I had repaid my debt to the peculiars and Miss Peregrine. I had become one of them. But I wasn’t only one of them. I was also my parents’ son, and as imperfect as they were, I missed them. I missed home. I even sort of missed my dumb, ordinary life. Of course, I would probably miss Emma more than any of those things. The problem was, I wanted too much. I wanted both lives. Dual citizenship. To be peculiar, and learn everything there was to learn about the peculiar world, and to be with Emma, and explore all the loops Bentham had catalogued in his Panloopticon. But also to do the stupid, ordinary things normal teenagers do, while I could still pass for one. Get my driver’s license. Make a friend my own age. Finish high school. Then I’d be eighteen, and I could go anywhere I wanted—or anywhen. I could come back.
Here was the truth, the root and bone of it: I couldn’t live the rest of my life in a time loop. I didn’t want to be a peculiar child forever. But one day, maybe, I could be a peculiar adult.
Maybe, if I was very careful, there was a way to have it all.
“I don’t want to go,” I said, “but I think I might need to, for a while.”
Emma’s expression flattened. “Then go,” she said.
I was stung. She hadn’t even asked what “a while” meant.
“I’ll come visit,” I said quickly. “I can come back anytime.”
Theoretically, this was true: now that the wight menace had been crushed, there would—bird willing—always be something to come back to. But it was hard to imagine my parents signing off on more trips to the U.K. anytime soon. I was lying to myself—to both of us—and Emma knew it.
“No,” she said. “I don’t want that.”
My heart dropped. “What?” I said quietly. “Why not?”
“Because that’s what Abe did. Every few years he’d come back. And every time he was older and I was the same. And then he met someone and got married …”
“I wouldn’t do that,” I said. “I love you.”
“I know,” she said, turning away. “So did he.”
“But we’re not … it won’t be like that with us …” I grasped blindly for the right words, but my thoughts were a muddle.
“It would, though. You know I’d go with you if I could, but I can’t—I would age forward. So I’d just be waiting for you. Frozen in amber. I can’t do that again.”
“It wouldn’t be long! Just a couple of years. And then I could do what I wanted. I could go to college somewhere. Maybe here in London!”
“Maybe,” she said. “Maybe. But now you’re making promises you might not be able to keep, and that’s how people in love get very badly hurt.”
My heart was racing. I felt desperate and pathetic. Screw it, I’d never see my parents again. Fine. But I couldn’t lose Emma.
“I wasn’t thinking straight,” I said. “I didn’t mean it. I’ll stay.”
“No, I think you were being honest,” she said. “I think if you stay you won’t be happy. And eventually you’ll come to resent me for it. And that would be worse.”
“No. No, I would never …”
But I’d shown my hand, and now it was too late to take it back.
“You should go,” she said. “You have a life and a family. This was never supposed to be forever.”
I sat down on the floor, then leaned back into the wall of coats and let them swallow me up. For a few long seconds I pretended none of this was happening, that I wasn’t here, that my entire world was woolen and black and smelled of mothballs. When I surfaced again to breathe, Emma was sitting cross-legged on the floor beside me.
“I don’t want this either,” she said. “But I think I understand why it has to be. You have your world to rebuild, and I have mine.”
“But it’s mine too, now,” I said.
“That’s true.” She thought for a moment, kneading her chin. “That’s true, and I very much hope you do come back, because you’ve become a part of us, and our family won’t feel whole without you. But when you do, I think you and I should just be friends.”
I thought about that for a moment. Friends. It sounded so pale and lifeless.
“I guess it’s better than never talking again.”
“I agree,” she said. “I don’t think I could bear that.”
I scooted next to her and put my arm around her waist. I thought she might pull away, but she didn’t. After a while, her head tipped onto my shoulder.
We sat like that for a long time.
* * *
When Emma and I finally emerged from the cloakroom, most everyone was asleep. The hearth in the library was burned down to embers, the platters overflowing with food reduced to scraps, the room’s high ceilings echoing with contented snores and murmurs. Kids and ymbrynes lay draped across couches and curled upon the rug, even though there were plenty of comfortable bedrooms upstairs. Having nearly lost one another, they weren’t about to let go again so soon, even if just for the night.
I would leave in the morning. Now that I knew what had to happen between Emma and me, a longer delay would only torment us. Right now, though, we needed sleep. How long had it been since we’d closed our eyes for more than a minute or two? I couldn’t remember feeling more exhausted.
We piled some cushions in a corner and fell asleep holding each other. It was our last night together, and I clung tight, my arms locked around her, as if by squeezing hard enough I could lock her into my sense memory. How she felt, how she smelled. The sound of her breathing as it slowed and evened. But sleep pulled me down hard, and it seemed I’d only just closed my eyes when suddenly I was squinting against glaring yellow daylight pouring in from a bank of high windows.