The beast was not as dumb as I’d hoped.
We could hear it coming toward us through the house. If there was a time to run it had already passed, so we screwed ourselves into the reeking soil and prayed it would pass us by.
And then I could smell it, even more pungent than the house’s other stinks, and I could feel it at the threshold of the room. All the sheep pushed away from the door at once, herding together like a school of fish and pinning us against the wall so hard the breath was pressed out of us. We gripped each other but didn’t dare make a sound, and for an unbearably tense moment we heard only the bleating of sheep and the clop of staggering hooves. Then another hoarse scream erupted, sudden and desperate and just as suddenly silenced, broken off by lurid, ripping bone snap. I knew without looking that a sheep had just been torn apart.
Chaos broke out. Panicked animals ricocheted off one another, throwing us against the wall so many times I got dizzy. The hollow let out an ear-splitting screech and began to lift sheep to its slavering jaws one after another, taking a blood-spurting bite from each and then tossing it aside like a gluttonous king gorging at a medieval feast. It did this again and again—killing its way toward us. I was paralyzed with fear. That’s why I can’t quite explain what happened next.
My every instinct screamed to stay hidden, to dig myself even deeper into the muck, but then one clear thought cut through all the static—I won’t let us die in this shit-house—and I pushed Emma behind the biggest sheep I could see and bolted for the door.
The door was closed and ten feet away, and a lot of animals stood between it and me, but I plowed through them like a linebacker. I hit the door with my shoulder and it flung open.
I tumbled outside into the rain and screamed “Come get me, you ugly bastard!” I knew I had its attention because it let out a terrifying howl and sheep came flushing out the door past me. I scrambled to my feet and when I was sure it was coming after me and not Emma, I took off toward the bog.
I could feel it behind me. I might’ve run faster but I was still holding the shears—I couldn’t seem to make myself let go—and then the ground went soft beneath me and I knew I’d reached the bog.
Twice the hollow was close enough for its tongues to lash my back, and twice, just as I was certain one was about to lasso my neck and squeeze until my head popped, it stumbled and fell back. The only reason I made it to the cairn with my head still attached was that I knew exactly where to put my feet; thanks to Emma, I could run that route on a moonless night in half a hurricane.
Clambering onto the cairn-mound, I tore around to the stone entrance and dove in. It was black as tar inside but it didn’t matter—I only had to reach the chamber to be safe. I scrambled on my hands and knees, because even standing would’ve cost time I didn’t have to waste, and I was halfway to the end and feeling cautiously optimistic about my chances for survival when suddenly I could crawl no more. One of the tongues had caught my ankle.
The hollow had used two of its tongues to grapple onto the capstones around the tunnel’s mouth as leverage against the mud, and it covered the entrance with its body like a lid on a jar. The third tongue was reeling me toward it, I was a fish on a hook.
I scrabbled at the ground, but it was all gravel and my fingers slid right through. I flipped onto my back and clawed at the stones with my free hand, but I was sliding too quickly. I tried hacking at the tongue with my shears, but it was too sinewy and tough, a rope of undulating muscle, and my shears too dull. So I squeezed my eyes shut, because I didn’t want its gaping jaws to be the last thing I’d ever see, and gripped the shears in front of me with both hands. Time seemed to stretch out, like they say it does in car crashes and train accidents and free-falls from airplanes, and the next thing I felt was a bone-jarring collision as I slammed into the hollow.
All the breath rushed out of me and I heard it scream. We flew out of the tunnel together and rolled down the cairn mound into the bog, and when I opened my eyes again, I saw my shears buried to the hilt in the beast’s eye sockets. It howled like ten pigs being gelded, rolling and thrashing in the rain-swollen mud, weeping a black river of itself, viscous fluid pumping over the blades’ rusted handle.
I could feel it dying, the life draining out of it, its tongue loosening around my ankle. I could feel the difference in me, too, the panicky clutch in my stomach slowly coming undone. Finally, the creature stiffened and sank from view, slime closing over its head, a slick of dark blood the only sign it had ever been there.
I could feel the bog sucking me down with it. The more I struggled, the more it seemed to want me. What a strange find the two of us would make a thousand years from now, I thought, preserved together in the peat.
I tried to paddle toward solid ground but succeeded only in pushing myself deeper. The muck seemed to climb me, rising up my arms, my chest, collaring my throat like a noose.
I screamed for help—and miraculously, help came, in the form of what I thought at first was a firefly, flashing as it flew toward me. Then I heard Emma call out, and I answered.
A tree branch landed in the water. I grabbed it and Emma pulled, and when I finally came out of the bog I was shaking too hard to stand. Emma sank down beside me and I fell into her arms.
I killed it, I thought. I really killed it. All the time I’d spent being afraid, I never dreamed I could actually kill one!
It made me feel powerful. Now I could defend myself. I knew I’d never be as strong as my grandfather, but I wasn’t a gutless weakling, either. I could kill them.
I tested out the words. “It’s dead. I killed it.”
I laughed. Emma hugged me, pressing her cheek against mine. “I know he would’ve been proud of you,” she said.
We kissed, and it was gentle and nice, rain dripping from our noses and running warm into our just-open mouths. Too soon she broke away and whispered, “What you said before—did you mean it?”
“I’ll stay,” I said. “If Miss Peregrine will let me.”
“She will. I’ll make certain of it.”
“Before we worry about that, we’d better find my psychiatrist and take away his gun.”
“Right,” she said, her expression hardening. “No time to waste, then.”
* * *
We left the rain behind and emerged into a landscape of smoke and noise. The loop hadn’t yet reset, and the bog was pocked with bomb holes, the sky buzzing with planes, walls of orange flame marching against the distant tree line. I was about to suggest we wait until today became yesterday and all this disappeared before trying to cross to the house when a set of brawny arms clapped around me.