Hollow City / Page 31

Page 31

I said none of this, of course. I shut up and set my jaw and hoped I’d live at least long enough to die in a more interesting way than by falling off a horse.

From the first giddyap! we were at full gallop. I abandoned my dignity right away and bear-hugged the Gypsy man on the saddle in front of me who held the reins—so quickly that I didn’t have a chance to wave goodbye to the Gypsies who had gathered to see us off. Which was just as well: goodbyes had never been my strong suit anyway, and lately my life had felt like an unbroken series of them. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

We rode. My thighs went numb from squeezing the horse. Bekhir led the pack, his peculiar boy riding with him in the saddle. The boy rode with his back straight and arms at his sides, confident and unafraid, such a contrast from last night. He was in his element here, among the Gypsies. He didn’t need us. These were his people.

Eventually we slowed to a trot and I found the courage to un-bury my face from the rider’s jacket and take in the changing landscape. The forest had flattened into fields. We were descending into a valley, in the middle of which was a town that, from here, looked no bigger than a postage stamp, overwhelmed by green on all sides. Tracing toward it from the north was a long ellipsis of puffy white dots: the smoky breath of a train.

Bekhir stopped the horses just shy of the town gates. “This is as far as we go,” he said. “We’re not much welcome in towns. You don’t want the sort of attention we’d draw.”

It was hard to imagine anyone objecting to these kindly people. Then again, similar prejudices were among the reasons peculiars had withdrawn from society. Such was the way the sad world turned.

The children and I dismounted. I stood behind the others, hoping no one would notice my trembling legs. Just as we were about to go, Bekhir’s boy sprang down from his father’s horse and cried, “Wait! Take me with you!”

“I thought you were going to talk to him,” Emma said to Millard.

“I did,” Millard replied.

The boy pulled a knapsack from the saddlebag and slung it over his shoulder. He was packed and ready to go. “I can cook,” he said, “and chop wood, and ride a horse, and tie all sorts of knots!”

“Someone give him a merit badge,” said Enoch.

“I’m afraid it’s impossible,” Emma said to him gently.

“But I’m like you—and becoming more so all the time!” The boy began to unbuckle his pants. “Look what’s happening to me!”

Before anyone could stop him, he’d sent his pants to his ankles. The girls gasped and looked away. Hugh shouted, “Keep your trousers on, you depraved lunatic!”

But there was nothing to see—he was invisible from the mid-section down. Morbid curiosity compelled me to peek at the underside of his visible half, which earned me a crystal-clear view of the inner workings of his bowels.

“Look how much I’ve disappeared since yesterday,” Radi said, his voice panicky. “Soon I’ll be gone altogether!”

The Gypsy men gawked and murmured. Even their horses seemed disturbed, shying away from what seemed to be a disembodied child.

“I’ll be winged!” said Enoch. “He’s only half there.”

“Oh, you poor thing,” said Bronwyn. “Can’t we keep him?”

“We aren’t some traveling circus you can join whenever the notion takes you,” said Enoch. “We’re on a dangerous mission to save our ymbryne, and in no position to play babysitter to a clueless new peculiar!”

The boy’s eyes grew wide and began to water, and he let his knapsack slide off his shoulder and fall to the road.

Emma took Enoch aside. “That was too harsh,” she said. “Now tell him you’re sorry.”

“I won’t. This is a ridiculous waste of our precious and dwindling time.”

“These people saved our lives!”

“Our lives wouldn’t have needed saving if they hadn’t stuck us in that blessed cage!”

Emma gave up on Enoch and turned to the boy. “If circumstances were different, we’d welcome you with open arms. But as it stands, our entire civilization and way of life are in danger of being snuffed out. So it’s rather bad timing, you see.”

“It isn’t fair,” the boy moped. “Why couldn’t I have started disappearing ages ago? Why did it have to happen now?”

“Every peculiar’s ability manifests in its own time,” said Millard. “Some in infancy; others not until they’re quite old. I once heard of a man who didn’t realize he could levitate objects with his mind until he was ninety-two years of age.”

“I was lighter than air from the minute I was born,” Olive said proudly. “I popped out of me mum and floated straight up to the hospital ceiling! Only thing that stopped me from rolling out the window and into the clouds was the umbilical cord. They say the doctor fainted from the shock!”

“You’re still quite shocking, love,” Bronwyn said, giving her a reassuring pat on the back.

Millard, visible thanks to the coat and boots he wore, went to the boy. “What does your father think about all of this?” he said.

“Naturally, we don’t want him to go,” Bekhir said, “but how can we properly care for our son if we can’t even see him? He wants to leave—and I wonder if perhaps he’d be better off among his own kind.”

“Do you love him?” Millard asked bluntly. “Does he love you?”

Bekhir’s brow furrowed. He was a man of traditional sensibilities, and the question made him uncomfortable. But after some hemming and hawing, he growled, “Of course. He’s my child.”

“Then you are his kind,” said Millard. “The boy belongs with you, not us.”

Bekhir was loath to show emotion in front of his men, but at this I saw his eyes flicker and his jaw tighten. He nodded, looked down at his son, and said, “Come on, then. Pick up your bag and let’s go. Your mother’ll have tea waiting.”

“All right, Papa,” the boy said, seeming at once disappointed and relieved.

“You’ll be fine,” Millard assured the boy. “Better than fine. And when this is all over, I’ll look for you. There are more like us out there, and we’ll find them one day, together.”

“Promise?” the boy said, his eyes full of hope.

“I do,” said Millard.

And with that the boy climbed back onto his father’s horse, and we turned and walked through the gates into town.

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