“In the attic,” said the smaller.
“What attic?” said Emma. “Where?”
“In our house,” they said together, and raising their arms they pointed down the dark passage. They seemed to speak cooperatively, and if a sentence was more than a few words long, one would start and the other finish, with no detectable pause between. I also noticed that whenever one was speaking and the other wasn’t, the quiet one would mouth the other’s words in perfect synchronicity—as if they shared one mind.
“Could you please show us the way to your house?” asked Emma. “Take us to your attic?”
Joel-and-Peter shook their heads and shrank back into the dark.
“What’s the matter?” Bronwyn said. “Why don’t you want to go?”
“Death and blood!” cried one boy.
“Blood and screaming!” cried the other.
“Screaming and blood and shadows that bite!” they cried together.
“Cheerio!” said Horace, turning on his heels. “I’ll see you all back in the crypt. Hope I don’t get squashed by a bomb!”
Emma caught Horace by his sleeve. “Oh, no you don’t! You’re the only one of us who’s managed to catch any of those blasted pigeons.”
“Didn’t you hear them?” Horace said. “That loop is full of shadows that bite—which could only mean one thing. Hollows!”
“It was full of them,” I said. “But that might have been days ago.”
“When was the last time you were inside your house?” Emma asked the boys.
Their loop had been raided, they explained in their strange and broken way, but they’d managed to escape into the catacombs and hide among the bones. How long ago that was, they couldn’t say. Two days? Three? They’d lost all track of time down here in the dark.
“Oh, you poor dears!” said Bronwyn. “What terrors you must’ve endured!”
“You can’t stay here forever,” said Emma. “You’ll age forward if you don’t reach another loop soon. We can help you—but first we have to catch a pigeon.”
The boys gazed into one another’s spinning eyes and seemed to speak without uttering a word. They said in unison, “Follow us.”
They slid down from their bone pile and started down the passage.
We followed. I couldn’t take my eyes off them; they were fascinatingly odd. They kept their arms linked at all times, and every few steps, they made loud clicking sounds with their tongues.
“What are they doing?” I whispered.
“I believe that’s how they see,” said Millard. “It’s the same way bats see in the dark. The sounds they make reflect off things and then back to them, which forms a picture in their minds.”
“We are echolocators,” Joel-and-Peter said.
They were also, apparently, very sharp of hearing.
The passage forked, then forked again. At one point I felt a sudden pressure in my ears and had to wiggle them to release it. That’s when I knew we’d left 1940 and entered a loop. Finally we came to a dead-end wall with vertical steps cut into it. Joel-and-Peter stood at the base of the wall and pointed to a pinpoint of daylight overhead.
“Our house—” said the elder.
“Is up there,” said the younger.
And with that, they retreated into the shadows.
* * *
The steps were slimed with moss and difficult to climb, and I had to go slowly or risk falling. They ascended the wall to meet a circular, person-sized door in the ceiling, through which shone a single gleam of light. I wedged my fingers into the crack and pushed sideways, and the doors slid open like a camera shutter, revealing a tubular conduit of bricks that rose twenty or thirty feet to a circle of sky. I was at the false bottom of a fake well.
I pulled myself into the well and climbed. Halfway up I had to stop and rest, pushing my back against the opposite side of the shaft. When the burn in my biceps subsided, I climbed the rest of the way, scrambling over the lip of the well to land in some grass.
I was in the courtyard of a shabby-looking house. The sky was an infected shade of yellow, but there was no smoke in it and no sound of engines. We were in some older time, before the war—before cars, even. There was a chill in the air, and errant flakes of snow drifted down and melted on the ground.
Emma came up the well next, then Horace. Emma had decided that only the three of us should explore the house. We didn’t know what we would find up here, and if we needed to leave in a hurry, it was better to have a small group that could move fast. None who stayed below argued; Joel-and-Peter’s warning of blood and shadows had scared them. Only Horace was unhappy, and kept muttering to himself that he wished he’d never caught that pigeon in the square.
Bronwyn waved to us from below and then pulled closed the circular door at the bottom of the well. The top side was painted to look like the surface of water—dark, dirty water you’d never want to drop a drinking bucket into. Very clever.
The three of us huddled together and looked around. The courtyard and the house were suffering from serious neglect. The grass around the well was tamped down, but everywhere else it grew up in weedy thickets that reached higher than some of the ground-floor windows. A doghouse sat rotting and half collapsed in one corner, and near it a toppled laundry line was gradually being swallowed by brush.
We stood and waited, listening for pigeons. From beyond the house’s walls, I could hear the tap of horses’ hooves on pavement. No, this definitely wasn’t London circa 1940.
Then, in one of the upper-floor windows, I saw a curtain shift.
“Up there!” I hissed, pointing at it.
I didn’t know if a bird or a person had done it, but it was worth checking out. I started toward a door that led into the house, beckoning the others after me—then tripped over something. It was a body lying on the ground, covered head to ankle with a black tarp. A pair of worn shoes poked from one end, pointing at the sky. Tucked into one cracked sole was a white card, on which had been written in neat script:
Mr. A. F. Crumbley
Lately of the Outer Provinces
Aged forward rather than be taken alive
Kindly requests his remains be deposited in the Thames
“Unlucky bastard,” Horace whispered. “He came here from the country, probably after his own loop was raided—only to have the one he’d escaped to raided, as well.”
“But why would they leave poor Mr. Crumbley out in the open this way?” whispered Emma.