emma mumbled groggily. “Where?”

“The boy. With us.”

“And what did you say?”

“I told him it was a bad idea. But I didn’t say no, precisely.”

“You know we can’t take on anyone else,” Emma said. “He’ll slow us down.”

“I know, I know,” said Millard. “But he’s disappearing very rapidly, and he’s frightened. Soon he’ll be entirely invisible, and he’s afraid he’ll fall behind their group one day and the Gypsies won’t notice and he’ll be lost forever in the woods among the wolves and spiders.”

Emma groaned and rolled over to face Millard. He wasn’t going to let us sleep until this was decided. “I know he’ll be disappointed,” she said. “But it’s really impossible. I’m sorry, Mill.”

“Fair enough,” Millard said heavily. “I’ll give him the news.”

He rose and slipped away.

Emma sighed, and for a while she tossed and turned, restless.

“You did the right thing,” I whispered. “It isn’t easy being the one everybody looks to.”

She said nothing, but snuggled into the hollow of my chest. Gradually we drifted off, the whispers of breeze-blown branches and the breathing of horses gentling us to sleep.

* * *

It was a night of thin sleep and bad dreams, spent much as I’d spent the previous day: being chased by packs of nightmare dogs. By morning I was worn out. My limbs felt heavy as wood, my head cottony. I might’ve felt better if I hadn’t slept at all.

Bekhir woke us at dawn. “Rise and shine, syndrigasti!” he shouted, tossing out hunks of brick-hard bread. “There’ll be time for sleeping when you’re dead!”

Enoch knocked his bread against a rock and it clacked like wood. “We’ll be dead soon enough, with breakfast like this!”

Bekhir roughed Enoch’s hair, grinning. “Ahh, come on. Where’s your peculiar spirit this morning?”

“In the wash,” said Enoch, covering his head with the sleeping roll.

Bekhir gave us ten minutes to prepare for the ride to town. He was making good on his promise and would have us there before the morning’s first train. I got up, stumbled to a bucket of water, splashed some on my face, brushed my teeth with my finger. Oh, how I missed my toothbrush. How I longed for my minty floss, my ocean-breeze-scented deodorant stick. What I wouldn’t have given, just then, to find a Smart Aid store.

My kingdom for a pack of fresh underwear!

As I raked bits of hay from my hair with my fingers and bit into a loaf of inedible bread, the Gypsies and their children watched us with mournful faces. It was as if they knew, somehow, that the previous night’s fun had been a last hurrah, and now we were being led off to the gallows. I tried to cheer one of them up. “It’s okay,” I said to a towheaded little boy who seemed on the verge of tears. “We’re going to be fine.”

He looked at me as if I were a talking ghost, his eyes wide and uncertain.

Eight horses were rounded up, and eight Gypsy riders—one for each of us. Horses would get us to town much faster than a caravan of wagons could. They were also terrifying to me.

I’d never ridden a horse. I was probably the only marginally rich kid in America who hadn’t. It wasn’t because I didn’t think horses were beautiful, majestic creatures, the pinnacle of animal creation, etc., etc.—it’s just that I didn’t believe any animal had the slightest interest in being mounted or ridden by a human being. Besides, horses were very large, with rippling muscles and big, grinding teeth, and they looked at me as if they knew I was afraid and were hoping for an opportunity to kick my head in. Not to mention the lack of a seatbelt on a horse—no secondary restraint systems of any kind—and yet horses could go nearly as fast as cars but were much bouncier. So the whole endeavor just seemed inadvisable.

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