“But what good is that to us now?” Emma said. “What good are loops if they can be breached by hollowgast? Even the secret ones in that book will be found out eventually.”
“Maybe it was just the one loop that was breached,” I said hopefully. “Maybe the hollow in Miss Wren’s loop was a freak, somehow.”
“A peculiar hollow!” said Millard. “That’s amusing—but no. He was no accident. I’m certain these ‘enhanced’ hollows were an integral part of the assault on our loops.”
“But how?” said Emma. “What’s changed about hollows that they can get into loops now?”
“That’s something I’ve been thinking about a great deal,” said Millard. “We don’t know a lot about hollows, having never had the chance to examine one in a controlled setting. But it’s thought that, like normals, they lack something which you and I and everyone in this train car possesses—some essential peculiarness—which is what allows us to interact with loops; to bind with and be absorbed into them.”
“Like a key,” I said.
“Something like that,” said Millard. “Some believe that, like blood or spinal fluid, our peculiarness has physical substance. Others think it’s inside us but insubstantial. A second soul.”
“Huh,” I said. I liked this idea: that peculiarness wasn’t a deficiency, but an abundance; that it wasn’t we who lacked something normals had, but they who lacked peculiarness. That we were more, not less.
“I hate all that crackpot stuff,” said Emma. “The idea that you could capture the second soul in a jar? Gives me the quivers.”
“And yet, over the years, some attempts have been made to do just this,” said Millard. “What did that wight soldier say to you, Emma? ‘I wish I could bottle what you have,’ or something to that effect?”
Emma shuddered. “Don’t remind me.”
“The theory goes that if somehow our peculiar essence could be distilled and captured—in a bottle, as he said, or more likely a petri dish—then perhaps that essence could also be transferred from one being to another. If this were possible, imagine the black market in peculiar souls that might spring up among the wealthy and unscrupulous. Peculiarities like your spark or Bronwyn’s great strength sold to the highest bidder!”
“That’s disgusting,” I said.
“Most peculiars agree with you,” said Millard, “which is why such research was outlawed many years ago.”
“As if the wights cared about our laws,” said Emma.
“But the whole idea seems crazy,” I said. “It couldn’t really work, could it?”
“I didn’t think so,” said Millard. “At least, not until yesterday. Now I’m not so sure.”
“Because of the hollow in the menagerie loop?”
“Right. Before yesterday I wasn’t even certain I believed in a ‘second soul.’ To my mind, there was only one compelling argument for its existence: that when a hollowgast consumes enough of us, it transforms into a different sort of creature—one that can travel through time loops.”
“It becomes a wight,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “But only if it consumes peculiars. It can eat as many normals as it likes and it will never turn into a wight. Therefore, we must have something normals lack.”
“But that hollow at the menagerie didn’t become a wight,” said Emma. “It became a hollow that could enter loops.”
“Which makes me wonder if the wights have been tinkering with nature,” said Millard, “vis-à-vis the transference of peculiar souls.”
“I don’t even want to think about it,” said Emma. “Can we please, please talk about something else?”
“But where would they even get the souls?” I asked. “And how?”
“That’s it, I’m sitting somewhere else,” Emma said, and she got up to find another seat.
Millard and I rode in silence for a while. I couldn’t stop imagining being strapped to a table while a cabal of evil doctors removed my soul. How would they do it? With a needle? A knife?
To derail this morbid train of thought, I tried changing the subject again. “How did we all get to be peculiar in the first place?” I asked.
“No one’s certain,” Millard answered. “There are legends, though.”
“Some people believe we’re descended from a handful of peculiars who lived a long, long time ago,” he said. “They were very powerful—and enormous, like the stone giant we found.”
I said, “Why are we so small, then, if we used to be giants?”
“The story goes that over the years, as we multiplied, our power diluted. As we became less powerful, we got smaller, too.”
“That’s all pretty hard to swallow,” I said. “I feel about as powerful as an ant.”
“Ants are quite powerful, actually, relative to their size.”
“You know what I mean,” I said. “The thing I really don’t get is, why me? I never asked to be this way. Who decided?”
It was a rhetorical question; I wasn’t really expecting an answer, but Millard gave me one anyway. “To quote a famous peculiar: ‘At the heart of nature’s mystery lies another mystery.’ ”
“Who said that?”
“We know him as Perplexus Anomalous. An invented name, probably, for a great thinker and philosopher. Perplexus was a cartographer, too. He drew the very first edition of the Map of Days, a thousand-something years ago.”
I chuckled. “You talk like a teacher sometimes. Has anyone ever told you that?”
“All the time,” Millard said. “I would’ve liked to try my hand at teaching. If I hadn’t been born like this.”
“You would’ve been great at it.”
“Thank you,” he said. Then he went quiet, and in the silence I could feel him dreaming it: scenes from a life that might’ve been. After a while he said, “I don’t want you to think that I don’t like being invisible. I do. I love being peculiar, Jacob—it’s the very core of who I am. But there are days I wish I could turn it off.”
“I know what you mean,” I said. But of course I didn’t. My peculiarity had its challenges, but at least I could participate in society.