“Excuse me?” said the conductor.
“It isn’t a real bird, conductor sir. We’d never dream of breaking the rules like that. It’s my sister’s favorite toy, you see, and she thinks you mean to take it away from her.” She clasped her hands pitifully, imploring. “You wouldn’t take away a child’s favorite toy, would you?”
The conductor studied Bronwyn doubtfully. “She looks too old for toys, wouldn’t you say?”
Emma leaned in and whispered, “She’s a bit delayed, you see …”
Bronwyn frowned at this but had no choice but to play along. The conductor stepped toward her. “Let’s see this toy, then.”
Moment of truth. We held our breath as Bronwyn opened her coat, reached inside, and slowly withdrew Miss Peregrine. When I saw the bird, I thought for one terrible moment that she had died. Miss Peregrine had gone completely stiff, and lay in Bronwyn’s hand with her eyes closed and legs sticking out rigidly. Then I realized she was just playing along.
“See?” Bronwyn said. “Birdy ain’t real. She’s stuffed.”
“I saw it moving earlier!” the conductor said.
“It’s a—ehm—a wind-up model,” said Bronwyn. “Watch.”
Bronwyn knelt down and set Miss Peregrine on the ground on her side, then reached under her wing and pretended to wind something. A moment later Miss Peregrine’s eyes flew open and she began to toddle around, her head swiveling mechanically and legs kicking out as if spring-loaded. Finally she jerked to a stop and toppled over, stiff as a board. Truly an Oscar-worthy performance.
The conductor seemed almost—but not quite—convinced.
“Well,” he hemmed, “if it’s a toy, you won’t mind putting it away in your toy chest.” He nodded at the trunk, which Bronwyn had set down on the platform.
Bronwyn hesitated. “It isn’t a—”
“Yes, fine, that’s no bother,” said Emma, flipping open the trunk’s latches. “Put it away now, sister!”
“But what if there’s no air in there?” Bronwyn hissed at Emma.
“Then we’ll poke some blessed holes in the side of it!” Emma hissed back.
Bronwyn picked up Miss Peregrine and set her gently inside the trunk. “Ever so sorry, ma’am,” she whispered, lowering and then latching the lid.
The conductor finally took our tickets. “First class!” he said, surprised. “Your car’s all the way down front.” He pointed to the far end of the platform. “You’d best hurry!”
“Now he tells us!” said Emma, and we took off down the platform at a jog.
With a chug of steam and a metallic groan, the train began to move beside us. For now it was just inching along, but with each turn of its wheels it sped up a little more.
We came even with the first-class car. Bronwyn was first to jump through the open door. She set her trunk down in the aisle and reached out a hand to help Olive on board.
Then, from behind us, a voice shouted, “Stop! Get away from there!”
It wasn’t the conductor’s voice. This one was deeper, more authoritative.
“I swear,” Enoch said, “if one more person tries to stop us getting on this train …”
A gunshot rang out, and the sudden shock of it made my feet tangle. I stumbled out the doorway and back onto the platform.
“I said stop!” the voice bellowed again, and looking over my shoulder I saw a uniformed soldier standing on the platform, his knees bent in firing stance, rifle aimed at us. With a pair of loud cracks he volleyed two more bullets over our heads, just to drive his point home. “Off the train and on your knees!” he said, striding toward us.
I thought of making a run for it, but then I caught a glimpse of the soldier’s eyes, and their bulging, pupil-less whites convinced me not to. He was a wight, and I knew he wouldn’t think twice about shooting any one of us. Better not to give him an excuse.
Bronwyn and Olive must’ve been thinking along the same lines, because they got off the train and dropped to their knees alongside the rest of us.
So close, I thought. We were so close.
The train pulled out of the station without us, our best hope for saving Miss Peregrine steaming away into the distance.
And Miss Peregrine with it, I realized with a queasy jolt. Bronwyn had left her trunk on board the train! Something automatic took hold of me and I leapt up to chase down the train—but then the barrel of a rifle appeared just inches from my face, and I felt all the power drain from my muscles in an instant.
“Not. Another. Step,” the soldier said.
I sank back to the ground.
* * *
We were on our knees, hands up, hearts hammering. The soldier circled us, tense, his rifle aimed and his finger on its trigger. It was the closest, longest look I’d gotten at a wight since Dr. Golan. He had on a standard-issue British army uniform—khaki shirt tucked into wool pants, black boots, helmet—but he wore them awkwardly, the pants crooked and the helmet seated too far back on his head, like a costume he wasn’t used to wearing yet. He seemed nervous, too, his head cocking this way and that as he sized us up. He was outnumbered, and though we were just a bunch of unarmed children, we’d been responsible for the death of one wight and two hollowgast in the last three days. He was scared of us, and that, more than anything else, made me scared of him. His fear made him unpredictable.
He pulled a radio from his belt and chattered into it. There was a burst of static, and then a moment later an answer came back. It was all in code; I couldn’t understand a word.
He ordered us to our feet. We stood.
“Where are we going?” Olive asked timidly.
“For a walk,” he said. “A nice, orderly walk.” He had a clipped, vowel-flattened way of speaking that told me he was from somewhere else but faking a British accent, though not particularly well. Wights were supposed to be masters of disguise, but this one was clearly not a star pupil.
“You will not fall out of line,” he said, staring down each of us in turn. “You will not run. I have fifteen rounds in my clip—enough to put two holes in each of you. And don’t think I don’t see your jacket, invisible boy. Make me chase you and I’ll slice off your invisible thumbs for souvenirs.”
“Yes, sir,” said Millard.
“No talking!” the soldier boomed. “Now march!”
We marched past the ticket booth, the clerk now gone, then down off the platform, out of the depot, and into the streets. Though the denizens of Coal hadn’t given us a second glance when we’d come through town earlier, now their heads swiveled like owls as we trudged by in single file, at gunpoint. The soldier kept us in tight formation, barking at us when anyone strayed too far. I was at the rear, him behind me, and I could hear his ammunition belt clinking as we walked. We were heading back the way we’d come, straight out of town.