The wight broke out laughing, pulled back the hammer of his gun, and aimed it at her. The hollowgast ran at me, howling in counterpoint to the squeal of train brakes behind me. That’s when I knew the end had come and there was nothing I could do to stop it. At that moment something inside me relaxed, and as it did, the pain I felt whenever a hollow was near faded, too. That pain was like a high-pitched whine, and as it hushed, I discovered hidden beneath it another sound, a murmur at the edge of consciousness.
I dove for it. Wrapped both arms around it. Wound up and shouted it with all the force of a major league pitcher. Him, I said, in a language not my own. It was only one syllable but held volumes of meaning, and the moment it rattled from my throat, the result was instant. The hollow stopped running at me—stopped dead, skidding on its feet—then turned sharply to one side and lashed out a tongue that whipped across the platform and wrapped three times around the wight’s leg. Knocked off balance, he fired a shot that caromed off the ceiling, and then he was flipped upside down and hauled thrashing and screaming into the air.
It took my friends a moment to realize what had happened. While they stood gaping and the other wight shouted into his walkie-talkie, I heard train doors whoosh open behind me.
Here was our moment.
“COME ON!” I shouted, and they did, Emma stumble-running and Addison tangling her feet and me trying to wedge the gangly and blood-slick folding man through the narrow doors until we all crashed together across the threshold into the train car.
More gunshots rang out, the wight firing blindly at the hollow.
The doors closed halfway, then popped back open. “Clear the doors, please,” came a cheerful prerecorded announcement.
“His feet!” Emma said, pointing at the shoes at the end of the folding man’s long legs, the toes of which were poking through the doors. I scrambled to kick his feet clear, and in the interminable seconds before the doors closed again, the dangling wight fired more wild shots until the hollow grew tired of him and flung him against the wall, where he slid to the floor in an unmoving heap.
The other wight scurried for the exit. Him, too, I tried to say, but it was too little too late. The doors were closing, and with an awkward jolt the train began to move.
I looked around, grateful that the car we’d tumbled into was empty. What would regular people make of us?
“Are you okay?” I asked Emma. She was sitting up, breathing hard, studying me intensely.
“Thanks to you,” she said. “Did you really make the hollow do all that?”
“I think so,” I said, not quite believing it myself.
“That’s amazing,” she said quietly. I couldn’t tell if she was frightened or impressed, or both.
“We owe you our lives,” said Addison, nuzzling his head sweetly against my arm. “You’re a very special boy.”
The folding man laughed, and I looked down to see him grinning at me through a mask of pain. “You see?” he said. “I told you. Is miracle.” Then his face turned serious. He grabbed my hand and pressed a small square of paper into it. A photograph. “My wife, my child,” he said. “Taken by our enemy long ago. If you find others, perhaps …”
I glanced at the photo and got a shock. It was a wallet-sized portrait of a woman holding a baby. Sergei had clearly been carrying it with him a long time. Though the people in the photo were pleasant enough, the photo itself—or the negative—had been seriously damaged, perhaps narrowly survived a fire, exposed to such heat that the faces were warped and fragmented. Sergei had never mentioned his family before now; all he’d talked about since we met him was raising an army of peculiars—going loop to loop to recruit able-bodied survivors of the raids and purges. He never told us what he wanted an army for: to get them back.
“We’ll find them, too,” I said.
We both knew this was far-fetched, but it was what he needed to hear.
“Thank you,” he said, and relaxed into a spreading pool of blood.
“He doesn’t have long,” Addison said, moving to lick Sergei’s face.
“I might have enough heat to cauterize the wound,” said Emma. Scooting toward him, she began rubbing her hands together.
Addison nosed the folding man’s shirt near his abdomen. “Here. He’s hurt here.” Emma put her hands on either side of the spot, and at the sizzle of flesh I stood up, feeling faint.
I looked out the window. We were still pulling out of the station, slowed perhaps by debris on the tracks. The emergency lights’ SOS flicker picked details from the dark at random. The body of a dead wight half buried in glass. The crumpled phone booth, scene of my breakthrough. The hollow—I registered its form with a shock—trotting on the platform alongside us, a few cars back, casual as a jogger.
Stop. Stay away, I spat at the window, in English. My head wasn’t clear, the hurt and the whine getting in the way again.
We picked up speed and passed into the tunnel. I pressed my face to the glass, angling backward for another glimpse. It was dark, dark—and then, in a burst of light like a camera flash, I saw the hollow as a momentary still image—flying, its feet lifting from the platform, tongues lassoing the rail of the last car.
Miracle. Curse. I hadn’t quite worked out the difference.
* * *
I took his legs and Emma his arms and gently we lifted Sergei onto a long bench seat, where beneath an advertisement for bake-at-home pizza he lay blacked out and rocking with the motion of the train. If he was going to die, it seemed wrong that he should have to do so on the floor.