Hollow City / Page 47

Page 47

The farther we got from the train station, the more evidence we saw of the bombs that had been raining down on London. Building fronts pocked by shrapnel. Shattered windows. Streets that glinted with frosts of powdered glass. The sky was speckled with puffy silver blimps tethered to the ground by long webs of cable. “Barrage balloons,” Emma said when she saw me craning my neck toward one. “The German bombers get caught up in their cables at night and crash.”

Then we came upon a scene of destruction so bizarre that I had to stop and gape at it—not out of some morbid voyeurism, but because it was impossible for my brain to process without further study. A bomb crater yawned across the whole width of the street like a monstrous mouth with broken pavement for teeth. At one edge, the blast had sheared away the front wall of a building but left what was inside mostly intact. It looked like a doll’s house, its interior rooms all exposed to the street: the dining room with its table still set for a meal; family pictures knocked crooked in a hallway but still hanging; a roll of toilet paper unspooled and caught in the breeze, waving in the air like a long, white flag.

“Did they forget to finish building it?” Olive asked.

“No, dummy,” said Enoch. “It got hit by a bomb.”

For a moment Olive looked as if she might cry, but then her face went hard and she shook her fist at the sky and yelled, “Nasty Hitler! Stop this horrible war and go right away altogether!”

Bronwyn patted her arm. “Shhh. He can’t hear you, love.”

“It isn’t fair,” Olive said. “I’m tired of airplanes and bombs and war!”

“We all are,” said Enoch. “Even me.”

Then I heard Horace scream and I spun around to see him pointing at something in the road. I ran to see what it was, and then I did see and I stopped, frozen, my brain shouting Run away! but my legs refusing to listen.

It was a pyramid of heads. They were blackened and caved, mouths agape, eyes boiled shut, melted and pooled together in the gutter like some hydra-headed horror. Then Emma came to see and gasped and turned away; Bronwyn came and started moaning; Hugh gagged and clapped his hands over his eyes; and then finally Enoch, who seemed not in the least disturbed, calmly nudged one of the heads with his shoe and pointed out that they were only mannequins made of wax, having spilled from the display window of a bombed wig shop. We all felt a little ridiculous but somehow no less horrified, because even though the heads weren’t real, they represented something that was, hidden beneath the rubble around us.

“Let’s go,” Emma said. “This place is nothing but a graveyard.”

We walked on. I tried to keep my eyes to the ground, but there was no shutting out all the ghastly things we passed. A scarred ruin belching smoke, the only fireman dispatched to extinguish it slouched in defeat, blistered and weary, his hose run dry. Yet there he stood watching anyway, as if, lacking water, his job now was to bear witness.

A baby in a stroller, left alone in the street, bawling.

Bronwyn slowed, overcome. “Can’t we help them somehow?”

“It wouldn’t make any difference,” said Millard. “These people belong to the past, and the past can’t be changed.”

Bronwyn nodded sadly. She’d known it was true but had needed to hear it said. We were barely here, ineffectual as ghosts.

A cloud of ash billowed, blotting out fireman and child. We went on, choking in an eddy of windborne wreck dust, powdered concrete blanching our clothes, our faces bone white.

* * *

We hurried past the ruined blocks as quickly as we could, then marveled as the streets returned to life around us. Just a short walk from Hell, people were going about their business, striding down sidewalks, living in buildings that still had electricity and windows and walls. Then we rounded a corner and the cathedral’s dome revealed itself, proud and imposing despite patches of fire-blackened stone and a few crumbling arches. Like the spirit of the city itself, it would take more than a few bombs to topple St. Paul’s.

Our hunt began in a square close to the cathedral, where old men on benches were feeding pigeons. At first it was mayhem: we bounded in, grabbing wildly as the pigeons took off. The old men grumbled, and we withdrew to wait for their return. They did, eventually, pigeons not being the smartest animals on the planet, at which point we all took turns wading casually into the flock and trying to catch them by surprise, reaching down to snatch at them. I thought Olive, who was small and quick, or Hugh, with his peculiar connection to another sort of winged creature, might have some luck, but both were humiliated. Millard didn’t fare any better, and they couldn’t even see him. By the time my turn came, the pigeons must’ve been sick of us bothering them, because the moment I strolled into the square they all burst into flight and took one big, simultaneous cluster-bomb crap, which sent me flailing toward a water fountain to wash my whole head.

In the end, it was Horace who caught one. He sat down next to the old men, dropping seeds until the birds circled him. Then, leaning slowly forward, he stretched out his arm and, calm as could be, snagged one by its feet.

“Got you!” he cried.

The bird flapped and tried to get away, but Horace held on tight.

He brought it to us. “How can we tell if it’s peculiar?” he said, flipping the bird over to inspect its bottom, as if expecting to find a label there.

“Show it to Miss Peregrine,” Emma said. “She’ll know.”

So we opened Bronwyn’s trunk, shoved the pigeon inside with Miss Peregrine, and slammed down the lid. The pigeon screeched like it was being torn apart.

I winced and shouted, “Go easy, Miss P!”

When Bronwyn opened the trunk again, a poof of pigeon feathers fluttered into the air, but the pigeon itself was nowhere to be seen.

“Oh, no—she’s ate it!” cried Bronwyn.

“No she hasn’t,” said Emma. “Look beneath her!”

Miss Peregrine lifted up and stepped aside, and there underneath her was the pigeon, alive but dazed.

“Well?” said Enoch. “Is it or isn’t it one of Miss Wren’s?”

Miss Peregrine nudged the bird with her beak and it flew away. Then she leapt out of the trunk, hobbled into the square, and with one loud squawk scattered the rest of the pigeons. Her message was clear: not only was Horace’s pigeon not peculiar, none of them were. We’d have to keep looking.

Miss Peregrine hopped toward the cathedral and flapped her wing impatiently. We caught up to her on the cathedral steps. The building loomed above us, soaring bell towers framing its giant dome. An army of soot-stained angels glared down at us from marble reliefs.

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