A quick look over our shoulders confirmed it: a giant black bear had clawed its way up from one of the crevasses to join the man on the snow, and they were both coming after us, the bear clearing ground much more quickly than the man.
“BEAR!” I shouted, redundantly.
I tried to run but my frozen feet refused to cooperate. Seemingly impervious to the cold, Emma grabbed my arm and swept me along. We lurched back into the cave, stumbled through the room, and tripped out the door, around which a penumbra of blowing snow was filling the hallway. I pulled the door shut behind us—as if that would stop a bear—and we retraced our steps down the long hall, down the stairs, and back into Bentham’s dead museum to hide ourselves among his white-draped phantoms.
* * *
We hid between a wall and a hulking dust-sheeted monolith in the farthest corner we could find, straitjacketing ourselves into a space so narrow that we could not turn to face each other, the cold we’d run from settling firmly into our bones. We stood silent and shivering, stiff as mannequins, the snow on our clothes melting into puddles at our feet. Emma’s left hand took my right—it was all the warmth and meaning we could trade. We were developing a language that was entirely untranslatable into words, a special vocabulary of gestures and glances and touches and increasingly deep kisses that was growing richer, more intense, more complex by the hour. It was fascinating and essential and in moments like this, made me just a little less cold and a little less scared than I might’ve been otherwise.
When, after a few minutes, no bears showed up to eat us, we dared to exchange whispers.
“Was that a loop we were in?” I asked. “A loop within a loop?”
“I don’t know what that was,” Emma replied.
“Siberia. That’s what the door said.”
“If that was Siberia, then the room it was in was some kind of portal, not a loop. And portals don’t exist, of course.”
“Of course,” I replied, though it wouldn’t have been so strange to believe, in a world where time loops existed, that portals did, too.
“What if it was just a really old loop?” I suggested. “Like ice-age old, ten or fifteen thousand years? Devil’s Acre might’ve looked like that back then.”
“I don’t think there are any loops that ancient,” Emma said.
My teeth chattered. “I can’t stop shaking.” I said.
Emma pressed her side to mine and rubbed my back with her warm hand.
“If I could make a portal to anywhere,” I said, “Siberia would not be high on my list of choices.”
“Where would you go, then?”
“Hm. Hawaii, maybe? Though I guess that’s boring. Everyone would say Hawaii.”
“Where would you go?”
“The place you’re from,” Emma said. “In Florida.”
“Why on earth would you want to go there?”
“I think it’d be interesting to see where you grew up.”
“That’s sweet,” I said. “There’s not much to it, though. It’s really quiet.”
She leaned her head on my shoulder and exhaled a warm breath down my arm. “Sounds like heaven.”
“You’ve got snow in your hair,” I said, but it melted when I tried to brush it out. I shook the cold water from my hand onto the floor—and that’s when I noticed our footprints. We’d left a trail of melting snow that probably led right to our hiding spot.
“What dimwits we are,” I said, pointing out the tracks. “We should’ve left our shoes behind!”
“It’s okay,” said Emma. “If they haven’t tracked us by now, they probably—”
Loud, clonking footsteps echoed from across the room, accompanied by the sound of a large animal breathing.
“Back to the window, quick as you can,” Emma hissed, and we wormed out of our hiding spot.
I tried to run but slipped in a puddle. I grabbed the closest thing at hand, which happened to be the sheet covering the large object we’d been hiding behind. The sheet came ripping away, uncovering another display case with a resounding zzzzzzwit! and landing me on the floor in a pile of rumpled canvas.
When I looked up, the first thing I saw was a girl—not Emma, who was standing above me, but past her, inside the case, behind the glass. She had a perfectly angelic face and a ruffled dress and a bow in her hair, and she stared glassily at nothing in what seemed the permanent rictus of a taxidermied human being.
I freaked. Emma turned to see what I was freaking out about, and then she freaked.
She dragged me to my feet and we ran.
* * *
I’d forgotten all about the guy chasing us, the bear, Siberia. I just wanted to get out of that room, away from the stuffed girl, and far away from any possibility that Emma and I might end up like her, dead and encased behind glass. Now I knew all I needed to know about this Bentham guy—he was some kind of twisted collector, and I was sure that if we looked under more dust covers, we’d find more specimens like the girl.
We sped around a corner only to find, towering before us, a terrifying ten-foot mountain of fur and claws. We screamed, tried too late to stop running, and slid into a pile at the bear’s feet. There we cowered, waiting to die. Hot, stinking breath rolled over us. Something wet and rough mopped the side of my face.
I’d been licked by a bear. I’d been licked by a bear, and someone was laughing.