“Go ahead,” said Miss Peregrine. “Put it on.” Then I realized what it was: a gas mask.
I strapped it over my face and followed her out onto the lawn, where the children stood scattered like chess pieces on an unmarked board, anonymous behind their upturned masks, watching billows of black smoke roll across the sky. Treetops burned in the hazy distance. The drone of unseen airplanes seemed to come from everywhere.
Now and then came a muffled blast I could feel in my chest like the thump of a second heart, followed by waves of broiling heat, like someone opening and closing an oven right in front of me. I ducked at each concussion, but the kids never so much as flinched. Instead they sang, their lyrics timed perfectly to the rhythm of the bombs.
Run, rabbit, run, rabbit, run, run, RUN!
Bang, bang, BANG goes the farmer’s gun
He’ll get by without his rabbit pie, so
Run, rabbit, run, rabbit, RUN!
Bright tracer bullets scored the heavens just as the song ended. The kids applauded like onlookers at a fireworks display, violent slashes of color reflected in their masks. This nightly assault had become such a regular part of their lives that they’d ceased to think of it as something terrifying—in fact, the photograph I’d seen of it in Miss Peregrine’s album had been labeled Our beautiful display. And in its own morbid way, I suppose it was.
It began to drizzle, as if all that flying metal had riven holes in the clouds. The concussions came less frequently. The attack seemed to be ending.
The children started to leave. I thought we were going back inside, but they passed the front door and headed for another part of the yard.
“Where are we going?” I asked two masked kids.
They said nothing, but seeming to sense my anxiety, they took me gently by the hands and led me along with the others. We rounded the house to the back corner, where everyone was gathering around a giant topiary. This one wasn’t a mythical creature, though, but a man reposing in the grass, one arm supporting him, the other pointing to the sky. It took a moment before I realized that it was a leafy replica of Michelangelo’s fresco of Adam from the Sistine Chapel. Considering that it was made from bushes, it was really impressive. You could almost make out the placid expression on Adam’s face, which had two blooming gardenias for eyes.
I saw the wild-haired girl standing nearby. She wore a flower-print dress that had been patched so many times it almost looked like a quilt. I went over to her and, pointing to Adam, said, “Did you make this?”
The girl nodded.
She bent down and held one of her palms above the grass. A few seconds later, a hand-shaped section of blades wriggled and stretched and grew until they were brushing the bottom of her palm.
“That,” I said, “is crazy.” Clearly, I was not at my most articulate.
Someone shushed me. The children were all standing silently with their necks craned, pointing at a section of sky. I looked up but could see only clouds of smoke, the flickering orange of fires reflected against them.
Then I heard a single airplane engine cut through the rest. It was close, and getting closer. Panic flooded me. This is the night they were killed. Not just the night, but the moment. Could it be, I wondered, that these children died every evening only to be resurrected by the loop, like some Sisyphean suicide cult, condemned to be blown up and stitched back together for eternity?
Something small and gray parted the clouds and came hurtling toward us. A rock, I thought, but rocks don’t whistle as they fall.
Run, rabbit, run, rabbit, run. I would’ve but now there was no time; all I could do was scream and dive to the ground for cover. But there was no cover, so I hit the grass and threw my arms over my head as if somehow that would keep it attached to my body.
I clenched my jaw and shut my eyes and held my breath, but instead of the deafening blast I was bracing for, everything went completely, profoundly quiet. Suddenly there were no growling engines, no whistling bombs, no pops of distant guns. It was as if someone had muted the world.
Was I dead?
I uncovered my head and slowly looked behind me. The wind-bent boughs of trees were frozen in place. The sky was a photograph of arrested flames licking a cloud bank. Drops of rain hung suspended before my eyes. And in the middle of the circle of children, like the object of some arcane ritual, there hovered a bomb, its downward-facing tip seemingly balanced on Adam’s outstretched finger.
Then, like a movie that burns in the projector while you’re watching it, a bloom of hot and perfect whiteness spread out before me and swallowed everything.
* * *
The first thing I heard when I could hear again was laughter. Then the white faded away and I saw that we were all arranged around Adam just as we had been before, but now the bomb was gone and the night was quiet and the only light in the cloudless sky was a full moon. Miss Peregrine appeared above me and held out her hand. I took it, stumbling to my feet in a daze.
“Please accept my apologies,” she said. “I should have better prepared you.” She couldn’t hide her smile, though, and neither could the other kids as they stripped off their masks. I was pretty sure I’d just been hazed.
I felt lightheaded and out-of-sorts. “I should probably head home for the night,” I said to Miss Peregrine. “My dad’ll worry.” Then I added quickly, “I can go home, right?”
“Of course you can,” she replied, and in a loud voice asked for a volunteer to escort me back to the cairn. To my surprise, Emma stepped forward. Miss Peregrine seemed pleased.
“Are you sure about her?” I whispered to the headmistress. “A few hours ago she was ready to slit my throat.”
“Miss Bloom may be hot-tempered, but she is one of my most trusted wards,” she replied. “And I think you and she may have a few things to discuss away from curious ears.”
Five minutes later the two of us were on our way, only this time my hands weren’t tied and she wasn’t poking a knife in my spine. A few of the younger kids trailed us as far as the edge of the yard. They wanted to know whether I’d be back again tomorrow. I made vague assurances, but I could hardly wrap my mind around what was happening at this moment, much less in the future.
We passed into the dark woods alone. When the house had disappeared behind us, Emma held out an upturned palm, flicked her wrist, and a petite ball of fire flared to life just above her fingers. She held it before her like a waiter carrying a tray, lighting the path and casting our twin shadows across the trees.