“By the way,” Emma said, “what sort of ‘unsavory characters’ are we hiding from? Wights?”
“There’s more evil in peculiardom than merely your hated wights,” Sharon said, his voice echoing through the stone tunnel. “An opportunist disguised as a friend can be every bit as dangerous as an outright enemy.”
Emma sighed. “Must you always be so vague?”
“Your heads!” he snapped. “You too, dog.”
Addison snuffled beneath the tarp, and we pulled the edge over our faces. It was black and hot under the fabric, and it smelled overpoweringly of motor oil.
“Are you frightened?” Addison whispered in the dark.
“Not particularly,” said Emma. “Are you, Jacob?”
“So much I might throw up. Addison?”
“Of course not,” the dog said. “Fearfulness isn’t a characteristic of my breed.”
But then he snuggled right between Emma and me, and I could feel his whole body trembling.
* * *
Some changeovers are as fast and smooth as superhighways, but this one felt like slamming down a washboard road full of potholes, lurching around a hairpin turn, and then careening off a cliff—all in complete darkness. When it was finally over, my head was dizzy and pounding. I wondered what invisible mechanism made some changeovers harder than others. Maybe the journey was only as rough as the destination, and this one had felt like off-roading into a savage wilderness because that’s precisely what we had done.
“We have arrived,” Sharon announced.
“Is everyone okay?” I said, fumbling for Emma’s hand.
“We must go back,” Addison groaned. “I’ve left my kidneys on the other side.”
“Do keep quiet until I find somewhere discreet to deposit you,” Sharon said.
It’s amazing how much more acute your hearing becomes the moment you can’t use your eyes. As I lay quietly beneath the tarp, I was hypnotized by the sounds of a bygone world blooming around us. At first there was only the splash of Sharon’s pole in the water, but soon it was complemented by other noises, all stirring together to paint an elaborate scene in my mind. That steady slap of wood against water belonged, I imagined, to the oars of a passing boat piled high with fish. I pictured the ladies I could hear shouting to one another as leaning from the windows of opposite-facing houses, trading gossip across the canal while tending lines of laundry. Ahead of us, children whooped with laughter as a dog barked, and distantly I could make out voices singing in time to the rhythm of hammers: “Hark to the clinking of hammers, hark to the driving of nails!” Before long I was imagining plucky chimneysweeps in top hats skipping down streets full of rough charm and people banding together to overcome their lot in life with a wink and a song.
I couldn’t help it. All I knew about Victorian slums I’d learned from the campy musical version of Oliver Twist. When I was twelve I’d been in a community theater production of it; I was Orphan Number Five, if you must know, and had suffered such terrible stage fright on the night of the show that I faked a stomach flu and watched the whole thing from the wings, in costume, with a barf bucket between my legs.
Anyway, such was the scene in my head when I noticed a small hole in the tarp near my shoulder—chewed by rats, no doubt—and, shifting a little, I found I could peek through it. Within seconds, the happy, musical-inspired landscape I’d imagined melted away like a Salvador Dalí painting. The first horror to greet me were the houses that lined the canal, though calling them houses was generous. Nowhere in their sagging and rotted architecture could be found a single straight line. They slouched like a row of exhausted soldiers who’d fallen asleep at attention; it seemed the only thing keeping them from tipping straight into the water was the tightness with which they were packed—that and the mortar of black-and-green filth that smeared their lower thirds in thick, sludgy strata. On each of their rickety porches a coffinlike box stood on end, but only when I heard a loud grunt issue from one and saw something tumble into the water from beneath it did I realize what they were or that the slapping sounds I’d heard earlier hadn’t come from oars but from outhouses, which were contributing to the very filth that held them up.
The women calling to one another from across the canal were leaning from opposite windows, just as I’d imagined, but they weren’t hanging laundry and they certainly weren’t trading gossip—at least, not anymore; now they were trading insults and issuing threats. One waved a broken bottle and laughed drunkenly while the other shouted epithets I could barely understand (“Yore nuffink but a stinkin’ dollymop ’ood lay wi’ the devil ’imself for a farthing!”)—which was ironic, if I took her meaning correctly, because she was herself stripped to the waist and didn’t seem to mind who noticed. Both stopped to whistle down at Sharon as we passed, but he ignored them.
Eager to wipe that image from my head, I managed to replace it with something even worse: ahead of us was a gang of kids swinging their feet from a rickety footbridge that spanned the canal. They were dangling a dog above the water by a rope tied around its hind legs, dipping the poor creature underwater and cackling when its desperate barks turned to bubbles. I resisted an urge to kick the tarp away and scream at them. At least Addison couldn’t see; if he had, no amount of reasoning would’ve stopped him from going after them with teeth bared, blowing our cover.
“I see what you’re up to,” Sharon muttered at me. “If you want to have a look around just wait, we’ll be through the worst of it in a tick.”