We might’ve pursued it further, I think, if we hadn’t been so tired and hungry, and if at that moment the smell of food had not wafted its way past our noses.
“Come and get it!” Miss Wren shouted from down the hall, and the conversation was tabled.
* * *
As night fell we gathered to eat in Bentham’s library, the only room big enough to hold all of us comfortably. The fire was stoked and a feast donated by grateful locals brought in, roast chicken and potatoes and wild game and fish (which I avoided, on the off chance they might have been caught in the Ditch). We ate and talked and rehashed the adventures of the past few days. Miss Peregrine had heard only a little about our journey from Cairnholm to London, and then across bombed-out London to reach Miss Wren, and wanted to know every last detail. She was a great listener, always laughing at the funny parts and reacting with satisfying gasps to our dramatic flourishes.
“And then the bomb fell right on the hollow and blew it to smithereens!” Olive cried, leaping out of her chair as she reenacted the moment. “But we had Miss Wren’s peculiar sweaters on, so the shrapnel didn’t kill us!”
“Oh my heavens!” Miss Peregrine said. “That was very lucky!”
When our stories had finished, Miss Peregrine sat quietly for a time, studying us with a mixture of sadness and awe. “I’m so very, very proud of you,” she said, “and so sorry for all that happened. I can’t tell you how much I wish it had been me by your side, and not my deceitful brother.”
We observed a moment of silence for Fiona. She wasn’t dead, Hugh insisted, but merely lost. The trees had cushioned her fall, he said, and she was probably wandering in the forest somewhere near Miss Wren’s menagerie. Or had knocked her head on the way down and forgotten where she came from. Or was hiding …
He looked around hopefully at us, but we avoided his eyes.
“I’m sure she’ll turn up,” Bronwyn assured him.
“Don’t give him false hope,” Enoch said. “It’s cruel.”
“You would know about cruel,” Bronwyn replied scornfully.
“Let’s change the subject,” Horace said. “I want to know how the dog rescued Jacob and Emma in the Underground.”
Addison hopped gamely onto the table and began to narrate the story, but he embellished it with so many asides about his own heroism that Emma was forced to take over. Together, she and I told them how we’d found our way to Devil’s Acre, and how with Bentham’s help we’d mounted our mini-invasion of the wights’ compound. Then everyone had questions for me—they wanted to know about the hollows.
“How did you teach yourself their language?” Millard asked.
“What’s it like to control one?” asked Hugh. “Do you imagine you’re one of them, like I do my bees?”
“Does it tickle?” asked Bronwyn.
“Do you ever wish you could keep one as a pet?” asked Olive.
I answered as best I could but was feeling tongue-tied because it was a hard thing to describe, my connection with the hollows, like piecing together a dream the morning after. I was distracted, too, by the talk Emma and I had been putting off. When I’d finished, I caught Emma’s eye and nodded to the door, and we excused ourselves. As we walked away from the table, I could feel the eyes of the room on our backs.
We ducked into a lantern-lit cloakroom cramped with coats, hats, and umbrellas. It was not a spacious or comfortable place, but it was at least private; somewhere we wouldn’t be walked in on or overheard. I felt suddenly and irrationally terrified. I had a difficult choice to make, one I had not fully grappled with until now.
We were silent for a moment, facing each other, the room so deadened by fabric that I thought I could hear the beating of our hearts.
“So,” Emma said, because of course she would start first. Emma, always direct, never afraid of an awkward moment. “Will you stay?”
I did not know what I would say until the words left my mouth. I was running on autopilot, no filter. “I have to see my parents.”
That was unquestionably true. They were hurting and frightened and didn’t deserve to be, and I had left them dangling too long.
“Of course,” Emma said. “I understand. Of course you do.”
A question hung in the air, unasked. See my parents had been a half-measure, a non-answer. See them, sure. And then what? What would I say to them?
I tried to imagine telling my parents the truth. In that regard, the phone conversation I’d had with my father in the Underground had been a preview of coming attractions. He’s lost it. Our son is insane. Or on drugs. Or maybe not on enough drugs.
No, the truth wouldn’t work. So, what? I would see them, assure them I was alive and well, make up a story about sightseeing in London, then tell them to go home without me? Ha. They would chase me. They’d have cops hiding in the bushes at our meeting place. Men in white coats with Jacob-sized nets. I’d have to run. Telling them the truth would only make things worse. Seeing them only to run away again would torture them more. But the idea of not seeing my parents at all, of never going home again—I couldn’t get my mind around it. Because, if I was really being honest with myself, as much as it hurt to think about leaving Emma and my friends and this world, part of me wanted to go home. My parents and their world represented a return to sanity and predictability, something I was longing for after all this madness. I needed to be normal for a while. To catch my breath. Just for a while.
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