The man is my father. He is looking for something that he desperately does not want to find.
He is looking for the body of his son.
I felt a touch on my shoe and opened my eyes, startled out of my half-dream. It was nearly dark, and I was sitting on the rocks with my knees drawn into my chest, and suddenly there was Emma, breeze tossing her hair, standing on the sand below me.
“How are you?” she asked.
It was a question that would’ve required some college-level math and about an hour of discussion to answer. I felt a hundred conflicting things, the great bulk of which canceled out to equal cold and tired and not particularly interested in talking. So I said, “I’m fine, just trying to dry off,” and flapped the front of my soggy sweater to demonstrate.
“I can help you with that.” She clambered up the stack of rocks and sat next to me. “Gimme an arm.”
I offered one up and Emma laid it across her knees. Cupping her hands over her mouth, she bent her head toward my wrist. Then, taking a deep breath, she exhaled slowly through her palms and an incredible, soothing heat bloomed along my forearm, just on the edge of painful.
“Is it too much?” she said.
I tensed, a shudder going through me, and shook my head.
“Good.” She moved farther up my arm to exhale again. Another pulse of sweet warmth. Between breaths, she said, “I hope you’re not letting what Enoch said bother you. The rest of us believe in you, Jacob. Enoch can be a wrinkle-hearted old titmouse, especially when he’s feeling jealous.”
“I think he’s right,” I said.
“You don’t really. Do you?”
It all came pouring out. “I have no idea what I’m doing,” I said. “How can any of you depend on me? If I’m really peculiar then it’s just a little bit, I think. Like I’m a quarter peculiar and the rest of you guys are full-blooded.”
“It doesn’t work that way,” she said, laughing.
“But my grandfather was more peculiar than me. He had to be. He was so strong …”
“No, Jacob,” she said, narrowing her eyes at me. “It’s astounding. In so many ways, you’re just like him. You’re different, too, of course—you’re gentler and sweeter—but everything you’re saying … you sound like Abe, when he first came to stay with us.”
“Yes. He was confused, too. He’d never met another peculiar. He didn’t understand his power or how it worked or what he was capable of. Neither did we, to tell the truth. It’s very rare, what you can do. Very rare. But your grandfather learned.”
“How?” I asked. “Where?”
“In the war. He was part of a secret all-peculiar cell of the British army. Fought hollowgast and Germans at the same time. The sorts of things they did you don’t win medals for—but they were heroes to us, and none more than your grandfather. The sacrifices they made set the corrupted back decades and saved the lives of countless peculiars.”
And yet, I thought, he couldn’t save his own parents. How strangely tragic.
“And I can tell you this,” Emma went on. “You’re every bit as peculiar as he was—and as brave, too.”
“Ha. Now you’re just trying to make me feel better.”
“No,” she said, looking me in the eye. “I’m not. You’ll learn, Jacob. One day you’ll be an even greater hollow-slayer than he was.”
“Yeah, that’s what everyone keeps saying. How can you be so sure?”
“It’s something I feel very deeply,” she said. “You’re supposed to, I think. Just like you were supposed to come to Cairnholm.”
“I don’t believe in stuff like that. Fate. The stars. Destiny.”
“I didn’t say destiny.”
“Supposed to is the same thing,” I said. “Destiny is for people in books about magical swords. It’s a lot of crap. I’m here because my grandfather mumbled something about your island in the ten seconds before he died—and that’s it. It was an accident. I’m glad he did, but he was delirious. He could just as easily have rattled off a grocery list.”
“But he didn’t,” she said.
I sighed, exasperated. “And if we go off in search of loops, and you depend on me to save you from monsters and instead I get you all killed, is that destiny, too?”
She frowned, put my arm back in my lap. “I didn’t say destiny,” she said again. “What I believe is that when it comes to big things in life, there are no accidents. Everything happens for a reason. You’re here for a reason—and it’s not to fail and die.”
I didn’t have the heart to keep arguing. “Okay,” I said. “I don’t think you’re right—but I do hope you are.” I felt bad for snapping at her before, but I’d been cold and scared and feeling defensive. I had good moments and bad, terrified thoughts and confident ones—though my terror-to-confidence ratio was pretty dismal at present, like three-to-one, and in the terrified moments it felt like I was being pushed into a role I hadn’t asked for; volunteered for front-line duty in a war, the full scope of which none of us yet knew. “Destiny” sounded like an obligation, and if I was to be thrust into battle against a legion of nightmare creatures, that had to be my choice.
Though in a sense the choice had been made already, when I agreed to sail into the unknown with these peculiar children. And it wasn’t true, if I really searched the dusty corners of myself, that I hadn’t asked for this. Really, I’d been dreaming of such adventures since I was small. Back then I’d believed in destiny, and believed in it absolutely, with every strand and fiber of my little kid heart. I’d felt it like an itch in my chest while listening to my grandfather’s extraordinary stories. One day that will be me. What felt like obligation now had been a promise back then—that one day I would escape my little town and live an extraordinary life, as he had done; and that one day, like Grandpa Portman, I would do something that mattered. He used to say to me: “You’re going to be a great man, Yakob. A very great man.”
“Like you?” I would ask him.
“Better,” he’d reply.
I’d believed him then, and I still wanted to. But the more I learned about him, the longer his shadow became, and the more impossible it seemed that I could ever matter the way he had. That maybe it would be suicidal even to try. And when I imagined myself trying, thoughts of my father crept in—my poor about-to-be-devastated father—and before I could push them out of my mind, I wondered how a great man could do something so terrible to someone who loved him.