“Because they had to leave in a hurry,” I said.
Emma bent down and reached for the edge of Mr. Crumbley’s tarp. I didn’t want to look but couldn’t help myself, and I half turned away but peeked back through split fingers. I had expected a withered corpse, but Mr. Crumbley looked perfectly intact and surprisingly young, perhaps only forty or fifty years old, his black hair graying just around the temples. His eyes were closed and peaceful, as if he might’ve just been sleeping. Could he really have aged forward, like the leathery apple I took from Miss Peregrine’s loop?
“Hullo, are you dead or asleep?” Emma said. She nudged the man’s ear with her boot, and the side of his head caved and crumbled to dust.
Emma gasped and let the tarp fall back. Crumbley had become a desiccated cast of himself, so fragile that a strong wind could blow him apart.
We left poor, crumbling Mr. Crumbley behind and went to the door. I grasped the knob and turned it. The door opened and we stepped through it into a laundry room. There were fresh-looking clothes in a hamper, a washboard hung neatly above a sink. This place had not been abandoned long.
The Feeling was stronger here, but was still only residue. We opened another door and came into a sitting room. My chest tightened. Here was clear evidence of a fight: furniture scattered and overturned, pictures knocked off the mantel, stripes of wallpaper shredded to ribbons.
Then Horace muttered, “Oh, no,” and I followed his gaze upward, to a dark stain discoloring a roughly circular patch of ceiling. Something awful had happened upstairs.
Emma squeezed her eyes closed. “Just listen,” she said. “Listen for the birds and don’t think about anything else.”
We closed our eyes and listened. A minute passed. Then, finally, the fluttering coo of a pigeon. I opened my eyes to see where it had come from.
We mounted the stairs gently, trying not to creak them under our feet. I could feel my heartbeat in my throat, in my temple. I could handle old, brittle corpses. I wasn’t sure if I could take a murder scene.
The second-floor hallway was littered with debris. A door, torn from its hinges, lay splintered. Through the broken doorway was a fallen tower of trunks and dressers; a failed blockade.
In the next room, the white carpet was soaked with blood—the stain that had leaked through the floor to the ceiling below. But whomever it had leaked from was long gone.
The last door in the hall showed no signs of forced entry. I pushed it open warily. My eyes scanned the room: there was a wardrobe, a dresser topped with carefully arranged figurines, lace curtains fluttering in a window. The carpet was clean. Everything undisturbed.
Then my eyes went to the bed, and what was in it, and I stumbled back against the doorjamb. Nestled under clean white covers were two men, seemingly asleep—and between them, two skeletons.
“Aged forward,” said Horace, his hands trembling at his throat. “Two of them considerably more than the others.”
The men who looked asleep were as dead as Mr. Crumbley downstairs, Horace said, and if we touched them, they would disintegrate in just the same way.
“They gave up,” Emma whispered. “They got tired of running and they gave up.” She looked at them with a mix of pity and disgust.
She thought they were weak and cowardly—that they’d taken the easy way out. I couldn’t help wondering, though, if these peculiars simply knew more than we did about what the wights did with their captives. Maybe we would choose death, too, if we knew.
We drifted into the hall. I felt dizzy and sick, and I wanted out of this house—but we couldn’t leave yet. There was one last staircase to climb.
At the top, we found a smoke-damaged landing. I imagined peculiars who’d withstood the initial attack on this house gathering here for a last stand. Maybe they’d tried to fight the corrupted with fire—or maybe the corrupted had tried to smoke them out. Either way, it looked like the house had come close to burning down.
Ducking through a low doorway, we entered a narrow, slope-walled attic. Everything here was burned black. Flames had made gaping holes in the roof.
Emma prodded Horace. “It’s here somewhere,” she said quietly. “Work your magic, bird-catcher.”
Horace tiptoed into the middle of the room and sing-songed, “Heeeeere, pigeon, pigeon, pigeon …”
Then, from behind us, we heard a wingbeat and a strangled chirp. We turned to see not a pigeon but a girl in a black dress, half hidden in the shadows.
“Is this what you’re after?” the girl said, raising one arm into a shaft of sunlight. The pigeon squirmed in her hand, struggling to free itself.
“Yes!” Emma said. “Thank heaven you caught it!” She moved toward the girl with her hands out to take the pigeon, but the girl shouted, “Stop right there!” and snapped her fingers. A charred throw rug flew out from beneath Emma and took her feet with it, sending her crashing to the floor.
I rushed to Emma. “Are you okay?”
“On your knees!” the girl barked at me. “Put your hands on your head!”
“I’m fine,” Emma said. “Do as she says. She’s telekinetic and clearly unstable.”
I knelt down by Emma and laced my fingers behind my head.
Emma did the same. Horace, trembling and silent, sat heavily and placed his palms on the floor.
“We don’t mean you any harm,” Emma said. “We’re only after the pigeon.”
“Oh, I know perfectly well what you’re after,” the girl said with a sneer. “Your kind never gives up, do you?”
“Our kind?” I said.
“Lay down your weapons and slide them over!” barked the girl.
“We don’t have any,” Emma said calmly, trying her best not to upset the girl any further.
“This will go easier for you if you don’t assume I’m stupid!” the girl shouted. “You’re weak and have no powers of your own, so you rely on guns and things. Now lay them on the floor!”
Emma turned her head and whispered, “She thinks we’re wights!”
I almost laughed out loud. “We aren’t wights. We’re peculiar!”
“You aren’t the first blank-eyes to come here pigeon-hunting,” she said, “nor the first to try impersonating peculiar children. And you wouldn’t be the first I’ve killed, neither! Now put your weapons on the floor before I snap this pigeon’s neck—and then yours!”
“But we aren’t wights!” I insisted. “Look at our pupils if you don’t believe us!”