We ducked into a back street. The moment I stopped forcing it to walk, the hollow sank into an exhausted squat. It looked so frail there on the ground, bleeding, its body curled into itself, tongues tucked away in its mouth. Sensing its distress, the cubs it had rescued snuffled against it with their wet wiggling snouts, and the hollow reacted with a quiet snarl that seemed almost tender. I couldn’t help feeling a pulse of affection for all three—estranged siblings of a sort.
“I hate to say it, but that’s almost cute,” Emma said.
Sharon snorted. “Dress it up in a pink tutu if you like. It’s still a killing machine.”
We brainstormed ways to get it to Bentham’s without it dying en route. “I could close that wound in its neck,” Emma said, offering a hand that was just starting to glow.
“Too risky,” I said. “The pain could snap it out of my control.”
“Bentham’s healer might be able to help it,” Sharon said. “We’ll just have to get to her quickly.”
My first thought was to run across the rooftops. If only the hollow had the strength, it could’ve carried us up the side of a building and bounded to Bentham’s out of sight. But right now I wasn’t even sure walking was an option. Instead I suggested we wash off the hollow’s white paint so that no one could see it but me.
“Absolutely not, no way, no sir,” said Sharon, shaking his head vigorously. “I don’t trust that thing. I want to keep an eye on it.”
“I’ve got it under control,” I said, slightly offended.
“So far,” Sharon shot back.
“I agree with Sharon,” said Emma. “You’re doing marvelously, but what happens when you’re in another room, or fall asleep?”
“Why would I leave the room?”
“To relieve yourself?” said Sharon. “Are you planning on taking your pet hollowgast into the water closet?”
“Um,” I said, “I guess I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it?”
“The paint stays on,” said Sharon.
“Fine,” I said irritably. “So what do we do?”
A door banged open down the alley and a cloud of steam came billowing out. A man emerged pushing a wheeled cart, which he parked in the alley before going back inside.
I ran to take a look. The door belonged to a laundry, and the cart was filled with dirty linens. It was just large enough to fit a small person—or a curled-up hollowgast.
I’ll admit it: I stole the cart. I wheeled it back to the others, emptied it, and made the hollow climb in. Then we piled the dirty laundry on top, lifted the bear cubs in, and wheeled the whole thing down the street.
No one gave us a second look.
When we reached the house it was nearly dark. Nim rushed us into the entrance hall, where Bentham waited anxiously. He didn’t even bother to greet us.
“Why have you brought these grims?” he said, his eyes darting to the laundry cart. “Where’s the creature?”
“It’s here,” I said. Lifting out the cubs, I began to pull back the linens.
Bentham looked but kept his distance. The sheets on top were white but grew bloodier as I dug, becoming a black cocoon as I reached the bottom. I pulled back the last and there it was, a small, withered thing in a fetal curl. It was hard to believe this pathetic creature was the same one that had given me such nightmares.
Bentham stepped closer. “My God,” he said, looking at the bloody sheets. “What did they do to him?”
“Actually, I did that,” I said. “I didn’t really have a choice.”
“It was about to swallow Jacob’s head,” Emma explained.
“You didn’t kill it, did you?” Bentham said. “It’s no use to us dead.”
I said, “I don’t think so,” and then told the hollow to open its eyes, and very slowly, it did. It was still alive, but weak. “I don’t know how much longer it’ll last, though.”
“In that case, we’ve not a moment to waste,” said Bentham. “We must send for my healer right away and hope to heaven her dust works on hollows.”
Nim was sent running to fetch the healer. While we waited, Bentham led us into his kitchen and offered us biscuits and canned fruit. Either because of nerves or all the squeamish things we’d seen, neither Emma nor I had an appetite. We picked at the food out of politeness while Bentham filled us in on what had happened while we were gone. He’d made all necessary preparations to his machine, he said, and everything was ready—all he needed was to plug in the hollowgast.
“Are you sure it’ll work?” Emma said.
“Sure as I can be without ever having tried it,” he replied.
“Will it hurt him?” I asked, feeling oddly protective of the hollow, if only because I’d gone to such trouble to rescue it.
“Of course not,” Bentham said with a dismissive wave.
The healer arrived, and upon seeing her I nearly shouted in surprise. Not because she was so unusual looking—though she was—but because I was absolutely certain I had seen her before, though I couldn’t say where or how I’d managed to forget an encounter with someone so strange.
Her only visible body parts were her left eye and left hand. The rest was hidden beneath acres of fabric: shawls, scarves, a dress, and a bell-shaped hoop skirt. She seemed to be missing her right hand, and the left was in the grip of a young man with brown skin and wide, bright eyes. He wore a jaunty silk shirt and a wide-brimmed hat, and he was leading the healer as if she were blind or otherwise disabled.