“I can imagine,” I said.
“One day, as far as anyone knew, I was as common as rice pudding, and the next I felt a curious itch in the palms of my hands. They grew red and swollen, then hot—so hot that I ran to the grocer’s and buried them in a case of frozen cod! When the fish began to thaw and stink, the grocer chased me home again, where he demanded that my mother pay for all I’d ruined. My hands were burning up by this time; the ice had only made it worse! Finally, they caught fire, and I was sure I’d gone stark raving mad.”
“What did your parents think?” I asked.
“My mother, who was a deeply superstitious person, ran out of the house and never came back. She thought I was a demon, arrived straight from Hell via her womb. The old man took a different approach. He beat me and locked me in my room, and when I tried to burn through the door he tied me down with asbestos sheets. Kept me like that for days, feeding me once in a while by hand, since he didn’t trust me enough to untie me. Which was a good thing for him, ’cause the minute he did I would’ve burned him black.”
“I wish you had,” I said.
“That’s sweet of you. But it wouldn’t have done any good. My parents were horrible people—but if they hadn’t been, and if I’d stayed with them much longer, there’s no question the hollows would’ve found me. I owe my life to two people: my younger sister, Julia, who freed me late one night so that I could finally run away; and Miss Peregrine, who discovered me a month later, working as a fire-eater at a traveling circus.” Emma smiled wistfully. “The day I met her, that’s what I call my birthday. The day I met my true mum.”
My heart melted a little. “Thank you for telling me,” I said. Hearing Emma’s story made me feel closer to her, and less alone in my own confusion. Every peculiar had struggled through a period of painful uncertainty. Every peculiar had been tried. The glaring difference between us was that my parents still loved me—and despite the problems I’d had with them, I loved them, too, in my own quiet way. The thought that I was hurting them now was a constant ache.
What did I owe them? How could it be reckoned against the debt I owed Miss Peregrine, or my obligation to my grandfather—or the sweet, heavy thing I felt for Emma, which seemed to grow stronger every time I looked at her?
The scales tipped always toward the latter. But eventually, if I lived through this, I would have to face up to the decision I had made and the pain I had caused.
If always propelled my thoughts back to the present, because if depended so much on keeping my wits about me. I couldn’t properly sense things if I was distracted. If demanded my full presence and participation in now.
If, as much as it scared me, also kept me sane.
London approached, villages giving way to towns giving way to unbroken tracts of suburbia. I wondered what was waiting for us there; what new horrors lay ahead.
I glanced at a headline in the newspaper still open in Emma’s lap: AIR RAIDS RATTLE CAPITAL. SCORES DEAD.
I closed my eyes and tried to think of nothing at all.
If anyone had been watching as the eight-thirty train hissed into the station and ground to a steaming halt, they wouldn’t have noticed anything out of the ordinary about it: not about the conductors and porters who wrestled open its latches and threw back its doors; not about the mass of men and women, some in military dress, who streamed out and disappeared into the swarming crowd; not even about the eight weary children who filed heavily from one of its first-class cars and stood blinking in the hazy light of the platform, their backs pressed together in a protective circle, dazed by the cathedral of noise and smoke in which they found themselves.
On an ordinary day, any group of children as lost and forlorn-looking as these would’ve been approached by some kindly adult and asked what the matter was, or whether they needed help, or where their parents were. But today the platform teemed with hundreds of children, all of whom looked lost and forlorn. So no one paid much attention to the little girl with tumbling brown hair and button shoes, or the fact that her shoes did not quite touch the floor. No one noticed the moon-faced boy in the flat cap, or the honeybee that drifted from his mouth, tested the sooty air, then dove back from whence it came.
No one’s gaze lingered on the boy with dark-ringed eyes, or saw the clay man who peeked from his shirt pocket only to be pushed down again by the boy’s finger. Likewise the boy who was dressed to the nines in a muddy but finely tailored suit and stove-in top hat, his face drawn and haggard from lack of sleep, for he hadn’t allowed himself any in days, so afraid was he of his dreams.
No one more than glanced at the big girl in the coat and simple dress, who was built like a stack of bricks and had lashed to her back a steamer trunk nearly as large as herself. None who saw her could have guessed how stupendously heavy the trunk was, or what it held, or why a screen of tiny holes had been punched into one side. Overlooked completely was the young man next to her, so wrapped in scarves and a hooded coat that not an inch of his bare skin could be seen, though it was early September and the weather still warm.
Then there was the American boy, so ordinary-looking he hardly merited notice; so apparently normal that people’s eyes skipped over him—even as he studied them, on tiptoe, neck swiveling, his gaze sweeping across the platform like a sentry’s. The girl by his side stood with her hands clasped together, concealing a tendril of flame that curled stubbornly around the nail of her pinky, which happened sometimes when she was upset. She tried shaking her finger as one might to extinguish a match, then blowing on it. When that didn’t work, she slipped it into her mouth and let a puff of smoke coil from her nose. No one saw that, either.
In fact, no one looked closely enough at the children from the first-class car of the eight-thirty train to notice anything peculiar about them at all. Which was just as well.
Emma nudged me.
“I need another minute,” I said.
Bronwyn had set down her trunk and I was standing on it now, head above the crowd, casting my eyes over a shifting sea of faces. The long platform teemed with children. They squirmed like amoebas under a microscope, row upon row receding into a haze of smoke. Hissing black trains loomed up on either side, anxious to swallow them.
I could feel my friends’ eyes on my back, watching me as I scanned the crowd. I was supposed to know whether, somewhere in that great, seething mass, there were monsters who meant to kill us—and I was supposed to know it simply by looking; by assessing some vague feeling in my gut. Usually it was painful and obvious when a hollow was nearby, but in a giant space like this—among hundreds of people—my warning might only be a whisper, the faintest twinge, easy to miss.