“At least we still have the Tales of the Peculiar,” said Claire, wringing seawater from her blonde curls. “I can’t get to sleep at night without hearing one.”
“What good are fairy tales if we can’t even find our way?” Millard asked.
I wondered: Find our way to where? It occurred to me that, in our rush to escape the island, I had only ever heard the children talk about reaching the mainland, but we’d never discussed what to do once we got there—as if the idea of actually surviving the journey in those tiny boats was so far-fetched, so comically optimistic, that planning for it was a waste of time. I looked to Emma for reassurance, as I often did. She gazed darkly down the beach. The stony sand backed up to low dunes swaying with saw grass. Beyond was forest: an impenetrable-looking barrier of green that continued in both directions as far as I could see. Emma with her now-lost map had been aiming for a certain port town, but after the storm hit, just making it to dry land had become our goal. There was no telling how far we’d strayed off course. There were no roads I could see, or signposts, or even footpaths. Only wilderness.
Of course, we didn’t really need a map, or a signpost, or anything else. We needed Miss Peregrine—a whole, healed one—the Miss Peregrine who would know just where to go and how to get us there safely. The one perched before us now, fanning her feathers dry on a boulder, was as broken as her maimed wing, which hooked downward in an alarming V. I could tell it pained the children to see her like this. She was supposed to be their mother, their protector. She’d been queen of their little island world, but now she couldn’t speak, couldn’t loop time, couldn’t even fly. They saw her and winced and looked away.
Miss Peregrine kept her eyes trained on the slate-gray sea. They were hard and black and contained unutterable sorrow.
They seemed to say: I failed you.
* * *
Horace and Fiona arced toward us through the rocky sand, the wind poofing Fiona’s wild hair like a storm cloud, Horace bouncing with his hands pressed against the sides of his top hat to keep it secure on his head. Somehow he had kept hold of it throughout our near disaster at sea, but now it was stove in on one side like a bent muffler pipe. Still, he refused to let it go; it was the only thing, he said, that matched his muddy, sopping, finely tailored suit.
Their arms were empty. “There’s no wood anywhere!” Horace said as they reached us.
“Did you look in the woods?” said Emma, pointing at the dark line of trees behind the dunes.
“Too scary,” Horace replied. “We heard an owl.”
“Since when are you afraid of birds?”
Horace shrugged and looked at the sand. Then Fiona elbowed him, and he seemed to remember himself, and said: “We found something else, though.”
“Shelter?” asked Emma.
“A road?” asked Millard.
“A goose to cook for supper?” asked Claire.
“No,” Horace replied. “Balloons.”
There was a brief, puzzled silence.
“What do you mean, balloons?” said Emma.
“Big ones in the sky, with men inside.”
Emma’s face darkened. “Show us.”
We followed them back the way they’d come, curving around a bend in the beach and climbing a small embankment. I wondered how we could have possibly missed something as obvious as hot air balloons, until we crested a hill and I saw them—not the big, colorful teardrop-shaped things you see in wall calendars and motivational posters (“The sky’s the limit!”), but a pair of miniature zeppelins: black egg-shaped sacs of gas with skeletal cages hung below them, each containing a single pilot. The craft were small and flew low, banking back and forth in lazy zigzags, and the noise of the surf had covered the subtle whine of their propellers. Emma herded us into the tall saw grass and we dropped down out of sight.
“They’re submarine hunters,” Enoch said, answering the question before anyone had asked it. Millard might’ve been the authority when it came to maps and books, but Enoch was an expert in all things military. “The best way to spot enemy subs is from the sky,” he explained.
“Then why are they flying so close to the ground?” I asked.
“And why aren’t they farther out to sea?”
“That I don’t know.”
“Do you think they could be looking for … us?” Horace ventured.
“If you mean could they be wights,” said Hugh, “don’t be daft. The wights are with the Germans. They’re on that German sub.”
“The wights are allied with whomever it suits their interests to be allied with,” Millard said. “There’s no reason to think they haven’t infiltrated organizations on both sides of the war.”
I couldn’t take my eyes off the strange contraptions in the sky. They looked unnatural, like mechanical insects bloated with tumorous eggs.
“I don’t like the way they’re flying,” Enoch said, calculating behind his sharp eyes. “They’re searching the coastline, not the sea.”
“Searching for what?” asked Bronwyn, but the answer was obvious and frightening and no one wanted to say it aloud.
They were searching for us.
We were all squeezed together in the grass, and I felt Emma’s body tense next to mine. “Run when I say run,” she hissed. “We’ll hide the boats, then ourselves.”
We waited for the balloons to zag away, then tumbled out of the grass, praying we were too far away to be spotted. As we ran I found myself wishing that the fog which had plagued us at sea would return again to hide us. It occurred to me that it had very likely saved us once already; without the fog those balloons would’ve spotted us hours ago, in our boats, when we’d had nowhere to run. And in that way, it was one last thing that the island had done to save its peculiar children.
* * *
We dragged our boats across the beach toward a sea cave, its entrance a black fissure in a hill of rocks. Bronwyn had spent her strength completely and could hardly manage to carry herself, much less the boats, so the rest of us struggled to pick up the slack, groaning and straining against hulls that kept trying to bury their noses in the wet sand. Halfway across the beach, Miss Peregrine let out a warning cry, and the two zeppelins bobbed up over the dunes and into our line of sight. We broke into an adrenaline-fueled sprint, flying those boats into the cave like they were on rails, while Miss Peregrine hopped lamely alongside us, her broken wing dragging in the sand.