“Chin up, back straight,” Emma said. “Try to look scary.”
We closed ranks and walked into their midst. They were shifty eyed and wild looking. Soot-stained all over. Dressed in scavenged castoffs. I scowled, doing my best impression of a dangerous person. They shied away like beaten dogs.
Here was a kind of shantytown. Low-slung huts made from fire-proof scrap metal, tin roofs weighed down with boulders and tree stumps, canvas flaps for doors if they had doors at all. A fungal smear of life overgrowing the bones of a burned civilization; hardly there at all.
Chickens ran in the street. A man knelt by a smoking hole in the road, cooking eggs in its blistering heat.
“Don’t get too close,” Addison muttered. “They look ill.”
I thought so, too. It was the limping way they carried themselves, their glassy stares. Several wore crude masks or sacks over their heads with only slits for eyes, as if to hide faces chewed by disease, or to slow a disease’s transmission.
“Who are they?” I asked.
“No idea,” said Emma, “and I’m not about to ask.”
“My guess is they’re welcome nowhere else,” Addison said. “Untouchables, plague carriers, criminals whose offenses are considered unforgivable even in Devil’s Acre. Those who escaped the noose settled here, at the very bottom, the absolute edge of peculiar society. Exiled from the outcasts of outcasts.”
“If this is the edge,” said Emma, “then the wights can’t be far away.”
“Are we sure these people are peculiar?” I asked. There seemed to be nothing unique about them, aside from their wretchedness. Maybe it was pride, but I didn’t believe a community of peculiars, however degraded, would allow themselves to live in such medieval squalor.
“Don’t know, don’t care,” Emma replied. “Just walk.”
We kept our heads down and our eyes forward, feigning disinterest in hopes that these people would return the favor. Most stayed away, but a few trailed us, begging.
“Anything, anything. A dropper, a vial,” said one, gesturing to his eyes.
“Please,” implored another. “We haven’t had a kick in days.”
Their cheeks were pocked and scarred, like they’d been crying tears of acid. I could hardly look at them.
“Whatever you want, we haven’t got it,” said Emma, shooing them away.
The beggars dropped back and stood in the road, watching us darkly. Another called out in a high, fraying voice. “You there! Boy!”
“Ignore him,” Emma muttered.
I side-eyed him without turning my head. He was squatting against a wall, in rags, pointing at me with a trembling hand.
“You him? Boy! You’re him, aincha?” He wore an eyepatch over glasses and flipped it up to study me. “Yeahhhhh.” He whistled low, then flashed a black-gummed smile. “They been waitin’ for you.”
I couldn’t take it anymore. I stopped in front of him. Emma sighed impatiently.
The beggar’s smile grew wider, crazier. “The dust-mothers and knot-blowers! The damned librarians and blessed cartographers! Anyone who’s everyone!” He raised his arms and bowed in mocking worship, and I got a whiff of ripe funk. “Waitin’ a lonnnnnng time.”
“Come on,” said Emma, “he’s obviously a lunatic.”
“The big show, the big show,” said the beggar, his voice rising and falling like a carnival barker’s. “The biggest and best and most and last! It’s allllllllmost here …”
A weird chill rattled through me. “I don’t know you, and you sure as hell don’t know me.” I turned and walked away.
“Sure I do,” I heard him say. “You’re the boy who talks to hollows.”
I froze. Emma and Addison turned to gape at me.
I ran back, confronting him. “Who are you?” I shouted in his face. “Who told you that?”
But he just laughed and laughed, and I could get nothing more out of him.
* * *
We slipped away just as a crowd began to gather.
“Don’t look back,” Addison warned.
“Forget him,” said Emma. “He’s a madman.”
I think we all knew he was more than that—but that’s all we knew. We walked fast in paranoid silence, our brains humming with unanswerable questions. No one mentioned the beggar’s bizarre pronouncements, for which I was grateful. I had no clue what they meant and was too exhausted to speculate, and I could tell from their dragging feet that Emma and Addison were flagging, too. We didn’t talk about that, either. Exhaustion was our new enemy, and to name it would only have empowered it more.
We strained to see any sign of the wights’ bridge as the road ahead sloped downward into an obscuring bowl of fog. It occurred to me that Lorraine might’ve lied to us. Maybe there was no bridge. Maybe she’d sent us into this pit hoping its denizens would eat us alive. If only we had brought her with us, then we could’ve have forced her to—
“There it is!” Addison cried, his body forming an arrow that pointed straight ahead.
We struggled to see what he saw—even with his glasses, Addison’s vision was sharper than ours—and after a dozen paces we could make out, just dimly, how the road narrowed and then arched over some sort of chasm.
“The bridge!” Emma cried.